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July 2 2015 1:39 PM

Watch Elizabeth Warren Slam a College-Accrediting Council President for His Role in Approving Fraud

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren pulled out her sassiest, most impressive self in a Senate committee hearing last month on the role of accreditation in maintaining the quality of higher education. In the hearing—a portion of which Warren uploaded on Thursday—Warren questions Albert C. Gray, the president of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, on his judgment in allowing a for-profit college system to be accredited in spite of multiple allegations that it had committed fraud.

Corinthian Colleges—the giant for-profit college company that operated almost 120 campuses in North America and tumbled into bankruptcy in May—was under investigation by 20 different states for lying to students and defrauding them to get them to enroll. 

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“You were aware all of these investigations and suits had been filed? You were tracking it, and yet you continued to accredit?” Warren asks in the video. As Gray musters up a stuttering response about his organization’s special “methods,” Warren interrupts to ask: “I’m sorry, do your methods include—if students have been lied to and defrauded by one of your colleges—that that might somehow count as a negative in the accrediting process?" Gray gets increasingly flustered as Warren shoots off more questions, and the whole six-minute video is a testament to the senator's sharp skills. It's both amazing and excruciating to watch. 

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July 2 2015 12:48 PM

Read Joe Biden’s Inspiring 1994 Note to a Boy With a Stutter

Politicians are often thought of as emotionless and unsympathetic—think the scheming Frank Underwood in Netflix’s hit series House of Cards, or the devastatingly snarky Selina Meyer in HBO’s satirical comedy Veep. But sometimes, they prove themselves to be more compassionate than anyone would expect. One such moment of revelation occurred yesterday in a heartwarming exchange on Twitter between Vice President Joe Biden and a man he met more than twenty years ago.

Brandon “Skip” Brooks was on a school trip from Delaware to Washington, D.C. with his eighth-grade class in 1994 when he met Biden—who was then a Delaware senator—during a Q&A session. Biden noticed that the boy had a stutter and pulled him aside to talk about his own childhood stutter. A week later, Biden sent Brooks a hand-written note, encouraging the boy to work hard and “remember what I told you about stuttering. You can beat it just like I did.”

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The full letter reads:

Dear Brandon—
It was a pleasure meeting you yesterday. You are a fine, bright young man with a great future ahead of you if you continue to work hard. Remember what I told you about stuttering. You can beat it just like I did. When you do, you will be a stronger man for having won. Also remember, every time you are tempted to make fun of someone with a problem, how it feels when you are made fun of. Treat everyone with respect and you will be respected yourself.
Your friend,
Joe Biden.

On Wednesday, Brooks posted a picture of the note to Twitter, writing that the letter still inspires him even two decades later. Biden responded to Brooks’ tweet an hour later with the words, “And it’s still true today, my friend.” In response to that, Brooks posted a second photo—this time of himself as an adult, being sworn in as a prosecutor by Biden’s son Beau Biden. “Took your advice to heart,” Brooks wrote to the VP.

Brooks told the Daily Mail that after receiving Biden’s letter in 1994, he ran for class president in high school to improve his public speaking. Then, he studied law at Boston College and worked as a prosecutor for several years. The letter he received in 1994 is safely being kept at his parents' home. He also spoke about the VP's remarkable ability to connect with people in his state, noting that "in Deleware, everyone has a Joe Biden story."

July 2 2015 11:28 AM

BP Agrees to $18.7 Billion Payout for Deadly 2010 Oil Spill

BP agreed on Thursday to pay $18.7 billion for damages caused by its oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, an accident that resulted in the deaths of 11 people and the largest marine oil spill in history. The settlement covers lawsuits filed by parties including the U.S. government, five U.S. states that were affected by the spill, and several hundred local government organizations. It also includes a civil penalty of $5.5 billion under the U.S. Clean Water Act.

The British oil and gas company has agreed to pay out the $18.7 billion over 18 years. This amount, which comes in addition to the hefty sums that BP has already had to pay in legal and clean-up fees over the last few years, is expected to end the majority of BP’s litigation wars over the accident, though the company still faces shareholder lawsuits and some outstanding costs from a 2012 class action settlement. With this new settlement, BP’s total bill for the spill climbs to $53.8 billion—a number that exceeds the company’s profits in the last three years.

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Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP’s chairman, said in a statement that the agreement offers “a path to closure” for BP and the Gulf. “Five years ago we committed to restore the Gulf economy and environment and we have worked ever since to deliver on that promise,” he said.

The effects of the BP spill would not have been as severe if multiple efforts to contain the flow, caused by the April 20, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, had not failed. Because these plans were unsuccessful, a steady stream of crude oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. The months-long spill is estimated to have tossed 210 million gallons of oil into the ocean—so much oil that it was visible from a NASA satellite. Beaches and wetlands in the surrounding areas were wrecked. In 2013, 4.6 million pounds of oily material was removed from the beaches of Louisiana. Clean-up of the spill lasted years after the event, as local areas reported extensive damage to wildlife, marine life, land, and tourism-related industries. 

July 2 2015 9:56 AM

A Greece Referendum Q&A With More Qs Than As

I’ve heard there’s a big vote in Greece on Sunday. What’s that all about?

The Greek government, which is about $350 billion in debt, has been trying—unsuccessfully so far—to renegotiate the terms of an international bailout deal. The “troika” of creditors—the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—want Greece to enact a series of spending cuts and tax increases in exchange for continuing the funding.  Greece’s government rejected the proposal last weekend, with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras shocking many by announcing that it would put the bailout terms to a public referendum this Sunday. Tsipras seemed to be backtracking on Wednesday, saying he would agree to most of the terms of the deal that he had previously rejected, but by then it was too late. Greece’s European creditors rebuffed his offer and said they weren’t interested in talking until after the vote.

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On Tuesday, the last European bailout expired, cutting off the country’s access to billions of euros in funds. Greece also failed to make a $1.8 billion payment to the IMF, becoming the first developed country ever in default to the institution, though the IMF doesn’t use that word so technically Greece is “in arrears.”

In the meantime, the government has shut down the country’s banks into prevent financial panic, and most customers have been limited to ATM withdrawals of 60 euros per day.

Haven’t we gone through all this before?

Yes. Greece has been passing a series of highly unpopular austerity measures in exchange for international bailout funds since the debt crisis began in 2010. The possibility of a Greek exit from the eurozone has also loomed over the crisis since its earliest days, but so far, the two sides have been able to reach a series of uneasy compromises.

A previous Greek government proposed, and then canceled, a referendum on austerity and the bailout back in 2011. Earlier this year, the left-wing coalition, led by Tsipras, was elected, pledging to renegotiate the terms of the bailout, much to the dismay of the country’s creditors. After fraught negotiations, Greece won a four-month extension of its bailout deal in February in exchange for some reforms and cuts, but there’s been little progress since then. 

So what exactly are Greeks voting on this weekend?

It’s a little unclear, including to the voters themselves. Theoretically, Greeks are voting on the bailout terms offered by Europe last week, which their government has rejected. But Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Greece’s most important creditor, says that deal is no longer on the table. So at the moment, Greeks are being asked to vote on a bailout offer that no longer exists. Broadly speaking, the vote will be interpreted as a decision on whether to continue to agree to harsh austerity measures in exchange for bailout funds, or reject the bailout. Syriza is urging Greeks to vote “no.” Other European governments, who more or less openly despise Syriza, see the vote as a referendum on the party’s rule and are pushing for a “yes” vote.

Polls show the “no” side with about 57 percent support, but that gap is shrinking and with the government’s own position unclear for now, it’s hard to say with any certainty what the voters will decide. Both sides have held large rallies in Athens this week.

 If Greece rejects the bailout, do they have to leave the euro?

Also unclear. Several European leaders have come out with statements saying that they view the vote a referendum on whether Greece will stay on the euro. As there’s no legal mechanism for an EU member state to pull itself off the common currency, this would likely involve Greece leaving the European Union altogether. But these statements may be a scare tactic: Most Greeks want to stay on the euro, even if they oppose the austerity measures it will likely entail. Tsipras has denied that a “no” vote is a vote for leaving the euro, accusing the country’s creditors of trying to blackmail Greece.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble complicated the “euro vs. drachma” narrative on Tuesday by suggesting that the Greeks could “stay in the euro for the time being" even if they vote no and may be able to tap some EU funding to help boost the country’s flagging economy. But there’s another deadline looming: On July 20, Greece owes 3.5 billion euros to the European Central Bank. If Greece can’t make that payment, a “Grexit” is probably inevitable.

So what happens in Greeks vote yes?

Merkel says the offer made last weekend is no longer valid, but most likely Greece and its creditors will come to an agreement to keep the bailout going, along with the accompanying austerity measures—perhaps with some of Tsipras’s proposed adjustments. Depending on how Tsipras’s efforts shake out this week, he might be forced to call new elections, which would suit his European counterparts—especially the Germans—just fine. Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who has led the negotiations, has already said that he will step down if Greeks vote yes.

But even with the European life support continuing, Greece’s dire economic conditions will continue for some time. The Greek economy continues to shrink, unemployment is above 25 percent, and 3 million are living on or below the poverty line. The dire economic conditions are contributing to social problems including an unprecedented public health crisis, brain drain as educated Greeks leave the country, and an increase in racially motivated violence.

While the Greek crisis has its roots in years of government mismanagement and fraudulent record keeping leading up to the global financial crisis, Greeks also, with justification, blame the European-imposed austerity measures for draining economic growth and exacerbating the social crisis through cuts to public welfare programs. The bailout money is going mostly to finance the government’s debts rather than fund badly needed public programs. Plus, Greece’s euro membership means it can’t simply print more currency, as governments normally do in such situations.

That sounds pretty bad. Should I donate to that Indiegogo campaign to help Greece pay its debts?

OK, fine. So, what happens if they vote no?

That's a lot more uncertain. As I noted above, it’s possible that a way may be found for Greece to hobble along on the euro even after rejecting the bailout. But if it crashes out of the eurozone entirely, it will find itself in uncharted waters. No country has ever pulled out of the euro before and there’s no set mechanism for it to happen. That’s intentional: The common currency only works if it’s very, very hard to drop it.

In the long run, it is possible Greece will be better off outside the eurozone. It will be able to once again use monetary policy to boost economic growth and can take advantage of favorable exchange rates for the New Drachma, or whatever it ends up being called. In the short term, it could get ugly, especially if—as seems likely—the changeover happens in an ad hoc and chaotic fashion. Inflation and capital flight are likely and if Greece defaults on both its European and IMF debts, it will be treated as a pariah in international financial markets. A loss of EU membership could hurt Greek access to European markets, and its former partners won’t be in much of a mood to help.

What about internationally?

Most investors and financial institutions have pretty limited exposure to Greek debt these days and governments have taken steps to limit the risk of contagion. That’s not to say there’s no risk of unforeseen economic impacts of a Grexit, but the chances of global economic catastrophe are a lot lower than they were a few years ago. For now, markets are holding steady after a drop on Monday amid hopes that the two sides might still salvage a deal.

The political impacts could be more serious. The European project is predicated on the vision of an “ever closer union” between countries, and a Greek departure would be a serious blow to the long-term push for integration. As Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy put it this week, a Greek exit would be a “negative message that euro membership is reversible." That message would come at a time when euroskeptic parties from both the right and the left have been making significant gains across the continent and one major European power—Britain—is planning a referendum on whether to quit the union entirely. While Brussels has gotten an understandably bad rap since the financial crisis, the EU is also widely credited with helping to maintain the post-war peace on the European continent and encouraging the growth of democratic institutions in its new members. (It won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.) The prospect of its collapse, however remote, shouldn’t be taken lightly.

But obviously, depending on what Tsipras and the Troika can work out this week, we may not have to worry about any of that.

Should I cancel my trip to Greece?

Definitely not. God knows they need the money and even if everything goes wrong, you’ll probably get a pretty favorable exchange rate on drachmas. The banking controls will hopefully be lifted soon, but all the same, you might want to withdraw some cash before you head over. 

July 2 2015 8:27 AM

Shooting Report at D.C.’s Navy Yard, Site of 2013 Massacre, Turns out to Be False Alarm

Update, 10:05 a.m.: The FBI has given the all clear at Navy Yard.

Update, 9:35 a.m.: Multiple local news outlets reported that the reported shooting at Navy Yard was a false alarm and there were no victims or shooters. 

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The lockdown was still in effect as of these latest reports.

Original Post: Police responded to reports of a shooting at Washington D.C.’s Navy Yard on Thursday morning, as the area was placed on lockdown and residents there were told to shelter in place.

Navy Yard was the site of a 2013 mass shooting at the Navy Yard’s the Naval Sea Systems Command that left 13 people dead, including the shooter.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said the city was monitoring the incident.

This post will be updated as news develops.

July 2 2015 8:11 AM

Italian Court Sentences Smuggler to 18 Years for Deadly Migrant Shipwreck

An Italian court handed down an 18-year sentence Wednesday to a Tunisian smuggler for his role in a shipwreck that killed 366 migrants, the Guardian reports. Khaled Bensalem was arrested in October 2013 after the boat caught fire and sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa in a part of the Mediterranean Sea known for dangerous, overcrowded vessels carrying African migrants hoping to reach Europe.

From the Guardian:

A court in Agrigento, Sicily, convicted 36-year-old Tunisian Khaled Bensalem of causing the 2013 shipwreck and the deaths of the mainly Eritrean passengers, and aiding illegal immigration, the source at the Agrigento prosecutor’s office said. [...]
Bensalem’s sentence was reduced by a third from the possible maximum penalty because he was given a fast-track trial, which cuts eventual jail time for a defendant who admits guilt.
Migrant traffickers have exploited lawlessness in Libya to cram people onto unseaworthy boats, charging thousands of dollars for the perilous passage across the Mediterranean.
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Lampedusa, only 70 miles from the Tunisian coast, remains a common destination for ships filled with migrants willing to risk death to escape desperate conditions in Libya, Somalia, and other African countries. This April, a boat that had originated in Libya sank off Lampedusa, killing more than 800 and prompting the European Union to ramp up rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

The EU's efforts to reduce migrant deaths at sea will likely be tested by a dramatic uptick in attempted crossings from Africa in the coming months, according to the United Nations. On the same day that Bensalem was sentenced, the UN's High Committee on Refugees released a new report showing that approximately 137,000 have reached Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain by boat in the first half of 2015, an increase of 83 percent over the same period in 2014.

The report notes that, based on historical data, "crossings significantly increase in the second half of the year, in particular over the summer months, so it is expected the numbers will continue to soar."

July 1 2015 8:44 PM

Climate Change May Kill Off Polar Bears Even Sooner Than We Thought

Polar bears may be even more threatened by climate change than scientists previously realized, according to a new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey. The bears rely on floating sea ice to mate, travel, and hunt. But thanks to climate change, this ice is melting quickly, forcing polar bears onto land, far away from their typical prey—namely, seals. Without seals to eat, many bears starve to death.

If major polluters do not cut their emissions soon, polar bear populations will plummet within the next 25 years or sooner, potentially bringing the bears to the brink of extinction. Bear populations in Alaska, Russia, and Norway could start falling sharply by 2025. Even if polluters do curb emissions, polar bear populations are still expected to drop as more bears starve due to melting sea ice. 

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A recent ten–year study found that polar bear populations in Alaska and Canada have declined by nearly half. The United States declared the bears an endangered species in 2008.

July 1 2015 7:48 PM

Scientology Leader’s Father to Write Tell-All Memoir

St. Martin’s Press confirmed on Wednesday that Ronald Miscavige Sr., father of Scientology leader David Miscavige, will write a tell-all memoir called If He Dies, He Dies. The elder Miscavige introduced his son to Scientology in the 1960s, but recently left the church and is, by most accounts, somewhat alienated from his son. David has led the church since its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, died in 1986. He played a key role in securing a tax exempt status for Scientology, thereby allowing the church to amass a massive fortune.

That fantastic title, by the way, refers to a line from a Los Angeles Times story which revealed that David hired two detectives to surveil his dad. When Ronald clutched his chest in pain, an investigator relayed to David that his father may be experiencing a heart attack. The investigator asked whether he should call for help. David allegedly responded: “If he dies, he dies.”

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The Church of Scientology issued this statement to the Hollywood Reporter after it reported the news, first broken by Tony Ortega, of Ronald's memoir:

Mr. Miscavige has always taken care of his father and continues to do so. Beyond that, as a matter of policy, neither the Church nor Mr. Miscavige comments on members of his family. The Church knows nothing beyond media reports about any purported book. ... So let me be clear: No such conversation with Mr. Miscavige ever took place and any claim that one did is provable bullshit.

Update, July 1: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Tony Ortega broke the news of Miscavige's memoir.

July 1 2015 7:05 PM

DOJ Investigating Collusion Among Major U.S. Airlines

It is an indisputable truth that air travel in the United States is awful. Part of its atrociousness lies in the fact that airlines charge customers an increasingly obscene amount for decreasingly good service. Why?

The Justice Department has a hypothesis: Airlines are colluding to keep prices high. On Wednesday, the DOJ confirmed that it is investigating “possible unlawful coordination by some airlines”—that is, collusion. The DOJ wouldn't identify which airlines it is looking into, but the United States has only four major airlines: American, Delta, Southwest, and United. Together, they serve roughly 80 percent of all domestic passengers. United and Delta have already admitted that they are under investigation and profess to be complying with the probe.

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These airlines have long been suspected of colluding in order to keep fares (and profits) high. Between 2009 and 2014, the average domestic airfare rose 13 percent. Industry watchdogs believe the four major airlines coordinate to intentionally limit growth and seat capacity while flying only consistently popular routes. Meanwhile, budget competitors like Spirit have grown at a much faster rate and kept fares relatively stable.

July 1 2015 6:35 PM

Obama Announces Plan To Reopen Cuban Embassy, Further Restoring Diplomatic Ties

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced that both the United States and Cuba would reopen their respective embassies, a key component of his plan to renew diplomatic ties with the country. The president announced America's official rapprochement with Cuba in December—then drew both anger and praise by shaking President Raùl Castro's hand at a summit in April. Obama struck a note of conciliation in his announcement, declaring:

Our nations are separated by only 90 miles, and there are deep bonds of family and friendship between our people, but there have been very real, profound differences between our governments, and sometimes we allow ourselves to be trapped by a certain way of doing things.
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He also noted that America would not compromise its principles in order to appease Cuba, taking a not-so-subtle dig at the Castro regime's suppression of free expression:

We will also continue to have some very serious differences. That will include America's enduring support for universal values like freedom of speech and assembly, and the ability to access information. We will not hesitate to speak out when we see actions that contradict those values. However, I strongly believe that the best way for America to support our values is through engagement.

Republicans in Congress remain generally hostile to the rapprochement. Any executive diplomatic efforts are unlikely to be accompanied by federal legislation.

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