The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Feb. 28 2015 1:02 PM

Murdered Russian Opposition Leader Was Planning to Release Information on Ukraine Conflict

Thousands of shocked Russians gathered on Saturday to lay flowers and light candles on the bridge where opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed in Moscow on Friday in what amounted to the country’s highest-profile killing of a political figure in more than a decade. And even though the investigation into the murder is just getting started, several reports claim Nemtsov was preparing to release information about the Kremlin’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko himself put forward the theory on Saturday. "He said he would reveal persuasive evidence of the involvement of Russian armed forces in Ukraine. Someone was very afraid of this ... They killed him," Poroshenko said, according to Reuters. He’s not alone. The New York Times talks to the editor of New Times magazine who met with Nemtsov two weeks ago. Nemtsov reportedly told his old friend he wanted to publish a pamphlet titled “Putin and the War” about the country’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict. He knew the risks. “He was afraid of being killed,” the editor, Yevgenia Albats, said. “And he was trying to convince himself, and me, they wouldn’t touch him.”

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For its part, Russia’s top investigative body said it is looking at several possible motives for the killing, including “murder as a provocation to destabilize the political situation in the country." The Investigative Committee said it was analyzing whether he had been killed as a "sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals," reports the Associated Press. The thinking is that fellow members of the opposition could have killed Nemtsov in order to create a martyr, an assertion that many immediately dismissed as ridiculous. The Investigative Committee is also examining whether the killing had anything to do with Ukraine or if there was any connection to Islamic extremism.

World leaders, including President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, condemned the killing and have called for a thorough investigation, notes the Guardian. “I am shocked and sickened by the callous murder of Boris Nemtsov as he walked in the heart Moscow last night," Cameron said in a statement on Saturday morning. "This despicable act must be fully, rapidly and transparently investigated, and those responsible brought to justice." Obama also called on “the Russian government to conduct a prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation into the circumstances of his murder and ensure that those responsible for this vicious killing are brought to justice.”

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Feb. 28 2015 12:32 PM

One Billion Young People Risk Hearing Loss Due to Loud Music

Turn down the music. That’s the key message from the World Health Organization that claims 1.1 billion young people are at risk of hearing loss because of the music they listen to through their smartphones or personal audio devices. The WHO claims that its data demonstrates around half of those aged 12-35 in middle- and high-income countries are exposed to unsafe levels of sound through headphones. And around 40 percent are exposed to potentially damaging sound at entertainment venues.

“As they go about their daily lives doing what they enjoy, more and more young people are placing themselves at risk of hearing loss,” says Dr. Etienne Krug, WHO Director for the Department for Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention. “They should be aware that once you lose your hearing, it won’t come back.”

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What can people do? The WHO explains:

Teenagers and young people can better protect their hearing by keeping the volume down on personal audio devices, wearing earplugs when visiting noisy venues, and using carefully fitted, and, if possible, noise-cancelling earphones/headphones. They can also limit the time spent engaged in noisy activities by taking short listening breaks and restricting the daily use of personal audio devices to less than one hour. With the help of smartphone apps, they can monitor safe listening levels. In addition they should heed the warning signs of hearing loss and get regular hearing check-ups.

The WHO estimates that around 360 million people across the world suffer from “moderate to profound hearing loss due to various causes.”

Feb. 28 2015 10:38 AM

Autopsy of Teen Killed by Denver Police Appears to Contradict Official Account

The 17-year-old girl who was fatally shot by Denver police officers on Jan. 26 while driving a stolen car suffered four gunshot wounds, according to the autopsy. Two bullets struck Jessica Hernandez through the left side of her chest, which her family has said directly contradicts the claim by cops who say they opened fire when she tried to run them down, reports Reuters. She also had bullet wounds on her thigh and pelvis. Police insist the cops repeatedly told those in the car to exit the vehicle, but a passenger tells the Associated Press that wasn’t the case.

 “The Denver Office of the Medical Examiner has classified the death of Jessica Hernandez as a homicide. The report shows that Jessie was shot from the driver’s side of the car and not from close range. These facts undermine the Denver Police Department’s claim that Jessie was driving at the officers as they shot her,” an attorney representing Hernandez’s family said in a statement. Many have raised questions about Hernandez’s death from the beginning and thousands signed a petition urging the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved in the investigation, reports Denver’s Fox affiliate.

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The AP, however, talks to a retired police chief who cautioned against making definite conclusions from the autopsy report, saying other factors need to be considered. "It's like putting a giant jigsaw puzzle together, and we've got two tiny little pieces right now," Montgomery said. "More are going to start coming into place."

Feb. 27 2015 10:59 PM

House Approves One Week's Worth of Funding for Department of Homeland Security

After earlier rejecting a bill that would have funded the Department of Homeland Security for three weeks, the House of Representatives late Friday voted 357 to 60 to keep the department operational for a single week as House Republicans continue their campaign to halt President Obama's immigration reforms by using DHS funding as leverage. From the Huffington Post:

A majority of Democrats joined Republicans to vote for the short-term fix, after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told her colleagues that the passage of the one-week resolution would assure a vote on a full funding bill next week. Democratic leadership aides said they were assured that the House would take up a full-year funding bill next week if they helped pass the one-week continuing resolution on Friday. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel insisted that no such promise had been made.
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The Senate, which has already voted overwhelmingly to fund DHS through September without any immigration-related conditions, also approved the one-week extension.

Feb. 27 2015 6:34 PM

Phil Robertson Says Interesting Things at CPAC, Bemoans Non-Christians in White House

This may come as a bit of a surprise to some, but Phil Robertson—the Duck Dynasty reality television star who came under liberal scrutiny and became a conservative folk hero after being suspended for his, um, colorful views on race relations and homosexuality—said some interesting things at CPAC on Friday.

The Conservative Political Action Conference is an annual event that brings together conservatism’s most dedicated grassroots activists, influential thought leaders, and some people who do reality TV. Sometimes people give speeches that make history and launch their political careers, and other times they say things that make you scratch your head.

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Here are some of the interesting things Phil Robertson said during his address:

On rock and roll music: “What do you call the hundred and ten million who have sexually transmitted illnesses? It's the revenge of the hippies! Sex, drugs, and rock and roll have come back to haunt us, in a bad way."

On genital herpes: “How many seconds does it take to get genital herpes? [The Centers for Disease Control] said 30 seconds. I'm like, whoa, that's pretty quick."

On Speaker John Boehner’s apparent enforcement of a House dress code and Robertson’s own CPAC fashion choices: “These are my church clothes. I never got around to buying a suit. … You say, ‘Phil, are you going to make it through this thing without of a suit?’ Irregardless of me not being able to go on the floor of the House of Representatives without a suit on, according to ol’ John Boehner—‘Hey John, I have my best clothes on!’

Boehner, here’s a newsflash! Just make sure you pass good bills comin’ out of that House that affects my life and don’t worry about the clothes on their backs, just pass good legislation! I’ll feel better about you!”

On non-religious people in the White House: Robertson quoted James Madison as saying, “This Constitution was written for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.” Then Robertson said that the problem with America is that there have been too many non-Christian presidents: “You know what’s happened, GOP? We got too many ‘any others’ in the White House! It wasn’t meant for them!”

On similarities between himself and George Washington: “Your founding fathers were godly. So am I. You say, ‘Phil, you’re like George Washington.’ Yeah! ‘You’re like Thomas Jefferson.’ Yeah! I’m just saying, they were godly.”

He said these interesting things in an acceptance speech for the Andrew Breitbart Defender of the First Amendment Award. If this has whetted your interest in interesting things said by Phil Robertson, Andrew Breitbart Defender of the First Amendment, Mediaite has video of the whole interesting speech here.

Jeb Bush spoke shortly after Phil Robertson. He also seems to have found the things Phil Robertson said to be interesting, as he tweeted this:

Feb. 27 2015 6:08 PM

Prominent Putin Critic Fatally Shot in Moscow Days Before Anti-Government Rally 

Multiple outlets are now reporting that the veteran Russian liberal politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in Moscow today. According to the Russian newswire TASS, he was shot four times near the center of the city.

The exact circumstances aren’t yet clear, but the shooting comes just before Sunday’s planned “anti-crisis” opposition rally in Moscow, organized by Russia’s beleaguered political opposition, which until today included Nemtsov. Fellow opposition leader Alexey Navalny was jailed last week, preventing him from attending the rally, meaning two of the movement’s best known leaders have now been silenced ahead of the highly-anticipated event, which is supposed to call attention to the worsening state of the Russian economy.

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Born in Sochi, Nemtsov was considered a rising star in Russian politics during the 1990s when served as governor of Nizhny Novgorod and then a deputy prime minister in Boris Yeltsin’s government. A co-founder of the liberal Union of Right Forces party, he became a staunch opponent of Vladimir Putin as well as a strong supporter of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and advisor to former Ukrainian President and Putin antagonist Viktor Yuschenko. In 2008, he cofounded the opposition party Solidarity with chess champion Garry Kasparov, and in 2009, unsuccessfully ran against a Kremlin-backed candidate for mayor of Sochi. He was a fixture at opposition rallies in Moscow and was arrested multiple times. Earlier this week, he had been sentenced to 10 days in jail for resisting arrest during a 2012 rally. Nemtsov also found other ways to needle Russia’s president, including publishing photos of his (alleged) Black Sea villa.

Nemtsov’s excellent English and sarcastic sense of humor made him one of the most quoted Russian opposition figures in the Western media. When I interviewed him in 2010 about plans to hold the Winter Olympics in his hometown, he was incredulous about the idea of having the games in “one of the only places in Russia where there is no snow in the winter. Comparing to Nikita Krushchev’s desire to grow corn in the Arctic circle, he predicted that the games would be “an economic and ecological catastrophe.”

Nemtsov believed pressure from Putin and cronyism was behind the IOC’s  decision to hold the games in Sochi. “Eventually, there will be an international investigation to bring to light why this decision was made,” he predicted, so far, sadly, inaccurately.

In an article on the upcoming rally published yesterday, he told the Financial Times that he believed Putin would serve out the rest of his term, as well as another one beginning in 2018. The goal, he said, was to be ready for 2024 when, according to Russia’s constitution, Putin can no longer run again.

“Three years ago, we were an opposition. Now we are no more than dissidents,” he said. “The task is to organize a real opposition again.”

Feb. 27 2015 6:02 PM

House Conservatives Revolt, Block GOP Leaders’ Bid to Avoid Partial DHS Shutdown

House Speaker John Boehner began Friday thinking he may have found a way out of the political stalemate that threatened to partially shutdown the Department of Homeland Security at midnight. His proposed solution—a three-week funding bill that would have set up a repeat of the same immigration fight next month—ended in an unexpected and embarrassing defeat Friday evening when he couldn’t wrangle enough of his party’s rank-and-file to vote for his stopgap measure.

GOP leaders held the vote open for more than a half hour as they frantically tried to convince enough conservatives to change their minds, but the measure ultimately failed 203-224. It needed 217 votes for passage.

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Democrats, at the urging of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, largely voted against the effort. That left conservative lawmakers to either side with GOP leadership or risk a partial shutdown of a federal agency that includes the Secret Service, TSA, FEMA, and Coast Guard. In the end, roughly 50 Republicans opted for the second of those two options.

The lower chamber remains in session, though, so it’s possible that the House could still vote again before midnight. Politico’s John Bresnahan is reporting that one option on the table would be to bring up an even shorter funding bill. After what just happened on the House floor, however, there's little to suggest the conservatives who have pushed DHS to the brink of a partial shutdown would be willing to budge now.

Earlier in the day, the Senate Republicans passed a standalone bill to fund DHS for the remainder of the fiscal year. That effort was step one of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s two-part plan, which also includes a standalone vote on legislation to block President Obama’s immigration reforms. GOP hardliners in the House have no interest in that plan, however, and appear steadfast in their desire to tie the department’s funding directly to reform-blocking legislation. If the House would have passed its three-week bill this evening, the Senate was ready to sign off on it.

If DHS funding does expire at midnight Friday, the agency will actually shut down largely in name only. A fraction of the department's staff would be furloughed, but by law the department's essential employees would be required to keep working, albeit in many cases without a paycheck. As I explained earlier this week, though, the irony of the situation is that if DHS funding does expire, it won’t specifically undercut Obama’s immigration reforms (which are self-funded by application fees) but it will harm a handful of programs that have traditionally been Republican favorites.

Regardless, the more immediate damage the stalemate and any shutdown would inflict appears likely to be on the working relationship of GOP hardliners and their party's more moderate leadership.

Feb. 27 2015 5:41 PM

GOP Taps Top George W. Bush Economist to Head Congressional Budget Office

Keith Hall, the former chief of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, will take over as head of the Congressional Budget Office after being named Friday by Republican leaders to replace Doug Elmendorf, who has held the job since 2009.

Hall’s selection could advance the GOP’s plans to secure more favorable CBO reports on conservative tax cut legislation; Republicans recently passed rules to compel the CBO to use “dynamic scoring,” which relies on the assumption that reducing tax rates creates enough increased economic activity to prevent a drop in revenue, in its accounting. The Obama administration and others have been critical of the approach, with the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget warning in January that dynamic scoring could “upend the level playing field that has existed for decades, and could call into question the accuracy, consistency, and fairness” of CBO evaluations.

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Hall’s support for dynamic scoring, opposition to minimum-wage increases, and reservations about the Affordable Care Act have earned him a reputation as a conservative, but he has not served exclusively in Republican administrations. He led the Bureau of Labor Statistics during President Obama’s first term and he is currently the chief economist for the International Trade Commission.

Feb. 27 2015 4:36 PM

There’s Got to Be Something More to This Story About a Stolen Picasso Found in the Mail

United States authorities have recovered a 1911 Picasso painting worth millions that disappeared from Paris in 2001, the Department of Justice says. “La Coiffeuse” was intercepted by customs agents in Newark after it was sent from Belgium in a FedEx package with a declared value of 30 euros, the DOJ announced Thursday in a press release that did not disclose the crucial and likely very interesting detail of why exactly customs agents realized they should be looking in low-value FedEx packages for a painting by one of the greatest artists who ever lived. From the release:

The shipping label attached to the package containing La Coiffeuse described its contents as “Art Craft / 30 E / Joyeux Noel,” indicating that the package contained a low-value handicraft shipped as a holiday present. The commercial invoice shipped with the painting similarly described the contents as an “Art Craft / Toy” valued at 30 Euros, or approximately $37 U.S. dollars.
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The painting was last exhibited in Munich in 1998, the New York Times reports, and disappeared from a storage area at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 2001. The United States has filed a civil forfeiture claim that would allow the painting to be returned to France; it’s not clear who sent or intended to receive the smuggled artwork. More to come on this story of international intrigue, hopefully.

Feb. 27 2015 3:46 PM

NFL Hires House Majority Whip’s Aide as “Chief Republican Lobbyist”

The NFL has hired a political operative named Nicole Gustafson—an aide to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise who’s also worked for ex-Majority Leader Eric Cantor—as its “chief Republican lobbyist,” the Hill reports:

The league has long been in the market for a GOP guru to help it navigate public policy matters following November's midterms, which left the party controlling both houses of Congress. ... The NFL has been beefing up its K Street team as it faces tough questions from lawmakers about an array of issues, including head injuries and player safety, the league's tax status, broadcasting rights and the use of performance enhancing drugs.
The NFL has spent about $10.12 million lobbying since 2007, when it began to ramp up its K Street efforts, and shelled out $1.22 million in 2014 alone.
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Gustafson will join a lobbying department run by Cynthia Hogan, a former White House counsel for the Obama administration who also worked with Joe Biden as a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hogan was hired in September 2014 as the NFL was being widely criticized for its handling of former Baltimore running back Ray Rice’s domestic violence case.

Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of the House oversight committee, said after this year’s Super Bowl that he plans to call NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell before Congress to justify the league’s nonprofit status. Slate’s Jordan Weissmann has written previously that the NFL should be taxed; Weissmann writes that while declaring the league office a for-profit endeavor would likely raise a negligible amount of revenue, its current status “makes a mockery of the entire concept behind nonprofits.”

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