Reuters

Basketball star Brittney Griner now in U.S. custody following trade for Russian arms dealer

(Reuters) -A U.S. official said on Thursday that U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been jailed in Russia in charges of possessing and smuggling illegal drugs, was now in U.S. custody.

Russia said she had been traded for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer jailed in the United States.

Here are some facts about Griner:

WHO IS BRITTNEY GRINER?

Brittney Griner, 32, is a double Olympic champion and seven-times All-Star player in the U.S. Women's National Basketball Association (WBNA).

Standing 206 cm (6 feet 9 inches) tall, the high-scoring Texan center was selected first overall by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WBNA draft.

Known as "BG" to basketball fans, she has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia during the WNBA winter off-season since 2014. The club has drawn other top U.S. basketball players including Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker.

At the time of her arrest, she was on her way to Ekaterinburg, 1,400 km (870 miles) east of Moscow, to rejoin her club for the playoffs after spending time at home in the United States.

WHY WAS SHE DETAINED?

Griner was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, exactly a week before Russia took relations with the West to their lowest level in decades by invading Ukraine.

The player had a prescription in the United States for medical marijuana to relieve the pain from chronic injuries.

The drug has fewer side effects than some painkillers and is a common treatment for athletes in places where it is legal. In Russia, however, marijuana is illegal for both medicinal and recreational purposes.

WHAT DOES SHE SAY?

Griner pleaded guilty to the charges of possessing and smuggling illegal drugs but insisted she had made an "honest mistake" and had not intended to break Russian law.

She testified that she did not understand how the cartridges had ended up in her luggage and speculated that she could have packed them inadvertently as she rushed to make her flight.

"I had no intent, I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime," she told the court. "I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom."

At her unsuccessful appeal, she said the amount of marijuana in her luggage had been only slightly above that considered legally insignificant.

Her lawyers said that, in any event, the sentence of nine years in a penal colony was grossly disproportionate.

WHERE IS GRINER NOW?

The failure of Griner's appeal on Oct. 25 paved the way for her to be moved from a detention centre near Moscow to a penal colony elsewhere in Russia.

Her lawyers said on Nov. 17 that she had been taken to Female Penal Colony IK-2 in Yavas, a town in the Mordovia region southeast of Moscow.

WHAT HAS THE RESPONSE BEEN IN THE UNITED STATES?

U.S. officials and prominent athletes say Griner has been wrongly detained and convicted and have called for her immediate release, saying she is being used as a political pawn.

U.S. President Joe Biden met with Griner's wife Cherelle in September to tell her he was working to secure Griner's release as soon as possible.

Griner's initials and jersey number, "42", have been stencilled onto the courts of all 12 WNBA teams this season.

Alongside many messages of support from across U.S. sport, Megan Rapinoe of the women's U.S. national soccer team wore a white suit jacket with "BG" embroidered on her lapel as she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Biden.

(Reporting by Reuters)

Biden's health improving, no close contacts tested positive for COVID: White House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, is improving in health and none of his 17 identified close contacts have so far tested positive for the coronavirus, White House COVID coordinator Ashish Jha said on Sunday.

Jha told ABC News Biden "had a great day yesterday, was feeling well," and that Biden's close contacts were continuing to follow the protocols of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Biden, 79, had experienced mild symptoms, according to the White House. His diagnosis came as a highly contagious subvariant of the coronavirus drives a new wave of cases in the United States.

Jha told Fox on Sunday morning that Biden likely has that BA5 variant.

The White House has sought to underscore Biden's ability to work through his illness. On Thursday it released a video of him reassuring Americans he was doing fine, and on Friday he participated in virtual meetings with White House staff.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Wallis)

Australia aims to 'live with virus' instead of eliminating it

By Renju Jose and Jonathan Barrett

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australian authorities on Wednesday extended the COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne for another three weeks, as they shift their focus to rapid vaccination drives and move away from a suppression strategy to bring cases down to zero.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews flagged a staggered easing of the tough restrictions once 70% of the state's adult residents receive at least one dose, a milestone he hopes to reach at least by Sept. 23, based on current vaccination rates.

"We have thrown everything at this, but it is now clear to us that we are not going to drive these numbers down, they are instead going to increase," Andrews told reporters in Melbourne, the state capital, after a lockdown for nearly a month failed to quell the outbreak. The lockdown was due to end on Thursday.

"We got to buy time to allow vaccinations to be undertaken all the while doing this very hard work, this very painful and difficult work, to keep a lid as much as we can on cases."

New local cases jumped to 120 in Victoria from 76 a day earlier. Of the new cases, 100 have spent time in the community while infectious.

Neighbouring New South Wales state, home to Sydney, on Wednesday brought forward its target date to fully vaccinate 70% of people above 16 to the middle of next month from the initial target of the end of October, as outbreaks spurred a surge in inoculation.

"No matter where you live, life will be much, much better, much freer, as long as you're vaccinated at 70%," Berejiklian told reporters. So far 37% are fully vaccinated in the state, while 67% have had at least one dose, slightly higher than the national numbers but well below most comparable nations.

A total of 1,116 new cases were detected in New South Wales, down from 1,164 a day earlier. NSW reported four new deaths, taking the total number of deaths in the latest outbreak to 100.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told parliament on Wednesday Australians ultimately needed to be released from lockdowns.

"Australia can live with this virus," he said in Canberra.

LIVING WITH COVID

Australia is trying to get a handle on the third wave of infections that has locked down more than half of its 25 million population. Sydney and Melbourne, its largest cities, and capital Canberra are in weeks-long strict stay-at-home orders.

Despite the recent flare-ups, it has managed to keep its coronavirus numbers relatively low, with just over 55,000 cases and 1,012 deaths.

Among the Group of 20 big economies, Australia was the last to record https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/weary-australia-plans-reopening-covid-19-death-toll-hits-1000-2021-08-30 1,000 COVID-19 deaths, a grim but modest marker by global standards reached this week.

Several major Asia-Pacific economies have fewer COVID-19 deaths, with New Zealand recording just 26.

While Australian authorities had been able to douse past outbreaks through lockdowns, the highly infectious Delta variant has forced the country's two biggest states to plan for a reopening even as infections rise.

Australian Medical Association vice president Chris Moy told Reuters that Delta's high infectivity, short incubation and asymptomatic spread had meant the "old playbook did not work".

"Your window of opportunity at the start to eliminate it is so much smaller and basically once you're passed that, Delta decides its destiny," Moy said.

The federal government is pressing the states and territories to stick to a national reopening plan once vaccination rates reach 70%-80% although some virus-free states said they may delay given the rapidly rising Sydney cases.

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg urged the state leaders to follow the national reopening plans.

"Stick to the plan ... a plan that allows businesses to reopen and plan for their own future ... a plan that takes Australia forward to living safely with the virus," Frydenberg said.

(Reporting by Renju Jose and Jonathan Barrett; Additional reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Stephen Coates, Michael Perry and Gerry Doyle)

Theranos founder claims abuse by ex-boyfriend in fraud trial

(Reuters) - Theranos Inc founder Elizabeth Holmes has accused her former boyfriend, who was president of the blood-testing startup, of abusing her, court documents unsealed on Saturday showed, hinting at a possible defense strategy with jury selection in her fraud trial set to start next week.

In court filings submitted more than 18 months ago, Holmes' lawyers said they planned to present evidence that Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani abused her emotionally and psychologically in a relationship that spanned more than a decade. That includes the period when the company claimed its technology could enable a wide array of medical tests with a few drops of blood.

Theranos, which Holmes founded in 2003 at the age of 19, collapsed in March 2018 when she, Balwani and the $9 billion company were charged with fraud by U.S. regulators. Theranos had made Holmes, a Stanford University dropout, a Silicon Valley star.

In the filings Holmes' lawyers argued that the alleged "intimate partner abuse" was relevant to the question of whether she knew that financial information provided to investors and others was false. Holmes intends to blame Balwani, alleging he exerted controlled over her through the abusive relationship, the filings indicate.

Balwani, whose case is being handled separately, has denied the allegations.

"Mr. Balwani unequivocally denies that he engaged in any abuse at any time," his lawyers wrote in a December 2019 filing.

Holmes and Balwani have both pleaded not guilty to charges that they defrauded investors, doctors and patients by falsely claiming Theranos could revolutionize medical lab testing with its technology.

Lawyers at Williams & Connolly for Holmes and attorneys for Balwani at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe could not immediately be reached for comment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Schenk, the lead prosecutor on the case, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Holmes' lawyers had previously flagged they would make her mental health an issue in the case. Last year they said Mindy Mechanic, a California State University at Fullerton professor specializing in psychosocial consequences of violence, trauma and victimization, would offer expert testimony at trial.

The case is United States v. Holmes, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 18-cr-00258.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Richard Chang)

Pandemic summer school meal program has served millions, but its future uncertain

By Christopher Walljasper and Brendan O'Brien

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (Reuters) - On a warm July morning, James Terry stepped out of his home garage, where he manages his Benton Harbor, Michigan-based auto detailing business, and paused work to pick up groceries, with his 7-year-old son in tow.

Instead of a grocery store, they headed to a nearby park, where the school district offered free bags of individually wrapped milk, cereal, applesauce and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The food was available due to a dramatic change in government policy on school meal programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal agencies have waived requirements for kids to eat summer meals on site. The government no longer limits subsidized school meals to families that can prove they need them.

Millions of families who lost jobs or fell behind on rent and mortgage payments have come to rely on it to stave off the historically high rates of hunger among children, even as the U.S. economy strengthens more than a year after pandemic imposed shutdowns.

But the additional meals could go away next summer, when relaxed rules around distribution and income requirements are set to expire.

Terry's wife is a home healthcare worker, so while she has been working in the homes of other, he has juggled caring for four kids learning from home, while also working.

"If the rules change, it's going to be a little struggle," he said.

Loosened summer restrictions have allowed parents like Terry to quickly pick up food and return to work, and grandparents or neighbors to pick up food for kids who can't leave the house.

Last December, 15.3 million households with children lacked enough food to feed their families – more than 18% of the United States, according the U.S. Census Bureau's weekly Household Pulse Survey. With the help of school meals and other expanded nutrition assistance programs, that number dropped to 10.7 million as of July 5, still well above the percentage of households facing hunger pre-pandemic.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials handed out about 745,000 summer meals on average during the three years before the pandemic. This year they expect to distribute about 4.5 million free meals in the district's expanded summer grab-and-go meal program, illustrating the financial need across the third-largest U.S. school system.

For Mando Martinez, 69, who helps support his daughter, a single mother, and his 12-year-old grandson, the couple of bags of food he picks up weekly from the CPS program at Lane Tech College Prep High School on Chicago's North Side saves the family on a tight budget more than $100 each month.

"She doesn't get help from anyone," said the retired sign painter on a fixed income as he was walking home with the food. "It means a lot. It helps because everything being so expensive now."

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

The expansion of school meals is just one of the social safety net experiments implemented during the pandemic that face an uncertain future.

In late March 2020, the Trump administration began waiving income requirements and other restrictions on who could pick up meals and when meals could be served.

Continuing under the Biden administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses states as much as $4.31 for every lunch served, regardless of a family’s income level.

Those waivers are set to expire in June 2022, potentially jolting communities that have come to rely on them.

From May 2020 to April 2021, the Agriculture Department spent $10.8 billion on expanded summer food service, extending the summer program through the school year while schools remained closed. Before the pandemic the program averaged less than $500 million a year on summer meals since 2016.

California recently included universal school meals in its latest budget, permanently eliminating financial tests for meal eligibility. Two bills were introduced in the U.S. Senate this May, one bipartisan measure aiming to permanently expand summer meal access and another proposal, co-sponsored by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, making universal school meals accessible for all.

Now that the program delivers food into the beleaguered working class community rather than requiring students go to cafeterias for summer meals, the Benton Harbor Area School District has fed hundreds more students, according to Ricardo Carter, general manager for the district's food service provider SodexoMAGIC.

Nationally, school meal participation overall increased by 85% during the pandemic, according to a 2021 survey by the School Nutrition Association.

"Before, it was 'you've got to be at the table, we feed you that way,'" said Carter, who reported serving far more students in need under the relaxed rules. "I think going back to congregate meals would be a ridiculous mistake."

Ginger Culp, an art teacher at Round Lake Area Schools, north of Chicago, picked up lunches for her daughter and a neighbor's child. She said she's seen hungry kids in her classroom and worries about free meals going away.

"I think it's going to be a challenge for people who have very heavily relied on it," Culp said.

After more than two years of federally funded meals, Colleen Pacatte, superintendent of Illinois School District 56 worries the middle-income, suburban Chicago district will have to fund school meals for everyone, or ask parents to pay for lunches themselves.

"How do I explain that to a family?" she said.

"It doesn't matter to them who took the money away," she said. "They just know the meals aren't there."

(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper and Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Aurora Ellis)

Huge emergency operation under way after building collapse in Miami

(Reuters) - More than 80 fire and rescue units were on the scene of a partial building collapse in Miami, the Miami-Dade county Fire Rescue Department said in a tweet early Thursday. While there were no official confirmations of death or injury so far, ABC News said eight people had been hospitalized and CBS reported that at least one person has died. An image posted on Miami Beach Police's Twitter account showed a tangle of rubble with debris spilling down from what was left of the balconies of the building in the darkness. Eyewitness video obtained by Reuters showed neighbours gathering acro...

Here's what's known and unknown about the hack at Colonial Pipeline

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US Representative Tom Reed accused of sexual misconduct: Washington Post

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican U.S. Representative Tom Reed, who has been mulling a challenge to Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has been accused of sexual misconduct by a former insurance company lobbyist, the Washington Post reported on Friday. Nicolette Davis, who now serves in the U.S. military, told the newspaper that in 2017 Reed inappropriately placed his hand on her during a "networking trip" in Minneapolis. "A drunk congressman is rubbing my back," the newspaper quoted Davis texting a co-worker at the time. "HELP HELP." "This account of my actions is not accurate," Reed ...

US television host Larry King dies at age 87: CNN

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China takes parting shot at 'lying and cheating' Pompeo

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How Focusing on Face Time at the Office Hurts Women's Pay

Late last year, Goldman Sachs made headlines by announcing they would no longer permit their younger recruits to work round the clock. So they banned them from entering the offices for a 36-hour period between Friday night and Sunday morning. Several other banks have taken similar steps in recent weeks.

This is what passes for work-life balance on Wall Street.

I suspect Harvard University economist Claudia Goldin would say we need to do better than that if we want to improve women’s position in the world of high finance.

Goldin presented a paper recently at the American Economic Association, making the argument that the male-female salary gap is not going to be fixed by begging men to do more at home, or by teaching women better bargaining skills.

Instead, look to the flexibility gap.

When men and women begin their careers, their earnings, in Goldin’s words, “are fairly similar.” According to the Pew Research Center, women between the ages of 25 and 34 earned, on an hourly basis, 93% of men’s pay. And then … well, family life intrudes. Soon you have the infamous gender gap, where women overall earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Yet as Goldin goes on to report, some fields of endeavor offer worse returns than others. An earlier study by Goldin (with Lawrence Katz) showed that for 1990 Harvard College graduates, those with an MD degree suffered a 15% loss in earnings if they took an 18-month work break, but those with an MBA or JD lost a far more significant 41% and 29%, respectively.

So what’s going on? Are medical industry professionals more avid readers of Sheryl Sandberg than lawyers and investment bankers?

Goldin points to workplace flexibility. When an industry is structured so that part-time and flexible working positions are all but verboten, then women, who most often bear primary responsibility for managing their families, are the ones most likely to suffer.

Says Goldin: “The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might even vanish if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who worked long hours and who worked particular hours.”

How to do this? Goldin believes the answer does not rest in either government intervention or teaching women better negotiating skills. It rests in convincing companies, industries and their clients to change the structure of how they perceive and compensate workers, so that employees who seek flexibility are not financially penalized.

Is she right?

Well, yes … and no. I wish it were that easy.

Once upon a time, bankers’ hours meant nine a.m. to three p.m. The workday, even for those in relatively high corporate positions, often ended around 5 or 5:30 p.m. Yet that slowly changed, or at least it did for high earners. According to a working paper by Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano published several years ago by the National Bureau of Economic Research, work hours increased by 14.4% for the top fifth of wage earners between 1979 and 2002.

Employers like to claim this changed because that’s just the way the 24/7, forever connected economy works. They need those employees to be available. As a result, companies like Yahoo have all but ended flexible working arrangements, saying they don’t work for the company. As Goldin points out, many businesses believe their “employees meet with clients and accumulate knowledge about them. If an employee in unavailable and communicating the information to another employee is costly, the value of the individual to the firm will decline.”

This frankly, is so much horse manure. There is not much essential about the work young associates on Wall Street or Big Law do. One person is as good as another when it comes to putting together Excel sheets for financial deals, or performing grunt legal research. If that weren’t true, law firms wouldn’t be outsourcing the work formerly done by associates to places like India.

Moreover, even as our lifespans have lengthened and more women have entered the workforce, the world of employment has all too often remained wedded to a traditional model, where employees who want to make it to the top need to all but sacrifice their personal lives in their twenties and thirties to make it big in their forties. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that this puts women at something of a disadvantage, since that’s also the prime age for women to have children. If they don’t do it then, it’s quite possible they never will.

So why not adjust? Why not be more flexible? Why not let people take time out in their twenties or thirties, and put in the face time in their forties?

Maybe it is just habit. But perhaps we need to consider something else: that these ridiculous work hours are just another form of sexism, but one that is legal in 2014. As Joan Williams, the founding director for the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law puts it, “Workplace norms cement felt truths that link long hours with manliness, moral stature, and elite status.”

Women were disproportionately impacted by downsizing in the financial services industry in the wake of the 2008 crisis. Numerous banks, including Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, have been sued for discrimination in recent years, with female plaintiffs claiming unequal pay, bias, and sexual harassment. The treatment is often quite blatant and crude. Just last year, hedge fund superstar Paul Tudor Jones told a gathering at the University of Virginia, “You will never see as many great women investors or traders as men.” The reason? “As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it. Every single investment idea, every desire to understand what’s going to make this go up or go down is going to be overwhelmed.”

Just the guy to approach about workplace flexibility and the right to equal pay, I’m sure.

I’m all for giving Goldin’s suggestion a try.  I work at home myself, and I suspect the flexibility it gives me can also improve the lives of quite a few men and women out there. But as for solving the gender pay gap, we’re going to need more than that.

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Turkey Ready to Send Troops Into Northern Iraq

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan gave the green light on Tuesday for a possible military incursion into northern Iraq to crush Kurdish rebels hiding there after a series of deadly attacks on Turkish security forces.

Erdogan is under heavy pressure from Turkey's powerful army and opposition parties to take tough action against rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) after they shot dead 13 soldiers on Sunday near the Iraqi border.

Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said Turkey's parliament would need to authorize any large-scale military operation -- a scenario most analysts say remains unlikely -- but he said such permission was not required for limited, "hot pursuit" raids.

Washington has urged Turkey, a NATO ally, not to take military action in mainly Kurdish northern Iraq, fearing this could destabilize the most peaceful region in the country.

"To put an end to the terrorist organization operating in the neighboring country (Iraq), the order has been given to take every kind of measure, legal, economic, political, including also a cross-border operation if necessary," Erdogan's office said in a statement.

"Orders have been given to all relevant institutions to continue to wage a decisive struggle against terrorism and the terrorists," said the statement, issued after a special meeting of Turkey's top anti-terrorism body.

The White House said on Tuesday it was committed to working with Turkey and Iraq to combat the PKK. Spokesman Gordon Johndroe would not comment specifically on whether the White House would support any Turkish incursion.

DEADLY ATTACKS

Sunday's attack in Sirnak province was the worst single incident in 12 years. Two other soldiers died on Monday in separate PKK landmine explosions.

The previous week, 12 people, including village guards, died when PKK rebels ambushed their minibus in Sirnak province.

Turkish television and newspapers have carried extensive pictures of the funerals, with coffins draped in the national flag, watched by grieving wives, children and parents.

Financial markets are closely monitoring the debate over northern Iraq, though the lira currency and share prices did not move very much on Tuesday after Erdogan's statement.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer condemned the latest PKK attacks and pledged the alliance's solidarity.

"The terrorist threat presented by such violence is unacceptable and Turkey deserves full support of its allies. NATO will continue a steadfast defense against terrorism; we will not allow terrorists to prevail," he said.

Turkey signed an anti-terrorism deal on September 28 with Iraq targeting the PKK but failed to win Baghdad's consent to allow "hot pursuit" raids across the border. Their deal focuses on financial and intelligence measures against the PKK.

Ankara knows the Baghdad government has little clout in the autonomous Kurdish north, whose authorities are loathe to take action against their ethnic kin in the PKK.

An estimated 3,000 PKK rebels use mountainous northern Iraq as a springboard from which to attack Turkish targets.

Ankara blames the PKK for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since the group began its armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.

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