Watchdog Names Wasserman Schultz One of Its Top Five Ethics Violators of 2017

A nonpartisan ethics watchdog has named Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) as one of its top five ethics violators of the year.

The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) named Schultz as its second-worst violator of 2017 for her continued employment of Imran Awan, a House IT aide, after he was accused of stealing computers and data systems in February.

Schultz finally fired Awan on July 25 when he was arrested at Dulles International Airport on bank fraud charges while trying to flee to Pakistan. Awan was indicted in August.

FACT called for an ethics investigation into Schultz in July.

Wasserman Schultz refused to remove Awan from House payroll and compensated Awan with taxpayer funds for several months—even though he was barred from the House computer system which would prevent him from performing any reasonable IT work. In fact, Wasserman Schultz only fired Awan after he was arrested on bank fraud charges attempting to flee the country the morning of July 25, 2017.

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Wasserman Schultz is in clear violation of House Ethics Rules as Members are directly responsible for ensuring their staff are only paid for official public work.

In August, Schultz defended her continued payment of Awan, saying she fired him when he was arrested. The lawmaker had expressed concern that Awan, a Pakistani-born Muslim, was being targeted because of his religion and ethnicity.

Schultz is the former chair of the Democratic National Committee. She stepped down under pressure in 2016 after hacked emails revealed she and other party leaders showed favoritism for Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) in the Democratic primary fight.

The top ethics offenders of 2017, according to FACT, were the unknown members of Congress who have settled sexual harassment cases with taxpayer funds.

Others on the list included Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.) for employing his chief of staff as his campaign treasurer simultaneously and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D., Fla.) for what FACT called "overcompensating" his girlfriend with taxpayer funds.

Amtrak Train Derails on Highway Bridge in Washington State, Several Killed

(Reuters) — An Amtrak passenger train derailed on a bridge over a major highway in Washington state on Monday morning, sending part of the train crashing down onto Interstate 5 and killing several passengers, authorities said.

A spokesman for the local sheriff's office, Ed Troyer, told reporters at the scene there were "multiple" deaths but did not have a specific number to report. He also said no motorists were killed, though some were injured when part of the train struck several vehicles.

Amtrak passenger Chris Karnes told local news outlet KIRO 7 that passengers were forced to kick out train windows in order to escape, because emergency doors were not functioning properly following the derailment.

"We had just passed the city of DuPont and it seemed like we were going around a curve," Karnes said. "All of a sudden, we felt this rocking and creaking noise, and it felt like we were heading down a hill."

"The next thing we know, we're being slammed into the front of our seats, windows are breaking, we stop, and there's water gushing out of the train. People were screaming," he added.

The derailment occurred on the first day that Amtrak trains began using a new route between the cities of Tacoma and Olympia, part of a project to reduce travel time, according to an October news release from the state‘s transportation department.

The new route takes trains along Interstate 5, eliminating a major choke point for passenger trains in Tacoma and allowing trains to reach speeds of 79 miles per hour (127 km per hour), the department has said. Monday's train, which was scheduled to depart Seattle at 6 a.m. (1400 GMT) en route to Portland, Oregon, was the first to run along the new route.

It was not immediately clear whether the derailment, which came during a busy travel time one week before the Christmas holiday, was connected to the new route.

Amtrak confirmed its train was involved and said "some injuries" had been reported but did not immediately offer further details.

The train derailed around 7:30 a.m. (1530 GMT) in DuPont. A photograph posted by a Washington State Police spokeswoman showed an upside-down train car partially crushed on thehighway, with a second car dangling off the overpass.

About 70 people were aboard the train, local news media reported, citing the state transportation department.

Authorities warned drivers to avoid the area, and the southbound lanes remained closed.

The National Transportation Safety Board said on Twitter that it was gathering information about the incident.

"Thank you to the first responders on the scene. We're praying for everyone on board the train, and ask everyone to hold them in your thoughts," Washington Governor Jay Inslee wrote in a Twitter message.

The mayor of one of the towns through which the rerouted trains travel warned earlier this month that the high-speed trains were dangerously close to cars and pedestrians.

"Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens," Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson told transportation officials in early December, according to Seattle's KOMO News.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen, Joseph Ax and Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Rob Lowe Feeds Firefighters Who Saved His California Home

Actor Rob Lowe has played a variety of roles over the years, but he decided to do more than play a part on Sunday as fire threatened his Santa Barbara community.

With the wildfires creeping up on his California home, Lowe took a hose and went to work while wearing firefighting gear, TMZ reports. Lowe's home is near that of several other celebrities.

Helping earlier today. You do what you can, but when it’s time.. you GO.

A post shared by Rob Lowe (@robloweofficial) on

After the threat to his home subsided, Lowe thanked the firefighters by serving them dinner at his home. The award-winning actor fed the firefighters burgers and spaghetti.

He shared a picture of the gathering on Instagram, writing "dinner for new friends at our house."

Dinner for new friends at our house.

A post shared by Rob Lowe (@robloweofficial) on

The conditions in Southern California have improved so far this week as firefighters slow the growth of the Thomas Fire, now in its 15th day. As of Monday morning, containment remains at 45 percent and 18,000 structures are still in danger. The wildfire is on course to become the largest in California's modern history and is expected to burn into January, CNN reported Monday.

Asia Times: PLA’s New Strategic Support Force Remains an Enigma

Two years after the People’s Liberation Army created a new Strategic Support Force, a combined cyber and space warfare and military spy service, details about the force’s structure and mission remain wrapped in mystery.

As with most of China’s advanced arms programs and warfighting capabilities, the Strategic Support Force (SSF) remains a closely guarded secret. But the fact that China’s leaders have combined four or five military departments into a service on a par with its army, air force and navy in terms of stature highlights the importance the Chinese have placed on non-kinetic forms of warfare.

China in the past has labeled these types of military capabilities "assassin’s mace" or "trump card" weaponry – in other words tools that will allow the PLA’s traditionally weaker conventional and nuclear forces to use asymmetric means to defeat a stronger enemy, namely the superior forces of the United States.

Read the entire article at Asia Times.

Amended Tax Cuts and Jobs Act Would Lift GDP by 1.7%, Wages by 1.5%, Add 339,000 Jobs to Economy

The newly amended Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is projected to lift gross domestic product by 1.7 percent, boost wages by 1.5 percent, and add 339,000 full-time jobs to the economy, according to an analysis from the Tax Foundation.

The final compromised legislation, which will be voted on later this week, includes some slight changes to the House and Senate versions. It includes reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent, keeping the number of tax brackets at seven but reducing the rates to 0, 10, 12, 22, 24, 32, and 35 percent, and increases the Child Tax Credit even further from $1,000 to $2,000 for singles and married couples.

The bill also eliminates the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate, which requires that individuals purchase health insurance or pay a penalty to the IRS. These are just a few of the changes included in the final conference report, which the Tax Foundation says is closer to the Senate version than the House and includes a range of fixes, negotiated agreements, and compromises.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) said a family of four earning an income of roughly $73,000 can expect to receive a tax cut of about $2,059 under the new plan.

"The conference committee took the best ideas from the House and Senate plans and made an even better bill," said Ryan. "The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is now only two votes and a signature away from becoming the law of the land."

"This is what the American people have been waiting for: more jobs, fairer taxes, and bigger paychecks," he said. "We’re in the final stretch—and we’re ready to get this done for the American people by Christmas."

The Tax Foundation analyzed the details of the final bill and said it is a pro-growth plan that will increase revenues by roughly $600 billion from expected economic growth, reducing the cost of the bill. The foundation says the bill, as it is written now, is expected to increase capital stock by 4.8 percent and long-run GDP by 1.7 percent, add 399,000 full-time jobs, and boost wages by 1.5 percent. The analysis says GDP could be higher in 2018, increasing to 2.45 percent, which is higher than the baseline growth of 2.01 percent.

The report notes that if the plan were made permanent, there would be greater economic effects, but there would also be higher costs.

"If the entire plan were enacted permanently, it would increase long-run GDP by 4.7 percent, raise wages by 3.3 percent and create 1.6 million new full-time equivalent jobs," the report states. "However, the long-run cost of the bill would be $2.7 trillion on a static basis."

The final tax proposal has gained the support of Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, who says the bill will help small businesses through more investment and higher wage growth.

"The conference report is a solid bill that will enable strong and sustainable economic growth, which is critical to healthy entrepreneurship and small business growth," Kerrigan said. "It is vitally important that this tax package be signed into law this year to fuel the optimism and confidence that is strengthening our economy and bolstering  investment, which is key to higher wage growth and more opportunity in areas of the country that have never recovered from the great recession."

"We appreciate the work of the conference committee, and specifically as it relates to keeping entrepreneurs, their workforce and the dreamers who want to start businesses at the center of tax reform," she said. "We urge the House and Senate to quickly pass the legislation so it can be signed by President Trump this year."

LeBron James Makes Statement in DC With Black and White ‘Equality’ Shoes, Speaks About Trump

LeBron James sent a message during an NBA game in the nation's capital with his shoes—one black, one white, with the word "equality" in gold letters on the back of each.

James wore the shoes during the Cleveland Cavaliers' 106-99 win over the Washington Wizards about a mile away from the White House, before speaking about President Donald Trump after the victory, the Associated Press reported.

"This is a beautiful country and we're never going to let one person dictate how beautiful and how powerful we are," James said. "Obviously, we know where we are right now. And we know who's at the helm here."

The four-time NBA MVP also talked about the importance of equality.

"I've been … very outspoken and well-spoken about the situation that's going on at the helm here," James said. "Equality is all about understanding our rights, understanding what we stand for and how powerful we are as men and as women, black or white or Hispanic. It doesn't matter your race."

During the Cavaliers' first regular-season game this season, James sported a pair of black sneakers with the "equality" message on the back. This was the first time he decided on one white and one black shoe.

On Sunday, James changed out of his black and white shoes at halftime into a neutral pair.

"I didn't play well in the first half, and I'm very superstitious, so I took 'em off," James said. "I didn't play well in the second half either, so if there were a third half, I would have took those off."

ESPN President Resigns to Seek Substance Abuse Treatment

ESPN President John Skipper has stepped down from the network in order to deal with an ongoing substance abuse problem.

Skipper's Monday resignation ends a 20-year ESPN career, including 5 years as president, CNBC reports. He started at the Walt Disney Company-owned network in 1997 as a senior vice president and general manager of ESPN The Magazine.

Skipper released a statement regarding his resignation:

Today I have resigned from my duties as President of ESPN. I have had a wonderful career at the Walt Disney Company and am grateful for the many opportunities and friendships. I owe a debt to many, but most profoundly Michael Lynton, George Bodenheimer and Bob Iger.

I have struggled for many years with a substance addiction. I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem.

I have disclosed that decision to the company, and we mutually agreed that it was appropriate that I resign. I will always appreciate the human understanding and warmth that Bob displayed here and always.

I come to this public disclosure with embarrassment, trepidation and a feeling of having let others I care about down.

As I deal with this issue and what it means to me and my family, I ask for appropriate privacy and a little understanding.

To my colleagues at ESPN, it has been a privilege. I take great pride in your accomplishments and have complete confidence in your collective ability to continue ESPN's success.

George Bodenheimer, ESPN's former president and executive chairman, will temporarily run the network while a permanent replacement is sought.

Skipper's announcement comes amidst turbulent times for the Disney subsidiary. ESPN has come under fire recently for substantial amounts of politics in its coverage of sports, and has made massive layoffs in the wake of poor ratings.

Report: Obama Admin ‘Let Hezbollah off the Hook’ to Avoid Angering Iran

The Obama administration intentionally derailed investigations into the terrorist group Hezbollah's drug trafficking operation to secure the Iran nuclear deal, according to a new bombshell report.

Politico spoke with several members of Project Cassandra, a joint effort between the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Pentagon that was founded in 2008 under the Bush administration to identify and prosecute a drug trafficking, money laundering, and smuggling operation run by the Iranian-backed militants.

Over the next eight years, agents working out of a top-secret DEA facility in Chantilly, Virginia, used wiretaps, undercover operations, and informants to map Hezbollah's illicit networks, with the help of 30 U.S. and foreign security agencies.

They followed cocaine shipments, some from Latin America to West Africa and on to Europe and the Middle East, and others through Venezuela and Mexico to the United States. They tracked the river of dirty cash as it was laundered by, among other tactics, buying American used cars and shipping them to Africa. And with the help of some key cooperating witnesses, the agents traced the conspiracy, they believed, to the innermost circle of Hezbollah and its state sponsors in Iran.

Project Cassandra discovered Hezbollah was laundering $200 million of dirty money a month in the United States and smuggling 85 tons of cocaine into the country in "the largest material support scheme for terrorism operations" of all time.

But when the investigators got close to making a case against Hezbollah's highest tier, Obama administration officials "threw an increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks in its way," according to interviews Politico conducted with dozens of participants.

Former Project Cassandra agent David Asher said the decision to hinder the investigation's progress was "a policy decision, it was a systematic decision. They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down."

Another project higher-up, Jack Kelly, remembered how criminal prosecutions were continually stymied by officials in the White House.

"Right now, we have 50 FBI agents not doing anything because they know their Iran cases aren't going anywhere," Kelly remembered a prosecutor telling him.

The Obama administration's pushback against cracking down on the terrorist organization came in response to new administration appointments and the desire to push for a nuclear deal with Iran, Politico reported.

One reason, they said, was Obama's choice of a new national security team. The appointment of John Kerry as secretary of state was widely viewed as a sign of a redoubled effort to engage with Iran. Obama's appointment of Brennan—the public supporter of cultivating Hezbollah moderates—as CIA director, and the president's choice of the Justice Department's top national security lawyer, Lisa Monaco as Brennan's replacement as White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, put two more strong proponents of diplomatic engagement with Iran in key positions.

Another factor was the victory of reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran that summer, which pushed the talks over a possible nuclear deal into high gear.

The administration's eagerness for an Iran deal was broadcast through so many channels, task force members say, that political appointees and career officials at key agencies like Justice, State, and the National Security Council felt unspoken pressure to view the task force's efforts with skepticism. One former senior Justice Department official confirmed to Politico that some adverse decisions might have been influenced by an informal multi-agency Iran working group that "assessed the potential impact" of criminal investigations and prosecutions on the nuclear negotiations.

One former senior Obama administration national security official confirmed it was policy to avoid cracking down on Hezbollah.

"That was the established policy of the Obama administration internally," he said, describing the reluctance to go after Hezbollah for fear of reprisal.

"We're obviously doing those actions against al Qaeda and ISIS all the time," the Obama official added. "I thought it was bad policy [to refrain from such actions on Hezbollah] that limited the range of options we had," including criminal prosecutions.

CNN Contributor Apologizes After Falsely Accusing College Sports Fan of Anti-Semitism

CNN political commentator Hilary Rosen is receiving backlash after she called a Georgetown University sports fan anti-Semitic for wearing a bacon suit at a rivalry basketball game against Syracuse University on Saturday.

Rosen, a Democratic strategist, publicly accused the fan of anti-Semitism on Twitter for his bacon suit, but has since deleted her tweet, the New York Post reported.

"Look at the guy in the ‘bacon suit,'" Rosen wrote. "This is a Georgetown #Hoyas fans anti-Semitic smear to the Syracuse team."

Rosen then sent out a second tweet after Syracuse won 86-79 in overtime, writing, "Hey bacon-man. #Syracuse for the win. Bigots lose. Bye #Hoyas #Cuse."

It turns out that the Georgetown fan, Michael Bakan, regularly wears the bacon suit because his last name is pronounced like the non-Kosher meat.

After the game and later in the day, Bakan and several of his friends responded to Rosen on Twitter, calling the suit a "fun costume."

"Hey, it's ‘bacon man.' It's actually Mr. Bakan—pronounced ‘bacon.' Just a fun costume," Bakan tweeted at Rosen.

Rosen then apologized to Bakan for her original tweets, saying that she "got some bad info."

"Awesome, u found me!" she tweeted at Bakan. "Thanks for telling me. I'm new to this school rivalry and got some bad info! I apologize and took down my tweet."

The Post noted that Rosen did not clarify what "bad info" she got about the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry or its connection with Judaism.

Bakan did not appear too rattled by Rosen's accusations.

Amtrak Train Derails on Highway Bridge in Washington State

(Reuters) — An Amtrak passenger train derailed on a bridge over a major highway in DuPont, Washington, on Monday morning, blocking all southbound lanes on Interstate 5 and prompting a massive emergency response, according to local authorities and news media reports.

Amtrak confirmed its train was involved but did not provide further information.

"We are aware of an incident involving Amtrak train 501," the rail operator said on Twitter. "We will update with additional details as they become available."

Part of the train fell onto the interstate around 7:30 a.m. (1530 GMT), causing several injuries, The News Tribune reported. The local newspaper did not have further details on the nature or extent of the injuries. No deaths were immediately reported.

A photograph posted on Twitter by the Washington State Department of Transportation showed a train car that had apparently veered off a bridge onto the highway below. The agency said southbound lanes were closed, and warned drivers to avoid the area.

The National Transportation Safety Board said on Twitter that it was gathering information about the incident.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen, Joseph Ax and Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)