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‘Corruption’ probe meant Bidens, impeachment witnesses say

WASHINGTON — Key impeachment witnesses said Thursday it was clear that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was pursuing political investigations of Democrats in Ukraine. Their testimony undercuts the president’s argument he only wanted to root out Ukrainian corruption.

State Department official David Holmes said he understood that Giuliani’s push to investigate “Burisma,” the Ukraine gas company where Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on the board, was code for the former vice president and his family. Former White House adviser Fiona Hill warned that Giuliani had been making “explosive” and “incendiary” claims.

“He was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would, you know, probably come back to haunt us and in fact,” Hill testified. “I think that's where we are today."

Testimony from Hill and Holmes capped an intense week in the historic inquiry.

The House probe focuses on allegations that Trump sought investigations of Joe Biden and his son — and the discredited idea that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election — in return for U.S. military aid that Ukraine needed to fend off Russian aggression, and for a White House visit the new Ukrainian president wanted that would demonstrate his backing from the West.

Hill a former White House Russia analyst, sternly warned Republican lawmakers — and implicitly Trump — to quit pushing the “fictional” Ukraine-interference narrative as they defend Trump in the impeachment inquiry.

Holmes, a late addition to the schedule, testified that he came forward after overhearing Trump ask about “investigations” during a “colorful” phone call with Ambassador Gordon Sondland at a Kyiv restaurant this summer.

Holmes said he realized his firsthand account of what he heard would be relevant.

“Those events potentially bore on the question of whether the president did, in fact, have knowledge that those senior officials were using the levers of our diplomatic power” to push Ukraine to investigate his rivals, he testified.

As Holmes was delivering opening remarks, explaining how the ambassador “winced,” holding the cellphone away from his ear because the president was talking so loudly, Trump tried to undercut the career diplomat’s account of overhearing the conversation.

The president tweeted that while his own hearing is “great” he’s never been able to understand another person’s conversation that wasn’t on speaker. “Try it,” he suggested.

Holmes also testified about his growing concern as Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, orchestrated Ukraine policy outside official diplomatic channels. It was a concern shared by others, he testified.

“My recollection is that Ambassador Sondland stated, “Every time Rudy gets involved he goes and f---s everything up.”

The president instructed his top diplomats to work with Giuliani, who was publicly pursuing investigations into Democrats, according to Sondland and others testifying during the week of blockbuster public hearings.

Holmes testified that he grew alarmed, watching as Giuliani was “making frequent public statements pushing for Ukraine to investigate interference in the 2016 election and issues related to Burisma and the Bidens.”

The landmark House impeachment inquiry was sparked after another call, on July 25, in which Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for “a favor,” the investigations. A still-anonymous whistleblower’s official government complaint about that call led the House to launch the current probe.

Hill was an aide to former national security adviser John Bolton and stressed that she is “nonpartisan” and has worked under Republican and Democratic presidents.

She appealed to the GOP to stop peddling an alternative theory of the 2016 election. She contended that Russia wanted to delegitimize “our entire presidency,” whether the winner be Trump or Hillary Clinton, by sowing the “seed of doubt” in the outcome.

“This is exactly what the Russian government was hoping for,” she said about the currently divisive American political climate. “They would pit one side of our electorate against the others.”

She warned that Russia is gearing up to intervene again in the 2020 U.S. election. “We are running out of time to stop them,” she testified.

“I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Hill said in prepared opening remarks to the House Intelligence Committee.

Trump as well as Republicans on the panel, including ranking GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California, continue to advance the idea that Russian interference was a “hoax,” and that it was Ukraine that was trying to swing the election, part of a desperate effort by Democrats to stop Trump’s presidency.

“That is the Democrats’ pitiful legacy,” Nunes said in his opening remarks. He called it all part of the same effort, from “the Russia hoax” to the “shoddy sequel of the impeachment inquiry.

Trump has told others testifying in the inquiry that Ukraine tried to “take me down” in the 2016 election and.

But she said the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the U.S. election “is beyond dispute.”

She said, “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016,” she said.

Hill, who became a U.S. citizen in 2002, told lawmakers she was the daughter of a coal miner in the northeast of England, noting it is the same region George Washington’s ancestors came from.

“I have no interest in advancing the outcome of your inquiry in any particular direction, except toward the truth,” Hill said.

The witnesses testifying publicly have all previously appeared for private depositions, most having received subpoenas compelling their testimony.

Holmes, speaking about the July 26 call between Trump and Sondland, the day after the president’s call with Zelenskiy, has told investigators he heard Trump ask, “So he’s going to do the investigation?”

According to Holmes, Sondland replied that Zelenskiy “will, quote, ‘do anything you ask him to.’”

Hill said national security adviser John Bolton told her separately he didn’t want to be involved in any “drug deal” Sondland and Trump’s acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were cooking up over the Ukrainian investigations Trump wanted.

In Moscow on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was pleased that the “political battles” in Washington had overtaken the Russia allegations, which are supported by the U.S. intelligence agencies.

"Thank God,” Putin said, “no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine."

— Associated Press writers Colleen Long, Laurie Kellman, Zeke Miller, Matthew Daly and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

FBI agent speaks of crime body's role in BG
 Justin Story  / 

FBI Special Agent Aaron Rayburn said Wednesday it was a boyhood dream of his to join the agency.

Addressing the Bowling Green Rotary Club at its weekly meeting, Rayburn gave insight about the FBI’s presence in Bowling Green and its role in working with other law enforcement agencies.

Rayburn divulged his youthful aspirations about being a federal agent in response to a question from a club member whose granddaughter is interested in going into law enforcement.

After graduating from college with a degree in business administration, Rayburn joined the U.S. Army, serving in Iraq and rising to the rank of lieutenant.

He joined the FBI in 2014 after several years in the private sector and is one of six special agents assigned to the Bowling Green resident agency.

In the FBI structure, there are 56 field offices in the U.S., with a field office in Louisville covering the entire state.

Extending from Louisville are satellite offices, known within the FBI as resident agencies, in Bowling Green and six other Kentucky cities.

Rayburn conducts criminal investigations as an agent, but the FBI does not work alone in the area.

“There are so many resources here in law enforcement,” Rayburn said about cooperating with other agencies and sharing information. “We defend the Constitution and uphold and enforce criminal laws in the United States. We’re in the thick of it all and we work with everybody to accomplish these ends.”

That cooperation among other agencies, and within different branches of the FBI, has resulted in a number of noteworthy criminal cases this decade in which the FBI has taken the lead.

Rayburn cited as an example the successful prosecution of Waad Alwan and Mohanad Hammadi, two Iraqi nationals who were caught in Bowling Green attempting to send money and weapons to al-Qaida in Iraq.

Alwan had also conspired to kill U.S. nationals abroad, and he and Hammadi were charged with multiple terrorism-related crimes in 2011. Both men pleaded guilty, and Hammadi is serving a life sentence in prison while Alwan is serving a 40-year sentence.

A crucial piece of evidence in the case was an improvised explosive device recovered in Iraq with Alwan’s fingerprints on it.

Rayburn, a platoon leader involved with searching for unexploded IEDs in Iraq, lauded the FBI’s ability to piece together the investigation.

“It’s amazing to see what they can do, after being on the front lines there and going all the way around to catching people on the back end,” Rayburn said.

Other notable cases local FBI agents have investigated include former Franklin doctor Roy Reynolds and former Cave City dentist Chris Steward, who were prosecuted and convicted for illegally distributing opioids.

Report: Fewer Warren kids in poverty, more in foster care
 Aaron Mudd  / 

Fewer children in Warren County are living in poverty and fewer live in food insecure households, according to the 2019 Kentucky Kids Count County Data Book.

The report, which Kentucky Youth Advocates released Tuesday, offers a county-by-county look at child well-being across Kentucky through 17 measures in the areas of health, education, economic security and family and community and whether they’ve improved over a five-year period.

Warren County’s data profile is available online with this story at bgdailynews.com.

Overall, this year’s release holds mixed results for Warren County.

For example, although Warren County had fewer children living in the deepest levels of poverty, it hasn’t made progress in reducing the number of children living in low-income households, defined as being below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The measure has flatlined in recent years. As many as 48 percent of Warren County children lived in low-income households during 2013-17, the same rate it was in 2008-12.

Across Kentucky, fewer children are living in poverty compared to 2012, with improved rates in 107 of the state’s 120 counties. Kentucky Youth Advocates said there’s been an improvement from more than 26 percent of Kentucky children to slightly more than 22 percent. Most of Kentucky’s counties are also seeing improved rates for child food insecurity.

Still, Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks said there’s been a “drought of targeted state policies that address poverty” in the state.

Brooks said checks on predatory lending practices and refundable state earned-income tax credits for families in need could make a dent.

“I think that would really accelerate economic well-being,” Brooks said.

There’s also work to do when it comes to reducing the number of children in foster care, a rate that continues to climb. Kentucky reached a record high rate of 47.3 per 1,000 children in 2016-2018, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates.

This year’s report includes a new indicator measuring the percentage of children who are reunited with their parent or primary caregiver when exiting foster care.

It’s moving in the wrong direction – only 36 percent of Kentucky children are reunifying.

Although there’s a “growing awareness” in Kentucky around child welfare issues, Brooks said, the problem may be more complex than stakeholders realize, with drug addiction and an over-representation of children of color in the foster care system as complicating factors.

Locally, the rates for children in foster care and children exiting foster care to reunite with their families have worsened since 2011.

In Warren County, the rate of children below age 17 in foster care was 66.9 per every 1,000 children. During 2011-13, that rate was 58.4 per 1,000 children.

Similarly, only 35 percent of children exiting foster care were reunited with their families between 2016-18, down from 42 percent in 2011-13.

Describing how Warren County fares compared to the state as a whole, Brooks said there’s a more “significant level” of children in foster care and fewer successful reunifications.

Education outcomes included in the report also painted a mixed picture.

Between 2018-19, both Warren County Public Schools and the Bowling Green Independent School District saw large numbers of incoming kindergarten students deemed unprepared to start their school careers. However, in both school districts, high school graduation rates were sky high, hovering around 97 percent.

Progress in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math were muddled. While Warren County Public Schools made gains in raising its proficiency rate in both metrics, the Bowling Green Independent School District did not.

In terms of health outcomes, Warren County generally made gains in the measures tracked by the report.

In recent years, more children have health insurance, and there were fewer low birth-weight babies in 2017. There were also fewer births to teenage mothers and a lower rate of women smoking while pregnant.

– The full report is available at kyyouth.org.

Kentucky Farm Bureau leaders share trade, broadband woes
 Will Whaley  / 

Trade tariffs and broadband are the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s top focus as the next General Assembly prepares to go into session.

KFB executives visited Bowling Green on Wednesday as part of their Fall Agriculture Tour, during which they visit a region of the state to have an open dialogue about the bureau’s work with the General Assembly in forming agriculture legislation and to talk about any issues farmers have.

KFB President Mark Haney said trade and broadband connectivity are big components that will be brought up in the legislative session that begins in January.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement affects all farmers in Kentucky, according to Haney. The agreement remained in limbo in the U.S. House on Wednesday, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “refused to allow a vote” on the agreement.

“We have to trade,” Haney said. “Trade packages in Washington like the USMCA that replaced NAFTA kind of lingers right now in Congress and has turned out to be a political football right now. Things like that are so important to us and to our members, so we encourage and continue to call Congress to continue to push for the passage of that.”

Another issue – broadband coverage across rural parts of the state – continues to hinder farmers’ production, according to Haney.

“Broadband coverage across the state is just sad,” he said. “If you live in town, if you live close to a county seat, you have pretty good coverage, but you don’t have to go out far to find that it is lacking. Cellphone coverage is not bad, but the data is just so slow. Everybody has to be able to download and run equipment, and we advertise via social media, we pay bills online. It is a big issue for us.”

While Haney did say President Donald Trump’s administration has allocated payments to grain farmers for aid, there has not been aid for livestock farming.

“There’s no safety net there for them,” he said. “Those folks are really hurting right now. If we could get trade packages, we could start shipping more pork, beef and other livestock, then the problem would take care of itself.”

KFB Vice President Eddie Melton talked about the addition of hemp farming in the state.

“It is an up-and-coming industry,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, though. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture is the oversight of that … we picked about 16 growers that we think are progressive and growing hemp and we talked about what is important to them about this new industry. We want to make a slow, methodical process as we get into this new industry and make sure the people we are dealing with that they get paid for the crop they are growing.”

Jeff Harper, who handles public relations for the KFB, talked about the upcoming swearing-in of Gov.-elect Andy Beshear in December and the time that he has to prepare a budget to present to the General Assembly.

“He has less than a month to get ready before the assembly comes to town,” Harper said. “The biggest thing will be the state budget. It will be tight.

“Give or take a nickel or two, by the time you incarcerate, medicate and educate the people of this commonwealth, you spend about 90 percent of the general fund tax dollars,” Harper said. “Our priority is maintaining the Master Settlement Agreement.”

The settlement comes from state lawsuits against the major tobacco companies for Medicaid costs related to smoking. The agreement became effective Nov. 23, 1998.

“Those dollars are critically important to agriculture in rural Kentucky,” Harper said. “We obviously have to have a well-financed Department of Agriculture.”