Bill Cosby released from prison after conviction vacated

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

(PHILADELPHIA) — Bill Cosby was released from prison Wednesday after his conviction on sexual assault charges was overturned by Pennsylvania’s highest court.

The 83-year-old Cosby walked out of the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Wednesday afternoon, officials told ABC News.

Cosby’s publicist, Andrew Wyatt, told ABC News earlier Wednesday that he was going to pick Cosby up at the prison.

Aerial footage from Philadelphia ABC station WPVI showed Cosby getting out of a car at his Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, mansion wearing a maroon T-shirt and baggy trousers. He flashed a peace sign as people helped him walk into his home.

Cosby later emerged from his home and walked to the end of his driveway where he stood with Wyatt and his lawyers as they addressed the media. Cosby smiled as reporters asked him to respond to no longer being incarcerated, but he declined to speak.

“What we saw today was justice, justice for all Americans,” Wyatt said.

The actor released a statement on Twitter, writing, “I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence. Thank you to all my fans, supporters and friends who stood by me through this ordeal. Special thanks to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for upholding the rule of law.”

One of Cosby’s appellate attorneys, Jennifer Bonjean, said she and the rest of Cosby’s legal team were “thrilled” to have him home.

“He served three years of an unjust sentence. He did it with dignity, principal and he was a mentor to other inmates,” Bonjean said. “He was really, as I say, doing the time. The time was not doing him.”

She also thanked the state Supreme Court for demonstrating “they were impervious to the court of public opinion, which frankly the lower courts were not.”

Cosby was sentenced in September 2018 to three to 10 years in state prison for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting former Temple University employee Andrea Constand in 2004. Cosby served about three years of his sentence.

“Today’s majority decision regarding Bill Cosby is not only disappointing but of concern in that it may discourage those who seek justice for sexual assault in the criminal justice system from reporting or participating in the prosecution of the assailant or may force a victim to choose between filing either a criminal or civil action,” Constand and her lawyers said in a statement.

Last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear two points in Cosby’s appeal to overturn his 2018 sexual assault conviction.

In a ruling released Wednesday, the state Supreme Court concluded that Cosby’s prosecution should never have occurred due to a deal the comedian cut with former Montgomery County prosecutor Bruce Castor, who agreed not to criminally prosecute Cosby if he gave a deposition in a civil case brought against him by Constand.

During that deposition, Cosby made incriminating statements that Castor’s successor, Kevin R. Steele, used to charge Cosby in 2015.

Constand said in her statement that the decision to overturn the conviction resulted from “a procedural technicality.”

Castor is the same lawyer who went on to represent former President Donald Trump during the ex-president’s second impeachment trial earlier this year.

“The discretion vested in our Commonwealth’s prosecutors, however vast, does not mean that its exercise is free of the constraints of due process,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices wrote in their 79-page decision.

“When an unconditional charging decision is made publicly and with the intent to induce action and reliance by the defendant, and when the defendant does so to his detriment (and in some instances upon the advice of counsel), denying the defendant the benefit of that decision is an affront to fundamental fairness, particularly when it results in a criminal prosecution that was foregone for more than a decade,” the justices wrote.

The decision went on to say Cosby was the victim of an unconstitutional “coercive bait-and-switch.”

Believing he had immunity from criminal prosecution, Cosby testified during four days of depositions by Constand’s attorneys, and the civil lawsuit was settled for more than $3 million in 2006.

“As a practical matter, the moment that Cosby was charged criminally, he was harmed: all that he had forfeited earlier, and the consequences of that forfeiture in the civil case, were for naught,” the justices wrote.

Cosby cannot be retried on the criminal charges.

“He was found guilty by a jury and now goes free on a procedural issue that is irrelevant to the facts of the crime,” Steele said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

Steele commended Constand “for her bravery in coming forward and remaining steadfast throughout this long ordeal, as well as all of the other women who have shared similar experiences.”

“My hope is that this decision will not dampen the reporting of sexual assaults by victims,” Steele said. “Prosecutors in my office will continue to follow the evidence wherever and to whomever it leads. We still believe that no one is above the law — including those who are rich, famous and powerful.”

In an interview with KYW Newsradio in Philadelphia, Castor said he was “not surprised” by the state Supreme Court’s decision.

“I can only ever recall it happening once before in a case that the prosecutor’s behavior was so egregious that the Supreme Court threw the case out and didn’t remand for a new trial,” Castor told the radio station. “So it is rare, but what happened to Mr. Cosby was really egregious and what they did to him should never happen to any American citizen at any social strata.”

Attorney Gloria Allred represented several women who testified at Cosby’s trial to bolster the prosecution’s evidence of “prior bad acts” against the entertainer and to prove a pattern of practice.

“Despite the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision, this was an important fight for justice,” Allred told ABC News Live. “And even though the court overturned the conviction on technical grounds, it did not vindicate Bill Cosby’s conduct and should not be interpreted as a statement or a finding that he did not engage in the acts of which he has been accused.”

Janice Baker Kinney, one of the women who testified at Cosby’s criminal trial alleging that he sexually assaulted her in 1982 when she was a 24-year-old bartender in Reno, Nevada, told ABC News Live on Wednesday she was “stunned” by the news.

“I’m shocked, and my stomach’s kind of in a knot over this,” Kinney said. “Just one little legalese can overturn this when so many people came forward, so many women have told their truths.”

Another accuser, Victoria Valentino, a former Playboy model who didn’t testify at the trial but claimed Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her when she was a young woman, told ABC News that “my stomach is lurching” upon hearing Cosby would be released.

“I am deeply distressed about the injustice of the whole thing,” Valentino said. “You know, he’s a sociopath, he’s a serial rapist.”

She said Cosby’s release came just days after she and the other Cosby accusers received a letter from Pennsylvania officials advising them that Cosby’s request for parole was denied.

Cosby, who has maintained his innocence, had his petition for early parole denied in May after corrections officials cited his refusal to participate in prison sex offender programs.

In an appeal of the conviction, Cosby’s lawyers argued that the trial judge erred in allowing Cosby’s prior deposition about using quaaludes during consensual sexual encounters with women in the 1970s.

Two lower courts, including a three-judge panel of Pennsylvania Superior Court jurists, had previously refused to overturn the comedian’s conviction.

Despite the deluge of accusations against him, Cosby has maintained he never engaged in nonconsensual sex.

ABC News’ Meredith Deliso contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Surfside building collapse latest: Structural concerns halt search and rescue efforts

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(SURFSIDE, Fla.) — One week after a 12-story residential building partially collapsed in South Florida’s Miami-Dade County, at least 18 people have been confirmed dead while 145 others remain unaccounted for, officials said.

The massive search and rescue operation entered its eighth day on Thursday as crews continued to carefully comb through the pancaked pile of debris in hopes of finding survivors. The partial collapse occurred around 1:15 a.m. local time on June 24 at the Champlain Towers South condominium in the small, beachside town of Surfside, about 6 miles north of Miami Beach. Approximately 55 of the oceanfront complex’s 136 units were destroyed, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Raide Jadallah.

Among the bodies most recently pulled from the rubble were two children, ages 4 and 10, according to Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

“Any loss of life — especially given the unexpected, unprecedented nature of this event — is a tragedy. But the loss of our children is too great to bear,” Levine Cava said during a press conference in Surfside on Wednesday evening. “We’re now standing united once again with this terrible new revelation that children are the victims as well.”

All the victims recovered so far have died from “blunt force injuries” due to the collapse, Dr. Emma Lew, director of the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department, told ABC News.

Meanwhile, 139 people who were living or staying in the condominium at the time of the disaster have been accounted for and are safe, according to Levine Cava, who stressed that the numbers are “very fluid” and “continue to change.” Officials previously were including the number of deceased among those accounted for but are now separating the figures.

Concerns about remaining structure halt search and rescue efforts

Search and rescue efforts were paused early Thursday morning due to concerns about the stability of the remaining structure and the potential danger it poses to the crews. Structural engineers are on site monitoring the situation as officials evaluate possible options and determine the next steps, according to Levine Cava.

“We’re doing everything that we can to ensure that the safety of our first responders is paramount and to continue our search and rescue operations as soon as it is safe to do so,” she said at a press conference in Surfside on Thursday morning.

Officials were unable to provide a timeline for when the urgent operation will resume.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky told reporters that crews observed a shift of 6 to 12 inches in a large column hanging from the still-standing structure as well as some slight movement in the concrete floor slabs just after 2 a.m. local time, prompting concerns that the rest of the condominium could collapse.

Earlier, police officers on site had told ABC News that rescuers reported hearing cracks and were investigating the stability of the building.

The structure was cleared by crews last week, and all search and rescue resources have since been shifted to focusing on the pile of rubble. But the two sites are side-by-side and the remaining building has posed challenges for the hundreds of first responders trying locate any survivors or human remains in the wreckage.

One area of the site had to be roped off on Tuesday due to falling debris. Then on Wednesday, officials said crews were no longer entering the remaining structure because it was considered unstable.

Poor weather conditions — from downpours to lightning storms — have also forced the crews to temporarily halt their round-the-clock efforts in recent days.

Over the past week, crews have cut a vast trench through the pile of rubble to aid in their search as they try to tunnel through the wreckage and listen for sounds. As they work to reach the bottom of the pile, cameras placed inside show voids and air pockets where people could be trapped, according to officials.

Rescuers are using various assets, equipment and technology, including specially trained dogs that are searching for signs of life, underground sonar systems that can detect victims and crane trucks that can remove huge slabs of concrete from the pile. Crews have removed almost 1,400 tons of debris from the site so far, officials said.

Rescuers are each working 12-hour shifts at a time and the conditions on the pile are “tough” as they risk their lives in hopes of saving others amid heat, humidity and rain, according to Cominsky. But “spirits are high” and they are still “hoping for a positive outcome,” he told reporters.

“We’re exhausting every avenue here,” Cominsky said during the press conference on Wednesday morning. “But it’s a very, very dangerous situation and I can’t understate that.”

Some of the first responders are members of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s urban search and rescue team, Florida Task Force-1, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Urban Search and Rescue Response System and has been deployed to disasters across the country and around the world. Search and rescue teams from Israel and Mexico have also joined the efforts in Surfside.

Col. Golan Vach, head of a unit of the Israel Defense Forces that specializes in search and rescue operations, arrived in Surfside with his team early Sunday and has been on scene ever since.

“We find everyday new spaces, new tunnels that we can penetrate into the site,” Vach told ABC News on Wednesday.

The ongoing operation in Surfside is the largest-ever deployment of task force resources in Florida’s history for a non-hurricane event. But as the Atlantic hurricane season ramps up, officials are monitoring storms in the region in case some resources deployed to Surfside are needed elsewhere, according to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Meanwhile, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett has acknowledged that there have been questions from families about when the efforts will transition from search and rescue to recovery.

“This is going to go on until we get everybody out of there,” Burkett said at the press conference on Wednesday morning.

Although officials have continued to express hope that more people will be found alive, no survivors have been discovered in the rubble of the building since the morning it partially collapsed. Bodies, however, have been uncovered throughout the site, which crews have categorized into grids, Cominsky said.

Officials have asked families of the missing to provide DNA samples and unique characteristics of their loved ones, such as tattoos and scars, to help identify those found in the wreckage. Detectives are also in the process of conducting an audit of the list of those accounted and unaccounted for, according to Levine Cava.

Shortly after the building partially collapsed, first responders heard cries for help from a woman trapped in a lower level that was now inside the parking garage. But a wall of concrete and other debris stood in their way, one rescue worker who asked to remain anonymous told Miami ABC affiliate WPLG.

“The first thing I remember is thumping on the wall,” the rescuer recalled. “And then I remember her just talking, ‘I’m here, get me out! Get me out!'”

“We were continuously talking to her,” he added. “‘Honey, we got you. We’re going to get to you.'”

Crews never abandoned their effort to reach the woman but the rescue worker said he later learned that she did not survive.

Cominsky confirmed the report during the press conference on Thursday morning, saying crews are “trying to do the best we can” but that “unfortunately we didn’t have success with that.”

Biden meets with officials, rescuers, families in Surfside

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden traveled to Surfside on Thursday to tour the scene of the disaster and meet with officials, first responders, search and rescue teams, as well as families of the victims.

“I just want you to know that we understand,” President Biden told a group of first responders. “What you’re doing now is just hard as hell. Even psychologically. And I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Addressing reporters Thursday afternoon, Biden said he wanted to send a message to the impacted families that the nation is “here for you.”

“We’ll be in touch with a lot of these families continuing through this process. But there’s much more to be done. We’re ready to do it,” he said.

Prior to his remarks, Biden talked with the families of the victims for nearly three hours.

“I thought it’s important to speak to every single person who wanted to speak to me,” Biden said. “I sat with one woman who had just lost her husband and her little baby boy. Didn’t know what to do. I sat with another family that lost almost an entire family — cousins, brothers, sisters.”

The president said first responders are hopeful they will recover survivors, though acknowledged that the families are “very realistic.”

“They know that the chances are, as each day goes by, diminish slightly. But, at a minimum, they want to recover the bodies,” he said.

Last week, the president approved an emergency declaration in Florida and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts in the wake of the partial building collapse.

The Miami-Dade County mayor told reporters that Biden’s visit “will have no impact on what happens at this site.”

“The search and rescue operation will continue as soon as it is safe to do so,” Levine Cava said at the press conference on Thursday morning. “The only reason for this pause is concerns about the standing structure.”

Federal agency that investigated collapse of Twin Towers joins probe

The cause of the partial collapse to a building that has withstood decades of hurricanes remains unknown. The Miami-Dade Police Department is leading an investigation into the incident.

The Miami-Dade County mayor told ABC News last Friday that there was no evidence of foul play so far but that “nothing’s ruled out.”

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she plans “to request that our Grand Jury look at what steps we can take to safeguard our residents without jeopardizing any scientific, public safety or potential criminal investigations.”

“I know from personally speaking with engineers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology that their investigation to determine exactly how and why the building collapsed will take a long time,” Rundle said in a statement Tuesday. “However, this is a matter of extreme public importance, and as the state attorney elected to keep this community safe, I will not wait.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology has activated its national construction safety team to investigate the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South. The federal agency investigated the collapse of the so-called Twin Towers in New York City after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The probe in Surfside will be a “fact-finding, not fault-finding” and one that could take years, according to the agency’s director, Dr. James Olthoff.

“It will take time, possibly a couple of years, but we will not stop until we have determined the likely cause of this tragedy,” Olthoff said during the press conference in Surfside on Wednesday evening.

What went wrong

Built in the 1980s, the Champlain Towers South was up for its 40-year recertification when it partially collapsed, according to Surfside officials.

The Champlain Towers South Condo Association was preparing to start a new construction project to make updates to the building, which had been through extensive inspections, according to Kenneth Direktor, a lawyer for the association. Direktor told ABC News last Thursday that the construction plans had already been submitted to the town but the only work that had begun was on the roof.

Direktor noted that he hadn’t been warned of any structural issues with the building or about the land it was built on. He said there was water damage to the complex, but that is common for oceanfront properties and wouldn’t have caused the partial collapse.

A 2020 study conducted by Shimon Wdowinski, a professor at Florida International University’s Institute of Environment in Miami, found signs of land subsidence from 1993 to 1999 in the area where the Champlain Towers South condominium is located. But subsidence, or the gradual sinking of land, likely would not on its own cause a building to collapse, according to Wdowinski, who analyzed space-based radar data.

Miami-Dade County officials are aware of the study and are “looking into” it, Levine Cava told ABC News last Friday.

A structural field survey report from October 2018, which was among hundreds of pages of public documents released by the town late Sunday, said the waterproofing below the condominium’s pool deck and entrance drive was failing and causing “major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas.” The New York Times first reported the news.

In a November 2018 email, also released by the town, a Surfside building official, Ross Prieto, told the then-town manager that he had met with the Champlain Towers South residents and “it went very well.”

“The response was very positive from everyone in the room,” Prieto wrote in the email. “All main concerns over their forty year recertification process were addressed. This particular building is not due to begin their forty year until 2021 but they have decided to start the process early which I wholeheartedly endorse and wish that this trend would catch on with other properties.”

A former resident, Susanna Alvarez, told ABC News on Sunday that Prieto said during the 2018 meeting that the condominium was “not in bad shape” — a sentiment that appears to conflict with the structural field survey report penned five weeks earlier.

ABC News obtained a copy of the minutes from the November 2018 meeting of the Champlain Towers South Condo Association, which stated that Prieto had reviewed the structural field survey report and “it appears the building is in very good shape.” NPR was the first to report the news.

Prieto has not responded to ABC News’ repeated requests for comment. He is no longer employed by the town of Surfside. He has been placed on a “leave of absence” from his current post as a building inspector in nearby Doral, according to a statement from the city on Tuesday.

When asked on Monday whether Prieto misled residents during the 2018 meeting, Surfside’s mayor told ABC News: “We’re going to have to find out.”

Meanwhile, Surfside officials and engineers are concerned that recent construction of a nearby residential building may have contributed to instability at the Champlain Towers South and, according to one expert, could have potentially been “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“Construction of a neighboring building can certainly impact the conditions, particularly the foundation for an existing building,” Ben Schafer, a structural engineering professor and director of the Ralph S. O’Connor Sustainable Energy Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told ABC News on Tuesday. “A critical flaw or damage must have already existed in the Champlain Towers, but neighboring new construction could be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ in terms of a precipitating event.”

According to media reports from that time, the construction began in 2015 when Terra, a South Florida development firm, started erecting Eighty Seven Park, an 18-story luxury condominium in Miami Beach, across the street from the Champlain Towers South. The project caused such a raucous for residents that Mara Chouela, a board member of the Champlain Towers South Condo Association, reached out to Surfside officials in January 2019, according to records released by the town.

“We are concerned that the construction next to Surfside is too close,” Chouela wrote in an email. “The terra project on Collins and 87 are digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building. We just wanted to know if any of tour officials could come by and check.”

Chouela received an email back from Prieto, saying: “There is nothing for me to check.”

“The best course of action is to have someone monitor the fence, pool and adjacent areas for damage or hire a consultant to monitor these areas as they are the closest to the construction,” Prieto added.

Residents and board members continued to complain about the project next door for several months, mostly about styrofoam and dirt from the construction site ending up on the Champlain Towers South pool deck and plaza, according to documents released by the town.

A spokesperson for 8701 Collins Development LLC, a joint venture that was established by Terra and other developers involved in the project, told ABC News in a statement Wednesday that they “are confident that the construction of 87 Park did not cause or contribute to the collapse that took place in Surfside on June 24, 2021.”

Another expert, forensic structural engineer Joel Figueroa-Vallines, said that because Eighty Seven Park is “lower in elevation” than the Champlain Towers South, there is a possibility that the construction of the newer building could be cause for concern. But he emphasized that more evidence is still needed.

“It’s almost important and necessary to not discard anything so early on that could potentially be a consideration,” Figueroa-Vallines, founder and president of SEP, an Orlando-based structural engineering firm, told ABC News on Wednesday.

Mehrooz Zamanzadeh, a Pittsburgh-based corrosion engineering expert, told ABC News on Wednesday that any cracks and spalling on the Champlain Towers South should also be examined to determine whether the vibrations from the construction next door played any role in the structural integrity of the condominium.

Regardless, Zamanzadeh said the accelerated deterioration and corrosion of the Champlain Towers South was a critical factor in the partial collapse. He called for mandated corrosion inspections of buildings as well as a recertification process shorter than the town’s current 40-year term.

Jose “Pepe” Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, told ABC News on Tuesday that he would not speculate what role neighboring construction had on the partial collapse but said officials will investigate it.

Mounting lawsuits in wake of disaster

A slew of lawsuits against the Champlain Towers South Condo Association have already been filed on behalf of survivors and victims, alleging the partial collapse could have been avoided and that the association knew or should have known about the structural damage.

A spokesperson for the Champlain Towers South Condo Association said they cannot comment on pending litigation but that their “focus remains on caring for our friends and neighbors during this difficult time.”

“We continue to work with city, state, and local officials in their search and recovery efforts, and to understand the causes of this tragedy,” the spokesperson told ABC News in a statement Monday. “Our profound thanks go out to all of emergency rescue personnel — professionals and volunteers alike — for their tireless efforts.”

Two law firms, Morgan & Morgan and Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, announced Wednesday that they have filed an emergency motion — in addition to a lawsuit — requesting site inspection and evidence preservation on behalf of the family of Harry Rosenberg, a resident of the Champlain Towers South who is still missing, along with his daughter and son-in-law.

“The families have no idea whether it is being documented as they peel through that collapse, layer by layer, have no idea what is going to happen to that evidence, and they deserve a voice and a role in this process,” Robert Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia-based attorney and founder of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, said during a press conference in Miami on Wednesday. “We believe that we could give the families a voice and a set of eyes without impairing the critical work of the search and rescue teams that are there, and without affecting at all the investigating agencies that are there.”

Mongeluzzi said the Rosenberg family “do not want this to be about them.”

“They have merely filed this so that we can file this motion on behalf of all the families, all the victims, so that they could start to get answers about why their loved ones are missing,” he added.

ABC News’ Faith Abubey, Judy Block, Lucien Bruggeman, Alexandra Faul, Matt Foster, Stephanie Fuerte, Justin Gomez, Kate Hodgson, T.J. Holmes, Joshua Hoyos, Soorin Kim, Sarah Kolinovsky, Josh Margolin, Victor Oquendo, Dawn Piros, Stephanie Ramos, Laura Romero and Stephanie Wash contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

What to know about a global minimum tax rate as 130 nations reach historic agreement

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced Thursday that some 130 countries have agreed to a new 15% global minimum tax rate for corporations.

Yellen called it a “historic day for economic diplomacy” in a statement, adding that Biden “has spoken about a ‘foreign policy for the middle class,’ and today’s agreement is what that looks like in practice.”

While the agreement was signed by finance ministers from all of the Group of 20 nations and some 130 in total, representing more than 90% of global GDP, it still needs to make it through the legislative bodies of each country — meaning it’s far from a done deal.

Still, the news represents one of the biggest potential reforms in international tax policy in decades. Here is what to know about a global minimum tax rate and how it is expected to impact U.S. businesses and workers.

What is a global minimum tax rate?

A global minimum tax rate is the minimum amount large, international corporations have to pay. The aim is to prevent companies from dodging tax payments by relocating operations or headquarters to another nation with lower rates.

In the U.S., the corporate tax rate is 21% due to former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, which were implemented in an attempt to keep businesses from fleeing to nations with lower rates. Biden has proposed raising it to 28%.

Ireland, meanwhile, has a corporate tax rate of just 12.5% as part of its own bid to attract business, often at the expense of other European Union nations. Ireland was not listed among the 130 signatories of Thursday’s agreement that was arranged by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Why a global minimum tax rate?

The OECD estimates that some $240 billion is lost annually to tax avoidance by multinational companies.

Biden said a minimum rate would help prevent companies from exploiting loopholes, with Yellen noting the additional funds collected could be used to help the middle class in areas including education.

“Multinational corporations will no longer be able to pit countries against one another in a bid to push tax rates down and protect their profits at the expense of public revenue,” the president said in a statement Thursday. “They will no longer be able to avoid paying their fair share by hiding profits generated in the United States, or any other country, in lower-tax jurisdictions.”

Yellen said in a separate statement that the “global race to the bottom” as nations compete to lower their tax rates has “deprived countries of funding for important investments like infrastructure, education, and efforts to combat the pandemic.”

Enforcing a 15% minimum tax rate among nations who agree to the plan could generate $150 billion in additional revenue, according to OECD estimates. Moreover, the agreement would provide additional benefits through ensuring stability and certainty for taxpayers and governments.

Advocates, especially in the private sector, have argued that tax competition is beneficial to overall economic growth. The head of the OECD said setting a floor on tax rates doesn’t eliminate competition.

“This package does not eliminate tax competition, as it should not, but it does set multilaterally agreed limitations on it,” Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said in a statement. “It also accommodates the various interests across the negotiating table, including those of small economies and developing jurisdictions.”

When would this happen?

Further details on the plan are expected to be hammered out at the G-20 summit in October, with participating nations targeting 2023 for implementation.

“It is in everyone’s interest that we reach a final agreement among all Inclusive Framework Members [139 countries] as scheduled later this year,” Cormann said.

Could this lead to further tax reform?

America’s labyrinthine tax codes have recently come under scrutiny after a ProPublica report in June unveiled how some of the nation’s wealthiest individuals avoid paying taxes on their wealth gains using entirely legal accounting maneuvers.

Although a separate issue, Biden and Yellen signaled that domestic tax reform could be next.

“We have a chance now to build a global and domestic tax system that lets American workers and businesses compete and win in the world economy,” Yellen stated.

Biden, meanwhile, called on lawmakers to implement his tax plan that, among other things, raises corporate rates to 28%.

“Building on this agreement will also require us to take action here at home,” Biden stated. “It’s imperative that we reform our own corporate tax laws, as I proposed in my Made in America tax plan.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Neighboring construction could have impacted Surfside building’s stability, experts say

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(SURFSIDE, Fla.) — Engineers and Surfside, Florida, officials are concerned that recent construction at a neighboring residential building may have contributed to instability at the Champlain Tower South building that collapsed last week — and could potentially have been “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” according to one expert.

“Construction of a neighboring building can certainly impact the conditions, particularly the foundation for an existing building,” Ben Schafer, a structural engineer at Johns Hopkins University, told ABC News. “A critical flaw or damage must have already existed in the Champlain towers, but neighboring new construction could be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ in terms of a precipitating event.”

Construction at Eighty-Seven Park, a ritzy condominium that abuts Champlain Tower South to the south, began in 2015, when a firm called Terra Developers began erecting the 18-story building, according to news reports at the time.

The project caused such a ruckus for Champlain Tower residents that, in January 2019, a member of the board reached out to Surfside officials, according to records released by the city.

“We are concerned that construction next to Surfside is too close,” Mara Chouela, a member of the Champlain Tower South board of directors, wrote to city officials. “The Terra project … are digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building.”

Chouela received a terse response from Ross Prieto, the city’s then-building inspector: “There is nothing for me to check.”

“The best course of action is to have someone monitor the fence, pool and adjacent areas for damage,” Prieto wrote, “or hire a consultant to monitor those areas as they are closest to the construction.”

Champlain Tower South residents and condo board members continued to complain about the construction next door, mostly regarding Styrofoam and dirt from the construction site washing up into the Champlain pool deck and plaza.

On Tuesday, Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer slammed Prieto’s response to Chouela, telling ABC News that it reflects “laziness” from a person “too comfortable” in his job.

“The residents should have a place to go for their complaints … they should have been treated seriously,” Salzhauer said. “What happened here is a wake-up call for every small town and for every government.”

Prieto has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

A spokesperson for 8701 Collins Development LLC, a joint venture that was established by Terra and other developers involved in the Eighty-Seven Park project, told ABC News in a statement Wednesday that they are “confident that the construction of 87 Park did not cause or contribute to the collapse that took place in Surfside on June 24, 2021.”

Joel Figueroa-Vallines, an Orlando-based forensic structural engineer, told ABC News that because Eighty-Seven Park is “lower in elevation” than Champlain Tower South, there is a possibility that the construction of the building could be a concern — but that more evidence is needed.

“It’s most important and necessary to not discard anything so early on that could potentially be a consideration,” Figueroa, president of the engineering firm SEP Engineers, said.

Dr. Mehrdad Sasani, a professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of Northeastern University, told ABC News that the method in which Champlain South’s support structure was built would usually allow it to withstand disturbances to the soil near the surface, which means the impact of the excavation for the neighboring construction would have likely been what Sasani called “minute.”

“But indirectly, as a result of a failure in the pool area and the deck slab, the parking garage roof could have been affected,” Sasani said.

He said more information on both buildings, including a geotechnical distance analysis, would be needed to determine the potential role of the construction on the Champlain Tower. ABC News has requested relevant documents to the City of Miami Beach.

Dr. Mehrooz Zamanzadeh, a corrosion engineering expert, told ABC News that cracks and spalling on the Champlain building should also be examined to determine whether vibrations from the construction had any effect on the building’s structural integrity.

Regardless, said Zamanzadeh, the building’s accelerated deterioration and corrosion was likely a critical factor in the collapse. He said that corrosion inspections should be mandatory, and also called for building recertifications to be the performed more frequently than the current 40-year cycle.

Miami Dade County Commissioner Jose Diaz told ABC News that he would not speculate what role neighboring construction had on the collapse, but said, “We’re going to investigate.”

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The boarding crisis: Why some kids are waiting days in the ER for psychiatric ward beds

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(NEW YORK) — When Carly Birmingham, a 7th grader from Massachusetts who identifies as nonbinary, was depressed and experiencing suicidal thoughts last fall, their mother drove to a local hospital emergency department at 2 a.m. hoping for immediate help.

But Carly says they ended up spending 14 days waiting for a psychiatric inpatient bed (seven in the emergency department (ED) and seven in a patient room) at Boston Children’s Hospital in what doctors and other experts describe as a troublesome and increasing practice that leads in many cases to substandard care for vulnerable patients — boarding.

“After a few days, I almost regretted [going to the hospital]. We were there, we were getting no sleep, and I wasn’t even getting any help. I was just sitting there waiting for a bed. And we didn’t know how long it was gonna take,” Carly, of Arlington, Massachusetts, told ABC News. Boston Children’s declined comment about Birmingham’s care citing privacy laws.

While there is no standard definition for boarding, the American College of Emergency Physicians describes it as the practice of holding patients in the ED after they have been evaluated because no inpatient beds are available or are awaiting transfer to another facility, which can result in lengthy wait times, possibly increased suffering among patients and strains overburdened EDs.

Boarding is a longstanding crisis in EDs across the country that some doctors interviewed by ABC News say has only worsened during the pandemic, especially in pediatric units. The coronavirus crisis has led to a surge in pediatric patients, like Carly, some of whom end up waiting days, if not weeks, for a spot in limited psychiatric wards.

The shortage of available psychiatric beds is also happening in the middle of a global pandemic, during which COVID-19 patients have died in hallways waiting for beds in overwhelmed hospitals.

While ED visits for other medical causes for children declined in the early stages of the pandemic, the number of children’s mental health-related ED visits rose 24% among 5 to 11-year-olds and surged 31% among 12 to 17-year-olds in April 2020 through October, compared to that period in 2019, according to a November Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

The pandemic also saw a rise in ED visits for suspected suicide attempts among young people. Among teen girls such visits were up 51% from February to March earlier this year compared to 2019, according to a June CDC report.

There is no nationwide data on mental health boarding numbers or wait times, however doctors in New York, Massachusetts and Colorado have painted similar pictures of inundated EDs.

Feeling ‘punished’ waiting for an inpatient bed

Dr. Amanda Stewart, an attending physician in the emergency department of Boston Children’s Hospital, where Carly was treated, said the hospital saw a surge in psychiatric cases in early spring 2021 and “we’re definitely not out of the woods.”

“Unfortunately, there’s a higher number of boarding behavioral health patients. We routinely have children that stay over 100, sometimes up to 200 hours in the ER,” Stewart told ABC News.

In Massachusetts, the number of all patients boarding in emergency rooms increased by 200 to 400% in June 2020 compared to the same month the previous year, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health told ABC News. The department did not comment on the status of ED boarding in the state.

Carly said the wait in the noisy, bustling ED was agonizing. They said they spent seven days in the ED, then seven days in a patient room at Boston Children’s, before Carly finally got an inpatient psychiatric bed, where they were treated for two weeks.

“What Carly said to me is, ‘I feel like I’m being punished for having feelings,'” their mother Gail McCabe said.

“Carly slept on a stretcher. I slept on a stretcher for the seven nights that we were there. Carly actually started to have some visual hallucinations because of sleep deprivation one time,” McCabe said of their time in the ED. “You are pretty much sitting there staring at the wall for the whole entire time.”

Stewart said there are several causes for the surge in pediatric psychiatric patients at the hospital: the loss of mental health resources offered in-person at schools and at clinics with the shift to online learning and teletherapy, changes to social activities, school stress, and worries over COVID-19. Those stressors coupled with a limited number of beds dedicated to pediatric psychiatric care created a “bottleneck” in the ED.

McCabe said that when Carly arrived at the ED, there were about 25 other kids waiting for inpatient beds.

But Boston Children’s only has 16 inpatient psychiatric beds, and 12 acute residential treatment beds, according to Dr. Patricia Ibeziako, the associate chief for clinical services in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Boston Children’s Hospital. Now, the hospital is planning to add 12 more inpatient psychiatric beds, Ibeziako added.

Pandemic led to psychiatric bed closures

Long boarding times for pediatric psychiatric patients are also being seen in New York City as well, according to Dr. Adjoa Smalls-Mantey, an ABC News medical unit contributor and New York-based psychiatrist who works in several emergency room settings with adults and children.

“In March, April and May [of 2020], there was a decrease in the volume of people presenting with psychiatric complaints and I’ll attribute that to people being just scared to leave their homes with lockdown orders. But then by the time we got to the winter, it felt like people were waiting in the emergency room, for a day, maybe even two days to get a bed,” she said.

“For children, the wait is still long, I saw children one week and then I came back the next week for a shift and they were still there,” she added.

Smalls-Mantey said that during the pandemic some psychiatric beds had been converted into general medicine or ICU beds to focus on COVID-19. At one hospital where she works, both psychiatric units closed so patients were transferred to psychiatric units at other hospitals.

New York state’s Office of Mental Health told ABC News that 871 psychiatric hospital beds were repurposed due to COVID and so far 444 of those have reopened. The OMH said that despite the bed closures psychiatric inpatient admissions in NY are only at approximately 85% capacity, so the shortage of beds hasn’t prevented anyone from receiving needed care.

She said to curb the long wait times, hospital systems need to “reopen the beds that were closed.”

“The onus is on the healthcare systems to devote resources to helping people that are reaching out for help, because we have said, ‘Ask for help.’ So now that people are asking, the healthcare system needs to show up and do that,” Smalls-Mantey said.

A ‘pediatric mental health state of emergency’

In Colorado, physicians are also reeling from the “unprecedented” spike in pediatric psychiatric patients that led Children’s Hospital Colorado to declare a “pediatric mental health state of emergency” in May.

“We too, have seen an influx, particularly from January through May of this year, in unprecedented volumes. We’re seeing increases of upwards 70 to 90% from our 2019 volumes,” Jason Williams, the operations director for the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado told ABC News.

According to Williams, the wait for juveniles to be placed in an inpatient bed pre-pandemic was about eight hours. For the past two months, the wait has been upwards of 20 hours, he said.

Children’s Hospital Colorado has 18 general psych inpatient beds and 4 neuropsychiatric specialty care inpatient beds and they’ve been at 98% capacity for the last 18 months, Williams added.

He said he believes the state has a “broken system” equipped with fewer pediatric psychiatric beds, an issue shared across much of the nation.

Williams said the patients coming in are typically 12-years-old and up, mostly females, and most presenting suicidal ideation or suicidal attempts.

“We are seeing more severity in that patient population than we would have seen pre-pandemic, with kids making more lethal attempts on their lives,” he said.

Children’s Hospital Colorado CEO Jena Hausmann said the state’s mental health services are “not enough” in a May news release, calling for reform.

“It has been devastating to see suicide become the leading cause of death for Colorado’s children,” Hausmann said. “For over a decade, Children’s Colorado has intentionally and thoughtfully been expanding our pediatric mental health prevention services, outpatient services and inpatient services, but it is not enough. Now we are seeing our pediatric emergency departments and our inpatient units overrun with kids attempting suicide and suffering from other forms of major mental health illness.”

Colorado’s Department of Health did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment on boarding.

Surge in mental health needs and boarding

Mental health care in the U.S. has dramatically changed over time.

In the 1960s, deinstitutionalization was a government policy that moved mental health patents out of state-run institutions into community-based mental health centers. In part, the effort tried to target the negative effective of coercive hospitalization, except for high risk cases, but it also reduced the availability of long-term inpatient care beds across the country, according to a 2019 report in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine.

In June 2016 there were 37,679 staffed psychiatric beds in state hospitals nationwide, which came out to about 12 beds per 100,000 of the population, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), a national nonprofit focused on improving mental health care. That was a 17% drop from the 2010 bed numbers, the group reported.

Massachusetts has 608 public psychiatric beds, Colorado has 543, and New York State has 3,217, all as of 2016, per the TAC. The group says a minimum of 50 beds per 100,000 people is considered necessary to provide minimally adequate treatment for individuals with severe mental illness.

A 2020 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that among youth requiring inpatient psychiatric care, 23% to 58% experienced boarding and average durations ranged from 5 to 41 hours in EDs and 2 to 3 days in inpatient units. The study found that risk factors that led to longer boarding times included if patients came in during non-summer months (meaning during the school year), if they were younger and if they exhibited suicidal or homicidal ideations.

The study stated pediatric mental health boarding is experienced by at least 40,000 to 66,000 youth admitted to hospitals each year.

During the pandemic, use of telehealth services among Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) beneficiaries increased 2,700% from March to October last year compared to 2019, showing there was a demand for mental health services.

Yet at the same time, some vulnerable younger Americans went without mental health services. A May report by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service found a 34% decline in the number of primary and preventative mental health services utilized by children under age 19, which amounts to 14 million fewer mental services for kids, compared to the same time period in 2019.

This can eventually lead to kids coming into ED’s in more serious states of mental crisis.

Studies say once in the ED, waiting for so long for care can have serious consequences.

A 2011 study by the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine found that mortality increased with increased boarding time and patients who boarded in 12 hours or more had a 4.5% greater chance of in-hospital mortality.

ACEP said that those who are boarded are “less likely to be receiving optimal treatment for their mental health conditions while in the ED” and are more likely to require chemical and physical restraints. The group also cites the risk of medication errors, such as when patients are not given medications they take at home during their boarding time.

Changes in the works

In Colorado, Williams said an issue is a lack of residential treatment centers, which is the next level of care for kids who leave inpatient units. As a result, children are often sent out of state for care.

But changes appear to be afoot. On Monday, Gov. Jared Polis signed four new laws that will boost mental and behavioral health services in the state, which includes $2.5 million for elementary school programs and $5 million for youth residential help and therapeutic foster care using funds from the American Rescue Act.

President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act provided funding to address mental health and substance abuses challenges.

In Boston, leaders at Boston Children’s have worked with local lawmakers and started community service efforts to improve mental health resources at schools and training at primary care centers to equip doctors to manage acute problems early on.

Massachusetts has also launched the Roadmap for Behavioral Health Reform, which will create a new centralized service for people to call or text to get connected to mental health and addiction treatment and expand access to treatment at primary care offices. It will also create more inpatient psychiatric beds for pediatric and adult patients.

“There’s a lot of stigma associated with mental illness. And the more we can address this and bring other people to the table, such as private health insurance to actively engage in these efforts, that will really help in developing best practices for improving care for this patient population,” Ibeziako, with Boston Children’s Hospital, said.

For Carly and their mother, they want mental health to be paid attention to just as much as other health concerns.

“When you’re waiting, and you see other kids with medical problems like, ‘oh, I broke a leg,’ everybody’s on it, everyone’s taking care of it. And you have a psychiatric issue, it’s ‘oh, you’re going to have to wait for X amount of days.’ It makes these kids and their families feel like their mental health isn’t important,” McCabe said. “As a nation, kids should be our most important focus.”

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 [TALK] for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also reach the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Biden visits Florida to meet with first responders, families impacted in Surfside collapse

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(SURFSIDE, Fla.) — Biden and first lady to meet with families of Surfside condo collapse victims
The death toll has risen to 18 after the bodies of two children were found on Wednesda…

President Joe Biden is on the ground in Surfside, Florida, Thursday following the devastating partial collapse of a beachside condominium building last week that has killed at least 18 people.

The president departed the White House early Thursday morning and was planning to spend nearly eight hours on the ground in Florida. He’s already met with local officials and thanked first responders engaged in the ongoing search efforts ahead of consoling families affected by the disaster and delivering remarks at 3:50 p.m. ET. First lady Jill Biden is accompanying him for the visit.

At an earlier command briefing with local officials, seated next to Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, Biden immediately made a big offer to cover the cost of the response effort.

“I think there’s more we can do, including, I think we have the power, and I’ll know shortly, to be able to pick up 100% of the cost to the county and the state,” Biden said, eliciting a surprised reaction from Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who put her hand on Biden’s arm.

“I think the governor will you tell you, anything he asked for, he got,” Biden said, ahead of DeSantis nodding in agreement.

Biden took a moment to turn to politics, noting the bipartisan display of cooperation

“We’re letting the nation know we can cooperate when it’s really important,” Biden said.

Meeting later with a group of first responders, Biden was effusive with praise.

“I just want you to know that we understand,” he told the responder. “What you’re doing now, is just hard as hell. Even psychologically. And I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

He also invoked three personal stories to demonstrate the importance of first responders in his own life, referring to his experience having an aneurysm, describing his two sons being pulled out of the car crash that killed his first wife and daughter with the jaws of life and explaining that his home burned down after being struck by lightning.

“You saved my life. Literally, my fire department saved my life,” he said.

Search and rescue efforts were paused Thursday morning due to concerns about the stability of the remaining structure and the potential danger it poses to the crews. Structural engineers are on-site monitoring the situation as officials evaluate possible options and determine the next steps, according to Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

“We’re doing everything that we can to ensure that the safety of our first responders is paramount and to continue our search and rescue operations as soon as it is safe to do so,” she said at an earlier press conference.

Officials were unable to provide a timeline for when the urgent operation will resume.

Separately, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the visit has been closely coordinated with officials on the ground to ensure that it does not divert any resources away from search and rescue operations.

“They want to thank the heroic first responders, search and rescue teams, and everyone who has been working tirelessly around the clock, and meet with the families who have been forced to endure this terrible tragedy waiting in anguish and heartbreak for word of their loved ones, to offer them comfort as search and rescue efforts continue. And they want to make sure that state and local officials have the resources and support they need under the emergency declaration,” Psaki said earlier this week.

En route to Florida, principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that local leaders urged the Bidens to visit Thursday, saying the time was right despite ongoing search and rescue efforts.

“The message that we’ve been given is very clear from the mayor’s office, from the governor’s office, from local officials, which is, they wanted us to come today, think now is the time to come, to offer up, offer up comfort and show unity from not just from him, but the country. And so this is why he and the first lady decided to come today, and he thought this was the right time to do it,” Jean-Pierre said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Supreme Court upholds Arizona restrictions in major voting rights, racial discrimination case

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(WASHINGTON) — A divided US Supreme Court on Thursday upheld two Republican-backed Arizona voting restrictions, rejecting claims that they discriminate against minority voters and imposing new limits on the landmark Voting Rights Act.

The 6-to-3 decision, breaking along ideological lines, overturned a lower court ruling to uphold Arizona’s policy of invalidating ballots cast in the wrong precinct and a law criminalizing the collection of mail ballots by third-party community groups or campaigns.

Democrats had argued that data show both restrictions disproportionately hurt Latino and Native American voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits any policy that “results in the denial or abridgment of the right to vote of any citizen on account of race or color.”

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court’s six conservatives, said Section 2 requires equal openness to voting, not equal outcomes.

“It appears that the core of [Section 2] is the requirement that voting be ‘equally open.’ The statute’s reference to equal ‘opportunity’ may stretch that concept to some degree to include consideration of a person’s ability to use the means that are equally open. But equal openness remains the touchstone,” Alito wrote.

“Mere inconvenience cannot be enough to demonstrate a violation of [Section 2],” he added.

Civil rights advocates, Democrats and the court’s three liberal justices warned that the decision’s more stringent approach to racial disparity in voting will weaken the protections intended by Congress.

“This Court has no right to remake Section 2. Maybe some think that vote suppression is a relic of history — and so the need for a potent Section 2 has come and gone. But Congress gets to make that call,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent. “Because it has not done so, this Court’s duty is to apply the law as it is written.”

“The law that confronted one of this country’s most enduring wrongs; pledged to give every American, of every race, an equal chance to participate in our democracy; and now stands as the crucial tool to achieve that goal. That law, of all laws, deserves the sweep and power Congress gave it. That law, of all laws, should not be diminished by this Court,” she wrote.

The decision is the court’s most significant on voting rights in nearly a decade since the justices in 2013 effectively gutted Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had required states with a history of discrimination to “pre-clear” any new voting rules with the Justice Department.

The ruling could have a sweeping impact on the fate of state election laws as dozens of GOP-led states push for voting restrictions in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s claims of 2020 election fraud. Republicans in 48 states are pushing more than 389 restrictive bills that would make it more difficult to cast a ballot, according to the liberal Brennan Center for Justice.

While the Court’s conservative majority declined to lay out a sweeping new test for when state voting rules discriminate on race, it did make clear they will cast a skeptical eye on future challenges to similar measures.

Justice Alito offered a series of “guideposts” for judges to consider: the size of a voting rule’s burden; the degree to which it departs from past practice; the size of racial disparities; and the overall level of opportunity afforded voters within a state’s entire system for casting a ballot.

“No one suggests that discrimination in voting has been extirpated or that the threat has been eliminated,” Alito wrote, “but Section 2 does not deprive the states of their authority to establish non-discriminatory voting rules.”

Justice Kagan called Alito’s list of guidelines “a list of mostly made-up factors at odds with Section 2 itself.”

The law, she says, is written with a focus squarely on the effects of a voting restriction. “It asks not about why state officials enacted a rule, but about whether that rule results in racial discrimination. The discrimination that is of concern is inequality in voting opportunity.”

Alito fired back, calling Kagan’s interpretation “radical.”

Democrats and civil rights advocates say the guidelines laid out by Alito will make it more difficult to win legal challenges against restrictions like tighter rules for absentee ballots, reductions of drop boxes, stricter ID requirements, bans on ballot collection, purges of voter rolls, and even criminalizing of water distribution to people in long voting lines.

“This is a ruling that definitely will make it easier for states to impose restrictions, harder for plaintiffs and voting rights groups to challenge these kinds of restrictions, and could really impact the outcome in close elections going forward,” said Kate Shaw, Cardozo law professor and ABC News legal analyst.

President Biden said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” in the Supreme Court’s decision and that it inflicts “severe damage” to the Voting Rights Act. “After all we have been through to deliver the promise of this Nation to all Americans, we should be fully enforcing voting rights laws, not weakening them,” Biden wrote.

Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called it a “resounding victory for election integrity.”

“Democrats were attempting to make Arizona ballots less secure for political gain, and the Court saw right through their partisan lies,” she said in a statement.

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that Americans by a 2-1 margin call it more important to make it easier to vote lawfully than to make it harder to vote fraudulently.

Sixty-two percent in the national survey, completed Wednesday night, say it’s more important to pass new laws making it easier for people to vote lawfully; 30% instead say it’s more important to pass new laws making it harder to vote fraudulently.

There are sharp partisan and ideological differences. Eighty-nine percent of Democrats prioritize making it easier to vote lawfully, as do 62% of independents, dropping to 32% of Republicans. Still, that means a third of Republicans hold this view, which is at odds with the national party’s focus on the issue.

Earlier this month, Congress failed to advance a sweeping overhaul of federal election laws backed by Democrats and the White House that would have established new baseline standards for mail-in voting, early voting, ID requirements and voter registration. Republicans were staunchly opposed.

“The Court’s decision, harmful as it is, does not limit Congress’ ability to repair the damage done today: it puts the burden back on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act to its intended strength,” President Biden said.

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Pelosi taps GOP Rep. Liz Cheney for House select committee to investigate Jan. 6

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(WASHINGTON) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced Republican Rep. Liz Cheney will serve on the House select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

“We are very honored and proud she has agreed to serve on the committee,” Pelosi said Thursday.

At her press conference on Capitol Hill, Pelosi also announced House Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., will serve as the chair of the committee, which was widely expected.

The other Democrats tapped by Pelosi to serve on the committee are Reps. Zoe Lofgren, Adam Schiff, Pete Aguilar, Stephanie Murphy, Jamie Raskin and Elaine Luria.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in a press conference following Pelosi, downplayed reports that he’s threatened GOP members with taking away committee assignments if they were to accept a select committee position and questioned Cheney’s place in the Republican Party when given the chance.

“I was shocked that she would accept something from Speaker Pelosi. It would seem to me, since I didn’t hear from her, maybe she’s closer to her than us,” McCarthy said.

Cheney, who has been an outspoken critic of former President Donald Trump in the wake of the attack and stripped of her No. 3 GOP leadership role earlier this year, said in a statement she was “honored” to be named though she did not appear with Democrats on Thursday.

“Those who are responsible for the attack need to be held accountable and this select committee will fulfill that responsibility in a professional, expeditious, and non-partisan manner,” she said. “Our oath to the Constitution, our commitment to the rule of law, and the preservation of the peaceful transfer of power must always be above partisan politics.”

Later, appearing informally with the other members chosen by Pelosi, Cheney was asked if she would lose her committee assignments. She said she has not been told that at this time.

“We have an obligation to have a sober investigation of what happened leading up to the attack on the Capitol on that day,” she said.

The House approved a resolution Wednesday to green-light the creation of a select committee after a vote for a bipartisan, independent commission — similar to one formed after the Sept. 11 attacks — failed to pass the Senate earlier the month.

The resolution required a majority vote in the House for the committee to be formed and it passed mostly along party lines — other than Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., breaking from Republicans.

Pelosi introduced the measure earlier in the week, which states the committee will include 13 members. Eight of those members will be selected by Pelosi, while the five others will be selected by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in consultation with Pelosi.

“As we enter the Fourth of July weekend to observe the birth of our nation, we do so with increased responsibility to honor the vision of our Founders and to defend our American Democracy,” Pelosi said in a statement announcing her committee choices.

As for whether McCarthy will cooperate and to which members he would select to the committee, he told reporters Thursday, “When I have news on that, I’ll give it to you.”

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Pioneering female pilot will fly to space at age 82 on first crewed Blue Origin flight

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(NEW YORK) — Wally Funk, a pioneering female pilot who dreamed of being an astronaut in the 1960s, will fly to space later this month with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on the first crewed flight for his space-faring firm Blue Origin.

The flight will fulfill a lifelong dream for Funk, 82, and make her the oldest person ever to fly to space.

Funk’s dreams of becoming an astronaut date back to the original U.S.-Soviet Space Race era, when she was the youngest graduate of the privately-funded Woman in Space Program that later became known as the “Mercury 13” due to its 13 women participants. Female pilots went through the same physiological and psychological tests as the astronauts selected by NASA for Project Mercury. The women, however, never ended up flying to space.

In an Instagram video shared by Bezos revealing the news Thursday, Funk said she already knows the first thing she will say upon landing back on Earth: “Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me!”

“Back in the 60s, I was in the Mercury 13 program. They asked me, ‘Do you want to be an astronaut?’ I said, ‘Yes,'” Funk said in the video. “They told me that I had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys. So, I got a hold of NASA — four times — I said, ‘I want to become an astronaut,’ but nobody would take me.”

“I didn’t think that I would ever get to go up,” she added. “They said, ‘Wally, you’re a girl, you can’t do that!’ I said, ‘Guess what, doesn’t matter what you are, you can still do it if you want to do it, and I like to do things that nobody has ever done.'”

Despite not becoming a NASA astronaut, Funk still blazed trails for women in flight. She was the first female Federal Aviation Administration inspector and later the first woman National Transportation Safety Board investigator. She has amassed some 19,600 flying hours and taught more than 3,000 people how to fly.

The crew for the New Shepard spacecraft’s first flight consists of Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos (Jeff’s brother), Funk, and one unnamed private citizen who paid $28 million in an auction for Blue Origin’s final seat. Blue Origin has perviously said the name of the auction winner will be released in the coming weeks.

The inaugural crewed flight for Blue Origin is scheduled for July 20. In total, the flight is only about 11 minutes and approximately four minutes will be spent above the so-called Karman line that is defined as the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

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Princes William, Harry attend Princess Diana statue unveiling amid family tensions

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(LONDON) — Princes William and Harry, who have reportedly been estranged for over a year, made a rare appearance together Thursday to honor their mother, the late Princess Diana.

William and Harry, the only children of Diana and Prince Charles, were both present as a much-anticipated statue of Princess Diana was installed in the Sunken Garden of Kensington Palace on July 1, which would have been Diana’s 60th birthday.

“Today, on what would have been our Mother’s 60th birthday, we remember her love, strength and character — qualities that made her a force for good around the world, changing countless lives for the better,” the brothers shared in a joint statement. “Every day, we wish she were still with us, and our hope is that this statue will be seen forever as a symbol of her life and her legacy.”

The princes also thanked the statue’s sculptor, Ian Rank-Broadley, and the garden designer, Pip Morrison, for their “outstanding work” as well as shouted out “all those around the world who keep our mother’s memory alive.”

Also in attendance at the event were Diana’s siblings: The Earl Spencer, The Lady Sarah McCorquodale and The Lady Jane Fellowes.

Not in attendance were the brothers’ wives as well as their father, Prince Charles, and their grandmother, Queen Elizabeth.

The statue itself, which is 1.25 times life size and bronze, aims to “reflect the warmth, elegance and energy” of the late Princess of Wales and shows her surrounded by three children meant to represent “the universality and generational impact” of her work, according to Kensington Palace.

“The portrait and style of dress was based on the final period of her life as she gained confidence in her role as an ambassador for humanitarian causes and aims to convey her character and compassion,” the palace continued.

The base of the statue features Diana’s name and the date of its unveiling. In front of it is a paving stone engraved with an extract from the poem “The Measure of a Man.”

The statue was commissioned by William, 39, and Harry, 36, in 2017 to mark the 20th anniversary of their mother’s death.

Diana died in August 1997 after a car crash in the Pont D’Alma Bridge in Paris. William and Harry were 15 and 12, respectively, at the time.

“It has been 20 years since our mother’s death and the time is right to recognize her positive impact in the UK and around the world with a permanent statue,” the brothers said in a joint statement in 2017. “Our mother touched so many lives. We hope the statue will help all those who visit Kensington Palace to reflect on her life and legacy.”

Just one year after the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death, in 2018, Prince Harry wed his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex.

The couple, who now live in California, stepped down from their roles as senior, working members of the royal family last year amid family tensions that they went on to reveal in a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey in March.

In the interview, Harry described himself and William as being on “different paths.”

“The relationship is space at the moment, and, you know, time heals all things, hopefully,” Harry said. “I love William to bits. He’s my brother. We’ve been through hell together, and we have a shared experience, but we were on different paths.”

William and Harry grew up at Kensington Palace and Diana lived there until her death.

Harry and Meghan, who just welcomed their second child, a daughter named Lilibet Diana, at one point also lived in Kensington Palace near William and Kate, who still have their main residence there with their three children.

In 2019, Harry and Meghan moved from the palace to a new home in Windsor and also left the household they shared with William and Kate, a split that author Robert Lacey said was due to an “explosive argument” between the brothers.

Citing palace insiders, Lacey wrote in his new book, “Battle of Brothers,” that Harry reportedly hung up the phone on William, who then went to address him in-person about the way Meghan was reportedly treating palace staff.

After the argument, William reportedly instructed a royal aide to “start the process of dividing their two households immediately,” according to the book.

William and Harry’s first in-person reunion in over a year happened in April, when the royal family came together for the funeral of the brothers’ grandfather, Prince Philip.

Their wives, Kate and Meghan, have not seen each other in person in over a year.

Many see today’s event as a chance for the brothers to bridge the gap between them.

“I think there’s been a lot of hope that an event like this would bring the brothers back together, and it’s certainly true that their mother’s memory and honoring her memory is pretty much one of the only things that really unites them right now,” Victoria Murphy, ABC News royal contributor, said.

Robert Jobson, another ABC News royal contributor, said he hopes William and Harry will be able to reconnect, adding that the presence of Diana’s sisters and close members of the family might help.

“Just standing there and looking at that statue … in the Sunken Gardens where they used to play as kids with her looking over them, maybe that just might be the catalyst to start the end to this rift,” Jobson added.

While he said the relationship between the brothers is still “extremely complicated,” ABC News royal contributor Omid Scobie said he understands “it is still a case of distance” and “they’re simply not talking at the moment.”

“This is really going to be the first time where they have a proper opportunity to chat to each other,” Scobie said. “And maybe being here in the presence of the memory of their mother will be a reminder of the importance of love and family.”

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