Russian lawmakers back bill to simplify early release of seriously ill prisoners

The Russian Upper House Committee for Constitutional Law has approved a bill that aims to simplify the procedure for the early release of prisoners suffering from serious illnesses.

Once the new bill is passed into law, the Russian government will specify the formal procedure under which convicts should apply for the cancellation of their punishment because of poor health. It will also outline the medical checks that can provide courts with the information to make such decisions.

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© Alexey Filippov

The current draft also provides for convicts who cannot personally apply for the cancellation of their prison terms for health reasons, to have such measures taken on their behalf. This would be done by the head of the institution overseeing their punishment – most commonly the head of the prison where they are incarcerated.

The passing of this bill would serve the better balance between public and personal interests and protection of constitutionally important values,” the head of the committee, Senator Andrey Klishas, was quoted as saying by the Upper House press service.

In late July Upper House Speaker Valentina Matviyenko proposed a major reform in the Federal Service for Execution of Punishment – the agency overseeing prisons – in order to stamp out beatings, torture and other unjustified use of violence by prison staff.

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Prisoners make furniture at penal colony in Russia © Pavel Lisitsyn

This happened after Russian mass media had drawn public attention to a leaked video on which about a dozen prison administration officers cruelly beat an inmate in one of the penal institutions in central Russia’s Yaroslavl Region.

In particular, Matviyenko said that the Federal Service for Execution of Punishment should be divided into two independent organizations, one of which would deal with guarding prisons and maintaining internal discipline and the other would be responsible for rehabilitation and socialization of inmates.

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A Historic Bill in New York Could Create First-of-Its-Kind Accountability for Prosecutors — If Andrew Cuomo Doesn’t Veto It

There is a humanitarian crisis unfolding on our borders, in which thousands of immigrant children, including infants and toddlers, have been forcefully taken from their parents and sent away with strangers. But another crisis — where families are also separated — is hanging over American life: mass incarceration. Now, though, one of the most important pieces of criminal justice reform legislation is on the cusp of becoming law in New York. As it stands, the bill is one signature away — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s — from being put on the books.

Every day, we hear about horrible cases, in which men and women — often black men and women — are being set free from prison after serving huge chunks of their lives for crimes they didn’t commit. Sometimes they have served 30 or 40 years behind bars. Frequently, prosecutorial misconduct was the cause of the wrongful conviction.

America’s prosecutors are so hellbent on closing cases and getting guilty verdicts that they will often get them by any means necessary.

It could be that exonerating evidence was deliberately withheld or confessions of guilt from an entirely different person were disregarded. Maybe credible, verifiable alibis were ignored. In some cases, DNA evidence was shelved and ignored.

All this because America’s prosecutors are so hellbent on closing cases and getting guilty verdicts that they will often get them by any means necessary.

Jabbar Collins comes to mind.

In 1994, he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a local rabbi — except he was completely innocent. Determined to close the case, prosecutors hid crucial evidence that exonerated him, threatened witnesses, and gave other witnesses perks to completely fabricate their testimony. After serving 15 painful years in prison, Collins was finally set free. It cost him a generation of his life — and it cost New York City and the state $ 13 million, which he won in a lawsuit.

These types of exonerations are far from uncommon. After reviewing all of their exoneration cases, guess what the Innocence Project determined as the leading cause of wrongful convictions? Prosecutorial misconduct. A 2018 study by the National Registry of Exonerations made the exact same determination. Police and prosecutor misconduct — not faulty witnesses or false confessions — is the primary cause of wrongful convictions in our country.

In New York, though, political bodies are finally pushing for some accountability. As of last week, the State Assembly and Senate have now each passed a bill, the first of its kind in the nation, forming an independent commission with full subpoena power, to investigate prosecutorial misconduct. It’s wild that nothing like this already exists, but that gets to the heart of the matter. America’s prosecutors have been able to be consistently awful with little to no formal, binding oversight.

Nearly 18 months passed between the bill’s introduction and its passage in both chambers of the state legislature. And now it’s awaiting Cuomo’s signature. The issue is so dire that Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to the governor in support of the bill. “New York currently has no effective system in place to hold prosecutors who violate their legal and ethical duties accountable,” the New York-based group said in its letter.

Human Rights Watch went on to detail case after case of wrongful convictions in the state in which prosecutorial misconduct was the primary cause. In each case, innocent people spent long periods of their lives behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. Not only did the wrongful convictions and sentences cost the state millions of dollars to incarcerate the wrong people, tens of millions more were spent on settlements to compensate these men.

And yet the prosecutors just keep on handling cases like it never happened. The prosecutor in the Jabbar Collins case was eventually forced to retire because of misconduct, but he never faced any other sanctions. Eventually, he wrote a book that’s now reportedly being made into a TV show. It’s outrageous.

It wasn’t easy to get to this point. Now, one question remains: Will Cuomo sign the bill or veto it?

It wasn’t easy to get to this point where New York could pass historic legislation to hold prosecutors to account. Now, one question remains: Will Cuomo sign the bill or veto it?

Pretty much the only people fighting against the bill are prosecutors themselves. The District Attorneys’ Association of the State of New York lobbied hard against it, simply dismissing the measures as unnecessary — which is nonsense because we have seen, as in the Collins case, that far too often these prosecutors are not held to any account at all.

So Cuomo has to decide: Will he side with the people who have been wrongfully convicted because of prosecutorial misconduct — many of whom I’d guess remain in prison, their appeals unheard — or with the prosecutors who get away scot-free for putting the wrong people behind bars?

Top photo: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo watches as former Vice President Al Gore speaks at an event at New York University on March 9, 2018, in New York City.

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In Jordan, Labor Unions and Businesses Have Joined Forces to Fight an Unpopular Tax Bill

AMMAN, JORDAN—Every night, the crowd at Shmeisani Circle chants “ooh, ah, thief government!” and waves Jordanian flags. An unlikely alliance of labor unions and business owners have united against an unpopular tax bill, setting off a series of daily protests at a major highway roundabout in Amman, the capital of Jordan. Their movement started on May 31. In just four days, they forced the Prime Minister to resign.

Jordan, a constitutional monarchy in the Middle East with a population around 10 million, is experiencing its most widespread unrest in years. While the kingdom has not suffered from the violence of some neighboring countries, it also does not have the oil wealth of other Arab monarchies. Tax increases aimed at balancing the government budget have squeezed the poor and middle class, sparking general strikes on May 31 and June 6, with days of spontaneous demonstrations in between.

The unrest has thrown the uneasy balance of power between the monarchy’s appointees and the elected branches of government into focus. Despite political divisions seen elsewhere in the Arab world, the Jordanian people have shown incredible unity in opposing an expansion of state power by unelected officials.

The first signs of political unrest surfaced in January 2018, when the Jordanian government imposed sales taxes on staple goods and ended some food subsidies. The price of bread nearly doubled, sparking small demonstrations against Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki.

Then, in May, Prime Minister Mulki’s cabinet proposed an amendment to the tax code. In addition to increasing all corporate and personal taxes, the bill would lower the minimum taxable bracket from the equivalent of $ 17,000 to $ 11,000 per year, and impose much harsher penalties for tax evasion.

These proposals added insult to injury. The average cost of living was already on track to increase 10 to 15 percent due to February’s tax increase and subsidy cut. At the same time that it was providing less to its citizens, the state was asking for more.

The Amman Chamber of Industry warned that the bill would “contribute to less foreign investments and the closures of factories, and will consequently lead to the loss of jobs for many Jordanians.” Remarkably, factory owners and organized labor are on the same side of this issue.

Jordan is currently facing a slow-burning economic crisis, caused by declining foreign investment and the war in neighboring Syria and Iraq. The official unemployment rate has risen to 18.4 percent this year, according to the semi-state-run Petra News Agency.

“Our wages are shit, and now with these taxes!” complains Amal, a student who has been attending the protests every night.

To some degree, outside powers have forced the government’s hand. A coalition of Persian Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia failed to renew a multi-billion dollar aid package last year, reducing state revenues by a large fraction. In order to secure a $ 700 million line of credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over the next three years, Jordan has committed to reducing its deficit.

But a hotel worker named Ahmed, who doesn’t give me his last name, complains that “there are a lot of other ways that they could do to support the economy other than taking from low income people.”

I meet Ahmed at a sidewalk near the Prime Ministry a few days into the protests. He had decided to join the demonstrations on his way to work the night shift.

This heavy impact on the working class led unions to call a general strike on May 31. Their call was heeded by a surprisingly diverse coalition: Small businesses closed in solidarity, and the Jordanian Bar Association asked lawyers not to show up in court.

King Abdullah II scrapped a planned gas tax in an attempt to diffuse the situation, but after Prime Minister Mulki refused to take the income tax off the table, unions threatened a second strike on June 6.

In the following days, regular citizens began calling for rallies on Facebook and Twitter, both in the capital and in smaller cities. Most protests in Amman are concentrated Circle Four near the Prime Ministry and Shmeisani Circle near the Professional Associations Complex.

At these rallies, political party flags are few and far between—the most common symbol is the keffiyeh (checkered scarf) and Jordanian flag.

They aren’t a gendered affair, either, as women are a visible presence.

Americans are used to thinking of the Middle East in ideological terms, but the protests are focused on bread-and-butter issues. Some people chant “the people want to bring down the system,” a generic Arabic protest song used everywhere from Tunisia to Syria, but most slogans are related to the economy.

Because small increases in income and sales taxes are a life-and-death matter for many of Jordan’s working poor, it makes sense that organized labor is leading such a diverse coalition against a tax increase—which may seem strange to Americans.

This isn’t to say that the movement is against taxation on principle. Most participants are demanding a lower cost of living, whether that comes by repealing new taxes or bringing back old subsidies.

But one aspect of the tax law was jarring to Jordanians for more abstract reasons. The tax bill reclassified tax evasion as a felony (when previously it was a misdemeanor) and introduced filing requirements for all adults—whether or not they were in a taxable bracket. While this is normal in many Western countries, it’s unprecedented in Jordan.

When the political elite is perceived as out-of-touch and unresponsive, people view such an expansion of the state’s role in private life with much more suspicion.

Despite the seriousness of the issues, some of the protests have a festive air, especially as it is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Men, women, and children chat as they watch the crowd. A family has even set up shop selling coffee to the crowds in a lot opposite Circle Four.

However, the regime is not taking the situation so lightly. On June 3, Speaker of Parliament Atef Tarawneh petitioned the king to call an emergency session, announcing his own intent to vote down the bill.

The next day, Prime Minister Mulki resigned. King Abdullah replaced him with Omar Razzaz, the charismatic Minister of Education. In a statement from the royal court, the king called for a “dialogue” around the income tax bill, and asked the new government to “protect the low income and middle class and encourage investment.”

But Amal is not convinced. “So you changed the name of the people in charge, but the taxes are still there,” she says. “We won’t stop the protests or the strikes till we start seeing those promises turn into reality.”

The unions agree. Without concrete promises from Razzaz’s government, they went ahead with their threat to strike again on June 6. Workers marched from Shmeisani Circle to the nearby Professional Associations Complex.

However, union leadership is not totally in control of events. When they asked members at the June 6 rally to give the government a chance, the crowd chanted, “To Circle Four! Our people don’t retreat!”

The regime has so far made gestures towards respecting the right to protest. In a viral Twitter video, Crown Prince Hussein II was seen urging police to protect the people’s freedom of expression.

“We’re all here protesting peacefully,” Ahmad tells me, “[The police] respect the decisions of the people.”

But later that night, police fired tear gas between Shmeisani Circle and Circle Four, ostensibly to keep protesters away from the Prime Ministry. Amal says that the tear gas landed far from the protesters. She claims that some police even gave them water afterwards.

Al Bawaba reports that 60 people have been arrested as of June 5.

As we drive through Circle Four, Amal points out military police, who are normally not deployed against civilians.

The constitutional monarchy is at a crossroads. While the king still holds many exclusive powers—including appointing the Prime Minister—the resistance to the taxes is a sign of a growing democratic culture.

Although Amal says that removing Prime Minister Mulki wasn’t enough, she acknowledges that it showed the people what power they hold.

The ruling elites’ overtures could be the beginning of a more responsive government—or they could be part of simply passing the buck.

“Mulki says it’s the World Bank and the IMF rules,” Amal says, “but the IMF says they had nothing to do with this.”

“Of course, the press release is in English,” she adds, “so most of the country can’t read it or understand it or every know about it.”

Zachariah Crutchfield contributed reporting and translation.


Russian Upper House passes latest bill on reciprocal sanctions

Russian senators have passed a framework law that allows the government to apply various restrictive measures on nations that use economic sanctions against Russia or make other attempts to impede its development.

During the presentation of the bill that took place on Wednesday, the head of the Upper House Committee for Economic Policy, Senator Dmitry Mezentsev, said that the document granted the government broad powers to react to foreign states’ unfriendly actions when necessary.

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The Russian State Duma looks into the bill on countering unfriendly actions by the United States and their allies © Vladimir Fedorenko

Upper House speaker Valentina Matviyenko emphasized that the bill describes, not sanctions, but countersanctions that would be applied to states that seek to contain Russia.

The bill was passed without further discussion. 152 out of 170 Russian senators voted for it.

The draft law outlining the Russian reply to the latest round of sanctions introduced by the US and its allies was drafted by State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin and the heads of all four parliamentary caucuses in mid-April, days after the US Treasury Department released a list of 24 Russian citizens and 14 Russian corporations that fall under new sanctions imposed over Russia’s foreign policy. The sponsors of the bill described its main purpose as defending Russian economic interests and security.

The initial document contained a long list of proposed restrictions, such as full suspension of cooperation with US companies in the nuclear, missile, and aircraft-building spheres, a ban on purchasing US securities, a trade embargo on US goods (in particular tobacco and alcohol), and a proposal to allow Russian companies to produce various goods copyrighted in the US or in countries allied with it, without obtaining licenses from the rights holders.

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People take fruits and vegetables given away in central Madrid by Spanish farmers to protest against Russia's ban on vegetables, meat, fish, milk and dairy imports from the European Union © Andrea Comas

However, the initial draft was met with criticism from a number of experts, journalists, and the general public, some of whom said the import bans could do more damage to Russian consumers and business partners of foreign companies.

As a result, the document was amended with the provision that “the restrictive measures should not apply to vitally important goods that have no analogues produced inside Russia.”

The State Duma also excluded almost all specific measures from the final draft and allowed the president to introduce particular restrictions under plans proposed by the government. The president will also be allowed to suspend cooperation between Russia and hostile nations, organizations registered in such nations, or controlled by them, either directly or indirectly.

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Chechen lawmakers draft bill allowing third consecutive term for Russian president

The Chechen parliament has drafted a bill in the State Duma that, if passed, would allow Vladimir Putin and all future Russian presidents to remain in office for three consecutive terms instead of the current two.

Russian laws allow regional legislatures to draft federal laws and earlier this month the legislative assembly of the Chechen Republic unanimously voted in favor of the decision to prepare and submit a bill that would allow the same person to remain president more than twice in a row. When presenting the motion the chairman of the assembly, Magomed Daudov, emphasized that it did not diminish the democratic foundations of the Russian state but allowed citizens to better determine their future.

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Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov talks to reporters after Vladimir Putin's annual Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly © Alexey Kudenko

Currently, the Russian constitution allows the same person to run for the presidency for an unlimited number of terms on one condition – there can be no more than two consecutive terms. In 1998, the issue was brought before the Russian Constitutional Court, which ruled that the third and fourth terms would be legal if there is a break between the second and third terms. This is why Putin could not run for president in 2008 after winning in 2000 and 2004. In 2012, the condition regarding consecutive terms was not applicable, so Putin ran again and won.

In April this year the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, called for legislative changes that would allow Putin to be re-elected president after his current term expires in 2024.

As long as our incumbent president is in good health we must not think about any other head of state. This is my personal opinion and I am not changing it. Right now there is no alternative to Putin,” Kadyrov was quoted as saying by Interfax. He added that this could be done through a nationwide referendum and that in his opinion there was no need to ask for Putin’s consent over the issue.

The Chechen leader noted that many other nations do well without this type of restriction. “Why can China do this and Germany can do this, but not us? If this is in the people’s interest, why can’t we make changes to the law?” he said.

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Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov © Andrey Lyubimov, Moskva News Agency

Some federal lawmakers have already supported the proposal. Deputy head of Fair Russia caucus, MP Mikhail Yemelyanov, told Interfax that his party colleagues also think that the limit on two consecutive presidential terms should be lifted.

Others, like deputy chair of the Upper House legislative committee Senator Yelena Afanasyeva, opposed the motion saying that it was wrong to change the constitution on a whim. Afanasyeva recalled that Vladimir Putin himself had repeatedly spoke against any constitutional changes that would prolong his time in office.

If the Chechen parliamentarians think that such changes are of vital importance they should initiate a nationwide referendum on the issue,” she added.

In the first reaction to the Chechen move, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that the president did not have the issue of changing the constitutional law on the presidency on his agenda and added that the leader had repeatedly expressed his negative position over changes to the constitution.

In one of the most recent statements, done in an interview with the NBC television in March this year, Putin said that he had never changed the constitution and had no intention to do so in future.

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Bill Aimed at Saving Community Banks Is Already Killing Them

After initial reluctance, House Republicans have finally reached an agreement to move forward on a bipartisan bank deregulation bill that the Senate passed in March. Its stated aim — to help rural community banks thrive against growing Wall Street power — appears to have been enough to power it across the finish line.

But banking industry analysts say the bill is already having the opposite effect, and its loosening of regulations on medium-sized banks is encouraging a rush of consolidation — all of which ends with an increasing number of community banks being swallowed up and closed down.

“We absolutely expect bank consolidation to accelerate,” Wells Fargo’s Mike Mayo told CNBC the day after the Senate passed the deregulation bill in March. The reason? Banks no longer face the prospect of stricter and more costly regulatory scrutiny as they grow. And regional banks in Virginia, Ohio, Mississippi, and Wisconsin have already taken note before the bill has even passed into law, announcing buyouts of smaller rivals.

The expected consolidation simply furthers an existing trend. Community banks have been struggling for decades against an epidemic of consolidation; the number of banks in America has fallen by nearly two-thirds in the past 30 years. Ironically, the one state that has seemingly figured out how to arrest this systemic abandonment of smaller communities is North Dakota, the home state of the bill’s co-author, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

That’s because North Dakota has a public bank.

Using idle state tax revenue as its deposit base, the Bank of North Dakota partners with community lenders on infrastructure, agriculture, and small business loans. It has thrived, earning record profits for 14 straight years, which have funneled back into state coffers. And while Heitkamp has complained that the Dodd-Frank Act has been disastrous for community banks, in North Dakota they appear to be doing well. According to a Institute for Local Self-Reliance analysis of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data, North Dakota has more banks per capita than any other state, and lends to small businesses at a rate that is four times the national average.

Yet nothing in the new measure, sometimes called the “Crapo bill,” after its main Republican co-author, Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, builds upon this proven method to revitalize community banks; it only bolsters the ability of larger regionals to scoop them up.

While a better solution appears to have been sitting in Heitkamp’s backyard, the actual bill, S.2155, has been highly anticipated by bank lobbyists, and should get a floor vote before the end of the month. House Financial Services Committee chair Jeb Hensarling, who had been holding out because he wanted even more deregulatory measures attached, has claimed an agreement with the Senate to move those provisions inside a separate vehicle. (Given the paucity of floor time before the midterm elections, that’s likely a face-saving statement.)

As The Intercept has reported, S.2155 carries something for financial institutions of any size, by hammering away at capital and leverage requirements, mandatory stress tests, mortgage disclosure and ability-to-repay rules, data to detect lending discrimination, and the Federal Reserve’s ability to apply special regulations to individual banks. Combined with efforts inside the agencies that regulate banks to weaken rules, it represents a pendulum shift away from safety and toward what critics claim will be another financial crisis.

Thanks to filibuster rules, Senate Democrats were necessary to provide the margin of victory, and 17 of them obliged, justifying their votes as necessary to maintaining the existence of small community banks and credit unions, which would otherwise disappear amid relentless industry consolidation.

Indeed, the past 30 years have witnessed a dramatic reduction in chartered banks, from 14,500 to fewer than 5,600. “If this pattern continues, we’ll only have Wall Street banks left,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., to Politico. “And Wall Street banks won’t serve rural America, they won’t serve Montana. … So, what will rural America do?”

Implicit in this argument is that the Crapo bill represents the only hope for small community banks to survive without being swallowed up by bigger competitors. By lowering the cost of regulatory compliance, smaller banks would be given a fighting chance, the story goes. But that theory is at odds with the analysis of virtually every industry observer who has spoken about the Crapo bill.

“The last three to four months have been much more active than the previous two years,” said Sandy Brown, a partner with Alston & Bird’s Financial Services and Products practice group in Dallas. “I attribute that to an increase in the price of buyers’ stocks, tax changes in December, and a relatively more accepting regulatory environment.”

Brown pinpointed a critical provision in the Crapo bill, which raises the threshold for banks that are subject to enhanced regulatory standards from $ 50 billion to $ 250 billion. This obviously benefits the “stadium banks” — banks with over $ 50 billion in assets, big enough to have a stadium named after them — who get freed from stricter regulations, which include extra capital and liquidity requirements, stress tests, and souped-up risk management.

But it also gives banks under the $ 50 billion asset level that might want to get bigger plenty of additional breathing space. An acquisition that would have taken a bank over $ 50 billion might have been skipped before Crapo. But now, it can go through, as long as the new entity stays under $ 250 billion. “Those mid-tier banks will now look at doing deals,” Brown said. “They have a lot more headroom to grow by acquisition, as opposed to organic slow growth.”

This month, investment manager FJ Capital Management released a white paper noting that only two banks, CIT Group and New York Community Bancorp, have dared to break above $ 50 billion in assets since the passage of Dodd-Frank in 2010. “Raising these hurdles releases a new pool of acquirers, namely large regional banks that will benefit from mergers,” FJ Capital writes.

Other analysts concur with this perspective. American Banker cited several analysts and bank officials making this case last November. In a research note in April, Isaac Boltansky, of Compass Point Research, stated that the Crapo bill would “bolster burgeoning M&A [mergers and acquisitions] tailwinds.” Cowen and Co.’s Jaret Seiberg said in March, “We expect this to lead to greater capital returns and more M&A.”

A separate Crapo bill provision should also spur merger activity. Section 207 increases the Federal Reserve’s “small bank holding company” threshold from $ 1 billion to $ 3 billion. Banks that are eligible for this designation can operate with higher levels of debt than would otherwise be permitted. That, again, broadens headspace for hundreds of banks at the smaller end to combine without losing this significant benefit, which enables them to juice returns by using other people’s money. Half of all buyers and nearly all of the sellers in bank M&A deals since 2010 were below $ 1 billion in assets, according to the investment firm FJ Capital Management.

The increased pool of cash-flush buyers should blunt the mild regulatory relief in the Crapo bill for smaller banks. “It’ll be less expensive to operate a community bank,” said Brown, who is an M&A lawyer. “But the fact is, they have an aging shareholder base, an aging management and board, and a lot of them want out.” And more buyers chasing deals means higher prices, making selling out even more attractive. It’s like a Silicon Valley startup exit strategy, applied to community banks.

So, Tester’s concern — that a more concentrated banking sector will pull out of rural America, leaving large chunks of the country behind — is made, if anything, worse by the bill he supports.

The impacts of this could be severe. In 2017, small business lending in rural America was half of what it was in 2004, according to the Wall Street Journal. Disappearing banks play a huge role, eliminating the kinds of community relationships that kept rural small business loans flowing. Venture capital in rural communities is scarce, making the bank the only place to get a loan. And, increasingly, the banks are leaving.

It’s unlikely that banks trying to merge their way to rapid growth will stick around. “One of the things we do a lot of these days is help investor groups buy a bank in a small town and move it to a larger metro area, where there’s a higher growth opportunity, and a quicker way to build assets,” said Brown.

In anticipation of the Crapo bill’s passage, the rush to deal has already begun. First Virginia Community Bank, which is around the $ 1 billion threshold, announced a merger with Colombo Bank earlier this month. In March, Civista, an Ohio-based firm, bought United Community Bank of Indiana, creating a $ 2.1 billion combined institution. At the higher end of the asset scale, BancorpSouth, with $ 17 billion in assets, purchased the $ 794 million Icon Bank in April. Associated Banc-Corp of Green Bay, Wisconsin, with $ 30 billion in assets, made plans to buy Diversified Insurance in February, along with Bank Mutual Corp.

In its report, FJ Capital Management estimated that the total number of chartered banks would decline by 50 percent over the next 10 to 15 years. That’s precisely the opposite of what the ringleaders of the Crapo bill on the Democratic side — Heitkamp, Tester, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, all from predominantly rural states — hoped the bill would provoke. But they may have known who really wanted this legislation, if they looked into their own campaign finance filings.

According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Heitkamp, Donnelly, and Tester shot to the top of the list of senators receiving money from the financial industry in 2017, gathering $ 408,176. And prominent on that list are banks just under the $ 50 billion threshold. Employees of Signature Bank, a $ 41 billion bank based in New York, have given $ 112,000 to Democratic senators in the 2017-2018 election cycle, eight times as much as the 2015-2016 cycle with six month to go. Campaign finance data shows 45 Signature Bank donors for Donnelly and 38 for Heitkamp.

Signature Bank chair Scott Shay was explicit in his support of Donnelly and Heitkamp, telling the Financial Times, “We find it ridiculous and unacceptable that by virtue of … growing one day past $ 50bn, we will be burdened with rules intended for the mega ‘too big to fail’ banks.” The Signature Bank board includes former Congressperson Barney Frank, namesake of the Dodd-Frank Act. (Another luminary once sat on the board from 2011 to 2013: Ivanka Trump.)

Among sub-$ 50 billion banks, Hancock Holding Company in Gulfport, Mississippi ($ 27 billion), Texas Capital Bancshares in Dallas ($ 25 billion), and the aforementioned Associated Banc-Corp have also increased donations in 2017 and 2018.

In an email to The Intercept, Compass Point’s Boltansky said that the impact on M&A may not be immediate. For example, the increase in the enhanced regulatory standards threshold is phased, raising only to $ 100 billion immediately, and then to $ 250 billion in 18 months. He added that bank M&A also carries political risk, since it usually leads to layoffs.

But any belief that the Crapo bill will protect small community banks runs into the persistent long-term trend of consolidation. “The number of banks have declined every year since 1984,” said Marcus Stanley, policy director at Americans for Financial Reform. “It’s a long-term structural problem that I don’t think you’re solving here.”

Top photo: Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, joined by, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, talks to reporters as the Senate moves closer to passing legislation to roll back some of the safeguards Congress put in place to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis on March 6, 2018.

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Fair Russia drafts bill to bring federal lawmakers’ salaries in line with national average

MPs from the center-left party Fair Russia have drafted a bill ordering that all members of the federal parliament should receive salaries in line with the country’s average, which is now roughly $ 565 per month.

The draft was prepared by the leader of the Fair Russia party Sergey Mironov and MP Oleg Nilov.

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RIA Novosti / Evgenya Novozhenina

In an explanatory note attached to the document, they explained that at present, Russian senators and State Duma deputies are receiving salaries equal to those of federal ministers and these are several times more than the average in Russia. Lower House lawmakers receive about 380,000 roubles per month, or $ 6,100.

The bill proposes to set a legislative maximum for salaries of Federation Council members and State Duma deputies in the amount of the average salary in the Russian Federation which in 2016 amounted to about 35,000 roubles,” the document reads. At the current rate, the proposed sum amounts to about $ 565. In addition, Fair Russia wants to abolish all “unfounded” benefits granted to MPs in healthcare services, retirement payments, vacations, etc.

The bill has already been criticized by the Russian government. Experts noted that Russian law forbids federal lawmakers to combine their work with any other position, including private businesses (exceptions are made for income made through teaching or artistic work, such as acting) and the relatively high salaries allow senators and MPs to fully concentrate on their legislative activities and communication with voters.

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RIA Novosti / Grigoriy Sisoev

In March 2015, President Vladimir Putin slashed the wages of senior Russian officials, including himself and members of his administration, explaining the move was the result of economic crisis. Shortly before that, Putin ordered a one-year freeze on civil servants’ pay in various state offices.

The order automatically led to equal cuts in salary for members of the Russian parliament as, according to Russian law, the salaries of parliamentarians are calculated on the same scale as salaries of federal ministers. In October 2017, Putin extended the duration of this decree until the end of 2018.

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From luxury to life behind bars: What Bill Cosby faces in prison

(Reuters) – Bill Cosby, used to the high life as one of America’s biggest stars, will likely see his entourage of aides replaced by an inmate paid pennies to help the legally blind comedian navigate life behind bars after he is sentenced for sexual assault.

FILE PHOTO: Actor and comedian Bill Cosby exits the Montgomery County Courthouse after a jury convicted him in a sexual assault retrial in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

Cosby, 80, faces up to 30 years in prison when he is sentenced in the next three months for drugging and raping Andrea Constand, 45, in 2004 at his sprawling compound outside Philadelphia. He is appealing the verdict, which could potentially delay his imprisonment for months or even years.

Should he eventually leave the world of private jets and luxury hotel suites, the disgraced star of the 1980s television hit “The Cosby Show” will become probably the best-known celebrity to hear the gates of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections shut behind him, according to a department spokeswoman, Susan McNaughton.

She said previous and current high-profile inmates have included legislators, ex-police officers and Jerry Sandusky, a former Pennsylvania State University football coach convicted in 2012 of being a serial child molester.

Another is Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political activist convicted in the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer.

Incarceration will be a stark change for the comedian, whose net worth was estimated in 2016 by Fortune magazine at $ 400 million, with $ 100 million invested in real estate, including homes in New York, Massachusetts and Nevada. He also owned a private jet, artwork and dozens of classic cars.

Once Cosby arrives behind bars, he will face an “incarceration reception process” to determine his healthcare and psychological treatment needs, his security level, and to which of 22 male prisons he will be sent.

He will be one of just 83 inmates aged 80 or older, and one of very few who are legally blind, McNaughton said.

Such prisoners are typically assigned a sighted inmate, who is paid just 19 to 42 cents an hour, to assist them and lead them through the facility.

“Certainly Mr. Cosby would be fine,” she said. “Of course they (the inmate assistants) are screened, and there is a lot of monitoring and supervision.”

Like most inmates, Cosby will likely be allowed to receive and send emails, which are also screened for security purposes. Most inmates use prison-approved tablet computers.

Cosby’s prison assistant might also help sort any fan mail that passes a security screening.

“No drugs or contraband or influence of escape,” McNaughton said. “If it clears through the mailroom, it’s delivered to the inmate.”

Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Dan Grebler

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Reuters: Entertainment News

Bill Cosby jury hunkers down for second day in sexual assault trial

NORRISTOWN, Pa. (Reuters) – The jury in Bill Cosby’s sexual assault trial begins a second day of deliberations on Thursday, charged with deciding whether the comedian once known as “America’s Dad” drugged and molested a younger woman at his Pennsylvania home more than a decade ago.

Actor and comedian Bill Cosby leaves court after a day of deliberations in his sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

During a three-week trial, prosecutors have portrayed Cosby as a serial predator who hid behind his kindly television persona, while defense lawyers say he has been the victim of women fabricating stories in pursuit of wealth and fame. Cosby, 80, a black comedian who won over America as the wise and witty patriarch on “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s, is on trial on three counts of aggravated indecent assault of Andrea Constand, 45, in January 2004. He has denied the charges, saying any sexual contact was consensual.

A first trial on the same charges ended last year with a deadlocked jury.

The jury, sequestered since the trial began on April 9, was due to resume deliberations at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) after a six-hour session on Wednesday, when jurors asked to rehear parts of the case.

Last June, a different panel of jurors spent nearly six days deliberating the case before Steven O’Neill, the same Montgomery County, Pennsylvania judge, before he declared a mistrial, leading to the second trial.

Actor and comedian Bill Cosby leaves court after a day of deliberations in his sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The first trial ended in mistrial last June, just before a flood of sexual assault and harassment accusations against rich and powerful men in media, entertainment and politics gave rise to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

Five women who have leveled similar accusations against Cosby were allowed to testify during the current trial as the prosecution sought to establish a pattern of behavior. At the first trial, only one other accuser was permitted to tell her story.

After receiving instructions from O’Neill on Wednesday morning, the jury raised questions three times.

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Two hours into deliberations, the panel asked for the legal definition of “consent” in a sexual assault case. O’Neill said the question could not be answered under Pennsylvania law.

Later, the jury asked to see two documents prepared by Margo Jackson, a star witness called by the defense, outlining her accusations that Constand once told her “it would be easy” to fabricate a sexual assault accusation against a celebrity.

The judge denied the request but granted the jury’s request to see the content of several instructions about evidence.

Jackson, a former roommate of Constand, was barred from testifying in the first trial.

In a third request, the jury asked for the rereading of Cosby’s interview with police who investigated the 2004 incident that led to his trial as well as a rereading of Jackson’s testimony. The judge granted those requests.

Cosby has remained free on bail. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison for each of the three counts, although sentencing guidelines call for the terms to be served concurrently.

Reporting by David DeKok; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jeffrey Benkoe

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Reuters: Entertainment News

Govt shutdown looms: Trump threatens to veto spending bill over border wall

US President Donald Trump says he’s considering vetoing the freshly-passed $ 1.3 trillion spending bill over immigration issues. He cited a lack of funding for his much-touted Mexican border wall and concerns over DACA.

Trump tweeted Friday morning that he is considering blocking the bill because 800,000 ‘Dreamer’ immigrants aren’t even mentioned in the legislation.

“DACA was abandoned by the Democrats. Very unfair to them! Would have been tied to desperately needed Wall,” the president added.

It was thought that a government shutdown had been narrowly avoided as the bill passed the Senate and the House of Representatives in a whirlwind process in the early hours of Friday morning. It was widely anticipated that the president would sign the bill to avoid another government closure with funds due to run out on Saturday.

If Trump does veto the bill it would almost certainly shutter the government at midnight. The president-precipitated shutdown would mark a change from recent government closures, which were caused by Congress’s failure to pass spending bills.

Trump’s threat comes after the White House reassured lawmakers that the president would sign off on the 2,300 page omnibus spending bill. Capitol Hill is unprepared for the threat as lawmakers were leaving Washington as Congress heads into a two-week recess.

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