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Mueller: No Russia exoneration for Trump, despite his claims

WASHINGTON — Robert Mueller, the taciturn lawman at the center of a polarizing American drama, bluntly dismissed President Donald Trump’s claims of “total exoneration” Wednesday in the federal probe of Russia’s 2016 election interference. In a long day of congressional testimony, Mueller warned that Moscow’s actions represented — and still represent — a great threat to American democracy.

Mueller’s back-to-back Capitol Hill appearances, his first since wrapping his two-year Russia probe, carried the prospect of a historic climax to a rare criminal investigation into a sitting American president. But his testimony was more likely to reinforce rather than reshape hardened public opinions on impeachment and the future of Trump’s presidency.

With his terse, one-word answers, and a sometimes stilted and halting manner, Mueller made clear his desire to avoid the partisan fray and the deep political divisions roiling Congress and the country.

He delivered neither crisp TV sound bites to fuel a Democratic impeachment push nor comfort to Republicans striving to undermine his investigation’s credibility. But his comments grew more animated by the afternoon, when he sounded the alarm on future Russian election interference. He said he feared a new normal of American campaigns accepting foreign help.

He condemned Trump’s praise of WikiLeaks, which released Democratic emails stolen by Russia. And he said of the interference by Russians and others: “They are doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”

His report, he said, should live on after him and his team.

“We spent substantial time assuring the integrity of the report, understanding that it would be our living message to those who come after us,” Mueller said. “But it also is a signal, a flag to those of us who have some responsibility in this area to exercise those responsibilities swiftly and don’t let this problem continue to linger as it has over so many years.”

House Republicans said Mueller’s testimony Wednesday uncovered no meaningful new information and that it’s time to move on.

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says that “this should be the end of the chapter that we put America through.”

Trump, claiming vindication despite the renewal of serious allegations, focused on his own political fortunes.

“This was a devastating day for the Democrats,” he said. “The Democrats had nothing and now they have less than nothing.”

Mueller was reluctant to stray beyond his lengthy written report, but that didn’t stop Republicans and Democrats from laboring to extract new details.

Trump’s GOP allies tried to cast the former special counsel and his prosecutors as politically motivated. They referred repeatedly to what they consider the improper opening of the investigation.

Democrats, meanwhile, sought to emphasize the most incendiary findings of Mueller’s 448-page report and weaken Trump’s reelection prospects in ways Mueller’s book-length report did not. They hoped that even if his testimony did not inspire impeachment demands, Mueller could nonetheless unambiguously spell out questionable, norm-shattering actions by the president.

Wednesday evening, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi commented about the House possibly proceeding with impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Pelosi said a “cone of silence” from the White House that’s not providing documents and witness testimony “will not prevent us from going forward.” She adds, “In fact, it’s even more grounds to go forward.”

Mueller, who endured nearly seven hours of hearings, was a less forceful public presence than the man who steered the FBI through the Sept. 11 attacks and the 12 years after that. But Mueller, 74, was nonetheless skilled enough in the ways of Washington to avoid being goaded into leading questions he didn’t want to answer.

Mueller frequently gave single-word answers to questions, even when given opportunities to crystallize allegations of obstruction of justice against the president. He referred time and again to the wording in his report.

Was the president lying when he said he had no business ties to Russia? “I’m not going to go into the details of the report along those lines,” Mueller said. Did you develop any sort of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia? “Again,” Mueller said, “I pass on answering.”

But he was unflinching on the most-critical matters, showing flashes of personality and emotion.

In the opening minutes of the Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, asked about Trump’s multiple claims of vindication by the investigation.

“And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Nadler asked.

“No,” Mueller replied.

When Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, asked, “Your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it?”

“It is not a witch hunt,” Mueller flatly replied.

He gave Democrats a flicker of hope when he told Rep. Ted Lieu of California that he did not charge Trump because of a Justice Department legal opinion that says sitting presidents cannot be indicted. That statement cheered Democrats who understood him to be suggesting he might have otherwise have recommended prosecution on the strength of the evidence.

But Mueller later walked back that exchange, saying: “We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.” His team, he said, never started the process of evaluating whether to charge Trump.

Though Mueller described Russian election interference as among the most serious challenges to democracy he had encountered in his decades-long career, Republicans focused on his conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“Those are the facts of the Mueller report. Russia meddled in the 2016 election. The president did not conspire with Russians. Nothing we hear today will change those facts,” said Rep. Doug Collins, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican.

Mueller, pressed as to why he hadn’t investigated a “dossier” of claims that the Republicans insist helped lead to the start of the probe, said that was not his charge. That was “outside my purview,” he said repeatedly.

Mueller mostly brushed aside Republican allegations of bias, but in a moment of apparent agitation, he said he didn’t think lawmakers had ever “reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us.”

And when he was pressed on the fact that multiple members of his team had made contributions to Democratic candidates, Mueller bristled at the implication his prosecutors were compromised.

“I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years, and in those 25 years I have not had occasion, once, to ask somebody about their political affiliation,” Mueller said, raising his hand for emphasis. “It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”Wednesday’s first hearing before the Judiciary Committee focused on whether Trump obstructed justice by attempting to seize control of Mueller’s investigation. The special counsel examined nearly a dozen episodes, including Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and his efforts to have Mueller himself removed, for potential obstruction.

The afternoon hearing before the House intelligence committee dove into ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

On that question, Mueller’s report documented a trail of contacts between Russians and Trump associates, including a Trump Tower meeting at which the president’s eldest son expected to receive dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton.


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Education
Swink school district facing forced consolidation says Epic leader offered a rescue: 'I'm in pretty good with Joy'

The lone remaining board member of a school district facing forced consolidation says the co-founder of Epic Charter Schools offered to rescue the district in an unorthodox move.

The Oklahoma State Board of Education is poised to vote Thursday morning on the consolidation of Swink Public Schools, a rural district between Hugo and Idabel that serves 140 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade.

“I got a call from Ben Harris (of Epic) about two weeks ago. He had heard that we were in trouble, and he was offering the possibility to annex into Panola, the little district they already control,” said Lewis Collins, a retired longtime Choctaw County sheriff who has served on the Swink school board for five months.

“I told him, ‘I’m a one-man board. Everyone else has resigned, and I can’t make any decisions. The (state) Department of Education is going to destroy us.’

“He said, ‘If you’re interested in this, I’m in pretty good with Joy (Hofmeister). I can get this done.’ I said, ‘Well, I can’t make any decisions.’”

Epic Charter Schools, the operator of the state’s largest virtual school, came to the rescue of Panola, another small school district in dire straits in 2017, through a unique arrangement.

Panola converted itself into a charter school, thereby freeing itself from a host of certain state requirements, and outsourced its management to an Epic-related for-profit company in exchange for more than 10 percent of the district’s revenues from state, federal and local tax dollars.

A spokeswoman for State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said any arrangement to annex Swink into Panola, 110 miles to the north, would be “patently impossible” at this juncture.

“Just as Superintendent Hofmeister opposed the Panola school board partnering with Epic, she would oppose such a scenario now, even if it were possible,” said Steffie Corcoran, executive director of communications at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

“The fact is the State Board will soon take action on our recommendation to close the school. We understand that this is a difficult time for the Swink community and its lone remaining board member.”

Emily Lang, a contract spokeswoman for Epic, confirmed that Harris had a brief conversation with the board member “about Swink and the work EPIC has done in Panola.”

“They did not discuss a formal arrangement but instead had a casual conversation. There are no plans for a partnership or for any future discussions on the matter,” Lang said.

Last week, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation revealed in public court documents that it is actively investigating allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses and racketeering at Epic. The Tulsa World also obtained public records that show the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Education’s law enforcement arm have also been probing Epic Charter Schools’ student enrollment practices and finances.

Swink’s finances and operations have been under a microscope since late 2015, when its former treasurer was busted by auditors and then law enforcement authorities for an embezzlement scheme that resulted in her sentencing in federal court earlier this month.

Collins said the cold call he received from Harris came after June’s state Board of Education meeting, at which state education officials publicly revealed a recommendation to consolidate Swink with a neighboring school district, Valliant.

“A voluntary annexation vote was held in May. The school board voted to put it to the people, and the people said no by 70 percent,” Collins explained. “Swink is the best school in Choctaw County. They’re trying to force us into the worst school district in McCurtain County, which is Valliant.”

Collins, retired in 2012 after 16 years as Choctaw County sheriff and 43 total years in law enforcement. He joined the Swink school board earlier this year because of familial ties and a sense of duty to his community, but the situation quickly devolved.

“My mother started first grade there in 1925 and completed eighth grade there,” he said. “That school is very dear to the community. That is the total existence of our community.”

After the failure of the voluntary annexation vote, Collins said his two fellow board members simultaneously submitted their resignations in June. Without at least one other board member, Collins said his hands have been tied to remedy any of the issues state education officials have raised, including concerns about school bus transportation and liability insurance.

But, on the most important count, Collins thinks he’s got one piece of helpful information on his side — bank statements that reportedly show much more money on hand for operations than the $150,000 the state has claimed.

“We shared superintendents with Valliant for a year, and I think the superintendent hoodwinked them into thinking we had way less money in the bank,” Collins said. “They said we don’t have enough money to open school, but I’ve got bank statements from the end of June that show we’ve got almost $275,000 to open school, plus $193,000 in bond money.

“Some schools have to go get a line of credit just to start the school year. I just can’t imagine the state doesn’t have better things to do than come after Swink.”

He added: “Swink is the best school in Choctaw County — anyone would want to annex Swink. We’re going to do what we can tomorrow.”


Local
Tulsa Promenade stores to stay open as owner, lender 'work out their differences' over unpaid $6M, court-appointed receiver says

A Tulsa County district judge appointed a receiver for the Tulsa Promenade mall effective Wednesday evening.

Jim Parrack, a real estate expert with Price Edwards and Co., became receiver as of 5 p.m. Wednesday after Tulsa Realty 126, a Delaware limited liability company acting on behalf of the mall’s ownership, failed to meet a deadline to settle a case brought by the mortgage holder after the owner defaulted on the loan.

The mortgage holder, Ready Capital Corp., filed an expedited receiver motion in Tulsa County District Court last month after the mall’s owners failed to make payments on the loan beginning in March.

Mall ownership requested an extension on July 10 and was given two weeks to pay the full amount owed to the mortgage holder.

Mall ownership owes a total of $6.03 million, according to court filings.

As receiver, Parrack will have possession of the mall property and full power and authority to operate, manage and conserve the property.

“The main focus of the receivership will (be) to take care of the Mall and operate it in the best possible manner while the owner and the lender work out their differences. Everyone should know that the Mall will remain open and all the stores will remain open,” Parrack said in an email. “The mall has a dedicated staff and dedicated stores that will do everything they can to make shoppers welcome for however long the receivership lasts.”

Ready Capital Corp.’s initial filing alleges that its collateral interest in the property is diminishing as a result of the mall owner’s failure to maintain the property and a suspected failure to direct all rents to the designated “lock box.”

Court filings claim the property’s value has seen a three-year plunge from $25.9 million in a 2016 appraisal to $4.5 million and that a recent property inspection revealed that substantial deferred maintenance remains incomplete, including items that were flagged for immediate repair in 2016 in addition to “significant deferred maintenance arising from normal wear and tear or neglect.”

The mortgage holder also states that it holds $1.4 million in repair and replacement reserves that the borrower has available, yet the borrower had only requested $165,000 in 2017 for parking lot repairs.

The mortgage loan is structured so that all rents paid are deposited directly into a “lock box” account and then dispersed.

The mortgage holder claims in the court documents that the mall owner failed to provide operating statements or rent rolls for January through May this year.

Per the receiver agreement, Tulsa Realty 126 must turn over to the receiver the possession of all bank accounts, checking accounts and credit card receipts in addition to all deposits, prepaid rents, cash and cash equivalents maintained in connection to the property.



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Local
With politicians who set up Oklahoma's gaming compacts no longer in office, tribes are told to court Republicans

Oklahoma’s gaming Indian tribes may feel secure in their position concerning state gaming compacts, but political strategist Tyler Powell offered a chilling word of warning to them Wednesday.

“The folks that passed the stuff that enabled gaming in this state … are no longer in the Legislature. They’re all gone,” Powell said during a discussion at the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association convention at the Cox Business Center.

Not only are they gone, but most of the people who succeeded them are, too. Powell said the huge turnover in not only the Legislature but state government in general has created a “where’s my office” situation at the Capitol.

“I’ve never seen a group question the decisions of the past like this one,” Powell said.

That means the tribes have a big sales job to convince lawmakers, Gov. Kevin Stitt and highly placed advisers that the current compact is a good deal for Oklahoma.

Stitt and many others think the state should be getting more than the $147 million in exclusivity fees paid by the tribes last year. Earlier this month, Stitt notified the tribes that he intends to renegotiate those fees and the entire model compact used for all tribal gaming in the state.

“We used to focus all of our energy on the federal government,” said Matt Morgan, OIGA chairman and director of gaming affairs for the Chickasaw Nation. “That’s where we created relationships; that’s who we visited. The federal government is important, but … the state government is just as important.

“There is no greater impact on your everyday lives than local elections. That’s city, county and state,” Morgan said.

Powell recommended that tribal members get to know their legislators and explain Indian Country issues, including gaming. He also said that means directing more of their attention to Republican lawmakers, because he anticipates the GOP supermajorities in the Legislature growing as a result of the 2020 elections, particularly in the House.

Furthermore, he predicted, few if any nonmetro Democrats will remain after 2020, meaning the tribes will be primarily represented in the Legislature by Republicans and working with a Republican governor who seems intent on renegotiating tribal gaming compacts.

With that in mind, Morgan and Tulsa attorney Dean Luthey discussed ways to frame the tribe’s messaging to lawmakers and the public.

On Tuesday, Morgan noted that Oklahoma’s tribes employ more than 95,000 people, of whom 75,000 work in the gaming sector, and that most of those jobs are in rural parts of the state.

At Wednesday’s presentation, Morgan said the state’s income from tribal exclusivity fees has far exceeded expectations, and he said per capita revenue from the fees is the highest in the United States.

He said most tribal gaming revenue winds up invested in local economies, schools and infrastructure, and he asked, “If those dollars are rerouted to the state, will they come back?”

Luthey noted that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 limits how gaming proceeds can be spent, and he said Oklahoma tribes generally devote their earnings to such areas as housing, health care, education, water and sewer projects, law enforcement and roads.

“Every dollar that tribal governmental gaming generates and is used for those … purposes is a dollar that local government, state government and federal government don’t need to spend — and in many cases wouldn’t have been spent by those other governments,” Luthey said.


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