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Sexual misconduct allegations cast shadow on nonprofit that works with colleges to help injured veterans

Jon Monett, a former science official at the CIA who has been compared to the technical genius Q in the James Bond spy movies and who made a cameo in Robert De Niro’s 2006 spy film, “The Good Shepherd,” found a way to give back to his fellow veterans.

The tech entrepreneur founded Quality of Life Plus, a nonprofit that connects engineering students with injured veterans to build custom-made prosthetics and assistive devices.

Launched in 2009 at Monett’s alma mater, California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, the flagship program had hit its stride in recent years, expanding to 19 colleges nationwide.

But newly surfaced allegations of sexual misconduct by Monett and concerns of a toxic workplace are now threatening to derail the organization.

Emails reviewed by The Times detail at least two alleged instances of sexual misconduct by Monett, against a former employee in 2017 and an unidentified woman at Cal Poly.

Officials at the nonprofit declined to share the results of an independent investigation into the matter, saying only that “the investigation found sufficient evidence to warrant corrective action, which we have and are taking.”

A portion of the campus at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

(Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg)

The allegations have triggered several departures from the organization’s board and advisory council.

And Cal Poly has quietly severed ties with the nonprofit, putting on hold a slate of projects and rebranding a multimillion-dollar lab that bears the nonprofit’s logo and name.

In emails shared with The Times, Monett apologized to an employee in 2017 after she claimed he had forcibly stuck his tongue down her throat. In another, Monett allegedly admitted to a similar incident involving a woman at the university weeks earlier. In both instances, Monett blamed alcohol for his behavior.

Monett declined to comment. The 82-year-old resides in McLean, Va., not far from the CIA headquarters where he once worked.

His attorney, Neil Tardiff, said Monett has voluntarily stepped away from the nonprofit that he founded in 2009.

Tardiff dismissed the allegations as “exaggerated,” “99 percent” false and the result of a “recalcitrant employee.”

In response to questions about Monett’s emails, Tardiff added: “I think Mr. Monett, back in 2017, would have admitted that his conduct was inappropriate, but it definitely did not rise to the level of any sexual assault.”

Monett “is a hero to America,” Tardiff said. “He has served our country, most of it undercover and in very dangerous situations, for over 40 years and has put his life on the line almost on a daily basis when he was serving our country. And then when he’s finished with that, what does he do? He dedicates his life to helping disabled veterans. How much more of a hero can you get?”

Mentions of Monett and his donation that spearheaded the Cal Poly lab have been scrubbed from the university’s website. As recently as July, Monett sat on the board of the school’s foundation and was a special advisor to President Jeffrey D. Armstrong.

According to the emails, Monett indicated that Armstrong was aware of at least one of the allegations.

University officials declined to make Armstrong available for comment. In a statement to The Times, university spokesman Matt Lazier denied the university’s decision to sever ties to the nonprofit was related to allegations against Monett. Lazier called the decision part of an unrelated restructuring months in the making.

He added, “Cal Poly finds all manner of sexual misconduct abhorrent and counter to everything for which our university stands.”

The allegations surfaced shortly after Charles Kolb, who was hired as executive director of the nonprofit in 2019, left the company 10 months later following repeated disagreements with Monett over the organization’s future and constant “meddling” by Monett, he said in an interview with The Times.

Kolb said he had also become concerned about Monett’s behavior toward women following a complaint by a female contractor who asked to no longer attend social events with Monett. But Kolb said he didn’t realize how serious the issue was until after he left the company and multiple employees sent him internal emails showing Monett appearing to admit to two instances of sexual misconduct.

The messages detail a May 2017 incident between Monett and a former employee at an after-hours event in California. “You put your hand on the back of my head, forced your tongue in my mouth and when I tried to pull away, you wouldn’t allow it and tried to do it again,” the employee wrote. “You decided I was expendable enough to pursue an urge of yours.”

The employee resigned shortly after the incident and declined to speak with The Times, which is withholding her name as an alleged victim of sexual harassment.

In the emails, Monett apologized to the employee and said he didn’t remember what happened, but called it “a wake-up call” about his drinking problem and promised to step back from the company.

“I am an old, sad and lonely man and to some extent the wine has helped but when it affects my friends I need to do something about it.” He signed the message, “love in the platonic sense.”

In another 2017 email addressed to the nonprofit’s Chief Operating Officer Barbara Springer, Monett said he had been accused of a similar incident just weeks earlier “with a woman from Cal Poly.”

Monett wrote: “I was told I made an inappropriate move to her after an evening of heavy drinking and I had no idea I had,” he wrote. “I was informed of the fact by the President of Cal Poly.

“Time to cut back on drinking,” Monett wrote. “It’s a shame that the incident happened. There are two things women, as a rule, don’t do: they don’t forgive and they don’t forget.”

It’s unclear whether the earlier incident Monett referenced involved a Cal Poly student or staff member.

“I was disgusted, frankly,” Kolb said of the emails, which he forwarded to staff, board members and to The Times. “The emails are very clear; they speak for themselves. This isn’t ‘he said, she said.’”

Current and former employees who spoke to The Times described a “toxic” and retaliatory workplace tethered to Monett, who handpicked much of the organization’s current staff and board members.

They described Monett’s behavior toward women as “creepy” and often involving drinking during business hours and lavish fundraisers. It was common practice for employees to stay overnight at Monett’s second home in San Luis Obispo instead of at a hotel during work events in California, several noted.

After a stint in the Air Force, Monett spent more than two decades at the CIA, at one point as a senior executive at the agency’s covert science and technology division.

CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

Following his retirement from the CIA, Monett founded Telemus Solutions, an intelligence company later sold to leading defense contractor Raytheon in 2008. Shortly after, Monett started Quality of Life Plus, often referred to as QL+, at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he graduated in 1964 with a degree in industrial engineering.

Cal Poly remained the nonprofit’s only partner until 2017 when three more schools, including Virginia Tech, signed on. A former employee called Cal Poly the “crown jewel” of the nonprofit and a major selling point in getting 19 other universities, including San Diego State University, to join.

Cal Poly’s student association is the nonprofit’s most active university program, attracting roughly 70-100 students every academic quarter. Past projects include devices to help those with cerebral palsy brush their teeth and wheelchair users play paintball. Students have also created a swimmer’s fin for a disabled veteran competing in a triathlon.

When reached for comment, the nonprofit’s interim executive director, Bob Wolff, said he “wasn’t sure” why Cal Poly decided to withdraw from the program, but said that shouldn’t affect the organization’s work with its 19 remaining partners. “We have contacted the other universities, and they are absolutely still supporting the program.”

Wolff said the organization had “no comment” regarding allegations of a toxic workplace. Monett’s lawyer, Tardiff, did not respond to multiple emails seeking additional comment.

Wolff was rehired in October after serving as the organization’s executive director in 2019. He had been recruited to the organization by Monett.

The organization is in the process of severing its ties with Monett including transferring an office lease and several accounts in his name, Wolff said.

“The organization can stand on its own without Jon,” said Wolff. “We respect his involvement over the past 10 years but he will no longer be involved.”

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Will ‘vaccine nationalism’ rear its head? Britain may be a test case

For months now, public health experts have fretted about the phenomenon of “vaccine nationalism” — countries loudly touting their own efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic, sometimes at the expense of worldwide cooperation and coordination.

How does Britain’s first-in-the-world approval Wednesday of a stringently tested vaccine, with large-scale inoculations set to start next week, fit into that debate?

While it’s normal and expected for world leaders to prioritize their own countries’ interests, analysts say vaccine nationalism can become dangerous when public health decisions are driven by domestic political concerns, or when a prized commodity — inoculation against a deadly disease — is wielded as a geostrategic weapon.

“Vaccine nationalism will prolong the pandemic, not shorten it,” World Health Organization chief Tedros Ghebreyesus told a September briefing in Geneva as the race to find and test a vaccine was still under way.

The Rand Corp. warned in a report this year that vaccine nationalism — including practices such as countries pushing for first access to a vaccine supply, or hoarding key components —could cost the global economy up to $1.2 trillion a year if they result in unequal allocation.

Global deaths tied to COVID-19 neared 1.5 million and worldwide coronavirus infections numbered more than 64.3 million as of Wednesday, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.

British regulators’ emergency approval of a vaccine developed by American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech was hailed as a longed-for sign of hope in a country that has been hammered by COVID-19. Some 60,000 Britons have died, reflecting one of the highest per-capita death rates in Europe, and infections are approaching 1.7 million.

“Fantastic news,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of the regulatory approval, enthusing about the “biological jiujitsu” achieved by scientists. The 56-year-old prime minister, who endured a life-threatening bout of COVID-19 this year, has been harshly criticized for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

British health officials said the country will begin receiving the first shipment of 800,000 doses from Belgium, where the vaccine is made, within days and that two-step mass inoculations will begin almost immediately. As is expected in the United States, priority will be given to healthcare workers and the most vulnerable, including nursing home residents.

But even with a speedy rollout, the United Kingdom, like the United States, is heading into a winter likely to be scarred by suffering. Because the caseload already is so enormous, the next few months are expected to bring many thousands more deaths, add to strains on an already overburdened health system and intensify economic hardship.

Although Britain’s opposition Labor Party chimed in with expressions of relief over the approval announcement, it drew a chilly response from the European Union. In an unusually curt statement, the bloc’s drug regulator, the Brussels-based European Medicines Agency — which is sifting through the same data that Britain used — suggested it was exercising appropriate diligence, and that Johnson’s government might have put speed ahead of safety in a bid to jump-start the process.

Britain is enmeshed in tense talks with the 27-member EU about its messy, drawn-out departure from the bloc, which was approved by national referendum in 2016. Brexit formally took place a year ago, but a yearlong transition period is barreling toward an end with deep divisions remaining.

The British health secretary, Mark Hancock, irritated European officials by suggesting that breaking with the EU had fostered a nimbler British approach on regulatory approval, resulting in Wednesday’s announcement. Another official, Business Secretary Alok Sharma, said the greenlighting of the vaccine marked “the day the U.K. led humanity’s charge against this disease.”

That was too much for Germany’s ambassador to Britain, Andreas Michaelis, who said the regulatory approval was not a “national story” of achievement. On Twitter, he questioned why it was “so difficult to recognize this important step forward as a great international effort and success.”

The British announcement comes as Johnson is maneuvering to find his footing with President-elect Joe Biden, after the prime minister forged what might be the closest friendship with President Trump by the leader of a major Western democracy. Biden has already signaled a sharp break with Trump on coronavirus policy, including plans to immediately reverse the president’s pullout from the WHO.

The Trump administration, seemingly unfazed over Britain being the first to approve a U.S.-pioneered vaccine, praised the move as a positive portent for the United States’ own vaccine approval and rollout, for which Trump is seeking to claim credit as his tenure in office draws to a close.

“For the American people, this should be very reassuring: An independent regulatory authority in another country has found this vaccine to be safe and effective for use,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in an interview on Fox Business.

In the United States, an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration could follow a meeting on Dec. 10 of a panel of outside advisors, whose recommendation is often used as a guideline. But some experts say that even with an endorsement, the FDA approval could take weeks.

Up until now, no government had authorized a rigorously tested vaccine. Russia and China moved ahead with such authorizations although lacking large-scale testing of the vaccine’s effectiveness.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin this year put a decidedly nationalistic stamp on the rollout of a vaccine dubbed Sputnik V, invoking the name of the artificial satellite whose 1957 launch ignited a space race with the United States.

Tens of thousands of Russians have already received the vaccine, and Putin said Wednesday that a new push would begin later this month targeting doctors and teachers.

Britain, with a population of 67 million, faces some daunting logistical challenges in hurrying ahead with its rollout. It will be dealing with new technology to store the vaccine at ultra-low temperatures, and the two doses must be administered 21 days apart.

Only about four dozen British hospitals will initially be authorized to administer the shots. Although the vaccine’s makers have reported no serious side effects, it is still not known whether asymptomatic people who have been inoculated can still spread the disease. And how long the protection lasts is not yet known.

Like Trump, Johnson may face a sizable contingent of compatriots who refuse to get a vaccine because they do not trust the government or public health experts. The British leader said he would “strongly urge” people to get vaccinated, but said it is “no part of our culture or our ambition in this country to make vaccines mandatory.”

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South Korea holds high-stakes college exam amid COVID-19

For eight hushed hours Thursday, a second-floor hospital room at the Mokpo City Medical Center at the southwestern tip of South Korea will be transformed into a test center — not for the coronavirus, but for admission to college.

Five hospital beds have been wheeled out, making way for a lone school desk. Nurses clad head-to-toe in white protective suits, goggles and masks will take turns serving as proctors. At the center of it all will be an 18-year-old high school senior with the coronavirus, taking the most important exam of her lifetime.

South Korea is forging ahead with its annual nationwide college entrance exam, despite unease over rising coronavirus infection rates. Nearly half a million students are set to take the test Thursday as the rest of the country grapples with a third wave of COVID-19 cases, with daily infections hovering around 500 in recent weeks.

In this hyper-competitive society where college admission is seen as predetermining many facets of one’s life, including jobs, income and social status, the exam is a tense affair even in a typical year. Companies delay their commute so students can get to test centers on time, the stock market pushes back its opening bell by an hour, and planes stop taking off so as to not interfere with listening-comprehension sections.

Add to the mix a raging pandemic, and you have a nation on edge about whether the test is putting students, their families and the entire country at risk and whether the seniors will get a fair shot at the high-stakes exam. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on their academic calendars and caused outbreaks in several of the country’s myriad cram schools, where students spend long hours in test prep.

“It’s such a big turning point in life. How you do on this exam really changes your future,” said Yang, a 20-year-old test taker who asked to be identified only by her last name. “The psychological pressure is immense.”

A worker disinfects a test center as a coronavirus precaution for the upcoming college entrance exams in Seoul.

(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

Among those taking the exam Thursday will be 35 students who have tested positive for the coronavirus, as well as an additional 387 who are being required to isolate after coming into contact with a known patient, according to the Ministry of Education. They will take the exam at two dozen hospitals around the country, including the one in Mokpo, or separate test centers for those in quarantine, with no more than four students per room, officials said.

Yang, who is taking the annual test a third time for a shot at a higher-ranked university than the one she got into last year, recalled how nerve-racking the test day was in her first two attempts. She said she couldn’t imagine having to take it in a hospital room.

“This is an unprecedented situation for the students, the schools, the parents. Everyone is anxious,” she said.

High school seniors aren’t the only ones whose futures have been jeopardized by the challenges of holding large-scale exams in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A cluster of infections last month at a cram school for teacher qualification exams resulted in 67 aspiring teachers being barred from the test, which many spend several years preparing for. Would-be accountants protested after test administrators announced that anyone with COVID-19 would not be allowed to take an upcoming certification exam in December. Earlier this year, a local development corporation in the city of Ansan rented out an entire soccer field to hold written exams for job applicants in an open-air environment with ample space between test-takers.

The pandemic has helped highlight the extent to which South Koreans hang their hopes on high-pressure exams to determine their future prospects. Job seekers spend years preparing for public service exams for coveted government jobs. Major corporations including Samsung and LG rely on exams to weed out applicants, spawning an industry of cram schools and prep books tailored specifically to their exams. Both companies conducted their tests online this year due to the pandemic.

“South Korea has way too many exams, and especially high-stakes exams where everything is decided on that one day,” said Kim Ki-hun, a senior fellow at the National Youth Policy Institute. “The fact that it’s going forward even in this extraordinary COVID-19 situation — that shows you how deep-rooted it is.”

At Thursday’s grueling all-day college entrance exam, students will be required to wear masks throughout, with plastic dividers separating their desks.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the exam was even more of a challenge than the general elections the country held in April because it involves students, proctors and support staff — about 610,000 people all told — spending the entire day in a confined space.

“The degree of risk and nervousness is much higher,” Moon said.

Parents pray for their children on the eve of South Korea's national college entrance exam at a temple in Seoul on Wednesday.

Parents pray and light candles Wednesday at a temple in Seoul during a service to wish for their children’s success on the eve of South Korea’s nationwide college entrance exam.

(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

One student taking the test Thursday said she has been taking practice exams with a mask, but found it challenging because it kept shifting her glasses.

Her mother has been attending daily prayers at church for her daughter’s sake. The girl had been spending more than 15 hours a day at an expensive cram school, but two of the students there tested positive for the coronavirus, leading the school to be shut down while everyone who was in contact was tested.

“Getting one question right or wrong can make the difference in which school you get into,” said the girl, Cho, who also asked to be identified only by her last name. She said she hoped to get into a top-tier university to study engineering.

At Mokpo Medical Center, two students with mild cases of the coronavirus had initially been scheduled to take their exams, but one was discharged with two days to go, said hospital administrator Kim O-cheon.

The remaining student is doing well with virtually no symptoms, and seemed to be calmly preparing on the eve of the exam despite the unusual environs, he said.

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Column: Why Biden should hope that Trump pardons himself

As the days count down to Jan. 20, President Trump, who has rarely seen a norm he couldn’t break, may be tempted to break just one more — and pardon himself before he leaves office in case he is later prosecuted for federal crimes.

If he does, many Americans will react with outrage.

But a self-pardon by Trump, odious as it might seem, could also be a backhanded gift to President-elect Joe Biden, by instantly removing pressure on the new administration to mire itself in a divisive legal pursuit of the former president.

Biden faces a genuine dilemma. A bedrock principle of American democracy is that no man is above the law, not even a president. But if Biden were to move quickly to prosecute the man he just beat in an election — a man who shows every sign of planning to run again — the result would be a partisan brawl that would end Biden’s hopes of restoring a measure of bipartisanship to Washington.

But federal prosecutors in New York and elsewhere have long been looking into allegations of illegal contributions to Trump’s 2017 inauguration and other financial irregularities. Former aides to special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III have said the president was guilty of obstructing justice by interfering with their investigation.

“I believe that [federal prosecutors] have no choice,” Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said in 2019. “The president is not above the law.”

Still, for a Biden Justice Department, prosecuting Trump would come with plenty of problems.

Fairly or not, it would look like “victor’s justice.” Democrats condemned Trump for encouraging followers to chant “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton; it would be hard to justify “Lock him up” as a substitute, however much more Trump might deserve it.

Investigating Trump would continue the vicious cycle under which the Trump administration investigated former President Obama and his aides for purportedly spying on Trump’s 2016 campaign (charges that have never been substantiated).

If the Biden administration subjected Trump to prosecution, Republicans in Congress would race to defend him, if only to maintain the support of loyal Trump voters.

And it would be a divisive, all-consuming spectacle that would get in Biden’s way as he sought to pass legislation and implement his agenda.

“The arguments on both sides are extraordinarily powerful — and not reconcilable,” Donald B. Ayer, a former top Justice Department official under President George H.W. Bush, told me. “Can Biden make progress on his agenda if the whole country is focused on the prosecution of Donald Trump?”

Biden has carefully avoided making a choice.

“I don’t think anyone’s above the law,” he told reporters in August.

On the other hand, he said, it is “probably not very … good for democracy to be talking about prosecuting former presidents.”

So, he said, he would leave the decision up to the Justice Department. “In terms of saying, ‘I think the president violated the law … prosecute him,’ I will not do that,” he said. “That would be up to the attorney general to decide whether he or she wanted to proceed.”

A pre-pardoned Trump might help Biden navigate the dilemma by making it difficult to proceed with a prosecution.

While it’s unclear that a self-pardon would be valid — it has never happened before, and it collides with the bedrock principle that no man can serve as judge in his own case — the move would guarantee that things would be messy. The first step for any prosecutor would be overcoming the former president’s contention that he is invulnerable to federal prosecution.

And that issue, says Norman Eisen, a former counsel to House Democrats in Trump’s impeachment who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, “would end up in the Supreme Court pretty quickly.”

That would be the Supreme Court in which Trump just installed a 6-3 conservative majority.

Eisen’s advice: “Let the states go first. Their investigations are already underway.” And a federal pardon doesn’t cover prosecution by state or local prosecutors.

Biden might be able to avoid the divisive decision about prosecution entirely by letting, say, New York go first. In any case, Trump appears to be in greater danger there than from federal prosecutors.

The Manhattan district attorney is investigating his family real estate firm, the Trump Organization, on allegations of bank and insurance fraud. And the state’s attorney general is investigating whether he claimed improperly inflated deductions on state tax returns.

Trump faces potential civil legal problems as well. He owes millions of dollars to banks that have held back from suing him while he was in the White House.

The cost of his still unsettled federal tax audit could exceed $100 million. Tax cases are pursued, at least initially, in civil courts, not criminal cases; a pardon won’t relieve him of his obligations to the Internal Revenue Service.

Congressional committees will remain free to investigate him as well.

In short, Trump’s retirement is unlikely to be overly comfortable even if he doesn’t face a federal indictment.

So go ahead, Mr. President, and pardon yourself. Secure your place in history as one of only two presidents who felt they needed pardons because of the potential criminal charges they faced. Sooner or later, we’ll probably see you in court all the same.

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TSA program surveilled some travelers without reason, audit finds

A controversial U.S. program to monitor “high-risk” passengers at airports and on domestic flights has been poorly managed, with some fliers continuing to be monitored after they were not longer considered a risk, a government audit found.

The Transportation Security Administration failed to “plan, implement, and manage the Quiet Skies program to meet the program’s mission of mitigating the threat to commercial aviation,” the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security said in its audit, released this week.

The TSA agreed with some of the recommendations to improve oversight to the Quiet Skies program but rejected the conclusion that the agency failed to follow its own guidelines and that it has not shown that the program makes air travel safer.

In a letter filed in response to the audit, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said 58 travelers who were initially monitored under the Quiet Skies program from 2014 to 2020 were eventually labeled as “known or suspected terrorists” and added to the government’s no-fly terrorist watchlist.

“This data indicates that the Quiet Skies selectees are approximately 30 times more likely to pose an actual high risk than a randomly selected passenger, validating Quiet Skies’ value in identifying high-risk travel,” he said.

The program was launched in 2012 but was first reported by the Boston Globe in 2018. An audit was launched shortly after the program was publicized. The TSA has described the program as an effort to prevent terrorism by conducting extra screening at TSA checkpoints of U.S. citizens who have broken no laws but raise red flags because of their travel patterns.

Through an automated system, airlines add a special coding to the boarding passes of passengers who are on the Quiet Skies list so TSA officers can pull those travelers aside for extra screening at security checkpoints.

In addition, federal air marshals who monitor the travelers board the same flight and keep notes if those passengers are fidgeting, sweating, trembling, staring or exhibiting other suspicious behavior, according to the TSA.

The Quiet Skies program operates separately from the federal government watchlist that is intended to monitor known or suspected terrorists.

Civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have criticized the program, saying that it may be singling out law-abiding travelers based on race or religion for harassment — an allegation the TSA has rejected.

Gadeir Abbas, senior litigation attorney for CAIR, said the audit uses “the sharpest language you can see in an OIG report, which speaks to the senselessness of it all.”

Despite the audit’s recommendations, he said, “there is no fixing this nonsense. TSA should end Quiet Skies once and for all.”

Hugh Handeyside, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, also called for the program to be halted in light of the audit. “Nothing in the report suggests that the fundamental defects in the program can be corrected,” he said. “The entire program must be dismantled.”

The audit said the program failed to adopt procedures to measure if the program has been effective at keeping the skies safe and recommended creating a central office to monitor and manage the program, with quarterly reports and regular performance goals.

“TSA did not ensure oversight meetings were documented, as required, or update its policies and procedures to reflect program operations,” the audit said.

The audit has been redacted to remove a description of how travelers are cleared from the Quiet Skies list, but the audit said software glitches in 2017 and 2018 resulted in people remaining on the list long after they were no longer considered a risk.

Without effective procedures to ensure people are removed from the list after they are no longer considered a risk, the TSA may be subjecting travelers to more enhanced screenings and monitoring by air marshals than needed, according to the audit.

In some cases, the audit said, the TSA did not perform the extra screening on passengers who were on the list because airlines failed to add the special coding to their boarding passes.

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Tens of thousands of migrants are trapped in war-torn Yemen

It was a serene spot for a makeshift graveyard; the migrant smuggler had chosen well.

The sand-swept field just outside this city was far enough from the highway to be quiet but not so far as to be inaccessible. It had eight graves — shallow rock mounds, their headstones spray-painted with blue scrawl — overlooking a mountain landscape.

“I had to put them here because no one would accept them in any other cemetery,” said Ahmad Dabisi, a 29-year-old human smuggler whose boyish looks belie the seriousness of his trade.

For the eight people buried here — all of them his clients— the field was the final stop in a country that was only ever supposed to be a waystation. Spurred by poverty or conflict, they and tens of thousands of other migrants left their homes in East Africa — despite coronavirus restrictions — with Saudi Arabia in their sights, seeking safety and economic opportunity.

Instead, they find themselves trapped in Yemen, ensnared by the country’s multi-sided civil war and its labyrinthine front lines. They have little chance to escape the limbo.

Thousands wait here in Ataq, the capital of Shabwa province, eking out a threadbare existence on the streets.

Abdul Karim Trat, center, a migrant from Ethiopia, sits by the roadside in the Yemeni city of Ataq.

(Sam Tarling / Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies)

“We’re not alive, we’re not dead. We’re just sitting here,” said Ahmad Ali Abdo, 40, who had come from Somalia nine months ago. Unable to get across the border into Saudi Arabia, he now carries a bucket and sponge and offers an indifferent carwash to passing motorists, often making less than a dollar a day.

“I know there’s a war here, but I want Saudi Arabia. At least there, if they catch me, they’ll send me back to Somalia,” he said.

Last year, almost 140,000 migrants from the Horn of Africa attempted to traverse Yemen, a record high. Even with the coronavirus sealing borders, more than 34,000 migrants have tried the crossing this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, or IOM.

The journey is long, complicated and perilous. It often begins in Ethiopia, where some 94% of the migrants in Yemen originate, most of them farmers and a little more than half of them with only a primary school education. For many, it’s not the first time they’ve tried to emigrate.

They make their way to Obock, a coastal town in Djibouti that was once the site of the region’s first French colony, or Somalia’s Bosaso port. Both are launchpads into Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden.

“I studied for a bit and worked in a farm in Ethiopia,” said Hassan Mahmoud, a 21, who traveled to the Ethiopian border city of Jijiga and from there to Bosaso. “Some of my friends heard from others there was work in Saudi Arabia, so we came.”

The first part of the trip cost Mahmoud 10,000 Ethiopian birrs, or $260, paid to a local smuggler with contacts in Yemen. He handed over a similar amount for the gulf crossing, which took 24 hours in a small boat with 120 other passengers and no food or water.

He arrived in Bir Ali, a village on Shabwa’s Red Sea coast with resort-worthy white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, and then walked for more than a week to reach Ataq. (Those who can afford it take a car for about $27.)

Here he remains. Passage to Saudi Arabia is now closed. With no money, Mahmoud has been sleeping on Nasr Street, Ataq’s main boulevard, at night, and scrounging for work in the mornings.

“There are no jobs here, and there’s no road to Saudi Arabia. I’ll try to go back home soon,” he said.

Still, he is one of the luckier ones.

Tigra Hara Rayye, 23, an Ethiopian who came to Yemen a year ago, carries a jerry can of water in a compound for migrants.

Tigra Hara Rayye, 23, an Ethiopian who came to Yemen a year ago, carries a jerry can of water in a compound for migrants.

(Sam Tarling / Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies)

Mohammad Abu Bakr, 26, worked in Yemen for five months to gather enough money to continue northward. Then he crossed the front lines of the civil war to reach Saadah, Yemen’s northernmost province, which is on the border with Saudi Arabia and is controlled by the Houthis, a rebel group backed by Riyadh’s nemesis, Iran.

The Houthis had marched into the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in 2014, before moving into other provinces in a bid to control the country. In response, a coalition headed by Saudi Arabia launched a brutal air campaign as well as a full blockade that has brought Yemen to the brink of famine.

Despite the war, migration continues across the border through smuggler crossings that snake through the mountainous terrain between the two countries.

The coronavirus has meant tighter border controls. The Houthis caught Abu Bakr and kept him in prison for 50 days, he said. Ordinarily he would have had to pay what the Houthis called an exit fee of 1,000 Saudi rials — or $267 — to get out, but the prison became so overcrowded that his captors loaded him and some 180 others into cattle trucks, drove them across battle lines again to the south and dumped them in the desert.

Abu Bakr was able to make his way back to Ataq, where, like Abdo, he tries to make some money washing cars.

Houthis aren’t the only danger. Checkpoint guards frequently take migrants’ money and cellphones, said Dabisi, the smuggler. Some of his competitors, often in collusion with local authorities, round up migrants after they come ashore or pay rival smugglers to give up their clients, whom they then spirit away to dens to be tortured and beaten until their families pay ransom.

“My competitors offer to pay me 20,000 Saudi rials per person — more than I would get from the migrants,” Dabisi said. “But it would ruin my reputation. Why do people come to me? Because I offer a good service.”

Dabisi’s older brother, Jamal, was the first in the family to offer that service, but he was killed six years ago in a fight over migrants. Since then, Dabisi has taken over, turning his home village into a hub through which he has, by his estimate, ferried more than 100,000 people.

At more than $100 per migrant, it was a lucrative business. Before, Dabisi worked as a bus driver, barely covering his expenses; now he is a node in a multi-country network, liaising with hundreds of Ethiopian facilitators, Somali boat captains, Yemeni drivers and tribesmen through instant-messaging apps on his five cellphones.

In the state’s eyes, smugglers like Dabisi are both cause and cure for its migrant problem. The government had cracked down on smugglers in 2016 and rounded up 20,000 migrants but found itself unable to feed or house them.

The security situation meant it also had other priorities. That has forced government officials into a sort of uneasy detente that allows Dabisi and other smugglers to move migrants through Shabwa as long as they do it quickly.

“Even if they would arrest Dabisi, it won’t matter. Migrants are coming every day. If not him, then someone else would do it,” said Ahmad Aidrus, a migration researcher from Shabwa.

Dabisi is still able to take his human cargo across the border, but it has become a much more difficult — and expensive — process.

“I could only take seven people, and I had to move them from place to place and get them across within a small car,” he said.

Many migrants have given up on making the final leg to Saudi Arabia and want to turn back. But Ethiopia has refused to take any more returnees because of the coronavirus, and Saudi Arabia has stopped its deportation flights and instead put migrants in prison. The IOM is still preparing repatriation flights for about 14,500 stranded Ethiopians.

Even a return to East Africa by boat, back across the Gulf of Aden, is difficult.

“Smugglers take them close to the coast and make them swim the rest of the way because there are possibly coast guard or security forces,” said Olivia Headon, public relations officer for IOM in Yemen. “So they’re doing it to protect their own necks while putting migrants’ lives at risk.”

Information on migrants who lost their lives in the crossing is sparse, Headon said, but “whatever figure there is is way too low.”

That comes as little surprise to Aidrus. The dead migrants in Dabisi’s makeshift graveyard, Aidrus said, were probably buried quickly to avoid the inevitable bureaucratic tangle.

Dabisi demurred from specifying how his clients died, amid rumors that some had been shot in a quarrel with other travelers. In any case, he had collected the bodies, sent pictures of them to their families to confirm their identities and then brought them to the field for burial.

But the resting place is likely to be temporary. The last time he had come to dig a grave, Dabisi said, local residents had threatened him and ordered him to remove the bodies; some construction was to start soon on the field.

“They came and raised their guns at me, told me I had to stop burials or they’ll shoot me,” he said, glancing back at one of the mounds.

“I’ll have to move these bodies to my village.”

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Kim Kardashian West sets sights on new prison-reform case

Kim Kardashian West is flexing her criminal justice reform muscles for perhaps the last time before President Trump leaves office, asking that the sentence of federal death-row inmate Brandon Bernard be commuted to life in prison without parole before Bernard’s Dec. 10 execution date.

Bernard was sentenced to death in 2000 for the murder of Stacie Bagley, who was killed with her husband after a carjacking and robbery in June 1999 left them locked in the trunk of their car, which was set on fire after both victims were shot.

Todd Bagley died from the gunshot, but Stacie died in the fire, which was set by Bernard. The murders took place on Ft. Hood military land in Texas, making it a federal case.

“First, I want to say that a terrible crime was committed and me fighting for a stay of execution does not take away from the sympathy I have for the victim’s Todd and Stacie Bagley, and their families. My heart breaks for everyone involved,” the reality TV star and beauty mogul wrote Sunday in a series of tweets.

Kardashian West first revealed her interest in criminal-justice reform in 2018, when she and others successfully lobbied President Trump to pardon Alice Marie Johnson, who had served 22 years of a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense.

Since then, she has started studying law and has stepped up on behalf of numerous other convicts. In April, she released “Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project,” a documentary on Oxygen.

“While Brandon did participate in this crime, his role was minor compared to that of the other teens involved, two of whom are home from prison now,” Kardashian West continued Sunday on Twitter.

The fourth man involved in the crimes, Christopher Andre Vialva, was executed Sept. 24 after being sentenced to death on three of the four charges he faced and life in prison on the other. Bernard also received life sentences on three of the four counts, which included committing or aiding and abetting carjacking and conspiracy to commit murder.

Kardashian West tweeted that Bernard wasn’t involved in the initial carjacking and was “stunned” when the Iowa youth ministers were shot. He feared for his own life, she said, when he sprayed lighter fluid into the car and set it on fire to destroy the evidence.

The 40-year-old mother of four cited a recent article written by the prosecutor who defended Bernard’s death sentence on appeal but now believes that sentence should be tossed. She also posted videos from two of the five jurors who — out of the nine jurors still alive — now regret their vote for the death sentence two decades ago. None of those people, however, doubts Bernard’s guilt.

“At trial Brandon’s attorney fell short by not hiring any experts who could have explained to the jury why Brandon decided to leave the video game store that night or how he had grown up in an abusive home, or how his homeless father had left him searching for protection in the streets,” Kardashian West tweeted.

“His trial attorney also failed to tell the jury how remorseful he was or anything about his background. We now know this testimony would have spared his life.”

Kardashian West noted that while the defendants were Black, 11 of 12 members of the original jury were white. She also corrected herself regarding Bernard’s scheduled execution date, which she had mistakenly given as Dec. 12.

Bernard, who was convicted of the same four charges Vialva was, got the death sentence for Stacie Bagley’s killing. He was 18 at the time of the murders and, like Vialva, a gang member, according to court documents.

“After Todd Bagley agreed to give a ride to several of Bernard’s accomplices, they pointed a gun at him, forced him and Stacie into the trunk of their car, and drove the couple around for hours while attempting to steal their money and pawn Stacie’s wedding ring,” the U.S. Justice Department said in a release Oct. 16.

“While locked in the trunk, the couple spoke with their abductors about God and pleaded for their lives,” the statement continued. “The abductors eventually parked on the Fort Hood military reservation, where Bernard and another accomplice doused the car with lighter fluid as the couple, still locked in the trunk, sang and prayed. After Stacie said, ‘Jesus loves you,’ and ‘Jesus, take care of us,’ one of the accomplices shot both Todd and Stacie in the head — killing Todd and knocking Stacie unconscious. Bernard then lit the car on fire, killing Stacie through smoke inhalation.”

Kardashian West urged anyone interested in helping to visit the website helpsavebrandon.com for more information and to sign a letter to Trump asking that Bernard’s death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment without the chance of parole. Bernard’s defense team, which runs the website, has pledged to present the letters to the president.

Kardashian West’s success in urging Trump to alter heavy sentences began with the mid-2018 pardon of Johnson, who was serving a life sentence plus 25 years for a nonviolent drug offense. Shortly after that, the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” star announced she was studying to become a lawyer.

This latest campaign comes amid an eventful 2020 for Kardashian, including husband Kanye West’s presidential bid (news flash: He didn’t win) and a controversial island-getaway 40th-birthday surprise party for about two dozen family members and friends.

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It just got harder for the U.S. to punish airlines

At the behest of an airline trade group, the U.S. Department of Transportation has adopted a new policy that consumer groups say will make it harder for the agency to punish airlines that deceive travelers or treat them unfairly.

Under the policy, the agency must apply a new standard when considering civil penalties or new regulations on air carriers or travel agents in response to consumer complaints: whether the complaints describe misdeeds that meet a specific definition of “unfair and deceptive practices.” The policy also lets airlines request hearings before the agency imposes new regulations.

The Transportation Department has acknowledged that the policy “could translate into the department performing fewer enforcement and rule-making actions” against airlines and could “lengthen the time needed to complete the actions.”

Airlines for America, the trade group that proposed the new policy, has argued that the federal agency previously penalized airlines for minor infractions or inadvertent errors.

The Transportation Department announced the policy change Friday afternoon, drawing the ire of the National Consumers League, whose leaders say the timing — in the middle of a long holiday weekend — was meant to draw as little attention to the change as possible.

“The DOT’s decision, at the height of a pandemic, to kneecap its ability to protect millions of travelers from airline abuses is deeply disappointing,” the National Consumers League said in a statement Saturday morning. “That the department decided to do so on the Friday after Thanksgiving highlights that they hope this terrible decision will be forgotten by Monday.”

In announcing the new rule, the Transportation Department said it “will benefit the public and regulated entities by providing greater transparency and predictability on how the department conducts its aviation consumer protection rulemaking and enforcement activities.”

Airlines for America praised Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Monday and called the change “a critical step forward in ensuring a data-driven regulatory process, which will produce widespread and lasting benefits for air travelers, airlines and the economy.”

Under the previous policy, the department determined on a case-by-case basis if an action was unfair or deceptive.

The new rule defines an airline’s practice as “unfair” if it “causes or is likely to cause substantial injury, which is not reasonably avoidable, and the harm is not outweighed by benefits to consumers or competition.” It defines “deceptive” as “likely to mislead a consumer acting reasonably under the circumstances with respect to a material issue.”

Also under the new policy, airlines and other interested parties can request a formal hearing before the Transportation Department adopts a new consumer protection rule. After the hearing, the agency can move ahead with the rule, modify it or eliminate it.

When the rule was first proposed in February it was criticized for making it more difficult to penalize airlines and travel agencies. The critics included two members of the Federal Trade Commission, four Democratic members of Congress and several consumer groups, including Consumer Reports, the Consumer Federation of America and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The proposed rule grew out of President Trump’s 2017 executive order to “alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens” by asking federal agencies to flag regulations that could be repealed, replaced or modified. In response to the Trump order, Airlines for America suggested the new policy to the Transportation Department.

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American pandemic: A preacher, a nurse and a firefighter take on the coronavirus

It was still dark when the Rev. Albert Mann stepped outside his trailer home, looked to the sky and prayed for the dying to end.

He climbed into his white pickup — refuge from the Florida mosquitos — as he prepared for his sermon.

“Please, God,” he said. “Let us get out of this pandemic.”

Pastor Albert Mann of Gordon Chapel Community Church reads the Bible before services in Hawthorne, Fla.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Halfway across the country in North Dakota, Nikole Hoggarth rose before the sun and let out the dog, careful not to wake her husband or the six children who still lived at home. Her nurse’s uniform was laid out in the bathroom.

She grabbed a chocolate shake for the road and set off for the 50-minute drive to the hospital. Country music helped clear her head.

Meanwhile in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, Fire Capt. Daniel Soto reported to Station 16 just outside downtown and pointed an electronic thermometer at his temple.

Ninety-nine — high enough to send him home under the department’s coronavirus precautions.

He took his temperature again and passed.

So began Nov. 22, a Sunday, exactly 307 days since the first coronavirus case was diagnosed in the United States.

The nation’s death toll stood at 257,117 — more than drug overdoses, breast cancer, suicide and diabetes combined for any recent year. Only heart disease, the nation’s leading cause of death, kills more people.

The first surge of infections came in late March and stretched into April. The virus spiked again in June and July.

Now a third surge was setting records for infections, with more than a million new cases reported each week.

Even with years of experience dealing with death, Mann, Hoggarth and Soto struggled to fathom the meaning of those statistics. Not that there was much time to think about the numbers while working on the front lines.

::

Gordon Chapel Community Church, a white building with blue stained glass, was a block down the street from where Mann lived.

More than half of the 100 people who visit Gordon Chapel Community Church became infected with the coronavirus.

More than half of the 100 people who visit Gordon Chapel Community Church became infected with the coronavirus.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

As the 63-year-old reverend arrived, he noticed that somebody had smashed part of the picket fence. He knew there were people in Hawthorne — his tiny town just outside Gainesville — who hated him for what happened.

What happened was that Mann had trusted his faith.

For months, even as other churches closed, he kept the doors open. The choir sang, Sunday school met, and the elderly gathered weekly for Bible study.

Then the virus came like a wave. Even though they wore masks in church, more than half of the 100 people who came to pray each week became infected.

The virus left his wife bedridden for more than a week. It killed her mother, a brother, an aunt and an uncle.

Pastor Albert Mann and his wife, Valencia Jenkins-Mann, visit grave of her mother, Ella Cuthbert.

Pastor Albert Mann and his wife, Valencia Jenkins-Mann, visit grave of her mother, Ella Cuthbert.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

A Bible rests on the pew where Ella Cuthbert used to sit.

A Bible rests on the pew where Ella Cuthbert, a longtime member of Gordon Chapel Community Church, used to sit each Sunday.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Mann opened the front door and said a prayer. A pink bow and a Bible marked the pew where his mother-in-law, Ella Cuthbert, used to sit.

In walked her sister, 78-year-old Charlene McDonald, back for the first time since getting sick.

“My kids would be so mad if they knew I was here,” she told Mann. “But God is too good.”

Second to arrive was Valencia Jenkins-Mann, the pastor’s wife. She wore a mask with “R.I.P.” on a print of her mother’s face.

Valencia Jenkins-Mann takes the temperature of a congregant at Gordon Chapel Community Church.

Valencia Jenkins-Mann takes the temperature of a congregant at Gordon Chapel Community Church.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m so happy to see you Aunty,” she told McDonald. “That virus got me good.”

::

It was 9 a.m. when paramedics blew through double doors at the Jamestown Regional Medical Center emergency room with a stretcher and swung left into Room 7.

The patient was in her 80s and struggling to breathe.

Hoggarth donned a yellow gown, tugging on white sleeves and wincing from back pain as she reached behind her neck to tie a knot. She pulled a respirator hood over her brown, pixie-cut hair.

Nurse Nikole Hoggarth chats with Verdell Jacob at Jamestown Regional Medical Center in Jamestown, N.D.

Nurse Nikole Hoggarth chats with Verdell Jacob at Jamestown Regional Medical Center in Jamestown, N.D. “You’ve always got a smile on your face,” Hoggarth said. “And crying on the inside,” he said.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“Another COVID coming in a private car,” a receptionist called out as Hoggarth disappeared into Room 7.

Back in March and April, Hoggarth had scrolled through Facebook posts by big-city frontline health workers who described losing three or four patients a shift — a “horror story,” she called it.

Now that story had come to her emergency room in North Dakota — which suddenly had the highest rate of new infections.

Exhausted by consecutive shifts, she resented people who ignored warnings and continued gathering for birthdays, weddings and anniversaries, spreading the virus and filling her 25-bed hospital.

Teresa Cole, 57, was admitted to Jamestown Regional Medical Center with trouble breathing.

Teresa Cole, 57, was admitted to Jamestown Regional Medical Center with trouble breathing.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Hoggarth hooked up monitors in Room 7 as Dr. Steve Inglish started his examination.

“Dehydrated,” he said, dictating his observations into a recorder. “Diarrhea, according to caretaker. I gave her 500 milliliters of intravenous fluid.”

The woman had 87% oxygen saturation, low enough that it once would have meant admission to the hospital.

But Inglish and Hoggarth had treated enough coronavirus patients to learn that they could send her home with oxygen and steroids as long as the hospital continued to closely monitor her during video calls.

Every hospital bed was precious.

::

At 7:30 a.m. sharp, the intercom at Station 16 blared out an urgent call: “Your food is getting cold!”

Soto sat down at the long wooden dining table with the other 10 firefighters — all men — for a breakfast of sausage and bacon sandwiches with hash browns. A Waylon Jennings tune wafted from a portable speaker.

Houston Fire Capt. Daniel Soto, 35, heads to a call.

Houston Fire Capt. Daniel Soto, 35, heads to a call.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

As a 35-year-old supervisor and paramedic, Soto worked in 24-hour shifts, rushing to 911 calls to oversee serious medical emergencies or assist less experienced firefighters.

He was also responsible for protecting his co-workers from the virus. Some were skeptical about whether it was much of a threat, even though it had killed three members of the department.

The normal emergencies — car accidents, drug overdoses, heart attacks — didn’t stop because there happened to be a pandemic.

Dispatchers used to ask 911 callers about possible exposure to the virus. But as it spread, they stopped inquiring about symptoms, and responders began treating everybody as if they were infected.

After breakfast, one of Soto’s fellow captains did roll call and reminded his men to wear their protective gear on every call. One firefighter realized he didn’t have a mask on and pulled his shirt up over his nose and mouth.

It had been a slow morning. Soto knew those rarely lasted.

::

The reverend slipped on a white collar, walked to the lectern and removed his mask to speak.

“Good morning, good morning! We’re coming live from Gordon Chapel Community Church.”

He had been broadcasting services on Facebook since things had gotten bad. Only a dozen people — all immediate family — attended in person.

A majority of the members at Gordon Chapel Community Church now attend services virtually.

A majority of the members at Gordon Chapel Community Church now attend services virtually.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

At 6-foot-3 with a bushy white beard and black glasses, Mann towered over them in his brown-and-black checkered suit.

Ten minutes into the service, Mann asked for volunteers to sing. McDonald obliged, choosing a tune on the healing power of Jesus.

You know that Jesus is my doctor.

You know that he writes out all my prescriptions.

You know that he gave me all my medicine.

The pastor opened his King James Bible to John 9:3, a lesson on God’s role in suffering and sin, he explained, building toward his conclusion.

“Even with the pandemic that is going on, God is still in control,” he shouted.

Mann preached about his vision to hold the church together in a time when it could so easily fall apart. God, he said, “called just who he wanted but he left you and me here.”

It had been just a day since he presided over back-to-back funerals for his wife’s brother and aunt.

::

Nearly nine hours into her shift, Hoggarth had barely eaten.

Patients had been arriving non-stop. The emergency department had run out of exam rooms and started instructing possible coronavirus patients to wait in their cars.

Hoggarth, who at 47 had her own health issues, including high cholesterol, glanced at the pedometer on her wrist. Already five miles for the day.

“Can I grab that ankle injury and put him in the conference room?” a voice called out. It was Inglish.

Nurse Nikole Hoggarth gives a sucker to children at Jamestown Regional Medical Center.

Nurse Nikole Hoggarth gives a sucker to children at Jamestown Regional Medical Center.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Between coronavirus cases, the emergency room crew also treated a woman who was bit by cat, a wife who said her husband had hit her, and a 2-year-old who had fallen off the tailgate of a pickup and needed stitches in her forehead.

Hoggarth darted out to the reception desk: “Can you quick call that guy who left? I didn’t give him his meds.”

The sun had set when 75-year-old Verdell Jacob hobbled into Room 7.

Hoggarth recognized him right away — one of the many coronavirus patients who responded well to treatment, then relapsed.

A retired butcher, he spoke slowly, the result of a stroke seven years ago.

“I got tested Tuesday. I got the result yesterday,” he said. “I can’t taste anything. I’ve got diarrhea. Acid stomach. If I sleep in my bed, I can’t breathe. I’ve been sleeping in the recliner.”

“You’ve always got a smile on your face,” she told him.

“And crying on the inside,” he said.

::

His siren blaring, Soto sped down Texas Interstate 45, weaving through traffic.

It was 3:40 p.m. as he pulled up to firefighters performing CPR on a man face-up on in the middle of the right lane. He had been hit by a driver who witnesses said stopped to take his wallet.

Before joining his team, Soto paused to slip on an N95 mask, surgical gown and gloves.

The man’s ribs were crushed. Firefighters loaded him into the ambulance, and Soto climbed in behind him. He guessed the man was probably dead, but his team had to keep trying.

As the ambulance sped down the highway, Soto noticed something was off. Two firefighters trying to resuscitate the man weren’t wearing all their protective gear. Soto instructed them to gown up and monitor themselves for symptoms in coming days.

Houston Fire Capt. Daniel Soto, left,  Michael Bravenec and Tom Wolcott  perform CPR on a man.

Houston Fire Capt. Daniel Soto, left, and firefighters Michael Bravenec and Tom Wolcott wear gowns as they perform CPR on a man who was hit by a car. Once they reached the hospital, the man was pronounced dead.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

At the hospital, a team checked for vital signs. Soto had been right: The man was dead.

“I’m calling it – 4:01 p.m.,” a doctor said.

Soto found a sink to wash his hands.

As he walked out of the hospital, he crossed paths with a sheriff’s deputy entering with a man in handcuffs and no mask. The man sneezed.

There was nothing Soto could do about it.

::

Back at home, Mann sunk into his living room recliner and turned the television to the Steelers-Jaguars game.

Neither squad was his team — he favored the Cowboys — but in a life upended, Sunday football was comforting.

He felt guilty for enjoying himself when there was still so much pain. He pressed pause on the remote, grabbed his phone and stepped outside on to the wooden patio.

First he called to check in on Mary Smother, an 80-year-old who had started coming to Gordon Chapel after her church closed — only to come down with the virus. Finally feeling better, she asked Mann about coming back to church the next Sunday.

“Hold off just a little,” he told her.

Then he called Delores Fisher, in her 60s, who said she felt like she was “going to die” when she was sick. She, too, hoped to return soon.

Mann went back inside, feeling better about finishing up the game. He even managed to cheer a little.

The Steelers won 27-3.

::

Hoggarth’s 12-hour shift was ending as paramedics wheeled a coronavirus patient out the double doors and into an ambulance.

She had treated him days earlier in the emergency room, before he was admitted to the hospital with severe breathing problems.

Now Jamestown Regional Medical Center had done all it could for him. The ambulance departed on a 100-mile trip east to a bigger hospital, in Fargo.

Hoggarth had the look of a woman who had seen miracles in Room 7 yet had little hope for one this time. It was the same expression she wore after treating the domestic abuse victim.

She planned to keep an eye out for his name in the obituary section of the Jamestown Sun.

::

It was 9:54 p.m. when firefighters requested Soto’s help with a 67-year-old woman who had fallen in her home.

Neighbors had found her on the floor two days later, guarded by her pit bull. Now she was refusing to go to the hospital.

As Soto drove to the house, he passed packed open-air bars and nightclubs full of patrons without masks. One restaurant had posted a sign: “Give me liberty or give me corona!”

Soto didn’t think shutdowns were the only solution to stopping the spread of the virus. But he saw a straight line from packed clubs to the chance that he would contract the virus on the job and pass it to his wife and their 4-year-old daughter and baby son.

He’d been lucky so far. But his 68-year-old uncle, who had been skeptical that the virus posed much threat, had become infected and died.

Soto arrived at Judith Cooper’s house to find her sitting in her living room in her underwear and no mask, arguing with two firefighters about whether she needed medical help.

They helped her get dressed and loaded her on a stretcher and into the ambulance. Soto held her hand.

“I am so glad you are letting us take you to the hospital,” he said.

She thanked him, tears welling in her eyes.

But after the ambulance sped off, Cooper was soon upset again. “I didn’t bring a facial mask!” she cried.

A firefighter handed her one.

::

Sunday, Nov. 22, ended as it began — with America in a state of mourning and uncertainty and ordinary people living for the promise of something better.

In Florida, Mann got on his knees before bed, praying for the church as it readied for the first week fully open again — with freshly scrubbed pews and distancing markers.

Pastor Albert Mann sanitizes the doors leading into the sanctuary of his church.

Pastor Albert Mann sanitizes the doors leading into the sanctuary of his church.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

In North Dakota, Hoggarth took a shower as soon as she arrived home, threw her uniform in the washing machine and only then — after she had done everything she could to minimize the chances of transmission — hugged her husband.

In Texas, Soto drove back to the station, showered and retired to a bedroom — the only place at the station he spent extended periods without a mask.

There was nothing particularly special about Sunday, Nov. 22. It was just another day in the pandemic.

Houston Fire Capt. Daniel Soto was scheduled to work back-to back 24-hour shifts during Thanksgiving week.

Houston Fire Capt. Daniel Soto, a father of two, was scheduled to work back-to back 24-hour shifts during Thanksgiving week.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Kaleem reported from Hawthorne, Fla., Hennessy-Fiske from Houston and Read from Jamestown, N.D. Times staff writer Emily Baumgaertner contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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Iran faces intense pressure after top scientist is killed

The U.S. drone missile punched through the car of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, instantly killing the 62-year-old Iranian spymaster and national hero as he drove through the streets of Baghdad last January.

Days later, Iranian leaders who swore “severe revenge” lobbed ballistic missiles at a U.S. base in Iraq, leaving scores of American servicemen and contractors with traumatic brain injuries. Iran also mobilized its irregular forces, including Iran-supported militias in Iraq, which regularly fired rockets at the U.S. Embassy and bases with American troop presence.

Now, Iran finds itself the target of another attack, this time the broad-daylight assassination on Friday of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists.

The killing, by what many believed was a U.S.-sanctioned Israeli hit team, has ratcheted up the pressure on Iran’s leaders for vengeance again.

But a similar response, analysts say, could result in a precarious situation at a time when Iran is eagerly counting the days to the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who may well be amenable to bringing the U.S. back into the international nuclear treaty with Iran that President Trump pulled out of while imposing tough new economic sanctions.

Reacting lethally to the killing, said Elie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert and deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council for Foreign Relations, could box Biden in as he takes office — or even result in a military conflagration in the waning days of Trump’s tenure.

“The Iranians are aware that there are mines set for them,” Geranmayeh said, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that President Trump left in 2018. “This is exactly the playbook that proponents of maximum pressure have been trying to advocate: that there need to be moves that make it much more difficult for Biden to reenter the deal and for Iran to engage the U.S. in diplomacy.”

As a result, the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani must balance internal voices demanding vengeance even as it hopes to weather the seven weeks until Biden is sworn in.

On Friday afternoon, as Iranians were enjoying the first day of their weekend amid coronavirus restrictions, Fakhrizadeh was in a car heading down a highway near the resort town of Absad, some 35 miles east of Tehran. There, a car loaded with explosives blew up, and gunmen descended on Farkhizadeh, cutting him down along with members of his security detail.

In its brazenness, the killing echoed other car bombings and motorcycle assassinations targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists. All have been part of a decade-long effort by Israel and the U.S. to hinder Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, analysts say.

Fakhrizadeh’s assassination followed a series of mysterious explosions at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility in July (authorities blamed sabotage; they have yet to reveal who they believe was behind it) as well as the operation targeting Suleimani while he was abroad.

A U.S. return to the nuclear accord — and the sanctions relief it may bring — is a priority for Iran. Over the last four years, sanctions have cratered its currency, cut off its economy from world markets and left its 82 million people facing poverty.

Retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, in an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” urged everyone involved to “kind of lower the temperature.”

“The Iranians don’t want war with us. We don’t want to go to war with Iran,” said McRaven, who as head of U.S. special operations forces oversaw the 2011 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.

But, he said, “the Iranians are going to be in a position where they have to retaliate — I don’t see any way around it.”

So far, Iran’s leadership appears to have chosen the path of restraint.

In a televised Cabinet meeting Saturday, Rouhani said Iran would “respond to this crime at the proper time.”

“But the Iranian nation is wiser and smarter than to fall in the trap of the Zionists,” he said, in reference to Israel.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an English-language Twitter post that “all relevant administrators must seriously place two crucial matters on their agenda: first to investigate this crime and firmly prosecute its perpetrators and its commanders, second to continue the martyr’s scientific and technological efforts in all the sectors where he was active.”

Meanwhile, the country’s parliament passed a motion that would require Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization to produce and store at least 264 pounds of uranium with 20% purity. If ratified, it would be another step in the methodical breaches of the nuclear deal that Tehran has pursued since Trump pulled out of the treaty.

Still, there have been voices advocating a more forceful response, said Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.

“The Rouhani administration understands there’s value in not escalating, in appearing strong but appearing reasonable,” she said.

“But there are pressures from hard-liners as well as moderates, who are fed up and saying, ‘Why are we just taking this? Why are we the ones respecting international norms when nobody else is?’”

And politically, there are factions within Iran that want to scuttle the reentry into the nuclear deal, said Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East fellow at the policy organization the German Marshall Fund — if only to stop Rouhani claiming any achievement before presidential elections in June.

“If the U.S. rejoins the JCPOA and economic relief starts to come in, then Rouhani can leave office with some sort of accomplishment,” Tabatabai said. “If they deny him this win, hardliners have an easier and clearer path to victory.”

The assassination was a humiliation for Iran’s security apparatus. After all, Fakhrizadeh — like Suleimani — was an officer in the country’s elite Republican Guards, and was presumably under their protection.

He had proved to be an elusive figure since a spate of assassinations between 2010 and 2012 struck four of his colleagues. (He survived an assassination attempt in 2008.)

Iranian authorities reportedly beefed up security around him and refused to make him available to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Despite those measures, he was killed, tweeted Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, in what constituted “a bitter and heavy blow to the country’s defense system.”

That blow could usher in new urgency to procure a nuclear weapon, said Tabatabai.

“It shows that at the end of the day when it comes to its most basic security issues, the regime is not in a spectacular place,” she said. “It’s in the realm of possibility that it may accelerate the program — thus the opposite of what Israel had tried to achieve.”

Internationally, the assassination has spurred condemnation from international officials and calls for restraint.

“A few weeks before the new U.S. administration takes office, it is important to preserve the scope for talks with Iran so that the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program can be resolved through negotiations,” a spokesman for the German foreign ministry said in a statement. “We therefore urge all parties to refrain from any steps that could lead to a further escalation of the situation.”

It was a sentiment echoed by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who urged restraint to avoid an escalation of tensions, according to a statement from his spokesman to Reuters on Friday.

In the U.S., John Brennan, who headed the CIA between 2013 and 2017, blasted the assassination in a series of tweets on Friday, saying it was a “criminal act” that constituted a “flagrant violation of international law.”

“Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage and to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits,” he tweeted.

Whatever course of action Iran’s leaders choose, there is little doubt Biden will face a difficult situation after inauguration day.

“This is going to complicate President Biden’s … diplomatic efforts,” said McRaven.

Under longstanding political norms, most outgoing presidents do not seek to limit their successor’s maneuvering room, said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“You’d like to do all you can to not box in the president — to give any president as many options and as much space as possible,” said Mullen on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “So, this is obviously the opposite case right now.”

“A lot of what Rouhani can do,” said Geranmayeh, “depends on how quickly and seriously the Biden administration pivots toward diplomacy with Iran. The ball is in the court of the Biden camp to make the first move on that front.”

Times staff writer Laura King in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.