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Transcripts put Sondland at center of Trump Ukraine block

WASHINGTON — Transcripts released Saturday in the impeachment inquiry show Ambassador Gordon Sondland playing a central role in President Donald Trump’s effort to push Ukraine to conduct political investigations as a condition for receiving needed military aid.

The fresh details come from hundreds of pages of testimony released by House investigators from Tim Morrison, a former top official at the National Security Council. They contradict much of the ambassador’s own testimony behind closed doors. Both Morrison and Sondland are expected to testify publicly before the House next week.

While some, including Trump himself, have begun to question Sondland’s knowledge of events, Morrison said the ambassador “related to me he was acting — he was discussing these matters with the President.”

Morrison, a longtime Republican defense hawk in Washington, largely confirmed testimony from current and former officials testifying in the impeachment inquiry. But his account also provided new insight on what others have called a shadow diplomacy being run by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, often at odds with U.S. national security interests.

As Sondland, Giuliani and others tried to persuade new Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to launch the investigations Trump wanted of his Democratic rivals, Morrison said he “tried to stay away.”

Morrison called this the Burisma “bucket,” and it included investigations into the family of one of Trump’s potential Democratic rivals, Joe Biden, and the role of Democrats in the 2016 election. It’s a reference to the gas company in Ukraine where Biden’s son Hunter served on the board

In particular Morrison described a meeting Sondland held with a top Zelenskiy aide, Andriy Yermak, on the sidelines of a summit in Warsaw.

Morrison said he witnessed the exchange and that afterward Sondland bounded across the room to tell him what was said.

Sondland told him that “what could help them move the aid was if the prosecutor general would go to the mike and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation,” Morrison testified. The prosecutor general is Ukraine’s top legal official.

“My concern was what Gordon was proposing about getting the Ukrainians pulled into our politics,” Morrison said. He added: “It was the first time something like this had been injected as a condition on the release of the assistance.”

Morrison, who announced Oct. 30 he would be stepping down from the NSC, was brought to the White House by then-national security adviser John Bolton.

Testimony from Jennifer Williams, a special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, also raised new questions about how much Pence knew about the alleged trade-off that’s central to the impeachment inquiry.

Impeachment investigators met Saturday with a White House official directly connected to Trump’s block on military aid to Ukraine, the first budget office witness to testify in the historic inquiry.

In the rare weekend session, lawmakers drilled into Trump’s decision, against the advice of national security advisers, including Bolton, to withhold funding from the ally, a young democracy bordering hostile Russia.

“It seems clear to me from everything that I’ve seen that the president had no interest in the defense of the Ukraine and the security of the Ukrainian people,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., during a break in the closed-door proceedings.

Raskin said it’s important for lawmakers “to trace the bureaucratic steps” that allowed money Congress had already approved to be held up by the executive branch. “We’re in the process of chasing that down,” he said.

The witness Saturday was Mark Sandy, a little-known career official at the Office of Management and Budget who was involved in key meetings about the nearly $400 million aid package Congress had approved for Ukraine.

Sandy’s name had barely come up in previous testimony. But it did on one particular date: July 25, the day of Trump’s call with Zelenskiy. That day, a legal document with Sandy’s signature directed a freeze of the security funds, according to testimony from Defense Department official Laura Cooper. Investigators had shown her a document as evidence.

Trump on the call had asked Zelenskiy for a “favor,” to conduct an investigation into Biden and his son. The link between Trump’s call and the White House’s holding back of security aid is the central question in the impeachment inquiry. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called it “bribery.”

Trump, who says he only wanted to root out corruption in Ukraine, says he did nothing wrong.

The weeks that followed sent officials in the U.S. national security and foreign service apparatus scrambling to understand why the aid was being blocked, despite their consensus view that Zelenskiy needed the money as a show of U.S. support for his new government facing down President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“We were trying to get to the bottom of why this hold was in place, why OMB was applying this hold,” Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer at the National Security Council, told investigators. He is scheduled to testify publicly on Tuesday.

Bolton derided the swap as a “drug deal” he wanted no part of, according to closed-door testimony from Fiona Hill, the former White House Russia expert. She is set to appear Thursday.

Sharpening the arguments, both sides are preparing for an intense lineup of public hearings in the coming week. Americans are deeply split over impeachment, much as they are over the president himself.

For Ukraine, a former Soviet republic situated between NATO-allies and Russia, the $391 million in aid is its lifeline to the West.

The money is symbolic, the ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified this week, but also substantial.

It includes $250 million in Pentagon funding for military hardware: sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, counter-artillery radars, electronic warfare detection, secure communications, night vision capabilities and military medical aid.

An additional $141 million in State Department funding covers many of those systems as well as about $10 million to increase maritime awareness and $16.5 million for maritime security in the Black Sea, aimed at identifying and tracking Russian ships and aircraft.

“Supporting Ukraine is the right thing to do,” Yovanovitch testified. “If Russia prevails and Ukraine falls to Russian dominion, we can expect to see other attempts by Russia to expand its territory and influence.”

Sandy was the first official from the Office of Management and Budget to defy Trump’s instructions not to testify. Like others, he received a subpoena to appear.

“When people come in, we learn more,” said Rep. Eric Swawell, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, as he arrived for Saturday’s session.

Rep. Mark Meadows, a top Trump ally, said he did not expect to hear much from Sandy, a career budget official.

“All I expect him to say is he doesn’t know why the aid was held and wished that he did,” said Meadows, R-N.C. “But I may be surprised.”

In a speech Friday night, Attorney General William Barr said congressional Democrats were pursuing “scores of parallel investigations through an avalanche of subpoenas” that are “designed to incapacitate the executive branch.”

Barr, who favors an expansive view of executive power, said “the cost of this constant harassment is real.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the impeachment panel, returned home Saturday to California where thousands of Democratic activists greeted him like a rock star at the state party’s fall convention.

“It’s been an eventful week,” he told the crowd before saying that his remarks about impeachment were no cause for celebration.

“There is nothing more dangerous than an unethical president who thinks that he is above the law,” Schiff said. “This is a time of great peril.”

Wheeler House consolidates operations in hopes to better serve community

The Wheeler House, a transitional housing facility designed for single mothers and their children, announced that program operations are transferring from Giving Hope Inc. to Grace Like Rain according to Serve Denton CEO Pat Smith.

Both organizations — Giving Hope Inc. and Grace Like Rain — serve families that are either at-risk of becoming homeless or are currently experiencing homelessness.

The decision to transfer operations, effective immediately, followed after a mutual agreement was reached between the three parties as Giving Hope Inc. undergoes restructuring, Smith said. But because both nonprofits have been a part of Serve Denton, he said the decision was a “great fit.”

“It was just a mutual agreement that it would be better for Grace Like Rain to take over all of the Wheeler House,” Smith said. “Giving Hope Inc. is going through some restructuring, and we supported that.”

Tyheshia Scott, executive director of Giving Hope Inc., said she wanted to ensure the organization is able to continue to provide some of the critical services it offers for members of the community. Scott said that because Grace Like Rain provides similar services to mothers and children, restructuring operations “made sense.”

“All of the services that we were providing to the moms will not change at all,” Scott said. “Everything will continue.”

The transfer aims to consolidate respective operations of Giving Hope Inc., such as case management, into Grace Like Rain’s operations of providing counseling and support for families, and to include aspects of child care and transportation assistance. Under the agreement, according to Smith, Grace Like Rain will take over the entirety of the Wheeler House, which includes both long- and short-term housing operations.

The facility, located at 821 N. Elm St., includes four bedrooms for long-term housing that can last from three to six months, Smith said, while three bedrooms can support short-term housing needs of up to four weeks.

In addition, long-term housing needs under the program include a kitchen, living room, laundry room, bathrooms and a play area for children, Smith said.

“It basically gives each mom and family an apartment that allows them to live there safely and securely while they are getting back on their feet,” Smith said.

Sandy Hook lawsuit could force Remington to open books

A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court has upended a longstanding legal roadblock that has given the gun industry far-reaching immunity from lawsuits in the aftermath of mass killings.

The court this week allowed families of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre to sue the maker of the AR-15 used in the attack. The case against Remington will now proceed in the Connecticut courts.

Remington is widely expected to win the case, but critics of the gun industry are eyeing what they see as a significant outcome even in the face of defeat: getting the gunmaker to open its books about how it markets firearms.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are certain to request that Remington turn over volumes of documents as part of the discovery phase, providing a rare window into the inner-workings of how a major gun manufacturer markets its weapons. Those materials might include company emails, memos, business plans and corporate strategies, or anything that might suggest the company purposely marketed the firearm that may have compelled the shooter to use the weapon to carry out the slaughter.

The plaintiffs also believe the ruling will put gun companies on notice about how they conduct business knowing they could wind up in the courts in similar fashion.

“If the industry wakes up and understands their conduct behind closed doors is not protected, then the industry itself ... will take steps to try to help the massive problem we have instead of do nothing and sit by and cash the checks,” said Joshua Koskoff, the Connecticut attorney who represents a survivor and relatives of nine victims who died at the Newtown, Connecticut, school on Dec. 14, 2012.

The case hinges on Connecticut state consumer law that challenges how the firearm used by the Newtown shooter — a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle — was marketed, with plaintiffs alleging Remington purposely used advertisements that targeted younger, at-risk males. In one of Remington’s ads, it features the rifle against a plain backdrop and the phrase: “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.”

Remington did not respond to requests for comment after the U.S. Supreme Court denied its efforts to quash the lawsuit.

Larry Keane, senior vice president and legal counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gunmakers, said he anticipates Remington will ultimately prevail and that it’s unfair to blame the gunmaker for Adam Lanza’s crime.

“Adam Lanza alone is the responsible person. Not Remington,” he said.

Suing the firearms industry has never been easy, and it was made even harder after Congress enacted the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005. The law backed by the National Rifle Association gave broad immunity to the gun industry.

The chances of the plaintiffs ultimately succeeding in this case are slim — a sentiment shared by the Connecticut Supreme Court, which said they face a “Herculean task” to prevail.

Judges and juries generally have a tough time blaming anyone but the shooter for the crime, said Timothy D. Lytton, professor at Georgia State University’s College of Law and author of “Suing the Gun Industry: A Battle at the Crossroads of Gun Control and Mass Torts.”

Add into the mix that Lanza himself didn’t own the firearm; he stole it from his mother after killing her in the home they shared, then went to the elementary school in Newtown, where he killed 20 children and six adults.

“It makes it harder for juries to connect the dots. It’s a significant hurdle in all of these cases. It’s very rare that you have a very close timeframe between the marketing of a weapon and a mass shooting,” Lytton said.

Lanza’s mother purchased the Bushmaster AR-platform rifle in 2010 from a Connecticut gun shop. It’s unclear if she or her son were influenced by or had seen Remington’s advertising.

Still, it’s been a tough few years for the industry. Sales plummeted with the election of President Donald Trump, and gun-control advocates have outspent perhaps his most loyal supporter: the NRA. With slumping sales, some companies, including Remington, have faced bankruptcy. And in the wake of high-profile mass shootings, corporate America has begun pushing back against the industry.

AR-platform long guns have been a particular bone of contention for gun-control advocates who believe the firearms — once banned for a decade in the U.S. — are especially attractive to mass shooters for their ease of use and their ability to carry large capacity magazines.

While handguns remain used more often in mass shootings, ARs have been involved in some of the deadliest shootings, including when a gunman fired on a crowd of concertgoers outside his hotel room in Las Vegas in 2017, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds.

The AR-15, its design based on the military M-16, has become one of the most popular firearms in the U.S. in recent decades. Lightweight, easy to customize and able to carry extended magazines, sales took off once the ban expired in 2004. There are now an estimated 16 million AR-platform long guns in the U.S.

Robert J. Spitzer, chairman of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and a longtime watcher of gun politics, said a case against Remington could cause “pretty embarrassing information” to come out.

“And it is certainly possible they will find memos or other documents that may significantly support their case that Remington was manifestly irresponsible in the way they marketed their guns,” Spitzer said.

Even if embarrassing information isn’t uncovered, he said, it could have a long-lasting impact on the industry and, more specifically, Remington. Considered the oldest gunmaker in the United States, Remington — founded in New York in 1816 and now based in Madison, North Carolina — only emerged from bankruptcy in 2018.

“They’re obviously in a precarious financial situation and this suit is certainly not helpful to them trying to restore their financial health,” Spitzer said.

1,100 computers, 1,100 lives impacted: WWII veteran recognized for years of volunteer service in Texas

The Governor’s Volunteer Awards honor individuals and organizations in Texas that have made a difference in their community through volunteer work and service. Among the 2019 awardees was Doug Brown, a 94-year-old World War II veteran who has taught himself how to repair computers that are old or broken.

Over the past 14 years, Brown has donated about 1,100 computers, both laptops and desktops, to veterans and others who can’t afford their own. Brown hopes that having their own computer will help people search for and find a job.

“Nobody wants a paper resume anymore,” said Brown, who lives in Flower Mound. “You want to look for a job and send a resume, it’s going to be online. Maybe they can go to the library, but very often there’s a line at the library and you can’t use the computer forever. So when a veteran comes in and they’re looking for a job, I give them a laptop. And when we find out that they got a job, that makes a difference.”

Mark Finley / Kara Dry/DRC 

Doug Brown, a 94-year-old World War II veteran stands in his garage at his home in Flower Mound surrounded by stacks of laptops and computer parts. For 14 years he has restored computers for veterans and others, hoping it will help them find jobs and improve their quality of life.

Brown is known by his family and peers for his eagerness to stay active within the community. He first started reading and learning about computer hardware and software in 2005, when his first wife was diagnosed with cancer. He spent most of his days at home to keep her company, but kept his mind occupied by studying and practicing how to take apart and fix computers. His second wife also died of cancer.

“If you don’t have something to do, something to keep you occupied, something to keep your mind busy, you’re going to deteriorate,” said Brown. “And I deteriorated about enough.”

Brown receives dozens of requests for computers each day and his garage is filled with laptops and monitors. Brown spends 12 to 15 hours on each computer, often working on multiple at a time and finishing two or three a day.

“He talks to the computers,” said Clare Brown, his third wife. “And he thanks them when they do their job.”

“I got so many computers sitting around that my wife would love for me to get rid of, but it just grew and grew and grew,” Doug Brown said. “But as long as I can keep working with them and handing them out to help people, I plan to keep on doing it.”

Brown hopes that what he does is making a difference. Every Friday morning, he and Clare visit the Texas Workforce Commission’s Denton Workforce Center. They bring three laptops with them each visit. About two years ago, they were approached by a familiar face.

Mark Finley / Kara Dry/DRC 

Doug Brown, a 94-year-old World War II veteran, looks through his excess computer parts he stores in his garage at his home in Flower Mound.

“I had a young lady come up to me — she was the new receptionist and she shook my hand,” Doug Brown said. “She said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ I thought she looked a little familiar and she told me, ‘When I graduated from Veterans Treatment Court, you gave me a laptop. With that laptop I got my B.A. [degree], and with that B.A. I got this job.”

Many of the people who have received computers from Brown have often been homeless or living in shelters or temporary housing and struggling to find work.

“We’ve had some [people] come in who have been living in their cars, and there are more of those than you think,” Brown said. “There are a number on the north side of Denton living in the woods, there are a lot of others we can help. Whether it’s giving them computers or giving them advice, there’s so many different ways to help.”

As a member of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) in Denton County, Brown also spends his time volunteering and helping out in any way he can.

“He doesn’t stop, he really doesn’t,” said Diana Corona, executive director of RSVP. “I feel like he’s not only done the state of Texas proud, but Denton County and the Denton County RSVP proud, and I’m beaming about it. He’s one of the go-to volunteers if I need help or anything. He’s very much a big part of RSVP.”

Executives and members of RSVP each recognize Brown’s accomplishments and are thrilled to see how his work has become appreciated by the state of Texas.

“Out of the hundreds of volunteers we have within our network, none of their passion nor dedication to helping others can come close to that of Doug Brown,” said Kasey Brown, peer service coordinator of Military Veteran Peer Network, who is not related to Doug Brown. “Doug is the epitome of what a volunteer should be. He is kind, sincere, committed and always looking for new ways to help the community.”

Mark Finley / Kara Dry/DRC 

Doug Brown, 94, installs updates on a laptop in need of repair in his office Nov. 9 at his home in Flower Mound. He says a typical repair job for one computer takes Brown an average of 12 to 15 hours to complete, depending on the severity of the problem.

Tanya Blixt, board chairwoman of RSVP in Denton County, says that everything Doug Brown does has a direct and positive impact.

“The ripple effect that he’s creating is amazing and you just don’t see that happen with everything that you do,” said Blixt. “He impacts the environment, he impacts people, he impacts RSVP and he touches the heart of many people. When I’m around him, I’m inspired, I am humbled and I’m joyful.”

Brown says he and his wife will continue their work for many years to come as his computers continue to help improve many people’s lives.

“I did not anticipate 1,100 computers, or 13 to 14 years of doing this day in and day out,” said Brown. “It’s funny what you stumble into and it’s not something I planned, but a computer might make a difference in a person’s life. I feel good about what we together have done.”