Senate confirms Robert Wilkie to be Veterans Affairs secretary

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Monday voted 86-9 to confirm former congressional staffer and Pentagon veteran Robert Wilkie to lead the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs.

President Donald Trump tapped Wilkie for the post after his previous pick, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, withdrew his nomination following reports that he improperly prescribed medication during his stint as White House physician.

Wilkie’s first order of business will be to reduce wait times, which often extend beyond 30 days, for veterans seeking medical appointments. Wilkie called the long wait times “unacceptable” during his June confirmation hearing.

Wilkie also noted that it will take time to improve the VA, a massive bureaucracy and the largest health care system in the United States. The department has more than 300,000 employees serving more than 9 million veterans at 1,240 facilities.

A lawyer by training with no professional medical background, Wilkie will lean on his past experience as a congressional aide in the post.

Wilkie is currently the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, a Senate-confirmed position. Wilkie also twice served as a Senate aide, first to former Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, in the 1990s and more recently to North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis, who sits on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

— CQ Roll Call

House backs plan for John Adams memorial in DC

WASHINGTON — A new memorial could be coming to Washington, placing Founding Father John Adams alongside his colleagues George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

House members passed a bill, HR 1220, that would establish a commission to plan, fundraise and build a memorial to the country’s second president, picking up where a previous entity fell short.

Congress has authorized an Adams memorial before, but the group in charge did not select a site, design the memorial, receive the requisite approvals or raise sufficient funds for the construction. The Adams Memorial Foundation was authorized by Congress in 2001 and original authority to build the memorial expired in 2009, but Congress has extended the foundation’s authority three times. It is currently scheduled to expire on Dec. 2, 2020.

“President Adams was a remarkable leader and a steadfast public servant. It’s a glaring oversight that there is no memorial in our nation’s capital honoring John Adams and his family for their role in shaping our nation,” said bill sponsor Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass. Lynch represents Braintree, the birthplace of Adams.

The proposal would create a federal commission, the Adams Memorial Commission, to take over the authorities and responsibilities of the Adams Memorial Foundation.

The memorial would honor the legacy of the whole Adams family.

— CQ Roll Call

Life jackets dangle from canopy as Coast Guard pulls duck boat out of Table Rock Lake

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Unused orange life jackets remained tangled in the duck boat’s naked canopy as a barge crane hoisted the tragedy-stricken boat from the bottom of Table Rock Lake Monday morning.

The murky lake water that drowned 17 of its 31 occupants Thursday night spewed from the back of the boat as crews hoisted its white nose upward into the sunlight.

About 10:10 a.m. local time, less than an hour after divers with the Missouri Highway Patrol went into the water in the lake near Branson, the boat broke the surface of the water, with two small American flags still intact on the front. The canopy was seen opened, with unused life jackets tangled in the top.

The boat was to be placed on a flatbed trailer and taken to an undisclosed, secure location, where the National Transportation Safety Board will take custody, looking into many questions — including why none of the passengers were wearing life jackets when the boat was overwhelmed by high waves in Thursday’s storm.

Five children were counted among the dead.

In a news conference after the raising of the boat, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Scott Stoermer said the use of life jackets and whatever directions passengers were given about them is part of the ongoing investigation.

So are questions about the decision to take the boat into the water despite reported warnings from the National Weather Service of an impending storm.

The decision to go out on the water and whether to advise passengers to use life jackets were “operational decisions” by the captain and are under investigation, Stoermer said.

Regulations require that there is a life jacket available for every passenger, Stoermer said. They are not required to wear them.

— The Kansas City Star

Attorney General Sessions objected to 9/11 trial plea deal, defense lawyer says

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Attorney General Jeff Sessions called Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in October to protest exploratory talks about a plea deal in the 9/11 case that would have taken the death penalty off the table, according to an investigation by defense attorneys who want a military judge to order both men to testify at the war court.

At issue is Mattis’ Feb. 5 firing of the overseer of military commissions, Harvey Rishikof, at a time when he had been secretly exploring the possibility of guilty pleas to resolve the terror trial. Pretrial hearings continue this week in the case that started with the May 2012 arraignment of alleged plot mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged accomplices.

Nearly 3,000 people died on Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 men seized four commercial airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. Within 20 months, the United States had seized the five men accused of directing, training or helping the hijackers with travel and finances. The CIA held and interrogated them for years in the spy agency’s secret overseas prisons, complicating the path to trial.

Now, defense attorneys argue that Trump administration meddling in the guilty-plea negotiations merits, if not dismissing the case entirely, then making it a non-capital trial. Mattis and his acting general counsel, William Castle, have earlier said in affidavits that they fired Rishikof and his legal adviser, Gary Brown, for failure to follow proper Pentagon channels, a taboo in a military culture led by Mattis, a retired Marine general.

But the alternative explanation involving the plea deal merits testimony in open court from Sessions, Mattis and Castle, military justice expert Eugene Fidell said in an interview.

“There’s certainly enough there that a thorough evidentiary hearing has to be conducted,” said Fidell, who teaches at Yale Law School. “If you’re going to preserve the integrity of the system, and have any hope of fostering public confidence in the military commissions system, this has to be aired in a full way on the record.”

Sessions needs to answer two key questions, Fidell said: “How did he find out about discussions of a possible plea deal — and did he talk to the White House?”

— Miami Herald

How pregnancy and childbirth may protect some women from developing dementia

Women make up some 60 percent of Alzheimer’s disease patients in the United States, and over her lifetime, a woman is almost twice as likely than a man to develop the memory-robbing condition.

New research offers tantalizing clues as to why that might be, suggesting that either hormonal influences or pregnancy-related changes in the immune system — or both — may nudge a woman’s risk for dementia in one direction or the other.

In a comprehensive study that tracked almost 15,000 U.S. women from middle age into their senior years, researchers found that women who gave birth to three or more children were less likely than those who had a single child to develop dementia.

Reporting their findings Monday, the authors of the new research said also that women whose lifetime span of fertility was shorter appeared more likely to develop dementia than were those who began menstruating earlier.

The new findings, reported at the Alzheimer’s Association’s International Conference in Chicago, offer an early clue that hormones, specifically estrogen, may exert some influence on a woman’s risk of dementia. They emerged from the first study to explore women’s lifetime dementia prospects by tracking a very large group of women over a long period — for some, as long as 53 years.

In other research presented Monday, a pilot study that captured the pregnancy histories of 133 British women offered evidence that a female’s likelihood of developing dementia declined as the number of months she had spent pregnant rose.

— Los Angeles Times

Lawsuit blocks Colombia attempt to salvage billions in sunken treasure

BOGOTA, Colombia — One of the world’s most fought-over sunken galleons — the 300-year-old San Jose, worth a potential $17 billion — will remain on the ocean’s floor a little longer, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Monday.

During a televised event where he was expected to announce the name of the company that would help the government rescue the Spanish galleon, Santos instead said a local court had challenged the “public-private partnership” contract, forcing him to suspend the process.

The suit was brought by an anonymous group of “concerned citizens” — but Santos brushed it off as just one more fight over the San Jose’s riches.

“There are so many interests involved,” he said in a televised speech. “We’ve had to face enormous legal battles in national and (international) courts, in this administration and previous ones.”

But he said the government’s case and approach were solid.

Under the terms of the proposed contract, the winning company would be responsible for salvaging the wreck and building a museum in Cartagena to showcase the discovery. In exchange, it would be entitled to 50 percent of all the treasure not considered “national patrimony” — unique artwork and historically significant pieces.

The lawsuit argues that the ship and all of its cargo should belong to the state.

“History will not forgive us if new and sophisticated conquistadors, known by the (United Nations) as treasure hunters … once again loot the galleon like it was prey,” part of the lawsuit reads.

— Miami Herald