Criminal Gangs in Guatemala Drive Many to Flee

Guatemalan Yeni González is one of the few mothers able to see their children after they were separated earlier this year under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy when they tried to cross the southern U.S. border illegally. VOA’s Celia Mendoza reported last week when González traveled to New York to see her children at the Cayuga Care Center, where they remain until reunification can be arranged. In this third installment, Mendoza goes to the Guatemalan village where Yeni González used to live and spoke with her relatives about why the mother of three decided to embark on such a dangerous journey.

12 Russians Accused of Hacking Democrats in 2016 Campaign

The investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election took another serious turn Friday when the Justice Department announced the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers for conspiring to interfere in the elections. The charges come just days before President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and on the same day that Trump once again dismissed the Russia probe as a “witch hunt.” VOA National correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington.

Maryland Elections Vendor Owned by Russian Firm

A vendor that provides key services for Maryland elections has been acquired by a parent company with links to a Russian oligarch, state officials said Friday after a briefing a day earlier from the FBI.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch made the announcement at a news conference in the Maryland State House, a gathering that included staff members of Gov. Larry Hogan.

“The FBI conveyed to us that there is no criminal activity that they’ve seen,” Busch said. “They believe that the system that we have has not been breached.”

In a letter Friday, Hogan, Busch and Miller asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for technical assistance to evaluate the network used by the elections board.

“It is with concern that I learned that information provided to the Maryland State Board of Elections by federal law enforcement this week indicates that a vendor contracted by the Board to provide a number of services, including voter registration infrastructure, had been acquired by a parent company with financial ties to a Russian national,” Hogan said in a statement.

Miller and Busch also said they have asked Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh to review existing contractual obligations of the state, and asked for a review of the system to ensure there have been no breaches.

Vendor statement 

The vendor, ByteGrid LLC, was purchased by a Russian investor in 2015 without knowledge of Maryland state officials, officials said.

In a statement released late Friday the company said, “ByteGrid’s investors have no involvement or control in company operations.”

It also said, “We stand by our commitment to security in everything we do, and do not share information about who our customers are and what we do for them.” ByteGrid encouraged people to read the company’s Maryland elections contract, which is a public record.

State officials said ByteGrid hosts the statewide voter registration, candidacy, and election management system; the online voter registration system; online ballot delivery system; and unofficial election night results website.

Public trust

Hogan said in his statement that while the information relayed by the FBI did not indicate “any wrongdoing or criminal acts have been discovered,” he noted that even the appearance of the potential for “bad actors” to have any influence on the state’s election infrastructure could undermine public trust in the election system.

“That is why it is imperative that the State Board of Elections take immediate and comprehensive action to evaluate the security of our system and take any and all necessary steps to address any vulnerabilities,” Hogan said.

In a statement, the state elections board said the FBI told officials that ByteGrid is financed by AltPoint Capital Partners, whose fund manager is a Russian, and its largest investor is a Russian oligarch named Vladimir Potanin. The board said that in response, it has been working with various federal and state officials to ensure that voter data and the state’s election systems are secure.

Busch described the leading investor as being “very close to the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin.”

Miller said Maryland officials decided it was “imperative that our constituents know that a Russian oligarch has purchased our election machinery, and we need to be on top of it.”

Maryland officials made the announcement hours after the Justice Department released a grand jury indictment against 12 Russian military intelligence officers for computer hacking offenses during the 2016 U.S. election. Miller said that announcement convinced Maryland officials to disclose the FBI briefing, even if the agents who briefed them were not eager to make the information public.

“They weren’t really anxious for us to come forward, but after today we felt we had an obligation to share it with you and share it with our constituents that this has occurred and we want the public to know this as well,” Miller said.

Maryland and US indictment

In a statement, Maryland’s elections board said it was not the state election office mentioned in the federal indictment. The board also said no Maryland election official has used or is using services provided by the vendor referenced in the indictment.

Busch said there was no indication the company had anything to do with a voter registration error at the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration that created the potential for tens of thousands of voters to require provisional ballots in last month’s primary.

Maryland was one of the states with suspicious online activities before the 2016 election, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In August 2016, the state board says “unusual activity” was observed on the state’s online voter registration and ballot request system, and the board immediately responded. The board says it provided log files to the FBI, one of the state’s cybersecurity vendors and another cybersecurity firm, and all three independently reviewed the transactions related to the activity and found nothing suspicious.

Trump Attacks CNN, NBC, British Paper in News Conference

President Donald Trump found time to attack CNN, NBC and the British tabloid The Sun, and offer fashion advice to a fourth news organization, while talking to reporters Friday with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

The leaders faced sharp questions at a news conference following their talks, which came between a reportedly contentious meeting of NATO representatives and Trump’s upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Frequent Trump foil Jim Acosta of CNN tried to ask a question at one point and was rebuffed by the president.

“CNN is fake news,” Trump said. “I don’t take questions from CNN.

“Let’s go to a real network,” Trump said, pointing to John Roberts of Fox News Channel. Roberts asked if there was any way that relations with Russia would improve as long as the country occupied Crimea.

A day earlier, Trump took a question from CNN’s Jeremy Diamond following the NATO meeting. And as Friday’s session with May was breaking up, Acosta shouted, “Mr. President, will you ask Putin to stay out of U.S. elections?”

Trump turned around and answered yes.

Roberts, a veteran of CBS News and CNN, took some withering criticism online for not standing up for Acosta in the moment or, perhaps, ceding the microphone to his colleague.

CNN anchor Jake Tapper tweeted that he was “old enough to remember when other networks came to the defense of Fox News WH correspondents during the Obama years. Such did not happen here. Lesson for the kids out there: no one should ever try to do the right thing with the expectation that it will ever be reciprocated.”

Media solidarity has become an issue with White House briefings lately, as some journalists suggest reporters should band together to prevent press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders from changing the subject to avoid answering questions. It hasn’t happened to any appreciable degree.

Roberts said later he paused when Acosta and Trump went back and forth, and asked his own question when it became clear the president would not entertain one from CNN.

He noted he used to work at CNN. “There are some fine journalists who work there and risk their lives to report on stories around the world,” Roberts said. “To issue a blanket condemnation of the network as `fake news’ is … unfair.”

Roberts also said it was similarly wrong for Trump to call Kristen Welker of NBC News dishonest. “She is as honest as the day is long,” he said.

Trump took offense Friday when Welker asked him, “Are you giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the upper hand heading into your talks given that you are challenging the alliances that he is seeking to break up and defeat?”

Trump called it dishonest reporting. “Of course it happens to be NBC, which is possibly worse than CNN,” he said. Welker was cut off when she tried to reply.

NBC News had no comment on the exchange. Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said “asking smart, tough questions, whether in a presidential press conference or interview, is central to the role a free press plays in a healthy republic.”

“Saying a news organization isn’t real doesn’t change the facts and won’t stop us from doing our jobs,” Talev said.

All of the cable news networks, along with ABC, CBS and NBC, carried the news conference live. Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” promised the show would fact-check the session live, much as it had done the day before following a NATO meeting. Co-host Joe Scarborough frequently broke in while Trump talked on Thursday, calling some of his claims untrue.

But MSNBC didn’t break in to the Trump-May session Friday. There was no indication whether the live fact-check was considered a failed experiment, or whether it would be repeated on “Morning Joe” or any other show.

Trump was questioned Friday about critical statements he had made about May in an interview this week with The Sun, where he said she hadn’t taken his advice about Brexit negotiations and he praised her political rival. He criticized the newspaper for not printing the positive things he said about May, although he later softened his stance when it was pointed out that The Sun released audio portions of the interview.

“I said very nice things about her,” he said. “They didn’t put it in the headline. I wish they’d put it in the headline.”

The Sun’s headline: “Trump’s Brexit Blast: Donald Trump told Theresa May how to do Brexit `but she wrecked it’ — and says the US trade deal is off.”

In a statement, The Sun said it stood by its reporting. “To say the president called us `fake news’ with any serious intent is, well … fake news.”

During one awkward moment in the news conference, Trump called attention to Reuters reporter Jeff Mason’s hat. Roberts, sitting next to him, playfully doffed the hat to reveal Mason’s bald head.

“I like you better without the hat,” Trump said.

Mason took it off and asked his question.

Agency Watchdog Slams Former HHS Chief Price on Costly Travel

The government wasted at least $341,000 on travel by ousted Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, including booking charter flights without considering cheaper scheduled airlines, an agency watchdog said Friday.

The HHS inspector general’s long-awaited report chastised the department for flouting federal travel rules, which require officials to book trips in the most cost-efficient way for taxpayers.

The inspector general estimated that the government spent nearly $1.2 million on Price’s travel during his seven months in office. That included more than $700,000 in military flights on two foreign and two domestic trips, as well as more than $480,000 for various domestic trips by private chartered aircraft.

HHS “improperly used federal funds related to Sec. Price’s government travel,” the report said. Of 21 trips reviewed by the inspector general’s investigators, only one complied with all federal travel requirements. The report said none of the charter flights complied.

Price, who built a reputation as a budget hawk during earlier congressional service, has apologized and repaid the government nearly $60,000. The report said authorities should seek full recovery of the $341,000 deemed wasteful spending.

Price spokesman Nicholas Peters said in a statement, “there is no indication in the [inspector general’s] report that the paperwork and regulatory issues of department staff were anything other than good faith mistakes.”

Peters would not comment on any additional repayments by Price. He said investigators did not attempt to interview Price.

In its formal response to the report, HHS agreed with most of the inspector general’s recommendations for tightening up official travel and requested detail on the $341,000 that investigators said the government should recoup. The inspector general said HHS should determine how best to recover the money.

On Friday, HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said in a separate statement that the department has since instituted new travel procedures for all political appointees, calling them “the most rigorous controls on travel in the organization’s history.” Such travel is now reviewed by the ethics office.

But Hargan also seemed to quibble, saying “the work of an audit is to review compliance with procedures, not make legal conclusions. As a matter of law, none of the travel at issue was unauthorized.”

The inspector general’s report raised questions about how Price’s travel was authorized. For example, investigators found that on five of 12 charter flights, legal approval came only during or after the trip.

Extravagant spending on travel and office remodeling by top officials became a running story as the Trump administration took power in Washington on a presidential promise to “drain the swamp.” The latest Cabinet casualty was Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who resigned this month amid ethics investigations.

Price was forced out in the fall of 2017 after his travel drew the ire of President Donald Trump, who was also upset over the GOP failure to repeal “Obamacare.”

A successful orthopedic surgeon before winning a congressional seat from the Atlanta suburbs, Price rose to become one of the top GOP experts on budget and health care issues. But as secretary of HHS, he never produced a health care plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.

Among other findings from the report:


– Investigators questioned Price’s assertion that his official schedule prevented him from flying commercial. In one case a White House event cited as justification was canceled, and Price’s office chose to continue with a charter flight at a cost of nearly $18,000.

– Even among charter flight options, Price’s office did not always book the lowest-cost trip. In one case the difference between quoted options amounted to nearly $46,000.

– For six trips, Price either started or ended his travel in his home state of Georgia, his most frequent charter travel destination outside of his official duty station in Washington, D.C.

– HHS paid more than $11,500 on commercial flights for a Price trip to China, Vietnam and Japan. But Price ultimately flew on military transport at a cost of more than $430,000.


HHS lost track of what it spent for the commercial airline ticket until the inspector general’s investigators identified the expense. The government ultimately got a refund for the commercial ticket.


HHS said current Secretary Alex Azar flies commercial on official business, with a few exceptions that have involved requests from the White House. Azar pays for his personal travel back home to Indiana on weekends.

US Charges 12 Russians With Conspiracy to Interfere in ’16 Election

A federal grand jury on Friday indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers with conspiracy to hack into Democrat computers during the 2016 presidential election, the latest charges brought against Russian nationals by the special counsel investigating Moscow’s interference.

The indictment charges the operatives with carrying out one of two kinds of the Russian meddling in the contentious election: hacking the email accounts of volunteers and employees of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, including its chairman, and releasing the emails and other documents to the public.

The other aspect of the Russian interference involved a massive influence operation on social media orchestrated by a St. Petersburg-based troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.

In February, a grand jury indicted 12 of the company’s employees and its financial backer.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the latest charges Friday.

“The blame for election interference belongs to the criminals who committed election interference,” Rosenstein said at a press conference. “We need to work together to hold the perpetrators accountable, and keep moving forward to preserve our values, protest against future interference, and defend America.” 

The Russian operatives worked for two special units of Russia’s military intelligence agency known as GRU and used a variety of techniques to gain access to the Democratic computers, according to the 29-page indictment.

“The units engaged in active cyberoperations to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” Rosenstein said. “One GRU unit worked to steal information, while another unit worked to disseminate stolen information.”

Starting as early as March 2016, the Russians hacked into Clinton campaign accounts, according to the indictment. By April, the operatives also had intruded into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee. 

“The Conspirators covertly monitored the computers of dozens of DCCC and DNC employees, implanted hundreds of files containing malicious computer code [“malware”], and stole emails and other documents from the DCCC and DNC,” the indictment says. 

By July, the Russians, using fictitious online personas, including DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, released tens of thousands of the stolen emails and documents from the Clinton campaign and the two Democratic committees, according to the indictment.

The charges come on the eve of a highly-anticipated summit Monday between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. Trump said at a news conference Friday that he’ll “absolutely ask” Putin about the Russian interference in the U.S. election.

Rosenstein said he briefed Trump on the allegations earlier this week.

“The president is fully aware of today’s actions by the Department,” he said.

Rosenstein said that while the Russian aim was to influence the elections, “there is no allegation that the conspiracy altered the vote count or changed any election result.”

The indictment names all 12 agents engaged in the conspiracy, including Viktor Borisovich Netyksho, who headed the GRU unit responsible for hacking the Democratic accounts. The commanding officer of the second unit, which helped release the stolen documents through DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, is identified as Aleksandr Vladimirovich Osadchuk. 

Eleven agents are charged with conspiring to hack computers, steal documents and release them in an effort to influence the election.

The 12th is charged with “conspiring to infiltrate computers of organizations responsible for administering elections, including state boards of election, secretaries of state, and companies that supply software and other technology used to administer elections,” Rosenstein said.

US Lawmakers Blast Trump on Tariffs

U.S. senators on Thursday continued a bipartisan rebuke of President Donald Trump’s punitive trade strategy on the heels of an overwhelming vote asserting a role for Congress when tariffs are imposed for national security reasons.

“I believe the president is abusing his authorities,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican. “It seems to be a wake up, ready, fire, [then] aim strategy.”

Another committee member, Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, blasted the administration’s trade actions as “a wildly swung bat that is hitting our closest allies in a way that harms our national security, harms our chances at better trade deals, and harms folks in my home state.”

Lawmakers expressed particular ire over tariffs on imported steel and aluminum that have been welcomed by domestic producers of the materials but that prompted retaliatory tariffs on U.S.-made goods. In imposing the tariffs, the administration cited a federal statute that allows action to be taken to protect industries deemed vital to national security.

“The viability of these industries does constitute a national security issue for us,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Manisha Singh said in testimony before the committee.

Many senators were not convinced.

“I’ve heard the administration say, ‘Some short-term pain for long-term gain,’ ” Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said. “Are we really taking into account the permanent damage that’s being done right now?”

“I happen to believe there absolutely is no plan, and in the mornings people [in the administration] wake up and make this up as they go along,” Corker said.

“President Trump is acting within his statutory authority. There is a strategy,” Singh countered.

Support for tariffs

While opposition to steel and aluminum tariffs is strong and bipartisan, it is not universal on Capitol Hill. Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown applauded them when they were first announced earlier this year.

“This welcome action is long overdue for shuttered steel plants across Ohio and steelworkers who live in fear that their jobs will be the next victims of Chinese cheating,” Brown said in a statement. “If we fail to stand up for steel jobs today, China will come after other jobs up and down the supply chain tomorrow.”

Thursday’s hearing came days after the administration imposed tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese products. Some lawmakers applauded the move, noting that Beijing is heavily dependent on exports and has much to lose in a trade war.

“The Chinese economy will be hurt more,” Republican Representative Tom Garrett of Virginia said. “What we would like to do is to have free and fair trade globally, with all of our trading partners. China has never allowed that.”

Singh said the administration wants Beijing to halt predatory trade practices and respect intellectual property.

“Our endgame is for China to change its behavior,” the assistant secretary of state said.

Congressional review vote

Senators of both parties said achieving that goal would be easier if the United States and its allies were united on trade, rather than fighting each other.

“Sadly, the administration has begun a reckless campaign against our allies, driving them into the arms of our adversaries instead of leading a joint effort to address the serious challenges of China’s economic policies,” said the committee’s top Democrat, Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

In an 88-11 vote, the Senate on Wednesday approved a nonbinding resolution to make national security tariffs subject to congressional review.

“Congress has to approve trade deals. I think Congress should have to approve trade wars,” Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said, predicting that Congress would take stronger action if the president stuck to punitive trade policies.

Stormy Daniels Arrested at Ohio Strip Club

Porn actress Stormy Daniels was arrested at an Ohio strip club and is accused of letting patrons touch her in violation of a state law, her attorney said early Thursday.

While Daniels was performing at Sirens, a strip club in Columbus, some patrons touched her in a “nonsexual” way, her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, told The Associated Press. 

An Ohio law known as the Community Defense Act prohibits anyone who isn’t a family member to touch a nude or semi-nude dancer. 

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was in police custody early Thursday morning and was expected to face a misdemeanor charge, Avenatti said. 

“This was a complete set up,” he said. “It’s absurd that law enforcement resources are being spent to conduct a sting operation related to customers touching performers in a strip club in a nonsexual manner.”

A Columbus police spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment. A person who answered the phone at the strip club declined to comment. 

Daniels has said she had sex with President Donald Trump in 2006 when he was married, which Trump has denied. She’s suing Trump and his former longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and seeking to invalidate a nondisclosure agreement that she signed days before the 2016 presidential election.

House Republicans to Question FBI Agent About Anti-Trump Texts

An FBI official will testify before two House committees Thursday investigating allegations of bias within the agency against President Donald Trump.

Counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok will tell lawmakers that his work has never been tainted by politics and that the intense scrutiny he is facing represents “just another victory notch in Putin’s belt,” according to prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press. 

Strzok will say in his opening statement that he has never allowed personal opinions to infect his work, that he knew information during the campaign that had the potential to damage Trump but never contemplated leaking it and that the focus on him by Congress is misguided and plays into “our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart,” according to the prepared remarks.

He worked on Special Council Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and allegations of collusion with Russia until last year, when he was removed after text messages he exchanged with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page were revealed, showing their mutual contempt for Trump.

Strzok and Page were involved in a romantic relationship in 2016, when they were both involved in the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server. President Trump has seized on the Strzok and Page’s texts to denounce the Mueller probe as nothing more than a “rigged witch hunt.”

Strzok will testify Thursday before a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and House Oversight and Government Reform committees, one week after appearing before the panels behind closed doors.

Page also briefly served on Mueller’s investigative team until the revelations of her texts with Strzok. She resigned from the FBI in May. She is facing charges of contempt of Congress after failing to appear Wednesday for private meetings with the Judiciary and Oversight committees.

Trump lashed out directly at Page in another Twitter post Thursday from Brussels:

Some See Shift In Republican Party’s Views of Russia Ahead of Trump-Putin Summit

As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week, lawmakers from Trump’s Republican Party offer differing accounts of their visit to Moscow. While one U.S. senator called for the U.S. to lift sanctions against Russia, another compared dealing with Moscow to dealing with the mafia. VOA Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine looks at what appears to be a shift among many in the Republican Party, which traditionally has taken a hard line on Russia.

    $.99* .COM Domain! You be you with us!     Web Hosting $3.95