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Gov. Dunleavy is under siege for... governing

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 12:38

FILE - In this May 29, 2019, file photo, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to reporters in his office at the state Capitol in Juneau, Alaska. A fight is brewing over whether Dunleavy, a Republican who took office in Dec. 2018, should be recalled. Critics say he’s incompetent and has recklessly tried to cut spending while supporters see a politically motivated attempt to undo the last election. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer, File) (Becky Bohrer/)

In 2018, Alaska elected conservative State Sen. Mike Dunleavy as the state’s 12th governor. Dunleavy’s story is pretty straightforward: he legislated as a conservative, campaigned as a conservative, and for the last year has governed as a conservative.

In Alaska in 2019, “governing” has meant fiscal seriousness. Everyone knows the story. As the price of oil has fallen, so have tax revenues derived from oil leases. The state’s larger-than-expected budget shortfall is not anyone’s fault, but it is elected officials’ responsibility to deal with it. Like most legislatures – very much including the U.S. Congress – the Alaska Legislature was reluctant to restore fiscal discipline if it meant spending cuts, even though the state’s damaged credit rating demanded it.

And so, Gov. Dunleavy did exactly what he promised to do and exactly what Alaska’s governor – empowered with a line-item veto for this very purpose – is supposed to do: He led. He first worked with the Legislature to find savings. But in politics, no one wants to be proverbial skunk at the garden party. And so, when legislators refused to deal with the budget crisis, Gov. Dunleavy used his line-item veto power to cut spending himself.

Alaska partisans, who launched a campaign to recall Gov. Dunleavy within months of his being sworn into office, used the budget reductions to inflame and co-opt public opinion in support of their politically motivated attempt to nullify the results of the 2018 election.

On Nov. 4, the Division of Elections rejected the recall petition because it failed to meet even the most basic standards required under the law. The recall process is designed to protect the state from corrupt or unfit officials; there is no such case against Gov. Dunleavy. The recall petition does not accuse Dunleavy of malfeasance, just fiscal discipline. Improving the state’s economic climate and plummeting credit rating are not crimes.

As John F. Kennedy famously said, “to govern is to choose.” Too many politicians – in Washington, in Juneau and every elected government around the world – prefer not to choose. They prefer to avoid difficult decisions. They prefer to talk rather than act. They prefer to be like pundits on TV, criticizing other people’s decisions rather than making their own. I served in Congress for 15 years, and I know. With responsibility comes accountability – angry phone calls, rowdy town halls, difficult re-election campaigns. The Founders understood this was a fatal temptation of democracy. That’s why the Constitution they wrote requires the men and women who win elections to take an oath – a solemn promise – to fulfill the duties of their new job.

Gov. Dunleavy used his line-item veto not simply to cut the state’s budget, but to finally draw state legislators toward bipartisan compromise on overdue reforms. His efforts resulted in a significant cut in the state’s budget deficit in one year.

Fiscal discipline, like physical therapy after a necessary surgery, can hurt. But it pays manifold dividends in the long run. In response to Gov. Dunleavy’s budget leadership, the Alaska economy has added jobs, family income is rising quickly and the state’s unemployment rate is falling to historic lows.

The budget crisis presents Alaska with a challenge. Gov. Dunleavy met that challenge with transparency and honesty. While his critics sought to exploit the situation, he worked to solve it. That kind of leadership deserves respect, not recall.

Jim DeMint is a national conservative leader who is the Chairman of the Conservative Partnership Institute. DeMint represented South Carolina in the U.S. House (1999-2005) and U.S. Senate (2005-2013).

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Alaska Stalker - the best and worst of this week’s political social media and gossip

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 11:47

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Alaska Stalker, a lighthearted round up of the best and worst of Alaska’s social media landscape.

***

Monday was Veterans Day and politicos on the national, state, and municipal level all posted touching tributes and sincere thanks to those who serve and have served. It was a great day to be online. In case you missed it, here’s a feel-good moment via occasional #akleg tweeter, Stephanie Quinn-Davidson. Be sure to turn your sound on for this one.

Alaska Airlines agent, Denise, in Anchorage gives a beautiful tribute to the veterans headed to Fairbanks. Her voice stopped everyone in the terminal their tracks. @AlaskaAir #IFlyAlaska #alaska #veteransday #thankyouvets pic.twitter.com/w61552n0EL

— Steph Quinn-Davidson (@SalmonStephAK) November 12, 2019

***

While things are slowing down in local politics for the holidays, in D.C., the impeachment hearings are in full swig, I mean swing. Take it easy, Jeanne!

Letter: Bird hunting is depraved

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 10:35

I must take issue with the ADN and Steve Meyer’s column on Sept. 25. The ADN seems to be enamored of any sport involving the killing of animals. Are the animals and birds only there to be hunted? Is the only way to appreciate wildlife by killing it?

Mr. Meyer laments there are fewer bird hunters. Could it be he doesn’t get it? That there are fewer bird hunters because they realize how depraved it is? One could buy duck at the meat market and save the cost of flying out to the flats, setting up camp, braving the weather, taking dead birds back, cleaning them and removing the steel pellets. Wow, great hunting!

And Meyer’s depiction of his dog. The critter is only good to hunt or retrieve dead birds? What about companionship? Meyer only describes the dog’s value in the context of hunting. He treats his gun as a friend! As though it has a personality. The “killing field” is destroyed by progress and he is saddened because there are fewer good guys out there blasting away at the birds. Poor Mr. Meyer.

— Ron West

Anchorage

Have something on your mind? Send to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

Letter: Impeachment sham

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 10:33

In his letter to the editor Nov. 6, Lars Opland of Wasilla wrote how awful our elected President Donald J. Trump is by misleading our country into chaos and corruption. It seems clear that the impeachable offense lacks so much credibility that impeaching our president will be difficult.

Donald Trump did not break any law; all he did was stand up against the tyrannical Hillary Clinton. After reading Mr. Opland’s letter, I’m not so sure he understood the whole situation either.

— Bill Tritt

Anchorage

Have something on your mind? Send to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

Letter: Dunleavy’s impact on education

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 10:31

As a student wanting to attend the elementary education program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the ongoing issues on teacher’s benefits and budget cuts discourages attendance in teacher programs. Many students who are in Alaska’s universities wonder if their program is going to be cut after the closing of the School of Education at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Alaska universities’ overall enrollment dropped by 11% in the past year. High schoolers are discouraged to attend Alaska’s universities due to their unstable programs. Students are having to ask why should they study at Alaska’s universities and why they should become a teacher in Alaska.

Teachers in Alaska might have the eighth highest rank when it comes to pay compared to the Lower 48, but with its poor benefits, low student academic scores and high turnover rate, many teachers are moving out of Alaska, and students are not attending Alaska’s universities.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget cut proposal has immense implications for graduating students remaining in Alaska to teach. Recalling Dunleavy’s budget cuts means putting income back into Alaska’s schools, and students desiring to attend Alaska’s universities and teach in Alaska. Let’s recall Dunleavy.

— Talisha Daly

Anchorage

Have something on your mind? Send to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

Letter: Directionless GOP

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 10:25

It’s dizzying. President Donald Trump, the con artist I voted for, declaring he is literally above the law, can’t be indicted, and that there is a “political” process, impeachment, to remedy any wrongs.

The Democrats then answer by beginning impeachment. Republicans then shift gears, quickly dismiss impeachment itself as flawed because of it being “political.” Republicans shift smoke and mirror strategies again, declaring the impeachment process invalid because it was not officially voted on.

Then, once it was voted on, the complaint rapidly changed and became “no transparency, because it’s not public.” Then, when Democrats announce public hearings, our president says they should not be allowed to take place (get ready) “in public.”

Republicans said for weeks there was no quid pro quo, and if there was, that would be a big issue, damning, deeply troubling! Then they admitted on live television there unequivocally was — then declared in the same long breath that “this is done all the time.”

I am embarrassed for my party. There is no Democratic National Committee server hidden away in the Ukraine. And the moon landing really did occur. And Barack Obama really was born in Hawaii. And the Sandy Hook massacre really happened. And the Republican Party, sadly, has become a rudderless, shameless cult subjugating itself to a single amoral personality. We deserve the beating we are about to take.

— Allen Jorgenson

Anchorage

Have something on your mind? Send to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

Letter: Recall the governor

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 10:18

I know Mike Dunleavy. I’ve known him for over a decade. We joke with each other. I tease him him about being an unsuccessful hunter. In short, I like Mike Dunleavy.

With that said, I believe the governor deserves to be recalled. His callous and unconcerned ax work on the budget demonstrates a knowing detachment from his constituents and a blatant disregard for the people of Alaska. His metaphorical middle finger to the rule of law — failing to nominate a judge in the prescribed time period — speaks loudly to his delusion of being above the law. Time and the courts will further prove the governor’s lawlessness. In short, this governor and his great lies need to go. In fact, I stood outside of Wasilla Middle School holding a sign that espoused just that point. This governor deserves to be recalled.

But don’t get me wrong. I still believe Mike is a great guy. The person acting on orders from the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council playbook is separate from Mike.

— Matt Welk

Chugiak

Have something on your mind? Send to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

(April 16, 2005) Ruling rejects race-based law enforcement claims

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 10:08

The state of Alaska did not deliberately create a race-based law enforcement system in the Bush and does not now allocate police resources to discriminate against predominantly Native communities, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The differences in the availability and quality of law enforcement between rural and urban Alaska are reasonably based on the problems encountered in serving communities on the road system and those off the road system, the court concluded in a unanimous decision.

The court rejected claims by the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, the Alaska Native Justice Center and 10 rural villages that a segregated system “for providing law enforcement services has existed in Alaska since the 1800s.” The villages argued that the current Village Public Safety Officer program is a direct descendant of territorial race-based systems and is used to achieve a continuing objective of denying equal protection to Native villages.

VPSOs are unarmed peace officers who are supervised by the Alaska State Troopers, but are employees of regional nonprofits. Most are Native and work in off-road villages where no regular troopers are assigned. They are less rigorously trained and paid less than sworn troopers. The challenging villages claimed they constitute a “dual system” used to substitute for real troopers, which the state would have to assign if VPSOs were not available.

The court disagreed.

VPSOs are a “supplemental” service, the court said. “That VPSO services were mainly available in off-road communities that were predominantly Alaska Native does not establish that the allocation of trooper services was racially motivated,” wrote Justice Robert Eastaugh for the court. “It simply reflects demographic reality in Alaska.”

A press release from Attorney General David Marquez’s office welcomed the decision, but Natalie Landreth, a staff attorney for Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage and one of two attorneys who argued against the state, said her side was “profoundly disappointed.”

The people in Alaska’s villages “do live under a separate and unequal rural public safety system, and I guess this decision means that system is going to continue,” she said.

But the issue was not whether villagers get as much police protection as urban Alaskans, or even if all villages get the same protection. Those are legislative and administrative questions, the courts have said. The issue was whether the state was using race as a basis for allocating police resources among "similarly situated" communities.

They are not, the court concluded.

“Instead, the evidence permits a logical conclusion that the state developed its system of rural law enforcement based on financial and geographical constraints, and an evaluation of crime rates in those locations,” the court said.

Mike Williams, a lifelong resident of the Kuskokwim River village of Akiak and one of the plaintiffs, suggested the outcome might have been different “if those justices would take some time off and live in Akiak or in a place where there’s no police. Then they would realize what we live with.”

The state should be required to provide better protection than is currently available, Williams said. Only a portion of rural communities have VPSOs, and those are underpaid, he said.

The suicide last week of the VPSO in Russian Mission illustrated the depth of the funding issue, Williams added. “He was paying for his own heat and phones. How can police officers live like that? They won’t do it in Anchorage.”

Friday’s decision, which upheld a lower court decision, may be the end of this case, but it is not the end of the issue. A commission of rural residents, mandated by federal law, has been meeting over the past year and is expected to make recommendations soon to Congress and the Alaska Legislature on improving village public safety.

In the meantime, the plaintiffs are considering their legal options, Landreth said. They include seeking another state Supreme Court review, or asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear it.

Daily News reporter Sheila Toomey can be reached at stoomey@adn.com. Reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com.

(Sept. 17, 2003) Court to rule on shortage of VPSOs

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 09:58

Does the chronic shortage of public safety officers in dozens of communities in rural Alaska mean the state discriminates against Alaska Natives? Villagers say yes, the state says no. Now it’s up to the Alaska Supreme Court to decide.

The high court heard arguments Tuesday in a case filed four years ago in Dillingham, but whose roots go back far earlier, that said the state has historically short-changed villages in the realm of public safety. They claimed that village officers are underpaid, undertrained and underarmed compared with their Alaska State Trooper counterparts.

They failed to persuade Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason, however. She agreed that urban and rural communities receive different levels of service, “but this court finds these discrepancies are due principally to ... geographic isolation, weather conditions and transportation difficulties ... and not to an unconstitutional under-allocation of trooper resources” to the Bush.

Even as funding and policy changes in the rural justice system are looming at both the state and federal levels, the 1999 lawsuit pressed toward conclusion Tuesday. In his appeal, attorney Lawrence Aschenbrenner of the Native American Rights Fund argued that police services in rural Alaska are racially based and numerically inferior to what urban Alaskans receive.

“The state intended to establish a lower standard of police protection for Native villages” when it created the village public safety officer, or VPSO, program as an offshoot of the Alaska State Troopers in the late 1970s, he said.

The VPSO program was designed to put officers in rural villages who could provide first response before troopers could arrive from the nearest hub community, such as Bethel or Kotzebue. VPSOs are trained by the troopers but do not carry weapons. They are on call around the clock and are often called upon to subdue friends, neighbors and relatives who disrupt the peace, leading to high turnover rates in many villages.

But the program has never extended to all of Alaska’s off-road villages. When the VPSO suit was filed, only 75 of 165 off-road communities had officers. The number fell even lower this year when Gov. Frank Murkowski eliminated funding for 15 other positions.

Aschenbrenner turned around Gleason’s reasoning, saying that the geographic, weather and distance limitations inherent in rural Alaska are reasons to expand the public safety program, not to justify its minimal funding. Various Legislatures and administrations have agreed, he pointed out, when they sought more money for the VPSO program.

State assistant attorney general Jim Baldwin countered Aschenbrenner’s claims that public safety is shorted in the Bush. Between the allocation of troopers around Alaska and how much time the troopers and VPSOs spend on duty, he said, “you find no disparity. What you find is the off-road communities receive slightly more time than the road communities. It’s even.”

Baldwin downplayed Aschenbrenner’s contention that the VPSO program was racially based because numerous state officials had said it was for “Native” communities. Officials may have used that term, Baldwin said, but as a descriptor. “It’s not racial at all, it’s political,” he said, and he asked the justices to “put aside this claim of racial discrimination once and for all.

”It’s true that the state can’t afford to put troopers in every village, Baldwin said. And if there aren’t enough troopers to go around, it makes sense to put them in the regional hubs, not spread them among the villages. It’s not the Supreme Court’s job to determine where to put troopers and VPSOs, he said.

The justices are expected to take several months to decide the case.

In the meantime, the rural justice system is in line for major changes. Last week, Sen. Ted Stevens announced a plan to eliminate federal funding for tribal courts and police officers and redirect the funds to the state. The bill, which still must pass Congress and President Bush, would give Alaska $2 million for the VPSO program.

On Tuesday, Public Safety Commissioner Bill Tandeske said the Murkowski administration is planning a massive overhaul of the state’s rural police program."

We’re not locked into the VPSO program as a vehicle for those services," he said. “The primary issue is the number of communities we have to consider.”

At least 100 villages have lost or never had VPSOs, and the state’s ongoing budget crisis is likely to require additional cuts in the future, Tandeske said.

“We’re redefining and recreating the rural justice system,” he said. “If it turns out VPSOs are the best thing, fine. But something has to change to be able to provide more service to more communities, and the answer can’t be ‘if only we had more money.’ “Possible areas of reform include putting one officer in a cluster of villages or trimming administrative costs. Currently the VPSO program is administered by nine regional Native nonprofit agencies. “Seems like a lot of overhead,” Tandeske said.

The administration hopes to have a new village public safety program in place next year, he said, adding that he doubts the upcoming Supreme Court decision will affect it.

”We’re operating under the assumption that we’re going to rethink how we do business and get the most services for the money that we can provide.”

It’s the heart of pumpkin spice season, and these cookie butter-crumble pie bars are at your service

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 08:09

Cookie-butter crumble pumpkin pie bars (Julia O'Malley)

The idea for this recipe started at Black Cup Coffee a month ago, where one day I decided to order their pumpkin-spice latte. They make it with sweetened condensed milk that’s been infused with pumpkin and serve it with nutmeg, sourced from Summit Spice across the street. It is so fantastically subtle and miles away from the cloying, aftertasty Starbucks PSL.

Later that day, on a pumpkin bender, I decided to buy a cute sugar-pie pumpkin at the grocery store. Later on, I poked it with a fork and put in it a 325-degree oven for an hour or so until it got really soft. Then I cut it in half, scraped out the seeds, and piled the meat in a bowl. It was exactly 2 cups, just like a can of pumpkin.

Then began an obsessive couple weeks of pie-bar making. I’m a late comer to cookie butter, which is a delicious, jarred emulsion made of Biscoff cookies. But that flavor combined with not-too-sweet pumpkin and a little sea salt is really something. You can use roasted sugar-pie pumpkin or canned for this recipe. If you want the bars less sweet, reduce the condensed milk by a quarter-cup and sub in cream. The bars will slice after cooling completely but they slice best after being refrigerated. A little dollop of whipped cream on top is optional.

Cookie-butter crumble pumpkin pie bars

1 8.8-ounce package Biscoff cookies, finely crushed

6 tablespoons salted butter, melted

1 15-ounce can pumpkin or 2 cups of roasted sugar pie-pumpkin, packed

3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 eggs

1/4 teaspoon sea salt plus a pinch for the pan

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with cooking spray and sprinkle the bottom with a pinch of sea salt. Mix the Biscoff crumbs with butter and press into the bottom and about an inch up the sides of the pan for the crust for the bars. Bake for 5 minutes, remove from oven and set aside. In a bowl, combine pumpkin, condensed milk, cream, eggs, salt and spice. Mix well. (If using fresh pumpkin, you should combine the ingredients in a blender, food processor or with a hand blender.) Spread the filling into the crust. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the center of the bars has set. Refrigerate for at least an hour before slicing with a sharp knife.

Roger Stone found guilty of witness tampering and lying to Congress in case related to WikiLeaks

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 08:04

In this Nov. 12, 2019 file photo, Roger Stone, a longtime Republican provocateur and former confidant of President Donald Trump, waits in line at the federal court in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (Manuel Balce Ceneta/)

WASHINGTON — Roger Stone, a longtime friend and ally of President Donald Trump, was found guilty Friday of witness tampering and lying to Congress about his pursuit of Russian-hacked emails damaging to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election bid.

Stone was convicted of all seven counts in an indictment that accused him of lying to Congress, tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election.

He is the sixth Trump aide or adviser to be convicted of charges brought as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Stone has denied wrongdoing and consistently criticized the case against him as politically motivated. He did not take the stand during the trial and his lawyers did not call any witnesses in his defense.

Scheduling was sentenced for Feb. 6. Stone, 67, could face up to 20 years in prison.

In a trial that lasted about a week, witnesses highlighted how Trump campaign associates were eager to gather information about emails the U.S. says were hacked by Russia and then provided to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

Steve Bannon, who served as the campaign’s chief executive, testified during the trial the trial that Stone had boasted about his ties to WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, alerting them to pending new batches of damaging emails. Campaign officials saw Stone as the “access point” to WikiLeaks, he said.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors used Stone's own text messages and emails — some of which appeared to contradict his congressional testimony — to lay out their case that he lied to Congress and threatened a witness. Stone did not testify, and his lawyers called no witnesses in his defense.

On Tuesday, a top former Trump campaign official, Rick Gates, who was a key cooperator in the Mueller probe, testified that that Stone tried to contact Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, to "debrief" him about developments on the hacked emails.

Prosecutors alleged Stone lied to Congress about his conversations about WikiLeaks with New York radio host and comedian Randy Credico — who scored an interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2016, when he was avoiding prosecution by sheltering in the Ecuadoran embassy in London — and conservative writer and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi.

During the 2016 campaign, Stone had mentioned in interviews and public appearances that he was in contact with Assange through a trusted intermediary and hinted at inside knowledge of WikiLeaks' plans. But he started pressing Credico to broker a contact, and Credico testified that he told Stone to work through his own intermediary.

Earlier testimony revealed that Stone, while appearing before the House Intelligence Committee, named Credico as his intermediary to Assange and pressured Credico not to contradict him.

After Credico was contacted by Congress, he reached out to Stone, who told him he should "stonewall it" and "plead the fifth," he testified. Credico also testified during Stone’s trial that Stone repeatedly told him to “do a ‘Frank Pentangeli,’” a reference to a character in “The Godfather: Part II” who lies before Congress.

Prosecutors said Stone had also threatened Credico’s therapy dog, Bianca, saying he was “going to take that dog away from you.”


New Trump administration rule will make more health care rates public

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 07:33

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration on Friday issued controversial new rules compelling hospitals and insurers to give consumers more information upfront about what their care will cost - requirements that officials say help Americans be better health-care shoppers.

Under one rule resisted for months by a broad swath of the health-care industry, hospitals must for the first time reveal the discounted rates they negotiate privately with insurers for a list of 300 services patients can schedule in advance, from X-rays to Cesarean deliveries. That is slated to go into effect in January, 2021.

And in new twist, the administration is also proposing to require most health plans that Americans get through their jobs to disclose to researchers the rates they negotiate with hospitals and doctors in their insurance network, as well as the amounts paid to doctors out-of-network.

Taken together, the pair of actions - one a final rule, the other in draft form - is part of President Donald Trump's electoral strategy for 2020, calculating that voters will be attracted to policies that equip them with information to help choose health services that are more affordable.

The president t is trying to capitalize on polling that shows health care ranks among Americans' leading domestic concerns, with consumers looking to government especially to ease the burden of escalating out-of-pocket costs.

The hospital industry has been vowing for months to sue to try to block the hospital rate rule finalized on Friday. But top Trump officials heralded the regulation as what Health and Human Services Alex Azar termed "revolutionary changes for our health care sy. ..President Trump has promised patients "A+ health care transparency, but right now our system probably deserves an F."

The issue of "transparency" in health-care has been a drumbeat for the White House and Trump's top health advisers for much of this year. In May, administration officials made clear they were developing an executive order on the issue. In late June, the president held a signing ceremony in the White House's grand foyer to affix his signature to the order.

"We are fundamentally changing the nature of the health-care marketplace," Trump declared that day. "This is a truly big action. People have no idea how big it is. Some people say bigger than health care itself."

That executive order directed HHS and two other federal agencies to develop new transparency regulations, the most controversial part of which is the disclosure of negotiated rates that always have been secret.

Former U.S. ambassador testifies at impeachment hearing that smear campaign led to her removal

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 07:23

Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, during the second public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (Alex Brandon/)

WASHINGTON - In public testimony at the House impeachment hearings, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch said she felt threatened when she read how President Donald Trump talked about her to his Ukrainian counterpart on a July 25 call.

"It sounded like a threat," she told the House Intelligence Committee Friday during the second open hearing of the impeachment inquiry.

Yovanovitch, who was recalled from her position earlier this year, also testified that she was the target of a "campaign of disinformation" that involved Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and included "unofficial back channels."

Democrats are seeking to build a case that Trump sought to withhold military assistance and an Oval Office meeting until Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and his son, as well as an unfounded theory that Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 presidential election to hurt Trump.

A key issue is a controversial July call between the two presidents.

Trump in the call suggested the ambassador was bad at her job and said, "well, she's going to go through some things."

"I didn't know what to think, but I was very concerned" Yovanovitch said.

"What were you concerned about?" asked a Democratic attorney.

"It didn't sound good. It sounded like a threat," she said.

"Did you feel threatened?" asked the attorney.

"I did," she said, later adding: "It felt like a vague threat, so I wondered what that meant. . . . It concerned me."

On the call, Trump also praised a corrupt former Ukrainian prosecutor who had led a false smear campaign that led to Yovanovitch losing her job.

"I was shocked . . . and devastated, frankly," Yovanovitch said of her reaction when she read the rough transcript, calling it "a terrible moment."

"I even had a physical reaction; even now, words kind of fail me," she added.

The 9 a.m. hearing began with the top lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee offering dueling opening statements, highlighting the parties' vastly different views of the Ukraine saga.

Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., praised Yovanovitch as "tough on corruption" in Ukraine - "too tough on corruption for some, and her principled stances made her enemies."

"The woman known for fighting corruption . . . the woman ruthlessly smeared and driven from her post, the president does nothing but disparage - or worse, threaten," Schiff said. "That tells you a lot about the president's priorities and intentions,"

Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the committee's top Republican, accused Democrats of acting like "some kind of strange cult" seeking to "fulfill their Watergate fantasies."

He steered attention toward several debunked conspiracy theories alleging Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election and corrupt actions by Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president.

Then Nunes read the rough transcript of April call between the Trump-Zelensky in which Trump congratulated him on winning the presidential election. The White House released the rough transcript as Friday's hearing began in an effort to counter revelations from the controversial July call.

"It's unfortunate that today and for most of the next we will continue engaging in the Democrats' day-long TV spectacles instead of the problems we were all sent to Washington to address," Nunes said.

Yovanovitch - who has served as a career Foreign Service officer for 33 years under six U.S. presidents - began her public testimony with a defense of a nonpartisan diplomatic service which she said is being hollowed out and demoralized by lack of support and leadership at the State Department.

Yovanovitch, who was recalled from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in May after a concerted effort to smear her, said her experience should "concern everyone," because it will lead foreign officials to doubt American representatives abroad and form a playbook for attacking others who challenge corrupt and entrenched interests.

"Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray, and shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want," she said. "After these events, what foreign official, corrupt or not, could be blamed for wondering whether the ambassador represents the president's views?"

Yovanovitch noted that Foreign Service officers often face difficult and dangerous jobs abroad. She described service in a U.S. embassy that came under gunfire in Uzbekistan and being caught in a crossfire during an attempted coup in Russia in 1993.

She used her moment on national television to decry falling support for American diplomats, serving abroad to implement U.S. policy. While she did not mention Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in her opening remarks, she decried that State Department leadership for its silence in the wake of her recall from Ukraine.

"The State Department is being hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage," she said.

As Yovanovitch testified, Trump took to Twitter to criticize her.

"Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad," his Twitter feed said.. "She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President's absolute right to appoint ambassador."

Schiff read aloud Trump's tweets attacking Yovanovitch that the president had just posted and asked her to react to them.

Yovanovitch listened, her face stoic, as Schiff read the president's words blaming her for things going badly in places where she served.

"Well I, I don't think I have such powers," she said. "I actually think where I've served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better for the U.S. and the countries I served in."

Yovanovitch said when the president tweets about her, it's "very intimidating."

Schiff responded, "It's designed to intimidate."

- - -

The Washington Post’s Rachael Bade and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.

Gustavus residents offered blood testing for chemicals in water supply

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 06:54

Equipment used to test for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, in drinking water at Trident Laboratories in Holland, Mich. (Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP, File) (Cory Morse/)

JUNEAU - Residents of a Southeast Alaska city will be able to have their blood tested to detect chemical contaminants that may have spread through its water supply, officials said.

Samples will be taken next week in Gustavas, The Juneau Empire reported Thursday.

The samples will be sent to Indiana University Bloomington to be analyzed for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively called PFAS, officials said.

Gustavus PFAS Action Coalition Chair Kelly McLaughlin hopes for 40 to 65 participants in the collection and testing, which will be free to residents.

"I just feel really strongly everyone should know what their body burden is," said McLaughlin, who had her blood tested early last year.

Studies have found links between the contaminants and various health impacts such as increased risk of cancer, low birth weights, increased cholesterol levels, lower fertility levels, and thyroid disruption, The Environmental Protection Agency said.

Most people around the state and country at some point have been exposed to the man-made chemicals, which are persistent in the environment. They have been found in groundwater around Alaska, officials said.

The chemicals have been detected in water supplies in Gustavas, west of Juneau, and the state has distributed drinking water to residents whose water tested above a specific threshold, officials said.

Gustavas is one of the only communities in the state participating in the biomonitoring study, said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

The Anchorage-based organization is helping to coordinate the study, provide supplies and assist with collection efforts. Indiana University will provide free testing, which can cost as much as $800.

The test results are expected by mid-January.

Claiming Trump bias, Amazon will challenge Pentagon’s award of $10 billion contract to Microsoft

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 06:32

FILE - This March 27, 2008, aerial file photo, shows the Pentagon in Washington. Amazon is protesting the Pentagon’s decision to award a huge cloud-computing contract to Microsoft, citing “unmistakable bias” in the decision. Amazon’s competitive bid for the “war cloud” drew criticism from President Donald Trump and its business rivals. ((AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File) (Charles Dharapak/)

WASHINGTON - Amazon said Thursday it will protest a Pentagon decision to award Microsoft a massive cloud computing contract worth up to $10 billion, making clear it will fight hard against what it called “unmistakable bias” and “political influence” in the Defense Department process.

The protest, filed under seal in federal court Nov. 8, comes after the Pentagon awarded the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract to Microsoft last month - a contract that had long been expected to go to Amazon because its Amazon Web Services division has a formidable position and deep experience in cloud computing.

The Pentagon's decision, a bitter defeat for Amazon, had been delayed after President Donald Trump ordered Defense Secretary Mark Esper to review the contract after he was confirmed in July. Trump has repeatedly criticized Amazon, whose chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.

In awarding the contract to Microsoft, the Pentagon said it was making its decision on the merits and without regard to political considerations. But in its statement Thursday, Amazon strongly suggested that it believed the Pentagon was improperly influenced by Trump. Federal acquisition laws forbid politicians, including the president, from influencing contract awards.

"AWS is uniquely experienced and qualified to provide the critical technology the U.S. military needs, and remains committed to supporting the DoD's modernization efforts," Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said in an emailed statement. "We also believe it's critical for our country that the government and its elected leaders administer procurements objectively and in a manner that is free from political influence. Numerous aspects of the JEDI evaluation process contained clear deficiencies, errors, and unmistakable bias- and it's important that these matters be examined and rectified."

The charged language in Amazon's response was striking because the tech giant has generally avoided conflict with Trump. But the protest suggests that Amazon wants a court to review the role of politics in the Pentagon's decision-making and scrutinize Esper and Trump's input in the process.

The loss of the JEDI contract was not only a significant financial disappointment for Amazon but also came after the company committed to hiring 25,000 people over 10 years in the Washington area, a significant East Coast expansion that in part was focused on government business.

In an emailed response to Amazon's statement, Defense Department spokeswoman Elissa Smith said, "We will not speculate on potential litigation." Microsoft did not provide comment.

Amazon is the commercial cloud computing market leader, holding a 48 percent market share, according to market-research firm Gartner. Microsoft is the second largest with a 15.5 percent share.

Amazon is also the only company to hold the Defense Department's highest-level security certification, called Impact Level 6. Microsoft made strides during the year-long period the award was tied up in litigation, finalizing a number of partnerships that analysts say may have narrowed the gap. Microsoft says it has made enormous progress on Level 6 certification and will be ready by the time JEDI is implemented.

Amazon filed its notice to protest under seal with the Court of Federal Claims. The company will still need to file a formal protest, laying out its arguments in detail.

The JEDI contract, announced in March 2018, is designed to modernize the Pentagon's computing infrastructure in the hands of a commercial tech company. For more than a year, the Pentagon faced harsh criticism that the procurement was written with Amazon in mind.

Tech rival Oracle, which wanted the contract but was eliminated in an earlier phase of the competition, sued the Defense Department and Amazon in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, alleging conflicts of interest on the part of numerous defense officials who had close relationships with Amazon. The procurement was repeatedly delayed while Oracle's claims were investigated.

The procurement took a new turn earlier this summer when Trump asked Esper to re-examine the Pentagon's broader approach to the contract, citing concerns it would go to Amazon, people familiar with the matter told The Post at the time.

The president said on television that he had received "tremendous complaints" about the contract from Amazon's competitors, specifically Oracle, IBM and Microsoft. Soon afterward he retweeted a link to a Fox News segment that referred to the contract as the "Bezos Bailout."

Trump has gone after Amazon for a variety of reasons, including coverage in The Post he doesn't like, White House officials have previously told the newspaper. He has often derisively referred to the "Amazon Washington Post."

The Post's leaders have said that Bezos, who bought The Post in 2013 in his personal capacity, plays no role in coverage decisions at the newspaper.

Retired Navy commander Guy Snodgrass, who worked as a speechwriter for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, wrote in a recent book that Trump sought to "screw" Amazon out of the contract, and that Mattis refused to do so. Snodgrass' claims have not been independently verified.

Esper recused himself from the process just weeks before the award, citing his son's employment at one of the initial bidders.

Amazon could have filed its protest with the Government Accountability Office, which some experts had believed was the more likely venue because it could have stopped the contract with Microsoft from going into effect. Filing with the federal court, though, provides Amazon with a somewhat less rigid timetable for which to make its case. The contract will be implemented with Microsoft during litigation unless a judge puts a pause on the process.

Dana Deasy, the Defense Department chief information officer overseeing the source selection team, has argued that the JEDI procurement followed a two-tracked process in which Esper's review of the procurement's broader approach is completely separate from those who reviewed the bidders' applications. Deasy said in a recent congressional hearing that the members of the source selection team remained anonymous throughout the process and, to his knowledge, were never contacted by the president.

Steve Schooner, a procurement lawyer with George Washington University, called Deasy's testimony on that issue "fundamentally flawed," noting that another senior official makes the decision on who to award the contract to. This official's identity has remained anonymous.

"The source selection evaluation team makes a recommendation," Schooner said in an email. "The source-selection official exercises discretion and is empowered NOT to follow the source selection evaluation team's recommendation."

For Amazon, losing out to Microsoft wasn't just surprising; it was stinging.

At an all-hands meeting Thursday, Amazon Web Services chief executive Andy Jassy suggested to employees that Trump's interference scuttled the bid, according to a report from Federal Times, which viewed a video of the session.

“I think when you have a sitting president who’s willing to publicly show his disdain for a company and the leader of a company, it’s very difficult for government agencies including the DoD to make an objective decision without fear of reprisal,” Jassy said, according to the Federal Times report.

Trump asks Supreme Court to shield his tax returns from prosecutors, setting up historic separation-of-powers showdown

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 06:25

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to stop a prosecutor's investigation of his personal finances, a bold assertion of presidential power that seeks a landmark decision from the nation's highest court.


President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the CenturyLink Center, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, in Bossier City, La. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) (Evan Vucci/)

The filing by the president’s private lawyers represents a historic moment that will test the court and highlights the Constitution’s separation-of-powers design. It also marks a new phase in the investigations that have dogged Trump throughout his presidency and have culminated in an impeachment inquiry.

The case involves Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.'s attempt to enforce a grand jury subpoena issued to the president's accountants for eight years of Trump's tax records.

Trump went to court to block the subpoena, making a broad claim that U.S. presidents are immune from investigation while in office. A district judge and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled against him, saying that the subpoena was proper and that the president's longtime accounting firm, Mazars USA, must comply.

Vance's office, which declined to comment Thursday, agreed to hold off on enforcing the subpoena if Trump's lawyers quickly asked the Supreme Court to hear the case this term.

"For the first time in our nation's history, a state or local prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation of the President of the United States and subjected him to coercive criminal process," wrote Jay Sekulow, one of the president's lawyers.

He added: "Politically motivated subpoenas like this one are a perfect illustration of why a sitting president should be categorically immune from state criminal process."

The justices are not required to review the lower court’s decision. But the chances that the high court will get involved increased Wednesday when a separate appeals court in a separate case concluded that Congress has a right to the same tax records. Trump’s lawyers plan to ask the Supreme Court on Friday for a stay in that case.

The cases set up a potentially dramatic decision on presidential power like those the Supreme Court rendered against Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton. Both were unanimous rulings rejecting their pleas, and they suggest Trump might have trouble shielding the tax information from prosecutors and Congress.

The case will come before a court that includes two Trump nominees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. In addition, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in media interviews before the 2016 election criticized Trump's decision not to release his tax information, as other presidential nominees had done.

"How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns?" Ginsburg said in an interview with CNN. "The press seems to be very gentle with him on that." After criticism, Ginsburg said she should not have commented on the candidate.

The Supreme Court's decision on whether to review the issue will be made in the coming weeks. If a review is granted, there probably would be time for a full hearing before the justices this term and a ruling in the coming presidential election year.

Trump has moved aggressively to block examination of his tax records, filing lawsuits against congressional committees, two banks and Mazars, which has said it will turn over the records if courts so order.

Other separation-of-powers cases that could reach the Supreme Court include Congress's effort to access redacted portions of special counsel Robert Mueller III's report on Trump's 2016 campaign and Russian interference in that year's election, and lawsuits alleging that Trump's private businesses violate the emoluments clauses of the Constitution.

Vance has said his office needs the records for its investigation into alleged hush-money payments during the 2016 campaign to Stormy Daniels, an adult film actress, and to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Both women said they had affairs with Trump, and Vance's office is examining whether any Trump Organization officials filed falsified business records, in violation of state law, related to the payments. Trump has denied the affairs and any wrongdoing.

Trump attorney William Consovoy has argued that while in the White House, Trump has "temporary presidential immunity" not just from prosecution, but also from investigation. At the appeals court hearing in New York, Consovoy said in response to a judge's question that the president, for as long as he is in office, could not be investigated even for shooting someone on the streets of Manhattan.

The Justice Department filed a brief in support of the president, but it did not endorse Trump's assertion that he has absolute immunity from investigation. Instead, government lawyers said that there are instances when a local prosecutor might legally seek a president's documents - but that this was not one of them.

Vance has rejected Trump's sweeping immunity claims, saying the president is seeking to "invent and enforce a new presidential 'tax return privilege' " that would bar anyone from seeing his returns. "No such privilege exists in the law," Vance's office said in court filings at the 2nd Circuit.

U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in New York called Trump's theory "repugnant to the nation's governmental structure and constitutional values."

A unanimous panel of the 2nd Circuit issued a more-subdued ruling against Trump.

Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, writing for the majority, noted the Supreme Court's 1974 decision ordering the White House to turn over Nixon's audiotapes during a criminal investigation of his aides.

Trump "has not persuasively explained why, if executive privilege did not preclude enforcement of the subpoena issued in Nixon, the Mazars subpoena must be enjoined despite seeking no privileged information and bearing no relation to the president's performance of his official functions."

Katzmann's decision was far more limited, he said, and did not address whether Trump was subject to prosecution.

"The only question before us is whether a state may lawfully demand production by a third party of the president's personal financial records for use in a grand jury investigation while the president is in office," Katzmann wrote.

He added in a footnote:

"We note that the past six presidents, dating back to President Carter, all voluntarily released their tax returns to the public. While we do not place dispositive weight on this fact, it reinforces our conclusion that the disclosure of personal financial information, standing alone, is unlikely to impair the president in performing the duties of his office."

In the filing at the Supreme Court, Trump's lawyers said that upholding the subpoena would unleash the president's political enemies.

"That the Constitution would empower thousands of state and local prosecutors to embroil the President in criminal proceedings is unimaginable," they said in the filing. "State criminal process interferes with the President's ability to execute his duties."

But Vance has noted that, unlike disputes involving past presidents, the New York subpoena does not require any action from Trump because it is aimed at his accounting firm.

Trump's separate suit against the House Oversight and Reform Committee became ripe for Supreme Court review Wednesday when the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit declined to review a ruling against Trump by a panel of the court.

A divided three-judge panel of that court held in October that the House had issued its subpoena for "legitimate legislative pursuits, not an impermissible law-enforcement purpose," as the president's lawyers had argued.

"Contrary to the president's arguments, the committee possesses authority under both the House rules and the Constitution to issue the subpoena, and Mazars must comply," wrote Judge David Tatel, who was joined by Judge Patricia Millett. Both were nominated by Democratic presidents.

Judge Neomi Rao, a Trump nominee, had dissented in the case, and she was joined by two other Republican-nominated judges in unsuccessfully advocating for a rehearing.

Judge Gregory Katsas, a Trump nominee who had earlier worked in the White House Counsel’s Office, called the congressional subpoena a “threat to the presidency” and warned that it would be “open season on the president’s personal records” if Congress is allowed to compel the president to disclose personal records on the basis of the possibility that it might inform legislation.

Extreme high tide again surges through Venice, forcing a rush to protect priceless art

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 05:54

A man holds up a phone during a video call to show a a flooded alley outside a shop, in Venice, Italy, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Exceptionally high tidal waters returned to Venice on Friday, prompting the mayor to close the iconic St. Mark's Square and call for donations to repair the Italian lagoon city just three days after it experienced its worst flooding in 50 years. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno) (Luca Bruno/)

VENICE, Italy — Exceptionally high tidal waters surged through Venice again on Friday, prompting the mayor to close St. Mark’s Square and call for more donations for repairs just three days after the Italian lagoon city suffered its worst flooding in 50 years.

The high tide peaked at 1.54 meters (5 feet) above sea level just before noon Friday, flooding most of the historic World Heritage city’s center.

Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said the damage is estimated at hundreds of millions of euros and blamed climate change for the “dramatic situation.” He also called for the speedy completion of the city’s long-delayed Moses flood defense project.

Brugnaro told reporters that he was forced to ask police to block off St. Mark’s Square on Friday, which was covered in knee-high water. Workers in high boots removed the platforms used by the public to cross the iconic square without getting wet.

Venice saw its second-worst flooding on record late Tuesday when water levels reached 1.87 meters (6 feet, 1 inch) above sea level, the highest flooding in 50 years.

That prompted the Italian government to declare a state of emergency on Thursday, approving 20 million euros ($22.1 million) to help Venice repair the most urgent damage.

“Venice is the pride of all of Italy,” Brugnaro said Friday. “Venice is everyone’s heritage, unique in the world. Thanks to your help, Venice will shine again.”

Venice, a lagoon city built amid a system of canals, is particularly vulnerable to a combination of rising sea levels due to climate change coupled with the city’s well-documented sinking into the mud. The sea level in Venice is 10 centimeters (4 inches) higher than it was 50 years ago, according to the city’s tide office.


People wade their way through water in Venice, Italy, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Waters are rising in Venice where the tide is reaching exceptional levels just three days after the Italian lagoon city experienced its worst flooding in more than 50 years. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno) (Luca Bruno/)
People wade their way through water in Venice, Italy, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Waters are rising in Venice where the tide is reaching exceptional levels just three days after the Italian lagoon city experienced its worst flooding in more than 50 years. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno) (Luca Bruno/)
People wade their way through water in Venice, Italy, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Waters are rising in Venice where the tide is reaching exceptional levels just three days after the Italian lagoon city experienced its worst flooding in more than 50 years. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno) (Luca Bruno/)

More than 50 churches have reported damage from the tides, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said as he inspected the city. Carabinieri officers from the corps’ world-renowned and highly-trained squad of art experts were being deployed to map damage to art treasures, a job that is expected to take some time.

“While the water is still there, it’s difficult to know what the (full) damage is,” Franceschini said.

He said tax breaks for those who donate to help restore state monuments and artworks will be applied to church art repairs as well.

The Italian Space Agency said it was studying radar data from satellites to detect any signs that Venice bell towers may have shifted or that their foundations might have weakened as they were buffeted by the fast-rising waters.

Many people were rising to the challenge of saving Venice’s many treasures.

University students in Venice rushed to libraries and other institutions filled with books and manuscripts to help shift the material to higher stories.

The Italian Society of Authors and Editors, which said Venice’s book stores and libraries were “gravely damaged” by the high water, launched a fundraising campaign. Pitching for donations from Italy and abroad, the group said it was important to “take the side of those who every day are on the front lines for the defense of Italian culture.”

It said one Venice bookstore, poignantly named “Acqua Alta” (High Water), had been completely submerged by the rushing water.

The leader of the right-wing opposition League party, Matteo Salvini, visited Venice on Friday and also called for renewed efforts to complete the Moses flood defense project, which the Italian government now expects to be completed by 2021.

"We can't waste time, this city is crying for help," Salvini said.

Tuesday's devastating floods have reignited a yearslong debate over Moses, a multibillion-euro project that has been under construction since 2003. The project has not yet been activated, delayed repeatedly by corruption scandals, cost overruns and opposition from environmentalists who were worried about its effects on Venice’s delicate lagoon ecosystem.

__

Zampano reported from Rome. Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed


WATCH LIVE: Day 2 of public impeachment inquiry in U.S. House

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 05:48

Watch live coverage and analysis from the Washington Post as the public hearings of the Trump impeachment inquiry continue Friday in the House. Former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch will testify.

Washington Post reporter Libby Casey will host, joined by Post reporters Elise Viebeck, Amber Phillips, Aaron Blake and more.

Related:

[Ex-ambassador likely to shed light on murky effort in Ukraine to oust her]

MAKING IT: A new vision for veterinary care in Alaska

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 05:06

Going to the veterinarian often isn’t much fun for pets -- or their owners. But Wasilla resident Claire Swigard says when she takes her three-year-old Malemute to the vet, he can’t wait to get inside.

“Jackson is so excited to get to go there,” Swigard said.

Swigard and Jackson go to Tier 1 Veterinary Medical Center in Palmer, a new business that’s rethinking the way veterinary care is delivered in Alaska -- with full-service offerings, top-of-the-line equipment and a low-stress philosophy informed by the owners’ experiences as military veterinarians.

Vets in more ways than one

Veterinarians Dr. Sean and Dr. Sara McPeck served in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, where they were both deployed with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. Sean, who enlisted in 1996, had twice been selected for the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment -- once as an enlisted soldier and again 13 years later as a captain after he returned to active duty while in veterinary school.

It was during his multiple deployments to Afghanistan, caring for the Marines’ IED detection dogs, and within Special Operations, that Sean McPeck began to envision a different kind of veterinary practice. As part of his work, he was involved in designing kennels and hospitals for military dogs, who can experience stress and trauma just as humans who serve in the military. As he learned to recognize and treat canine post-traumatic stress disorder, he imagined an animal hospital that would minimize stress for pets and owners alike.

When the McPecks’ daughter was born, Sean decided it was time to transition from his career in active duty to the civilian world. The McPecks chose to settle in the Mat-Su area, where Sean spent his childhood, raised in a log house built by his father, Hugh McPeck. Today, their family has grown to include three children, two dogs, an elusive cat, and some fish the cat has not yet found.

“Chop wood, carry water -- that’s how I grew up. That is how a lot of Alaskans grow up,” Sean said. Although Sara didn’t grow up in Alaska, Sean said she embraced the northern lifestyle, too. A former collegiate field hockey player, this year she officially became a “hockey mom,” and she’s quickly learning how the rules change from the field to the rink.

A new kind of veterinary practice

Knowing how much Alaskans love their animals, and with firsthand experience treating working dogs for both physical and mental trauma, the McPecks wanted to build a veterinary practice unlike any other in the state.

“I wanted to create an extraordinary animal hospital for Alaskans and other doctors of veterinary medicine alike,” said Sean McPeck.

In the military community, McPeck said, “Tier 1” refers to elite special operations forces such as the 75th Ranger Regiment, and the business has also provided a way for the McPecks to lend a hand to other military families. In addition to the McPecks’ Army backgrounds, Sean McPeck teaches Canine Tactical Combat Casualty Care courses for federal and local law enforcement personnel and emergency responders across the country, including the Anchorage Police Department and Alaska State Troopers. The medical center also offers a discount to military and law enforcement personnel.

Applying the leadership and team-building skills they learned in the military, the McPecks set out to build a business that would emphasize attracting and retaining talent, from support staff to specialists. To promote training and education, Tier 1 was built with a 40-person classroom in the heart of the building, with observation windows overlooking the main surgical suite. The business offers courses for the general public, such as animal first aid, as well as an in-house career training program.

“Within two years we can prepare candidates who are motivated and want to learn to be ready to take the national exam to become a licensed veterinary technician, without leaving the state,” McPeck said.

Tier 1’s building is designed with its patients’ comfort in mind. Waiting areas are intentionally crafted to minimize stressful interactions between animals. Built-in sound dampening helps reduce unfamiliar noises. Relaxing pheromones are diffused in the exam rooms and placed in kennels and carriers.

“We try to incorporate what is called a ‘fear-free’ technique,” McPeck said. “A lot of it has to do with body language, being able to recognize an animal when they’re stressed.” Tier 1 also uses a “less is more” approach to restraint, he added, to avoid triggering animals’ natural instincts to try and break loose.

And true to the original vision, Tier 1 has brought numerous specialty services under one roof. In addition to general veterinary care, the medical center’s offerings include emergency care, hospitalization and medical boarding, diagnostic testing such as CT scans and fluoroscopy, surgery, stem cell therapy, acupuncture and specialists in oncology and surgery. The facility also has a 2,000-square-foot rehabilitation and conditioning center with canine treadmills (including one underwater treadmill) and other equipment to treat dogs with arthritis, obesity and post-surgical rehab needs.

Funding the vision

Building a medical center from the ground up has required a significant investment in the facility, equipment and staff -- and all three had to be top-notch for the idea to work, McPeck said.

“Professionals want to use professional equipment, so it really took me investing in the best equipment available,” McPeck said.

He brought his business plan to several different banks and was turned down for financing.

“They said, ‘I don’t see how this is going to be profitable … This is not going to be successful in Alaska,’” McPeck recalled.

He made one more appointment, this time with Senior Vice President Craig Thorn at First National Bank Alaska.

“Craig saw the vision. He believed in it right off the bat,” McPeck said. “FNBA saw how this could shape our community and how Alaskans would embrace having access to advanced veterinary care.”

Tier 1 opened its doors in July 2018. Since then, McPeck estimates the business has seen about 11,000 animal patients.

“I think it's pretty unique that my wife and I are both veterans, and both veterinarians,” McPeck said. “We both wore the uniform, we both served in Afghanistan, and we both love taking care of the community.”

‘They just embrace everybody’

If Tier 1’s goal is to make going to the vet a happy experience for pets and their owners, clients say it’s working.

Cathy Thews and her two French bulldogs, Mimi and Bandit, followed the McPecks to Tier 1 from another practice.

“I literally refuse to take my pets anywhere else,” Thews said. Health problems are common among “Frenchies,” and Thews said not all vets are well-versed in how to care for them. “That’s why I’m very fussy as to where I take my pups.”

Thews first met the McPecks by chance after seeking a second opinion for Bandit’s neck pain.

“The one thing I loved about (Sean McPeck) most was that he introduced himself to my pets first,” Thews said. “I've just never met a married couple that is so darn caring and loving. They just embrace everybody.”

That feeling extends across the Tier 1 practice, she added.

“All the doctors I've seen there are just very nice,” Thews said. “The nicest thing about them all is they like to get to know your pets. They're trying to make sure your little fur baby is as comfortable as possible.”

Claire Swigard, whose dog Jackson loves visiting Tier 1, said the practice has gone above and beyond to take care of her and her pets. After another one of her dogs died, they sent her flowers and made her a print of one of his paws. Before she adopted Jackson, Sean McPeck insisted on giving him a thorough examination to ensure he had a clean bill of health. And when she and Jackson traveled to Arizona, she said, McPeck tapped into his experiences in Afghanistan to give her thorough advice for keeping a dog safe in hot weather.

“They’re all really, really, really kind,” Swigard said. “That, to me, is the most important thing.”

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to support Alaskans by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

This article was produced by the creative services department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.


Ex-ambassador likely to shed light on murky effort in Ukraine to oust her

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 05:04

WASHINGTON - In February, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine - a 33-year career diplomat who had served presidents of both parties - received a blunt warning.


FILE - In this Oct. 11, 2019, file photo, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington. The House will hear from a singular witness Friday in the Trump impeachment hearings, Yovanovitch, who was targeted by the president’s allies in a “smear” campaign now central to the inquiry. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) (J. Scott Applewhite/)

“Watch your back,” Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch said she was told by Ukraine’s interior minister.

The Ukrainian official relayed that a pair of Florida businessmen and a Kyiv prosecutor with whom Yovanovitch had clashed were working to oust her from the post she had held since 2016, she later told House investigators.

The trio had a powerful ally, he added: President Donald Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

"I thought it was exceedingly strange," Yovanovitch said, according to a transcript of her closed-door testimony last month.

The impeachment inquiry has pulled back the curtain on a long and murky effort to engineer the ambassador's removal - one driven by an array of figures whose motives are still not fully understood. They include a former U.S. congressman-turned-lobbyist, a then-sitting member of Congress and the two Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who have since been charged with campaign finance crimes.

[2nd US official heard Trump’s ‘investigations’ call with diplomat, sources say]

[Impeachment hearings begin with revelation of phone call implicating Trump in Ukraine scandal]

Yovanovitch’s public testimony Friday is expected to showcase how what appears to have begun as the personal crusade of private individuals became intertwined with efforts to use Ukraine to benefit Trump politically.

The attacks on the ambassador - and the fact that the president capitulated to the smear effort against her - led to widespread alarm among national security officials, several told Congress in recent weeks.

"She'd been subject to a pretty ruthless, nasty defamation to basically remove her from her place," former National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill testified in her closed-door deposition last month.

"The most obvious explanation," Hill testified, "seemed to be business dealings of individuals who wanted to improve their investment positions inside of Ukraine" as well as an effort "to deflect away from" findings that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

Yovanovitch has said she knows little about the pressure the administration put on Ukraine to investigate Trump's political opponents, much of which occurred after her departure from Kyiv, but her appearance Friday offers the possibility of a compelling emotional moment in the Democrats' impeachment hearings.

The little-known diplomat has described how she was taken aback when conservative media began to advocate her removal in March and to spread her name on social media, where the president's son Donald Trump Jr. called her "a joker."

And she has said she was shocked and frightened when she read a rough transcript of Trump's call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, released in September, in which the U.S. president called her "bad news" and predicted she would "go through some things."

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Born in Canada to parents who had fled the Soviet Union, Yovanovitch joined the Foreign Service after graduate school in 1986. Since then, she has served in seven countries, across the administrations of six American presidents, including as ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

In May 2016, she was named ambassador to Ukraine by President Barack Obama and, this spring, the Trump administration asked her to extend her service there into 2020.

In testimony, colleagues vouched for Yovanovitch's professionalism and expertise.

"The best of the best, in terms of a nonpartisan career official," Hill testified, noting that it is rare for women to reach the upper ranks of the diplomatic corps. "I just see her as epitomizing what United States diplomacy should be."

Top State Department official George Kent added that Yovanovitch was "someone who follows very [strictly] what is deemed proper and proprietary."

In her post, Yovanovitch worked to advance U.S. interests by countering Russian aggression and backing new legal structures intended to root out long-standing corruption in Ukraine's economy, she and others testified.

The mission earned her enemies, Kent told the House this week.

"You can't promote principled anti-corruption action without pissing off corrupt people," he said.

The first signs that forces were agitating to push her out came in 2017 or 2018.

It was then that veteran Foreign Service officer Catherine Croft received "multiple calls" from a prominent Republican lobbyist, former Louisiana congressman Bob Livingston, urging Yovanovitch's firing, she told lawmakers.

At the time, Croft was detailed to the National Security Council and reported the curious calls to her superiors.

"He characterized Ambassador Yovanovitch as an 'Obama holdover' and associated [her] with George Soros," the wealthy liberal donor, Croft said in a written statement provided to the committee. "It was not clear to me at the time - or now - at whose direction or at whose expense Mr. Livingston was seeking the removal of Ambassador Yovanovitch."

Livingston did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Justice Department records show Livingston is registered as a lobbyist representing companies and organizations connected to Yulia Tymoshenko, a Ukrainian politician with energy investments, who has sought to regain political power in Ukraine since she lost her job as prime minister in 2010.

Jim Slattery, a Washington lawyer who represented Tymoshenko in the past, rejected the idea that his friend and former client would have sought the removal of Yovanovitch.

"I have no knowledge of her directing anyone to seek the removal of the ambassador and I am confident that, if she had, I would know," he said, adding that Yovanovitch is "a competent and dedicated" diplomat who has commanded "enormous respect" across party lines.

Yovanovitch was also a topic of discussion at a small dinner for top Trump donors in a private suite of the Trump hotel in Washington attended by the president and Donald Trump Jr. on April 30, 2018.

In attendance were Parnas and Fruman, who had pledged a major donation to a pro-Trump super PAC. Last month, the two men were arrested at Dulles International Airport and charged with illegally funneling foreign money into U.S. campaign contribution. They have pleaded not guilty.

According to federal prosecutors, Parnas and Fruman had also embarked on an effort to oust Yovanovitch at the request of an unidentified Ukrainian government official.

An attorney for Parnas, Joseph Bondy, has denied that claim and has said Parnas was not motivated by personal business interests. A lawyer for Fruman, Matt Blanche, declined to comment.

During the 2018 dinner, Parnas has told associates, he and Fruman told Trump that Yovanovitch was unfriendly to the president's interests, people familiar with his account have said. Parnas claimed that Trump had an immediate and visceral reaction: He declared Yovanovitch should be fired.

Ten days later, Parnas was on Capitol Hill, meeting with then-Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, according to photos he posted online. That same day, Sessions penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complaining that Yovanovitch was biased against Trump, according to the indictment of Parnas and Fruman.

Sessions has said he did not "take any official action" as a result of his meeting with Parnas and sent the letter because he had come to believe Yovanovitch was bad-mouthing Trump abroad.

The letter played a significant role in spreading dissent about Yovanovitch in Washington. Giuliani has told The Post that it was Sessions who helped inspire Trump's distrust for her.

Giuliani has said he was introduced to Parnas and Fruman by a mutual friend in the summer of 2018, and eventually collected $500,000 to advise a company Parnas started called Fraud Guarantee.

By early this year, Parnas and Fruman were also working with Giuliani on his efforts to dig up dirt on Democrats in Ukraine. They helped connect him to former Ukrainian officials who claimed their country had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and that an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden's son Hunter had been quashed.

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In so doing, the two men linked Giuliani up with some of Yovanovitch's most determined Ukrainian adversaries.

One was Yuri Lutsenko, who had been appointed prosecutor- general in 2016. Yovanovitch testified that she had at first hoped Lutsenko would clean up the prosecutor's office, but that he failed to do so.

By 2018, he was openly complaining about the ambassador and clashing with an independent anti-corruption bureau, known as NABU, which had been that was set up in the aftermath of a 2014 pro- Europe uprising and that was supported by the United States and other Western allies.

Giuliani met with Lutsenko in New York in January to discuss the possibility that Ukraine would open a new investigation into the 2016 election or Burisma, an energy company whose board of directors included Hunter Biden, The Post previously reported.

Notes from Lutsenko's meeting with Giuliani that were turned over the State Department's inspector general and submitted to lawmakers show that Lutsenko also discussed Yovanovitch with Giuliani, accusing her of spending "money on good public relations for NABU."

Giuliani's displeasure with Yovanovitch appears to have mounted when State Department officials declined to issue a visa to another Ukrainian, a former prosecutor named Viktor Shokin, who wanted to travel to the United States to meet with him.

As vice president, Biden had pushed for the firing of Shokin, who U.S. and European officials believed was not sufficiently aggressive in pursuing corruption cases. Shokin has claimed that he was fired because his office was investigating Burisma and Biden's son - a probe that anti-corruption activists and former officials said was actually dormant at the time.

The decision to deny Shokin a visa was made at the recommendation of career consular staff, Yovanovitch testified. Angered, Giuliani appealed the decision to the White House and senior State Department officials, she said.

Consular officials, she said, "held firm." Shokin was forced to meet with Giuliani via Skype, rather than in person. In their conversation, Shokin claimed that Yovanovitch was "close to Biden," Giuliani's notes show.

Before his arrest, Parnas told The Post in September that Giuliani was upset by the episode and suggested that it contributed to Yovanovitch's ouster. "That's why I think the ambassador's not there," Parnas said.

By March, Parnas and Fruman were telling associates that Yovanovitch would soon be removed from her post, according to people who encountered them.

At an energy conference in Houston, they explained to a top official at Ukraine's state-owned gas company that Yovanovitch stood in the way of their plans to broker gas deals in Kyiv, according to an American energy executive, Dale Perry, who spoke to the gas company executive soon afterward.

The agitation against Yovanovitch became public that same month, when conservative columnist John Solomon interviewed Lutsenko for the Hill. In the interview, Lutsenko alleged that Yovanovitch had given him a list of people he could not prosecute.

The State Department issued a statement calling the allegation an "outright fabrication." and Lutsenko quickly recanted. Last month, he told the New York Times that his interview had been mistranslated.

Soon after The Hill column was published, Trump Jr. fanned the flames, retweeting another article calling for her removal and writing we need "less of these jokers as ambassadors."

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In late April, Yovanovitch testified she received a call to leave Kyiv "on the next plane" to meet with top State Department officials. The department's No. 2 official at the time, John Sullivan, who has since been nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, told her she was being recalled from her job in Kyiv because the president had lost trust in her.

"Although I understand that I served at the pleasure of the president, I was nevertheless incredulous that the U.S. government chose to remove an ambassador based, as best as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives," she told the House panel last month.

Veteran diplomat Michael McKinley, a top aide to Pompeo, testified that after the rough transcript of Trump's call with Zelensky was released in September, he urged the secretary of state to issue a public statement in support of the ambassador.

When Pompeo didn't respond, McKinley said he emailed other senior officials proposing a "strong and immediate statement of support for Ambassador Yovanovitch's professionalism and courage."

A few hours later, one of the recipients of McKinley's email, a State Department spokesman, called to say that Pompeo had rejected the idea, citing a desire to protect Yovanovitch from "undue attention," he testified.

McKinley resigned 12 days later. He told lawmakers he had no choice.

"Since I began my career in 1982, I have served my country and every president loyally," he said. "Under current circumstances, however, I could no longer look the other way as colleagues are denied the professional support and respect they deserve."

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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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