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Head Of Pro-Rand Paul ‘Super PAC’ Indicted For 2012 Campaign Violations

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In a further blow to the fundraising efforts of GOP presidential candidate Rand Paul, the Justice Department on Wednesday indicted the head of his main “super PAC,” on charges stemming from the 2012 campaign of Paul’s father, Ron Paul.

Jesse R. Benton of Louisville, Ky., was charged with covering up campaign payments to an Iowa state senator to persuade him to abandon his support for then-Rep. Michele Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign and instead endorse Ron Paul. Benton was also charged with lying about it to the FBI.

Also indicted were two of Benton’s associates from the Ron Paul campaign, John M. Tate and Dimitrios N. Kesari, both of Virginia.

As the 2016 campaign heats up, the indictment serves as a reminder to political operatives that the FBI is watching.

“Violating campaign finance laws by concealing payments to an elected official undermines our electoral system and deceives the public,” said David J. LeValley, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office. “The FBI will aggressively investigate those who corrupt the integrity of our democratic process.”

Benton is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter and has long been allied with the Paul family. Last year, news of the investigation into the 2012 payments forced Benton to resign as manager for now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign.

The indictments mark the latest problems for Rand Paul, a Republican Kentucky senator who has been struggling to stand out in the crowded field of Republican candidates and has lagged well behind his rivals in fundraising.

Photo: Rand Paul speaks at the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Feb. 27, 2015 in National Harbor, Md. Conservative activists attended the annual political conference to discuss their agenda. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

A Look At The Major Gay Rights Cases Decided By The Supreme Court

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has struggled with the issue of gay marriage and gay rights for nearly half a century. Here are some of the key decisions:

Baker vs. Nelson, 1972: The first Supreme Court gay marriage ruling was just a sentence long, saying that the appeal of a gay couple from Minnesota who had been turned down for a marriage license “is dismissed for lack of a substantial federal question.”

Bowers vs. Hardwick, 1986: The justices by a vote of 5-4 upheld a Georgia law outlawing sodomy. The case involved a Georgia bartender, Michael Hardwick, who was arrested on suspicion of having oral sex with another man in Hardwick’s bedroom. The justices said the constitutional right of privacy did not extend to homosexual sodomy.

Romer vs. Evans, 1996: In a 6-3 decision that became the precursor for later gay marriage rulings, the justices struck down a Colorado voter initiative that said no homosexual could be protected from discrimination based on their orientation.

Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale, 2000: The court ruled that the Boy Scouts had a constitutional right to exclude openly gay Scout masters based on the Scouts’ freedom of association. The 5-4 ruling reversed a decision of the New Jersey state courts.

Lawrence vs. Texas, 2003: The court, in an emotional opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, overturned Bowers vs. Hardwick, ruling that a Texas sodomy law violated the constitutional rights of liberty and privacy. The 6-3 decision overturned the convictions of two gay men arrested in their apartment in Houston.

U.S. vs. Windsor, 2013: In a landmark 5-4 decision that has been the basis for dozens of federal court rulings striking down gay marriage bans, the justices struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The court said the federal government could not deny benefits to legally married gay couples.

Hollingsworth vs. Perry, 2013: The justices upheld a lower court ruling invalidating California’s gay marriage ban, Proposition 8. While the 5-4 decision made gay marriage possible for Californians, it was a technical ruling that marriage opponents did not have standing to appeal and so did not apply to other states.

Photo: John Marino via Flickr

A Look At The Major Gay Rights Cases Decided By The Supreme Court

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has struggled with the issue of gay marriage and gay rights for nearly half a century. Here are some of the key decisions:

Baker vs. Nelson, 1972: The first Supreme Court gay marriage ruling was just a sentence long, saying that the appeal of a gay couple from Minnesota who had been turned down for a marriage license “is dismissed for lack of a substantial federal question.”

Bowers vs. Hardwick
, 1986: The justices by a vote of 5-4 upheld a Georgia law outlawing sodomy. The case involved a Georgia bartender, Michael Hardwick, who was arrested on suspicion of having oral sex with another man in Hardwick’s bedroom. The justices said the constitutional right of privacy did not extend to homosexual sodomy.

Romer vs. Evans, 1996: In a 6-3 decision that became the precursor for later gay marriage rulings, the justices struck down a Colorado voter initiative that said no homosexual could be protected from discrimination based on their orientation.

Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale, 2000: The court ruled that the Boy Scouts had a constitutional right to exclude openly gay Scout masters based on the Scouts’ freedom of association. The 5-4 ruling reversed a decision of the New Jersey state courts.

Lawrence vs. Texas, 2003: The court, in an emotional opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, overturned Bowers vs. Hardwick, ruling that a Texas sodomy law violated the constitutional rights of liberty and privacy. The 6-3 decision overturned the convictions of two gay men arrested in their apartment in Houston.

U.S. vs. Windsor, 2013: In a landmark 5-4 decision that has been the basis for dozens of federal court rulings striking down gay marriage bans, the justices struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The court said the federal government could not deny benefits to legally married gay couples.

Hollingsworth vs. Perry, 2013: The justices upheld a lower court ruling invalidating California’s gay marriage ban, Proposition 8. While the 5-4 decision made gay marriage possible for Californians, it was a technical ruling that marriage opponents did not have standing to appeal and so did not apply to other states.

(c)2015 Tribune Co., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AFP Photo/George Frey

Justice Department In Partial Limbo As Loretta Lynch Awaits Confirmation

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Promotions and policy decisions at the Justice Department have been put off. Announcements have slowed to a trickle. Congress is waiting for input on the agency’s budget priorities.

Amid the stalled Senate confirmation of attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch, the nation’s biggest law enforcement agency finds itself in partial limbo.

Department officials haven’t even been able to decide whether they should participate in a major international meeting on cybersecurity this spring.

“There is a constant complication about committing to things,” said Robert Raben, a former assistant attorney general who is advising Lynch on the nomination and remains in touch with department officials. “For April and May, there are an enormous amount of things that are on hold. It’s impossible for the leadership to know what to commit to, because they do not know if Ms. Lynch is going to have a different view.”

The Senate returns to session this week and the votes to approve Lynch to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. appear in place. But there is no clear indication from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), as to when he will schedule a vote.

Although Holder remains on the job, he has scheduled few public appearances. Colleagues say he has already had to postpone one vacation trip and is eager to get back to private practice without the constraints of government.

Holder “remains very engaged in high-level discussions about cases and policy matters,” said Emily Pierce, acting director of public affairs.

But administration officials acknowledged privately that non-urgent decisions are being held in abeyance. “There are major policy decisions that are on hold,” said one department official who was not authorized to speak publicly about internal matters.

Lynch’s record and experience are not the reasons she’s been waiting five months since being nominated, the longest delay in recent memory and more than those of the previous seven attorney general nominees combined.

Instead, her ascent has been embroiled in partisan politics.

Democrats share part of the blame. First, they urged the White House to refrain from naming a successor to Holder — who announced in September he’d step down — until after the congressional election in November because they feared a controversial choice might hurt their chances.

Then after the election, the Democratic-controlled lame-duck Senate decided against moving forward on the confirmation when they had the chance, punting the nomination to the new GOP-led Senate.

During her Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in January, Lynch generally made a favorable impression, eventually winning the support of three committee Republicans. She has backing from major law enforcement groups.

But many Republicans voiced frustration with her refusal to disavow President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, which would defer deportation for millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally. Though the issue would mostly not fall under Lynch’s direct purview, Republican critics see the president’s moves as exceeding his legal authority.

Lynch appears to have secured the necessary 51 votes for confirmation, helped this month by the announcement of Senator Mark Steven Kirk (R-IL), that he would vote for her.

But now the vote has been held up by an unrelated battle over a human trafficking bill. Democrats, though supportive of the bill’s aims, are filibustering the legislation because it contains a provision that they say would expand existing restrictions on abortion. McConnell said he would not schedule a vote on Lynch until after the Senate approved the bill.

“The only thing holding up the Lynch vote is the Democrats’ filibuster of a human trafficking bill that would help prevent kids from being sold into sex slavery,” McConnell spokesman Michael Brumas said. “The sooner they allow the Senate to pass that bipartisan bill, the sooner the Senate can move to the Lynch nomination.”

Democrats have responded by accusing Republicans of blocking the first African-American woman nominated to become the nation’s top law enforcement officer. Senator Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), last month accused Republicans of asking Lynch “to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar.”

Confidentially, some administration officials acknowledge that it was a mistake for Holder to promise to stay on until his successor was confirmed. A vacancy at the top of what is now a key national security branch probably would have compelled Republicans to move faster and avoided the partial administrative paralysis now affecting the department.

James M. Cole, a former deputy attorney general who left in January, said the lack of permanent leadership hindered the department’s effectiveness.

“There are law enforcement matters, national security matters, civil rights issues, police department (investigations) — issues that you start to disrupt when you have somebody waiting in the wings who you know is going to get in, but they are not there yet,” Cole said. “In any major case, including organized crime or corruption or national security, you want somebody who is going to make the ultimate decisions who has been able to follow the case through from the beginning.”

Photo: Douglas Palmer via Facebook

Justice Department Says It Can Still Prosecute Medical Marijuana Cases

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department says a congressional restriction on medical marijuana enforcement does not apply to individual cases like proceedings against three dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In December, Congress added an amendment to a spending bill ordering the Justice Department not to interfere with states that allow the sale of medical marijuana from implementing their laws.

Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said in a statement Wednesday that it did not believe the amendment applies to cases against individuals or organizations.

Rather, he said, it stops the department from “impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws,” contrary to some claims from people being prosecuted that the amendment blocks such prosecutions.

The narrow interpretation of the law is of particular interest in the Bay Area, where the Justice Department has initiated forfeiture proceedings against three medical marijuana dispensaries it considers to be in violation of federal law.

Henry Wykowski, a lawyer for the dispensaries, said, “I think that the amendment is vague and it hasn’t been interpreted by any court yet. But the language can be read more broadly to encompass such prosecutions.”

(c)2015 Tribune Co., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Frederic J Brown / AFP

Gay Rights Supporters Gird For Fight In Mississippi Beyond Marriage

By Timothy M. Phelps, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

TUPELO, Mississippi — At Hardee’s restaurant on the east side of town, near the tiny two-room house where Elvis Presley was born, five mostly retired Tupelo good old boys sit nursing coffee, talking about gay marriage.

“I’m agin it,” said Roger Morgan, 78, as the others nodded in assent. “‘Cause my Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman. It didn’t say anything about Adam and Steve.”

Such attitudes are common in this bastion of Southern Baptists, but they’re increasingly under fire — not only by a national wave of court rulings, but by gay rights activists mobilizing in the conservative American heartland like never before.

From its newly opened advocacy office in Tupelo, the national LGBT organization Human Rights Campaign is leading an effort to persuade Main Street business owners here to post “We Don’t Discriminate” stickers in shop windows. Organizers are lobbying the City Council to endorse a nondiscrimination pledge.

And a new generation of homegrown activists like Will Knight, a 22-year-old community college English teacher, see it as their mission to increase gay visibility. “I feel sometimes I come out every day,” Knight said.

The national debate over gay marriage and equality is sweeping through this deeply religious town like a spring tornado, uprooting long-held biases but also stirring a conservative backlash.

Fire-and-brimstone preachers, such as the Reverend Forrest Sheffield of Harrisburg Baptist Church, complain that gay activists and judges who support same-sex marriage “have got Mississippi by the jugular.” From the headquarters of the American Family Association, which runs a conservative national radio network, host Bryan Fischer tells listeners that homosexuality should be criminalized like drug use.

As gay rights groups fight for a legal beachhead at the Tupelo City Council, conservatives last year persuaded the Mississippi Legislature — which is defending its ban against same-sex marriage — to adopt a law to make it easier for religious-minded individuals, businesses, and others to openly discriminate against gays and lesbians without fear of being sued.

Like it or not, gay marriage is likely coming to Tupelo, either at the hands of a New Orleans federal appeals court that could soon announce a ruling, or when the U.S. Supreme Court takes action in June. A majority of the justices is widely expected to legalize gay marriage nationwide.

But lingering hostility toward homosexuality here explains why many gay families predict their problems won’t end with a legal victory for same-sex marriage.

“Marriage equality is around the corner for Mississippi and the entire nation,” said Amelie Hahn, a 37-year-old lesbian raising two children. “This is great. But that piece of paper isn’t going to ensure that we keep our jobs, or that kids can come out in schools. It’s scary here.”

Hahn’s story reflects not only the difficulties of growing up gay in the South, but the high stakes same-sex couples here have in the marriage debate.

Despite its conservatism, Mississippi has the highest rate of same-sex couples raising children among the 50 states, according to a 2013 study by UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy.

Twenty-six percent of gay couples in Mississippi are raising children, higher than the rates in more progressive communities like Los Angeles or New York (16 percent and 17 percent, respectively), the study found. Experts speculate that the rate is higher in conservative states in the South, West, and Midwest in part because gays and lesbians often face pressure to enter heterosexual relationships and start families before coming to terms with their sexuality.

Growing up with a devout Christian father, Hahn buckled to social pressure and married a man when she was in her 20s. They had two children. “It’s what I have always been brought up to believe you do,” the New Orleans native said, even though she knew she was a lesbian.

Years later she came out, got divorced and moved with her children to Tupelo, hoping for a fresh start. But Hahn quickly found that living openly as a lesbian with kids, including a disabled daughter, was difficult.

“I’ve had people spit at my car,” she said. “They whisper as I walk by in a restaurant. In the grocery store, two elderly ladies said, ‘Oh my God, that’s the homosexual woman with a kid in a wheelchair.’ ” Tired of the animosity, Hahn decided to move to the state capital, Jackson, where “it’s a lot easier to breathe.”

Hahn’s experience is why gay rights groups say they are already gearing up for the next battle: passing a federal law to ban discrimination in employment, housing, and commerce based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Census figures suggest there are more than 60 same-sex couples in Tupelo raising kids, but most keep a low profile or remain in the closet.

Groups like the Human Rights Campaign are taking that battle to the states and to the streets, opening offices recently in Alabama and Mississippi, the two most disapproving of same-sex marriage.

Tupelo, named for the Tupelo gum trees that inhabited the surrounding swamps, grew up around a railroad crossing just before the Civil War, when it was burned to the ground by Union troops. It has always been known as a progressive city economically but is conservative socially and politically. Tupelo voted against Barack Obama by nearly two to one, well above the statewide average. It is a place where residents don’t hesitate to ask a stranger, “You follow Christ?”

“Tupelo is one of the strongest church-based communities I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Sheffield, the Baptist minister, whose 3,500-member congregation expelled its Boy Scout troop after the national association decided to accept gay members. Two-thirds of the residents of Tupelo and the surrounding county are affiliated with a church, and 60 percent of those are Southern Baptists.

At the same time, Tupelo is known in Mississippi as having a small liberal counterculture. It has its own professional symphony orchestra (the smallest city in the country to have one), two ballet companies, and several art galleries. Two years ago it elected Democrat Jason Shelton, who gay activists say is a privately sympathetic mayor.

Although gay groups are pushing the city council for a pledge not to discriminate, their chances appear slim.

Volunteers like Bob Spencer, lay leader of the local Unitarian Universalist Church, have been walking downtown, home to the hardware store that sold Elvis his first guitar, asking business owners to post window stickers stating, “We Don’t Discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling.” Few businesses have complied, and one that did lose business as a result.

“It was important to me to be one of the businesses that stood up and said, ‘I’m tired of Mississippi being known as one state that discriminates,’ ” said Moe Briston, a Tupelo native who runs the local Culligan water treatment company.

After Briston posted the sticker, she lost a major account of 15 years, the American Family Assocation, worth $1,200 a year. But the stickers are still there.

There are some anecdotal signs of progress. When a prominent Presbyterian minister here recently urged his congregation to “stand up for the Bible” against homosexuality, more progressive churchgoers bristled at the intolerance and he was almost fired, according to members. He took a leave of absence to reflect, one member said.

Knight, the openly gay English teacher, said his goal is to ensure that people know there are gays in the community. A survey by the Human Rights Campaign last year showed that only half of Mississippi’s residents say they know someone who is gay, compared with nine in ten Americans nationwide.

“Something about the South, a lot of people say they have never been introduced to someone who is gay,” he said.

Knight says he is sometimes frustrated that more gays are not active in gay rights here.

“I think there is a lot of fear here and, as much as fear, shame,” he said. “That goes a long way to caging a lot of people.”

Like Hahn, he believes that legal marriage is just a first step. “I don’t feel like Mississippi should stop at marriage. There are so many other areas where we are not equal,” he said.

Rob Hill, a former United Methodist pastor who heads the Human Rights Campaign’s Mississippi office, recalled a Tupelo elected official once telling him that “gays are fully accepted here, but we just don’t talk about it.”

“How open and accepting is it if you live and get by in that community, but yet you can’t be open about who you are?” Hill asked. He agreed it will require more than legalized gay marriage to pry open the Southern closet.

“Marriage equality will come to Mississippi,” Hill said. “But the problem with that is that you can get married on Saturday but lose your job or get kicked out of your apartment on Monday.”

Photo: Sean Davis via Flickr

High Court Says Alabama May Have Improperly Redistricted Black Voters

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In a rare Supreme Court victory for the voting rights of minorities, the justices ruled 5-4 Wednesday that a lower court must reassess whether Alabama improperly packed too many black voters into certain districts, diluting their voting strength in other districts.

Justice Stephen Breyer said there was “strong, perhaps overwhelming evidence” that in the one state Senate district examined closely in the court record, race had been used impermissibly as a criteria, and that other districts had apparently been drawn in a similar manner.

The justices sent the case back to a special three-judge court to evaluate each state district in contention. Blacks and Democrats had complained that their own strategy of creating minority-controlled voting districts — used in previous decades to improve minority representation — was now being used against them to limit their overall influence in the state.

The opinion raised an angry cry of protest from Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Scalia called it a “sweeping holding that will have profound implications” in the future. “If the court’s destination seems fantastical, just wait until you see the journey,” Scalia said in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito and Thomas.

Thomas said in a separate dissent that “this is nothing more than a fight over the ‘best’ racial quota.”

Photo: Barack Obama via Flickr

David Petraeus To Plead Guilty To Giving Classified Material To Mistress

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Former CIA director and top Army General David H. Petraeus has agreed to plead guilty to mishandling classified material by giving the information to a woman he was having an affair with, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

The plea deal on one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material resolves allegations that Petraeus gave government secrets to Paula Broadwell, his mistress and biographer. Petraeus allegedly allowed Broadwell access to his CIA email account and provided her with other confidential information.

The admission marked another chapter in the dramatic downfall of a modern-day military hero, who as commander of multinational forces in Iraq was largely credited with changing the course of the war against al-Qaida there through a surge in U.S. troops and a successful effort to win over Sunni militias to the U.S. side.

Petraeus stepped down in November 2012 as head of the CIA after his affair with Broadwell, an Army reserve officer who was writing his biography, became public.

Though he admitted the affair and said he had shown “extremely poor judgment,” Petraeus had maintained that he never gave Broadwell classified information. But in January, Justice Department officials said that FBI agents had found classified materials on Broadwell’s computer and that prosecutors had recommended charging the retired general.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Justice Nominee Loretta Lynch Tells Senate Committee: I Am Not Eric Holder

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch responded to waves of attacks against her predecessor with calm empathy Wednesday, telling a Republican questioner that “No, I am not Eric Holder.”

“How are you going to be different?” from Holder, asked Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

“I would be myself. I would be Loretta Lynch,” the nominee responded. “I pledge that I want to hear your concerns. I want to discuss those issues with you.”

Lynch, currently the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, made no attempt to defend Holder, who appointed her to a key Justice Department committee and reportedly was a key supporter in getting her nominated to replace him over several more high-profile rivals.

It fell to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), himself a former U.S. attorney, to stand up for Holder, who Democrats say has often bore the brunt of attacks against President Barack Obama.

Holder, Whitehouse said, restored integrity to a Justice Department racked with scandals and poor legal workmanship during the previous eight years of Republican control.

Lynch won plaudits for her opening statement, in which she spoke movingly of her upbringing by her preacher father and librarian mother in North Carolina. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said it was the best of six statements she has heard during her tenure from attorney general nominees.

Lynch breezed through questioning from the two top Republicans, Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and former Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) But she appeared to stumble over immigration in the eyes of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)

Lynch defended the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinion saying president Obama had the authority in November to declare that nearly half of the immigrants living in the U.S. illegally would receive temporary deportation deferrals and be given permits to work.

Lynch said she had no “reason to doubt the reasonableness” of the Justice Department’s conclusion that the policy is legal.

“Does a person who enters the country unlawfully have a right to citizenship?” Sessions asked. He pressed Lynch several times for a straight answer, before she said “citizenship is a privilege that has to be earned.”

“I am a little surprised it took you that long,” Sessions said.

He was also not happy with her response to questions about who has more rights to a job, a U.S. citizen or someone in the country illegally.

“If someone is here, regardless of status, I’d prefer they are participating in the workplace,” Lynch said, raising eyebrows among the Republicans present.

Lynch, who if confirmed would be the nation’s first female African-American attorney general, spent much of the morning trying to distinguish herself from Holder.

“I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate, and the entire United States Congress,” Lynch said as the Senate Judiciary Committee began a two-day hearing on her confirmation.

Holder, who last year announced his intention to step down, has been frequently attacked by Republicans during his six years in office, and he has often responded by showing open contempt for lawmakers during congressional hearings.

Lynch is said to have a more affable demeanor, and she expressed a desire to have stronger cooperation with Congress.

“I pledge to you and the American people that the Constitution, the bedrock of our system of justice, will be my lodestar as I exercise the power and responsibility of that position,” she said.

In the hearing room with Lynch were her father, Lorenzo, from North Carolina; her husband, Stephen Hargrove, and a brother. Another brother, a former Navy Seal, died in 2009. Lynch had his Navy Seal trident on the witness table in front of her as she testified.

Lynch has drawn support from key Republicans, so her confirmation seems likely. But the hearings present an opportunity for the new Republican-controlled Senate to flex its muscles.

Some Republicans, including Grassley, have hinted they may vote against her as a way to protest Obama administration policies.

Of nine witnesses scheduled to testify Thursday, five were called by Republicans and four by Democrats. The Republicans’ witnesses include a former Virginia television journalist who has pressed the Obama administration on the deadly 2012 attack against the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, and a sheriff from Wisconsin who says the Obama administration has unfairly criticized local law enforcement agencies. Most of the Republican witnesses appear to have little or no relationship with Lynch.

The Democrats’ witnesses include a former top FBI official who worked with Lynch in New York and a Republican who is a former U.S. attorney from Utah and who served with her in the Justice Department.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the committee, issued a statement Tuesday urging the Senate to approve her. “Ms. Lynch is a dedicated public servant with a strong commitment to justice and to keeping our communities safe,” he said.

Although any major slip-up by Lynch during the questioning could derail her nomination, she has a reputation as a poised speaker who is accustomed to the limelight. And she has been extensively coached on what not to say.

Her attempt to strike a contrast with Holder is likely to be well-received by Republican lawmakers.

“A lot of these Republicans feel the current attorney general is not doing the job the way he should,” Hatch said in December. “So they ought to be happy to get somebody there who could.”

Lynch highlighted her position on perhaps the most controversial law enforcement issue of the moment: sour relations between some police departments and local African-American communities. Holder was criticized for his high-profile, outspoken response to the shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., last year.

“Throughout my career as a prosecutor, it has been my honor to work hand in hand with dedicated law enforcement officers and agents who risk their lives every day in the protection of the communities we all serve, Lynch said. “I have served with them. I have learned from them. I am a better prosecutor because of them.”

Lynch, who is spearheading a federal investigation into the widely protested police killing of Eric Garner on New York’s Staten Island said the tension between the police and African-Americans troubled her.

“Few things have pained me more than the recent reports of tension and division between law enforcement and the communities we serve. If confirmed as attorney general, one of my key priorities would be to work to strengthen the vital relationships between our courageous law enforcement personnel and all the communities we serve.”

Photo: U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta Lynch testifies during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Lynch will succeed Eric Holder to be the next U.S. Attorney General if confirmed by the Senate. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Former Virginia Gov. McDonnell Sentenced To Two Years For Corruption

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was sentenced by U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer to two years in prison Tuesday for accepting dozens of gifts and loans from a businessman intent on getting help from the state for a line of questionable health supplements.

Prosecutors had asked Spencer for a sentence of ten to 12 years, while defense lawyers, citing McDonnell’s many years of service to Virginia, asked that he be sentenced to community service with no jail time.

McDonnell was the first Virginia governor to be charged with a serious crime, and, barring a successful appeal, will be the first to go to jail.

In September, a jury found McDonnell guilty of 11 public corruption charges involving $177,000 in gifts or loans from Florida health supplement salesman Jonnie R. Williams to him, his wife and his children. They included golf clubs, vacations, the use of a boat and a Ferrari, and $25,000 in wedding presents for two of their daughters.

McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, who had a close friendship with Williams, was also convicted in the case. She is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

The McDonnells have been living mostly apart since before the trial, and part of their defense was that they could not have conspired together to defraud the state because their marriage was irreparably broken. The jury, which was shown pictures of the couple holding hands on their way to pretrial hearings, didn’t buy it.

The trial appears to have divided the McDonnell family, which includes five children. One of their daughters, Jeanine McDonnell Zubowsky, a former U.S. Army officer in Iraq, wrote Spencer to say that he should go easy on her father because what happened was mostly her mother’s fault.

The case was unusual in many ways, with weeks of tawdry testimony about the McDonnells accepting one gift after another from Williams. Lawyers for both of the McDonnells emphasized the bad marriage and Maureen McDonnell’s’ emotional problems and difficulty adjusting to the role of the state’s first lady.

McDonnell was governor from 2010 to 2014. Before that he was the state’s attorney general and a member of the state House of Delegates.
(The Daily Press newspaper in Newport News, Va., contributed to this report.)

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

U.S. Won’t Stop Native Americans From Growing, Selling Pot On Their Lands

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Opening the door for what could be a lucrative and controversial new industry on some Native American reservations, the Justice Department on Thursday will tell U.S. attorneys to not prevent tribes from growing or selling marijuana on the sovereign lands, even in states that ban the practice.

The new guidance, released in a memorandum, will be implemented on a case-by-case basis and tribes must still follow federal guidelines, said Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota and the chairman of the Attorney General’s Subcommittee on Native American Issues.

It remains to be seen how many reservations will take advantage of the policy. Many tribes are opposed to legalizing pot on their lands, and federal officials will continue to enforce the law in those areas, if requested.

Representatives for several of the largest tribes could not be reached for comment.

The policy comes on the heels of the 2013 Justice Department decision to stop most federal marijuana prosecutions in states that have legalized the possession or sale of pot. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have all moved to legalize the drug, though the D.C. law may be scaled back by Congress.

Some tribes see marijuana sales as a potential source of revenue, similar to cigarette sales and casino gambling, which have brought a financial boon to reservations across the country. Others, including the Yakama Reservation in Washington state, remain strongly opposed to the sale or use of marijuana on their lands.

Purdon said in an interview that the majority of Native American tribes, mindful of the painful legacy of alcohol abuse in their communities, appear to be against allowing marijuana use on their territory.

The federal government will continue to legally support those tribes that wish to ban marijuana, even in states that now permit its sale, Purdon said.

But the Justice Department will generally not attempt to enforce federal marijuana laws on federally recognized tribes that choose to allow it, as long as they meet eight federal guidelines, including that marijuana not be sold to minors and not be transported to areas that prohibit it.

“The tribes have the sovereign right to set the code on their reservations,” Purdon said.

John Walsh, the U.S. attorney for Colorado, said a primary purpose of the memorandum to be released Thursday is to assure U.S. attorney offices and tribes that despite the changes in Justice Department policy announced last year, federal prosecutors still have the authority to prosecute marijuana felonies on tribal lands.

In many cases, federal prosecutors are the only ones permitted by law to prosecute marijuana felonies on tribal lands.

Walsh said that the new memorandum, like the one issued for states last year, emphasizes that states or reservations must have “robust and effective regulatory systems in place” and that federal prosecutors reserve the right to take broader enforcement actions.

The policy is likely to be criticized in states opposed to marijuana sales, particularly those with Native American reservations.

Kevin A. Sabet, an opponent of marijuana legalization and former adviser on drug issues to President Barack Obama, called the policy an “extremely troubling development.”

“It once again sends a message that we really don’t care about federal drug laws,” he said.

Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida, said, “Native Americans and their families suffer disproportionately from addiction compared to other groups. The last thing they want is another commercialized industry that targets them for greater use.”

(Times staff writer Hugo Martin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

AFP Photo/Desiree Martin

Eric Holder To Announce Broader Ban On Racial, Ethnic, Other Profiling

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Monday will unveil its new policy expanding a ban on federal law enforcement officers’ use of profiling in investigations.

The revised guidelines will broaden a 2003 prohibition on religious or ethnic profiling. The policy will bar profiling based on religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, as the Los Angeles Times reported Friday.

For the first time, the policy will also apply to local law enforcement officers participating in federal task forces.

But the policy will not apply to Border Patrol officers working “in the vicinity of the border,” nor the Transportation Security Administration and other officers working at airports. The Secret Service will not be covered either.

The new policy was described by a Justice Department official as one of Attorney Genera Eric Holder’s “signature accomplishments,” which he pushed hard to finalize before his planned departure early next year.

“As attorney general, I have repeatedly made clear that profiling by law enforcement is not only wrong, it is profoundly misguided and ineffective – because it wastes precious resources and undermines the public trust,” Holder said in a statement to be released Monday.

“Particularly in light of certain recent incidents we’ve seen at the local level – and the widespread concerns about trust in the criminal justice process which so many have raised throughout the nation – it’s imperative that we take every possible action to institute strong and sound policing practices,” Holder said.

He was alluding to incidents in New York and Ferguson, Mo., in which unarmed black men died during encounters with white police officers. Those deaths have led to protests across the nation.

The Justice official said that Holder intends to “aggressively” impose the changes and that the attorney general hopes they become a model for state and local authorities. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the policy before its official announcement.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said the exclusions for certain Border Patrol and TSA activities did not mean that profiling would be freely allowed, but that it would be permissible to rely in part on the banned characteristics “because of the unique nature of border and transportation security.”

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

NSA Surveillance Bill Defeated In Senate

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Legislation to keep most Americans’ phone records out of government hands was defeated in the Senate on Tuesday, dooming at least for now prospects of national security reforms that supporters said would protect the privacy of law-abiding citizens.

A motion failed to get the necessary 60 votes needed to cut off debate on the bill sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., with most Republicans voting against. The final vote was 58 in favor to 42 against.

One of its most outspoken foes was incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said stopping the National Security Agency from collecting telephone dialing records “would end one of our nation’s critical capabilities to gather significant intelligence on terrorist threats.”

Citing the recent beheadings of U.S. citizens in Syria, McConnell said, “This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs.”

Born of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations that the NSA was secretly archiving data from virtually every telephone call made in the United States, the Leahy bill, dubbed the USA Freedom Act, would have required the NSA to request such records from telephone companies rather than collect and store the information itself.

Except in emergencies, U.S. intelligence agencies and the FBI would have had to seek approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to access and use the data, and only in cases involving suspected terrorism or espionage. A similar procedure is used now to access the NSA database, but critics say that current system is open to abuse.

“The bill contains key reforms to safeguard Americans’ privacy by prohibiting the indiscriminate collection of their data,” Leahy argued. “It also provides for greater accountability and transparency of the government’s surveillance programs.”

At issue are telephone company records of customers and the phone numbers they have dialed, including date, time and duration of calls, but not the conversations themselves.

Privacy advocates vowed to keep fighting to limit government access to telephone records. Some key provisions of the USA Patriot Act _ the post 9-11 law that authorized collection of the phone records — expire in June, when the congressional fight over privacy is likely to resume.

After Republicans take control of the Senate in January, it will be difficult to make changes as broad as those proposed by Leahy. But House Republicans have been more favorable to privacy concerns, and advocates hope they will continue to push.

Republican opposition came from both sides of the debate. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is expected to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, voted against the bill because he said it did not do enough to protect individuals’ privacy.

But former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who both served under President George W. Bush, wrote in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal that Leahy’s bill was “exquisitely crafted to hobble the gathering of electronic intelligence.”

After the House passed a weaker version in May, Leahy organized negotiations that brought together the intelligence agencies and civil liberties groups. They produced a compromise bill in July that had the support of the Obama administration and technology companies.

After the defeat, Leahy vowed to try again. “This lifelong Vermonter will not give up the fight,” he said. He went on to castigate opponents who he said “went at this issue by fomenting fear and doing it at the last minute.”

With his voice rising in emotion, Leahy recalled that someone had died from touching mail addressed to him in the anthrax-laced letter attacks of 2001. But the constitution is worth more than the life of one person or one senator, he said.

“This is more than one senator, more than one person. This is the Constitution of the U.S. and if we do not protect our Constitution we do not protect our country,” Leahy said.

Photo via Talk Radio News Service/Flickr

Obama’s Best Chance To Influence The Judiciary May Be Passing

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — When 41-year-old gay rights lawyer Michelle Friedland was confirmed by the Senate in April to the federal bench in San Francisco, Democrats cheered that a liberal woman would become the youngest federal appeals court judge in the nation.

But when a restrictive Wisconsin voter-identification requirement was allowed to go into effect in September after the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago deadlocked 5 to 5, Democrats winced. The law — later blocked by the Supreme Court — would presumably have been invalidated at the appellate court if President Barack Obama had succeeded in filling a vacancy there now nearly 5 years old.

With Republicans striving to seize control of the Senate in Tuesday’s election, Obama’s first six years in office may mark the peak of his influence on the judiciary, including the appointment of two Supreme Court justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Legal experts say it’s a record of unprecedented achievements in judicial diversity. Women make up 42 percent of his confirmed nominees, more than double the average of his five predecessors combined, while African-Americans make up 18 percent and Latinos 6 percent. Eleven openly gay judges now serve where there was only one.

“It’s been quite an impressive record,” said Sheldon Goldman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who studies judicial nominations. “A large majority of his appointments — approximately 60 percent — have gone to nontraditional candidates, people who are not white males.”

Supporters are heartened that his most recent appointments, such as Friedland and Pamela Harris — confirmed to the appeals court in Richmond, Va. — have had more progressive views and records compared with his early choices.

And they are gratified that Democrats now hold a majority on nine of the 13 appeals courts, including the crucial District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. Democrats had the majority on only three appeals courts when Obama came to office.

But there is also a lingering disappointment that it took the Obama administration several years to prioritize judicial nominations, making it harder to catch up with vacancies.

Despite a flurry of nominations over the last year — which came after Senate rules were changed to make confirmations easier — there are still 63 judicial vacancies, 10 more than when Obama took office. He nominated fewer than half as many judges in his first year as President George W. Bush did.

“It was a slow start, but once they got rolling and put some muscle behind the nominees, they started to get some people through,” said Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society, a liberal legal group. “Originally the priority was on getting the Affordable Care Act through and the nominations process took a back seat.”

Some suggested that the goal of diversity complicated the process early on.

“There is no question that diversity has been a high priority for the administration and that’s reflected in the diversity score card, but it also accounts for a lot of the slowness in the nominations, especially in the early years,” said Ed Whelan, a conservative legal analyst. Whelan said the difficulty in coming up with the right balance of minority candidates made for slow going on nominations.

A White House official who would not be identified speaking about personnel matters said that in its first two years the administration was occupied by the selection and confirmation of Sotomayor and Kagan.

Some liberals think Obama’s unwillingness to spend political capital on confirming judges in his early years led to the appointment of more moderates, particularly when compared with Bush’s record. Karl Rove, Bush’s deputy chief of staff, made the selection of judicial conservatives a priority from the start of Bush’s presidency.

Until Kathryn Ruemmler became White House counsel in 2011, no top official in the Obama White House made judges a priority, liberals complain.

But Obama also faced implacable opposition from Republicans, who frequently used filibusters to block even his uncontroversial nominees. Adding to the difficulties was Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy’s strict interpretation of arcane committee traditions, which effectively granted veto power over nominations to home-state senators.

Last November, Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster rule for most judicial nominees, allowing them to approve dozens of nominations by a simple majority vote and freeing Obama to look for more liberal nominees.

But because Leahy, a fellow Democrat, allowed any home-state senator to block a nominee from committee consideration, the logjam was broken only in the 19 states with two Democratic senators. Often Obama has declined to nominate judges in states with Republican senators, leaving seven crucial appeals court seats, including the one on the 7th Circuit in Chicago, without a nominee.

“It is the responsibility on the part of the president to at least get a nominee in front of the Senate,” said former Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., a critic of delays by both parties in filling judicial vacancies. “It seems to me the White House has an obligation to put greater pressure on the senators to move nominations forward.”

Democrats will attempt to push 25 more Obama nominees through the lame-duck Senate session that will start Nov. 12, but 27 more judges have announced they are leaving. That means total vacancies at the start of the year are likely to rise again slightly — to 65.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell Found Guilty In Corruption Trial

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was convicted Thursday of doing favors for a Florida businessman in return for $177,000 in cash, loans, and gifts, according to media reports.

After 17 hours of deliberation, the jury of seven men and five women convicted Bob and Maureen McDonnell on multiple counts of corruption and conspiracy, rejecting a defense that at times made the five-week trial seem like a politics-themed soap opera.

McDonnell said he and his wife could not have conspired to defraud the citizens of Virginia because their marriage was in tatters, they barely talked and she was mentally unwell. Instead, she was said to be obsessed with the businessman, Jonnie Williams, a longtime purveyor of health supplements.

Jurors also rejected another key tenet of the defense argument. While McDonnell conceded that it had been unwise to accept gifts such as $19,000 in clothes for his wife, Maureen, a $6,500 watch and $25,000 in wedding presents for his daughters, his attorneys maintained that Williams got nothing of value in return other than a couple of meetings with state officials and two events to showcase his products at the governor’s mansion.

U.S. District Court Judge James R. Spencer’s instructions to the jury on this point are likely to be the focus of an appeal that legal commentators said might get a serious hearing from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond where the trial was held. Defense attorneys had maintained that McDonnell could be convicted only for performing “official acts” outlined in state laws or regulations, not sending emails or holding a reception on Williams’ behalf.

McDonnell, a Republican whose mantra of fiscal responsibility was mocked by prosecutors who depicted him juggling credit card debt and asking Williams for loans, was governor from 2010 until just before his indictment this year. Virginia governors are limited to a single term.

Previously he served as the state’s attorney general and as a state delegate.

This story has been updated.

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

Former Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell Faces Cross-Examination At Trial

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau

RICHMOND, Va. — Government prosecutors got their first chance to cross-examine former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on Monday, suggesting that his dire need for cash was the driving force behind his questionable relationship with a local millionaire.

McDonnell has insisted that his financial problems have been overstated, testifying last week that he did not need the $50,000 loan that health supplement manufacturer Jonnie Williams made to McDonnell’s wife in 2011, and that he was upset when he learned of it.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry painted a picture of the McDonnells’ increasingly strained finances, quizzing the one-time rising Republican star about a series of credit card transactions in which McDonnell was forced to juggle balances from one account to another, sometimes paying fees of as much as $400 each time.

Dry also portrayed McDonnell as sounding increasingly desperate in a string of emails between him and family members about how to cover a shortage of funds to pay expenses for two Virginia Beach rental properties and a $1,001 monthly payment on a loan from a friend to cover previous shortfalls at the rental houses.

The issue of the McDonnells’ finances is important because the prosecution is trying to build a case that Bob and Maureen McDonnell urgently needed Williams’ assistance.

The couple is charged with 14 counts of conspiracy and defrauding the citizens of Virginia for allegedly helping Williams get publicity for his products and introducing him to state officials who could conduct government research on his products. In return, prosecutors say, Williams provided loans and gifts to the couple and their children.

Dry started his long-awaited cross-examination with a staccato series of questions that each began, “You don’t deny,” listing at least a dozen gifts or loans from Williams to McDonnell or his family.

“No,” the onetime vice presidential hopeful responded to many of the questions. In one exchange, Dry noted that six minutes after McDonnell emailed Williams to ask for money, he sent another email to his policy adviser asking about the possibility of Virginia universities studying Williams’ product.

Last week, McDonnell insisted that his wife was responsible for most of the contacts with Williams. He has also said their marriage has long been troubled, suggesting they could not have conspired together because their relationship was so poor.

On Monday, Dry seemed to question that characterization by displaying recent photographs that showed the couple holding hands and walking close to one another.

McDonnell’s demeanor was markedly different than it was during three days of questioning from his own lawyer last week, when he appeared comfortable and confident.

On Monday, McDonnell started off quiet and subdued, so much so that Judge James R. Spencer twice ordered him to speak up and answer the questions.

McDonnell wore a conservative dark gray suit and blue Jos. A. Bank tie — “my designer,” he quipped to a reporter during a break, referring to the mid-range men’s clothing chain. He was apparently seeking to emphasize his modest taste in clothes contrasted with his wife Maureen, who accepted from Williams $19,000 in designer clothes plus a gown for her daughter’s wedding.

Dry succeeded in demonstrating that the two Virginia Beach rental properties McDonnell bought with his sister at the height of the housing bubble were a constant headache. Even during the pressures of the legislative session, the governor was preoccupied with such details as finding cash to pay a pest-management company for “a serious bed bug problem” and finding an inexpensive Bocce set to make the house more attractive to renters.

McDonnell struggled to refinance his mortgages — which eventually were greater than the properties’ values — as well as a $50,000 high-interest loan from a friend.

McDonnell agreed under questioning that he and his sister faced an annual shortfall of $40,000 to $60,000 from the rental houses, which they had to scramble to cover every year.

While he was in the middle of such a scramble in 2011, Williams came into their financial lives. Williams was promoting his new dietary supplement, Anatabloc. McDonnell was in his second year in office.

Williams befriended Maureen McDonnell and eventually the governor, lending the couple $120,000 to pay off credit card debt that at one point reached $70,000, and to help them cover expenses for the rental properties.

Williams paid for clothes, golfing trips, and equipment, the use of expensive cars, a boat, and his airplane, and numerous other items that prosecutors say were worth $177,000 when combined with the loans.

Dry attempted to demonstrate a link between the gifts and McDonnell’s efforts to help Williams’ business.

Dry’s cross examination is expected to continue Tuesday.

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

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Supreme Court Blocks Ruling That Would Have Allowed Gay Marriages In Virginia

By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked a court order that would have allowed gay marriages in Virginia to begin Thursday, adding to the likelihood the justices will decide the issue themselves in the coming term.

The brief order by the court contained no explanation for its rationale, but it was not a surprise because the court had previously blocked a similar ruling that would have allowed gay marriages in Utah.

There has been a drumbeat of federal court decisions ruling that state laws banning same-sex marriages are unconstitutional, putting pressure on the justices to decide the issue. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and effectively reinstated gay marriage in California but stopped short of saying all states had to allow gays to marry.

On July 28, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond by a 2-1 vote said, “Denying same-sex couples this choice prohibits them from participating fully in our society, which is precisely the type of segregation that the 14th Amendment cannot countenance.”

That court subsequently refused to stop its ruling from going into effect pending appeal. Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group representing a Virginia county court clerk opposed to implementing the ruling, asked the justices to intervene.

Allowing marriages to proceed before the issue is resolved “would invite needless chaos and uncertainty rather than facilitate the orderly and dignified resolution of a constitutional question of enormous national importance,” the group said.

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring, a Democrat, had refused to defend the law. But he told the justices Monday he agreed they should “stay” the 4th Circuit ruling and urged them to expedite a final ruling.

The justices could decide as soon as September to put the issue on their docket for a ruling by June 2015.

Photo: Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia Commons