Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Virtual Town Hall with U.S. Mission Nigeria and U.S. Embassy Nairobi Employees and Family Members

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

Recorded on April 9, 2021

MS FITZSIMMONS:  Mr. Secretary, it is my pleasure, my sincere pleasure, to welcome you to the Africa Bureau family, and virtually to U.S. Missions Nigeria and Kenya.  My name is Elizabeth Fitzsimmons, and I’m the acting principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs.  I have the pleasure of moderating your town hall this morning with our staff posted in Abuja, Lagos, and Nairobi.  We’re grateful that you can spend this time with us, and we look forward to a vibrant exchange.

As we begin, I’d like to please introduce my chiefs of mission, my colleagues.  So I’ll begin, Mr. Secretary, with introducing you to U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Mary Beth Leonard.

AMBASSADOR LEONARD:  Hello, Mr. Secretary, and welcome to Nigeria.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Great to see you, Mary Beth.

AMBASSADOR LEONARD:  Hey, first I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce you to our consul general in Lagos, Claire Pierangelo.

MS PIERANGELO:  Good morning, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Claire, good to see you.

MS PIERANGELO:  Good to see you, sir.  Really pleased to see you as well.  So as we say in Nigeria, you are welcome.  Greetings from one of our largest consulates in the world, with our team of local staff, Marines, seven agencies, and all our family members.  We are here to take care of America’s business at the consulate general in Lagos.  So Ambassador Leonard, thank you, and back to you.

AMBASSADOR LEONARD:  Thank you so much, Claire.  And once again, Mr. Secretary, the warmest of welcomes to Mission Nigeria.  We are one 2,250 employees, American and locally engaged, from 12 agencies, and ably supported by our families, who sustain us.  On the Nigerian side, our colleagues come from every one of Nigeria’s 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.  In the United States, we come from 43 states, two territories, and D.C.  And we are all so proud to represent the United States to sub-Saharan Africa’s giant.  This country has the biggest economy, the largest population.  It’s the largest democracy.  And we know that our work saves lives from hunger, from illness, from violence, and thereby reducing threats to the United States from international terrorism and border-ignorant health risks.

We know that we are partners in creating shared prosperity between the United States and Nigeria.  They’re our second-largest trading partner.  More Nigerian students study at colleges in the United States than from any other country in Africa, and they send about a half a billion dollars a year in their universities and surrounding communities across our country.

Our commercial interests are helping to drive the diversification and growth of Nigeria’s economy, particularly in areas like IT and power and agriculture, and usually in ways that help drive down climate-damaging emissions.

And more to the – also we’re here at a time when this African giant is reasserting its preeminence in African and worldwide multilateral fora, at the same time that the U.S. is re-engaging in this spheres with new energy and optimism.

So Mr. Secretary, for all these reasons, thank you so much for coming to visit us and taking some time in our world.  We’re so looking forward to hearing from you, and we hope you’ll enjoy the rest of your stay with us.  Thanks so much.

MS FITZSIMMONS:  Thank you so much, Ambassador Leonard.  Secretary Blinken, we’re going to whisk you virtually now over to East Africa.  I have the pleasure of introducing my colleague, the charge d’affaires at U.S. Embassy Kenya, Eric Kneedler.

MR KNEEDLER:  Morning, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Eric, good to see you.

MR KNEEDLER:  Great to see you as well, and on behalf of the 1,800 people and 34 agencies and offices represented here at Mission Nairobi, I’d like to offer you a warm virtual welcome to Kenya.  Mission Nairobi is your largest embassy in the Africa Bureau, and we’re proud of the work our diverse and talented team carries out on behalf of the American and Kenyan people.  Mission Nairobi stands shoulder to shoulder with our Kenyan friends countering terrorism, creating jobs for both of our countries, battling infectious disease, and expanding the deep and enduring people-to-people ties.

Mr. Secretary, I know you need no further introduction, but with your permission I’d like to add one more biographic note for the benefit of our community.  While I think most are aware this is our first town hall virtually with the Secretary of State, they’re probably not aware that this is also our first town hall of any kind with a musician you can actually listen to on Spotify.  (Laughter.)  It’s a true story.  You can access the Secretary’s music on Spotify under Ablinken.  That’s a-b-l-i-n-k-e-n.  And since it is now nearing the end of the day here in Kenya, I hope our town hall viewers can enjoy a few of the Secretary’s songs.  So with that, Mr. Secretary, I’d like to thank you once again for taking the time to be with us today and turn it back over to Elizabeth.

MS FITZSIMMONS:  Thank you so much, Charge Kneedler.  Secretary Blinken, the floor is yours.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, thank you all so very much.  And Eric, if I notice a dramatic spike in my Spotify account from zero to three or four listeners, I’m going to know where it’s coming from.  So I thank you and I just want to assure everyone listening in today that that wasn’t a setup, but I would also suggest that you may find other, better venues for listening to music, especially to start the weekend.

But in all seriousness, it’s wonderful to be with everyone, and there is at least one benefit to having to meet virtually:  We can all be together in one very big town hall meeting.  I suspect we’re also going to give new meaning for this virtual visit to what a wheels up party is all about. I don’t know if we need to change the terminology.  Do we call it a satellite down party?  We’ll have to figure that out at some point.

But I really do want to start by thanking a few people, thanking our Charge d’affaires Eric Kneedler in Nairobi, Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard from Embassy Abuja, and Principal Officer Claire Pierangelo from the consulate general in in Lagos.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  And Elizabeth, thank you to you, our acting PDAS from the African Affairs Bureau, not just for serving as our emcee today, but for serving in a sense as our emcee every day in carrying out the extraordinary mission that we have in American engagement with Africa.  I also very much want to thank three site officers who made the town hall possible: Samuel Aronson in Abuja, Bill Bridgeland in Lagos, and Christopher Estoch in Nairobi.  Thanks to all three of you. Thanks to everyone who’s been able to help us put this together.

It means a lot to have this chance to connect with so many members of our missions overseas. Whether you’re a direct hire, a contractor, locally employed staff, or a family member; whether you work for the State Department or one of the many other U.S. Government agencies represented here, from DOD to the CDC to USAID, I’m deeply grateful for your service.  And I have to tell you it’s not an accident that I am making this virtual trip to Kenya and Nigeria near the start of my time as Secretary.  Our administration, the Biden-Harris administration is committed to elevating and increasing our engagement across Africa.  We’re reinvigorating our diplomacy, restoring respectful engagement with our partners, reaffirming our support for democracy and economic growth across the entire continent.

And as part of this virtual trip, I’m meeting with representatives from the clean energy sector in Kenya and with young people from several countries through YALI, because the rising generation of African leaders literally will shape the future not just of their countries but, I believe, of the world.  I have a chance to visit with health experts and patients in Abuja because public health is a significant component of the partnership between Nigeria and the United States, especially during COVID-19.

I’m also meeting with Nigerian and Kenyan senior officials because our governments work together closely on so many issues that all of you are engaged in every day, but most important, working together on issues that are actually critical to the people of our respective countries, that are having an impact on their lives.

I know that many of you have done a lot of work – often late into the evening – to make these events happen.  And so I just want to say thereto thank you very, very much.  This itinerary represents just a small fraction of the work that you’re doing every day in Nairobi, in Abuja, in Lagos to advance American interests, to build cooperation between our countries, and to represent our values.  These are vital diplomatic relationships, and the fact is you’re the ones making them possible.

Even at a less eventful time, I know the work you do is often very challenging, and then comes COVID-19 to make your jobs even harder.  We’ve lost people dear to us, and I know, for example, that includes George Kamau, who served as the director of the Information Resource Center and the American Center at Embassy Nairobi for 20 years.  We’re so grateful for his dedication and support, and I know that his memory will long, long endure.

We had the recent news of the death of a member of our State Department family on temporary assignment in Kenya, which is deeply saddening and distressing, and a reminder of how important it is for us to be there for each other and to seek help if we need it without shame.  The global authorized departure policy meant that many of you were separated and isolated from your family members as well as from each other, and Kenya is dealing with heightened security concerns.  In Lagos and Abuja, your movements outside the city centers are restricted, now even more so.

In short, none of this has been easy.  In the past few days as I’ve plunged into this virtual trip, I’ve learned a little bit more about the culture of your missions, and culture is so important to the missions and to our department as a whole.  I’ve heard about the Boatsy Ross and the Foggy Bottom boats that some of you take to work in Lagos.  I’ve heard about the magnificent locally employed staff choir in Nairobi, which I hope to actually hear, and the recycling program at Embassy Abuja that helps send at-risk kids to school.

But most of all, what I’m hearing across the board is about your perseverance and commitment.  You’ve kept essential work going throughout the pandemic.  You’ve helped Americans get home.  You’ve helped mission personnel stay safe.  It’s really remarkable, and all of us back here at home deeply appreciate it.

In my first remarks as Secretary, I said that we have some work to do across the department to build trust and morale.  We’ve got to do a better job listening to the people of the State Department when we’re making policy.  We’ve got to invest in diversity and inclusion.  We’ve got to build a workplace culture of collegiality, teamwork, respect.  And I want to be clear:  That doesn’t just apply to Washington, D.C.  It applies to you and all your colleagues in embassies and consulates around the world.  We are all a part of this community, and I’m committed to doing everything that I can to support you, to support your work, to support your families.

So thanks again for the work you’ve done just to make this virtual visit to Nigeria and Kenya a success, but especially for the work you’re doing every single day to serve our country, to serve the American people.

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    The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has reimbursed billions of dollars to states for the development, operation, and maintenance of claims processing and information retrieval systems—the Medicaid Management Information Systems (MMIS) and Eligibility and Enrollment (E&E) systems. Specifically, from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2018, states spent a total of $44.1 billion on their MMIS and E&E systems. CMS reimbursed the states $34.3 billion of that total amount (see figure). Money Spent by States and Reimbursed by CMS from 2008–2018 for Medicaid Management Information Systems (MMIS) and Eligibility and Enrollment (E&E) Systems For fiscal years 2016 through 2018, CMS approved 93 percent and disapproved 0.4 percent of MMIS funding requests, while for E&E it approved 81 percent and disapproved 1 percent of the requests. The remaining 6.6 percent of MMIS requests and 18 percent of E&E requests were either withdrawn by states or were pending. GAO estimates that CMS had some level of supporting evidence of its review for about 74 percent of MMIS requests and about 99 percent of E&E requests. However, GAO estimates that about 100 percent of E&E requests and 68 percent of MMIS requests lacked pertinent information that would be essential for indicating that a complete review had been performed. Among CMS requirements for system implementation funding is that states submit an alternatives analysis, feasibility study, and cost benefit analysis. However, GAO found that about 45 percent of such requests it sampled for fiscal years 2016 through 2018 did not include these required documents. The above weaknesses were due, in part, to a lack of formal, documented procedures for reviewing state funding requests. CMS also lacked a risk-based process for overseeing systems after federal funds were provided. CMS provided helpful comments and recommendations to states in selected cases, but in other instances it did not. In two states that had contractors struggling to deliver successful projects, state officials said they had not received recommendations or technical assistance from CMS. The states eventually terminated the projects after spending a combined $38.5 million in federal funds. According to CMS officials, they rely largely on states to oversee systems projects. This perspective is consistent with a 2018 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decision that federal information technology (IT) grants totaling about $9 billion annually would no longer be tracked on OMB's public web site on IT investment performance. Accordingly, the CMS and Health and Human Services chief information officers (CIO) are not involved in overseeing MMIS or E&E projects. Similarly, 21 of 47 states responding to GAO's survey reported that their state CIO had little or no involvement in overseeing their MMISs. Such non-involvement of officials with duties that should be heavily focused on successful acquisition and operation of IT projects could be hindering states' ability to effectively implement systems. To improve oversight, CMS has begun a new outcome-based initiative that focuses the agency's review of state funding requests on the successful achievement of business outcomes. However, as of February 2020, CMS had not yet established a timeline for including MMIS and E&E systems in the new outcome-based process. CMS had various initiatives aimed at reducing duplication of Medicaid systems (see table). Description and Status of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Initiatives Aimed at Reducing Duplication by Sharing, Leveraging, and Reusing Medicaid Information Technology Initiative Description Implementation status Number of surveyed states reporting use of the initiative Reuse Repository Used by states to collect and share reusable artifacts. Made available in August 2017. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. 25 of the 50 reporting states Poplin Project Was to provide free, open-source application program interfaces for states to use in developing their modular Medicaid systems. Initiative never fully implemented. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. Three of the 50 reporting states Open Source Provider Screening Module Open-source module for states to use at no charge. Made available in August 2018. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. One of the 50 states reported attempting to use the module. Medicaid Enterprise Cohort Meetings A forum where states can discuss sharing, leveraging, and/or reuse of Medicaid technologies. As of January 2020, Cohort meetings were being held on a monthly basis. 47 of the 50 states reported participating in the meetings. Source: GAO analysis of agency data. | GAO-20-179 However, as of January 2020, the agency was no longer supporting most of these initiatives because they failed to produce the desired results. CMS regulations and GAO's prior work have highlighted the importance of reducing duplication by sharing and reusing Medicaid IT. To illustrate the potential for reducing duplication, 53 percent of state Medicaid officials responding to our survey reported using the same contractor to develop their MMIS. Nevertheless, selected states are taking the initiative to share systems or modules. Further support by CMS could result in additional sharing initiatives and potential cost savings. The Medicaid program is the largest source of health care funding for America's most at-risk populations and is funded jointly by states and the federal government. GAO was asked to assess CMS's oversight of federal expenditures for MMIS and E&E systems used for Medicaid. This report examines (1) the amount of federal funds that CMS has provided to state Medicaid programs to support MMIS and E&E systems, (2) the extent to which CMS reviews and approves states' funding requests for the systems and oversees the use of these funds, and (3) CMS's and states' efforts to reduce potential duplication of Medicaid IT systems. GAO assessed information related to MMIS and E&E systems, such as state expenditure data, federal regulations, and CMS guidance to the states for submitting funding requests, states' system funding requests, and IT project management documents. GAO also evaluated a generalizable sample of approved state funding requests from fiscal years 2016 through 2018 to analyze, among other things, CMS's review and approval process and conducted interviews with agency and state Medicaid officials. GAO also reviewed relevant regulations and guidance on promoting, sharing, and reusing MMIS and E&E technologies; and surveyed 50 states and six territories (hereafter referred to as states) regarding the MMIS and E&E systems, and assessed the complete or partial responses received from 50 states. GAO is making nine recommendations to improve CMS's processes for approving and overseeing the federal funds for MMIS and E&E systems and for bolstering efforts to reduce potential duplication. Among these recommendations are that CMS should develop formal, documented procedures that include specific steps to be taken in the advanced planning document review process and instructions on how CMS will document the reviews; develop, in consultation with the HHS and CMS CIOs, a documented, comprehensive, and risk-based process for how CMS will select IT projects for technical assistance and provide recommendations to assist states that is aimed at improving the performance of the systems; encourage state Medicaid program officials to consider involving state CIOs in overseeing Medicaid IT projects; establish a timeline for implementing the outcome-based certification process for MMIS and E&E systems; and identify, prior to approving funding for systems, similar projects that other states are pursuing so that opportunities to share, leverage, or reuse systems or system modules are considered. In written comments on a draft of this report, the department concurred with eight of the nine recommendations, and described steps it had taken and/or planned to take to address them. The department did not state whether it concurred with GAO's recommendation to encourage state officials to consider involving state CIOs in Medicaid IT projects. HHS stated that it was unable to discern evidence as to whether a certain structure contributed to a specific outcome. GAO believes, consistent with federal law, that CIOs are critically important to the success of IT projects. For more information, contact Vijay D’Souza at (202) 512-6240 or dsouzav@gao.gov.
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  • Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Claire McCusker Murray Closing Remarks for the 2020 Violence Against Women Tribal Consultation
    In Crime News
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  • Fourth Circuit Upholds Jury Conviction in Foreign-Agent Prosecution
    In Crime News
    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today upheld an Eastern District of Virginia jury verdict convicting a man of acting and conspiring to act as an agent of the Turkish government within the United States without disclosing that relationship to the U.S. government. The Fourth Circuit also vacated an order granting a new trial and remanded the case for further proceedings before the district court.
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  • Justice Department Settles Claim Against California-Based Staffing Company for Favoring Temporary Visa Workers Over U.S. Workers
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that it signed a settlement agreement with AllianceIT, a provider of IT staffing services based in Pleasanton, California. This is the tenth settlement under the Civil Rights Division’s Protecting U.S. Workers Initiative, which is aimed at targeting, investigating, and taking enforcement actions against companies that discriminate against U.S. workers in favor of temporary foreign visa workers.
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  • Pregnant Women in DOJ Custody: U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Prisons Should Better Align Policies with National Guidelines
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO analyses of available data show that from calendar year 2017 through 2019, there were at least 1,220 pregnant women in U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) custody and 524 pregnant women in Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody. Pregnant Women in USMS and BOP Custody: Number, Age, Race, and Length of Time in Custody from 2017 through 2019 aUSMS does not track pregnancy outcomes, so length of time in custody may include time when the women were not pregnant. For BOP, the length of time represents only the period of pregnancy. GAO analyses also show that pregnant women were held at a variety of facility types from 2017 through 2019. For example, pregnant women spent 68 percent of their time in USMS custody in non-federal facilities where USMS has an intergovernmental agreement. BOP data show that pregnant women spent 21 percent of their time in BOP custody while pregnant at Carswell—BOP's only female Federal Medical Center. While USMS and BOP both have policies that address the treatment and care of pregnant women, not all policies fully align with national guidance recommendations on 16 pregnancy-related care topics. For example, national guidance recommends specialized nutrition and when needed, mental health care. USMS policies fully align on three of 16 care topics and BOP policies fully align on eight of 16. By taking steps to more closely align agency standards and policies with national guidance as feasible, USMS and BOP would be better positioned to help ensure the health of pregnant women in their custody. USMS and BOP data show that the agencies provide a variety of medical care and special accommodations to pregnant women, and both agencies track the use of restraints. For example, USMS data show that women receive prenatal care and BOP data show that women receive prenatal vitamins and lower bunk assignments, among other things. However, USMS could do more to collect data on pregnant and postpartum women in their custody who are placed in restrictive housing. While USMS requests that facilities that hold USMS prisoners submit data on a regular basis indicating which prisoners were placed in restrictive housing, facilities are not required to indicate if any of these prisoners are pregnant or postpartum. In addition, USMS does not have a requirement for facilities to immediately notify USMS when such women are placed in restrictive housing. By requiring these notifications and data collection, USMS would be better positioned to ensure that facilities are complying with its USMS Detention Standards and Department of Justice (DOJ) guidance that state pregnant and postpartum women should not be placed in restrictive housing except in rare situations. Policymakers and advocacy groups have raised questions about the treatment of incarcerated pregnant women, including the use of restrictive housing—removal from the general prisoner population with the inability to leave the cell for the majority of the day—and restraints. Within DOJ, USMS is responsible for prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing. BOP is responsible for sentenced prisoners. GAO was asked to review issues related to pregnant women in USMS and BOP custody. This report examines (1) what DOJ data indicate about pregnant women in USMS and BOP custody; (2) the extent to which USMS and BOP policies align with national guidance on pregnancy-related care; and (3) what is known about the care provided and the extent to which USMS and BOP track when pregnant women are placed in restrictive housing or restraints. GAO analyzed available agency data from calendar years 2017 through 2019, which were the most recent data available; compared agency policies to relevant national guidance; and interviewed officials and a non-generalizable sample of prisoners who had been pregnant in USMS or BOP custody. GAO is making six recommendations, including that USMS and BOP take steps to more closely align their policies with national guidance on pregnancy-related care as feasible, and that USMS require facilities to collect data on and notify USMS when pregnant or postpartum women are placed in restrictive housing. DOJ concurred with our recommendations. For more information, contact Gretta L. Goodwin at (202) 512-8777 or goodwing@gao.gov.
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  • U.S. Seeks to Recover More Than $300 Million in Additional Assets Traceable to Funds Allegedly Misappropriated from Malaysian Sovereign Wealth Fund
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department announced today the filing of civil forfeiture complaints seeking the forfeiture and recovery of more than $300 million in additional assets allegedly associated with an international conspiracy to launder funds misappropriated from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.
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  • Justice Department Reaches Agreement with the Board of Election Commissioners for the City of St. Louis to Ensure Polling Place Accessibility for Voters with Disabilities
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today reached a settlement under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with the Board of Election Commissioners for the City of St. Louis to ensure that St. Louis polling places are accessible during elections to individuals with mobility and vision impairments. 
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  • District Court Enters Permanent Injunction Shutting Down Technical-Support Fraud Scheme
    In Crime News
    A federal court entered an order of permanent injunction against an individual and five companies in a case against a large-scale technical-support fraud scheme alleged to have defrauded hundreds of elderly and vulnerable U.S. victims, the Department of Justice announced today. 
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  • Four Former Minneapolis Police Officers Indicted on Federal Civil Rights Charges for Death of George Floyd; Derek Chauvin Also Charged in Separate Indictment for Violating Civil Rights of a Juvenile
    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury in Minneapolis, Minnesota returned two indictments that were unsealed today. The first indictment charges former Minneapolis Police Department officers Derek Chauvin, 45; Tou Thao, 35; J. Alexander Kueng, 27; and Thomas Lane, 38, with federal civil rights crimes for their roles in the death of George Perry Floyd Jr.
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  • North Carolina Nail Salon Owner Convicted of Forced Labor
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department announced today that after a five-day trial, a federal jury in Charlotte, North Carolina, found Thuy Tien Luong, 37, of Charlotte, North Carolina, guilty of forced labor after finding that Luong compelled the labor of one of her nail technicians at a nail salon she owned and operated in Davidson, North Carolina. 
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  • Residents of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina Indicted for Promoting Tax Fraud Scheme
    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury in Orlando, Florida, returned an indictment April 21, 2021, charging residents of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina with promoting a tax fraud scheme.
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