May 18, 2018

Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was released from the hospital on Friday, more than two months after he and daughter Yulia were found slumped over on a park bench in Salisbury, England, after being exposed to a Novichok nerve agent. Yulia Skripal was released from the hospital on April 9 and moved to a secure location. The U.S. and European allies blamed Russia for the poison attack and expelled diplomats and presumed intelligence agents. Sergei Skripal, 66, was a Russian military intelligence officer who Russia jailed for passing on secrets to Britain, then released in a 2010 spy swap. Peter Weber

May 4, 2018
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President Trump is addressing the National Rifle Association's annual conference in Dallas on Friday, the fourth year in a row he's spoken at the gun group's national meeting. His participation was announced earlier in the week, long after Vice President Mike Pence's Friday attendance was confirmed. Trump had briefly clashed with the NRA after the Feb. 14 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, chastising Republican lawmakers for being "afraid of the NRA" and saying he would stand up to the group by backing tougher gun laws. He did not, ultimately.

"It's kind of hypocritical of him to go there after saying so many politicians bow to the NRA and are owned by them," said David Hogg, a Parkland survivor and advocate for new gun laws. "It proves that his heart and his wallet are in the same place." Some gun-rights advocates criticized Trump for signing a law that beefs up background checks. Peter Weber

April 9, 2018
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Todd Brassner, who died after a fire gutted his apartment on the 50th floor of Trump Tower on Saturday evening, was an art dealer and bon vivant with an extensive art collection and about 250 vintage guitars and ukuleles in his apartment. His collection, listed as worth more than $3 million in a 2015 bankruptcy filing, included a 1975 portrait of himself by Andy Warhol, who had been a friend.

According to friends, Brassner, 67, was in declining health and had been trying to sell his apartment since President Trump was elected. "He said, 'This is getting untenable,'" Stephen Dwire, a musician and music producer who had been friends with Brassner since they were 14, told The New York Times. "It was like living in an armed camp. But when people heard it was a Trump building, he couldn't give it away." Brassner had purchased the unit in 1996, and he estimated in 2015 that it was worth $2.5 million.

Fire officials have not determined the cause of the blaze. Like other residential units in Trump Tower, Brassner's apartment had a smoke detector but no sprinklers — Trump and other real estate developers had lobbied New York's city council in 1999 against a proposal to retrofit older residential towers with sprinklers, arguing it would add $4 per square foot to the cost of an apartment, the Times says. Officials in then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's administration agreed that it would be too expensive.

"We send our prayers and deepest condolences to Mr. Brassner's family and loved ones," a Trump Organization spokeswoman said Sunday. On Saturday, before the fire was extinguished and Brassner's death confirmed, Trump tweeted: "Fire at Trump Tower is out. Very confined (well built building). Firemen (and women) did a great job. THANK YOU!" Brassner inherited money from his father soon after filing for bankruptcy in 2015, and "he showed up at my house the next day in a brand-new red Lamborghini," fellow art collector Stuart Pivar said. "That was Todd." Peter Weber

April 2, 2018
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Carlos Alvarado, a novelist and former labor minister, won Sunday's presidential runoff election in Costa Rica, easily beating evangelical Christian pastor and singer Fabricio Alvarado to keep the ruling center-left Citizen Action Party in power for another term. The two Alvarados are not related. With 95 percent of the ballots counted, Costa Rica's Supreme Electoral Council said Sunday night, Carlos Alvarado has 61 percent of the vote while Fabricio Alvarado has 39 percent. Polls had shown the two men running neck and neck.

Fabricio Alvarado, representing the National Restoration Party, took first place in the first round of voting in February, running on a platform of opposing same-sex marriage. The San Jose-based regional Inter-American Court of Human Rights said in January that Costa Rica should allow same-sex marriage. Carlos Alvarado, 38, who backed the call for same-sex marriage, will be Costa Rica's youngest president. "Costa Rica is an amazing country and we want to not only preserve its great democracy, its peaceful nature, its respect for the environment and human rights, but we also want to move Costa Rica forward," Carlos Alvarado said after casting his ballot on Sunday. Peter Weber

February 7, 2018
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Last Wednesday, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry admitted to having an extramarital affair with Nashville Police Sgt. Robert Forrest Jr., the head of her security detail until his resignation Jan. 17. Barry, a Democrat, and Forrest are both married, and their affair apparently began in the spring of 2016, just months after she took office. On Tuesday, USA Today reported that Barry had also recommended Forrest's daughter, Macy Amos, for a job in the city's legal department. Amos got the job in January 2016.

Amos, by all accounts, was qualified for the entry-level job — a recent law school graduate, she had interned with the two previous Nashville mayors as well as the sheriff's office, and clerked at the Davidson County Circuit Court — and Metro Law Department Director Jon Cooper said it was his decision to hire her, not Barry's. "The mayor did recommend Macy during a meeting I had with her at some point, as did a number of people in the legal community," Cooper told USA Today. Amos, 26, was the "logical choice" for the job, he added.

A spokesman for mayor, Sean Braisted, said that "Barry was not having an affair with Sgt. Forrest when Macy Amos was interviewed, hired, or started working for Metro," and "Amos is an exemplary employee who earned her job because of her qualifications and passion for Metro Government." Government ethics experts say the situation is murky but problematic. "We will never know if she was hired on her own merits or not," Columbia Law School professor Richard Briffault said of Amos. "That's why we have ethics. There need not have been anything improper here at all, but now there's a cloud." Peter Weber

January 16, 2018
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The percentage of U.S. adults without health insurance grew by 1.3 percentage points in 2017, or about 3.2 million people, Gallup reports, based on its Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index survey. This is first rise since the Affordable Care Act was enacted and the single largest increase in the uninsured rate since Gallup and Sharecare began measuring it in 2008, though at 12.2 percent uninsured it is below the peak uninsured rate of 18 percent in the third quarter of 2013, before the ACA's exchange markets and individual mandate took effect. The jump in uninsured adults was highest among young adults and Latino, black, and low-income Americans, Gallup said.

Gallup attributed the growing uninsured rate to rising premiums, insurers leaving markets, well-publicized and unsuccessful Republican attempts to repeal the ACA, more succesfull attempts to undermine it, and the common perception that the GOP would scrap the individual mandate, which they did in their tax overhaul. Republicans are looking to change the funding mechanisms for Medicaid and Medicare, and "with less federal assistance from these programs to help offset the rising cost of health insurance, fewer Americans may be able to afford health insurance," Gallup predicted. Gallup conducted more than 25,000 interviews from October through December, and the margin of sampling error is ± 1 percentage points. Peter Weber

January 11, 2018
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In late December, the Health and Human Services Department canceled the contract of the organization that oversees the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, a federal database of vetted and approved interventions to treat drug addiction and mental illness, The Washington Post reports. HHS officials froze the website in September, meaning no new treatments have been added in the past 90 days, and mental health and substance abuse specialists are both concerned about the database's future and confused as to why the Trump administration is changing the registry after 20 years.

Instead of an outside contractor, Development Services Group Inc., choosing which treatments are scientifically sound, the HHS Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and specifically its new National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory, or Policy Lab, will run the registry. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he was "concerned" by the change "and looking into it," and Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) said she was "shocked to learn that the NREPP contract has been terminated as an opioid epidemic continues to shake our nation" and is "determined to find out why SAMHSA has made such a mind-boggling decision."

Mental health professionals tell the Post they view the database as neutral, nonpartisan, and a crucial tool for choosing treatments, and they're worried moving it inside SAMHSA could politicize the treatment selection process. Agency spokesman Christopher Garrett said Wednesday that it's SAMHSA's job to "lead the efforts to rapidly institute evidence-based practices in all behavioral health treatment programs," and "the federal government should not be in the business of having a single contractor determine winners and losers in behavioral health care." In its email informing program participants its contract was canceled, Development Services Group said SAMHSA explained the decision as "for the convenience of the government." You can read more about the registry at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

January 2, 2018
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Chicago recorded 650 homicides and 2,785 shootings in 2017, according to Chicago Police Department statistics released Monday. That's a drop from 2016's 771 homicides and 3,550 shootings, but still more murders than in New York City and Los Angeles combined. Chicago police credit new technology for the significant decline and are optimistic that continued rollout of Strategic Decision Support Centers and their accompanying high-tech equipment will lead to further reductions. So far, six of Chicago's districts have the centers, which feature technology that allows police to instantly pick up and pinpoint gunshots and alert officers through smartphone apps and in-car computers.

"I am proud of the progress our officers made in reducing gun violence all across the city in 2017," Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a statement. The Rev. Marshall Hatch, whose West Side church is in one of Chicago's most violent neighborhoods, was less impressed. "You still have to start with the fact that 600 people dead in Chicago is a hell of a lot of people to be dead in one year," he told The Associated Press, adding that he's concerned police will think adding new officers and technology will solve rampant gang violence and other problems caused by social conditions he says are best addressed through increasing social services. Peter Weber

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