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Labor Secretary Defends His 2008 Plea Deal With Billionaire Sex Offender

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has defended a plea deal he helped broker with Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 in Florida. The billionaire financier, who socialized with U.S. President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton, is detained in New York where federal prosecutors have charged him with sex trafficking of minors between 2002 and 2005. Acosta is under pressure to step down because as U.S. attorney in Florida, he agreed to a mild sentence for Epstein. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.
 

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Cambodia Scraps Pay-to-Stay ‘Hotel’ Prison Plans

The Cambodian government is abolishing a controversial “hotel” prison project, according to Ministry of Interior officials.

The government had announced earlier this month that it would soon open the new prison facilities, in which inmates can pay to stay. The facilities are said to be more comfortable than the regular cells at prison Prey Sar, which have been criticized for being severely overcrowded. Interior Minister Sar Kheng had dubbed the new prison complex a “hotel,” and at other times Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak called it a “5-star prison.” Construction started in 2017 by Kunn Rekon Holdings Co Ltd.

But in a turn of events, Interior Ministry Department of Prisons spokesman Nouth Savna told Voice of America those plans would now be scrapped, pending official notification.

“I think the whole paid idea, the concept … has been dropped,” he said. “But we need to go through a formal process with clearing with the company and informing the government. … There will be no paid prison.”

Savna declined to elaborate further on reasons for canceling the plan, and multiple attempts to reach him later for comment failed.

FILE – Cambodian land activist Tep Vanny speaks to journalists outside Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh, Aug. 21, 2018.

Change of plans

Earlier, Savna explained that the government was concerned the company, Kunn Rekon Holdings Co. Ltd., would not be able to meet international and national standards for the facility, which was initially designed to hold up to 400 prisoners, and would therefore likely nationalize the prison. Savna said the government might have to pay the company compensation for terminating the contract, as the complex has been built.

A company employee, who declined to be named, said his company was not in a position to comment to journalists as they were under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior.

Asked about the change of plans, the employee said he could not provide further information.

“We haven’t gotten any official notification from them, that’s all I know,” he said.

Criticism of ‘two-class’ prison

The prison project had drawn criticism for creating a “two-class” system.

Chak Sopheap, executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said in an email that prisons in Cambodia posed an “acute human rights concern.”

“Cambodian prisons are overcrowded to a dangerous degree,” she said. A prison in which inmates could pay to stay for more comfort, however, would not be an adequate solution, she said.

“It sends the message that if you commit a crime, your punishment will depend on the amount of money you have at your disposal. As usual, when it comes to access to justice, the poor will suffer the most,” she said.

Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, had also expressed concerns about the prison in her 2018 report. 

“All detainees should be afforded the same conditions of detention, conditions that meet, and even exceed, the minimum standards specified in the United Nations treaties Cambodia accepts and additional guidelines,” she said in her statement.

Tackling prison overcrowding

In an email to VOA, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights representative Simon Walker said that overcrowding could be tackled in various ways. For example, he said his organization had been working with the government on reducing pretrial detention and “promoting alternatives to sentencing” to reduce the number of inmates.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government would take over the facility. 

“Please be informed that after debated, the plan has been canceled,” he said in a message to VOA. “We drop the plan. No more thinking about that, no more writing about that,” he said in a brief follow-up phone call.

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After Leaked Cables Draw President Trump’s Ire, Career UK Diplomat to US Resigns Early From Post

Transatlantic controversy surrounds the departure of Britain’s ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, who resigned Wednesday after making candid and unflattering remarks about U.S. President Donald Trump in classified diplomatic cables. His comments were leaked to news media Sunday. Trump later tweeted his displeasure with both Darroch and outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May. Arash Arabasadi reports.

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Biden Remains Atop a Shifting Democratic Field

The Democratic presidential field continues to shift as one candidate drops out and another joins a crowded group hoping to oust President Donald Trump from office next year. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the leading contender but finds himself fending off increasingly strong challenges from two senators—Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more on the shifting sands of the Democratic race from Washington.
 

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Financier Epstein Goes From Luxury Life to Confined Jail Cell After Sex Trafficking Charges

Wealthy American financier Jeffrey Epstein, charged with sex trafficking in underage girls, is now confined to a cell in a fortress-like concrete tower jail that has been criticized by inmates and lawyers for harsh conditions.

After his arrest on Saturday at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport on arrival from Paris in his private plane, Epstein was likely put in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in lower Manhattan, according to defense lawyers and others familiar with the jail.

“When you have someone that’s allegedly a sexual predator like Jeffrey Epstein, he’ll need to be in protective custody,” Andrew Laufer, a lawyer who has represented MCC inmates in civil lawsuits against prison officials, said in an interview.

Epstein pleaded not guilty in the nearby federal court on Monday to one count of sex trafficking and one count of sex trafficking conspiracy. He will remain in jail at least until a bail hearing on July 15. Federal prosecutors have said he is a flight risk because of his wealth and international ties.

In the past, Epstein, 66, was known for socializing with politicians and royalty, with friends who have included U.S. President Donald Trump, former president Bill Clinton and, according to court papers, Britain’s Prince Andrew. None of those people was mentioned in the indictment and prosecutors declined to comment on anyone said to be associated with Epstein.

The indictment said Epstein made young girls perform nude “massages” and other sex acts, and paid some girls to recruit others, from at least 2002 to 2005 at his mansion in New York and estate in Florida.  

Marc Fernich, a lawyer for Epstein, declined to comment on Epstein’s current conditions.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) said it does not release information on an inmate’s conditions of confinement for safety and security reasons.

The MCC houses about 800 inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted. Prominent inmates have included New York Mafia bosses, the fraudster Bernie Madoff and the Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Inmates and defense lawyers have complained of rat and cockroach infestations and uncomfortable extremes of heat and cold or problems with the water supply.

The jail’s harshest unit, known colloquially as “10 South”, has been compared unfavorably to the U.S. prison camp Guantanamo Bay. In 2011, rights group Amnesty International said the unit, which has also been used to house people accused of terrorism, flouts “international standards for humane treatment.”

One defense lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Epstein is likely in “9 South,” a separate special housing unit.

Inmates in protective custody are allowed out of their cell for recreation only one hour a day, according to BOP guidelines and interviews with lawyers.

Laufer and other lawyers said they believed that high-profile defendants such as Epstein enjoyed better protections than most, in part because prison officials are mindful of the embarrassment that harm to a well-known inmate could bring.

If Epstein is moved into a general population unit, he would have access to a shared common space with a television used by other inmates in the unit.

There, however, he would likely be a target for other inmates both because of his wealth and because he is a registered sex offender following his 2008 conviction for soliciting a girl for prostitution in Florida.

“The sex offenders have a hard time,” Jack Donson, a former BOP employee who now works as a federal prison consultant in New York, said in an interview. “He’s definitely going to get ostracized.”

There are fewer activities and diversions for inmates at the MCC compared to some other jails, Donson said.

“It’s pretty confining, pretty boring, not dangerous, but still no picnic,” Donson said. “Especially if you’re a man of wealth: one minute you’re on your yacht or in a helicopter; next minute you’re sitting at a table playing cards with the boys.”

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Judge Blocks 9 Government Lawyers From Quitting Census Fight

The Justice Department can’t replace nine lawyers so late in the dispute over whether to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census without explaining why it’s doing so, a judge says.

U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman, who earlier this year ruled against adding the citizenship question, put the brakes on the government’s plan on Tuesday, a day after he was given a three-paragraph notification by the Justice Department along with a prediction that the replacement of lawyers wouldn’t “cause any disruption in this matter.”
 
“Defendants provide no reasons, let alone `satisfactory reasons,’ for the substitution of counsel,” Furman wrote, noting that the most immediate deadline for government lawyers to submit written arguments in the case is only three days away.
 
The judge said local rules for federal courts in New York City require that any attorney requesting to leave a case provide satisfactory reasons for withdrawing. The judge must then decide what impact a lawyer’s withdrawal will have on the timing of court proceedings.
 
He called the Justice Department’s request “patently deficient,” except for two lawyers who have left the department or the civil division which is handling the case.
 
President Donald Trump tweeted about the judge’s decision Tuesday night, questioning whether the attorney change denial was unprecedented.
 
“So now the Obama appointed judge on the Census case (Are you a Citizen of the United States?) won’t let the Justice Department use the lawyers that it wants to use. Could this be a first?” Trump tweeted.
 
The new team came about after a top Justice Department civil attorney who was leading the litigation effort told Attorney General William Barr that multiple people on the team preferred not to continue, Barr told The Associated Press on Monday.
 
The attorney who was leading the team, James Burnham, “indicated it was a logical breaking point since a new decision would be made and the issue going forward would hopefully be separate from the historical debates,” Barr said.
 
Furman’s refusal came in a case that has proceeded on an unusual legal path since numerous states and municipalities across the country challenged the government’s announcement early last year that it intended to add the citizenship question to the census for the first time since 1950.
 
Opponents of the question say it will depress participation by immigrants, lowering the population count in states that tend to vote Democratic and decreasing government funds to those areas because funding levels are based on population counts.
 
At one point, the Justice Department succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to block plans to depose Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Nearly two weeks ago, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the plans to add the census question, saying the administration’s justification for adding the question “seems to have been contrived.”
 
Afterward, the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau began printing census questionnaires without the question and the Department of Justice signaled it would not attempt to continue the legal fight.
 
It reversed itself after Trump promised to keep trying to add the question.
 
The Justice Department then notified judges in three similar legal challenges that it planned to find a new legal path to adding the question to the census.
 
Furman said the urgency to resolve legal claims and the need for efficient judicial proceedings was an important consideration in rejecting a replacement of lawyers.
 
He said the Justice Department had insisted that the speedy resolution of lawsuits against adding the question was “a matter of great private and public importance.”
 
“If anything, that urgency — and the need for efficient judicial proceedings — has only grown since that time,” Furman said.
 
Furman said the government could re-submit its request to replace attorneys only with a sworn statement by each lawyer explaining satisfactory reasons to withdraw so late. He said he’ll require new attorneys to promise personnel changes will not slow the case.
       

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Pelosi Feud With Ocasio-Cortez Tests Party Heading Into 2020

They don’t talk to each other much, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But they’re lately speaking at one another in a way that threatens party unity and underscores broader tensions reshaping the Democrats.

Their power struggle has spilled open in what could be a momentary blip or a foreshadowing of divisions to come.

It started with a rare public rebuke — Pelosi chiding AOC, as she’s called, in a newspaper interview; AOC responding pointedly on Twitter — that’s now challenging the House agenda and rippling into the 2020 presidential campaign. A new test will come this week on a must-pass defense bill that the White House on Tuesday threatened to veto.

At its core, the tension between the most powerful Democrat in the country and one of the party’s newest, most liberal members embodies a debate over how best, in style and substance, to defeat President Donald Trump. And both sides think they’re right.

For allies of the longtime California congresswoman, Pelosi’s off-handed dismissal of Ocasio-Cortez and the three other liberal freshmen House members who opposed a border security package last month was a necessary comeuppance for “the squad” of newcomers who are trying to push the party leftward.

“These people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi told The New York Times. “But they didn’t have any following.” In the speaker’s world, they lack what Pelosi often calls “the currency of the realm” — the power to turn their high-volume activism into a coalition of votes to pass legislation or, in their case, to stop it.

But for fans of Ocasio-Cortez, including some of the New York congresswoman’s millions of social media followers, Pelosi’s remarks were nothing short of a patronizing slap-back to four women of color who represent the future of the Democratic Party, a stark example of its generational and demographic transition. Their four lonely votes against the bill were a principled stand, with more to come.

The ability to channel the influence of the newcomers into the currency of Congress may determine whether the speaker, six months into her new majority, continues her steady leadership or loses her firm grip — especially with former special counsel Robert Mueller’s expected testimony next week in a high-stakes hearing amid rising calls for Trump’s impeachment.

“There’s an opportunity right now for House Democrats to lead the charge,” said Ezra Levin, the co-executive director of the liberal group Indivisible. In his living room, he said, is a framed 2010 newspaper clipping of Pelosi from her previous tenure as speaker, passing the Obama-era Affordable Care Act. “What we’re looking for is that decade-ago fighter Pelosi was.”

This week the differences could tumble into full view again as the House considers defense legislation that’s often rejected by liberals because of military funding. It’s a must-pass bill that Congress has approved essentially every year since World War II. But with the opportunity to divide Democrats, the White House issued a veto threat saying the funding levels are inadequate. That means Pelosi will be forced to muscle it through without much, if any, Republican support.

Fresh from the border funding fight, Ocasio-Cortez signaled a first salvo Tuesday, telling reporters that progressive lawmakers want to ensure the defense bill prevents Trump from sending any troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Asked about Pelosi’s comments, Ocasio-Cortez said: “It was just kind of puzzling more than anything. It’s just, why? The idea that millions of people we represent matter less or don’t matter is a notion I disagree with.”

Lawmakers visiting border detention facilities over the past week have delivered grave reports of migrant children and families being held in dire conditions. Liberals say the border-funding battle was exactly the kind of fight the House should be waging against the Trump administration, especially after disclosures of border patrol officers joking about the migrants and deriding lawmakers on a private Facebook group.

When White House adviser Kellyanne Conway on Tuesday mocked the “Major Meow Mashup” and “catfight” between Pelosi and the foursome, several of them fired back.

“Remember that time your boss tore babies from their mothers’ arms and threw them in cages?” Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., tweeted at Conway. “Yeah take a seat and keep my name out of your lying mouth.”

Behind the scenes, though, some on Capitol Hill were quietly appreciative of Pelosi’s tough-love approach to Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.

Lawmakers and freshmen from more centrist-leaning districts than those of the four, including regions Trump won in 2018, don’t want the House majority to be defined by the liberal flank as they face voters for reelection next year. They prefer the party hew to Pelosi’s center-left approach. In describing the sentiment among those from more centrist districts, a senior congressional aide said Pelosi emerged as a “super-hero.” The aide requested anonymity to describe the private discussions.

While those more moderate views may have helped Democrats win the majority, liberal activists fear they won’t necessarily motivate or energize the party ahead of the 2020 election.

Brian Fallon, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Pelosi’s comments have riled the party’s left flank and activists question why she’s fighting with the newcomers when she should be confronting, if not impeaching, Trump.

“It’s not a good look,” Fallon said. Pelosi’s background runs strong in the liberal community, he said, so “it’s not enough to undo the relationship because she has deep ties, she knows how to count votes and is a bad ass.”

“But there is frustration,” he said.

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