Grand jury indicts six men for Michigan governor kidnap plot

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – Six men facing charges of plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer were indicted by a grand jury this week, the U.S. attorney’s office for western Michigan said on Thursday.

The men — Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta — were arrested and charged in October with conspiring to grab Whitmer, a Democrat, from her vacation home earlier this year.

Some of the men belong to an anti-government militia group called Wolverine Watchmen. At least one of the defendants, Fox, considered Whitmer to be a sort of tyrant because she had ordered gyms closed in the state to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to prosecutors.

Obtaining the grand jury indictments, which came down on Wednesday, was a necessary step to proceed with the federal prosecutions, the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement.

Parker Douglas, a lawyer representing Harris, said Harris had pleaded not guilty because “there was no actual conspiracy to kidnap Governor Whitmer.”

“As you can see from the indictment, the government is extremely vague regarding the alleged conspiracy’s nature, the alleged conspiracy’s object and any steps my client allegedly took to agree with the conspiracy,” Douglas wrote in an email.

Lawyers for the other defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

If convicted at trial, the defendants, who are in jail after being denied bail, would face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The indictment accuses the men of discussing kidnapping Whitmer, meeting in July in Wisconsin to practice using assault rifles, and surveilling Whitmer’s vacation home in August and September, mapping out how far it was from the nearest police station.

Some of the men also bought supplies for kidnapping, the indictment said. In September, Fox bought a Taser-style stun gun and placed a $4,000 order for explosives with someone he did not realize was, in fact, an undercover agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Kentucky court releases recording of Breonna Taylor grand jury proceedings

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – Kentucky’s attorney general on Friday released audio recordings of the grand jury proceedings that cleared three policemen of homicide charges in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor.

The release offers a rare peek at the inner workings of a grand jury, which is normally kept secret, in a case that has captured national attention and prompted street protests in the debate over racism and police use of force.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron filed 14 audio files of grand jury testimony with the Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk. He had previously said there were more than 20 hours of proceedings, and Reuters has begun to review them.

Cameron served as special prosecutor in the Taylor case. Acting on his recommendation, the grand jury last week cleared two white officers of homicide and charged a third with wanton endangerment for stray bullets that hit a neighboring apartment in the March 13 shooting that led to the death of Taylor.

Cameron had revealed in a Louisville television interview on Tuesday that he recommended only the one endangerment charge that was returned, saying the grand jury had the responsibility to bring additional charges if it believed they were warranted.

Prosecutors have wide leeway in how to present evidence to a grand jury, which then decides whether to bring charges. Nine of the 12 grand jurors must agree on a charge in order to return an indictment.

Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes have supported street protests calling for the arrest of the officers and demanding justice for Taylor, 26, a Black emergency medical technician.

As the raid unfolded, Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired once at what he said he believed was a criminal intrusion, wounding one officer. Three officers then shot 32 rounds, six of which hit Taylor, killing her.

The Taylor family has won a $12 million wrongful death settlement from the city of Louisville but still asked for the evidence to be made public, questioning whether Cameron sought to shield the officers from criminal liability.

The Kentucky governor, Louisville’s mayor and even a member of the grand jury itself had called for the proceedings to be released, increasing the pressure on Cameron, a Black Republican whom President Donald Trump has praised as a rising star in the party.

In the end, it was the judge overseeing the criminal case of the officer charged with wanton endangerment who ordered the recordings to be entered in the court file, making them public.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Dan Grebler and Aurora Ellis)

A ghostly downtown Louisville braces for Breonna Taylor grand jury decision

By Bryan Woolston and Jonathan Allen

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) – The police department in Louisville, Kentucky, was restricting vehicle access downtown on Tuesday ahead of an expected decision by a grand jury on whether to indict the police officers involved in killing Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker, in a botched raid.

Although the timing of any decision remains unclear, on Tuesday morning courthouses, offices and restaurants were already boarded up in the mostly deserted blocks around the city’s Jefferson Square Park, the site of regular demonstrations by people protesting police brutality against Black people.

Concrete barriers ringed the area, with a handful of checkpoints manned by police who would only allow people with essential business to drive downtown. Pedestrians were free to walk the streets, but few did.

Taylor, 26, was killed shortly after midnight on March 13 when three plainclothes officers used a battering ram to force their way in to her Louisville home with a so-called no knock warrant. Fearing intruders, her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired a gun. The three officers fired their guns, striking Taylor five times.

Taylor’s death, alongside that of George Floyd, a Black man who died in May after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, helped spark a nationwide wave of protests demanding racial justice and an end to the use of excessive force by law enforcement.

The Louisville Metro Police Department on Tuesday declared a state of emergency for its staff, cancelling days off and suspending some overtime pay agreements, according to a memo by Robert Schroeder, the interim police chief, published by local media.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Black Republican, has said his investigation into Taylor’s death is ongoing, but has declined to confirm media reports that he is convening a grand jury to vote on whether to bring criminal charges against the officers.

Mayor Greg Fischer, a white Democrat, said his office does not know when a decision will come down or what it will be, but said in a statement on Tuesday the traffic restrictions were to “keep everyone safe.”

“Our goal with these steps is ensuring space and opportunity for potential protesters to gather and express their First Amendment rights,” his statement said.

The city’s main federal courthouse has also been closed all week in an order by Chief Judge Greg Stivers of the Western District of Kentucky.

(Reporting by Bryan Woolston in Louisville, Ky., and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Los Angeles bishop resigns over sex abuse as crisis spreads

FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold signs outside the venue of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis accepted the resignation of a bishop in Los Angeles accused of sexually abusing a minor, the Vatican said on Wednesday, in the latest case of clergy misconduct to shake the U.S. Catholic Church.

A brief Vatican statement said Alexander Salazar, 69, an assistant bishop in Los Angeles, was stepping down. It also distributed a letter on the Salazar case written by the current Archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez.

The U.S. Catholic Church is still reeling from a U.S. grand jury report that found that 301 priests in the state of Pennsylvania had sexually abused minors over a 70-year period.

There will be a major meeting at the Vatican in February on the global sex abuse crisis.

Gomez’s letter to the faithful said that in 2005, a year after Salazar became bishop, the archdiocese had become aware of an accusation that Salazar had engaged in “misconduct with a minor” when he was a priest in a parish in the 1990s.

Police investigated but the Los Angeles district attorney did not prosecute, Gomez’s letter said, adding that Salazar, a native of Costa Rica, “has consistently denied any wrongdoing”.

The archdiocese’s independent Clergy Misconduct Review Board found the allegation “credible” and informed the Vatican.

The archbishop’s letter did not explain why the process between the initial accusation and Wednesday’s resignation took 13 years.

A statement from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said Salazar’s name resurfaced after Gomez became archbishop in 2011, and ordered a review of past allegations of abuse.

The archdiocese’s statement disclosed that Gomez’s predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, sent the case to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which investigates abuse cases.

The CDF “permitted Bishop Salazar to remain in ministry subject to certain precautionary conditions, which he has respected”. The statement did not elaborate on what the conditions were or why he was allowed to return to ministry.

Benedict XVI was pope between 2005 and his resignation in 2013.

Pope Francis has summoned the heads of some 110 national Catholic bishops’ conferences and dozens of experts and leaders of religious orders to the Vatican on Feb. 21-24 for an extraordinary gathering dedicated to the sexual abuse crisis.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse are hoping that the meeting will finally come up with a clear policy to make bishops themselves accountable for the mishandling of abuse cases.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Federal charges filed against captain of deadly Missouri duck boat

Rescue personnel work after an amphibious "duck boat" capsized and sank, at Table Rock Lake near Branson, Stone County, Missouri, U.S. July 19, 2018 in this still image obtained from a video on social media. SOUTHERN STONE COUNTY FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT/Facebook/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – The captain of the World War Two-style tourist “duck boat” that sank on a Missouri lake during a storm in July killing 17 people was charged on Thursday with misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty by a federal grand jury, prosecutors said.

Kenneth Scott McKee, 51, of Verona, Missouri, was charged in a 17-count indictment, one count for each of the passengers who died when the vessel sank on July 19.

McKee was captain of the vessel operated by Ripley Entertainment Inc, which ran duck boat tours in Branson, Missouri, Lake Taneycomo and Table Rock Lake, where the incident occurred.

There were 31 passengers aboard the duck boat on Table Rock Lake, outside Branson, Missouri, when hurricane-strength winds churned up the water and sank the craft, causing one of the deadliest U.S. tourist tragedies in recent years.

“The captain of the vessel always has a duty to operate his vessel in a safe manner and that’s why Mr. McKee is under indictment this morning,” Timothy Garrison, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, said in a news conference.

McKee is accused of failing to properly assess the severe weather, instruct passengers to use personal flotation devices, or head for shore and prepare to abandon ship, the indictment said.

McKee was not yet in custody and was expected to surrender to authorities, Garrison said.

He faces up to 10 years in federal prison without parole for each count and a $250,000 fine. McKee’s lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Garrison declined to say whether other people were being investigated.

The families of four people who died have filed lawsuits against tour operator Ripley Entertainment, which operates under the name Ride the Ducks, saying it recklessly allowed the vessel out in dangerous weather.

Nine members of the same family were among the 17 killed.

The boats, modeled on the amphibious landing craft used in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944, have a checkered history involving more than three dozen fatalities on water and land, including the Table Rock Lake sinking, according to the complaint.

(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. grand jury indicts woman on charges of being Russian agent

Public figure Maria Butina delivers a speech during a rally to demand the expanding of rights of Russian citizens, in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters on July 17, 2018. Press Service of Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. grand jury returned an indictment against a Russian woman on Tuesday, and added a charge accusing her of acting as a Russian government agent while developing ties with American citizens and infiltrating political groups.

Maria Butina, who studied at American University in Washington and is a founder of the pro-gun Russian advocacy group Right to Bear Arms, was charged in a criminal complaint on Monday with conspiracy to take actions on behalf of the Russian government.

Tuesday’s grand jury indictment added a more serious charge of acting as an agent of the Russian government, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum five-year prison term.

Butina has not been charged with espionage or with being a member of a Russian intelligence service.

She was arrested on Sunday and is scheduled to appear on Wednesday in federal court in Washington, the Justice Department said.

Public figure Maria Butina (R) attends a meeting of a group of experts, affiliated to the government of Russia, in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters on July 17, 2018. Press Service of Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS

Public figure Maria Butina (R) attends a meeting of a group of experts, affiliated to the government of Russia, in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters on July 17, 2018. Press Service of Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS

Robert Driscoll, an attorney for Butina, said she was not a Russian agent.

Butina is accused of operating at the direction of a high-level official of the Russian Central Bank who was recently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury, the Justice Department said.

Court records did not name the official.

Butina has appeared in numerous photographs on her Facebook page with Alexander Torshin, the deputy head of Russia’s Central Bank who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in April.

A person familiar with the matter has told Reuters that Butina worked for him as an assistant. Other media reported on a business relationship between Butina and Torshin.

Torshin did not reply to a request for comment on Monday and the Russian Central Bank declined to comment.

The Justice Department said in its complaint that Butina worked with two unnamed U.S. citizens and the Russian official to try to influence American politics and infiltrate a pro-gun rights organization.

The complaint did not name the group, however photos on her Facebook page showed that she attended events sponsored by the National Rifle Association. The NRA did not reply to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Eric Walsh and Diane Craft)

Grand jury issues subpoenas in connection with Trump Jr., Russian lawyer meeting: sources

Donald Trump Jr. stands onstage with his father Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump after Trump's debate against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S. September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Karen Freifeld and John Walcott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A grand jury has issued subpoenas in connection with a June 2016 meeting that included President Donald Trump’s son, his son-in-law and a Russian lawyer, two sources told Reuters on Thursday, signaling an investigation is gathering pace into suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

The sources added that U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller had convened the grand jury investigation in Washington to help examine allegations of Russian interference in the vote. One of the sources said it was assembled in recent weeks.

Russia has loomed large over the first six months of the Trump presidency. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia worked to tilt the presidential election in Trump’s favor. Mueller, who was appointed special counsel in May, is leading the probe, which also examines potential collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia.

Moscow denies any meddling and Trump denies any collusion by his campaign, while regularly denouncing the investigations as political witch hunts.

At a rally in Huntington, West Virginia, on Thursday night, Trump said: “Most people know there were no Russians in our campaign. … We didn’t win because of Russia. We won because of you.”

Mueller’s use of a grand jury could give him expansive tools to pursue evidence, including issuing subpoenas and compelling witnesses to testify. The Wall Street Journal earlier reported a grand jury was impaneled.

A spokesman for Mueller declined comment.

A grand jury is a group of ordinary citizens who, working behind closed doors, considers evidence of potential criminal wrongdoing that a prosecutor is investigating and decides whether charges should be brought.

“This is a serious development in the Mueller investigation,” said Paul Callan, a former prosecutor.

“Given that Mueller inherited an investigation that began months ago, it would suggest that he has uncovered information pointing in the direction of criminal charges. But against whom is the real question.”

A lawyer for Trump, Jay Sekulow, appeared to downplay the significance of a grand jury, telling Fox News: “This is not an unusual move.”

U.S. stocks and the dollar weakened following the news, while U.S. Treasury securities gained.

It was not immediately clear to whom subpoenas were issued and the sources did not elaborate.

Some lawyers said it would put pressure on potential witnesses to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation.

“When someone gets a subpoena to testify, that can drive home the seriousness of the investigation,” said David Sklansky, a professor at Stanford Law School and a former federal prosecutor.

In 2005, a grand jury convened by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald returned an indictment of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a top aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

“A special counsel can bring an indictment and it has happened before,” said Renato Mariotti, a partner at the law firm Thompson Coburn and a former federal prosecutor.

DAMAGING INFORMATION

News last month of the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer who he was told had damaging information about his father’s presidential rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, fueled questions about the campaign’s dealings with Moscow.

The Republican president has defended his son’s behavior, saying many people would have taken that meeting.

Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort also attended the meeting.

One of the sources said major Russian efforts to interfere in the election on Trump’s behalf began shortly after the June meeting, making it a focus of Mueller’s investigation.

Ty Cobb, special counsel to the president, said he was not aware that Mueller had started using a new grand jury.

“Grand jury matters are typically secret,” Cobb said. “The White House favors anything that accelerates the conclusion of his work fairly. … The White House is committed to fully cooperating with Mr. Mueller.”

John Dowd, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, said: “With respect to the news of the grand jury, I can tell you President Trump is not under investigation.”

A spokesman for Manafort declined to comment.

Lawyers for Trump Jr. and Kushner did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘NOT THINKING OF FIRING MUELLER’

Trump has questioned Mueller’s impartiality and members of Congress from both parties have expressed concern that Trump might dismiss him. Republican and Democratic senators introduced two pieces of legislation on Thursday seeking to block Trump from firing Mueller.

Sekulow denied that was Trump’s plan.

“The president is not thinking of firing Bob Mueller,” Sekulow said.

One source briefed on the matter said Mueller was investigating whether, either at the meeting or afterward, anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign encouraged the Russians to start releasing material they had been collecting on the Clinton campaign since March 2016.

Another source familiar with the inquiry said that while the president himself was not now under investigation, Mueller’s investigation was seeking to determine whether he knew of the June 9 meeting in advance or was briefed on it afterward.

Reuters earlier reported that Mueller’s team was examining money-laundering accusations against Manafort and hoped to push him to cooperate with their probe into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. It is not known if the grand jury is investigating those potential charges.

(Additional reporting by Noeleen Walder, Jan Wolfe, Anthony Lin, Jonathan Stempel, Tom Hals, Julia Ainsley, Joel Schectman, Yara Bayoumy, Patricia Zengerle and Eric Beech; Writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)