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U.S. Opens Criminal Inquiry of Resigning Illinois Congressman

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FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2015, file photo, Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill. speaks to reporters in Peoria Ill. According to a source, the Justice Department is investigating possible criminal violations by resigning Illinois congressman. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

In this Feb. 6, 2015, file photo, Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill. speaks to reporters in Peoria Ill. According to a source, the Justice Department is investigating possible criminal violations by resigning Illinois congressman. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File) 

Jack Gillum, ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department is investigating the congressional expenses and business deals of Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock, and FBI agents have begun issuing subpoenas to witnesses, a person familiar with the case told The Associated Press on Friday.

Investigators were focusing on Schock’s House office expense account, expenditures by his re-election campaign and his personal investments with long-time political donors, the person said. Schock, 33, a young, media-savvy Republican, abruptly announced his resignation Tuesday after weeks of mounting media reports about questionable expenditures and personal finances.

The government was convening a federal grand jury in Springfield, Illinois, according to the person, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the case. The person also said that FBI agents were visiting people close to the Republican congressman who were being compelled by subpoena to testify. The grand jury was hearing testimony in early April, according to the subpoenas.

A spokesman and lawyers for Schock did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails Friday from AP.

Schock’s sudden resignation followed revelations over six weeks about his business deals and lavish spending on travel, personal mileage reimbursements and office redecorating in the style of “Downton Abbey.” Congressional ethics investigators had begun probing Schock’s conduct in the days before his announcement, but that probe was expected to shut down because of the federal investigation.

Questions have included Associated Press investigations of Schock’s real estate transactions, air travel and entertainment expenses — including some events that Schock documented in photographs on his Instagram account. On Monday, the AP confirmed that the Office of Congressional Ethics had reached out to Schock’s associates as it apparently began an investigation.

The owner of an air charter service in Peoria confirmed Friday that he had been contacted by an ethics investigator interested in Schock’s extensive flights on planes owned by campaign donors. Harrel W. Timmons, owner of Jet Air Inc., was not a Schock donor but said the investigator wanted to know about the lawmaker’s flights on a plane owned by D&B Air, a Peoria aviation firm owned by a prominent Schock donor.

AP previously reported that Schock’s use of the D&B plane appeared to violate congressional rules in place at the time prohibiting the use of office accounts to pay for private flights. Schock had used office expenses to pay $24,000 for eight flights in 2011 and 2012. Since mid-2011, Schock’s office and campaign expenses paid for more than $40,000 worth of flights on planes owned by his political donors.

House ethics investigators typically stand down open inquiries once federal authorities open their own probe or when the House Ethics Committee orders a halt in the inquiry. The OCE had been authorized to continue its inquiry until Schock’s planned March 31 resignation. His decision to quit has no impact on the FBI investigation.

Earlier this week, Schock’s father, Richard, told an ABC reporter: “Two years from now he’ll be successful, if he’s not in jail.”

“If you’re going to investigate his real estate dealings, etc., then find out the facts,” Richard Schock said. “The facts are what are going to convict him or exonerate him.”

The AP reported last week that much of Schock’s personal wealth, estimated at about $1.4 million, grew from a series of real estate deals involving other long-time political donors. Schock’s political contributors built, financed and later purchased a house the lawmaker owned as an investment in Peoria. He owns a stake in a Peoria apartment complex involving other contributors. And he pushed for a federal appropriation that would have benefitted a donor’s development project.

Schock’s expenses came under scrutiny last month after the Washington Post reported that Schock had paid $40,000 from his House expense account for a lavish office redecoration modeled on decor depicted in the TV serial “Downton Abbey.” Reports by Politico and other news organizations also singled outSchock’s unusually high, personal reimbursements for auto mileage.

Schock responded to the growing scrutiny by paying back his office decorator $40,000. The day of his resignation, Schock also paid back his mileage expenses, but his spokesman did not say how much he had repaid.

In resigning abruptly on Tuesday, Schock cited a “heavy heart,” following six weeks of revelations about his business deals. He said in a statement that the constant questions about his spending and business dealings had made it impossible to serve effectively as congressman.

House Speaker John Boehner was not informed of Schock’s resignation before it was announced but has said he supported the decision to quit.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Elections Committee also confirmed Friday that staff lawyers were reviewing a complaint from a liberal-leaning watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The group complained Feb. 26 that two political committees associated with Schock paid more than $9,000 for flights on donor planes. The FEC does not investigate complaints until the full committee votes on the matter. That has not happened, the spokeswoman said.

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Associated Press writer Kerry Lester contributed to this report from Peoria, Ill.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Activism

After Wood Street Clearance, Homeless People Stay

Advocates claim about a dozen of them showed up on November 8 to support residents. One of them, Annmarie Bustamente, said their presence “definitely helped the residents block the eviction” and that the residents were “tired of displacement and said no” to a member of Oakland’s Public Works Department encouraging them to move. 

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Homeless Oakland Jessie Parker stands on Wood Street in West Oakland on November 10. The city of Oakland had planned to move Parker and dozens of others from this location between November 8 and 10, but residents refused to move and remained on site after the attempted closure operation. Photo by Zack Haber.
Homeless Oakland Jessie Parker stands on Wood Street in West Oakland on November 10. The city of Oakland had planned to move Parker and dozens of others from this location between November 8 and 10, but residents refused to move and remained on site after the attempted closure operation. Photo by Zack Haber.

By Zack Haber

On the morning of November 8, members of both Oakland’s Encampment Management Team, Public Works, and Police Department came to an area encompassing about 1/5 of a mile from Wood Street and Grand Avenue to Wood Street and 26th Street with the stated goal of clearing the location of homeless people. But after the attempted clearance, homeless people remained in the area.

“The objective was to move as many people as possible,” wrote Oakland Communications Director Karen Boyd in an e-mail. “But that could not be accomplished without the full cooperation of the community.”

“You can’t push us back any further than this,” said homeless resident Jessie Parker, a 63-year-old lifelong Oaklander who came to live on Wood Street after being shot in the leg. The injury prevented him from being able to do the physical movement required for the construction and electrical work he had done in the past. On November 4, the city put up pink notices informing him that starting in four days they would force him to vacate the area he’s lived in for about nine years, but he, like dozens of others living in vehicles, tents or makeshift homes along Wood Street, didn’t leave.

Parker’s statement references the fact that Wood Street is one of the westernmost streets in West Oakland. A little further west from where Parker lives is land owned by Caltrans under the 880 overpass where still more homeless people live, as well as a 1.5 acre plot of land belonging to a company called Gamechanger LLC. To the east are businesses and residential areas.

After about two years in delays, Gamechanger agreed to lease its land to the city for $1 a year and the city opened a Safe RV Parking site on July 7 on the company’s land through the non-profit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency.

In the Safe RV Parking site, residents who own RVs and trailers can legally live in them and receive services. It’s unclear how long this service will last, as the lease between GameChanger and the city can expire by November of next year. That same lease laid out plans to allow 75 RVs or trailers space to park, but while walking through the site on November 10, this writer counted 29 RVs while half of the site sat vacant. The site is not available for many residents, like Parker, who don’t have an RV or a trailer.

“I never received an offer to move in,” said Parker, who lives in a truck. “It’s for RVs only.”

The site opening has put other residents at risk of displacement who can’t or don’t want to access it. Since Oakland’s City Council unanimously passed its Encampment Management Policy in October of last year, despite protests and critical public comments during five hours of a meeting, city policy now states those living within 25 feet of such sites can face clearance.

Although their policy now allows it, the city had not attempted to move nor even encouraged people who are living near the Safe RV Parking site to leave the area until the November 8 operation. But recent communications from Justin Tombolesi, who is the constituent liaison for District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife, have led advocates and homeless people to believe the company is now pressuring the city to force people to leave the area. In a text message to a homeless resident who lives near Wood Street, Tombolesi wrote “Gamechanger is suing the city because people are too close to the RV site.”

Gamechanger denies suing or pressuring the city. When asked if the company was suing or threatening to sue the city, the company’s lawyer, Pat Smith of Smith LLP, responded in an email, writing “Not at all — no thought of suing the city. The city is solely in charge of the site and ownership has no involvement or concern over how the city is handling things.”

In an e-mail, Boyd wrote that “No filings or actions to terminate the lease have been served upon the city,” but that the city has “spoken with legal counsel representing GameChanger’s lot regarding the city’s plans to create compliance.”

In another text message to the same resident, Tombolesi also claimed the city would allow residents living on Wood Street to move to a vacant portion of land off the street and just north of the Safe RV Parking site during the November 8 closure operation. No residents have moved into that location and residents, as well advocates who were on site that day, claim no one was invited to do so. Boyd said the city offered nine spaces in the city’s Community Cabins, and five spaces in a rapid rehousing program called The Holland. One resident accepted a space in the Community Cabins, which is a program that offers small, unheated shelter in shed-like spaces made by the Tuff Shed company.

Advocates claim about a dozen of them showed up on November 8 to support residents. One of them, Annmarie Bustamente, said their presence “definitely helped the residents block the eviction” and that the residents were “tired of displacement and said no” to a member of Oakland’s Public Works Department encouraging them to move.

Although the closure operation was originally slated to occur over three days between Monday November 8 and Wednesday November 10, no one from the city came back after the first day.

“The ability to proceed Monday impacted the entire operation,” wrote Boyd in an e-mail, “and activities for the following days were cancelled.”

Although homeless residents did not leave Wood Street, Oakland’s Police Department’s Public Information Officer Kim Armstead said the department did tow six vehicles for long expired registration on November 6 and 7 in the area in preparation for the closure.

According to Armstead, the department avoided towing vehicles that served as people’s homes, as the department, following the cities’ direction, has “agreed not to tow vehicles where there is clear evidence they are being used as shelter.” Armstead also said on November 8, OPD supported the city operation with two officers, one sergeant, and six police service techs who provided traffic control and security for city workers.

One homeless resident named Evangeline said the towing of her and her husband’s vehicle has made it difficult to go grocery shopping and to visit her mother, who just had a heart attack. The couple can’t afford to pay the fees to get the car back, so it will remain in the tow yard.

“We’re really stuck,” she said.

Although residents like Parker avoided being moved from Wood Street, it’s unclear when or if the city will come back to move them. According to Parker, a member of the non-profit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency has been working to secure some form of permanent housing for him, and he’s hopeful that the person will be successful.

“I’m a little older now so my peak interest is getting back into housing,” said Parker. “If I get into housing, I’m sure I won’t go back to this. I can’t take these harsh elements no more.”

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Activism

African American Sports & Entertainment Group (AASEG) helps support 25th annual turkey drive in East Oakland

Assembymember Mia Bonta said,”I am excited and fully in support of the City Council’s decision to prioritize an African American-led, Oakland rooted, development group to negotiate how we can reimagine the Coliseum site. This represents a promise of development without displacement, and amenities and entertainment that East Oakland once had and deserves again. This is also the kind of community-led, wealth building opportunity l will fight for at the state level, and I will continue to support initiatives like these here in the 18th Assembly District.”

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The African American Sports & Entertainment Group came out to support the 25th annual Community Giving Foundation Turkey drive at Verdese Carter Park in East Oakland.

Hosted by founder and organizer Marlon McWilson, the turkey drive that started in 1997 has now donated over 35,000 Turkey’s through McWilson’s foundation. In attendance were Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, Oakland PAL, California Assembly Member Mia Bonta (AD-18) along with husband and Attorney General for the State of California Rob Bonta. Assembly Member Bonta also congratulated the AASEG on their recent unanimous 8-0 approval to enter negotiations with the City of Oakland on an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement (ENA) to purchase the city’s half interest of the coliseum land, and looks forward to working with the team.

Assembymember Mia Bonta said,”I am excited and fully in support of the City Council’s decision to prioritize an African American-led, Oakland rooted, development group to negotiate how we can reimagine the Coliseum site. This represents a promise of development without displacement, and amenities and entertainment that East Oakland once had and deserves again. This is also the kind of community-led, wealth building opportunity l will fight for at the state level, and I will continue to support initiatives like these here in the 18th Assembly District.”

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Bay Area

Get Booster Shot, Celebrate Thanksgiving Holiday Safely, State Officials Say

Officials are encouraging people who took both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago to get their boosters now. People who took the one-shot Johnson & Johnson primary dose at least two months ago, should also schedule their booster shot.

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According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”
According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”

By Aldon Thomas Stiles, California Black Media

Golden State public health officials are recommending that Californians take COVID-19 booster shots to prevent a resurgence of the disease and to celebrate the holidays safely with their loved ones.

“It’s not too late to get it,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Department, referring to the COVID-19 booster shot. He was speaking at a vaccine clinic in Los Angeles County last week.

“Get that added protection for the Thanksgiving gatherings you may attend,” he said.

Last week, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine boosters for all adults in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) followed with an endorsement of the booster vaccine, recommending it for people over age 50, and anyone 18 and older who is at higher risk.

The CDC loosened the language for all other adults, saying anyone over age 18 “may” take the shot.

California officials say the booster shots are plenty and available throughout the state.

“If you think you will benefit from getting a booster shot, I encourage you,” said Ghaly. “Supplies are available. There are many sites across the state – thousands in fact.”

On Saturday, the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup completed a separate review of the federal government’s approval process for the booster shots and also recommended that “individuals 18 or older who have completed their primary vaccination series,” take the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna boosters.

California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington state came together last year and created the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup. The group, made up of scientists, medical professionals and public health experts, is charged with reviewing COVID-19 vaccine safety.

Over the last two weeks, COVID-19 infections across the United States have increased at a rate of nearly 33%, according to the CDC.

Officials are encouraging people who took both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago to get their boosters now. People who took the one-shot Johnson & Johnson primary dose at least two months ago, should also schedule their booster shot.

“COVID-19 boosters are available to all Californians 18 [and over]! Walk-in clinics are open statewide with no appointment necessary – like this mobile clinic in Avenal. Find a clinic or pharmacy near you and get yours today,” Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office chimed in on Twitter.

Newsom has pushed hard for the vaccine booster since he received his last month.

“Great news for the rest of the country. The holidays are here — make sure to keep your immunity up and protect yourself and your loved ones. Get your booster,” Newsom tweeted on November 18.

According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”

California Black Media’s coverage of COVID-19 is supported by the California Health Care Foundation.

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