JUNE 23: Netherlands’ Memphis Depay (in orange) looks to the ball after scoring his team’s second goal during the Group B World Cup soccer match between the Netherlands and Chile in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In the wake of a scandal involving mismanagement, fraud, and lengthy wait times at veterans’ hospitals nationwide, the U.S. Senate voted 93-3 to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to contract more often with private hospitals. The Senate passed the bill as an emergency spending measure, which means the department would not face spending limits while implementing the policy. House leaders opposed that move, arguing that Congress should control the spending and find offsetting cuts to fund the reform. “This is not an agency that Congress should be cutting a no-strings-attached blank check,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. The FBI, meanwhile, opened a criminal investigation into allegations of fraud at Veterans Affairs.
Cantor steps aside
The day after U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., became the first House majority leader in history to lose a primary race, he announced that he would resign his leadership position effective July 31. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., quickly began gathering support among House Republicans to run for the majority leader post and on June 19 defeated tea party favorite Raul Labrador, R-Idaho (see “After Cantor” in this issue). Republicans selected conservative U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., to be the new majority whip.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces gained control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in Iraq as the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threatened Baghdad after taking control of Mosul and Tikrit. The powerful Kurdish Regional Government said it moved into Kirkuk to protect the strategic city from ISIS, but the Kurds consider the city rightfully part of Kurdistan and have long wanted to control it. In Baghdad, meanwhile, the small number of Christians continued regular gatherings in the face of an expected ISIS invasion. A member of St. George’s Anglican Church called the situation there “calm and normal, no more than explosions here and there as usual.” (See "Laying siege from the shadows" in this issue.)
Today’s teenagers are smoking, drinking, and fighting less, but that’s probably because they’re glued to television, computer, and smartphone screens. A study, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found the proportion of teenagers who spent three or more hours a day on recreational (or non-school related) screen time rose to 41 percent from 31 percent in 2011. The same share of teens—41 percent—admitted to having texted or emailed while driving in the previous month.
The IRS met with widespread skepticism after it made a bombshell revelation that a computer crash destroyed more than two years of emails from former IRS official Lois Lerner to outside agencies. The lost emails were from January 2009 to April 2011, a period when Lerner is suspected of having targeted tea party groups for special scrutiny and holding up their tax exempt status.
Part of a congressional investigation into Lerner’s actions involved whether she illegally coordinated with other agencies to derail tea party applications. IT experts pointed out the emails should still exist on email servers and on the computers of those corresponding with Lerner. “We believe these emails could be found unless, in fact, the IRS and Lois Lerner have made sure they can’t be found,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. The IRS later claimed the emails from six other employees, all potentially involved in the targeting scandal, had also been lost.
A Fox News poll released June 24 found that 76 percent of registered voters—including 63 percent of Democrats—believe the missing emails were deliberately destroyed. Only 12 percent thought the loss was accidental.
Spurs win big
The San Antonio Spurs dominated the Miami Heat 104-87 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals to win the best-of-7 series four games to one. The Finals MVP, forward Kawhi Leonard, didn’t make this season’s All-Star team, but he scored 22 points and gathered 10 rebounds to lead the Spurs in game 5. Superstar LeBron James had 31 points and 10 rebounds for the Heat, but his effort wasn’t enough to beat the balanced scoring of the Spurs. “They were the much better team ... and that’s how team basketball should be played,” said James. This year’s title is the fifth in the last 15 years for the Spurs.
U.S. special forces captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected leader of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans. Khattala was captured in the outskirts of Benghazi and transported to the United States to stand trial. Congressional Republicans criticized plans to try Khattala in U.S. courts, saying the president should send the terrorist to Guantanamo Bay.
Two giant tornadoes hit the ground almost simultaneously and together destroyed the small town of Pilger, Neb. The rare double tornado killed at least two people, including a 5-year-old girl, and injured dozens. Trey Wisniewski of Pilger said he and his wife rushed to the basement when they heard storm sirens. “My wife was holding our animals, and I was holding on to my wife,” he said. “We could feel the suction try to pull us out of there.”
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) downgraded its estimate for U.S. economic growth this year from 2.7 percent to a sluggish 2 percent. The U.S. economy, which grew 1.9 percent in 2013, actually shrank in the first quarter of 2014, a result IMF managing director Christine Lagarde blamed on bad winter weather and a slowing housing recovery: “Extreme weather occurrences have a serious effect on the economy.”
Americans donated $335.17 billion to charity, a 4.4 percent increase over 2012, according to a report by Giving USA. However, donations to international-focused charities fell 6.7 percent last year, and corporate giving was down 1.9 percent. Overall, giving has not returned to its pre-recession peak of $349.5 billion (in inflation-adjusted dollars) in 2007, although analysts were confident Americans would surpass that number in the next two years.
President Obama announced plans to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the south-central Pacific Ocean. The area covers about 82,129 square miles where commercial fishing and other extraction activities are illegal.
The Labor Department reported a sharp uptick in the Consumer Price Index, with prices rising a higher-than-expected 0.4 percent in May. Food, energy, housing, and apparel led the trend, with electricity prices rising 2.3 percent during the month. The report could put pressure on the Federal Reserve, which began meetings on June 17, to increase interest rates sooner than expected next year.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a pair of unanimous decisions that may have deep implications for efforts to curb government abuse. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the 9-0 decision affirming that when public employees testify in court they do so as citizens, not as public employees, and their employers cannot discipline them for their testimony. Whistle-blower advocates said the decision will encourage public employees to expose wrongdoing. A second 9-0 decision found that taxpayers can challenge an IRS summons if they have evidence the agency is investigating them in bad faith. Tax attorney Robert Kovacev told the Reuters news service the ruling is “a setback to the government’s attempt to shield IRS agents from being cross-examined about potential IRS abuses.”
Doctors in Florida said they have treated more than 40 cases of chikungunya, a nonfatal but terribly painful virus that has infected tens of thousands of people in the Caribbean. Mosquitoes spread the virus, which causes severe joint pain in its victims for seven to 10 days. Doctors say victims often try to lie still in bed because movement makes the joint pain worse. The Florida victims were travelers to the Caribbean, but researchers fear local transmissions could begin in the southern and eastern United States where two species of mosquitoes that carry the virus are found. There is no vaccine for chikungunya.
More than 50 million people worldwide were refugees last year, the UN reported. The number is the largest jump in decades—up 6 million from the previous year. Civil wars in Syria and the Central African Republic, along with conflict in Colombia and South Sudan fed the spike. The numbers don’t include recent refugees, such as the throngs of Iraqis fleeing from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. UN official Antonio Guterres said the numbers of refugees are now beyond the reach of humanitarian efforts: “It’s becoming more and more difficult to find the capacity and resources to deal with so many people in such tragic circumstances.”
President Obama directed the Department of Labor to create rules ensuring that same-sex couples receive benefits under the Family and Medical Leave Act, even if they live in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage. The law allows workers to take time off to care for a sick family member. The administration is also asking Congress to change laws to allow same-sex partners to receive other federal benefits.
The FBI announced that a massive operation across 106 cities had resulted in the rescue of 168 children from prostitution and the arrest of 281 pimps who had forced them into it. Operation Cross Country involved federal, state, and local authorities, and the pimps will face charges at both the state and federal levels. “This operation,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell in a statement, “puts traffickers behind bars and rescues kids from their nightmare so they can start reclaiming their childhood.”
Still in Sudan
Sudanese officials freed Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese Christian woman sentenced to death for refusing to recant her faith. The release followed a June 20 meeting Republican U.S. Reps. Chris Smith, Frank Wolf, Mark Meadows, and Joe Pitts had with Maowia Khalid, the Sudanese ambassador to the United States. The following day, however, Sudanese officials detained Ibrahim and her family, saying they tried to leave the country with false travel documents. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the State Department is working to get the family out of the country, the most active role the United States has so far taken in the case. Ibrahim’s husband and two children are U.S. citizens.
Austin city limited
A federal court ruled that pregnancy care centers in Austin, Texas, do not have to post signs telling clients they do not provide abortions or offer referrals for them. The city had required the pro-life centers to display the signs in a “conspicuously visible” manner.
Six-term Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi survived a primary runoff against tea party challenger Chris McDaniel, but only barely and with what analysts said was support from Democrats crossing over to vote in the Republican race. The final tally was 51 percent for Cochran to 49 percent for McDaniel. Cochran actively sought votes from Democrats by stressing the federal money he had brought into the state during his long career, including Head Start money. A June 3 primary in which both candidates failed to gain 50 percent of the vote forced the runoff.
In Oklahoma, conservative Rep. James Lankford defeated fellow conservative T.W. Shannon, the speaker of the Oklahoma House, for the GOP nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn. Lankford won by 56 percent to 36 percent.
IRS pays up
The IRS agreed to pay $50,000 in damages to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) for illegally releasing the group’s confidential donor information in 2012. NOM filed suit against the IRS after the Human Rights Campaign, an aggressive gay rights group, posted the information on its website. The National Organization for Marriage opposes same-sex marriage.
“In the beginning, the government claimed that the IRS had done nothing wrong and that NOM itself must have released our confidential information,” said NOM Chairman John D. Eastman in a statement. “Thanks to a lot of hard work, we’ve forced the IRS to admit that they in fact were the ones to break the law and wrongfully released this confidential information.” The release of such information is a felony, but the Justice Department has not brought criminal charges against anyone at the IRS.