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Sergio Parra, a 10th grader at Orland High School, places a memorial remembering the victims of a fiery crash between a tour bus and a FedEx truck in Orland, Calif. Orland High is across the street from a Red Cross shelter set up to handle some of survivors of the accident. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

California school bus crash: Looking for answers in tragedy

By Staff writer / 04.12.14

Transportation safety officials say it could be weeks before they know the cause of the collision between a FedEx tractor-trailer and a bus that took 10 lives, half of them Los Angeles-area high school students on their way to visit the college in northern California where they hoped to continue their education.

Even then, why the FedEx truck – which was hauling two heavy trailers – crossed a grassy median as it traveled south along I-5, slamming head-on into the bus and bursting into flames, may remain unclear.

"We don't know whether the FedEx driver had fallen asleep, whether he experienced a mechanical failure with his vehicle or whether there was a separate collision on the southbound side that caused him to lose control," said Lieutenant Scott Fredrick, lead investigator for the California Highway Patrol.

Witnesses report seeing the truck clip an automobile before careening across the median. One eye witness said the truck already was in flames before it smashed into the bus, which was headed north along California’s main north-south interstate highway midway between Sacramento and the Oregon border.

"It was in flames as it came through the median," Bonnie Duran told NBC News. "It was already in flames. It wasn’t coming from the front engine, it was more from behind the cab."

Both vehicles had devices that could shed light on the accident.

“There’s an electronic module on the bus that could tell us information about the speed, any hard braking that might have happened,” National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator Mark Rosekind told NBC. However, he added, any similar technology on the truck was most likely destroyed in the intense fire that raged through both vehicles.

"The big rig and the bus were both engulfed in flames,” said California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Tracy Hoover. “You are talking about two vehicles that are destroyed. There is hardly anything left of the truck.”

Those killed include the drivers of both vehicles and three high school chaperones, including a couple who had recently become engaged. The twin sister of one of the five students killed was riding on another bus headed toward Humboldt State University in redwood country on the northern California coast. More than 30 other passengers were injured, some of them seriously.

The trip from southern California was part of a program to help low-income and first-generation college hopefuls.

This week’s accident raises questions in two controversial areas:

Allowing double- and even triple-trailer tractors onto roads and highways. Such vehicles are harder to maneuver, especially in situations where stopping quickly can prevent deadly accidents.

And mandating the retrofitting of buses used by schools and tour operators with seat belts and other safety devices.

“While preventing accidents is always the goal, saving lives and reducing injuries in the event of an accident is also critical,” the NTSB states in its “most wanted” list for 2014. “Increasing the use of available occupant protection systems and improving crashworthiness to preserve survivable space can mean the difference between life and death.”

As the investigation continues, says the NTSB’s Mr. Rosekind, “The most important thing we can do is issue recommendations so that these kinds of accidents don't happen again.”

This report includes material from Reuters.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, here whispering to Arnold Palmer at the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., on Wednesday, has become a lightning rod for Internet critics, who are challenging her appointment to the Dropbox board of directors. Critics say her role in government surveillance in the Bush administration doesn't bode well for Dropbox pledges to fight government requests for its information. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Anonymous critics to Dropbox: Drop Condoleezza Rice, or we'll drop you

By Staff writer / 04.11.14

When Dropbox CEO Drew Houston announced on Wednesday that the company had appointed Condoleezza Rice, former US secretary of State, to its board of directors, he might have expected some skepticism.

Calling Dr. Rice “brilliant” and her career “illustrious,” Mr. Houston seemed to hedge against possible blowback in an online post in which he said that she was an ideal candidate to help shepherd an expansion of the cloud storage platform's “global footprint.” Rice is now a professor at Stanford, as well as a consultant to several tech firms.

But, on Friday, techies were not having it.

On a website set up soon afterward, called Drop Dropbox, critics alleged that Rice’s record of support for positions to which Silicon Valley is largely opposed suggests that Dropbox is not serious about its claim to resist online government surveillance.

Drop Dropbox faults a number of Rice’s past activities in the Bush administration, including her role in planning the Iraq war, her alleged support for the use of torture in interrogating Al Qaeda suspects, and government wiretapping without a warrant.

Rice’s appointment “invites serious concerns about Drew Houston and the senior leadership at Dropbox's commitment to freedom, openness, and ethics,” reads the website. “When a company quite literally has access to all of your data, ethics become more than a fun thought experiment."

It was not clear on Friday who was behind Drop Dropbox, since the site is hosted on a domain whose proxy is hidden, according to TechCrunch.

A link to Drop Dropbox, which encourages users to stop using the service, is the most-clicked-on posting on Hacker News, a news source popular with the technologically savvy, according to Wired. A separate website hosted at Causes.com includes a petition to boycott Dropbox and had amassed more than 6,000 signatures by Friday afternoon.

Support for a boycott was also trending on Twitter via the hashtag #DropDropbox.

Almost all the comments on the original posting about Rice’s appointment, among other announcements about new Dropbox features, were about Rice, with comments divided on whether she was an asset or liability to Dropbox.

How much the public relations flap could hurt Dropbox, a bona fide juggernaut of the cloud storage world, with more than 275 million users, is not yet clear. 

The zeitgeist of Silicon Valley has lately been highly public opposition to online government surveillance, and technology companies have been at pains to reassure the public that their data will be secure with them. In March, Dropbox released a formal list of its principles on government data requests, including a promise to fight blanket government requests for its information and a commitment to publicizing the number of such requests it receives.

“Governments should never install backdoors into online services or compromise infrastructure to obtain user data,” reads one of the principles. “We’ll continue to work to protect our systems and to change laws to make it clear that this type of activity is illegal.”

Consumers have no shortage of options for where to put their data if one platform falls short on such pledges, including Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. Those alternatives, among others, are listed on the website Drop Dropbox.

Last week, Mozilla bowed to pressure to boot its new chief executive, Brendan Eich, over his financial contributions to an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative in California in 2008.

Dropbox has not made a public statement on the calls to drop Rice.

Republican Scott Brown announces his bid for the United States Senate primary election in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Thursday. The former senator from Massachusetts launched his Granite State campaign with an attack on incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's vote for the Affordable Care Act, which is unpopular in the state. (Dominick Reuter / Reuters)

Scott Brown declares for Senate in N.H. Can he claim an inner Granite State?

By Staff Writer / 04.11.14

Formalizing what had been broadly hinted for months, Republican Scott Brown has made it official that he is running for the US Senate, again – but not in Massachusetts.

Mr. Brown, the former Massachusetts senator, announced his campaign to represent New Hampshire in the US Senate at a hotel in Portsmouth Thursday night. While he tries to woo voters away from a Democratic incumbent whose support for the Affordable Care Act might have drained some of her support, he'll also have to convince Granite State residents that he is one of them, not an interloper crossing state lines.

Republican leaders had over the last year been encouraging Brown to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and help the GOP's bid to take the Senate. Senator Shaheen won her seat in 2008 against Republican incumbent John Sununu, making her the first Democrat to win a US Senate seat in the state since 1974.

In comments likely to signal his campaign platform, Brown spent much of his speech lampooning Shaheen’s “yes” vote in 2010 on the Affordable Care Act, which polls have shown is unpopular with New Hampshire voters. 

She’s wrong on the issues affecting the people of New Hampshire,” said Brown, in his speech. “She placed a health-care bill on this state, and on our country, that people didn’t want.”

Riffing on New Hampshire’s “live free or die” motto, he also tweeted later that night: "Obamacare forces us to make a choice, live free or log on – and here in New Hampshire, we choose freedom.”

Brown, who recently resigned from a Boston firm, was a relative unknown when he came from behind in a 2010 special election to win the seat long held by Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. His upset victory, widely attributed to tea party support, turned on a critique of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

But Brown was booted from that seat in his quest for reelection in 2012, when voters in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1  sent Democrat Elizabeth Warren to Washington, after a bitter and expensive campaign season.

Last year Brown sold his Massachusetts home and moved full-time to his vacation home in coastal New Hampshire, a move that qualified him to run for US Senate in the state, more reddish in hue than is Massachusetts. New Hampshire Republicans have a slight edge over Democrats among registered voters – 30 percent to 29 percent in the 2012 campaign cycle – but undeclared voters, at 41 percent, represent the largest voting group in the state.                                      

In New Hampshire, he has since jumped feet-first into local culture, appearing bare-chested on the front page of The New Hampshire Union Leader this winter as he gamely plunged into near-freezing water in Hampton Beach in a community event to benefit the Special Olympics. For the last few months, he had also been tantalizing the public with occasional suggestions that he might be prepping for a political career in the state.

Polls on Thursday showed that Brown’s courtship of New Hampshire might be effective, putting Shaheen ahead of Brown, but not by much, and certainly not by as much as a month ago, when Shaheen had a 13 percentage point lead in a prospective matchup with Brown. Television station WMUR’s poll Thursday found that Shaheen had a lead of 45 percent of voters over Brown’s 39 percent haul, with 14 percent of voters undecided and a margin of error of plus-or-minus 5 percentage points.

Still, Brown, who has in most of his recent speeches emphasized his family ties to the Granite State, where he was born, and his boyhood there, has also been at pains to convince the public that he’s a proper New Hampshire man, not an opportunist from Massachusetts.

Thursday night, former Boston Mayor Tom Menino (D) said on Boston's WCVB-TV that the word “carpetbagger" aptly described Brown, calling Brown “not a New Hampshire person” but a “Massachusetts person” and predicting that Shaheen will win come November. "Carpetbagging" has also come up in polls on the race, with likely voters choosing it as one of the words they associate with the candidate. 

State Democrats have also indicated that Brown’s association with Massachusetts will be a linchpin to Shaheen’s campaign, seeking to cast Brown as a powerseeker who is dubiously loyal to New Hampshire and its voters’ interests but is using the state as a launchpad for his own ambitions, as well as those of the big business interests that support him.

On Thursday, former state Democratic Party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan told The Washington Post that Brown was “demonstrating more clearly than ever that he’s not running to serve New Hampshire. He’s running to advance his own interests and the Big Oil, Wall Street guys who pay for his campaigns," she said.

Brown must first get through a Republican primary in September before facing Shaheen, but he is projected to easily win it.

Thursday night, he batted back at Democrats’ efforts to peg him as a disingenuous interloper, tweeting: “Should I have the privilege of rep NH, I can promise you this. I will answer only to you, the people of NH.”

“I’m nobody’s yes man,” he said.

Riot police stand guard in front of protesters in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., March 30, 2014. Hundreds of protesters marched past riot police in Albuquerque on March 30, days after a YouTube video emerged threatening retaliation for a recent deadly police shooting. (Russell Contreras/AP)

Federal report: Albuquerque police have pattern of using 'unreasonable force' (+video)

By Staff writer / 04.10.14

Police in Albuquerque, N.M., have a serious pattern of using “unreasonable force” against civilians, especially against those who have mental illnesses, according to a blistering report from the US Justice Department that was released Thursday.

The release of the findings closes a 16-month federal investigation into allegations that officers in the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) are abusing their right to use force, often with fatal results for civilians. Over the past month, outrage over police tactics in the Southwestern city reached its highest-octane levels yet, after police were seen in March fatally shooting James Boyd, a homeless man with schizophrenia, in footage from an officer’s helmet camera.

The Justice Department (DOJ) report concluded that APD officers are overusing both lethal and nonlethal force against people who “pose a minimal threat” to the officers, as well as against people who are clearly mentally ill and unable to properly follow police orders.

RECOMMENDED: Policing America

“Public trust has been broken in Albuquerque,” said Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant US attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, at a press conference Thursday to discuss the report.

The DOJ said that the conduct of the APD officers, not the suspects, is often responsible for escalating the situation to violence, and it said that the majority of the 20 fatal police shootings it reviewed between 2010 and 2013 were “unjustified.”

The DOJ also identified “systemic deficiencies” in the APD that have legitimized or condoned excessive use of force, including “poor accountability systems” and “inadequate training.” The APD, it noted, has also failed to create a “culture of community policing” and has a hostile, aggressive relationship with the city it polices.

The DOJ recommended a long list of major reforms for the department, including investigating police shootings as crime scenes and overhauling police training to de-emphasize weapons use.

It did not, however, go so far as to order federal monitoring of the department, as had been expected, but said that federal agents would be meeting with local officials to determine what kind of monitoring would be required to make sure that reforms are carried out. Several cities’ police departments, including those in New Orleans and Los Angeles, have been subjected to federal monitoring.

Last week, in anticipation of the findings, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry requested immediate federal oversight of the police department, signaling a willingness to comply with such expected measures.

“Prior to the completion of the DOJ investigation and the publication of findings, I would like to immediately begin to the process of negotiating a cooperative agreement between the DOJ and the City of Albuquerque to implement a DOJ monitoring plan,” the mayor wrote at the time, in a letter addressed to the DOJ.

Mayor Berry, calling Mr. Boyd’s death a “game changer,” had also said that he was setting aside $1 million for compliance with the DOJ’s anticipated recommendations, and he announced support for some 60 departmental reforms, including mandating training for all officers on how to work with mentally ill civilians.

Though a police officer is entitled to use lethal force if the officer believes that his or her life is in serious danger, the number of shootings in Albuquerque – 23 civilians dead since 2010, most of them people with mental illnesses – had put a bright light on what can happen when an officer’s right to fire collides with a mentally ill person’s difficulties in understanding how to follow an officer’s directions.

It had also raised the question of whether APD officers were making all efforts to avoid using force and were abiding by the protocols outlined in their own guidelines for de-escalating and compassionately resolving confrontations with mentally ill suspects.

Last month, a standoff with police in the Sandia Mountains resulted in the shooting of Boyd – even though the situation appeared to have been diffused and Boyd seemed to be cooperating with officers. That month, violent protests over the death tore through Albuquerque’s downtown.

The DOJ investigation, begun in November 2012, did not review the Boyd shooting, but the case is the subject of a federal criminal investigation, DOJ officials say. 

RECOMMENDED: Policing America

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California on Thursday calls on his panel to find former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

House committee votes to hold Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress (+video)

By Staff writer / 04.10.14

A House committee voted Thursday to recommend that the full House of Representatives hold former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about her role in the scrutiny of tea party groups applying for tax-exempt status.

“This is not an action I take lightly,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, at the start of Thursday’s hearing. However, “we need Ms. Lerner’s testimony to complete our oversight work to bring truth to the American people.”

The House will need to vote on the issue before Lerner can be officially held in contempt.

Lerner is under investigation by two House committees for allegedly stalling the tax-exempt application process for several conservative groups, including Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee urged the Department of Justice to launch a criminal investigation into the controversy, the Monitor reported.

Last May, Lerner refused to answer questions in a House Oversight Committee hearing. House Republicans charged that she had waived her Fifth Amendment right when she offered a voluntary opening statement denying any wrong doing, at the start of the May hearing. She again refused to answer questions at hearings this March.

“We know from her attorney that she sat down for a lengthy no-strings-attached interview with Eric Holder’s Justice Department,” Representative Issa said. He questioned why she would be willing to speak with the Justice Department but not the elected representatives of the American people.

House Democrats see little room for interpretation of how the Fifth Amendment can be used.

“Ms. Lerner has invoked her constitutional right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment and that’s it. The end,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) said at the hearing. “I think this committee should change its focus to a more productive area instead of pursuing the destruction of one single woman clinging to her God-given constitutional rights.”

Several House Democrats have likened Thursday’s proceeding to McCarthy-era hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, which accused American citizens of being Communist subversives.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland testified that although he, too, had hoped to hear Lerner’s testimony, he did not approve of the committee’s attempt to strip the Fifth Amendment rights of an American citizen.

“Today I do not direct my comments to my fellow committee members,” he said. “Instead, my statement is directed to the generations of Americans yet unborn who will read about his vote in their history books long after I am dead.”

House Republicans argued that Lerner’s selective use of the Fifth Amendment – first asserting “under-oath, wide-ranging claims of innocence,” according to Issa, then answering some questions but refusing others after pleading the Fifth – effectively waived that right.

Rep. John Duncan (R) of Tennessee stated that the Lerner’s questionable employment of the Fifth Amendment makes a mockery of the American justice system.

The Associated Press material was used in this report.

Tricia Williamson (l.) quit her job at a TV station to care for her husband Mike Williamson and their one-year-old son Adam, seen here at their home in Liberty, N.C., in a Dec. 13, 2013 photo released by the family. But the 'opt-out' stay-at-home mom accounts for only about 5 percent of mothers at home, according to a new Pew survey. (Rick Williamson/AP/File)

Stay-at-home moms: a rising trend, fueled by immigration and weak economy

By Staff Writer / 04.09.14

The percentage of moms who are staying home with their children has increased since the millennium, a trend that likely is driven by both an influx of immigrant mothers and the pressures of a still hard-up economy in which many women cannot get jobs, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

The share of moms who do not work outside their homes reached 29 percent in 2012, up from a historic low of 23 percent in 1999, according to a Pew analysis of US government survey data.

The rise in the percentage of mothers who are at home full-time reverses a decades long decline in the share of stay-at-home moms. In 1967, about 49 percent of mothers stayed at home, and that percentage continued to trim over the next 30 years. Only in 2000 did the share of mothers staying home begin to go up, and it has done so almost continuously since then.

What's behind the trend is still up for debate, but chief among the possible reasons are the country's ongoing economic woes, making staying home less a conscious choice for some women than a response to a tight job market, the report found.

Six percent of stay-at-home moms, or about 634,000 people, reported that they were at home in 2012 because they were unable to find a job. That’s an increase from 2000, when just 1 percent of stay-at-home moms said that unemployment was their main reason for staying home, according to Pew.

The rise in the share of stay-at-home moms also parallels a more than decade-long decline in women’s participation in the workforce, the report noted.

In 1999, 60 percent of women had jobs – a historic high – but that share fell to about 58 percent in 2012, according to Labor Bureau statistics. 

The report also suggested that shifting demographics might account for a greater percentage of mothers staying home. About a third of stay-at-home mothers were born outside the US, Pew found. That large share is despite the fact that immigrants account for just 13 percent of Americans, according to the 2010 US census.

About 40 percent of foreign-born mothers are stay-at-home moms, versus just a quarter of mothers who were born in the US, the report found.

The report also highlighted a number of demographic changes among mothers who do not work outside the home, including a rise in the share of stay-at-home moms who are single.

About 20 percent of stay-at-home moms were single in 2012, versus 8 percent in 1970, the report found. While a majority, or about 68 percent, of stay-at-home mothers are still women who are married to employed partners, that’s a decline from 1970, when about 85 percent of stay-at-home moms were married to partners with jobs, Pew reported.

Stay-at-home moms are also more educated as a group than in years past. About a quarter of the nation's 10.4 million stay-at-home mothers had college degrees in 2012, compared with just 7 percent of them in 1970. Plus, just 19 percent of those mothers had less than a high school diploma in 2012, versus about 35 percent in 1970.

Still, the poll also found that stay-at-home moms are often poor, with one-third of stay-at-home mothers living under the poverty line in 2012. By contrast, about 12 percent of working mothers were impoverished in 2012, according to Pew.

Stay-at-home mothers married to partners with jobs were also much more likely than single or cohabiting stay-at-home moms to say their primary reason for staying at home is to raise their families. (Eighty-five percent of married stay-at-home moms said so.) Just 41 percent of single stay-at-home mothers said that caring for their children was their main motivation to stay home, citing other reasons that included unemployment, attending school, and illness.

The poll also found that highly educated, married women are just a rounding-error-sized fraction of the total number of stay-at-home moms, despite significant media attention to those “opt-out” women. About 370,000 stay-at-home mothers married to working partners had at least a master’s degree and family income upwards of $75,000, the poll found.

Meanwhile, a separate Pew survey found that Americans still have mixed feelings about working mothers: About 60 percent of respondents said that children are better off when a parent stays at home. About 35 percent said that a child’s well-being is unaffected if both parents have jobs. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writer of the politically-charged film 'Submission,' which portrays the abuse of Muslim women, talks to a reporter in New York Feb. 2007. Brandeis University has canceled plans to present Ms. Ali, the feminist and prominent critic of Islam, with an honorary degree at its commencement ceremonies in May. (Shiho Fukada/AP/File)

Under fire, Brandeis cancels plan to honor anti-Islam feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali (+video)

By Staff Writer / 04.09.14

Under fire from students and Muslim activists, Brandeis University has canceled plans to present Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the feminist and prominent critic of Islam, with an honorary degree at its commencement ceremonies in May, saying some of her statements were at odds with the school’s “core values.”

Ms. Ali, a native of Somalia and a former member of the Dutch Parliament, is known for her feminist work but also for her anti-Islam views, including such comments as calling the religion a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”

“She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world,” Brandeis said in a statement Tuesday.

“That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values.”

The university said it would welcome Ali “to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.”

About a week earlier, the Waltham, Mass., university had announced that Ali would be among five people to be awarded an honorary degree at its May 18th commencement ceremonies. The blowback to the announcement was almost immediate, as Brandeis students and leaders in the Muslim community called attention to Ali’s record of publically blasting Islam, including in one interview calling for a “war” on the entire religion.

On Wednesday, a student-run petition against Ali’s participation in the ceremonies had reached upwards of 6,000 signatures on Change.org.

“The selection of Ali to receive an honorary degree is a blatant and callous disregard by the administration of not only the Muslim students, but of any student who has experienced pure hate speech,” the petition read.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading Muslim advocacy group, also weighed in, writing a letter to Brandeis president Frederick M. Lawrence that read: "Whatever Ali has done in the area of human rights has been irreparably tarnished by her anti-Muslim and anti-constitutional rhetoric.”

“While Ali is free to spew anti-Muslim hate in any venue she chooses, she does not have a similar right to be honored for that hate by a prestigious university,” the council said.

Ali, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, has written and lectured on her personal experience with Islam as a child in her native Somalia, where she underwent genital cutting, and as a young women in Kenya.

In 1992, she won political asylum to move to the Netherlands and in 2003 was elected to the Dutch Parliament, from which she resigned in 2006 over allegations she had not been wholly truthful about her circumstances in applying for asylum.

In 2004, having renounced Islam for atheism, Ali wrote the screenplay for the fictional, politically-charged film “Submission,” which portrays the abuse of Muslim women. Soon after the release of the film, its director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered in Amsterdam by a radical Islamist, who also threated Ali’s life.

In 2007, Ali established the AHA Foundation, which works to “help protect and defend the rights of women in the West from oppression justified by religion and culture,” according to its website. The foundation focuses primarily on combating genital cutting, honor violence, and forced marriage.

That same year, Ali gave an interview to The London Evening Standard in which she told the paper that “violence is inherent in Islam” and went on to call Islam “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death” that “legitimates murder.” She also called Islam “the new fascism.”

In another interview with Reason Magazine later that year, she said of Islam: "It's very difficult to even talk about peace now. They're not interested in peace. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there's no middle ground in wars."

Ali went on to clarify to the interviewer that she was talking not just about radical Islam but about the entire religion.

In a statement, Brandeis University officials expressed “regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”

“Commencement is about celebrating and honoring our extraordinary students and their accomplishments,” the statement said, “and we are committed to providing an atmosphere that allows our community's focus to be squarely on our students.”

Then-newly-elected Rep. Vance McAllister, R-La. waiting to be sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington in November 2013. McAllister says he's asking his family and constituents for forgiveness after a West Monroe newspaper published a video that shows the congressman kissing a female staffer. McAllister attracted national attention because of his endorsement from the bearded men of the 'Duck Dynasty' reality TV show. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

'Duck Dynasty' congressman says kiss won't drive him out (+video)

By Staff Writer / 04.08.14

Freshman Rep. Vance McAllister (R) told a local newspaper on Monday night that he does not plan to resign from Congress following the release of a video showing the married congressman, who ran for office on a conservative Christian platform, kissing a staffer.

In an interview with The News-Star, the Louisiana lawmaker said that he plans to stand for reelection this fall, “unless there is an outcry for me not to serve.”

“So far there has been an outpouring of support, not for my actions, but for me to continue to represent the people," he told the paper.

Representative McAllister also said that he has asked his wife and five children for forgiveness, telling The News-Star: “I have fallen short as a husband and a father, and I feel more ashamed than you can imagine.”

On Monday, another local news outlet, Ouachita Citizen, had released surveillance footage from outside McAllister’s district office in December that shows the federal lawmaker kissing a paid staffer.

McAllister, a college dropout and Army veteran, was a relative unknown when he won a special election on Nov. 16 in Louisiana’s Fifth Congressional District, beating out party officials' preferred candidate, Neil Riser, with 60 percent of the vote. His campaign was in large part self-funded, using millions earned in the oil and gas business.

Though McAllister ran for office on a platform just to the left of Mr. Riser, McAllister told The New York Times in November that “my opponent was so far to the right you couldn’t help but be a little bit left.” On the whole, McAllister styled himself as an upstanding Christian who would go to Washington – to which he had never been, until attending the swearing-in ceremonies – to “do right” and support conservative values.

When he got to Washington, he invited one of the controversial stars of the reality TV show "Duck Dynasty,” which ends each episode with a prayer, as his guest to the State Of the Union address. The star, Willie Robertson, had endorsed McAllister during his election campaign.

Aides to McAllister told The News-Star that the staffer seen on the video has been dropped from the congressman's payroll. CNN reported that the staffer’s husband is asking for a divorce.

The Washington Post reported that the staffer in the video worked part-time for less than $22,000 a year and that she was one of the few members of McAllister’s staff who had been hired under his tenure, not under former Rep. Rodney Alexander (R), who McAllister replaced.

The staffer and her husband donated $10,400 dollars to McAllister's campaign in October 2013, according to Federal Election Commission records. At the time, the staffer was listed in federal campaign finance records as self-employed in the cosmetology field. 

President Obama signs executive actions, with pending Senate legislation, aimed at closing a compensation gender gap, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 8, 2014, during an event marking Equal Pay Day. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Does White House have a gender pay gap? How the numbers stack up. (+video)

By Staff writer / 04.08.14

In the latest round in a long, bitter duel between Democrats and Republicans over which party is more on the side of women voters, White House press secretary Jay Carney was hit with questions on Monday from reporters about a report finding that the salary for the average median White House female staffer is about 12 percent lower than that for a male staffer.

The median woman working in the White House makes about $65,000, almost $9,000 less than her male counterpart, according to the report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative group. That difference divides out to women in the White House making about 88 cents for each dollar that men in the administration make, the report said.

The report is not new: In fact, it was released in January. But it is back and getting tossed like a hot potato to Democrats – just as President Obama is observing National Equal Pay Day on Tuesday by signing two executive orders that address the gender pay gap.

It is also getting talked about amid a midterm season in which Democrats have sought to peg Republicans as tone-deaf to women’s issues, including equal pay as well as reproductive rights and child care. That has put Republicans on the defensive in courting the women voters who helped put Mr. Obama in office.

At the press conference, Mr. Carney said that men and women who work the same White House jobs make the same salaries. The pay difference results from the fact that women outnumber men in the administration’s lower-level jobs, he said. Some studies have shown that women are more likely than men to take jobs with flexible or part-time hours and with low wages.

Ten of the administration’s 16 department heads, Carney noted, are women, and each of them makes $172,200, the top annual wage at the White House.

Still, the White House has been criticized for not doing more to even out a gender imbalance: A report from the Center for American Women and Politics, cited in The New York Times, found that Obama’s cabinet is 35 percent female, down from 41 percent during the Clinton administration (but up from 24 percent under George W. Bush).

Carney also noted that the 88 cents figure is much better than the national average: Women overall make 77 cents for each dollar that men make, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But that statistic has itself been questioned: Some Republicans have said that the gender pay gap has been exaggerated, characterizing the pay issue as a political rallying cry but not necessarily a real problem.

On Monday, two scholars from AEI published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling the 77 cents statistic “misleading” and “illogical” and arguing that almost the entire pay gap can be attributed to some women entering lower-paying fields or electing to work shorter hours.

Yet even more-cautious statistics support the existence of a gender pay gap. If differences in hours worked are factored into the equation, women make about 86 percent of what men make, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the American Association of University Women has said that the gap between male and female earnings is still about 7 percent even if differences in work hours, experience levels, college majors, occupations, and other factors are considered.

Obama, who carried women voters by about 11 percentage points in the 2012 election, on Tuesday signed an executive order barring federal contractors from "retaliating against employees who discuss their compensation.” The aim is to help workers, especially women, find out what their co-workers are earning and assess if they’re getting the wages to which they’re entitled.

The second order requires federal contractors to file reports with the Department of Labor that break down the wages they pay their employees by both race and sex.

“Unfortunately, pay inequity is a real and persistent problem that continues to shortchange women, their families, and our economy as a whole,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told reporters.

The administration noted on Tuesday that the first law the president signed after taking office in 2009 was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the length of time that employees have to file claims to recoup wages lost because of discrimination. The bill’s namesake, Ms. Ledbetter, was expected to be present for the signing of the two new executive orders in the White House’s East Room.

Meanwhile, the US Senate is expected this week to consider the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would prohibit all employers, in addition to federal contractors, from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay. The bill is not expected to get past Republican lawmakers.

Kirsten Kukowski, Republican National Committee spokeswoman, said in a statement that while Republicans "support equal pay for equal work," the party does not support the proposed legislation, calling it a “desperate political ploy” from Democrats that would not bring about real change on the issue.

“Real solutions,” she said, would “focus on job creation and opportunity for women."

Entertainment icons Dick Van Patten (l.) and Mel Brooks (r.) flank Mickey Rooney at Santa Anita Park, in Arcadia, Calif. Rooney, a Hollywood legend whose career spanned more than 90 years, has died at his North Hollywood home. (Benoit Photo/AP/File)

Mickey Rooney: remembering 90 years of peerless pluck and outsized talent (+video)

By Staff writer / 04.07.14

Mickey Rooney, the diminutive but bold actor who charmed more than nine decades of audiences with his shameless, energetic hamming and a light-up-the-room presence, died on Sunday, entertainment news media reported.

In a career that spanned some 90 years between his first and last role, Mr. Rooney accumulated more than 200 acting credits, including parts that made him a golden boy to Depression-era audiences badly in need of his characters’ wise-cracking humor and boyish pluck, as well as won him fame that never fully dimmed, even during the low points that pot-holed his long ride at the top.

Born Sept. 23, 1920, in Brooklyn, N.Y., as Joe Yule Jr., Rooney began his acting career before he was 2 years old, appearing in a toddler-sized tuxedo and a camera-mugging grin in his actor parents’ vaudeville acts.

When his parents split, his mother, Nell Yule, took him with her to California and shuttled him into an acting career of his own. Throughout the 1920s, Rooney appeared in a series of silent films, perhaps the most famous of which was “Mickey McGuire,” a 1927-34 low-budget comic serial in which Rooney appeared as an Irish kid with a street-smart frown and oversized clothes that matched his all-grown-up attitude.

He later took his first name from that role, and added Rooney after the vaudeville dancer Pat Rooney, at the suggestion of his mother.

Rooney never got all that much taller than he was as a child star – he reached just 5 feet, 2 inches as an adult – but his talent was big, and his career grew and grew.

In 1937, Rooney was cast as teenager Andy Hardy in a movie series set in the kind of small-town where soda shops and school dances are the backdrops to PG-romance – the kind of town that did not look much like the Depression-era cities in which the movies played.

Rooney's part was “the typical American boy,” as one New York Times critic put it in 1939. Or, at least, the role was a romantic version of what it meant to be young, male, and American: a blond boy who was spunky, scrappy, and often up-to-no-good, but who was boyishly winsome enough to get of out trouble and, of course, get the girl.

In 1938, in recognition of his work in the series, Rooney was awarded a miniature-sized Academy Award for juveniles “for bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.” More than dozen “Hardy” films, the last of which screened in 1944, would make him a teen girls’ dream prom date, a cute teenager who was just rough enough on the edges to be appealing, but also just sincere and baby-faced enough to be safe to love.

In 1939, Rooney was cast with “Hardy” series co-star Judy Garland, America’s girl-next-door of the moment, in "Babes in Arms," a musical about two plucky youngsters with show business dreams. The part landed Rooney another Academy Award nomination. From 1939 to 1942, he was voted the No. 1 star in the movie business.

Rooney and Ms. Garland appeared again together in a number of musicals, including "Girl Crazy” (1943), and Rooney later called their chemistry “magic” in a stage show he wrote about their long friendship. He also appeared as a horse trainer opposite Elizabeth Taylor, then a violet-eyed up-and-comer, in “National Velvet” in 1944, as well as in numerous other films that earned him a reputation as not just a dreamboat but a true talent.

Rooney’s personal life, as his website puts it, was “just as epic as his on-screen performances.” He was married eight times – first to Ava Gardner, the tall, brunette starlet, and last to singer Jan Chamberlin, from whom he was divorced in June 2012.

Not all of it was epic, though – some of it was just hard. As a young star, Rooney was known as an arrogant, feckless hard-partyer, a tempestuous talent who spent money as fast, or faster, than he made it. He was not as wholesome as Andy Hardy, nor was he the all-American, cute-as-pie image that his management, MGM, sought in vain to market.

After a stint with the Army in 1943, he returned to the US to break ties with MGM and open his own production company. His career stalled. He took smaller roles, including a cringe-worthy turn as Holly Golightly’s cartoonish, no fun Japanese neighbor in "Breakfast at Tiffany’s." He bounced back with an acclaimed role as a boxing trainer in "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962).

The freewheeling caught up to him. The money ran out, but the court orders for alimony and child support payments did not. He struggled with alcoholism and prescription pill abuse and his career settled into a long slump that marked him a has-been.

But he didn’t remain so.

In 1979, “Sugar Babies,” a wacky, vaudeville-style musical with Ann Miller, another veteran of MGM musicals of the '40s, was a major, if unlikely, hit, winning Rooney a Tony nomination and another shot at the limelight. Yet another acclaimed role as a horse trainer in "The Black Stallion" (1979) won him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Voice parts in animated features, including “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Care Bears Movie,” were lucrative, and his part in the TV movie “Bill” (1981) won him an Emmy and a Golden Globe. In 1983, he was presented with an honorary Academy Award that recognized “his 60 years of versatility in a variety of film performances.”

His lifelong career as a showman stretched well into his later years, with roles in “Night at the Museum” (2006) and “The Muppets” (2011), and he continued to be an exuberant, spirited performer who never missed a chance to please, and often awe, a crowd.

"The American public is my family," Rooney once said. "I've had fun with them all my life."

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