Labor Secretary Defends His 2008 Plea Deal With Billionaire Sex Offender

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has defended a plea deal he helped broker with Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 in Florida. The billionaire financier, who socialized with U.S. President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton, is detained in New York where federal prosecutors have charged him with sex trafficking of minors between 2002 and 2005. Acosta is under pressure to step down because as U.S. attorney in Florida, he agreed to a mild sentence for Epstein. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.
 


Fans Celebrate US Women’s Soccer Team’s World Cup Win at New York Parade

The U.S. women’s national soccer team celebrated their second straight World Cup win in New York City Wednesday, riding as the guests of honor in a ticker-tape parade that drew throngs of fans. Tina Trinh reports.


Cambodia Scraps Pay-to-Stay ‘Hotel’ Prison Plans

The Cambodian government is abolishing a controversial “hotel” prison project, according to Ministry of Interior officials.

The government had announced earlier this month that it would soon open the new prison facilities, in which inmates can pay to stay. The facilities are said to be more comfortable than the regular cells at prison Prey Sar, which have been criticized for being severely overcrowded. Interior Minister Sar Kheng had dubbed the new prison complex a “hotel,” and at other times Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak called it a “5-star prison.” Construction started in 2017 by Kunn Rekon Holdings Co Ltd.

But in a turn of events, Interior Ministry Department of Prisons spokesman Nouth Savna told Voice of America those plans would now be scrapped, pending official notification.

“I think the whole paid idea, the concept … has been dropped,” he said. “But we need to go through a formal process with clearing with the company and informing the government. … There will be no paid prison.”

Savna declined to elaborate further on reasons for canceling the plan, and multiple attempts to reach him later for comment failed.

FILE – Cambodian land activist Tep Vanny speaks to journalists outside Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh, Aug. 21, 2018.

Change of plans

Earlier, Savna explained that the government was concerned the company, Kunn Rekon Holdings Co. Ltd., would not be able to meet international and national standards for the facility, which was initially designed to hold up to 400 prisoners, and would therefore likely nationalize the prison. Savna said the government might have to pay the company compensation for terminating the contract, as the complex has been built.

A company employee, who declined to be named, said his company was not in a position to comment to journalists as they were under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior.

Asked about the change of plans, the employee said he could not provide further information.

“We haven’t gotten any official notification from them, that’s all I know,” he said.

Criticism of ‘two-class’ prison

The prison project had drawn criticism for creating a “two-class” system.

Chak Sopheap, executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said in an email that prisons in Cambodia posed an “acute human rights concern.”

“Cambodian prisons are overcrowded to a dangerous degree,” she said. A prison in which inmates could pay to stay for more comfort, however, would not be an adequate solution, she said.

“It sends the message that if you commit a crime, your punishment will depend on the amount of money you have at your disposal. As usual, when it comes to access to justice, the poor will suffer the most,” she said.

Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, had also expressed concerns about the prison in her 2018 report. 

“All detainees should be afforded the same conditions of detention, conditions that meet, and even exceed, the minimum standards specified in the United Nations treaties Cambodia accepts and additional guidelines,” she said in her statement.

Tackling prison overcrowding

In an email to VOA, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights representative Simon Walker said that overcrowding could be tackled in various ways. For example, he said his organization had been working with the government on reducing pretrial detention and “promoting alternatives to sentencing” to reduce the number of inmates.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government would take over the facility. 

“Please be informed that after debated, the plan has been canceled,” he said in a message to VOA. “We drop the plan. No more thinking about that, no more writing about that,” he said in a brief follow-up phone call.


Financier Epstein Goes From Luxury Life to Confined Jail Cell After Sex Trafficking Charges

Wealthy American financier Jeffrey Epstein, charged with sex trafficking in underage girls, is now confined to a cell in a fortress-like concrete tower jail that has been criticized by inmates and lawyers for harsh conditions.

After his arrest on Saturday at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport on arrival from Paris in his private plane, Epstein was likely put in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in lower Manhattan, according to defense lawyers and others familiar with the jail.

“When you have someone that’s allegedly a sexual predator like Jeffrey Epstein, he’ll need to be in protective custody,” Andrew Laufer, a lawyer who has represented MCC inmates in civil lawsuits against prison officials, said in an interview.

Epstein pleaded not guilty in the nearby federal court on Monday to one count of sex trafficking and one count of sex trafficking conspiracy. He will remain in jail at least until a bail hearing on July 15. Federal prosecutors have said he is a flight risk because of his wealth and international ties.

In the past, Epstein, 66, was known for socializing with politicians and royalty, with friends who have included U.S. President Donald Trump, former president Bill Clinton and, according to court papers, Britain’s Prince Andrew. None of those people was mentioned in the indictment and prosecutors declined to comment on anyone said to be associated with Epstein.

The indictment said Epstein made young girls perform nude “massages” and other sex acts, and paid some girls to recruit others, from at least 2002 to 2005 at his mansion in New York and estate in Florida.  

Marc Fernich, a lawyer for Epstein, declined to comment on Epstein’s current conditions.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) said it does not release information on an inmate’s conditions of confinement for safety and security reasons.

The MCC houses about 800 inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted. Prominent inmates have included New York Mafia bosses, the fraudster Bernie Madoff and the Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Inmates and defense lawyers have complained of rat and cockroach infestations and uncomfortable extremes of heat and cold or problems with the water supply.

The jail’s harshest unit, known colloquially as “10 South”, has been compared unfavorably to the U.S. prison camp Guantanamo Bay. In 2011, rights group Amnesty International said the unit, which has also been used to house people accused of terrorism, flouts “international standards for humane treatment.”

One defense lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Epstein is likely in “9 South,” a separate special housing unit.

Inmates in protective custody are allowed out of their cell for recreation only one hour a day, according to BOP guidelines and interviews with lawyers.

Laufer and other lawyers said they believed that high-profile defendants such as Epstein enjoyed better protections than most, in part because prison officials are mindful of the embarrassment that harm to a well-known inmate could bring.

If Epstein is moved into a general population unit, he would have access to a shared common space with a television used by other inmates in the unit.

There, however, he would likely be a target for other inmates both because of his wealth and because he is a registered sex offender following his 2008 conviction for soliciting a girl for prostitution in Florida.

“The sex offenders have a hard time,” Jack Donson, a former BOP employee who now works as a federal prison consultant in New York, said in an interview. “He’s definitely going to get ostracized.”

There are fewer activities and diversions for inmates at the MCC compared to some other jails, Donson said.

“It’s pretty confining, pretty boring, not dangerous, but still no picnic,” Donson said. “Especially if you’re a man of wealth: one minute you’re on your yacht or in a helicopter; next minute you’re sitting at a table playing cards with the boys.”


Judge Blocks 9 Government Lawyers From Quitting Census Fight

The Justice Department can’t replace nine lawyers so late in the dispute over whether to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census without explaining why it’s doing so, a judge says.

U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman, who earlier this year ruled against adding the citizenship question, put the brakes on the government’s plan on Tuesday, a day after he was given a three-paragraph notification by the Justice Department along with a prediction that the replacement of lawyers wouldn’t “cause any disruption in this matter.”
 
“Defendants provide no reasons, let alone `satisfactory reasons,’ for the substitution of counsel,” Furman wrote, noting that the most immediate deadline for government lawyers to submit written arguments in the case is only three days away.
 
The judge said local rules for federal courts in New York City require that any attorney requesting to leave a case provide satisfactory reasons for withdrawing. The judge must then decide what impact a lawyer’s withdrawal will have on the timing of court proceedings.
 
He called the Justice Department’s request “patently deficient,” except for two lawyers who have left the department or the civil division which is handling the case.
 
President Donald Trump tweeted about the judge’s decision Tuesday night, questioning whether the attorney change denial was unprecedented.
 
“So now the Obama appointed judge on the Census case (Are you a Citizen of the United States?) won’t let the Justice Department use the lawyers that it wants to use. Could this be a first?” Trump tweeted.
 
The new team came about after a top Justice Department civil attorney who was leading the litigation effort told Attorney General William Barr that multiple people on the team preferred not to continue, Barr told The Associated Press on Monday.
 
The attorney who was leading the team, James Burnham, “indicated it was a logical breaking point since a new decision would be made and the issue going forward would hopefully be separate from the historical debates,” Barr said.
 
Furman’s refusal came in a case that has proceeded on an unusual legal path since numerous states and municipalities across the country challenged the government’s announcement early last year that it intended to add the citizenship question to the census for the first time since 1950.
 
Opponents of the question say it will depress participation by immigrants, lowering the population count in states that tend to vote Democratic and decreasing government funds to those areas because funding levels are based on population counts.
 
At one point, the Justice Department succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to block plans to depose Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Nearly two weeks ago, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the plans to add the census question, saying the administration’s justification for adding the question “seems to have been contrived.”
 
Afterward, the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau began printing census questionnaires without the question and the Department of Justice signaled it would not attempt to continue the legal fight.
 
It reversed itself after Trump promised to keep trying to add the question.
 
The Justice Department then notified judges in three similar legal challenges that it planned to find a new legal path to adding the question to the census.
 
Furman said the urgency to resolve legal claims and the need for efficient judicial proceedings was an important consideration in rejecting a replacement of lawyers.
 
He said the Justice Department had insisted that the speedy resolution of lawsuits against adding the question was “a matter of great private and public importance.”
 
“If anything, that urgency — and the need for efficient judicial proceedings — has only grown since that time,” Furman said.
 
Furman said the government could re-submit its request to replace attorneys only with a sworn statement by each lawyer explaining satisfactory reasons to withdraw so late. He said he’ll require new attorneys to promise personnel changes will not slow the case.
       


Pelosi Feud With Ocasio-Cortez Tests Party Heading Into 2020

They don’t talk to each other much, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But they’re lately speaking at one another in a way that threatens party unity and underscores broader tensions reshaping the Democrats.

Their power struggle has spilled open in what could be a momentary blip or a foreshadowing of divisions to come.

It started with a rare public rebuke — Pelosi chiding AOC, as she’s called, in a newspaper interview; AOC responding pointedly on Twitter — that’s now challenging the House agenda and rippling into the 2020 presidential campaign. A new test will come this week on a must-pass defense bill that the White House on Tuesday threatened to veto.

At its core, the tension between the most powerful Democrat in the country and one of the party’s newest, most liberal members embodies a debate over how best, in style and substance, to defeat President Donald Trump. And both sides think they’re right.

For allies of the longtime California congresswoman, Pelosi’s off-handed dismissal of Ocasio-Cortez and the three other liberal freshmen House members who opposed a border security package last month was a necessary comeuppance for “the squad” of newcomers who are trying to push the party leftward.

“These people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi told The New York Times. “But they didn’t have any following.” In the speaker’s world, they lack what Pelosi often calls “the currency of the realm” — the power to turn their high-volume activism into a coalition of votes to pass legislation or, in their case, to stop it.

But for fans of Ocasio-Cortez, including some of the New York congresswoman’s millions of social media followers, Pelosi’s remarks were nothing short of a patronizing slap-back to four women of color who represent the future of the Democratic Party, a stark example of its generational and demographic transition. Their four lonely votes against the bill were a principled stand, with more to come.

The ability to channel the influence of the newcomers into the currency of Congress may determine whether the speaker, six months into her new majority, continues her steady leadership or loses her firm grip — especially with former special counsel Robert Mueller’s expected testimony next week in a high-stakes hearing amid rising calls for Trump’s impeachment.

“There’s an opportunity right now for House Democrats to lead the charge,” said Ezra Levin, the co-executive director of the liberal group Indivisible. In his living room, he said, is a framed 2010 newspaper clipping of Pelosi from her previous tenure as speaker, passing the Obama-era Affordable Care Act. “What we’re looking for is that decade-ago fighter Pelosi was.”

This week the differences could tumble into full view again as the House considers defense legislation that’s often rejected by liberals because of military funding. It’s a must-pass bill that Congress has approved essentially every year since World War II. But with the opportunity to divide Democrats, the White House issued a veto threat saying the funding levels are inadequate. That means Pelosi will be forced to muscle it through without much, if any, Republican support.

Fresh from the border funding fight, Ocasio-Cortez signaled a first salvo Tuesday, telling reporters that progressive lawmakers want to ensure the defense bill prevents Trump from sending any troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Asked about Pelosi’s comments, Ocasio-Cortez said: “It was just kind of puzzling more than anything. It’s just, why? The idea that millions of people we represent matter less or don’t matter is a notion I disagree with.”

Lawmakers visiting border detention facilities over the past week have delivered grave reports of migrant children and families being held in dire conditions. Liberals say the border-funding battle was exactly the kind of fight the House should be waging against the Trump administration, especially after disclosures of border patrol officers joking about the migrants and deriding lawmakers on a private Facebook group.

When White House adviser Kellyanne Conway on Tuesday mocked the “Major Meow Mashup” and “catfight” between Pelosi and the foursome, several of them fired back.

“Remember that time your boss tore babies from their mothers’ arms and threw them in cages?” Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., tweeted at Conway. “Yeah take a seat and keep my name out of your lying mouth.”

Behind the scenes, though, some on Capitol Hill were quietly appreciative of Pelosi’s tough-love approach to Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.

Lawmakers and freshmen from more centrist-leaning districts than those of the four, including regions Trump won in 2018, don’t want the House majority to be defined by the liberal flank as they face voters for reelection next year. They prefer the party hew to Pelosi’s center-left approach. In describing the sentiment among those from more centrist districts, a senior congressional aide said Pelosi emerged as a “super-hero.” The aide requested anonymity to describe the private discussions.

While those more moderate views may have helped Democrats win the majority, liberal activists fear they won’t necessarily motivate or energize the party ahead of the 2020 election.

Brian Fallon, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Pelosi’s comments have riled the party’s left flank and activists question why she’s fighting with the newcomers when she should be confronting, if not impeaching, Trump.

“It’s not a good look,” Fallon said. Pelosi’s background runs strong in the liberal community, he said, so “it’s not enough to undo the relationship because she has deep ties, she knows how to count votes and is a bad ass.”

“But there is frustration,” he said.


US Court Rules Trump Cannot Silence Critics on Twitter

A U.S. federal appeals court has ruled President Donald Trump cannot silence critics on his Twitter account, maintaining that blocking them violates the Constitution’s right to free speech.

The 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled in a 3-0 decision Tuesday the First Amendment prohibits Trump from blocking critics from his account, a public platform.

On behalf of the three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Barrington Parker wrote “The First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees.”

Trump has used his Twitter account, which has more than 60-million followers, to promote his agenda and to attack critics.

The court ruled on a lawsuit filed by Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute on behalf of seven people who were blocked by Trump after criticizing his policies.

Institute director Jameel Jaffer said the ruling “will ensure that people aren’t excluded from these forums simply because of their viewpoints” and added “It will help ensure the integrity and vitality of digital spaces that are increasingly important to our democracy.”

Justice Department spokesman Kelly Laco said the agency is “disappointed with the ruling and is “exploring possible next steps.” He reiterated the administrations’ argument that “Trump’s decision to block users from his personal Twitter account does not violate the First Amendment.”

The decision upheld a May 2018 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The U.S. Justice Department said the ruling was “fundamentally misconceived,” arguing Trump used the account in a personal capacity to express his views, and not as a forum for public discussion.

Twitter did not immediately comment on the ruling.

Among those who were blocked from Trump’s account were author Stephen King and model Chrissy Teigen.

 


Voting Group Founded by Georgia’s Abrams Raises $3.9 Million

The political action committee for a group founded by former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has reported raising $3.9 million in the past six months.

Abrams founded Fair Fight to support voting rights after narrowly losing to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in November. She accused Kemp of using his previous position as Georgia’s chief election officer to suppress votes in their race, which Kemp has vehemently denied.

The report filed Monday with the state ethics commission shows Fair Fight PAC has raised $4.1 million since its inception and made $3 million in expenditures, leaving $1.1 million in cash on hand. Expenditures include more than $1.2 million given to the group’s nonprofit arm and $100,000 given to abortion rights groups after Georgia’s passage of a restrictive abortion ban.

They also include political contributions to various candidates, payments to consultants, staff salaries and travel expenses.

Many of the contributions came from small donors around the country. The group says that it has had more than 15,000 individual contributions from all 50 states.

The largest contribution was over $1 million from Silicon Valley-based physician and philanthropist Karla Jurvetson. The group banked another $250,000 from the Service Employees International Union, a labor union with 2 million members in service occupations including within the health care industry. 
 
“Fair Fight PAC is grateful for the overwhelming support we have received from across Georgia and around the country,” Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo said in a statement. “Fair Fight is advocating for voting rights, supporting progressive organizing and advocacy, and keeping the heat on those who suppress the vote.”

She said the group would soon share details for nationwide voter protection programs to mitigate “attempts to suppress the vote of people of color in this critical election cycle.”


Plan by Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez To Declare Climate Emergency

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are teaming up on a plan that would designate climate change as an emergency, and at least one of Sanders’ fellow Democratic presidential candidates is planning to sign on.

The measure to be introduced in the House on Tuesday is designed to highlight Democrats’ focus on global warming and push back against President Donald Trump, who’s declared a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border.
 
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is competing with Sanders for the support of liberal voters in the presidential primary, plans to sign onto the resolution when it’s introduced in the Senate, according to a spokeswoman.

Sanders tells reporters that “strong American leadership” is needed to compel effective worldwide action on climate change.

 


E-Scooters Put Swedish Startup on Road to Positive Cashflow

Growing numbers of young people whizzing around Europe’s big cities on electric scooters may represent a nightmare for some pedestrians and motorists, but for Swedish sharing startup VOI they offer a path to positive cashflow.

VOI cofounder and chief executive Fredrik Hjelm said safety was an important consideration and VOI had drawn up a code of conduct with the authorities in Stockholm for all operators after a fatal accident involving an e-scooter.

“Accidents are always very tragic and sad but since we’re in transportation, unfortunately there’s always a risk of accident. We can do everything we can on product operations and education but ultimately we’re in the hands of the users,” he added.

Fredrik Hjelm, Swedish startup VOI cofounder and chief executive, poses at the company’s workshop in Stockholm, Sweden, July 6, 2019.

Critics have also said VOI and other operators could face the fate of Asian bike operators GoBee and Mobike, which crashed out of Europe due to price wars, vandalism and regulation.

Hjelm said the sector had learnt from past mistakes, with VOI upgrading to a model with longer-range swappable batteries to eliminate transport costs and increase product life.

European startups VOI, Dott and Tier and U.S. rivals Bird and Lime have already put thousands of e-scooters on the roads of European cities, betting commuters will take to the two-wheelers in a region where far fewer own cars than in the United States.

In France, e-scooters have been banned from sidewalks and in Britain they are not permitted on roads or pavements.

Hjelm said that VOI is already making a profit in several cities, including its hometown Stockholm, where its e-scooters accounts for about 70% to 80% of those on the roads.

“Our estimate is for VOI to be cashflow positive around late next year, but within three years for sure,” Hjelm told Reuters in an interview at VOI’s headquarters.

“Price wars never end well for anyone. So what you see now in the market is the more experienced players like VOI and Lime have rather been able to increase our average price point,” Hjelm said.

Open to tie-ups

High-profile investors including Google, Uber and Volkswagen are increasingly getting into scooters as new modes of transport emerge from developments in electric and driverless vehicles.

Hjelm expects the number of players to narrow within a year and said that VOI was open to discussing tie-ups.

FILE – People use electric scooters by California-based bicycle rental service Lime at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, June 21, 2019.

“Automotive companies understand their business model is threatened. This ‘sell one car to one customer’ won’t work in the future because it’s not sustainable from an environmental point of view and not what the consumers want anymore,” he said.

“We’re in quite a stable financial position right now but we’re also always out in the market talking to potential partners and investors,” he added.

VOI, which has raised slightly more than $80 million, already operates in 25 cities including Paris and Berlin and said on Monday it had reached 5 million rides since launching in September.

Hjelm, who launched VOI as a solution to address congestion, pollution and the difficulty getting around that he experienced when working in Moscow, said VOI would be in 50 to 60 cities by year end, with a focus on Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

Micromobility growth

Barclays estimates that micromobility — transport using electric-powered one-person vehicles like e-scooters and e-bikes — could make up $800 billion in revenues by mid-2020s and total 1 trillion personal miles, or 4% of global transport.

Most of the e-scooter growth has been driven by 20- and 30-year-olds willing to pay for convenience, driving the growth of companies like ride-hailing service Uber and food courier service Deliveroo.

Hjelm said VOI was introducing cargo bikes, which would allow children or groceries to be transported, and e-bikes and was exploring adding e-mopeds and electric or transit pods.

“VOI should become partner to cities that are restricting cars and want to transform urban transportation. E-scooters are part of the solution with e-bikes, mopeds etc in conjunction with public transportation,” he said.