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Jones “outraged” about Russian-style social media experiment during US Senate race

Chip Brownlee

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones Thursday called on the Department of Justice and the Federal Elections Commission to investigate a group of Democratic tech experts who tried to carry out tactics similar to Russia’s election interference during the 2017 Senate special election that led to Jones’ election.

The report from The New York Times said the social media project — which involved deceptive posting methods on Facebook and Twitter intended to divide Republicans and draw votes from Moore — was likely too small to have an effect on the race but was more likely an experiment to determine the potential effectiveness of any future social media interference.

The project was designed to help Jones, the Times reported, but Jones said in a conference call with reporters Thursday that he was angry about the so-called experiment even if it had no effect.

“I can tell you very simply, hell, I’m as outraged as everybody else about it,” Jones said. “I have railed about Russian interference in our election process ever since I started campaigning and during this first year in the Senate, and I think we’ve all kind of focused too much on just the Russians and not picked up on the fact that, you know what, some nefarious groups, whether they’re right or left, could take those same playbooks and start interfering with the elections for their own damn benefit. And I gotta tell you, I’m not happy about it.”

Jones said he agreed with the Times report that the interference likely had no impact on the race, which was plagued by accusations of sexual misconduct against Jones’ opponent, Republican Roy Moore.

Another part of the tactics used by the group including trying to link Moore’s campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that quickly began following Moore shortly before the election, which drew national attention. The mass Twitter following was reported by numerous local and national outlets.

At most, the project cost about $100,000 and involved creating a Facebook page that presented itself as a conservative Alabama group that was criticizing Moore. Jones narrowly defeated Moore by 22,000 votes in a race in which more than 1.34 million votes were cast.

“I will tell you this: I think the FEC and the Department of Justice should take a close look at this to determine whether or not any criminal laws were violated, and if so, prosecute them. We have to kind of nip this in the bud. We should not encourage or allow to happen any group, regardless of who they are or maybe even well-intentioned, to do the kind of things that illegally interfere with the election process. That is my position. I feel very strong about it.”

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Jones said his team had “no idea” about any of the social media antics being played during the election.

“We had no idea about any of this,” Jons said. “In fact, we had some pretty sophisticated … software to kind of monitor those things. We didn’t see anything like that. What we did see was a lot of traction of bots that were attacking me. I mean, thousands and thousands, who continued to attack us. None of our software programs who were bot tracking saw anything like this. So it must have been pretty small.”

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Congress

Sen. Doug Jones: COVID-19 relief should not be a partisan issue

Chip Brownlee

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Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, said Friday during a live-streamed press conference that the Senate should begin debating the next COVID-19 relief package, and Republicans in Congress should stop playing partisan politics with urgently needed COVID-19 relief.

“That bill is not perfect at all. There are a number of things in there that I don’t think will be in a final bill,” Jones said of the House’s $3 trillion HEROES Act. “It’s not perfect, but it is something to start talking about. It is a shame that Senate Republicans have made this into a partisan issue, trying to say that this was some kind of Democratic ‘wish list.’ It is not.”

The $3 trillion relief package includes nearly $1 trillion in aid to struggling state and local governments and another round of $1,200 payments to individual taxpayers and up to $6,000 per family.

The bill, which passed the House last week along partisan lines, appropriates billions for COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing and provides money for hazard pay for essential workers, among many other provisions its 1,800 pages.

“It is a wish list for cities and counties, which we’ve been talking about,” Jones said. “The first line essential workers that have been there that we don’t need to lose — so much of our workforces in city and county governments. It’s a wish list for the CDC and the NIH to continue funding for research, not just for a vaccine, but for therapeutics for how to treat this virus until we get that vaccine. It’s a wish list for businesses.”

The Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans and grants to small businesses and nonprofit organizations, would also get additional funding in the new relief bill.

Jones has called for a plan to give small businesses another round of help in paying employees by using payroll processors instead of banks, which have, at times, been slow in delivering aid to businesses and have prioritized clients with whom the banks had a pre-existing relationship.

Jones urged lawmakers to consider using payroll companies rather than banks when the first installment of the Payroll Protection Program was taking shape.

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The House’s HEROES Act also includes provisions that clarify PPP provisions for small businesses and would ensure that PPP funding can reach underserved communities and nonprofits. It adds $10 billion for emergency grants through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.

“It has a form of the program that we have — not as scaled up as much as I would lie, but it’s got a program that will help keep businesses operating and their payroll operating as a supplement, an add on to the Payroll Protection Program,” Jones said. “So it’s a wish list, really, for the American people. It’s just a shame that it has been politicized as partisan, because it should not. None of this should be partisan.”

President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the House-passed legislation were the Senate to pass it, and House and Senate Republicans have decried the legislation as too expansive.

Republican members of Alabama’s congressional delegation have called it Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “wish list” and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks called it “socialist.”

The 1,800-page bill also includes $175 billion in housing support, student loan forgiveness and a new employee retention tax credit.

Republicans have particularly opposed provisions in the bill that would require all voters to be able to vote by mail beginning in November and another that would temporarily repeal a provision of the 2017 Republican tax law that limited federal deductions for state and local taxes.

Trump has also opposed a provision in the bill that would provide $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, which has struggled amid the COVID-19 crisis and could become insolvent without support.

The HEROES Act was declared by some as “dead on arrival” in the Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has so far refused to take up the bill. Senators returned back to their home states this week until early June.

“The goal when we get back is maybe … enough talks will be going on, that we can pass some legislation in a bipartisan way,” Jones said. “Because there is an urgency.”

Jones said he didn’t believe the bill would pass as it is currently written, and that he doesn’t know what the final version would look like, but “we need to be talking about it. It’s a starting point,” he said.

The legislation also provides $75 billion for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, which public health experts say are essential for reopening the economy safely and avoiding a second wave of the virus in the fall.

On Thursday, Gov. Kay Ivey loosened more of the state’s “safer-at-home” restrictions, allowing entertainment venues to reopen Friday and sports to resume by mid-June.

Jones urged Alabamians to continue adhering to social-distancing guidelines, to listen to public health officials and to wear masks. He said reopening the economy and preserving public health don’t have to be at odds.

“I think the governor has done as great a job as she could to try to be very strategic, to be thoughtful on how to do this,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, I also believe that a lot of people in Alabama are only hearing part of her message. They’re only hearing the message that you can go to church, you can go to the theater, you can go out to eat, and they’re not listening as much to the messages about personal responsibility.”

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Governor

Alabama AG warns against nursing homes taking stimulus checks

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama’s top law enforcement officer on Friday warned against nursing homes intercepting federal stimulus payments to long-term care residents who are Medicaid recipients, but the state’s Nursing Home Association says it’s not aware that is happening, and it hasn’t been contacted by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office over the matter. 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a press release Friday said that federal stimulus checks from the CARES Act cannot be seized by nursing homes to pay for care. 

“We are now beginning to receive a few reports of concern that some Alabama nursing homes may be attempting to take stimulus checks from residents who are Medicaid recipients. If this is happening, it needs to stop now,” Marshall said in a statement. “These stimulus checks are rightfully and legally the property of the residents and must be returned. Confiscation of these checks is unlawful and should be reported to my office.”

Mike Lewis, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, in a message to APR on Friday said that all concerns reported to the office will be reviewed and investigated.

“There have been four such reports thus far,” Lewis said in the message.

Alabama Nursing Home Association President Brandon Farmer in a separate press release Friday said that since the federal government’s announcement of the stimulus payment, the association advised members that any stimulus payment deposited to the accounts of nursing home residents was not to be used to reimburse the facility “and is the sole property of the residents.”

“We urge Attorney General Steve Marshall to let us know if he has any reports of diversion of residents’ stimulus payments so that we may clarify any misunderstanding that may exist,” Farmer said. “At this time, we are unaware of any facility where such diversion is occurring.

Farmer said the association has encouraged Marshall to contact them any time he has a concern about nursing homes, or has information he wants to pass along to our members.

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“As we have done throughout this pandemic, we stand ready to work with local, state and federal leaders to support Alabama’s nursing home residents and employees,” Farmer said.

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Economy

Alabama’s unemployment rate jumps to 12.9 percent

Chip Brownlee

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Alabama’s unemployment rate has surged almost 10 percentage points over the past two months to nearly 13 percent, the Alabama Department of Labor said Friday, another sign of the economic toll caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington said Alabama’s preliminary, seasonally adjusted April unemployment rate is 12.9 percent, which is up from March’s revised level of 3.0 percent. It’s also higher than April 2019’s rate of 3.2 percent.

Last month’s rate represents 283,787 unemployed persons, an increase of 216,783 over the month.

“While we are certainly disappointed to see our unemployment rate rise so sharply this month, it’s not surprising,” said Gov. Kay Ivey. “This global pandemic and national disaster has certainly impacted Alabamians’ ability to work. We know that hundreds of thousands of people have filed for unemployment benefits over the past two months, and we’ve been able to process and pay a great majority of those.  We realize there are some still waiting on relief, and we hear and understand their frustration.  Please rest assured that my administration is working tirelessly to provide relief to those Alabamians and their families, and I have the utmost confidence in the Alabama Department of Labor and the dedicated state employees there who are working tirelessly to serve their fellow citizens.”

Those counted as employed decreased to 1,911,512 in April, down from March’s count of 2,151,586.

“I think everyone will agree that these numbers aren’t numbers we ever wanted to report,” said Washington. “This pandemic has negatively impacted Alabama’s economy and in two months’ time has managed to undo years of positive progress.  But the impact to our employers and workers who carry the economy is even greater.  So many had life-altering changes that impacted their families almost overnight.  I want all Alabamians to know that we are working nonstop to help move this recovery along.  We are developing new technologies, adding staff, and making modifications wherever possible to help our workers through this enormously difficult time.”

Wage and salary employment decreased in April by 201,700.

Monthly losses were seen in the leisure and hospitality sector (-79,500), the professional and business services sector (-29,500), the education and health services sector (-26,400) and the manufacturing sector (-24,200) — among others.

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Over the year, wage and salary employment decreased by 199,200, with losses in the leisure and hospitality sector (-87,900), the professional and business services sector (-30,800), the education and health services sector (-25,300), and the manufacturing sector (-19,100), among others.

Average weekly wages increased to $908.52 in April, up from $883.17 in March.

Counties with the lowest unemployment rates are Geneva County at 8.1 percent, Bullock and Pike Counties at 9.1 percent, and Shelby and Henry Counties at 9.2 percent.

Counties with the highest unemployment rates are Lowndes County at 26.0 percent, Wilcox County at 22.8 percent and Greene County at 22.2 percent.

Major cities with the lowest unemployment rates are Homewood at 7.1 percent, Vestavia Hills at 7.2 percent and Madison at 8.3 percent.

Major cities with the highest unemployment rates are Selma at 23.4 percent, Anniston at 22.1 percent and Gadsden at 22.0 percent.

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Congress

Jones has concerns about how USDA is implementing the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, said Thursday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Foods Assistance Program “falls way short.”

Jones also expressed concerns about how USDA was implementing the program.

“While it’s true the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program will help farmers/ranchers, it falls way short and I have serious concerns about how U.S. Department of Agriculture is implementing it, especially for cattle farmers,” Jones announced in a statement on social media. “I’ll be reaching out to share my concerns + work to fix these issues.”

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Marty Smith joined President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at a White House ceremony Tuesday to unveil new details about the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

NCBA was instrumental in securing authorization and funding for the CFAP program, which will provide much-needed relief to American cattle producers who have been economically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“America’s cattle producers have been hit very hard economically by this pandemic, so we’re pleased that this relief is one step closer to reaching the producers who need it,” Smith said. “Still, this is just one step and much more needs to be done to address the needs facing family cow-calf producers and stockers in the CFAP details that were released today. We will continue to push Capitol Hill for additional resources for cow-calf producers, backgrounders, and all other segments of the industry who may not sufficiently benefit from the program in its current form.”

Trump announced that beginning on Tuesday, May 26, local Farm Service Agency offices will begin accepting applications for CFAP funds, which the administration hopes to begin rolling out to producers the following week.

More information about the application process will be available online.

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USDA announced the CFAP program on April 17. The program will use funding provided in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and other USDA authorities. $19 billion in immediate relief includes direct support to agricultural producers.

R-CALF USA applauded the efforts by the NCBA to continue pushing Capitol Hill for additional financial recourses for cow-calf producers and backgrounders who may not sufficiently benefit from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) in its current form.

R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard said that his organization agrees with the NCBA on that issue. Bullard said that America’s cattle ranchers and America’s consumers were both being hurt by the market collapse aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis.

Breakouts of COVID-19 among the workers as some of the nation’s largest packing plants have resulted in finished cattle in the feedlots remaining in the feedlots preventing backgrounded calves from taking their place in the feedlots and freshly weaned calves from going to the backgrounding lots. The result has been packers that are unable to adequately supply grocers. Consumers being unable to buy the beef, pork, and chicken that they need and want and a complete collapse of prices for the farmers and ranchers.

“This is a colossal mess for both cattle ranchers and consumers and we know that only R-CALF USA is free from the packers’ resistance to any type of fundamental market reforms,” Bullard said. “Thus, with NCBA’s focus on needed temporary financial relief to help cattle producers through this mess, we hope that every American rancher can be sustained until such time that R-CALF USA succeeds in implementing the needed market structure reforms that NCBA cannot work on.”

NCBA represents both packers and cattlemen while R-CALF USA represents just cattlemen.

Jones has drawn attention to the plight of farmers impacted by low prices, even while Americans are experiencing unprecedented food supply shortages due to the coronavirus crisis.

 

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