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SC to consider abortion ban; bill faces uncertain future
By JEFFREY COLLINS | 04:31 EDT
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A small group of South Carolina senators held a daylong hearing Tuesday on whether South Carolina should join about a half-dozen other states in banning nearly all abortions , but the Southern state might not be ready to follow some of its conservative compatriots.
More than 50 people spoke during the carefully scripted hearing. The Senate subcommittee tried to evenly divide the speakers by those for and against the bill, which would ban almost all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, around six weeks into pregnancy.
Most of the speakers for the bill were pastors, Republican lawmakers, religious organizations that aid pregnant women or others morally opposed to abortion. Many of the speakers against the bill were doctors or women who shared personal stories of abortions or medical crises that might have fallen into gray areas under the proposal.
The bill easily passed the House in April and Gov. Henry McMaster enthusiastically supports it. But some backers aren’t sure it can get the two-thirds support likely needed to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate when the Legislature returns Jan. 14.
Heartbeat abortion bills have been passed in recent years in Louisiana , Georgia , Kentucky , Mississippi and Ohio . Missouri approved a ban on abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy and Alabama lawmakers simply outlawed all abortions.
Abortion is legal under federal law, which supersedes state law, and lawsuits have been filed against the state measures. The laws’ backers are hoping to get a case before the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. The push comes amid rising optimism among conservatives that the restrictions might prevail in the reconfigured Supreme Court that includes President Donald Trump’s appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Subcommittee chairman Sen. Shane Martin said there would be no vote on the bill Tuesday. The Republican from Spartanburg County said he wanted to hold public hearings before all lawmakers returned because the Senate has a busy calendar that includes tackling a wide-ranging overhaul of public education and deciding whether to sell state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which is billions of dollars in debt after partnering on two nuclear plants that were abandoned before they generated a watt of power.
South Carolina is a conservative state with a history of past efforts to restrict abortion. But momentum on the current bill has stalled as the state’s long shift from Democratic to Republican domination has finally peaked.
“This comes down to a math question: Do you have the votes to do it?” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey.
Democrats in 2018 altered a much less restrictive ban on abortion into a ban on almost all abortions, putting less conservative Republicans on the spot. The bill failed because Republicans could not muster the two-thirds vote needed to end a filibuster and bring the bill to a vote.
Since then, Republicans have lost a Senate seat. They need 27 of their 28 members on board and one GOP senator is philosophically against ever voting to end a filibuster, Massey said.
“I have to have every single Republican left to vote on every part of that bill. If we can be successful, let’s go,” said Massey, a Republican from Edgefield. “But let’s not waste days on something we can’t do.”
Republican senators plan to meet a few weeks before the 2020 session starts and figure out if they have the votes, Massey said.
Tuesday’s hearing was polite and respectful despite the 100 or so people who packed the room. There were no outbursts or demonstrations as people spoke. Martin asked senators to limit their questions so as many people could speak as possible.
“Science and common sense tells us a heartbeat signifies life. If you sit here quietly and listen carefully, you may hear and even feel your God-given heartbeat inside your own chest,” said Mitch Prosser, a pastor from Clover.
Several women who opposed the bill said they were angry about having to share their personal stories of abortion with strangers but did so to protect the ability of other women to have the procedure. Gynecologists shared the stories of women who confronted medical emergencies during abortions that could fall into gray areas under the proposal.
“The need for abortion will not go away if this bill is passed. Passing this is likely to increase the risk of unsafe abortions,” said Dr. Judith Burgis, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Columbia.
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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.

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FEMA officials, contractor accused of hurricane relief fraud
06:05 EDT
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Federal authorities said Tuesday they have arrested two former officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the former president of a major disaster relief contractor, accusing them of bribery and fraud in the efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Puerto Rico said that the then-president of Cobra Acquisitions LLC, Donald Keith Ellison, gave FEMA’s deputy regional director airline flights, hotel accommodations, personal security services and the use of a credit card.
In return, Ahsha Nateef Tribble “used any opportunity she had to benefit Cobra,” said U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez, including accelerating payments to the company and pressuring local power authority officials to award it contracts.
Ellison also gave a job to a friend of Tribble, Jovanda R. Patterson, who had been FEMA deputy chief of staff in Puerto Rico before resigning in July 2018 to work for Cobra Energy LLC, according to the indictment. Cobra Acquisitions and Cobra Energy are subsidiaries of Oklahoma City-based Mammoth Energy Services Inc.
Tribble was FEMA’s primary leader in trying to restore electric power after Hurricane Maria destroyed the power grid in 2017. Cobra was given contracts worth about $1.8 billion.
Authorities said Tribble was arrested Monday in Florida while Ellison was detained in Oklahoma. Ellison made an appearance in Oklahoma City on Tuesday before a federal magistrate, who released him on a $500,000 unsecured bond and ordered him to report to Puerto Rico by Sept. 24, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Troester said. Ellison did not enter a plea to the charges, Troester said.
Ellison’s attorney, Bill Leone, said the government is trying to criminalize a friendship between Ellison and Tribble when there was nothing wrong with their relationship.
“He has done nothing wrong,” Leone said of Ellison. “There’s just absolutely nothing to prohibit that.”
Leone said the work performed by Cobra was scrutinized and monitored by officials from many federal and state agencies. “We are delighted that we are about to have our day in court,” he said.
Mammoth Energy Services released a statement Tuesday saying: “Mammoth is aware of and has been cooperating with the government’s investigation into Ms. Tribble and Mr. Ellison and will continue to do so.”
“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane Maria,” Rodríguez said. “Instead, they decided to take advantage of the precarious conditions of our electric power grid and engaged in a bribery and honest services wire fraud scheme in order to enrich themselves illegally.”
Rodríguez said that after an explosion at a power plant knocked out power to several towns in February 2018, Tribble pressured power authority officials to use Cobra rather than their own workforce. “She even told them that if they did not use Cobra, FEMA would not reimburse them,” the prosecutor added.
Patterson, meanwhile, was accused of defrauding Cobra by telling the company her salary with FEMA was far larger than it was, and she was offered $160,000 a year to work for Cobra, Rodríguez said.
She allegedly was in the midst of negotiating the job with Cobra when she also participated for FEMA in part of Cobra’s vendor bid process for work in Puerto Rico.
According to prosecutors, Tribble avoided using her FEMA email and cell phone, instead opting for private accounts and even a disposable prepaid cell number.
When investigators approached Ellison he denied anything but a business relationship. They knew he had taken a helicopter ride with Tribble, but he denied that too, prosecutors said.
The government is seeking the forfeiture from Ellison of accounts holding more than $4 million, as well as a 40-foot catamaran.
If convicted of the charges of honest services wire fraud and disaster fraud, they could face up to 30 years in prison.
U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez of New York said in a statement that the charges suggest corruption was another factor in the flawed response to the hurricane damage.
“These charges, related to the Island’s beleaguered energy grid, are an appalling insult to the people of Puerto Rico who already endured the longest blackout in American history,” she said. “If proven, this misuse of funds suggests that, while our fellow citizens on the Island were dying from a lack of electricity, private companies stateside were plotting how to illicitly profit at taxpayers’ expense.”
Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, as a Category 4 storm. It destroyed the island’s power grid and caused damage estimated at more than $100 billion.
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This story has been corrected to show that FEMA is the abbreviation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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US expands hunting and fishing at national wildlife refuges
By KEITH RIDLER | 05:29 EDT
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Trump administration said Tuesday that it is expanding hunting and fishing in 77 national wildlife refuges in a move that critics contend is deferring management to states and could harm wildlife.
The Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said hunters and anglers can shoot and cast their rods on 2,200 square miles (5,700 square kilometers) of federally protected land in 37 states, much of which is considered critical habitat for waterfowl and other birds to rest and refuel during their migration.
“This is the largest single effort to expand hunting and fishing access in recent history,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said last month before the changes were posted Tuesday in the Federal Register.
It’s the latest effort by the Trump administration to open public lands to recreation and industry, including oil and gas drilling, which critics say comes at the expense of the environment and wildlife.
President Donald Trump also has scaled back two sprawling national monuments in Utah, a move that opened the lands that were cut to potential drilling and mining. New plans for the monuments allow more grazing and recreation.
Hunting and fishing will be allowed at seven national wildlife refuges for the first time and expanded at 70 others. The agency, which also now permits it at 15 national fish hatcheries, said some 5,000 regulations have been eliminated or simplified to match state rules.
Conservationists said the changes went into effect without adequate environmental review.
“While the Trump policy retains federal ownership, it basically eviscerates federal management,” said Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “The states end up managing federal land with federal dollars but following state laws. That’s a sea change from federal management for conservation and biodiversity rather than promoting hunting.”
One of the big concerns is that state and federal officials don’t appear to have a monitoring system to see what effect the changes might have, not only on game species but those that aren’t hunted, Ruch said.
Hunting groups generally supported the changes.
Chief Executive Officer Adam Putnam of Ducks Unlimited, a group that works to conserve waterfowl habitat, said the changes wouldn’t harm wildlife populations. He said simplifying regulations by adopting state rules would draw more people outdoors.
“It’s going to encourage new hunters and anglers to enter the sport and fall in love with the outdoors and become lifelong conservationists,” he said.
Among the areas opening to hunting and fishing for the first time are the 4 ½ square miles (12 square kilometers) at the Leadville National Fish Hatchery in central Colorado.
Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge in southern Idaho faces two significant changes: opening a season for hunting elk with bows and arrows and extending boating season by a month.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials, like several other state wildlife agencies, said the federal changes fell short of what they wanted. The U.S. agency said in the newly released rule that it looked forward to working with states on future changes for the start of the 2020 fall hunting season.
Idaho wildlife officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
President Theodore Roosevelt founded the National Wildlife Refuge system in 1903, signing an executive order to establish the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida to protect several types of birds from ornamental plume hunters. There are now more than 550 national wildlife refuges.

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Pope says US critics use ‘rigid’ ideology’ to mask failings
By NICOLE WINFIELD 03:19 EDT
ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) — Pope Francis said Tuesday he wasn’t afraid of a U.S. Catholic Church schism led by his conservative critics, but sees a “rigid” ideology opponents use to mask their own moral failings has already infiltrated the American church.
Francis said during an airborne news conference that he prays a schism in the U.S. Catholic Church doesn’t happen. He nevertheless doubled down on confronting outspoken conservatives in the U.S. and beyond who oppose his outreach to gay and divorced people and his concern for the poor and the environment.
Francis said he welcomed “loyal” criticism that leads to introspection and dialogue. Such “constructive” criticism shows a love for the church, he said. But he ideologically driven critics don’t really want a response but merely to “throw stones and then hide their hand.”
“I’m not afraid of schisms,” Francis told reporters while the papal plane was flying back from his trip to Africa. “I pray that there aren’t any because the spiritual health of so many people is at stake.
“Let there be dialogue, correction if there is some error. But the path of the schismatic is not Christian,” he added.
Francis’ comments are likely to inflame a heated debate roiling the Catholic Church in the United States and elsewhere. The pope’s mercy-over-morals emphasis irks some doctrine-minded Catholics who came of age during the conservative papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
During his flight to Africa last week, a French journalist presented Francis with a book about the pope’s conservative critics in the U.S. Francis acknowledged his right-wing opponents and said, “For me, it’s an honor if the Americans attack me.”
The book, “How America Wants to Change the Pope,” documents the growing criticism of Francis by a small wing of U.S. Catholics who question many of his positions. Some have gone so far as to accuse Francis of heresy and warned of the risk of schism, or a formal separation from the Holy See.
Francis’ allies, including German Cardinal Walter Kaper and the head of Francis’ Jesuit order, have said the conservative criticism amounts to a “plot” to force the first Jesuit pope to resign so a conservative would take his place.
Asked about the criticism and risk of schism, Francis insisted his social teachings were identical to those of St. John Paul II, the standard-bearer for many conservative Catholics.
And he noted that church history is full of schisms, most recently after the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s church meetings that modernized the church.
A group of traditionalist Catholics led by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre rejected the reforms and grew into what Francis said was the “most well-known” of recent church schisms.
“I pray there are no schisms, but I’m not afraid of them,” he said.
Francis said all schismatics share a common trait: They allow ideology to become “detached” from Catholic doctrine and distance themselves from the faith of ordinary Catholics.
“When doctrine slips into ideology, there’s the possibility of schism,” he warned.
He lamented that many bishops and priests were already engaged in a “pseudo-schism” but said ideas won’t survive.
He claimed doctrinal rigidity, or “moral asceticism,” masked their own personal problems. It was perhaps a reference to how some of the church’s most notorious sexual predators – the late Legion of Christ leader, Rev. Marciel Maciel among them – preached a highly conservative brand of sexual morals.
“You’ll see that behind rigid Christians, bishops and priests there are problems,” Francis said, adding that such rigidity showed a lack of a healthy understanding of the Gospel. “We have to be meek with these people who are tempted to attack (because) behind them there are problems and we have to accompany them with meekness.”
Opposition to Francis in the U.S. reached a fever pitch in the last year following the publication of accusations by a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. that Francis, and before him a long list of Vatican and U.S. prelates, turned a blind eye to the sexual misconduct of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Francis didn’t name Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano during his news conference. But he praised critics who spoke to him directly with openness to dialogue.
“At least those who say something have the advantage of honesty in saying so. And I like that,” he said. “I don’t like criticism when it’s under the table, when they smile at you and then then they try to stab you in the back.
“That isn’t loyal. That isn’t human,” Francis said.

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5 people stabbed in Tallahassee, suspect in custody
By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN | Wed, September 11, 2019 12:43 EDT
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A suspect stabbed at least five people at a building supply company in Florida’s capital city before being taken into custody by police officers Wednesday, authorities said.
The Tallahassee Police Department said in an online news release that they were called to an industrial area in the city for a stabbing Wednesday morning. When they arrived, they found multiple people with stab wounds. The stabbing victims required immediate medical attention, according to police.
A spokeswoman for Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare said none of the five victims were in critical condition after the stabbings at a Dyke Industries facility in Tallahassee. One victim was in serious condition, two were in fair condition and another two were in good condition, said Danielle Buchanan, a hospital spokeswoman.
The stabbings took place at a business that distributes residential and commercial building supplies, such as doors and windows, according to the company’s website. A company representative didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
Tallahassee police spokesman Officer Damon Miller would not say Wednesday morning what the motive or what weapon was used, nor what connection the suspect had to the business.

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