FEMA head Brock Long, investigated over vehicle use, resigns
By COLLEEN LONG
Wednesday, February 13
WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency resigned Wednesday after a two-year tenure in which he managed the response to historic wildfires and major hurricanes but was dogged by questions over his use of government vehicles.
Brock Long said in a letter to FEMA employees that he was resigning to spend more time at home with his family. His last day is March 8.
He did not mention the investigation by the agency’s watchdog that found he had used government vehicles without authorization, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said last fall that Long would repay the government and would not lose his job.
Nielsen said Long led the agency admirably. “I appreciate his tireless dedication to FEMA and his commitment to fostering a culture of preparedness across the nation,” she said in a statement.
His deputy, Pete Gaynor, will become acting head of the agency.
Word leaked of the internal probe in September, just as Hurricane Florence was landing in the Carolinas. Homeland Security officials said there had been a longstanding practice of FEMA administrators using government vehicles to ensure they could remain connected during a crisis. But the use of government vehicles for home-to-work travel was not officially authorized, and that practice was eliminated in April.
The report by Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General also found Long used government vehicles for non-official reasons. It said this cost taxpayers $94,000 in staff salary, $55,000 in travel expenses and $2,000 in vehicle maintenance.
The House Oversight Committee had also been looking into the allegations.
Long said he accepted full responsibility for the unauthorized use of the vehicles.
He took over FEMA in June 2017, presiding over a particularly grueling hurricane season that included Irma, Harvey and Maria, plus wildfires in California that were the deadliest ever for the state. The response to Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico, has been heavily criticized, and Long has said FEMA learned lessons on how to better prepare.
Risk of flooding, mudslides remains after California storm
By TERENCE CHEA and JOHN ANTCZAK
Friday, February 15
SAUSALITO, Calif. (AP) — Authorities warn that mudslides are still possible Friday even after a damaging storm moved through California, trapping people in floodwaters, triggering a debris flow that destroyed homes, and forcing residents to flee communities scorched by wildfires last year.
The powerful system swept in from the Pacific Ocean and unleashed rain, snow and wind across the U.S. West into Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona after walloping Northern California and southern Oregon earlier.
The rain mostly ended Thursday night. But officials said hillsides could still loosen and collapse, bringing down mud, boulders and debris.
“The ground is still so saturated and the water is still flowing down from the mountains,” said April Newman, spokeswoman for Riverside County Fire Department.
The National Weather Service reported staggering rainfall amounts across California, including more than 9.4 inches (24 centimeters) over 48 hours at one location in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles.
A woman pulled from rising water in a low-lying area between those mountains and Los Angeles had a heart attack and died at a hospital, said Capt. Ryan Rolston with the Corona Fire Department. The unidentified woman was one of nine people and three dogs rescued in a flood-control channel where homeless people camp, Rolston said.
A second death was reported in Escondido, northeast of San Diego, where firefighters recovered the body of a man who had been seen paddle boarding in the surging waters of a concrete-lined flood-control channel.
North of San Francisco, a mudslide barreled over cars, uprooted trees and sent a home sliding down a hill and smashing into another house in Sausalito.
A woman was rescued from the splintered wreckage with only cuts and bruises. Susan Gordon was buried under a tree and mud for two hours while crews dug her out, her son wrote on an online fundraising page.
Chris Parkman said it has been years since a storm so powerful has hit the hillside community, where at least 50 properties were evacuated.
“We don’t see the rain most of the year. So most of the year you feel safe. But when the big storms come, your safety factor is gone,” he said.
Further north, a levee along State Route 37 near Novato was breached, flooding a rural field. Officials were monitoring the area in case water flows onto the highway or train tracks.
A deluge southeast of Los Angeles washed away a section of a two-lane mountain highway. Photos by the state Department of Transportation showed about 75 feet (23 meters) of pavement completely collapsed along State Route 243 near the remote community of Idyllwild.
“We’re basically stranded right now,” said resident Gary Agner, adding that several other roads were closed because of flooding and debris. “I’m glad I went to the grocery store yesterday.”
The risk of flooding led officials to order people out of areas burned bare by a summer wildfire in the Santa Ana Mountains, with flash-flood warnings blanketing a huge swath east and south of Los Angeles. The evacuation orders were downgraded to flood warnings Thursday night.
Authorities also told parts of artsy Laguna Beach to evacuate for much of the day, while the desert resort city of Palm Springs urged residents to stay in place because of flooded streets. In Cabazon, two people marooned on the roof of their flooded car were rescued by helicopter.
Flood advisories extended to Arizona.
Weather was so severe that the Hollywood Walk of Fame had to postpone the dedication of a sidewalk star honoring the band Aerosmith. Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain theme parks closed.
Trouble also persisted in saturated Northern California, where thousands of people lost power and flooding was possible. Downtown San Francisco saw more than 1.75 inches (4.4 centimeters) of rain over 24 hours.
A flooded creek led authorities to urge about 300 residents to leave a community about 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of Paradise, a town destroyed last year by the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century.
The storm followed more than a week of severe weather in the Pacific Northwest and was the latest in a series of storms that has all but eliminated drought-level dryness in California this winter. It’s fueled by an atmospheric river — a plume of moisture stretching across the Pacific Ocean nearly to Hawaii.
Nearly 37 percent of California had no level of drought or abnormal dryness, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday. About 10.5 percent of the state was in moderate drought, and just over 1.6 percent was in severe drought. The remainder was in the abnormally dry category. The numbers reflect data gathered up to Tuesday.
Atmospheric rivers are long bands of water vapor that form over an ocean and flow through the sky. Formed by winds associated with storms, they occur globally but are especially significant on the West Coast.
Even before the height of the storm, mandatory evacuations were ordered near the wildfire area in the Santa Ana Mountains where officials said there was a high risk of debris flows.
Tim Suber chose not to leave his hillside neighborhood in Lake Elsinore. He said Thursday that he has lost count of how many times his family has been evacuated between last summer’s devastating wildfire and this winter’s storms.
The rain was so heavy that “it sounds like a hundred bowling balls a minute are going down the creek” behind his house, Suber said. A neighbor had mud in his pool, but so far the area hadn’t lost power and culverts and washes were handling the runoff.
The storm delayed flights destined for San Francisco International Airport, closed sections of several key highways, including Highway 1 on the Central Coast, Interstate 5 north of Sacramento, and U.S. 395 in the snowy eastern Sierra Nevada.
Wintry weather closed Interstate 80 in California near the Nevada border and across much of Wyoming and sections of at least four other highways. Multiple avalanches disrupted highway traffic in northwestern Montana near the Idaho border.
In Colorado, high winds shattered windows and downed power poles, leaving thousands in Colorado Springs without power.
Associated Press writers Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco and Christopher Weber and Amanda Lee Myers in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Avenatti says he has new video evidence against R. Kelly
By SARA BURNETT
Friday, February 15
CHICAGO (AP) — Attorney Michael Avenatti said Thursday that he has given Chicago prosecutors new video evidence of R&B star R. Kelly having sex with an underage girl.
Avenatti said the video is not the same evidence used in Kelly’s 2008 trial, when he was acquitted on child pornography charges. CNN, which said it had viewed the footage, reported that the nearly 45-minute VHS tape shows a man who appears to be Kelly performing sex acts with a girl who refers to her body parts as 14 years old.
Tandra Simonton, spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, would not confirm or deny that the office is investigating.
Kelly and his attorney have for years denied allegations of sexual misconduct involving women and underage girls. His attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the latest allegations.
Avenatti is best known for representing porn star Stormy Daniels in a lawsuit against President Donald Trump. He said his office was retained in April 2018 by multiple people regarding allegations of sexual assault of minors by Kelly, whose legal name is Robert Kelly.
Avenatti said the video surfaced during a 10-month investigation that included witness interviews and examination of documents and evidence throughout the U.S. He told The Associated Press the person who provided the tape knew both Kelly and the female in the video. He also said he did not know where the person had kept the video or why it had not previously been provided to law enforcement.
Both Kelly and the victim are “clearly visible” throughout the recording, as is an identifying mole on Kelly’s back, and both of them refer multiple times to the girl being 14, Avenatti said in a statement.
Kelly can be heard on the tape directing the girl to perform sex acts, the statement said. The singer also “takes great pains” to adjust the camera to ensure that the acts are recorded “with specificity and at a limited distance,” according to the statement.
Foxx asked potential victims to come forward last month after Lifetime aired the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” which revisited the allegations against Kelly and put a spotlight on new ones.
Activists from the #MeToo and #MuteRKelly social media movements used the renewed attention to call for streaming services to drop Kelly’s music and promoters not to book any more concerts. They also held protests outside Kelly’s Chicago studio.
Kelly denied all the allegations, and his lawyer, Steve Greenberg, said Kelly was the victim of a TV hit piece. He said Kelly “never knowingly had sex with an underage woman, he never forced anyone to do anything, he never held anyone captive, he never abused anyone.”
Avenatti said his office is cooperating with Foxx’s office. He called Kelly a predator who has preyed on “young, vulnerable girls” for too long.
“The time has come for him to finally be held accountable for his actions,” he said.
Avenatti did not say when the video was recorded but said the acts depicted in it are within the Illinois statute of limitations for criminal charges.
Illinois lawmakers in 2017 eliminated all time limits for felony criminal sexual assault and sexual abuse crimes against children. The new law was prompted in part by decades-old sex abuse allegations against former Rep. Dennis Hastert, who was charged with banking violations because under Illinois law victims of sex abuse had 20 years from their 18th birthday to report the crime so it could be prosecuted.
More of The Associated Press’ coverage of the investigations into R. Kelly can be found at: https://www.apnews.com/RKelly .
Chicago police, Fox dispute reports about Smollett attack
By DON BABWIN
Friday, February 15
CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago police say local media reports that allege the attack against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett was a hoax are unconfirmed.
The reports surfaced late Thursday as detectives were questioning two “persons of interest” who were captured on surveillance cameras in the area of downtown Chicago where Smollett said he was attacked last month.
The two men aren’t considered suspects but may have been in the area when Smollett says he was attacked, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said earlier Thursday. Smollett said two masked men shouted racial and homophobic slurs before attacking him and putting a rope around his neck early on Jan. 29.
Guglielmi said Thursday night that Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson contacted at least one Chicago news outlet to say investigators have no evidence to support their reporting. The spokesman added that Johnson said the “supposed CPD sources are uninformed and inaccurate.”
Producers of the television drama also disputed media reports that Smollett’s character, Jamal Lyon, was being written off the show, calling the idea “patently ridiculous.”
“(Smollett) remains a core player on this very successful series and we continue to stand behind him,” 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Entertainment said in a statement late Thursday.
Smollett, who is black and openly gay, told ABC News in an interview that aired Thursday morning that he believes the people of interest were the ones who attacked him.
“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that that’s them,” he told the network. “Never did.”
No arrests have been made in the case. Police said they have not found surveillance video that shows the attack, but that the investigation is ongoing.
Smollett also told Robin Roberts of ABC News that people who question his narrative of the attack were “ridiculous” to think he would lie. Smollett has said he was attacked while out getting food at a Subway restaurant.
“I’ve heard that it was a date gone bad, which I also resent that narrative,” he said. “I’m not gonna go out and get a tuna sandwich and a salad to meet somebody. That’s ridiculous. And it’s offensive.”
The singer and actor said the attackers yelled “this is MAGA country,” referencing President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Smollett said earlier reports from some outlets that his attackers were wearing “MAGA” hats were inaccurate.
“I didn’t need to add anything like that,” he said. “I don’t need some MAGA hat as the cherry on top of some racist sundae.”
Smollett said he didn’t want to call police at first, but that his friend and creative director, Frank Gatson, called on his behalf. Smollett said he didn’t remove a rope from around his neck before police arrived “because I wanted them to see.”
He also said he didn’t initially want to give police his cellphone because the device contained private content and phone numbers.
Smollett later gave detectives heavily redacted phone records that police have said are insufficient for a criminal investigation.
See AP’s complete coverage of the Jussie Smollett case: https://www.apnews.com/JussieSmollett
Opinion: What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
by Kathy Kelly
Constant military surveillance of Afghans yields almost no real intelligence about the problems they face each day. An unusual group of volunteers uses a far different approach.
Hossein, a member of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, (APV), which hosted my recent visit to Afghanistan, rolled up his sleeve to show me a still-healing three-inch wound. Thieves had broken into his family home in Kabul. When they were discovered, one of the robbers stabbed Hossein.
An APV coordinator, Zekerullah, was robbed and beaten by assailants in broad daylight. Ata Khan lost his camera and mobile phone to a gang of young thieves who accosted him and eight other people in a public park during the daytime. Habib, a recent young graduate of the APV Street Kids School program, suffered blows from several attackers a month ago.
“I didn’t have anything they wanted to take,” he said, assuring me he is OK even though his lower back, where they beat him, is still sore.
Attacks like these—which all happened within the last six months—are predictable in a chaotic war-torn city that absorbs new refugees every day. Some have been forced off their land by drought and food scarcity, while others flee the terror of violence carried out by various warring parties, including the United States. In 2018, the United States dropped 7,632 bombs on Afghanistan, more than any other full calendar year since the U.S. Air Force began documenting its attacks in 2006.
According to the United Nations, in the first nine months of 2018, there was a 39 percent rise in the number of casualties from airstrikes, compared to the same period of the previous year. Within Kabul, violent bomb attacks by the Taliban and other groups have become horribly normal. Rising unemployment rates, now at 25 to 30 percent, also afflict people. The International Labor Organization, reporting two months ago, said Afghanistan has the highest unemployment rate of any country in the world. My four young friends are very lucky, on many counts, that they are still alive.
And they’re trying to make things better. Two days ago, 35 young people gathered for the seventh of twelve weekly orientation classes. Topics covered include ecological sanity, combating inequality, confronting world hunger and abolishing war. Muhammad Ali, age twenty, teaches the course. The APV maintain a waiting list of young people wanting to join the next cycle of classes.
“The people coming to the class learn information they’ve never heard about before,” Muhammad Ali says. “We think about ways to make peace and to live with respect for nature.”
U.S. efforts to improve Afghanistan’s decaying education institutions have been woefully inadequate. Reconstruction projects have been riddled with corruption. Millions of dollars have been poured into various militias, while seemingly endless shipments of weapons arrive in the country. Drones and military blimps prowl the skies, supposedly in search of “bad guys.”
But the militarization of the society and the constant surveillance from remote cameras yield almost no real intelligence concerning the problems ordinary Afghans face each day, as they try to survive.
Negotiations over Afghanistan’s future are being guided by people in charge of huge arsenals and sophisticated intelligence networks. The outcome would be better if U.S. leadership would take an interest in the APV’s approach to “surveillance.”
In stark contrast to “intelligence” operations carried out by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan, the APV continue building their database, recording details about destitute and impoverished families whom they invite into projects aiming to help needy families subsist.
Traveling on foot, the Afghan Peace Volunteers gather their “intelligence” by sitting on the floor with families in precarious homes, respectfully collecting information in spiral notebooks. They ask about rent expenses, access to clean water, and whether the family can afford beans over the course of a week. Families who have little-to-no income and who must depend on a child’s earnings for food and rent are especially welcome to join the APV Street Kids School.
This year, more than 100 children have gathered every Friday to study reading, writing, and math. Equally important to the APV are the weekly nonviolence classes organized around themes mirroring the course taught by Muhammad Ali.
The children apply what they learn by participating in APV projects. They help plant trees, tend gardens, and serve meals to day laborers. They join in clean-up projects along the city’s riverfront. Every year, they climb a high hill, carrying kites, as part of their “Fly Kites, Not Drones” campaign.
Families whose children participate in the Street Kids School receive a vital monthly contribution of rice, cooking oil, and beans. The children know they are helping their families as well as themselves. When I ask what fuels her energy to coordinate classes and activities at the Street Kids School, Masoma, who has been with the school since its inception, responds immediately: “It’s my passion.”
Concerned for the future of the 100 children who finished their three-year program last year, APV members have begun working on ways to help them gain skills in various trades. They’re also forming cooperatives to enable future employment.
Where you stand determines what you see. I admire the APV blend of idealism and practicality, doing “the things that make for peace,” even as they face daily anxieties in the chaos and upheaval that mark life in a war zone. They take time, day in, day out, to notice and care about people in need. They aren’t afraid to share resources. Facing violence, they control the urge to retaliate. And they clearly see the futility of entrusting their futures and those of the neediest people they know to predatory power brokers who have already plundered and killed people in murderous wars.
Kathy Kelly, syndicated by PeaceVoice, co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence. While in Kabul, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers.