US Court Finds President’s Brother Guilty Of Drug Charges

Man Bags 15 Years In Prison For N5.2m Fraud

 

A New York court found the brother of the president of Honduras guilty of drug trafficking Friday, in a blow to the leader of the Central American country.

Juan Antonio Hernandez, known as Tony Hernandez, was convicted by a jury on all four counts, a spokesperson in the Manhattan prosecutor’s office told AFP.

Hernandez, a former Honduran congressman, was arrested at a Miami airport in November 2018 on charges of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, weapons offenses and making false statements.

He is the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who tweeted Friday that his brother had been convicted with “testimony from confessed murderers.”

Sentencing is due on January 17. Hernandez, 41, faces from five years to life in prison.

The US government argued that Hernandez was a large-scale drug trafficker who worked from 2004 to 2016 with others in Colombia, Honduras and Mexico to import cocaine into the US by plane, boat and submarine.

The prosecution also said Hernandez, who served as a member of the Honduran Congress from 2014 to 2018, was involved in at least two murders of rival drug traffickers in 2011 and 2013.

Some of the cocaine he was transporting was labeled with his initials “TH,” prosecutors argued.

The trial also featured compromising allegations against the president himself.

The prosecution claimed that several candidates from Honduras’ ruling National Party accepted campaign funding from Tony Hernandez, including former president Porfirio Lobo and the current president, who was elected first in 2013 and again in contested elections in 2017.

The Manhattan prosecutor’s office filed a motion in August alleging that President Hernandez received at least $1.5 million in drug money from one of the prosecution’s cooperating witnesses for his first campaign, and $40,000 for the second.

President Hernandez and Lobo have both rejected the accusations, and neither has been formally charged by the US judicial system.

The high-profile trial lasted just under two weeks.

US prosecutors have aggressively pursued current or former Honduran public officials and their relatives over drug trafficking allegations.

The verdict comes after Mexican kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the 62-year-old former co-leader of Mexico’s feared Sinaloa drug cartel, was convicted in New York in February of smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana into the United States.

He has been jailed for life, a sentence he is appealing.

US Makes History With First All-Female Spacewalk

This undated combination photo obtained from NASA shows astronauts Christina Koch (L) and Jessica Meir. After an infamous spacesuit flub earlier this year that resulted in accusations of sexism, NASA now plans to carry out the first all-female spacewalk this week, it said on October 15, 2019. Koch and Meir will venture outside the International Space Station either October 17 or October 18 to replace a power controller unit that failed over the weekend. HO / NASA / AFP

 

US astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir became the first all-female pairing to carry out a spacewalk Friday, a historic milestone as NASA prepares to send the first woman to the Moon.

The mission was originally planned for earlier this year but had to be aborted due to a lack of properly fitting spacesuits, leading to allegations of sexism.

“Christina, you may egress the airlock,” spacecraft communicator Stephanie Wilson said as the pair set out to replace a power controller on the International Space Station at 1138 GMT.

This image taken from NASA TV shows, astronaut Christina Koch during her spacewalk outside the International Space Station on October 18, 2019.

They began their mission with standard safety checks on their suits and tethers, before making their way to the repair site on the station’s port side, as the sunlit Earth came into view.

In a call to reporters a few minutes earlier, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine emphasized the symbolic significance of the day.

“We want to make sure that space is available to all people, and this is another milestone in that evolution,” he said.

“I have an 11-year-old daughter, I want her to see herself as having all the same opportunities that I found myself as having when I was growing up.”

– Suit flub –
The first all-female spacewalk was supposed to take place in March but was canceled because the space agency had only one medium-sized suit, with a male-female combination performing the required task at a later date.

Traditionally male-dominated NASA’s failure to be adequately prepared was denounced in some quarters as evidence of implicit sexism.

When they had been outside space station for about five hours, President Donald Trump reached the astronauts in a video call and told them they had made history.

“You are very brave, brilliant women,” Trump told Koch and Meir.

“You represent this country so well,” the president added. “We are very proud of you.”

Koch, an electrical engineer who is leading the mission, is carrying out her fourth spacewalk and was hooked up to the station’s robot arm.

Meir, who holds a doctorate in marine biology and is making her first ever spacewalk, made her way carefully across using handles.

The two were working to replace a faulty battery charge/discharge unit, known as a BCDU.

The station relies on solar power but is out of direct sunlight for much of its orbit and therefore needs batteries, and the BCDUs regulate the amount of charge that goes into them.

The current task was announced Monday and is part of a wider mission of replacing aging nickel-hydrogen batteries with higher capacity lithium-ion units.

– Artemis –
The US sent its first female astronaut into space in 1983, when Sally Ride took part in the seventh Space Shuttle mission, and has now had more women astronauts than any other country.

But the first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in 1963, followed by compatriot Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982, who was also the first woman spacewalker two years later.

Ken Bowersox, NASA acting associate administrator, said he hoped that an all-female spacewalk would soon be a “routine” matter that would not require celebration.

Asked why it had taken so long — Meir is the 14th US woman spacewalker — he said men’s added height provided an advantage. “There have been a lot of spacewalks where very tall men who are the ones that were able to do the jobs because they were able to reach and do things a little bit more easily,” he said.

“But we’ve also brought women into the crews, because of their brains right, they come in and they bring different skills, they think of things different ways.

“And by using their brains, they can overcome a lot of those physical challenges.”

NASA plans to return to the Moon by 2024 for the first time since the Apollo landings of 1969 – 1972. The new mission is named Artemis, after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.

The mission will see the first woman to set foot on the lunar surface, likely as part of a male-female combination, as the space agency looks ahead to a crewed Mars expedition in the 2030s.

Five Key Things About Fentanyl And America’s Opioids Crisis

Tablets believed to be laced with fentanyl are displayed at the Drug Enforcement Administration Northeast Regional Laboratory on October 8, 2019, in New York. Don Emmert / AFP

 

 

Jury selection has begun in a landmark federal case on Ohio on whether drug companies can be held responsible for the opioids epidemic that is raging across America.

The case is seen as a test for the entire pharmaceuticals industry, which stands accused of fueling the crisis by aggressively promoting painkillers that can become dangerously addictive.

Perhaps predictably, the companies are negotiating to possibly avoid trial, thereby avoiding a precedent-setting verdict.

Fentanyl is the primary synthetic opioid available in the United States, a class of drug that was responsible for almost 32,000 overdose deaths last year.

Here are five things to know in order to understand the crisis:

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl was first developed in 1959 and introduced to the US market in the 1960s as an intravenous anesthetic.

It is used to manage severe pain — for example, among cancer patients or those receiving end-of-life care.

It is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

But it is also produced illegally and trafficked into the United States — primarily from China and Mexico — in the form of powder or tablets, and sometimes gets mixed with heroin and cocaine.

Fentanyl can be lethal in a dose of as little as two milligrams, equivalent to a few grains of sand.

How many deaths?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported more than 400,000 deaths from opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2018. On average, about 130 Americans die each day.

While the crisis first erupted in the 1990s, the number of deaths exploded starting 2013, when fentanyl use began to surge.

Last year, the number of fatal overdoses fell for the first time in 20 years in the United States, but deaths due to the use of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids mounted, totaling 32,000.

– Where does it come from? –
Powdered fentanyl can be bought on the dark web or even business trading sites like Weiku.com, according to Roger Bate, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who published a report on the drug earlier this year.

A kilo sourced from China can be purchased in the United States for as little as $1700, which is then used to create up to a million pills that, when sold for $10 to $20, each generate millions in revenue, according to the DEA.

Mexican gangs also play a large role in producing and distributing the drug, with precursor chemicals first smuggled into Mexico via the southwestern United States.

Some illicit fentanyl products are also brought into the United States via Canada, which until 2017 did not allow authorities to open the contents of mail weighing less than 30 grams.

Who’s to blame?

Experts agree that in part, the crisis stems from the prescription use of painkillers gone wrong. Doctors seeking to manage their patients’ pain overprescribed medications, and some users became addicted.

One of those medications is OxyContin, which is made by Purdue Pharma. The US firm got clearance to offer the drug for a wider range of problems, and use skyrocketed.

Purdue is most widely blamed for fueling the epidemic, and is one of the defendants in the complex Ohio case. It has been seeking a settlement since filing for bankruptcy.

It and other companies like Johnson & Johnson are now facing an avalanche of legal action led by state attorneys general or local authorities.

The CDC puts the “economic burden” of the opioids crisis at a whopping $78.5 billion a year. That includes the costs of health care, lost productivity and the prison system.

A study published this week by the Society of Actuaries put the total cost for 2015-2018 at $631 billion.

What is the US government doing?

The administration of US President Donald Trump designated the opioids epidemic a “public health emergency” in October 2017. That freed up public funds to battle the crisis and improve treatment.

Beyond the obvious federal efforts to combat drug trafficking, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in April 2018 launched the HEAL Initiative — Helping to End Addiction Long-Term.

That project is aimed at pinpointing scientific solutions to the issues of effective pain management. In fiscal 2019, $945 million was devoted to the initiative.

Most US states have been aggressive in their efforts to prosecute drug companies over the crisis.

Trump Announces Departure Of Energy Secretary Rick Perry

 

Donald Trump said Thursday that Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who has been caught up in the impeachment probe engulfing the US president, was standing down, marking the latest departure of a senior administration figure.

“Rick has done a fantastic job at Energy but it was time — three years is a long time,” Trump said, speaking in Texas. “We already have his replacement.”

The announcement came a day after the publication of an interview in which Perry said that — on Trump’s orders — he had communicated with the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani over alleged corruption in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Trump Inaugurates New Louis Vuitton Production Site

Trump is threatened with impeachment for pressuring the Ukrainian president to investigate his Democratic rivals ahead of the 2020 US elections.

House Democrats conducting the impeachment inquiry issued a subpoena to Perry last week, asking him to turn over documents related to his dealings with Ukraine by October 18.

Perry drove forward Trump’s “energy dominance” policy, which included boosting sales of US fossil fuels to Ukraine and other countries, and he oversaw a sharp rise in production of fossil fuels.

Trump said Perry had told him of his plans to resign months ago, and that he would leave office at the end of the year.

The New York Times reported that Trump had previously considered Perry for other senior positions, including chief of staff, due to his avoidance of personal scandals that had hit many of his colleagues.

Perry, who was nominated for the role in December 2016, was one of the longest-serving cabinet members in an administration marked by high turnover.

In a Republican presidential debate in 2001, he infamously forgot the name of the department he later came to head.

He declared he would to eliminate three government agencies, but could think of only two.

US To Withdraw Sanctions Imposed On Turkey

US Vice President Mike Pence attends a press conference after a meeting with Turkish President, in Ankara, Turkey, on October 17, 2019. Adem ALTAN / AFP

 

The United States will withdraw recently imposed sanctions on Turkey after it ends its military operation in Syria, Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday after talks in Ankara.

During a five-day ceasefire, the United States “will not be implementing additional sanctions,” Pence told reporters.

“Once we have a permanent ceasefire, following the orderly withdrawal of all YPG forces, the United States also agreed to withdraw the sanctions that were imposed on several cabinet officials and several agencies,” he said referring to Kurdish forces in Syria.

Trump Golf Club In Florida To Host Next G7 Summit

From L) Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson attend a work session in the Casino of Biarritz on August 26, 2019.  AFP

 

Next year’s G7 summit will take place in one of Donald Trump’s Florida golf clubs, the president’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said on Thursday.

The leaders’ summit is to take place in the United States, and Trump had previously suggested hosting it at one of his own golf clubs — drawing immediate criticism that he is profiteering from his presidency.

AFP

Democrat Cummings, At Center Of Trump Inquiry, Dies At 68

 

 

Senior Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings, who was at the center of the Trump impeachment inquiry, died early Thursday at the age of 68, US media reported.

The veteran Baltimore representative passed away at Johns Hopkins Hospital “due to complications concerning longstanding health challenges,” reports said, quoting a statement from his office.

As chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cummings was at the center of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump and had clashed with him.

In July, the president described Baltimore as a “rat and rodent infested mess” unfit for humans and blamed it on Cummings, an African-American Democrat who has represented much of the majority-black city in Congress since 1996.

Cummings did not directly respond to Trump, but said government officials must stop making “hateful, incendiary comments” that only divide the nation and distract from its real problems.

“Those in the highest levels of the government must stop invoking fear, using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior,” Cummings said in an August speech at the National Press Club.

“It only creates more division among us and severely limits our ability to work together for the common good.”

“As a country we finally must say that enough is enough, that we are done with the hateful rhetoric, that we are done with the mass shootings, that we are done with the white supremacists who are terrorizing our country and fighting against everything our country stands for and everything our phenomenal military has fought for,” he added.

The Baltimore Sun said Cummings was “known for his devotion to Baltimore and civil rights, and for blunt and passionate speechmaking.”

It said he had particularly resented Trump’s tweet that four Congresswomen of color should “go back” to their countries.

Cummings had also clashed with the president over the detention of immigrants.

He was born in 1951, one of seven children to a couple who were sharecroppers.

Syria: Turkey Defiant As US Demands Ceasefire

 

Turkey rebuffed international pressure to curb its military offensive against Kurdish militants in Syria on Wednesday as US President Donald Trump dispatched his deputy Mike Pence to Ankara to demand a ceasefire.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Turkey’s operation — which has been facilitated by the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria — would continue.

The only way to solve Syria’s problems, Erdogan told parliament, was for the Kurdish forces to “lay down their arms… destroy all their traps and get out of the safe zone that we have designated.”

But clashes continued across the region, with Kurdish fighters in the border town of Ras al-Ain burning tyres in a bid to blind Ankara’s warplanes and digging in against a ground offensive by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.

“We are fully prepared to wage battles,” an official from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told AFP. “The real battle has yet to start.”

Having struck a deal with Damascus over the weekend, Kurdish forces have joined with Syrian troops to take an abandoned US base between Kobani and Ain Issa, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Turkish operation, now in its second week, has triggered a flurry of diplomacy among major powers.

Trump sent Pence along with his top diplomat Mike Pompeo to Turkey amid the greatest crisis in relations for decades between the NATO allies, with talks due in Ankara early Thursday.

Facing a barrage of criticism in Washington for abandoning the Kurds, Trump has slapped sanctions on three Turkish ministers and raised tariffs on its steel industry.

Pence’s office said the US would pursue “punishing economic sanctions” unless there was “an immediate ceasefire”.

But Trump again dismissed the idea that pulling out 1,000 troops — practically the entire US contingent in the region — had been a betrayal of Kurdish militants who bore the brunt of the fight against the Islamic State group in recent years.

“The Kurds are very well protected,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “By the way, they are not angels.”

– Russia steps in –

Moscow has stepped into the void left by the US withdrawal, deploying patrols to prevent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces.

Russian TV showed its forces alongside Syrian government troops taking up positions in and around the town of Manbij.

The Kremlin said it would host Erdogan for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the coming days, to ensure the operation does not turn into all-out war between Turkey and Syria.

The Turkish government can count on widespread support for its operation at home, where decades of bloody insurgency by Kurdish militants have killed tens of thousands of people.

But Western powers fear it will endanger the battle against the Islamic State group. Thousands of IS prisoners are held in Kurdish-run camps in the region.

Europe has taken an increasingly tough line with Turkey and several countries, including Britain, France and Germany, have imposed arms embargoes on Turkey over the operation.

– Battle for border town –

The Kurdish-led SDF has mounted a desperate defence to the east of Ras al-Ain, using tunnels, berms and trenches.

A Syrian fighter serving alongside Ankara’s forces said his forces were trying to cut Kurdish supply lines from nearby Hassakeh to facilitate their advance on the town.

Since launching their assault on October 9, Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies have secured more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of border, but Ras al-Ain has held out.

Erdogan, who like Trump faces political difficulties at home, wants to create a buffer zone stretching 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the border into Syrian territory.

He wants to destroy Kurdish hopes of an autonomous enclave that could serve as a launching pad for attacks in Turkey, and to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees Ankara is hosting.

Erdogan said that once the safe zone was established, “stretching from Manbij to the Iraqi border”, then the operation would have “ended on its own”.

The offensive has left dozens of civilians dead, mostly on the Kurdish side, and displaced at least 160,000 people.

Google Streaming Game Service, Stadia To Be Launched November 19

Photo: LOIC VENANCE / AFP

 

Google on Tuesday said it will launch its Stadia streaming game service on November 19, hoping to launch console-quality play into the cloud.

The announcement came at a Google event in New York where the tech giant was unveiling an array of new hardware products.

Stadia allows video gameplay on any internet-connected device, eliminating the need for games consoles.

It will be priced at $9.99 per month and compete against Apple Arcade, which is being offered at half that price.

Streaming real-time gameplay from the cloud promised to shake up a mushrooming market worth an estimated $135 billion globally last year, according to analysts — with mobile platforms accounting for about half.

Explosive Testimony Boosts Case For Trump’s Impeachment, Say Democrats

 

US lawmakers leading an impeachment probe into Donald Trump turned their focus on Tuesday to the State Department amid a torrent of explosive testimony over the president’s foreign policy that they say strengthens the case for his removal.

Democrats on Capitol Hill were due to hear from George Kent, a top official in the State Department who was in on the infamous July 25 phone call in which Trump urged his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate one of the US president’s domestic political rivals.

His appearance comes a day after former White House aide Fiona Hill testified during a 10-hour deposition that Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani was running a shadow foreign policy in order to personally benefit the president, according to several US media outlets.

As the Democratic 2020 hopefuls gathered in Ohio for their fourth presidential debate, lawmakers returned from a two-week recess to a deepening crisis sparked by the accusations.

Democratic congressman Eric Swalwell told CNN Hill’s deposition had bolstered the argument for removing Trump, and said his party would be swift and “surgical” in building the case.

“Every arrow continues to point in the same direction,” he said.

But Trump accused Democrats of hiding the investigation behind closed doors, saying on Twitter: “Democrats are allowing no transparency at the Witch Hunt hearings.

“Let the facts come out from the charade of people, most of whom I do not know, they are interviewing for 9 hours each, not selective leaks,” Trump fumed.

 ‘Hand grenade’ 

Democrats are seeking information related to Trump pressing Ukraine to uncover dirt on White House contender Joe Biden, while allegedly conditioning almost $400 million in US military aid on that favor.

The Times reported that Hill said her then-boss, former national security advisor John Bolton, grew alarmed by Giuliani’s efforts, in conjunction with White House chief-of-staff Mick Mulvaney, to pressure Ukraine.

“I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton said, according to Hill’s testimony as reported by the Times.

She is said to have testified that Bolton warned that Giuliani, who is reportedly under federal investigation over his Ukraine dealings, is “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everyone up.”

She also said she and other officials had raised concerns with the White House national security lawyer, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Swalwell, one of the Democrats involved in the investigation, said Hill’s testimony supported the case for impeaching Trump.

“Every arrow continues to point in the same direction,” he told CNN of her testimony.

 Senior diplomats to testify 

Tuesday’s appearance by Kent, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, was due to be followed Wednesday by testimony from former senior diplomat Michael McKinley, who resigned last week.

On Thursday investigators will hear from US ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a Trump appointee who allegedly worked with Giuliani to pressure Kiev.

The Democrats have so far kept the testimonies secret as they seek to build a case for removing Trump from office.

“We are going to continue to fill the picture in and very shortly release the transcripts to the American people and then decide where do we go from there,” said Swalwell.

Democrat Mark Pocan told Wisconsin Public Radio that articles of impeachment could be drawn up by the end of the year.

“We know that this is going to move very expeditiously,” he said.

“We already have a motive, we have a crime, we have a confession and we have evidence.”

Sondland’s testimony could be the most explosive. Text messages released last month show him communicating with other diplomats and Giuliani to advance Trump’s demand for dirt on Biden.

US law forbids foreign interference in a US election, and seeking help from foreign sources.

Trump has admitted asking Zelensky to investigate Biden, but said it was part of his normal duties to investigate corruption.

Trump has accused Biden of trying to protect his son’s Ukraine business ties while serving as vice president, but no evidence of wrongdoing has been produced.

AFP

Actress Felicity Huffman Begins Prison Term

Actress Felicity Huffman, is escorted by her husband actor William H. Macy at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston.  Joseph Prezioso / AFP

 

Actress Felicity Huffman on Tuesday began serving a two-week prison term for her role in a college admissions scam in which she paid a bribe to help her daughter gain admission to a prestigious university.

The “Desperate Housewives” star turned herself in at the low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, about 35 miles (55 kilometers) east of San Francisco, in the early morning.

“Ms. Huffman is prepared to serve the term of imprisonment Judge (Indira) Talwani ordered as one part of the punishment she imposed for Ms. Huffman’s actions,” a representative for the 56-year-old actress said in a statement to AFP.

“She will begin serving the remainder of the sentence Judge Talwani imposed — one year of supervised release, with conditions including 250 hours of community service — when she is released.”

The Oscar nominee, who is married to actor William H. Macy, was the first of more than 30 parents sentenced in an elaborate and wide-ranging scam to help children of the elite secure places in top US colleges.

Huffman, who was also fined $30,000, pleaded guilty in May during a tearful court appearance to paying $15,000 to boost her daughter’s SAT college entrance exam score.

The scandal erupted in March when the ringleader behind the scam, William “Rick” Singer, admitted running the elaborate fraud which ranged from cheating in entrance exams to bribing coaches to help non-athletic students get scholarships.

Authorities say he was paid about $25 million to bribe coaches and university administrators. He has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with authorities.

In a statement read in court at her sentencing last month, the actress apologized to students and parents.

“I broke the law. There are no excuses or justifications for my actions. Period,” she said.

“My hope now is that my family, my friends and my community will forgive me for my actions,” Huffman added.

Actress Lori Loughlin from 1980s-90s sitcom “Full House” and her husband are facing similar charges. The pair have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

AFP

Pence To Leave For Turkey Within 24 Hours

Mike Pence Reaffirms US Commitment To NATO
US Vice President, Mike Pence. AFP

 

Vice President Mike Pence will leave within 24 hours to Ankara to press Turkey for a ceasefire in its offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters, a US official said Tuesday.

“We will launching off to Ankara in the next 24 hours,” the official said, a day after Pence announced his trip to Turkey without specifying the timing.

AFP