Senate passes 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund on 97-2 vote

NEW YORK — Congress can never do anything about the growing numbers of people still dying from 9/11, but the Senate voted Tuesday to ensure the words “Never Forget” will never be just a slogan for the cops, firefighters and everyone else to ran toward the twin towers after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

The Senate voted 97-2 to pass the “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act,” and send it to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it into law Friday.

Only Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee voted against it.

Sitting in the Senate gallery for the passage was Alvarez’s son, David, and Pfeifer’s widow, Caryn.

Both said the passage would never fill the void left by the two men, who both died of 9/11-linked cancer after battling to win passage of 9/11 legislation.

The bill will enshrine in law the federal government’s ability to ease the economic losses and pain still being inflicted on people who spent days and months breathing the fumes and toxins unleashed after the South and North Towers of the trade center imploded, and smoldered for months.

The new bill would cost at least $10.2 billion over the first 10 years, but would be open-ended to deal with whatever the need turns out to be until 2092.

— New York Daily News

Jeffrey Epstein’s victims ask Florida court to allow new federal charges

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Victims of Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual abuse called Tuesday for a federal judge to allow the possibility of new charges against the disgraced financier in South Florida.

While Epstein faces federal sex trafficking counts in New York, there’s a continuing battle over whether his controversial 2007 deal to avoid prosecution in Florida should be thrown out.

Tuesday’s push is in response to a February court ruling that Epstein’s “nonprosecution agreement” violated the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act, because underage girls assaulted by Epstein in Palm Beach weren’t told about the deal in advance.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra is expected to rule soon on what steps should be taken to rectify the violation all these years later.

Some of Epstein’s victims, while expressing gratitude for the new charges in New York, say they also want Epstein to be held accountable by federal authorities for offenses that happened in his Palm Beach estate from 1999 to 2007. He abused dozens of minor girls, some as young as 14, during those years, court records show.

The victims are asking Marra to rescind the immunity for Epstein and his unnamed co-conspirators, to clear the way for new charges.

— South Florida Sun Sentinel

Peak fire season is near and the federal government is short hundreds of firefighters

WASHINGTON — Heading into the hottest and driest months of the wildfire season, the Department of the Interior is short hundreds of firefighters, a result of recruitment problems and the longest federal government shutdown in history.

Based on interviews and internal agency memos obtained through a public records request, the Los Angeles Times found that the agency had at least 241 fewer seasonal firefighters available than expected.

Nearly 60% of California’s 33 million acres of forest is owned and managed by two federal agencies, the Interior Department and the Forest Service. They are often aided by state firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — the source of a recent dispute in which the Forest Service threatened to withhold millions of dollars in back pay owed to the state for battling wildfires on federal lands.

This year’s shortfall appears to stem, in part, from the Interior Department’s struggle to hire seasonal firefighters across its bureaus in the aftermath of the shutdown. These employees, who are brought on for several months each summer to bolster the agency’s forces during peak fire season, are typically hired in January and trained over the spring. By the start of the wildfire season, the hiring window has closed.

The agency, however, did not meet its expectations. In an email last week to the Times, an Interior Department spokeswoman wrote that just 1,359 seasonal firefighters had been hired for the year, short of the 1,600-person goal agency officials outlined in a January memo.

A spokeswoman said the higher figure was only an approximation and that the agency is prepared for fire season.

— Los Angeles Times

N.C. law doesn’t ban transgender people from bathrooms matching their identity, judge says

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s years-long legal fight over transgender people and bathroom access came to an end Tuesday, when a federal judge approved a settlement that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and gay rights groups had proposed.

The settlement says state agencies and universities can’t ban transgender people from using the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. It applies only to public restrooms and similar facilities in state government buildings.

“After so many years of managing the anxiety of HB 2 and fighting so hard, I am relieved that we finally have a court order to protect transgender people from being punished under these laws.” said Joaquin Carcano, a transgender man and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill employee who is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the state over LGBT discrimination.

After House Bill 2 caused national headlines and boycotts for North Carolina in 2016, Republican lawmakers who had supported it made a deal with new Democratic Gov. Cooper in 2017 to replace it with a new law, which was called House Bill 142.

That replacement law did not fully repeal HB2, although it did notably remove the requirement that people in government buildings must use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate — a policy which had been called discriminatory against transgender people.

But the challengers in this lawsuit said the replacement law was still too vague. They wanted a federal court to clarify that transgender people in North Carolina can indeed use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.

Republican lawmakers opposed the lawsuit in court and were able to get some parts of it dismissed — but not the bathroom part — in 2018. And on the bathroom policy, Cooper cooperated with the challengers. The settlement signed Tuesday by federal District Judge Thomas Schroeder made the changes they wanted.

— The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Doctors found changes in the brain of diplomats allegedly attacked in Havana

MIAMI — Whatever happened in Havana, where several U.S. diplomats became ill after hearing strange sounds, changed the brain structure of those affected, according to a new study published on Tuesday.

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine analyzed magnetic resonance imaging scans of 40 people — 23 men and 17 women — who were exposed to sounds or vibrations while they were in the Cuban capital. When compared with images from two control groups, the researchers found “significant differences” between the groups in the volume of white and gray matter, in the cerebellum and the “functional connectivity in the auditory and visuospatial subnetworks.”

The first incidents in Havana were reported at the end of 2016 and the most recent in May of last year. The U.S. State Department confirmed that so far 26 diplomats and family members had been affected by what they considered attacks against their personnel. The study includes personnel who could have been exposed to an alleged “directional source” of energy, officials and scientists have speculated following the descriptions given by the patients.

The changes found in the new study of the Cuba patients, the most detailed so far, are consistent with some of the symptoms they have experienced, such as dizziness, balance problems and a decrease in some cognitive abilities.

But the researchers could not connect the observed changes to specific diagnoses, such as a mild brain traumatic injury or concussion, a suggestion made earlier in a previous article that published partial data of 21 patients, also authored by the UPenn team.

Scientists at the University of Miami, who first assessed the affected officials, had also questioned the concussion theory. Instead, the UM team said they found that the patients had a unique pattern of balance and cognitive dysfunctions. They also presented damages to the vestibular system of the inner ear, which is responsible for sensing the position of the body.

After more than two years and investigations by the FBI, the State Department and other agencies, the incidents in Havana, initially known as “sonic attacks,” remain a mystery.

— El Nuevo Herald