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FORMER VA. GOV, WIFE INDICTED FOR CORRUPTION

Wednesday, 22 January 2014 06:41 Published in National News

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Bob McDonnell had just been elected governor of Virginia when a wealthy businessman who had donated the use of his private jet during the Republican's campaign requested a meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York.

The governor-elect obliged and brought along his wife, Maureen, who during the meeting told Jonnie Williams she needed a dress for the inauguration the following month, according to a federal indictment of the McDonnells.

Williams agreed to buy her an Oscar de la Renta gown, but a Bob McDonnell aide said it would be inappropriate and nixed the idea, according to the indictment returned by a grand jury Tuesday.

Peeved, the former Washington Redskins cheerleader and future first lady fired off an email to the staffer.

"I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget," the email said. "I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I'm charging up in credit card debt. We are broke and have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done."

She ultimately told Williams, then the CEO of dietary supplement maker Star Scientific Inc., she could not accept the dress but would take a "rain check."

That scenario played out in December 2009, according to the indictment, and was allegedly the start of a four-year pattern of Virginia's first couple squeezing gifts and loans out of a benefactor who expected them to promote his company's products in return.

The indictment suggests the McDonnells cashed in that first rain check many times over: shopping sprees for designer clothes for Maureen McDonnell, a vacation stay at Williams' multimillion-dollar Smith Mountain Lake retreat, $70,000 in loans for a family real estate venture, $15,000 in catering expenses for a daughter's wedding, golf outings for the governor and family members.

The day after the Smith Mountain Lake vacation, which allegedly included use of Williams' Ferrari, Williams was in a meeting with the McDonnells and a senior state health official, pitching Star Scientific products and even suggesting that government employees could serve as a control group for research studies, according to the indictment.

Also that day, the indictment said, Maureen McDonnell persuaded Williams to buy a $6,500 Rolex watch that she presented to her husband as a gift with "71st Governor of Virginia" engraved on the back.

The government alleges there were other instances of the McDonnells using their influence to help Williams' company, including hosting an Executive Mansion reception for Star Scientific to launch it signature product with university researchers in attendance.

Twelve of the 14 counts in Tuesday's indictment are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, two by up to 30 years. Possible fines range from $250,000 to $1 million.

McDonnell has apologized and said he returned more than $120,000 in gifts and loans to Williams, but has insisted he did nothing illegal. He said Tuesday night that federal prosecutors stretched the law to make a case against him and his wife.

"I will use every available resource and advocate that I have for as long as it takes to fight and prevail against these false allegations and the unjust overreach of the federal government," McDonnell said at a news conference, where he read from a statement and took no questions.

"I repeat again emphatically that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal friendship and his generosity," said McDonnell. He described the federal investigation as "indescribably agonizing" and said that "the federal government's case rests entirely on a misguided legal theory."

Maureen McDonnell joined her husband at the news conference but did not speak. Her attorney, William Burck, said in a statement that the Department of Justice "has overreached to bring these charges."

Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman offered a different view.

"Today's charges represent the Justice Department's continued commitment to rooting out public corruption at all levels of government," she said in a news release. "Ensuring that elected officials uphold the public's trust is one of our most critical responsibilities."

McDonnell's lawyers filed a strongly worded motion Tuesday evening seeking instructions and recordings of any comments federal prosecutors made to the grand jury about the legal validity of the charges.

"To bring today's indictment, the federal government has concocted a never-before-used legal theory manufactured for the sole purpose of prosecuting Governor McDonnell and his wife," they wrote.

They called the governor's prosecution days after leaving office "disgraceful" and "contemptuous of the citizens of Virginia who elected him."

A bond hearing and arraignment is set for both defendants Friday in U.S. District Court in Richmond.

McDonnell left office earlier this month after four years in the governor's office. Virginia law limits governors to a single term.

The federal investigation overshadowed the final months in office for the once-rising star of the Republican Party. At one time, McDonnell had been considered a possible running mate for Mitt Romney. McDonnell delivered the 2010 Republican response to the State of the Union Address, and became chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2011.

The 43-page indictment outlines several instances in which the McDonnells allegedly touted the legitimacy of Star Scientific's dietary supplement Anatabloc.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration informed Star Scientific that it has been unlawfully promoting Anatabloc as a drug by citing studies suggesting it can be used to treat multiple sclerosis and other diseases. The company has said it is working with the FDA to resolve that issue as well as an allegation that it marketed the products without required federal approval.

In a written statement Tuesday evening, Star Scientific attorney Abbe David Lowell said "it is a sad day when criminal charges are brought against any elected official," and the company will continue to cooperate with authorities in the McDonnell case.

Virginia Republican lawmakers were quick to express their support for McDonnell as well as their sadness and disappointment that charges were filed. House Speaker William J. Howell and other Republican House leaders issued a statement calling McDonnell their "good friend" and saying they were praying for the former governor and his family.

"We believe in the rule of law and are confident in the ability of our legal system to render the rightful judgment, whatever it may be," the statement said.

Meanwhile Democrats used the indictments to call for stricter ethics rules for lawmakers. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation this year in reaction to McDonnell's gift scandal that would place a $250 limit on gifts to lawmakers. And new Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, signed an executive order his first day in office prohibiting gifts to the governor, his family or staff of more than $100.

"This is a sad day for Virginia, but I remain optimistic that we can work together to reform our system in order to prevent episodes like this from occurring ever again," McAuliffe said in a statement.

The scandal unfolded last year around the same time as a separate politically embarrassing case involving a former Executive Mansion chef who was accused of embezzlement and, in turn, accused McDonnell's children of taking mansion food and supplies for personal use. The governor later reimbursed the state and the chef pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors.

The fallout seeped into the general election, with McDonnell playing a low-key role in support of Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who lost to McAuliffe. Asked why he hadn't been more visible, McDonnell replied, "That's a question for the candidate."

Tuesday's indictment against the McDonnells includes one count of conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud; three counts of honest-services wire fraud; one count of conspiracy to obtain property under color of official right; six counts of obtaining property under color of official right; and one count of making false statements to a federal credit union.

The former governor is also charged with an additional count of making a false statement to a financial institution, and Maureen McDonnell is charged with one count of obstruction of an official proceeding.

---

Associated Press writers Steve Szkotak and Alan Suderman contributed to this report. Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker contributed from Washington.

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

BIRD FLU SPIKES IN CHINA AHEAD OF LUNAR NEW YEAR

Wednesday, 22 January 2014 06:37 Published in Health & Fitness

A spate of bird flu cases since the beginning of the year in China has experts watching closely as millions of people and poultry are on the move ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, the world's largest annual human migration.

China has reported more than 50 H7N9 infections in 2014 after the strain jumped from birds to people for the first time last year. The virus remains hard to catch and most cases have been linked to contact with poultry, but scientists worry that could change if it mutates into a form that allows it to spread easily among people.

For those who track influenza, the holiday, which begins Jan. 31, is always worrying because it comes during the winter months when flu typically rages. Add that to hundreds of millions of people - and often birds - crammed together on buses and other forms of transportation going home, and it's always a bit of a gamble. China estimates 3.6 billion trips will be taken over the holiday season.

"This is the first winter we've seen H7N9. We are in uncharted territory," said Gregory Hartl, World Health Organization spokesman in Geneva. "We have seen an upstart in cases, which we are attributing basically to the fact that it's winter. That combined with a lot of movement of people in crowded trains with chickens could give rise to a lot more infections, but we've also seen in past years where it hasn't."

The first H7N9 cases were reported in late March near Shanghai, and more than 200 others have since been identified, including some 50 deaths. A 31-year-old doctor became one of the latest fatalities, raising fears he may have been infected at the hospital where he worked, but none of his patients or other close contacts have reported flu symptoms, according to the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Health and Family Planning.

There have been a handful of family clusters, but WHO says no sustained human-to-human transmission has occurred. However, scientists warn that the H7N9 virus contains genetic markers that could help it infect mammals easier than other avian flus. Infected birds also do not show symptoms, making it harder to track the disease. Cases declined in China over the summer, which is typically slower for influenza viruses, after some local live poultry markets were temporarily closed.

In Hong Kong, which has logged three cases, officials will test all poultry for the virus beginning later this week. Taiwan has reported two cases.

In past years, it was the H5N1 bird flu virus that spiked during this time of year. That strain, which has killed at least 386 people since 2003, is still circulating widely in poultry stocks and kills about 60 percent of the people it infects.

On Tuesday, Vietnam, which has long battled the virus, confirmed its first H5N1 death in nine months. Earlier in January, the first human case was reported in North America after a person traveling back from a trip to Beijing became ill and died in Canada.

Both bird flus cause high fever and respiratory problems, including pneumonia and shortness of breath. Scientists have repeatedly warned that the viruses cannot be ignored because of their potential to possibly spark a global pandemic. But after years of campaigning in countries where it's common for chickens and pigs to live closely with people, sometimes in the same house, that message is often a hard sell.

"After almost a decade of sitting on the proverbial edge of the H5N1 pandemic cliff and not falling off, people are beginning to think that we never will fall," Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, said by email. "But the best scientific assessment of microbial genetics tells us we could still fall off of that cliff and if we do, the global consequences could be devastating."

Poultry is a central part of many families' dinner tables during the Lunar New Year festivities, and it's often bought live and killed at home in China and elsewhere across the region. The WHO urges care when slaughtering and preparing birds, including frequent hand washing. However, well-cooked meat and eggs do not pose a threat.

----

AP Medical Writer Margie Mason covers health issues across the Asia-Pacific. Follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/MargieMasonAP

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

A tasty Super Bowl on tap for troops

Wednesday, 22 January 2014 06:18 Published in Local News
CHICAGO (AP) - Gov. Pat Quinn says military members deployed overseas will get Chicago-style pizzas in time for Super Bowl Sunday.
The nonprofit group Pizza 4 Patriots has been sending pizzas to service members since 2008. The idea is send them some of the comforts of home while they're deployed.
Quinn will join officials with the group and DHL Express on Wednesday to pack up pizzas for the trip.
They expect to send about 10,000 ready-to-bake pizzas to troops.
Last year, 21,000 pizzas were shipped to Afghanistan and Kuwait. They were frozen and packed with dry ice.

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