Last Week’s Top Stories

Politics

RACHEL LEVINE CONFIRMED AS ASSISTANT SECRETARY AT HHS

The Senate confirmed Rachel Levine as the new assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Wednesday by a vote of 52-48, with Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski joining Democrats and Independents in support.

Levine, the former Health Secretary of Pennsylvania, faced heavy opposition from Republicans who questioned her response to the coronavirus pandemic in her home state.

Said Sen. Richard Burr, “Along with the testing challenges from last spring, your state failed to adequately protect nursing home residents from the virus, and is making unacceptable mistakes in the vaccine distribution process. Pennsylvania ranks as one of the most dangerous states for long-term care residents battling COVID-19.”

Others, however, called her a “trusted voice” for Pennsylvanias and noted her pedigree.

Levine is a Harvard-educated pediatrician and former Pennsylvania physician general who was confirmed as Health Secretary by the Republican-majority Pennsylvania Senate in 2017 and became president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) in 2020. She also serves as a professor at the Penn State College of Medicine.

Said Sen. Bob Casey, “Dr. Levine is the kind of crisis-tested leader our nation needs. Throughout her long career in medicine and public service, she has demonstrated her deep knowledge of health care and public health and her skills as a manager. I was proud to vote to confirm her.”

With the vote, Levine becomes the first transgender federal official to be confirmed by the Senate.

Said Sen. Chuck Schumer, “As transgender Americans suffer higher rates of abuse, homelessness, and depression than almost every other group, it’s important to have national figures like Dr. Levine who, by virtue of being in the public spotlight, will help break down barriers of ignorance and fear.”

NEW YORK LAWMAKERS REACH DEAL TO LEGALIZE RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA

New York State lawmakers reached an agreement Saturday to legalize sales of recreational marijuana.

The deal would:

  • Legalize recreational marijuana sales to adults over the age of 21.
  • Establish a licensing process.
  • Allow New Yorkers to grow up to three mature and three immature plants for personal consumption.
  • Set a 9% sales tax on cannabis, an additional 4% tax split between the county and local government, and a third tax that would be imposed based on the level of THC, ranging from 0.5 cents per milligram for flower to 3 cents per milligram for edibles.
  • Dedicate 40% of revenue to reinvestment in communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, with 40% to schools and public education, and 20% to drug treatment, prevention, and education.
  • Establish equity programs providing loans, grants, and incubator programs to ensure broad opportunities for participation in the new legal industry by minority communities, small farmers, women, and disabled veterans, with 50% of licenses going to equity applicants.
  • Eliminate penalties for possession of less than three ounces of cannabis.
  • Automatically expunge the records of people with previous convictions for activities that are no longer criminalized.

It is estimated that legalization could eventually bring the state roughly $350 million annually.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on the bill Tuesday.

DOMINION VOTING SYSTEMS FILES DEFAMATION LAWSUIT AGAINST FOX NEWS

Fox News is facing a new defamation lawsuit, this time from Dominion Voting Systems, as the election technology company filed suit Friday over the news outlet’s role in spreading false claims of election rigging.

Dominion requested a jury trial and is seeking $1.6 billion in damages, to include the loss of major contracts with election officials in Georgia and Louisiana.

Wrote the company’s attorneys in their complaint, “The truth matters. Lies have consequences. Fox sold a false story of election fraud in order to serve its own commercial purposes, severely injuring Dominion in the process. If this case does not rise to the level of defamation by a broadcaster, then nothing does.”

In a separate lawsuit, Sidney Powell’s attorneys argued that “no reasonable person” would have accepted her claims as fact — an argument that Dominion’s attorneys see as helpful in their lawsuit against Fox.

Said Thomas Clare, one of the company’s attorneys, “Fox knew these were lies, but they made a deliberate decision to spread them to their enormous audience.”

Responded Fox, “Fox News Media is proud of our 2020 election coverage, which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism, and we will vigorously defend against this baseless lawsuit in court.”

Read the complaint in full here.

Coronavirus

US HEALTH OFFICIALS QUESTION ASTRAZENECA TRIAL RESULTS

In a trial involving more than 32,000 participants, the AstraZeneca vaccine was found to be 79 percent effective in preventing symptomatic infection, the company announced in a news release Monday.

A monitoring board of medical experts, however, accused AstraZeneca in a two-page letter of cherry-picking data. The efficacy, they claim, is closer to 69-74 percent than it is to 79, and AstraZeneca’s use of “outdated data” serves to “erode public trust in the scientific process.”

AstraZeneca, the Data and Safety Monitoring Board says, did not include newly classified COVID-19 cases or updated data in their release, which served to skew the efficacy rate.

This prompted the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to release a statement, which reads in part:

“Late Monday, the Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB) notified NIAID, BARDA, and AstraZeneca that it was concerned by information released by AstraZeneca on initial data from its COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial. The DSMB expressed concern that AstraZeneca may have included outdated information from that trial, which may have provided an incomplete view of the efficacy data. We urge the company to work with the DSMB to review the efficacy data and ensure the most accurate, up-to-date efficacy data be made public as quickly as possible.”

AstraZeneca said in response that their interim results were “consistent” with the updated data but that it would share said data with the monitoring board and reissue fuller results within 48 hours. 

On Wednesday, AstraZeneca released that update, claiming a 76 percent efficacy rate against symptomatic COVID and 100 percent efficacy against hospitalizations and deaths.

JOBLESS CLAIMS AT LOWEST POINT SINCE PANDEMIC BEGAN

According to a Labor Department report, initial claims for unemployment benefits fell by 100,000 to 657,000 — their lowest weekly level in the last year.

Moving forward in the second quarter, Bank of America expects the economy to gain an average of 950,000 jobs per month, which would lower the jobless rate to 4.7 percent by summer, down from a high of 14.8 in April of 2020 and down from 6.2 percent last month.

Additionally, the bank is raising prior estimates by half a percentage point, now forecasting a 7 percent increase in economic output this year and a 5.5 percent increase next.

“Stronger economic growth is largely a function of the stimulus, with a meaningful increase in consumer spending. All this should lead to an impressive amount of job creation in the coming months,” Michelle Meyer, the bank’s chief U.S. economist, said, adding, “Obviously, the decline in jobless claims is encouraging, and other forward-looking indicators like manufacturing surveys and credit card spending are supporting the expectations for stronger growth.”

Said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, “Weekly numbers have been choppy but we’ve been on a downward trend since mid-January. As more business owners see a reopening will come, they are more willing to hang on to staff.”

National News

TEN PEOPLE KILLED IN GROCERY STORE SHOOTING

Ten people, including a police officer, were killed when 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa opened fire, first in the parking lot and then inside a Boulder, Colo. grocery store.

The mass shooting was Colorado’s worst since a gunman killed 12 and injured 70 in an Aurora movie theater in 2012.

Officer Eric Talley had been one of the first to arrive and rushed inside the entrance, where he was fatally shot in the head.

Said witness and nearby resident Mark Naughton, “They didn’t hesitate at all. I couldn’t believe how brave they were. They sprinted right in.”

According to Boulder Police, no other customers or employees were shot once police engaged the gunman.

After an armored vehicle rammed into the storefront, shattering its windows, and SWAT team members descended on the building, the gunman, who was now bleeding heavily from a gunshot wound to his thigh, surrendered and asked for his mother.

Alissa has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder, with additional charges pending.

Though there is currently no known motive, Alissa’s attorneys said in court Thursday that they needed time to “assess the nature and depth of (his) mental illness.”

Remembering the victims: Denny Stong, 20; Rikki Olds, 25; Nevan Stanisic, 23; Officer Talley, 51; Tralona Bartkowiak, 49; Teri Leiker, 51; Suzanne Fountain, 59; Kevin Mahoney, 61; Lynn Murray, 62; and Jody Waters, 65.

MAN WITH SIX FIREARMS ARRESTED AT ATLANTA GROCERY STORE, TWO DAYS AFTER BOULDER SHOOTING

A 22-year-old man armed with multiple guns was arrested at an Atlanta grocery store Wednesday after a customer overheard “clicking sounds” coming from a bathroom stall, saw an AR-15-style rifle leaning against the wall, and quickly alerted staff.

When police arrived, they found Rico Marley, clad in body armor, with six loaded firearms: four handguns, an AR-15-style rifle, and a shotgun.

According to a news release from the Atlanta Police Department, Marley has been charged with five counts of criminal attempt of aggravated assault and six counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

FORMER HEAD OF NEW YORK’S LARGEST HOMELESS ORGANIZATION ARRESTED ON BRIBERY CHARGES

Victor Rivera, the former president and founder of the Bronx Parent Housing Network, was arrested Wednesday on charges of conspiracy, honest services wire fraud, and money laundering.

Rivera, prosecutors allege, enriched himself by accepting bribes from companies doing work for his organization, laundering the bribe money through entities he controlled, and using it to pay down his mortgage.

Rivera has pleaded not guilty.

Rivera also faces a separate criminal inquiry pertaining to allegations that he sexually assaulted or harassed at least 10 women, some of whom were homeless women staying in his shelters.

According to an investigation by The New York Times, Bronx Parent Housing Network paid two employees a total of $175,000 to settle complaints over Rivera’s sexual behavior — settlements that prohibited them from speaking publicly about their allegations.

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TO PAY $1.1 BILLION IN SETTLEMENTS TO VICTIMS OF CAMPUS GYNECOLOGIST

In a record sex abuse payout, the University of Southern California announced Thursday that it will pay more than $1.1 billion across three sets of settlements to the patients of a former campus gynecologist who is accused of sexually abusing hundreds.

A 2018 federal class action yielded $215 million for its victims, a second group of several dozen cases settled for an undisclosed amount, and a third settlement was reached for $852 million across 700 plaintiffs.

Said Ja’Mesha Morgan, one of the plaintiffs who is now an attorney, “On one hand, it really exemplifies the gravity of what Tyndall’s survivors had to experience, and really set in stone our truth as to what occurred. But it’s also a really grueling reminder of the price tag U.S.C. was willing to put on our safety and our mental health.”

“It is by far the largest sexual settlement ever,” Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, said, adding, “It’s a recognition of suffering, and it’s a pretty stunning mea culpa. When you’re talking about this quantum of money, it’s an admission of liability. An admission that there were hundreds of cases where the university had knowledge or without much diligence could have known what was going on, and failed to put an end to it.”

The allegations at issue were first brought to the university’s attention in the 1990s, but U.S.C. did not suspend the doctor from his job until 2016.

Dr. George Tyndall was eventually arrested in 2019 and was charged with 29 counts of sexual assault involving 16 women.

Tyndall has pleaded not guilty and is free on bond.

World News

NORTH KOREA LAUNCHES TWO BALLISTIC MISSILES

North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast Thursday, marking the first such test in a year and the first significant provocation against the United States under President Biden.

According to North Korean officials, its military hit a target 373 miles away using a newly developed solid-fuel missile that could perform “gliding and pull-up” maneuvers in low-altitude flight.

The launch defied the United Nations Security Council’s ban on ballistic missile tests by North Korea and came on the heels of U.S. officials dismissing an earlier test as “normal military activity.”

Said senior director of Korean studies Harry J. Kazianis, “This latest North Korean missile launch is most likely a reaction to U.S. President Joe Biden’s downplaying and seeming to laugh off their weekend missile tests. The Kim regime, just like during the Trump years, will react to even the slightest of what they feel are any sort of loss of face or disparaging comments coming out of Washington.”

MYANMAR FORCES KILL OVER 100 IN DEADLIEST DAY SINCE COUP

Myanmar soldiers and police killed in excess of 100 people Saturday in the deadliest day since the Feb. 1 coup.

In a joint statement, the defense chiefs of 12 countries said, “A professional military follows international standards for conduct and is responsible for protecting — not harming — the people it serves. We urge the Myanmar Armed Forces to cease violence and work to restore respect and credibility with the people of Myanmar that it has lost through its actions.”

Said U.S. Ambassador Thomas Vajda in a statement, “On Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day, security forces are murdering unarmed civilians, including children, the very people they swore to protect. This bloodshed is horrifying. These are not the actions of a professional military or police force. Myanmar’s people have spoken clearly: they do not want to live under military rule. We call for an immediate end to the violence and the restoration of the democratically elected government.”

According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, there have been 459 deaths since the start of the coup.

INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES WARN OF POTENTIAL TALIBAN TAKEOVER OF AFGHANISTAN

Facing a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of the last 3,500 American troops, President Biden is mulling classified intelligence predicting that the Taliban could take over much of Afghanistan within two to three years if U.S. troops leave before a power-sharing deal is reached, potentially allowing for the rebirth of al Qaeda.

Former President Donald Trump had pushed for a withdrawal of all forces, even before the terms of the peace deal required it, but U.S. officials point to the intelligence assessment as a reason to prolong the mission.

Others, however, remain skeptical about an al Qaeda or ISIS resurgence.

Said former C.I.A. analyst Lisa Maddox, “I can’t imagine a scenario where ISIS and the Taliban would strategically cooperate or collaborate in Afghanistan. The Taliban is an ideological organization, and that ideology is Afghan-centric and not aligned with ISIS’ overarching goals.”

Said Representative Adam Smith, “What is that threat really going to be? This isn’t the 1990s when Al Qaeda set up camps, and they had the Taliban and no one was paying attention to them.”

Still, a Taliban takeover could prove detrimental to the cause for women’s rights in the region.

As Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council this week, “Any agreement must preserve [women’s] gains if Afghanistan wants to ensure the international community’s continued political and financial support. We will not give an inch on this point.”

The Taliban, for their part, said via spokesman Friday that the group was committed to the peace agreement “and wants the American side to also remain firmly committed.” If troops are not withdrawn by the deadline, the spokesman pledged, the Taliban would resume “its jihad and armed struggle against foreign forces.”

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