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U.S. House passes hurricane relief bill after tense day for Texas delegation, Abbott

Members of the Texas congressional delegation from both parties discuss funding for recovery from Harvey at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 7, 2017.

WASHINGTON — It was a tension-filled 24-hour scramble for Texas’ congressional delegation before the latest disaster relief spending vote, as Gov. Greg Abbott entered the fray in the effort to secure more funds to help the state rebuild after Hurricane Harvey.

The bill, which the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed Thursday afternoon in a 353-69 vote, is expected to be taken up by the U.S. Senate next week when that chamber returns from recess.

All House Democrats — including Texans — voted for the bill. Six Texas Republicans – U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, Kenny Marchant of Coppell, John Ratcliffe of Heath and Roger Williams of Austin – voted against the spending measure.

But ahead of Thursday’s vote, there was more than a day of frustration and second-guessing. Some in Texas’ 36-member House delegation questioned whether their state’s needs were being neglected as Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria, and California, which is combating devastating wildfires, faced more dire situations. An all-hands-on-deck late-night meeting with key members of the delegation and House leadership focused on a letter the delegation sent to leadership last week requesting $18.7 billion in aid.

“We were anxious to see those items included,” said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston. “When they were not, we were concerned, but we understood this bill was essential to keep the flow of federal funding intact and uninterrupted.”

Thursday’s bill included $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s main relief fund and the cancellation of $16 billion in debt owed by the troubled National Flood Insurance Program, which thousands of Texans are expecting payouts from after Harvey.

“If this did not pass, the flood insurance program would run out of money  and would not be able to pay off insurance claims, and that would not be acceptable,” Culberson said.

While the vote was far from a nail biter, there was discussion as late as Thursday morning that the bulk of the Texas House delegation could vote against the bill to protest a lack of funding for the Texas rebuilding effort.

The scramble began Wednesday afternoon, when Abbott publicly urged the Texas delegation to oppose a spending plan that probably would direct most of its money to the relief efforts for Puerto Rico. After a late-night meeting and call with the U.S. speaker of the House, Abbott backed off on his opposition  — but the flare-up left many in the delegation concerned about future aid.

With most of the $36.5 billion directed to FEMA’s main relief fund, Abbott and some in the delegation assumed most of the bill’s funding would go to Puerto Rico, much of which remains without power.

Abbott initially argued that the Texans should have fought for the standalone $18.7 billion request that he and nearly all of the state’s members of Congress had officially requested last week. 

“I am disappointed that most members of the Texas congressional delegation have agreed to go ahead and vote for this bill, from what I know at this time, when Texas needs this money,” Abbott told the Houston Chronicle in a Wednesday interview. “It appears the Texas delegation will let themselves be rolled by the House of Representatives.”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke with Abbott about his concerns Wednesday night, a conversation first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

Ryan and two other members of House leadership – U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise – also met with Houston-area Republican members and several Texas Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.

Ryan and other House leaders assured the Texans, including Abbott, that more federal money is on the way.

“Governor Abbott was assured by House leadership that as soon as November, Texas will get the disaster assistance funding we’re requesting for Army Corps of Engineer projects, Community Development Block Grants, and funding for dredging Texas ports, expanding bayous and critical flood mitigation projects, among other priorities,” Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said in a statement.

“The Governor will hold House leadership to that promise on behalf of Texans whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Harvey. In the meantime, the Governor and the Texas delegation will continue working together as a team to help Texans recover and rebuild.”

Delegation split

There were essentially two camps in Congress over Abbott’s last-minute lobbying, according to interviews with about a dozen sources inside and beyond the Texas delegation.

One group agreed with the governor that Texas was losing out on major funds as dire straits in Puerto Rico took precedence over efforts to rebuild in areas ravaged by Harvey.

While few in the delegation begrudged funding for Puerto Rico, there is a growing concern that the recent onslaught of natural disasters in other parts of the country will cause memories of the calamity in Houston to fade in the minds of other members of Congress and their constituents.

In this camp, Abbott’s sentiment was privately cheered as giving voice to a frustration that is bipartisan and stretches beyond Texas. Members of the Florida delegation told the Tribune that they, too, were concerned about their state’s capacity to rebuild, particularly with the citrus industry, given the federal aid offered thus far.

In the other camp, there was obvious ire with Abbott’s comments to the Chronicle, particularly his urging the delegation needed to get “a stiff spine,” which was interpreted by some as accusing Texans in Congress of being spineless.

Culberson pushed back against that notion.

“We still don’t have a complete account of the scale of the damage,” said the Houston congressman, who added that providing a comprehensive account of the cost at this point was “not possible.”

Some of the tensions over the version of the bill that reached the House floor Thursday emerged from an impression that the chamber’s GOP leadership took marching orders from the White House and cut House appropriators out of the process.

“Leadership forced on the committee a funding bill that lacked enthusiastic support from seven committee members from states affected,” a senior Appropriations Committee member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely, told the Tribune.

Despite the unease within the delegation Thursday, there remains hope that Texas will ultimately secure tens of billions of more dollars in federal funding in the coming months. Since the storm, some estimates for what’s needed for a full recovery have reached as much as $150 billion.

Patrick Svitek and Claire Allbright contributed to this report. 

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Texas man travels to Orlando to sexually assault 9-year-old girl, police say

A 64-year-old man from Texas was arrested Saturday after Orlando detectives foiled his plans to meet a 9-year-old girl for sex, according to the Orlando Police Department.

An Orlando police detective was working undercover online in September and posted an advertisement on an e-commerce website as the Orlando parents of a 9-year-old girl. The ad referenced meeting “experienced parents to learn new things from about raising little ones,” according to the arrest report.

Mark Andrew Nichols, of Austin, Texas, responded to the detective’s post the same day it went live. He said he was “very interested” and wanted to talk more, the detective said. During the course of a week, Nichols sent several emails and texts to the fictitious parents expressing his interest in meeting, according to the arrest report.

About eight days later, the detective responded to Nichols posing as the father of the girl. The fake father explained to Nichols that he and his wife were trying to get their 9-year-old daughter into modeling and asked him what types of “interests” he had about the girl, the detective wrote in the report.

“When you say interests, are you asking generally? Or sexually?” Nichols responded to the father.

The suspect added that he was “fascinated” with incest and it was an “extreme turn on” for him. Nichols told the detective that he wanted to have sex with the 9-year-old but wanted to make sure the girl’s parents were “comfortable’ with it first. He told the detective posing as the father that he would love to “watch” or participate, according to the report.

Nichols added, “I am extremely respectful about all of this,” and said he was planning a trip to the Orlando area soon and would like to meet the family, according to the report.

The detective, posing as the father, asked what Nichols would like to do with the girl.

According to the arrest report, Nichols responded:

“I would like to visit you all. I am interested in having sex with (child decoy’s name) and (the child decoy’s mother’s name). I am bi so I am open to some bi play with you if you are interested. If you are not, that is fine. I would maybe like to watch you have sex with (the child). Be there. Touch and re-assure her. Then have sex with her myself. Would (the child) want to watch me with mom?” He further texted, “I want to be respectful and just provide you all with a fun, safe experience.”

Further text messages between the decoy parents and the suspect were graphic.

The detective, posing as the mother, asked Nichols if he had a daughter or had ever done any of the things he described to his own children. Nichols said he “enjoyed bath time” with his own daughter, but “back then, I would just never do anything,” according to the report.

On Saturday, Nichols flew to Orlando and when he arrived to meet with the girl and her parents he was arrested. He brought Skittles and Sour Patch Kids to the meeting, according to the report.

Nichols is charged with attempted sexual battery on a child under 12, attempted lewd or lascivious conduct, solicitation of a minor via a computer, obscene communication, traveling to meet a minor and unlawful use of a two-way device.

Nichols was booked into the Orange County Jail. According to jail records, he is being held without bail.

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Mom, older brother charged after 11-year-old found smoking meth

An 11-year-old boy was rushed to the hospital after smoking meth with his 21-year-old brother and a 16-year-old friend, according to the Baker County Sheriff’s Office.

That older brother, Brandon Vankuren, was arrested on drug charges, and the boys’ mother, Angela Ritter, was charged with child neglect and possession of drugs.

The arrests came after a Baker County deputy noticed Vankuren with his brother and the teenager acting strange at 5:30 a.m. last Monday outside the Macedonia Convenience Store, north of Macclenny. While he was questioning the boys, the deputy noticed a baggie in one of their pockets with a substance that looked suspicious.

The arrest report shows Vankuren and the 16-year-old admitted to possessing methamphetamine. And all three of confessed to smoking the drug.

Paramedics rushed the 11-year-old to a hospital.

“I couldn’t believe it. Deputy knocked on my door and told me,” Ritter’s father-in-law, James Wilkerson, said. “I went down to the hospital and his heart rate was real high, and I sat with him until he was OK and I brought him home.”

Detectives say they arrested Vankuren and Ritter during the investigation on a previous drug warrant. After questioning Ritter, deputies charged her with child neglect.

Wilkerson told News4Jax it’s Vankuren’s fault that his younger brother got involved with drugs.

“She honestly, really didn’t know that they had snuck out of the house that night,” Wilkerson said. “And I knew that his brother was on drugs real bad, but instead of running him off, I was kind of respecting her by letting him stay here.”

Wilkerson said the 11-year-old is doing fine after he was released from the hospital. Wilkerson said, for now, he’ll help take care of the boy and hope the drugs stay away from his house.

Deputies said the 11-year-old will not face charges because he did not have any drugs in his possession, just in his system.

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Woman caught on camera stomping small dog inside elevator

A South Florida woman has been arrested after surveillance video inside an elevator in Aventura showed her repeatedly kicking and abusing a small dog, authorities announced on Thursday.

Police said the incident happened Sept. 20 inside an elevator at Artech Condominiums at 2950 NE 188th St.

Police said employees at the building saw the surveillance video and notified police.

Detectives identified Keevonna Wilson, 24, as the woman in the video and arrested her Sept. 26 on an animal cruelty charge.

“There’s no excuse at all to do that to a small innocent animal. None,” Aventura police Sgt. Chris Goranitis said.

According to an arrest report, Wilson was upset with her dog because she went to the bathroom in the elevator.

“You never take it out on an animal. That’s horrible,” neighbor Paula Riordan said.

The dog, Chasity, was removed by Miami-Dade Animal Services investigators and received medical treatment.

According to the dog’s medical report that was taken Sept. 27, the dog appeared to generally be in good health, but appeared to be in pain when her abdomen and lower back were touched.

The report stated that the dog had bruises on her abdominal area and the outside part of her ears.

Miami-Dade County Animal Services spokeswoman Lilian Bohorquez said in an email that the dog is being cared for at a Miami-Dade Animal Services-approved foster home.

Once Miami-Dade County Animal Services is legally granted custody of Chasity, they will place her up for adoption.

Local 10 News reporter Michael Seiden reached out to Wilson, but she stopped responding to his text messages once he identified himself.

***WARNING: Video contains footage that some may find disturbing***

 

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How scammers are using homeowners to defraud FEMA

Scammers could be using your identity to get payouts for flood damage that doesn’t exist.

Inspectors did not knock on one victim’s door before leaving, “Sorry we missed you” letter on the door. In another case, inspectors were taking pictures of a property when the homeowner went out to ask what they were doing and why.

In both cases, the inspectors informed the homeowners that they were following up on a FEMA claim for assistance that had been filed for their addresses. Neither homeowner had filed, because their homes had no flood damage.

Consumer expert Amy Davis reached out to FEMA, whose officials said they have heard several similar stories. They said homeowners should report the information to the FEMA Fraud hotline at 866-720-5721.

If someone claims to be a FEMA representative and is on your property, you should always ask to see their FEMA employee ID badge. A FEMA shirt or jacket is not proof of identity. All FEMA representatives, including contracted inspectors, will have a laminated photo ID.

You should also file a police report and put fraud alerts or freezes on your accounts with all three credit bureaus.

One of the homeowners confirmed with FEMA that whoever filled out the FEMA application had his Social Security number. The only information that did not belong to him was the telephone number and email address. The fraudster requested that FEMA send money to them via an electronic funds transfer using a Green Dot bank account.

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Police find man’s body stuffed in closet after victim ‘tortured’ to death

Three days after Hurricane Irma impacted South Florida, police officers conducting a welfare check entered a storm-shuttered Hollywood apartment complex, noticed blood stains and found the decomposed body of a man wrapped in a comforter in a bedroom closet.

A police report obtained Wednesday by Local 10 News details the graphic events that led to the death of Ariel Gonzalez and subsequent arrest of Travis Watson.

The body was found Sept. 13 at an apartment on Lincoln Street.

A friend of the victim called police after she said she had been unable to get in touch with him in the days after Irma, so she went to his apartment and noticed a foul smell coming from inside.

According to the report, Detective Desiree McClintock observed chairs positioned along a wall in the dining room. One of the chairs was blocking the door, and another was overturned, McClintock said.

McClintock could see blood spatter and feces in several areas throughout the bedroom, as well as drag marks on the floor leading to the closet where the body was found, the report said.

“The deceased appeared to have some body parts wrapped in plastic and swathed in a comforter, with only a small portion of the head visible,” McClintock wrote in the report. “The visible part of the head had obvious signs of injury.”

Neighbors who were interviewed by detectives said they saw two men going in and out of the apartment during the hurricane. One of them was described as wearing a long, blond wig.

Residents later identified Watson, 30, and the other man from photographs that a detective showed them. Police asked Local 10 not to release the identity of the second suspect, who remains at large.

During an interview with detectives, Watson said Gonzalez, 50, got their attention by whistling at them to follow him inside his apartment. Watson said he and Gonzalez had anal sex, which angered the unnamed suspect.

“Once Watson came back into the living room, (the other man) accused of Watson of cheating on him,” the report said.

Watson said Gonzalez then tried to seduce his partner, but he refused Gonzalez’s sexual advances, according to detectives. Still angry with Gonzalez for having sex with Watson, the man followed Gonzalez into the bedroom and punched him, Watson told detectives.

The second suspect asked Gonzalez where he kept his money, but when he didn’t answer, the man “tortured him,” Watson said.

Watson told detectives that his partner beat Gonzalez with a hanger from the closet and a broomstick from the kitchen. Watson went on to describe how the man used an extension cord to knock Gonzalez off the bed and tied the victim’s hands together with a sheet, unsuccessfully, and then a belt. Watson said the man then “poured hot grease over him.”

“He tortured him and beat him to death,” Watson said of his partner, according to the report.

Watson said he tried to stop the attack once the grease was poured on Gonzalez, but he noticed that the victim “had turned purple and his tongue was sticking out.”

Realizing that Gonzalez was dead, Watson and his partner placed the body in the bathtub to wash off the blood and evidence, and then carried Gonzalez into the living room, where they wrapped him in a sheet and industrial shrink wrap, Watson told detectives.

“Once he was folded and secured into position, he was concealed in the bedroom closet,” the report said.

Watson and the other man tried to clean the crime scene by placing items inside clear plastic bags they found in the kitchen, including the towels they used to wipe up the blood, he told detectives.

During the attack, Watson told detectives, he stole the victim’s wallet and cash. Watson said he and his partner left the apartment about 7 a.m. Sept. 12.

Five days later, Fort Lauderdale police said they found a man who matched the description of Watson sitting at a bus bench, drinking a beer from a brown paper bag.

During a search of Watson’s property, police found a wallet that held a gray card with Gonzalez’s name on it, the report said.

Watson was arrested on multiple charges, including robbery and kidnapping. Detectives are still searching for his partner.

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Dreamers greet DACA renewal deadline with anxiety and unanswered questions

DACA supporters held a press conference in front of the Texas Attorney General's Office in Austin on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, after the Trump administration announced the program was ending. 

For more than 40,000 young undocumented immigrants, Thursday could be marked by a mad scramble to submit renewal applications for a federal program that’s shielded them from deportation for years.

The day marks the deadline for beneficiaries of the Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, to submit renewal applications for the program that began in 2012. It awards a two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation proceedings to undocumented immigrants who came to the country before they were 16 years old and were 30 or younger as of June 2012.

President Donald Trump announced last month that he would keep a campaign promise by ending the program early next year, though he said he’s sympathetic to the young immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” and wants Congress to come up with a solution. Since the program launched, it has benefited more than 800,000 recipients — including more than 124,000 Texans. As of Wednesday morning, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had received 112,000 out of a potential 154,000 renewals.

“It’s been a very anxiety-producing time” since last month’s announcement, said Adam Luna, the communications director for United We Dream, a Washington-based advocacy group. “We’ve had a lot of educational and social media materials sent out. We want to engage people in the process and remind them they’re not alone, which they’re not.”

Thursday’s deadline only applies to DACA recipients whose benefits expire before March 5, the date Trump stated the program will end. Renewals will be honored for two years after the date they are approved. But tens of thousands who don’t fit that time frame are expected to be out of luck as soon as their most recent DACA expires.

Luna said that even among those who are eligible to renew, the cost to re-file, $495, has proven a barrier to many applicants. That led United We Dream and other organizations, including the Mexican consulate offices in Austin and Dallas, to launch scholarship drives to help Dreamers pay the dues. As of Thursday, United We Dream alone was able to fund about 1,600 applications, Luna said.

Nicholas Hoffman, a DACA recipient who came to the country from Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1998, said he’s done without meals and gas money in the past to foot the bill for his renewal fee. He filed before Thursday’s deadline but said he’s still worried about not getting approved.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be accepted or not because I procrastinated a little too long,” he said. But Hoffman said he understands why Trump rescinded the program, and why Obama created it.

“Obama did do it illegally,” he said, referring to the former president creating DACA by executive order instead of waiting on Congress to act. “But he did it with good intentions. That’s why nobody questioned Obama for doing it. I understand why Trump is doing this because it’s kind of an ‘F. U.’ to the old administration. But at the same time, he’s toying with over 800,000 people’s lives. That’s what makes my blood boil.”

Hoffman’s view of DACA’s legality matches that of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who helped force Trump’s hand on the program. Months earlier, Paxton urged the U.S. Department of Justice to end the program, claiming it was an unlawful overreach by Obama. Paxton and nine other state attorneys general wrote in a June 29 letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that should the program stay intact, they would formally challenge it’s legality in court on Sept. 5, the day the Trump administration announced plans to end the program.

While he waits on word from the federal government on his renewal, Hoffman and tens of thousands like him will be watching to see what Congress — and Trump — decide to do over the next five months.

The White House met with Democrats over DACA last month, but the meeting ended with mixed signals being sent in all directions. Trump had dinner at the White House with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California. Democrats later announced they had a deal to protect the Dreamers without funding another one of the president’s campaign promises: his “big, beautiful wall” on the southern border. But Trump quickly denied any deal was reached. Since then, Dreamers and their supporters have demanded a “clean” DREAM act – legislation that will codify DACA but that doesn’t include ramped up enforcement, funding for a wall or for additional Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Border Patrol agents.

“We need to have Washington move away from [legislation] where a group of immigrants gets the boot taken off their necks but punches another group of immigrants in the face,” Luna said.

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Judge blocks Texas secretary of state from giving voter information to Trump commission

People wait in line at the George Washington Carver Library in Austin, Texas, to cast their vote on Election Day 2016.

A Texas district judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos from handing voter information to President Donald Trump‘s voter fraud investigation commission.

The order, which came out Tuesday, adds Texas to a growing list of states not complying with the president’s investigation into the 2016 elections, which Trump says suffered from large-scale voter fraud.

Judge Tim Sulak of the Austin-based 353rd Texas Civil District Court issued the order in response to a lawsuit filed July 20 by the League of Women Voters of Texas, its former president Ruthann Geer and the Texas NAACP against Pablos and Keith Ingram, the Texas Elections Division director in the the secretary of state’s office. The lawsuit seeks to stop the state from handing over voter data from the state’s computerized voter registration files to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The suit argues that doing so would reveal voters’ personal information, “which may be used to solicit, harass, or otherwise infringe upon the privacy of Texas voters.”

The secretary of state’s office didn’t immediately return a request for comment for this article.

The League’s current president, Elaine Wiant, said the organization is especially concerned that releasing the data could make millions of voters’ personal information public, making it vulnerable to commercial use. Texas law forbids public voter information from being used commercially, but with the presidential commission, Wiant said “there is no guarantee how it will get used.” Wiant also said the League is concerned that releasing the data would make voters’ birthdates public.

“In today’s world, that is just way too much information to be made available to the public,” Wiant said. “There are serious security concerns.”

The order, which expires Oct. 17 or with further order from the court, says that handing over voter information could cause “irreparable” injury. Without “appropriate safeguards,” the order argues, the data is likely to become public, potentially violating voters’ privacy rights, their interests in “avoiding commercial solicitation, chilling of their First Amendment rights, and the diminution of their efforts to encourage voting.”

Trump launched the commission by executive order in May following his unsubstantiated claim that “millions” of votes were cast illegally. The White House previously told The Texas Tribune that Trump “wants to ensure that the integrity of all elections, which are the cornerstone of our democracy, is preserved.”

The commission sent requests on June 28 to all states’ secretaries of state for a wide array of voter information. Several states, led by both parties, immediately refused to hand over data, with Mississippi’s Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann famously saying the presidential commission could “jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Pablos, however, said at the time: “The Secretary of State’s office will provide the Election Integrity Commission with public information and will protect the private information of Texas citizens while working to maintain the security and integrity of our state’s elections system. As always, my office will continue to exercise the utmost care whenever sensitive voter information is required to be released by state or federal law.”

The hearing for the suit is set for Oct. 16. Wiant said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the case.

“It’s just hard to know,” she said.

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North Korean workers prepare seafood for U.S. stores, restaurants

The workers wake up each morning on metal bunk beds in fluorescent-lit Chinese dormitories, North Koreans outsourced by their government to process seafood that ends up in American stores and homes.

Privacy is forbidden. They cannot leave their compounds without permission. They must take the few steps to the factories in pairs or groups, with North Korean minders ensuring no one strays. They have no access to telephones or email. And they are paid a fraction of their salaries, while the rest – as much as 70 percent – is taken by North Korea’s government.

This means Americans buying salmon for dinner at Walmart or ALDI may inadvertently have subsidized the North Korean government as it builds its nuclear weapons program, an AP investigation has found. Their purchases may also have supported what the United States calls “modern day slavery” – even if the jobs are highly coveted by North Koreans.

At a time when North Korea faces sanctions on many exports, the government is sending tens of thousands of workers worldwide, bringing in revenue estimated at anywhere from $200 million to $500 million a year. That could account for a sizable portion of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, which South Korea says have cost more than $1 billion.

While the presence of North Korean workers overseas has been documented, the AP investigation reveals for the first time that some products they make go to the United States, which is now a federal crime. AP also tracked the products made by North Korean workers to Canada, Germany and elsewhere in the European Union.

Besides seafood, AP found North Korean laborers making wood flooring and sewing garments in factories in Hunchun. Those industries also export to the U.S. from Hunchun, but AP did not track specific shipments except for seafood.

American companies are not allowed to import products made by North Korean workers anywhere in the world, under a law signed by President Donald Trump in early August. Importers or company officials could face criminal charges for using North Korean workers or materially benefiting from their work, according to the law.

Every Western company involved that responded to AP’s requests for comment said forced labor and potential support for North Korea’s weapons program were unacceptable in their supply chains. Many said they were going to investigate, and some said they had already cut off ties with suppliers.

John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, the largest seafood trade association in the U.S., said his group was urging all of its companies to immediately re-examine their supply chains “to ensure that wages go to the workers, and are not siphoned off to support a dangerous dictator.”

“While we understand that hiring North Korean workers may be legal in China,” said Connelly, “we are deeply concerned that any seafood companies could be inadvertently propping up the despotic regime.”

___

EXPORTING LABOR

North Koreans overseas work in construction in the Gulf states, shipbuilding in Poland, logging in Russia. In Uruguay, authorities told AP, about 90 North Koreans crewed fishing boats last year. U.N. sanctions now bar countries from authorizing new work permits for North Korean workers but do not target those already abroad.

Roughly 3,000 North Koreans are believed to work in Hunchun, a far northeast Chinese industrial hub just a few miles from the borders of both North Korea and Russia. Signs in this mercantile city are in Chinese, Korean and Russian. Korean restaurants advertise cold noodles, a Northern favorite, and Russian truckers stop into nightclubs with black bread on the menu.

In an effort to boost the local economy, China and North Korea agreed several years ago to allow factories to contract for groups of North Korean workers, establishing an industrial zone with bargain-priced labor. Since then dozens of fish processing companies have opened in Hunchun, along with other manufacturers. Using North Korean workers is legal in China, and not considered forced labor.

It’s unknown what conditions are like in all factories in the region, but AP reporters saw North Koreans living and working in several of the Hunchun facilities under the watchful eye of their overseers. The workers are not allowed to speak to reporters. However, the AP identified them as North Korean in numerous ways: the portraits of North Korea’s late leaders they have in their rooms, their distinctive accents, interviews with multiple Hunchun businesspeople. The AP also reviewed North Korean laborer documents, including copies of a North Korean passport, a Chinese work permit and a contract with a Hunchun company.

When a reporter approached a group of North Koreans – women in tight, bright polyester clothes preparing their food at a Hunchun garment factory – one confirmed that she and some others were from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Then a minder arrived, ordering the workers to be silent: “Don’t talk to him!”

Their contracts are typically for two or three years, and they are not allowed to go home early. The restrictions they work under make them very valuable employees. North Korean laborers are “more stable” than Chinese workers, said Li Shasha, a sales manager at Yanbian Shenghai Industry and Trade Co., a major Hunchun seafood processor.

Chinese workers have job protections that give them the right to take time off, while North Korean workers complete their contracts with few complaints, rare sick days and almost no turnover.

“They won’t take a leave for some personal reason,” said Li, whose company shipped containers of squid and snow crab to the U.S and Canada in July and August.

They are also often considered cheaper. Li said that at the Yanbian Shenghai factory, the North Koreans’ salary is the same as for the Chinese, roughly $300 to $385 per month. But others say North Koreans are routinely paid about $300 a month compared to up to $540 for Chinese.

Either way, the North Korean government of Kim Jong Un keeps anywhere from half to 70 percent of their pay, according to scholars who have surveyed former laborers. It passes on to the workers as little as $90 per month – or roughly 46 cents per hour.

The work can be exhausting, with shifts lasting up to 12 hours and most workers getting just one day off each week. At some factories, laborers work hunched over tables as North Korean political slogans are blasted from waist-high loudspeakers.

Through dozens of interviews, observation, trade records and other public and confidential documents, AP identified three seafood processors that employ North Koreans and export to the U.S.: Joint venture Hunchun Dongyang Seafood Industry & Trade Co. Ltd. & Hunchun Pagoda Industry Co. Ltd. distributed globally by Ocean One Enterprise; Yantai Dachen Hunchun Seafood Products, and Yanbian Shenghai Industry & Trade Co. Ltd.

They’re getting their seafood from China, Russia and, in some cases like snow crab, Alaska. Although AP saw North Korean workers at Hunchun Dongyang, manager Zhu Qizhen said they don’t hire North Korean workers any more and refused to give details. The other Chinese companies didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

Shipping records seen by the AP show more than 100 cargo containers of seafood, more than 2,000 tons, were sent to the U.S. and Canada this year from the factories where North Koreans were working in China.

Packages of snow crab, salmon fillets, squid rings and more were imported by American distributors, including Sea-Trek Enterprises in Rhode Island, and The Fishin’ Company in Pennsylvania. Sea-Trek exports seafood to Europe, Australia, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. The Fishin’ Company supplies retailers and food service companies, as well as supermarkets.

The Fishin’ Company said it cut its ties with Hunchun processors and got its last shipment this summer, but seafood can remain in the supply chain for more than a year. Owners of both companies said they were very concerned about the North Korean laborers, and planned to investigate.

Often the seafood arrives in generic packaging, but some was already branded in China with familiar names like Walmart or Sea Queen, a seafood brand sold exclusively at ALDI supermarkets, which has 1,600 stores across 35 states. There’s no way to say where a particular package ends up, nor what percentage of the factories’ products wind up in the U.S.

Walmart spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said company officials learned in an audit a year ago that there were potential labor problems at a Hunchun factory, and that they had banned their suppliers, including The Fishin’ Company, from getting seafood processed there. She said The Fishin’ Company had “responded constructively” but did not specify how.

Some U.S. brands and companies had indirect ties to the North Korean laborers in Hunchun, including Chicken of the Sea, owned by Thai Union. Trade records show shipments came from a sister company of the Hunchun factory in another part of China, where Thai Union spokeswoman Whitney Small says labor standards are being met and the employees are all Chinese. Small said the sister companies should not be penalized.

Shipments also went to two Canadian importers, Morgan Foods and Alliance Seafood, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Boxes at the factories had markings from several major German supermarket chains and brands – All-Fish distributors, REWE and Penny grocers and Icewind brand. REWE Group, which also owns the Penny chain, said that they used to do business with Hunchun Dongyang but the contract has expired. All the companies that responded said their suppliers were forbidden to use forced labor.

___

HIDDEN LIVES

North Korean workers in China are under much more intense surveillance than those in Russia and the Middle East, experts say. That’s likely because Pyongyang fears they could follow in the footsteps of tens of thousands of their countrymen who escaped to China, or they could interact with South Koreans living in China.

“If a North Korean wants to go overseas, China is his or her least favorable option,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in South Korea. “Because in China, (factories) have essentially prison-like conditions.”

The vast majority of the workers in Hunchun are women in their 20s. Most are thought to be hired back home by labor brokers, who often demand bribes for overseas jobs. The laborers arrive in China already divided into work teams, each led by a North Korean overseer, and remain isolated even from their own employers.

“They’re not allowed to mingle with the Chinese,” said a senior manager at a Hunchun company that employs many North Koreans. He spoke on condition he not be identified, fearing repercussions on his business. “We can only communicate with their team leaders.”

In a sense, the North Korean workers in China remain in North Korea, under constant surveillance.

“They only talk about what they need to,” said a medical worker who confirmed their nationality and had cared for some, and also spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for angering Chinese authorities. “They don’t talk about what they might be thinking.”

They live crowded into rooms often above or next door to the factories, in a world awash in North Korean rituals.

“Let’s Follow the Ideas!” of North Korea’s leaders, urges a poster at the workers’ dormitory at Hunchun Pagoda. Portraits of the country’s first two rulers, worshipped as god-like in the deeply isolated nation, gaze down from otherwise-bare walls. Laundry is often hanging up to dry and potted plants – mostly what appear to be herbs, though one room at Hunchun Pagoda has bright yellow carnations – sit on many windowsills.

It’s a world of concrete. The factory buildings and dormitories at Hunchun Pagoda are grey slabs of unpainted concrete. The yard where the women play volleyball in their free time is concrete. The street outside the front gate is concrete.

At most factories the women prepare their own food and make tubs of their own kimchi, the spicy cabbage dish beloved in both Koreas. Their televisions cannot tune in Chinese programming, and they organize their own sports and singing contests on their days off.

Nearly every compound has a workers’ garden. There are a half dozen rows of corn at Hunchun Pagoda, and kidney beans and melons at Yantai.

A booming Chinese economy means money has come even to cities like Hunchun, where six-lane roads and factories bump up against cornfields that, a year later, often make way for yet another factory. Mercedes are now regular sights on the road and 30-foot billboards at malls show bone-thin models in fur coats.

But when the North Koreans are allowed to leave their compounds, they go to the city’s working-class street markets, where vendors set their wares on plastic sheets or folding tables, or sell directly from the backs of trucks.

Chinese merchants say most North Koreans are very careful about their finances. For instance, while they splurge on expensive spices imported from South Korea, they also buy Chinese noodles that cost less than half of the South Korean brands.

On a recent morning, a group of about 70 North Korean women walked to a Hunchun street market from the nearby Hong Chao Zhi Yi garment factory. They asked about prices for watermelons and plums, browsed through cheap pantyhose and bought steamed corn-on-the-cob for 1 Chinese yuan (about 16 cents) apiece.

As the late summer chill set in one evening, a dozen or so women from Hunchun Pagoda played volleyball in the quiet road in front of the compound’s gate, scrimmaging in the pool of light thrown by the street lamp.

A train horn blew. The women shouted to one another while they played. As a car with a foreigner drove by, one laughingly called out: “Bye-bye!”

___

PROPPING UP NORTH KOREA

Estimates vary on how many North Koreans work overseas and how much money they bring in.

South Korea’s intelligence agency estimated in 2014 that 50,000 to 60,000 work in about 50 countries, most in China and Russia. That number may now be up to 100,000, according to Lim Eul Chul, a scholar at South Korea’s Kyungnam University who has interviewed numerous former laborers. Estimates that their labor brings in revenue of $200 million to $500 million annually to the North Korean government come from scholars, who base their findings on academic research papers, South Korean intelligence reports and sources in the Chinese business community.

That has made the workers a significant and reliable source of revenue for the North Korean regime as it struggles beneath the weight of increasing UN sanctions, which the U.S. estimates could cost Pyongyang upwards of $1.5 billion each year in lost export revenues. In the last month alone, China has said it’s cracking down on North Korean exports, businesses and joint ventures, but it has a long history of not enforcing sanctions in practice.

Despite the pay and restrictions, these are highly sought-after jobs in North Korea, a chance to move up a rickety economic ladder and see a bit of the world beyond the closed-in nation.

Their monthly earnings in China are far more than many would earn in North Korea today, where official salaries often equal $1 per month. Experts estimate most families live on about $40-$60 a month, with much of their earnings coming from trading in the growing network of unofficial markets.

And there are plenty of benefits to working overseas. The laborers can use their earnings to start businesses in these markets, and can buy the status symbols of the slowly-growing middle class – Chinese rice cookers, watches, TVs, tableware – selling them back home or using them as bribes. Simply going abroad is so rare that returning workers can find themselves highly sought-after when it comes time to marry.

Lim Il, a North Korean refugee, bribed a series of officials – with 20 bottles of liquor, 30 packs of cigarettes and restaurant gift cards – to get a job as a construction worker in Kuwait City in the late 1990s, when North Korea was still suffering through a horrific famine.

“I felt like I had won the lottery,” he said. “People fantasized about getting overseas labor jobs.”

Lim, a man in his late 40s who fled to South Korea in 1997 and now writes novels about the North, said that even though he was never paid his $120-a-month salary, he was happy to simply get beef soup and rice every day.

“Unless you were an idiot, you wouldn’t give up such an opportunity,” he said. While he never thought of himself as a slave, looking back he says that is the right description: “These North Korean workers (today) still don’t know they are slaves.”

The new law in the U.S. labels all North Korean workers both overseas and inside the country as engaging in forced labor. (While U.S. law generally forbids Americans from conducting business in North Korea, the AP employs a small number of support staff in its Pyongyang bureau, operating under a waiver granted by the U.S. government to allow the flow of news and information.)

“There are not many countries that, at a government level, export their own citizens as a commodity to be exploited,” said an official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

For years the State Department has blacklisted North Korea in its human trafficking reports, saying the overseas laborers and their families could face reprisals if the workers complain or try to escape, and criticizing Pyongyang for keeping much of the workers’ earnings. China, Russia and other countries hosting North Korean labor are all members of the United Nations International Labor Organization, which requires workers to receive their full salaries.

Luis CdeBaca, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for human trafficking issues, said both federal law enforcement agents and importers should be making sure workers are treated fairly. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, responsible for enforcing the law that bans imports that are products of forced labor, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“If you think about a company like Walmart, which is spending a lot of money, time and effort to clean up its supply chain, sending auditors and inspectors to factories, working with suppliers, all of that is thrown out the window if they are importing products made with exploited North Korean labor,” said CdeBaca. “It contradicts everything they are doing.”

CdeBaca conceded the North Korean workers might like their jobs.

“The question is not, ‘Are you happy?’ ” he said. “The question is, ‘Are you free to leave?'”

___

Associated Press journalists Leonardo Haberkorn in Uruguay, Han Guan Ng and researcher Fu Ting in China, Kelvin K. Chan in Hong Kong, Frank Jordans in Germany and Jon Gambrell in United Arab Emirates contributed to this report. Mendoza reported from California.

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Appellate judges show concern over Harris County bail practices, court ruling

Harris County judges and bail bond companies are fighting against court-ordered changes in the county's bail system. 

NEW ORLEANS — A panel of three federal appellate judges seemed concerned Tuesday morning with Harris County’s bail practices concerning poor misdemeanor defendants, but they also questioned a lower judge’s ruling that changed the county’s system.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans held an hour-long hearing on the pretrial system of Texas’ most populous county, where arrestees who can’t afford their bail bonds regularly sit in jail — often until their cases are resolved days or weeks later — while similar defendants who have cash are released. Harris County is fighting an April ruling in which U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal called the county’s bail practices unconstitutional and ordered the release of almost all misdemeanor defendants from jail within 24 hours of arrest, regardless of their ability to pay their bail amount.

Charles Cooper, the attorney representing Harris County judges, spent most of his time in front of the judges arguing that the federal courts weren’t the right arena for the current bail fight. He said inmates requesting release from jail need to go through state courts first. Judges Edward Prado and Catharina Haynes seemed unconvinced of the argument.

“Is your concern that Judge Rosenthal didn’t let the state get the first bite of the apple?” Haynes asked. “By the time you got to federal court, your entire sentence as a misdemeanor defendant would be complete, I would guess.”

Most misdemeanor defendants in Harris County who are released from jail before their trial are released on money bail — where a judicial officer sets a cash amount to ensure a defendant returns for future court hearings. In her ruling, Rosenthal said the county denied poor defendants due process by usually ignoring recommendations to release defendants on personal bonds, where no money is due, even though they couldn’t afford money bail.

The judges repeatedly peppered Cooper with questions about the county’s probable cause hearings, in which judicial officials called hearing officers hear the charges against a defendant, evaluate reports from pretrial interviews and occasionally alter bail. The plaintiffs have argued that defendants are not allowed to speak at these hearings, which Haynes and Prado jumped on.

“They’re called hearing officers. Is there a hearing or do they just look at the form and make a decision?” Prado asked.

When Cooper contended that they did, Haynes cut him off: “But they can’t speak. What is a hearing if you’re not going to listen?”

Judge Rosenthal’s ruling was groundbreaking. In it, she ordered that all misdemeanor defendants who sign an affidavit claiming they can’t afford their initially-set bail bond amount must be released on a personal bond. She also said all those indigent defendants must be released within 24 hours of their arrest, regardless of whether they’ve had their probable cause hearing. If inmates arrived to the Harris County jail from an outlying facility after 24 hours of their arrest and they hadn’t had their hearing yet, the sheriff was ordered to release them on a personal bond. Haynes said she was “shocked” by that order.

“It seems chaotic to say a sheriff can ignore a court order,” she said.

She also questioned the time frame of 24 hours.

“Why not 48 hours? Or 72, or even 96? Where is the magic of 24 hours other than the Texas law to find probable cause, which you’re not challenging?” she asked attorney Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps, who was representing the former inmates.

Karakatsanis said the time frame aligned with the state law, and mentioned defendants who lose their job, car and insurance while detained in jail.

Throughout the appellate hearing, judges questioned what was happening in the county since the injunction.

In his argument, Cooper cited multiple county reform efforts that have taken place since the court order took effect in June. In July, the county began using a new risk assessment tool to better recommend to judicial officers setting bail when low-risk offenders should be released on personal bonds. He said, though no data has been recorded in the court, that release on personal bonds has increased.

Haynes questioned whether it was worth sending the case back to the lower court to find new facts since the reforms have taken place. Karakatsanis argued the new facts are unknown, and that there is nothing in the court record to corroborate Cooper’s statements.

County Judge Darrell Jordan, the only Harris County judge who rejected money bail for indigent defendants before the ruling, was at the arguments and said afterward that he wished there were an opportunity to talk about the system under the changes. Overall, he said, the process hasn’t changed. 

“If it is sent back to the lower court, then the numbers will show what is going on,” he said. “People are still being placed in jail and they can’t afford to get out.”

It is unknown when the judges will make a decision whether to uphold Rosenthal’s ruling, overturn it or send it back to the lower court. But after the ruling, Karakatsanis said he was optimistic the court will stand by Rosenthal’s injunction.

“The order that they’re appealing from is based on very solid evidence, and they’re asking for it to be overturned,” he said. “You can’t just come in front of higher courts and say, ‘Well, facts are totally different from what happened…’ without any citation.”

Harris County officials wouldn’t comment on the arguments, but on the courthouse steps, John O’Neill, an appellate attorney for the county, said more defendants skipped court dates after the injunction and before the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.

“If this [lawsuit] succeeds, the criminal justice system in every state in the United States will be thrown into chaos,” he said. “The order has actually produced far more chaos than the flood has.”

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Almost 400,000 Texans’ insurance at risk after Congress fails to renew CHIP

Patients wait to be seen at the People's Community Clinic in Austin, on Nov. 8, 2010.

Insurance coverage for more than 390,000 Texas children and pregnant women is in jeopardy after Congress failed to renew authorization for a federal program.

Congressional authorization for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides low-cost health insurance for children from low- and middle-income families, expires Sept. 30.

Without federal funding, Texas has enough money for CHIP to last until February 2018, according to estimates by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. However, federal lawmakers say they’re working on a plan to continue the program before funding runs out for Texas.

“States don’t want to have to disenroll their kids,” said Maureen Hensley-Quinn, senior program director at National Academy for State Health Policy, a non-partisan group that advises states on health policy. But “there may come a time when [they] have to send families letters” letting them go.

The program, created in 1997 and adopted in Texas in 1999, has cut the percentage of uninsured children nationwide from 25 percent in 1997 to 5 percent in 2015. It also offers prenatal care to about 36,000 pregnant women in Texas. About 340,000 Texan children ineligible for Medicaid are covered under CHIP, and another 249,000 Texan children on Medicaid benefit from CHIP’s 92 percent matching rate. Together, Medicaid and CHIP cover about 45 percent of all children in the state.

Congress last renewed the program’s approval in 2015 until the end of the 2017 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Members of Congress had discussed voting to renew the program but did not do so in time for the new fiscal year. Why the program lapsed remains unclear outside of House GOP leadership. Even rank-and-file Republicans were unsure of why, a GOP Congressional aide told the Tribune.

Without CHIP, “there aren’t a lot of options” for children in low-income families, said Mimi Garcia, a spokesperson for the Texas Association of Community Health Centers. Community health centers, which often provide health care for uninsured Texans, also saw about 70 percent of federal funding expire on Sept. 30, Garcia said.

“Inaction by Congress so far has created a real threat to the stability of the infrastructure of health services for millions of Texans,” Garcia said.

State officials are among those pressing Congress to re-up funding for the program.

“CHIP is a critical part of the health care safety net in Texas,” wrote Health and Human Services Commission Chief Deputy Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young in a Sept. 26 letter. “CHIP has a proven track record of success, stemming from its adherence to the fundamental principles of state administrative flexibility, personal responsibility, and innovation aimed at enhancing health outcomes for beneficiaries.”

In the letter, sent to the Children’s Health Coverage Coalition, Young said her agency has coordinated with other organizations such as the National Association for Medical Doctors and the National Academy for State Health Policy to support CHIP nationally.

Hensley-Quinn said the National Academy for State Health Policy will work with states to create contingency plans if Congress does not vote to renew funding. Still, there is time for a renewal, she said, with many states not slated to run out of funding until winter or even spring.

Garcia said coverage remains available so long as people keep up with their renewals and funding for the program gets found. Renewal dates for families in counties affected by Hurricane Harvey have been pushed back by 6 months, she said.

Garcia said her organization has been working with advocates at the national level to push for a renewal from Congress. She said they have “heard positive things from Congress that this will get renewed, but we also haven’t seen the action at the same time.”

Members of the two congressional committees overseeing the program, the Senate Finance Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, are currently negotiating a deal on CHIP.

Sources on the House side say they are optimistic that both chambers will be able to strike a deal by Wednesday of this week, but as with all things on Capitol Hill in recent years, there are no guarantees.

The CHIP issue came up during a U.S. House Rules Committee hearing last week on another piece of legislation, a bill that addressed reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and created tax breaks for victims of the recent spate of hurricanes striking the country.

Many House Democrats opposed that hodgepodge bill because it not include a CHIP reauthorization.

When leading Democrats raised those worries with U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, at a U.S. House Rules Committee hearing, he aimed to assuage their concerns.

“We don’t intend to let them expire,” he said. “We’re going to have to do something.”

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Community Health Centers has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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HHS Secretary Tom Price resigns amid criticism of his travel on private planes

President Donald Trump’s health secretary has resigned, after his travel on costly charter flights triggered investigations and angered his boss.

Tom Price’s partial repayment and public regrets couldn’t save his job.

The Health and Human Services secretary became the first member of the president’s Cabinet to leave office in a turbulent young administration that has seen several high-ranking White House aides ousted. Price served less than 8 months.

Trump had said he was “not happy” with Price for hiring private charters on the taxpayer’s dime for official travel, when cheaper commercial flights would have worked.

The flap over Price has overshadowed Trump’s agenda and prompted scrutiny of other Cabinet members’ travel. The House Oversight and Government Reform committee has launched a broad investigation of top political appointees.

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Thousands of Poor Texans Could Lose Health Care With Congress Distracted by ACA Repeal

A patient gets her blood pressure checked at the Waco Planned Parenthood.
A patient gets her blood pressure checked.  Jen Reel

Safety net health centers in Texas have been scrambling for attention from Congress as they face a funding cliff Saturday that could leave hundreds of thousands of poor Texans without care. But lawmakers in Washington have been distracted by Republicans’ latest Obamacare repeal bill, which would cut billions in federal funds to states and leave millions more Americans uninsured.

On Tuesday, the GOP repeal bill was declared dead (for now), but the heated, weeks-long debate sucked time and energy from lawmakers and advocates. Now, four days ahead of the funding deadline, lawmakers are preparing to leave for the week without any action on bipartisan legislation to continue a federal grant for community health centers, leaving them in what they say is a dangerous limbo.

Without congressional intervention, safety net providers will face a 70 percent cut to their federal funding beginning October 1 — an estimated $150 million reduction in Texas, according to the Texas Association of Community Health Centers (TACHC). The centers provide primary care to underserved communities and have stepped in to offer care in areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey. More than 1.3 million people — most at or below the poverty level — receive care annually at about 460 sites around Texas, which has the highest uninsured rate in the country. Of those, about 200,000 Texans could lose care if the funding in question is not continued.

The federal grant at issue, established under the Affordable Care Act, primarily funds care for uninsured patients. According to national estimates, allowing the federal grant to expire could lead to a $3.6 billion decrease in funding for centers in fiscal year 2018, the departure of 51,000 doctors and other staff and loss of access to care for 9 million patients.

Action this week is unlikely, but Congress can elect to bring back the funding grant after the September 30 deadline. That would need to happen quickly, though. Centers in Texas have enough funding to continue full operations for an average of about 44 days, according to TACHC. Well ahead of those funds running out, they would need to start preparing for reductions. The longer Congress waits, the greater the uncertainty for the centers, and the more services will be cut, advocates say.

Lawmakers’ procrastination has already taken a toll. Community health centers in Texas have reported that some doctors have elected not to take jobs there because they didn’t know if services would continue, according to TACHC. The organization worries about banks declining loans, staff leaving, infrastructure projects coming to a halt and patients being turned away because of uncertainty, even if the grant is later approved.

“The greatest threat we face is instability … most health centers don’t have enough cash reserve to deal with it,” said José Camacho, executive director of TACHC, adding that it costs health centers about $40,000 to recruit a new doctor, a particular challenge in rural areas. “It’s taken us over 50 years to build the network of services for patients that we have right now. If that’s interrupted or destroyed, it will take years to rebuild. We’ve seen it happen with family planning clinics, and we’ll see it happen as a result of Harvey. It’s not easy to rebuild.”

As the state has cut funding to family planning clinics and kicked Planned Parenthood out of the low-income women’s health program, the centers have seen demand for care increase. Texas’ decision not to expand Medicaid means centers are not getting that revenue from many uninsured patients who otherwise would have been eligible for the coverage, so they rely more on the federal grant. Proposed GOP cuts to Medicaid, and the failure of Congress to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) by September 30, could add further instability, advocates say.

Ten Texas representatives — seven Democrats and three Republicans — are signed on as co-sponsors of the bill introduced earlier this month to extend health center funding. It was referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but no hearing has been scheduled, and there’s nothing on the House or Senate calendar to address the issue. Texas Republican Joe Barton, of Ennis, is vice chair of the committee, while Lewisville Republican Michael Burgess chairs the health subcommittee and Gene Green, D-Houston, is its ranking member. None has signed on to the legislation.

The post Thousands of Poor Texans Could Lose Health Care With Congress Distracted by ACA Repeal appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Murder suspect arrested in 27-year-old ‘killer clown’ shooting married to victim’s husband

As Marlene Warren was finishing breakfast with her 22-year-old son and several of his friends at their Wellington home one Saturday in May 1990, a woman dressed as a clown came to the door. The clown was holding a flower arrangement and two balloons.

Warren opened the door, ready to receive the surprise gifts, but the clown had other intentions, shooting her in the face before calmly walking back to the Chrysler LeBaron and driving away.

Two days later, Warren was dead. Family members of the Wellington woman have been waiting 27 years in hopes of finding her killer. Their wait could be over.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday that Sheila Warren was arrested in Washington County, Virginia, in connection with the fatal shooting. She is charged with first-degree murder in the May 26, 1990, shooting.

Detectives said Sheila Warren — 26 at the time and then known as Sheila Keen — was initially identified as a suspect, but she was never arrested.

Sheila Warren, now 54, married the victim’s husband, Michael Warren, in 2002. Investigators said they had been living in Tennessee operating a restaurant together.

Homicide investigators reopened the unsolved case in 2014, re-interviewing witnesses and collecting new DNA evidence.

A Palm Beach County grand jury was presented the evidence in August and returned an indictment against Sheila Warren, leading to her arrest.

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U.S. House passes tax breaks for victims of Harvey, Irma and Maria

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in his office in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., September 21, 2016.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a measure Thursday morning that will lift tax penalties on Hurricane Harvey victims who tap into their retirement accounts and offer them other tax breaks. But the vote was not unanimous among Texas members of Congress, and it was not without tension.

The bill, which also includes victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, passed on a 264-155 vote. Most of the Texas delegation backed the bill, but four Democrats voted no, while U.S. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, and Sam Johnson, R-Richardson, did not vote.

The bill now goes to the U.S. Senate for consideration. If it becomes law, it will allow hurricane victims to receive tax-deductions on personal losses from the storm and ease penalties for those who pull money from their retirement accounts to cover storm-related costs.

It was a messy piece of legislation, marrying the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration to the tax measure — along with smaller items like funding for a Native American diabetes program.

All Texas Republicans backed the bill, along with the House Democrats from Houston — U.S. Reps. Al Green, Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee — and U.S. Reps. Henry CuellarVicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela from South Texas. But four Texas Democrats did not back the bill: U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth.

Democrats who voted no gave varied reasons. Some were unhappy the tax breaks did not include other natural disasters, while others objected to the lack of hearings on the bill or the fact that it didn’t include an extension for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Trump wants to terminate in the spring unless Congress can pass legislation to preserve it.

A previous version of the legislation failed on Monday night in the U.S. House. It needed a much higher threshold — two-thirds of the chamber — because the author of the bill, Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands, aimed to move it through as an emergency measure.

Brady, the chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, expressed his disappointment in a Monday night statement, calling the House Democrats’ decision to mostly withhold support for his bill as “the very worst of Washington, putting politics ahead of people.”

He followed up with stronger wording on Tuesday afternoon.

“The sick Democrats voted AGAINST tax relief for those affected by Harvey, instead of helping out families who have lost so much,” he tweeted.

It’s the sense among some in Brady’s sphere that the comment was directed at Texans, specifically, who did not back the bill. For weeks now, the delegation has presented itself as a united front in dealing with the storm.

Vela moved from a no on Monday to a yes on Thursday, but he was was not pleased with Brady.

“Is he calling out the four Republicans who voted against Hurricane Harvey funding in the first place? is he calling them ‘sick Republicans?’ ” Vela asked.

The Harvey legislation also reignited a bitter regional fight between members from the northeast and Texas Republicans. A bipartisan group of members from New York and New Jersey have repeatedly expressed outrage at the Texans for backing legislation that supports victims of Hurricane Harvey when they did not do the same during super storm Sandy, which battered the Northeast in 2012.

And no one was angrier this week than U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, who also serves on the tax-writing committee and proposed similar but unsuccessful tax breaks in the aftermath of that storm.

“He’s gone too far,” he said of Brady in an interview with the Tribune on Tuesday.

The U.S. House voted down a measure on Thursday that would expand the tax breaks for Sandy victims and other natural disasters that occurred in the last five years.

At a U.S. House Rules Committee meeting Tuesday evening chaired by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, the Dallas Republican repeatedly described the desperate situation in Texas and the Caribbean and urged his colleagues to move on the legislation, calling it “common sense.”

When asked if the delegation was still united despite the split votes on the Harvey bill, U.S. Rep Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, was optimistic

“I think we are,” he said.

Republican and Democratic members of the Texas delegation held a press conference following the bill’s passage in what they called a demonstration of their bipartisanship on the issue.

“Our bill specifically helps hurricane victims keep more of their paycheck, pay for the cost of their expenses in property damage and have more affordable and immediate access to the money they saved for their retirement so they can rebuild their families and their homes and their businesses,” Brady said. “Our legislation will also encourage more Americans to donate generously to those in need.

“Taken together these provisions will provide the support our communities need to recover from this destruction.”

Claire Allbright contributed to this report.

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Texas can enforce more of ‘sanctuary cities’ law

Texas for now can require law enforcement to honor federal immigration requests to detain people in local jails for possible deportation under a new “sanctuary cities” law supported by the Trump administration, a federal appeals court ruled on Monday.

The decision prompted one notable critic of the immigration crackdown, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, to announce that her Austin jails would now honor all detainers from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. The elected Democrat had become a polarizing figure after announcing on the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration that the county’s jails would no longer comply with all such requests.

But the unanimous ruling of a three-judge panel in New Orleans wasn’t seen as so clear-cut by others. Some lawyers said they believed the decision did not demand total compliance with federal agents, while other local officials struggled to interpret the ramifications.

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton hailed it as a clear victory allowing the state to “enforce the core” of the law known at Senate Bill 4.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling negates some of U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia’s Aug. 31 halt to much of the law one day before it was to go into effect. The decision lets Texas enforce the detainer provision, pending fuller oral arguments in November.

“We are pleased today’s 5th Circuit ruling will allow Texas to strengthen public safety by implementing the key components of Senate Bill 4,” Paxton said in a statement.

Major cities such as Houston, Dallas and Austin had sued the state, saying the measure was unconstitutional and warning that it would have a chilling effect in immigrant communities.

Nina Perales, an attorney for the Mexican American Defense and Legal Education Fund who is also representing the cities of San Antonio and El Paso, said the ruling appeared to leave wiggle room for interpretation.

“I don’t read this decision as making all detainers mandatory,” she said.

Hernandez said her policies had been updated to comply with the latest ruling and that she looked forward to “further clarification” from the courts. Her spokeswoman, Kristen Dark, said the changes mean that Travis County jails will now honor all detainer requests.

Jose Garza, an attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, acknowledged that the state now potentially had room to pursue penalties against chiefs or sheriffs who don’t comply.

The Republican push to pass the law roiled the Texas Legislature throughout the spring. One GOP legislator notified federal immigration agents about protesters who held signs saying they were illegal, and told a Democratic colleague who pushed him during an argument, that he would shoot in self-defense.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has praised the Texas law and the Department of Justice filed arguments in support of it, as did several attorneys general from other states.

The law’s opponents argue it violates the Fourth Amendment by requiring police to detain people suspected of illegal immigration without probable cause. They also say it illegally puts local police in the federal role of immigration enforcement officers, and is unconstitutionally vague as to exactly when a local law enforcement officer would be in violation of the law.

Supporters of the state law say immigration officials have already determined probable cause when they seek to have local officials detain someone. They also argue that federal and local officials have a long history of cooperation on immigration matters and that the law is clear in its prohibition against local policies restricting immigration enforcement.

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Florida trooper accused of showing porn to child

A Florida Highway Patrol trooper was arrested Saturday in Lake County on sex-related charges involving a child.

The victim told police that in November 2016, Trooper Chad Corriveau showed her pornography on his cellphone, the affidavit said.

The next month, the victim told police that Corriveau complained about his lack of sexual relations and that she was then sexually assaulted by him, police said.

According to the report, Corriveau told the victim not to tell anyone.

The victim also told deputies that “she was afraid for her safety” and that the defendant was short-tempered, deputies said.

Corriveau has been placed on paid administrative leave after his arrest, the FHP said.

Additionally, officials with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said Deputy Seth Luppino has also been placed on paid administrative leave because he knew of the abuse and did not report it for almost two weeks, as required by the state.

Florida Highway Patrol sent News 6 a statement about Corriveau’s arrest.

“The Florida Highway Patrol takes these matters very seriously and has placed the trooper on administrative leave pending the criminal investigation by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. Additionally, a thorough administrative investigation is being conducted simultaneously regarding the allegations and the actions of the trooper, and appropriate disciplinary action will be immediately taken based on the outcome of the investigation,” agency officials said.

Corriveau was arrested on several sex-related charges, including showing obscene material to a minor.

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13-year-old accused in kidnapping and rape plot

Authorities in Frederick, Maryland have charged two young men with kidnapping and raping a classmate. Police said a third suspect remains at large.

Police said the victim was grabbed by three young men while she was walking home on September 2.

“All three males took her into a car at knife point and took her to another apartment in the area, at which point, two of the males allegedly raped her,” Frederick police Detective Sgt. Andrew Alcorn said.

Police said the victim identified two of the suspects as classmates, Edgar Natanal Chicas-Hernandez, 17, and Victor Antonio Gonzalez-Gutierres, 19. Police said the victim wasn’t able to identify the third suspect, who had his face covered.

Police learned through the investigation that a 13-year-old female acquaintance of the victim might have orchestrated the incident.

“We believe that the younger acquaintance did know that this was going to occur,” Alcorn said.

According to charging documents, the acquaintance contacted the victim’s boyfriend on social media a few days before the attack, saying she had someone who was going to rape and extort money from the victim. The girl asked if he wanted to be part of her plan because “it will be fun.”

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Hensarling to flood victims: ‘God’s telling you to move’

The U.S. government can’t keep paying to repair homes that flood over and over, says a leading House Republican.

“The federal government is encouraging and subsidizing people to live in harm’s way,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling in an appearance on CNBC Thursday. “At some point God is telling you to move.”

Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, was referring to the National Flood Insurance Program. The federal insurance covers flood damage for homes, which most most homeowner policies do not cover. Buyers purchasing a property at risk of flooding are generally required by mortgage lenders to have a government flood policy.

He cited a modest home outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that has flooded more than 40 times that has cost the program nearly $500,000. Another home in Houston worth $100,000 has filed $1 million in claims due to multiple floods, he said.

Statistics back up Hensarling’s concern that homes that have been damaged by multiple floods are draining the program. Less than 1% of nearly 5 million flood insurance policyholders collect 25-30% of the claims because they file repeatedly, according to analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“We would be better off, they would be better off if frankly we bought out a lot of these properties and returned them to moisture absorbing soil and had it be part of a flood control plan,” he said. “Maybe we pay for the home once, maybe we even pay for it twice, but at some point the taxpayer has got to quit paying and you’ve got to move.”

The flood insurance program was nearly $25 billion in debt even before hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit. Estimates are that those storms will cause tens of billions dollars in additional claims.

“We have a bankrupt program that is essentially funded by a bankrupt nation,” he said, citing the fact that the total national debt has now hit $20 trillion. But getting reform for the program through Congress is tough, he admitted.

“A lot of these communities are concerned about the loss of their tax base,” he said. “Other people look upon this as essentially a form of entitlement spending, having federal taxpayers subsidize their premiums. So this is tough political sledding.”

He said he still hopes reform can pass.

Hensarling’s office did not immediately return a request for a comment.

God has also ignored our requests for comment.

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Army vet shown walking after claiming he couldn’t owes government $434K

Here's Mack in a wheelchair, being visited by Herschel Walker
at a Wounded Warrior event last year...

A retired Army master sergeant captured on camera mowing his lawn after telling doctors he could no longer walk was sentenced to 27 months in prison Thursday and must pay back the federal government more than $434,000.

Mack Cole Jr., 54, must surrender to federal authorities by Dec. 6.

He was convicted this summer of federal health care fraud and making false statements about a health care benefit program.

Cole told VA doctors that a National Guard training accident in 2004 left him without “any ability to walk.”

However, undercover video evidence captured by federal investigators showed Cole mowing the front yard of his Cibolo home, walking up and down the driveway, and bending over to toss away debris.

Cole’s attorney told the court Thursday his client takes 25 different medications for the lower back injury and has painkilling devices permanently installed in his body.

The attorney argued that not granting Cole probation would cause a “nightmare” for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Prosecutors argued that Cole repeatedly lied about the extent of his injuries and never presented himself as someone who could walk up and down his driveway.

“There’s a finite amount of money to treat injured veterans. When someone unjustifiably and unjustly reaches into that pot and scrapes out $450,000, it’s a diminished pot,” said Assistant United States Attorney Bud Paulissen.

MORE FROM THE DEFENDERS: Sex assault case against former BCSO deputy in limbo after alleged victim found murdered

Two other disabled veterans in wheelchairs attended sentencing in support of the government and its case against Cole, after seeing a Defenders story on Cole in late July, Paulissen told the court.

“When I saw him bend down to pick up, move trash away, so he could mow his lawn, I can’t even scratch my own nose or blow my own nose,” said retired Air Force Sergeant Lori Henson as she left court.

Cole, who at times was animated as he sat in a motorized wheelchair, told Chief United States District Court Judge Orlando Garcia the case against him was inflated.

“I didn’t ask to be in this chair,” he said. “I didn’t want this to be my life!”

“(You) should have walked in here and apologized,” said Garcia, before sentencing Cole.

While leaving court, Cole called the sentence a “miscarriage of justice.”

Cole’s wife told him to shut up as they made their way to the parking lot.

Cole had faced up to 50 years in prison.

VA investigators opened 111 health care cases during the first six months of this fiscal year and were able to obtain more than $125 million in court-ordered fines and restitution, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General report.

 

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