Ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife charged in gifts scandal

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Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife were charged with 14 counts of fraud, conspiracy, making false statements and obstruction in connection with accepting gifts from a wealthy businessman who federal prosecutors said was seeking favors from the governor's office.

The one-time rising Republican star and his wife, Maureen, were indicted by a federal grand jury for accepting gifts and trading on the prestige of the governor's office to aid a major campaign contributor, dietary supplement executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

The 43-page indictment lays out the case that the couple, in debt and fretting about their finances, cultivated a "friendship" with Williams and almost immediately began asking him for money and gifts, while holding out hope that the governor would help Williams' company, Star Scientific, win clinical trials for its main product, an anti-inflammatory diet supplement.

In one example cited in the indictment, Maureen McDonnell asked Williams to take her on a New York shopping spree, where he paid for almost $20,000 of luxury merchandise at high-end retailers Oscar de la Renta, Louis Vuitton and Bergdorf Goodman. In exchange, Williams was seated next to the governor at an event that night.

She also asked Williams to buy a Rolex watch with the inscription "71st Governor of Virginia" on the back for her to give her husband, prosecutors said.

“The defendants participated in a scheme to use Robert McDonnell's official position as governor of Virginia to enrich the defendants and their family members by soliciting and obtaining payments, loans, gifts and other things of value … in exchange for Robert McDonnell and [his office] performing official actions on an as-needed basis,” the indictment reads.

McDonnell denied the charges and said that federal prosecutors "stretched the law to its breaking point" in bringing them.

"I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal friendship and his generosity," McDonnell said.

Vowing to fight the charges with "every available resource," McDonnell said his actions were no different than those of his predecessors.

The charges were the culmination of a scandal that cast a shadow over McDonnell's final months in office, all but obscuring the bipartisan achievements that marked his term in Richmond. Rumors of a possible indictment followed McDonnell, whose squeaky-clean image and pragmatic politics once made him one of Virginia’s most popular politicians.

If convicted, the McDonnells could spend decades behind bars. However, legal analysts say the former first couple of Virginia would likely face a more lenient prison sentence.

— Brian Hughes, White House Correspondent, and Byron York, Chief Political Correspondent

 

FCC PROPOSES TO END TELEVISION BLACKOUT RULE

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing a new rule that would essentially end blackouts of televised sporting events.

Under current regulations, television providers aren't allow to air certain games on local stations when the event is not sold out. The rule is most heavily used by the National Football League as a way to drive up ticket sales for Sunday games.

The proposal questions the relevance of the blackout rule.

“Changes in the sports industry in the last four decades have called into question whether the sports blackout rules remain necessary to ensure the overall availability of sports programming to the general public,” the commission said.

“We recognize that elimination of our sports blackout rules alone might not end sports blackouts, but it would leave sports carriage issues to private solutions negotiated by the interested parties in light of current market conditions and eliminate unnecessary regulation,” the agency added.

In other words, professional sports leagues could negotiate with television providers to put the blackout rule back in place.

The NFL has long resisted pushes to eliminate the blackout rule. But critics of the regulation say it punishes fans who can't afford the increasingly hefty price of a ticket.

A growing number of lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who co-sponsored legislation last year, have called for an end to the practice.

Three of the NFL's four first-round playoff games this year were in danger of being blacked out. The league had to extend its ticket-selling deadline when Cincinnati, Green Bay and Indianapolis had trouble selling all of their tickets.

Individuals will have 30 days to weigh in on the commission's proposal, after which the agency will move forward with a final ruling.

— Brian Hughes, White House Correspondent

 

MOODY'S SLASHES OUTLOOK ON INSURERS, CITING OBAMACARE 'UNCERTAINTY'

Credit ratings firm Moody's Investors Service lowered its outlook for health insurers to "negative" from "stable," citing "uncertainty" around the rollout of President Obama's health care law.

In a new report, the agency said the outlook for insurance companies is no longer clear because the law's insurance exchanges haven't been attracting enough younger individuals. In addition, Moody's analysts were concerned that the Obama administration has been changing regulations after insurers had already set prices for the year.

"While we've had industry risks from regulatory changes on our radar for a while, the ongoing unstable and evolving environment is a key factor for our outlook change," said Stephen Zaharuk, author of the report. "The past few months have seen new regulations and announcements that impose operational changes well after product and pricing decisions were finalized."

The release noted, "Uncertainty over the demographics of those enrolling in individual products through the exchanges is a key factor in Moody's outlook change. ... Enrollment statistics show that only 24 percent of enrollees so far are between 18 and 34, a critical age group in ensuring that lower claim costs subsidize the higher claim costs of less healthy, older individuals. This is well short of the original 40 percent target based on the proportion of eligible people in this cohort."

Moody's also said it was "unclear" whether the impact of the new tax on health insurance policies was properly accounted for by insurers in their 2014 forecasts.

— Philip Klein, Senior Writer

 

NTSB WARNS OF 'MAJOR LOSS OF LIFE' FROM RAIL SHIPMENTS OF CRUDE OIL

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended new requirements for shipping crude oil by rail in an attempt to prevent disasters like a July derailment and explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.

"NTSB is concerned that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable liquids are transported on a single train involved in an accident," the agency said, referring to the Lac Megantic, Quebec, incident.

One of the rules the board recommended to the Department of Transportation would require oil to be properly classified. For example, the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration put out a warning earlier this month that crude from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana might be more flammable than others.

Other rules would require railroads and shippers to use routes that avoid populated areas and to develop safety and mitigation plans in case of an accident.

The proposals come after several crude oil train derailments over the past month — one in Casselton, N.D., at the end of December that led to an explosion, another in New Brunswick, Canada, and one in Philadelphia.

Those events have shed light on some of the complications arising from transporting an increasing amount of crude from the Bakken. Refiners have turned to railroads to deliver crude in absence of pipelines, the building of which has failed to keep pace with rapid oil production. The NTSB said crude-by-rail shipments have jumped 400 percent since 2005.

"The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn't exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. "While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm."

— Zack Colman, Energy & Environment Writer

 

SNOWDEN: 'NOT ALL SPYING IS BAD'

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden said he acknowledged the need for some surveillance, saying that “not all spying is bad.”

Snowden made the remark during a live chat in which he fielded questions from Twitter.

The former government contractor, whose disclosures of classified information detailing secret NSA surveillance programs sparked a debate over the balance between national security and privacy rights, was asked what he believed the “appropriate extent” of U.S. surveillance should be.

Snowden said that with the technology available to the intelligence community more should be done to ensure that only the communications of those suspected of wrongdoing are monitored.

“The biggest problem we face right now is the new technique of indiscriminate mass surveillance, where governments are seizing billions and billions and billions of innocents’ communication every single day,” he said. “This is done not because it’s necessary — after all, these programs are unprecedented in U.S. history, and were begun in response to a threat that kills fewer Americans every year than bathtub falls and police officers — but because new technologies make it easy and cheap.

“When we’re sophisticated enough to be able to break into any device in the world we want to (up to and including Angela Merkel’s phone, if reports are to be believed), there’s no excuse to wasting our time collecting the call records of grandmothers in Missouri.”

President Obama, after a lengthy review of the NSA’s practices, announced new steps on Jan. 17 that he said would better protect Americans’ civil liberties, including requiring secret court warrants before the agency can access collected phone metadata and inviting proposals to store that information outside of the government.

Supporters of NSA spying said Obama had largely left those programs in place, hailing his decision a victory. Critics of surveillance say they will press for further reforms and oversight.

After leaking the information, Snowden fled to Russia, where he received temporary asylum and is evading U.S. espionage and theft charges.

Civil libertarians have hailed him as a whistleblower, but many top lawmakers have called him a traitor and question his motives for revealing the nation’s secrets.

— Meghashyam Mali, Assistant Managing Editor

 

EPA TO MINE TWITTER FOR TWEETS ON FLU

The Environmental Protection Agency has developed a plan to chart the flu by mining Twitter for tweets on vomiting, nausea and the bug.

The agency is shopping for a company that can search for those terms and several others to determine how many people in the country are suffering from “acute gastroenteritis infections,” or AGI, and where the hotspots are. The agency wants to compare the tweet results with figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The following example search terms are considered evidence of AGI: Stomach flu, stomach bug, stomach ache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea,” said the EPA’s notice to contractors.

There’s an obvious rush to get bids in January, the middle of the flu season, which the CDC reports has been especially hard on the young this year.

— Paul Bedard, Washington Secrets Columnist

 

LEW URGES CONGRESS TO RAISE DEBT CEILING BY FEB. 7

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told Congress that he would run out of room under the nation's debt ceiling by late February if it is not raised before then.

The October congressional deal to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown suspended the debt limit through Feb. 7. At that point, Lew will rely on extraordinary measures to ensure all the government's obligations are met on time. Previously, he had said those measures would last through late February or early March.

"I respectfully urge Congress to provide certainty and stability to the economy and financial markets by acting to raise the debt limit before Feb. 7, 2014, and certainly before late February," Lew wrote in a letter addressed to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Lew also noted that the time between when the debt limit was reached and when he would run out of extraordinary measures would be shorter than in the past because the Treasury experiences net outflows during February thanks to tax refunds.

In October, Congress waited until the day before the Treasury was set to run out of headroom before acting to suspend the debt ceiling. Lew and other Obama administration officials have repeatedly signaled that they will again refuse to negotiate with congressional Republicans over raising the limit.

The White House said it expects Congress to raise the debt limit “without drama and without delay” and didn't foresee another fiscal fight.

“This is something that is Congress' responsibility and ought to be acted on without drama and without delay,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “It is simply an action that Congress takes in order to pay the bills that Congress has incurred, and therefore should be done in a manner that in no way endangers or disrupts economic growth and job creation."

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, responded to Lew's letter by telling the Washington Examiner that Boehner has said "we should not default on our debt, or even get close to it, but a 'clean' debt limit increase simply won't pass in the House. We hope and expect the White House will work with us on a timely, fiscally responsible solution."

— Joseph Lawler, Economics Writer

 

OBAMA ISN'T ENDORSING NEW POT LAWS, CARNEY SAYS

White House press secretary Jay Carney insisted President Obama has not given his blessing to state laws in Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana.

“He’s not endorsing any specific move by a state,” Carney told reporters.

However, advocates pushing for the legalization of marijuana were emboldened by a recent New Yorker profile in which the president suggested the drug was no more dangerous than alcohol and quite similar to cigarettes.

“As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life,” Obama said as part of an extensive profile by the magazine. “I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

On Washington's and Colorado's new pot laws, Obama added that the statutes should “go forward because it's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”

Carney said Obama was making a broader point about the disparity in jail sentences for minorities and low-income people who get caught using drugs, not calling for new laws legalizing marijuana.

“There’s no question we’ve applied our drug laws in a way that has been counterproductive,” Carney said.

“The president’s positions on these matters,” Carney said, “hasn’t changed.”

— Brian Hughes, White House Correspondent

 

COMMISSION AIMS TO REDUCE VOTING HEADACHES

No voter should have to stand in line for more than 30 minutes — that's the goal of President Obama's Presidential Commission on Election Administration, created to fix problems that have hampered Americans' experience at the polls in recent years.

To do that, the panel released a report recommending a variety of steps, among them: expanding online voter registration and early voting; updating and exchanging state voter registration lists to increase registration and protect against fraud; improving access for military and overseas voters; and increasing the training of poll workers.

Many voters faced long lines and broken or old equipment at the polls according to reports during the 2012 election.

“I think all of us share the belief that, regardless of party affiliation, that our democracy demands that our citizens can participate in a smooth and effective way,” the president told reporters before meeting with the commission. “I called on Congress to work with us, but I also thought that it was important for us to have a bipartisan, independent panel that could actually dig into the facts and try to determine what can we do to improve this situation.”

The president praised the panel’s findings as “common-sense” proposals — “ones that can be embraced by all of us.”

He acknowledged, though, that because states and local jurisdictions are responsible for running elections, implementing the reforms would be “complicated.”

— Susan Crabtree, White House Correspondent

 

GREEN GROUPS SEEK EPA ACTION ON OZONE STANDARD

Several public health and environmental groups filed a motion in federal court in an attempt to force the Environmental Protection Agency to propose its delayed standards for ozone, which causes smog.

The move by the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club would establish a December deadline for the EPA to propose a standard and a October 2015 date to make it final.

Federal law requires the EPA every five years to review standards for ozone pollution, which occurs when hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide from power plants, fuel exhausts and other sources combine with sunlight. The most recent revision came in March 2008, when former President George W. Bush set the standard at 0.75 parts per million.

President Obama pulled back on issuing a new standard in September 2011 following lobbying from industry groups and opposition from Republicans, who argued that tightening ozone restrictions would harm the fragile economy.

The EPA's outside experts recommended lowering the standard to between 0.60 and 0.70 parts per million.

The EPA did not return a request for comment.

Opponents of more stringent ozone standards have objected to tactics that would force action through the courts. Those groups, which include the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have called that strategy "sue and settle," which they say involves environmental groups bringing action against federal agencies and settling the matter out of court.

But supporters say the more stringent rule is necessary — and long overdue — because ozone pollution causes respiratory and heart damage that cause billions of dollars worth in medical costs.

— Zack Colman, Energy & Environment Writer

 

TEN YEARS LATER, DEAN EMBRACES THE 'DEAN SCREAM'

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean embraced his infamous "Dean Scream" from his failed presidential campaign, which occurred 10 years ago.

Dean recognized the anniversary in a fundraising email to supporters of the Democracy for America political action committee.

"It's hard to believe it was 10 years ago tonight. On this day a decade ago — January 19, 2004 — I gave one of the most famous speeches in the history of American politics. Or perhaps 'infamous' would be more accurate," Dean wrote in an email with "YEEEAAARRRRRGGGHHHH!!!" as its subject line. "I'm guessing you might remember the climactic moment of that night, as I enthusiastically rallied my presidential campaign supporters in the aftermath of a disappointing finish in the Iowa Caucus."

Dean pointed out that he was right in saying that Democrats were going to take back the White House and go into all 50 states.

"While the 'Dean Scream' became fodder for late night comedians, including a hilarious version by Dave Chappelle I still laugh about, I also feel very proud of the state-by-state preamble to my unforgettable rallying cry," he continued. "Because, when I said we were heading to New Hampshire and South Carolina and Oklahoma ... and to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House ... it turns out I wasn't kidding."

— Charlie Spiering, Commentary Writer

 

OBAMA TO MEET POPE FRANCIS IN MARCH

President Obama will travel to Europe and meet with Pope Francis in March, the White House announced.

“The president looks forward to discussing with Pope Francis their shared commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality,” the White House said.

Obama and the pontiff are scheduled to meet March 27 in Vatican City, part of a four-day tour of Europe that will take the president to the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy.

Obama will begin his overseas trip by participating in the Nuclear Security Summit on March 24 and 25 in the Netherlands, the White House said, “where world leaders will highlight progress made to secure nuclear materials and commit to future steps to prevent nuclear terrorism.”

From the Netherlands, Obama will head to Brussels for a U.S.-European Union summit on March 26 with the presidents of the European Council and European Commission. It would be Obama’s “first visit to the EU institutions.” While in Brussels, Obama is slated to meet with the NATO secretary general.

The president will then head to the Vatican and wrap up his trip in Rome meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

Obama has praised Francis, the first pope from South America, citing his comments on helping the poor to boost the president's own domestic agenda on income inequality. Obama has called income inequality the “defining challenge” of our time and vowed to focus his second term on increasing opportunities for lower income Americans.

In an interview last year, Obama said the pope had shown himself to be a “very thoughtful and soulful messenger of peace and justice.”

— Meghashyam Mali, Assistant Managing Editor

 

 

OBAMA: SEXUAL ASSAULT AN 'AFFRONT'

President Obama created a White House task force to protect students from sexual assault, calling the crimes an "affront to our basic decency and humanity."

The presidential order followed the release of a report from the White House Council on Women and Girls that estimated that 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted while in college.

The White House said the new task force would “provide schools with best practices for preventing sexual assault, improve transparency of the federal government's enforcement activities and coordinate among federal agencies to hold schools accountable for confronting sexual assault.”

“These young women worked so hard just to get into college,” Obama said. “Often their parents are doing everything they can to help them pay for it. So when they finally make it there only to be assaulted, that is not just a nightmare for them and their families; it's an affront to everything they've worked so hard to achieve.”

Obama also spoke about the issue in personal terms, saying that it was a priority for him “not only as president … but as a husband and father to two extraordinary girls.”

He cited other steps his administration has taken to fight sexual assault, saying he was “proud” to sign the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Obama said it had helped increase support to local communities and states, offering funding to train law enforcement and health care professionals and to speed up the processing of rape kits to more quickly solve cases and bring justice.

Obama also addressed the problem of sexual assault in the military, saying that he expected “significant progress in the year ahead.”

“These crimes have no place in the greatest military in the world,” he said.

— Meghashyam Mali, Assistant Managing Editor

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