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Comey testifies he was fired over Russia, says Trump’s White House spreading ‘lies’

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WASHINGTON – Former FBI Director James Comey asserted Thursday that President Donald Trump fired him to interfere with his investigation of Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign, bluntly accusing the White House of spreading “lies, plain and simple.”

Comey also revealed that he’d orchestrated the public release of information about his private conversations with the president in an effort to further the investigation.

Comey’s testimony, at a hugely anticipated congressional hearing that captured the country’s attention, provided a gripping account of his interactions with Trump and underscored the deep distrust that had soured their relationship before his stunning firing last month.

In occasionally explosive statements, Comey portrayed Trump as a chief executive dismissive of the FBI’s independence and made clear that he interpreted Trump’s request to end an investigation into his former national security adviser as an order coming from the president.

He expressed confidence that the circumstances of his firing, and Trump’s overall behavior toward him, could be investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller for possible obstruction of justice. But he declined to offer an opinion on whether it met such a threshold.

Trump’s private attorney, Marc Kasowitz, seized on Comey’s admission that he had told Trump on multiple occasions that he was not personally under investigation and maintained the testimony made clear that Trump “never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone.”

Kasowitz also jumped on Comey’s revelation that he had released details of his private conversations with the president, casting the former FBI director as one of the “leakers” set on undermining the Trump administration.

Still, there’s no doubt the veteran lawman made for a challenging adversary.

“It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey said toward the end of more than two hours of testimony before the Senate intelligence committee. “I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.

“That is a very big deal, and not just because it involves me.”

At one point he practically dared Trump to release any recordings of their conversations, a prospect the president once alluded to in a tweet.

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said, suggesting such evidence would back up his account over the president’s.

Thursday’s hearing was Comey’s first public appearance since his sudden May 9 firing and it brought Washington and other parts of the country to a standstill as Americans sat glued to their screens, harkening back to the Watergate congressional hearings that held the nation rapt some four decades earlier.

Republicans mindful of the gravity of the moment worked feverishly to lessen any damage from the hearing. They tried to undermine Comey’s credibility by issuing press releases and even ads pointing to a past instance where the FBI had to clean up the director’s testimony to Congress.

In his opening statement, Comey somberly accused the Trump administration of spreading “lies, plain and simple” in the aftermath of his abrupt ouster, declaring that the administration “chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI” by claiming the bureau was in disorder.

He then dove into the heart of the fraught political controversy around his firing and whether Trump interfered in the bureau’s Russia investigation, as he elaborated on written testimony released a day earlier.

In that testimony, Comey said that Trump demanded his “loyalty” and directly pushed him to “lift the cloud” of investigation by declaring publicly the president was not a target of the FBI probe into his campaign’s Russia ties.

He said that when Trump told him he hoped he would terminate an investigation into Michael Flynn, the ousted national security adviser, he interpreted that as a directive.

“I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying, ‘I hope’ this,” he said. “I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.”

Asked whether that February Oval Office discussion amounted to obstruction of justice, Comey said he expected that to be a matter for Mueller, the former FBI director who has taken over the Justice Department’s investigation.

He said that while he found the exchange disturbing, “that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards, to try and understand what the intention was there, and whether that’s an offense.”

In a startling disclosure, Comey revealed that after his firing he actually tried to spur the special counsel’s appointment by giving a damning memo he had written about a meeting with Trump to a friend to release to the media.

“My judgment was I need to get that out into the public square,” Comey said.

The February meeting was one of several one-on-one encounters that Comey said made him feel such intense discomfort that he felt compelled to document them in memos.

“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it really important to document,” Comey said. “I knew there might come a day when I might need a record of what happened not only to defend myself but to protect the FBI.”

Trump himself was expected to dispute Comey’s claims that the president demanded loyalty and asked the FBI director to drop the investigation into Flynn, according to a person close to the president’s legal team who demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss legal strategy. Instead, Kasowitz pushed back and the president remained conspicuously silent on Twitter during the hearing despite expectations he might respond.

The disclosures that followed Comey’s firing have raised questions about why Comey, known in government for an independent streak and a willingness to buck protocol, did not speak out publicly while on the job, or at least make his objections directly known to the president.

Discussing the meeting where Comey says Trump asked him to back off Flynn, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California asked: “Why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong,’?”

“It’s a great question,” Comey replied. “Maybe if I were stronger I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation I just took it in.”

Comey also made clear that political entanglement in law enforcement has cut across party lines.

During a discussion of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Comey disclosed that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, an Obama administration appointee, instructed him to refer to the issue as a “matter,” not an “investigation.”

“That concerned me because that language tracked how the campaign was talking about the FBI’s work and that’s concerning,” Comey said. “We had an investigation open at the time so that gave me a queasy feeling.”

Many Democrats still blame Comey for Clinton’s loss, leading Trump to apparently believe they would applaud him for firing Comey. The opposite occurred, as the firing created a political firestorm that has stalled Trump’s legislative agenda and taken over Washington.

Under questioning Thursday, Comey reaffirmed the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the election.

“There should be no fuzz on this. The Russians interfered,” Comey stated firmly. “That happened. It’s about as unfake as you can possibly get.”

Trump has begrudgingly accepted that assessment. But he has also suggested he doesn’t believe it, saying Russia is a “ruse” and calling the investigation into the matter a “witch hunt.”

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A crash course in stopping the opioid epidemic

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As the opioid epidemic has swept across the nation, proving it doesn’t discriminate against race, income or age, there has been a conversation visibly absent from schools and among young people about the dangers and addictive qualities painkillers, often prescribed by a doctor, can have.

But that is changing.

Rise Above Colorado, a drug prevention program that emerged from the Colorado Meth Project, now incorporates opioid abuse into its drug prevention campaigns, which have mostly focused on underage marijuana and alcohol consumption. And other organizations, such as Speak Now Colorado, are advising parents on how to talk to their kids about prescription drugs.

“In Colorado, (data shows) the larger rate of misuse in opioids is among 18-25 year olds, so if you want to prevent those outcomes you really need to start early,” said Kavitha Kailasam, the director of community partnership for Rise Above.

She said the move to incorporate education on the dangers of opioids in particular has been data-driven. Surveys conducted by Rise Above found that perceived risk of prescription pain relievers has decreased. In 2013, 66 to 80 percent of teenagers surveyed in southern Colorado said they perceived the risk of prescription opioids as “high.” In 2016 that perception of significant risk dropped to between 51 and 65 percent.

In Schools

Maelah Robinson-Castillo, a Centennial High School student in Pueblo who works with Rise Above, said she doesn’t think a lot of the students she goes to school with are aware of how dangerous opioids can be.

“In a way, it’s kind of accepted,” she said, explaining that those drugs seem safer than others because they come with a doctor’s discretion.

Rise Above has mostly taken this approach to drug prevention: highlighting that a lot of a student’s peers don’t use drugs or consume alcohol. Kailasam said there is a misconception among young adults that use is more common than it is. According to a Healthy Kids Colorado survey from 2015, only 14 percent of those surveyed said they have taken prescription drugs without a prescription. In comparison, 59 percent said they’ve consumed alcohol and 38 percent say they’ve consumed marijuana.

But even with that data, there isn’t much more on the opioid epidemic as it relates to teenagers.

Alexis Ellis, a regional health connector for the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment, said she thinks that’s going to be changing in the future, but where the data gap has presented the biggest problem is in schools where drug prevention programs are largely based on data.

Robinson-Castillo has taken on her own prevention program, called “Centennial on the Rise.” It’s an event where students highlight what they are passionate about. At its core, the high school junior said it’s a way for students to prove that they’re more than the negative stereotypes adults sometimes assign to high school students in relation to drugs and alcohol.

But she’d like to see schools do more.

“Prevention can be looked at in different ways, by just having a youth-adult connection can help. For me, (it’s helpful) going to an adult and them having the resources so I can talk about prescription drugs,” Robinson-Castillo said. “In Pueblo we really don’t have that engagement piece. That’s a place where it’s lacking. We don’t have those mentors in our schools that have the resources if we do come across wanting to get help or wanting to seek guidance. I don’t think our teachers are trained in that.”

With Parents

It’s not just the classroom. Some argue parents should do more to education their children on the dangers of prescription drugs. That can start with educating themselves.

When DeEtte Kozlow took her 17-year-old daughter in to have her wisdom teeth removed last year, the Douglas County mom was sure of one thing: her daughter would not take any kind of opioid for the pain following the procedure.

Kozlow said the nurse insisted on the prescription. She was told her daughter would absolutely need it for the pain and that it is normal to take a painkiller after a molar extraction. That was the problem for Kozlow, who said she eventually took the prescription she felt was being forced on her daughter and then ripped it up.

Her daughter was able to treat the pain just fine the following days with Tylenol and smoothies, Kozlow said. She was confident her daughter wouldn’t need the drugs — and she was right — but she doesn’t think other parents are as educated about the dangers painkillers pose for young people, or that a simple prescription for a normal procedure could be so addictive.

In 2016, Kozlow lost her best friend, Bobby Hawley, to a heroin overdose. He was 39, finishing a master’s degree at Regis University and, as Kozlow put it, a beacon of hope for other addicts he knew. Since his death, Kozlow helped start a non-profit organization in her best friend’s name, appropriately called “Bobby’s House” for his work in the addiction community. Kozlow said Bobby would often let people crash on a mattress at his house when they were going through withdrawal.  

Bobby’s addiction started with painkillers, just like the ones Kozlow’s daughter would have taken after the wisdom teeth surgery.

For the previous decade he struggled with addiction, spending time in and out of rehab. His addiction was something Kozlow said she and the people close to him didn’t talk about a lot. But now she wishes that more people would talk about opioid addiction. It’s why she was so adamant about her daughter not taking any painkillers.

Kozlow said if other parents knew what a simple prescription could lead to, maybe they’d rip them up too.

“Parents can help stop this epidemic,” Kozlow said plainly. She describes the epidemic as an oil spill, and that to keep it from spreading it has to start with kids.

Kozlow said she doesn’t think parents are aware of the problem or that taking a prescription could eventually lead to addiction down the road, as it did for Bobby. Most parents probably have some type of opioid in their medicine cabinet, and then when it comes to their kids being prescribed some type of painkiller, parents don’t know what they’re taking.

Speak Now’s guide for parents — which Kozlow said is easy to follow and reference — is a start. It breaks down what opioids are, what their medical names are, what forms they take and why they’re addictive. The organization’s information paired with Rise Above’s alternative highlight has become a sort of two-pronged approach.

“We need to start paying attention,” she said. “We have to quit taking a pill for everything and cope.”

Kozlow can rattle off statistics about the opioid epidemic — that it’s surpassing the AIDS epidemic, that more than 100 people in the U.S. die from overdose each day — and has stories, too. Friends of Bobby’s who have relapsed have been admitted to the hospital only to be released with little help with recovery.

And there’s a lot to be done to address the epidemic, she said. But it could get a lot better with parents asking questions and educating kids even younger. The majority of addicts say they started using as teenagers.

That’s a statistic that has Kozlow convinced the epidemic can be stopped “from the bottom up.”

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Lost Youth: A rise in teenage suicides highlights a looming crisis for Pueblo County’s youth.

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A spike in teen suicides and attempted teen suicides in Pueblo last year is a matter of concern that is being met with a sense of urgency by local police and behavioral health professionals.

“We at the Pueblo Police Department are affected and concerned about these tragedies,” says Officer Brandon Beauvais with the department’s Community Services Division. “Our officers who respond to these calls along with the families and friends of the victims are all impacted. This certainly is a community-wide issue, and we must all work together on the preventative side of things to get these individuals the help they need before loss of life occurs.”

Preventative measures are being taken by police in tandem with others. “We work closely with our CIT [crisis intervention team] clinicians from Health Solutions [in Pueblo] who are out with us on patrol to provide initial resource information and follow-up with these type of incidents or parties involved,” Beauvais says.

Health Solutions is a non-profit behavioral health care organization and has been providing behavioral health services since 1962. The organization provides behavioral health services to Pueblo, Huerfano and Las Animas counties.

Kristie Dorwart, Youth and Family supervisor at Health Solutions, has been working in suicide prevention since 2007.  She became interested in the field because of the widely perceived disgrace associated with suicide and mental health.

“I have had family members die by suicide and had a growing interest in the reason for so much stigma,” she says.

Dorwart is unaware of a career path or any way by which someone can be trained to work in suicide prevention. “It is more of a lot of immersing oneself in suicide prevention: reading on suicide prevention and attending training in the field.”

All of that reading and training is being put into practice in Pueblo.

Pueblo PD’s Beauvais says, “Generally speaking, on suicide attempts, they will be taken for medical treatment immediately and once that is taken care of they are put in contact with a hospital psych liaison who decides from there what the best option is moving forward as far as a hold or further help, treatment, additional resources, etc., while working with parents or guardians.”

Jeff Tucker, a public relations specialist with Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo, says the hospital does not treat teen attempted suicides any differently than adult suicide attempts. “Attempted suicides are one of the highest priorities in our Emergency Department and a behavioral health assessment is usually given following life-saving treatment,” he says.

And last year more attempted teen suicides occurred in Pueblo County than in the past five years.

Nine too many

In 2017, nine young people in Pueblo County between the ages 10 and 20 killed themselves, according to Coroner Brian Cotter. That compares with only three teens committing suicide in 2016, another three in 2015, two in 2014, one in 2013, and six teens in 2012. Cotter also reports that suicides among all age groups also spiked in 2017 compared with the previous five years — 28 in 2012, 34 in 2013, 47 in 2014, 46 in 2015, 34 in 2016, and 49 last year.

In the city, Pueblo Police Department incident reports show that over the past three-plus years, it responded to six teen suicides last year, one incident in 2016, and one in 2015. Mercifully, there have been no teen suicides in Pueblo from January to March in 2018 as of deadline.

The police also report there were 12 incidents of attempted teen suicide last year, another 12 attempts in 2016, and seven incidents of teens attempting suicide in 2015. And as of March of this year, two incidents of attempted teen suicide have been reported.

Why?

Health Solutions Dorwart explains that suicide is the result of a string of complex emotions. “There is not one single reason that someone dies by suicide,” she says. “There are many things that happen to a person that leads them to contemplate suicide.”

Shelby Miller, Parkview’s adolescent charge nurse on the hospital’s behavioral health floor, says poverty is a major factor behind teen suicides in Pueblo. “The majority of our patients are Medicaid clients and only have one resource — Health Solutions.”

Miller adds that other reasons for teens attempting to kill themselves include “a lack of effective coping skills, stress within the family or school, inability to effectively communicate with parents or caregivers, or they don’t feel parents are listening or want to hear about their issues.”

Teens contemplating suicide should seek help, Miller says. “Ask for help. Tell someone, anyone,” she says. “You’re not alone. There are lots of teens and young adults feeling the same way.”

And Miller emphasizes that comforting teens who are considering killing themselves brings its own reward. “Try and help someone and you will in turn help yourself,” she says.

Health Solution’s Dorwart imparts that hope and help is available for teens contemplating suicide. “I encourage anyone thinking about suicide to please reach out to a caring adult and let them know that you are hurting,” she says. “There are several places to go for help.”

Dorwart adds that in addition to calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (844-273-8255), the Colorado Crisis Line (844-493-8255), or Health Solutions locally (719-545-2746), “Health Solutions has Crisis Living Rooms [at 400 W. 17th St. in Parkview Medical Center’s North Annex, and 1310 Chinook Lane] that are available 24/7 that anyone can walk into for help.”

More information, including a list of suicide prevention do’s and don’ts, can be found at www.suicidology.org.

Just girls and boys

Pueblo PD reports that the average age for teens committing suicide is about 15 and about 14 for those attempting to kill themselves.

Pueblo PD also separates suicide and attempted suicide incidents by gender. Those statistics show that in Pueblo, although boys younger than 17 commit more suicides than girls (six boys from January 2015 to March of this year as opposed to two for girls over the same time period), attempted-teen-suicide incidents over the same time period reveal that girls younger than 17 attempt to kill themselves more often than teenage boys (24 girls attempted to take their own lives and only nine boys).

When it comes to the gender split for attempted teen suicides, Pueblo is not unique.

“Historically across the nation, females have always attempted [suicide] more than males, but what is important to remember is help is available, and it is OK to reach out and ask for help,” says Health Solution’s Dorwart.

“Some factors [for girls attempting suicide more than boys] include suicide pacts, sexual, physical, or emotional abuse or neglect,” Parkview’s Miller says. “Others can be child-parent relationships, and a lack of supervision or too much freedom.”

There is hope

“Across the nation suicide has been on the rise, however, there are great strides being made in the prevention side of suicide prevention,” Health Solution’s Dorwart says. “The approach in suicide prevention is moving upstream — helping people before suicide becomes an option.  Getting people into treatment early.”

And the community does seem to be getting involved as well.

Suicide was a popular topic of concern in Pueblo judging by the sizable crowd that attended a presentation about suicide at the city’s South High School auditorium on April 5. The presentation was given by Kevin Hines, the man who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. He says he landed feet first on granite rocks when he plunged into San Francisco Bay and was later rescued by the Coast Guard. Innovative spine surgery, he says, helped him to recover from his suicide attempt and he demonstrates the procedure’s success by kicking up his heels during his presentation. He emphasized the importance of self-affirmation and greeting others with a smile to prevent people from taking their own lives.

If you are someone you know is contemplating suicide call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for resources or to speak to a trained counselor.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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Colorado, Arizona teachers pressure lawmakers for 2nd day

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Colorado and Arizona teachers plan to don red shirts and descend upon their respective Capitols for a second day in a growing educator uprising.

Educators in both states want more classroom resources and have received offers either for increased school funding or pay, but they say the money isn’t guaranteed and the efforts don’t go far enough. The walkouts are the latest in demonstrations that spread from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

On the first day of the historic statewide walkout, around 50,000 educators and their supporters marched Thursday through downtown Phoenix in nearly 100-degree (38-Celsius) heat and swarmed the Capitol grounds.

In much cooler Colorado, several thousand educators rallied around the Capitol, with many using personal time to attend two days of protests expected to draw as many as 10,000 demonstrators.

Lawmakers in Colorado have agreed to give schools their largest budget increase since the Great Recession. But teachers say Colorado has a long way to go to recover lost ground because of strict tax and spending limits.

Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has proposed 20 percent raises by 2020 and said he has no plans to meet with striking teachers or address other demands.

Teachers voted to walkout after Ducey unveiled his plan, saying that it failed to meet their other demands including about $1 billion to return school funding to pre-Great Recession levels and increased pay for support staff.

“We’re going to get this 20 percent pay increase, we’re going to get $100 million for support staff and other needs,” he said on KTAR radio. “And then if there’s still a teacher strike I don’t think that will make sense to parents, I don’t think that will make sense to kids.”

More than 840,000 students were out of school as a result of Thursday’s walkouts, according to figures from The Arizona Republic.

Most of Arizona’s public schools will be closed the rest of the week, and about half of all Colorado students will see their schools shuttered over the two days as teachers take up the Arizona movement’s #RedforEd mantle. In Oklahoma and West Virginia, teacher strikes stretched beyond the one-week mark.

Organizers say they haven’t decided how long their walkout will last.

“We want to make sure we can gauge the membership about what they want to do,” said Derek Harris, one of the organizers of grass-roots group Arizona Educators United.

At least one Arizona school district, the Chandler Unified School District, has said school will be held on Monday. The district said it polled staff and determined there are enough teachers to re-open.

___

Associated Press reporter Bob Christie contributed to this report.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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