Department Press Briefing – February 19, 2021

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

2:38 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. We have a couple items at the top. I wanted to start with recent events in Burma.

We are saddened to see media reports that a protester shot by police in Nay Pyi Taw on February 9th has died, marking the first reported death as a result of security forces’ response to the protests. We offer our condolences to her family and all those injured during the peaceful protests in Burma.

We condemn any violence against the people of Burma and reiterate our calls on the Burmese military to refrain from violence against peaceful protesters. We applaud yesterday’s announcement of sanctions by the United Kingdom and Canada against the Burmese military leaders responsible for the coup. As President Biden and Secretary Blinken have both said, the United States will continue to lead the diplomatic effort to galvanize the international community into collective action against those responsible for this coup.

Yesterday, Secretary Blinken discussed the situation in Burma with his counterparts from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. They condemned the coup and called on the military leaders to immediately end the state of emergency, restore power to the democratically elected government, release all those unjustly detained, and respect human rights and the rule of law.

Separately, Secretary Blinken and leaders from Australia, India, and Japan – also yesterday – discussed the urgent need to restore the democratically elected government in Burma. The United States will continue to stand with the people of Burma. We will work with partners and allies to press the Burmese military to reverse its actions and to help the people of Burma realize their aspirations for peace, democracy, and the rule of law.

Now moving on to China, the United States joins the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, and other countries in expressing concern with China’s recently enacted Coast Guard law, which may escalate ongoing territorial and maritime disputes.

We are specifically concerned by language in the law that expressly ties the potential use of force, including armed force by the China Coast Guard, to the enforcement of China’s claims in ongoing territorial and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas.

Language in that law, including text allowing the coast guard to destroy other countries’ economic structures and to use force in defending China’s maritime claims in disputed areas, strongly implies this law could be used to intimidate the PRC’s maritime neighbors.

We remind the PRC and all whose force operates – whose forces operate in the South China Sea that responsible maritime forces act with professionalism and restraint in the exercise of their authorities.

We are further concerned that China may invoke this new law to assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea, which were thoroughly repudiated by the 2016 Arbitral Tribal ruling. In this regard, the United States reaffirms its statement of July 13th, 2020 regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea.

The United States reminds China of its obligations under the United Nations Charter to refrain from the threat or use of force, and to conform its maritime claims to the International Law of the Sea, as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. We stand firm in our respective alliance commitments to Japan and the Philippines.

So with that, Operator, if you want to offer instructions for questions, we’ll turn to questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question please select one then zero on your telephone keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the one-zero command. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please select one then zero at this time.

MR PRICE: Great. We will go to the line of Matt Lee, please.

QUESTION: Thanks a lot. I’m just wondering, before I get to my questions, is it possible – could you ask the press office or someone to send us the lines that you just gave on Burma and China, just like to send out as a – it doesn’t have to be a written statement or anything but just send the lines.

MR PRICE: Okay.

QUESTION: That’s at the very top – if you could, that would be great. If not, I guess it’s all right.

But anyway, I wanted to ask about Iran and yesterday. So in the letter that was sent to the UN and also in the call, you guys didn’t explain – although I don’t think you were asked, but I would like you to ask now – to explain why it is that you guys withdrew the September decisions by the previous administration. Was it because that you agreed with the opponents, which is most of the world, that the previous – the United States under the previous administration did not have standing to invoke snapback, or was it that you did not think – or you don’t think that Iran is in significant non-performance with its obligations under the JCPOA? Or is it a combination of both?

And then related to that, because of the withdrawal, does that mean that you guys are okay with countries – say, Russia, China, others – buying and selling weapons from Iran? Because in withdrawing snapback, that means that the arms embargo was supposed to expire – which, remember, was the proximate cause for the previous administration’s decision to invoke it in the first place – withdrawing it means that that embargo is lifted. Thank you.

MR PRICE: Great. Well, thanks for that question, Matt. Let me start with one of the final elements first, and I will say to that: Regardless of the UN’s Iran sanctions architecture, we will continue to use our authorities to dissuade countries from providing arms to Iran. So there is certainly no change in our posture there at all.

When it comes to our – the UN actions that were undertaken yesterday, let me just say a couple broad words. The steps we took were intended to remove unnecessary obstacles to diplomacy. We removed recent restrictions on domestic travel for Iranian representatives at the UN, and we’re providing written notification to the Security Council that the United States no longer assesses the snapback of Iran-related UNSCRs has occurred. By reversing the previous administration’s imposition of additional movement restrictions on Iranian representatives, we are bringing domestic travel controls on Iranian representatives back in line with those on several other missions to the UN. This is indeed a return to our longstanding posture with regards to domestic travel of Iranian representatives to the UN.

Now, when it comes to snapback, snapback, as you know, Matt, was designed to help ensure Iran performed its JCPOA commitments. At present, no other members of the Security Council agree that previously terminated provisions of prior resolutions, in fact, snapped back in December, despite the position of the previous administration. When we were out of step with the other members of the Security Council, that deadlock weakened our ability to address Iran’s destabilizing activities. And reversing our snapback position, we calculated, would strengthen our ability to engage with the Security Council and with our closest allies and partners around the world on Iran. Indeed, reversing our snapback position, it strengthens our ability to engage with the Security Council on Iran, given that no other Security Council member agreed that snapback had occurred. So once again, we are on the same page with our close allies and our close partners with the steps that we took yesterday.

Great. With that, we will go to the line of Simon Lewis of Reuters.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the Australian Facebook issues. Australia has said they’re going to bring in laws for Facebook to pay news outlets for content. And he said – the Australian prime minister said that they’ve received support from world leaders on this issue. I’m wondering if that includes the United States, and does the State Department have a position on that particular issue?

MR PRICE: Well, what I would say, Simon, is that this is a business negotiation between multiple private companies and the Australian Government. Any questions on the status and implications of private business decisions should be directed towards those companies. As I think you know, the United States Government, we do regularly engage in support of U.S. companies, but we don’t generally share the specifics of that engagement. So I think we will leave it there.

We will go to the line of – let’s see – we’ll go to the line of Cindy Saine.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) please talk about the U.S. decision to de-link its suspension of millions of dollars of aid to Ethiopia over its dispute with Egypt over the dam project? And does this mean some aid will start to flow? And if so, how much? Thank you.

MR PRICE: So Cindy, the United States has decided to de-link its temporary pause on certain assistance to Ethiopia from the United States policy on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD. We have informed the Ethiopian Government of this decision. The resumption of temporarily paused assistance programs will be assessed based on a number of factors. We are committed to providing lifesaving assistance to those in need, and humanitarian assistance does remain exempt from the pause.

When it comes to specific amounts, the amount of State and AID security and development assistance currently impacted by the temporary pause on certain foreign assistance is approximately $272 million, and that includes funding from FY 2020 and prior fiscal years.

We’ll go the line of Will Mauldin.

QUESTION: I just wanted to ask a couple things, one real quickly: You mentioned the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Is that something that the Biden administration backs re-entering? Because, of course, the U.S., I don’t believe is in that but follows some of the traditional rules.

And then second, President Biden today talks a lot about working very closely with Europe in regards to China and Russia, but on the other hand, there are real divides with Germany wanting to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and Europe wanting to finish up this investment deal with China. Were those two issues discussed in terms of – with President Biden or Secretary Blinken and their counterparts about whether there is any wiggle room on those plans?

MR PRICE: So first, when it comes to maritime claims, especially in this context, I would repeat what we said at the outset, and that is that we reaffirm the statement of July 13th, 2020 regarding China’s unlawful and excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea. Our position on the PRC’s maritime claims remains aligned with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal’s finding that China has no lawful claim in areas it found to be in the Philippines exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.

We also reject any PRC claim to waters beyond the 12 nautical mile territorial sea from islands it claims in the Spratlys. China’s harassment in these areas of other claimants, state hydrocarbon exploration or fishing activity, or unilateral exploitation of those maritime resources is unlawful.

When it comes to Nord Stream, and this is something that we’ve talked about quite a bit in recent days, I wouldn’t want to characterize private discussions, but I am happy to reiterate again where we are on this. Our allies know this, our partners know this, and that is very important to us that we be clear on this. We’ve been clear for some time that Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal and that companies risk sanctions if they are involved. But as we said, we don’t preview any potential sanctions. We’ll continue to work with our allies and partners to ensure that Europe has a reliable, diversified energy supply network that doesn’t undermine our collective security. Our goal in all of this is to reinforce European energy security and safeguard against predatory behavior.

When it comes to the report you referenced, we’ve been in touch with Congress regarding it. The Secretary has been clear on the need for productive and constructive relationship with members of Congress. We certainly understand Congress’s legitimate interest in this issue, and we’re committed to engaging with Congress to ensure they have the information requested in as timely a manner as possible.

So with that, we’ll go to Jiha Ham – or Jiha Lam.

QUESTION: Hello?

MR PRICE: Yes, yes. I think we have you.

QUESTION: Okay. This is Jiha Ham with VOA Korean. I would like to ask you, on South Korea and Japan. As Assistant Secretary Sung Kim had a meeting with these two, I was wondering if there was any concern raised by assistant secretary about the ongoing bilateral issues and tensions between South Korea and Japan. Was there any sort of effort from the United States to ease tensions of these two countries? Or do you have any plans to mediate these remaining difficulties?

And also, I would like to ask you if South Korea, Japan, and the United States are all on the same page in regard to their ideas approaching North Korea, like, any disagreements. Thanks.

MR PRICE: Yeah. Thank you for the question. I think what I would say is that we value our robust and productive trilateral relationship with Japan and the Republic of Korea as we work together to promote our shared commitment to freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific region and across the globe.

As you noted – and I believe we issued a media note on this – Acting Assistant Secretary Sung Kim did take part in a trilateral meeting with our Korean and Japanese partners on this. As we’ve spoken about our approach to North Korea and the review we’re undertaking now, one of the central tenets even as we review that approach is that close coordination with our allies and partners.

And, of course, we have – two of our closest partners and in fact treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific are the South Koreans and the Japanese. We know that any approach to North Korea – one that puts denuclearization at the center, as we plan to do – won’t be effective if we are not working in tandem with our Japanese and Korean counterparts.

With that, why don’t we go to Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) if I may. Algeria just in the past couple of hours has announced the release of a number of pro-democracy activists. Wonder if you have any reaction on that.

And in Spain, there is a rapper, Pablo Hasel, who is being prosecuted over tweets about the monarchy. The incident has caused quite a few protests in Spain. Wondering if you have any comment on that and whether tweets and criticism of the monarchy should be the basis for prosecution. Thanks.

MR PRICE: Well, we’re aware of the arrest of Pablo Hasel and we are monitoring the situation. I don’t think we’re prepared to go beyond that at this point, and if we have any reaction to events in Algeria, we’d be happy to let you know on that front.

Demetri Sevastopulo.

OPERATOR: Demetri, your line is open. Demetri, please check your mute button.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, we have you now.

QUESTION: Sorry about that. Thanks, Ned. I have two quick questions about the Chinese coast guard law. Have you raised concern directly with Beijing? And secondly, has the U.S. seen any examples of concerning behavior since the law was passed in either the South China Sea or the East China Sea?

MR PRICE: For that, I think, Demetri, we would want to – we might want to refer you to DOD for instances of concerning behavior – for concerning behavior there. When it comes to the coast guard law, of course, we have been in close contact with our allies and partners, and we mentioned a few of them in this context: the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, and other countries that face the type of unacceptable PRC pressure in the South China Sea. I wouldn’t want to characterize any conversations with Beijing on this. Of course, we have emphasized that, especially at the outset of this administration, our – the first and foremost on our agenda is that coordination among our partners and allies, and we have certainly been engaged deeply in that.

We’ll go to Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) going back to Iran, if the Secretary or Special Envoy Malley or anyone at State has had any conversations with Mideast allies since last night’s announcement about coming back to the diplomatic table?

And then also on Iran, National Security Advisor Sullivan just a bit ago mentioned their move away to curb short-term inspections as a major concern of the U.S., and I’m wondering what the State Department feels (inaudible). And given that this is mandated by parliamentary law, do you feel that they can stop this action next week? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Well, thanks. I don’t think we have any additional calls to read out since last night. But I will make the point that this is – these have been consultations in coordination that have dated back really to the early hours of this administration. The President has made a number of calls to his foreign counterparts, most recently to the prime minister of Israel. Secretary Blinken has made calls to many of his foreign counterparts, numbering around 50 at this point. He has had numerous calls with counterparts in the region, including in Israel and the Gulf as well. So there have been close consultations with those partners throughout.

But I would also make the case and the point that our consultations have been ongoing with our European allies and partners as well. And I know there was quite a focus yesterday on the very brief statement we issued about our willingness to engage diplomatically with Iran in the context of the P5+1 if that invitation from the EU were forthcoming, but in many ways the antecedent to that was the really extraordinary joint statement from the United States and the E3, the statement by the foreign ministers of France, Germany, the U.K., and the United States of America.

And I called it extraordinary for a couple reasons. One, the fact that our – that we are once again on the same page as our closest allies is itself noteworthy given where we’ve been. We are very clearly no longer working at cross-purposes, and we are, in fact, working together in lockstep. But the Iran language in that joint statement really underscored and underlined that sense of unanimity when it comes to how we plan to confront this challenge.

Just to give you a couple of the highlights, the signatories expressed their shared and fundamental security interest in upholding the nuclear nonproliferation regime and ensuring that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon. The E3 and the United States affirmed their shared objective of Iran’s return to full compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA.

To your question, the E3 and the U.S. called on Iran not to take any additional steps, in particular with respect to the suspension of the Additional Protocol and to any limitations on IAEA verification activities in Iran. And the E3, the statement said, welcomed the prospect of a U.S. and Iranian return to compliance with the JCPOA. The E3 and the United States affirmed their determination to then strengthen the JCPOA and, together with regional parties and the wider international community, address broader security concerns related to Iran’s missile programs and regional activities. We are committed to working together toward these goals, so said that joint statement.

So this is language that you had been hearing from our podiums, from National Security Advisor Sullivan, from the Secretary, from the President of the United States himself. But in this joint statement yesterday, it became – it was espoused by those four parties, the United States together with our closest European allies, which itself was pretty extraordinary.

Now, the – when it comes to Iran’s latest provocations, look, I think that what we would say is that we are focused on the next step, and clearly, public posturing is not going to resolve this challenge. That’s why as a natural outgrowth of the position the President has put forward, we have expressed our willingness to take part in a meeting with the Iranians in the context of the P5+1.

This is only a first step. And as Secretary Blinken has stressed, there is a long way to go. We know that Iran is now significantly out of compliance, and indeed, its recent steps have taken it further away from the commitments under this deal. That is why, having taken this next step, talking becomes even more important. This is a challenge we know we have to address urgently, the challenge of containing Iran’s nuclear program, ensuring that Iran is never able to acquire a nuclear weapon.

And as you heard from this joint statement, it’s something that we are now quite clearly in lockstep with our allies and – with our allies from Europe, and we’ll see what the coming days and weeks hold on that front.

We’ll take a final question or two. Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION: Hi, can you guys hear me?

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Ned, the Trump administration played a mediating role in the Nile Dam dispute, though there was the impression among many observers in Africa that its stance was seen to favor Egypt. Is the Biden administration willing to resume that mediating role to resolve the Nile Dam dispute? Thanks.

MR PRICE: So, Nick, we continue to support collaborative and constructive efforts by Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan to reach an agreement on the GERD. We understand the GERD is a major issue for the three parties. We’re reviewing our GERD policy and assessing the role that we can play in facilitating a solution between those parties.

Why don’t we go to Ben Samuels of Haaretz.

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, we can.

QUESTION: All right, great. Thanks for this. So there are reports emerging that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have reached a deal to vaccinate 100,000 Palestinian workers. Is this an adequate step in the eyes of the administration, or does it feel that Israel needs to further facilitate vaccine distributions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza?

MR PRICE: So, Ben, on this we certainly welcome reports of vaccinations in the West Bank and Israel’s provision of vaccine for Palestinian healthcare workers in the West Bank, and we welcome it because we believe it’s important for Palestinians to achieve increased access to COVID vaccines in the weeks ahead.

The Secretary made this point today in a separate setting that, of course, here in the United States we are focused on ensuring the distribution of a safe and effective vaccine to the American people, but we know we can’t put this scourge of COVID-19 behind us until the world has access to these same safe and effective vaccines. And we know that because we need look no further than the variants to this disease that have emerged, and we know that the longer this disease circulates around the world that the more risk we have here at home.

So whether it is in the context of the Palestinian territories, whether it is in the context of countries that may have access to the vaccine through the COVAX facility, which, of course, the United States pledged an ambitious amount to today: $2 billion immediately, $4 billion over time. This is something that we are working to see happen, and so we certainly welcome when additional populations have access to a safe and effective vaccine.

Let’s go to Haik Gugarats. Do we have Haik? Okay —

OPERATOR: Your line is now open.

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, we have you.

QUESTION: Hi. Has the Saudi leadership of OPEC plus come up in Secretary Blinken’s conversations with his Saudi counterpart? And more broadly, how do you view the business of managing oil markets by OPEC producers’ alliance?

MR PRICE: Well, thanks for the question. I think it’s not something I would want to get into from here today. If we do have anything to share on that, we will be happy to get back to you. I also wouldn’t want to speak to private conversations.

So with that, I think we’ll go ahead and call it a day. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in, and we will see you back in the briefing room on Monday. Thanks very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:08 p.m.)

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    GAO identified nine categories of contracting fraud schemes that occurred at the Department of Energy (DOE), including billing schemes, conflicts of interest, and payroll schemes. For example, a subcontractor employee at a site created fraudulent invoices for goods never received, resulting in a loss of over $6 million. In another scheme, a contractor engaged in years of widespread time card fraud, submitting inflated claims for compensation. The contractor agreed to pay $18.5 million to settle the case. DOE reported that it identified nearly $15 million in improper payments due to confirmed fraud in fiscal year 2019. However, due to the difficulty in detecting fraud, agencies—including DOE—incur financial losses related to fraud that are never identified or are settled without admission to fraud and are not counted as such. Fraud can also have nonfinancial impacts, such as fraudsters obtaining a competitive advantage and preventing legitimate businesses from obtaining contracts. DOE has taken some steps and is planning others to demonstrate a commitment to combat fraud and assess its contracting fraud risks, consistent with the leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. However, GAO found that DOE has not assessed the full range of contracting fraud risks it faces. Specifically, GAO found DOE's methods for gathering information about its fraud risks captures selected fraud risks—rather than all fraud risks—facing DOE programs. As shown in the figure, DOE's risk profiles for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 did not capture four of nine fraud schemes that occurred at DOE. For example, one entity did not include any fraud risks in its risk profiles, yet GAO identified six types of fraud schemes that occurred at the entity's site. DOE plans to expand its risk assessment process, but officials expect the new process will continue to rely on a methodology that gathers information on selected fraud risks. The Fraud Risk Framework states that entities identify specific tools, methods, and sources for gathering information about fraud risks. Without expanding its methodology to capture, assess, and document all fraud risks facing its programs, DOE risks remaining vulnerable to these types of fraud. Fraud Risks Identified in Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 Risk Profiles Compared with Types of Fraud Schemes That Have Occurred at DOE DOE is planning to develop an antifraud strategy in fiscal year 2022 and has taken some steps to evaluate and adapt to fraud risks, consistent with leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. Part of DOE's effort to manage fraud risks includes adapting controls to address emerging fraud risks. Additionally, DOE is planning to expand its use of data analytics to detect contracting fraud, beginning in fiscal year 2022. DOE relies primarily on contractors to carry out its missions at its laboratories and other facilities, spending approximately 80 percent of its total obligations on contracts. GAO and DOE's Inspector General have reported on incidents of fraud by DOE contractors and identified multiple contracting fraud risks. GAO was asked to examine DOE's processes to manage contracting fraud risks. This report examines, for DOE, (1) types of contracting fraud schemes and their financial and nonfinancial impacts, (2) steps taken to commit to combating contracting fraud risks and the extent to which these risks have been assessed, and (3) steps taken to design and implement an antifraud strategy and to evaluate and adapt its approach. GAO reviewed relevant laws and guidance; reviewed agency media releases, Agency Financial Reports, and DOE Inspector General reports to Congress from 2013 through 2019; and reviewed documents and interviewed officials from 42 DOE field and site offices, contractors, and subcontractors, representing a range of sites and programs. GAO is making two recommendations, including for DOE to expand its fraud risk assessment methodology to ensure all fraud risks facing DOE programs are fully assessed and documented in accordance with leading practices. DOE concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Rebecca Shea at (202) 512-6722 shear@gao.gov or Allison B. Bawden at (202) 512-3841, bawdena@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
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  • Fixed-Price-Incentive Contracts: DOD Has Increased Their Use but Should Assess Contributions to Outcomes
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Defense (DOD) has encouraged the use of fixed-price-incentive (FPI) contracts where appropriate. These contracts can provide defense contractors with a profit incentive for effective cost control and performance depending on how they are structured. Over the 10-year period from fiscal years 2010 through 2019, obligations on FPI contracts for major defense acquisition programs (MDAPs) grew to account for almost half of the $65 billion in obligations for fiscal year 2019. Percentage of Obligations by Contract Type for Major Defense Acquisition Programs from Fiscal Years 2010 through 2019 DOD guidance, including Better Buying Power initiatives, influenced DOD's use of FPI contracts over the last decade for the selected contracts GAO reviewed. In addition, when selecting a contract type, contracting officers also considered factors including the availability of cost or pricing data, previous experience with the contractor, and the previously used contract type. DOD has not assessed the extent to which use of FPI contracts has contributed to achieving desired cost and schedule performance outcomes. DOD spends billions of dollars annually using fixed-price type contracts to acquire its MDAPs, among other things. In 2010, DOD's Better Buying Power guidance encouraged the use of FPI contracts as a way to obtain greater efficiency and productivity in defense spending. Congress included a provision in statute for GAO to report on DOD's use of fixed-price type contracts, including FPI. This report examines (1) the extent to which DOD has awarded FPI contracts associated with MDAPs from fiscal years 2010 through 2019, and (2) the factors that influenced DOD's decision to use FPI contracts and the extent to which DOD assesses their use, among other objectives. GAO analyzed government contracting data by contract type for fiscal years 2010 through 2019 on contracts for 101 MDAPs. GAO further analyzed a non-generalizable sample of 12 contracts including six FPI and six firm-fixed-price (two of each type from each of the three military departments); conducted file reviews; reviewed policy documentation; and interviewed DOD officials. GAO recommends that DOD conduct an assessment of its use of FPI contracts for major defense acquisition programs, including the extent to which share lines and other contract elements contributed to achieving desired cost and schedule performance outcomes. DOD agreed with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact W. William Russell at (202) 512-4841 or russellw@gao.gov.
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  • VA Disability Benefits: VA Should Continue to Improve Access to Quality Disability Medical Exams for Veterans Living Abroad
    In U.S GAO News
    The number of disability claims for veterans living abroad—in foreign countries or U.S. territories—increased 14 percent from fiscal years 2014 to 2019. During this time period, claims processing time frames improved. In fiscal year 2019, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) approved comparable percentages of disability claims for veterans living abroad and domestically—63 percent and 64 percent respectively. However, for a subset of these claims—those where veterans likely received a disability medical exam scheduled by Department of State (State) embassy staff—approval rates were often lower. Veterans' access to disability medical exams abroad improved as VBA has increasingly relied on contracted examiners, rather than embassy-referred examiners, to conduct these exams. According to VBA, this shift expanded the pool of trained examiners abroad and increased the frequency and depth of VBA's quality reviews for contract exams. These quality reviews help VBA and its contractor identify and address common errors, according to VBA and contractor officials. However, several factors continue to limit some veterans' ability to access quality disability medical exams (see figure). Factors That Impair the Access of Veterans Living Abroad to Quality Disability Medical Exams Unknown quality of certain exams: A subset of veterans living abroad receive disability medical exams from an embassy-referred provider. VBA does not systematically assess the quality of these exams. Without doing so, VBA cannot determine if such exams affect the approval rates of veterans who receive them or contribute to longer processing times and are unable to make informed decisions about their use. Travel reimbursement: Under current VA regulations, VA is not authorized to reimburse veterans for travel expenses for certain services incurred in foreign countries as it is for those incurred within the United States, including U.S. territories. Consequently, some veterans living in foreign countries may be unable to afford to travel to exams. Examiner reimbursement: The Veterans Health Administration's (VHA) Foreign Medical Program reimburses examiners referred by embassy staff via paper checks in U.S. currency. These checks may be slow to arrive and not accepted by foreign banks, according to State and other officials and staff we interviewed. Such payment issues can deter examiners from being willing to conduct disability medical exams and thus limit veterans' access to these exams in foreign countries. Of the roughly 1 million disability claims VBA processed in fiscal year 2019, 18,287 were for veterans living abroad. Veterans living abroad are entitled to the same disability benefits as those living domestically, but GAO previously reported that veterans living abroad may not be able to access disability medical exams as readily as their domestic counterparts. VBA uses medical exam reports to help determine if a veteran should receive disability benefits. GAO was asked to review the disability claims and exam processes for veterans living abroad. Among other things, this report examines disability claims trends for veterans living abroad and these veterans' ability to access quality disability medical exams. GAO analyzed VBA claims data for fiscal years 2014 to 2019; assessed data reliability; reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, policies, and contract documents; and interviewed employees of VBA, State, and other stakeholders. GAO is making five recommendations, including that VBA assess the quality of embassy-referred exams, VBA and VHA assess whether to reimburse beneficiaries for travel to disability medical exams in foreign countries, and that VBA and VHA pay examiners located by embassy staff electronically. The Department of Veterans Affairs concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth Curda at (202) 512-7215 or curdae@gao.gov.
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  • Bloods Gang Members Sentenced to Life in Prison for Racketeering Conspiracy Involving Murder and Other Crimes
    In Crime News
    Five members of the United Blood Nation (UBN or Bloods) street gang were sentenced in Charlotte, North Carolina, after standing trial on federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) conspiracy and other charges. These defendants’ sentences are the culmination of a prosecution that charged 83 UBN gang members in the Western District of North Carolina with RICO conspiracy and other crimes.
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    In Crime News
    On Oct. 20, 2020, a former United States Marine Lance Corporal, recently stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and two co-defendants were arrested in Boise, Idaho on the federal charge of conspiracy to unlawfully manufacture, possess, and distribute various weapons, ammunition, and suppressors.  Liam Montgomery Collins, 21, and Paul James Kryscuk, 35, recently of Boise, were charged via an indictment, while Jordan Duncan, 25, a North Carolina native also currently residing in Boise, was charged via a complaint, both obtained in the Eastern District of North Carolina.
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  • Health Care Funding: Planned Parenthood Federation of America Affiliates’ Expenditures of Federal Funds, 2016 through 2018
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found GAO reviewed reported expenditures of federal funds among 39 Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) affiliates from fiscal years 2016 through 2018 and found that they expended approximately $271 million in federal funds during that time frame. The majority—about $256 million (or 94 percent)—were expenditures of funds from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that were awarded through grant programs or cooperative agreements. Most of these expenditures were from funding PPFA affiliates received through grants awarded by the Office of Population Affairs to provide family planning services. Why GAO Did This Study In order to achieve their programmatic goals, federal agencies provide funding to various organizations that, in turn, use those funds to implement programs and activities aligned with those goals. For example, HHS may award funding through grants or cooperative agreements to PPFA affiliates, who then expend those funds to provide health-related services to patients. GAO was asked to provide information on federal funding to PPFA affiliates. This report describes certain PPFA affiliates' reported expenditures of federal funds from grants and cooperative agreements during fiscal years 2016 through 2018. GAO reviewed expenditure data contained in audit reports submitted by 39 PPFA affiliates that were required to submit a single audit report to the Federal Audit Clearinghouse within at least one of the years covered by GAO's review. For more information, contact Michelle B. Rosenberg at (202) 512-7114 or rosenbergm@gao.gov.
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  • Justice Department Settles Claims Against City of Meriden, Connecticut, Involving Denial of Mosque
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut today announced an agreement with the City of Meriden, Connecticut to resolve allegations that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) by denying the application of the Omar Islamic Center to establish a mosque in March 2019, and by maintaining a zoning code that treats religious assemblies and institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies and institutions in nine zoning districts.
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  • Two Former Louisiana Correctional Officers Sentenced for Cover Up Following Death of an Inmate
    In Crime News
    Two Louisiana women, former jail deputies, were sentenced today to over a year in prison and six months in prison respectively for their roles in covering up a civil rights violation arising out of an inmate’s death at the St. Bernard Parish Prison (SBPP).
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  • Appellate Court Agrees with Government that Supervised Injection Sites are Illegal under Federal Law; Reverses District Court Ruling
    In Crime News
    In a precedential opinion, the Third Circuit ruled yesterday that it is a federal crime to open a supervised injection site or “consumption room” for illegal drug use.  Local nonprofit Safehouse planned to open the nation’s first such consumption room in the City of Philadelphia, where individuals would be invited to inject heroin and use other drugs under supervision.  But the Third Circuit ruled that doing so “will break the law” because Safehouse knows and intends that visitors to its consumption room will have a significant purpose of using illegal drugs.  In agreeing with the government’s interpretation of the Controlled Substances Act, the Court explained that, “[t]hough the opioid crisis may call for innovative solutions, local innovations may not break federal law.”
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    Citing the recent fatal attack at the home of a federal judge in New Jersey and increasing threats against federal judges, the Judiciary has asked Congress to enact a package of safety measures that would improve security at judges’ homes and at federal courthouses.
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  • Justice Department Settles Claims Against Borough of Woodcliff Lake Involving Denial of Permit to Orthodox Jewish Group to Construct Worship Center
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today announced an agreement with the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, to resolve allegations that the Borough violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying zoning approval for an Orthodox Jewish congregation to construct a worship center on its property. 
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    In Crime News
    A Colorado man pleaded guilty today to a federal hate crime for stabbing a Black man from Ontario, Oregon while the man was sitting in a fast-food restaurant.
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  • Justice Department Settles with New Jersey-Based IT Consulting Company to Resolve Immigration-Related Discrimination Claims
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that it reached a settlement with Quantum Integrators Group (Quantum), an IT consulting and staffing company based in New Jersey. The settlement resolves claims that Quantum (1) discriminated against a lawful permanent resident by requiring her, based on her citizenship status, to provide unnecessary documentation before it would refer her for an employment opportunity, and (2) routinely required other work-authorized non-U.S. citizens to present unnecessary documents to prove their eligibility to work.
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    In Crime News
    The Justice Department announced that a Statement of Interest (SOI) was filed today in a case pending in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that challenges the City of Philadelphia’s “Event Moratorium” that prohibits issuing permits for gatherings of 150 or more people on public property.
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    In Crime News
    The United States has filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California seeking to bar a San Diego tax return preparer from owning or operating a tax return preparation business and preparing federal income tax returns for others.
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    In Crime News
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    In Crime News
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