Forensic News Roundup: Rules finalized to take away LQBTQ rights, cement border wall, sell oil rights

January 12, 2021 4:42 pm By

Author’s note: Due to the Capitol riots/insurrection dominating the news (and rightly so), I made the decision to focus on the events that got buried in the news cycle over the past week.

Russia

A new report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) found that Trump political appointees politicized intelligence around foreign election interference in 2020, resulting in significant errors. ODNI analytic ombudsman Barry Zulauf delivered the report to Congress on Thursday: “Analysis on foreign election interference was delayed, distorted or obstructed out of concern over policymaker reactions or for political reasons.” The biggest misrepresentation of intel involved diminishing the threat posed by Russia and overstating the risk of interference from China.

“Russia analysts assessed that there was clear and credible evidence of Russian election influence activities. They said IC management slowing down or not wanting to take their analysis to customers, claiming that it was not well received, frustrated them. Analysts saw this as suppression of intelligence, bordering on politicization of intelligence from above.”

  • WaPo: Zulauf, a career official, also found an “egregious” example of attempted politicization of the Russian interference issue in March talking points on foreign election threats, prepared “presumably by ODNI staff” and “shaped by” then-Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell.

The Justice Department and the federal judiciary revealed that the Russian Solar Winds hack also compromised their computer systems. 3% of the DOJ’s Microsoft Office 365 were potentially affected; it does not appear that classified material was accessed. The impact on the judiciary seems much more significant, jeopardizing “highly sensitive confidential documents filed with the courts.”

The sealed court files, if indeed breached, could hold information about national security, trade secrets and wiretap transcripts, along with financial data from bankruptcy cases and the names of confidential informants in criminal cases…


Appointees

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine has accused U.S. Agency for Global Media Director Michael Pack of funneling $4 million in nonprofit funds to his own for-profit company. In a civil lawsuit filed last week, Racine states that for over 12 years, Pack used a nonprofit company he owned to direct money to his private documentary company, enabling “Pack to line his company’s coffers with a stream of tax-exempt dollars without…a competitive bidding process, public scrutiny, or accounting requirements regarding its spending.”
Employees at Voice of America have filed a whistleblower complaint accusing Pack of using the agency “to disseminate political propaganda in the waning days of the Trump administration. The staffers take issue with a planned speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to be broadcast from VOA headquarters. The event, to be attended by a live audience, “is a specific danger to public health and safety” in the middle of a pandemic. Finally, the whistleblowers say the event is “ a gross misuse of government resources,” costing at least $4,000 in taxpayer funds to date and using 18 employees who would otherwise be producing VOA content.
Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller has announced his appointees to the panel set to rename confederate military bases and plan the removal of confederate symbols/monuments. Most controversially, Miller named White House liaison Joshua Whitehouse, who oversaw the purge of the Defense Policy Board and the Defense Business Board last month. The other three Miller-appointees are former acting Army general counsel Earl Matthews, acting assistant secretary of Defense Ann Johnston, and White House official Sean McLean. The remaining four members will be appointed by the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.

  • The 10 Army posts named in honor of Confederate generals are Camp Beauregard and Fort Polk in Louisiana, Fort Benning and Fort Gordon in Georgia, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort A.P. Hill, Fort Lee and Fort Pickett in Virginia, Fort Rucker in Alabama, and Fort Hood in Texas.

Trump

The Trump Inaugural Committee, a nonprofit, improperly paid a $49,000 hotel bill that should have been picked up by Trump’s for-profit business. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine revealed the allegation in an existing lawsuit against the committee, which already accuses Trump’s hotel of illegally pocketing about $1 million of donors’ money. “The Trump Organization was liable for the invoiced charges…The [Committee’s] payment of the invoice was unfair, unreasonable and unjustified and ultimately conferred improper private benefit to the Trump Organization.”
The Professional Golfer’s Association voted last night to move the 2022 PGA Championship from Trump’s Bedminster course. Jim Richerson, PGA of America president, said in a statement that “it has become clear that conducting” the championship at Trump’s property would “be detrimental to the PGA of America brand” and put the organization’s ability to function “at risk.”
Amid speculation that Trump may spend inauguration day at his Scottish golf course, Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned him that even presidents can’t break the country’s pandemic restrictions. “We are not allowing people to come into Scotland now without an essential purpose, which would apply to him, just as it applies to everybody else. Coming to play golf is not what I would consider an essential purpose,” she said.
Trump is on a Presidential Medal of Freedom spree, giving out the award to sports figures and Republican allies. Last Monday, Trump awarded the medal to Rep. Devin Nunes for his work undermining the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s election interference. “Devin Nunes’ courageous actions helped thwart a plot to take down a sitting United States president,” the White House press release states. Likewise, Trump gave the medal to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) for his “effort to confront the impeachment witch hunt” and “exposing the fraudulent origins of the Russia collusion lie.”

  • The day after Trump supporters rampaged through the Capitol, Trump awarded the medal to retired professional golfers Annika Sorenstam and Gary Player. The president planned on giving New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick the medal on Thursday, but he declined the offer, saying that “the tragic events of last week occurred and the decision has been made not to move forward with the award.”

Courts

Dominion Voting Systems filed suit against pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for defamation. Powell falsely claimed that Dominion had rigged the election, that Dominion was created in Venezuela to rig elections for Hugo Chávez, and that Dominion bribed Georgia officials for a no-bid contract,” the lawsuit states. Citing millions spent on security for employees, damage control to its reputation, and future losses, Dominion requests damages of more than $1.3 billion.

  • Dominion’s lawyer told reporters last week the lawsuit against Powell “is just the first in a series of legal steps.” Ari Cohn, a free speech and defamation lawyer, told WaPo: “If I had to guess I would say that [Poulos] wants a very public vindication with a ruling establishing that Sidney Powell defamed them and that her statements were baseless…That’s not something you generally get in a settlement agreement.”
  • Just last week, Trump again said at a rally that Dominion machines allowed “fraudulent ballots” to be counted during the 2020 election (clip).

The Supreme Court declined to fast track eight Trump-related cases related to the 2020 election, ensuring they won’t be taken up before Biden’s inauguration. The cases include one brought by attorney Lin Wood against Georgia’s Secretary of State, the so-called “Kraken” cases, and three brought by Trump’s campaign. It is possible the lawsuits will be declared moot after Biden is sworn in.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases alleging that the Treasury Dept. incorrectly distributed Coronavirus aid meant for tribal governments. The Lower 48 Tribes argue that Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) are not eligible for CARES Act funding, while the Trump administration wants to divvy up the money between tribes and ANCs.


Immigration

A federal judge blocked the Trump administration’s final attempt to restrict U.S. asylum laws. District Judge James Donato (Obama appointee) ruled in favor of advocacy groups who argued that acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf lacked authority to impose the new rules, which would have resulted in the denial of most asylum applications.

“The government has recycled exactly the same legal and factual claims made in the prior cases, as if they had not been soundly rejected in well-reasoned opinions by several courts,” Donato wrote. “This is a troubling litigation strategy. In effect, the government keeps crashing the same car into a gate, hoping that someday it might break through.”

On Monday, acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf submitted his resignation, citing the recent court ruling that he is not a valid appointee to the position. His resignation letter does not cite the Capitol riots or Trump’s language inciting the insurrection. FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor will be the new acting secretary.

“Unfortunately, this action is warranted by recent events, including the ongoing and meritless court rulings regarding the validity of my authority as Acting Secretary. These events and concerns increasingly serve to divert attention and resources away from the important work of the Department in this critical time of a transition of power,” Wolf added.

A new Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy will make it harder for immigrant minors to obtain asylum in the U.S. The change was made at the end of last month by then-acting agency leader Tony Pham, who served in the position for less than five months.

Beginning Dec. 29, ICE officers were told that they must review whether an immigrant child is still “unaccompanied” each time they encounter the minor… The memo indicates that the evaluation by ICE officers can come at any time, including when an officer is reviewing immigration court records of a child, and if it’s determined that an immigrant is no longer unaccompanied, they will move to change their status.
Such a change could lead to making some children ineligible to have their asylum claims initially heard and processed… “If implemented aggressively, this policy could significantly decrease the number of children who ultimately receive asylum in the United States,” said Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “They are really putting the onus on ICE officers to do everything they can as frequently as they can to remove these designations.”

The Trump administration is still awarding border wall contracts, even in areas where private land has not yet been acquired. The move will make it more difficult for Biden to stop construction of the border wall.

Attempts to halt construction completely, as Biden promised, will prove difficult, particularly if contracts continue to be struck — a challenge [acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark] Morgan acknowledged Tuesday. “They could terminate those contracts if they want to, but that’s going to be a very lengthy, messy process,” Morgan said.
“We’re going to have to go into settlement agreements with each individual contractor,” Morgan added, noting, that payments will have to be made for what they’ve already done, as well as for materials produced. He estimated the process could cost billions.

Trump is set to visit Alamo, Texas, today to celebrate the completion of more than 400 miles of the border wall. You can watch the event on YouTube at 3:00 pm eastern.


Miscellaneous

Stories that didn’t fit in the above categories…
The Trump administration auctioned off leases to drill oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge last week. Only two private companies bid, each winning large tracts of land. Knik Arm Services, from Alaska, paid $1.6 million for a 50,000-acre tract along the Arctic Ocean. A subsidiary of Australian company 88 Energy paid $800,000 to win the smallest tract.
One of the Health and Human Services Department’s final acts under Trump was finalizing the removal of Obama-era regulations barring discrimination among HHS grantees. The change will allow recipients of federal grant money – like adoption and foster agencies – to discriminate against LGBTQ people and those of a different religion.

Human Rights Campaign: “Statistics suggest that an estimated two million LGBTQ adults in the U.S. are interested in adoption… Further, research consistently shows that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the foster care system, as many have been rejected by their families of origin because of their LGBTQ status, and are especially vulnerable to discrimination and mistreatment while in foster care. This regulation would only exacerbate these challenges faced by LGBTQ young people.



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