U.S. student loan forgiveness program could be rescinded

Hillsdale College in Michigan. The federal Education Department has raised the possibility that students’ acceptance into a loan forgiveness program could be rescinded. Credit Sean Proctor for The New York Times

More than 550,000 people have signed up for a U.S. federal program that promises to repay their remaining student loans after they work 10 years in a public service job.

But now, some of those workers are left to wonder if the government will hold up its end of the bargain — or leave them stuck with thousands of dollars in debt that they thought would be eliminated.

In a legal filing submitted last week, the Education Department suggested that borrowers could not rely on the program’s administrator to say accurately whether they qualify for debt forgiveness. The thousands of approval letters that have been sent by the administrator, FedLoan Servicing, are not binding and can be rescinded at any time, the agency said.

The filing adds to questions and concerns about the program just as the first potential beneficiaries reach the end of their 10-year commitment — and the clocks start ticking on the remainder of their debts.

Four borrowers and the American Bar Association have filed a suit in United States District Court in Washington against the department.

The plaintiffs held jobs that they initially were told qualified them for debt forgiveness, only to later have that decision reversed — with no evident way to appeal, they say. The suit seeks to have their eligibility for the forgiveness program restored.

“It’s been really perplexing,” said Jamie Rudert, one of the plaintiffs. “I’ve never gotten a straight answer or an explanation from FedLoan about what happened, and the Department of Education isn’t willing to provide any information.”

The forgiveness program offers major benefits for borrowers, advocates say, to the point of persuading some people to take public service jobs instead of more lucrative work in the private sector. The program generally covers people with federal student loans who work for 10 years at a government or nonprofit organization, a diverse group that includes public school employees, museum workers, doctors at public hospitals and firefighters. The federal government approved the program in 2007 in a sweeping, bipartisan bill.

But some of those approved borrowers might get bad news because it is unclear whether the certifications are valid.

Mr. Rudert submitted the certification form in 2012 and received a letter from FedLoan affirming that his work as a lawyer at Vietnam Veterans of America, a nonprofit aid group, qualified him for the forgiveness program. But in 2016, after submitting his latest annual recertification note to FedLoan, he got a denial note.

The decision was retroactive, he was told. None of his previous work for the group would be considered valid for the loan forgiveness program.

What changed? Mr. Rudert said he did not know. After filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he received a reply from FedLoan saying that his application “had initially been approved in error.” He has not been told what the error was, and has not found any way to appeal the decision.

Mr. Rudert and the American Bar Association filed their suit in December, alleging that the Education Department acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in making its decisions about which employers qualified.

Last week, the department filed a reply that said that FedLoan’s responses to borrowers’ certification forms cannot be trusted.

A FedLoan approval letter “does not reflect a final agency action on the borrower’s qualifications” for the forgiveness program, the department wrote.

The idea that approvals can be reversed at any time, with no explanation, is chilling for borrowers. Mr. Rudert, who graduated from law school owing nearly $135,000 on student loans, said he would have picked a different employer if he had known that his work at Vietnam Veterans of America would not qualify.

A FedLoan spokesman would not comment on the case, referring questions to the Department of Education. A department spokesman also declined to comment on the suit or on any of the issues it raised, including whether any mechanism exists for borrowers to challenge a denial.

Read the complete article on the New York Times web site.

‘Turkish Trump,’ a Hotel Plan and a Tangle of Foreign Ties

Mukemmel Sarimsakci, a real estate executive who goes by Mike, or “Turkish Trump.” Credit Jake Dean

Before taking office, Donald J. Trump pledged that his business empire would forgo new deals abroad while he was president. But as the Trump Organization unveils a new brand of hotels, that promise is not preventing the company from bringing foreign deals home.

The company, now largely run by Mr. Trump’s eldest sons, Eric and Donald Jr., has been pursuing a downtown Dallas hotel project with a real estate firm that has deep Turkish roots. The hotel, if built, would fall under the Trump Organization’s Scion chain, a more affordable alternative to its five-star luxury line.

An examination by The New York Times of records including corporation registrations, private emails and archived websites found that Alterra Worldwide, the real estate firm that would own the hotel and be partners with the Trumps, has business ties in Russia, Kazakhstan and at least two dozen other countries. Ordinarily, such international experience would be a selling point for the firm, but it is a complicating factor when dealing with Mr. Trump’s company, where concerns already have been raised internally about some of Alterra’s foreign connections.

Alterra’s president, Mukemmel Sarimsakci, is a familiar face in Dallas, where he has recruited foreign investment to other developments that earned praise from city officials. Mr. Sarimsakci — who goes by Mike, or, alternatively, the “Turkish Trump” — is also listed on an expert consultant website charging $465 an hour for advice on doing business in such countries as Iran, Mexico and Nigeria. And he has counseled the governments of Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Sudan and Georgia, among others, on renewable energy, he acknowledged to The Times.

In January, then President-elect Trump and his lawyers announced his ethics plan, which included putting his business in a trust managed by his two eldest sons and an executive, while also appointing an outside ethics adviser and a chief compliance counsel to review potential deals.

In drafting his presidential ethics policy, Mr. Trump gave extra consideration to international dealings, given the emoluments clause of the Constitution banning federal employees from accepting gifts from foreign leaders or governments. He pledged that profits made from foreign governments at existing Trump hotels would be donated to the United States Treasury.

Projects in the United States, even those funded with foreign money, arguably pose less of a reputational and ethical threat to the company and the president because they would be subject to local laws and regulations. Even so, once foreign money is involved, it can be difficult to trace its origins.

Read the complete article on the New York Times web site.

Who Wins and Loses in Trump’s Proposed Budget


A Superfund cleanup site in Montana. Federal funding for such cleanups of hazardous wastes would be reduced by about a third. Credit James Snook/Associated Press

President Trump released a partial outline of his 2018 budget on Thursday, proposing billions of dollars in spending cuts to most government agencies to pay for large increases in military and homeland security spending, resulting in a 1.2 percent cut in discretionary spending over all. (Source: New York Times)

The tough choices he promised would eliminate longstanding staples of American life.

Gone would be federal financing for public television, the arts and humanities. Federal support for long-distance Amtrak train service would be eliminated. Washington would get out of the business of helping clean up the Chesapeake Bay or the Great Lakes.

While he may not care about East Coast elites upset about ending financing for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, some of the agencies and programs that would be “zeroed out” are institutions in parts of the country that Mr. Trump won last November.

Among the agencies to be cut off, for instance, would be the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state agency founded in 1965 to promote economic development and infrastructure in some of the poorest parts of the United States.

Mr. Trump and his aides argue that many of these programs have long since passed their usefulness or would be better off run and paid for at the state or local level. While he talked about the ravaged inner cities in his Inaugural Address, Mr. Trump would eliminate $3 billion in funding for the Community Development Block Grant program that helps provide affordable housing. The president argued in his budget that “the program is not well targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.”

Instead of spreading the cost of affordable housing across all of the United States Trump passes the buck to state and local levels, making areas needing affordable housing the most raise taxes and fees to provide affordable housing.

Nice going Mr. Trump. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. You’re certainly making America Great Again. For the wealthy.

Discretionary spending, in billions

Agency 2017 baseline 2018 proposal Change . Pct change
Environmental Protection Agency $8.2 $5.7 $2.6 –31%
State and other development programs 38.0 27.1 –10.9 –29%
Agriculture 22.6 17.9 –4.7 –21%
Labor 12.2 9.6 –2.5 –21%
Justice 20.3 16.2 –4.0 –20%
Health and Human Services 77.7 65.1 –12.6 –16%
Commerce 9.2 7.8 –1.5 –16%
Education 68.2 59.0 –9.2 –14%
Transportation 18.6 16.2 –2.4 –13%
Housing and Urban Development 36.0 31.7 –4.3 –12%
Interior 13.2 11.6 –1.5 –12%
Energy 29.7 28.0 –1.7 –6%
Treasury 11.7 11.2 –0.5 –4%
NASA 19.2 19.1 –0.2 –1%
Veterans Affairs 74.5 78.9 +4.4 +6%
Homeland Security 41.3 44.1 +2.8 +7%
Defense 521.7 574.0 +52.3 +10%
Note: Totals are shown for fiscal years, which begin in October. They reflect base budget levels for each department, which do not include supplemental money for disaster relief, emergencies or additional war spending. They do include offsetting receipts and proposed changes in mandatory programs (CHIMPS) that are used to offset discretionary spending.

The proposal would also eliminate funding for nearly 20 smaller independent agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation, which finances legal aid groups.

The blueprint does not include tax proposals or other revenue ideas, and outlines only proposals for discretionary spending, which is money appropriated annually by Congress. Discretionary spending makes up less than one-third of all federal spending. It does not include interest payments on the federal debt or so-called mandatory spending on large programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Read the more detailed and complete article on the New York Times.

Blue-Footed Booby Bird Mating Dance – video

Blue-footed boobies on the Galápagos archipelago in Ecuador. The color of their feet is an important factor in mating. Credit The Asahi Shimbun Premium, via Getty Images

It’s dating time on the Galápagos for the blue-footed booby. Everywhere, dozens of times a day, the large, handsome seabirds are making their highly ritualized courtship display — one reason the boobies are among the most celebrated and beloved residents of this archipelago.

While many boobies change partners from season to season, there are great benefits of long-term fidelity, researchers have found. Comparing the breeding success of pairs that had been together for years with that of similarly mature boobies that had recently repartnered, scientists determined that the established pairs reared 35 percent more offspring to fledglinghood compared with the new mates.

And in new findings that will be published soon — and are enough to turn this working mother’s feet cerulean — scientists have discovered that the key to a successful long-term booby partnership is the equitable sharing of nest duties year after year.

Biparental care is the rule among boobies, but longtime mates have perfected the art of symmetry and turn-taking. They spend the same time brooding and feeding the young, and expend the same physical effort as seen in measures of blood cells and body mass.

Such egalitarian couples, said Dr. Sánchez Macouzet, “have reached the sweet spot of cooperation, compatibility and a willingness to avoid the exploitation of your partner.”

Read the complete article in the New York Times.

 

 

 

Oroville, Calif., dam tip of the iceberg of failing dams in US

 Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Darker the dot the older the dam. Darkest are 150 years old. Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

After two weeks that saw evacuations near Oroville, Calif., and flooding in Elko County, Nev., America’s dams are showing their age.

Nearly 2,000 state-regulated high-hazard dams in the United States were listed as being in need of repair in 2015, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. A dam is considered “high hazard” based on the potential for the loss of life as a result of failure.

By 2020, 70 percent of the dams in the United States will be more than 50 years old, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“It’s not like an expiration date for your milk, but the components that make up that dam do have a lifespan.” said Mark Ogden, a project manager with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

On Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, 21 Mile Dam near Montello, Nev., broke and caused flooding to the Union Pacific railroad line near Lucin and flooded the town of Montello, Nev. The floods forced delays or rerouting for more than a dozen freight and passenger trains on a main rail line that runs through the area, said Union Pacific spokesman Justin E. Jacobs.(Stuart Johnson/The Deseret News via AP)/The Deseret News via AP) NYTCREDIT: Stuart Johnson/The Deseret News, via Associated Press

On Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, 21 Mile Dam near Montello, Nev., broke and caused flooding to the Union Pacific railroad line near Lucin and flooded the town of Montello, Nev. The floods forced delays or rerouting for more than a dozen freight and passenger trains on a main rail line that runs through the area, said Union Pacific spokesman Justin E. Jacobs.(Stuart Johnson/The Deseret News via AP)/The Deseret News via AP) NYTCREDIT: Stuart Johnson/The Deseret News, via Associated Press

Line points to Twentyone Mile Dam

Source: Nevada Division of Water Resources

Darkest color equals highest Hazard Potential of Dams. Source: Nevada Division of Water Resources

Two weeks ago, heavy rains caused the Twentyone Mile Dam in Nevada to burst, resulting in flooding, damaged property and closed roads throughout the region.

The earthen dam, built in the early 1900s and less than 50 feet tall, is one of more than 60,000 “low hazard” dams, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Typically, failure of a low hazard dam would cause property damage, but it would most likely not kill anyone.

In 2016, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimated that it would cost $60 billion to rehabilitate all the dams that needed to be brought up to safe condition, with nearly $20 billion of that sum going toward repair of dams with a high potential for hazard.

In 2015, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York, introduced the Dam Rehabilitation and Repair Act, an amendment to the National Dam Safety Program Act, to provide grant assistance to rehabilitate publicly owned dams that fail to meet minimum safety standards.

The bill is still pending, but it would not apply to a majority of the dams in the United States because more than half of them are privately owned. Oroville Dam is owned by the State of California, but the Twentyone Mile Dam is owned by Winecup Gamble Ranch, a cattle operation in northeastern Nevada.

Read the complete article in the New York Times.

Ukraine, Russia and Trump Associates

 President Trump on his way to Charleston, S.C., on Friday. Although he has expressed hope that the United States and Russia can work together, it is unclear if the White House will take a privately submitted peace proposal for Ukraine seriously. Credit Al Drago/The New York Times


President Trump on his way to Charleston, S.C., on Friday. Although he has expressed hope that the United States and Russia can work together, it is unclear if the White House will take a privately submitted peace proposal for Ukraine seriously. Credit Al Drago/The New York Times

A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

At a time when Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia, and the people connected to him, are under heightened scrutiny — with investigations by American intelligence agencies, the F.B.I. and Congress — some of his associates remain willing and eager to wade into Russia-related efforts behind the scenes.

 

Donald Trump’s Connections in Ukraine

 

Andrii V. Artemenko

Ukrainian politician with a peace plan for Ukraine and a file alleging that its president is corrupt.

Felix H. Sater

Russian-American businessman with longstanding ties to the Trump Organization.

Michael D. Cohen

Trump’s personal attorney, under scrutiny from F.B.I. over links with Russia.

Paul Manafort

Former Trump campaign manager with pro-Russian political ties in Ukraine now under investigation by the F.B.I.

The amateur diplomats say their goal is simply to help settle a grueling, three-year conflict that has cost 10,000 lives. “Who doesn’t want to help bring about peace?” Mr. Cohen asked.

But the proposal contains more than just a peace plan. Andrii V. Artemenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker, who sees himself as a Trump-style leader of a future Ukraine, claims to have evidence — “names of companies, wire transfers” — showing corruption by the Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, that could help oust him. And Mr. Artemenko said he had received encouragement for his plans from top aides to Mr. Putin.

“A lot of people will call me a Russian agent, a U.S. agent, a C.I.A. agent,” Mr. Artemenko said. “But how can you find a good solution between our countries if we do not talk?”

Mr. Cohen and Mr. Sater said they had not spoken to Mr. Trump about the proposal, and have no experience in foreign policy. Mr. Cohen is one of several Trump associates under scrutiny in an F.B.I. counterintelligence examination of links with Russia, according to law enforcement officials; he has denied any illicit connections.

The two others involved in the effort have somewhat questionable pasts: Mr. Sater, 50, a Russian-American, pleaded guilty to a role in a stock manipulation scheme decades ago that involved the Mafia. Mr. Artemenko spent two and a half years in jail in Kiev in the early 2000s on embezzlement charges, later dropped, which he said had been politically motivated.

Before entering politics, Mr. Artemenko had business ventures in the Middle East and real estate deals in the Miami area, and had worked as an agent representing top Ukrainian athletes. Some colleagues in Parliament describe him as corrupt, untrustworthy or simply insignificant, but he appears to have amassed considerable wealth.

He has fashioned himself in the image of Mr. Trump, presenting himself as Ukraine’s answer to a rising class of nationalist leaders in the West. He even traveled to Cleveland last summer for the Republican National Convention, seizing on the chance to meet with members of Mr. Trump’s campaign.

“It’s time for new leaders, new approaches to the governance of the country, new principles and new negotiators in international politics,” he wrote on Facebook on Jan. 27. “Our time has come!”

Read more of this article in the New York Times.

Trump to tighten grip on Intelligence agencies following ‘leaks’.

 Stephen A. Feinberg, right, a founder of Cerberus Capital Management, at the Capitol in December 2008. He is said to be in talks for a White House role examining the country’s intelligence agencies. Credit Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times


Stephen A. Feinberg, right, a founder of Cerberus Capital Management, at the Capitol in December 2008. He is said to be in talks for a White House role examining the country’s intelligence agencies. Credit Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times

President Trump plans to assign a New York billionaire to lead a broad review of American intelligence agencies, according to administration officials, an effort that members of the intelligence community fear could curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview.

The possible role for Stephen A. Feinberg, a co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management, has met fierce resistance among intelligence officials already on edge because of the criticism the intelligence community has received from Mr. Trump during the campaign and since he became president. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump blamed leaks from the intelligence community for the departure of Michael T. Flynn, his national security adviser, whose resignation he requested.

There has been no announcement of Mr. Feinberg’s job, which would be based in the White House, but he recently told his company’s shareholders that he is in discussions to join the Trump administration. He is a member of Mr. Trump’s economic advisory council.

Mr. Feinberg, who has close ties to Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, declined to comment on his possible position. The White House, which is still working out the details of the intelligence review, also would not comment.

Mr. Bannon and Mr. Kushner, according to current and former intelligence officials and Republican lawmakers, had at one point considered Mr. Feinberg for either director of national intelligence or chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service, a role that is normally reserved for career intelligence officers, not friends of the president. Mr. Feinberg’s only experience with national security matters is his firm’s stakes in a private security company and two gun makers.

On an array of issues — including the Iran nuclear deal, the utility of NATO, and how best to combat Islamist militancy — much of the information and analysis produced by American intelligence agencies contradicts the policy positions of the new administration. The divide is starkest when it comes to Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin, whom Mr. Trump has repeatedly praised while dismissing American intelligence assessments that Moscow sought to promote his own candidacy.

The last time an outsider with no intelligence experience took the job was in the early days of the Reagan administration, when Max Hugel, a businessman who had worked on Mr. Reagan’s campaign, was named to run the spy service. His tenure at the C.I.A. was marked by turmoil and questions about the politicization of the agency. He was forced to resign after six months, amid accusations about his past business dealings. (He later won a libel case against the two brothers who made the accusations.)

Even the prospect that Mr. Feinberg may lead a review for the White House has raised concerns in the intelligence community.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Trump has appointed Mike Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, to run the C.I.A., and former Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, to be the director of national intelligence (he is still awaiting confirmation). Both were the preferred choices of the Republican congressional leadership and Vice President Mike Pence and had no close or longstanding ties to Mr. Trump. In fact, they each endorsed Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for president during the 2016 Republican primaries.

Mr. Coats is especially angry at what he sees as a move by Mr. Bannon and Mr. Kushner to sideline him before he is even confirmed, according to current and former officials. He believes the review would impinge on a central part of his role as the director of national intelligence and fears that if Mr. Feinberg were working at the White House, he could quickly become a dominant voice on intelligence matters.

Read more at the New York Times and The Guardian.