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Saturday, February 15, 2014

MANUFACTURER CITED FOR VIOLATIONS AFTER FATALITY

FROM:  U.S. LABOR DEPARTMENT 

Florida manufacturer cited for willful violations following fatality

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In August 2013, a 32-year-old machine helper entered a large wire mesh manufacturing machine to retrieve a fallen metal bar, and he was struck and killed by a part that feeds the wire into the machine’s welding area. The light curtain that would have automatically turned the machine off before he entered the danger zone had been disabled. Proper operation of the machine’s guards, a basic Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirement, would have saved his life.

Today, following its investigation of the incident and inspection of the worksite, OSHA cited Wire Mesh Sales LLC for eight per-instance willful violations as well as a number of other repeat, serious and other-than-serious citations. Proposed penalties total $697,700. The company has been put into OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which focuses resources on inspecting employers who have demonstrated indifference to their legal obligations by committing willful, repeated or failure-to-abate violations.

“This was a preventable and senseless tragedy,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. “When employers are serious about safety, everyone benefits. Wire Mesh Sales LLC failed to properly implement OSHA safety regulations, and a worker paid the ultimate price.”

The per-instance willful citations include the employer’s failure to guard the wire mesh manufacturing machine as well as three other large machines that make wire mesh or straighten and test the wire. Additionally, the company failed to assure that four machines, including the one involved in the incident, were shut down and hazardous sources of energy were locked or tagged out prior to employees’ entering and servicing the equipment where no guards protected them from harm. The 56 employees, most of who were not native English speakers and who worked 12-hour shifts seven days per week, were exposed to serious injury or death because of these failures. OSHA proposes $560,000 in fines for the eight per-instance willful violations.

A willful violation is one committed with intentional knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirements, or with plain indifference to worker safety and health.

A total of 22 serious violations allege a variety of conditions, including: a factory floor cluttered with broken pallets creating a hazard that could lead to workers tripping and falling into moving machine parts; an electrical outlet left on the ground wrapped in tape that posed a shock hazard; and a bathroom with a sink that had been clogged for months with maggots swimming in standing water. A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known. Fines for the serious violations total $126,700.
Wire Mesh was also cited for a repeat violation for failing to administer an effective hearing conservation program. The company violated this standard at its Oglesby, Ill., facility in 2012. A repeat violation exists when an employer previously has been cited for the same or similar violation of a standard, regulation, rule or order at any facility in federal enforcement states within the last five years. There are $11,000 in proposed fines for the repeat violation.
Finally, the company was cited for four other-than-serious safety and health violations for failing to: mark exits, assure crane operation safety and develop an effective respirator program for employees required to wear respirators. An other-than-serious violation is one that has a direct relationship to job safety and health, but probably would not cause death or serious injury.

View all of the citations in this case. Wire Mesh has more than 200 employees nationwide, and recorded $60 million in revenue in 2012.

The employer has 15 business days from receipt of the citation and proposed penalties to comply, request a conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission.

G-20 TASK FORCE SETS AGENDA ON EMPLOYMENT

FROM:  U.S. LABOR DEPARTMENT 
Agenda for G20 Task Force on Employment Set in Sydney

As the U.S. representative to the G20's Task Force on Employment, Mark Mittelhauser, associate deputy undersecretary of labor for international affairs, visited Sydney, Australia, to chart out the G20 labor and employment agenda for 2014. Two of the major proposals set forth by Mittelhauser were adopted by the group in Sydney: a suggestion that member countries author strategic plans that detail their national employment strategies and a suggestion that the G20 create a special task force to address global workplace safety and health issues. The employment strategies are an effort to focus far greater attention on the difficulties workers have faced since the 2008 financial crisis. The U.S. safety and health proposal, endorsed by the task force, will help raise awareness about safety and health while also providing countries with a mechanism for exchanging best practices and learning how to address major issues. The G20, a group of the world's 20 key economic powers, was created to coordinate international economic and financial policies. The labor and employment ministers of the G20 are scheduled to meet in Melbourne, Australia, in September 2014.

PRESS STATEMENT: NEW GOVERNMENT FORMATION IN LEBANON

FROM:  U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT

Formation of New Government in Lebanon


Press Statement
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
February 15, 2014


The United States welcomes Lebanon’s formation of a new government, subject to the confidence of parliament. We have long said that the people of Lebanon deserve a government that responds to their needs and protects their interests.

We look to today’s announcement to be an important first step in addressing the political uncertainty that has hampered Lebanon in recent years. Amidst growing terrorism and sectarian violence, we look to the new cabinet, if approved by parliament, to address Lebanon’s urgent security, political and economic needs. The challenges ahead for Lebanon include addressing the needs of Lebanese communities hosting refugees from Syria; strengthening national institutions; countering extremist ideologies and redoubling counterterrorism efforts; encouraging economic growth, including offshore energy development; and holding presidential and parliamentary elections in a timely, transparent, democratic, and fair manner, in accordance with Lebanon’s constitution.

The United States reiterates its strong commitment to Lebanon’s sovereignty, security, and stability. We will continue to support the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces – the sole legitimate security forces in Lebanon. We look to the Government of Lebanon to continue to support these institutions and to do all it can to ensure that all parties comply with Lebanon’s obligations and commitments, including UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701. All those in Lebanon must uphold the Taif Agreement and the Baabda Declaration, including Lebanon’s policy of disassociation from the Syrian and other foreign conflicts. This policy is the best way to ensure Lebanon’s stability and security.
The United States looks forward to working effectively with the new Lebanese government to bolster peace, stability and prosperity in Lebanon, for the sake of the Lebanese people.


PRESS BRIEFING BEFORE PRESIDENTS TRIP TO CALIFORNIA

FROM:  THE WHITE HOUSE 

Press Briefing by Secretary Vilsack and Dr. Holdren on the President's Trip to CA

Via Conference Call
February 14, 2014 
6:31 P.M. EST
MR. LEHRICH:  Hey, everybody, thanks for joining us today.  I hope those of you who are on the East Coast are staying warm and dry.  As a reminder, this call is embargoed until 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, which means it’s not in tomorrow’s newspapers but can be online at 6:00 a.m. Eastern tomorrow morning.  The call will be on the record with that embargo. 
As you know, the President will be in the Fresno, California area tomorrow, where he’ll be talking about the severe droughts that are affecting much of California.  To talk about some of the new announcements the President will have tomorrow and related issues we’ve got Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Dr. John Holdren, who is the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and is going to talk to you about some of the science behind the weather we’re seeing here.
So, with that, I will turn it over to Secretary Vilsack.
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Matt, thank you very much.  And thanks to everybody on the call.  And certainly thanks to John Holdren for doing this as well.  Let me just preview for you the President’s focus on this California drought situation, which is really impacting California with its worst drought in over a hundred years, and it’s also impacting obviously other states as well.
Tomorrow the President will meet with producers and those who have been impacted and affected by the drought.  He’ll have an opportunity to observe the impacts on the ground, and he’ll I think offer a message of hope and a message that the federal government will do all that it can to try to alleviate some of the stress connected with this drought.
The President, last week in Michigan, signed the 2014 Agricultural Act, which is the farm bill, and in the farm bill it restored disaster assistance for livestock producers which had been dormant since October of 2011.  The President will direct the Department of Agriculture to accelerate in an historic effort to get the disaster programs now authorized under the farm bill to a point where farmers and producers in California and across the country will be able to apply for disaster assistance.
Normally, this process takes anywhere from six to eight months.  The President is going to direct us to get it done within 60 days so that within 60 days, by April 15th or there abouts, farmers and producers will be able to make applications for livestock assistance and should receive checks shortly thereafter.
This will not only impact folks in California but it will also have the opportunity to provide help and assistance to producers in the Dakotas who suffered from historic snowstorms last fall, and for those who suffered through the 2012 droughts across the country and other isolated situations.
We anticipate and expect that with this announcement that once applications are filed and money distributed, it will mean somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million of assistance to
California producers and probably likely nearly a billion dollars of assistance to producers across the country.
The President is also going to announce additional conservation assistance at a time when water is scarce and when livestock producers are challenged, and with those who are faced with drought conditions on their land and the possibility of losing very precious soil.  The President will be announcing an additional $15 million in targeted conservation assistance for those communities and areas that have been most affected by drought.  Five million dollars of that will be directed to California.  This is in addition to the $20 million that was announced last week.  An additional $10 million will then be given and made available to producers in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico.  These resources will be above and beyond what normally these states have received and these producers would receive for assistance.
The President will also announce an additional $5 million in targeted emergency watershed protection -- I should back up and indicate that the $15 million that’s being announced in targeted conservation assistance is really designed to provide opportunities for producers to conserve more effectively their water resources, to utilize the money to impact and reduce soil erosion as a result of the drought, and potentially use the proceeds to improve livestock access to water.
Five million dollars in targeted emergency watershed protection assistance will also be announced to California, and this is designed to specifically stabilize stream banks, to replant upland strips that have been stripped of their stations as a result of the drought.  This is also a soil conservation and water quality initiative.
In addition, we recognize -- the President definitely recognizes that droughts not only impact producers but also impacts the families of those who work in these orchards and with these growers and producers.  A lot of folks will not be employed, or if they’re employed, they won’t work the number of hours that they would normally work.  So we’re going to make sure that we provide assistance and help to those who might need the help of food banks to be able to provide food for their families. Sixty million dollars will be made available to food banks in the state of California to help families who have been economically impacted by the drought. 
And as summer approaches, we realize that it may be a challenge for children to have access to meals, and so we will be working with the state of California and the Department of Agriculture to establish 600 additional summer meal sites to make sure that youngsters in this state who have been impacted in drought-stricken areas will have some assistance and some help during the summer months.
The President is also going to follow the lead of Governor Brown in California when he declared state agencies to focus on drought emergency relief last month.  Governor Brown basically encouraged those in California to utilize water more effectively and efficiently.  The President will direct tomorrow federal facilities which are located in California to immediately curb water use, including a moratorium on water usage for new and nonessential landscaping projects, to redouble our efforts to look at longer-term water use reduction operations and technologies at federal facilities.
And the President will direct the Department of Interior to continue to take executive action to work with water contractors and communities to speed up changes in -- obviously to maintain important environmental safeguards, but to make sure that key water projects that could be encouraged and moved along are done so.  NOAA, EPA, the Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Services will be working daily with their state counterparts to try to make sure that everything that can be done to move water projects forward is being done in an effective and efficient way.
And we’ll obviously continue to invest in climate resilience.  The President has been very focused on it, directing these agencies to be looking at this.  The USDA announced that there is a climate change hub, one of which -- sub-hub will be located in Davis, California.  That sub-hub will be doing research and assessing the vulnerabilities specifically of California to the change in climate.  The President’s 2015 budget will include additional resources for a climate resilience fund.
So these steps are being taken in addition to the steps that have been taken and announced last week -- the $20 million for conservation and the $14 million for forestry assistance that was announced by the Department of Interior and USDA -- all in an effort to try to send a very specific message to producers in California that we are here to help to the extent that we can.
With that, I think I’d like to turn it over to John Holdren so he can explain to you the context of all of this.
John.
DR. HOLDREN:  Well, thank you, Secretary Vilsack.  First of all, we know that scientifically, no single episode of extreme weather, no storm, no flood, no drought can be said to have been caused by global climate change.  But the global climate has now been so extensively impacted by the human-caused buildup of greenhouse gases that weather practically everywhere is being influenced by climate change.
We’ve always had droughts in the American West, of course, but now the severe ones are getting more frequent, they’re getting longer and they’re getting drier.  And we understand a substantial part at least of the reason that that is happening in a warming world.  First of all, in a warming world, a larger proportion of total rainfall occurs in extreme downpours, and that means more of the rainfall is lost to storm runoff, and less soaks into the ground. 
Secondly, in a warming world, more of the precipitation that falls in the mountains occurs as rain rather than as snow.  The rain runs off quickly in contrast to snowpack that melts gradually and thus maintains river flows through the spring and the summer.  And third, higher temperatures, of course, mean greater loss of water to evaporation both from soils and from reservoirs. 
There are other, more subtle respects in which global climate change may be affecting the prevalence of drought -- scientists are still arguing about those -- but the three I just described are more than enough to understand why we are seeing droughts in drought-prone regions becoming more frequent, more severe, and longer.
The situation in California as I think you all know is particularly severe.   As Secretary Vilsack noted, it is the most severe drought in the more than hundred years of incremental records, but it’s also probably based on paleoclimate records one of the strongest droughts in the last 500 years.  And by the way, the drought in the Colorado River Basin is probably one of the strongest droughts in that area in the last thousand years.
MR. LEHRICH:  Thank you, Dr. Holdren and Secretary Vilsack.  And we’re ready for some questions now.
Q    Mr. Secretary, what does the administration think of the Feinstein-Boxer legislation that was introduced last Tuesday? Briefly, that would push the feds to be more flexible on how they control pumping and the water contracts for Central Valley water as well as the state water projects.
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Well, the reality I think this is an opportunity for us today to focus on executive action.  Obviously we’ll be -- the administration will be taking a look at what the senators are proposing -- I know they’re proposing additional help and assistance.  And we’ll obviously work with the Senate and the House if they can reach a consensus on this.  Obviously there’s a difference of opinion, based on what Senator Feinstein and what Senator Boxer have proposed, and what the House recently passed.
But rather than wait for congressional action, what we’re going to try to do is try to put the resources that are available that we have control over to work as quickly as possible.  And that’s -- I don’t want to underemphasize the significance of the President’s directive on this livestock assistance because, historically, this has taken months and months and months to do, and the President has been very clear to me and to USDA that he wants it done so that people can begin applying within 60 days.  That is going to send a very strong message about his need and his desire to get things moving and to help to the extent possible.
MR. LEHRICH:  And I can just add to that, Roger, from our perspective that we are encouraged by the progress in the Senate on efforts to ease the pain caused by the drought and that we look forward to continuing to work with the bill sponsors and other members of Congress, like the Secretary said, as the process moves forward.
Q    Mr. Secretary, could you elaborate on what you mean by operational flexibilities?  When you want to speed changes to key water projects, what key water projects are you talking about?
SECRETARY VILSACK:  These are projects that the Interior, EPA, Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Services are working on.  These are not projects that are specific to USDA.  But the President has been very clear that he doesn’t want any delay.  He wants folks to move as quickly as possible.  And the announcement today in terms of the disaster assistance is a reflection of that. 
I’m sure we can get you a list of the projects that are currently being worked on in California, but the bottom line here is that there’s no time for delay, there’s no time for inefficiency.  The President wants things to move and he’s directing all of his agencies to do what they can to try to alleviate or to try to mitigate the impacts and effects of this drought.
Q    Thanks.
Q    I just want to make sure - we’re only talking about the -- we’re not talking about the livestock indemnity program, it’s just the forest disaster program, because you said it’s going to be a billion dollars country-wide and that it would help the folks who went through blizzards, but that would be more like the livestock indemnity program, wouldn’t it -- for animals who just died from freezing to death?  I just want to make sure there’s nothing in here for fruit and vegetable growers.
SECRETARY VILSACK:  First of all, let me be clear about this:  There are four livestock disaster programs, there are four disaster programs that were reauthorized in the farm bill, and the President is instructing us on all four, to get them lined up so that applications can be received within 60 days and money can flow shortly thereafter.  So this is both the forage and the livestock indemnity program, the tree assistance program -- and one that’s escaping me right now.  So it’s all four; all four of them have to be institutionalized. 
And as it relates to some of the specialty crops that are grown in California, it’s conceivable the tree assistance program might be of assistance to tree producers, to nut producers here in this state.
Secondly, the conservation programs that we’re announcing are designed to provide help and assistance to growers of a multitude of crops, including fruits and vegetables.  To the extent that that land is now fallow and there is concern about soil erosion, to the extent that there are ways in which water resources, irrigation systems can be assisted or helped, these resources could potentially be made available as well for those growers. 
So this is not limited to livestock.  This is basically designed to try to provide help and assistance to producers of all stripes here in California, given the diversity of agriculture that’s been impacted.
Q    Super.  Thanks.
Q    Hi.  Thanks, Mr. Secretary.  I was wondering if there was any work being done to ease water transfers between the state water program and the Central Valley Improvement program.
SECRETARY VILSACK:  That's a question I’m not qualified to answer, but perhaps somebody from the White House can get some information to you on that.  I don't know the answer to that question.
MR. LEHRICH:  Sure.  Shoot us an email and we will make sure we get you in touch with the right people, I would imagine at the Department of the Interior.
Q    Thanks for the call, Mr. Secretary.  The state expected $1.1 billion to be available --
SECRETARY VILSACK:  I’m sorry.  I couldn’t hear that question very well.  There’s a problem with the phone.  I’m not sure why.
Q    Yes, is that better?
SECRETARY VILSACK:  You can try it.
Q    Yes, Mr. Secretary, so the $1.1 billion, is that the total in damages that you -- that has been calculated for this?  Or that's just the amount of money that may be used?  In other words, is it $1.1 billion in damages right now, just to be clear?
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Yes, to be clear about this, we estimate that the livestock disaster assistance programs will provide for California producers up to $100 million.  That's our estimate based on what we know and what we think we know about the damages that already have been suffered.
The billion-dollar number would include the $100 million and would include all of the other potential applications that could be forthcoming from folks who lost livestock or were impacted by the 2012 drought across the country, or who lost serious losses as a result of the snowstorms in the Dakotas last fall.  So it’s a billion dollars total.  Of that amount, $100 million is the estimate for what we think is likely to occur in California.  Is that clear?
Q    Okay.  One follow-up?  Would you support more reservoirs to hold the water for droughts like this in California?
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Well, I think actually I‘m probably not the person to ask that question.  What I am interested in making sure that we do is to provide producers with as much information as we possibly can about how to most effectively use the water resources, whatever they are, wherever they come from, however they're stored in an environmentally appropriate way and the like, and distribute it appropriately.
Our goal here is to make sure that we provide producers help and assistance because they have suffered immediately and to use the climate hub efforts to assess the long-term vulnerabilities, to provide and identify technologies for producers that they can use to adapt to a changing climate or to mitigate the impacts.
We have already invested several hundred million dollars in research in California.  A lot of it has been focused on trying to figure out how to use water more effectively, how to reduce the salinity of the water that is available, how to ensure that new technologies -- new seed technologies are being developed, to utilize scarce water resources more effectively.  That's the role and responsibility of the USDA, and that's what we’re -- that's what I’m focused on -- getting relief to folks.
DR. HOLDREN:  Can I just add -- this is John Holdren.  Let me just add one point there.  The problem in California is not that we don't have enough reservoirs.  The problem is that there’s not enough water in them.  Just to give you some numbers: As of the end of last weekend, Fulsom Lake was at 22 percent of capacity; Lake Oroville at 37 percent; Pine Flat at 18 percent; San Luis Reservoir at 30 percent.  You get the idea.  We just haven’t had enough water flowing into those reservoirs.  It wouldn’t help to build any more.
Q    Thank you.
Q    Yes, can you tell me if the administration took a position on the bill that passed the House last week that was supposed to address these water problems in California?
MR. LEHRICH:  Yes, Gary.  We did take a position.  We’ve issued a statement of administration policy opposed to that bill. and we’ll be happy to send you the full text of that statement of administration policy.
Q    Thank you.
Q    Hi.  Thank you for speaking with us.  I have a question about the $100 million in livestock disaster assistance.  Can dairy farmers use that money to shore up the crops they need to feed to their livestock?  Or is it simply for livestock head guys?
SECRETARY VILSACK:  There are two different programs.  One addresses livestock that died as a result of whatever -- storms, drought.  There’s also a forage program that basically provides help and assistance to producers who have been unable to obtain the forage that they traditionally could rely on to feed their livestock.  This gives them cash assistance that allows them potentially to get forage and feed from other sources. It might be more expensive.  There may be transportation expenses.  So it’s both.
Q    Okay, so we could see California dairy farmers using that money to buy forage from out of state?
SECRETARY VILSACK:  Or a different feed that they wouldn’t normally or traditionally use, because they have their own access to their own fields, which right now are not producing enough. It’s always up to the producer.  It’s up to the producer’s situation.
 
But the point of this is it provides help and assistance to producers who have been negatively impacted by this drought either in terms of the availability or substantial cost with alternatives or substitutes.
 
Q    The President rarely discusses climate change when he talks about extreme weather.  Is that going to change tomorrow?  And if so, for all those parched Americans out there, how do you really connect things like cutting greenhouse gases or backing renewable energy with terrible drought?
DR. HOLDREN:  I mean, number one, you can certainly expect that the President will talk about the connection between the increasing frequency and intensity of droughts and climate change when he speaks tomorrow.  He has actually repeatedly talked about the connection between climate change and extreme weather.  He did so in his speech at June 25th at Georgetown University when he rolled out the Climate Action Plan.
And he will talk tomorrow about the phenomena that I mentioned earlier in this call, which is that we really understand a number of the reasons that global climate change is increasing the intensity and the frequency and the length of droughts in drought-prone regions.  This is one of the better understood dimensions of the relationship between global climate change and extreme weather in particular regions.
Q    I also have a question about moving along key water projects.  I’m wondering if by that you or the administration is endorsing in any way the Bay Delta Conservation Project to build twin tunnels under the Delta to transfer water more effectively from north to south.
 
SECRETARY VILSACK:  I don’t know the answer to that question.  I can tell you that we have at the USDA been involved in the California Bay Delta area with additional investments over the last several years.  But I’m not familiar with that specific project.
 
DR. HOLDREN:  Nor am I.
Q    Can I have a follow-up question?  I’m wondering for the drought assistance for growers and farmers, what form will that assistance take?  Do you have an idea about that?
SECRETARY VILSACK:  When you say “form” -- well, let me just see if I can respond to your question.  The livestock disaster assistance we referred to earlier is in the form of cash.  It’s in the form of money.  The conversation assistance is also in the form of resources that will be utilized by producers.  It helps to pay for conservation practices that they may install on their property or efficiencies that they may create in terms of water resources that they’re currently using.
Most of these programs are sort of matching funds providing help and assistance to the producer -- not fully paying for all of the steps, but helping to pay for a portion of them.  The emergency water assistance grants are grants made to communities themselves.  So that’s resources, money that’s provided to a community, it’s not provided through producers.  It’s provided to a community that is faced with water shortages.  And they may be taking steps to secure additional water resources.  And this money is provided to assist them in helping to pay for whatever steps they’re taking.
The food bank resources is money from The Emergency Food Assistance Program, TEFAP, that gives food banks the capacity to go out and purchase whatever they believe is most appropriate, most necessary, to help families based on what demand at the food bank is.  And the summer meal program, basically once the sites are set up, USDA provides a cost to -- the 600 summer meal sites, that is -- USDA provides reimbursement to the affiliates or the community that is sponsoring the meal sites.  We basically pay for the meals and we provide a reimbursement level based on the number of meals that are supplied.  So it’s a wide range of types of assistance that are provided.
 
MR. LEHRICH:  Thank you, Secretary Vilsack and Dr. Holdren. And thank you all for taking the time to join us.  One more reminder that this call was on the record, but is embargoed for 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning Eastern time, which means it’s not in Friday’s papers, it’s in Saturday’s papers, but can be online at 6:00 a.m. Eastern time.
 
As always, if you didn’t get a fact sheet or have follow-ups, feel free to get in touch with us.  Otherwise, I’m sure that Secretary Vilsack and the President look forward to seeing a bunch of you tomorrow in California. 
Thanks again.  Have a good night.
END

TWO MEN SENTENCED FOR HATE CRIME ATTACK ON 17-YEAR-OLD AFRICAN-AMERICAN

FROM:  U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT 
Monday, February 10, 2014
Two Men Sentenced for Federal Hate Crime Charges Resulting from 2012 New Year's Eve Attack

The Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California announced that two Latino men associated with the Compton 155 street gang were sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. for their racially-motivated attack on African-American juveniles at a residence in Compton, Calif., on Dec. 31, 2012.  Jeffrey Aguilar, also known as Terco, 19, and Efren Marquez Jr., also known as Stretch and Junior, 21, were each sentenced to serve 21 months in prison along with three years of supervised release.

On Oct. 17, 2013, both defendants pleaded guilty to violating the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act after admitting their involvement in the assault.

Aguilar and another individual physically attacked a 17-year-old African-American, who was walking down a street in the city of Compton.  Aguilar chased down and struck the victim in the head with a metal pipe.  During the incident, Marquez threatened to shoot another African-American juvenile who was present.  Both Aguilar and Marquez admitted that the attack on the 17-year-old victim was motivated by the race and color of the victim.

“Despite the substantial progress made, violent acts of hate committed because of someone’s race continue to occur to this day, and the department will continue to use every available tool to identify and prosecute hate crimes whenever and wherever they occur," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“Hate based crimes have no place in America,” said U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. for the Central District of California.  “The defendants’ attempt to rid their neighborhood of African-Americans serves as a sickening reminder that racial intolerance still exists in some segments of our community.  For this egregious conduct, the defendants have received well-deserved prison terms.”

“The FBI is committed to the protection of civil rights and will continue to investigate allegations of crime motivated by hate,” said Assistant Director in Charge Bill L. Lewis for the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.  “I’m hopeful that this sentencing will clarify the serious consequences for anyone contemplating senseless violence against the innocent due to their religion, race, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”

“Law enforcement is dedicated to protecting the civil rights of all members of our community and the outcome of this case is a great example of the close cooperation between all agencies involved to ensure that goal,” said Interim Sheriff John L. Scott of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
                     
This case is the result of an investigation conducted by the FBI and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.  It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Reema El-Amamy of the Violent and Organized Crime Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Trial Attorney Saeed Mody of the Civil Rights Division.

IRS REPORTS INCREASED TAX FILINGS SO FAR IN 2014

FROM:  INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE 
Filing Season 2014 Begins with More Returns Filed

WASHINGTON — The IRS today announced that tax filings in 2014 have outpaced filings for the same time last year. As of Feb. 7, the IRS received 27.3 million returns, up 2.5 percent compared to the same time last year. Electronically filed returns account for almost 96 percent of those filed so far this year.

Taxpayers, either through tax preparers or from their home computers, have e-filed more than 26 million returns so far this year, up almost 4 percent compared to the same time last year. As of Feb. 7, taxpayers have filed more than 13 million returns from home computers, an increase of 14.7 percent compared to the same period last year.

Refunds are up for 2014, with almost 19.5 million issued this year, an increase of more than 18 percent compared to the same time last year. The average refund as of Feb. 7 is $3,317, up 4.6 percent compared to the same time last year. (Refund averages generally have higher dollar values early in the filing season than later in the year.)

Most refunds are directly deposited into taxpayer accounts; just over 87 percent of all refunds issued were directly deposited as of Feb. 7. 2014.

JUSTICE SAYS EVIDENCE OF GENDER BIAS IN MISSOULA COUNTY ATTORNEY'S OFFICE

FROM:  U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT 
Friday, February 14, 2014
Justice Department Finds Substantial Evidence of Gender Bias in Missoula County Attorney’s Office
Response to Sexual Assault Cases with Women Victims at Issue

Today, the Department of Justice issued a letter of findings describing problems in the Missoula County, Mont., Attorney’s Office’s response to sexual assault, and concluding that there is substantial evidence that the County Attorney’s response to sexual assault discriminates against women.  The department opened civil pattern or practice investigations of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, along with the Missoula Police Department and the University of Montana’s Office of Public Safety, in May 2012.  The department investigations, brought under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, and the anti-discrimination provisions of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, focused on allegations that the three law enforcement agencies were systematically failing to protect women victims of sexual assault in Missoula.   The department, along with the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, also opened an investigation of the University of Montana’s handling of allegations of sexual assault and harassment of students under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  The investigation of the Missoula Police Department and both investigations of the University of Montana were resolved in May 2013, via cooperative agreements with the Justice Department.

“Prosecutors play a critical role in ensuring that women victims of sexual assault have effective and equal access to criminal justice,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels for the Civil Rights Division.  “We uncovered evidence of a disturbing pattern of deficiencies in the handling of these cases by the County Attorney’s Office, a pattern that not only denies victims meaningful access to justice, but places the safety of all women in Missoula at risk.  We hope that this letter will enable us to move forward with constructive discussions with the County Attorney to resolve these serious concerns.”

The department’s investigation uncovered evidence indicating that the Missoula County Attorney’s Office engages in gender discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution as well as relevant federal laws.  In particular, the investigation found evidence that the decisions of the County Attorney’s Office regarding the investigation and prosecution of sexual assaults and rape, particularly non-stranger assaults and rapes, are influenced by gender bias and gender stereotyping and adversely affect women in Missoula.  The investigation found that the following, taken together, strongly suggest gender discrimination:

·          Despite their prevalence in the community, sexual assaults of adult women are given low priority in the County Attorney’s Office;

·          The County Attorney does not provide Deputy County Attorneys with the basic knowledge and training about sexual assault necessary to effectively and impartially investigate and prosecute these cases;

·          The County Attorney’s Office generally does not develop evidence in support of sexual assault prosecutions, either on its own or in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies

·          Adult women victims, particularly victims of non-stranger sexual assault and rape, are often treated with disrespect, not informed of the status of their case and revictimized by the process;  and

·          The County Attorney’s Office routinely fails to engage in the most basic communication about its cases of sexual assault with law enforcement and advocacy partners.

“Over the past eight months, the City of Missoula, the University of Montana and the Missoula Police Department already have made important strides toward improving their response to sexual assault and strengthening the community’s confidence in its local police,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter for the District of Montana.  “It is our sincere hope that the Missoula County Attorney will follow that example and work cooperatively with the Justice Department to address the deficiencies identified in our investigation, and to improve the safety of women in this community.

The investigation was conducted jointly by the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana.  The prevention of sex-based discrimination is a top priority of the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney’s Offices.  The Civil Rights Division has worked to ensure that women are not subject to discriminatory practices by law enforcement in New Orleans, Puerto Rico and elsewhere.

NATIONAL GUARD HELPS DURING RECENT SNOW EMERGENCIES


FROM:  U.S. DEFENSE DEPARTMENT 

Soldiers prepare vehicles and equipment on Camp Fretterd Military Reservation near Reisterstown, Md., to help first responders during a declared state of emergency, Feb. 13, 2014. The soldiers are assigned to the Maryland National Guard. Maryland National Guard photo by Army Sgt. Edwin Gray.




Soldiers push a stranded vehicle while providing emergency service and support to civil authorities and to residents during a winter storm, Fredericksburg, Va., Feb. 13, 2014. The soldiers are assigned to the Virginia National Guard's 116th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 116th Brigade Combat Team. Virginia National Guard photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Meghan Skrepenski.

NARWHAL TUSK TRAFFICKER CONVICTED FOR ROLE IN ILLEGAL IMPORTATION CASE

FROM:  JUSTICE DEPARTMENT 
Friday, February 14, 2014
Narwhal Tusk Trafficker Convicted of Conspiracy and Money Laundering

Andrew L. Zarauskas, 60, of Union, N.J., was found guilty today by a federal jury in Bangor, Maine, of illegally trafficking and smuggling narwhal tusks, and associated money laundering crimes, announced Robert G. Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division .

The defendant was convicted of conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, smuggling, and money laundering violations for buying narwhal tusks knowing the tusks had been illegally imported into the United States from Canada, as well as selling or attempting to sell the tusks after their illegal importation.

“The Justice Department takes seriously our responsibility to prosecute those who engage in the illegal trade of any protected wildlife species,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Dreher.  “Zarauskas and his co-conspirators flouted U.S. law and international agreements that protect marine mammals such as the narwhal for their own personal financial benefit.  The Justice Department will continue to investigate and prosecute those engaged in this insidious trade in order to protect species for future generations to enjoy.”

"The success of this investigation was a direct result of the uncompromising cooperation between special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and Environment Canada. It is this type of international teamwork which exemplifies the ongoing fight against illegal wildlife trafficking."  said William C. Woody, Assistant Director for Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This investigation is an example of excellent coordinated efforts between NOAA, Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement” said Logan Gregory, Special Agent In Charge for NOAA.   The protection of Marine Mammals and enforcement of the Marine Mammal Protection Act is a high priority for OLE and we will continue to work with our enforcement partners and the Department of Justice to ensure compliance.”

From 2002 to 2008, Zarauskas knowingly purchased approximately 33 narwhal tusks that he knew were illegally imported into the United States in violation of federal law.  A narwhal is a medium-sized whale with an extremely long tusk that projects from its upper left jaw, often referred to as the unicorn of the sea.   As marine mammals narwhals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).   It is illegal to import parts of marine mammals into the United States without the requisite permits/certifications, and without declaring the merchandise at the time of importation to U.S. Customs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Narwhal tusks are commonly collected for display purposes and can fetch large sums of money.

According to evidence presented at the trial, Zarauskas conspired with others, including persons located in Canada, to illegally import the protected tusks for re-sale in the United States and to launder the funds used to purchase the narwhal tusks by transporting, transmitting, or transferring checks and money orders from New Jersey to Canada, intending that the money be used for further illegal imports of narwhal tusks.

On Jan. 7, 2014, Jay G. Conrad, of Lakeland, Tenn., who had been charged in the same indictment, pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally import and traffic narwhal tusks, conspiring to launder money, and illegally trafficking narwhal tusks.   On that same date, a plea agreement was also unsealed in which Eddie T. Dunn, of Eads, Tenn., pleaded guilty in the District of Alaska to conspiring to illegally traffic, and trafficking, narwhal tusks.

Throughout the conspiracy, Zarauskus and his co-conspirators made payments to the Canadian supplier for the narwhal tusks, by sending the payments to a mailing address in Bangor, Maine, or directly to the supplier in Canada.   The payments allowed the Canadian supplier to purchase and re-supply Zarauskus and Conrad with more narwhal tusks that they could then re-sell.   Conrad sold between $400,000 and $1 million worth of narwhal tusks and Dunn sold approximately $1.1 million worth of narwhal tusks as members of the conspiracy.

Earlier this week, President Obama announced the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, recognizing that record high demand for wildlife products, coupled with inadequate preventative measures and weak institutions has resulted in an explosion of illicit trade in recent years.   Like other forms of illicit trade, wildlife trafficking undermines security across nations.   While t he Department of Justice has long worked to protect threatened and endangered wildlife species through its enforcement of the Lacey Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, among other laws, the National Strategy identifies priority areas for increased interagency coordination, with the objectives of harnessing and strategically applying the full breadth of U.S. Government resources to end the pernicious trade in protected species both at home and abroad.

Zarauskus and Conrad are to be sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge John A. Woodcock in the District of Maine.   A sentencing date has not been set.   They each face a maximum of twenty years incarceration for their involvement in this narwhal tusk trafficking scheme, and a fine of up to $250,000. Dunn is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Beistline in the District of Alaska on March 20, 2014, and may be imprisoned up to five years and fined $250,000. Co-defendant Gregory R. Logan is pending extradition from Canada to the District of Maine.

The case was investigated by agents from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement and in coordination with Environmental Canada Wildlife Enforcement Division and the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs.  The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Todd S. Mikolop and James Nelson of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.

TRUCKING COMPANY CONTRACTOR IN AFGHANISTAN PLEADS GUILTY IN BRIBERY CASE

FROM:  JUSTICE DEPARTMENT AFGHANISTAN 
Friday, February 14, 2014
Independent Contractor in Afghanistan Pleads Guilty for His Role in Offering $54,000 in Bribes to a U.S. Government Official

Earlier today at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., Akbar Ahmad Sherzai, 49, of Centreville, Va., an independent contractor for a trucking company operating in Afghanistan that was responsible for delivering fuel to U.S. Army installations, pleaded guilty to his role in offering a U.S. Army serviceman $54,000 in bribes to falsify documents to reflect the successful delivery of fuel shipments that Army records indicate were never delivered.  Sherzai faces a maximum of 15 years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta E. Lynch made the announcement.

“The defendant sought to use deception, corruption and greed to enrich his company at the risk of jeopardizing the U.S. Army’s supply lines in Afghanistan,” said U.S. Attorney Lynch.  “Attempts to corrupt American officials will not be tolerated, either at home or abroad.”  U.S. Attorney Lynch extended her grateful appreciation to the Special Inspector General for the Afghanistan Reconstruction, Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI for their assistance in this case.

The U.S. Army regularly contracts with local Afghan trucking companies to transport U.S. military equipment, fuel, and other supplies throughout Afghanistan.  To ensure the companies fulfilled these requests, the U.S. Army used transportation movement requests (TMRs), which, when properly completed, verified that the shipments were successfully completed before approving payments to the trucking companies.

In April 2013, Sherzai approached a U.S. military serviceman to discuss fuel delivery missions that had been classified by the U.S. Army as “no-shows,” meaning that the fuel had not been delivered.  Sherzai offered the serviceman a bribe to falsify the TMRs to reflect successful deliveries so that Sherzai’s company would receive payment and avoid penalties for failed fuel deliveries.  The serviceman, under the supervision of law enforcement, continued to meet with Sherzai to discuss payments for the falsification of records.  On two separate occasions, Sherzai paid the serviceman bribes in cash on American military bases in Afghanistan.  On another occasion, Sherzai arranged for the serviceman’s bribe to be transferred to the United States through a hawala, an informal money transfer system.  In total, Sherzai paid the serviceman $54,000 in cash to falsify fourteen TMRs.  Each “no show” delivery mission, absent the fraudulent TMRs, would have resulted in a fine of the company by the U.S. government of $75,000.

Sherzai was arrested on a criminal complaint on Sept. 24, 2013.  The guilty plea proceeding was held before U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert M. Levy.

The government’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant U. S. Attorney Amir H. Toossi and Trial Attorney Daniel Butler of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.


U.S. EXTENDS BEST WISHES TO PEOPLE OF SERBIA ON THEIR NATIONAL DAY

FROM:  STATE DEPARTMENT 
Serbia's National Day
Press Statement
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
February 14, 2014

On behalf of President Obama and the people of the United States, I extend best wishes to the people of Serbia as you celebrate your National Day on February 15.

The United States congratulates Serbia on opening accession talks and taking a crucial step toward EU membership. We commend the April 2013 agreement on normalization of relations with Kosovo.

We also welcome Serbia’s signing of a NATO Partnership for Peace Status of Forces Agreement and look forward to signing the Memorandum of Understanding for the Fulbright educational program. International exchange programs can have a transformative impact, which is exactly why they are such a high priority for me as Secretary of State.

The United States is committed to supporting Serbia’s efforts toward full integration into the Euro-Atlantic community. Serbia is assuming a growing role as a force for peace, stability, and prosperity in the region. That’s why our continued work to strengthen its multiethnic society, democratic institutions and rule of law is so important.

I congratulate all the people of Serbia and look forward to strengthening our partnership in the years to come.

U.S. CONGRATULATES LITHUANIANS ON THEIR NATIONAL DAY

FROM:  STATE DEPARTMENT 
On the Occasion of Lithuania's National Day
Press Statement
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
February 14, 2014

On behalf of President Obama and the people of the United States, I congratulate the people of Lithuania on the 96th anniversary of your independence on February 16.

The United States and Lithuania share a warm friendship and a strong commitment to freedom, democracy, shared prosperity, and the rule of law.

I saw the strength of our partnership firsthand during my visit to Lithuanian last September, and let me tell you, it remains as relevant today as it has been in the past.

As Lithuania marks its 10th anniversary in NATO and the European Union and begins its U.N. Security Council term, the United States looks back in pride on the long and productive relationship between our nations.

We also look forward to the work ahead: advancing democratic norms and peace worldwide, increasing bilateral trade and investment, and supporting the goals of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

On this special day, the United States offers its congratulations to the people of Lithuania on a successful EU presidency and sends heartfelt wishes for the future.

NASA'S SPACECRAFT CRAWLER-TRANSPORTERS

FROM:  NASA 

The crawler-transporter that will carry NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft to Launch Pad 39B for launch on Exploration Mission-1 in 2017 recently passed the first phase of an important milestone test at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Ground Systems Development and Operations Program completed testing of new traction roller bearings on crawler-transporter 2 (CT-2), on two of the massive vehicle’s truck sections, A and C, in late January. The new roller bearing assemblies that were installed on one side of the crawler are visible in this Jan. 31, 2014 image. CT-2 returned to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center, where work continues to install new roller bearing assemblies on the B and D truck sections. For more than 45 years the crawler-transporters were used to transport the mobile launcher platform and the Apollo-Saturn V rockets and, later, space shuttles to Launch Pads 39A and B. Upgrades to CT-2 are necessary in order to increase the lifted-load capacity from 12 million to 18 million pounds to support the weight of the mobile launcher and future launch vehicles, including the SLS and Orion. Photo credit: NASA-Kim Shiflett.

Friday, February 14, 2014

JOINT STATEMENT ON DECLASSIFICATION OF ADDITIONAL DOCUMENTS UNDER FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE SURVEILLANCE ACT

FROM:  JUSTICE DEPARTMENT 
Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Joint Statement by Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on the Declassification of Additional Documents Regarding Collection Under Section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act

Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released the following joint statement Wednesday:

“On Jan. 3, 2014, the Director of National Intelligence declassified and disclosed publicly that the U.S. government had filed an application with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking renewal of the authority to collect telephony metadata in bulk, and that, on Jan. 3, 2014, the court renewed that authority. The Director of National Intelligence also announced that the Administration was undertaking a declassification review of the court’s Jan. 3 primary order.

“During his speech on Jan. 17, 2014, President Obama ordered a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities this country needs without the U.S. Government holding this bulk data.

“As a first step in that transition, the President directed the Department of Justice to work with the FISC to ensure that, absent a true emergency, the telephony metadata can only be queried after a judicial finding that there is a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the selection term is associated with an approved international terrorist organization. The President also directed that the query results must be limited to metadata within two hops of the selection term instead of three. As previously announced on Feb. 6, 2014, to put these two changes into effect, the Department of Justice filed a motion with the FISC to amend its Jan. 3, 2014, primary order that renewed the authority to collect telephony metadata under Section 215. On Feb. 5, 2014, the FISC granted the motion.

“Following a declassification review by the Executive Branch, today the FISC released in redacted form the previously classified Jan. 3, 2014, primary order, signed by Judge Thomas Hogan, re-authorizing the collection of bulk telephony metadata under Section 215. The order re-affirms that the bulk telephony metadata collection is lawful. The authorization expires on Mar. 28, 2014. The FISC also released in redacted form the U.S. Government’s previously classified motion to amend the Jan. 3, 2014, primary order, as well as the previously classified Feb. 5, 2014, order granting that motion, signed by Judge Reggie Walton.

U.S. HAS WARNING FOR RELEASED DETAINEES

FROM:  U.S. DEFENSE DEPARTMENT  
DOD Spokesman: Released Detainees Rejoin Fight at Own Peril
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14, 2014 – If the detainees the Afghan government released over NATO objections rejoin the fight, “they do so at their own peril,” Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said at a news conference today.
The press secretary said the 65 detainees released in Afghanistan yesterday are dangerous, and that releasing them was a bad decision for the Afghan people.
Some of those released have American blood on their hands, the admiral said, but he added that he is “not sure that that’s the only metric that matters here.”
The men should not be free, Kirby said. “We had strong evidence on all of them, evidence that has been ignored. And that's unsatisfactory to us,” he told reporters. “It’s not just United States forces in Afghanistan who are now victims of this, but so are the Afghan people, because many of these individuals killed innocent Afghans. They’re criminals, terrorists. They need to be detained, and they are not now, and obviously, that’s a decision that the Afghan government made.”
U.S. forces are not mobilizing to go after these individuals, Kirby said, but will continue to go after enemies targeting NATO forces and the Afghan people. “Should one of these detainees rejoin the fight, they need to know that they do it at their own peril,” he said.

Thursday, the U.S-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said some of the individuals previously released by the Afghan government have already returned to the fight and that additional released detainees may continue to fill the ranks of the insurgency.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai made the unilateral decision to release these individuals, Kirby noted. “They are still very dangerous individuals who should have remained locked up,” he added. “Now they are not. There’s not going to be an active targeting campaign … to go after them. That said, if they choose to return to the fight, they become legitimate enemies and legitimate targets.”

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S REMARKS AT HOUSE DEMOCRATIC ISSUES CONFERENCE

FROM:  THE WHITE HOUSE 

Remarks by the President at House Democratic Issues Conference

Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay
Cambridge, Maryland
10:43 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you, guys.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  Everybody, have a seat.  Thank you so much.  (Applause.)  Well, it is good to see you.  Joe, thank you for the wonderful introduction.  Let me be the first to say, Happy Valentine’s Day to our fearless leader, Nancy Pelosi.  (Applause.)  Paul will hopefully get you more than just a thank-you.
To Steny, to Jim, Xavier, Steve Israel -- who’s doing an extraordinary job under very difficult circumstances -- (applause) -- Debbie Wasserman Shultz, who is putting in more miles than just about anybody I know -- (applause) -- and all of you.  It’s great to see you. 
We just saw each other at the White House fairly recently, so I'm not going to give a long speech here.  I want to spend most of my time answering some more questions.  But let me just make a couple observations since we saw each other.  First of all, I stated in our State of the Union that the single most important thing we have to do -- not just as a party, but as a country -- is make sure that there’s opportunity for every single person; that we are focused every single day in this town -- or in Washington -- on making sure that if you're willing to work hard, if you're willing to take responsibility, that you can get ahead.  It doesn’t matter where you live, what circumstances you were born into, what you look like, who you love, you should be able to make it here in America.
And as I said at the State of the Union, I want to work with Congress to make that happen, but I'm not going to wait, because there’s too much to do.  (Applause.)  And America does not believe in standing still.  America insists on moving forward.
We laid out some very specific ways that we can move the country forward, breaking them down into a few categories:  Number one, creating more good jobs that pay good wages.  Number two, making sure that folks are trained to fill those good jobs. Number three, making sure that our kids have the best education  in the world.  And number four, making sure that hard work pays off, that people aren’t poor if they’re working full-time, that they have some semblance of retirement security, that they can count on health care if, heaven forbid, something happens to them.
And already, just in the last couple of weeks, we’ve put forward a range of executive actions that are going to make a difference.  So, yesterday, for example, I had a chance to be with a group of minimum wage workers for federal contractors -- these are folks who are washing dishes, or cleaning clothes on military bases or facilities -- and sometimes the debates on Capitol Hill get so abstract, and to be next to folks -- the average age, by the way, 35.  These aren’t teenagers, these are folks who are looking after families and trying to raise kids.  And to see what it would mean to them for us to have a federal minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, and how much relief that would give them, and how committed they were to the American Dream and getting ahead and just hoping that somebody was standing up for them -- it reminded me of why I'm a Democrat.  (Applause.)  and it reminded me of why I'm so proud of this caucus, because you're standing up on behalf of them.
And so we signed the executive order -- these folks are going to get a raise.  And what I said yesterday is that now it's time for Congress to act because America deserves a raise.  (Applause.)
I pointed out yesterday, as I pointed out at the State of the Union, that the majority of low-wage workers are women, which is why we're going to keep on pushing to make sure that we have equal pay for equal work -- (applause) -- and we have sensible family policies.  Because as I said at the State of the Union, when women succeed America succeeds.  I still believe that.  (Applause.)
We've traveled to manufacturing plants up in Wisconsin to talk about how we can continue to accelerate advanced manufacturing and technology in this country.  And we've got some great possibilities to create hubs that keep us on the cutting-edge.  We've signed executive orders to advance the kind of job training that is going to help people train for the jobs that actually exist and link up businesses with our community colleges. 
We've already through executive action set up a new retirement account, MyRA, that allows folks to get a starter retirement, because a whole lot of people don’t have 401(k)s to save. 
Across the board, we’re moving.  But as I said at the State of the Union, and I want to repeat today, we can get a whole lot more done if we’ve got Congress working with us.  And this caucus has shown time and time again under the most difficult circumstances the kind of courage and unity and discipline that has made me very, very proud.
And I was just talking to Nancy before I came out here.  The fact that we are no longer going to see, I believe, anybody try to hold our government hostage and threaten the full faith and credit of the United States of America in order to contract policy concessions, the fact that we were able to pass a clean debt limit is just one example of why when you guys are unified, you guys stick together, this country is better off.  And I could not be more thankful and more appreciative and prouder of what you’re doing.  (Applause.)
Just a couple of more points.  Number one, you’ve seen reports over the last couple of days that we actually slightly exceeded our targets for ACA signups and enrollments this past month, in the month of January.  (Applause.)  We now have well over 3.5 million people who have signed up and are getting insurance through the marketplaces for the first time.  That does not count the close to 7 million folks who have signed up for Medicaid because of the law that you passed, or the 3 million young people who are staying on their parents’ plans.  We’re starting to see data already that the uninsured rate is coming down.  We are going to keep on pushing on this to make sure that here in America, everybody can enjoy the kind of financial security and peace of mind that good quality health insurance provides.  (Applause.)
And I just want to say thank you for all of you hanging in there tough on an issue that I think 10 years from now, five years from now, we’re going to look back and say this was a monumental achievement that could not have happened had it not been for this caucus.
 
And, finally, there are some big things that we have to do that I cannot do through executive action where we have to get Congress and where the American people are on our side.  A federal minimum wage law is one of them.  Another, though, is making sure that we’ve got a smart immigration policy in this country that grows our economy -- (applause) -- gets people out of the shadows, makes sure that our businesses are thriving.  That’s got to be a top priority.  We’re going to have to keep on working on that.
 
And I believe, frankly, that there are folks on the other side of the aisle who genuinely want to see this done, but they’re worried and they’re scared about the political blowback. And, look, everybody here is an elected official and we can all appreciate the maneuverings that take place, particularly in an election year.  But when it comes to immigration reform, we have to remind ourselves that there are people behind the statistics, that there are lives that are being impacted -- that punting and putting things off for another year, another two years, another three years, it hurts people.  It hurts our economy.  It hurts families.
 
And part of what I’d like to think makes us Democrats is not simply some abstract ideological set of beliefs, but the fact that we’re reminded every single day that we’re here to help a whole bunch of folks out there -- our neighbors, our friends, our communities -- who are struggling still and need our help.  And they’re counting on us.  The good thing is they’ve got some outstanding members of Congress who are willing to fight for them regardless of the political cost, starting with your leader Nancy Pelosi. 
I’m grateful for you.  And I’m looking forward to making sure that this year we keep on making progress even if we continue to get a little resistance from the other side.  The American people know that we could be breaking out if Washington gets its act together, and it’s important for us to lead that process. 
Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY'S PRESS AVAILABILITY IN BEIJING, CHINA

FROM:  U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT
Solo Press Availability in Beijing, China
Press Availability
John Kerry
Secretary of State
JW Marriott Hotel
Beijing, China
February 14, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: I know you all have been waiting a while, so my apologies. Our meetings ran a little longer than anticipated, and you’re patient, and I appreciate it very, very much.

It’s a pleasure for me to be back in Beijing, and particularly tonight with the Festival of the Lanterns and the start of the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Horse. And the Lunar New Year always, here and in other parts of this region, is an exciting time, a time of renewal, as it is for everybody, and a profound sense of optimism, I think, as we heard from the leadership throughout the day.

It’s an auspicious time to visit, and I want to thank all of the leadership of China – the president – President Xi Jinping and the premier, the state councilor, and the foreign minister – for their generous welcome, and for the in-depth and serious conversations that we had today on almost every subject of concern between the United States and China and the region.

I want to emphasize that President Obama and the United States take our role in the Asia Pacific very seriously. As President Obama and I have made clear on any number of occasions, we are committed to strengthening our enduring presence in this dynamic region, and to working with our partners in order to promote long term stability and prosperity. And I think everybody knows that the United States has been a Pacific nation for almost all of our history, throughout the 1800s, 1900s, and now into the 21st century. And our partnership with China is critical to our effort to provide for that stability and prosperity.

As the world’s two largest economies, we really have a particular role, a particular set of responsibilities that we can exercise, and together, if we exercise them in concert with one another, we have an opportunity to make real progress, and also to send important signals to people throughout the world – people who are watching China rise and wonder where it is headed, and people who watch the United States continue to exercise its leadership and to press for the expression of our values and our interests to be met according to the rule of law and according to the highest international standards.

Our partnership with China we view as one of great potential. It is one that is continuing to be defined, and we are convinced that both regional and global challenges that we face, China and the United States, when they can act together in concert with common purpose, have the opportunity to be able to make a significant difference.

As President Obama and President Xi made clear at Sunnylands last year, they are committed to building an historic bilateral relationship based on two most critical elements: one, practical cooperation, and two, constructive management of differences – and there are differences, and we were honest about that today.

In our meetings, we had an opportunity to discuss particularly some key issues, and I’ll just review those very quickly for you. First of all, we spoke about the commitment that the United States and China share to achieve a denuclearized North Korea, as well as the special role that China can play in helping to make that goal a reality. We agree, along with our international partners, that the DPRK must take meaningful, concrete, and irreversible steps towards verifiable denuclearization, and it needs to begin now. I’m pleased that at every level in all of our conversations today, China could not have more forcefully reiterated its commitment to that goal, its interests in achieving that goal, and its concerns about the risks of not achieving that goal – in terms of what it might mean, in terms of stability on the Peninsula, as well as the potential for an arms race in the region. I encourage the Chinese to use every tool at their disposal, all of the means of persuasion that they have, building on the depths of their long and historic and cultural and common history that has brought them together – though while not allies, they have a relationship.

We also discussed – excuse me – we also discussed climate change and clean energy. And this is another area where we are already cooperating closely and where we are looking for even more cooperation. The United States and China, unhappily, are the two largest emitters of greenhouse gasses on the planet, and they contribute together as a result to the fact of climate change. Together, the United States and China account for some 40 percent of the carbon pollution that is released into the atmosphere. It is imperative for us to work together in order to ensure that an ambitious international climate agreement that the united – the UN Climate Summit in 2015 can be achieved. So we talked about that today.

On my last visit to Beijing, last April, we took an important step forward when we came together to launch the climate change working group. That is working, and they are engaged, but there’s a lot more work to do as the science that has been pouring in over the course of the last year tells us every single day, and as the facts on the ground with droughts, fires, and disasters, and acidification of the ocean, and other things happening at an increased pace, it is more urgent that we join together to respond to this problem.

So we need to implement the initiatives that the climate change working group has already identified, but we need to do more than that. We need to see if working together we could identify any further steps that we may be able to take, specifically with respect to arrival at meaningful targets with respect to the 2015 climate change conference that will take place in Paris in December of next year.

In addition, it’s also important that we make good on the promise that was made at Sunnylands last year when our presidents agreed to face down the hydrofluorocarbons – or HFCs, as they’re called. And HFCs are some of the most potent climate pollutants in the world. And if we follow through on all of the fronts that are available to us, we have an opportunity to make real progress in the fight against climate change.

In addition, today, we spoke about our shared interest in preventing Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon. Our close cooperation, which we agreed will absolutely continue, will go a long way towards helping to make the P5+1 negotiations continue. There are many areas where we are able to cooperate closely. But it’s equally important for us to acknowledge areas where our governments disagree and where, most importantly, we need to take steps in order to manage those disagreements appropriately and constructively.

In that spirit today, we did discuss – had a frank discussion about some human rights challenges and the role of rule of law and the free flow of information in a robust, civil society; the challenges of the cyber world that we live in today; the economic challenges; and I emphasized that respect for human rights and for the exchange of information in a free manner contributes to the strength of a society in a country.

Recent arrests of peaceful advocates for reform run counter, in our judgment, to all of our best interests and the ability to make long term progress. I emphasized today that the United States remains concerned about these situations here in China, human rights situations – especially with respect to the Tibetan and the Uighur areas.

I also expressed our concern about the need to try to establish a calmer, more rule-of-law-based, less confrontational regime with respect to the South China Sea, and the issues with respect to both the South China Sea and the East China Sea. And this includes the question of how an ADIZ might or might not come about. We certainly expressed the view that it’s important for us to cooperate on these kinds of things, to have notice, to work through these things, and to try to do them in a way that can achieve a common understanding of the direction that we’re moving in, and hopefully a common acceptance of the steps that are or are not being taken. Certainly, with respect to the South China Sea, it’s important to resolve these differences in a peaceful, non-confrontational way that honors the law of the sea and honors the rule of law itself. And we encourage steps by everybody – not just China, by all parties – to avoid any kind of provocation or confrontation and to work through the legal tools available.

I think it’s important that the same approach of rule of law clarify whatever claims are being made by any party. That’s why we have – the United States, though not yet ratified, lives by and will follow the rules of the Law of the Sea, and we hope others and everybody else chooses to do so, too.

I also shared our interests in China and ASEAN making rapid strides in negotiating the code of conduct, and I think China’s ready and wanting to try to achieve that goal. That would help reduce tensions that stem from the territorial and maritime disputes, and in the meantime, it’s very important that everybody build crisis management tools and refrain from coercive or unilateral measures to assert whatever claims any country in the region may have.

Finally, on Syria, which we also discussed, I stressed the importance of China’s support in the United Nations for the Security Council efforts to help deal with the planet’s greatest humanitarian crisis today. The Syrian people have gone without humanitarian aid for so long that there are people starving to death – children, women. There have been horrendously graphic pictures of both torture and starvation that have indicated the craven depravity that is the hallmark of what is happening in Syria today. And the Syrian people deserve to have the international community stand up and fight for them, since they are not in a position, most of them, to be able to fight for themselves. It is important for the Security Council to speak to this. And I underscored today that no country should stand in the way of increased humanitarian access for the Syrian people, and we are going to continue to press for that.

Our cooperation, frankly, on issues of enormous importance in the world should not go unnoticed. China and the United States are cooperating on big-ticket items. We’ve worked together in the P5+1 on Iran. We’ve worked together on Afghanistan. We have worked together on Syria. We are working together on other issues like South Sudan and the prevention of violence there. And we appreciate enormously the Chinese efforts with respect to those kinds of initiatives. Not many people know that that kind of cooperative effort is underway.

I think today we agreed that it is important for us, as the two most powerful economies in the world, to look for the opportunities to be able to work together and try to cooperate, to try to manage the differences, but most importantly to engage in a practical cooperation that can have an influence on other countries in the world that wonder where these two great powers are headed. And I found today constructive. I thought the tone was excellent. It was frank. There were some differences, needless to say, but they were managed and handled exactly as they should be, in an appropriate exchange and an appropriate kind of discussion. And my hope is that today, particularly with respect to the climate that we discussed, where were are going to work again some more tonight, and even tomorrow morning I have a meeting and I hope out of that will come further definition to the steps that we want to take, and also with respect to North Korea, where we both had thoughts about how to proceed, and I think we both are taking them under advisement. And I will certainly report back to President Obama on what may or may not prove to provide a road ahead. And that is certainly our hope.

So I look forward to the rest of my meetings and to continuing our work with our Chinese partners on these many issues. And I look forward to taking some questions.

MS. PSAKI: The first question will be from Arshad Mohammed of Reuters.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, did you make any tangible headway in getting specific assurances from China that they would actually pursue their maritime claims in line with international law or that they would actually submit them to some kind of international or diplomatic process, such as actually starting negotiations on an ASEAN code of conduct? Or did you not actually get assurances on any of those?

And you’ve made reference to discussing the importance of cooperating on declaring ADIZ. Did you specifically warn China against unilaterally establishing a second ADIZ in the South China Sea? And did you specifically say, as a senior NSC official recently said, that if China did so it – the United States could alter its military posture in the region?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to go into all of the specifics of the conversation, except to say that yes, we did discuss this specific road ahead with respect to resolving these claims in the South China Sea. And the Chinese have made clear that they believe they need to be resolved in a peaceful and legal manner, and that they need to be resolved according to international law and that process.

And I think they believe they have a strong claim, a claim based on history and based on fact. They’re prepared to submit it, and – but I think they complained about some of the provocations that they feel others are engaged in. And that is why I’ve said all parties need to refrain from that. Particularly with respect to some of the islands and shoals, they feel there have been very specific actions taken in order to sort of push the issue of sovereignty on the sea itself or by creating some construction or other kinds of things.

So the bottom line is there was a very specific statement with respect to the importance of rule of law in resolving this and the importance of legal standards and precedent and history being taken into account to appropriately make judgments about it.

With respect to the ADIZ, we have, indeed, made clear our feelings about any sort of unilateral announcements. And I reiterated that again today. And I think hopefully that whatever falls in the future will be done in an open, transparent, accountable way that is inclusive of those who may or may not be concerned about that kind of action. But we’ve made it very clear that a unilateral, unannounced, unprocessed initiative like that can be very challenging to certain people in the region and therefore to regional stability. And we urge our friends in China to adhere to the highest standards of notice, engagement, involvement, information sharing, in order to reduce any possibilities of misinterpretation in those kinds of things.

MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Paul Richter.

QUESTION: Just to make clear on the DPRK issue, you said that the Chinese voiced their commitment to taking action on this. Did you receive a specific commitment from China to do more to try to prevent North Korean provocations?

On a second issue, President Obama last Friday said that, because of his frustration about the lack of a solution to the Syrian war, that the Administration is reviewing, once again, the options to do more on Syria. I wonder if you could address that. Is the Administration thinking about doing more than providing humanitarian aid and perhaps non-lethal assistance? Have options been presented to senior officials?

SECRETARY KERRY: What was the first part of the question?

QUESTION: About the DPRK.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Did you receive a specific --

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah. On the DPRK, China could not have been more emphatic or made it more clear that they will not allow a nuclear program over the long run, that they believe deeply in denuclearization, that denuclearization must occur, that they are committed to doing their part to help make it happen, and that they also will not allow instability and war to break out in the region. They believe it has to be done in a political negotiation and through diplomacy. That is their preference.

But they made it very clear that if the North doesn’t comply and come to the table and be serious about talks and stop its program and live up to an agreed-upon set of standards with respect to the current activities that are threatening the people, that they’re prepared to take additional steps in order to make sure that their policy is implemented. And when I say “their policy,” their shared policy together with the other participants of the Six Party group and those in the region. And there is a very firm commitment to achieving that.

Now what we’re talking about are some of the specifics of how you do that. And they put some ideas on the table, and we put some ideas on the table. And both of us are taking those under evaluation. I will report back to the President those things that the Chinese thought might be helpful, and they are taking under advisement – I shared with each leader at each level our thoughts about what must be done and what we need in order to proceed forward. And they have agreed to take that under advisement. And we will continue this dialogue in the days ahead in a very serious way with a great sense of the urgency of time and purpose.

With respect to Syria, the President is always considering the options. This is not a one-time thing. But I think it is fair to say that because of the increase of the humanitarian crisis, because of the unwillingness of the Assad regime to engage fully in Geneva I talks – which is the sole purpose of Geneva II, to implement Geneva I. And Geneva I makes it clear that you have to have a transition government with full executive authority arrived at by mutual consent. Those are the terms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stood up beside me in Moscow, in Paris, in Geneva, and elsewhere – not beside me in Geneva, but said in Geneva that is the purpose of our doing Geneva II. There is no question about what this is about. And any efforts to try to be revisionists or walk back or step away from that, frankly, is not keeping word or keeping faith with the words that have been spoken and the intent of this conference.

So it is clear that the crisis of Syria is growing, not diminishing. There’s been a 50 percent increase in the number of external refugees. There’s a 33 percent increase in the number of internally displaced people since last October, when the presidential statement was passed at the United Nations. Almost nothing positive with respect to those refugees or the internal displacement has happened. In fact – what am I saying? – it’s gotten worse, dramatically worse, since the UN issued a presidential statement, which was all that could be achieved because of the opposition of certain countries.

So now we’re back at the United Nations because the situation demands that the civilized world stand up and fight for those people who are the victims day to day of violence that comes from barrel bombs dropped from helicopters and from Scud missiles fired on innocent civilians and starvation and siege that is being laid to over 200,000, 250,000 people trapped in places where they can’t get food. This is grotesque. And the world needs to take note and figure out what the appropriate response is.

President Obama said at his press conference with President Hollande of France that he is deeply concerned about it and deeply concerned about the fact that at Geneva the talks are not producing the kind of discussion of transition government that they are supposed to. And so he is, indeed – he’s asked all of us to think about various options that may or may not exist. The answer to the question have they been presented, no, they have not. But that evaluation by necessity, given the circumstances, is taking place at this time. And when these options are right and when the President calls for it, there will undoubtedly be some discussion about them.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much. Thanks. Appreciate it.