U.S. Justice Department faults Acosta for ‘poor judgment’ over Epstein deal

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An internal Justice Department investigation has concluded that then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta exercised “poor judgment” by allowing financier Jeffrey Epstein to enter a non-prosecution agreement over alleged sex crimes, but cleared him and other prosecutors of any professional misconduct in their handling of the case.

In a statement released on Thursday, the Justice Department said that when Acosta let Epstein enter the non-prosecution agreement in 2008 that spared him from federal sex trafficking charges, he “failed to make certain that the state of Florida intended to and would notify victims identified through the federal investigation about the state plea hearing.”

The department added that while no federal prosecutors engaged in wrongdoing, Epstein’s victims “were not treated with the forthrightness and sensitivity” they deserved.

The controversial 2008 agreement with Epstein has come under intense scrutiny in recent years following an investigation by the Miami Herald. Under the terms of the deal, Epstein pleaded guilty to lesser state charges and served a brief stint in jail where he was granted daily work release.

At the time, Alex Acosta was serving as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

Last year, federal prosecutors in New York were able to resuscitate the case and charged Epstein with sex trafficking of minors.

Acosta, who was serving as labor secretary then under President Donald Trump, initially tried to defend his role in the previous Epstein investigation. But he resigned amid growing pressure a few days later.

Epstein was found dead in his jail cell in New York of an apparent suicide about a month later.

His longtime friend Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested earlier this year and has pleaded not guilty to charges that she lured underage girls so that Epstein could sexually abuse them.

The findings by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility were announced earlier on Thursday by Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who blasted the agency for not taking a more forceful stance.

“Letting a well-connected billionaire get away with child rape and international sex trafficking isn’t ‘poor judgment’ – it is a disgusting failure,” Sasse, who had requested the internal Justice Department probe, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. court upholds Harvard race-based admissions; Supreme Court appeal expected

By Nate Raymond and Jonathan Stempel

BOSTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Thursday upheld Harvard University’s use of race in undergraduate admissions, rejecting a challenge by affirmative action opponents who said the Ivy League school’s policy discriminates against Asian-Americans.

Opponents of the decision by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston promised to appeal to the Supreme Court, where legal experts believe the 6-3 conservative majority could use the case to end more than 40 years of allowing race as a factor in higher education admissions.

The appeals court rejected claims by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit founded by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, which drew support from Republican President Donald Trump’s administration.

SFFA said Harvard engaged in impermissible “racial balancing” to make it easier for Blacks and Hispanics to win admission, and did not narrowly tailor its use of race.

It said this violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the school must comply with in order to receive federal funding.

U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch, however, said Harvard’s use of race was not “impermissibly extensive” and was instead “meaningful,” because it prevented diversity from plummeting.

“Harvard’s race-conscious admissions program ensures that Harvard can retain the benefits of diversity it has already achieved,” she said.

Blum in a statement pledged to ask the Supreme Court “to end these unfair and unconstitutional race-based admissions policies at Harvard and all colleges and universities.”

The Supreme Court has allowed race to be used in college admissions to promote diversity in the classroom.

Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said Thursday’s decision reflected efforts to “create a diverse campus that promotes learning and encourages mutual respect and understanding. … Now is not the time to turn back the clock on diversity and opportunity.”

The 2-0 decision upheld an October 2019 ruling by U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs in Boston. A third judge on the appeals court panel, Juan Torruella, died last month.

Burroughs had concluded that Harvard’s admissions program was “not perfect” but that it the school had no “workable and available race-neutral alternatives.”

Lynch said the nature of Harvard’s admissions process, including that applicants win approval from a 40-person committee before being offered admission, “offset any risk of bias.”

The U.S. Justice Department had under Trump backed SFFA, arguing in a “friend-of-the-court” brief that Harvard “actively engages in racial balancing that Supreme Court precedent flatly forbids.”

The Trump administration filed a similar lawsuit on Oct. 8 against Yale University, accusing that Ivy League school of discriminating against Asian and white applicants.

Yale said it “does not discriminate against applicants of any race or ethnicity,” and would not change its admissions policies because of what it called the government’s “baseless” lawsuit.

SFFA is also pursuing a similar case against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill challenging its consideration of race as a factor in its admissions process. A non-jury trail in that case began on Monday.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Catherine Evans and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. postal service ordered to check for delayed ballots in key battlegrounds

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A judge ordered the U.S. Postal Service to sweep mail processing facilities on Tuesday afternoon for delayed election ballots and immediately dispatch any for delivery in about a dozen states, including closely-fought battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Florida.

USPS data showed about 300,000 ballots that were received for mail processing did not have scans confirming their delivery to election authorities. While ballots may be delivered without scans, voting rights groups fear mail delays could cause at least some of those votes to be disqualified.

The ruling came in response to lawsuits brought by groups including Vote Forward, the NAACP, and Latino community groups.

Affected by the order are central Pennsylvania, northern New England, greater South Carolina, south Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Alabama and Wyoming, as well as the cities of Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Lakeland, Florida.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ordered postal officials to complete the inspections by 3 p.m. ET (2000 GMT) and certify by 4:30 p.m. ET (2130 GMT) that no ballots were left behind.

Lawyers for the USPS told Sullivan in a court filing that the agency was not able to complete the sweeps by 4:30 p.m. but was “working as expeditiously as possible to comply with this court’s orders while recognizing physical and operational limitations and the need to avoid disrupting key activities on Election Day.”

It added inspectors would be in the identified facilities throughout the evening.

The Justice Department said postal inspectors were still conducting daily reviews of 220 facilities handling election mail, including reviewing logs for accuracy, scanning for delayed mail, and ensuring election mail was processed expeditiously and no ballots were being held for postage due.

Many states will only count mailed ballots that are received by the end of Tuesday in their election results.

In August, the USPS suspended cost-cutting moves such as removing post boxes and mail processing machines implemented by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, an ally of President Donald Trump. State attorneys general and civil rights groups said the changes would slow election mail delivery and make it difficult for voters to participate during the coronavirus pandemic.

The postal service has said it had delivered 122 million blank and completed ballots before Tuesday.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. Supreme Court ends Democratic lawmakers’ anti-graft lawsuit against Trump

By Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Supreme Court on Tuesday put an end to a lawsuit brought by congressional Democrats that accused President Donald Trump of violating anti-corruption provisions in the U.S. Constitution with his business dealings.

The justices refused to hear an appeal by 215 Senate and House of Representatives Democrats of a lower court ruling that found that the lawmakers lacked the necessary legal standing to bring the case that focused on the Republican president’s ownership of the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

The lawmakers accused Trump of violating the Constitution’s rarely tested “emoluments” clauses that bar presidents from taking gifts or payments from foreign and state governments without congressional approval. The lead plaintiff in the case is U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Trump faces two similar lawsuits – one brought by an advocacy group and the other by the Democratic attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia. Those cases likely would be dismissed as moot if Trump loses his Nov. 3 re-election bid, according to University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias.

Elizabeth Wydra, a lawyer for the Democratic lawmakers, said they were disappointed by the denial.

“With today’s cert denial, this critical anti-corruption provision of our Constitution has been weakened, and the American people are the worse off for it,” said Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center.

Trump International Hotel in Washington is located in a historic building just blocks from the White House. The hotel, opened by Trump shortly before he was elected in 2016, became a favored lodging and event space for some foreign and state officials visiting Washington.

Unlike past presidents, Trump has retained ownership of his business interests while serving in the White House. The emoluments lawsuits have accused him of making himself vulnerable to bribery by foreign governments.

In the case brought by congressional Democrats, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in February ruled that individual members of Congress have limited ability to litigate questions affecting the legislative branch as a whole.

The appeals court said it was bound by a 1997 Supreme Court decision that held that six members of Congress lacked the legal standing to challenge the constitutionality of a law dealing with presidential vetoes. The lawmakers appealed, telling the Supreme Court that the D.C. Circuit misapplied the 1997 precedent.

Justice Department lawyers, arguing for the Trump administration, had urged the high court not to hear the Democratic appeal. They argued that the lower court correctly held that “federal legislators generally lack standing to sue to enforce the asserted institutional interests of Congress.”

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool)

Senate panel plans to issue subpoenas to CEOs of Google, Facebook, Twitter

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chaired by Republican Senator Roger Wicker will issue subpoenas to the chief executives of Twitter Inc., Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook Inc. if they do not agree to testify at a hearing on Oct. 1.

The hearing will discuss a legal immunity known as Section 230 that technology companies have when it comes to liability over content posted by users.

Republican President Donald Trump has made holding tech companies accountable for allegedly stifling conservative voices a theme of his administration. As a result calls for a reform of tech’s prized legal immunity have been intensifying ahead of the elections but has little chance to be approved by Congress this year

The committee will issue subpoenas if the technology companies do not agree to appear in front of the committee by Thursday night, a spokeswoman for Wicker confirmed to Reuters.

On Wednesday, Trump met with nine Republican state attorneys general to discuss the fate of Section 230 after the Justice Department unveiled a legislative proposal aimed at reforming the law.

“In recent years, a small group of powerful technology platforms have tightened their grip over commerce and communications in America,” Trump told reporters after the meeting.

“Every year countless Americans are banned, blacklisted and silenced through arbitrary or malicious enforcement of ever-shifting rules,” he added.

Any substantial changes to reform the law will have to wait until after the elections.

The chief executives of Google and Facebook along with Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. recently testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Singaporean pleads guilty in U.S. to acting as Chinese intelligence agent: Justice Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Singaporean man who set up a fake consulting site to solicit information from U.S. government and military workers has pleaded guilty to acting as an illegal agent of Chinese intelligence, the Justice Department said on Friday.

Sentencing for Jun Wei Yeo, also known as Dickson Yeo, will be in October, according to the department. The U.S. is cracking down on Chinese spying, with the FBI having interviewed dozens of visa holders about their possible ties to Chinese intelligence.

On Friday a Chinese researcher who took refuge in the San Francisco consulate was expected to appear in court on allegations she lied about her Chinese military service, while the U.S. counterintelligence agency chief warned China and other nations could interfere with November elections.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; editing by Grant McCool)

Chinese who took refuge at San Francisco consulate now in U.S. custody: U.S. official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Chinese researcher who took refuge from U.S. authorities at China’s consulate in San Francisco is now in American custody and is expected to appear in court on Friday, a senior U.S. Justice Department official said.

According to court filings in U.S. District Court in San Francisco this week, Juan Tang, who worked at the University of California, Davis, falsely claimed on her visa application that she had not served in the Chinese military. She was charged with visa fraud on June 26.

The Justice Department official told reporters Tang was detained on Thursday night and did not have diplomatic immunity as she was not declared as a diplomatic official.

“She’ll make her initial appearance in court later today,” he said, alleging that Tang was part of a network of associates who concealed their military affiliation when applying for visas.

The Chinese embassy did respond to a request for comment on the case.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

FBI interviewing Chinese visa holders across U.S. about possible military ties: Justice Department

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI has interviewed visa holders it believes to secretly be members of the Chinese military in more than two dozen U.S. cities, the Justice Department said on Thursday.

The department said it has arrested three Chinese nationals for visa fraud, while a fourth remains a fugitive staying at China’s consulate in San Francisco. The United States believes the four were members of China’s military posing as researchers.

“In interviews with members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in over 25 cities across the U.S., the FBI uncovered a concerted effort to hide their true affiliation to take advantage of the United States and the American people,” John Brown, executive assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s national security branch, said in a statement.

Court filings show that the FBI believed the San Francisco consulate was harboring a fugitive since late June. U.S. law enforcement cannot enter a foreign embassy or consulate unless invited, and certain top officials such as ambassadors have diplomatic immunity.

Trump says sending federal agents to more U.S. cities to fight violent crime

By Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump announced a plan on Wednesday to send federal agents to more U.S. cities to crack down on violent crime as he emphasizes a “law and order” mantra going into the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Trump, joined by Attorney General William Barr, unveiled an expansion of the “Operation Legend” program to include cities such as Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a further effort by federal officials to tackle violence.

“Today I’m announcing a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime,” said Trump.

Trump said “we have no choice but to get involved” with a rising death toll in some major cities.

“This bloodshed must end, this bloodshed will end,” he said.

The program involves deploying federal law enforcement agents to assist local police in combating what the Justice Department has described as a “surge” of violent crime.

A Justice Department official said the initiative is not related to the use of federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security to quell unrest in Portland, Oregon.

The Republican president has sharply criticized Democratic leaders for presiding over cities and states that are experiencing crime waves, using the issue as part of a “law and order” push he hopes will resonate with his political base. Trump is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in national opinion polls.

It is not unusual for federal law enforcement to work alongside local partners. The Justice Department official said “Operation Legend” would provide additional resources to cities suffering from “traditional” violent crime.

Trump has emphasized a robust policing and military approach to the protests across the United States about racial inequality after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody.

The White House has sought to focus on city crime even as Trump’s approval numbers plummet in response to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The “Operation Legend” program involves federal agents form the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and other agencies, partnering with local law enforcement.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said federal intervention was not required to help with violence in New York City, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also urged Trump not to send unidentified federal agents to her city.

“Operation Legend” is named for LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old boy who was shot and killed while he slept early June 29 in Kansas City, Missouri, according to the Department of Justice’s website.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Sarah Lynch; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. civil rights groups protest ‘out-of-touch’ Justice Department police commission

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prominent U.S. civil rights groups are refusing to appear before a Justice Department law enforcement commission set up to recommend ways to increase respect for police and reduce crime, calling it out of touch with public anger over policing.

The Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice was established in January, before the latest wave of mass protests over police use of force against Black Americans set off by the May killing of George Floyd.

Its mission statement did not mention racial disparities in criminal justice or address excessive use of force by police, and unlike a similar Obama administration commission, its members represent only federal, state and local law enforcement, with no civil rights advocates, defense attorneys or even big-city police departments taking part.

Civil rights leaders told Reuters they only received invitations to testify after the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued the commission in April, contending it was violating federal open-meeting laws and lacked diverse viewpoints. That case is pending, and the Justice Department has asked a federal judge to have it dismissed.

“It is so completely out of touch with what is happening,” said Kanya Bennett, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

After the protests over Floyd’s death began, the commission held some hearings about the excessive use of force and community policing, but they were announced with little advanced warning and were closed to the public. President Donald Trump has struck a strict “law-and-order” tone in his response to the protests.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the commission would be addressing the issues outlined in a police reform executive order signed by Trump in June including “accreditation and how to assist law enforcement and communities in their response to homelessness, addiction and mental health.”

The commission is expected to release a report in October offering recommendations for decreasing crime, addressing mental health and homelessness issues, and promoting respect for police officers.

‘SHAM COMMISSION’

U.S. civil rights groups including the ACLU have refused to attend the hearings, submitting only written testimony.

“The ACLU is not going to participate in a sham commission that was formed for the sole purpose of promoting a ‘blue lives matter’ narrative,” Bennett said.

Commission Chairman Phil Keith said at a June meeting that of the nearly 30 civil rights and other advocacy groups invited to testify, only a handful accepted, including the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

Deena Hayes-Greene, a co-founder of the Racial Equity Institute, said she learned other groups had declined invitations at the meeting she attended. Norman Reimer, executive director of the NACDL, said he was cynical about the commission but thought it was important to express his group’s views.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said it had not received an invitation to participate.

The commission “fails to consider … the long and fraught history of police community relations, especially in Black and brown communities and the nexus between unconstitutional policing and the violations of civil rights,” said Sakira Cook, director of the justice reform program with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Peter Cooney)