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    Trump’s meeting invite turned down by the Congressional Black Caucus

    WASHINGTON — The Congressional Black Caucus turned down an invitation to meet with President Donald Trump, telling him Wednesday they believe their concerns are falling on “deaf ears” at the White House and his policies are devastating to the millions of Americans in the nation’s black communities.

    A White House spokeswoman said the development was “pretty disappointing” and pledged to arrange for individual members to meet one-on-one with Trump.

    Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond told Trump in a letter that his proposed budget, his efforts to dismantle Democrat Barack Obama’s health care law and actions by Attorney General Jeff Sessions are detrimental to many African-Americans. Richmond said the caucus had expressed its concern several times, including in eight letters and a document, but the administration has failed to respond.

    “The CBC, and the millions of people we represent, have a lot to lose under your administration,” Richmond wrote. “I fail to see how a social gathering would benefit the policies we advocate for.”

    Trump and top members of the caucus met in March, but Richmond said there has been no follow-through on promises like helping black lawmakers meet with Trump’s Cabinet.

    Specifically, the caucus criticized Trump’s budget proposal, which would cut money for Pell Grants for low-income college students and eliminate the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps seniors and others on fixed incomes heat their homes.

    The caucus singled out moves by Sessions on drug prosecutions and civil rights enforcement, and complained that the House GOP health care bill that Trump celebrated during a Rose Garden ceremony would “strip millions of black people of their health care.”

    Richmond’s letter responded to an invitation from Trump aide Omarosa Manigault, chief spokeswoman for the White House Office of Public Liaison.

    “It’s pretty disappointing that Cedric Richmond has decided to go back on his commitment to meet with us,” Manigault said in a telephone interview.

    She said caucus members who were excluded from the March meeting have been reaching out to her personally, as well as to the White House legislative affairs team, seeking one-on-one meetings with Trump to discuss issues their constituents are concerned about.

    “We will do that because they have made those requests and we will honor those requests,” Manigault said. “That’s not going to be deterred because of Cedric Richmond’s political gamesmanship.”

    Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said caucus members want substance from the White House, not a social event.

    “We want to talk and deal with issues that are of concern to the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and we’ve not gotten any response,” Meeks said. “My opinion and the opinion of most of just about all of the members of the CBC is that the board met (with Trump). They gave him substantive issues which we wanted to deal with and they have not been dealt with.”Meeks added, “Until we can deal with substance and issues what’s the benefit of a meeting.”

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    Trump 2020: President to hold first fundraiser for next election

    WASHINGTON— President. Candidate. Businessman. Three of President Donald Trump’s roles converge next week as he holds his first re-election fundraiser at his hotel in Washington.

    Trump can see the Trump International Hotel from the White House lawn, making it a premier and convenient location for the June 28 major-donor event, his campaign director Michael Glassner said.
    But the choice also raises ethics questions, according to conflict of interest attorneys who have been critical of Trump’s decision not to cut financial ties with his global business empire.

    Kathleen Clark, a former ethics lawyer for the District of Columbia, said that while not illegal or even unusual for Trump, it’s a bold example of self-dealing that deeply concerns some Americans.
    “It’s another example of him trying to get a twofer, promoting his brand through his campaign or his government work,” she said.

    Norman Eisen, who served as President Barack Obama’s lead ethics attorney, said Trump is “becoming more and more brazen in his efforts to monetize the presidency.”

    Eisen is suing Trump for violating a clause of the Constitution that prohibits foreign gifts and payments; Trump and the Justice Department have called such lawsuits baseless.

    Trump has commingled business and politics right from the July 2015 day he glided down an escalator at Trump Tower in New York City to announce his candidacy.

    Ethics experts say his continued appearances at his own for-profit properties — he’s visited such locations 37 times as president, according to an Associated Press tally — double as a form of advertising that inappropriately enriches him.

    The annual financial disclosure Trump filed last week shows that Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort he visited on seven weekends this winter, saw a revenue bump to $37 million from $30 million during the period covered in his previous filing.

    The Washington hotel opened in October, and Trump reported $20 million in income from the property.

    Throughout the 2016 presidential race, Trump’s campaign account cycled about $8 million into his businesses. At the same time, he contributed more than $66 million out of his own pocket over the course of the primary and general election campaigns.

    So far, Trump’s re-election campaign is raising money exclusively from other donors.

    He officially kicked off his 2020 bid on Inauguration Day by filing Federal Election Commission paperwork, making it the earliest such effort by a sitting president.

    It’s paying off: The campaign raised more than $7 million by the end of March from appeals to small donors and the sale of merchandise such as the ubiquitous red “Make America Great Again” ball caps.

    The fundraiser next week is aimed at high-dollar donors. His campaign and the Republican National Committee will share proceeds.

    Trump himself foreshadowed the choice of location last week in a text message to supporters. Trying to encourage small donors to participate in a drawing to gain admittance, the campaign wrote, in the voice of Trump: “Do not worry about a thing. We will fly you to DC, we will take a picture together, and you will stay at a beautiful hotel. BIG LEAGUE.”

    He and his supporters have referred to the Trump hotel as “beautiful.” The Trump Organization completed a $200 million renovation of the government property weeks before Election Day.

    With the General Services Administration as his landlord — and the president as the GSA’s ultimate boss — Trump has tried to distance himself from the property’s finances. Government watchdogs have argued that the steps he’s taken fall short of avoiding potential conflicts of interest.

    Under a restructuring outlined in letters between the Trump Organization and the GSA, profits from the hotel will go to an account of the corporate entity that holds the lease, Trump Old Post Office LLC.

    The letters do not address what might happen to any profits from the hotel after Trump leaves office, or whether they will be transferred to Trump at that time.

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    VA gets a bipartisan scolding over its billion dollar budget shortfall

    WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs was scolded by both parties over its budget Wednesday as lawmakers scurried to find a fix to an unexpected shortfall of more than $1 billion that would threaten medical care for thousands of veterans in the coming months. Under repeated questioning, VA Secretary David Shulkin acknowledged the department may need emergency funds.

    “We would like to work with you,” Shulkin told a Senate appropriations panel. “We need to do this quickly.”

    At the hearing, lawmakers pressed Shulkin about the department’s financial management after it significantly underestimated costs for its Choice program, which offers veterans federally paid medical care outside the VA. Several questioned Shulkin’s claim that the VA can fill the budget gap simply by shifting funds — without an emergency infusion of new money — without hurting veterans’ care.

    “The department’s stewardship of funds is the real issue at hand,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., chair of the Appropriations panel overseeing the VA. He faulted VA for a “precarious situation” requiring a congressional bailout.

    Shulkin cited unexpectedly high demand for Choice and defended President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget request as adequate, but allowed that more money may be needed.

    “On financial projections, we have to do better,” he said. “We do not want to see veterans impacted at all by our inability to manage budgets.”

    Shulkin made the surprise revelation last week, urgently asking Congress for help. He said VA needed legal authority to shift money from other VA programs.

    His disclosure came just weeks after lawmakers were still being assured that Choice was under budget, with $1.1 billion estimated to be left over on Aug. 7. Shulkin now says that money will dry up by mid-August. He cited excessive use of Choice beyond its original intent of using private doctors only when veterans must wait more than 30 days for a VA appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a facility.

    Skeptical senators on Wednesday signaled they may need to move forward on a financial bailout.
    In a letter Wednesday to the VA, Moran joined three other GOP senators, including John McCain of Arizona, in demanding more detailed information from VA on what fix is needed.

    “Unless Congress appropriates emergency funding to continue the Veterans Choice Program, hundreds of thousands of veterans who now rely on the Choice Card will be sent back to a VA that cannot effectively manage or coordinate their care,” the senators said. “We cannot send our veterans back to the pre-scandal days in which veterans were subjected to unacceptable wait-times.”

    VA is already instructing its medical centers to limit the number of veterans sent to private doctors. Some veterans were being sent to Defense Department hospitals, VA facilities located farther away, or other alternative locations “when care is not offered in VA.” It also was asking field offices to hold off on spending for certain medical equipment to help cover costs.

    Congressional Democrats on VA oversight committees have also sharply criticized the proposed 2018 budget. Shulkin, for instance, says he intends to tap other parts of the VA budget to cover the shortfall, including $620 million in carryover money that had been designated for use in the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The budget proposal also seeks to cover rising costs of Choice in part by reducing disability benefits for thousands of veterans once they reach retirement age, drawing an outcry from major veterans’ organizations who said veterans heavily rely on the payments.

    Shulkin has since backed off the plan to reduce disability benefits but has not indicated what other areas may be cut.

    Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told Shulkin that it sure sounded like VA needed money.
    “You’re defending this budget, but your job is to defend veterans,” she said. “It seems to me if the administration makes the request, it will be better served.”

    The VA’s faulty budget estimates were a primary reason that Congress passed legislation in March to extend the Choice program beyond its Aug. 7 expiration date until the money ran out, which VA said would happen early next year. At the bill-signing ceremony with veterans’ groups, Trump said the legislation would ensure veterans will continue to be able to see “the doctor of their choice.”

    The department is now more closely restricting use of Choice to its 30-day, 40-mile requirements.
    The unexpectedly high Choice costs are also raising questions about the amount of money needed in future years as VA seeks to expand the program. Earlier this month, Shulkin described the outlines of an overhaul, dubbed Veterans CARE, which would replace Choice and its 30-day, 40-mile restrictions to give veterans even wider access to private doctors. He is asking Congress to approve that plan by this fall.
    Follow Hope Yen on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hopeyen1

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    WSJ reporter fired after prospective involvement with a key source

    WASHINGTON — The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday fired its highly regarded chief foreign affairs correspondent after evidence emerged of his involvement in prospective commercial deals — including one involving arms sales to foreign governments — with an international businessman who was one of his key sources.

    The reporter, Jay Solomon, was offered a 10 percent stake in a fledgling company, Denx LLC, by Farhad Azima, an Iranian-born aviation magnate who has ferried weapons for the CIA. It was not clear whether Solomon ever received money or formally accepted a stake in the company.

    “We are dismayed by the actions and poor judgment of Jay Solomon,” Wall Street Journal spokesman Steve Severinghaus wrote in a statement to The Associated Press. “While our own investigation continues, we have concluded that Mr. Solomon violated his ethical obligations as a reporter, as well as our standards.”

    Azima was the subject of an AP investigative article published Tuesday. During the course of its investigation, the AP obtained emails and text messages between Azima and Solomon, as well as an operating agreement for Denx dated March 2015, which listed an apparent stake for Solomon.

    As part of its reporting, the AP had asked the Journal about the documents appearing to link Solomon and Azima. The relationship was uncovered in interviews and in internal documents that Azima’s lawyer said were stolen by hackers.

    “I clearly made mistakes in my reporting and entered into a world I didn’t understand.” Solomon told the AP on Wednesday. “I never entered into any business with Farhad Azima, nor did I ever intend to. But I understand why the emails and the conversations I had with Mr. Azima may look like I was involved in some seriously troubling activities. I apologize to my bosses and colleagues at the Journal, who were nothing but great to me.”

    Two other Denx partners — ex-CIA employees Gary Bernsten and Scott Modell — told the AP that Solomon was involved in discussing proposed deals with Azima at the same time he continued to cultivate the businessman as a source for his stories for the Journal. Bernsten and Modell said Solomon withdrew from the venture shortly after business efforts began and that the venture never added up to much. They provided no evidence as to when Solomon withdrew.

    The emails and texts reviewed by the AP — tens of thousands of pages covering more than eight years — included more than 18 months of communications involving the apparent business effort. Some messages described a need for Solomon’s Social Security number to file the company’s taxes, but there was no evidence Solomon provided it.

    Denx was shuttered last year, according to Florida business registration records.

    In an April 2015 email, Azima wrote to Solomon about a proposal for a $725 million air-operations, surveillance and reconnaissance support contract with the United Arab Emirates that would allow planes to spy on activity inside nearby Iran. Solomon was supposed to ferry the proposal to UAE government representatives at a lunch the following day, the email said.

    “We all wish best of luck to Jay on his first defense sale,” Azima wrote to Solomon, Bernsten and Modell.

    Under the proposed UAE deal, Azima’s firms were to manage specially equipped surveillance planes to monitor activity in Iran, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

    In October 2014, Solomon wrote to Azima in a text message: “Our business opportunities are so promising.”

    In another message that same month, Solomon asked Azima whether he had told a mutual friend about their business plans.

    “Hell no!” Azima replied.

    The emails show Solomon’s relationship with Azima began professionally, as the reporter cultivated the businessman as a source of information about Iranian money in a Georgian hotel deal and other matters. A review of Solomon’s published work over the past four years indicated Azima never appeared by name in the newspaper.

    The hacked materials also demonstrate that Azima cultivated close relationships with fellow Western and American journalists, including those at the AP, and frequently communicated with them by phone, text and email. None appeared to involve the same level of personal involvement or referenced potential business deals.

    Veteran journalists at prominent outlets such as the Journal have contacts, expertise and influence that can be valuable in the business world, said Kelly McBride, a vice president for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education center based in St. Petersburg, Florida. But seeking to exploit those assets while a journalist would betray readers’ trust in a reporter’s impartiality.

    “You can’t have conversations about business deals outside your employment,” she said.

    Over decades, Azima has glided among different worlds, flying weapons to the Balkans, selling spy gear to Persian Gulf nations, dealing with a small Midwest bank and navigating Washington’s power circles. In an April 2016 memo, a public relations firm he worked with, Prime Strategies, suggested Solomon could be called upon to “write a feature story about Farhad” to help combat negative coverage.

    In May 2015, Bernsten — using an email under the alias “The Vicar” — told Azima of a plan to help a dissident member of the Kuwaiti royal family instigate public protests over corruption with the goal of bringing down the nation’s government. Though the Kuwaiti plan involved Denx, Solomon was not included in the emails and said he knew nothing about it. It does not appear the plans were ever executed, as 87-year-old Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah remains in power.
    Read some of the source documents here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3871143-Jay-Solomon-Documents.html

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    Georgia a battleground state? Dems looking for upside amidst election loss

    DUNWOODY, Ga.— Republicans say Karen Handel’s victory in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District proves the GOP is still the dominant party in Georgia.

    Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Watson credited Handel for “crushing liberal dreams.”

    Democrats say Jon Ossoff’s 48 percent showing in a Republican stronghold is proof that they’re actually making progress toward making Georgia a genuine battleground.

    Turns out, both sides can be right this time.

    “This was not a cakewalk for them,” Ossoff supporter Jen Cox said. “And it never will be again. That’s the win for us today.”

    For eight years living in the traditionally conservative area, Cox kept her mouth shut about politics until she was certain of her neighbors’ leanings. Cox, a 47-year-old Realtor and mother of two daughters, co-founded a group this year called “Pave It Blue” focused on backing Ossoff’s campaign and other red seats that could be poachable.

    Handel backers, though, hailed Tuesday’s results as confirmation that the district remains solidly in the party’s grasp. “Karen was able to pull Republicans back together,” said Jim Phillips, a 69-year-old retiree from Marietta who has volunteered on several Handel campaigns.

    He doesn’t expect the district’s leanings to change in the coming years either, betting that its makeup of well-educated and well-off voters will give Republicans “with a strong platform, a good history and a good record” a path to victory.

    Those polar views the day after Handel’s 4-point win over Ossoff can be partly attributed to sheer partisanship — voters seeing the world through their party identity. But each side having a base of voters who believe in the strength of their respective parties is itself an ingredient required for competitive politics.

    And Ossoff’s 48 percent is a higher mark than Democrats have managed in recent statewide races involving less of a GOP advantage than Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

    That leaves Georgia Democratic Chairman Dubose Porter and other Democrats claiming some hope from Ossoff’s defeat as both parties look ahead to the 2018 elections, when Democrats will try to dent Republicans’ monopoly on statewide offices and the legislature. All of the state’s congressional seats, including Handel’s, will be on the ballot as well.

    “This was a pretty good fight … exciting to be a part of,” Porter said of the Ossoff race. “It will only get better in 2018.”

    Democrats have said for several election cycles that the Republican-run state is on the cusp of battleground status — turning from red to purple in the common political parlance. It started with then-Sen. Barack Obama managing 46 percent of the vote here in 2008. Georgia had the narrowest margin of the states that Obama did not win that year.

    Yet Democrats have consistently fallen short of their own expectations since. Obama didn’t match his first performance in his re-election campaign. Hillary Clinton landed at 45 percent.

    Porter and other Democrats ballyhooed their U.S. Senate and gubernatorial nominees in 2014, recruiting a pair of famous Georgia political names and helping them raise millions of dollars to finance credible campaigns. But former Sen. Sam Nunn’s daughter Michelle Nunn managed just 45 percent of the vote after an expensive race against Republican David Perdue, now the state’s junior senator. Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, fared no better, falling just shy of 45 percent against incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal.

    Along the way, Republicans have solidified near-supermajority control of the General Assembly.
    The next high-profile test for Georgia Democrats comes in the 2018 governor’s race, with at least two of the state party’s rising stars running in a primary. Porter said Wednesday that he expects Democrats to field “strong candidates” for every statewide down ballot office — something the party hasn’t managed in recent years.

    “Expectations have changed. (Democrats) are disappointed with loss and (Republicans) relieved with win. Indicates teams going in different directions,” Jason Carter himself noted Wednesday morning on Twitter.

    South Carolina Democrats are seeking the same silver lining after Archie Parnell lost a congressional special election there Tuesday night by essentially the same margin as Ossoff.

    Parnell may have benefited from the lack of national attention on that race, though. Republicans hammered Ossoff in Georgia with ads labeling him the “hand-picked” candidate of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

    Ossoff’s campaign was less direct in trying to link Handel with Trump, who barely edged Clinton in November in the 6th District. Handel supporter John Salvesen attributed her more comfortable margin of victory over Ossoff to Republicans determined to defeat a candidate they considered representative of national Democrats — with some encouragement from Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

    “I really think their involvement was the difference maker,” Salvesen, 52, said.

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    Trump’s border wall powered by solar panels? Maybe.

    President Donald Trump is musing about putting solar panels on his proposed wall on the Mexican border.

    Trump is suggesting at a rally Wednesday evening in Iowa that a solar wall would “create energy and pay for itself.”

    He then joked it would mean Mexico “will have to pay much less money” to build it. Trump claimed as a candidate that Mexico would fully fund his impenetrable border wall — a plan Mexico rejected.

    Trump also suggested the panels would make the wall “beautiful” and then praised himself by saying, “Pretty good imagination, right?”

    The wall, which was a signature campaign promise, has not been at the center of the White House’s agenda. Construction has not begun.

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    US officials underscore Russia threat to 2016 elections

    WASHINGTON — U.S. officials sought Wednesday to underscore for lawmakers the threat Russia posed to the 2016 vote for the White House, outlining efforts to hack into election systems in 21 states and to fill the internet with misinformation during a divisive campaign season.

    Officials also revealed what appeared to be a breakdown in communications about how severe the threat appeared, and they reported tensions the Obama administration faced in trying to publicly warn of meddling in the face of a skeptical then-candidate Donald Trump.

    “One of the candidates, as you’ll recall, was predicting that the election was going to be rigged in some way. And so we were concerned that, by making the statement, we might in and of itself be challenging the integrity of the — of the election process itself,” Jeh Johnson, the former head of the Homeland Security Department, told members of the House intelligence committee.

    The testimony came during a morning of double-barreled intelligence committee hearings — one in the House and one in the Senate — that underscored the U.S. intelligence community’s months-old determination that Russia attempted to meddle in the election. The issue has become a flashpoint for the Trump administration as congressional committees and a special counsel investigate the interference and whether the Trump campaign may have become enmeshed in it.

    A day earlier, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said he still has yet to know the president’s thoughts on whether Russia interfered.

    Johnson said Russian hacking didn’t change election totals, but he can’t be sure other meddling didn’t influence public opinion.

    “It is not for me to know to what extent the Russian hacks influenced public opinion and thereby influence the outcome of the election,” he said.

    Senators said the Homeland Security Department should reveal which state election systems were targeted by hackers as Jeanette Manfra, the department’s undersecretary for cybersecurity, demurred.

    Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s ranking Democrat, noted that the FBI has confirmed intrusions into voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois, and said Americans need to know the identities of the other 19 states where meddling was detected.

    “I do not believe our country is made safer by holding this information back from the American public,” he said. “To have the number of states that were hacked into or attempted to be hacked into still kept secret is just crazy in my mind.”

    Manfra said the department was still tracking the meddling in the 21 states and believes it’s important to protect the confidentiality of the states.

    State elections officials, who testified before the Senate committee, complained that DHS could have offered more information about the hacking.

    Michael Hass, the Wisconsin elections commissioner, said DHS could have been more timely — and provided more detail — on election security and threats to elections systems at the local level.

    Connie Lawson, Indiana secretary of state and president-elect of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said there were three conference calls led by Johnson with top state election officials about attempts to compromise state elections systems.

    She said the calls occurred on Aug. 15, Sept. 8 and Oct. 12. “Each time Secretary Johnson was directly asked about specific, credible threats and each time he confirmed that none existed,” Lawson said.

    Johnson said in the late summer and into the fall, he was very concerned about the meddling in state election systems and that the department encouraged states to seek assistance from DHS.

    More than 30 states accepted help, but there was resistance at the state level to a designation that would have funneled needed federal resources their way.

    He also said he contacted The Associated Press, which counts votes, and its CEO, Gary Pruitt.
    “Prior to Election Day, I also personally reviewed with the CEO of The Associated Press its long-standing election-day reporting process, including the redundancies and safeguards in its systems,” Johnson said.

    Johnson said he doesn’t know whether the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails and other Moscow-directed interference “did in fact alter public opinion, and thereby alter the outcome of the presidential election.” He said he was frustrated DHS learned of the hack into the DNC late in the game and said the committee refused help because it was using a private cyber security firm.

    “In retrospect, it would be easy for me to say that I should have bought a sleeping bag and camped out in front of the DNC in late summer,” Johnson said.
    Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Houston, Texas, contributed to this report.

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    FBI investigation terrorism in Flint airport stabbing

    FLINT, Mich.— The FBI is looking at terrorism as a possible motive after an officer was stabbed in the neck at the Flint airport, a law enforcement official said after the Wednesday attack that prompted an evacuation and beefed up security elsewhere in the Michigan city.

    A second law enforcement official said authorities were investigating witness reports the suspect made during the incident, including saying “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase for “God is great.” Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t able to publicly discuss the incident.

    White House press secretary Sean Spicer said President Donald Trump was briefed on the stabbing by Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert.

    Michigan State Police Lt. Mike Shaw said the condition of Bishop International Airport police Lt. Jeff Neville had been upgraded from critical to stable by Wednesday afternoon. Shaw said one person is in custody and nobody else is believed to have been involved.

    Shaw said “everything is on the table” as far as motive is concerned but cautioned against jumping to conclusions. The FBI is leading the investigation. The primarily regional airport, which had been evacuated, is “shut down and secure,” Shaw said, and no other threats had been identified.

    The FBI, with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners, is jointly investigating this incident to determine the nature and motive for the attack. We are aware of reports that the attacker made statements immediately prior to or while attacking the officer, but it is too early to determine the nature of these alleged statements or whether or not this was an act of terrorism.

    Witnesses described seeing the suspect led away in handcuffs by police, Neville bleeding and a knife on the ground.

    “The cop was on his hands and knees bleeding from his neck,” Ken Brown told The Flint Journal. “I said they need to get him a towel.”

    Cherie Carpenter, who was awaiting a flight to Texas to see her new grandchild, told Flint TV station WJRT she saw the attacker being led away in handcuffs. She described the man in custody as appearing “blank, just totally blank.”

    Flint officials said they stationed police officers around City Hall after the incident a few miles away. Mayor Karen Weaver said in a release Wednesday “the situation is under control” but officials sought to take “extra precautions.”

    Flint is about 50 miles northwest of Detroit.
    Karoub reported from Detroit. Associated Press writers Sadie Gurman in Phoenix, Arizona, and Kenneth Thomas in Washington contributed to this story.

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    Convicted of body slamming reporter, Greg Gianforte officially joins Congress

    WASHINGTON — Montana Republican Greg Gianforte was sworn in on Wednesday as the newest member of Congress, a month after he body-slammed a reporter who had questioned him about the GOP health care bill.

    Gianforte, a wealthy former software executive, has called for civility in politics following his conviction for assaulting the reporter the day before winning a special congressional election.

    Gianforte, 56, won a May 25 special election to serve the remaining 18 months in the House term vacated by now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Gianforte, who already has filed for re-election, was to take the oath of office by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

    In brief remarks, Gianforte said he was “humbled and honored.”

    Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Gianforte was “a do-er, we’re happy to have him here.”

    With Gianforte in the House, Republicans have 239 members to 193 for Democrats. Winners of three elections will be sworn in at later dates.

    Gianforte told The Associated Press last week that he is keenly aware he will carry with him the distinction of being the congressman who beat up the reporter.

    “I can’t erase it, but I did do everything in my power once the event was over to take responsibility,” he said.

    Members of Congress have an obligation to ratchet down the vitriol in politics, especially after last week’s shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise during a Republican congressional baseball practice, Gianforte said. The shooter had volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ Democratic presidential campaign and expressed grievances online about President Donald Trump and Republicans.

    “I believe that good things can come out of bad,” Gianforte said. “It’s important to make sure we reach out to all parties and hear their voice. I think the other parties have an obligation, as well, to be respectful and in that dialogue.”

    Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs said Gianforte body-slammed him to the ground and broke his glasses after Jacobs asked about the health care bill that had recently passed the Republican-controlled House. Audio taken by Jacobs recorded the sounds of a scuffle followed by Gianforte yelling, “Get the hell out of here!”

    Gianforte was ordered to pay a fine, perform community service and take anger management training, but he received no jail time. He also avoided a civil lawsuit by writing a letter of apology to Jacobs and donating $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

    In a statement Wednesday, Jacobs said he welcomed Gianforte to Capitol Hill, “where I’m confident he will live up to his pledge to champion a free press and the First Amendment. In the courtroom last week, he openly offered to do an interview with me when he came to Washington and I look forward to taking him up on that in the coming days.”
    Associated Press writer Bobby Caina Calvan in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.

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    Corruption cases put spotlight on those who regulate the marijuana industry

    DENVER — Take a black-market business that relies on cash. Move the business out of the shadows by giving it government oversight. Hire new regulators to keep watch on the business, all without any experience regulating a brand-new industry.

    The result can be a recipe for government corruption.

    Recent cases in Colorado and Washington are the first known instances of current or former pot regulators being accused of having improper dealings with the industry. The two recreational marijuana states are the nation’s oldest, approving legal weed in defiance of federal law in 2012.

    A pair of cases several years into the legal-weed experiment might not seem like much, but they give a black eye to all marijuana regulators and fuel old fears about the criminal element’s influence.
    In a case that has caught the U.S. Justice Department’s attention, former Colorado marijuana enforcement officer Renee Rayton is accused of helping pot growers raise plants for illegal out-of-state sales.

    State investigators say the marijuana warehouse inspector quit her job last year and immediately went to work for the illegal pot ring, taking an $8,000-a-month job.

    A June 7 indictment says Rayton told the pot growers she could help them “get legal” through her contacts at the Colorado agency that oversees the marijuana industry. The indictment says Rayton had “vast knowledge” of marijuana regulations and “must have been aware” that other defendants in the case were growing pot illegally.

    She is charged with conspiracy to illegally grow pot. Rayton’s attorney told The Associated Press she is innocent.

    In Washington, the state agency that regulates pot recently fired an employee who leased land to a prospective pot grower.

    Marijuana licensing specialist Grant Bulski was leasing 25 acres to a marijuana entrepreneur for $2,834 a month, The Spokesman-Review reported . That violated Washington rules prohibiting state pot regulators from having a financial stake in the business. Bulski was not charged with a crime.

    Messages left at numbers for a Grant Bulski in Olympia weren’t returned.

    Pot isn’t the first product in the U.S. to go from illegal to legit. Alcohol and gambling made similar transitions last century.

    But since recreational pot remains off-limits in most states and in the U.S. government’s eyes, a massive black market remains.

    “Marijuana is unique because it’s so front and center in the public eye,” said Lewis Koski, who became Colorado’s top marijuana enforcement officer after regulating the gambling and alcohol industries.

    Now a government consultant who teaches public policy at the University of Colorado-Denver, Koski said government employees who regulate any business face tension. Regulators know the industry they’re monitoring well. And in the case of the marijuana business, those regulators have no guidance from federal authorities and little precedent to rely on.

    And because the federal government considers all pot business illegal, making it difficult for those businesses to access banking products as basic as checking accounts, the pot industry remains cash-heavy.

    U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Colorado case last month when he asked Congress not to renew a spending provision that prevents the Justice Department from spending tax money to interfere with state marijuana laws and businesses.

    “It would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions,” Sessions wrote in the letter first obtained by cannabis social network Massroots.com.
    The Colorado and Washington cases were uncovered by state officials, not federal drug authorities. They highlight how critical it is for states to tightly regulate a business still coming out of the black market, Koski said.

    “Both sides — government agencies and the industry — are working hard to establish credibility,” Koski said. “So it makes it more concerning when you have people going back and forth.”

    Ethics watchdogs say the Colorado and Washington cases should spur pot states to beef up ethics commissions charged with monitoring conflicts of interest by government employees. Michigan, a medical-marijuana state, passed a 2016 law banning even relatives of its pot oversight board members from having any financial stake in the weed industry.

    Poorly staffed ethics offices in some marijuana states aren’t prepared to stop regulators leaving to work for the industries they once monitored, said Aaron Scherb, national legislative director for the government watchdog group Common Cause.

    “It’s like trying to keep water out of a sinking boat — you can do it for a while, but it’s only a matter of time,” he said.
    Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt