As former U.S. President Donald Trump goes to trial this week in the Senate on charges of inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, criminal and civil investigations into his businesses are accelerating in New York.
Manhattan prosecutors probing Trump’s real-estate business for possible insurance and tax fraud have stepped up witness interviews in recent months and hired forensic accountants, four people familiar with the criminal probe told Reuters. A separate state attorney general’s civil probe into whether the business falsely reported property values got a boost on Jan. 29, when a New York Supreme Court judge ordered the Trump Organization to turn over documents.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision is expected soon on whether Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr can obtain eight years of Trump’s tax records and other financial information from accounting firm Mazars. Two people familiar with the district attorney’s criminal probe expect the court to act this month.
Both the district attorney and the attorney general are focused in part on whether Trump’s businesses improperly falsified values on real-estate assets to secure tax breaks, loans or other benefits.
Trump’s tax returns could provide compelling evidence in the criminal probe if they differ significantly from other financial statements reported by the Trump business, said Daniel Horwitz, a white-collar defense lawyer and former Manhattan prosecutor. But in addition to records, he said, prosecutors will likely need witnesses who could “testify about false documents and why they were falsified.”
Lawyers for the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment. The Trump Organization has denied in court filings that the company falsified property values, and has rejected other allegations being investigated by Manhattan District Attorney Vance and New York State Attorney General Letitia James.
Trump’s lawyers have tried to block the disclosure of his tax records by appealing the Manhattan district attorney’s request to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lower courts rejected an argument by Trump’s attorney that the request amounted to political “harassment.” Trump’s team has requested a stay of the Supreme Court proceedings. The high court normally acts quickly on such “emergency applications,” but Trump’s request has been pending since October. Another ruling in favor of the district attorney would clear the way for prosecutors to access the tax and financial records.
The Manhattan district attorney said in an August filing that the office is investigating “possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct” at the Trump Organization. In a September filing, he said “mountainous” misconduct allegations could justify a grand jury probe into possible tax fraud, insurance fraud and falsifying business records. James’ office has filed a civil lawsuit to compel the Trump Organization to produce documents but has not alleged any crimes.
A spokesperson for Vance declined to comment. A spokesman for James’ office said the Trump Organization has turned over all the documents that prosecutors sought but declined to comment further on the inquiry.
The investigations face challenges. The Manhattan district attorney may struggle to prove that inaccurate property estimates amount to fraud because the standards for valuing properties vary, legal experts say. Such appraisals are also typically performed by outside parties, potentially putting distance between any controversial valuations and Trump’s businesses.
“There’s a lot of expertise to hide behind,” said Joshua Levine, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York who now specializes in white-collar criminal and regulatory law in private practice.
PROBE OF NEW YORK MANSION
Court records show that the two investigations, while separate, do overlap. Both the district attorney and the attorney general, for instance, are examining how the Trump Organization and its agents assessed the value of Seven Springs, a 212-acre estate north of Manhattan that Trump purchased in 1995. Trump’s company has said the century-old, 50,000-square-foot mansion was used as a Trump family retreat.
Trump’s ambitions to build a championship golf course there were derailed by local opposition, and he shelved another plan to build luxury homes. But the property did become a vehicle for a tax break, according to property records and court filings. In 2015, he signed a conservation easement - an agreement not to develop the property - covering 158 acres.
The attorney general’s office said in a court filing that an appraiser hired by Trump before the conservation agreement set the property’s value at $56.5 million and the easement’s value at $21.1 million - an amount Trump claimed as an income tax deduction.
The attorney general’s office, in an August court filing, said it was investigating whether the assessment was “improperly inflated” to increase the tax benefit. In filings, prosecutors cited emails from Trump Organization representatives to the appraisers arguing for a higher valuation.
The Manhattan district attorney is investigating Trump’s handling of the same property. Vance’s office in December subpoenaed the three towns that cover parts of the Seven Springs property, seeking tax assessments, financial statements, conservation easements and Trump’s development proposals.
Trump has claimed a vastly higher value on Seven Springs in other documents. Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, while testifying in a February 2019 congressional hearing, provided a 2012 financial statement from the Trump Organization that valued Seven Springs at $291 million. Cohen testified that the statement intended to portray Trump as richer than he really was to insurance companies - in an effort to secure lower premiums - as well as to journalists.
Cohen also said the Trump Organization provided the statement to Deutsche Bank AG - the company’s biggest creditor - during Trump’s failed attempt in 2014 to buy the Buffalo Bills, a professional football team. Federal law makes it a crime to provide false statements to banks.
Both the Manhattan district attorney and the state attorney general subpoenaed Deutsche Bank in 2019, according to three bank sources. One attorney general’s subpoena sought information on the financing of four Trump Organization property projects and his Buffalo Bills bid. Another, from the district attorney, requested financial statements in support of various loan applications, the sources said. In recent months, Manhattan investigators have spoken to a number of staff at Deutsche Bank, the three sources said.
Deutsche Bank declined to comment.
Both the district attorney and the attorney general are also looking at 40 Wall Street, a Trump Organization skyscraper in Lower Manhattan, according to the state attorney general’s court filings and people familiar with Vance’s investigation. The attorney general’s office is examining financial statements submitted by the Trump Organization to banks in connection with loans for the building, according to court filings.
TAX BREAKS ON L.A. GOLF COURSE
The attorney general is looking into additional deals, court documents show, including whether Trump failed to pay taxes on debt that was forgiven in connection to a loan restructuring for the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago. Prosecutors have said in court records that the Trump Organization had refused to produce documents to determine whether it declared that money as income in its tax filings, as usually required by law.
Attorney General James also is also examining another Trump conservation tax break, this one for his Trump National Golf Club near Los Angeles. Trump bought the cliff-top course in 2002, after its 18th hole collapsed into the ocean, and invested heavily to rebuild it.
In December 2014, Trump signed an agreement that granted a conservation easement over 11.5 acres of the course. An appraisal ordered by Trump valued the property at $107 million, setting the easement’s value at $25 million, James’ office said in court filings. That valuation is high compared to the metrics usually used to value golf properties, real-estate experts said.
BURDEN OF PROOF
For the Manhattan district attorney, proving in court that Trump or other company officials intended to commit a crime will be “particularly hard,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who teaches legal ethics and criminal law at New York Law School.
Prosecutors in corporate fraud cases, she said, often rely on a combination of direct evidence - such as incriminating witnesses, video, emails or text messages - and circumstantial evidence, such as tax records or other financial documents. They use such records, she said, often to point out where a company veered from common industry practice.
To look for anomalies among property deals, Vance’s office has retained forensic accounting specialists from Washington-based FTI Consulting Inc, a person familiar with the investigation said. An FTI spokesman declined to comment.
A key challenge for the investigators, Roiphe said, is that industry standards for real estate valuations can be flexible.
“It’s kind of common practice that you need to be a little bit loose with valuations,” she said. “So, to say this was done with a purpose - with the intent to defraud - will be challenging.”
U.N. rights experts urged 57 states on Monday to repatriate nearly 10,000 of their citizens - women and children associated with Islamic State fighters - held in camps in northeast Syria in "sub-human" conditions without legal process.
Under international law, these states have a duty to repatriate their citizens and, if there is evidence, to prosecute adults for war crimes or other offences at fair trials in their domestic courts, the experts said.
Some 9,462 foreign women and children are among more than 64,600 people detained at al-Hol and Roj camps, run by Syrian Kurdish authorities, where the majority of residents are Iraqi and Syrian nationals.
"The matter is one of extreme urgency," Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, U.N. special rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering terrorism, told a news briefing after the independent experts issued a joint statement.
She called the list of 57 countries - which include Britain, China, France, the Russian Federation and the United States - a "list of shame". She also decried "an uptick in nationality stripping", noting it was unlawful to leave someone stateless.
"These women and children are living in what can only be described as horrific and sub-human conditions... The conditions in these camps may reach the threshold of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law," Ní Aoláin said.
Some women had been "groomed online" as brides of Islamic State fighters, while children "had no say in what brought them there", she said.
The United Nations said last month it had received reports of 12 Syrian and Iraqi nationals being murdered in the first half of January at al-Hol camp, which holds internal refugees and families of Islamic State fighters.
Canada, Finland and Kazakhstan have repatriated some nationals, Ní Aoláin said, welcoming "the trickle of returns".
She compared the "illegal detention" to that of security suspects held at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay for years without charge.
"These women and children are a convenient battering ram on all the fears of state and the public. They are made objects of hate, ridicule and shame," she said.
An expert mission from the World Health Organization (WHO) investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in China has said it was yet to identify the animal source of the SARS-COV-2 virus, which has so far killed more than 2.3 million people across the world
Liang Wannian, an expert with China’s National Health Commission, told reporters in the central city of Wuhan that the joint Chinese and WHO team of 34 experts believe the virus originated in an animal, “but the reservoir host remains to be identified”.
Wuhan is the city the virus was first identified, and Liang said there was no evidence to suggest the virus was spreading in the city before the first official cases were recorded in December 2019.
He also went on to suggest the virus could have been circulating in other regions before it was identified in China.
A literature review of research that included “unpublished studies from different countries suggest that SARS-Cov-2 circulation preceding the initial detection of cases by several weeks,” he said.
“Some of the suspected positive samples were detected even earlier than the first case reported. This indicates the possibility of the misreported circulation in other regions.”
Analysis of records of respiratory illnesses reported at hospitals in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province show “there is no substantial unrecognized circulation of SARS-COV-2 in Wuhan during the latter part of 2019,” he added.
WHO foreign expert Ben Embarak, who was based in the WHO’s Beijing office for two years from 2009, backed up the assertion saying there was no evidence of “large outbreaks in Wuhan” before then.
The mission is a diplomatically knotty one, which was trailed before it began by fears of a whitewash, with the United States demanding a “robust” probe and China firing back with a warning not to “politicise” the investigation.
Source: Al Jazeera
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine may reduce the transmission of the coronavirus by up to two-thirds, a study has suggested, marking the first time a jab has been shown to have such an effect.
The Oxford University study published on Tuesday, which is awaiting peer review, found that those who had been vaccinated with a single dose of the vaccine were 67 percent less likely to test positive with a PCR test.
The paper suggested the vaccine, which was developed by Oxford University in partnership with British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, may have a “substantial effect on transmission of the virus” as a result and also prevent severe disease.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said the study, which also suggested the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot is highly protective after a single dose, showed “vaccines are the way out of this pandemic”.
“This news about the Oxford vaccine is absolutely superb,” Hancock tweeted. “This vaccine works & works well.”
Oxford academics approve 12-week dose interval
The study also showed the vaccine was 76 percent efficient against symptomatic infection for three months after a single dose, a level which increased if the second shot was delayed.
The results from trials in Britain, Brazil and South Africa showed that immune responses were boosted with a longer interval between the two doses, among participants aged 18 to 55 years.
“Vaccine efficacy after a single standard dose of vaccine from day 22 to day 90 post vaccination was 76 percent, and modelled analysis indicated that protection did not wane during this initial 3 month period,” Oxford academics said.
Their paper added that vaccine efficacy was 82.4 percent with 12 or more weeks to the second dose, compared with 54.9 percent for those where the booster was given fewer than six weeks after the first dose.
The findings supported the UK’s decision to extend the interval between the initial and booster doses of the shots to 12 weeks, Oxford academics said.
The UK has decided to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, by lengthening the amount of time between initial shots and booster shots.
Andrew Pollard, chief investigator of the Oxford Vaccine Trial, said the data showed the 12-week interval was “the optimal approach to roll out, and reassures us that people are protected from 22 days after a single dose”.
AstraZeneca’s research chief has said eight to 12 weeks between doses seemed to be the “sweet spot” for efficacy, contrasting with Pfizer, which has warned that its vaccine – developed with Germany’s BioNTech, was not trialled with such an interval.
Questions over elderly peopleThe study did not address mounting questions about a lack of data on efficacy among the elderly, a group the UK government have given highest priority in its vaccine roll-out.
The longest interval between doses for those aged 56 and above was between six and eight weeks, so there was no data for the efficacy of a 12-week dosing gap in that cohort.
The study said no one from the 12,408 people vaccinated with a single dose of the vaccine was hospitalised with COVID-19, from 22 days after immunisation.
Europe’s medicine regulator has recommended the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for adults of all ages but also flagged that there is not enough data to determine how well it will work in people aged older than 55.
On Tuesday, Poland and Sweden joined countries which have decided against using AstraZeneca on the elderly.
The UK has expressed confidence the vaccine works in all age groups and is ahead of other EU countries in the pace of its vaccine roll-out, having approved vaccines earlier.
Oxford University’s Pollard on Wednesday said the team’s researchers also believe the vaccine will continue to offer protection against new variants of COVID-19, although they are still waiting for data on this.
Even if the virus adapts, “that doesn’t mean that we won’t still have protection against severe disease”, he said.
“If we do need to update the vaccines, then it is actually a relatively straightforward process it only takes a matter of months, rather than the huge efforts that everyone went through last year to get the very large-scale trials run,” Pollard told the BBC.
SOURCE : AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES
FBI agents killed in Florida: Suspect reportedly used doorbell cam, fired assault rifle through closed door
Details continue to emerge about the fatal FBI raid in Sunrise, Fla., that left two agents dead, another three wounded and resulted in the suspect reportedly dying by suicide -- the agency's deadliest day since 9/11.
As flags at the FBI Miami Field Office remained lowered at half-staff Wednesday, a new report indicated the suspect used a doorbell camera and allegedly fired at agents through the door.
The suspect, who was not immediately named by authorities, is believed to have set up a camera in his doorbell and was using it to monitor agents as they approached his home, two unnamed law enforcement officials told the Miami Herald. The gunman then allegedly fired through the unopened door at agents coming using an assault-style rifle, leaving the door riddled with bullet holes, the report said.
James Marshall, a spokesman for the FBI Miami Field Office, declined to comment to Fox News on Wednesday about the details of the raid.
The Herald also reported that the gunman appeared to have died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
Five agents were struck by gunfire, resulting in the deaths of two agents, and three sustained "wounds of varying severity," FBI Miami Special Agent in Charge George Piro said in a statement Tuesday.
Piro said the suspect would not be identified until his family has been notified.
A preliminary investigation has led federal officials to believe that the suspect fatally shot himself, another unnamed law enforcement official told The Associated Press, cautioning that an official cause of death has not yet been determined. That person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.
FBI Director Christopher Wray identified the two slain agents as Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger, both of whom specialized in investigating crimes against children.
Marshall told Fox News on Wednesday that the bureau was not providing updates at this time about the two agents who were transported to the hospital Tuesday, each suffering from several gunshot wounds. He also declined to comment further about when the name of the suspect was expected to be released.
Wray confirmed in his statement Tuesday evening that both agents were now in stable condition. The third agent wounded did not require hospitalization and was treated at the scene.
The suspect opened fire when agents came to serve a federal warrant in connection with a case involving child pornography and violent crimes against children, according to Miami FBI Agent Michael D. Leverock and FBI Agents Association President Brian O’Hare. The bureau has not released additional information about the case against the now-deceased man.
The RaidThe shooting happened around 6 a.m. Tuesday in a middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes, duplexes and apartment buildings located west of Fort Lauderdale, near the Everglades.
The gunfire erupted with about four shots -- "Boom, boom, boom, boom!" Julius McLymont, whose house borders the Water Terrace apartment complex where the suspect was barricaded, told The AP.
At first, McLymont said he thought the gunfire was a car backfiring, then 2 minutes later he heard about five more shots.
He said he went outside and looked over his fence as police cars and ambulances rushed in. Then he saw officers working on someone lying on the ground before they loaded the person into an ambulance.
A SWAT team appeared next, he said, with officers donning riot gear. Then they went around the building, yelling "Go, go, go!" according to McLymont. He said he couldn’t see the apartment where the shooting happened from his location. Hours later, Sunrise Police urged residents of Water Terrace to remain inside their homes while law enforcement blocked the entrances to their community.
The Injured FBI AgentsAlfin, 36, who had been an FBI special agent since 2009, was recently involved in a case against an aide to the mayor of Miami who was accused of luring a teenage victim to City Hall under the guise of an interview and then kissing and fondling him during the meeting. Rene Pedrosa, who was originally facing state charges that were later dropped for federal charges filed in March 2020, allegedly sent lewd photos to his victim as well.
Alfin was also involved in an FBI hacking campaign to expose child pornography circulating on the dark website, Playpen. The investigation later brought down the founder of the site, Steven Chase, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2017.
Schwartzenberger, 43, an FBI agent since 2005, also worked on child exploitation investigations, many involving internet child pornography. She was active in the community as well, visiting middle schools to teach students about the dangers of online predators.
After the shootings Tuesday, police motorcycles with their lights flashing escorted a fire rescue truck as it brought the body of one of the agents to the medical examiner’s office in nearby Dania Beach. Law enforcement officials from numerous agencies lined up to pay their respects as a flag-covered body was removed from the vehicle and taken inside.
Source: Fox News