Legislator who questioned Black hygiene to lead health panel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A Republican lawmaker and doctor who questioned whether members of “the colored population” were disproportionately contracting the coronavirus because of their hygiene is drawing new criticism from Black lawmakers after his appointment to lead the state Senate Health Committee.
“Could it just be that African Americans – or the colored population — do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear masks? Or do not socially distance themselves?” state Sen. Stephen Huffman asked a Black health expert in June 11 testimony. “Could that just be the explanation of why there’s a higher incidence?”
The comments resulted in calls from Democrats and the ACLU of Ohio for him to resign from the GOP-controlled Senate.
Huffman, of Tipp City, was appointed last week by Senate President Matt Huffman, his cousin, to chair the committee even after he was fired from his job as a Dayton-area emergency room physician for his comments.
In a letter Wednesday, the Ohio Black Legislative Caucus demanded a health committee leader who understands and can respond to the inequities of healthcare in Ohio “without political influence.”
“If the Senate leadership will not replace Sen. Huffman as Chair, then we will expect Sen. Huffman to use his position to improve the health of Ohio’s African-American population by working with OLBC to pass legislation that effectively addresses health disparities in the state of Ohio,” director Tony Bishop said in a news release.
Huffman remains a licensed medical doctor in Ohio.
“Senator Huffman is a medical doctor and highly qualified to chair the Health Committee,” spokesperson John Fortney said Friday in a written statement. “He has a long record of providing healthcare to minority neighborhoods and has joined multiple mission trips at his own expense to treat those from disadvantaged countries.
Fortney added that Huffman apologized at the time “for asking a clumsy and awkwardly worded question.”
“Sincere apologies deserve sincere forgiveness, and not the perpetual politically weaponized judgement of the cancel culture,” he said.”
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy backs away from blaming Trump for Capitol insurrection
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Thursday that former President Trump’s words at a rally did not incite the violent mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol earlier this month, contradicting his previous comments that Trump bore responsibility for the insurrection that resulted in five deaths.
“I don’t believe he provoked it if you listen to what he said at the rally,” McCarthy, who represents Bakersfield, California, said during a news conference.
Eight days earlier, during a Jan. 13 House debate on whether to impeach Trump, McCarthy said the president was to blame for the violence, though he voted against impeachment.
“The president bears responsibility for [the] attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said on the House floor. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump.”
McCarthy, who was unavailable for comment late Thursday, was an early backer of the former president; Trump affectionately labeled him “my Kevin.”
But the Californian’s reprimand during the impeachment vote as well as his eventual recognition of President Biden’s election victory reportedly led the former president to turn on his ally during his final days in office.
A week before the impeachment vote, on Jan. 6, the day of the insurrection, McCarthy had voted against certifying Biden’s victory while questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. That act angered McCarthy’s former boss and mentor, former Rep. Bill Thomas, who lashed out at McCarthy as a “hypocrite.” (McCarthy, who began his political career interning for Thomas, successfully won Thomas’ seat when the incumbent retired after 28 years in office.)
Thomas accused McCarthy of putting his political ambitions ahead of the nation’s interests, saying he raised the specter of the president’s responsibility only after corporations decided to withhold political donations. Many businesses have announced that they will no longer make contributions to those politicians who falsely claimed the election was stolen from Trump — a threat to McCarthy, a prodigious fundraiser.
“I look at it in terms of what you did, how you did it and when you did it. What is more important? Ending any kind of continuation of massive lies after the Capitol was torn apart — which [McCarthy] didn’t do,” Thomas said on KGET-17 on Jan. 15. “And then finally after months of supporting those outrageous lies of the president, he decides that actually Trump lost and Biden won.”
McCarthy probably pulled back his criticism of Trump because he wants to appease the former president’s supporters and maintain power in a party still controlled by him, other critics allege.
“Keep in mind, Kevin doesn’t have a moral conscience,” said Mark Martinez, chair of the political science department at Cal State Bakersfield. Martinez is a Democrat; McCarthy has lectured in his classroom and has appeared on panels with him.
“Getting his hand slapped by corporate America has really put him in a difficult situation,” Martinez said. “Right now Kevin is in survival mode. I don’t think he cares about anything but himself, trying to solidify his place in the GOP caucus.”
Allies argue that McCarthy’s critics are wrong and are trying to tar him because he has been an effective leader and could become House speaker if the GOP retakes Congress in 2022.
“Most people here understand exactly where he stands,” said Cathy Abernathy, a longtime Republican strategist in Bakersfield, adding that although she believes Trump was right in questioning the election, she does not think he directed the mob to storm the Capitol.
“Speaker Pelosi and Democrats and some in the media just want to pick over [McCarthy] and put a negative spin on him because he’s very effective,” she said.
A longtime GOP strategist and friend of McCarthy, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, said McCarthy is responsible for putting himself in a position where his future relies on perpetuating lies that he knows are false.
“Kevin is a brilliant political strategist who served the Republican Party extremely well for decades, but he now finds himself in a position where his power is contingent upon promulgating lies in the realm of conspiracy theories,” the strategist said.
“This was the deal he made when he decided to be Trump’s ‘my Kevin,’ and now he’s in a corner with no obvious way out of it.”
GOP lawmaker with gun sets off House chamber metal detector
WASHINGTON — Capitol Police are investigating an incident in which a Republican lawmaker was blocked from entering the House chamber after setting off a metal detector while apparently carrying a concealed gun.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., set off the metal detector while trying to enter the chamber Thursday afternoon. The metal detectors were installed after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, which left five people dead, including a Capitol police officer. The incident was witnessed by a reporter from the Huffington Post
After setting off the machine, Harris was asked to step aside for further screening. At that time, an officer discovered Harris was carrying a concealed gun on his side, according to the reporter.
The officer sent Harris away, at which point Harris tried to get Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., to take the gun from him. Katko refused, telling Harris he didn’t have a license to carry a gun. Harris eventually left and returned less than 10 minutes later. He once again went through security and did not set off the magnetometer. He was then allowed to enter the House floor.
Harris, in his sixth term representing Maryland’s Eastern Shore, issued a statement through his chief of staff, Bryan Shuy.
“Because his and his family’s lives have been threatened by someone who has been released awaiting trial, for security reasons, the congressman never confirms whether he nor anyone else he’s with are carrying a firearm for self-defense,” the statement said. “As a matter of public record, he has a Maryland Handgun Permit. And the congressman always complies with the House metal detectors and wanding. The Congressman has never carried a firearm on the House floor.”
Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for Capitol Police, said the incident is being investigated.
The public is not allowed to carry guns on Capitol grounds, but members of Congress may keep firearms in their offices or transport them on the Capitol grounds if they are unloaded and securely wrapped. Lawmakers are not allowed to bring guns into either the House or Senate chambers.
Nearly $1B Mega Millions prize due to long odds, slow sales
DES MOINES, Iowa — The jackpot for the Mega Millions lottery game has grown to nearly $1 billion ahead of Friday night’s drawing after more than four months without a winner thanks to bad luck, poor odds and reduced play partially blamed on the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s only the third time a lottery jackpot has grown so large, but much has changed since the last time such a big prize was up for grabs in 2018. The odds of winning a jackpot remain the same — incredibly small — but for a variety of reasons fewer people are playing Mega Millions or Powerball, the two lottery games offered in most of the country.
And even as the huge Mega Millions prize and a $731.1 million Powerball jackpot won Wednesday by a single ticket sold in Maryland have juiced sales for the games, Maryland lottery director Gordon Medenica noted: “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Medenica acknowledged sales were dramatically lower before the pandemic, and they tanked even further in the spring and summer.
After a peak in October 2018, Medenica said sales of the big lottery games dropped about 50%, prompting talk among lottery officials about jackpot fatigue. Sales of Mega Millions and Powerball continued to decline after the virus hit along with other lottery games, but while scratch tickets and other instant games rebounded strongly later in the year, national game sales remained moribund.
In response to falling sales, officials updated the national games to reduce starting jackpots from $40 million to $20 million and changed rules about guaranteed minimum increases between drawings. The moves made fiscal sense but they caused jackpots to grow more slowly, further tamping down sales, as demonstrated by the record 37 draws without a winner it took to reach the current Mega Millions jackpot that’s still far less than the all-time highs.
“That’s why it takes so many rolls to get up to a high jackpot level,” Medenica said.
What hasn’t changed are the odds.
By design, Mega Millions and Powerball are relatively generous in awarding small dollar prizes and lottery officials boast there is a roughly one in 24 chance of winning something. But to generate huge jackpots, officials must be absolutely miserly about paying jackpots.
It’s hard to fathom how unlikely it is to beat odds of one in 292.2 million for Powerball or one in 302.5 million for Mega Millions.
To get a sense of your chances, Steven Bleiler, a mathematics and statistics professor at Portland State University, said people should imagine a swimming pool 40 feet (12.2 meters) wide, 120 feet (36.6 meters) long and 5 feet (1.5 meters) deep, filled to the brim with M&Ms, only one of which is green. To win, all a player must do is jump in blindfolded and wade around until finding that single green candy.
Andrew Swift, a mathematics professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, put it this way: Your chances of picking up two oysters and finding a pearl in both is about twice as likely as winning either lottery jackpot.
Still, someone always ultimately wins, and it happened again after Wednesday night’s Powerball drawing when a single ticket sold at a convenience store in the small community of Lonaconing, Maryland, hit all six numbers. The winner can take a $716.3 annuity paid over 30 years or a cash prize of $546.8 million.
What comes next is unclear. Some states are banking on growth in online games, but while the 10 states that allow purchases on computers and phone apps are seeing rising sales, such purchases remain a relatively small percentage of overall revenue.
“The current roll has revived the game as it’s been designed,” Medenica said. “Whether we continue to consider making changes or not is to be seen.”
Virginia lawmakers vote to remove statue of segregationist
RICHMOND, Va. — A panel of Virginia legislators advanced a bill Friday to remove a statue of Harry F. Byrd Sr., a staunch segregationist, from the state Capitol grounds.
The decision to advance the bill comes amid a yearslong effort in history-rich Virginia to rethink who is honored in the state’s public spaces. Byrd, a Democrat, served as governor and U.S. senator. He ran the state’s most powerful political machine for decades until his death in 1966 and was considered the architect of the state’s racist “massive resistance” policy to public school integration.
“It is my deep belief that monuments to segregation, massive resistance, and the subjugation of one race below another, like this statue, serve only as a reminder to the overt and institutional racism has and continues to plague our Commonwealth,” the bill’s sponsor, Del. Jay Jones, said when introducing the measure.
The bill advanced from the House committee on a party-line vote of 13-5, with all Republicans voting against it. It still must pass both chambers of the General Assembly, but with Democrats controlling the statehouse and Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam backing the measure, it is almost certain to pass.
Northam highlighted the bill in an address to lawmakers earlier this month, saying the state should no longer celebrate a man who fought integration.
In the 1950s, Byrd’s political machine implemented a series of official state policies that opposed court-ordered public school integration and even closed some public schools rather than desegregate them.
“If we can organize the Southern states for massive resistance to this (court) order, I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that integration is not going to be accepted in the South,” Byrd once told fellow Democrats, The Associated Press has previously reported.
The larger-than-life statue erected in 1976 and located a stone’s throw from the Capitol depicts Byrd with a copy of the federal budget.
Attempts by the AP to reach members of the Byrd family have not been successful.
For several years, Virginia has been in the midst of a reevaluation of its historical landscape, from its hundreds of Confederate monuments, to buildings and roads named after people who espoused views on race now considered abhorrent.
The death of George Floyd over the summer and the social justice movement that followed accelerated the discussions. Lawmakers evicted a Confederate statue and busts from inside the Capitol in July, and the city of Richmond removed some of the state’s most prominent Confederate monuments from its public spaces. Other localities in more conservative, rural areas held referendums this fall and voted to keep their statues.
In an unusual twist, a similar measure to remove the Byrd statue was filed last year by a freshman Republican lawmaker.
Republican Del. Wendell Walker introduced the bill, apparently with the aim of needling Democrats who were pushing for the removal of Confederate monuments, saying “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
But when met with agreement from across the aisle on removing the statue, Walker asked that the bill be killed, and Democrats acquiesced.
Jones, who is Black, said he sent Walker, who is white, an invitation to co-patron this year’s bill. Walker had not responded as of Friday, Jones said.
Jones’ bill directs the state Department of General Services to remove the statue from Capitol Square and store it until the General Assembly determines what should be done with it.
The same panel on Friday also advanced a measure that would make official an earlier recommendation that civil rights hero Barbara Johns represent Virginia in the Statuary Hall collection at the U.S. Capitol instead of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. No one voted against the measure.
Lawmakers started the process last year with a measure that convened a committee to study whether Lee – whose statue had stood with George Washington’s statue since 1909 as Virginia’s two representatives in the Capitol – should be replaced.
That committee decided Lee should go (his statue was removed in December and taken to a Richmond history museum ), and voted to replace him with Johns.
Johns, who died in 1991, protested conditions at her all-Black high school in the town of Farmville in 1951, and her court case became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling struck down racial segregation in public schools, and then continued to be met with resistance from white politicians like Byrd.
Johns’ sister, Joan Johns Cobbs, told the committee her family was grateful for the choice to honor Johns.
“I am so appreciative that Barbara is being considered because what she did in 1951 was very courageous,” she said.
Austin wins Senate confirmation as 1st Black Pentagon chief
WASHINGTON — Lloyd J. Austin, a West Point graduate who rose to the Army’s elite ranks and marched through racial barriers in a 41-year career, won Senate confirmation Friday to become the nation’s first Black secretary of defense.
The 93-2 vote gave President Joe Biden his second Cabinet member; Avril Haines was confirmed on Wednesday as the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. Biden is expected to win approval for others on his national security team in coming days, including Antony Blinken as secretary of state.
Biden is looking for Austin to restore stability atop the Pentagon, which went through two Senate-confirmed secretaries of defense and four who held the post on an interim basis during the Trump administration. The only senators who voted against Austin were Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Josh Hawley of Missouri.
Before heading to the Pentagon, Austin wrote on Twitter that he is especially proud to be the first Black secretary of defense.
“Let’s get to work,” he wrote.
Austin’s confirmation was complicated by his status as a recently retired general. He required a waiver of a legal prohibition on a military officer serving as secretary of defense within seven years of retirement. Austin retired in 2016 after serving as the first Black general to head U.S. Central Command. He was the first Black vice chief of staff of the Army in 2012 and also served as director of the Joint Staff, a behind-the-scenes job that gave him an intimate view of the Pentagon’s inner workings.
The House and the Senate approved the waiver Thursday, clearing the way for the Senate confirmation vote.
Austin, a large man with a booming voice and a tendency to shy from publicity, describes himself as the son of a postal worker and a homemaker from Thomasville, Georgia. He has promised to speak his mind to Congress and to Biden.
At his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Austin said he had not sought the nomination but was ready to lead the Pentagon without clinging to his military status and with full awareness that being a political appointee and Cabinet member requires “a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform.”
As vice president, Biden worked closely with Austin in 2010-11 to wind down U.S. military involvement in Iraq while Austin was the top U.S. commander in Baghdad. American forces withdrew entirely, only to return in 2014 after the Islamic State extremist group captured large swaths of Iraqi territory. At Central Command, Austin was a key architect of the strategy to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria.
Biden said in December when he announced Austin as his nominee that he considered him “the person we need at this moment,” and that he trusts Austin to ensure civilian control of the military. Critics of the nomination have questioned the wisdom of making an exception to the law against a recently retired military officer serving as defense secretary, noting that the prohibition was put in place to guard against undue military influence in national security matters.
Only twice before has Congress waived the prohibition — in 1950 for George C. Marshall during the Korean War and in 2017 for Jim Mattis, the retired Marine general who served as President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief.
Austin has promised to surround himself with qualified civilians. And he made clear at his confirmation hearing that he embraces Biden’s early focus on combatting the coronavirus pandemic.
“I will quickly review the department’s contributions to coronavirus relief efforts, ensuring we are doing everything we can — and then some — to help distribute vaccines across the country and to vaccinate our troops and preserve readiness,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Under questioning by senators, Austin pledged to address white supremacy and violent extremism in the ranks of the military — problems that received relatively little public attention from his immediate predecessor, Mark Esper. Austin promised to “rid our ranks of racists,” and said he takes the problem personally.
“The Defense Department’s job is to keep America safe from our enemies,” he said. “But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
Austin said he will insist that the leaders of every military service know that extremist behavior in their ranks is unacceptable.
“This is not something we can be passive on,” he said. “This is something I think we have to be active on, and we have to lean into it and make sure that we’re doing the right things to create the right climate.”
He offered glimpses of other policy priorities, indicating that he embraces the view among many in Congress that China is the “pacing challenge,” or the leading national security problem for the U.S.
The Middle East was the main focus for Austin during much of his Army career, particularly when he reached senior officer ranks.
Man plans to plead guilty to deaths of 36 partygoers in fire
OAKLAND, Calif. — The master tenant of a cluttered, dilapidated San Francisco Bay Area warehouse where 36 people perished in a late-night fire in 2016 is scheduled to plead guilty Friday to the deaths, avoiding a second trial after the first ended in a hung jury.
Families of several victims told the East Bay Times last week that prosecutors told them Derick Almena, 50, will plead guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in exchange for a nine-year sentence. Almena may serve little or none of that term because of time already spent behind bars and credit for good behavior.
Alameda County prosecutors say Almena was criminally negligent when he illegally converted the industrial Oakland warehouse into a residence and event space for artists dubbed the “Ghost Ship,” stuffing the two-story building with flammable materials, extension cords. It had no smoke detectors or sprinklers.
The Dec. 2, 2016, fire broke out at the warehouse during an electronic music and dance party, moving so quickly that victims were trapped on the illegally constructed second floor. Prosecutors said the victims received no warning and had little chance to escape down a narrow, ramshackle staircase.
The case has been emotionally wrenching for family and friends of the victims, many who packed a courtroom for months in 2019, only to see a jury split on whether to convict Almena, who leased the building. The jury also found co-defendant Max Harris, who was the Ghost Ship’s “creative director” and would collect rent, not guilty at the same trial.
Colleen Dolan, mother of victim Chelsea Faith Dolan, told the East Bay Times that families were not informed of the plea deal possibility before last Wednesday.
“My heart dropped, especially when I heard it was going to be a slap on the wrist. I want my daughter back; we want to be with our family members who died. He gets to be with his family,” she said.
Almena had been jailed since 2017 until he was released in May because of coronavirus concerns and after posting a $150,000 bail bond. He is on house arrest with an ankle monitor in the city of Upper Lake, where he lives with his wife and children.
Tony Serra, Almena’s attorney, said Thursday that he could not comment because lawyers are under a gag order imposed by Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson.
The Alameda County district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Report: Speed compliance to save rare whales could be better
PORTLAND, Maine — Compliance with speed rules designed to protect rare whales has increased in recent years but could still be higher, according to a report from the federal government.
The slow speed zones are implemented to protect North Atlantic right whales, which number about 360 and are vulnerable to collisions with ships. The National Marine Fisheries Service implemented seasonal, mandatory vessel speed rules in some areas along the East Coast in 2008 to try to help the whales.
A report released by the service this week states that the level of mariner compliance with the speed rule increased to 81% in 2018-19. That was the highest level of record.
The fisheries service also said mariner compliance remains low in some portions of the seasonal management areas. Four ports in the Southeast have rates below 25% for large commercial vessels, it said.
The report illustrates that “we need stronger protections for these whales from speeding ships,” said Whitney Webber, campaign director of conservation group Oceana.
Former Make-A-Wish Iowa CEO arrested on theft charges
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The former CEO of Make-A-Wish Iowa has been arrested on felony charges alleging she stole thousands of dollars from the charity that supports sick children, the group confirmed Friday.
Jennifer Woodley, 40, was booked at the Polk County Jail in Des Moines on Thursday on charges of first-degree theft and the unauthorized use of a credit card. The criminal complaints against her weren’t immediately available, but first-degree theft involves property worth more than $10,000.
The organization announced last summer that it had discovered financial irregularities during a compliance review and that Woodley had been dismissed after serving as president and CEO for just over one year.
Based in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, the Iowa group is one of 60 chapters of Make-A-Wish America, which works to provide support and memorable experiences for children with critical illnesses and their families.
Dave Farmsworth, the board chairman for Make-A-Wish Iowa, said the organization swiftly dismissed Woodley and notified police after discovering the problems last July. He said the organization was “deeply saddened and disappointed by the events” that led to charges against Woodley.
“We thank the Urbandale Police Department for its investigation into this breach of Make-A-Wish’s ethical standards and policies, and we will continue to cooperate with law enforcement,” he said. “We know that we have an obligation to safeguard every dollar given to us.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how much Woodley allegedly misappropriated or whether she has an attorney.
Make-A-Wish Iowa has an annual budget of $4 million, a staff of 16 employees and is governed by a 17-member volunteer board.
During Woodley’s tenure, the 35-year-old chapter granted its 4,000th wish for a child and said it planned to grant about 170 wishes for children per year.
Jail records list Woodley’s new address as Winston Salem, North Carolina, where her husband, Matt Woodley, is an assistant basketball coach at Wake Forest.
The couple has had two daughters who have required brain surgery, and one of them received a trip to Walt Disney World through Make-A-Wish Iowa before Woodley was hired as CEO.