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Romania’s president blasts government over corruption report
Wed, July 10, 2019 08:12 EDT
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania’s president says the country’s government is ignoring the will of its own citizens by not adopting anti-corruption recommendations made by a European anti-graft body.
President Klaus Iohannis said Wednesday that it was “extremely worrying” that Romania was still in the focus of European institutions.
A report by the Council of Europe’s corruption monitoring division said Tuesday that Romania had fully complied with only four of 13 recommendations for handling high-level corruption.
Iohannis, a former leader of Romania’s National Liberal Party, said that the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Viorica Dancila’s Social Democrat Party, “got a red card once again” for the “damages made by this government by modifying the justice and penal laws.”
Romania has faced international criticism because of legal changes considered to undermine anti-corruption efforts.
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Court to Trump: Blocking Twitter critics is unconstitutional
By LARRY NEUMEISTER | Tue, July 9, 2019 05:32 EDT
NEW YORK (AP) — President Donald Trump lost a major Twitter fight Tuesday when a federal appeals court said that his daily musings and pronouncements were overwhelmingly official in nature and that he violated the First Amendment whenever he blocked a critic to silence a viewpoint.
The effect of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision is likely to reverberate throughout politics after the Manhattan court warned that any elected official using a social media account “for all manner of official purposes” and then excluding critics violates free speech.
“The government is not permitted to ‘amplify’ favored speech by banning or burdening viewpoints with which it disagrees,” the appeals court said.
Because it involved Trump, the ruling is getting more attention than a January decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that found a Virginia politician violated the First Amendment rights of one of her constituents by blocking him from a Facebook page.
Still, the appeals court in New York acknowledged, not every social media account operated by a public official is a government account, and First Amendment violations must be considered on a case-by-case basis.
“The irony in all of this is that we write at a time in the history of this nation when the conduct of our government and its officials is subject to wide-open, robust debate,” Circuit Judge Barrington D. Parker wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel.
The debate generates a “level of passion and intensity the likes of which have rarely been seen,” the court’s decision read.
“This debate, as uncomfortable and as unpleasant as it frequently may be, is nonetheless a good thing,” the 2nd Circuit added. “In resolving this appeal, we remind the litigants and the public that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that the best response to disfavored speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less.”
The Department of Justice is disappointed by the ruling and is exploring possible next steps, agency spokesperson Kelly Laco said.
“As we argued, President Trump’s decision to block users from his personal twitter account does not violate the First Amendment,” Laco said in an emailed statement.
Appeal options include asking the panel to reconsider, or seeking a reversal from the full 2nd Circuit or from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decision came in a case brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. It had sued on behalf of seven individuals blocked by Trump after criticizing his policies.
Jameel Jaffer, the institute’s director, said public officials’ social media accounts are now among the most significant forums for discussion of government policy.
The ruling “will ensure that people aren’t excluded from these forums simply because of their viewpoints,” he said.
Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney at Knight, said the institute knew of about 75 individuals who have been unblocked since Buchwald’s ruling.
Another 30 or so remain blocked, in part because the Justice Department has required them to cite the tweet that caused blockage, she said.
Among individuals blocked from the account were author Stephen King and model Chrissy Teigen.
Teigen and TV personality Rosie O’Donnell are among those who remain blocked, Fallow said.
“We certainly think the president should unblock everyone who was blocked because of viewpoint,” Fallow said. “If they are not going to do it voluntarily, we’ll consider all options, including litigation.”
Earlier this year, attorney Jennifer Utrecht, arguing for the president, told the 2nd Circuit Trump’s account was created long before he became president and he acted in a private capacity by blocking individuals.
The three-judge panel concluded the official nature of Trump’s account “was overwhelming,” even though it was created in 2009. It cautioned it was not deciding whether an elected official violates the Constitution by excluding individuals from a “wholly private social media account.”
“We also conclude that once the President has chosen a platform and opened up its interactive space to millions of users and participants, he may not selectively exclude those whose views he disagrees with,” the judges said.
They noted that Trump had used Twitter to announce his nomination of an FBI director, to announce a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, to announce the firing of his chief of staff, and about his decision to sell sophisticated military hardware to Japan and South Korea.
The 2nd Circuit said it didn’t matter that blocked individuals could still engage in dialogue through “workarounds,” such as logging out to view Trump’s tweets or searching for tweets by other users about the president to engage in conversations.
The ruling upheld a decision last year by U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, who did not order Trump to unblock users but said people have a right to reply directly to politicians who use their accounts as public forums to conduct official business.
Trump has been a social media pioneer among politicians, earning daily headlines from tweets.
His Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, has over 60 million followers and has become a must-read forum for world leaders, critics and fans, who witness Trump boasting of accomplishments, belittling opponents and blasting critical media coverage as “fake news.”
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Mobile home residents hit with soaring rent after hurricanes
By AMANDA MORRIS | Tue, July 9, 2019 08:11 EDT
LUMBERTON, N.C. (AP) — For eight years, James Lesane paid what he could for his mobile home lot rental every month — $150. But in February, five months after Hurricane Florence flooded the Lumberton region and shortly after Florida-based company Time Out Communities bought the park, his monthly lot rent more than tripled to $465.
With a fixed Social Security disability income of about $791 a month, Lesane said it’s impossible for him to pay that.
“If I had to pay $465 I couldn’t even pay the lights in this place,” he said, gesturing to the dim lighting inside his trailer, where trash bags covered windows to keep the trailer cool on a sweltering 100-degree day.
Time Out owns 23 properties in low-income Robeson County, many of which were bought in the past two years. At the same time, the county was one of the hardest-hit areas during hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018.
All but two of the properties are in Lumberton, where residents say an affordable housing crisis caused by the hurricanes has been exacerbated by Time Out, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based company.
In an emailed statement, Time Out said rents were raised consistent with current market rates and that some of the additional revenue will go toward community improvement.
North Carolina Housing Coalition Executive Director Samuel Gunter said it’s not uncommon to see property investors “start snatching stuff up,” after a disaster because they see a chance to make money.
“In the aftermath of a disaster, folks are flooded, those land values are depressed, and if you have capital, there’s economic opportunity there,” Gunter said, adding that lower-income communities often live in disaster-prone areas such as flood plains.
“Folks may not be able to do repairs themselves, and if someone comes at them with the right offer, it can be tempting to take,” he said.
Gunter said many advocates are worried about the dynamic between mobile home owners who rent land in these parks and park owners, since older mobile homes often can’t be moved.
“People may not be able to move their homes, so you have incredible leverage over the people who rent that land,” he said.
Time Out owns more than 1,200 home unit rental lots in Lumberton, where residents live in a total of 1,416 mobile home units, according to the 2017 American Community Survey figures from the U.S. Census bureau. In Lumberton, 13.5% of the population lives in mobile homes, more than double the national average.
For many, mobile homes may be the only affordable option after the county was devastated by hurricanes . There’s not enough rental stock to accommodate people who have been displaced by the hurricanes, placing a strain on affordable housing resources, according to Gunter.
Of 729 units in Lumberton’s public housing program, 187 were put “offline” from the hurricanes, and another 526 are occupied. For the remaining 16 units, Lumberton Housing Authority Director Sheila Oxendine said there are roughly 900 people on the waiting list.
The Robeson County Affordable Housing Coalition, formed in October 2018 after Hurricane Florence, has asked local officials to take action on Time Out’s rental increases and asked the town to set up a rental assistance and transitional housing fund. Coalition administrator Mac Legerton said the local government response has been limited.
“Their capacity to respond is limited due to the lack of laws and authority over a private business,” he said. “We’re forming an interagency task force to review what laws are needed in North Carolina and across the nation … This business model is certainly unethical and immoral, and it should be illegal.”
Lumberton city officials could not be reached for comment.
For now, residents’ best hopes are to fight eviction with the help of Legal Aid of North Carolina and North Carolina Justice Center lawyers. Legal Aid has taken on 89 cases, 44 of which are still open. In some cases, lawyers have been able to show that the company gave improper notice, delaying eviction while residents search for a new place to live.
Since April, Shirley Pittman, 69, has been looking for a new place to put her home. She bought her mobile home in 1997 and doesn’t know if it’s in good enough condition to move. She was surprised when her monthly lot rent jumped from $210 to $465 earlier this year.
“My eyes went wide and I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to pay, that’s too much,’ and I refused to sign the lease,” she said.
Pittman said she has continued to pay her old rent price. After living in Turner Park for over 20 years on a fixed Social Security disability income, she received a threat of eviction from Time Out in May.
Legal Aid attorney Nicole Mueller said lawyers can’t prevent Time Out from raising rent, but that issues surrounding Time Out could turn into an anti-trust class action case.
Because of the housing shortage, Gunter said entire communities are being displaced. In Schoolview, Lesane said he is leaving, and so are a lot of his neighbors, including his sister and his cousin. But before he can leave, Lesane needs several thousand dollars to move his home. So far, he said he’s saved about $800 and deposited $100 to hold a lot spot in a mobile home park down the road.
“The whole place is a flood zone,” he said. “I’m worried about that, but that’s the only place to live.”
In the meantime, he pays what rent he can and prays he won’t be evicted. If he receives an eviction notice, Legal Aid said they will help.
“I just pray and keep it moving,” Lesane said. “God knows how much I can take.”
Follow Morris at www.twitter.com/AmandaMoMorris
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Harvard coach fired over sale of home to prospect’s father
Tue, July 9, 2019 05:25 EDT
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — Harvard University has fired a fencing coach over the sale of his home for nearly double its assessed value to a wealthy businessman whose teenage son was later admitted to the school and joined the team.
Athletic Director Bob Scalise said in an emailed statement Tuesday that head fencing coach Peter Brand has been fired for violating Harvard’s conflict-of-interest policy.
The Boston Globe reported in April that Brand received nearly $1 million in 2016 for his suburban Boston three-bedroom house, which was assessed at the time at about $550,000.
The buyer, Jie Zhao, never lived in the home and sold it at a steep loss 17 months later. Both men deny wrongdoing.
Brand’s lawyer, Douglas Brooks, called Brand’s termination “unfair, unwarranted, and an egregious disservice to a loyal employee.” Brooks says Brand is considering his legal options.
EarthLink – News
Fines, jail, probation, debt: Court policies punish the poor
By TRAVIS LOLLER 08:40 EDT
LIBERTY, Tenn. (AP) — Johnny Gibbs has been trying to get a valid driver’s license for 20 years, but he just can’t afford it.
To punish him for high school truancy in 1999, Tennessee officials told him he would not be able to legally drive until he turned 21. He drove anyway, incurring two tickets and racking up more than $1,000 in fines and fees.
Like other low-income defendants in similar situations across the country, Gibbs couldn’t pay and ended up serving jail time and probation. That incurred another cost: a monthly supervision fee to a private probation company.
Rather than risk another arrest, Gibbs, now 38, decided to quit driving, which he said makes it nearly impossible to work. He said he spent several years living in a motel room with his mother, his disabled father and his sister before they all became homeless. In August, the family found housing in a dilapidated trailer, miles from the nearest town or food source.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m being punished for being poor,” Gibbs said.
For years, state and city officials in the U.S. — unwilling to raise taxes — have steadily increased their reliance on court fines and fees to balance budgets. Poor defendants who can’t pay are jailed, clogging local lockups with people who in many cases have not been convicted of any crime and putting others on a probation that doesn’t end until all debts are erased.
A growing number of legal groups and nonprofit organizations throughout the U.S. are challenging these practices, but they continue — despite a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found it unconstitutional to incarcerate defendants too poor to pay fines.
In Oklahoma, for example, the Washington-based Civil Rights Corps, which has litigated more than 20 lawsuits since it was founded in 2016 to undo various aspects of “user-funded justice,” is challenging policies that it claims have led to one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.
Counties across the state of Oklahoma refer debt collection to a for-profit company, Aberdeen Enterprizes II, which adds an additional 30 percent fee and threatens debtors with arrest. Many of those who can’t pay are not just thrown in jail; they’re also made to pay for their incarceration, further increasing their debt.
Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Bivens said reforming fees, fines and bail is a priority of the Conference of Chief Justices, a nonprofit organization comprising top judicial officials from each of the 50 states.
“We’re having situations where even with $500 or $1,000 bail, these folks can’t make that bail,” Bivens said. “Then they lose their jobs … their families, their children. … It’s a never-ending and increasing cycle.”
Just last year, a national task force of state court administrators and chief justices released a list of principles stating that courts should be funded entirely by governments and should not be used as “a revenue-generating arm.”
The nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice New Orleans is trying to make the Big Easy the first city in the country to eliminate both money bail and conviction fines and fees. The group’s data shows the city could dip into its own coffers for the $2.8 million the local criminal court, district attorney and public defender now get from the fines and fees — and still come out nearly $3 million ahead. That’s because the city is spending about $5.4 million a year to lock people up when they can’t pay, said Jon Wool, the institute’s director of justice policy.
Memphis, Tennessee, District Attorney Amy Weirich said she has simply stopped prosecuting people arrested for driving on a suspended or revoked license “if the sole reason was because the driver owed somebody money.”
She said the move has cut her office’s workload by a third and freed up staff to focus on serious crime.
But in some states, lawmakers are not just resisting calls to change the system; they are working harder than ever to enforce it.
In North Carolina, where more than $250 million of the Fiscal Year 2018 general fund came from court fines and fees, a state law requires judges who waive them to explain why in a notification to every government agency that could be affected by the lost revenue.
“That’s over 100 agencies,” said Democratic state Rep. Marcia Morey of Durham, a judge for 18 years before she joined the legislature in 2017. “It’s really unenforceable. … It’s just to pressure judges.”
In Gibbs’ home state of Tennessee, state legislators refused to eliminate a law stripping licenses from people who owe money to the courts, despite a federal court ruling that it was unconstitutional. Instead, they tweaked the legislation to allow more than 300,000 drivers to keep driving while slowly paying off their debt. For those who truly can’t pay, they can have their debt suspended until they are able, a strategy that has the potential to keep indigent drivers like Gibbs involved in the court system for many years to come.
“I missed my daughter’s 13th birthday,” he said. “I missed the birth of my 9-month-old. … Basically everything in life I’ve missed because of a little plastic card they won’t let me have.”