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Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, with Assistant FDLE Commissioner Jim Madden (R), announces an investigation into evidence tampering that could affect hundreds of drug cases handled by a chemist in the Pensacola FDLE laboratory during a news conference in Tallahassee, Fla., Feb. 1, 2014. (Bill Cotterell/Reuters)

Evidence-tampering suspected at crime lab; Florida reviews drug cases (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.03.14

Thousands of drug cases handled by a single chemist at a state-run crime lab are under review amid allegations that the chemist might have tampered with drug evidence, state police said at a weekend press conference in Tallahassee, Fla. If the suspicions are borne out, hundreds of drug-related convictions could be tossed out statewide, police said.

The chemist, who works at the Pensacola Regional Crime Lab, is suspected of removing “large” quantities of prescription pills from evidence packages and replacing them with over-the-counter medications, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced Saturday. Officials did not specify a motive, but speculated that the employee could have an addiction problem or be involved in drug trafficking.

The allegations of evidence tampering could jeopardize convictions in hundreds of some 2,600 drug cases that the unnamed chemist handled over the past eight years, police said. The incident, coming on the heels of large-scale evidence tampering at a crime lab in Massachusetts, also raises questions about how best to prevent such activity.

“This has the potential of impacting hundreds of drug cases across our state,” Gerald Bailey, head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), said at a press conference. “This is a total shock and a disappointment.”

The investigation in Florida follows the sentencing in November of a Boston crime lab chemist to three to five years in prison, plus two years' probation, for tampering with drug evidence in thousands of cases – a scandal shocking in its scale and audaciousness.

The Massachusetts chemist, Annie Dookhan – portrayed in court as an ambitious young woman whose zeal to get ahead had led her to produce bogus test results to help win convictions – had processed more than 40,000 drug cases, putting the outcomes of all of them in doubt. At least 350 people have so far been released on the basis of Ms. Dookhan’s involvement in their cases. The state legislature has set aside $30 million to pay costs related to the Dookhan evidence-tampering, including funds for local prosecutors to hunt for untainted evidence to try to sustain now-suspect convictions.

The episode in Florida, smaller in scale than the one in Massachusetts, is nonetheless expected to have substantial fallout. Since 2006, the chemist at the center of the investigation has worked on some 2,600 cases for 80 law enforcement agencies in 35 Florida counties and 12 judicial circuits, police said. Those figures represent about 1 percent of the volume of evidence that has passed though the crime lab over the past eight years, police said.

It is the largest known instance of alleged evidence-tampering ever at a Florida crime lab, a Florida police spokesperson told Reuters. If the allegations of evidence-tampering prove to be true, hundreds of convicted drug dealers could be freed from prison, police said at the news conference. 

The case is raising questions about how to prevent such misconduct – and the far-reaching effects that unfold from them – at crime labs.

Few US states require their crime labs to obtain formal accreditation. The now-shuttered, state-run lab in Massachusetts where Dookhan worked was not accredited, prompting outcry at the time at the apparent lack of oversight of the lab’s activities.

The Florida lab, though, does have accreditation, having sought it voluntarily through the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. ASCLD/LAB adheres to a set of international standards and, as of this month, accredits 403 crime labs worldwide, including 194 state laboratories. The Pensacola lab’s accreditation, good until September 2015, was last updated in February 2012.

John Neuner, executive director of ASCLD/LAB, declined to comment at length on the allegations at the Pensacola lab, citing the continuing investigation, but said that ASCLD/LAB has been made aware of the situation.

“The lab is responding exactly as we would expect an accredited lab to respond,” he told the Monitor.

The Pensacola crime lab is one of six the state operates; the network of labs is under the jurisdiction of the FDLE, and all of the labs have accreditation through ASCLD/LAB.

No one has been arrested in the incident, and the chemist in question has been placed on paid leave during the investigation, according to police. The chemist has hired an attorney and is not cooperating in the investigation, Reuters reported. His motives remain unknown.

"It could be for personal use. It could be for trafficking. We don't know," the FDLE's Mr. Bailey said at a news conference.

Bailey also said that the state is reviewing its drug-testing policies for employees. Employees are drug-tested when they begin employment with the state, but never again, unless there is cause to suspect them of abusing narcotics. The state is considering revising the policy so that all employees are drug-tested at intervals after their employment begins, the Associated Press reported.

The internal review was launched after the Escambia County Sheriff's Office reported to the state last week that evidence was missing in several drug cases.

Philip Seymour Hoffman poses for a portrait at The Collective and Gibson Lounge Powered by CEG, during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Jan. 19. Hoffman, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in 2006 for his portrayal of writer Truman Capote in 'Capote,' was found dead Sunday in his apartment in New York with what law enforcement officials said was a syringe in his arm. He was 46. (Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Philip Seymour Hoffman: intense actor, unlikely star, tragic end (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.03.14

Despite an Oscar win and three Tony nominations, Philip Seymour Hoffman never quite fit the role of a star. His receding hairline and doughy paunch seemed more suited for a bowling alley or greasy spoon than the red carpet. Lynn Hirschberg once described him as “ a very intense, newly hatched chick,” in a 2008 profile for The New York Times.

Perhaps that was part of his charm, what made it possible for him to so believably slip into the skin of doting hospice nurse Phil Parma in “Magnolia,” the tragically defeated salesman Willy Loman in a stage production of “Death of a Salesman,” and hot-tempered gruff Gust Avrakotos in “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

And perhaps that is why the American public has taken his death this Sunday so personally.

“It seems as though a hole just got punched, not just in the movies but in the culture as a whole,” film critic Ty Burr wrote in The Boston Globe.

Hoffman's unwavering devotion to his craft brought three-dimensional humanity to every role he played, from supporting character to leading man. But like many other great artists, he struggled with and eventually succumbed to addiction, according to law enforcement officials who reportedly found Hoffman in his Greenwich Village home in New York with a syringe in his arm and several glassine envelopes containing what is believed to be heroin.

Shortly after graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Hoffman become mired in substance abuse, he told Steve Kroft in a 2006 interview for "60 Minutes."

“I liked it all,” he told Mr. Kroft. "I went [to rehab], I got sober when I was 22 years old. You get panicked ... and I got panicked for my life."

Hoffman reportedly returned to rehab in May 2013, when a prescription-drug problem escalated to a return to heroin use. He went back to work after a 10-day stint in a detox treatment program.

He attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last month, promoting his newest film, “A Most Wanted Man,” scheduled for release later this year.

Those close to Hoffman said they believed he had overcome his most recent battle with addiction.

“I saw him last week, and he was clean and sober, his old self,” David Bar Katz, the friend who found Hoffman in his bathroom on Sunday, told The New York Times. “I really thought this chapter was over.”

"We spent some time together only two weeks ago and he seemed in a good place, despite some issue he had to deal with," Anton Corbijn, director of "A Most Wanted Man,” told the Los Angeles Times.

Hoffman’s death is the latest in long line of artistic lights snuffed out by addiction. "Glee" star Cory Monteith overdosed on a combined concoction of heroin and alcohol in July 2013. That same month, Chris Kelly, a former member of the 1990s rap duo Kris Kross, overdosed on heroin and cocaine. Drugs may have been involved in the 2012 drowning of pop-diva Whitney Houston and played a role in the 2008 death of actor Heath Ledger.

Hoffman was 46 and is survived by Mimi O'Donnell, his longtime partner, and their three children.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect spelling of the fictional character Willy Loman and incorrectly identified the timing of Mr. Hoffman's appearances at the Sundance Film Festival.]

No surprises here: In Anheuser-Busch's 2014 Super Bowl commercial, a dog will fall in love with a Budweiser horse. The ad will run in the fourth quarter of the game. (Anheuser-Busch/AP)

Super Bowl ads: Why advertisers can't pass up the pregame show (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.30.14

Spoiler: In one Super Bowl ad airing Feb. 2, John Stamos will eat some Greek yogurt; in another, Steven Colbert will hold a bowl of pistachios; and, in another, Arnold Schwarzenegger will consider playing a game of ping pong.

These are three of the dozens of Super Bowl XLVIII commercials that advertisers have decided to spoil – on purpose – for audiences with preview videos, passing on the value of surprising viewers on game day for the anticipated payoffs of playing into the social media buzz that precedes the Big Game.

Once, Super Bowl commercials were well-kept secrets. Before the game, advertisers tapped into the raw, “who will win?” excitement of the Super Bowl, repackaging it into “what will Pepsi do?,” or “what will Bud Light say?” anticipation. All they had to do was do nothing at all.

Not so, these days. This year’s advertisers, following an emerging trend over the last three years, are not making anyone wait for their hotly-anticipated ads. The idea, analysts say, is to tap into the weeks-long pregame that has long preceded the Super Bowl: bets are wagered; parties are planned; and – advertisers hope – commercials, and the products touted in them, are talked about. The teasers are also a big nod to the fact that “prime-time” has ceded some of its caché to a digital world of shares, hashtags, and watch-anytime viewing. 

“What used to be a one-day event, with some postgame water-cooler chat, is now an eight- to 13-week experience,” Lucas Watson, vice president for brand solutions at Google, told The New York Times, adding that “major advertisers are trying to win the conversation” well before kick-off.

The promo model for Super Bowl ads – in effect, advertising that an advertiser will be advertising – dates back at least to 2011, when Volkswagen, partnering with ad agency Deutsch, released ahead of the game its commercial “The Force,” in which a pint-sized Darth Vader introduces audiences to a new car.

Raw numbers ahead of the 2014 game suggest that pre-“Super Bowl” commercials can get enormous attention before the ad ever airs – if it ever gets there at all. One pre-released 2014 Super Bowl ad from SodaStream, in which actress Scarlett Johansson takes a very long drink from a straw, was given the ax by Super Bowl-broadcaster Fox over the shot it takes at Pepsi and Coke. It will not air during the Super Bowl – but it has been viewed more than five million times on YouTube.

And data shows that those early viewings can help ensure that the ad will be among the most popular commercials of the football/advertising season. A report from Unruly, a marketing technology company, released on Thursday found that 60 percent of the most-shared Super Bowl commercials of all time were previewed before their official broadcast; it also said that seven of the 20 ads most shared after the 2013 Super Bowl had been promoted in teasers before the big game.

Indeed, Volkswagen’s “The Force” commercial, with some 5.2 million shares online, is still the most shared ad of all time, according to the Unruly report.

The surprise factor doesn’t matter as it once did,” Justin Osbourne, the general manager of brand and marketing communications at Volkswagen of America, told The New Yorker. “Our goals are about how many total views we can get. To assume that that is going to happen within forty-eight hours is cutting yourself pretty short.”

Advertisers throwing for touchdowns in the pre-Super Bowl game have pursued different strategies for advertising their advertisements. 

Some advertisers – already paying a rate of $4 million for about 30 seconds of playtime on Feb. 2., up from about $3.5 million for the same spot last year – are shelling out even more to choreograph a full-scale marketing campaign for their ads with slick, funny, or outright mysterious trailers.

This year, Volkswagen is teasing audiences with a ironic, backroom-style video in which Volkswagen advertisers try to come up with an ad tailored to American audiences, an apparently smarmy, tasteless lot: a buxom woman dances, a car gleams, a bodybuilder flexes his pecks, and lots of people fall down. “We’re working on it,” flashes on the screen. 

On Tuesday, Volkswagen put out a new commercial that has been variously interpreted as its final take for game day, or another preview for a still-to-come spot.

Other companies, perhaps unwilling to dole out even more dollars than they are already spending on the Super Bowl ad spot, but still wanting a bit of the pregame action, have released in advance not teasers, but their entire commercials.

This year’s Axe ad was released weeks before the big day and is being promoted via the hashtag #KissForPeace; the ad, in an uncharacteristic whirl for the company, sells not sex, but love (and deodorant), needling consumer hearts with a world where dictators and soldiers love not making war, but loving beautiful women.

Other full commercials released ahead of the game include one from Dannon – in which Mr. Stamos enjoys some yogurt and reunites with fellow Full House pals – and ads from Chobani, Heinz Ketchup, Cheerios, and Jaguar. Bud Light, GoDaddy, and Pepsi, among others, have all released teasers.

"GoDaddy started pre-releasing our Super Bowl commercials back in 2006, well before it became the ‘norm.’ The reason? Opportunity," said Elizabeth L. Driscoll, vice president of public relations at GoDaddy, in an e-mail. "The ads are discussed beforeduring and after the game, which gives us the opportunity to engage potential customers for a longer period of time."

In recognition of the commercials for commercials trend, new platforms are cropping up this year to host the aspiring viral videos. This month, Google added a space for promo Super Bowl ads to its annual YouTube Ad Blitz channel, which curates game day commercials.

The website is similar to Hulu’s four-year-old “AdZone,” where Hulu says that it plans to post promos of some ads on the hub, starting two days out from the game, The New York Times reported.

Still, not all advertisers are in on the getting-in early trend. Chrysler, long a brand-to-watch Super Bowl advertiser, appears so far to have kept this year to its tradition of holding audiences in abeyance until the game. The mum's-the-word play has in the past served the company well; in 2012, Advertising Age named Chrysler its 2012 marketer of the year, according to the New Yorker. 

Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg acknowledges applause from first lady Michelle Obama and others during President Obama's State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Who is Cory Remsburg? And what does he mean to Obama? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.29.14

Cory Remsburg has taken 10 tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. He has won a Purple Heart, received a Bronze Star, and made an astounding comeback from an almost-fatal wounding in Afghanistan. And, on Tuesday, he was a guest of honor at President Obama’s State of the Union speech, his story the stirring, poignant conclusion to Mr. Obama’s address to the nation.

Michelle Obama’s seating box at the speech, as is tradition, was filled with people who represent themes that the president addressed in his speech, each one a tangible reminder, often with an emotional lilt, of what Obama has accomplished or still hopes to accomplish in office.

Mr. Remsburg, seated to Mrs. Obama’s right, was the final invitee to get Obama’s nod Tuesday evening, receiving the audience’s longest standing ovation of the evening.

In concluding the address with Remsburg’s story, and with a promise of support for returning soldiers, Obama appeared to round out the speech with a raw, affecting note that both Democrats and Republicans, in an unusual moment of unity these days, could get behind.

But Remsburg’s story, as Obama told it, also appeared to be an exclamation point to a broader theme that the president pressed throughout the speech: that second chances are possible, not just for gravely wounded veterans, but for a battered president, too, as he tries to get legislation through Congress and seeks to mend weak approval ratings.

“Like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” Obama said near the end of his speech. “My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy.”

In his speech, Obama said that he first met Remsburg, now in his early 30s, on the 65th anniversary of D-Day – June 6, 2009 – at a commemorating event at Omaha Beach in France, where Remsburg and seven fellow Army Rangers were reenacting a parachute drop. Remsburg had joined the Army on his 18th birthday, after his father, Craig Remsburg, refused to sign the paperwork needed for him to join at age 17, Time magazine reported.

The elder Remsburg, a retired Air Force Reserve firefighter, was seated to his son’s right during the State of the Union address.

At that 2009 meeting, Obama found the Ranger “a strong, impressive young man, with an easy manner, sharp as a tack,” Obama said during the speech. The two “joked around and took pictures,” and Obama told him to keep in touch.

A few months later, on Oct. 1 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Remsburg was almost killed by a roadside bomb. He was found facedown in a canal, underwater, with shrapnel in his brain, according to Obama. It was Remsburg’s 10th tour in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Remsburg was in a coma for months. When Obama came to visit the soldier in April 2010 at a military hospital in Washington, D.C. – the second time that the two had met – the wounded man couldn’t speak and could barely move, the president said.

But, in the pair’s third meeting last August, in Phoenix, Remsburg “did something that neither Mr. Obama nor military doctors would once have predicted: he stood up and saluted his commander in chief,” The New York Times reported that month, in a feature on Obama’s relationship with the recovering solider.

Remsburg, following dozens of surgeries and unknown hours of rehab, is still blind in one eye, still struggling to move his left side, Obama said in his speech.

Yet Remsburg still hopes to return to the armed forces, the president said. Getting there will not be easy, but “nothing in life that's worth anything is easy," Obama said Remsburg told him.

Though Obama often meets with injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – he has met with about 1,000 – his relationship with Remsburg is unusual for the sheer number of meetings: Obama has not met personally with any other veteran more than twice, The New York Times said in August.

The relationship is unusual, too, for the number of times that Obama has deployed the man as a symbolic note in his speeches. The president has called upon the injured, but persevering solider, as a stand-in for all American military personnel, whom he has promised to support, in at least two other speeches – at the Disabled American Veterans' conventions in the summers of 2010 and 2013, according to The New York Times.

In the State of the Union speech, Remsburg appeared to do double symbolic duty, representing not just Obama’s commitment to veterans, but, more broadly, to his promise to work harder at pushing through Congress the policies and programs around which he wrapped his 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

"Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged,” he said, just after invoking Remsburg’s example. “But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress.”

Obama has been chastised for stalling last year on promised action on gun laws and immigration issues, among other things. He used his State of the Union speech to reiterate a commitment to prodding Congress, as well as to – when able – signing executive orders to get things done.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, joined fellow Democratic senators in making remarks on Capitol Hill in April 2011. Negotiators from the committee that Senator Stabenow chairs, along with House negotiators, have reached a bipartisan agreement on the long-overdue US farm bill. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)

Food stamps: how House, Senate negotiators agreed to cut $800 million a year (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.28.14

House and Senate negotiators have reached an agreement on a new farm bill that includes a roughly $800 million reduction in annual food stamp funding, a 1 percent cut to the $80-billion-a-year program.

The 949-page agreement, announced on Monday by members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, comes after almost two years of congressional infighting over the $1 trillion farm bill, which outlines federal spending on a range of agricultural and nutritional issues over the next five years.

Much of the political sparring was over the depth and scope of proposed cuts to food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a program that has rounded out in recent years to include about 1 in 7 Americans. Republican lawmakers were pressing for cuts of no less than $40 billion over 10 years. President Obama and Senate Democrats voiced staunch opposition to such slashes, calling for a more modest trim of $4 billion over the same period. 

The compromise would cut $8 billion from food stamps over a decade and would do so without ousting any current enrollees from the program, committee members said. It also largely sidesteps Republican lawmakers’ demands to taper spending with tighter food stamp eligibility requirements, instead cutting funding through provisions to curb fraud.

The broad measure also includes an end to expensive and controversial direct payments to farmers and an expansion of government-backed crop insurance. Overall, the proposal trims federal spending by about $23 billion over the next 10 years.

The proposed food stamp cuts are coming at a time when more Americans are on food stamps than at almost any other time in the past decade. In fiscal year 2006, one year before the recession curdled the job market, the number of people on food stamps was about 26 million. As of July 2013, that number is 48 million. [Editor's note: The statistic for FY 2006 in the original version of this paragraph was incorrect.]

But how to interpret the surge in food stamp participation has been split along partisan lines. Republicans have said that the expanding program is flush with participants who are not in true need, but are rather taking advantage of loopholes or poor oversight. Democrats, though, have said that the program has burgeoned with people who have not yet found their footing after the recession jolted their communities.

In the new bipartisan agreement, the cuts to food stamps are just a fifth of those outlined in the Republican-controlled House’s farm bill, passed last summer. The House’s proposed $40 billion in cuts, to occur over 10 years, had fueled outcry from Democrats and anti-hunger advocates that some 4 million people would be booted out of the program, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

The Democrat-controlled Senate’s version of the farm bill, also passed over the summer, would have shaved some $4 billion in funds from the food stamp program, ousting about 400,000 people, according to estimates from Feeding America.

Committee members said on Monday that the agreed-upon cuts to the program would save federal dollars without kicking any current recipients out of the program, largely by addressing areas of waste and fraud that some congressional members say have dogged the program for years.

Among the major cost-saving measures: closing a loophole that had allowed some states to reduce residents’ federal heating assistance benefits so they qualified for food stamps. Closing the loophole would reduce, but not entirely cut, benefits to some 850,000 households, according to CBO estimates.

The agreement also clamps down on people receiving benefits in multiple states or under a deceased person’s name, bans lottery winners or anyone who collects big gambling earnings, and prohibits the Department of Agriculture from using federal dollars to advertise the food stamp program and cull new recruits.

On the whole, the compromise dials back the strict food stamp eligibility requirements that the House had proposed in its bill. The House legislation would have required adults between 18 and 50 without dependents to be either employed or enrolled in a work-training program to collect benefits. It also would have allowed states to mandate drug testing for food stamp recipients.

But the agreement does take the food stamp program’s lifetime ban on convicted drug felons receiving benefits and extends it to include felons convicted of other, violent crimes, including murder and sexual assault – an amendment that anti-hunger advocates have called overly punitive and liable to send recidivism rates surging. The exclusion applies only to violent felons convicted after the act’s passage, so it would not throw current convicts out of the food stamp program.

The agreement also includes provisions for pilot work-eligibility programs, modeled on those outlined in the House bill, to be launched in up to 10 states.

There is still some question if the agreement – expected to be introduced on the House floor on Wednesday – will make it through both the House and the Senate.

Some Republicans on Monday signaled their intention to vote the agreement down, calling the trims to food stamp funding far too slight.

“I cannot march backwards and deliver more spending, more regulations and more waste," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas in a statement. "What we have today is a ballooning and expensive set of federal nutrition programs with a patchwork of eligibility standards, loopholes, and frankly unneeded give-a-ways to state governments."

In June, the House had voted down a version of the farm bill, backed by Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, that included $20 billion in cuts to food stamps, in favor of passing a bill with $40 billion in cuts. Speaker Boehner has expressed his support for the latest agreement, Politico reported.

Meanwhile, some Senate Democrats said the cuts went much too far.

"Only in Washington could a final bill that doubles the already egregious cuts to hungry families while somehow creating less total savings than originally proposed be called progress," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, according to The Washington Post.

Earlier this week, an analysis from The Associated Press and University of Kentucky economists found that the most rapid growth in enrollment in food stamps has centered on people with at least some college education – suggesting that higher education, the proverbial ticket above the poverty line, is no longer a guarantee.

The report also spotlighted the failure of wages to keep pace with inflation. Even as a once-dismal job market comes back and unemployment ebbs, employed Americans are still liable to remain highly dependent on food stamps, the report said.

Rep. Trey Radel (R) of Florida speaks in Washington on July 9, 2013. The freshman lawmaker resigned on Monday, after pleading guilty to cocaine-possession charges last year. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File)

Trey Radel resigns from Congress in wake of cocaine scandal (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.27.14

US Rep. Trey Radel (R) of Florida, a once-rising star in the tea party movement, resigned from Congress on Monday, following a November conviction of cocaine possession.

Congressman Radel pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of narcotics possession in November, after he was caught Oct. 29 trying to buy 3.5 grams of cocaine from an undercover federal agent in Washington’s Dupont Circle area. During his trial, he reportedly told Judge Robert Tignor that he had “hit a bottom” and realized that he needs help. Radel was sentenced to a one-year probation and a $250 fine.

At first, the freshman congressman, who speaks fluent Spanish and frequents Twitter, planned to serve out his congressional term after a six-week leave of absence and a month of inpatient rehabilitation for alcohol addiction. But on Monday, he reversed course and sent Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio a letter of resignation.

"Unfortunately, some of my struggles had serious consequences," he wrote, in his letter of resignation. "While I have dealt with those issues on a personal level, it is my belief that professionally I cannot fully and effectively serve as a United States representative to the place I love and call home, Southwest Florida," he wrote.

Radel's arrest was part of a broad federal sting investigation into drug trafficking in the nation’s capital conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“I have no excuse for what I have done,” the Florida congressmen told reporters at a news conference after he entered his guilty plea. “I have let down our country." He said he had used cocaine only a handful of times since first trying it in college.

The House Committee on Ethics launched an investigation in December into whether Radel may also have violated any congressional rules.

Meanwhile, Radel continued to send signals that he expected to ride out the storm and return to the House. “I look forward to getting back to work next week, representing my neighbors in Southwest Florida as they face the burdens of Obamacare, a jobless recovery, and a federal government that continues to spend more than it takes in,” Radel said in a statement in early January.

After his leave of absence, Radel met with top Florida Republicans and said he was ready to fulfill his political obligation. However, fellow Republicans, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and the Republican Party of Florida, continued to call for his resignation. 

Governor Scott is expected schedule a special election for Radel’s seat. Former state Rep. Paige Kreegel and state Senate majority leader Lizbeth Benacquisto have already launched campaigns for the seat, according to the Miami Herald.

Radel, a former television reporter, was first elected to the 19th Congressional District of Florida in November 2012, with strong backing from the tea party. During his brief congressional tenure, he served on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

His arrest came 10 months into his first term. He did not immediately notify House leaders about the bust until reporters broke the news about the case on Nov. 19.

Radel is not the first politician to have a run-in with the law over drug possession. In 2006, Bridgeport, Conn., Mayor John Fabrizi admitted to cocaine and alcohol abuse while serving in office. Washington Mayor Marion Barry was famously videotaped smoking crack cocaine in 1990; he served six months in a federal prison, then was reelected to the City Council and served again as mayor from 1995-'99. Rep. Frederick Richmond (D) of New York was convicted of federal corruption including marijuana possession in 1982. A House Ethics Committee report reveals that several aides and congressional staffers have been suspected or convicted of possession and/or sale of cocaine.

However, it appears that Radel is the first member of Congress to be convicted of cocaine use while in office, MSNBC reports. Several politicians, including President Obama and George W. Bush have admitted to using cocaine prior to their time in office.

While congressional resignations related to drug conviction are relatively rare, Congress is no stranger to scandalous departures from office. Four members of the 112th Congress resigned over sex scandals, including Rep. Christopher Lee (R) of New York, Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) of New York, and Rep. David Wu (D) of Oregon.

Material from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

Maggie Barcellano, a food stamps enrollee, sat down for dinner with her daughter, Zoe, in Austin, Texas, this month. Ms. Barcellano is emblematic of new data showing that working-age people now make up the majority of households that rely on food stamps, a shift from a few years ago when children and the elderly were the main recipients. (Tamir Kalifa/AP)

Who gets food stamps? More are college grads; half are working age. (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.27.14

Working-age people are now the majority recipients of food stamps, overtaking the share who are children and seniors, the traditional beneficiaries of the program, according to a new analysis from The Associated Press and University of Kentucky economists. At the same time, the demographics of the food-assistance program have shifted enormously over the past three decades to include more college graduates, the report also found.

The analysis identified multiple causes for the demographic shifts in the program’s enrollees, including overall changes in the US population, but it spotlighted the role that rising inflation and stalled wage growth have played in leaving more people under the poverty line.

The report comes as Democrats in Washington, in particular, are pushing income inequality as a hot-button issue, noting that most of the income gains since the end of the Great Recession in mid-2009 have come at the top of the income ladder. President Obama’s State of the Union message on Tuesday is expected to follow a theme similar to last year's message, in which he promised to make it a priority to narrow the income gap between the rich and the poor. Tuesday's address, though, is expected to be even more urgent this time around, as Congress weighs a bill that would over 10 years shave about $9 billion from food stamps funding, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. 

The new report shows that 50.2 percent of US households receiving food stamps since 2009 are made up of adults between the ages of 18 and 59 (or nonelderly, working-age adults). In 1998, the portion of such households getting food stamps was 44 percent, according to the report.

In addition, the findings show that the percentage of food stamp households headed by someone with a four-year college degree has increased from about 3 percent to 5 percent since 1980, and the share of beneficiaries who have at least some college training has leaped from 8 percent to about 28 percent. Households headed by adults with at least a high school diploma have jumped from 9 percent of food stamp recipients to about 37 percent over the past three decades, the report says. Thirty years ago households headed by high school dropouts accounted for the biggest chunk of food stamp recipients; now they account for about 28 percent of enrollees in the program.

The analysis notes that inflation has in recent years outstripped increases in average wages in the United States, suggesting that a job does not guarantee insurance against hunger. 

Even as average weekly earnings in the US rose from $768 in 2012 to $776 in 2013, rising inflation means that the 2013 earnings were equivalent to $2 less per week than the 2012 earnings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The US minimum wage has also remained at $7.25 per hour since June 2009, even as inflation has bounded ahead. Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats are pressing for a $10.10 federal minimum wage, but many Republicans are resisting the idea on grounds it will depress job creation and slow the already-tepid economy.

More Americans are now on food stamps than at almost any other time in the past decade. In fiscal year 2006, about 26,000 people were enrolled in the program. As of July, after a whiplash of a recession, almost 48 million people, or about a seventh of the US population, are participating. At the same time, federal spending on the program has almost doubled since 2008, running the government a tab of $80 billion in 2013, according to the AP.

That tab has two interpretations in the US capital: It's evidence of burgeoning need, or it's evidence of abuse and waste.

Congress is now mulling over a compromise version of the farm bill – which outlines government spending on a number of agricultural and nutritional areas – that would whittle about $9 billion from the food stamps program over the next 10 years. The Republican-controlled House has signaled that it will not pass a bill that cuts any less than $40 billion from the program over the same period; Obama has said he will veto any bill that slices too much from the program, and Senate Democrats are pressing for a bill that cuts about $4 billion over a decade from food stamps.

In the current fiscal year, SNAP funding is flat, after four years of increase. Congress's decision not to extend the increase means about $5 billion less for the program this year. For a family of four receiving a maximum food stamps allotment, benefits fell from $668 to $632 per month, according to the Department of Agriculture.

A heavily armed police officer walks on scene after a shooting at The Mall in Columbia on Saturday in Columbia, Md. Three people died in the shooting in suburban Baltimore, including presumed gunman Darion Marcus Aguilar. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Mall in Columbia: Shooter ID’d as teenager Darion Marcus Aguilar

By Staff writer / 01.26.14

Police officials have identified the shooter at the Mall in Columbia, Md. as 19 year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar, who apparently lived with his mother in the suburb of College Park, where the University of Maryland is located.

Other than that, officials at this point know little about Mr. Aguilar or his motive in the shooting, which left two mall employees dead as well as the shooter, who took his own life.

Was he a student or perhaps an employee at the mall? Did he know the two people he killed, both young employees at a skateboard shop? Did he intend more violence with the shotgun and large amount of ammunition he carried or with the crude explosives made of fireworks and carried in a backpack?

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," Howard County Police Chief William McMahon said at a press briefing.

As the investigation continues, authorities have learned that Aguilar bought the Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun at a local store a month ago. He took a taxi to the mall Saturday, then walked around for about an hour before opening fire. It’s unclear how he was able to conceal the shotgun in a crowd of shoppers.

Although the violence ended quickly, and the rapid response – police arrived two minutes after the first 911 call – reflected a considerable amount of training for just such an event at the mall, it was hours before police could be sure that any other potential threat had been eliminated. When the shooting started, many shoppers and employees had taken refuge in storage areas and dressing rooms, some fashioning barricades.

The two other people killed were employees at the Zumiez skateboard shop on the second level of the mall: Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park, Md., and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Ellicott City, Md.

Ms. Benlolo's grandfather, John Feins, told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from Florida that his granddaughter had a 2-year-old son and that the job at Zumiez was her first since she went back to work after her son's birth.

"She was all excited because she was the manager there," he said. "It's senseless. It's totally, totally senseless.”

Ms. Benlolo had worked at the skateboard store since November 2012, according to her Facebook page, CNN reported. Mr. Johnson had worked at the store for about three months, according to his Facebook page.

Witnesses said they heard 8-10 gunshots fired near the food court on the first floor of the mall. The skateboard shop is on the second level of the mall, just above the food court.

Five people were treated for minor injuries and released from an area hospital, including one who had received a gunshot wound to the foot.

"This was a very scary incident," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said at a press briefing. "There were a lot of people very close to where this happened."

Columbia, Md. is a planned community between Baltimore and Washington, designed and developed by James Rouse in the 1960s. The mall, which includes more than 200 shops, kiosks, and restaurants, is the commercial center of the town.

Ryan Miller, director of Howard County's Office of Emergency Management, said the mall, which is owned by General Growth Properties and is staffed by private security, allows county police and fire agencies to conduct drills on the property, including active shooter drills, a training tool he said is invaluable on a day like Saturday, the Baltimore Sun reports

"For years we have done exercises and training at this mall," Miller said. "I've been here at 1 a.m. when we've done exercises. ... For [the mall] to open the doors to allow them to orient themselves to the facility is so valuable."

Zumiez, which has more than 400 stores across the United States, said in a statement it was "deeply saddened by the violence" at its store. "Our hearts go out to the victims and their families." The company said it was arranging counseling for its employees in the area.

Police said the mall will remain closed Sunday.

The attack in Columbia follows a shooting at a New Jersey mall in November in which a gunman fired at least six shots without hitting anyone, sparking a mass evacuation of the complex, then killing himself.

"This should not happen at the Columbia Mall," Chief McMahon told reporters. "This shouldn't happen anywhere."

This report includes material from Reuters.

Shoppers are evacuated by police after a shooting at The Mall in Columbia on Saturday in Columbia, Md. Three people died in a shooting at the mall in suburban Baltimore, including the gunman. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Mall in Columbia: Shooter had 'crude' explosive devices (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.26.14

It took police just two minutes after the first 911 call to arrive at a crowded suburban Baltimore shopping mall Saturday morning, where they quickly found the results of the latest public shooting: three people dead, including a man who had taken his own life. Around him were a shotgun, a large amount of ammunition, and crude explosives apparently made using fireworks.

Although the violence ended quickly, and the rapid response reflected a considerable amount of training for just such an event at the Mall in Columbia, Md., it was hours before police could be sure that any other potential threat had been eliminated. When the shooting started, many shoppers and employees had taken refuge in storage areas and dressing rooms, some fashioning barricades.

Police have yet to identify the shooter, other than to say he was male, or any possible motive. Speaking to reporters Saturday, authorities emphasized that they could not confirm some press reports that the shooting had involved a domestic dispute.

The two other people killed were young employees of the Zumiez skateboard shop on the second level of the mall: Brianna Benlolo, 21, and Tyler Johnson, 25.

Ms. Benlolo's grandfather, John Feins, told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from Florida that his granddaughter had a 2-year-old son and that the job at Zumiez was her first since she went back to work after her son's birth.

"She was all excited because she was the manager there," he said. "It's senseless. It's totally, totally senseless.”

Witnesses said they heard a succession of gunshots fired near the food court on the first floor of the mall. The skateboard shop is on the second level of the mall, just above the food court.

Five people were treated for minor injuries and released from an area hospital, including one who had received a gunshot wound to the foot.

"This was a very scary incident," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said at a press briefing. "There were a lot of people very close to where this happened."

Columbia, Md. is a planned community between Baltimore and Washington, designed and developed by James Rouse in the 1960s. The mall, which includes more than 200 shops, kiosks, and restaurants, is the commercial center of the town.

Ryan Miller, director of Howard County's Office of Emergency Management, said the mall, which is owned by General Growth Properties and is staffed by private security, allows county police and fire agencies to conduct drills on the property, including active shooter drills, a training tool he said is invaluable on a day like Saturday, the Baltimore Sun reports

"For years we have done exercises and training at this mall," Miller said. "I've been here at 1 a.m. when we've done exercises. ... For [the mall] to open the doors to allow them to orient themselves to the facility is so valuable."

Zumiez, which has more than 400 stores across the United States, said in a statement it was "deeply saddened by the violence" at its store. "Our hearts go out to the victims and their families." The company said it was arranging counseling for its employees in the area.

Police said the mall will remain closed Sunday.

The attack in Columbia follows a shooting at a New Jersey mall in November in which a gunman fired at least six shots without hitting anyone, sparking a mass evacuation of the complex, then killing himself.

There also has been a spate of shootings in recent days at US schools and universities. A student was shot dead on Friday at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, and at Purdue University in Indiana a teacher's assistant was shot and killed on Tuesday. In both incidents suspects have been charged with the crimes.

This report includes material from Reuters.

How Hunter Moore, revenge porn kingpin, got away with it – until now

By Staff writer / 01.24.14

Rolling Stone once called him “the most hated man on the Internet,” a brash and brazen character who had long defended his right to preside over a revenge porn website, to which he posted nude photos that spurned lovers sent him of their unaware exes.

But Hunter Moore, the so-called kingpin of revenge porn, did not appear to have done anything illegal – until now.

FBI agents arrested Mr. Moore in Woodland, Calif., Thursday, charging him with multiple crimes related to allegedly paying for stolen photos that he then posted to his site. The 15-count indictment also charges another man, Charles “Gary” Evens, with accepting Moore’s payments for allegedly hacking into seven victims’ accounts and stealing the naked pictures he found there.

The men are charged with conspiracy, seven counts of unauthorized access to a protected computer to obtain information, and seven counts of aggravated identity theft, according to the indictment.

Moore, 27, a highly public revenge porn mogul, is the founder of IsAnyoneUp.com, a website that – before he shut it down in 2012 – posted vengeful exes’ nude photos of their erstwhile girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, friends, and lovers. Moore also tagged the explicit photos with the ex's full name, profession, and hometown, as well as linked to their social-media profile.

That ensured that the photos would appear in Google searches of the pictured person’s name and, in due course, would be found by new lovers, parents, colleagues, and bosses – a jilted lover’s revenge.

The blowback to Moore’s agenda was immediate and intense. Victims, some of them famous, went to the press with stories of how the plastering of their pictures – sent with an expectation, however ill-advised, of privacy – on the Internet had cost them their jobs, their relationships, their reputation, and their basic sense of self-worth.

Still, so far as the law was concerned, Moore did not appear to have done anything wrong.

In most states, revenge porn victims have little recourse for getting the photos offline, or for pressing charges against those responsible.

California, out of which Moore ran his enterprise, has one of the most progressive policies on the issue, passing a law in October 2013 that sayssomeone who privately takes a consensual photo of another person nude and then purveys the image with vengeful intent can face up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

That law, though, does not target all distributors of revenge porn: it does not criminalize distribution of explicit "selfies" that the photo-taker subsequently sent to another person. And, to Moore’s benefit, it does not assign criminality to operators of revenge porn websites, even if the photos it posts are illegal.

Website owners are protected under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which says that site publishers cannot be prosecuted over illegal third-party content on their website.

So, Moore had seemed outside the law – and was brash about making sure that everyone knew it.

In media interviews in 2011 and 2012, Moore had little but expletives for the women who said that his website had upended their lives, and nothing but contempt for the critics of his revenge porn empire. In one interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Moore said he had no remorse about his line of work: “Why would I? I get to look at naked girls all day,” he said.

In a series of profiles that appeared in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and elsewhere, he presented himself as a high-rolling bad boy, not just distributing porn, but living a self-styled, porn-esque existence flush with lightly-clothed women and never-ending parties.

Then in April 2012, Moore pled a turn of conscience and sold IsAnyoneUp.com to an anti-bullying site, Bullyville.com, telling Rolling Stone at the time that "ruining people's lives with naked pictures wasn't, you know, the ideal job."

The next month, though, Moore let it slip to the Village Voice – and then threatened to burn their office down if they published his remarks, which they did – that he might have more compelling reasons to pull the plug: the FBI was investigating allegations that some of the photos on his porn site were hacked from private computers and that Moore might been involved in the hacking.

Though he acknowledged that some of the photos were in all likelihood obtained through hacking, he said he had never hacked the photos himself, nor had he ordered anyone else to do so.

Yet the FBI investigation turned up a different narrative, spelled out in Thursday's indictment.

Moore is accused of making an initial offer to Mr. Evens in October 2011 to pay him $200 per week for his hacking services. According to the indictment, Evens and Moore then engaged in 57 "overt acts" related to the hacking charges over the course of two years. In one, in December 2011, Evens asked Moore for $250 in return for nude pictures of "six guys and six girls."

The indictment names seven victims just by their initials. But one of them, Kayla Laws, an aspiring young actress, has waged a highly public battle against Moore over the last three years. Ms. Laws had told the media that the topless photos of her on the site had not been sent to anyone, but that she had e-mailed them to just herself. She alleged that her e-mail account had been compromised, tipping the FBI off to the hacking.

Moore was characteristically blithe about his arrest on Twitter, tweeting at Justin Bieber, who was arrested earlier this week on DUI and drag-racing charges, “I’m coming to bust you out.”

Before his arrest, Moore had expressed plans to revamp his personal webpage, huntermoore.tv, as a new revenge porn hub, this time pairing nude photos of people with directions to their homes, so that viewers could “stalk” them.

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