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Washington
Pelosi orders impeachment probe: 'No one is above the law'

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday that the House of Representatives will take the rare step of launching a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, yielding to mounting pressure from fellow Democrats and plunging a deeply divided nation into an election year clash between Congress and the commander in chief.

The probe focuses partly on whether Trump abused his presidential powers and sought help from a foreign government to undermine Democratic foe Joe Biden and help his own re-election. Pelosi said such actions would mark a “betrayal of his oath of office” and declared: “No one is above the law.”

Only three of Trump’s predecessors underwent similar proceedings: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, who were acquitted after trials in the Senate, and Richard Nixon, who resigned to avoid being impeached in connection with the Watergate scandal.

The rarely used procedure is spelled out in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the president and other officers of government “shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The impeachment inquiry, after months of investigations by House Democrats of the Trump administration, sets up the party’s most direct and consequential confrontation with the president, injects deep uncertainty into the 2020 election campaign, and tests anew the nation’s constitutional system of checks and balances.

Trump, who thrives on combat, has all but dared Democrats to take this step, confident that the specter of impeachment led by the opposition party will bolster rather than diminish his political support.

Meeting with world leaders at the United Nations, he previewed his defense in an all-caps tweet: “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!”

Pelosi’s brief statement, delivered without dramatic flourish but in the framework of a constitutional crisis, capped a frenetic weeklong stretch on Capitol Hill as details of a classified whistleblower complaint about Trump burst into the open and momentum shifted toward an impeachment probe.

For months, the Democratic leader has tried calming the push for impeachment, saying the House must investigate the facts and let the public decide.

The new drive was led by a group of moderate Democratic lawmakers from political swing districts, many of them with national security backgrounds and serving in Congress for the first time.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, sensed sentiment in her politically mixed Virginia district “pivot” from a “general pit of confusion” over the Mueller report to clarity.

“I saw a shift on the ground in my district,” said Spanberger, whose district includes portions of Chesterfield and Henrico counties. “On the ground there was a change in the conversation. This is something new. It’s a new phase. This is a new type of allegation.”

Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria, D-2nd, said, “It’s crystal clear. If this isn’t impeachable, what is?”

After Pelosi told the caucus she was moving forward with the inquiry, Luria said lawmakers clapped but the mood was sober.

“I didn’t come to Washington wanting to impeach the president,” said Luria, a former Navy commander who served in the military for 20 years. “It’s obviously a very sad day for our country.”

Luria and Spanberger won races in districts that previously voted for Trump, part of a wave of moderate Democrats who helped flip the House in 2018. They both resisted earlier calls for impeachment by more progressive members of the Democratic caucus.

But over the weekend, as news broke about Trump’s communications and actions toward Ukraine, Luria and Spanberger joined five fellow freshman lawmakers with backgrounds in national security to craft an op-ed in The Washington Post to announce their support for impeachment. It posted late Monday.

Amplifying their call were longtime leaders, including Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights icon often considered the conscience of House Democrats.

“Now is the time to act,” said Lewis, in an address to the House. “To delay or to do otherwise would betray the foundation of our democracy.”

At issue are Trump’s actions with Ukraine. In a summer phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, he is said to have asked for help investigating former Vice President Biden and Biden’s son Hunter. In the days before the call, Trump ordered advisers to freeze $400 million in military aid for Ukraine — prompting speculation that he was holding out the money as leverage for information on the Bidens. Trump has denied that charge, but acknowledged he blocked the funds, later released.

Biden said Tuesday, before Pelosi’s announcement, that if Trump doesn’t cooperate with lawmakers’ demands for documents and testimony in their investigations, the president “will leave Congress ... with no choice but to initiate impeachment.” He said that would be a tragedy of Trump’s “own making.”

The Trump-Ukraine phone call is part of the whistleblower’s complaint, though the administration has blocked Congress from getting other details of the report, citing presidential privilege. Trump has authorized the release of a transcript of the call, which is to be made public on Wednesday.

“You will see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call,” Trump said.

The whistleblower’s complaint was being reviewed for classified material and could go to Congress by Thursday, according to a person familiar with the issue who was not authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trump has sought to implicate Biden and his son in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing .

While the possibility of impeachment has hung over Trump for many months, the likelihood of a probe had faded after special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation ended without a clear directive for lawmakers.

Since then, the House committees have revisited aspects of the Mueller probe while also launching new inquiries into Trump’s businesses and various administration scandals that all seemed likely to drag on for months.

But details of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine prompted Democrats to quickly shift course. By the time Pelosi addressed the nation Tuesday, about two-thirds of House Democrats had announced their willingness to move toward impeachment probes.

The burden will likely now shift to Democrats to make the case to a scandal-weary public. In a highly polarized Congress, an impeachment inquiry could simply showcase how clearly two sides can disagree when shown the same evidence rather than approach consensus.

Building toward this moment, the president has repeatedly been stonewalling requests for documents and witness interviews in the variety of ongoing investigations.

After Pelosi’s announcement Tuesday, the president and his campaign team quickly released a series of tweets attacking Democrats, including a video of presidential critics like the speaker and Rep. Ilhan Omar discussing impeachment. It concluded: “While Democrats ‘Sole Focus’ is fighting Trump, President Trump is fighting for you.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Pelosi’s well-known “efforts to restrain her far-left conference have finally crumbled.”

While Pelosi’s announcement adds weight to the work being done on the oversight committees, the next steps are likely to resemble the past several months of hearings and legal battles — except with the possibility of actual impeachment votes.

On Wednesday, the House is expected to consider a symbolic but still notable resolution insisting the Trump administration turn over to Congress the whistleblower’s complaint. The Senate, in a rare bipartisan moment, approved a similar resolution Tuesday.

The lawyer for the whistleblower, who is still anonymous, released a statement saying he had asked Trump’s director of national intelligence to turn over the complaint to House committees and asking guidance to permit the whistleblower to meet with lawmakers.


Local
50 freshmen at Richmond high schools awarded scholarships to attend Virginia Union University

One student thought his schedule was being changed. Another worried she might be in trouble.

But when the eight Huguenot High School freshmen called to the school’s forum room walked in on Tuesday, they found a stage decorated in the maroon and steel of Virginia Union University, and good news: They’d secured full academic scholarships.

“Assuming you [maintain your grades, keep working hard and graduate], and I have every confidence that you will, you have a free ride for your entire education at VUU,” Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras told the students, among 50 ninth-graders who learned Tuesday that they’d been selected for the partnership between the system and private university.

Jordan Braxton, one of the scholarship recipients at Huguenot High School, said she was overwhelmed and thankful. She wasn’t sure she could have afforded college without the help.

“I’m really excited. I really didn’t think I was going to get it,” said Braxton, who hopes to become a doctor who cares for newborns.

Asia Dudley, another Huguenot High School recipient, said getting the scholarship will free her from having to get student loans to pay for her education.

“This helps my future because college is a big deal to me,” said Dudley, who plans to pursue a teaching degree.

Huguenot Principal Rob Gilstrap said about 40% of the roughly 300 seniors who graduate from the high school each year go on to college and another 20% go into the military. A big barrier to seeking a higher education is the cost, the principal said.

Gilstrap said the scholarship gives students a strong motivation to graduate from high school.

“A lot of our students work four years and finish high school, and then they don’t have this guarantee that they can go to college,” Gilstrap said. “They may want to, but financially or for other reasons in their family it may not be possible, but if they had this guarantee at the end of the four years, I think it would definitely increase their chances of sticking it out when it gets tough.”

Justin Pair, another Huguenot freshman who received the scholarship, said he plans to study computer engineering so he can work as a mechanic. Pair said getting the scholarship is a relief given the intimidating cost of paying for college.

“It relieves stress off my parents and myself,” Pair said.

The full cost to attend VUU is currently about $27,000 a year, said Maurice W. Campbell, the school’s senior vice president for corporate and external affairs.

“This actually gives the students the ability to know that, no matter what, they have the ability and somewhere to go to college in the future,” Campbell said of the scholarship.

There will be a formal event at VUU on Oct. 5 for the 50 students who received the scholarships and their families.

PHOTOS: Huguenot freshmen receive full scholarships to VUU

ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/times-Dispatch  

Asia Dudley reacts to hearing she was chosen to receive a full academic scholarship to VUU along with nine other Huguenot High School students during a ceremony on Sept. 24, 2019. Huguenot High School freshman Asia Dudley reacted Tuesday to receiving a full academic scholarship to Virginia Union University. April Leveron (from left), Ashley Duron and Demarc Oliver also got scholarships.


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Virginia
Virginia tax refund checks are in the mail. Don't toss out this envelope.

Almost 2.7 million checks are on the way to Virginia taxpayers with a one-time refund from a political compromise over a state windfall from federal tax reforms.

Eligible taxpayers will receive $110 if they filed individually and $220 if they filed jointly as a married couple.

The Virginia Department of Treasury began mailing checks to eligible taxpayers on Sept. 16 and expects to finish by Oct. 15.

Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said taxpayers shouldn’t confuse the one-time payments with refunds they would be due from overpayment of income taxes on their annual tax return.

“This has nothing to do with the normal refund checks,” Layne told the House Appropriations Committee on the first day the checks went into the mail.

The Virginia Department of Taxation offers taxpayers a primer on how the state determines eligibility for a refund. The primer is online at www.tax.virginia.gov/news/2019-virginia-tax-relief-refund.

Generally, taxpayers are eligible if they filed their state income taxes by July 1 and owed at least as much in tax liability as the amount of the refund.

However, they are not eligible if they used tax credits to pay for their liability. The state also will use all or part of the refund to pay any outstanding debts, “such as unpaid Virginia state taxes or debts to local governments, courts or other state agencies.”

If taxpayers don’t receive their refunds by Oct. 15, they can call the tax department at (804) 367-8031.


Crime
Ex-Chesterfield officer sentenced to 2 years for soliciting sex from detective posing as minor

A former Chesterfield County patrol officer has been sentenced to serve two years in prison after pleading guilty to soliciting sex online from an undercover Hanover County detective who the defendant believed was a 14-year-old girl.

As a result of publicity from that case, Simeon Isaiah Crispin Steers-Smith, 30, is under investigation in Humphreys County, Tenn., after a teenage girl alleged that she had online communication with the defendant over a period of months that involved sexual chats and the exchange of visual media, a Hanover prosecutor said.

Multiple felony counts of aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor and sexual exploitation of a minor are being pursued and are pending grand jury indictments, Humphreys County sheriff’s Capt. Clay Anderson said Tuesday.

In the Hanover case, Steers-Smith pleaded guilty ahead of his trial scheduled for Tuesday in Hanover Circuit Court to one count of electronic solicitation of a minor under age 15. Under terms of a plea agreement, the prosecution withdrew two identical charges and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison with eight years suspended.

Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Mackenzie Babichenko, who prosecuted the case, said the original three charges stemmed from one conversation, and Hanover judges in similar cases have ruled that a defendant can be prosecuted on only one charge from a single conversation. “That seems to be the legal standard now, which makes sense,” she said.

Steers-Smith’s conviction requires that he be registered as a sex offender on the Virginia State Police Sex Offender Registry.

According to a summary evidence by Babichenko, Hanover investigator Troy Payne, while using an undercover pseudonym on the anonymous chat website Omegle.com, came into contact with Steers-Smith on March 18.

Payne posed as a 14-year-old girl named Krystal, and was randomly connected to Steers-Smith based on the term “Virginia.” Steers-Smith identified himself as a 30-year-old man with a physical description that was accurate, Babichenko told the court.

Steers-Smith then proposed sexual acts that he wished to perform with Krystal, and suggested renting a hotel room if Krystal’s bedroom was not available.

Three days later, on March 21, Steers-Smith sent Krystal a partial self-photograph, confirming his identity, the prosecutor said.

During a subsequent interview with police, Steers-Smith admitted conducting the Omegle.com chat with Krystal, “as well as conducting other online chats with juvenile females that were sexual in nature,” Babichenko said.

“The defendant stated that there were likely illicit photographs of female juveniles on his mobile phone, however none were recovered by law enforcement,” the prosecutor said.

Payne was using his work-issued computer in Hanover during the entire Omegle.com conversation with Steers-Smith, which lasted about 30 minutes, Babichenko said.

Steers-Smith’s attorney, Judson Collier, said he has “grave concerns” about the state statute under which his client was charged because it allows people to be charged with essentially a “thought” crime that’s based on a person’s fantasy, and nothing else.

“The internet is a vast wonderland of fantasy,” said Collier, a former Henrico County commonwealth’s attorney. “And when people go on these sites, everything and anything goes in terms of their imaginations and their fantasies.”

“There was nothing that Mr. Smith did that was an overt act towards having any physical, actual contact with any victim in this case,” he added. “And that’s what concerns me about the statute. I think it should only be invoked when and if there is an overt attempt to make direct physical contact with a minor, based upon the transactions that occur on the internet itself.”

Collier said Steers-Smith got caught up in a fantasy, “and now he’s a convicted felon, based purely on digital words on a screen.”

“Here you have a man, who in my opinion, after spending time with him, is as good and decent and caring and wonderful as the badge that he wore for almost six years, both in the city of Richmond and the county of Chesterfield,” Collier said. “I’ve had so many really good, good people that have gotten caught up in this because of the fantasy world that the internet allows and almost promotes.”

Babichenko said parents should consider restricting their children from using the Omegle.com chat site.

“It’s a random chat, it’s like chat roulette — where you go online and put something in that you like, and it matches you randomly and anonymously with someone else,” the prosecutor said. “I don’t know how else to say it, but there are a lot of perverts sitting around on Omegle reaching out and kind of finding these young kids. And these young kids think it’s fun to talk to random people.”

Babichenko said the Tennessee allegations came about after a teen girl, who did not hear from Steers-Smith for an extended period, did a Google search of his name and learned that he had been charged in Virginia with internet solicitation of a minor and she contacted police. The Hanover charges against Steers-Smith were resolved in part based on the ongoing investigation in Tennessee, the prosecutor said.

Steers-Smith, who was hired by Chesterfield police in May 2017, resigned a week after Police Chief Jeffrey Katz learned of the officer’s arrest.

Katz called a news conference March 22 to publicly announce that Steers-Smith had been arrested, just four days after another county officer was suspended for his alleged activities with a white nationalist organization. That officer also was eventually fired.

“I am both disturbed and disgusted by the actions alleged, and I’m going to say clearly and unequivocally that there is no place for such conduct by anyone in our agency, in our profession or, frankly, in our community,” Katz said at the time, discussing Steers-Smith.


Virginia
Police still searching for motive for Virginia Beach mass shooting that killed 12 on May 31

VIRGINIA BEACH — After nearly four months of waiting for — and, at times, demanding — answers on what motivated a Virginia Beach massacre, the families of 12 people gunned down in May at a municipal center received almost none from police Tuesday night.

At a presentation before the City Council, Deputy Chief Patrick Gallagher said the investigation has been ongoing for 116 days.

“Each and every one of those days we have asked the question, ‘Why? Why did this suspect do what he did?’ ” he said. “We are still looking to determine motive.”

After conducting 757 interviews and examining thousands of emails and online documents, police still don’t know what led city engineer DeWayne Craddock to open fire, killing 12 people, all but one of them a colleague. Four others were wounded.

Police have found no evidence Craddock, 40, endured financial stressors or health problems or that he had sought mental health treatment. They found no documentation of threatening encounters or physical altercations with his co-workers.

“He was actually described by many that we interviewed as quiet, polite, a nice guy and a good listener,” Gallagher said, a comment that elicited laughter from one victim’s family members who have disputed that characterization.

Craddock, who had worked for nine years at the city, began May 31, a Friday, in routine fashion: He arrived at the municipal center at 7:16 a.m., went to his desk and checked his email. The first clue of what lay ahead that day came about 10 a.m., when Craddock conducted web searches for maps of Building 2 and the rest of the municipal center.

At 10:31 a.m., Craddock emailed an unremarkable resignation letter to his bosses. One of them accepted it 15 minutes later, according to an unredacted email obtained by The Washington Post, informing Craddock when his last day would be. He also went on routine project site visits with co-workers.

As the workweek neared its end that Friday afternoon, Craddock returned with a pair of legally purchased .45-caliber handguns, at least one equipped with a sound suppressor and extended magazine.

He first killed a contractor in the parking lot outside Building 2 of the sprawling Virginia Beach municipal complex, a cluster of government offices just east of a golf course. He then fatally shot a woman on her way out and used his government badge to access the building’s second floor, where he killed 10 more people and wounded four others.

After a “horrific” gunbattle with police, officers approached Craddock to take him into custody. He was still conscious — and kicking — when officers reached him on the other side of a door through which he had exchanged fire.

“When we took him into custody, he was fighting with us,” Gallagher said. Nevertheless, he added, officers tried to render first aid to Craddock as best they could.

“We wanted to save his life,” he said. “That did not happen.”

***

Hired as an engineer in 2010, Craddock received satisfactory evaluations from his supervisors until 2017 — the same year of his divorce — when he was placed on a “performance improvement plan,” police said. In 2018 he received a written reprimand from a supervisor for his job performance and was given an “improvement required” evaluation, police said.

In 2019, Craddock was expected to receive a “satisfactory” performance evaluation, Gallagher said. However, shortly before the shooting, Craddock had a conflict with the city’s purchasing department, Gallagher said, without elaborating on what the problem was. Two of Craddock’s supervisors sided with Craddock in that dispute, police said at their briefing.

Two days after the attack, City Manager Dave Hansen, who has since resigned, announced that “a very thorough review” of the gunman’s personnel file had revealed no problems.

“To my knowledge, the perpetrator’s performance was satisfactory,” Hansen said, adding that Craddock “was in good standing within his department. ... There were no issues of discipline ongoing.”

Those statements angered some relatives of the victims, including Jason Nixon, who said his wife, Kate Nixon, had “written up” the gunman for poor performance. Another time, Kate Nixon — a compliance manager in the Public Utilities Department — had called Craddock a chauvinist who disrespected her because she was a woman and outranked him, her husband said.

On Tuesday, Jason Nixon said, police allowed him to view a few of his wife’s journals, including one that mentioned Craddock several times. In some, she criticized him. In one case, for example, she wrote about his not finishing a job. People had complained, but Craddock hadn’t returned their calls.

“He was defiant,” said Jason Nixon’s sister, Mandy Nixon-Hammer, who read that notebook.

“I want answers,” Nixon had said before the briefing, where statements about the gunman being polite and quiet caused him to scoff.

City Council member John Moss said he and his colleagues were offered an advance look at the police report about a week ago. Some took the offer, though he declined. Like Nixon, Moss and several other council members reached by the Post said they had not been briefed beforehand on what the police announced Tuesday.

“I’ll be learning about it at the same time as the families of victims,” Michael Berlucchi had said. “I’m for transparency. I think it’s critically important that we know what happened. And I think this presentation is one important step.”

Hillard Heintze, a Chicago-based firm hired by the city to conduct an independent investigation, also delivered a progress report Tuesday on its work.

Arnette Heintze told the council his team had “continually heard concerns” from city employees complaining that “a hostile work environment” existed for city employees, specifically African Americans, who felt they “were being treated differently” from other workers and were subject to harsher discipline. Craddock was African American.

To further examine those concerns and assess whether they had contributed to workplace violence, Heintze said, the agency this week began a survey of all Virginia Beach employees.

Heintze said the extensive concerns about the city’s allegedly hostile office culture had created unanticipated work for his team, and along with other factors have led investigators to push back the delivery date for their final report from mid-October to mid-November. To date, he said, investigators have obtained more than 335,000 emails and 6,500 documents, and have conducted 189 interviews, including with more than 80 city employees who worked in Building 2.

The shooting also contributed to an examination of the state’s gun laws. Days after the shooting, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a special legislative session would be held in July to consider universal background checks, a “red flag” law and other gun safety proposals. The Republican-controlled legislature adjourned the session after less than two hours and referred the legislative proposals to the State Crime Commission for study.

***

Three families took police up on their offer to tour the building and visit the sites where their loved ones had died. On Tuesday, Chief James Cervera greeted Jason Nixon outside, shaking his hand and giving his mother a bouquet of pink flowers to leave at the site where his wife died.

“For you, this is a very personal time of remembrance,” said Cervera, who was returning to the crime scene for the first time since the shooting. “We just want to stay back. We are just letting you know that we care about you, we care about what happened, and since I said on the first day, we just want to show our respect.”

After being escorted into Building 2, Jason Nixon — among those to call for it to be demolished — visited his wife’s office, where he would often stop by to take her to lunch.

This time, he left her a note.

“I will always love you. I will make sure the girls are taken care of. I will raise them the way you would want me to. Me and the girls will never forget you,” he wrote of his three daughters. “You have always been there for us and I will not quit until we get the truth of your murder.”