Department Press Briefing – March 12, 2021

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

2:08 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon everyone and thanks for joining this telephonic briefing. We have just a couple things at the top before we turn to your questions. First, the United States is gravely concerned by the humanitarian situation in Yemen, and we remain one of its largest assistance providers. Secretary Blinken personally attended the March 1st Yemen donors conference to help raise the funds necessary to meet Yemen’s great needs. During that conference, Secretary Blinken announced more than $190 million in additional U.S. support for the people of Yemen. And just today, the United States restored full humanitarian assistance funding to areas of northern Yemen to help meet the needs of vulnerable Yemenis.

The United States supports the free flow of fuel, food, and other essential goods into Yemen. However, doing so requires not only that goods pass smoothly through ports, but also that they are allowed to pass through the country freely, including through areas under Houthi control. Unfortunately, we know that the Houthis continue to impede that flow, including diverting money from imports that were intended for civil service salaries in direct violation of their obligations under a UN-brokered agreement. As a result, civil servants are not getting paid and therefore lack funds to purchase what food is available. Houthi diversion of fuel imports is just one of the many ways they are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis for the majority of the Yemeni population under their control.

We have heard the UN and international donors decry the ways the Houthis are obstructing and diverting humanitarian assistance. And UN experts describe the ways they divert state revenues to fund their war efforts and place a stranglehold on economic activity. Contrary to some recent reporting, food is being consistently discharged at Hudaydah port according to data provided by the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism. Unfortunately, we can’t assure that food that passes through the port reaches those in need. That area is under Houthi control and the Houthis often divert and manipulate this aid, as I’ve mentioned.

The United States will work with the governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia to find a way to ensure fuel makes its ways – makes it – makes it to the Yemenis who need it most and that it is not confiscated by the Houthis for sale on the black market or for use in their war effort. Only through a durable peace agreement can we hope to reverse the dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Supporting such an agreement is precisely what U.S. Special Envoy Lenderking is seeking to do and why he has spent the last 17 days in the region.

Separately in his remarks this week before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary Blinken expressed his commitment to ensuring we have a whole-of-government approach to addressing the unexplained health incidents on U.S. personnel. At that HFAC hearing, the Secretary underscored the need to have a high-level person dedicated to this issue who can look at the issue every day and speak directly to him and his leadership team. Today we are pleased to announce that Ambassador Pamela Spratlen has begun her new position as senior advisor to the State Department Health Incident Response Taskforce. Ambassador Spratlen will streamline our coordination efforts with the interagency community and reaffirm our commitment to assure that those affected receive the care and treatment they need.

With that, operator, do you want to repeat the instructions for questions?

OPERATOR: And once again for questions, please press one and zero on your telephone keypad. To remove yourself from queue, repeat the one and zero command.

MR PRICE: Okay. We will start with the line of Matt Lee, please.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) health advisor. In the written announcement, there was nothing said about Cuba or any particular country where these issues may arise. Is that for a reason? Is it broader than that? And then my second question has to do with – it’s one that I brought up before with the Houthis, and that is that this situation seems to be getting worse rather than better – the humanitarian situation – since you guys removed them from the FTO list and since the three leaders were removed from the terrorism part of the SDGT list. And so I’m just wondering, I mean, is there any thought that you guys may have made a mistake in doing that? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Matt. To your first question, as we mentioned, we do have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. personnel, their families, and other U.S. citizens. Of course, these health incidents have been a priority for Secretary Blinken even before he was officially Secretary Blinken. He requested a comprehensive briefing on these incidents during the transition when he was secretary-designate. On his first day, full day here at the department, he received an update. He has since received comprehensive briefings.

He also wanted to ensure that the task force that has been established and working on these incidents since May of 2018 had connectivity directly to him, and directly to his senior leadership team. And so that is why we have decided, and he has decided to name Ambassador Spratlen as the senior advisor to the task force.

We didn’t specifically mention countries in that announcement because as you know, Matt, there have been now several countries where these incidents have been reported. We are seeking a full accounting of all of those who may have been affected by these incidents. That will be a large part of Ambassador Spratlen’s role, is to ensure that we know the full extent of these incidents.

There is also an individual on the task force who is responsible solely for engaging with those who may have been victims of these incidents. So we will continue to pay close attention to this. Secretary Blinken will continue to pay close attention to this, because he has no higher priority than the health and the safety and security than the department and dependents of department personnel.

When it comes to Yemen, Matt, look, we are not going to make any apologies for doing all we can to address the significant humanitarian plight of the people of Yemen. Yemen, as I’ve mentioned before, continues to be home to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. Some 80 percent of Yemen’s population lives – live under areas that are controlled by the Houthis. So what was very clear to us, what was very clear to members of Congress, what was very clear to aid organizations, what was very clear to UN entities, was that the broad designation of Ansarallah that was put forward in the very final hours of the last administration was far from alleviating the humanitarian plight of the Yemeni people, it was compounding it. It was making it worse.

And so it was very clear to us that if we were going to address not only the humanitarian plight and the humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people, but if we were also to push forward with the political settlement that we know must be at the heart of our efforts to de-escalate, to bring security and stability not only to the people of Yemen but also to our partners in Saudi Arabia and throughout the region, we needed to address the humanitarian suffering, the humanitarian plight of the Yemeni people. We will not make any apologies for the fact that humanitarian concerns are primary in our policy. It’s precisely why Secretary Blinken attended the Yemen donors conference where he announced more than $190 million in U.S. support. It’s precisely why we have announced the resumption of the provision of some aid to parts of northern Yemen.

We will continue to look for ways to support the Yemeni people as we continue to support what UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has been engaged in for some time now, and that in more recent weeks what Special Envoy Lenderking has been supporting, and that is bringing about a ceasefire and a political settlement to this long-running conflict in Yemen.

Next, why don’t we go to Cindy Saine.

QUESTION: Yes, sorry. On Ethiopia’s Tigray Region, has Ambassador Pasi returned from her trip? And what kind of situation did she find there? Can you elaborate a little bit about what kind of access she was granted, and what impact her – the visit is likely to have on policy? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thank you for that. So Ambassador Pasi did travel to Mekelle on March 10th. She traveled with a delegation of other ambassadors and diplomats as part of an Ethiopian-Government-organized diplomatic visit. She participated in briefings with the leaders of the transitional government of Tigray, and while there, she outlined the U.S. Government support for the people of Tigray and all vulnerable populations in Ethiopia. She underscored the importance of accountability for those responsible for human rights abuses, for gender-based violence, for all other atrocities.

We have taken note of some of the statements emanating from Addis. What we continue to call for is full and unhindered humanitarian access, as well as accountability, for those responsible for the reported atrocities.

When it comes to our foreign assistance to Ethiopia, as you know, we did announce that we delinked our temporary pause on certain foreign assistance from our policy on the GERD, or the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In addition to previously exempted programming, including humanitarian assistance and PEPFAR, we have decided to resume certain additional types of assistance related to global health food security and certain conflict mitigation activities.

Given the current environment in Ethiopia, we have decided not to lift the assistance pause for other programs, including most programs in the security sector. But it goes without saying, and this is also not unrelated to the previous question, that we remain committed to supporting the people of Ethiopia, and we’re the largest humanitarian donor in Ethiopia in FY 2020 and FY 2021 to date. We have provided more than $733 million in humanitarian assistance to respond to acute food needs, conflict-driven displacement, flooding, desert locust infestation, and the COVID-19 epidemic.

Lifting our assistance pause on programming outside of these areas remains under consideration. We are assessing whether to resume these programs in light of new challenges in Ethiopia and, of course, the needs of its people and how we can best address those.

We will go to the line of Francesco Fontemaggi.

QUESTION: There are several thing going on on Afghanistan after, of course, the Secretary’s letter and the U.S. draft plan that you have not commented but nor denied last week. We have now Turkey inviting the parties for talks in April, Russia hosting a conference next week and saying they’re on board with the idea of a Taliban role in an interim government. I wanted to know if all these initiatives were coordinated, if the U.S. is on board, of course, both with Turkey – I think yes – but with the Russian initiative; and further on, if you have any signs from Kabul and from the Talibans that they are willing to discuss the plan put forward by the U.S.

MR PRICE: Well, thanks for the question, Francesco. As you know, Special Representative Khalilzad remains in Doha, where he has been based for some time now. When it comes to the potential gathering in Turkey, as the Secretary has said, we have engaged countries in the region, as well as the United Nations, to try to move the parties towards a meaningful negotiation. And we welcome, as we have said, efforts by international partners to accelerate the peace process and to bring about a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.

We know that international support is essential to a just and durable peace. It’s precisely why the special representative and the State Department more broadly, we have sought to ensure that Afghanistan’s neighbors and those in the region play a constructive role, because we all have a stake in a peaceful, stable, and secure Afghanistan. It is not just a question for the United States, it’s not just a question for NATO; it is something that Afghanistan’s neighbors must also support and support in a constructive way.

When it comes to Russia, we spoke about this a bit yesterday, I believe. As I was saying in the broader context, we do believe Russia, as well as other countries in the region, has an important stake in a secure and stable Afghanistan. We have met with the Russians in the past in support of the Afghanistan peace process. We’re not – we don’t have anything to confirm at this time regarding our – any sort of potential participation on our part.

In all of this, the United States is playing a support role. And that is precisely what Ambassador Khalilzad is doing, because we recognize that this process has to be Afghan-owned, has to be Afghan-led. Ambassador Khalilzad is in Doha now, where he is supporting that intra-Afghan negotiations, the negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban, recognizing that any ideas, any proposals, any initiatives, at their core have to have the support of the Afghan people and, again, be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.

We will go to the line of Michael Lavers.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) my question. I wanted to follow up on what Ambassador Jacobson said on Wednesday during her briefing at the White House when she talked about $4 billion in aid being sent to the Northern Triangle to start addressing some of the root causes of migration out of the region. And I’m just wondering if you have any insight as to whether any of this 4 million will – 4 billion, excuse me, will go toward supporting LGBTQ groups, groups that work with folks with HIV and AIDS, to address some of the root causes of this migration. And also, will – does the State Department have any plans to bolster and support these groups in the region?

MR PRICE: Well, thanks for the question, Mike. You are absolutely right that President Biden has put forward this $4 billion plan, recognizing that if we are to get at the root causes of regional migration, we need to have a broad and comprehensive partnership with those countries in the region, especially the countries in the Northern Triangle. We have talked about corruption, we’ve talked about crime, we’ve talked about lawlessness, we’ve talked about impunity and insecurity as contributing to the patterns of irregular migration that have had an impact not only on our own border but, of course, on our southern neighbor in Mexico and the broader region as well.

That’s precisely why we need this partnership with the people of the region, with civil society elements in the region, and governments in the region to try and address some of these root causes. And you will note that I mentioned civil society as an important partner. Oftentimes, we know that civil society elements are important purveyors of humanitarian aid, humanitarian assistance, important implementers on the ground.

I don’t have any details to share as to whether LGBTQ rights groups are part of this, but civil society, of course, is a key element of that. I think more broadly – and you know this and have covered this – the United States stands up for and defends the rights of LGBTQI people around the world. We firmly oppose abuses against the community, and we urge governments to repeal laws that criminalize individuals on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. As you know, the President, as an early act in office, put forward a presidential memorandum that once again made it the policy of the U.S. Government not only to protect but also to promote the rights of LGBTQ people around the globe. That applies equally to the Western Hemisphere as it does to other regions, and that partnership with civil society will be vibrant and ongoing under this administration.

Let’s go to the line of Laura Kelly.

QUESTION: I hope you can hear me.

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Okay, great. If I may ask a question on Venezuela, if you are reviewing U.S. policy towards Venezuela, where are you in that review? Any action you’re considering, such as lifting sanctions?

And if I may, Rob Berschinski was announced today as a special assistant to the President and the National Security Council for Democracy and Human Rights. Do you have any comment on that appointment and how you’ll work with him? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Well, thanks very much for that. There are some things about our Venezuela policy that are not up for review, and that is the fact and our recognition that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator. And his repression, his corruption, his mismanagement, we know that has created one of the worst humanitarian crises this hemisphere has seen.

We also have already taken action in some important ways. Of course, there was the announcement this week of temporary protected status for Venezuelans who are in the United States. We continue to seek to find ways to address the humanitarian concerns of millions of Venezuelans with international partners. We continue to look to target regime officials and their cronies involved in the corruption and human rights abuses that we have spoken to. And we continue to look for ways to aid and restore a peaceful, stable, and democratic future for Venezuelans in the region through, importantly, free and fair elections and a long-term economic recovery.

We also have been very clear that we continue to recognize the legal authority of the democratically elected 2015 National Assembly and, of course, the person chosen by this National Assembly to be its president as the constitutional interim president of Venezuela is Juan Guaido. Secretary Blinken had an opportunity in recent days to speak to Juan Guaido. We will continue to work with the National Assembly, continue to work with our allies and our partners both in the region as well as with Europe, and through other venues to support the Venezuelan people and to support their aspirations for human rights and for democracy going forward.

When it comes to Rob Berschinski, of course, we will – there is a close partnership between the State Department and the National Security Council, including on issues of human rights. Rob has been a powerful advocate within the community in recent years. Many of us have been fortunate to work with Rob over the years, and I know that we will continue to work very closely with him in his new role, for which we congratulate him.

Let’s go to the line of – how about Jiha – Jiha Ham.

QUESTION: (No response.)

MR PRICE: Do we have Jiha Ham?

QUESTION: All right, can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, we can now.

QUESTION: Oh, good. Well, yeah, I have a question about the Secretary’s upcoming travel to Japan and South Korea. If you are currently reviewing the policy on North Korea, I’m wondering how important these visits to Tokyo and Seoul are in respect to the policy review? You remember Assistant Secretary Sung Kim already had a meeting with his counterparts, and I assume that he’s been discussing about the new policy.

So is there any possibility that the Secretary finalizes the policy review with his counterparts during the visit?

MR PRICE: Well, thanks for that question. It’s an especially important one because it’s an especially important ingredient in our North Korea policy, and the ingredient of partnership – partnership including and especially with our treaty allies in the region. And, of course, the Secretary, together with Secretary Austin, the Secretary of Defense, will visit two of those important treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific, Japan and South Korea, starting early next week.

I say it’s an important in our North Korea policy, in our North Korea – our ongoing North Korean policy review, because we know – and this applies to every challenge across the board – but North Korea is an excellent example of it. We will not be as effective at achieving our interests if we don’t approach the challenge of North Korea, including the challenge of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its other areas of malign behavior, in lockstep with those partners and allies. We will – it’s imperative that we approach this challenge with them together.

I wouldn’t look for any sort of formal announcement about our North Korea policy review on this trip, precisely because this trip is a key ingredient to that policy review to ensure that the Secretary has an opportunity – the Secretary together with Secretary Austin – that both of them have opportunities to speak to their counterparts, to speak to the political leadership in both of these treaty allies, to have that input as we consider the most effective ways to bring about our end goals with North Korea. And that, of course, is reducing the threat to the United States and our allies as well as improving the lives of the North Korean and the South Korean people, all the while remaining committed to the denuclearization of North Korea. So I would expect we’ll have more to say on this topic in the coming days.

Why don’t we go to Doug Byun.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned, for taking my questions. Doug Byun from Yonhap News Agency, South Korea. I hope you can hear me.

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Okay. My question is related to South Korean and Japan relations. The United States is focusing on cooperation with the countries as well as among those countries. But as you know, the – there has been growing tension between the two countries over history issues, including the issue of comfort women, who are sex slaves of the Japanese military during World War II. And just yesterday, a 93-year old former comfort woman in Korea, Lee Yong-soo, sent an open letter to Secretary Blinken asking for a meeting with him during his visit to South Korea next week to discuss this issue. So my questions are: First, is the State Department aware of this letter and the request for meeting, and is such a meeting something the Secretary might consider? And lastly, will the State Department support taking this issue before the International Court of Justice if it came to that? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Well, thank you for the question. Let me start by saying broadly – and we’ve already alluded in this call to the trilateral engagement that Acting Assistant Secretary Kim took part in with senior Japanese and Korean officials the other week – but we know that a robust and effective trilateral relationship among the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan, and we know that it’s critical for our shared security, our common interest in defending freedom and democracy, upholding human rights, championing women’s empowerment, combating climate change, promoting regional global peace and security, bolstering the rule of law in the Indo‑Pacific and across the globe. We know that.

We have long encouraged Japan and South Korea to work together on history related issues in a way that promotes healing and that promotes reconciliation. As we stated at the time, we welcome specific efforts, including the 2015 Comfort Women Agreement, as an example of the two countries’ commitment to forging a more productive and constructive bilateral relationship. When it comes to that agreement, when it comes to the trilateral relationship, it was at the time Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken who was at the center of brokering some of these efforts.

This is something – the trilateral relationship is something that Secretary Blinken – now Secretary Blinken has invested quite a bit of time and focus into. And, of course, in the upcoming trip, we are prioritizing travel to these important treaty allies, not only to signal the strength of the bilateral alliance between the United States and Japan and the United States and South Korea, but also the important we place – importance we place on that trilateral relationship, as we know just how important it will be for every challenge we face in the region and beyond.

Let’s go to take a final question or two. Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) hear me?

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: All right, great. On Myanmar, I was wondering if there has been any additional contact with the military leaders since the ambassador’s conversation with the deputy commander last week. And has the U.S. been able to reach Aung San Suu Kyi or any of the NLD officials who are detained? And are you concerned that their lives could be at risk given that two NLD officials have died in Burmese custody? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks for the question. When it comes to Aung San Suu Kyi, we do have an outstanding request for contact with the state counsellor, who, of course, is currently unjustly detained by the military. We have continued to consistently inquire about her health and safety as well as the health and safety of all detained civilian leaders and civil society actors, and we’re working through appropriate channels to attempt to make contact with those detained.

When it comes to our contact with the military, let me just say that we will continue to press Burmese military officials to refrain from violence, to restore the democratically elected government, and to release those unjustly detained. While we will continue to use a number of channels to make these points, I don’t think it would be prudent for us to comment on that in particular.

When it comes to – I would just like to take an opportunity to comment on the death – the deaths of the NLD members in Burmese military custody, and to note that we condemn the security forces’ actions that resulted in the deaths of two NLD members, including the killing of Zaw Myat Lynn as well as the death of Khin Maung Latt, who died after being unjustly detained, unjustly detained with so many of their fellow countrymen and countrywomen.

The military and police have shown complete disregard for the people of Burma and have targeted young people – doctors, civil servants, journalists, and political activists. We reiterate our calls to the military and the police to stop the violence and arbitrary detentions, to release all those unjustly detained, and again, to restore the democratically elected government of – civilian government of Burma.

Why don’t we take a final question from Gaby Perozo.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Will the U.S. agree to support an election for governors and mayors in Venezuela even with Maduro in power and knowing there are no electoral guarantees set up at the present? Some opposition leaders are considering participating in these elections.

And another question: Venezuelan Ambassador Carlos Vecchio confirmed this week that one of the proposals being discussed in Washington, D.C.’s diplomatic circles is creation of a new international coalition, which some called G8YHH* or Group of 8 for Venezuela. The coalition would include Canada, United States, maybe France or Germany. Can you tell us more about it? Thank you so much.

MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to Venezuela – and I mentioned this previously, but the United States will continue to work through all appropriate venues to support the Venezuelan people and to support their aspirations for human rights and democracy. We look forward to strengthening coordination with those international partners, and they include the EU, the OAS, the Lima Group, the Contact Group, and others, as we work toward a peaceful, democratic transition in Venezuela.

When it comes to the elections, it’s not just that we are seeking – that we are calling for elections. Importantly, we are calling for free and fair elections, and that is what the Venezuelan people deserve. That is what the Venezuelan people demand when it comes to their aspirations for achieving democracy and human rights, and the United States will continue to stand with them in calling for, again, those free and fair elections as what we seek to help them achieve.

I think with that, we will call it a day. I believe as many of you know, we will do a call later today to preview the upcoming travel to Japan and South Korea, so we’ll have an opportunity to speak to many of you then. And talk to you soon.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:42 p.m.)

 

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    Since GAO's January 2020 report, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), within the Department of Homeland Security, continued to expand its public-private partnership programs—the Reimbursable Services Program (RSP) and the Donations Acceptance Program (DAP). The RSP allows partners, such as port authorities or local municipalities that own or manage ports, to reimburse CBP for providing services that exceed CBP's normal operations, such as paying overtime for CBP personnel that provide services at ports of entry (POE) outside regular business hours. The DAP enables partners to donate property or provide funding for POE infrastructure improvements. Regarding RSP, in 2020, CBP selected an additional 25 RSP applications for partnerships, bringing the total of RSP selections to 236 since 2013. There are many factors that CBP considers when reviewing applications for RSP including operational feasibility, and CBP may choose to not select certain applications. According to officials, CBP denied three RSP applications since GAO's January 2020 report. For example, CBP denied one application because the proposed agreement site was located too far away from the nearest CBP facility to make CBP officer travel time practicable. As of October 2020, CBP and its partners executed 157 memoranda of understanding (MOU) from RSP partnerships that they entered into from fiscal years 2013 through 2020. These MOUs outline how agreements are to be implemented at one or more POE. Of those 157 MOUs, 11 cover agreements at land POEs, 49 cover agreements at sea POEs, and 99 cover agreements at air POEs. The majority of MOUs executed since 2013 were at air POEs and focused on freight, cargo, and traveler processing. Although the number of RSP partnerships has increased, the growth in the total number of reimbursable CBP officer assignments, officer overtime hours, and the amount of reimbursed funds provided to CBP declined significantly in 2020. CBP officials explained that the decline in trade and travel at U.S. POEs contributed to the decline in requests for RSP services. Regarding DAP, in fiscal year 2020, CBP entered into one new donation acceptance partnership, bringing the total number of agreements to 39 since fiscal year 2015. Partners span a variety of sectors such as government agencies, private companies, and airline companies. Correspondingly, program donations served a variety of purposes such as expanding inspection facility infrastructure, providing biometric detection services, and providing luggage for canine training. As of October 2020, 27 out of 39 these projects, or 69 percent, were at land POEs. CBP officials estimated that the total value of all donations entered into between September 2015 and October 2020 was $218.2 million. On a daily basis in fiscal year 2020, over 650,000 passengers and pedestrians and nearly 78,000 truck, rail, and sea containers carrying goods worth approximately $6.6 billion entered the United States through 328 U.S. land, sea, and air POEs, according to CBP. To help meet demand for CBP inspection services, since 2013, CBP has entered into public-private partnerships under RSP and DAP. The Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2016 included a provision for GAO to annually review the agreements along with the funds and donations that CBP has received under RSP and DAP. GAO has issued three annual reports on the programs—in January 2020, March 2019, and March 2018. This fourth annual report updates key information from GAO's January 2020 report by examining the status of CBP public-private partnership program agreements, including the purposes for which CBP used the funds and donations from these agreements in fiscal year 2020. GAO collected and analyzed all RSP agreements, DAP agreements, and MOUs for both programs for fiscal years 2019 and 2020, excluding those analyzed in GAO's January 2020 report. GAO also analyzed data on use of the programs and interviewed CBP officials to identify any significant changes to how the programs are administered. For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or GamblerR@gao.gov.
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    Good afternoon. Thank you very much to Vanderbilt Law School and in particular to the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law for hosting this event. I love Vanderbilt and I love Nashville, and I’m sorry not to be there in person with you today. Someday when COVID-19 is a memory and social distancing is something you do only with people you don’t like, I look forward to returning to Nashville and reconnecting with many of my old friends there. More importantly, I look forward to returning to some of my favorite honky-tonks and showing off my famous dance moves. I’ve been practicing at home in my free time, to make sure I’m ready.
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  • Financial Company Bankruptcies: Congress and Regulators Have Updated Resolution Planning Requirements
    In U.S GAO News
    Since 2015, Congress has not changed parts of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code (Code) related to financial companies or the Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA). However, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (Federal Reserve) have updated the resolution planning process to better match resolution planning requirements to the risks of companies. OLA is a regulatory alternative to bankruptcy for resolving failed, systemically important financial institutions, and resolution plans describe how a financial company may be resolved in an orderly manner if it fails. In November 2019, FDIC and the Federal Reserve finalized amendments to the Resolution Plans Required rule, establishing different filing cycles and content requirements for resolution plans based on the asset size and risk profile of companies. Regulators also finalized other rules related to OLA and resolution planning and proposed several additional rules. The 2007–2009 financial crisis and the failures of large, complex financial companies led some financial and legal experts to question the adequacy of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code for effectively reorganizing or liquidating these companies. These experts, government officials, and members of Congress responded by proposing changes to the Code and the supervisory process leading to a bankruptcy filing. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) established OLA as a regulatory alternative to bankruptcy. Under OLA, the Secretary of the Treasury may appoint FDIC as a receiver to resolve systemically important financial institutions. In addition to OLA, the Dodd-Frank Act requires financial companies to file periodic resolution plans with the Financial Stability Oversight Council, Federal Reserve and FDIC describing how they could be resolved in an orderly manner in the event of material financial distress or failure. The Dodd-Frank Act also includes a provision for GAO to study, at specified intervals, the effectiveness of the Code in facilitating the orderly liquidation or reorganization of financial companies and ways to make the orderly liquidation process under the Code more effective. This report examines (1) proposed or enacted changes to the Code related to financial companies and OLA since 2015, and (2) regulatory actions related to resolution planning and OLA. GAO reviewed proposed legislation, regulations, prior GAO reports, and agency reports and presentations on financial company bankruptcies, OLA, and resolution planning. GAO also reviewed comment letters to the 2019 proposed Resolution Plans Required rulemaking. GAO interviewed officials from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, FDIC, and the Federal Reserve. GAO also interviewed six industry stakeholders, including academics, a consumer group, industry associations, and former regulatory officials, about the 2019 Resolution Plans Required Rule. For more information, contact Michael Clements at (202) 512-8678 or ClementsM@gao.gov.
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    The Justice Department announced today that Lee Mouat, 42, has been indicted for federal hate crimes. Mouat is charged with two counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 249 by willfully causing bodily injury to a Black teenager and attempting to cause bodily injury to another Black teenager, through the use of a dangerous weapon, because of the teenagers’ race. Mouat was previously charged with the former count by criminal complaint in federal district court on Oct. 13, 2020.
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  • Prescription Drugs: U.S. Prices for Selected Brand Drugs Were Higher on Average than Prices in Australia, Canada, and France
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found GAO's analysis of 2020 data found that, for 20 selected brand-name prescription drugs, estimated U.S. prices paid at the retail level by consumers and other payers (such as insurers) were more than two to four times higher than prices in three selected comparison countries. The U.S. prices GAO estimated for comparison reflect confidential rebates and other price concessions, which GAO refers to as net prices. Publicly available prices for the comparison countries were gross prices that did not reflect potential discounts. As a result, the actual differences between U.S. prices and those of the other countries were likely larger than GAO estimates. The price differences varied by drug. Specifically, while estimated U.S. net prices were mostly higher than the gross prices in other countries (by as much as 10 times), some were lower. The following figure illustrates comparisons for two of GAO's selected drugs. GAO found similar differences in estimated prices paid by final payers at the manufacturer level. Estimated U.S. Net Prices and Selected Comparison Countries' Gross Prices at the Retail Level for Two Selected Drugs and Package Sizes, 2020 GAO's analysis found consumers' out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs varied across and within all four countries but likely more within the U.S. and Canada where multiple payers had a role setting prices and designing cost-sharing for consumers, and not all consumers had prescription drug coverage. In Australia and France, prescription drug pricing was nationally regulated and prescription drug coverage was universal; thus, consumers' out-of-pocket costs within these countries for each drug were generally less varied. For example, in Australia, consumers typically paid one of two amounts for prescription drugs—either about 5 or 28 U.S. dollars in 2020. In the U.S., potential out-of-pocket costs for consumers could have varied much more widely depending on the type of coverage they had. For example, for one drug in GAO's analysis, considering only a few coverage options, consumers' out-of-pocket costs in 2020 could have ranged from a low of about 22 to a high of 514 U.S. dollars. GAO provided a draft to the Department of Health and Human Services for review and incorporated the Department's technical comments as appropriate. Why GAO Did This Study While spending on prescription drugs continues to grow worldwide, studies indicate the U.S. spends more than other countries. However, various factors—such as country-specific pricing strategies, confidential rebates to payers, and other price concessions—may obscure the actual prices of prescription drugs. GAO was asked to review U.S. and international prescription drug prices. This report (1) examines how prices at the retail and manufacturer levels in the U.S. compare to prices in three selected comparison countries—Australia, Canada, and France, and (2) provides information on consumers' out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs in these countries. GAO analyzed 2020 price data for a non-generalizable sample of 41 brand-name drugs among those with the highest expenditures and use in the U.S. Medicare Part D program in 2017. Twenty of these drugs had price data available in all four countries. For U.S. prices, GAO estimated the net prices paid using data from various sources, including estimates of Medicare Part D rebates and other price concessions, and commercially available data. Prices for the selected comparison countries were obtained from publicly available government sources. National prices were not available for Canada, so GAO used the prices from Ontario, Canada's most populous province, as a proxy for Canadian prices. GAO also reviewed country-specific guidance and other relevant information and interviewed researchers, manufacturers, and government officials. For more information, contact John E. Dicken at (202) 512-7114 or dickenj@gao.gov.
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  • COVID-19: Efforts to Increase Vaccine Availability and Perspectives on Initial Implementation
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The federal government has taken several actions to increase the availability of COVID-19 vaccine doses and indicated it expects to have enough doses available for all adults in the United States by the end of May. As of April 1, 2021, the government had purchased 1.2 billion doses of one- and two-dose regimen vaccines. Also, vaccine companies reported making additional manufacturing sites operational, among other actions to expand capacity and mitigate challenges. Federal officials said projecting future availability of vaccine doses can be difficult, in part because of uncertainty surrounding complex manufacturing processes. Given this uncertainty, coupled with the significant manufacturing and distribution increases needed to have enough vaccine doses available for all adults, managing public expectations is critical. GAO's prior work has found that timely, clear, and consistent communication about vaccine availability is essential to ensure public confidence and trust, especially as initial vaccine implementation did not match expectations. COVID-19 Vaccination Site Stakeholders GAO interviewed identified challenges with initial COVID-19 vaccine implementation. For example, some stakeholders said states often did not have information critical to distribution at the local level, such as how many doses they would receive and when. The federal government has begun initiatives—outlined in a national response strategy—to improve implementation, such as creating new vaccination sites. In its March 2021 distribution strategy, CDC provided a high-level description of its activities and noted that more details would be included in future reports to Congress. To meet the expectations set by recent announcements, such as the planned expansion of vaccine eligibility to all adults and the introduction of tools to help individuals find vaccines, it will be imperative that the federal government effectively coordinate and communicate its plans, as GAO recommended in September 2020. Why GAO Did This Study Providing the public with safe and effective vaccines to prevent COVID-19 is crucial to mitigating the public health and economic impacts of the disease. The U.S. had almost 30 million reported cases and over 545,000 reported deaths as of March 27, 2021. The federal government took a critical step in December 2020 in authorizing the first two COVID-19 vaccines and beginning distribution of doses across the nation. The government had distributed about 180.6 million vaccine doses, and about 147.8 million doses had been administered, as of March 27, 2021, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines, among other issues, actions the federal government has taken to increase the availability of COVID-19 vaccine doses, and challenges with initial vaccine implementation—that is, prioritizing, allocating, distributing, and administering vaccine doses—identified by stakeholders and steps the federal government has taken to improve vaccine implementation. GAO reviewed documents from the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services, transcripts of public briefings, data from CDC, and interviewed or received written responses from federal officials, vaccine company representatives, and select public health stakeholders. GAO incorporated technical comments from the Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency as appropriate. For more information, contact Alyssa M. Hundrup at (202) 512-7114 or hundrupa@gao.gov.
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    A Florida man was sentenced today to 21 months in prison for filing a false tax return. Jami Kopacz, of Fort Lauderdale, pleaded guilty to filing a false corporate tax return on Dec. 16, 2020. According to court documents and statements made in court, Kopacz worked as a paid escort for clients across the United States. Kopacz received payments directly from his escort clients, and from a private business for whom he worked as an independent contractor. From 2015 to 2018, Kopacz used his corporation, JK Training LLC, to receive income, and then filed false corporate tax returns (Forms 1120S) that substantially underreported the company’s gross receipts and total income.
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  • Man-Made Chemicals and Potential Health Risks: EPA Has Completed Some Regulatory-Related Actions for PFAS
    In U.S GAO News
    The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has completed three of six selected regulatory-related actions for addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) outlined in EPA's PFAS Action Plan . (See fig.) For two of the three completed actions, the steps EPA took were also in response to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20 NDAA): After proposing a supplemental significant new use rule in February 2020, EPA met a June 2020 deadline set in the FY20 NDAA when the EPA Administrator signed the final rule. Among other things, under the final rule, articles containing certain PFAS as a surface coating, and carpet containing certain PFAS, can no longer be imported into the U.S. without EPA review. EPA incorporated 172 PFAS into the Toxics Release Inventory in June 2020. The FY20 NDAA directed EPA to take this action, extending EPA's original planned action to explore data for listing PFAS chemicals to the inventory. Finally, in March 2020, EPA completed a third regulatory-related action, not required under the FY20 NDAA, when the agency proposed a preliminary drinking water regulatory determination for two PFAS—an initial step toward regulating these chemicals in drinking water. Status of Six Selected Regulatory-Related Actions in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan Planned action Status Propose a supplemental significant new use rule. Complete Explore data for listing PFAS chemicals to the Toxics Release Inventory. Complete Propose a drinking water regulatory determination. Complete Monitor PFAS in drinking water. Ongoing Explore industrial sources of PFAS that may warrant potential regulation. Ongoing Continue the regulatory process for a hazardous substances designation. Ongoing Source: GAO analysis of EPA's 2019 PFAS Action Plan. | GAO-21-37 Three of the six selected regulatory-related actions are ongoing, and EPA's progress on these actions varies. For example: As of August 2020, EPA was developing a proposed rulemaking for a nationwide drinking water monitoring rule that includes PFAS, which EPA officials said the agency intends to finalize by December 2021. EPA planned to continue the regulatory process for designating two PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, would allow the agency to require responsible parties to conduct or pay for cleanup. On January 14, 2021, EPA issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking for the hazardous substances designation to get public comment and data to inform the agency's ongoing evaluation of the two PFAS. Beginning in the 1940s, scientists developed a class of heat- and stain-resistant chemicals—PFAS—that are used in a wide range of products, including nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, and some firefighting foams. PFAS can persist in the environment for decades or longer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that most people in the U.S. have been exposed to two of the most widely studied PFAS, likely from consuming contaminated water or food. According to EPA, there is evidence that continued exposure above certain levels to some PFAS may lead to adverse health effects. In February 2019, EPA issued its PFAS Action Plan , which outlined 23 planned actions to better understand PFAS and reduce their risks to the public. GAO was asked to examine the status of regulatory-related actions in EPA's plan. For six regulatory-related actions GAO selected in EPA's PFAS Action Plan , this report examines (1) the number of actions that are complete and the steps EPA took to complete them and (2) the number of actions that are ongoing and EPA's progress toward completing them. GAO first identified those actions in the PFAS Action Plan that may lead to the issuance of federal regulations or could affect compliance with existing regulations. GAO then assessed the status of the actions by reviewing EPA documents and examining EPA's response to related FY20 NDAA requirements. For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) met its goal to expand the 287(g) program. However, ICE has not established performance goals that cover all program activities, such as ICE's oversight of its law enforcement agency (LEA) partners, or measures to assess the program's performance, such as the percentage of LEA partners in compliance with annual training requirements. As a result, ICE is not well-positioned to determine the extent to which the program is achieving intended results. ICE considers a number of factors, such as LEAs' capability to act as an ICE force multiplier, when reviewing their suitability to join the program; however, ICE has not assessed how to optimize the use of its resources and program benefits to guide its recruitment of future 287(g) participants. For example, ICE has two models in which LEAs can participate with varying levels of immigration enforcement responsibilities. In the Jail Enforcement Model (JEM), designated state or local officers identify and process removable foreign nationals who have been arrested and booked into the LEA's correctional facility, whereas in the Warrant Service Officer (WSO) model, the designated officers only serve warrants to such individuals. However, ICE has not assessed the mix of participants for each model that would address resource limitations, as each model has differing resource and oversight requirements. By assessing how to leverage its program resources and optimize benefits received, ICE could approach recruitment more strategically and optimize program benefits. 287(g) Participants in January 2017 and September 2020 ICE uses a number of mechanisms to oversee 287(g) JEM participants' compliance with their agreements, such as conducting inspections and reviewing reported complaints. However, at the time of GAO's review, ICE did not have an oversight mechanism for participants' in the WSO model. For example, ICE did not have clear policies on 287(g) field supervisors' oversight responsibilities or plan to conduct compliance inspections for WSO participants. An oversight mechanism could help ICE ensure that WSO participants comply with their 287(g) agreement and other relevant ICE policies and procedures. The 287(g) program authorizes ICE to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies to assist with enforcing immigration laws. The program expanded from 35 agreements in January 2017 to 150 as of September 2020. GAO was asked to review ICE's management and oversight of the program. This report examines (1) the extent to which ICE has developed performance goals and measures to assess the 287(g) program; (2) how ICE determines eligibility for 287(g) program participation and considers program resources; and (3) how ICE conducts oversight of 287(g) program participant compliance and addresses noncompliance. GAO reviewed ICE policies and documentation, and interviewed officials from ICE headquarters and field offices. GAO also interviewed 11 LEAs selected based on the type of 287(g) agreement, length of participation, and facility type (e.g. state or local).While not generalizable, information collected from the selected LEAs provided insights into 287(g) program operations and oversight of program participants. GAO analyzed data on 287(g) inspection results and complaints from fiscal years 2015 through 2020. GAO recommends that ICE (1) establish performance goals and related performance measures; (2) assess the 287(g) program's composition to help leverage its resources and optimize program benefits; and (3) develop and implement an oversight mechanism for the WSO model. DHS concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or GamblerR@gao.gov.
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