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Updated: 57 min 33 sec ago

State signs deal with Tokyo Gas as it seeks buyers for Alaska LNG

Tue, 2017-12-05 12:28

The state gas line corporation has signed an agreement with Tokyo Gas that makes it a potential buyer of Alaska gas, adding enthusiasm to the state's plans to develop a $43 billion gas project with help from the Chinese.

Keith Meyer, president of the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., said Monday the agency had signed the nonbinding "letter of intent" with the company in Tokyo earlier in the day.

The agreement expresses Tokyo Gas' interest in buying liquefied natural gas from the proposed Alaska LNG project, Meyer said. The large Japanese utility also has the opportunity to explore other ways to support the Alaska LNG project, which is currently looking for investment partners.

The megaproject, requiring the building of massive facilities including an 800-mile pipeline, lacks funding for construction. It isn't expected to begin production until at least 2024, if it's ever built.

State gas line officials have made trips to Asia to find investors and gas buyers who would receive tankers of liquefied gas, using gas sourced from the giant North Slope fields.

The state agency last month signed an important but nonbinding deal with major Chinese-owned entities, including oil and gas company Sinopec, that could allow the foreign firms to provide financing for 75 percent of the project while receiving 75 percent of the project's gas.

The gas line corporation has envisioned selling the remaining 25 percent of the gas elsewhere in Asia.

That's where Tokyo Gas might come in, possibly buying much of the gas sold by the state, Meyer said. Meyer provided some details about the agreement with state lawmakers at a project update Monday night before the Alaska House Resources Committee.

Meyer said the agency will not release the agreement because it could provide an advantage to competitors pursuing other gas projects outside Alaska that don't release their nonbinding agreements.

Meyer said the administration of Gov. Bill Walker, not the gas line agency, chose to publicly release the agreement with the Chinese entities.

[Read the Alaska-China gas line agreement]

Larry Persily, former federal coordinator for Alaska gas pipeline projects under President Barack Obama, said the agreement with Tokyo Gas is a good thing to have in the agency's file.

But he added it doesn't change underlying issues that must be resolved for the project to advance, including firm commitments for financing and investment, and regulatory approval for the project.

"You'll want a thick folder of potential customers to turn to and strike deals with, but we have a ways to go before that happens," Persily said.

Tokyo Gas has purchased LNG from a privately operated plant in Nikiski along Cook Inlet for more than four decades. The plant was the world's largest when built in 1969, but is small by today's standards and hasn't shipped a tanker-load of gas since 2015. ConocoPhillips has put it up for sale.

A statement from the agency quoted Tokyo Gas president Michiaki Hirose as saying Alaska has long been a "trusted source" of LNG.

"As the closest source of North American LNG to Japan, with a shipping time of as little as seven days point to point, Alaska LNG is naturally an economic and reliable source of LNG" for the company, the statement said.

Hirose traveled to Juneau in August and discussed the project with Walker and other state officials. Lieza Wilcox, an AGDC vice president, was in Tokyo on Monday to complete the agreement, Meyer told lawmakers.

Japanese entities have taken steps to get in line for Alaska's North Slope gas before. In 2014, the state under then-Gov. Sean Parnell signed a nonbinding agreement with Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry as the ministry sought to ensure that Japanese entities could buy gas at good prices from a stable region.

That agreement also involved Alaska LNG, though the project then was led by ExxonMobil. The oil giant and the state's other previous partners that own most of the gas for the project, BP and ConocoPhillips, backed out of Alaska LNG late last year over concerns it wasn't competitive with other LNG projects around the world.

Supreme Court seems divided in case of baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple

Tue, 2017-12-05 12:00

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court seemed closely divided Tuesday over whether the First Amendment protects a Colorado baker from creating a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy likely to cast the deciding vote.

Kennedy, who wrote the court's 5 to 4 decision in 2015 saying gay couples have a constitutional right to marry, speculated about what might happen if a decision in baker Jack C. Phillips's favor prompted requests for bakers across the country to refuse to make cakes for same-sex couples. Would the federal government feel vindicated? Kennedy asked.

On the flip side, just moments later, Kennedy sharply questioned Colorado Solicitor General Frederick R. Yarger. The justice seemed offended by a comment made during the deliberations of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission when one commissioner said: "And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others."

At one point, Kennedy and some conservative justices raised the possibility that the proceedings against baker Jack C. Phillips had been infected by bias.

The rest of the court seemed to line up as expected. Liberal justices worried that an exception for Phillips would gut public accommodations laws that require businesses to serve the public without discriminating because of race, gender, religion and, in the case of Colorado and more than 20 other states, sexual orientation.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the court did not want to "undermine every single civil rights law."

The court's conservatives were concerned with what Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said was a "disturbing record" from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals, which ruled against Phillips.

That raised the possibility that the case could be returned. But they also seemed sympathetic to Phillips's argument that, as a "cake artist," the law violates his freedom of expression to create a custom cake for a same-sex wedding. His religious beliefs teach that marriage is only between a man and a woman.

David D. Cole, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, acknowledged there were complicated issues, but they did not apply to Phillips' decision that he would not create a cake for the couple.

"All he knew was that they were gay," Cole said.

Several of the liberal justices questioned what other types of business owners would be exempt if the court made an exception for Phillips.

"Who else is an artist?" asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

What about a hair stylist, a chef or a makeup artist, asked Justice Elena Kagan.

Phillips's attorney, Kristen K. Waggoner, distinguished between the baker's highly-stylized, sculpted creations and the services provided by other professions that she said were "not speech."

"Some people might say that about cakes," responded Kagan.

The Trump administration filed a brief on behalf of Phillips; supporters of the couple said it was the first time the government has argued for an exemption to an anti-discrimination law.

But the government agreed with Phillips that his cakes are a form of expression and that he cannot be compelled to use his talents for something that he does not support.

U.S. Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco, representing the Trump administration, told the court Tuesday that the exemption should apply only to a narrow category of business owners who should not be forced to create or contribute to an event they disagree with on the basis of their religious beliefs.

He repeatedly used as an analogy an African American artist, who he said should not be compelled to sculpt a cross that would be used for a Ku Klux Klan service.

When asked where to draw the line, he said the justices should ask whether the creation is "predominantly expressive" in its purpose and whether customers are paying a premium for it.

That prompted a lighthearted retort from Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who noted that high-priced wedding cakes rarely taste as good as they look.

It was to Francisco that Kennedy posed his question about whether the baker could post a sign in the window notifying potential customers that the shop does not make cakes for same-sex couples and asked whether that would be "an affront to the gay community."

Phillips contends that dual guarantees in the First Amendment – for free speech and for the free exercise of religion – protect him against Colorado's public accommodations law, which requires businesses to serve customers equally regardless of "disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry."

Scattered across the country, florists, bakers, photographers and others have claimed that being forced to offer their wedding services to same-sex couples violates their rights. Courts have routinely turned down the business owners – as the Colorado Court of Appeals did in the Phillips case, saying that state anti-discrimination laws require businesses that are open to the public to treat all potential customers equally.

There's no dispute about what triggered the court case in 2012, when same-sex marriage was still prohibited in Colorado (Alito and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wondered whether that prohibition was significant). Craig and David Mullins decided to get married in Massachusetts, where it was legal. They would return to Denver for a reception, and those helping with the plans suggested they get a cake from Masterpiece.

The couple arrived with Craig's mother and a book of ideas, but Phillips cut short the meeting as soon as he learned the cake was to celebrate the couple's marriage.

Phillips recalled: "Our conversation was just about 20 seconds long. 'Sorry guys, I don't make cakes for same-sex weddings.'"

The couple then learned that Colorado's public accommodations law specifically prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, and they filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The commission ruled against Phillips, and the appeals court upheld the decision.

"Masterpiece remains free to continue espousing its religious beliefs, including its opposition to same-sex marriage," Judge Daniel M. Taubman wrote. "However, if it wishes to operate as a public accommodation and conduct business within the State of Colorado, [the law] prohibits it from picking and choosing customers based on their sexual orientation."

The case is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Trump administration claims drop in border arrests is proof of crackdown on illegal immigration

Tue, 2017-12-05 11:43

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration claimed victory on Tuesday in its crackdown on illegal immigration during its first several months, announcing that the number of arrests at the border dropped to the lowest in nearly a half-century as proof that its deterrence efforts have been effective.

Border Patrol agents arrested 310,531 people trying to enter the country illegally during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a 25 percent decrease from the previous fiscal year. About one-third were from Mexico, according to the Border Patrol. Most of the rest were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Inside the United States, officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement also arrested 143,470 people, a 25 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, officials at the Department of Homeland Security said. The increase comes after the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era policy that only targeted those with criminal records.

"We have clearly seen the successful results of the president's commitment to supporting the front-line officers and agents of DHS as they enforce the law and secure our borders," said Elaine C. Duke, the acting Homeland Security secretary.

The drop in border apprehensions and increase in interior arrests represent Trump's campaign pledge to more aggressively enforce the nation's immigration laws by unleashing the full force of the Department of Homeland Security to find, arrest and deport those in the country illegally, regardless of whether they have committed serious crimes.

Many agents at Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement felt that they were constrained by Obama administration rules that allowed them to go after only dangerous criminals. Unions representing workers from both agencies endorsed Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The department now has stepped up efforts to publicize crimes by immigrants, enlist local police officers for the effort, erect new detention facilities, discourage asylum-seekers and, ultimately, speed up deportations.

The release of the year-end border enforcement and immigrant arrest data came a day after the Supreme Court ruled that Trump's ban on travel to the United State by most citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea, along with some groups of people from Venezuela, can go into effect while efforts to block it proceed in the courts. The ban had been blocked by lower courts.

Although Homeland Security officials touted the overall drop in arrests, they did note that, since May, arrests had ticked up, mainly because of families and unaccompanied children from Central America trying to escape violence and instability caused by fighting between drug cartels, a yearslong trend.

Customs officers at airports, land crossings and seaports also denied entry to 216,370 people, a nearly 25 percent decline from 2016. Customs officers stationed abroad stopped more than 15,000 people from boarding flights to the United States, officials said.

Under Trump administration policy, unauthorized immigrants are eligible for arrest and deportation unless they are protected under a program such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama administration policy that allows some individuals who entered the country as minors to live and work in the country without fear of deportation.

Trump ended the program in September and called on Congress to pass a replacement before he begins phasing out its protections in six months.

Local officials and immigration advocates say the Trump administration's policies have put immigrant communities on edge, with people afraid to go to school, report domestic violence, attend church or even seek medical attention.

Congress has so far declined to provide funding for many of Trump's immigration policies, including an increase in the number of border agents and deportation officers and money to pay for a border wall.

"We have an obligation to uphold the integrity of our immigration system, but we must do more to step up and close loopholes to protect the American worker, our economy, and our communities," Duke said.

Trump tells Palestinians and Jordanians he intends to move US Embassy to Jerusalem, leaders say

Tue, 2017-12-05 10:56

JERUSALEM – The Palestinian and Jordanian leaders said that President Donald Trump called them Tuesday to inform them he intends to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a move that could upend the White House's peace efforts and increase regional unrest.

The White House refused to comment on the calls to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II or to clarify whether the president, who has said for months he hopes to relocate the embassy, plans to enact the change in the near future.

The phone calls came amid expectation of a U.S. policy shift on its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The White House let a Monday deadline for signing a waiver that allows the embassy to remain in Tel Aviv pass overnight but said that Trump was still deciding on the next U.S. move. That could include formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital but holding back on moving the embassy.

The waiver has been signed every six months by U.S. presidents for more than two decades.

No other countries have their embassies in Jerusalem, with a long-standing international consensus that the city's status should be decided in a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel regards the city as its undivided capital, while Palestinians see majority-Arab East Jerusalem as the seat of their future state.

Abbas warned Trump in their phone call of the dangers an embassy relocation would represent for the peace process and for security and stability in the region and the world, the state news agency Wafa reported. Jordan's Abdullah said it would undermine U.S. efforts to resume the peace process.

"The president will continue his contacts with leaders and world leaders to prevent such unacceptable and rejected action," Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said.

A backlash from Middle Eastern nations was mounting Tuesday.

Speaking to the Turkish parliament, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that American recognition of Jerusalem would be a "red line" for Muslims, possibly forcing Turkey to cut diplomatic ties with Israel, which were renewed recently after a six-year hiatus.

In Cairo, the chief of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, warned that any step by the United States that changed Jerusalem's legal and political status would be a "dangerous measure that would have repercussions" across the Mideast. Saudi Arabia and Jordan have issued similar warnings.

Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said Monday that a decision on the waiver would come in the next few days.

"The president has been clear on this issue from the get-go – that it's not a matter of if, but a matter of when," he said.

Palestinian officials have complained that a decision to move the embassy will end the United States' role as a broker for the peace process, just as the White House is attempting to come up with a plan. Trump reluctantly signed the routine waiver six months ago.

Nabil Shaath, a foreign affairs adviser to Abbas, said the embassy move was symbolic, with the "real question" being whether the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Doing so would be "very destructive," he said.

"The mother of all deals seems to die on the rocks of Jerusalem," Shaath said. "There is no deal of the century that starts with destroying the essence of a two-state solution."

After the Turkish president's speech, Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded in a statement: "Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years and Israel's capital for the last 70 years, regardless of whether it is recognized by Erdogan or not."

Among the regional statements of support for the Palestinians, Shaath said, has been an assurance by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Abbas during the Palestinian leader's recent visit to Riyadh that there would be no normalization of ties between the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and Israel without a resolution of the Palestinian issue.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi have also spoken to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the decision. In a tweet Monday night, Safadi said he had warned that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital "would trigger anger across the Arab, Muslim worlds, fuel tension and jeopardize peace efforts."

However, Shaath said, Palestinian officials remain concerned about shifting priorities on the part of Persian Gulf countries, whose interests are aligned with Israel's in countering their shared enemy, Iran.

"I hope Iran won't be a pretext for abandoning Palestine," he said.

European leaders also have urged Trump not to make any radical changes regarding the Jerusalem's status. French President Emmanuel Macron told him in a telephone call that the city's status needed to be decided in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in an address at the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum that such a decision would have "far-reaching consequences" and could prove "counterproductive."

Trump's failure to sign a waiver Monday was seen by some Israelis as a positive sign.

"Midnight passed and no Jerusalem embassy waiver was signed, which means the law will take full effect," said Eugene Kontorovich, head of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a right-wing think tank in Jerusalem. "The president has begun the process of moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem."

Anne Gearan in Berlin, David Nakamura in Washington and Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.

Russia banned from Winter Olympics over doping

Tue, 2017-12-05 10:24

LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Russia has been banned from the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics after evidence emerged of widespread doping but some of its athletes will be allowed to compete under the tag of "Olympic Athlete of Russia," the IOC said on Tuesday.

The International Olympic Committee also decided to suspend Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov as an IOC member given that his membership is linked to his position as chief of the ROC who have been suspended from the Games.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko was also banned from any future participation at the Olympic Games.

The IOC told a news conference that the Schmid report confirmed "the systematic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia."

Samuel Schmid, author of the report, told journalists: "The results are not based only on (whistleblower) Grigoory Rodchenkov's testimony. There is scientific evidence, witness statements documents and correspondence.

"The facts are that in Russia there was systemic manipulation of doping and the anti-doping system … that also took place at Sochi 2014 (Winter Olympics)."

The IOC's decision comes 18 months after it had refused an outright ban of Russian athletes at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and told international sports federations to decide individually on the participation of Russians in Brazil.

While all the track and field athletes bar one and the entire weightlifting team were banned from Rio, around 70 percent of Russia's original 387-strong squad ended up taking part at those Games.

Tuesday's decision, however, looks to have taken into account growing vocal protests from other countries, major national anti-doping agencies and individual athletes who felt they had been robbed by their Russian opponents for years and had demanded a full suspension of Russia.

Troopers: Man found dead in Butte was homicide victim

Tue, 2017-12-05 10:08

PALMER — The body found Saturday in the Jim Creek recreation area of Butte was 36-year-old Weston Gladney of Anchorage, troopers said Tuesday.

Gladney's death is being investigated as a homicide, troopers said.

Someone using a trail near Sullivan Avenue and Caudill Road found the body and notified authorities Saturday afternoon.

Gladney's next of kin have been notified. Troopers asked anyone with information about his whereabouts for the past week to call them at 907-352-5401.

5-year-old killed by self-inflicted gunshot in East Anchorage, police say

Tue, 2017-12-05 09:26

A 5-year-old Anchorage boy who found a loaded handgun in the drawer of a nightstand was killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Anchorage police said Tuesday.

Police identified the child as Christian Johnnson. A call came into dispatchers at 12:24 a.m. Tuesday about a child's death in the 5700 block of Rocky Mountain Court, a fourplex in East Anchorage.

The child's mother was in the kitchen preparing food. The father was elsewhere in the home, police spokesman MJ Thim said. The initial reports give no suggestion of drugs or alcohol being a factor, he said.

The mother "hears the sound of a gunshot," Thim said. "She walks into the bedroom and that's when she finds her son, who shot himself."

The boy suffered a single wound to the upper body, police said.

Police say they are investigating the death and would refer the matter to the Anchorage District Attorney's Office for consideration of charges.

"This is a tragic reminder about gun safety and children," police said in a written statement. "Don't leave guns unattended and easily accessible, use a gun lock or secure guns in a safe."

1 dead as thousands flee fast-moving wildfires in Southern California

Tue, 2017-12-05 07:53

VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. – Two wind-fueled wildfires north and west of Los Angeles have caused at least one death, forced the evacuations of thousands of people and triggered widespread power outages, officials said Tuesday.

An overnight fire, known as the Creek Fire, consumed at least 2,500 acres in the foothills of Angeles National Forest north, forcing residents of some nearby San Fernando Valley communities north of Los Angeles to flee, the Los Angeles County Fire Department said.

Separately, some 27,000 people in Ventura County, about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles, were told to leave as a 31,000-acre wildfire, known as the Thomas Fire, burned dry brush after erupting on Monday evening, Ventura County officials said on Twitter.

Officials said the Thomas Fire destroyed at least 150 buildings.

One motorist was killed fleeing the blaze, a local ABC television affiliate reported. More than 250,000 homes lost power and at least two structures were destroyed, a local power company said on Twitter.

"We got my kids out first," Melissa Grisales told ABC 7 in Los Angeles. "Pretty scary, really. I didn't think it was going to come to that, but I am starting to get pretty concerned."

About 500 firefighters battled the fire that destroyed multiple structures, officials said on the Ventura County website. Another 210 firefighters from the Los Angeles Fire Department joined in the coordinated effort to battle the Creek Fire, the department said.

Strong eastern winds pushed the fire toward the cities of Santa Paula and Ventura, where about 140,000 people live, county officials said.

"We're really just trying to catch it around the edges and just pinching it off as quickly as we possibly can," Ventura County firefighter Jason Hodge told the Los Angeles Times.

The fire was stoked by Santa Ana wind gusts blowing out of the desert to the east that were expected reach 70 mph and remain strong through the week as well as by low humidity, the National Weather Service forecast.

About 390 students at Thomas Aquinas College were evacuated as a precaution, the school said on Twitter.

Evacuation centers were opened at a high school and the county fairgrounds, media reported.

(Reporting by Mike Blake, Peter Szekely and Brendan O'Brien)

Stress hormones soar in whales trapped by fishing lines

Tue, 2017-12-05 07:30

In one more sign that North Atlantic right whales are struggling, a new study finds sky-high levels of stress in animals that have been caught in fishing nets.

Researchers determined the stress hormone levels of more than 100 North Atlantic right whales over a 15-year period by examining their feces. Sometimes guided by sniffing dogs, researchers followed the animals, collecting waste samples that they then analyzed in their lab at the New England Aquarium.

Results from the feces of 113 seemingly healthy whales helped establish a baseline of stress hormone levels, which had never before been known for the species. "We have a good idea of what normal is now," said Rosalind Rolland, who developed the research technique and is the lead author of the study published in the journal Endangered Species Research.

She then compared these baselines to hormone levels in the feces of six whales that had become entangled in fishing lines, and one that had been stranded for several days, finding that those animals were off-the-charts anxious.

One whale, a young female named Bayla, showed stress levels eight times higher after she was found entangled in synthetic fishing ropes in January 2011. Several biologists trained in disentanglement could not get all the gear off her, so they sedated the emaciated animal and gave her antibiotics. Two weeks later, an aerial survey team found her corpse floating at sea, possibly after being attacked by sharks, which typically leave healthy animals alone. A necropsy conducted a few days later found rope embedded in the back of Bayla's throat, which possibly prevented her from eating.

"This highlights the extreme physical suffering these animals are going through when they're entangled in fishing lines," said Rolland, a senior scientist in the Ocean Health and Marine Stress Lab at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

Because hormone levels take several hours to rise after a stressful event, Rolland said that tests on five animals that died quickly when hit by ships showed stress levels similar to those in healthy animals.

This has been a disastrous year for the North Atlantic right whale, whose population now hovers below 450. Sixteen or 17 animals have died since the beginning of the summer, and only five have been born, according to Charles "Stormy" Mayo, director of the Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, who was not involved in the new study.

"It used to be if we heard about one or two whales dying in a year, it was an appalling tragedy," Mayo said.

Although once considered a species conservation success story, the population of North Atlantic right whales has been falling since about 2010, he said. "The arrow at the end of the curve is pointing at zero."

Although the reasons for the deaths are varied, and some remain mysterious, it seems the animals are exploring new areas in search of food, putting them in direct conflict with ships and heavy fishing lines, Rolland said.

The Gulf of Maine, which has long been central to their habitat, is one of the fastest-warming bodies of water on earth, she said.

North Atlantic right whales, which can weigh as much as the space shuttle, exclusively eat nearly microscopic creatures called zooplankton. About 80 percent of the animals carry scars from past entanglements or ship strikes.

These "urban whales" are also stressed by noise from shipping and other sources, Rolland said.

Analyzing hormones in feces — in addition to newer efforts to study the vapor exhaled from the animals' blowholes — provides scientists an objective way to test what is stressing the whales and whether efforts to improve their habitats are working.

"If you can get a measure from the animal itself, it's far better than us trying to interpret an animal's behavior," she said.

A bold new legal defense for Trump: Presidents cannot obstruct justice

Tue, 2017-12-05 07:18

WASHINGTON – The brazen assertion Monday by one of President Donald Trump's lawyers that a president cannot be found guilty of obstruction of justice signaled a controversial defense strategy in the wide-ranging Russia probe, as Trump's political advisers are increasingly concerned about the legal advice he is receiving.

Trump tweeted over the weekend that he knew then-national security adviser Michael Flynn lied to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador before firing him in February – and before FBI Director James Comey said Trump asked him to be lenient while investigating Flynn. Experts said the president's admission increased his legal exposure to obstruction-of-justice charges, one of the core crimes under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

But Trump's personal lawyer John Dowd sought to excuse the president's tweet in part by telling Axios and NBC News on Monday that the "president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under [the Constitution's Article II] and has every right to express his view of any case."

Dowd declined to elaborate on his theory or explain the emerging legal strategy to The Washington Post.

[Emails counter White House claim that Flynn acted alone on Russia contacts]

Inside the White House, some senior officials were baffled that Dowd publicly offered this interpretation of the law, which has been advanced since the summer by constitutional scholar Alan Dershowitz in defense of Trump but flatly dismissed by many other legal scholars.

Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer overseeing its handling of the Russia investigation, said Monday that the Dershowitz-Dowd theory was not the president's official legal strategy.

"It's interesting as a technical legal issue, but the president's lawyers intend to present a fact-based defense, not a mere legal defense," Cobb said in an interview with The Post. "That should resolve things, but we all shall see."

Asked whether Trump agrees that a president cannot obstruct justice, Cobb replied, "I never talk about what the president's beliefs are or discuss communications between the president and his lawyers."

Many Washington lawyers and legal scholars disputed Dowd's interpretation, citing several court cases and articles of impeachment – as well as, in the words of one expert, "common sense."

"We have a president, not a king," said Sam Berger, senior policy adviser at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "No one is above the law, whether it be Trump or any of his close associates. It's the sort of desperate claim that makes you wonder, 'What exactly are they hiding?'"

Berger argued that Dowd's reasoning amounts to a "Hail Mary pass" for the president to escape responsibility. "This response, 'If it's the president, it's not a crime,' has never flown with the American people or our legal system in any context," he said. "Claiming that the president can't obstruct justice flies in the face of both common sense and past precedent."

Some legal scholars, however, support Dowd's claim. Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor, said Monday on Fox News Channel that Trump was within his rights when he fired Comey.

"You cannot charge a president with obstruction of justice for exercising his constitutional power to fire Comey and his constitutional authority to tell the Justice Department who to investigate, who not to investigate," Dershowitz said. "That's what Thomas Jefferson did, that's what Lincoln did, that's what Roosevelt did. We have precedents that clearly establish that."

Dershowitz was appearing on "Fox & Friends," a pro-Trump morning show that the president regularly watches. After his appearance, Trump tweeted, "A must watch: Legal Scholar Alan Dershowitz was just on @foxandfriends talking of what is going on with respect to the greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. political history."

Dershowitz wrote a column in June for The Washington Examiner in which he argued that Trump's efforts to stop the FBI probe could not be considered obstruction because he was constitutionally empowered as president to direct the attorney general and the FBI director and tell them whom to prosecute.

Furthermore, he wrote, "the president has the constitutional authority to stop the investigation of any person by simply pardoning that person."

Within Trump's political orbit, concerns have grown in recent weeks about Trump's legal strategy, crafted by Cobb and Dowd, as well as attorney Jay Sekulow, who at key moments has served as the public face of the defense team.

Cobb and Dowd have urged Trump to cooperate fully with Mueller's investigation, providing documents when asked by the special counsel and encouraging White House staffers to comply with requests for interviews.

The two men have sought to assure White House advisers that Trump is not vulnerable to obstruction-of-justice charges. "They think everything is clean there," said one senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

Cobb and Dowd also have been privately assuring the president that the Mueller probe was likely to reach its conclusion by the end of this year, complete with a public exoneration of Trump of any wrongdoing. That timeline seems overly optimistic to some legal experts, considering Mueller last week charged Flynn with lying to the FBI and secured his cooperation in the investigation.

In Monday's interview, Cobb said he still believes Mueller's investigation of Trump will reach "an appropriate result" by Christmas or early January.

But some Trump advisers and outside allies – including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon – have been grumbling for weeks that the president's legal strategy is too compliant with Mueller and not combative enough.

One Republican strategist in frequent contact with senior White House officials said there had been "consternation" among Trump's political advisers in recent days.

"The concern is that every time the president feels a little bit of pain from what Mueller's doing, [his lawyers] give him OxyContin and tell him he'll be fine by the morning," this strategist said metaphorically, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. "Rather than being aggressive lawyers defending the president's prerogative, they're bending over backwards on the theory that Mueller is fair and it'll all be over soon."

These concerns grew over the past 48 hours as Dowd sought to explain the president's tweet about firing Flynn in a succession of media interviews, which had some Trump loyalists grimacing.

Asked to respond to criticisms of the legal team, Cobb said, "There's no question that Bannon is doing the president a great disservice by agitating persistently on this issue. Internally, where people are actually informed, there's no consternation about the decision to cooperate fully with the special counsel, and Mr. Bannon has yet to identify what fights he would pick and how constructive that would be."

Going forward, Cobb said, "I'm not going to litigate every isolated fact that people may testify about or may ask about in the press because that's not fair to the process or to the special counsel or to the witnesses."

The Brookings Institution in October published a 108-page study titled "Presidential Obstruction of Justice: The Case of Donald J. Trump." The authors reviewed the articles of impeachment against presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, and those drafted against judges Harry Claiborne in 1986 and Samuel Kent in 2009. They concluded that "obstruction, conspiracy, and conviction of a federal crime have previously been considered by Congress to be valid reasons to remove a duly elected president from office."

Co-author Norm Eisen, former special assistant for ethics and government reform in the Obama administration and a senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings, said, "There's a long line of cases holding that when a government official exercises an otherwise legal authority with corrupt intent, they can be prosecuted for obstruction. It flows from the notion that no person is above the law."

In 1999, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, argued that Clinton should be removed from office for obstructing justice in the investigation into his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"The facts are disturbing and compelling on the president's intent to obstruct justice," Sessions said at the time.

The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

Michigan Rep. Conyers, facing allegations of sexual harassment, says he is retiring

Tue, 2017-12-05 06:58

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., retired Tuesday after facing multiple allegations that he had sexually harassed female aides.

From a hospital in Detroit, the 88-year-old congressman said Tuesday that he is endorsing his son to replace him in Congress.

"My legacy can't be compromised or diminished in any way by what we're going through now. This, too, shall pass. My legacy will continue through my children," Conyers said in an interview with a local radio station.

Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, has been under pressure from Democratic leaders to resign since several former staffers alleged that he made inappropriate advances toward them over the past two decades. He has denied wrongdoing.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Ian Conyers, the grandson of Conyers' brother, plans to run for the seat.

"He is not resigning. He is going to retire," the younger Conyers told the paper. "His doctor advised him that the rigor of another campaign would be too much for him just in terms of his health."

Messages left with the younger Conyers were not immediately returned Tuesday morning.

Facebook’s new messaging app deepens debate over kids’ social media use

Tue, 2017-12-05 05:29

Facebook now has a messaging app for kids – its first product aimed at young children, putting the social network at the heart of the ongoing debate about how and when children should start their online lives.

The app, called Messenger Kids, allows users under the age of 13 to send texts, videos and photos; they can draw on the pictures they send and add stickers. The app, which launches Monday in the United States, gives the company access to a new market whose age prohibits them from using the firm's main social network. Unlike with its full social network, the data collection will be limited, Facebook said, and the children will need their parents' permission to use it.

Messenger Kids was designed after consultation with hundreds of parents and several children's advocates, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the social network said. The company took many cues from these conversations, said Antigone Davis, Facebook's head of global safety. Parental permission is required to sign up for the app, she said. If two children want to be friends with each other, each will have to get parental approval for contact. "It's just like setting up a play date," Davis said.

Facebook's move is the latest from a tech behemoth that show how companies are grappling with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. The law requires companies targeting children under 13 to take extra steps to safeguard privacy and security – particularly around advertising, as children may not understand what is and is not an ad. For years, major tech firms such as Facebook complied with COPPA by not allowing those under 13 to have accounts. But with technology moving deeper into the home and many firms looking for more growth, children have become a more attractive market.

"It's a very lucrative market; companies want to capture these people, these children, so they can keep them throughout their lives," said Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University and one of the main advocates who helped get COPPA passed.

[Facebook says it needs your explicit photos to combat revenge porn]

Several major tech firms have recently released products that allow younger children to use their services within the limits of the kids' privacy law – and reach more of the country's 48.8 million children under the age of 13 in the process. Google in March introduced "Family Link," which allowed parents to set up kid-friendly Google Accounts. Amazon has also added kid-focused "skills" to its Echo smart speakers, which require a parent's permission to activate.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)

Davis said that Facebook spoke with the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that the app is compliant with COPPA. The FTC did not respond to a request for comment.

Analysts say that messaging apps give Facebook a chance to tap into a younger generation that they have been losing; earlier this year, the company bought tbh – a popular teen messaging app. When Facebook asked parents about launching a kids' app, many told the company that they did not want a full social network, but had more interest in a communications tool, the company said.

Facebook said that Messenger Kids will have no ads. It will also not use data from Messenger Kids for Facebook ads. (Parents shouldn't, for example, see an ad for a toy on Facebook because their child talked about it on Messenger Kids.) The firm said no data from Messenger Kids will be fed to the main social network, nor will their information automatically port to other Facebook products when they turn 13, the company said.

The new app doesn't create an account for kids; parents are asked to provide only their child's name. Parents have to use their Facebook email address and password to activate their child's account, but that does not log a parent into their child's device. But, per the app's privacy policy, Facebook also collects information on the content of messages. It also reserves the right to share information with other firms as necessary — such as customer service providers or companies that can help it analyze how the app is being used.

Those companies, in turn, must have their own privacy policies to protect children, the app's privacy policy said.

Davis said that, if a parent decides to delete their child's account, Facebook will also delete any data from its own servers.

Facebook's focus on younger children raised some alarm bells, however. "We appreciate that for now, the product is ad-free and appears designed to put parents in control. But why should parents simply trust that Facebook is acting in the best interest of kids?" said Jim Steyer, executive director of Common Sense Media, in a statement. A recent Family Online Safety Institute study found that parents are more skeptical of the benefits of social media for their children then they are of smartphones or even wearable devices.

Facebook has been careful to comply with the law, Montgomery said. But, she also warned, many products that start as noncommercial can change over time.

"New aspects of the product will emerge," she said, in her role as a senior consultant for the Center for Digital Democracy. "I think we're at an interesting moment, and there are a lot of moves into that marketplace."

The app launches on Apple's App Store first. Facebook plans to release Android and Amazon versions next year. The company has no plans to release a similar kids-only platform for its other main social network, Instagram.

Facebook's approach may encourage companies to create safer, more limited and legally compliant services for kids, said Larry Magid, chief executive of the nonprofit ConnectSafely.org, one of many organizations Facebook briefed on the product ahead of its launch. (The group receives funding from Facebook as well as Google, Kik and other companies that have messaging products.)

"The reality is that kids are going to go use apps if they're under 13," he said. "The question becomes do we simply ban them and fight a losing fight?"

Readers write: Letters to the editor, December 5, 2017

Mon, 2017-12-04 21:25

Thanks for restoring my faith

Black Friday could've taken on a different meaning for me if not for an honest man that was raised to do the right thing. I dropped and lost my wallet in the Home Depot parking lot. Thankfully it was picked up by Steve Marquez, who then was able to locate me through a friend's address in my wallet. Everything was returned to me, including restoring faith in others that good people are out there. In this current crime climate, I was certain that the worst was going to happen and prepared myself for fraudulent charges and identity theft. I was astounded to put it mildly to get his phone call that my wallet was found.

This kind, integrity driven man deserved the reward but I have a feeling his rewards are internal. Thank you Steve. Paying it forward was a gift to me and I will continue the opportunity.

As a note to others, keep current contact information in your wallet. Do not carry your social security number, unnecessary charge cards or passwords.

— Karen Duchow, Anchorage

Good job teaching students about the Board of Game

Bravo to the students in the "introduction to the Board of Game" for becoming active participants in game management. (Commentary, Nov. 30) Even better these students showed that educated discussions are far more effective than angry protests. I hope UAF and UAA offer more courses that provide information for life skills after graduation. Thanks for sharing this important and informative commentary.

— Fran Evanson, Anchorage

Stand up, be heard on taxes

There was an urgent rush and flush of voting on tax cuts. The law had not even been typed up. No matter what tax slight to you, what financial prejudice to friends is revealed, did you complain, say no or did you smile and just shake your head?

I think most people see themselves sitting in the gallery, in the audience, sitting at home, speechless. "What just happened?" a few probably said. The senators are the actors on history's stage. These are people deciding your tax break — if any — and you barely tolerate, admire or dislike them.

On the TV stage in the Senate Well, you see the senators ayeing what tax you'll pay. Behind the chamber out of sight were the corporate men, the CEOs and big businessmen who expect their cut. Out in the gallery I saw a few of you, people like me. We can still speak up. Say something to the spineless Sullivan and Murkowski.

— Jim Hanlen, Anchorage

Shoe is on the other foot now

I remember only too well a few years ago when ObamaCare was enacted and Congresswoman Pelosi said we would have to vote for the bill to find out what's in it. And I remember the outrage the Republicans voiced over not being able to properly consider the bill before it was voted into place by a one-sided Congress. And now you're doing the same thing to us with this "tax reform" bill? Pushing it through on a one-sided vote without any opportunity for anyone to properly consider what's in the bill or even read the bill in less than one hour?

Alaskan senators, if you have any self-respect at all, do not vote for any bill that can't be properly considered by all parties concerned, especially we the American taxpayers.

— John Klapproth, Anchorage

Time to put Lisa out to pasture

Unlike in a real monarchy, Alaskans aren't required to keep Lisa Murkowski on the throne that her father passed on to her.

Every once in a while, she flirts with Democrats (and with sanity) and we go all weak in the knees. Then she moves back to her crazy side and votes for a tax bill that will destroy the economy, take health care away from millions, cripple Medicare and balloon the deficit.

Let's put her out to pasture (and Sullivan with her) and start electing senators who work for those of us who aren't billionaires.

— Connie Faipeas, Anchorage

Harvey's greatest gift of all

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Harvey Weinstein.

As a teenager growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., I was able to see many great concerts brought in by small upstart Harvey and Corky Productions.

As an adult, I have been able to enjoy many of his undeniably great cinematic productions — while he increasingly became a pathological predator.

As a parent, I would like to thank him again.

The greatest gift he has given me was not the concerts or the movies but rather opening up the flood gates of sexual harassment scrutiny from which my 12-year-old daughter will benefit in pleasantly intangible ways.

— Peter Montesano, Anchorage

The views expressed here are the writers' own and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a letter under 200 words for consideration, email letters@adn.com, or click here to submit via any web browser. Submitting a letter to the editor constitutes granting permission for it to be edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity. Send longer works of opinion to commentary@adn.com.

RNC to support Moore in Senate race in Alabama, weeks after cutting ties with his campaign

Mon, 2017-12-04 20:37

President Trump's endorsement of Alabama Senate nominee Roy Moore on Monday prompted the Republican National Committee and a pro-Trump super PAC to re-enter the state, boosting a candidate who had been largely cut off by his party.

Senate Republican leaders remained critical of Moore on Monday, warning that the former judge is likely to face an immediate ethics probe if he is elected next week. But the America First Action super PAC, following Trump's lead, announced that it would spent $1.1 million to elect Moore, while the RNC said it was returning to the field after pulling out in mid-November.

The divergent attitudes toward Moore, who has been accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward teenage girls when he was in his 30s, underscored how polarizing a figure he would be among his party's national leaders if he wins the Dec. 12 special election.

Even if Moore is largely ostracized by his Senate colleagues, the support of the president could make him an influential figure in Washington – a point he appeared determined to emphasize on Monday.

"I look forward to fighting alongside the President to #MAGA!" Moore wrote on Twitter, using the acronym for Trump's signature campaign theme, "Make America Great Again."

Trump and Senate Republicans have already started pondering Moore's place in the party if he gets past Democrat Doug Jones in a contest that recent polling shows is neck and neck. The president wrote on Twitter on Monday that the united Democratic opposition to the GOP's sweeping tax plan showed "why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama."

"We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more. No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!" Trump wrote.

Trump's message went further than his previous remarks about the race, in which he has bashed Jones but stopped just short of advocating for Moore. The president placed a call to Moore on Monday morning, and the Senate nominee proudly trumpeted it in his own tweet.

"'Go get 'em, Roy!' – President Trump," Moore tweeted.

On Capitol Hill, the reception remained frostier – although a shift in tone appeared underway among senators, too. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas, the second-ranking Republican senator, said Monday that he favors a congressional ethics probe into the allegations facing Moore is he is elected.

But Cornyn also hinted that if Moore wins, he would be a factor in the Senate and cannot be ignored.

"None of us get to vote on who's the senator from Alabama. Just Alabama voters do. So I think we have to respect their decision – whatever it is," he said.

That statement contrasted with a drumbeat among GOP senators for Moore to end his campaign just after The Washington Post reported the first allegations.

Led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Republicans also explored ways to try to elect another GOP candidate, either through a write-in campaign or a postponed election. But neither option proved feasible, as local Republicans rallied around Moore and the White House refused to intervene.

Since then, McConnell and his top deputies have taken a more hands-off approach to the race. Like Cornyn did on Monday, McConnell said in weekend television interviews that the outcome was in Alabama's hands.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump has been ramping up his involvement in the race. After staying relatively quiet in the immediate aftermath of the allegations, the president has steadily grown warmer toward Moore.

Before endorsing Moore on Monday morning, Trump had spoken at length about the Alabama race with his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, according to a person familiar with the conversation granted anonymity to describe private talks. Bannon was scheduled to appear at a Moore rally Tuesday afternoon in Fairhope, Alabama.

Trump will travel to the same media market on Friday, just over the border in Pensacola, Florida, where he could encourage Alabamians to turn out for Moore.

One senior White House official said Trump jumped in for a few reasons: because aides persuaded him that his support could push Moore to victory, because he would probably take part of the blame if Moore lost, and because he didn't like the idea of backing Moore less than full-throatedly.

For those around Bannon, Trump's decision to embrace Moore less than a month after the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled out of the campaign is a victory in their fight against McConnell. Bannon is expected to once again mention McConnell in his remarks Tuesday night.

"This is a total embarrassment for Mitch McConnell, who put all of his political capital on the line to deliver this Senate seat to a liberal Democrat completely opposed to the Trump agenda," said Andy Surabian, a confidant of Bannon who serves as senior adviser to the Great America Alliance, a pro-Trump advocacy group.

McConnell's allies continue to view the aggressive defense of Moore mounted by Bannon as a warning sign for the rest of the party.

"You have this unbelievable contrast between on the one hand cash cows like Matt Lauer being shown the door, and on the other hand you have Steve Bannon sending down people to dig up dirt on women who come forward with serious and credible allegations," said Steven Law, a McConnell ally who runs the Senate Leadership Fund, which campaigned against Moore in the primary.

If Moore wins and is seated, he could face immediate scrutiny from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, a normally secretive panel of three Republicans and three Democrats.

The panel, which has said it is looking into allegations of sexual misconduct against Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., could look into the accusations confronting Moore and determine their validity and whether they merit punishment such as a censure, or, in the most severe case, a vote in the full Senate over whether Moore should be expelled.

Rob Walker, a former chief counsel and staff director of the Senate and House Ethics panels, predicted the process could take three months or more.

Expelling a senator is very rare and would require the approval of two-thirds of the Senate. An actual vote hasn't happened since 1862.

A recent Washington Post-Schar School poll showed that 50 percent of likely Alabama voters support Jones and 47 percent back Moore, which is within the margin of error. On Monday, both candidates sought to shore up their support.

After a campaign event in his hometown of Fairfield, Alabama, Jones, who is trying to win over Republicans considering crossing party lines over the Moore allegations, parried questions about the Trump endorsement by saying he'd ignore "people calling me names" and focus on his own race.

"We're talking about issues. We're meeting people. We're talking to the media," Jones said. "Roy Moore is nowhere to be seen."

Asked if he would have supported the tax bill that passed the Senate last week, Jones said it would "blow up the deficit" and that there hadn't been enough bipartisan work to fix it.

Jones also attacked Bannon.

"President Trump ran Steve Bannon out of the White House because of his politics of division," said Jones. "It has no place in this state."

Should he win, Moore is expected to complicate McConnell's job of trying to keep Senate Republicans in line. He has openly criticized the GOP leader throughout his campaign.

Moore has also called the long-standing practice of requiring 60 votes for most legislation to pass the Senate "unconstitutional," and he has vowed to fight it if elected.

He also calls abortion a violation of the Constitution, and has promised not to vote for a budget that would send any federal dollars to Planned Parenthood.

"I think I could help with the Judiciary Committee, because I do understand the Constitution," Moore said in an interview with One America News Network over the weekend that was broadcast Monday. "I do understand what judges do when they put themselves above the Constitution."

Even among a small group of conservative senators known for bucking McConnell, including Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Moore could have trouble fitting in.

"Sen. Lee has unendorsed Judge Moore and called for him to step out of the race. Nothing has changed. Anything new on the issue would be premature at this point," Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said Monday.

Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and a potential Senate contender in Utah next year, wrote on Twitter that Moore becoming a senator "would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation."

Moore retorted that Romney had either "lost his courage or he doesn't care about truth anymore."

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who said he has already voted by write-in absentee ballot for an unnamed "distinguished Republican" who is not Moore, said in an interview Monday that he fears Moore's political style would not serve his state or the nation well.

"I think that he's thrived on controversy, and I don't believe anybody can thrive on controversy forever and not get burned up by it," Shelby said.

He added, "I don't believe that Roy Moore, if he was elected to the Senate, and he might be, would work in the Senate – I don't mean to go along to get along, I'm talking about to build the nation, build the state, at least as a lot of people believe we ought to do."

Weigel reported from Montgomery, Ala. Philip Rucker in Washington and Josh Dawsey in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

Stand in the cold for human rights

Mon, 2017-12-04 20:17

In the wake of World War II, as the extent of Nazi atrocities came to light, many nations of the world came together to articulate the basic rights of all human beings. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, with the support of the United States. At its core is the notion that we are all born free and equal in dignity and rights, and that we are entitled to fairness and justice regardless of our differences. The rights to equal protection, freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of expression, freedom from discrimination, freedom from torture and inhumane treatment, and freedom to seek asylum from persecution are among those embraced by the declaration's terms.

These rights are considered inherent and inalienable – neither granted to us by governments nor removable by governments, but integral to being human.

[Human Rights Day vigil on the Anchorage Park Strip, 2016]

I  first celebrated Human Rights Day – December 10 – nearly 35 years ago, when I joined a candlelight vigil in the Fairbanks ice fog at 40 below with fellow members of the local chapter of Amnesty International, the human rights organization. For a number of years following, I stood vigil at similar events in Anchorage. It always felt impossible at those times to imagine the tragedies that befell so many fellow citizens of this world at the hands of their own governments. It felt incomprehensible that so many suffered because of their religion or politics, their race or ethnicity, their nationality or language, their gender or sexual orientation.

How could one respond meaningfully to the death squads, the ethnic cleansings, or the genocides? How could one begin to counteract the countless lesser-known evils carried out against their citizens by despots around the globe? Extrajudicial killings. Torture. Imprisonment for one's ideas or beliefs. The magnitude of inhumane behavior was overwhelming, and it was always hard, gathered around our tiny flames, to feel that we were making any difference at all. Yet somehow, holding a candle in far away Alaska seemed like an important gesture, a way to stand up for victims who could not stand up for themselves. Bearing witness seemed the least we could do.

Today, as the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approaches, threats to human rights seem as great as ever, both at home and abroad. All around us, we hear the drumbeat of hatred and division. We see vulnerable people threatened and victimized because of who they are, and people who stand up for them marginalized, arrested, or worse. We see world leaders championing or ignoring atrocities instead of condemning them. We see the very fabric of the world community being pulled and torn, creating a climate of chaos and upheaval in which human rights abuse can take root and thrive.

[We will protect the human rights of 'dreamers']

It's heartbreaking, and hard not to feel caught in a deep and dark undertow where personal action is futile. But what I learned over all those years standing vigil in the cold is that acts of conscience matter. As individuals, we may have little power to end human rights abuse or demand accountability for governments that engage in it. But as a community of concerned citizens, we can help ensure that our own city, state and nation respect and defend fundamental rights and honor the limits of governmental power. We can raise our voices to lift human dignity, and call out those who demand rights for themselves while diminishing the rights of others. We can show support for those among us who work every day to protect and defend basic freedoms and make great positive impact in people's lives. And perhaps most importantly, we can give ourselves hope that we live in a society that is able to face its challenges with compassion and good will, not rancor and malevolence.

This year, concerned Alaskans will once again gather to light candles and raise our collective voices to demand respect for human rights both near and far. Sponsored by the Alaska Institute for Justice and co-sponsored by a dozen other local organizations, the Human Rights Day Vigil will take place on Sunday, December 10, from 2 p.m.-3 p.m. at Anchorage Town Square. We will once again share messages of tolerance and mutual respect, and urge our leaders to honor the human rights principles that our nation has long endorsed. Following the vigil, we will gather nearby to warm up, make candles, and write postcards to honor the occasion.

The late Nelson Mandela warned that "to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity."

On Dec. 10, we can stand together for our common humanity. Please join us.

Barbara Hood is volunteer coordinator of the Alaska Institute for Justice's Human Rights Day Vigil. She is a former Alaska area coordinator for Amnesty International USA.

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@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

How a classic World War II seaplane earned the title ‘the Queen of Dago Lake’

Mon, 2017-12-04 20:08

A 1943 Consolidated PBY Catalina – one of the most widely used seaplanes of World War II – has been on display at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum since 1987. The amphibious aircraft made a forced landing at Dago Lake on the Alaska Peninsula in 1947 after it suffered engine failure – which is where it earned its title, "the Queen of Dago Lake." When the military returned to the lake to retrieve the plane, parts had been stripped off.

Seventeen-year-old pilot Fred Richards later bought the plane, but before Richards could salvage the flying boat, even more parts had been stripped from it. Richards sold the engines to an outfit in Southeast Alaska.

In 1984 the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum moved the plane as far as King Salmon. In 1987, the Alaska National Guard moved the plane to Lake Hood with a Sikorsky Skycrane, where it has become a cornerstone of the Museum.

Here are the biggest sticking points between the House and Senate tax bills

Mon, 2017-12-04 19:38

WASHINGTON — House and Senate Republicans are set to go to work this week to reconcile significant differences between their two tax bills.

Here are the biggest sticking points they need to resolve while making sure the legislation does not reduce revenues by more than $1.5 trillion over the next decade or, under Senate rules, add to the budget deficit after that. If it exceeds that amount, Republicans could no longer pass their tax package with a simple majority vote in the Senate.

INDIVIDUAL TAX RATES

The House bill collapses the current seven brackets into four and keeps the top tax rate of 39.6 percent, although it raises the income level at which that applies. The changes would take effect in 2018 and would reduce federal revenues by an estimated $1.09 trillion over the next decade, according to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

The Senate bill has seven brackets, but reduces the top rate to 38.5 percent for income over $500,000 for single filers and $1 million for couples filing jointly. The Senate bill also reduces income levels on other brackets compared with the current levels.

To offset those costs over the next 10 years, the Senate bill calls for the changes and all its others to the individual tax code to expire after 2025. Still, the Senate bill's individual bracket changes would reduce federal revenues by more than the House's version — $1.17 trillion over the next decade, the Joint Committee on Taxation said.

Lawmakers will have to decide how to reconcile the two sets of brackets and whether the changes should be permanent or temporary.

While the House bill makes no changes to the Affordable Care Act, the Senate bill would repeal the individual mandate that requires Americans to purchase health insurance or face a tax penalty.

The move would increase federal revenues by about $318 billion over the next decade because the government would no longer pay federal subsidies to help low- and middle-income Americans buy insurance policies, the congressional tax analysis committee said.

Repealing the individual mandate also would lead to 13 million additional uninsured Americans by 2027 and premium hikes of 10 percent, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

MORTGAGE INTEREST DEDUCTION

The House bill would reduce the mortgage interest deduction for future home purchases.

Homeowners would be limited to deducting interest on up to $500,000 in mortgage debt, down from the current $1 million limit. Deductions for second homes would no longer be allowed. Existing mortgages would not be affected.

The Senate bill does not change any of those provisions, which benefit states with high housing costs more than elsewhere.

ESTATE TAX

The House and Senate bills would double the exemption next year for assets subject to the estate tax, a levy of as much as 40 percent that hits heirs of mostly wealthy individuals.

The current exemption levels are $5.49 million for an individual and about $11 million for a couple.

Both bills also would double — to $28,000 per person and $56,000 per couple — the annual exclusion from the federal tax on gifts to children or other people.

But the House plan would repeal the estate and gift taxes entirely in 2024. That would reduce federal revenues by about $151 billion over a decade.

The Senate plan would keep the estate and gift taxes in place with the higher exemption levels. That would reduce federal revenues by $83 billion, the congressional tax analysis committee said.

 ALTERNATIVE MINIMUM TAX

The House bill eliminates the alternative minimum taxes for individuals and corporations. The taxes are designed to make sure people and corporations don't avoid taxes completely.

Repealing the AMT for individuals, many of whom are very wealthy, would reduce federal revenues by about $700 billion over the next decade. Eliminating the corporate AMT would reduce federal revenues by about $40 billion over the same period, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

The Senate bill originally also repealed both taxes, although the individual AMT would have returned in 2026 as part of the expiration of the changes to that part of the tax code.

A last-minute need for more revenue led Senate Republicans to change the bill to keep the individual and corporate AMTs. The exemption amounts and phase-out thresholds for individuals would increase.

The Senate's individual AMT changes would reduce federal revenues by $133 billion over the next decade.

CORPORATE RATE REDUCTION TIMETABLE

The House and Senate bills permanently slash the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent. The House cut would take effect next year, but the Senate bill delays it until 2019.

That one-year difference is significant, worth about $127 billion, according to the committee analysis.

The corporate tax reduction is the single costliest provision in both bills in terms of lost federal revenue. The House corporate tax cut reduces revenues by $1.46 trillion over the next decade. The Senate's version reduces revenues by $1.33 trillion over the same period.

TAX RATE ON PASS-THROUGH BUSINESSES

The House and Senate bills also reduce taxes on so-called pass-through businesses _ sole proprietorships, partnerships, limited liability companies and S corporations _ whose owners pay through the individual tax code.

The changes are complicated and the bills take different approaches to those taxes, which are paid by many mom-and-pop operations but also large partnerships such as law firms, hedge funds and some of President Donald Trump's own businesses.

The House bill would cap the top tax rate for pass-throughs at 25 percent, down from 39.6 percent.

The Senate plan would continue taxing pass-through businesses at the individual rate that would apply to the owner, with a top proposed rate of 38.5 percent. But the Senate bill would allow most pass-throughs to deduct about 23 percent of their business income from their taxes.

Bidding on Jeff King sets a record at the Talkeetna Bachelor Auction

Mon, 2017-12-04 19:34

Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King put himself on the auction block at Saturday night's Talkeetna Bachelor Auction, and the result was historic.

A date with King sold for $4,600 — a record for the annual fundraiser that goes back to 1981.

"This is an all-time high bid, beating our old high by about $1800.00!!" Sara Sickler of the Talkeetna Bachelor Society wrote in an email.

Sickler said other mushers have been auctioned off over the years, but she thinks King is the first Iditarod champion.

King took the stage at the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar wearing his bib from the 2016 race — No. 61, which matches his age.

King strolled the runway back and forth amid shrieks and shouts from a wild audience, at one point shoving a stuffed animal out of the fly of his outfit. A red rose and a pair of handcuffs in one hand, he pumped his arms as the auctioneer stirred up higher and higher bids from the crowd.

His date package included a glacier-landing flightseeing trip with Fly Denali; an ATV tour for two; a zipline tour for two; a Husky Homestead tour for four; and a room and breakfast at the Grand Denali Hotel — "this got bumped up to a 2 night stay while he was on stage," Sickler said.

The winning bid of $4,600 represents more money than what was awarded to 37 of the 64 mushers who finished the 2017 race to Nome.

Funds from the auction benefit a number of organizations that aid families in crisis, according to the Talkeetna Bachelor Society website.

Your Christmas tree in Alaska might be a little pricier this year

Mon, 2017-12-04 19:34

At Alaska Mill Feed & Garden Center in Anchorage, the perfect Christmas tree will cost a bit more this year.

Tree prices there have gone up about 15 percent since 2015, because there are fewer Christmas trees available this year in some parts of the U.S., said president Joel Klessens.

"Supply is tight, there's no question about that, and prices are up," he said. "We weren't able to get maybe all the specific sizes and the quantities, but we did get some of everything."

The industry's supply crunch in some parts of the country stems from the Great Recession, when many farmers planted fewer trees, The New York Times reported last week. That means there aren't as many available to harvest now, nearly a decade later. In Anchorage, though, it seems you'll probably be able to find a tree just fine.

"You don't want to panic, like there's no real trees in town," Klessens said. Trees this year cost his business about 20 percent more than two years ago, he said, and he's tried to mitigate that some for customers. A six- or seven-foot noble fir at Alaska Mill goes for $69.

"I think everybody, their supply has been OK, but it's been tight on certain sizes," he said.

[How to harvest your own Christmas tree in Alaska]

At Bob Smith's Christmas Trees, owner Dave Smith said some of his trees are a bit more expensive this year — about $5 on a standard tree and $10 to $15 more on some of the taller ones.

His business grows trees in Minnesota and then sells them out of a lot on Dimond Boulevard, and he said he hasn't dealt with a shortage. During the national recession, his business bought up empty land in Minnesota and planted more at a time when others were scaling back.

"We kind of went against the trend" at the time, Smith said.

Because his business grows its supply in Minnesota, he also didn't have to deal with the fallout from drought and wildfires elsewhere in the country. But a rise in freight prices are another factor to reckon with, he said.

At Bell's Nursery and Gifts, owner Mike Mosesian said that although his costs have been rising, you won't pay more for a tree there this season. He said he's simply prepared to make less money.

"I felt that with the economy being the way it is, and a lot of businesses are suffering, why raise my prices and charge people more?" he said. "Buying a Christmas tree is kind of an emotional thing, especially for a family with children."

Darryl Leiser, owner of Dimond Greenhouses, also said prices for his trees haven't gone up this year.

At Mile 5.2 Greenhouse and Gift Shop in Eagle River, you'll find a different type of tree this season, but not because of any shortage.

Dale Walberg, the owner, said he's wanted to switch from fresh-cut trees to live, potted trees for awhile now for the Christmas season and finally made the change this year. The Norfolk Island pines range from a few inches to about four feet tall, he said, and are meant to be kept long after the holiday as a houseplant.

"We figured maybe people don't want to spend $100 on a tree in a recession," Walberg said. The trees at his greenhouse are priced from $25 to $125.

Anchorage Assemblymen seek to speed up pace of clearing illegal camps from parks

Mon, 2017-12-04 19:33

People evicted from illegal encampments in Anchorage parks may soon have less time to move, as neighbors have pushed elected officials to take more decisive action about a seemingly endless cycle of tents and encampments in city parks and greenbelts.

An ordinance up for debate before the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night slightly shrinks the moving time for an illegal camp from a little more than two weeks to 10 days.

Homeless advocates and officials in the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz say the measure will make little difference without more housing options and other services for the chronically homeless, and say the speed of clean-ups largely depends on resources available to the police and city parks department.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska has suggested a possible legal challenge. The measure comes at a time of overflowing emergency shelters at the east end of downtown Anchorage.

But backers say it's meant to bring some relief to neighbors and trail and park users.

"It's only a little bit of a solution for the neighbors and the people that own or are around the property where illegal camps are," said Fred Dyson of Chugiak-Eagle River, who is co-sponsoring the measure with Assemblyman Eric Croft.

Croft first introduced the measure in October. Since then, the proposed 10-day time frame has remained unchanged.

But Croft has since added in a variety of other policies, indicating that the city is working on more broadly addressing the reasons people may be camping in the first place. He notes in the ordinance that the city has committed about a half-million dollars to homelessness initiatives next year. That includes housing for homeless seniors older than 65 and a special team to work in camps and shelters to help connect people to housing and jobs.

"This quicker clean-up makes sense to everybody if we're really working hard on the other end, which is providing services," Croft said.

The measure itself doesn't direct more money to camp clean-ups, though the Assembly approved $170,000 for more parks staff to do clean-ups in next year's budget. The city could not keep up with the volume of belongings and trash in the camps, said John Rodda, the city parks director.

The new time frame would also end in 2021, based on Croft's current proposal. Croft said the city should evaluate how well it's working between now and then.

City officials could take quicker action on a wide variety of public nuisances if the measure passes Tuesday. But it's tailored to illegal camps, one of Anchorage's more intractable problems. It's the latest turn in a continued back-and-forth between elected officials, neighbors and homeless advocates.

A  special unit in the Anchorage Police Department, a social worker and park clean-up crews now use a phone-based application to track camps. The city park's department assigned a 10-person team to camp clean-up and collected 160 tons of trash this summer alone.

The amount of trash particularly infuriates neighbors who live near parks and trails. The topic pops up frequently on neighborhood social media sites like Nextdoor.

Some have raised questions about crime and safety in the camps. Stephanie Rhoades, a former Anchorage Superior Court judge, came to one Assembly homelessness committee meeting to say she's enjoyed walking on the Chester Creek Trail with her husband for many years but has watched the trail become "degraded" by encampments in recent years.

In October, she said, she noticed a homeless camp with a chimney and an active fire. There were propane bottles and a grill for cooking, she said. Rhoades started a therapeutic court for people with mental health problems and said she understood complexities of homelessness.

Homeless advocates have said it isn't helpful to push people out of camps without more of a place for people with troubled or criminal histories to go, or a system that more effectively prevents homelessness from happening in the first place. More than 2,600 people sought homelessness services between July and September, according to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. About 611 classified as "chronic," which includes longtime campers with a disability.

A social worker embedded with the Anchorage Police Department has begun to send campers to Partners for Progress, a coalition aimed at helping people with criminal records find work and housing, said Nancy Burke, the city homeless coordinator.

If a person is evicted from a camp and has nowhere to go, it's more likely that person will steal to build a new camp, said Cathleen McLaughlin, the executive director of Partners for Progress.

"The push is to get to housing," Burke told Assembly members during a committee meeting earlier this year. "We're doing a complete system change. We're not just trying to move people around the community."

Burke and other officials in the Berkowitz administration want to build new buildings, convert existing buildings and work with private landlords to accommodate more people, and are examining several properties around Anchorage.

Anchorage's current camping policies date back to 2010, when the ACLU of Alaska sued the city, asserting that police were seizing and destroying the property of homeless people with too little notice. A judge ruled in 2011 that Anchorage's policies were unconstitutional. The city then set up a 15-day time window for people to move before crews can throw away belongings.

Casey Reynolds, a spokesman for the ACLU of Alaska, declined to comment ahead of Tuesday's vote about whether his group would react with a lawsuit.

In reality, limited manpower and funding often means that several weeks go by before parks crews can clean up a camp.

"We can't keep up with the cleanup in general terms," Rodda, the city's parks director, said in a recent interview.

Current law allows Anchorage to shut down encampments with as little as 72 hours notice. That's the policy in the much-larger city of Seattle, where homelessness has been declared an emergency, and camps have proliferated in recent years.

But city manager Bill Falsey told Assembly members in an October meeting, while he was still working as city attorney, that the shorter notice period is very rarely used. Personal property must be stored under those circumstances, Falsey said.

"The challenges of storing this material have been too high," Falsey said.

At another recent Assembly homelessness committee meeting, Heidi Heinrich, the owner of the Lucky Wishbone restaurant, said she thought the community councils could help find storage centers. She also said she didn't think the noticing period change would make a difference if the city was already stretched thin on its manpower.

Croft said he's hoping his ordinance will at least allow the city to more quickly break up camps deemed "particularly worrisome."

He also said he's working on a second measure that would affect how far away campers can move from one location to another, legal guidelines for the storage of belongings, and fires and cooking in illegal camps.

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