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Michael Dwyer  

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Boston Celtics’ Al Horford (42) defends against Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during the first half of Game 4 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series in Boston, Monday, May 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Democrats set to hold Barr in contempt over Mueller report

WASHINGTON — A House committee is poised to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress — the opening salvo in what could be a lengthy, acrimonious court battle between House Democrats and President Donald Trump’s administration over special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler scheduled a Wednesday vote to hold Barr in contempt of Congress, citing the Justice Department’s failure to provide the full text of Mueller’s report by the Monday morning deadline. Nadler, D-N.Y., said Barr’s failure to comply with a subpoena left them with “no choice but to initiate contempt proceedings.”

The movement to hold Barr in contempt reflects the deepening rift between Democrats and Barr, whom they accuse of spinning the results of Mueller’s investigation to Trump’s benefit. Barr, in a memo summarizing Mueller’s investigation, said there was insufficient evidence that Trump obstructed justice — a conclusion Democrats fiercely dispute.

Nadler said the version of Mueller’s report that has already been released to the public offered “disturbing evidence and analysis that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice at the highest levels.” Now, he said, lawmakers need the full version and the underlying evidence “to determine how to best move forward with oversight, legislation and other constitutional responsibilities.”

The committee said that contempt proceedings could be postponed if the attorney general makes a “good faith” effort to comply with the committee. For now, an agreement appears unlikely.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the department has “taken extraordinary steps to accommodate the House Judiciary Committee’s requests for information” regarding Mueller’s report, but that Nadler had not reciprocated. She noted that Democrats have refused to read a version of Mueller’s report with fewer redactions that has already been provided to Congress.

Kupec said officials were continuing to engage with the committee, and that Nadler’s staff had been invited to the department Wednesday “to discuss a mutually acceptable accommodation.”

If the committee approves the contempt resolution against Barr, as expected, it would head to the full House for final approval. But that step is unlikely to lead to criminal charges. A House vote would send a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a Justice Department official who is likely to defend the attorney general.

Yet by pursuing contempt, Democrats hope to send a message to the Trump administration about their willingness to invoke congressional powers in the majority. Beyond Mueller’s report, House Democrats have, so far mostly unsuccessfully, subpoenaed administration witnesses and made efforts to gain access to Trump’s personal and business financial records. Trump has said he will block those efforts, declaring he will “fight all the subpoenas.”

Democratic House leaders could file a civil lawsuit against the Justice Department to obtain the Mueller report— an option that could take months or even years to resolve. Some committee members have suggested they also could fine Barr as he withholds the information. They could also open impeachment proceedings against Trump, though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she’s not interested in doing that, for now.

Republicans have lambasted the Democratic tactics as overreach and defended Barr. The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said “Democrats have launched a proxy war smearing the attorney general” when their anger actually lies with the president.

There is precedent for sitting attorneys general to be held in contempt of Congress. In 2012, the House held then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over a botched gun-tracking operation known as Fast and Furious. Republicans cited the Justice Department’s failure to turn over, without any preconditions, documents related to the risky operation. The Justice Department took no action to prosecute the attorney general.

Mueller’s report — now a best-seller even in redacted form — states that his investigation could not establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump team and Russia. However, it did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice. Mueller didn’t charge Trump but wrote that he couldn’t exonerate him, either.

House Judiciary Democrats say Congress is “the only body able to hold the president to account” since the Justice Department has a policy against indicting a sitting president. They say they need the full report and the evidence that it cites, including witness interviews and “items such as contemporaneous notes.” Nadler also wants every member of Congress to be able to read the full report.

As the fight with Barr has escalated, Democrats have been in negotiations to hear from Mueller himself. Trump complicated those talks Sunday by tweeting that he would oppose Mueller’s testimony, reversing from his earlier position of leaving it up to Barr.

As long as Mueller remains a Justice Department employee, Trump or Barr could block him from appearing. Trump did not indicate if he would take steps to do so. It’s unclear when Mueller will leave the department — or whether he would want to testify.

editor's pick
'Michigan Left' could be fix for congested New Road, Franklin intersection
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

Waco is once again revisiting its old problem with New Road, this time with an out-of-the-box solution from the Upper Midwest.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization’s technical committee last week reviewed three possible solutions to the chronic congestion at the intersection of Franklin Avenue and New Road.

The committee favored a “median U-turn” model, new to Waco, that eliminates left turns in favor of U-turns.

MPO Program Administrator Christopher Evilia said the committee will recommend the median U-turn model, also known as a Michigan Left, to the MPO policy board for consideration. The at-grade intersection model would cut traffic light time in half and would be millions of dollars cheaper than an overpass, but it would be unfamiliar to many motorists, he said.

“It’s making it a little more circuitous,” Evilia said.

Under the model, traffic coming from New Road could turn right on Franklin or continue straight but could not make a direct left turn. Instead, those motorists would take a right turn on Franklin, move to the inside lane and make a U-turn at some distance from the intersection.

The committee considered two other alternatives, at-grade access roads or overpasses, and the plan is far from set in stone. Evilia said the idea of the Michigan Left, created decades ago by the Michigan Department of Transportation, is to simplify signal operations. He said despite the U-turns, traffic would move through much faster than at a traditional signalized four-way intersection.

“Part of the challenge is that you have a lot of really big, beefy roadways intersecting at odd angles and very close to each other,” Evilia said. “From a traffic management standpoint, this is a very challenging area.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

New Road traffic passes through the Franklin Avenue intersection on its way toward Waco Drive. One fix would be to remove direct left turns.

Engineers working for the Texas Department of Transportation created models of each possible solution and how they would improve the flow of traffic. The MPO provides socioeconomic data that TxDOT then incorporates into a travel demand model that predicts how traffic in a given area will change over the next 25 years. Evilia said the results should always be taken with a grain of salt, but they’re a useful tool for planning ahead.

Evilia said the MPO has been considering different plans for the intersection for at least 20 years, if not longer, and models predict traffic in that area will double.

Engineers predict that by 2040, 21,000 cars per day will travel on Franklin, which isn’t a steep increase. But by then the projected traffic on New Road could roughly double to 38,000 to 40,000 cars per day.

Evilia said those increases are due to economic development within the last 10 years, and he anticipates much more growth within the next decade. However, that portion of the city lacks roadways that run northwest-to-southeast. Many drivers would find Loop 340 or Valley Mills Drive to be too far away to be an attractive alternative, he said.

“You can actually absorb a lot of delay here and Franklin before those facilities become attractive,” Evilia said.

Expanding Lake Air Drive farther southeast is not an option either, as an industrial plant and Cottonwood Creek Golf Course block the way.

The MPO is also considering other factors, such as the deployment of self-driving cars in the near future.

“In 25 years, things can greatly change,” Evilia said. “(Autonomous vehicles have) the potential to completely altering the landscape in terms of how we get from Point A to Point B, even to the point of maybe changing where we live and where we look and what’s even considered an acceptable commute.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

New Road traffic passes through the Franklin Avenue intersection on its way toward Waco Drive. One fix would be to remove direct left turns.

While the MPO tries to contend with a familiar issue, the Waco Transit System is planning for the future. Waco Transit System General Manager Allen Hunter said buses currently avoid Franklin and New Road intersection, but if the Waco Rapid Transit Corridor plan is approved for funding from the Federal Transit Administration, that will change. The “bus rapid transit” system would provide an express bus line along Franklin, with a series of dedicated stops served by smaller buses that circulate in neighborhoods.

“For me, the big thing is making sure that the engineers and planners are aware, and keep in mind that the BRT line might be traveling in this area,” Hunter said.

The intersection is busy enough to limit where buses can safely pick passengers up, and current bus lines just skirt the area. If approved, the plan would include a main bus line up Franklin Avenue and continuing onto U.S. Highway 84. Hunter said the U-turn median model is a good fit for the planned bus routes, but those routes wouldn’t be in use for another four or five years.

“I’m more worried about what’s going to happen with the routes in the future,” Hunter said.

Hunter said Waco Transit System’s current hub-and-spoke system is far from efficient, but for now it’s the best fit for the city’s limited resources. He said the rapid transit corridor plan is much more efficient, and operates almost like a light rail system, with lines feeding into one another throughout the city.

“There’s still more work to be done,” Hunter said.

editor's pick
Baylor welcomes new provost as it expands academic ambitions
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

Baylor University welcomed its new provost Monday after four years of instability in its top academic post, and in the midst of a $1.1 billion campaign to bolster the university’s national profile.

Nancy Brickhouse greeted a crowd of faculty and staff during a formal reception, though she started work officially on May 1. Her first week has been mostly taken up with introductions as she goes from department to department meeting with faculty, deans and department chairs.

“The provost’s job…is really to connect the dots, if you will, across departments, and to really understand what they’re doing and ways that we can then begin to pull that work together, and coordinate it in ways that it can have greater impact,” Brickhouse said, addressing the crowd.

The provost makes final decisions on every academic endeavor at the university, second only to the university president. That includes hiring, curriculum, student appeals and anything else related to academics.

Brickhouse, herself a 1983 Baylor alumnus, spent 27 years at the University of Delaware and three years as provost at Saint Louis University before taking the job at Baylor.

“I really went through all the faculty ranks and did some administrative work there as well,” Brickhouse said. “I’ve been a faculty member, I’ve been a chair, and I’ve been a dean.”

Following Provost Edwin Trevathan’s resignation in 2016 after less than eight months on the job, Baylor has had a parade of interim provosts fill the role while the search for a replacement continued, including Todd Still, Michael McLendon, and Gary Mortenson, among others.

“Having a permanent provost would be really significant for us because then she can really help build out the long-term implementation plan and build support across campus,” Baylor President Linda Livingstone said. “It will make a big difference as we have stability in that office and stability in our academic direction.”

Brickhouse will spend the rest of the semester meeting with different departments and getting reacquainted with the campus she attended as a student. Next semester, she’ll starting working in earnest on an implementation plan for the university’s strategic academic plan, called Illuminate. She will be key in hiring the 17 endowed chairs the university plans to create as part of the plan, largely funded by a $100 million donation Baylor received from an anonymous donor last week.

“With the implementation of a new academic plan, it’s really important for me to know what’s going on in the departments so they can have opportunities to contribute to that strategic plan in ways that they’re going to find inspiring,” Brickhouse said.

Baylor Chair of Psychology and Neuroscience Charles Weaver sat on the selection committee that chose Brickhouse for the position.

“The president is very much the public face of the university, and absolutely does have the final say in all matters, but most presidents, ours included, delegate that responsibility to the provost,” Weaver said.

He said the committee met for about a year and a half.

“We initially thought we might have the search completed by the spring of last year, and that didn’t happen, so we continued our work through the spring of this year,” Weaver said.

Weaver said the search turned up many exceptional candidates, but Brickhouse stood out.

“She was the appropriate combination of experience, sensitivity to Baylor’s faith background, and a serious scholar,” Weaver said. “(She’s) somebody that was forward-looking, somebody that we thought could lead up as we take the next steps.”

Andrew Harnik 


UN report: Humans accelerating extinction of other species

People are putting nature in more trouble now than at any other time in human history, with extinction looming over 1 million species of plants and animals, scientists said Monday.

But it’s not too late to fix the problem, according to the United Nations’ first comprehensive report on biodiversity.

“We have reconfigured dramatically life on the planet,” report co-chairman Eduardo Brondizio of Indiana University said at a press conference.

Species loss is accelerating to a rate tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past, the report said. More than half a million species on land “have insufficient habitat for long-term survival” and are likely to go extinct, many within decades, unless their habitats are restored. The oceans are not any better off.

“Humanity unwittingly is attempting to throttle the living planet and humanity’s own future,” said George Mason University biologist Thomas Lovejoy, who has been called the godfather of biodiversity for his research. He was not part of the report.

“The biological diversity of this planet has been really hammered, and this is really our last chance to address all of that,” Lovejoy said.

Conservation scientists convened in Paris to issue the report, which exceeded 1,000 pages. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) included more than 450 researchers who used 15,000 scientific and government reports. The report’s summary had to be approved by representatives of all 109 nations.

Some nations hit harder by the losses, like small island countries, wanted more in the report. Others, such as the United States, were cautious in the language they sought, but they agreed “we’re in trouble,” said Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, who observed the final negotiations.

“This is the strongest call we’ve seen for reversing the trends on the loss of nature,” Shaw said.

The findings are not just about saving plants and animals, but about preserving a world that’s becoming harder for humans to live in, said Robert Watson, a former top NASA and British scientist who headed the report.

“We are indeed threatening the potential food security, water security, human health and social fabric” of humanity, Watson told The Associated Press.

It’s also an economic and security issue as countries fight over scarcer resources. Watson said the poor in less developed countries bear the greatest burden.

The report’s 39-page summary highlighted five ways people are reducing biodiversity:

— Turning forests, grasslands and other areas into farms, cities and other developments. The habitat loss leaves plants and animals homeless. About three-quarters of Earth’s land, two-thirds of its oceans and 85% of crucial wetlands have been severely altered or lost, making it harder for species to survive, the report said.

— Overfishing the world’s oceans. A third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished.

— Permitting climate change from the burning of fossil fuels to make it too hot, wet or dry for some species to survive. Almost half of the world’s land mammals — not including bats — and nearly a quarter of the birds have already had their habitats hit hard by global warming.

— Polluting land and water. Every year, 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents and toxic sludge are dumped into the world’s waters.

— Allowing invasive species to crowd out native plants and animals. The number of invasive alien species per country has risen 70% since 1970, with one species of bacteria threatening nearly 400 amphibian species.

“The key to remember is, it’s not a terminal diagnosis,” said report co-author Andrew Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London.

Fighting climate change and saving species are equally important, the report said, and working on both environmental problems should go hand in hand. Both problems exacerbate each other because a warmer world means fewer species, and a less biodiverse world means fewer trees and plants to remove heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air, Lovejoy said.

The world’s coral reefs are a perfect example of where climate change and species loss intersect. If the world warms another 0.9 degrees (0.5 degrees Celsius), which other reports say is likely, coral reefs will probably dwindle by 70% to 90%, the report said. At 1.8 degrees (1 degree Celsius), the report said, 99% of the world’s coral will be in trouble.

“Business as usual is a disaster,” Watson said.

At least 680 species with backbones have already gone extinct since 1600. The report said 559 domesticated breeds of mammals used for food have disappeared. More than 40% of the world’s amphibian species, more than one-third of the marine mammals and nearly one-third of sharks and fish are threatened with extinction.

The report relies heavily on research by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, which is composed of biologists who maintain a list of threatened species.

The IUCN calculated in March that 27,159 species are threatened, endangered or extinct in the wild out of nearly 100,000 species biologists examined in depth. That includes 1,223 mammal species, 1,492 bird species and 2,341 fish species. Nearly half the threatened species are plants.

Scientists have only examined a small fraction of the estimated 8 million species on Earth.

The report comes up with 1 million species in trouble by extrapolating the IUCN’s 25% threatened rate to the rest of the world’s species and using a lower rate for the estimated 5.5 million species of insects, Watson said.

Outside scientists, such as Lovejoy and others, said that’s a reasonable assessment.

The report gives only a generic “within decades” time frame for species loss because it is dependent on many variables, including taking the problem seriously, which can reduce the severity of the projections, Watson said.

“We’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction crisis, but it’s happening in slow motion,” said Conservation International and University of California Santa Barbara ecologist Lee Hannah, who was not part of the report.