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Election Crimes Director Resigns After AG Barr Orders Voter Fraud Inquiries

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  • Attorney General William Barr sent a memo authorizing the Department of Justice to investigate voter fraud, despite the fact that there is no evidence of fraud. 
  • The move also breaks precedent with DOJ policy to not investigate an election until the results are certified. Barr acknowledged this but said that is not a “hard and fast rule” and that a case-specific judgment had to be made. 
  • Following this, the director of the Election Crimes Branch of the DOJ, Richard Pilger, resigned from his position citing Barr’s memo and the ramifications of it.
  • Others, including Biden campaign officials and prominent Democratic senators, have either slammed Barr for making this choice or slammed members of the Republican party for backing Trump in his unfounded claims of voter fraud.

Barr Authorizes Voter Fraud Investigations

The Director of the Election Crimes Branch of the Department of Justice resigned Monday after Attorney General William Barr sent a memo authorizing the department to probe voter fraud, despite there being no evidence to support any wide-scale fraud in the 2020 election. 

Barr’s memo breaks standard DOJ policy, not just by encouraging an investigation based on unfounded claims, but by prompting an investigation before an election has been certified. 

“Overt investigative steps ordinarily should not be taken until the election in question has been concluded, its results certified, and all recounts and election contests concluded,” Barr acknowledged. 

“Such a passive and delayed enforcement approach can result in situations in which election misconduct cannot realistically be rectified,” he added. “Moreover, this Election Crimes Branch practice has never been a hard and fast rule, and case-specific determinations and judgments must be made.”

Barr said that most allegations of misconduct would not be big enough to actually impact the results of the election, but that this is not always the case. As far as fears about the potential of the department inadvertently impacting the results of the election, Barr said that risk is small after voting is concluded, even if the election has not yet been certified.  

“Given this and given that voting in our current elections has now concluded, I authorize you to pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities prior to the certification of elections in your jurisdictions in certain cases, as I have already done in specific instances,” Barr wrote. 

Barr has been repeatedly criticized for politicizing his department in favor of the White House. In his memo, he encouraged attorneys to maintain a commitment to neutrality and not investigate “specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims.” 

Election Crimes Director Resigns

Currently, there is no merit to the claims President Donald Trump and those in his circle have made about voter fraud in the election, which was declared for President-Elect Joe Biden on Saturday. Election officials on both sides of the aisle have said they have not seen any evidence indicating fraud.

Not long after Barr released this memo, Richard Pilger, the director of the Election Crimes Branch of the DOJ sent out a resignation email that was obtained by multiple news outlets. 

“Having familiarized myself with the new policy and its ramifications, and in accord with the best tradition of the John C. Keeney Award for Exceptional Integrity and Professionalism (my most cherished Departmental recognition), I must regretfully resign from my role as Director of the Election Crimes Branch,” he wrote. 

“I have enjoyed very much working with you for over a decade to aggressively and diligently enforce federal criminal election law, policy, and practice without partisan fear or favor. I thank you for your support in that effort.”

Barr’s announcement comes just a month after the DOJ lifted constraints when it comes to election fraud inquiries and investigations. He also released the note not long after meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been backing Trump’s efforts to not concede the election. 

According to sources from The New York Times, Barr himself has privately said that he thinks election disputes should be resolved within the courts. He also has said he has not seen anything indicating mass voter fraud. Still, he has cleared the path for claims to be investigated anyways. 

Responses to Barr’s Announcement

Biden campaign attorney Bob Bauer told the Associated Press that it is “deeply unfortunate that Attorney General Barr chose to issue a memorandum that will only fuel the ‘specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims’ he professes to guard against.”

“Those are the very kind of claims that the president and his lawyers are making unsuccessfully every day, as their lawsuits are laughed out of one court after another,” Bauer told the outlet. “But, in the end, American democracy is stronger than any clumsy and cynical partisan political scheme.”

Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Civil Rights division of the DOJ under former President Barack Obama, accused Barr of “scaremongering.” 

“Let’s be clear – this is about disruption, disinformation, and sowing chaos. Trump is furious, demanding all ‘his’ lawyers take action,” Gupta wrote. “They have no evidence so they’ll push  the PR. Doesn’t change the result.”

Even though Gupta has no faith that this effort will change the election’s outcome, she does think it will “play harm by seeking to undermine confidence, create fear and validate Trump’s lies.”

But leaders like McConnell are still pulling pages from Trump’s book and paving the way for legal battles and investigations into an election that, for all intents and purposes, still benefited them even though they lost the presidency. McConnell and other Republicans are not calling fraud on the House or Senate races their party won, even though those races were won on the same ballots Trump lost the presidency.

“In the United States of America, all legal ballots must be counted. Any illegal ballots must not be counted,” McConnell said on the Senate floor on Monday. “The process should be transparent or observable by all sides and the courts are here to work through concerns.”

“Our institutions are actually built for this. We have the system in place to consider concerns. And President Trump is 100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.”

McConnell has faced backlash from Democrats for supporting the president in his baseless claims aimed at calling a fair election into question. 

“The American people made their voices heard in record numbers and chose  Joe Biden as their next president,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wrote. “Rejecting that mandate in favor of political games and conspiracy theories is a dangerous attack on our democracy—even by Mitch McConnell’s standards.”

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (New York Times) (NBC News)

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COVID-19 May Have Been in the U.S. December 2019, New Study Shows

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  • A new government report found that the coronavirus may have been in the United States in December 2019, weeks before the first confirmed case.
  • For the study, the CDC looked at over 7,000 blood samples taken in nine states between December 13, 2019 and January 12, 2020.
  • Researches found COVID-19 antibodies in 106 of those samples, with at least one sample per state having antibodies.
  • These findings are in line with several other studies in the U.S. and well other countries which have found that the coronavirus was likely spreading globally before health officials were aware of it.

Report Shows Potential U.S. Cases in December

COVID-19 may have made its way to the United States in December of 2019, weeks earlier than previously thought, according to a new government study. 

That study was published Monday in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal. The first coronavirus case was reported in Wuhan, China at the end of December. The first case in the United States was not reported until mid-January, but health experts have long wondered if the disease had been spreading sooner than that. 

For the study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at 7,389 blood donations collected by the American Red Cross between December 13, 2019 and January 17, 2020 from donors across nine states.  Of those samples, antibodies showed up in 106. Antibodies came up from people in each state, with 39 coming from California, Oregon and Washington and the other 67 coming from Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Connecticut or Rhode Island.

Further testing was done on a majority of these samples to confirm that these antibodies were related to this specific outbreak and not part of other common coronaviruses. The data showed that they “were obviously from SARSCoV-2 infected individuals.”

“The findings of this report suggest that SARS-CoV-2 infections may have been present in the U.S. in December 2019, earlier than previously recognized,” the authors wrote. 

The study provides major context about the virus and the way it may have been spreading, completely unknown to public health officials for quite some time. The authors of the study believe this information will kelp experts better understand the pandemic, how it started, and how it can be mitigated. 

“Understanding the dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 pandemic from early introduction throughout further progression will advance understanding of the epidemiology of this novel virus and inform allocation of resources and public health prevention interventions to mitigate morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19,” the report said.

While the study provides incredible insight into the start of the coronavirus, the authors did also note there are limitations to what can be learned from it. For example, the data in the study should not be used to measure the magnitude of infections on a state or national level. It also cannot determine if these people came into contact with the virus from traveling, community spread, or another means of transmission. Though, a previous study of blood donors indicated that only around 3% had traveled outside of the U.S. in the 28 days prior to their donation.

Other Studies Suggest Earlier Spread

This is not the first study to suggest that COVID-19 was spreading this widely so soon. Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist explained on Twitter that this news matches up with a wastewater analysis, which found that the virus was potentially in Europe, specifically in Northern Italy, in mid-December. It also matches early indicator data that found excess flu illnesses in the province Wuhan is in during early December. 

Additionally, a separate report published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal last week found that the United States may have had significantly more COVID-19 cases than recorded. Since so many cases go unreported and undetected because many have no or mild symptoms, the study aimed to find the true number of cases the country may have seen at this point. 

“To estimate the cumulative incidence SARS-CoV-2 infections, symptomatic illnesses, and hospitalizations, we adapted a simple probabilistic multiplier model,” the study explained. “Laboratory-confirmed case counts that were reported nationally were adjusted for sources of under-detection based on testing practices in inpatient and outpatient settings and assay sensitivity.”

The authors found that only one out of every 2.5 hospitalized infections and one out of every seven non-hospitalized illnesses may have been nationally reported. This means that between February 27 and September 30, there may have been 52.9 million total infections in the U.S.

These cases, however, are unconfirmed and based on the model created. Currently, the U.S. has seen 13.6 million confirmed cases and lost 268,626 lives to the coronavirus.

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (NPR) (Bloomberg)

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Thanksgiving Travel Will Lead to COVID-19 Spike, Health Officials Warn

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  • As travel soared for the Thanksgiving holiday, health officials warn of an inevitable spike that will only worsen with Christmas on the way. 
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci urged travelers to isolate and quarantine as a “surge upon a surge” is on the way. Dr. Deborah Birx said that anyone who traveled should assume and act as if they have the virus.
  • The month of November saw 4.2 million cases in the U.S., nearly one-third of the cases the country has seen throughout the pandemic. Deaths are also on the rise again. 
  • But in good news, Moderna is submitting its vaccine for FDA approval. It is the second company to do so behind Pfizer, and says its vaccine is 94% effective.

Cases and Travel on the Rise

After the U.S. saw record-breaking pandemic travel leading up to Thanksgiving, top health officials are urging travelers to quarantine as a surge in cases is likely coming. 

On the day before Thanksgiving over 1,070,000 people traveled through airport security, which is the highest since the pandemic began, according to tallies from CNN Travel. While that is 40% less than the number of people who traveled the same day last year, it comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged the nation not to travel for the holiday. Over 6 million people went on to travel after the CDC made that plea. 

The U.S. has seen a total of 13.4 million cases and lost 266,000 lives to the coronavirus. On Friday, the country broke a grim record, reporting over 205,000 new cases in a single day. The month of November has been one of the most consequential when it comes to the spread of COVID-19. At least 4.2 million cases were reported in November alone. This is over double the 1.9 million reported in October, which is the month with the second-highest number of cases. It also accounts for over 30% of the country’s total cases since the pandemic started.

Deaths are also on the rise. Nearly 36,000 lives have been lost in November, the highest that number has been since May. The month with the highest death toll is April when just under 59,000 people died.

Health Officials Warn of Surge

Because a surge in travel came at the same time cases were already on a concerning rise, the nation’s top health officials are urging travelers to isolate and test themselves as another rush of cases is nearly inevitable. 

“We have to be careful now because there almost certainly is going to be an uptick because of what has happened with the travel,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told ABC News on Sunday. 

“And perhaps two or three weeks down the line, Martha, we may see a surge upon a surge,” Dr. Fauci explained. “You know, we don’t want to frighten people, but that’s just the reality. We said that these things would happen as we got into the cold weather and we began traveling and they’ve happened. It’s gonna happen again.”

Officials believe that those who have traveled need to do everything in their power to prevent their ability to spread the virus as they return home. Dr. Deborah Birx, a top coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said that travelers should just assume they have COVID-19.

“We know people may have made mistakes over the Thanksgiving time period. If you’re young and you gathered, you need to be tested about five to 10 days later,” she said on Face the Nation. “But you need to assume that you’re infected and not go near your grandparents and aunts and others without a mask.” 

The impacts of another surge could be severe. Across the country, hospitals are already overwhelmed. If cases skyrocket in the coming weeks, many places will not be equipped to handle the caseload. As Christmas approaches, travel and indoor gatherings will ramp up again, and another surge after that is also sure to come. 

Moderna to Seek FDA Approval

But hope is on the horizon. Pfizer has already announced that it has begun the process of seeking FDA approval for its vaccine. Now, Moderna is on the same track. The Massachusetts-based company plans on submitting its vaccine for FDA authorization on Monday after expanded data showed that it is 94.1% effective overall and 100% effective in preventing severe cases. 

Moderna’s study involved 30,000 people and resulted in 196 cases. The company said 185 of those came from the placebo group and 11 came from the vaccine group. It also said 30 of the reported cases were severe, all of which were from the placebo group. 

So far, Moderna claims the efficacy of the vaccine is consistent across a number of demographics. The company also says that while a safety review is still ongoing, no serious concerns have been identified. The most common reactions included injection site pain, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and a few other milder side effects. In addition to submtting for approval from the FDA in the U.S., it will also seek authorization in Europe. 

“We believe that our vaccine will provide a new and powerful tool that may change the course of this pandemic and help prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and death.” Stéphane Bancel the Chief Executive Officer of Moderna said in a statement. “I want to thank the thousands of participants in our Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3 studies, as well as the staff at clinical trial sites who have been on the front lines of the fight against the virus.”

Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tal Zaks, told the Associated Press that when he saw how promising the results were, he became emotional.

“I allowed myself to cry for the first time,” he told the outlet. “We have already, just in the trial, have already saved lives. Just imagine the impact then multiplied to the people who can get this vaccine.”

Moderna expects to hold their big meeting with the FDA’s vaccine committee December 17, a week after Pfizer’s meeting. Once approved the vaccine will likely go to frontline workers and vulnerable populations first and both companies are getting ready to dole out vaccines the second they are allowed to do so. According to the AP, Moderna expected to have enough doses for 10 million people by the end of the year. Pfizer plans to have enough for 12.5 million in the United States. 

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Associated Press) (CBS News)

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As Unemployment Claims Rise, CA Officials Report Inmates Collected Millions in Benefits

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  • Unemployment numbers spiked for the second week in a row, marking the highest amount of new claims made since early October with 778,000 people filing. Over 20 million Americans are still collecting some kind of joblessness aid.
  • Experts say this will only get worse as COVID cases continue to rise and states impose more restrictions. However, unlike during the spring shutdowns, struggling Americans and small businesses will likely not have any help from the federal government.
  • Meanwhile, law enforcement officials in California reported that tens of thousands of inmates received upwards of $1 billion in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that officials described as “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.”

Unemployment Numbers Spike

Another 778,000 Americans filed for unemployment this week, the Department of Labor reported Wednesday, marking the highest spike since early October and the second week in a row that new claims have risen.

According to experts, this data signals that the massive coronavirus spikes the U.S. has seen in recent weeks are slowing the economy once again. On Wednesday, the country reported a record 2 million new cases in the same two weeks that joblessness claims also went up, bringing the official case count to more than 12.6 million Americans infected and over 260,000 dead.

As the COVID-19 spikes continue, and with more state and local governments imposing new restrictions on public gatherings, limiting hours and operations for restaurants and bars, and temporarily closing down some businesses entirely, economists say this situation will get worse before it gets better.

Unlike the first wave of shutdowns this past spring, it seems almost certain that struggling Americans will have to weather these latest closures without any help from the government.

Already, many of the programs that gave trillions of dollars to unemployed Americans and small businesses under the CARES Act have expired, and most of the few remaining programs will run out soon.

That is especially concerning when it comes to unemployment benefits. According to a recent report from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, unless Congress and the White House sign off on a deal to extend key programs, roughly 12 million Americans will lose these benefits entirely the day after Christmas.

But after months of deadlock, any hopes for a new stimulus package petered out when the election came around. Democratic leadership is reportedly attempting to restart those talks, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wants to approve some kind of bill before the end of the year. 

However, it remains unclear how all the problems that had deadlocked the lawmakers for months during the earlier negotiations will be resolved in time.

Inmate Unemployment Fraud

Meanwhile, states are still continuing to struggle with distributing unemployment benefits to jobless Americans.

On Tuesday, a task force lead by nine district attorneys across the state of California reported in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that tens of thousands of prison and jail inmates — including more than 100 people on death row — have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that the officials say “appears to be the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history,”

According to the task force, between March and August, inmates housed in every single California prison and in jails throughout the state filed 35,000 claims totaling at least $140 million in benefits, though the alleged crimes could total as much as $1 billion.

In most cases, officials said that the payments were given out in the form of prepaid debit cards sent to friends or family on the outside who would then later deposit the proceeds to inmate accounts.

In some cases, the joblessness benefits were sent directly to the jails and prisons. Sometimes the inmates used their real names, but other times, they used fake names and fake Social Security numbers.

In fact, prosecutors were tipped off to some of the cases by listening to inmates recorded phone calls, where they bragged about how easy it was the game the system.

As far as how such widespread fraud could happen, law enforcement officials blamed California’s Employment Development Department, which has been swamped with processing more than 16.4 million unemployment claims since March, resulting in a massive backlog of unfilled claims that, according to reports, has totaled upwards of more than 1.6 million people at times.

However, the task force also said that part of the problem was due to the fact that unlike at least 35 other states, California does not have the technology to crosscheck inmate rosters against unemployment claims.

Looking Forward

In their letter, the officials called on Newsom to crack down on the rampant fraud and provide “significant resources” to do so. 

Newsom, for his part, responded in a statement by calling the fraud “absolutely unacceptable,” and ordering the Office of Emergency Services to create a task force to help the prosecutors with their investigation.

However, as The New York Times pointed out, Newsom had already formed a “strike team” a few months ago to help the state’s employment department speed up claims and address other issues, including fraud at correctional facilities.

The district attorneys were still forced to form their own task force with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after the reports of fraud in the employment department continued and the “strike team” failed to uncover the large amounts of fraud the other groups had seen.

Currently, it is unclear how Newsom’s new task force is different from the largely unsuccessful “strike team.” 

California, of course, is not the only state having these issues with unemployment insurance fraud. There have also been similar reports of fraud in Massachusetts, Illinois, Kansas, and other states.

These problems also go beyond unemployment. There have been frequent reports of CARES Act funding being misused, including by people using small business loans to buy luxury cars, as well as large companies or businesses connected to President Donald Trump Trump and members of Congress improperly receiving funding.

As Congress considers another much-needed stimulus package, these issues of transparency and accountability have now become paramount. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NBC News) (USA Today

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