U.S. charges FEMA official, contractor in Puerto Rico corruption case

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday announced corruption charges against a senior government official and a contractor who worked to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical grid after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

In a 15-count indictment, U.S. prosecutors allege that Ahsha Tribble, who oversaw the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s efforts to restore electrical power after the hurricane, accepted helicopter rides, hotel rooms and other bribes from Donald Ellison, president of a company called Cobra Acquisitions LLC, which performed much of the work.

In return, Tribble pressured FEMA and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to steer work to Ellison’s firm, prosecutors say. Cobra was awarded two contracts worth $1.8 million, according to federal prosecutors in Puerto Rico.

Prosecutors also charged Jovanda Patterson, a former FEMA deputy chief of staff who they say evaluated Cobra’s work even as she was trying to get a job with the company. Patterson also lied about her government pay to secure a higher salary at Cobra, they say.

FEMA and Cobra’s parent company, Mammoth Energy Services Inc., both said they were cooperating with the investigation.

Tribble and Patterson were not immediately reachable for comment. Attorneys for Ellison did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Charges filed against Tribble and Ellison include conspiracy to commit bribery, honest-services wire fraud and disaster fraud.

As part of the investigation, prosecutors have $4.4 million, a sailboat, and construction equipment from Ellison, according to the announcement.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Federal prosecutors to fight Boston Marathon bomber’s appeal

FILE PHOTO: A pedestrian walks past a memorial for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings and its aftermath near the race's finish line, on the second day of jury selection in the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, Massachusetts January 6, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

BOSTON (Reuters) – Prosecutors on Thursday will urge a federal appeals court to uphold Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s conviction and death penalty sentence for helping carry out the 2013 attack, which killed three people and wounded more than 260 others.

The U.S. Justice Department is expected to file a brief urging the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston to reject Tsarnaev’s arguments that he was deprived of a fair trial when a judge declined to move the case out of the city rocked by one of the highest-profile attacks on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

Their arguments are due by midnight EDT (0400 GMT Friday).

Defense lawyers in a brief filed in December acknowledged that their client, then 19, carried out the April 15, 2013, attack along with his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died in a gunbattle with police days later.

But they argued that wall-to-wall media coverage of the bombings meant that nearly the entire jury pool was exposed to news about the attacks, which included “heart-wrenching stories about the homicide victims, the wounded and their families.”

Many victims of the blasts at the packed finished line of the race lost legs.

Defense lawyers said U.S. District Judge George O’Toole also ignored evidence that two jurors had commented on the case on social media before being picked and prevented the defense from telling jurors about Tsarnaev’s brother’s ties to a 2011 triple murder.

That evidence, they said, would have supported their sentencing-related argument that Tsarnaev was a junior partner in a scheme run by his older brother, “an angry and violent man” who had embraced radical Islam.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now 25, is a prisoner in the federal “Supermax” facility in Florence, Colorado.

Prosecutors in a filing earlier this month previewing their opposition brief said they planned to argue that Tsarnaev’s right to a fair trial was not violated.

A federal jury in 2015 found Tsarnaev guilty of placing a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the world-renowned race, as well as fatally shooting a policeman three days later.

The bombing killed three people: Martin Richard, 8; Chinese exchange student Lingzi Lu, 26, and restaurant manager Krystle Campbell. Tsarnaev shot dead Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier, 26.

A park dedicated to Richard’s memory opened this month on the Boston waterfront.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Scott Malone and Susan Thomas)

U.S. charges WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with espionage

FILE PHOTO: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Southwark Crown Court after being sentenced in London, Britain, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

By Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department unveiled 17 new criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Thursday, saying he unlawfully published the names of classified sources and conspired with and assisted ex-Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in obtaining access to classified information.

The superseding indictment comes a little more than a month after the Justice Department unsealed a narrower criminal case against Assange.

Assange was initially charged with conspiring with Manning to gain access to a government computer as part of a 2010 leak by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of U.S. military reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He now faces a total of 18 criminal counts and could face many decades in prison if convicted.

“These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their endeavor to inform the public about actions that have been taken by the U.S. government,” said Barry Pollack, an American attorney for Assange.

The Justice Department said that not only did Assange aid and encourage Manning with the theft of classified materials, but he jeopardized the lives of human sources that included Afghans, Iraqis, journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates and political dissidents from repressive regimes by publishing their identities.

Law enforcement officials said on Thursday that the State Department had pleaded with Assange not to reveal the identities of such sources, but Wikileaks ignored the warning.

Manning was arrested in May 2010 and convicted by court-martial in 2013 of espionage in connection with the 2010 Wikileaks disclosures.

President Barack Obama reduced Manning’s sentence to 7 years from 35 years, but she is now in jail after repeatedly refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Assange.

Wikileaks describes itself as specializing in the publication of “censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption.”

Assange is now fighting extradition to the United States, after Ecuador in April revoked his seven-year asylum in the country’s London embassy. He was arrested that day, April 11, by British police as he left the embassy.

He is now serving a 50-week sentence in a London jail for skipping bail when he fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in 2012.

The decision to charge Assange with espionage crimes is notable and unusual. Most cases involving the theft of classified information have targeted government employees, like Manning, and not the people who publish the information itself.

In the wake of Assange’s arrest, prosecutors in Sweden re-opened a criminal investigation into allegations that Assange sexually assaulted a woman during a visit to Sweden.

Swedish authorities recently indicated they may send British authorities a fresh request for Assange’s extradition.

The decision regarding which country should have its chance to prosecute him first is now in the hands of Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Britain’s interior security minister.

The Justice Department’s quick turnaround with the filing of a more substantial indictment against Assange is not surprising.

Under extradition rules, the United States had only a 60-day window from the date of Assange’s arrest in London to add more charges. After that, foreign governments do not generally accept superseding charges.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Leslie Adler and Phil Berlowitz)

U.S. says Alabama state prisons ‘routinely’ fail to protect inmates from abuse

A U.S. flag and an Alabama State flag wave in the wind in Dauphin Island, Alabama, U.S., September 5, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday accused Alabama’s state prisons of regularly violating the constitutional rights of male inmates by failing to protect them from violence and sexual abuse.

In a letter to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, prosecutors and the country’s top civil rights law enforcement official said they had evidence the state was violating prisoners’ Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

“We have reasonable cause to believe that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in the Alabama’s prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions,” the letter said.

The review looked into prisons housing only male inmates.

The letter, which cited overcrowding and “serious deficiencies” in staffing levels and supervision, ordered the prison system to correct the problems within 49 days or the state could face a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The Justice Department said it also had the option of having U.S. Attorney General William Barr intervene in related private lawsuits against the state prison system.

The letter was signed by Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. attorneys for the southern, northern and middle districts of Alabama.

The investigation was first initiated in October 2016, at the tail end of the Obama administration, and before Jeff Sessions, who is from Alabama, became the attorney general under President Donald Trump in early 2017, the department said.

The Alabama governor acknowledged the Justice Department’s findings and said the state’s Department of Corrections had been actively working to fix the issues.

The department “has identified many of the same areas of concern that we have discussed publicly for some time,” Ivey said in a statement on her official website.

“Over the coming months, my administration will be working closely with DOJ to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety.”

The state’s Department of Corrections had been working to bolster the hiring and retention of correctional officers, to prevent prisoners from sneaking contraband into its facilities, and was replacing outdated prisons, the governor said.

The Justice Department said it preferred to resolve the issues with Alabama through a “more cooperative approach” in order to avoid litigation.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Glass ceiling for female federal investigators: U.S. watchdog report

An FBI agent exits her car in Austin, Texas, U.S., March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Flores

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Women are not getting hired or promoted at the same rate as men in the U.S. Justice Department’s top law enforcement arms, leaving many female employees feeling they face routine gender discrimination in the workplace, the department’s internal watchdog has found.

A report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, issued on Tuesday, looked at gender equity issues across the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Marshals Service.

The low number of women in the ranks and the lack of promotions compared to their male counterparts is a large factor behind a perception of inequality that many women in the agencies have, the report found.

In fiscal year 2016, for instance, women comprised only 16 percent of the criminal investigator population across all four law enforcement agencies, it said.

And of the women employed, many worked in human resources or other administrative roles, and few held top leadership positions.

While a majority of male employees surveyed believed the workplace treated men and women equitably, a minority of women – only 33 percent – believed this was the case.

“We find it concerning that 22 percent of all women and 43 percent of female criminal investigators reported to us in the survey that they had been discriminated against based on their gender,” the report said.

“Additionally, in almost all the interviews and female focus groups we conducted, women reported to us that they had experienced some type of gender discrimination.”

Despite the fact many women reported being passed over for promotions or experiencing gender-based discrimination, few decided to file a formal Equal Employment Opportunity complaint.

Many of the women surveyed said they were concerned that filing a complaint might trigger retaliation, create a negative stigma or else they did not have confidence in the process.

“Underreporting and ineffective handling of EEO claims undermines employee trust and confidence that components (agencies) will address discriminatory behavior,” the report concluded.

The report calls on the Justice Department to take steps to improve how it hires, recruits and retains female employees.

All of the four agencies concurred with the watchdog’s recommendations.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Violent crime in U.S. rose in 2016 vs. 2015: Justice Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Violent crime rose 4.1 percent nationwide in 2016 compared to the 2015 estimates, the U.S. Justice Department said on Monday.

Violent crime, which the report defines as non-negligent killings, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, had steadily dropped since 2006, but had increased slightly in 2015, according to the annual report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“The report … reaffirms that the worrying violent crime increase that began in 2015 after many years of decline was not an isolated incident,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

The report said an estimated 1.2 million violent crimes took place across the country in 2016, an increase of 4.1 percent over the 2015 estimate.

In cities with populations larger than 100,000, the violent crime rate in 2016 was up 3.4 percent compared to the estimate from 2015.

President Donald Trump, who took office in January, has said he would do more to fight criminal gangs and would send in federal help to stem violent crime in Chicago.

The Justice Department has reversed or distanced itself from many of the Obama administration’s policies, including consent decrees to reform police departments and limits on transferring certain types of military gear to local law enforcement agencies.

 

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Bill Trott)

 

U.S. in deal to reform Baltimore police after Freddie Gray death

mural of late Freddie Gray in Baltimore

By Donna Owens

BALTIMORE (Reuters) – The city of Baltimore will enact a series of police reforms including changes in how officers use force and transport prisoners under an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department filed in federal court on Thursday.

The agreement comes almost two years after the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, of injuries sustained while in police custody sparked a day of rioting and arson in the majority-black city. It also led to an investigation that found the city’s police routinely violated residents’ civil rights.

Outgoing U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the deal, which is subject to a judge’s approval, would be binding even after President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in on Jan. 20.

“The reforms in this consent decree will help ensure effective and constitutional policing, restore the community’s trust in law enforcement, and advance public and officer safety,” Lynch told reporters, flanked by recently elected Mayor Catherine Pugh.

The 227-page consent decree agreement is the result of months of negotiations after a federal report released in August found that the city’s 2,600-member police department routinely violated black residents’ civil rights with strip searches, by excessively using force and other means.

The probe followed the April 2015 death of Gray, 25, who died of injuries sustained in the back of a police van. His was one of a series of high-profile deaths in U.S. cities from Ferguson, Missouri, to North Charleston, South Carolina, that sparked an intense debate about race and justice and fueled the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Department of Justice is scheduled to release the findings of its investigation into the Chicago Police Department on Friday in the Midwest city, local media reported. In Philadelphia on Friday, a report on reform efforts by the Philadelphia Police Department will be released, according to a statement from the Department of Justice.

Prosecutors brought charges against six officers involved in Gray’s arrest but secured no convictions.

William Murphy Jr., an attorney who represented the Gray family in a civil suit against the city that led to a $6 million settlement, praised the deal.

“Make no mistake, today is a revolution in policing in Baltimore,” Murphy said.

The head of city’s police union was warier, saying his group had not been a part of the negotiations.

“Neither our rank and file members who will be the most affected, nor our attorneys, have had a chance to read the final product,” Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement.

City officials said union officials had been involved in talks early on but stopped attending meetings.

(Additional reporting by Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago. Editing by Tom Brown and Andrew Hay)

FBI report expected to show violent crime rise in some U.S. cities

Phone banks of the FBI

By Julia Harte

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Violent crime in certain big U.S. cities in 2015 likely increased over 2014, although the overall crime rate has remained far below peak levels of the early 1990s, experts said, in advance of the FBI’s annual crime report to be released later on Monday.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s report was expected to show a one-year increase in homicides and other violent crimes in cities including Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., based on already published crime statistics.

Coming on the day of the first presidential campaign debate between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, the report could “be turned into political football,” said Robert Smith, a research fellow at Harvard Law School, in a teleconference on Friday with other crime experts.

A rise in violent crime in U.S. cities since 2014 has already been revealed in preliminary 2015 figures released by the FBI in January.

A recent U.S. Justice Department-funded study examined the nation’s 56 largest cities and found 16.8 percent more murders last year over 2014.

Trump last week praised aggressive policing tactics, including the “stop-and-frisk” approach.

Clinton has pushed for stricter gun control to help curb violence and has called for the development of national guidelines on the use of force by police officers.

FBI Director James Comey warned last year that violent crime in the United States might rise because increased scrutiny of policing tactics had created a “chill wind” that discouraged police officers from aggressively fighting crime.

Increased crime has been concentrated in segregated and impoverished neighborhoods of big cities. Experts said in such areas crime can best be fought through better community policing and alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crime.

“We’re just beginning to see a shift in mentality in law enforcement from a warrior mentality … to a guardian mentality,” said Carter Stewart, a former prosecutor for the Southern District of Ohio, on the teleconference. “I don’t want us as a country to go backwards.”

In Chicago, 54 more people were murdered in 2015 than the year before, a 13 percent jump in the city’s murder rate, according to an April study by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Matthew Lewis)

Curbs on excessive force proposed for Cleveland police

Police officer at Republican convention

By Kim Palmer

CLEVELAND (Reuters) – Cleveland police would face new limits on the use of force under proposals issued on Thursday by a group charged with monitoring the city’s police department, after a U.S. Justice Department report highlighted abuses by some of its officers.

The report came just weeks after Tamir Rice, aged 12, was shot and killed by a rookie Cleveland police officer in November 2014, triggering national outrage over another case involving a young African-American who died at the hands of police.

Rice was shot after a 911 caller reported someone waving a gun outside a city recreation center. Investigators later determined he had been in possession of a replica-type gun that shot pellets, not bullets.

Changes proposed by the Cleveland Police Monitoring Team – a group of 17 national experts and community activists – include a requirement that officers use de-escalation tactics before resorting to force, such as creating distance from the threat involved.

Officers would also be required to provide medical aid, rather than just request aid, for anyone injured after the use of force. Cleveland officers were roundly criticized for waiting eight minutes before providing first aid to the wounded Rice, who died a day after he was shot.

Cleveland police did not carry first-aid kits at the time of Rice’s death, a policy that has changed since then.

Officers would also be barred from using chokeholds or force against suspects already handcuffed under the monitoring team’s proposals, and prohibited from putting themselves in harm’s way in a manner that might then require the use of deadly force.

A Cleveland police officer who was in the path of an oncoming vehicle, after a high-speed car chase in 2013, shot the first in a barrage of 137 rounds fired by 13 officers that killed the man and woman in the car.

The proposals from the Cleveland Police Monitoring Team are still subject to public comment this month. If approved by a judge and federal officials, they would take effect sometime early next year, according to Matthew Barge, the oversight consent decree monitor.

(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Ben Klayman and Tom Brown)

Justice Department opens probe into black Louisiana man’s death

Sandra Sterling, reacts during community vigil in memory of her nephew, Alton Sterling, who was shot dead by police, at the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S.

By Edward Krudy

BATON ROUGE, La. (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the fatal police shooting of a black man in Louisiana’s capital, the state’s governor said on Thursday, as two deadly encounters between law enforcement and black men triggered protests in the United States.

The probe comes as community leaders in Baton Rouge urged authorities to conduct a full-scale criminal probe of two white police officers over the slaying of Alton Sterling, 37, on Tuesday.

“I want you to know that a criminal investigation is under way. It is being led by the U.S. Department of Justice,” Louisiana Governor Jon Bel Edwards told hundreds of people at Living Faith Cathedral in Baton Rouge on Thursday evening.

“We are going to come out of this tragedy stronger and more united than ever,” he added.

Sterling was pinned to the ground and fatally shot in the chest outside a convenience store after the officers responded to what police said was a call about a black man reported to have made threats with a gun.

The Justice Department said on Wednesday it would conduct a civil rights investigation into Sterling’s death.

The city’s mayor and police chief welcomed the move, but community leaders said they worried the probe would be too limited and urged authorities to consider all possible federal and state criminal charges against officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake.

“We don’t want this to be a narrow investigation,” Edgar Cage, a spokesman for the community organization Together Baton Rouge, said at a church earlier on Thursday. “We plan to use this tragic event as a tool, a stimulant to change the culture.”

President Barack Obama said in a statement he had full confidence in the Justice Department’s ability to conduct a “thoughtful, thorough and fair inquiry” into Sterling’s death.

Citing an unnamed law enforcement official, CNN reported on Thursday that a homeless man placed the 911 call after seeking money from Sterling, who was selling CDs outside the store.

The 300-pound (135-kg) Sterling showed the man his gun and said to leave him alone, the official told CNN. Reuters could not independently confirm that account with Baton Rouge police, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Sterling, a father of five, had several criminal convictions since the mid-1990s for battery, resisting arrest, burglary and other crimes. He was a registered sex offender after spending nearly four years in prison on a charge he had sex with a 14-year-old girl when he was 20.

COMMUNITY-POLICE CHASM

Sterling’s death was the first of two fatal police shootings of black men in two days. Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop on Wednesday near Minneapolis.

The shootings and videos showing their bloody aftermath have sparked protests, including an overnight rally in Baton Rouge that drew about 300 people who stood in a peaceful vigil near the Triple S Food Mart where Sterling was killed.

Obama said that “all Americans should be deeply troubled” by the two deaths, which he said were indicative of wider problems in the U.S. criminal justice system.

At the Baton Rouge church on Thursday, Edwards said there would be a new focus on training and retraining in the police department, and stressed the need to introduce people to the police at an early age.

His words appeared to address concerns voiced by many community leaders in recent days about a chasm between the black community and the police.

Video recorded by a bystander’s cellphone showed an officer confronting Sterling and ordering him to the ground. The two officers then tackled him to the pavement, with one pulling a gun from his holster and pointing it at Sterling’s chest.

One officer shot Sterling five times at close range, and the other took something from his pants pocket as he was dying, another video recorded by Abdullah Muflahi, owner of the store where Sterling was killed in the parking lot, showed.

Police said Sterling was armed. Muflahi said in an interview that police took a gun out of Sterling’s pocket after shooting him.

Officers Lake and Salamoni have been put on administrative leave, police said. In Lake’s three years and Salamoni’s four years on the force, both have been cleared by the police department after prior complaints against them regarding use of force, the Advocate newspaper reported, citing records.

The deaths of Sterling and Castile were the latest in a string of incidents in recent years involving police treatment of black men and boys in cities including Baltimore, Chicago, New York and Cleveland.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien and Bryn Stole; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)