Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel D. Brownback On the 2020 Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance Ministers’ Forum

Samuel D. Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious FreedomOffice of International Religious Freedom

MR ICE:  Thank you very much and good afternoon, everyone.  I’m glad you could join us for this on-the-record briefing to discuss the 2020 Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Ministers’ Forum of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.

Over the past two days, the Government of Poland hosted the virtual 2020 Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief, which convened more than 50 nations and international organizations and featured discussions about the most pressing religious freedom issues in the world.  On November 17, on the margins of the Ministerial, Secretary Pompeo hosted the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance Ministers’ Forum, where Alliance member-states planned their collective action for the next year in the religious freedom space.

Our briefer today is going to be Ambassador Sam Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.

Ambassador Brownback is going to open with some brief remarks, and then we’re going to take your questions.  I’ll go ahead and give a preview, as the operator was alluding to.  You’re going to dial 1 and then 0 to join the question queue.  Just a quick reminder that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call, and it is on the record.

With that, I’m now going to turn you over to Ambassador Brownback.  Ambassador Brownback.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Thank you very much, JT, appreciate that, and thank you, everybody.  Thank you all for joining me on this call and this briefing.  This has been an amazing time and events today.

In summary, I would say basically the global religious freedom movement is launched. We saw it take place today, the finishing up of the third annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom or Belief.  This one for the first time was hosted outside of the United States by Poland.  They did an excellent job.  Unfortunately, it had to be virtual, but it was still, I think, a very good gathering on the topics and the key topics facing the issue and the cause of religious freedom.  There’s just way too much religious persecution in the world.  It continues to be the number that roughly 80 percent of the world’s population faces some form of religious persecution, restrictions, limitations of things that they can do.

The movement has really grown and gained speed.  We’ve seen now going from the first ministerial that Secretary Pompeo hosted, the first two, to now this one in Poland, and then just today Brazil announced that they would host the next Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom or Belief next year.

We had an excellent meeting of the Alliance.  This was a group announced in February and kicked off by Secretary Pompeo at that time.  We had 26 countries at the initial launch of it.  There are now 32 member nations of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.  This is a network of activist countries to push on topics of religious freedom.  We had our first annual foreign minister-level meeting just today.  It concluded roughly an hour and a half ago.  It had 20 either foreign ministers or deputy foreign ministers that attended that, announcing various things that they would seek to have initiatives on, plus we had a final statement that will be coming out from the Secretariat from – and about the Alliance’s activities this next year.

Some of the things that I can tell you that we’ve done this year and plan to do this next year: COVID-19 advocacy.  We together push for the rights of freedom of religion or belief during the pandemic, and that appropriate safeguards can be put on – but that members of the religious community are entitled to meet – and no greater restrictions that are put on groups similarly situated.  We’re very concerned that the pandemic was going to be used to persecute people additionally.

We advocated for prisoners of conscience to be released during the pandemic, while the incarceration setting is one of the most virulent ways for the COVID virus to be communicated to various individuals.  We sought to have religious prisoners released during the pandemic, and a number were in countries from Uzbekistan, Iran, Burma, Cuba, Egypt, Yemen, Vietnam, Eritrea.  Literally thousands of religious prisoners were released.  We want to have the practice that you’re not locked up for your faith, that people can freely practice their faith without fear of incarceration, and that’s our objective moving forward.

We have a number of multilateral themes that are coming forward.  We seek the end to apostasy and blasphemy laws.  Australia announced today that they will seek to end the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy.  There are 10 countries in the world that give – they give the death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy.  Very pleased to see that Sudan recently repealed its apostasy law, and that’s a first in the world in recent memory for one of these laws to be repealed.  We seek for all of them to be repealed as a undue restriction on people’s religious freedom.

There was announcements of efforts to protect religious sites in conflict zones.  We’re seeing unfortunately a great deal of destruction of religious sites in conflict or occupied zones, and there’s now a growing global movement to push back against that destruction of these religious sites.  Now this is an attack on a culture, it’s an attack on a religion as well, but a number of the countries are pushing back against that.

We want to – the United States announced today that we will pursue the topic of misuse of technology to oppress religious minorities.  We’re seeing this graphically done in Xinjiang, where high-tech observation systems using artificial intelligence and facial recognition are oppressing a dominantly Muslim majority from practicing its faith, this along with being locked up in detention facilities – over a million Muslim Uyghurs locked up in detention facilities.  And we’re going to launch into an effort that this technology not be misused to oppress religious minorities.

And then there seems to be a great deal of interest in three additional areas by the members of the Alliance.  One is to pursue education, to teach religious respect for various religions.  Another is an activity, a desire in the Middle East/North Africa region to allow religious minorities to be able to stay in that region.  That’s a region that’s been virtually drained of Christians except for a couple of countries now, and several countries were talking about the need to be able to allow religious minorities – and in that case in particular, Christian minorities – to be able to stay in the Middle East.

And then there was a clear desire for interfaith dialogue and – with a push for that to take place as a way to build understanding and also to reduce violence.  We particularly see a lot of Muslim-on-Christian violence in Africa, and we’re looking for ways to push back on that and engage theologians from the Abrahamic faiths to say that our religion does not support the use of violence in promoting the religion.

So those are some of the things that came out of it.  I thought it was an outstanding event.  The Alliance has come a long way since its launch in February.  It already has a number of accomplishments that it’s done, and we really heard a hearty endorsement of it from the countries that were attending and the need for this in this day and age.

We – and if I could just conclude on this point, I think what’s happened is that we – the world has uncovered and seen now this level and scale of religious persecution, and the chains of those who are persecuted start to rub against our skin, and we feel it.  We’re pushing back against that, and this global movement has now launched and it will not be deterred, it will not be thwarted.  This will continue.

So with that, let me attempt to answer your questions.

MR ICE:  Very good.  Thank you, Ambassador Brownback.  Okay, just as a reminder to everyone to get into the question queue, dial 1 and then 0.  And we’ll try to get to everyone.  At this time, let’s go to Matt Lee at the Associated Press.

QUESTION:  Thanks a lot.  Mr. Ambassador, I’d like to kind of pull back and focus on your last comment there, but look at this – today’s and yesterday’s event from a kind of 30,000-foot level.  How concerned are you – given your comment that you said that we’re pushing back, this is a global movement now, it will not be deterred, it will not be thwarted, it will be continued – how concerned are you that the incoming administration won’t be as – I don’t know what the right – enthusiastic, or it won’t have your portfolio as high a priority as this administration has obviously made it?  And if you are concerned, what steps are you taking to try to make sure that it doesn’t become less of a priority for American foreign policy?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yeah, thanks, Matt.  An excellent question.  The reason I’m optimistic about it is this is a bipartisan movement.  This law that this – the position I’m in was created under and renewed under the Frank Wolf Religious Freedom Act.  It was a bipartisan act, signed by President Obama when he was in office, had large bipartisan support in both houses for it.  Speaker Pelosi spoke at our last ministerial in Washington, strongly concerned about religious persecution in China in particular.

So while a different administration may emphasize different aspects of religious freedom, this goes deeply into the American psyche.  We just had the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower, the pilgrims coming here seeking religious freedom.  And I think this is just – this will continue.  There’ll be different emphasis points that a new administration will make, but it’s got broad bipartisan support, and I think that will continue here, and it will continue overseas.  I mean, now you’re seeing other countries pick up the cause that the United States launched.  I think without the U.S.’s leaning in and pushing it, this would not have gotten launched.

But now that it’s launched and you have a regular ministerial, and you have an Alliance that stood up on the topic, and you have 30 religious freedom roundtables that are grassroots activists around the world, this – the movement’s launched and it’s not going to stop with the change of an administration.  And I might be – I hope that the Biden administration would be strongly supportive of this as well.  Joe Biden was when he was a senator.  I would think he would continue to do it as president if that’s the final court ruling.

MR ICE:  Very good.  Let’s go to Jeremy Weber at Christianity Today.

QUESTION:  Good morning.  Hello, Ambassador.  Two questions.  One, you mentioned the 30 roundtables.  I was wondering if you could just pick three that have seemed to be the most promising or you’re most excited about what they accomplished so far.  And the second question, on the subject of efforts to protect religious sites in conflict zones, obviously everybody’s looking at the current armistice with Armenia and Azerbaijan.  The president of Azerbaijan pledged to protect the Armenian sites.  We just posted a op-ed today from the Catholicos Karekin II basically expressing skepticism that that will in fact take place.  Curious for your read on the likelihood of religious sites being protected there.  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  No, thank you.  The – I’d say two of the roundtables that immediately come to mind that have been outstanding – the one in D.C. is fantastic.  It is now – and it’s gone global.  Every – it meets every Tuesday 11:00 to noon.  I am on that call with them.  Greg Mitchell heads it up and they – they’ve had over 800 different individuals on those calls, usually get about 120 to 140 people on them, and bringing in cases all over the world of people plugging in now that it’s gone virtual.

The other one that just launched about two weeks ago is in Sudan of a religious freedom roundtable, and here’s a country that was a Country of Particular Concern ruled by Islamist militants, and now it’s embracing this religious freedom concept and seeking peace agreements built around the concept of religious freedom.  And they’re getting it in their region.  Those are two that immediately come to mind that I think are really doing an outstanding job.

The issue on the protection of religious sites in Nagorno-Karabakh came up in the Alliance meeting today, and the Armenian ambassador that presented brought that topic up about the need to protect these sites and for the religious adherents to be able to have access to them.  I – it is my hope that that will happen.  The Azeri ambassador called me when one of the sites had gotten shelled and was saying this was an accident and they – it was not an intentional thing.  Now, I haven’t heard the final determination on that, but we certainly are going to be calling on Azerbaijan and any other people involved to protect these religious sites.

What I’m excited about is that going forward, you’ve got a series of these places – Russia occupies the Donbas in Crimea and parts of Georgia – that they allow these religious sites to be protected and they protect them.  And we see this in a number of places around the world.  I think this is a growing movement that you’re going to see much more world condemnation when these places get hit if they are intentionally attacked.

MR ICE:  Very good, thank you.  Let’s go to Mamatjan Juma at Radio Free Asia.

QUESTION:  Sure.  This is Mamatjan Juma from Radio Free Asia.  So you just mentioned about China’s persecution of Uyghurs, and recently United States Government officially delisted ETIM, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, from its exclusion list, last month.  And – so what do you have to say to China, which continues to use ETIM and terrorism as a justification of persecuting Uyghurs and locking up millions of them?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Well, I think in particular what China is doing is absolutely wrong.  It’s one of the worst religious persecution situations in the world today, if not the worst.  And it is – it will not help them in their fight on terrorism.  They’re trying to sell it to the world that this is an effort to prevent terrorism, but they’re going to create more terrorists.  The answer to terrorism isn’t locking up everybody.  The answer to terrorism is religious freedom, allowing people to freely practice their faith, and they won’t fight you as much.  If the Chinese weren’t at war with faith, they would have – they’d have a more open society, but they’d also have a more satisfied citizenry that seeks to practice their faith and be left alone and left in peace.

So I – we continue to call on China to stop their war on faith, which will not be successful anyway, but against the Uyghurs, against the Tibetan Buddhists, against the Christian house church, against the Catholic Church, against Falun Gong.  They are persecuting all faiths.  And the big one that we announced today was this effort to really push back on the use of technology to create these virtual police states to persecute religious adherence.  And this is something they’ve done in Tibet, they are doing in Xinjiang, and rolling out in different places in their country.  And we want to stop this from spreading to other countries around the world or spreading more to other countries around the world.

MR ICE:  Thank you, Ambassador.  Let’s go to Jackson Richman at Jewish News Syndicate.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you very much, Ambassador Brownback, for doing this.  My question is:  how much of a focus will there be on anti-Semitism abroad, especially in Europe?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  There’s a great deal of it.  Elan Carr is the special representative dealing with this area, and he’s doing a great job with it.  And – but there is growing anti-Semitism.  That came up in our Alliance meeting this morning as well.  The representative to Israel pointed that out and also pointed out about the loss of Christians in the Middle East.  But there’s going to be a growing pushback against that.  And then – just we need to engage every tool that we can to push back against this feature of anti-Semitism that has not gone away and is growing more again.

MR ICE:  Okay.  Very well.  Let’s go to Jennifer Hansler at CNN.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you.  I wanted to follow up on Matt’s question, Ambassador, and see if you have engaged with the transition at all or if you intend to, and who you think might be a good replacement for you in the upcoming Biden administration.  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yeah, I haven’t engaged with the transition.  We’ve had these really big events that are coming up, and we’ve got more to come on a Religious Leaders Engagement Peace Initiative and on the Abrahamic Faiths Initiative, where we’re getting these Abrahamic faith theologians together to push back against the use of the theologies for violence and saying these theologies, the Abrahamic traditions, are peace oriented.  But I haven’t engaged the – anybody in any discussion – well, on – of any – the official transition team or apparatus.  I’ve been focused on this.  People ask me what I’m going to do, but I don’t – I’m not sure, and I’ve been focused on these events that we’ve had coming up this week.

MR ICE:  Okay.  Let’s go to Tenzin Dickyi at Radio Free Asia again.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you for the opportunity.  Ambassador, I wanted to ask about the religious freedom in Tibet, which still remains very grim, and China continues to claim that it has the right to recognize the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama.  As an ambassador, would you recommend any concrete action as part of the U.S. Government?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Well, number one, I traveled to Dharamshala, India to speak to the Tibetan community that were assembled there in exile and to tell them that the United States is opposed to China picking the next Dalai Lama.  They have no right to do that.  They have no theological basis to do that.  The Tibetan Buddhists have successfully picked their leader for hundreds of years, if not longer, and they have the right to do that now.  We believe – the United States supports – that religious communities have the right to pick their own leadership.  That certainly includes the next Dalai Lama.  So we’ve pushed back against that.  We’re going to continue to push back against that.  We think that’s completely wrong of the Chinese Communist Party to assert that they have that right.

MR ICE:  Okay.  Let’s go to Ilhan Tanir at Ahval News.

QUESTION:  Thanks so much, Ambassador Brownback.  I had two quick questions since today Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Turkey and met with Orthodox Christians, leader of the Orthodox Christians, and there was some backlash from Ankara.  Can you please tell us how do you see Turkey, Turkish Government policies, in terms of religious freedom in general, not only minorities but if you see in general how it’s respect?

And secondly, Turkey’s in control of several territories in northern Syria, and recently United States Commission on International Religious Freedom watch tier stated that there are also some severe religious freedom violations in those northern Syria territories under the Turkish Government that directed by Turkish Government.  Do you agree with this assessment?  How do you see religious freedom in northern Syria under the Turkish Government control?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Thank you for the question.  We’ve had a great deal of difficulty with the Turkish Government and some of the actions that they have taken that have persecuted people of faith.  Most notably was Pastor Andrew Brunson that was inappropriately charged, put in jail, in Turkish jail for two years, before being released under pressure from the United States and many other people around the world.  And unfortunately, Turkey has taken a number of actions that have been against the notions of freedom of religion, and we call on them to be open and a country in good standing that does protect the right of religious freedom for its own adherence, for people at home and abroad.

We’re very concerned about the situation for religious minorities in northern Syria, and I’ve seen these reports as well, and we call on the people that are over a particular area to allow people to freely practice their faith without persecution and to allow religious minorities to live and to thrive in that war-torn area.  It’s a very difficult situation right now for a number of people in northern – north Syria, whether they’re religious minorities or otherwise even too, but it’s particularly bad for religious minorities.

MR ICE:  Thank you, Ambassador Brownback.  And with that, I’m afraid we have run out of time on the briefing.  I want to thank everyone for their participation today, for calling in, and I want to thank you, Ambassador Brownback.  And with that, here – this is the end of the call, and the brief – the embargo is now lifted.  Again, thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Thanks, everybody.  Appreciate it.  Thanks, J.T.  Take care.  You guys all have a good day.  God bless you all.

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    Since 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has increased its resources to enforce a prohibition on importing goods made with forced labor, but has not determined its workforce needs. CBP formed the Forced Labor Division in 2018 to lead its efforts, and increased expenditures for the division from roughly $1 million in fiscal year 2018 to $1.4 million in fiscal year 2019. However, CBP has not assessed and documented the staffing levels or skills needed for the Forced Labor Division. For example, the division suspended some ongoing investigations due to a staff shortage and has plans to expand and train its workforce; however, the division has not assessed the number, type, locations, or specialized skills of positions it needs to achieve programmatic results. Without assessing its workforce needs, the division lacks reasonable assurance that it has the right number of people, with the right skills, in the right places. CBP has increased forced labor investigations and civil enforcement actions, but managers lack complete and consistent data summarizing cases. CBP detained shipments under 13 Withhold Release Orders (WRO) from 2016 through 2019, as shown in the figure below. However, the Forced Labor Division uses incomplete and inconsistent summary data to monitor its investigations. For example, data were missing on the sources of evidence collected for almost all active cases. Incomplete and inconsistent summary data on the characteristics and status of cases may hinder managers' effective monitoring of case progress and enforcement efforts. Figure: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Forced Labor Withhold Release Orders, 2016 through 2019 With regard to criminal violations, DHS's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has increased its resources to investigate allegations of forced labor, including those related to U.S. imports. ICE coordinates criminal investigations of forced labor, conducted in the U.S. and abroad. ICE reported spending about $40 million on forced labor investigations in fiscal year 2019, an increase of over 50 percent since 2016. Forced labor investigations often involve a range of criminal violations, including violations that are not related to the importation of goods. As such, reported expenditures include costs for cases on related issues, such as human trafficking. Forced labor is a global problem in which individuals are exploited to perform labor or services. The International Labour Organization estimates that forced labor generates profits of $150 billion a year globally. CBP is responsible for enforcing Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930, which prohibits the importation of goods made with forced labor. CBP has authority to detain shipments when information indicates that forced labor produced the goods. ICE is responsible for investigating potential crimes related to forced labor, and importers may be subject to prosecution. GAO was asked to review the status of DHS resources for implementing the Section 307 prohibition on forced labor imports, following an amendment of the law in 2016. This report examines (1) the extent to which CBP assessed agency needs for the enforcement of the prohibition on forced labor imports, (2) the outcome of CBP enforcement activities and monitoring of such efforts, and (3) ICE resources for investigations on forced labor. GAO reviewed CBP and ICE documents and data, and interviewed agency officials. This is a public version of a sensitive report GAO issued in July 2020. Information that CBP deemed sensitive has been omitted. GAO is making three recommendations, including that CBP assess the workforce needs of the Forced Labor Division, and improve its forced labor summary case data. CBP concurred with all three recommendations. For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or gianopoulosk@gao.gov.
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  • Open Data: Agencies Need Guidance to Establish Comprehensive Data Inventories; Information on Their Progress is Limited
    In U.S GAO News
    The Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act of 2018 (OPEN Government Data Act) codifies and expands open data policy and generally requires agencies to publish information as open data by default, as well as develop and maintain comprehensive data inventories. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has not issued statutorily-required guidance for agencies to implement comprehensive data inventories, which could limit agencies' progress in implementing their requirements under the act. OMB also has not met requirements to publicly report on agencies' performance and compliance with the act. Access to this information could inform Congress and the public about agencies' open data progress and statutory compliance. Implementation Status of Selected OPEN Government Data Act Requirements   Assessment Federal data catalogue: By July 2019, the General Services Administration (GSA) must maintain a point of entry dedicated to sharing agency data assets with the public, known as the “Federal data catalogue”. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and GSA must ensure agencies can publish data assets or links on the website. ✓ Online repository: By July 2019, OMB, GSA, and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) must collaborate to develop and maintain an online repository of tools, best practices, and schema standards to facilitate the adoption of open data practices across the federal government. ✓ Implementation guidance: By July 2019, OMB must issue guidance for agencies to implement comprehensive inventories. ✖ Biennial report: By January 2020, and biennially thereafter, OMB must electronically publish a report on agency performance and compliance with this act. ✖ Legend: ✓Requirement fully met I ✖ Requirement not met Source: GAO analysis of Pub. L. No. 115-435, 132 Stat. 5529(Jan. 14, 2019), resources.data.gov, www.data.gov , and an interview with OMB staff. | GAO-21-29. GAO found that all 24 Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act agencies display their data inventories on their websites, as well as on an online catalogue of federal data assets. Agencies took a variety of approaches to providing public access to individual data assets such as using Data.gov as the human-readable public interface, hosting searchable inventories on their own agency websites and providing lists of data or downloadable files on their websites. Information on the extent to which agencies regularly update their data inventories is limited. OMB and GSA do not have a policy to ensure the routine identification and correction of errors in electronically published information. The absence of such a policy limits publicly available information on agency progress. As of September 2020, seven of the 24 CFO Act agencies had also publicly released COVID-19 related datasets or linked to related information from their open data web pages as required by the Federal Data Strategy. These datasets provide data on a range of COVID-19 related topics including data on disease transmission and loans provided to businesses. Federal agencies create and collect large amounts of data in support of fulfilling their missions. Public access to open data—data that are free to use, modify, and share—holds great promise for promoting government transparency and engendering public trust. Access to open data is particularly important in the current pandemic environment as government agencies, scientists, and the public work to understand and respond to COVID-19 using data-focused approaches. The OPEN Government Data Act includes a provision for GAO to report on federal agencies' comprehensive data inventories. This report examines the extent to which 1) OMB, GSA, and NARA met their statutory requirements to facilitate the establishment of federal agencies' comprehensive data inventories; and 2) CFO Act agencies developed data inventories in accordance with OMB guidance. GAO reviewed agencies' websites and related documentation, and interviewed OMB staff and GSA and NARA officials. GAO is making two recommendations to OMB to issue required implementation guidance and report on agency performance. GAO also recommends that OMB and GSA establish policy to ensure the routine identification and correction of errors in agency data. GSA concurred with GAO's recommendation and OMB did not comment on the report. For more information, contact Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or SagerM@gao.gov.
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  • Offshore Wind Energy: Planned Projects May Lead to Construction of New Vessels in the U.S., but Industry Has Made Few Decisions amid Uncertainties
    In U.S GAO News
    Under the Jones Act, vessels carrying merchandise between two points in the U.S. must be built and registered in the United States. Developers are planning a number of offshore wind projects along the U.S. east coast, where many states have set targets for offshore wind energy production. Stakeholders described two approaches to using vessels to install offshore wind energy projects in the U.S. Either approach may lead to the construction of new vessels that comply with the Jones Act. Under one approach, a Jones Act-compliant wind turbine installation vessel (WTIV) would carry components from a U.S. port to the site and also install the turbines. WTIVs have a large deck, legs that allow the vessel to lift out of the water, and a tall crane to lift and place turbines. Stakeholders told GAO there are currently no Jones Act-compliant vessels capable of serving as a WTIV. One company, however, has announced a plan to build one. Under the second approach, a foreign-flag WTIV would install the turbines with components carried to the site from U.S. ports by Jones Act-compliant feeder vessels (see figure). While some potential feeder vessels exist, stakeholders said larger ones would probably need to be built to handle the large turbines developers would likely use. Example of an Offshore Wind Installation in U.S. Waters Using a Foreign-Flag Installation Vessel and Jones Act-Compliant Feeder Vessels Stakeholders identified multiple challenges—which some federal programs address—associated with constructing and using Jones Act-compliant vessels for offshore wind installations. For example, stakeholders said that obtaining investments in Jones Act-compliant WTIVs—which may cost up to $500 million—has been challenging, in part due to uncertainty about the timing of federal approval for projects. According to officials at the Department of the Interior, which is responsible for approving offshore wind projects, the Department plans to issue a decision on the nation's first large-scale offshore wind project in December 2020. Some stakeholders said that if this project is approved, investors may be more willing to move forward with vessel investments. While stakeholders also said port infrastructure limitations could pose challenges to using Jones Act-compliant vessels for offshore wind, offshore wind developers and state agencies have committed to make port investments. Offshore wind, a significant potential source of energy in the United States, requires a number of oceangoing vessels for installation and other tasks. Depending on the use, these vessels may need to comply with the Jones Act. Because Jones Act-compliant vessels are generally more expensive to build and operate than foreign-flag vessels, using such vessels may increase the costs of offshore wind projects. Building such vessels may also lead to some economic benefits for the maritime industry. A provision was included in statute for GAO to review offshore wind vessels. This report examines (1) approaches to use of vessels that developers are considering for offshore wind, consistent with Jones Act requirements, and the extent to which such vessels exist, and (2) the challenges industry stakeholders have identified associated with constructing and using such vessels to support U.S. offshore wind, and the actions federal agencies have taken to address these challenges. GAO analyzed information on vessels that could support offshore wind, reviewed relevant laws and studies, and interviewed officials from federal agencies and industry stakeholders selected based on their involvement in ongoing projects and recommendations from others. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    As of December 2019, at least 1,600 homes in Connecticut had confirmed pyrrhotite but the total number of affected homes is likely higher. According to one estimate, 4,000–6,000 more homes in Connecticut could develop crumbling foundations due to pyrrhotite. Affected homeowners may face total remediation costs of $150,000 or more and drops in property values of 25 percent or more. Connecticut established funding to provide homeowners with up to $175,000 towards the cost of foundation replacement, but affected homeowners are typically responsible for about one-third of total repair costs (which can include costs for replacing driveways and porches damaged during foundation replacement). Current funding is expected to assist 1,034 homeowners. Pyrrhotite Damage to a Basement and a Home Being Repaired Due to Pyrrhotite Damage GAO found that highly affected towns lost more than $1.6 million in tax revenue in 2018 due to lost assessment value of the houses affected by pyrrhotite, but town officials told us the losses have not yet significantly affected their budgets. However, officials were concerned that pyrrhotite could have long-term effects on their towns if the number of affected homes increased or homes were not remediated. GAO also found that homes located in highly affected towns and built when pyrrhotite-containing concrete was used sold for significantly less, on average, than similar homes in less-affected towns. Stakeholders told GAO that defaults and foreclosures related to pyrrhotite have been limited to date. Some federal funds have already been used for pyrrhotite testing and GAO identified eight additional federal programs that could be used to help mitigate financial impacts on homeowners. However, most of these programs have eligibility or funding restrictions that limit their potential for this purpose. Stakeholders with whom GAO spoke suggested other federal responses—in particular, declaring pyrrhotite damage a major disaster or establishing a federally backed insurance product. However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined that pyrrhotite damage did not qualify as a natural catastrophe, and a federally backed insurance program may not be feasible since it would serve a small population with high expected costs. Certain homes built in northeastern Connecticut and central Massachusetts between 1983 and 2015 have concrete foundations containing the mineral pyrrhotite. Pyrrhotite expands when it is exposed to water and oxygen and, over time, concrete foundations containing pyrrhotite may crack and crumble. The Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019 included a provision for GAO to study the financial impact of pyrrhotite. This report describes (1) what is known about the number of homes affected by pyrrhotite in the region; (2) the financial impact of pyrrhotite on homeowners; (3) the financial effects on towns, local housing markets, and the federal government; and (4) federal options to mitigate pyrrhotite's financial impact on affected homeowners. GAO analyzed data from state, local, and private entities about the extent of pyrrhotite in foundations and associated costs, and federal actions taken in response to pyrrhotite. GAO also interviewed federal, state, and local officials; homeowners; and other stakeholders such as banks and real estate agents. For more information, contact John Pendleton at (202) 512-8678 or pendletonj@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
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The results of the covert tests ranged from sales representatives appropriately explaining to GAO's undercover agents that a PPACA-exempt plan would not cover the pre-existing condition the undercover agents stated that they had, to engaging in potentially deceptive marketing practices that misrepresented or omitted information about the products they were selling. Specifically, in 21 of 31 covert tests, the sales representative appropriately referred undercover agents to a PPACA-compliant plan. In two of 31 covert tests, the sales representatives did not appear to engage in deceptive marketing practices but were not always consistent or clear in their explanation of the type of coverage and plans they were selling. In the remaining eight of 31 covert tests, the sales representatives engaged in potentially deceptive marketing practices, such as claiming the pre-existing condition was covered when the health plan documents GAO received after purchase said otherwise. GAO plans to refer these eight cases of potential deceptive marketing practices to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and corresponding state insurance commissioners' offices for follow-up as appropriate. Millions of Americans obtain health insurance coverage in the individual market, which consists mainly of private plans sold directly to consumers without access to group coverage. While generally regulated by states, starting in 2014, PPACA established a number of new federal requirements for the individual health insurance market. For example, PPACA prohibited insurers from excluding coverage or charging higher premiums for pre-existing conditions and required that individual market plans cover a set of essential health benefits, including coverage for mental health and substance abuse disorder services, prescription drugs, and maternity and newborn care. Certain types of health coverage arrangements that can be sold directly to consumers do not have to comply with some or all of PPACA's individual market requirements and, as a result, may be less expensive, but also offer more limited benefits compared to PPACA-compliant plans. Recent changes to federal law and regulations could result in the increased use of PPACA-exempt health coverage arrangements as alternatives to PPACA-compliant plans in the individual market. For example, in 2018, federal regulations expanded the availability of short term, limited duration insurance (STLDI) plans, a type of PPACA-exempt arrangement. In addition, starting January 1, 2019, individuals who fail to maintain "minimum essential coverage," as required by PPACA, no longer face a tax penalty. Further, the devastating economic effects of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic could create additional demand for affordable health coverage, including PPACA-exempt plans.  With these changes, and because of their lower relative costs, PPACA-exempt health coverage arrangements may be attractive to consumers, particularly those who find it difficult to afford PPACA-compliant plans. However, such arrangements generally do not need to follow PPACA's requirement that plans in the individual market be presented to consumers in defined categories outlining the extent to which they are expected to cover medical care. As a result, depending on how they are marketed and sold, PPACA-exempt arrangements could present risks for consumers, if, for example, they buy them mistakenly believing that coverage is as comprehensive as for PPACA-compliant plans. GAO was asked to obtain insights on the marketing and sales practices of insurance sales representatives who sell PPACA-exempt plans. In this report, GAO describes the results of covert tests we conducted involving selected sales representatives, when contacted by individuals stating that they had pre-existing conditions. In this regard, GAO agents performed a number of covert tests (i.e., undercover phone calls) from November 2019 through January 2020 posing as individuals needing to purchase health insurance to cover pre-existing conditions. GAO also discussed the marketing and oversight of PPACA-exempt arrangements with senior officials from federal agencies, including the FTC, and Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC)5. GAO provided a draft of this product to FTC, HHS, and NAIC for review and comment. 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    In U.S GAO News
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  • Doctor Sentenced for Role in Unlawful Distribution of Opioids
    In Crime News
    An Ohio physician was sentenced to two years in prison today for his role in illegally distributing opioids.
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  • Asphalt Contractor To Pay $4.25 Million To Settle Claims That It Misled The Government As To The Materials Used To Pave Road
    In Crime News
    Dave O’Mara Contractor Inc. (DOCI), an Indiana-based asphalt contractor, has agreed to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by misrepresenting to the government the materials that it was using to pave federally-funded roads in the state of Indiana, the Department of Justice announced today.  Under the settlement agreement, DOCI has agreed to pay over $4.25 million over a period of four years.    
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