Facing FBI Bank Fraud Investigation, Bernie And Jane Sanders Hire Lawyers

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his wife, Jane Sanders, the former president of Burlington College, have hired lawyers in the face of a federal investigation into bank fraud allegations related to a multimillion-dollar loan for the now-defunct liberal arts college.

On Saturday, CBS News confirmed that the couple had hired high-profile defense lawyers in light of the FBI probe looking into whether Jane Sanders falsified bank documents in 2010 in an attempt to secure a $10 million loan to expand Burlington College’s campus. That loan, which was obtained, was a factor in the school shuttering its doors in 2016 after it found itself unable to pay off its debt. Jane Sanders, who served as president of Burlington College from 2004 to 2011, has been accused of falsely inflating projected donor contributions in the loan application. 

The federal probe, according to Politico magazine, may also be looking into whether Sen. Sanders used his political influence to put “improper pressure” on the bank to approve that loan. The outlet said the evidence for that seems “thin at best,” but the investigation has still prompted Sanders to hire Burlington lawyer Rich Cassidy. Jane Sanders has reportedly retained Larry Robbins, a Washington-based defense attorney.

The Sanderses have kept mostly mum about the probe. During a May interview with Burlington’s WCAX-TV, however, the senator dismissed the allegations as “nonsense” and suggested they were politically motivated.

“[This] was initiated by Trump’s campaign manager, somebody who does this all of the time, has gone after a number of Democrats and progressives in this state,” said Sanders, referring to Brady Toensing, a chairman for the Trump campaign in Vermont who submitted the original complaint that led to the investigation.

Toensing has said the probe was launched in early 2016, during President Barack Obama’s tenure. “The FBI has not disclosed what prompted its investigation, but it was started more than a year ago under President Obama, his Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and his United States attorney, all of whom are Democrats,” Toensing said in a May statement, according to VTDigger.

Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ top political adviser, told CBS this week that the accusations against Sen. Sanders are “baseless” and that the bank loan in question had been “approved by the financial board at the college.” 

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California Mosques Hit By Possible Hate Crimes During Last Days Of Ramadan

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Authorities are investigating two possible hates crimes against Islamic centers in California during the last days of Ramadan, officials said.

A burned Quran filled with bacon ― a food forbidden in Islam ― was found outside the Masjid Annur Islamic Center in Sacramento on Saturday. Law enforcement officials discovered the defiled book of religious text hanging by a handcuff on a fence after a citizen reported the incident around 2:30 p.m.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department said it was investigating the incident at the mosque, the largest in the Sacramento area, as a possible hate crime.

“The Sheriff’s Community Relations Unit contacted leaders of the Islamic Center to offer any assistance,” the department also said in a statement.

A representative for the Masjid Annur Islamic Center did not immediately respond to request for comment.

About 20 miles away, the Islamic Center of Davis was the site of a possible hate crime on Friday. Officials told The Sacramento Bee that someone driving by threw ripped out pages of the Quran as members of the mosque gathered inside during Ramadan Taraweeh prayers.

This isn’t the first time the center has been the targeted. In January, a woman was arrested and charged with a felony hate crime after leaving bacon strips by the mosque’s entrance and breaking some of its windows.

Sheikh Ammar Shahin, the center’s imam, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Basim Elkarra, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’s Sacramento chapter, thanked law enforcement officials for their quick response to the “troubling incidents,” which took place as Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims, came to a close.

“Decisive action by law enforcement authorities sends a strong message of deterrence to anyone who contemplates turning their bigoted views into acts of intimidation,” Elkarra said in a statement.

The recent incidents reflect a pattern of increased hate crimes against Muslims. The Council on American-Islamic Relations released a report last month that found a 57 percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents from 2015 to 2016. 

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Donald Trump Becomes First President In Two Decades To Not Host A Ramadan Dinner

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Breaking with tradition, the White House under President Donald Trump did not host an iftar dinner, the meal Muslims eat to break their daily fast during Ramadan.

The dinner, which has been often attended by prominent members of the U.S. Muslim community, began in 1996 during former President Bill Clinton’s White House tenure and continued through the subsequent Bush and Obama administrations.

Trump and first lady Melania simply issued a brief statement Saturday that offered “warm greetings” to Muslims celebrating Eid al-Fitr, which marks the close of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting.

On behalf of the American people, Melania and I send our warm greetings to Muslims as they celebrate Eidal-Fitr.

Muslims in the United States joined those around the world during the holy month of Ramadan to focus on acts of faith and charity.  Now, as they commemorate Eid with family and friends, they carry on the tradition of helping neighbors and breaking bread with people from all walks of life.

During this holiday, we are reminded of the importance of mercy, compassion, and goodwill.  With Muslims around the world, the United States renews our commitment to honor these values.

Eid Mubarak.

Trump’s decision to skip hosting the dinner comes after he released a controversial statement meant to mark the beginning of Ramadan. Many members of the Muslim community condemned the message, which largely focused on terrorism.

“This year, the holiday begins as the world mourns the innocent victims of barbaric terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom and Egypt, acts of depravity that are directly contrary to the spirit of Ramadan,” read a White House statement issued in May. “Such acts only steel our resolve to defeat the terrorists and their perverted ideology.”

Trump’s remarks starkly contrast with those by then-President Barack Obama during Ramadan last year. In June 2016, Obama and then-first lady Michelle announced plans to host an Eid celebration in the White House and praised American Muslims for their contributions to the U.S.

“Muslim Americans have been part of our American family since its founding,” the Obamas wrote in a statement roughly five times longer than Trump’s Ramadan message. “We look forward to welcoming Americans from around the country to celebrate the holiday.”

U.S. secretaries of state have also traditionally hosted Iftar dinners since 1999 ― but not this year. Trump’s top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, declined an invitation this year from the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs to host an Eid al-Fitr celebration, according to CNN

With its break from precedent, the Trump administration shunned an opportunity to reach out to the U.S. Muslim community whose leaders have said has been ostracized by the president’s rhetoric and his policies, including his proposed travel ban.

Imam Talib Shareef, president of the Nation’s Mosque in Washington, D.C., called Trump’s decision “disappointing.”

“To stop it doesn’t send a good message” Shareef told Newsweek.

Referring to one of Trump’s main pastimes, he added: “You get the chance to go golfing and all this other kind of stuff. How come you don’t have time for a population of your society that needs some assistance?”

The White House message on Eid al-Fitr just hours after Trump was spotted visiting the golf club he owns in Virginia.

This story has been updated with the report of Trump’s visit to his Virginia golf club.

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Sally Yates Rips Jeff Sessions' Defense For Harsher Criminal Sentences

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Sally Yates, the former deputy attorney general who was fired by President Donald Trump in January, criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ approach to fighting crime and accused him of distorting facts.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Yates rebuked Sessions for instructing Justice Department prosecutors to pursue the toughest sentences possible against criminal defendants. In a separate Post op-ed last week, Sessions accused the Obama administration of going easy on drug offenders and suggested its policies were responsible for a spike in crime. Sessions wrote he worried the United States was facing the start of a new upward trend in violent crime ― a claim that experts have questioned.

Yates, a former federal prosecutor who served as Obama’s deputy attorney general from 2015 to 2017, said the claim that violent crime was rising because of less harsh sentences for low-level drug offenders “just isn’t supported by the facts.”

“Not only are violent crime rates still at historic lows — nearly half of what they were when I became a federal prosecutor in 1989 — but there is also no evidence that the increase in violent crime some cities have experienced is the result of drug offenders not serving enough time in prison,” she wrote. “In fact, a recent study by the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission found that drug defendants with shorter sentences were actually slightly less likely to commit crimes when released than those sentenced under older, more severe penalties.”

Sessions has long been a staunch conservative on crime. He once supported legislation in his home state of Alabama that would have required the death penalty for a second drug trafficking conviction, including for marijuana, which is now legalized in a number of states. Before the 2016 election, there was bipartisan agreement from groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Koch Industries, and on Capitol Hill about the need to pursue criminal justice reform. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to advance it.

Yates defended the work of Obama’s Justice Department, saying by allowing prosecutors to use their discretion on sentencing for low-level offenses, officials could dedicate resources to prosecuting the most dangerous individuals.

“Under Smart on Crime, the Justice Department took a more targeted approach, reserving the harshest of those penalties for the most violent and significant drug traffickers and encouraging prosecutors to use their discretion not to seek mandatory minimum sentences for lower-level, nonviolent offenders,” she wrote. “While there is always room to debate the most effective approach to criminal justice, that debate should be based on facts, not fear.”

Yates served as the acting attorney general for a little over a week in January before Sessions was confirmed to his post. She was fired by Trump after she instructed Justice Department prosecutors not to defend his travel ban because she believed it was unconstitutional. Testifying before the Senate in May, Yates said she didn’t regret the decision.

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Police Searches Plummet In States That Legalize Weed

Marijuana is often used as a tool by police officers to search your car.

In many cases, the mere odor of weed serves as probable cause to pull you over and rifle through your belongings. States that have decriminalized it are still grappling with the legality of using marijuana for warrantless searches.

In the case of Philando Castile, who was shot to death by a Minnesota police officer during a traffic stop last year, we saw the devastating effects the smell of marijuana can have on an officer’s perception of motorists. Though marijuana is decriminalized to some degree in the state, St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez would later tell investigators that he thought he was in danger because he smelled weed:

“As he was pulling out his hand I thought I was gonna die, and I thought if he has the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl, and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke … then what care does he give about me?”

It may come as no surprise, then, that states that have legalized marijuana are seeing a dramatic decline in warrantless searches.

NBC News did a deep dive into reports by the Stanford Open Policing Project, which collected data on 60 million traffic stops and searches by highway patrol officers in 22 states.

In Washington state and Colorado, NBC News found that searches were cut by more than 50 percent within months of legalization. Washington state saw a 50 percent reduction within three months, while Colorado saw a more gradual reduction, but searches still dropped by more than 50 percent within a year.

Legalization can lead not only to fewer warrantless searches, but an increase in the public’s trust of officers, the site found.

That said, full legalization may not have helped Castile. The report found that ethnic minorities are still stopped and searched disproportionately to white drivers in states where weed is legal.

Marijuana prohibition has always been racist. HuffPost’s Nick Wing reported in 2014:

According to a 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks across the nation were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, despite data that suggested they use the drug at about the same rate. In some states, blacks were up to six times more likely to be arrested. This disparity isn’t new, and plays into broader arrest data: A study published in the journal Crime & Delinquency this month found that by the age of 23, nearly 50 percent of black males have been arrested, compared to 44 percent of Hispanic males and 38 percent of white males.

Data collected by the Stanford Open Policing Project implies that not much has changed today.

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Real Frustrated Lawyers Tell A Fake Trump They Won't Save Him

Throughout the last month, President Donald Trump and his team keep confirming and then denying that he is under investigation by the Department of Justice.

Besides Trump confirming an investigation on Twitter, the most notable instance was his lawyer, Jay Sekulow, claiming that Trump was under investigation and then that he wasn’t under investigation during the same “Fox News Sunday” interview.

It remains unclear whether Trump truly is under a high-level investigation, but that didn’t stop Comedy Central’s “The President Show” from constructing an entire segment to parody the president’s dire/maybe-not-dire situation.

You’ve defended con-artists, foreign agents and mobsters, but have you ever done all three at once?
Parody of Donald Trump

The parody Trump addresses this confusion by saying, “I realized this week that I need to build a tremendous legal team to help me with this investigation that I’m totally not under ― wink!” Of course, he didn’t really wink towards the camera because his eyes were already in an uncomfortable-looking squint.

The parody Trump, played by Anthony Atamanuik, then auditioned real lawyers to join his legal team.

“You’ve defended con-artists, foreign agents and mobsters, but have you ever done all three at once?” the parody Trump asked one of these lawyers while pointing to himself.

It quickly became clear, though, that the underlying premise for this sketch was for lawyers to vent their overwhelming frustration with Trump to this stand-in for the president.

One of the recruited lawyers is Gloria Allred, a civil rights lawyer who has filed a lawsuit against Trump in New York. She is representing women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct. 

Trump isn’t getting away from facing his problems this time. Even if it’s sadly just a parody.

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House Republicans Apparently Don't Know How To Do A Budget

WASHINGTON ― It’s been 785 days since House Republicans agreed to a budget they believed in. And if the current disagreement over spending levels continues, Republicans may walk away this year without a budget, a single standalone appropriations bill signed into law or a vehicle for their precious tax reform.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has long said Congress should follow “regular order,” with lawmakers setting spending levels each year in a budget and following those blueprints by passing individual appropriations bills.

But the process got off to a delayed start this year when President Donald Trump didn’t release his budget until late spring. Appropriators didn’t know what numbers they should use for their fiscal 2018 spending bills, and lawmakers used up floor time for their Obamacare repeal. (Technically the health care reconciliation bill was a budget, but Republicans simply used it as a shell bill that didn’t actually lay out spending priorities.)

All the budget delays are supposed to end shortly, with the Budget Committee supposedly marking up a document next week (although an official date hasn’t been set). The only problem: Republicans don’t currently have the votes to advance a budget out of the House, even if the panel moves ahead with their blueprint in the coming days.

At the center of the debate is how much GOP lawmakers should put forward for military spending. For this upcoming fiscal year, defense hawks want $640 billion. Some more fiscally conservative Republicans want to go with $603 billion, which is Trump’s number. And a host of other lawmakers think everyone should just split the difference.

Republicans will likely come up with something in the middle ― say, $621 billion ― but it’s unclear if there are enough votes for any number. The Budget Control Act, signed into law in 2011, set the fiscal 2018 defense budget at $549 billion. And even though Republicans are looking to spend well above that cap, they are also looking to come in below the nondefense number.

The BCA set nondefense spending for 2018 at $516 billion, and Republicans appear apt to put forward a budget at $511 billion. Doing so would likely require significant cuts to safety net programs.

Ryan has rued the growth of spending in programs like food stamps and Medicaid, which largely dodged the ax when Congress and President Bill Clinton reformed welfare in 1996 ― a process that left the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program a shell of its former self.

“The welfare-reform mindset hasn’t been applied with equal vigor across the spectrum of anti-poverty programs,” Ryan said in 2012. “In most of these programs, especially in recent years, we’re still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty.”

It’s all very fun for House Republicans to push big numbers, with major increases to defense spending and drastic cuts to other domestic programs. But appropriators in the Senate aren’t going to abide by those levels in their spending bills, meaning appropriations measures will just flounder. At some point, if Republicans want a defense number greater than $549 billion for next year, they will have to reach an agreement with Senate Democrats, and that likely means adding money to those nondefense programs too.

Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus had been kicking around one idea for those increases to defense and nondefense: give everyone the numbers they want for fiscal 2018 in the budget, but couple them with huge savings commands in the reconciliation instructions for tax reform to, say, the tune of $400 billion.

Most of that money, conservatives say, would have to come from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is commonly known as food stamps and is the third-costliest safety net program in the United States. But there isn’t consensus within the Freedom Caucus on that strategy, and House GOP leadership is uncomfortable jeopardizing tax reform by asking for massive food stamp cuts. (The attack ads, claiming Republicans cut food stamps so they could pay for tax cuts for millionaires, write themselves.)

Trump’s budget proposed cutting SNAP by more than 25 percent, saving $193 billion over 10 years mainly by requiring states to pay a portion of benefits while simultaneously giving them more leeway to kick people off benefits. House Republicans likewise favor delegating to states. They also lament the increase in the number of beneficiaries who are unemployed adults without children or disabilities. Such people make up only about 10 percent of SNAP recipients, according to the most recent data, and most states are already imposing a three-month time limit on their benefits due to falling unemployment rates. In other words, it won’t be easy for Republicans to cut SNAP spending without reducing benefits for households with children, disabled people or senior citizens.  

But again, the Freedom Caucus doesn’t have consensus for a plan holding up the budget. Some of the group’s members want the highest defense number. (Freedom Caucus member Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) told HuffPost earlier this week that $640 billion is what’s needed. “I don’t know what kind of a price you put on national security?” he said.) And other members feel uncomfortable giving Congress large spending increases this year for the promise of future cuts. (Freedom Caucus member Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) compared the plan to getting a cheeseburger today and promising to pay for it Tuesday. “We all know it never happens,” he said.) 

I don’t know what kind of a price you put on national security?
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.)

Conservatives may not entirely be on the same page here, but most know they don’t want to agree to GOP leadership’s offer: a $621 billion defense number, a $511 nondefense number, and instructions for committees to fine $150 billion in savings over 10 years. The Republican Study Committee ― a much larger but less conservative group ― tried to come to an official position earlier this week that would have supported those numbers. The resolution, offered by committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.), didn’t have the votes.

Which is to say leadership is still negotiating with conservatives. Budgets are normally just glorified press releases, as they don’t carry the force of law. But because Republicans plan to use this budget as a reconciliation bill for tax reform, complete with instructions from committees to find savings over 10 years, this budget does have a little more power. Still, even if leaders did commit to the $400 billion in future savings ― and it’s almost guaranteed they won’t ― it isn’t a sure thing that those cuts will ever come to fruition, hence the price of those cheeseburgers tomorrow.

Bob Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one of the most influential liberal think tanks in Washington, said the threat to the safety net is real, despite the many obstacles to a Republican budget. The GOP’s tax cut agenda could be a big motivator for slashing food stamps.

“Those savings in the entitlements could conceivably be used to offset the cost of the tax cuts,” Greeinstein said. “I would not rule out the potential for such a reconciliation bill to move.”

If Ryan ― a former Budget Committee chairman himself ― can’t shepherd through a budget this year, it will be the second time he’s been unable to get the document through his chamber. And he will be relying upon the idea that once lawmakers put together a tax reform package, he might be able to get his chamber to advance another shell budget that simply allows Republicans to move forward with reconciliation. 

Short of finding some agreement, it’ll be the second year in a row that the budget and appropriations process completely broke down. And if Republicans want all that extra defense money, they’d have to strike a deal with Senate Democrats on raising the spending caps, which means even more money spent on non-defense and an even larger deficit.

And that is the grand irony of congressional fiscal conservatism: When there aren’t enough votes to actually enact your vision, you end up just handing spending decisions to the Democrats.

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