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Washington
AP
Flynn pleads guilty, is cooperating in Trump-Russia probe

WASHINGTON — Michael Flynn, the retired general who vigorously campaigned at Donald Trump’s side and then served as his first national security adviser, pleaded guilty Friday to lying to the FBI about reaching out to the Russians on Trump’s behalf and said members of the president’s inner circle were intimately involved with — and at times directing — his contacts.

His plea to a single felony count of false statements made him the first official of the Trump White House to be charged so far in the criminal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. And his action could be an ominous sign for a White House shadowed for the past year by investigations, turning Flynn into a potentially key government cooperator as prosecutors examine whether the Trump campaign and Russia worked together to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor.

Friday’s developments don’t resolve the paramount question of possible Trump-Russia coordination in the campaign, but they do show that Flynn lied to the FBI about multiple conversations last December with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Court papers make clear that senior Trump transition officials were fully aware of Flynn’s outreach to Russian officials in the weeks before the inauguration.

The officials were not named in court papers, but people familiar with the case identified two of them to The Associated Press as Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and former Deputy National Security Adviser KT McFarland, now up for an ambassadorship.

That revelation moves the Russia investigation deeper into the White House. And, given the direct involvement of the transition team in Flynn’s calls with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the plea also raises questions about the accuracy of repeated assertions by the administration that Flynn had misled Mike Pence and other officials when he denied having discussed sanctions with the diplomat.

Flynn, the longtime soldier, stood quietly during his plea hearing except to answer brief questions from the judge. He accepted responsibility for his actions in a written statement, though he said he had also been subjected to false accusations. He said, “My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel’s Office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country.”

A former Defense Intelligence Agency chief, Flynn was a considerably more vocal Trump surrogate during the campaign, known for leading rally crowds in “Lock her up” chants regarding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

Though prosecutors also had investigated Flynn lobbying work on behalf of the Turkish government, the fact that he was permitted to plead guilty to just one count, and faces a guideline range of zero to 6 months in prison, suggest that prosecutors see him as a valuable tool in their investigation and are granting a degree of leniency in exchange for cooperation.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb sought to distance the plea from Trump himself, saying: “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”

Nonetheless, the Russia investigation has persistently followed Trump the first year of his presidency, angering the president and repeatedly distracting from his agenda. Flynn’s plea came as Republican senators labored to pass a far-reaching tax bill, which would be a significant victory for Trump.

On Friday, the president ignored reporters’ shouted questions as he welcomed the Libyan prime minister to the White House, and aides canceled media access to a later meeting between the two. He did appear briefly at an afternoon White House holiday reception for the media, where he offered season’s greetings and departed without addressing the Mueller investigation.

Early on in his administration, Trump had taken a particular interest in the status of the Flynn investigation. Former FBI Director James Comey, whose firing in May precipitated the appointment of Mueller as special counsel, has said Trump asked him in a private Oval Office meeting to consider ending the investigation into Flynn. Comey has said he found the encounter so shocking that he prepared an internal memo about it.

Flynn, who was interviewed by the FBI days after Trump’s inauguration, was forced to resign on Feb. 13 following news reports indicating that the Trump White House had been warned by Obama administration officials that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak and was therefore compromised and potentially vulnerable to blackmail.

White House officials including Pence, who had declared publicly that Flynn never discussed sanctions, said they had been misled.

The court case Friday concerns a series of conversations that Flynn had with Kislyak during the transition period between the November election and the Jan. 20 inauguration.

Prosecutors say Flynn on Dec. 29 spoke with an unnamed senior transition team official about what, if anything, to say about sanctions that had been imposed on Russia one day earlier by the Obama administration in retaliation for election interference. Flynn then requested the Russian ambassador “not escalate the situation” and respond “in a reciprocal manner,” a conversation that prosecutors say he then reported to transition team members.

Two former transition officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter, identified McFarland as the unnamed official.

The court papers do not allege that there was anything illegal about Flynn’s conversations with the Russians — but his lies about the talks amounted to a felony.

Still, if the Trump transition made secret back-door assurances to Russian diplomats, that could potentially run afoul of the Logan Act, a 1799 law that bars private American citizens from attempting to intervene in “disputes or controversies” between the United States and foreign powers without government approval.


PAT SUTPHIN TIMES-NEWS 

City Manager Travis Rothweiler, left, and Mayor Shawn Barigar, right, shake hands during the lighting of the city Christmas tree Friday in Twin Falls.


Education
A new radio system allows Twin Falls schools to better communicate during emergencies

TWIN FALLS — The Twin Falls School District has a new radio system that allows school administrators to more easily communicate during emergencies.

The topic came up Wednesday during the school district and Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce‘s yearly legislative tour.

School security has also been a hot topic nationwide, particularly in light of school shootings such as in 2012 in Newtown, Conn. Here in Twin Falls, improving security was identified as a key priority during a school district safety audit in 2014 and has been an ongoing project since then.

This school year, the latest upgrade is a school district-wide radio system. “The driving force behind it was to create a system where schools could communicate with each other,” director of operations Ryan Bowman said Friday.

It’s among a handful of changes, including identification badges for employees and a new computer program, Raptor, that runs school visitors through law enforcement databases. Before the districtwide radio system, school administrators called each other on their cell phones. But that wasn’t convenient for communicating with multiple people quickly.

Some schools had their own radio system, but only for talking within their own building. Now, with the new system, “this creates uniformity throughout the school district,” Bowman said.

It’s a digital system with 100 Kenwood radios throughout the school district. The district is paying $20,000 annually over five years using voter-approved plant facilities levy money and bought the equipment through White Cloud Communications in Twin Falls.

The district bought the radios in the spring and programmed them. School employees started using them in August at the beginning of the school year.

Each school has its own radio channel that allows administrators, front office employees and custodial workers to communicate about safety issues or other topics. That’s particularly helpful at campuses such as Twin Falls High School, which is spread out in different buildings.

There’s also a shared channel across all school campuses and the school district office. If Twin Falls High has a lockdown, for instance, that would allow nearby Sawtooth Elementary School to hear the announcement and make a decision in a timely manner, Bowman said.

Another option is to communicate directly with the school district office. “It lets us know immediately that something’s going on,” Bowman said.

Another big security initiative for the school district is building access control. For the three newest campuses — Rock Creek Elementary School, Pillar Falls Elementary School and South Hills Middle School — there’s a vestibule in the front entrance that directs visitors into the front office. There’s a similar setup at Twin Falls High School’s newly remodeled front entrance.

Now, the district wants to look at a way to funnel visitors into school offices at all campuses, allowing for better monitoring of who’s coming and going.

“That’s one of the big things that we’re going to continue over the next several years,” Bowman said.

But it won’t be a simple process. “It’s going to be a challenge at some of our older buildings,” Bowman said, especially at Morningside and Harrison elementary schools, where the school office isn’t right next to the front entrance.

Improvements could be made using the plant facilities levy money. But a timeline for projects — or how much they’d cost — is unknown at this point.

“It’s going to take time because some of these buildings are going to be expensive to do,” Bowman said.

Of a nearly $74 million bond voters approved in 2014, $1.3 million was used for security upgrades to existing campuses. That included high-definition security cameras and electronic key card readers.

More upgrades will be coming in future years, likely paid for using plant facilities levy money. The current measure, $3.3 million annually for 10 years, is set to expire this year.

The district is considering bringing a renewal request to voters during the March 2018 election.

School trustees are slated to hear a recommendation in December from a budget advisory committee — which includes community members — about whether to pursue a new levy and how much money to ask for.


PAT SUTPHIN, TIMES-NEWS FILE PHOTO 

Martin Shirley, an information technology technician with the Twin Falls School District, installs an outdoor camera in August 2016 at Lincoln Elementary School. 


If you do one thing:

If you do one thing: Magic Valley Symphony and Magic Valley Chorale will perform a concert with the College of Southern Idaho Chamber Choir at 7:30 p.m. at the CSI Fine Arts Auditorium in Twin Falls. Tickets: $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 students


Photo by Steve Conner 

CSI's Tiena Afu grabs a rebound against Lethbridge College during their game Friday night at CSI. 


Business
AP
Senate OKs tax bill as Trump, GOP near big legislative win

WASHINGTON — Republicans pushed a nearly $1.5 trillion tax bill through the Senate early today after a burst of eleventh-hour horse trading, as a party starved all year for a major legislative triumph took a giant step toward giving President Donald Trump one of his top priorities by Christmas.

"Big bills are rarely popular. You remember how unpopular 'Obamacare' was when it passed?" Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in an interview, shrugging off polls showing scant public enthusiasm for the measure. He said the legislation would prove to be "just what the country needs to get growing again."

Presiding over the Senate, Vice President Mike Pence announced the 51-49 vote to applause from Republicans. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was the only lawmaker to cross party lines, joining the Democrats in opposition. The measure focuses its tax reductions on businesses and higher-earning individuals, gives more modest breaks to others and offers the boldest rewrite of the nation's tax system since 1986.

Republicans touted the package as one that would benefit people of all incomes and ignite the economy. Even an official projection of a $1 trillion, 10-year flood of deeper budget deficits couldn't dissuade GOP senators from rallying behind the bill.

"Obviously I'm kind of a dinosaur on the fiscal issues," said Corker, who battled to keep the bill from worsening the government's accumulated $20 trillion in IOUs.

The Republican-led House approved a similar bill last month in what has been a stunningly swift trip through Congress for complex legislation that impacts the breadth of American society. The two chambers will now try crafting a final compromise to send to Trump.

After spending the year's first nine months futilely trying to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law, GOP leaders were determined to move the measure rapidly before opposition Democrats and lobbying groups could blow it up. The party views passage as crucial to retaining its House and Senate majorities in next year's elections.

Democrats derided the bill as a GOP gift to its wealthy and business backers at the expense of lower-earning people. They contrasted the bill's permanent reduction in corporate income tax rates from 35 percent to 20 percent to smaller individual tax breaks that would end in 2026.

Congress' nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation has said the bill's reductions for many families would be modest and said by 2027, families earning under $75,000 would on average face higher, not lower, taxes.

The bill is "removed from the reality of what the American people need," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. He criticized Republicans for releasing a revised, 479-page bill that no one can absorb shortly before the final vote, saying, "The Senate is descending to a new low of chicanery."

"You really don't read this kind of legislation," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told home-state reporters, asked why the Senate was approving a bill some senators hadn't read. He said lawmakers needed to study it and get feedback from affected groups.

Democrats took to the Senate floor and social media to mock one page that included changes scrawled in barely legible handwriting. Later, they won enough GOP support to kill a provision by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would have bestowed a tax break on conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan.

The bill hit rough waters after the Joint Taxation panel concluded it would worsen federal shortfalls by $1 trillion over a decade, even when factoring in economic growth that lower taxes would stimulate. Trump administration officials and many Republicans have insisted the bill would pay for itself by stimulating the economy. But the sour projections stiffened resistance from some deficit-averse Republicans.

But after bargaining that stretched into Friday, GOP leaders nailed down the support they needed in a chamber they control 52-48. Facing unyielding Democratic opposition, Republicans could lose no more than two GOP senators and prevail with a tie-breaking vote from Pence, but ended up not needing it.

Leaders' changes included helping millions of companies whose owners pay individual, not corporate, taxes on their profits by allowing deductions of 23 percent, up from 17.4 percent. That helped win over Wisconsin's Johnson and Steve Daines of Montana.

People would be allowed to deduct up to $10,000 in property taxes, a demand of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

The changes added nearly $300 billion to the tax bill's costs. To pay for that, leaders reduced the number of high-earners who must pay the alternative minimum tax, rather than completely erasing it. They also increased a one-time tax on profits U.S.-based corporations are holding overseas and would require firms to keep paying the business version of the alternative minimum tax.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. — who like Corker had been a holdout and has sharply attacked Trump's capabilities as president — voted for the bill. He said he'd received commitments from party leaders and the administration "to work with me" to restore protections, dismantled by Trump, for young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children. That seemed short of a pledge to actually revive the safeguards.

The Senate bill would drop the highest personal income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 38.5 percent. The estate tax levied on a few thousand of the nation's largest inheritances would be narrowed to affect even fewer.

Deductions for state and local income taxes, moving expenses and other items would vanish, the standard deduction — used by most Americans — would nearly double to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples, and the per-child tax credit would grow.