Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed the possibility of involving other countries in efforts to maintain a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a Russia-brokered ceasefire on Nov. 10 that halted six weeks of clashes in the mountain enclave, which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is mainly populated by ethnic Armenians. Russian peacekeepers have been deployed in the enclave under the ceasefire deal, which locked in Azeri advances.
Government and election officials frequently call on shredding companies to dispose of personal and sensitive documents that are no longer needed.But in a suburban county of Atlanta this week, those routine waste removal appointments were twisted into yet another election misinformation story when social media users falsely claimed shredding trucks were destroying ballots and “evidence of voter fraud.”The unfounded allegations continue to spread online as Georgia officials carry out a machine recount of ballots after certified results showed Joe Biden had a 12,670-vote lead over President Donald Trump. Trump requested the recount, which follows a statewide hand tally.L. Lin Wood Jr., a conservative attorney who had unsuccessfully sued in an attempt to block the certification of Georgia’s election results, on Tuesday shared a series of videos taken by a Georgia resident. They showed a shredding truck outside the West Park Government Center in Marietta.“Evidence of voter fraud is being destroyed in Cobb County, GA TODAY,” Wood captioned one of his tweets. “Many people, powerful & not so powerful, are going to PRISON.”The real explanation for the truck’s visit was far less scandalous: a routine shredding of county tax documents.The county tax commissioner’s office, which shares a building with the county’s main elections office, has documents shredded twice a month, according to Ross Cavitt, communications director for the county.“No items from Cobb Elections were involved,” Cavitt told The Associated Press in an email.The false claims built on similar rumours from last week, when the same Georgia resident captured photos and video of a truck destroying election-related waste outside the Jim R. Miller Event Center in Marietta and claimed it was evidence of “ballots being shredded.”After Wood amplified those photos and videos on Friday, Cobb County officials refuted the claim, explaining that the shredding company was summoned to destroy non-relevant election materials, as happens after all elections.“Everything of consequence, including the ballots, absentee ballot applications with signatures, and anything else used in the count or re-tally remains on file,” Janine Eveler, the county’s director of elections and voter registration, said in a statement.Some of the photos shared on Friday appeared to show a trash can with a paper labeled “ABSENTEE BALLOT” inside. But Eveler said that was an inner privacy envelope used by voters to seal absentee ballots, and had “no evidentiary value.” County officials will hold on to the actual absentee ballots, as well as the outer envelopes signed by voters, for two years.Wood did not respond to a telephone call and email seeking comment.Despite the county’s responses, Wood’s tweets with the debunked claims continued to receive massive engagement on Wednesday, collectively amassing more than 200,000 retweets. And a separate Facebook user’s post falsely claiming a shredding company was “hired by Democrats” to destroy evidence was viewed nearly 150,000 times.County officials told the AP they have not seen any evidence of fraud or anomalies in vote tabulation in the 2020 election.“People nowadays, they post stuff immediately without asking any questions and without any proper context, and it spreads like wildfire,” Cavitt said of the false claims.Jude Joffe-Block And Ali Swenson, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Congress is bracing for President-elect Joe Biden to move beyond the Trump administration’s state-by-state approach to the COVID-19 crisis and build out a national strategy to fight the pandemic and distribute the eventual vaccine.The incoming administration’s approach reflects Democrats’ belief that a more comprehensive plan, some of it outlined in the House’s $2 trillion coronavirus aid bill, is needed to get the pandemic under control. Republicans have resisted big spending but agree additional funding is needed. With the nation on edge but a vaccine in sight, the complicated logistics of vaccinating hundreds of millions of Americans raise the stakes on the major undertaking.“We have an incredible challenge on our hands,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, which is approaching the anniversary of its first reported case of the virus last January.A vaccine can only go so far, Murray warned, without a distribution plan. "A vaccine can sit on a shelf. A vaccination is what we’re talking about,” she said.As Congress weighs a new round of COVID-19 relief, federal officials say doses of the vaccine could begin shipping within a day of Food and Drug Administration approval. Three pharmaceutical manufacturers — Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca — have announced early results. But the rollout faces a patchwork of state plans, a transitioning White House and potential backlash from vaccine skeptics, despite the rising U.S. death toll of nearly 260,000 people.Biden said Tuesday on NBC's “Nightly News with Lester Holt” that his team has started meeting with COVID-19 officials at the White House on how to “get from a vaccine being distributed to a person being able to get vaccinated.”Democrats have been sounding the alarm that the Trump administration’s delay in granting Biden’s team access to transition materials was wasting precious time.States submitted draft vaccination planning documents last month, but not all of them have made full plans public. Private Capitol Hill briefings by officials from Operation Warp Speed, the federal vaccine effort, left some lawmakers fuming last week over what they called a lack of co-ordination with Biden’s camp.Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday that his department “immediately” started working with Biden’s staff after the General Services Administration formally acknowledged the election results.Azar said he wanted to ensure Biden’s transition would be “in the spirit of looking out for the health and well-being of the American people and, in particular, saving lives through this COVID-19 pandemic.”From the start, the pandemic has challenged and reflected the two parties’ approaches to the public health crisis, with the Trump administration largely outsourcing many decisions to the states and Democrats pressing for a more nationalized approach.In Congress, Republicans largely rejected the $2 trillion-plus House bill from Democrats as excessive. They prefer their own $500 billion Senate effort, saying states and cities can tap funding from previous relief legislation. Senate Democrats blocked that bill twice as insufficient.Biden's campaign called for $25 billion for vaccines to “guarantee it gets to every American, cost-free.” That's similar to the amount included in both the House and the Senate bills, through different strategies, and Congress previously mandated that vaccines be free. With fresh legislation stalled, it’s uncertain if states will have the resources needed once the FDA approves the vaccines.During a conference call this week with governors, Azar and other health officials fielded a range of questions. Governors were seeking guidance on which populations they should prioritize for the vaccine and whether there was a list of pharmacies available to administer the two-dose regimens, according to a readout of the call provided by the office of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington.Blaire Bryant, who oversees health care policy at the National Association of Counties, said a national strategy for communicating vaccine information to the public and the funding to make vaccinations equitable are vital.“We’re in uncharted territory,” she said. “The more information, the more guidance we can get from the federal level, the better.”She said states do have access to previously approved funding, but cash-strapped local governments have been reluctant to draw down the remaining dollars for vaccines. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul, she said.As Congress debates funding, at least two Republican senators are participating in vaccine trials as a way to build confidence among Americans skeptical of the federal effort.Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a statement that he hoped his participation “will reassure people about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.”Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who is participating in the Pfizer trials, asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday to consider the “unique challenges” of distributing the vaccine to remote and rural communities like those in his state.Daines said in a letter to the CDC that it will also be “critical” to ensure access for frontline health care and essential workers, as well as older adults and people with medical conditions.Other lawmakers, though, have brushed off concerns. GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said he expects vaccine distribution will be “well underway” by the time Biden takes office Jan. 20.Murray, as the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, grew concerned this summer as she said the Trump administration outsourced much of the vaccine distribution planning to the states.She drafted a 19-page paper calling for $25 billion to stand up a vaccination program with supply chains, hired personnel, drive-in clinics and other ways to provide no-cost vaccines. She warned of the Trump administration's “lack of centralized leadership” and “chaotic communication” with the states.Biden and Murray have since talked about her approach, which draws on input from health professionals on Biden’s team. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, a member of Biden's COVID-19 task force, briefed Senate Democrats the week after the election.Murray compared the vaccine effort to sending a man to the moon or fighting a world war. She said it will take all Americans joining to say, “This is a pandemic, and I'm going to do my part to get the country out of it.”___Associated Press writers Candice Choi in New York and Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Wash., contributed to this report.Lisa Mascaro, The Associated Press
An accountant for a hotel in downtown Nelson, B.C., had a heart attack and collapsed shortly after being spat upon by an angry customer refusing to wear a mask, according to the hotel manager.The Nelson Police Department confirms it is investigating last Friday's incident, in which the customer allegedly yelled at a barista who offered him a face covering at the Empire Coffee shop in the Adventure Hotel.According to hotel manager Rob Little, the suspect "was screaming profanities at the top of their lungs to the point that they [the staff of Empire Coffee] had to say, 'Just get out!' "Little said that after receiving a call from the coffee shop manager, he sent his accountant — a woman in her 50s — to see what was going on."It was at that point that the person was trying to enter again," Little said."And she said, 'Listen! You're not going to talk to our people this way, and this is the law.' And he proceeded to spit on her."Little says police arrived and removed the suspect and took a statement from the accountant. After arriving back at the office about an hour and a half later, Little said the accountant, who was distraught from the experience, reported feeling ill and fell to the ground. She was airlifted to a hospital in Kelowna where it was determined she'd had a heart attack."She's stable right now, but she's not out of the woods by any stretch," he said. Aggressive behaviour around mask mandateAt least one other business in the city of over 10,000 people said they've experienced an increase in aggressive behaviour targeting customer service representatives, after Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced last Thursday that face coverings are now mandatory in all retail spaces.This week, Kootenay Co-op — a grocery store near the hotel — hired a security guard for the first time in its 45 years to head off rude behaviour among some shoppers who are resisting the mask mandate.The grocery store's manager said while most customers have followed the new regulations, about 10 to 20 per cent are refusing to wear a mask and become confrontational when asked to do so. "We all live here because of the quality of people that are here," Little said. "To see this kind of polarizing views on things and people going to such extremes is just disappointing."Police investigating spitting incidentStaff Sgt. Brian Weber with the Nelson Police Department says police are looking at the relationship between the woman's heart attack and the spitting incident with the customer. "There have been … some investigations that have made those causal links in the past," he said."[But] it's far too early and I know far too little about the exact file to make that kind of jump right now."The suspect is facing an assault charge.Tap the link below to listen to Bob Keating's conversation with Rob Little and Staff Sgt. Brian Weber on Daybreak South:
Fred Sasakamoose, one of the first Indigenous players in the NHL, has died after battling a presumed case of COVID-19. Sasakamoose died Tuesday in Prince Albert, Sask. He was 86. Fred's son, Neil, announced his death in a video posted on Facebook.Neil Sasakamoose said last week that his father had been hospitalized in Saskatchewan for a presumed case of COVID-19 after experiencing wheezing and chest pains."We weren’t allowed to go sit with one of the most famous Indigenous people in our time," he told The Canadian Press in a phone interview Tuesday. “We weren’t able to comfort him. My mother was not able to see her husband. They’ve been married 65 years.”Sasakamoose said he learned early on Tuesday his dad's oxygen levels were depleting, but didn't want to go into intensive care. He told me, ‘I walked in here. If I can’t walk out of here then I’m going to go."He said the last conversation he had with his father was at around 1 p.m. “He was talking, ‘I’m going to fight this Neil, my son, I’m going to fight,'" Sasakamoose said. "I said, ‘Are you tired? Your body’s getting tired.' He said, 'I’m getting tired.'"Sasakamoose said in their Plains Cree culture they believe people come to get a person when it's their time to die. “I told him, ‘Look it, Dad, if someone’s there and if you’re tired, you just take their hand and you go.’"He was at peace.”He wants people to remember his father as a man who was "rooted right into the people."“We were happy to have him as a father, but he’s always belonged to everyone else.”“First Nations people, Metis people, non-Indigenous people."Sasakamoose says his family has164 people, including his nine siblings and parents' grand-children and great-grandchildren. He implored people to follow public-health advice around COVID-19 to prevent more deaths from happening. “Look at my situation. I can’t plan a funeral for one of the greatest Indigenous athletes in Canada."Sasakamoose played 11 NHL games with the Blackhawks in 1953-54, becoming one of the first Indigenous players in the then-six-team league. During his time in Chicago, he faced off against greats like Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe. He also had a storied junior career, playing several seasons with the Moose Jaw Canucks of the Western Canadian Junior Hockey League. “We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Fred Sasakamoose," Hockey Canada said in a tweet. "Fred holds a special place in the history of our great game and it is important to honour his perseverance and character in becoming the first Indigenous Canadian to play in the NHL." Sasakamoose was one of 11 children, though only five survived childhood. He was forcibly taken from his community in central Saskatchewan to a residential school as a child and told a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in 2012 that he had been sexually abused by other students there. He also recalled being whipped and having coal oil poured over his head. While at the school he encountered a reverend, who was convinced he could make Sasakamoose into a big-time hockey player. "He said to me, 'Freddie, I'm going to make you a champion,'" Sasakamoose recalled in a video released by Hockey Canada in 2017. Being someone young Indigenous people could look up to was important to Sasakamoose. "To pave the way for Indian kids and the Metis, they look at you as a role model and they say 'Wow.' They look at my rings and my pictures. This is what I gain in life. This is what brought me to where I am," he said in the video. "It's for you now to follow in the footsteps — maybe be better.""RIP to my buddy, Freddy Sasakamoose," Canadian women's hockey player Brigette Lacquette, who is Indigenous, posted on Twitter. "He was a trailblazer, a leader and a survivor. "He paved the way for so many Indigenous hockey players. My thoughts and prayers to the family. Rest easy, legend."When his playing career came to an end, Sasakamoose returned to the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation north of Saskatoon. He became a band councillor and chief, and worked to develop minor hockey and other sports programs across Saskatchewan. "On a personal note, I will always treasure meeting Fred at the 2019 Heritage Classic in his native Saskatchewan, getting to spend some precious time getting to know him and the gift he gave me that day -- a statue depicting his NHL rookie card," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "The National Hockey League mourns the passing of this special man and sends its condolences to his family and the countless young men and women of the First Nations community whose lives he touched." Sasakamoose was named to the Order of Canada in 2017, and given an honorary doctorate of law by the University of Saskatchewan earlier this year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the convocation ceremony was virtual so Sasakamoose recorded a video message. "I had a hard time of life," he said. "You want to be somebody, then it takes, you know, a little more effort."Still, the Indigenous hockey pioneer wanted his story to be heard. His book, "Call Me Indian," is set to come out in April. "Time will come when I am no longer here," Sasakamoose said in his convocation message. "But my voice you will always use."This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2020.The Canadian Press
EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, his province bending precariously under the weight of record COVID-19 cases, imposed new sweeping public health restrictions Tuesday that include a ban on gatherings in people’s homes. Kenney also announced changes to schools, churches, restaurants and retailers, and banned sports teams from playing and sharply curtailed attendance at weddings and funerals. He said the goal is to slash the rate of infections and keep people alive while preventing the loss of jobs and livelihoods that threaten to make an already dire situation even worse. “This whole thing is just incredibly tough for everyone,” Kenney said Tuesday. “I just never imagined I’d be in this place in public life where I was telling people who could come visit them at home. “We really just felt we had no option given that 40 per cent of traceable cases connect back to private social activity.” Indoor gatherings are banned immediately, but people who live alone can have two personal contacts they are allowed to meet up with. Outdoor social gatherings are limited to 10 people, as are funerals and weddings. Kenney said the government is still working out how officers will enforce the gathering ban, but said there will be not be a “snitch line” for people to report on their neighbours. “(Officers) will be able to write tickets for fines of up to $1,000 per individual who is violating these rules against indoor social activities." He added that police and peace officers will have latitude on enforcement "They will be able to see if there are obvious signs of a large gathering, a lot of cars parked outside somebody’s house, for example," Kenney said. Starting Friday, businesses will remain open at reduced capacity or by appointment only. Places of worship must operate at one-third capacity. Banquet halls, conference centres and concert venues must also close. And children in grades 7 through 12 will move to at-home learning at the end of the month and other students will follow after Dec. 18. The orders will be reviewed in three weeks. Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, reported 1,115 new cases on Tuesday — the sixth consecutive day with numbers above the 1,100 mark. There were 348 patients in hospital, 66 of them in intensive care. Sixteen more people died, bringing that total to 492. A day earlier, Hinshaw compared the COVID-19 situation in Alberta to a snowball rolling down a hill, growing in size and speed. Lives and livelihoods have been the crux of the debate in Alberta. Kenney has maintained that the best approach is targeted health restrictions to keep COVID-19 from overrunning the health-care system while keeping the economy from collapsing. Others, including many physicians, infectious disease specialists and the Opposition NDP, have called for sharp, short economic lockdowns, arguing that if the COVID-19 wave isn't stopped, there won’t be an economy left to save. Kenney’s decisions were made after Hinshaw made new undisclosed recommendations Monday to the cabinet subcommittee directing COVID-19 decisions. NDP Leader Rachel Notley called the new restrictions “half-measures” and said they were likely the result of political bargaining instead of advice from public health officials. “We cannot know, unfortunately, exactly what Dr. Hinshaw recommended to this UCP cabinet. But I do not for one second believe it was this,” she said. Mike Parker, head of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, a union representing paramedics and other health professionals, said Kenney tried to find the middle ground and failed. “The measures announced today are inadequate,” Parker said. “(Kenney) continues to put business interests ahead of the well-being of Albertans.” Jason Schilling, head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the groups supports the move "to move to a combination of in-school and at-home learning that will allow schooling to continue in a safer environment." This is the second time Kenney's government has imposed sweeping rules to combat COVID-19. The province shut down many retail businesses, restaurants, recreation centres and schools during the first wave in March. Most were allowed to reopen in May and June with restrictions. Schools opened again in the fall. In recent weeks, the province has limited public gatherings in areas including Edmonton and Calgary and forced bars and restaurants to stop serving booze by 10 p.m. and to close by 11 p.m. Indoor group fitness and team sports, along with group singing and arts performances, are also banned in several large cities. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2020. Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
Highlights of this day in history: President John F. Kennedy laid to rest at Arlington; New details emerge about Iran-Contra affair; British forces leave New York; Elian Gonzalez rescued off Florida coast; Baseball's Joe DiMaggio born. (Nov. 25)
NEW YORK — With police brutality continuing to devastate Black families and the coronavirus ravishing Black America disproportionately, the world was driven to the significance of this year’s Juneteenth more than ever before.And Beyoncé knew she wanted to release a song on that momentous day — so she dropped “Black Parade,” an anthemic jam where she proudly sings about her heritage, hometown and returning to her African roots.Months later, the song — and others focused on protesting, police brutality and the overall Black experience — are taking centre stage at the 2021 Grammy Awards.Beyoncé’s “Black Parade” scored nominations for two of the top awards: song of the year and record of the year. The track will also compete for best R&B song and best R&B performance.“There could have been a different approach as far as releasing the record and capitalizing off of timings of other things, but we really wanted to get it out during a time where we could all remember the feeling and the energy,” Derek Dixie, a longtime collaborator of Beyoncé’s who co-wrote the song with the pop star, said in an interview with The Associated Press.“It’s not always about the money and about catching streaming numbers and things like that. Sometimes it’s just about what it is — which was making our people proud.”“Black Parade” helped Beyoncé land nine nominations, making her the overall top Grammy contender. Dixie earned three Grammy nominations for co-writing and co-producing the song.For song of the year, “Black Parade” will compete with H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe,” the R&B singer’s track about police brutality.Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture,” a protest song he created in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, scored nominations for best rap song and best rap performance. Proceeds from the song will support the Black Lives Matter movement, Breonna Taylor’s attorney, the Bail Project and the National Association of Black Journalists.Anderson .Paak also released a song on Juneteenth — the holiday that commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free — and it’s competing for two awards. “Lockdown” is nominated for best rap performance and best music video..Country singer Mickey Guyton wrote the track “Black Like Me” a year ago but released it this year because she felt it was extremely relevant. Now, it’s nominated for best country solo performance, giving the performer her first-ever Grammy nomination.“It’s been so hard in the country music community and trying to get country music to even support my music and for me to get a Grammy (nomination), it just goes to show that writing your truth is just the way to go,” Guyton told the AP on Tuesday. “And not only writing your truth, but really bringing your brothers and sisters up with you.”But Guyton admits that everyone’s response to her song wasn’t warm. It features the lyrics, “If you think we live in the land of the free/You should try to be Black like me."“I released it and I did get people that were very angry. There were even radio stations that people were like, ‘Get this (expletive) off of my radio station,’” she said. “I would get people writing me messages like, ‘Well, if you don’t like it here then leave.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s just as much my country as it is yours.’”Guyton added that some “radio stations were scared to play (‘Black Like Me’) because they were (angering) their listeners because their listeners didn’t want to hear that.”“But I wasn’t writing that song for them, I was writing that song got the people that understand this exact walk that I’m walking," she continued. “It’s for them."Apart from “Black Parade,” Beyoncé also earned nominations for her film honouring Black art and Black history, “Black Is King,” as well as her ode to dark- and brown-skinned women, “Brown Skin Girl.”Dixie, who has worked as Beyoncé’s music director and has produced, engineered and arranged songs for the singer, said he’s grateful he’s working with an artist who boldly speaks about Black pride in her music.“It’s just good to see that she’s willing to put that type of energy out and not necessarily be thinking about: ‘What’s going to guarantee me a No. 1? What’s going to guarantee me this?' It’s a part of our conversation, it’s a part of the process, but when it’s necessary to put that art out there, to put that energy out there, she’s usually ... leading the pack in that regard,” Dixie said. “So I’m grateful to be associated with her on that path.”Guyton added that it’s comforting to see some many Black musicians reflect the current times in their music, and she’s grateful to the Grammys for acknowledging those kinds of songs.“It’s so important because so often Black people, and Black women especially, are getting overlooked and constantly get overlooked and you’re constantly just trying to get people to remember that you’re there,” she said. “It feels like we’re seen and I don’t think we’ve always felt seen.”“I use this scenario of going into any grocery store — if you go to any grocery store ... and you look for hair products for someone who is ethnic and ... you see an entire aisle full of every and any hair product you can possibly think for someone that is not Black. But whenever it comes to finding hair products for a Black person, we’re designated a shelf. And today, it doesn't feel like we’re designated a shelf.”The 2021 Grammy Awards will air live on Jan. 31.Mesfin Fekadu, The Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California's system for paying unemployment benefits is so dysfunctional that the state approved more than $140 million for at least 20,000 prisoners, local and federal prosecutors said Tuesday, detailing a scheme that resulted in claims filed in the names of well-known convicted murderers like Scott Peterson and Cary Stayner. From March to August, more than 35,000 inmates were named in claims filed with the California Employment Development Department, with more than 20,000 being paid, according to Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert. At least 158 claims were filed for 133 death-row inmates, resulting in more than $420,000 in benefits paid “It involves rapists and child molesters, human traffickers and other violent criminals in our state prisons,” Schubert said. The list includes Peterson, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing his pregnant wife following a trial that riveted the nation. The California Supreme Court recently overturned Peterson’s death sentence and has ordered a lower court to review his murder conviction. Schubert confirmed there was a claim made in the name of Scott Peterson, but declined to provide further details. Peterson's attorney, Pat Harris, said while Peterson's name surfaced during the investigation, there is no evidence Peterson received unemployment aid from the state. “This investigation, when it's completed, will show that he had not a thing to do with any kind of scheme to get fraudulent benefits,” Harris said. Schubert listed a number of inmates there who had claims filed in their names, including Stayner, convicted of killing four people in or near Yosemite National Park in 1999; Susan Eubanks, a San Diego woman convicted of shooting her four sons to death in 1997; Isauro Aguirre, who was sentenced to death for the 2013 murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in Los Angeles; and Wesley Shermantine, part of the duo dubbed the “Speed Freak Killers” for their meth-induced killing rampage in the 1980s and ’90s. Prosecutors said they learned of the scheme from listening in on recorded prison phone calls, where inmates would talk about how easy it was for everyone to get paid. They said the scheme always involved someone on the outside — usually friends or family members of the inmates, who would then receive the benefits. In Kern County, home to five state prisons, one address was used to receive benefits for 16 inmates. “In my nearly four decades as a prosecutor in this state, I have never seen fraud of this magnitude,” Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer said. In some cases, inmates used their real names. In others, they used fake names and even fake Social Security numbers. In one instance, an inmate used the name: “poopy britches," Schubert said. “Quite frankly, the inmates are mocking us,” Schubert said. So far, 22 people have been charged in San Mateo County, including six people who were not in prison. Prosecutors said dozens of other investigations across the state are continuing. Prosecutors blamed the Employment Development Department, which has been overwhelmed by more than 16.4 million benefit claims since the pandemic began in March, resulting in a backlog that at one time totalled more than 1.6 million people. But prosecutors said in its haste to approve benefits, the department did not check unemployment claims against a list of prisoners, as many other states do. San Mateo District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe said that when he notified the department about inmates fraudulently receiving benefits, they told him they could not cut off the payments until they were formally charged with a crime. The problem was so bad that on Monday, nine county district attorneys sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking for him to intervene. “We face a manifest problem that requires action, not talk,” said McGregor Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California. Employment Development Department spokeswoman Loree Levy said the agency has been working with the Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General on cross-checking claims with inmates, saying they are “pursuing how to integrate such cross-matches moving forward as part of enhanced prevention efforts during this unprecedented time of pandemic-related unemployment fraud across the country.” In an email to the AP, Newsom called the fraud “absolutely unacceptable.” He said he first learned of the fraud earlier this year, which prompted him to order the department to “review its practices and take immediate actions to prevent fraud and to hold people accountable.” Newsom said he has ordered the Office of Emergency Services to set up a task force to assist prosecutors with their investigation. “While we have made improvements, we need to do more,” Newsom said. ___ This story has been corrected to say that Cary Stayner killed four people in or near Yosemite National Park; to show 20,000 of 35,000 claims were paid; and to accurately spell the last name of convicted killer Wesley Shermantine. Adam Beam, The Associated Press
VICTORIA — British Columbia health officials are reporting a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases, while they order a pause indoor physical activities. B.C. recorded 941 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 10 deaths.There are 7,732 active COVID-19 cases in B.C., and 284 people are in hospital. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix say in a joint statement that residents need to support B.C.'s health-care workers by slowing the spread of COVID-19. The latest peak in numbers comes as health officials ordered dance studios, yoga studios and other indoor physical activity spaces to suspend operations as new guidance is developed.Henry and Dix urged the public to think of COVID-19 patients and the effect the virus is having on their family members.Earlier Tuesday, the Fraser Health Authority announced that 55 patients and 40 staff at Burnaby General Hospital had tested positive for COVID-19 and most patient admissions to the hospital would be suspended.The health authority also announced five deaths due to the virus.Patients in the intensive care unit, maternity, and community palliative care will still be admitted.The health authority says a fire in the hospital's emergency room last week contributed to the outbreak, as patients were moved to areas of the hospital they normally would not be.Also on Tuesday, Solicitor General Mike Farnworth extended the province's state of emergency until Dec. 8 and laid out enforcement measures for wearing masks in B.C.People 12 years and older are required to wear masks in indoor settings, ranging from malls to public transportation, and failure to do so can result in a $230 fine.People who cannot wear a mask, or who cannot put on or remove a mask without the assistance of others, are exempt from the new order.The detailed guidelines come as the union representing British Columbia teachers called on parents to support a "culture" of wearing masks as it continues to push for a mandatory mask policy in schools.Teri Mooring, the head of the BC Teachers' Federation, said in an open letter to parents that the union is looking for help in implementing and following mask-wearing protocols.The federation has repeatedly called on provincial health officials to make masks mandatory in schools.Mooring said some schools have already taken the step to make mask wearing normal and expected and it helps everyone to make schools feel safer. Henry has said that schools have specific COVID-19 safety plans and are exempt from the new mandatory mask requirements set out last week. Henry told a news conference Monday that students are in schools with a group of people they see day-to-day, unlike businesses where people interact with others they don't know, necessitating wearing a mask.She said she supports mask wearing in common areas and among adults at schools.This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2020.The Canadian Press
Some snowbirds in Peterborough County are choosing to stay put this winter. Currently residing on Lake Kasshabog north of Havelock, Les Morris and Lois Galbraith have been heading south for the past six year. “We have gone to Florida in the past, but the last few years we’ve gone to an island in Honduras called Roatán,” Galbraith said Although they’d love to go away, the numbers in both the U.S. and Honduras are staggering, she said. “I can’t believe people are actually going to go away in this,” Galbraith said. As for Honduras, Morris noted it’s a Third World country and while the island is modern with many activities for tourists, it’s not really equipped to handle the COVID-19 virus. “Our contacts down there say that they’re not even paying much attention; they’re still having big parties and not wearing masks and there’s lots of COVID cases. I’m 88 and Lois has a bit of a chest problem, she has a puffer, and we just can’t take the chance,” Morris said. She said even if they could, they wouldn’t go to the U.S. anyway. “They’re crazy. They’re paying no attention to anything. Maybe when Biden takes over, things will change,” he said. Norwood resident Bonnie Davidson said she and her husband normally flock south for a month during the wintertime, but decided it would be better to stay home this year. “I mean, we’re both in our 70s and my husband, his mother is also with us and she’s 102, and so we just decided it’s better to stay home for a lot of reasons,” she said. “We have no cases in Norwood and we’ve only ever had two in nine months, so we’re safe here.” Linda Black, a Buckhorn resident who has gone to Estero, Fla. for five months during the winter season for the past seven years with her husband, said they’ve decided to stay in Canada this year for two reasons. “The atmosphere is not good anymore, with Trump and the election and everything being divided. And who wants to go where everybody’s sick. It costs too much for us to get sick down there. Your insurance only covers so much,” she said. Morris said he and Galbraith have heard that a lot of people are turning their cottages into winter homes so they can stay. Asphodel-Norwood Mayor Rodger Bonneau said he has several friends that are snowbirds who are doing this. “I’ve actually had to run out and do some work on some of furnaces for them just to make sure they can actually stay home now. We are going to see an impact, but a lot of the residents are the people that stay here all summer long and are Canadian citizens anyways,” Bonneau said. However, Black said she knows a couple of people from Buckhorn that are still heading south. “They’re flying down and then they’re going to rent a car because they’re one of these trailer people that have really nowhere to live in the wintertime, so it makes it difficult for them,” she said. Black said she believes a lot of snowbirds don’t want to go south this year because of the health and safety of themselves and others. “Our community that we go to in Florida has a mixture of people both young and old, so you don’t want to go down there and catch something from them, or give something to them, because you can also be asymptomatic. Especially some of the older people there. They just couldn’t handle it,” she said. Because where they live is so isolated, Morris and Galbraith said it’s good COVID-wise, but not good in an emergency with the winter weather on its way. “It’s a bit of a worry, but we’ll survive it,” Galbraith said. Marissa Lentz is a staff reporter at the Examiner, based in Peterborough. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: email@example.comMarissa Lentz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner
Debbie Forward looked back at 24 years at the helm of the Registered Nurses Union of Newfoundland and Labrador Tuesday in a tenure punctuated by a strike in 1999 that got them banned from the lobby of the Confederation Building and a showdown in 2009 with then premier Danny Williams. Forward, who started nursing 40 years ago, gave her last address to the biennial convention at the Delta Hotel in St. John’s before stepping down next month. “I’ll never forget 1999, having rallies on the steps of Confederation Building, not knowing if our members would show up,” she said, recounting their fight with then premier Brian Tobin. “Well, we didn’t have to worry about that, because they came out in the hundreds.” She recalled how members rallied in the lobby of the legislature, banging their picket signs on the floor until someone complained they were chipping the marble. Protests were banned from the building after that. “That was unity and solidarity like I had never seen or experienced before,” she said. During the showdown with Williams in 2009, Forward said, the premier insisted his sources said most nurses would be happy with a deal on the table. The union put it to a vote. Sixty-four per cent rejected it. Forward said her numbers predicted 66 per cent would. The dispute was finally settled in negotiation. Forward highlighted some of her primary goals as president, including a long battle to increase staffing levels and end the cycle of overtime and sick leave that has characterized the profession for many years. She said nurses in Newfoundland and Labrador currently punch in 250,000 hours of overtime a year. Overtime and sick leave, she said, cost the province an extra $45 million annually. “Research shows more RNs, staffed properly and working in healthy environments, will improve our health-care system and save the province money,” she said. Forward said she is pleased Health Minister Dr. John Haggie has committed to breaking that cycle, and only regrets she won’t be around to see the results. She said the fact incoming president Yvette Coffey will play a role in the province’s 10-year Health Accord Task Force speaks volumes about that commitment. “I am confident that Yvette will be a strong, powerful voice for our union. Having a seat at that table will ensure that we are not on the menu.” After her speech, Forward said she has three main things in mind for her retirement: “Relaxation, relaxation, relaxation.” She said she’s looking forward to spending more time with family, including her granddaughter, but admits travel is out of the question for now. Asked if she misses nursing as such, Forward said she never left. “I believe I’m still nursing, I’m just nursing in a different role,” she said. “I miss connections with patients and those conversations and being on the front line. “My connection with my members and my conversations with them on what’s happening on the front line has really helped keep me grounded in the realities of the system.” Before Forward’s address, the minister made a virtual appearance to offer his thoughts and answer some questions from members. Haggie also had a few flattering words for the outgoing president, saying she has laid the groundwork for a new approach to nursing. “Your successors will go further because they’re stood on your shoulders, so I wouldn’t worry about not having been able to finish this particular piece. It will be done.”Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram
In his first high-level meeting with Beijing, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said stable ties with China were important, as his country pursues a balancing act with its neighbour. On Wednesday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met Suga at the end of his two-day trip in Japan, marking the first high-level visit since Suga was elected as new leader in September. "A stable relationship between the two countries is important not only for Japan and China but also for the region and the international community," Suga told Wang in a meeting that lasted about 20 minutes.
OTTAWA — One of Canada's most controversial ex-ambassadors to China says he repeatedly tried to improve the living conditions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor after their imprisonment in the People's Republic almost two years ago.John McCallum also said Tuesday he regrets speaking about the October 2019 Canadian election in a meeting with Chinese officials in the months leading up to it.McCallum, the former Liberal cabinet minister who was fired as Canada's envoy to China in January 2019, was testifying at the special House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations.Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fired McCallum after he made a series of public comments that broke with the government's line following the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor, nine days after Canada's arrest of Chinese high-tech scion Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 on a U.S. extradition warrant.McCallum said that's when everything changed in Canada's relations with China, and that he has no doubt Kovrig and Spavor would be free right now had Meng not been arrested."From that moment onwards, the top priority of the government and of myself as ambassador was to secure the release of the two Michaels," said McCallum, noting that he has been one of the few people to visit them in prison."On more than one occasion, I tried to convince the Chinese that if they were unable to release Kovrig and Spavor they should at least improve their living conditions. Sadly, as you all know, Canadian efforts in this area have so far been unsuccessful."The committee has been examining Canada's relations with China, which have plummeted to an all-time low since December 2018. That will likely include making recommendations about dealing with Chinese security agents who intimidate Canadians of Chinese descent on Canadian soil.McCallum appeared relaxed over a video link and displayed no ill will to the government that ended his decades-long career as a politician and then a high-level political appointee. MPs from all parties gave McCallum warm respectful greetings, with the Conservative MP Michael Chong telling him he liked an old book he had written.Trudeau appointed his former immigration minister – McCallum was the political architect of the campaign to bring tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada in 2016 – to Beijing as a gesture of how he valued Canada's relations with China."I think I've done some useful things in my career," he said, citing the Syrian refugee effort, serving as Jean Chretien's defence minister when "we said no" to the United States' request to enter the Iraq war in 2003 and helping bestow honorary Canadian citizenship on South Africa's Nelson Mandela. "But I've never claimed to have led an error-free career."McCallum said he had regrets about his part of his meeting with Chinese officials in the summer of 2019, after he lost his ambassadorship. He said he used the opportunity to lobby for the release of Kovrig and Spavor, or at least improve their living conditions."I painted a dark picture of plummeting support for China among Canadians. And I also mentioned as part of this darkness an impending election. Now, in hindsight, I regret having spoken of the election. I don't think it was appropriate,” McCallum recalled.It likely didn’t make any difference, he said, "because at the end of the day, the Chinese refused to release or even improve the living conditions of our two detainees."In July 2019, McCallum told the South China Morning Post that he had warned China's foreign ministry that more harmful actions against Canada would only help what he said was the less-China-friendly Conservative party get elected.Conservative MPs wrote to Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault, calling the comments "very disturbing." Then foreign affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said they were "highly inappropriate." McCallum also said that as ambassador, he rejected an unspecified number of Chinese visa applications on the advice of Canadian security agencies but noted at the time that Australia had a bigger problem with Chinese meddling than Canada. That has changed, he said."What happens to Australia today is a guide for what might happen to Canada down the road." Earlier Tuesday, Chong urged Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne to adopt a more consistent approach to getting tough with China.The Conservative foreign affairs critic told Champagne in a separate Commons committee meeting that the government needs to show Canadians how it will deal with growing Chinese intimidation of Canadians within Canada.Champagne replied that Canada has taken a smart and firm approach with China lately that includes speaking out against its ill treatment of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and of ethnic Muslim Uighurs.This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2020.Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press
Care home operators in B.C. say having a daily rapid COVID-19 test for their workers could help stem outbreaks and alleviate anxiety about brining the virus to elderly people under their care.The comments follow B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie's call for the province to provide rapid tests for workers in care homes.The majority of COVID-19 deaths in the province have occurred in long-term care. On Tuesday the province said there were currently 55 active outbreaks in long-term care and assisted living centres."If we had rapid testing we might catch some of those people who actually are shedding the virus but they're not showing any symptoms," said Mackenzie about workers who inadvertently bring the disease into a care home where it can easily spread with devastating results.Rapid tests for coronavirus, known as rapid antigen tests, have been developed to give results in 15 to 30 minutes, much quicker than conventional tests.Most often health workers use what's called "reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction" (RT-PCR) testing to confirm cases of COVID-19. The tests evaluate a cell sample taken with a swab at the back of the nose and throat for trace amounts of the coronavirus's RNA.These test are more accurate than rapid tests, but it can take days to receive the results.'A huge difference'Dan Levitt is the executive director of Tabor Village an independent and assisted living home in Abbotsford where 122 staff and residents have positive tests during its current coronavirus outbreak. There have been 16 deaths from the disease in November.He said rapid tests could be one more tool, along with temperature checks, mask use and cleaning, to push back the rate of outbreaks at care homes. "It's really the asymptomatic staff members, so if we could test them every day when they come in, we would wait for 15, 30 minutes until we get the results back and then if they're clear then they'll be able to come in," he said."If we could do that, it would make a huge difference."Debra Hauptman, the CEO of the Langley Care Society, which operates Langley Lodge agrees."We would welcome it, we think it's a very positive move to undertake everything that we can," she said. "One more measure that would give us all confidence."The lodge has had three outbreaks, one of which put the care home into lockdown for more than 60 days starting in mid-May and resulted in 51 cases and 26 deaths.Hauptman said the anxiety workers face over potentially bringing the disease to residents is difficult to cope with and a rapid test could mitigate that."Let us try it," she said. "We're not asking for perfection, we're asking for support."'Not a panacea'Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Monday there aren't enough tests in the province to apply them widely. She was also lukewarm about their efficacy."It is not a panacea," she said. "It is not what is going to solve our issue, because the tests have faults and limitations."She said testing all workers each and every day is not currently possible. "We don't yet have that type of a test that we could easily do every day," she said.Still long-term care providers like Hauptman said they would be willing to help fund the tests if the province was willing to try and implement them.The B.C. Care Providers Association has also asked for the tests to be used at long-term care centres.
Ottawa is taking the first steps toward creating a national flood insurance program for high-risk residential properties. The federal government this week announced the creation of an interdisciplinary task force on flood insurance and relocation that will begin work in January, considering what form a national low-cost insurance program would take. It will be comprised of representatives from all three levels of government, as well as members from the insurance industry. The task force will work alongside a steering committee that will consider the needs of Indigenous communities and how the needs of people living on reserves might differ. “Flooding in Canada has devastating effects for thousands of Canadians each year. Our government is making investments to reduce the impact of climate-related disasters to foster a more resilient Canada,” Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said. Overland flood insurance is excluded by most home insurance plans in Canada, and when it is offered, it is often expensive. Increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as flooding, comes along with a changing climate. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a national flood insurance program as part of the Liberals’ climate strategy in the 2019 election campaign. The Insurance Bureau of Canada — an industry association representing Canada’s private home, auto and business insurers — has been calling for years on the federal government to create a national flood program. “More Canadians are exposed to flooding than to any other climate-related peril. Through this task force, insurers will work with governments across the country to ensure every Canadian has access to affordable flood insurance,” said Don Forgeron, IBC president and chief executive officer. The insurance industry is feeling the weight of mounting claims. In 2018, “insured catastrophic losses” were pegged at $2 billion — 60 per cent higher than in 2017. “But unlike the 1998 Quebec ice storm, the 2013 Calgary floods or the 2016 Fort McMurray, Alta. wildfire, no single event in 2018 caused the high amount paid out for losses. Instead, Canadians and their insurers experienced significant losses from a host of smaller severe weather events from coast to coast to coast,” the 2019 industry report reads. The IBC estimates 10 per cent of Canada’s 10.9 million homes are at high risk for flooding. The association has also called on provincial and municipal governments to immediately amend bylaws and land-use planning that allows for people to construct new buildings on flood plains. The task force will report its findings in spring 2022.Sarah Lawrynuik, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press
Gone are the days of — at least, temporarily — the hallways at Hampstead School smelling of scrambled eggs in the morning. Owing to new public health restrictions, the thrice-weekly hot breakfast program at the Winnipeg school has been replaced by morning meal packs given out by teacher volunteers who wear masks and gloves. “Now, it’s dry cereal and some apple slices. It’s not anything glamorous, but everyone’s eating — and that’s how I know there’s a need,” said Katie Patteson, who oversees the alternating-day breakfast and snack programs at the K-Grade 5 school in East Elmwood. Breakfast, lunch and snack programs have had to adjust their menus for 2020-21 owing to COVID-19 precautions that have restricted visitors from entering schools and altered food-handling procedures. Instead of serving sit-down spreads prepared by volunteers from local churches, Hampstead hands out jam sandwiches on whole wheat bread, granola bars, muffins, cheese strings, and yogurt, among other items. If not pre-packaged, the food has to be individually wrapped and distributed to students in individual lunch bags stored in buckets the school purchased for classrooms this year. The inability to lean on student and community volunteers to prepare fresh meals, as well as a spike in COVID-19-related costs, have proven to be huge challenges for healthy meal programs, said Clara Birnie, a program dietitian with the Child Nutrition Council of Manitoba. At Hampstead, the administration estimates new costs will result in the school’s program costs “at least” doubling from the $2,500 price tag in 2019-20. That is, in part, because of increased demand. Forty-five students participated in the early breakfast at Hampstead last year. In late September, the number of students accessing it more than doubled to 106 — although, the figure has since dropped to 75 because many families have switched to remote instruction in recent weeks. Patteson’s best guess for the spike is a combination of the ability of students to participate during regular school hours, instead of only before school for a sit-down meal, and the financial impact COVID-19 has had on families. The council is a key funder for nearly 300 schools, including Hampstead, in the province. The council, which is staffed by three dietitians who work with schools, funds food programs that feed approximately 34,000 students every year. “This year is the first year, in the history of the council, that we haven’t been able to provide grants to new applicants,” Birnie said, adding the pandemic has put breakfast programs into the spotlight and had underscored their value. The council applied for additional provincial funding in the summer, but chairwoman Wendy Bloomfield said she has yet to receive a response. “We’re hoping that they see the need as getting desperate,” said Bloomfield, a school trustee in Seine River, noting funding has remained stagnant since 2014. Private donors, food banks and the Manitoba Association of Parent Councils have contributed to programs to keep them going this fall; a combination of support is what Patteson said is helping Hampstead feed students and keeping them focused on learning. “We’re going to get through this,” she added. “We’ve bobbed and weaved through COVID as we’ve needed to and we’ve provided breakfast in a safe way.”Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press
A forgiving grading system is the solution students at the University of Manitoba want to address the challenges of learning on a virtual campus this year. Student senators, backed by the undergraduate and graduate students unions at the U of M, have penned a proposal to school administration to temporarily introduce an alternative grading process, similar to the one put in place in the spring amidst initial COVID-19 disruptions. The group wants pupils to have the option to either choose a pass-or-fail or accept a letter grade that is excluded from their grade point average calculation for a maximum of one course per term in 2020-21. Students would still be able to accept all their grades, as usual. The intent is to “add a little bit of flexibility in this inflexible time,” said Rubel Talukder of the Student Senate Caucus. Students are feeling the stresses of online learning, a fast-approaching finals season, and the possibility of scholarships being affected by grades, in addition to the lockdown measures, which have affected many part-time jobs, said Talukder, also vice-president academic at the U of M graduate students association. Last week, Brandon University announced the extension of its pass-or-fail grading option for students in both upcoming fall and winter examination seasons, citing continued COVID-19 challenges. “Professors are really doing their best, I find. (Online learning) is just new to everybody and students are being disadvantaged in the present moment,” said Kristin Smith, who heads the caucus with Talukder, and serves as vice-president advocacy at the undergraduate students union at U of M. Students have reported concerns about course delivery, online assessment and monitoring practices, and an increase in workloads throughout the fall term, she said. Of particular bother is the use of proctoring software that blocks a student’s ability to flip through exam questions and answer them in whatever order they choose during a test. Also on the Student Senate Caucus proposal: a request to encourage instructors to be compassionate amid the pandemic, and allow students who feel unsafe doing in-person coursework to temporarily halt those activities and claim an incomplete grade until the work can be finished. A spokesperson for the University of Manitoba said in a statement Tuesday the proposal is under review. The U of M’s COVID-19 recovery academic team met Tuesday to discuss the matter. It is expected to report back to the school’s pandemic steering committee for further discussion.Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press
EDMONTON — The Alberta government announced Tuesday new restrictions to battle record-high rates of COVID-19 infections in the province. In addition to declaring a public health emergency, the government ordered the following for the next three weeks:— No indoor social gatherings. Funerals and weddings are limited to 10 people, as are outdoor gatherings. Churches are restricted to one-third normal attendance.— Restaurants and bars can remain open. But a maximum of six people from the same household can sit at a table and there must be no movement between tables. People who live alone can meet with two people.\-- Retail stores can remain open at 25 per cent capacity. — At-home learning for students in Grades 7 through 12 starting Monday. Other students are to do their schooling from home starting Dec. 18 before winter break. All students are to resume at-home learning after the break and can return to school Jan . 11.\-- Casinos can remain open at 25 per cent capacity with slot machines only.— The closure of banquet halls, conference centres, trade shows, concert venues, community centres, and indoor play places.— A halt on all levels of sport, although exemptions may be considered.— Mandatory masks for indoor workplaces in Edmonton, Calgary and surroundings areas.This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2020.The Canadian Press
MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s former treasury and foreign relations secretary, Luis Videgaray, angrily denied accusations Tuesday by a lawyer for another former Cabinet secretary who claimed he used embezzled government money to help finance election campaigns.The accusations by a lawyer for ex-social development secretary Rosario Robles mark the second time that former top officials have lodged such accusations against Videgaray. A former head of the state-owned oil company, Emilio Lozoya, made similar accusations earlier this year.All three — Robles, Videgaray and Lozoya — worked in the 2012-2018 administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.Videgaray, currently a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, is considered the political figure closest to Peña Nieto.He called the accusations “completely false.”“The mechanism of ‘I will save myself by blaming Videgaray’ has a limit, and that limit is truth and justice,” Videgaray wrote in a statement.Both Lozoya and Robles have reportedly offered to turn state's evidence and implicate Videgaray in return for favourable treatment for themselves.Robles wrote in her Twitter account Tuesday that “statements have been made that have not been agreed on with me. I have instructed my lawyers to limit themselves to the legal proceedings,” but she did confirm she had decided to be a co-operating witness.Videgaray wrote that strategy “is immoral and wrong, and does nothing to contribute to the fight against corruption led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.”López Obrador made the crusade against corruption the centerpiece of his administration upon taking office in December 2018. He has, however, said he is not personally eager to go after former presidents and has proposed submitting the question to voters in a referendum.In 2019, a judge ordered Robles to be held in jail pending trial on corruption charges. She is accused of “wrongful exercise of public service” related to the alleged diversion of up to $260 million in public funds.Robles held multiple posts in Peña Nieto’s administration. The accusations against Videgaray date to June 2014 when Robles was social development secretary. Prosecutors say she was aware of the diversion of funds but never denounced it.Robles has denied wrongdoing.Lozoya was extradited from Spain earlier this year to face money laundering charges and immediately began co-operating with authorities. Videgaray previously denied accusations by Lozoya that he engaged in bribery or illegal campaign financing.Lozoya accused Peña Nieto and Videgaray of using bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht to help win the presidency and then to pass the energy sector overhaul that could greatly benefit that company and others. To that end, some opposition lawmakers were bribed for their votes, he alleges.In a statement in August, Videgaray called the accusations false, adding that "moreover, they are absurd, inconsistent and reckless.”The accusations Tuesday involved elections in 2012, 2015 and 2018. Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party denied there had been any illicit financing in those races and said mandatory electoral audits had confirmed that.The Associated Press