Justice Department Settles Claims Against City of Meriden, Connecticut, Involving Denial of Mosque

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.

“The United States of America is, and must always be, a nation that protects the religious freedom of all people,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “For more than four centuries, religious people from all over the world have found refuge here. Our Constitution protects the right of all people in this free nation to exercise of religion. But that right will mean little if people cannot gather together in a place of their choosing and practice their faith. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act marked its 20th anniversary last month, and it ensures that people of all faiths can establish houses of worship. The Justice Department will continue to enforce this important law against any government that violates the right of faith communities to build gathering places for worship.”

“We have alleged that the Meriden Planning Commission’s denial of the Omar Islamic Center’s application to establish a mosque in Meriden was unfair and in clear violation of RLUIPA,” said U.S. Attorney John H. Durham of the District of Connecticut. “We’re pleased that the City of Meriden has agreed to settle this matter without additional litigation, and that members of the Omar Islamic Center will be able to worship in a location of their choice without undue government restraint.”

The proposed consent decree, which was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut and must still be approved by the court, resolves a lawsuit the United States also filed today. After the city denied the Omar Islamic Center’s application to establish a mosque, the United States opened an investigation of the city’s actions in July 2019. In January 2020, the United States notified the city that it had concluded that the city had violated RLUIPA and intended to file suit, and offered the city an opportunity to negotiate a resolution.

The United States’ complaint alleges that the city’s denial of the Omar Islamic Center’s application to establish a mosque imposed a substantial burden on the center’s religious exercise and treated the center, a religious assembly or institution, on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution. The United States’ complaint also alleges that the city’s zoning code treats religious assemblies or institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions in nine zoning districts. The city denies the allegations. As part of the agreement, the city has agreed to review and amend its zoning ordinance to comply with the requirements of RLUIPA, to provide training to its officials and employees about their obligations under RLUIPA, and to notify the public about the city’s compliance with RLUIPA in its zoning and land use actions.

RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. On Sept. 22, the 20th anniversary of RLUIPA’s enactment, the department issued a comprehensive report on its enforcement of the law. In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land. More information is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.

In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. The Task Force brings together department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.

Individuals who believe they have been subjected to discrimination in land use or zoning decisions may contact the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (800) 896-7743, or through the complaint portal on the Place to Worship Initiative website. More information about RLUIPA, including questions and answers about the law and other documents, may be found at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php.

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    Like other U.S. territories and states, Puerto Rico implements major functions of its Medicaid program by procuring services from contractors, such as the delivery of managed care services to Medicaid beneficiaries. In 2018, procurement costs represented $2.4 billion of Puerto Rico's $2.5 billion in total Medicaid expenditures. A 2019 federal indictment alleging Puerto Rico officials unlawfully steered Medicaid contracts to certain individuals has raised concerns about Puerto Rico's Medicaid procurement process, including whether this process helps ensure appropriate competition. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), within the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for overseeing the Medicaid program. CMS requires states and territories to use the same process for Medicaid procurements as they do for their non-federal procurements. However, CMS has not taken steps to ensure Puerto Rico has met this requirement. Instead, CMS has relied on Puerto Rico to oversee the territory's procurement process and to attest to its compliance. CMS approved Puerto Rico's attestation of compliance in 2004 and has not required subsequent updates. CMS officials told GAO that states and territories are in the best position to ensure compliance with their respective procurement laws. GAO and others have found that competition is a cornerstone of procurement. Using competition can reduce costs, improve contractor performance, curb fraud, and promote accountability. GAO reviewed selected Puerto Rico Medicaid procurements against federal procurement standards designed to promote competition and reduce risks of fraud. States and territories are generally not required to meet such standards. However, GAO and others have found that such standards can indicate whether a state's or territory's procurement process includes necessary steps to achieve fair competition. GAO found that seven of the eight selected Puerto Rico procurements did not include important steps to promote competition and mitigate the risk for fraud, waste, and abuse, underscoring the need for federal oversight. Competitive procurements. The requests for proposals for two of the three competitive procurements GAO reviewed did not include certain information on factors used to evaluate proposals and make awards. In contrast, Puerto Rico's managed care procurement—the largest procurement reviewed—included this information. Noncompetitive procurements. None of the five noncompetitive procurements GAO reviewed documented circumstances to justify not using competitive procurements, such as a lack of competition or an emergency. Puerto Rico officials explained that territorial law allows noncompetitive procurement for professional services regardless of circumstances. Because CMS does not oversee Puerto Rico's procurement process, the agency lacks assurance that Puerto Rico's Medicaid program is appropriately managing the risk of fraud, waste, and abuse. Procurements that did not include important steps to promote competition could have unnecessarily increased Medicaid costs, reducing funding for Medicaid services to beneficiaries. States' and U.S. territories' Medicaid procurement processes can directly affect their ability to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse in the program. A 2019 federal indictment alleging fraudulent Medicaid procurements in Puerto Rico has raised questions about the program's oversight. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 includes a provision for GAO to review oversight of Puerto Rico's Medicaid procurement process and its use of competition. This report examines CMS oversight of Puerto Rico's procurement process from its initial steps through the award, and how it helps ensure competition. GAO reviewed federal regulations, guidance, and Puerto Rico's December 2020 procurement reform plan; interviewed Puerto Rico and federal officials; and reviewed eight awards that represented about 97 percent of the costs of Puerto Rico's procurements in effect as of April 2020. These procurements were selected based on variation in cost, use of competition, and other factors. GAO assessed whether CMS addressed risks in Puerto Rico's procurement process by reviewing selected procurements against certain federal standards that apply to other non-federal entities and aim to mitigate the risk of fraud, waste, and abuse. GAO also assessed CMS's policies and procedures against federal internal control standards. GAO recommends that CMS implement risk-based oversight of the Medicaid procurement process in Puerto Rico. The Department of Health and Human Services concurred with this recommendation. For more information, contact Carolyn L. Yocom at (202) 512-7114 or YocomC@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
    The wife of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, leader of a Mexican drug trafficking organization known as the Sinaloa Cartel, was arrested today in Virginia on charges related to her alleged involvement in international drug trafficking.
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  • Virginia Tax Preparer Sentenced to More Than Two Years in Prison for Preparing False Returns
    In Crime News
    A Newport News, Virginia, tax return preparer was sentenced to 27 months in prison for preparing false tax returns, announced Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Justice Department’s Tax Division and U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger for the Eastern District of Virginia.
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  • Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivered a Policy Address Regarding Voting Rights
    In Crime News
    Good afternoon. It’s wonderful to be here in the Great Hall with the dedicated staff of the Civil Rights Division, joined by our Deputy and Associate Attorneys General, and by our newly-arrived Assistant Attorney General, Kristen Clarke. Welcome. I have tremendous respect for the work you do every day to protect civil rights for everyone in America.
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  • Turkish Businessman Arrested in Austria on Charges that He Allegedly Laundered Over $133 Million in Fraud Proceeds
    In Crime News
    A Turkish businessman was arrested in Austria on June 19, at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice. This arrest followed a superseding indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 28, which was unsealed today. The superseding indictment charged Sezgin Baran Korkmaz with one count of conspiring to commit money laundering, 10 counts of wire fraud, and one count of obstruction of an official proceeding.
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  • Justice Department Seeks Forfeiture of Third Commercial Property Purchased with Funds Misappropriated from PrivatBank in Ukraine
    In Crime News
    Today, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil forfeiture complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida alleging that commercial real estate in Cleveland, Ohio, was acquired using funds misappropriated from PrivatBank in Ukraine as part of a multi-billion-dollar loan scheme.
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  • Indiana Man Sentenced to 46 Months in Prison for Making Racially Motivated Threats Toward Black Neighbor and for Unlawfully Possessing Firearms
    In Crime News
    An Indiana man was sentenced Friday in federal court for making racially motivated threats to intimidate and interfere with his neighbor, who is Black, in violation of the criminal provision of the Fair Housing Act, and for unlawfully possessing firearms.
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  • Justice Department Announces National Response Center and Offer to Bring Assistance to Minneapolis Police Department to Support Law Enforcement and Safe Communities Through Fair Policing
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department, in an announcement by Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric S. Dreiband, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) Katharine T. Sullivan, and U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota Erica H. MacDonald, unveiled a new National Response Center Initiative and offered the assistance to the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) to support law enforcement, and review, enhance and reform policies and practices to prevent the use of excessive force. The BJA Law Enforcement Training and Technical Assistance Response Center will be a national resource for all state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies.
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  • NASA Human Space Exploration: Significant Investments in Future Capabilities Require Strengthened Management Oversight
    In U.S GAO News
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) again delayed the planned launch date for Artemis I, the first uncrewed test flight involving three closely related human spaceflight programs—the Orion crew vehicle, Space Launch System (SLS), and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS). Together, these programs aim to continue human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. The most recent delay, to November 2021, resulted in part from manufacturing challenges and represents a 36-month slip since NASA established a schedule to measure performance in 2014. This new launch date does not account for the effects of COVID-19. According to NASA officials, COVID-19 delays and schedule risks will place pressure on NASA's ability to achieve this launch date. Development cost estimates for key programs also increased. The cost of the SLS program increased by 42.5 percent and the EGS program by 32.3 percent since 2014, for a combined increase of over $3 billion, bringing the total to $11.5 billion. NASA does not plan to complete revised estimates for Orion, which are tied to the second, crewed test flight (Artemis II) before spring 2021. Key Parts of Space Launch System Ready for Testing at Stennis Space Center NASA awarded billions of dollars in development and production contracts to support flights beyond Artemis I, but the flight schedule has changed frequently due to a lack of clear requirements and time frames for planned capability upgrades. Limited NASA oversight also places efforts to plan and execute future flights at risk of adverse outcomes, such as increased costs or delays. For example, NASA is committed to establishing cost and schedule performance baselines for these efforts, but it plans to do so too late in the acquisition process to be useful as an oversight tool. In addition, senior leaders do not receive consistent and comprehensive information at quarterly briefings on future efforts, such as a program to begin developing a more powerful upper stage for SLS. This is because current updates provided to NASA management focus primarily on the more short-term Artemis I and II flights. This approach places billions of dollars at risk of insufficient NASA oversight. NASA is pursuing an aggressive goal to return American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by the end of 2024. The success of NASA's plans hinges, in part, on two upcoming test flights. An uncrewed test flight and subsequent crewed test flight are intended to demonstrate the capability of a new launch vehicle, crew capsule, and ground systems. The House Committee on Appropriations included a provision in its 2017 report for GAO to continue to review NASA's human space exploration programs. This is the latest in a series of GAO reports addressing this topic. This report assesses (1) the progress the programs are making towards the first test flight, known as Artemis I, with respect to schedule and cost, and (2) the extent to which NASA's human space exploration programs are positioned to support the planned Artemis flight schedule beyond Artemis I. To do this work, GAO examined program cost and schedule reports, test plans, and contracts, and interviewed officials. GAO also assessed the extent to which the COVID-19 state of emergency has affected schedules for these programs. GAO is making two recommendations to NASA to establish baselines ahead of a key design review and improve internal reporting about capability upgrades for human space exploration programs beyond Artemis I. NASA concurred with the recommendations made in this report. For more information, contact William Russell at (202) 512-4841 or russellw@gao.gov.
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  • Commercial Shipping: Information on How Intermodal Chassis Are Made Available and the Federal Government’s Oversight Role
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Containerized shipping—performed by oceangoing vessels using standardized shipping containers—accounted for approximately 60 percent of all world seaborne trade, which was valued at approximately $12 trillion in 2017. At a port, shipping containers are placed on "intermodal chassis" (chassis), standardized trailers that carry shipping containers and attach to tractors for land transport. Multiple entities are involved in the movement of shipping containers, including intermodal equipment providers (IEP) (which own and provide chassis for a fee); ocean carriers (which transport cargo over water); and motor carriers (which transport shipping containers over land via chassis). Four distinct models are used in the U.S. to make chassis available to motor carriers (see table), each with benefits and drawbacks according to the entities GAO interviewed. While chassis are generally provided to motor carriers using one of these four models, more than one model may be available at a port. Chassis Provisioning Models Model 1: Single chassis provider An individual intermodal equipment provider (IEP) owns chassis that are directly provided to shippers or motor carriers. Model 2: Motor carrier-controlled A motor carrier owns or is responsible for a chassis that it has procured under a long-term lease. Model 3: Gray pool A single manager, often a third party, oversees the operations of a pool that is made up of chassis contributed by multiple IEPs. Model 4: Pool-of-pools Each IEP manages its respective chassis fleet, but each allow motor carriers to use any chassis among the fleets and to pick up and drop off chassis at any of the IEPs’ multiple locations. Source: GAO.  |  GAO-21-315R Entities GAO interviewed identified multiple benefits and drawbacks to each of the chassis provisioning models. Regarding benefits, for example, both the single chassis provider model and the motor carrier-controlled model allow IEPs and motor carriers to have direct control over the maintenance and repair of their chassis, something these entities potentially lose under other chassis provisioning models. Further, the gray pool and the pool-of-pools models can resolve many of the logistical concerns regarding the availability of chassis, leading to operational efficiencies for port operators and the ability of motor carriers to choose whatever chassis they wish. Regarding drawbacks, cost considerations were identified in some cases. For example, under the single chassis provider model, two IEPs told us that while an expected part of the business, repositioning chassis to ensure there is a sufficient supply of chassis where they are needed can be costly to the IEPs. The federal government provides oversight of chassis safety but has a limited economic oversight role regarding chassis. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) employs several inspection methods to help oversee chassis safety and compliance with regulations. For example, inspectors perform roadside inspections on commercial vehicles, including chassis, in operation. FMCSA also performs investigations of individual IEPs to oversee chassis safety. While one stakeholder GAO spoke with stated that FMCSA should consider maintaining safety ratings for IEPs—as is currently done for motor carriers—FMCSA officials told us that the current processes provide sufficient information to select IEPs for investigation. The Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) oversees ocean carriers that provide service to and from the U.S. and works to ensure a competitive and reliable ocean transportation supply system. Entities may file complaints with FMC to allege violations of the Shipping Act of 1984, as amended. One such complaint was filed in August 2020, in which the complainants allege, among other things, that although ocean carriers do not own chassis, they still control the operation of chassis pools at ports. An initial decision on this complaint is expected in August 2021. None of the entities GAO spoke with identified additional actions they would like for FMC to take regarding chassis. Why GAO Did This Study Senate Report 116-109—incorporated by reference into the explanatory statement accompanying the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020—contained a provision for GAO to study intermodal chassis. Within the U.S., some entities have expressed concerns about chassis, including limited availability of chassis in some circumstances, as well as the age and safety of chassis. This report describes selected stakeholders' views on: (1) the ways in which chassis are made available for the movement of shipping containers and the benefits and drawbacks of those models, and (2) the federal government's role in the chassis market. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed relevant reports on chassis provisioning and federal oversight. GAO interviewed representatives from FMC, FMCSA, five industry associations, and the three largest intermodal equipment providers. GAO also interviewed three ocean carriers, five port operators, and a motor carrier selected, in part, for their large number of container movements. The information obtained from these interviews provides a broad perspective of relevant issues but is not generalizable to all entities. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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  • As Courts Restore Operations, COVID-19 Creates a New Normal
    In U.S Courts
    When coronavirus (COVID-19) cases spiked in March, court practices changed almost overnight, relying on virtual hearings that make it possible to conduct most court-related activities without coming to the building. Now, with courts seeking to restore in-person proceedings, one thing already is clear: Justice in a pandemic environment will have a very different look and feel.
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