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Trump adviser Jared Kushnerâ??s ties to Israel raise questions of bias

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 15:07:00 EDT

JERUSALEM—Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has deep business and personal ties to Israel that could raise questions about his ability to serve as an honest broker as he oversees the White House’s Mideast peace efforts.

But some say these ties, which include a previously undisclosed real estate deal in New Jersey with a major Israeli insurer, may give Kushner a surprising advantage as he is expected to launch the first peace talks of the Trump era. Having the trust of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the thinking goes, could make Kushner well positioned to extract concessions from the hard-line Israeli leader.

Kushner’s family real estate company has long-standing and ongoing deals with major Israeli financial institutions. These relationships, along with a personal friendship with Netanyahu and past links to the West Bank settler movement, could emerge as potential stumbling blocks by creating an appearance of bias.

Read the latest news on U.S. President Donald Trump

Harel Insurance Investments & Financial Services Ltd. confirmed that it shares ownership and profits on a New Jersey apartment building with the Kushner Companies. Harel informed The Associated Press of the joint investment and said it had not previously announced it publicly. In addition, the Kushner Companies confirmed long-standing relationships with two major Israeli banks that have been investigated by U.S. authorities for allegedly helping wealthy clients evade U.S. taxes.

“Financial investments in Israel would seem to only further complicate conflicts of interest issues,” said Larry Noble, senior director of regulatory programs and general counsel at Campaign Legal Center, a group that advocates for strong enforcement of campaign finance laws.

Jared Kushner headed the billion-dollar family firm before joining the White House as a senior adviser in January. As a condition to taking the job, Kushner has agreed to file a financial disclosure report and divest some holdings that could create a conflict of interest.

Read more: Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner named senior adviser

The Trump administration has faced repeated conflict of interest accusations since taking office. Although the billionaire real estate magnate says he’s no longer managing his global financial interests, critics say these businesses still stand to profit from the prestige or policy decisions of the presidency. In addition, they note that Trump’s children continue to manage many of these ventures, opening the door for the president to continue to wield his clout behind the scenes.

While Kushner’s role in Mideast diplomacy remains unclear, Trump has said his son-in-law will work to “broker a Middle East peace deal.”

Last week, Jason Greenblatt, a White House envoy who reports to Kushner, paid his first official visit to the region, holding a series of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials on what was billed as a listening tour to sound out the sides.

As the U.S. pushes forward, Kushner’s family’s business and personal ties to Israel have raised questions over his ability to mediate.

“Of course the Palestinians are not happy dealing with Jared Kushner . . . but they have no other options,” said Palestinian political analyst Jehad Harb. “Kushner and the whole new American team assigned to handle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict . . . have very close ties with settlements (and) it’s unlikely they are going to understand the Palestinian demand of dismantling most of the Jewish settlements, but the Palestinian Authority cannot say no at this stage.”

Indeed, Palestinian officials appear very mindfulabout alienating the new U.S. administration with going public with grievances about a feared bias. And they seem genuinely relieved in recent weeks to be in contact with various U.S. envoys and at signs the administration is moving away from early positions that pleased Israeli nationalists, such as the notion of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The newly disclosed deal with Harel, one of Israel’s biggest financial groups, was for a multi-family residential building in New Jersey with Kushner, the Israeli insurer said, adding that both companies continue to collect tenants’ rent payments.

Harel would not say when the property was purchased, how much it cost or even give its address, though it said it was a “relatively small” investment. The company, which trades on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, managed some $50 billion in assets as of the end of 2015, according to its website.

Harel said it has also partnered with Kushner on a much larger deal: A consortium of lenders that provided some $50 million to the Chetrit Group and JDS Development, two New York real estate firms that are trying to build a 73-story residential tower that aims to be Brooklyn’s tallest. The loan was repaid and “yielded a handsome profit,” Harel said in a statement.

“As is known, Kushner (Companies) are experienced and knowledgeable with proven ability in deals in the rental property sector in general and in New Jersey specifically,” Harel said.

A Kushner Companies spokeswoman, Risa Heller, said the loan for the Brooklyn project was paid off, but she declined to say if Jared Kushner has sold his interest in the New Jersey property. Jamie Gorelick, an attorney who has advised Kushner on conflict of interest matters, referred questions to Heller.

The Kushner Companies also confirmed having a “long-standing relationship” with two major Israeli banks, Bank Hapoalim and Bank Leumi, but wouldn’t elaborate. Both banks declined to comment.

The Trump administration has inherited a Justice Department investigation into allegations that Bank Hapoalim helped American clients evade taxes, and the bank could reach a settlement in the case as early as this year. Bank Leumi also allegedly helped U.S. customers evade U.S. taxes from 2002-2010, and reached a settlement with the Justice Department in 2014 to pay $400 million to the U.S. government.

There is no evidence that Kushner Companies was connected to either investigation, and the Justice Department declined to comment.

White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not answer specific questions about Jared Kushner’s ties to Israeli business partners. “Mr. Kushner will comply with financial disclosure and ethics requirements, including the obligation to recuse from particular matters involving specific parties if a reasonable person would question his impartiality,” she said in an email statement.

Kushner is covered by government conflict of interest laws, so he is required to divest himself of any financial interests that may present a conflict and must not participate in any matter that has a direct effect on his financial holdings.

While Kushner has divested himself of some financial interests, the assets were put in a trust run by relatives, presenting the potential for a conflict of interest, said Noble, the campaign finance advocate.

He said the Justice Department investigation into Bank Hapoalim is “especially problematic” if Kushner or the White House in any way influence the inquiry.

Kushner’s business ties are just one of the potential pitfalls to his diplomatic career.

Trump’s son-in-law was also co-director of a family foundation that donated tens of thousands of dollars to Jewish settlement groups in the West Bank, according to U.S. tax records. The family also donated at least $298,600 to the Friends of the Israel Defence Forces, an organization that runs educational and cultural programs for Israeli soldiers, between 2010 and 2012, according to the tax records.

Palestinians and most of the international community consider Jewish settlements to be obstacles to peace because they are built on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war that Palestinians want for a future state. The Palestinians also revile the Israeli military after decades of bloodshed.

Kushner and his family also have long-standing personal ties to Netanyahu. At a White House news conference last month, Netanyahu joked that he has known Kushner since he was a boy.

Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and co-chairman of an Israeli real estate fund that counts Kushner’s father, Charles, among its backers, said he doesn’t know Jared Kushner personally but thinks his affiliations to Israel will be helpful in peace negotiations.

“There’s trust. When there’s trust on one side, there can also be a more conciliatory attitude on that side,” Shoval said.

Prominent Palestinian politician Jibril Rajoub told foreign reporters that Trump made clear to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a recent phone call that he was his “strategic partner” in making a “real and serious” peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

“There is very, very positive progress,” Rajoub said.

Couple wanted for allegedly defrauding clients of life savings, Toronto police say

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 10:35:32 EDT

A husband-and-wife duo are wanted for allegedly draining clients of their life savings through a fraudulent investment company, Toronto police said Friday.

Investigators allege the couple ran several schemes out of Keystone Financial Services, located near Warden Ave. and Sheppard Ave. E. in Scarborough, between 2014 and 2016.

“During this time, they encouraged clients to invest funds in various financial schemes that have since been shown to be fake,” said Toronto police in a written release Friday.

“Some investors were defrauded of their life savings.”

One such client notified police after calling the Keystone offices, only to find that the company had closed down.

The business is listed as permanently closed on Google Maps.

Toronto police have issued warrants for 44-year-old Collett Comrie and her husband Khurt Comrie, 40. The couple, whose last known address was in Pickering, are wanted for fraud over $5,000.

An individual named Collett Comrie is listed as a principal broker on the Financial Services Commission of Ontario’s website. However, the commission’s site indicates that individual’s licence has been revoked.

New view of dinosaurs could radically reshape their family tree

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 19:13:30 EDT

The dinosaur family tree may need to be radically rewritten — and even uprooted and replanted elsewhere, a new analysis of about 75 different species shows.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, hint that dinosaurs might have originated in the northern hemisphere rather than the southern, and could upend an understanding of dinosaur evolution that has gone largely unchallenged for some 130 years.

“We might all have to rearrange our mental furniture,” Kevin Padian, a University of California, Berkeley professor of integrative biology who was not involved in the study, wrote in a commentary.

If other scientists test the authors’ hypothesis and also find that the family tree is in for major pruning and grafting, the findings could have major implications for our understanding of dinosaur evolution.

“We know this will be controversial,” said lead author Matthew Baron, a paleontology doctorate student at the University of Cambridge. “We are disagreeing with 130 years of consensus.

“Some people have expressed a desire to test our hypothesis for themselves, and we really do welcome that. We want this to start a great new debate in our field, and we hope that people test our ideas and search for new specimens and new evidence that might support or refute our finds.”

To figure out the family tree of long-extinct animals with fossilized bones, scientists have to carefully study their shared features to see which ancient species were related, and what their common ancestors looked like. It’s tricky and painstaking work, especially since similar physical features can sometimes emerge independently in two different species.

Historically, dinosaurs have largely been categorized according to the shape of their pelvic bones:

  • Grouped either into “bird-hipped” dinosaurs such as Ornithischia, a group that includes stegosaurus, triceratops and duck-billed hadrosaurs,

  • Or into the “reptile-hipped” Saurischia. Saurischia is split further into theropods (including Tyrannosaurus rex and all birds) and Sauropodomorphs (which includes sauropods such as long-necked Apatosaurus).

But the fossil record hasn’t been entirely supportive on that point, Padian pointed out. The Ornithischians, for example, have brought a bagful of uncomfortable issues to family get-togethers.

“In this dinosaur family-grouping game, the joker in the pack has always been Ornithischia,” he wrote. “From their earliest appearance, they have been weird. They have a strange additional chin bone, their incisor teeth are smaller than those of other dinosaurs, their cheek teeth are regular and closely spaced like molars, they have beaks, and their hip bones are enigmatically organized. Also, unlike nearly all the other dinosaurs except Sauropoda, they are clearly herbivores, as their teeth and jaws show.”

Stranger still, he pointed out, was that ornithischians didn’t start diversifying in a major way until about 200 million years ago, around the Late Jurassic or Early Jurassic period — even though they should have had plenty of time to do so.

That’s not to mention that the “bird-hipped” ornithischians actually show an uncanny resemblance to “lizard-hipped” theropods (such as T. rex and velociraptor). This caught the eye of Baron, who wondered if that 19th-century definition could be wrong.

“When I was looking at them, I noticed that many of the earliest ones had features that were very similar to those of theropods (meat eaters). This was odd to me as the old model for how we classify dinosaurs said that these two groups were distantly related,” Baron said in an email.

Other papers classifying early dinosaur relationships also did not include “an adequate sample of early ornithischians” as a point of comparison, the study authors wrote.

“Because of their weird anatomy and rarity,” Baron said, “people have often overlooked Ornithischia when asking questions about the earliest dinosaurs.”

For this paper, Baron and his colleagues decided to take another look at the relationships between these dinosaur groups —one that threw out the assumptions that guided those previous groupings.

Other studies that looked at ornithischians, for example, tended to analyze what they already saw as shared traits of the group. But here, the scientists compared about 75 species using 457 different characteristics. Some of those traits would previously have been noted as points of comparison only in theropods or sauropodomorphs, but the scientists included ornithischians in their analysis of those traits, too.

“This is roughly 35,000 individual data points that had to be input by hand, based upon my observations,” Baron said.

The researchers’ analysis of the dinosaurs’ skulls, teeth and skeletal structures appears to result in a significant reshuffling of dinosaur relationships. Rather than being an earlier, “basal” group, ornithischians are the sister group to theropods, together in a new clade (a group of organisms evolved from a common ancestor) the authors called Ornithoscelida. The group Saurischia keeps sauropodomorphs but loses theropods in favour of herrerasaurids, which could never find an agreed-upon home in the traditional family tree.

“The results of this study challenge more than a century of dogma and recover an unexpected tree topology that necessitates fundamental reassessment of current hypotheses concerning early dinosaur evolution, paleoecology and paleobiology,” the study authors wrote.

Earth Hour wasnâ??t as dark in Toronto this year

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 23:01:00 EDT

Fewer Torontonians shut off their lights Saturday night for the 10th anniversary of Earth Hour than last year, according to Toronto Hydro.

However, Toronto residents are using less and less power overall, so the drop in participation during this year’s event doesn’t mean enthusiasm for the movement is waning, said Toronto Hydro spokesperson Tori Glass.

“People are actively saving electricity in their everyday lives, so Earth Hour seems to have done a great job in promoting the message,” she said via email.

In the city, electricity demand was 77 megawatts lower than a typical Saturday in March — a 2.8 per cent drop that’s equivalent to taking 31,000 homes off the grid, according to Toronto Hydro.

Last year, the drop was 89 megawatts; in 2015 it was 103.

Local revelers celebrated Earth Hour with candelit acoustic performances at bars across the city, guided walks and even a party illuminated with paper lanterns and candles at Kew Gardens in the Beach neighbourhood.

The World Wildlife Fund started Earth Hour in Australia in 2007. The event — running from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. local time across the world — encourages people, businesses and communities to shut off non-essential electricity to show support for environmental sustainability. In the decade since it began, the event has grown into a global movement with millions of participants in 172 countries.

“Earth Hour is a visual signal that ordinary people the world over want to change climate change,” said the World Wildlife Fund in an emailed statement Saturday.

“It’s a sign we haven’t forgotten about the Paris Agreement, and our determination to halt the degradation climate change causes to our environment. When you see a candle in your neighbour’s window, when you see your community go dark, when you see that these small, symbolic actions are visible from outer space the world over, you see you’re not alone on this issue.”

The Toronto skyline was dimmer than usual to mark the occasion as local landmarks like the CN Tower and the famous Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square shut off their lights.

Thousands of other landmarks worldwide also went dark for the 10th anniversary of the event, including the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, Big Ben, the Empire State Building and the Pyramids of Egypt.

Longer parental leave not for everyone, labour minister says

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 20:03:19 EDT

OTTAWA—Labour Minister Patty Hajdu said even wealthier women need more support when it comes to moving from their careers into motherhood — and back again.

The 2017 budget extended parental leave to 18 months, but anyone who wants to take the lengthier time off must spread 12 months worth of Employment Insurance payments over that time — receiving 33 per cent of average weekly earnings — because there is no corresponding increase in benefits.

The benefit rate for those taking 12 months or less will remain at 55 per cent.

The Liberals were under pressure from both employers and labour groups to scrap the proposal during consultations last year, as both sides expressed concerns it would leave out the lower-income families they said they want to help.

On Saturday, Hajdu acknowledged that it will not be for everyone.

“Certainly, it is not going to be the solution for every woman and that’s why we have other measures in the budget that are going to support women regardless of what stage and what earning bracket they’re in,” Hajdu told reporters as Liberal MPs took a break from their weekend caucus meeting on Parliament Hill.

The budget contains other measures — including money for child care — that Hajdu said are aimed at boosting female participation in the workforce across all socio-economic backgrounds.

“The focus is making sure that every woman has the support to reach her true potential and that includes women across all spectrums,” she said.

Hajdu said one thing she learned early on in her former role as minister for status of women is that women in well-paying jobs — such as those involved in capital markets — also need support as they become parents.

“These are women that occupy high positions, well-paying positions, who talked about the challenge that they had balancing that early childhood stage with their emerging and very lucrative careers,” she said.

Hajdu suggested extending parental leave could be one way to remove barriers to having more women in corporate leadership positions.

“We know that one of the struggles that we have is actually women at the upper end as well, reaching positions of leadership,” she said.

“It really is one component of how we’re moving forward to make sure that women have every opportunity to succeed.”

The government expects the proposal to extend parental leave to cost $152 million over five years, beginning this coming fiscal year, and $27.5 million annually after that.

â??A three-ring circusâ??: Parking, heavy security annoy Ivanka Trumpâ??s D.C. neighbours

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 10:25:00 EDT

WASHINGTON—Residents of a posh Washington neighbourhood say the Trump clan doesn’t make for very good neighbours, hogging parking on an already crowded street and leaving trash bags rotting on the curb. A big part of the complaint: a huge security presence, with even a trip to the playground requiring three vans.

Neighbours of Trump, her husband Jared Kushner and their three children have groused that sidewalks have been closed, public parking overrun and that the family and their staff can’t even be bothered to learn the trash pickup schedule outside their $5.5-million home.

“It has been a three-ring circus from the day that they’ve moved in,” said Marietta Robinson, who lives across the street, speaking with The Associated Press. “They’ve completely ruined the neighbourhood.”

The house in the Kalorama neighbourhood was bought in December by a company with ties to a Chilean billionaire. The company is renting it to Kushner and Trump, who moved in just after the inauguration of her father, U.S. President Donald Trump. Both work in the White House as advisers to the president.

Read more: Ivanka Trump gets West Wing office, security clearance despite no government job

Residents of the enclave of four- and five-story townhomes and elegant single-family properties about 2 miles north of the White House are accustomed to VIP neighbours. Former president Barack Obama and his family have lived there since he left office, and the Secret Service closed off their entire block to traffic. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought a home there, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also moved in recently.

Yet no one has raised the ire of the community like the Trumps. At a recent neighbourhood commission meeting, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace was among those who showed up to complain about parking problems.

Some in the neighbourhood have also complained about the family’s rental arrangement. The company that owns the house didn’t obtain a rental license for two months, securing one just this week after it was warned by city regulators.

“Maybe some of the upset has to do with politics a little. I couldn’t say for sure, but I know that people don’t seem to be upset about Tillerson’s situation. It’s much less intrusive,” said Ellen Goldstein, an elected neighbourhood commissioner.

The Secret Service has sole responsibility under law for protecting the family, but neighbours have noticed what they describe as an unusually large and aggressive security presence. Ivanka Trump arrives and departs in a four-vehicle motorcade, Robinson said.

“There are more of them than I have ever seen,” Robinson wrote in a letter to Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser and other city officials. “Frequently several of them are milling outside of the house at all hours having conversations and staring meanly at anyone in view.”

The letter — which also complained about parking, trash and noise — spurred the city government into action. On Friday morning, District transportation crews were outside the house, removing “No Parking” signs.

The department said no permits had been sought for parking exemptions or sidewalk closures on the street since Trump moved in. Yet vehicles associated with the Trump-Kushner house have been seen parking in the restricted areas for hours at a time, and barriers have been erected on the sidewalk in front of the house, forcing pedestrians to cross the street, next-door neighbour Rhona Wolfe Friedman said.

Even without extra restrictions, street parking for non-residents is limited to two hours.

“The parking patrol on Tracy Place has always been ultra-vigilant,” Robinson wrote to the mayor. “Suddenly, the parking enforcement has disappeared.”

A Secret Service spokeswoman, Nicole Mainor, said agency officials met with neighbours and city officials on Friday morning and addressed their concerns about parking and other disruptions. She declined to answer specific questions about the level of protection the family receives, citing agency policy.

It’s not clear whether Ivanka Trump is aware of any complaints, saying in a statement emailed Friday afternoon by an aide: “We love the neighbourhood and our family has received an incredibly gracious welcome from our neighbours.”

Christopher Chapin, president of the neighbourhood council — who doesn’t live as close as the neighbours who’ve complained — said all the attention is good for Kalorama.

“We are delighted to have political figures like the Obamas, the Kushners and the Tillersons living in our neighbourhood,” he said.

Trumpâ??s political agenda gets tougher after health-care fiasco

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 21:26:30 EDT

The stunning collapse of the Republican health-care bill now imperils the rest of U.S. President Donald Trump’s ambitious congressional agenda, with few prospects for quick victory on tax reform, construction projects or a host of other issues in the months ahead despite complete GOP control of government.

While Republicans broadly share the goal of Trump’s promised “big tax cuts,” the president will have to bridge many of the same divides within his own party that sunk the attempted overhaul of the Affordable Care Act. And without savings anticipated from the health-care bill, paying for the “massive” cuts Trump has promised for corporations and middle-class families becomes considerably more complicated.

Meanwhile, other marquee agenda items, including a $1-trillion investment in roads and other infrastructure and proposed crackdowns on both legal and illegal immigration, will require the support of Democrats, many of whom have been alienated by the highly partisan start to Trump’s tenure.

Read the latest on U.S. President Donald Trump

The lone exception for near-term victory could come with the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch — but even that faces the prospect of a threatened filibuster by Democrats.

Trump and Republican leaders continued Saturday in their attempts to put a brave face on the health-care debacle. “ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE,” Trump wrote in a morning tweet. “Do not worry!”

But others in the party acknowledged the political damage sustained by pulling the House bill, particularly for a president who had touted his own deal-making prowess.

“It’s a momentum issue,” said Republican Rep. Mike Coffman. “The fact is that, you know, you came out of the gate and you stumbled.”

Doug Heye, a GOP consultant and former congressional staffer, said Republicans, having achieved control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, were left with a lot to prove.

“It sends a troubling sign to a lot of folks about the broader issue of whether Republicans will be able to govern,” he said.

Trump has said he would have preferred to start his term by cutting “the hell out of taxes.” Even before the health-care bill was pulled Friday, the president was already starting to turn the page.

Determined to highlight other priorities, Trump staged two announcements in the White House meant to underscore his commitment to creating jobs: granting a construction permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and appearing with executives of a telecom giant as they pledged to hire thousands of new employees.

Separately, Trump’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, said at an event Friday that he will push Congress to enact comprehensive tax reform by its August recess, though he acknowledged the timetable might slip.

Read more:

Why Trump’s health care humiliation is a blow to everything else he wants to do

Trump suffers spectacular defeat, millions of Americans get to keep their health care

The complete list of all 143 false things Donald Trump has said as president

The White House signalled Saturday it was eager to move on. Trump’s weekly address made no mention of the health-care fight, instead focusing on his signing of legislation authorizing funding for NASA and his commitment to space exploration.

“We’re going to roll our sleeves up, and we’re going to cut taxes across the board for working families, small businesses and family farms,” Vice-President Mike Pence said Saturday at an appearance in Scott Depot, W. Va.

A senior White House official, however, said it was unlikely that Trump would ramp up a major sales effort on tax reform immediately, given his team had been planning on using the coming days to push for Senate action on the health-care bill.

Trump’s top advisers had envisioned a three-step legislative agenda this year, starting with scaling back president Barack Obama’s health-care law. After that was complete, they wanted to move to a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code, followed by the creation of a $1-trillion infrastructure package.

The implosion of the health-care effort complicates the tax overhaul both logistically and politically.

Reworking the health-care law as the White House envisioned would have also cut roughly $1 trillion in revenues. That would make it simpler for Republicans to pass a future overhaul of the tax code because they wouldn’t have to find additional revenue to offset new tax cuts.

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said the bloc of hardline Republicans who helped stymie the health-care overhaul were guilty of “ripping the lungs out of tax reform.” If they don’t revisit the health-care bill immediately, Norquist said, they will soon realize that “they didn’t shoot and wound health-care reform, they shot and killed permanent tax reform.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan acknowledged Friday that the health-care defeat “does make tax reform more difficult, but it does not make it impossible.”

“We are going to proceed with tax reform,” Ryan said.

Trump has proposed cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 per cent to 15 per cent, though many Republicans on Capitol Hill have been aiming for a 20 per cent rate. Trump has also proposed consolidating the existing seven individual income tax brackets into three brackets of 10 per cent, 20 per cent and 25 per cent.

Trump’s advisers have argued these changes would trigger a big expansion of economic growth, but some budget analysts have said the changes would widen the deficit by anywhere from $2.6 trillion to $7 trillion over 10 years, depending on how it is measured.

Wynne downplays falling popularity as former minister warns Liberals face election disaster

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 17:16:10 EDT

Premier Kathleen Wynne is downplaying polls that show her popularity in decline and a warning from former finance minister Greg Sorbara that the Liberals are in “grave danger” of losing the 2018 election.

“There’s no secret there have always been people in the Liberal party who weren’t keen on me,” Wynne told reporters Friday after meeting with auto industry executives and union leaders.

The premier said she hopes public opinion will improve once Ontarians feel the full effect of her promised 25 per cent cut to skyrocketing hydro rates this summer.

“I know that the issue around electricity prices has been very, very hard for people,” said Wynne, who added she has no plans to step aside.

“I made a commitment to the people of Ontario in 2014,” added the premier, who led the minority Liberals she inherited from her predecessor Dalton McGuinty to a majority in that provincial election and enjoyed solid approval ratings.

“I’m doing that job and I’m going to continue to do that job.”

Liberals are placing second to Patrick Brown’s Progressive Conservatives in most polls and Wynne’s personal popularity is in the low double digits. The latest Angus Reid Institute survey has her at 12 per cent.

Sorbara, a key architect of Liberal majorities under McGuinty, raised concerns this week about the party’s prospects for the provincial election next year and whether Wynne should step down.

“The fact is this is going to be a very difficult campaign,” he said on TVO’s The Agenda.

“The (poll) numbers today are the same and getting worse…the fact is the numbers do not lie and the ability to win the next election is in grave, grave doubt.”

Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid came to Wynne’s rescue in a news conference, saying Ontario’s economy is the strongest in Canada and the jobless rate is at its lowest in years.

“Energy rates became a lightning rod for all the discontent in the province and when you’re premier of a province and that’s happening you become a part of that lightning rod.”

There is talk in the corridors of Queen’s Park about who might replace Wynne as leader if the hydro rate cut doesn’t lead to a bounce in the polls.

At the meeting with auto industry types, Wynne said efforts continued to forge a comment front as the Trump administration pushes renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement – particularly with companies taking advantage of lower wages in Mexico.

The aim is to protect the province’s auto industry, which accounts for 15 per cent of North American production.

Don Walker, chief executive of auto parts giant Magna International, said it’s important to keep Mexico in NAFTA without punitive tariffs.

“If you look at North America, the real competition in the automotive industry is China, is Europe, is Asia…having open access to low-cost labour in Mexico actually helps us be more competitive.”

Unifor president Jerry Dias said nine of the last major auto assembly plants to be announced are for Mexico and it’s time to reverse that trend.

“I’m not afraid of the renegotiation of NAFTA…all of the investment has been leaving Canada and going to Mexico. So there has to be an opportunity to start to turn that around.”

Dias said he’s like to see more major components of autos built closer to the assembly plants where they are used, instead of crossing borders or shipping over long distances.

Four people found dead in B.C. home

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 22:19:51 EDT

ASHCROFT, B.C. —Four people were found dead in a home in a remote community in the B.C. Interior, RCMP said Saturday.

Officers found the bodies when responding to a request for a check at a home in Venables Valley near Ashcroft on Friday afternoon.

After a preliminary examination of the scene, police said there was no threat posed to the public, but details about the individuals were not immediately released.

The Major Crimes Unit and BC Coroners Service were investigating.

“The scene examination will be carried out throughout the weekend,” said Cpl. Dan Moskaluk in a news release Saturday.

“The Ashcroft Victim Assistance workers are also assisting in this matter.”

Ashcroft councillor Barbara Roden said the communities are tight-knit and residents of Venables regularly visit Ashcroft for work and leisure.

She said in an interview the deaths will likely have a devastating effect for residents in the area.

“I think almost everyone in town, I think when we find out who it is, is going to have had some contact with them,” she said.

Roden said her friend told her grief counsellors had arrived to help the community cope with the tragedy.

She said “a tragedy of this proportion” has not happened before in memory.

Gunman surrenders after fatal shooting on Las Vegas strip

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 17:22:18 EDT

Las Vegas police say the gunman in a fatal shooting on the strip who barricaded himself inside a public bus has surrendered peacefully after shutting down the busy tourism corridor for hours.

The standoff began about 11 a.m. Saturday with a shooting that killed one person and injured another. It happened on a double-decker bus on Las Vegas Boulevard near the Cosmopolitan hotel-casino.

University Medical Center spokeswoman Danita Cohen said two people were taken to the hospital after the shooting. She said one died and the other was in fair condition. Police said that person suffered minor injuries.

Las Vegas Police officer Larry Hadfield said just before 3:30 p.m. that the man had a handgun and surrendered without incident. Police did not open fire. Crisis negotiators, robots and armoured vehicles were on the scene.

Police said they believe the armed man on the bus is the only suspect and that they have ruled out terrorism or any relationship to an earlier robbery nearby that shut down a part of the Bellagio hotel-casino.

Hadfield said the casino properties in the area have been co-operating by keeping people from exiting through their front doors onto the Strip.

How a baby girlâ??s parasitic twin was removed

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 19:13:00 EDT

The examinations, X-rays and dry runs using a 3D model of her tiny spine all came down to this: A team of surgeons made a careful incision and, over the next six hours, systematically removed an extra pelvis, legs, feet and tiny toes that were protruding from her neck and back.

Since birth, baby Dominique had been carrying her parasitic twin.

“It’s as if the parasitic twin dove into Dominique’s body and almost made it in except for the waist out,” said John Ruge, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Advocate Children’s Hospital near Chicago.

Doctors say parasitic twins — asymmetric conjoined twins in which one depends on the other’s bodily functions — are extremely rare. Even more uncommon are parasitic rachipagus twins, twins connected at the spine.

Ruge said fewer than 30 cases are documented in medical literature — so few, in fact, that they are often referenced using the patients’ names.

“This one would be ‘Dominique from Chicago,’ ” Ruge said.

Ten-month-old Dominique, whose last name has not been released, travelled more than 8,000 kilometres in February from Ivory Coast in West Africa to Chicago to undergo an operation at Advocate Children’s Hospital to remove her parasitic twin. Her doctors said the surgery was necessary because without it, her heart and lungs would struggle to support the extra limbs and the strain would ultimately shorten her life.

It would take an army of volunteers to make it all happen.

Children’s Medical Mission West, an Ohio-based nonprofit, arranged Dominique’s trip to the United States, according to Advocate Children’s Hospital. Flight attendants accompanied her from Ivory Coast.

On Feb. 5, a host family in Chicago was waiting to care for her during her stay.

“Dominique flew halfway across the world with just a small bag that contained a few pairs of pajamas, diapers, a bottle and powder formula called Nursie, a sippy cup, a rosary, and a piece of beautiful fabric that her mother wore around her shoulders for a photo at the Abidjan airport before she bid farewell to her beloved baby for two long months,” Nancy Swabb, from Chicago, wrote on Facebook.

“Dominique was jet-lagged and tired that first evening (Ivory Coast is six hours ahead of Chicago). The next morning, however, Dominique’s bubbly personality was on full, joyful display!”

Swabb had seen Dominique’s picture in a Facebook Post from Children’s Medical Mission West. The photo, which showed Dominique apparently sitting on her mother’s lap, read: “Needing a home in Chicago area for a baby girl coming Feb. 5th. She will be in the states for 2 months. Let me know if you are interested or know someone willing to host this baby.”

“It really spoke to me,” said Swabb, who has two adopted daughters with her husband, Tim. “We just wanted to open our hearts and our home to a baby.”

Swabb took Dominique to her doctor’s appointments, where she met her surgical team and underwent extensive tests, including an MRI, an MRA, a CAT scan, X-rays and a CT pyelogram to help doctors construct a 3D model of her unusual anatomy. She carried her twin’s pelvis and bladder, legs, feet and toes (and toenails), and spine — which was intertwined with her own, her doctors said.

“This provided a challenge with regard to the disconnection,” Ruge, the neurosurgeon, said about the infant’s two spines. “It turns out the parasitic twin’s pelvis was attached to the spine and providing some structural stability for Dominique’s spine. So it was important to understand how the structural stability of her spine was so that we did not destabilize her when we removed the parasitic twin.”

For weeks, the medical team pored over Dominique’s case, discussing possible concerns and solutions. They practised the surgery using the 3D model.

Then early in the morning of March 8, Swabb took the child to Advocate Children’s Hospital, where more than 50 surgeons, nurses and clinicians were waiting.

“The highest risk to Dominique was paralysis,” Ruge said. “The reason is that the legs were functional from the parasitic twin, so they had nerve innervation from Dominique’s spinal cord and if there were any traction or pressure put on Dominique’s spinal cord, that would cause her to be paralyzed. The cervical portion of Dominique’s spinal cord had no bony protection. Everything was planned to avoid this problem.”

The surgeons disconnected the pelvis, nerves and blood vessels, then removed Dominique’s parasitic twin.

They were left with a gaping hole that they covered with soft tissue and muscle from the extra appendages.

From the outside, Dominique now looks like most other infants, aside from a bump on her neck that doctors say will go down over time.

Inside, her neurosurgeon said, she still has some “peculiarities.” She kept a piece of abnormal bone that is stabilizing her spinal column, and one kidney is located in the upper portion of her chest.

But, Ruge said, “everything is functioning normally, and I expect Dominique to have a normal life.”

Five days after her surgery, Dominique was discharged from Advocate Children’s Hospital and returned to her host mother’s care.

“She’s just back to normal,” Swabb said.

Swabb said she has been doing her own form of physical therapy for Dominique — having the baby turn her head side to side and putting things out of her reach so she had to grab them.

“If you met her now you’d never know she had complex surgery,” Swabb said.

Dominique’s father is a primary schoolteacher and her mother is a stay-at-home mom who cares for Dominique and her three older sisters, according to a statement from Advocate Children’s Hospital.

“Her family could not financially afford to accompany her, but is receiving ongoing updates,” the statement read. “Dominique will be escorted home in a few weeks and will find her family waiting at the airport in Abidjan, the largest city in Ivory Coast.”

Swabb said she has great respect for the child’s family.

“They were not willing to give up on their baby girl despite her challenges and they sought this care for her, so it’s inspiring to hear their story of love,” she said. “They were willing to trust escorts who flew her here and doctors they had never met and a host family. They really put a lot of trust in the whole network.”

While Dominique was in Chicago, she brought a community together, Swabb said.

“Friends and neighbors offered diapers and wipes and formula,” Swabb said. “She sleeps in a borrowed Pack n’ Play, she rides in a borrowed car seat. Neighbours bought bottles for her at the store. . . . We’re kind of living in a turbulent world and she’s brought a ray of sunlight to our neighbourhood and our family.”

The Swabbs said they taught Dominique how to repeat English words like, “da, da, da.”

They saw her experience snow, grow her first two teeth and start to bear weight on her feet.

“She’ll always be part of our family,” Swabb said. “Even though we’ve never met her parents, I feel like we have such a bond because of the trust among strangers in another country on another continent.

“It really has been amazing just how this whole network has put itself together, from the doctors to our little part of it.”

Judges need mandatory sexual assault training, MPP says

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 22:29:00 EDT

From the “knees together” judge to others across the country who have made questionable comments and rulings, it’s time the province make training for sexual assault cases mandatory, say opposition MPPs and victim support groups.

“I think it helps change the culture and helps reassure Ontarians — and especially victims — that judges are sensitive when they hear these cases,” and could prompt more women to come forward, said Progressive Conservative MPP Laurie Scott (Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock), her party’s women’s issues critic, who has urged Attorney General Yasir Naqvi to make changes.

“ . . . There are ways we can do better, and mandatory training of judges in sexual assault is a good first step.”

On Friday, Premier Kathleen Wynne suggested Naqvi is considering writing a letter to the province’s judges asking them to consider more training in the handling of sexual assault cases.

“We can’t mandate the specific training that judges receive,” Wynne told reporters on Friday, echoing comments from Naqvi about the independence of the judiciary. However, she said, “the attorney general is looking at what he could do to encourage this.”

Read more:

Judge’s ‘unusual approach’ in Mandi Gray sex assault trial questioned

Courts struggle to determine how drunk is too drunk to consent

‘Knees together’ judge in sexual assault trial says he will resign from the bench

Scott, who brought up the issue during Question Period last week, said she’s disappointed the government won’t force what is a “common sense proposal.”

She told the Star she will pursue the issue, following the lead of the federal PC party and introducing a private member’s bill.

Last last month, Interim federal PC Leader Rona Ambrose brought forward a bill that would require training for any lawyer wishing to become a federally appointed judge. With unanimous support, the bill is now being fast-tracked through the House of Commons.

Naqvi said he has spoken to the province’s chief justice, and that training in sexual assault cases is available, though not required.

However, he will “continue to raise the issue, that we need to make sure there’s robust training for the judiciary on sexual violence and harassment. But that decision is up to the chief justice and courts to make.”

But victims’ support groups wonder why the government won’t follow the federal lead, when sexual violence seems to be a priority — the Liberals launched an awareness campaign, “It’s Never Okay,” on sexual harassment and violence and have boosted spending to assault centres.

“For years, the judiciary has hidden behind its ‘independence’ as an excuse to avoid training on women's issues. That view has been reinforced recently by the Ontario government,” said Megan Walker of the London Abused Women’s Centre.

“The failure of the judiciary to participate in mandatory sexual assault and domestic violence training denies women of full equality rights before and under the law. It’s ludicrous to suggest that judges are allowed to be held to a lower standard than any other criminal justice service provider.

“It is irresponsible leadership to refuse to make a system better,” she said, adding if the federal government can do it, so should every province.

NDP MPP France Gelinas (Nickel Belt) agreed, saying “you cannot have a premier who comes out and wants us to believe that this is a priority for her and doesn’t find the tools within her tool box to make sure that this first step — which is just a first step of training on this issue — cannot be done.”

“We can all read the paper, we can all listen to the radio, we can all see that some of our judges need that training,” she added. “It’s a win-win.”

The federal budget recently allocated almost $3 million over five years for equity and gender training, which Ontario judges will be able to access.

Kate Andrew, speaking for the Office of the Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice, said “issues related to sexual assault are regularly integrated into education programs for new judges and in the ongoing education programs.”

The court, she added, “is following the current public and legislative discussions concerning judicial education on sexual assault. While the Court recognizes the importance of sexual assault education, there is no mandatory judicial education on any specific area of law.”

Elaine Craig, a professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, said “the potential harms that occur in sexual assault trials when judges lack proper training, legal knowledge, and the ability to identity and resist rape mythology are greater than in many other types of legal proceedings.

Requiring training “is not about interference, it’s about education,” added Scott. “And that’s our best weapon — it’s education in schools and it’s also education for our judicial system. And it’s about victims feeling more comfortable about coming forward and getting the justice they deserve.”

With files from Rob Ferguson

Friendly Twitter exchange may lead to romance for Mindy Kaling and Sen. Cory Booker

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 13:44:43 EDT

On her popular romantic sitcom The Mindy Project, star Mindy Kaling’s character is perpetually toiling from heartbreak to heartbreak in search of “the one.”

But Kaling may just have found herself swept into a real-life romance thanks to a Twitter exchange with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

It all started on a Project episode, when Kaling’s character Mindy Lahiri commented on Booker’s fictional presence at a party in Lahiri’s beloved Manhattan, saying, “Cory Brooker? I can’t believe he came. Anything to get out of Newark.”

Newark — the second largest city in the New York metropolitan area — is in the state of New Jersey. The state is often jabbed by Kaling’s character on the show.

Booker, 47, tweeted to Kaling, 37, saying he disagrees with her quip on Newark, but that he still loves her.

Kaling was quick to respond, saying the “heart” feeling is mutual.

Seeing his opportunity to swoop in with the now-inevitable ask, Booker tweeted “Come have dinner with me in Newark?”

The PATH train, for commuters travelling between New York and New Jersey, jumped in to assist with date night logistics.

But Booker had another plan in mind:

What happens next could shape up to be a budding romance, and at the very least Kaling may have a potential guest appearance lined up for her show.

It’s a long shot, but this could even lead to her becoming the next First Lady.

And that isn’t just a TV show fantasy, as Booker was among the leading contenders for vice president in Hilary Clinton’s administration and is being considered a presidential hopeful for the next U.S. election.

First Lady Kaling? Mindy Lahiri never doubted it.

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