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Bergdahl spared from prison; Trump calls sentence 'disgrace'

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked away from his post in Afghanistan and triggered a search that left some of his comrades severely wounded, was spared a prison sentence by a military judge Friday in what President Donald Trump blasted as a “complete and total disgrace.”

The judge gave no explanation of how he arrived at his decision, but he reviewed evidence that included the five years Bergdahl was held captive by the Taliban and the wounds suffered by troops who searched for him, including one who now uses a wheelchair and cannot speak.

The case was politically divisive. President Barack Obama traded Taliban prisoners to bring Bergdahl back, drawing sharp Republican criticism. As a presidential candidate, Trump called for the soldier to face stiff punishment. He could have received up to life in prison.

The judge also gave the 31-year-old a dishonorable discharge, reduced his rank from sergeant to private and ordered him to forfeit pay equal to $1,000 per month for 10 months.

In court, Bergdahl appeared tense, grimaced and clenched his jaw. His attorneys put their arms around him and one patted him on the back. One defense attorney cried after the sentence was announced.

Defense lawyer Eugene Fidell told reporters that his client had “looked forward to today for a long time.”

Bergdahl “is grateful to everyone who searched for him,” especially those who “heroically sustained injuries,” Fidell added.

Trump’s statement came in a tweet about 90 minutes after the sentencing. “The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military,” the president wrote.

Bergdahl pleaded guilty last month to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. He has said he left his post in 2009 with the intention of reaching other commanders and drawing attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.

The judge, Army Col. Jeffery Nance, had wide leeway in deciding the sentence because Bergdahl made no deal with prosecutors to limit his punishment.

Prosecutors sought a serious penalty because of wounds suffered by service members who searched for Bergdahl after he disappeared.

The defense tried to counter that evidence with testimony about Bergdahl’s suffering as a captive, his contributions to military intelligence and survival training, and his mental health problems. The argument for leniency also cited Trump’s harsh campaign-trail comments.

The dishonorable discharge threatens to deprive Bergdahl of most or all his veterans’ benefits, but it also triggers an automatic appeal to a higher military court. Before that, a general who can reduce, but not increase, the sentence will also review it.

Fidell told reporters that he looks forward to the appeals court review of Trump’s campaign statements, which included calling Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten traitor” and declaring that he should be shot or thrown out of an airplane without a parachute.

As a candidate, Trump “made really extraordinary reprehensible comments targeted directly at our client,” Fidell told reporters Friday, calling the situation “one of the most preposterous states of affairs” in American legal history. He said the defense team sees “an extremely strong basis for dismissal of the case.”

Earlier in the week, Bergdahl described the brutal conditions of his captivity, including beatings with copper wire, unending bouts of gastrointestinal problems brought on by squalid conditions and maddening periods of isolation. After several escape attempts, he was placed in a cage for four years, and his muscles atrophied to the point he could barely stand or walk.

A psychiatrist testified that his decision to leave his post was influenced by a schizophrenia-like condition called schizotypal personality disorder that made it hard to understand the consequences of his actions, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder brought on partly by a difficult childhood.

Prosecutors, who had asked for a sentence of 14 years in prison, did not speak to reporters. But one of them, Maj. Justin Oshana, said during closing arguments Thursday that Bergdahl “does not have a monopoly on suffering as a result of his choices.”

Scores of troops joined in an all-out search for Bergdahl in the weeks after he abandoned his remote post near the Afghan town of Mest.

Prosecutors cited two missions that resulted in wounds, including a soldier whose hand was shattered by a rocket-propelled grenade and another who suffered a head wound that put him in a wheelchair and rendered him unable to speak. A Navy SEAL suffered a career-ending leg wound, and a military dog was killed by an insurgent firing an AK-47.

The judge ruled that those firefights would not have happened if not for Bergdahl.

One of the wounded soldiers, Jonathan Morita of California, called the lack of prison time “unacceptable.” Morita, who testified during sentencing, still does not have full use of his dominant hand after he was hit by the RPG, which did not explode.

“The dishonorable discharge means he can’t receive any of these services like I can. He’ll pay the fine like people get fined for illegal fishing. Ok, whoop-de-doo,” Morita said in a phone interview.

Referring to the lack of prison time, he said: “That’s the one that’s completely unacceptable. It should have maybe not been the life sentence, but it should have been something.”

Without confinement hanging over him, Bergdahl already has a job offer from an animal sanctuary, and a military official who helps design survival training said he would like to use Bergdahl as a part of lectures to service members on how to survive captivity.

The soldier from Hailey, Idaho, was brought home by Obama in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. He has been working a desk job at a military installation in San Antonio and has not been under any pretrial confinement.

At the time of Bergdahl’s release, Obama said the U.S. does not leave service members on the battlefield.

Hansen has a new after-school grant, but funding is in jeopardy

HANSEN — School isn’t in session on Fridays in Hansen, but the lights are still on and children fill the building.

That’s because the Hansen School District offers nearly a full day of activities, thanks to federal grant money.

It’s the first year the district has received a 21st Century Community Learning Centers program grant, geared toward high-poverty schools.

A total of $800,000 over five years will be used to provide extra academic help and enrichment activities five days a week.

The program runs 90 minutes after school Mondays through Thursdays and six hours on Fridays. It includes homework help and tutoring, plus activities including dance, music, crafts and science lessons like dissecting trout.

“My idea is to bring things to Hansen that we don’t normally have here,” said Dacia Hernandez, Hansen’s 21st Century grant director.

Across south-central Idaho, several other school districts have a 21st Century grant for a before or after-school program: Harrison Elementary School in Twin Falls, Wendell, Buhl, Murtaugh and several campuses in Cassia County.

But on a national level, the future of the program is up in the air.

In March, Trump’s budget proposal called for zeroing out funds. If that happens, funding would run out in about two years and about 7,000 Idaho children would be left without an after-school offering.

The 21st Century program is about more than academics, said Michele Capps, superintendent of the Murtaugh School District, which is nearing the end of its five-year grant.

“There are so many more advantages, I don’t know if we can measure it,” she said. “It would be an incredible loss to a lot of communities if they cut that program.”

Across the country, the 21st Century program is a $1.2 billion initiative serving about 1.6 million low-income students, The Associated Press reported in May. Trump’s administration says there’s “no demonstrable evidence” that such programs improve students’ performance in school.

Despite the proposal, though, “the House and Senate vote on it and it creates the budget,” said Andrew Fletcher, 21st Century and student engagement coordinator for the Idaho State Department of Education.

Both maintained funding so far, he said, but budget negotiations are still underway.

Despite uncertainty surrounding the program, the Idaho State Department of Education is accepting applications now for $1.5 million in new 21st Century grants for next school year.

The program’s future in Murtaugh

In Murtaugh, Capps said they’re weighing whether to reapply for a grant after it ends this school year, but they haven’t made a decision yet.

It’s the second time the district has received the grant. The first time was around 2000, but once the grant ended, “we let it go after that,” Capps said. It later decided to bring the program back.

Despite receiving federal funding, running a 21st Century program still costs money for a school district. And for employees, it means long work days, even if they do get extra pay.

“The director does a fantastic job,” Capps said. “It is a significant amount of work. The district does have to provide a lot of additional assistance to make it work.”

For each of the grant’s five years, Murtaugh School District received less federal funding, meaning the school district had to pick up a little more of the cost.

It also takes 10 staff members — teachers and paraprofessionals — to run the before and after-school program. It often means employees are working until 6 p.m. four nights a week.

“It’s hard on small districts because your staff gets tired,” Capps said.

But the program provides wonderful opportunities for children, she said, including Girl Scouts, tumbling and sewing. Those are activities students likely wouldn’t have access to — especially in a rural area. Plus, students get tutoring and homework help.

About 100 children from kindergarten through eighth-grade typically participate each day. On peak days, that number can reach 130.

For a school district with only a few hundred students in preschool through 12th grades, that’s a huge turnout.

Capps said she hasn’t specifically looked into academic gains among children who participate. But there’s no doubt they do better academically if they’re getting homework help, she said.

Plus, she said, the program provides children with a safe place to go after school.

A new offering in Hansen

The Hansen School District used to offer an after-school program for three years under a different grant. But it focused on homework and tutoring and only ran three days a week.

Superintendent Kristin Beck heard about the 21st Century grant and decided to apply.

On average, 66 kindergarten through eighth-graders participate each day. When school district officials wrote the grant application, they were aiming for 100 children to attend.

Under the 21st Century grant, there’s enough funding to provide school busing for the students who participate. That wasn’t the case under the old after-school program.

One reason behind seeking the grant: The program provides a safe place for children to go on Fridays when school is out. The Hansen School District is on a four-day school week, with classes Monday through Thursday.

There are many two-parent working families in Hansen, Hernandez said, and sometimes, that means students as young as third grade might be home alone on Fridays.

After school on Mondays through Thursdays, one hour is spent on snack time and tutoring, leaving 30 minutes for an enrichment activity.

Program organizers hope to add more activities in the future, such as 3D printing, drones, sign language and Spanish.

So far, the activities have been a hit with the children, Hernandez said. “They learn something new and different in a fun environment.”

On Fridays, the school district is partnering with the University of Idaho’s Twin Falls County extension office for three hours of activities.

This Friday, students made volcanoes and worked with seeds while second and third-graders were learning about nutrition through the Eat Smart Idaho program.

In January, a robotics club will launch for fourth through eighth-graders, with the help of UI’s extension office.

The 21st Century program supports working parents, Fletcher said. “Parents don’t have to worry about where their kids are after school, and they have a safe and secure place to be.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Hits from Trump, Dems put Sessions in familiar hot seat

WASHINGTON — The nation’s chief law enforcement officer found himself in a familiar spot Friday: belittled by the president, pressured to investigate political opponents and sucked back into the center of the storm around the investigation into the Trump administration’s campaign ties to Russia.

In President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to be perpetually in the hot seat, yet he has made clear he’s not going anywhere. In an administration where top aides serve at the president’s displeasure, the former Alabama senator has shown he is more than willing to absorb the blows.

Trump paused to hit Sessions with yet another indignity just before he left the White House for a 12-day Asia trip increasingly colored by his domestic political troubles. Asked if he would fire the attorney general if he doesn’t investigate his Democratic political rivals, Trump said, “I don’t know.” He continued to vent his frustration with the top prosecutor.

“I’m not really involved with the Justice Department,” he said. “I’d like to let it run itself. But honestly, they should be looking at Democrats. ... They should be looking at a lot of things, and a lot of people are disappointed with the Justice Department, including me.”

Two White House officials quickly cautioned against reading too much into Trump’s comments, reiterating that he has no plans to fire Sessions. And although the White House maintains that Trump’s tweets are “official record,” it says Trump has not ordered Sessions or the FBI to do anything related to Democrats.

Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller estimates his prosecutors will need three weeks to present their case against ex-Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates to a jury, according to a court filing made public Friday.

Responding to a federal judge in Washington, Mueller prosecutor Kyle Freeny wrote that the government will likely need 15 trial days to present evidence supporting a 12-count indictment unsealed earlier this week alleging violations of federal money laundering, banking and foreign lobbying laws.

Manafort, who served for five months as Trump’s campaign chairman, and his former deputy Gates have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Both men were released on multimillion-dollar bonds but placed on house arrest. Manafort has asked a judge to ease the terms of his pretrial confinement, calling Mueller’s case “embellished,” in court papers filed this week.

Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing, said he expects to file pre-trial motions to suppress evidence “improperly obtained by search warrant, subpoena or otherwise” by Mueller’s investigators, a court filing Friday shows. Manafort’s Virginia home was raided in July by FBI agents.

On Friday, Trump issued a flurry of tweets over a three-hour span urging the Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee over a joint fundraising agreement they signed in August 2015.

Trump’s accusations follow publication by Politico of an excerpt from former acting DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile’s upcoming book. Brazile alleges she found “proof” that the 2016 Democratic primary was rigged in Clinton’s favor.

“Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems...” Trump tweeted.

The aides said the tweets were a media savvy way to deflect attention from the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying about his dealings with Russians who were offering “dirt” on Clinton.

Sessions has become a scapegoat for Trump’s anger, allowing the president to avoid some of the political consequences of directly attacking the special counsel.

But the president’s lashing was another blow to the attorney general, who could be called back to Congress to explain why he said earlier this year he was unaware of information exchanges between Trump’s campaign and intermediaries for the Russian government.

Papadopoulos admitted he told Sessions at a meeting he had made contacts with Russians who said they could set up a meeting between Trump and President Vladimir Putin. Sessions quickly dismissed the idea and said he’d prefer no one ever speak about it, according to one person who was there, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share the private conversation.

Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are now asking Sessions to follow up.

“This is another example in an alarming pattern in which you, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, apparently failed to tell the truth, under oath, about the Trump team’s contacts with agents of Russia — a hostile foreign power that interfered in the 2016 election,” Sen. Al Franken wrote in a letter to Sessions.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal also asked Sessions to return to the panel to clarify his comments.

A person close to Sessions said Papadopoulos’ comments during the March meeting did not leave a lasting impression on the then-senator, who quickly dismissed them and moved on. The person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and did so on condition of anonymity, said Sessions does not recall any further interactions with Papadopoulos.

If you do one thing

If you do one thing: Magic Valley Youth Orchestra presents a fall concert at 3 p.m. in the College of Southern Idaho Fine Arts Building in Twin Falls. Admission is a suggested $3 donation.

Starting off with a bang: City issues nearly 300 permits valued over $28M in October

TWIN FALLS — When permits for 26 new commercial buildings got a stamp of approval last month, Twin Falls Building Official Jarrod Bordi wasn’t surprised.

The number is highly unusual for October, when the city receives typically only two or three new commercial building permits. And the $24 million valuation of these permits helped nearly quadruple the city’s year-to-date new permit values from October 2016 — rising from $5.6 million to more than $28 million.

But Bordi had seen it all coming months in advance.

“It was just a matter of when it hit,” he said. “All of a sudden, ‘Bang!’ It was ready to go — and it banged.”

October was the first month of the city’s new fiscal year and the 299 permits issued were up 7.6 percent from that month in 2016.

Twin Falls residents can expect to see work taking place on 20 new fourplexes (80 units) on Harrison Street, two more restaurants south of Walmart, a new building at the transfer station and a multi-story employee office building at Chobani.

Single-family home permits were down about 43 percent from October 2016, as the city issued only 12 permits. With several already in the queue for November, Bordi expects to exceed last November’s 15 permits and gain some ground in homebuilding this month.

Here’s a recap of some of the permits the city issued.

Chobani offices

Chobani has received a permit for a $14.4 million, 71,000 square-foot office building. This was the highest-valued permit for October.

The building will have a basement plus three levels.

“The trailers are finally going to go,” Bordi said.

Chobani has planned a groundbreaking ceremony for next week, and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is expected to attend.


Dave Scaggs with Boise-based Summit Development Inc. pulled permits for each of 20 fourplex buildings on Harrison Street, north of the Hilton Garden Inn. Each had a valuation of $300,000.

Excavation and development with water and sewer has already begun.

“I don’t think there’s any messing around on that project,” Bordi said.

Scaggs told the Times-News in September that rates could range around $900 to $975 per month when the first units open up — as early as next spring. Each fourplex has two floors with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. And it’s a pet-friendly development.

Food service

HB Boys out of Salt Lake City started building a Burger King south of Walmart after receiving a permit in September. But it didn’t stop there.

In October, the company received permits for a $1 million Kneaders Bakery & Café and drive-thru, plus a three-tenant building with a Beans & Brews Coffeehouse.

“That corner’s gonna get busy,” Bordi said.

HB Boys Vice President Gary Moore said the Burger King is nearly or completely framed, and construction has started on both the Kneaders and Beans & Brews buildings.

The other two tenants have not been announced, but will be a retail business and a national chain restaurant, Moore said.

Transfer station

Southern Idaho Solid Waste and Twin Falls County received a permit for a $1.9 million project installing a pre-engineered metal building atop concrete at the Twin Falls waste transfer station.

“We decided to expand the transfer station,” Southern Idaho Solid Waste Executive Director Josh Bartlome said. “We’re going to try to keep the commercial separated in this newer building as much as possible. The hope is just to get a lot of people in and out a lot quicker.”

It should also improve safety.

On Saturdays, the station can see around 400 customers a day. A third building will help move lines more quickly, Bartlome said.

Additionally, the organization has built a retaining wall for a separate green waste area for tree limbs and untreated wood. These piles will be sent to the Hub Butte facility to be made into wood chips, he said.

Commercial remodels

The city also issued five commercial remodeling permits in October with total values of more than $1.2 million.

St. Luke’s Health Systems plans a $350,000 remodeling for upgrades to its interventional radiology equipment. A smaller remodel will add a bed repair space to the fourth floor patient tower.

The Magic Valley Mall also plans a $247,000 remodeling of its restrooms. The project will also add family restrooms.

Finally, Eagle Eye Produce will get a $450,000 addition for a truck entrance and fabrication shop, and Magic Valley Distributing will get a $225,000 storage area addition.