Michigan Legislature revokes Whitmer’s pandemic powers

By Scott McClallen | The Center Square, July 21, 2021

(The Center Square) – Sixteen months after the COVID-19 pandemic began in Michigan, the GOP-led Legislature has revoked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic powers.

The House of Representatives sealed the end of her powers Wednesday with a vote of 60-48. The Senate approved the petition on July 15 on a 20-15 vote, a measure Whitmer can’t veto. 

Democratic Rep. Sam Steckloff said petitions are meant to go on the ballot to voters instead of enacted through the Legislature and contended petition gatherers “lied” to those who signed the petition.

Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, said Whitmer decided to “go it alone” against COVID-19, ignoring all input from the GOP-led Legislature on her executive orders.

Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, said many Michiganders felt voiceless as Whitmer took unilateral orders with far-reaching consequences, saying the petition restored “needed balance” between the coequal branches.

“This proposal today is democracy in action. The people decided they have had enough,” Hall said in the House floor. “They began circulating this petition because they felt they had no other way to make their voices heard.”

Fred Wszolek, the spokesman for Unlock Michigan, welcomed the news.

“Our Unlock Michigan citizen army collected over 540,000 signatures in just 80 days. Now, 292 days later, we’ll complete our mission with a final vote in the Legislature to end Governor Whitmer’s rule by decree,” Wszolek told The Center Square in an email. “Next, we’ll turn our attention to the public health law Whitmer abused to destroy lives, businesses, and futures. Don’t bet against our success there either.”

Wszolek credited the Legislature for repealing the law “that caused so much pain once and for all.”

The Unlock Michigan petition, filed in October 2020, dates back to the early COVID-19 pandemic when Whitmer enacted restrictions via 1945 pandemic powers.

The orders included threatening criminal charges for operating a motorboat, visiting a secondary home, and banning stores larger than 50,000 square feet from selling gardening supplies. Some professions, including barbers and landscapers, were deemed “nonessential.”

On Oct. 2, 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court tossed many of Whitmer’s executive orders but split 4-3 on whether the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act “is an unlawful delegation of legislative power to the executive branch in violation of the Michigan Constitution.”

That ruling threw out over 2,600 criminal charges and fines in Detroit alone. The GOP criticized Whitmer for what they say are “arbitrary” restrictions, deeming essential marijuana, alcohol and the lottery while shuttering gyms and many in-person workplaces. Democrats pushed back, saying the GOP only criticized but didn’t help the first-term Democrat fight a deadly pandemic.

IRS overturns controversial ruling against Christian group

By Casey Harper | The Center Square July 7, 2021

(The Center Square) – After major backlash from Republicans, the IRS said Wednesday it overturned a previous ruling that a Christian group did not qualify for tax-exempt status because of its Biblical values.

Christians Engaged focuses on “encouraging and educating Christians to be civically engaged.” The group incorporated as a nonprofit in Texas in 2019, but when it applied for federal nonprofit status, it was denied.

Christians Engaged released the denial letter from the IRS, which says that the 501(c)(3) nonprofit status was rejected in part because the group’s focus on “Bible teachings are typically affiliated with the [Republican] party and candidates.”

“You instruct individuals on issues that are prominent in political campaigns and instruct them on what the Bible says about the issue and how they should vote,” IRS director of exempt organizations Stephen Martin said in the letter. “These issues include the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, and biblical justice. These issues generally distinguish candidates and are associated with political party platforms. These facts preclude you from exemption under IRC Section 501(c)(3).

“The bible teachings are typically affiliated with the [Republican] party and candidates. This disqualifies you…” the letter adds.

After news of the denial went public, Republicans expressed outrage.

“The recent determination on Christians Engaged’s tax-exempt status further exposed the corruption and liberal bias running rampant at the IRS,” U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said. “This discriminatory action against a Christian nonprofit is an overt attack on religious liberty by a tyrannical federal government. Moreover, this decision comes at a time when members of both parties are trying to increase the ability of the IRS to harass individual Americans, businesses, and organizations.”

Roy and other Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate sent a letter to the IRS calling for a reversal of the decision and for the employees involved to be fired.

“The IRS must objectively analyze applications for tax-exempt status and cannot allow political biases to creep into its decisions,” the letter read. “We urge you to immediately review Christians Engaged’s application for 501(c)(3) status personally, and terminate the IRS staff involved in the flawed and politically motivated reasoning behind the determination.”

First Liberty Institute, the legal group representing Christians Engaged, appealed the decision, and Martin reversed the ruling.

“I am incredibly thankful to the IRS for doing the right thing, and we look forward to continuing our mission of educating more followers of Jesus to pray for our nation and to be civically engaged,” Christians Engaged President Bunni Pounds said. “When we stand up, our republic works for all Americans.”

First Liberty also pointed to the precedent the decision could set for other religious organizations in the U.S.

“This is truly great news for our client, as well as religious organizations and churches across America,” said Lea Patterson, counsel for First Liberty Institute. “We are grateful the IRS changed course to bring its decision into line with the Constitution and its own regulations.”

Missouri governor signs bill protecting business, health care, religious organizations from COVID-19 lawsuits

By Joe Mueller | The Center Square, July 7, 2021

(The Center Square) – Missouri Gov. Mike Parson highlighted on Wednesday a manufacturer’s altruism and innovation in producing about 20,000 face shields before signing COVID-19 liability legislation into law.

“This is what working together is all about,” Parson said at Koller-Craft Plastic Products in Fenton. “No one should be punished by trying to save the lives of other people. That’s why COVID liability is so important, so people cannot come in here and sue a business like this.”

Parson ceremonially signed Senate Bill 51 to provide liability protection for businesses, health care providers and religious organizations from COVID-related lawsuits.

Al Koller, president of Koller Enterprises and chairman of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said his company was able to use its resources to produce thousands of face shields at the start of the pandemic when personal protective equipment was in short supply. His relationship with the Missouri Chamber provided a distribution channel to rural areas of the state.

“This helped us get the shields to health care workers and first responders everywhere when there were concerns of the supplies going to the cities,” Koller said. “And how do you price something like this? It was easier to donate and we just sent them out.”

Matthew Panik, vice president of governmental affairs at the Missouri Chamber, said most of his organization’s efforts for legislative initiatives result in 30 to 50 businesses signing a letter of support. The COVID liability legislation resulted in 800 businesses signing on.

“This legislation will help businesses, manufacturers and health care providers by protecting them from frivolous COVID-19 lawsuits,” Panik said. “It will give these businesses and groups the stability they need to get the economy running again.”

Several organizations lobbied against the legislation, including the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys (MATA), the American Association of Retired Persons of Missouri, the AFL-CIO, and VOYCE, a long-term care ombudsman program.

“The bill will block Missourians’ access to justice by taking away their right to hold wrongdoers accountable in cases that aren’t strictly related to COVID because the language is written so broadly,” MATA wrote in opposition to the bill.

During floor debate before the bill passed on the last day of the session, legislators stated concerns about not being able to hold nursing homes accountable for neglect during the pandemic.

“Judicial recourse is the only remaining avenue for protecting residents and holding nursing homes accountable for substandard care,” wrote Nicole Lynch, the public policy coordinator for VOYCE, in a letter opposing the bill.

Parson said facilities caring for the elderly or vulnerable will continue to be held accountable.

“We looked at nursing homes and veterans home and we don’t want to give anybody a free pass if they’re doing something wrong,” Parson said. “This bill doesn’t do that. If there’s neglect or you’re not doing your job, you’re still going to be responsible for that. Here in this company, somebody stepped up and tried to make a face shield. All of a sudden we might find out something didn’t work with it. But at the time, they were doing their best to give people something, because we didn’t have anything. People were making masks and gowns from home.”

MATA specifically mentioned in its legislative correspondence how first responders and health care workers would be at greater risk without legal recourse for poor-quality masks and face shields.

“I think the key is to see if you’re trying to do the right thing, if you’re following the guidelines, and if you’re following the laws,” Koller said. “I know there are no absolutes. But during this pandemic, everyone was just trying to figure out what’s the best way to do things. And there were a lot of different ways.”

State auditor to review nursing home COVID-19 deaths

By Scott McClallen | The Center Square, July 7, 2021

(The Center Square) – State Auditor Doug Ringler says he will review how many Michiganders died from COVID-19 in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Ringler wrote the June letter to House Oversight Chair Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, over the concerns of inaccurately counted COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.

“We will be working with various departments’ databases to address your concerns, which will impact the timing of our work,” Ringler wrote. 

Ringler estimated the audit would be complete between late September and mid-October. 

“The Auditor General’s investigation will finally uncover the full extent of Governor Whitmer’s deadly nursing home policy and give the people of our state the answers they deserve,” Eric Ventimiglia, the executive director for the conservative Michigan Rising Action, said in a statement. “Governor Whitmer’s refusal to relent on this disastrous policy led to the deaths of thousands of Michiganders, and this investigation will ensure that she and her administration are held accountable for their recklessness.”

Hearings followed journalist Charlie LeDuff suing and settling with the state health department after he alleged the state wouldn’t release COVID-19 death data. 

For over a year, Republicans have alleged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order to place COVID-19 infected patients into nursing homes with non-infected seniors contributed to an excess number of deaths than otherwise would have happened. In March, more than 50 lawmakers asked the federal government to investigate Whitmer’s policy.

The death data from Michigan’s nursing homes could be compared to states with similar senior populations that didn’t pursue similar nursing home policy.

The health department agreed to release some of the public records LeDuff requested. The department also acknowledges it can’t determine if some patients killed by COVID-19 contracted the virus at a nursing home or other long-term care facility.

But in June 3 House Oversight Committee testimony, MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel pushed back, telling lawmakers the accusations weren’t correct. Hertel contended the method LeDuff used “double-counted” deaths.

Ringler could act as a neutral third party.

Bill aims to stop sale of Michigan Secretary of State appointments

By Scott McClallen | The Center Square, June 29, 2021 Michi

(The Center Square) – A bill introduced to the Michigan Legislature aims to stop the black-market sale of Secretary of State (SOS) appointments.

When SOS Jocelyn Benson in May said the state would permanently end walk-in service, arguing the walk-in system was inefficient, the announcement sparked a black market of Michiganders so desperate for an appointment some chose to pay for an otherwise free service.

People who either schedule appointments or snag a next-day appointment offer them on Facebook Marketplace and other online communities.

House Bill 5162, proposed by Rep. Ranjeev Puri, D-Canton Township, seeks to prohibit a third party from selling Secretary of State branch appointments.

Puri hasn’t responded to a request from The Center Square for a comment.

The combination of COVID-19 delays and no walk-in service meant some Michiganders had to wait months driving illegally if they couldn’t snag a next-day appointment for a title transfer or other service.

Benson’s press secretary Aneta Kiersnowski said most services can be accessed without visiting an office via website or 150 self-service stations statewide.

In early June, Benson announced an additional 350,000 appointments aimed at clearing the 15-month backlog, plus greeters at some branches who help customers right away or schedule a return visit.

“Yet in spite of this availability, there are still bad actors who attempt to scam residents by claiming to sell appointments,” Kiersnowski told The Center Square in an email. “We seek out and cancel these appointments before they come to fruition, and also support legislative efforts to hold those bad actors accountable.”

The bill was referred to the House Oversight Committee.

Key Pennsylvania senator endorses Arizona-style election audit

By Christen Smith | The Center Square, June 22, 2021

(The Center Square) – Sen. Dave Argall, R-Pottsville, said last week he thinks an audit of the 2020 election – similar to the effort undertaken in Arizona – isn’t a bad idea.

Argall, who chairs the Senate State Government Committee, told SpotlightPA on Friday he sees no “damage in doing it one more time to try to answer the concerns that people have.”

“Do I have 100% confidence … that everything was perfect? No, I’d really like us to take a detailed review of that,” he told the news outlet. “That’s why we’re looking at changing pieces of the election legislation and it’s also why I think it wouldn’t hurt at all to go back, do that audit, and say, ‘How exactly did that work out?’”

Argall made clear he accepts the outcome of the November election, even though many of his constituents don’t trust the results. His committee position, however, remains key for any potential election reform or review to move through the Senate.

He also has the distinction of being called out by name alongside Senate President Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, in a statement from former President Donald Trump demanding a forensic audit in Pennsylvania similar to Arizona’s review.

“The people of Pennsylvania and America deserve to know the truth,” Trump said. “If the Pennsylvania Senate leadership doesn’t act, there is no way they will ever get re-elected!”

Argall’s counterpart in the House – Rep. Seth Grove, R-York – said he’s uninterested in another audit. Gov. Tom Wolf called the Arizona effort a “sham” and said he’d condemn any behavior that “encourages the same dysfunction and chaos” in Pennsylvania.

“It is wrong to pass laws that take away someone’s freedom to vote for your own political gain,” he said. “Lies and disinformation about fair elections drove our nation to the brink of disaster on January 6, and now the same people who spread those lies, who encouraged the mob that attacked our nation’s leaders, are attacking the freedom to vote.” 

On June 2, three state GOP lawmakers traveled to Phoenix for a private tour of the facility where an audit team recounted more than 2.1 million ballots cast last year in Maricopa County. President Joe Biden clenched Arizona by roughly 10,000 votes last year – the first time a Democratic candidate carried the state since 1996. 

State Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Chambersburg, and Sens Cris Dush, R-Wellsboro, and Doug Mastriano, R-Gettysburg, then met with Arizona lawmakers to discuss the audit results. Mastriano, a rumored candidate for governor when Wolf’s term expires in 2022, told the Wall Street Journal he’s uninterested in “overturning anything,” while Dush said he wants answers for his constituents who still don’t trust the final results.

Biden won Pennsylvania by fewer than 81,000 votes in November. The Trump campaign fired off a series of lawsuits alleging mail-in voter fraud that were later dismissed for lack of evidence. Several Republican lawmakers supported the effort, including Mastriano, Dush and Kauffman.

“Forty-seven percent of the people in this country don’t have faith in the electoral – electoral integrity right now,” Dush told The Wall Street Journal. “And my constituents are very much up in arms, with the lack of any movement on trying to find out what happened.”

Mastriano, who came under fire in recent months for organizing a bus trip for residents to participate in the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, said in an interview with the newspaper that “he’s not about overturning anything.”

“I’m just trying to find out what went right, what went wrong?,” he said. “And how do we have better elections in the future?”

Proposal would allow non-citizens to vote during school board elections

By Kevin Bessler | The Center Square, June 21, 2021

(The Center Square) – Senate Democrats are making a push to give undocumented immigrants the opportunity to vote in school board elections.

The proposal could require the State Board of Education to create an affidavit helping non-citizens register for school board elections. Current bill language requires potential voters to verify they are a parent, legal guardian or caregiver of a student. They must also live within the boundaries of a school district and intent to stay there until the next school board election.

The bill’s sponsor, Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, said families should have the opportunity to play a bigger role in shaping their child’s future.

“For too long, these families have been systematically excluded from participating in our democracy even at the most basic level,” Villanueva said.

Thomas Bride, spokesman for the Illinois Association of County Clerks and Recorders said the change would create chaos.

“The association has some real concerns about introducing the non-citizen voting into the school board elections primarily from a process point,” Bride said. “The elections are complicated in Illinois.”

Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman has been joined by a bipartisan group of 20 county clerks in opposition to the measure.

“If this law should pass, even if Tazewell County would have no non-citizen voters, my office would be required to prepare for the chance that non-citizens would request a ballot each election,” Ackerman said in a statement. “As such, we have estimated the cost of the minimum paper ballots at each polling location, preparation for over 150 different ballot styles with Tazewell County, equipment preparation and other administrative tasks to be $15,000 to $30,000 each election.”

Ackerman said he is also concerned about a violation of the current Voter Registration Fraud Prevention procedures.

“We currently require voters to provide two forms of identification, one of which has the current address they are residing and one a photo identification so we can verify the individual is voting in the appropriate election district,” said Ackerman. “This new proposal would remove that physical proof and require just a statement on an affidavit that they reside with the district they wish to vote in.”

The Senate Human Services Committee expects to host several hearings on the proposal before a vote.

Sponsors said they are willing to work with stakeholders to address concerns and make a stronger bill.

Nevada county adopts resolution affirming support for U.S. Constitution

By Robert Davis | The Center Square contributor, Jun 16, 2021

(The Center Square) – Elko County, Nevada recently adopted a resolution affirming its support for the U.S. Constitution.

The resolution also officially joins the county with the Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association, a group that believes the Constitution grants sheriffs “the Constitutional authority to check and balance all levels of government within the jurisdiction of the County,” according to its website.

The resolution, which the Elko County Board of Commissioners passed on June 2, requires state agencies and law enforcement officers to “obey and observe” constitutional limitations, citing the 9th and 10th Amendments.

The resolution says citizens “must be free from infringements on the right to keep and bear arms, unreasonable searches and seizures, capricious detainments and every other natural right whether enumerated or not, pursuant to the 9th Amendment.”

The resolution also lays out 10 “abuses” that will no longer be tolerated in Elko County. These include orders restricting the “free exercise of religion,” the confiscation of firearms without probable cause, and domestic utilization of the nation’s military.

“All actions by the federal government and its agents will conform strictly and implicitly with the principles expressed within the United States Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights,” the resolution continued.

The resolution passed unanimously, and is supported by the Elko County Sheriff’s Office and the local District Attorney Tyler Ingram.

During the June 2 meeting of the Elko County Board of Commissioners, Elko County Sheriff Aitor Narvaiza described the resolution as “rewarding” and uplifting.”

“This resolution makes my job so much easier, especially to have the support of the commissioners,” he said. “With a lot of stuff going on in the country, we need to be able to hold people responsible.”

Of 3,200 Fauci emails, none from Pritzker administration

By Greg Bishop | The Center Square, June 7, 2021

(The Center Square) – Of more than 3,200 pages of emails released through the Freedom of Information Act to and from Dr. Anthony Fauci, there are none from the Pritzker administration.

More than a year ago, on Sunday, April 26, 2020, Gov. J.B. Pritzker talked about his relationship with Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“Personally, I think Dr. Fauci has been a very reliable source of information,” Pritzker said during that news conference over a year ago. “I have spoken with him directly, one-on-one a couple of times directly.”

But, a search of more than 3,200 pages of Fauci’s emails during the pandemic published by BuzzFeed last week, The Center Square reporters didn’t find any communication from the Pritzker administration with Fauci or staff.

There are emails forwarded to Fauci by his staff from Chicago’s public health director asking about coordination with federal officials in the early weeks of the pandemic.

“How will the necessary public health workforce expansion (e.g. for wide-scale case investigation, contact tracing, linkage to care, community testing, and vaccination) be supported at the federal level?” an April 22, 2020 email from Allison Arwady to Patricia Conrad that was forwarded to Fauci.

Arwady had a series of questions.

“Given the need to quickly expand our workforce and plan ahead, it would be very helpful to get a sense of: a. How much funding/support might be available, and how that will be determined b. Whether funding might come through HHS/CDC (our preferred mechanism), FEMA, or another mechanism c. Will support be available in weeks or months … and for how long-we are strongly advocating for 5 years, similar to what was done for Ebola,” the email says. “I deeply appreciate Dr. Fauci taking the time to meet with us directly and hear our concerns.”

Fauci forwarded a response to then-CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield and copied Awardy.

“This question evolved from a teleconference that I had 2 nights ago with people ‘in the trenches,'” Fauci said. “I can discuss this with you today at the Task Force meeting.”

Pritzker said more than a year ago Fauci was a “very reliable source of information.”

“I rely on the guidance I hear from him,” Pritzker said then.

Pritzker’s office didn’t return a message seeking comment Monday about whether the administration still has confidence in the information he got from Fauci.

Other emails released through public records requests have some elected officials in Illinois critical of guidance they say seems tainted by feelings, not science.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, Friday said throughout the pandemic, he also relied on guidance from Fauci. But that’s changed.

“When you look at some of the emails, you look at some of the recommendations, right now they clearly don’t follow science and data that we know about this disease now,” Davis told WMAY. “They follow feelings, they follow politics and we’ve got to change that in Washington and frankly all levels of government.”

In one email dated Feb. 5, 2020, Fauci responds to a question from a sender asking about whether to mask when traveling to a redacted location.

“Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection,” Fauci wrote. “The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you. I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a vey low risk location.”

Davis also said the emails indicate early on stories about a possible lab leak were throttled by social media companies, raising further concerns about the role of politics in decisions around managing the pandemic.

In one email Fauci forwarded to a staffer on Feb. 22, 2020, saying “Please handle,” someone raised concern of a “possibility that the virus was released from a lab in wuhan, the biotech area of china.”

In another email, dated April 19, 2020, Fauci responds to Peter Daszak, “Many thanks for your kind note.”

Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance whose nonprofit has funded coronavirus research in China, sent Fauci a note the day before thanking him “for publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for COVID-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

Parts of that email are redacted.

“From my perspective, your comments are brave, and coming from your trusted voice, will help dispel the myths being spun around the virus’ origins,” Daszak said.

Seattle mayor sued over missing text messages related to summer protests

By Tim Gruver | The Center Square, June 4, 2021

(The Center Square) – Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is being sued by the Seattle Times for allegedly mishandling public records concerning the city’s handling of last summer’s protests against police brutality.

The lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court on Thursday and concerns text messages sent from Durkan’s city-issued iPhone between Aug. 2019 and June 25, 2020. That timeframe includes the period in which mass protests began in Seattle following the killing of George Floyd on May 25. A whistleblower complaint filed against the mayor’s office last month alleges they were not retained.

In its lawsuit, the Times is seeking compensation from the city to cover its legal fees, the records requested, and steps to ensure public records do not go missing again.

When the paper filed the complaint, Durkan’s chief of staff claimed their deletion was due to an “unknown technology issue.” The mayor’s office has since said the texts were deleted automatically on one of Durkan’s city-issued phones after 30 days. It is unknown who was responsible for inputting that setting.

Many of those texts were directly related to five public records requests filed by the Seattle Times. They center on the mayor’s instructions to city agencies about engaging with the media and her exchanges with the Seattle Police Department on the use of tear gas.

The requested texts were also sent during the period when Seattle’s Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone was in full swing. During that time, the Seattle Police abandoned the East Precinct building amid the gathered crowds. A 19-year-old man was shot to death in the area where Seattle police and paramedics allegedly failed to intervene. His family has filed a wrongful death claim against the city for $3 billion.

“In a democracy, it’s the public’s right to know who is making decisions at City Hall and why—whether it’s about spending tax dollars or shifting police tactics or anything else,” said Seattle Times Executive Editor Matassa Flores. “It should not take months or years for elected officials and public servants to explain their actions. And important records should not be destroyed.”

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Seattle has warned requesters from The Center Square and other news outlets of months-long delays in granting public records requests due to an alleged backlog of requests.

The lawsuit is the latest in a long list of political liabilities for Durkan since the one-term mayor announced she would seek a second term this fall. Her time in office has been marked by controversies such as her support for sweeps of homeless camps, her approach to the city’s housing crisis and police brutality.

A founding member of the Seattle Police Foundation, Durkan served as the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington from 2009 to 2017. She was elected mayor in 2017, winning 56% of the vote and beating Seattle architect Cary Moon. A recall petition against Durkan failed in court last fall.

Dan Nolte, a spokesperson with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said in a statement the city intends to review the lawsuit and will respond accordingly.

DeSantis blasts China, signs Florida corporate espionage bill into law

By John Haughey | The Center Square contributor, June 7, 2021

(The Center Square) – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Monday two bills that toughen penalties for stealing trade secrets and impose greater disclosure requirements on sources of foreign grants for university, medical and high-tech researchers.

The bills were a response to DeSantis’ pre-legislative session call for lawmakers to adopt legislation to thwart attempts to infiltrate agencies and universities by agents from seven “foreign adversary” nations: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria.

The most direct target of the bills, however, is China, especially after revelations the past two years that the Confucian Institute, oft-cited as a source of Chinese “plants” to harvest research data, was grant-funding programs in several Florida schools, including Miami-Dade College.

Other incidents involve a former University of Florida professor charged with fraud in February for allegedly accepting a federal research grant while concealing Chinese sources of financing, and Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center administrators being ousted for alleged failure to disclose receiving money from Chinese sources to recruit U.S. researchers to work in China.

“There is no single entity that exercises a more pervasive, nefarious influence across a wide range of American industries and institutions than the Communist Party of China,” DeSantis said Monday in Miami as he signed the Combating Corporate Espionage in Florida Act into law.

“All we are doing today,” he said, “is saying enough is enough. We have to start fighting back. Florida is doing that.”

The Combating Corporate Espionage in Florida Act, House Bill 1523, was sponsored by Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia. It amends trade-secret theft definitions and crimes in state law.

Under the law, “trafficking in trade secrets” is a second-degree felony. If an investigation reveals the crime was committed to benefit a foreign government, it would be a first-degree felony.

The new law allows private individuals and corporations to seek compensation in state courts for stolen trade secrets and updates the state’s obsolete codes to accommodate advances in technology, Beltran said in HB 1523’s committee hearings.

The second bill DeSantis signed Monday requires state universities and colleges to disclose grants and donations of more than $50,000 from foreign governments and implements a slate of review requirements.

House Bill 7017, sponsored Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, requires complete disclosure of grant sources and prohibits some agreements between state agencies and universities with the seven “countries of concern:” China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria.

The new law mandates universities with research budgets over $10 million to perform more extensive screening of foreign applicants for research positions and apply more scrutiny on foreign travel and activities by grant recipients.

The law also prohibits donations “conditioned on a program to promote the language and culture of any of seven countries of concern” and would protect whistleblowers.

As he did during a Friday news conference and in various media appearances over the weekend, DeSantis accused China of trying to “cover up the origins of COVID-19,” arguing it’s “almost impossible” it developed naturally.

“It’s pretty clear that this was a virus that almost assuredly leaked out of this lab in Wuhan,” DeSantis said. “This is a lab where these scientists were working closely with the Communist Party of China, as well as the Chinese military.”

China never asked other nations for assistance and failed to give other nations a warning about the emerging pandemic, DeSantis said.

“They tried to cover it up, and basically the world has had to endure over a year and a half of a lot of bad stuff as a result of this,” he said. “So, they covered it up and they need to be held accountable for this.

Pennsylvania health officials say recent flu season was one of mildest on record

By Natalie Kapustik | The Center Square contributor, June 7, 2021

(The Center Square) – The 2021 flu season which was the one of the mildest on record for Pennsylvania, state health officials revealed recently, mirroring a trend seen across the county as COVID-19 mitigation efforts also hampered the seasonal scourge.

As of May 22, the last day of the 2020-2021 flu season, there were 3,664 laboratory-confirmed flu cases and 21 flu-associated deaths in the state. This was a 95 percent decrease from the cumulative count of cases at the end of the 2019-20 flu season.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported lower than normal seasonal flu activity for the nation for this time of year. There was a sixfold increase in public testing for influenza A and B due being paired with testing for COVID-19.

“As we end the flu season this year with fewer than 4,000 cases, I want to emphasize that this is one of the mildest flu seasons on record for Pennsylvania,” acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said in a statement. “The previous season was higher than usual with more than 130,900 cases of flu. That is a stark difference from where we ended in 2021. The low flu activity, in part, is a testament to effective COVID-19 mitigation efforts that also prevent the flu, since the two infectious diseases spread the same way. In addition, a record number of individuals got their flu vaccine this season.

Texas joins 24 other state urging Supreme Court to overturn New Jersey’s gun magazine ban

By Bethany Blankley | The Center Square contributor, June 7, 2021

(The Center Square) — Texas is now the 25th state to join a coalition of attorneys general urging the U.S. Supreme Court to repeal a New Jersey law that bans the possession of high-capacity magazines for firearms, arguing it violates the Second Amendment.

Most popular firearms owned in the U.S. come standard with magazines holding a range of 11 to 15 rounds, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argued, “making New Jersey’s law both unreasonable and unconstitutional.”  

“New Jersey’s law is a blatant violation of the Second Amendment, and its mere existence threatens the rights of law-abiding citizens,” Paxton said in a statement, arguing for the law to be struck down.

“Criminalizing the possession of a magazine that is so commonly used leaves Americans defenseless and vulnerable, especially in high crime areas,” Paxton added.   

Texas joined an amicus brief first filed May 28 by Arizona, Louisiana and 22 other states in support of the plaintiffs, New Jersey resident Blake Ellman and the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistols Clubs.

The plaintiffs sued New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal over a 2018 law that made it a fourth-degree indictable crime to produce, transport, sell, or otherwise dispose of magazines with more than a 10-round capacity.

If someone were to transport a gun and large capacity magazine “to or from a licensed firearms dealer in another state that allows magazines with larger than a 10-round capacity, that person could be arrested during a routine traffic stop and charged for having an illegal weapon in New Jersey,” The Tormey Law Firm, a criminal defense law firm in Northern New Jersey, explained. Violators could receive a potential 18-month prison sentence, probation, community service, and a $10,000 fine.

The plaintiffs lost in U.S. District Court and appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals where a panel of three judges ruled against them last September. The plaintiffs then asked the full court to hear their case, which the court denied by an 8-6 vote.

The court concluded that the ban does not burden the Second Amendment guarantee for five reasons, and said it was important to keep the ban in place in order to protect citizens’ safety. The court also said its decision was in line with rulings made by the 4th, 2nd, 7th and D.C. circuit courts.

Judge Paul Matey wrote a lengthy dissent in which he argued that the state had not adequately proven that the law actually furthers public safety enough to justify the ban.

The coalition argues the Third Circuit Court “used an erroneous construction of the U.S. Constitution, thereby allowing the Second Amendment rights of millions of citizens to be compromised.”

“New Jersey should not be allowed to invade its citizens’ constitutional rights, and the Third Circuit should not imperil the rights of citizens in other states with its analysis,” the attorneys general argued.

The plaintiffs and the coalition are asking the Supreme Court to grant cert and reverse the Third Circuit Court’s decision, a decision they argue, conflicts with the court’s opinions already given in three cases: Heller, McDonald, and Caetano.

The New Jersey attorney general’s office has not released a statement on the matter.

Recall effort against supervisors in Shasta County, California, approved to circulate petitions

Abbey Smith | Ballotpedia via The Center Square, June 4, 2021

An effort to recall three of the five members of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors in California has been approved to circulate petitions. District 1 representative Joe Chimenti, District 2 representative Leonard Moty, and District 3 representative Mary Rickert were named in the notices of intent to recall. Recall supporters have until Sept. 29 to collect more than 4,000 petition signatures per member to get the recall on the ballot.

Recall supporters said the county supervisors betrayed the public trust, did not defend the county from state government overreach in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, and irresponsibly handled county finances.

Chimenti defended the board’s actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and stated, “Unlike many other counties around California, this board has never enacted any ordinance and we have never burdened law enforcement with enforcement responsibilities pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Recall supporters submitted notices of intent to recall on April 30. After the notices and petitions were approved, supporters were given 120 days to collect signatures equal to 20% of registered voters in each district the supervisors represent. The petition against Chimenti needs 4,392 signatures, the petition against Moty needs 4,308 signatures, and the petition against Rickert needs 4,432 signatures.

Moty and Rickert were both re-elected to four-year terms on the board in Nov. 2020. Moty received 51% of the vote, defeating two challengers, and Rickert won re-election unopposed. Moty was first elected to the board in 2008, and Rickert was first elected to the board in 2016. Chimenti was first elected to a four-year term on the board in 2018, defeating incumbent David Kehoe with 55% of the vote.

In 2020, Ballotpedia covered a total of 227 recall efforts against 279 elected officials. Of the 49 officials whose recalls made it to the ballot, 29 were recalled for a rate of 59%. That was higher than the 52% rate for 2019 recalls but lower than the 63% rate for 2018 recalls.

Wisconsin Republicans expand investigation into 2020 election nonprofits

By Benjamin Yount | The Center Square contributor, May 27, 2021

(The Center Square) – The investigation by Republican lawmakers into actions taken by outside, nonprofit groups during Wisconsin’s election last fall is growing.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told News Talk 1130 WISN’s Dan O’Donnell on Thursday that he is hiring three former police officers to lead the legislative investigation.

“What I am most concerned about is making sure that when we have another election in 2022, we don’t have the same problems,” Vos said.

Reports point to outside, nonprofit groups like the Mark Zuckerberg-funded Center for Tech and Civic Life using grant money to gain access to election operations in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Racine and Kenosha.

The Legislature has been holding hearings into the outside group for months. Vos’ decision this week expands that investigation.

“We want to make sure we have a continuing fact-basis,” Vos said. “We have gotten great reports from people all around the state, and I want those to keep pouring-in. We need more and more folks to sign affidavits, to work with these investigators, to say ‘I was in X-municipality, and this is what I personally witnessed.’”

Vos said the investigators will have subpoena power, as well as the power to grant immunity.

The investigation will not lead to criminal charges, since the Legislature doesn’t have that power. But Vos said he hopes to show clear and convincing evidence that these outside groups broke Wisconsin’s election laws, so that lawmakers can change those laws.

“I want to work on building the idea that Gov. [Tony] Evers is going to sign these bills,” Vos said. “If we have independent investigators go out and find the data and clearly show why the election laws need to be changed, I think Gov. Evers will be forced to listen. And if for some reason he doesn’t, then we will have a fact-base to show the electorate … that we need to change the guy in the [governor’s office] if he’s not willing to listen to the facts.”

Lawmakers split over 2020 election audit in Pennsylvania

By Christen Smith | The Center Square, June 5, 2021

(The Center Square) – Key lawmakers in charge of potential election reforms in Pennsylvania appear split on whether a third-party audit of the state’s November election results will occur.

This, after former President Donald Trump called state GOP leaders out by name – including Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, and State Government Committee Chairman Dave Argall, R-Pottsville – in a terse statement demanding “a full forensic audit” identical to an effort undertaken in Arizona this spring.

“The people of Pennsylvania and America deserve to know the truth,” Trump said. “If the Pennsylvania Senate leadership doesn’t act, there is no way they will ever get re-elected!”

Argall told the Penn Capital-Star he’s “still reviewing the pros and cons” while his counterpart in the House, Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, dismissed the idea outright.

“The PA House of Representatives will not be authorizing any further audits on any previous election,” he tweeted Thursday. “We are focused on fixing our broken election law to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

President Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by fewer than 81,000 votes in November. The Trump campaign fired off a series of lawsuits alleging mail-in voter fraud that were later dismissed for lack of evidence. Several Republican lawmakers supported the effort, including three that visited Phoenix on Wednesday to tour the audit site and receive a briefing about its results.

Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Chambersburg, and Sens. Doug Mastriano, R-Gettysburg, and Cris Dush, R-Wellsboro, met with Arizona legislators Wednesday, according to a tweet from Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff. Biden’s surprise upset in the state came by a margin of 10,000 votes out of more than 3.1 million cast, with the vast majority collected in Maricopa County.

“Forty-seven percent of the people in this country don’t have faith in the electoral – electoral integrity right now,” Dush told The Wall Street Journal. “And my constituents are very much up in arms, with the lack of any movement on trying to find out what happened.”

Mastriano, who came under fire in recent months for organizing a bus trip for residents to participate in the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, said in an interview with the newspaper that “he’s not about overturning anything.”

The senator maintains that he left the Jan. 6 rallies before a violent mob stormed the Capitol building. But he’s remained an ardent supporter of Trump, who he claims encouraged him to run for governor in 2022. 

“I’m just trying to find out what went right, what went wrong?,” he said. “And how do we have better elections in the future?”

The Pennsylvania-based Wake Technology Services served as part of Arizona’s audit team, organized by Cyber Ninjas, according to a report from the Arizona Mirror. The newspaper said the company also audited election results in Fulton County, Pa., though its unclear who paid for the effort – or why.

Small-business group sues MLB over pulling All-Star Game from Atlanta

By Nyamekye Daniel | The Center Square, June 1, 2021

(The Center Square) – A small business advocacy organization has sued Major League Baseball to return the All-Star Game to Atlanta.

In the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Job Creators Network demands executives immediately resume plans to host the game in Atlanta or pay $100 million in damages to local and state small businesses.

“MLB robbed the small businesses of Atlanta – many of them minority-owned – of $100 million, we want the game back where it belongs,” Job Creators Network President and CEO Alfredo Ortiz said. 

MLB moved the game from Atlanta to Denver after the Georgia General Assembly approved and Gov. Brian Kemp signed an elections overhaul bill into law on March 25. The bill had many tentacles, including revamping absentee voting in the state.

Under the bill, absentee voters will have to write their driver’s license number, identification card number, voter registration number or the last four digits of their Social Security number with their birthdate on ballots. The measure also made changes to the locations of ballot drop boxes and bans mobile polling stations.

Proponents said the law increases election security and integrity. Opponents argued it will disenfranchise Black voters and compared the measure to civil rights limits on Black people during the Jim Crow Era.

It drew criticism from Atlanta-based businesses Coca-Cola and Delta, along with President Joe Biden and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. MLB announced April 2 that it would be pulling its All-Star Game events from the city.

“This was a knee-jerk, hypocritical and illegal reaction to misinformation about Georgia’s new voting law, which includes voter-ID”, Ortiz said. “Major League Baseball itself requests ID at will-call ticket windows at Yankee Stadium in New York, Busch Stadium in St. Louis and at ballparks all across the country.”

The All-Star Game, scheduled for July, was supposed to be held at Truist Park, the home field of the Atlanta Braves in Cobb County.

Cobb County budgeted expenses of $2 million for improvements and municipal hiring to meet the expected influx of tourists and fans for the big event, attorneys for Job Creators Network said. About 41,000 fans were expected to attend. Previous MLB All-Star Game events have generated between $37 million and $190 million for their host communities.

Other local governments in the metro Atlanta area also were counting on the boost in tax revenues, Job Creators Network said. It claimed more than 8,000 hotel reservations were canceled because MLB pulled the game from Atlanta. 

“Small businesses in this community had valid contracts relating to the All-Star Game and other events, the result of two years of planning and all that was ripped away by fear and misinformation spewed by political activists. Many states, including Colorado where the game has been moved to, have similar or more restrictive election laws,” Ortiz said. “This move essentially tells fans of teams in many other cities that they can never again host the All-Star Game; it’s hypocritical, illegal, and we won’t stand for it.”

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, the Major League Baseball Players Association and association Executive Director Tony Clark also are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association did not immediately respond to request for comment Tuesday.

Plan to end absentee ballot curing advances at Wisconsin Capitol

By Benjamin Yount | The Center Square contributor, June 1, 2021 W

(The Center Square) – Wisconsin lawmakers are moving to stop election workers across the state from fixing mistakes on absentee ballots.

The Assembly’s Committee on Campaigns and Elections on Wednesday advanced a plan, Assembly Bill 198, that would clarify that only voters or their witnesses can correct a mistake on an absentee ballot.

“Because [absentee voting] is a privilege, there’s got to be some responsibility that the voter has to exercise that privilege,” said Rep. Donna Rozar, R-Marshfield. “And I think that responsibility is to do it right and legally.”

Republican lawmakers say absentee ballot curing, the technical term for fixing mistakes on ballots, is one of the areas of concern from the November 2020 election.

Election workers cured many more ballots last fall than ever before. The Wisconsin Elections Commission confirmed this in its postelection report.

“The statewide absentee ballot rejection rate was exceptionally low in November – 0.2% statewide compared to 1.8% in April 2020,” the commission wrote in January.

The new proposal spells out that election clerks must contact the voter if they made a mistake, or the witness if they made a mistake in filling out their portion of the absentee ballot. Only the voter or the witness can correct those mistakes.

Democrats on the Elections Committee say the change will mean some legally cast ballots won’t be counted.

“I don’t care if absentee voting is a privilege. That doesn’t mean you should have to pass a test, or make sure that you dot every I and cross every T,” said Rep. Lisa Subek, D-Madison. “If someone makes an innocent, honest mistake, it is appalling that we’re not going to then let their ballot count.”

Elections Committee chief Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, said the tightening of the rules for who can fix mistakes on absentee ballots does not infringe on anyone’s right to vote.

“Election Day is a right, and early voting is still a privilege,” Brandtjen said.

The proposal now heads for a vote in the full Assembly, but also a likely veto from Gov. Tony Evers. The governor has said for months he will not sign any new laws that “make it tougher” for people to vote.

Michigan Court of Appeals approves recall petitions for Whitmer, Gilchrist; uphill battle remains

By Scott McClallen | The Center Square, June 1, 2021

The Center Square) – The Michigan Court of Appeals approved the Board of State Canvasser’s approval of six petitions calling for a recall of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist over handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The petitions allege Whitmer exceeded her authority in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, which included extending a promised “15-day pause” of indoor dining to 75 days, as well as other wide-ranging economic restrictions.

Petitioner Chad Baase’s recall alleges Whitmer violated the separations of powers clause in the Constitution when the Michigan Supreme Court on Oct. 2. tossed many of her orders, yet she continued issuing orders through the state health department. He contends Michigan’s leaders haven’t been held accountable.

Gretchen Whitmer’s continued actions which show an ‘It’s OK for me but not for thee’ mentality is not the Mentality of an Effective Leader to bring Success and Growth to Michigan,” Baase told The Center Square in an email.

Whitmer and Gilchrist had argued that the challenged petitions did not “adequately describe the authorities cited as reasons for the recall.”

Whitmer argued recall petition language was unclear, singling out the use of the term “bars” as denoting a public space.

The court disagreed, writing: “Any person invited to sign the petition would very likely envision a reference to a conventional tavern, where people can purchase and consume alcoholic beverages…”.

The Court of Appeals rejected the governor and lieutenant governor’s arguments, and affirmed six of the cases but remanded one to correct an error for an executive order date.

“We conclude that although the Governor relied on the appearance of a string of nonsensical characters to support her challenge to the clarity of the petition language, the Governor’s hasty conclusion about a word-processing irregularity does not arise often enough to compel reading the petition as featuring some gibberish in place of several normal characters that appear the rest of the time,” the court wrote.

Whitmer campaign spokesperson Mark Fisk told Mlive they will appeal.

“We plan to appeal this disappointing decision and we fully intend to beat back these irresponsible partisan attacks against the Governor in the courts, on the streets or at the ballot. This is part of a massive and coordinated attack by Republicans trying to make the Governor fail and our campaign will strenuously oppose these efforts so the Governor can keep saving lives, reopening our economy and creating jobs,” Fisk said.

Recall laws changed in 2012 complicate recalling politicians.

Groups seeking to place a governor recall petition on the ballot must collect signatures equal to more than 25% of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election — nearly 1.1 million signatures in just 60 days after collecting the first signature.

Recall petitioner Chad Baase told The Center Square via email the way he understands election law, all recall petitions are ineligible to be circulated under a rule in which petition recalls are only valid for 180 days after whichever is later: “Clarity/factuality approval by the Commission [or] Clarity/factuality approval by the Circuit Court (if Commission decision is appealed), or 40 days after the date of appeal.”

The Board of State Canvassers approved the petitions on June 8, 2020, so 180 days after that would be Dec. 5, 2020.

The deadline to place recall petitions on the November 2021 ballots, if the petitions make it that far, appears to be July 30, 2021. The chance of the petition’s success is unclear. 

A 2012 law prevents governors from being recalled during the last year of their term. Whitmer’s last year as governor, barring re-election, will be 2022.

‘Big Tech’ sues Florida over new social media law

By John Haughey | The Center Square contributor, May 28, 2021

(The Center Square) – Two lobbying associations that partner with Twitter and Google are challenging the legality of Florida’s new social media law.

The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) and NetChoice filed a federal lawsuit Thursday claiming Senate Bill 7072, signed into law Monday by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is unconstitutional.

The suit alleges SB 7072 violates the First Amendment by compelling social media companies to host “highly objectionable or illegal content” and penalizing them for blocking or hiding content.

“We are bringing this suit to safeguard the industry’s free speech right to deliver on their commitments to users to mitigate harmful content online” CCIA President Matt Schruers said in a statement.

“By constraining digital services’ ability to fight bad actors online, this law threatens to make the Internet a safe space for criminals, miscreants, and foreign agents, putting Floridians at risk,” he continued. “Gov. DeSantis is correct that this is a free speech issue: a digital service that declines to host harmful content is exercising its own First Amendment rights.”

DeSantis and GOP leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature made penalizing “Big Tech” a 2021 session priority after Twitter and other social media companies banished then-President Donald Trump and other conservatives from their platforms following the U.S. Capitol riot.

“When you de-platform the President of the United States but you let Ayatollah Khomeini talk about killing Jews, that is wrong,” DeSantis said Monday when he signed the bill during a ceremony at Florida International University in Miami.

Claiming social media corporations have more power than the monopolies and trusts of the late 1800s, DeSantis said the new “public square” is being manipulated by censors “in pajamas on their laptop drinking a soy latte in Silicon Valley.”

Under SB 7072, users could sue in state courts and collect as much as $100,000 for every day a site kicks them off, deletes a post, or uses its algorithms to limit exposure to their posts.

“De-platforming” political candidates from a social media site could be prosecuted under Florida’s Unfair Trade Practices Act. Penalties would be as high as $250,000 a day for statewide candidates and $25,000 per day for local candidates.

SB 7072 would allow social media users to opt out of a platform’s algorithms that determine what appears highest on their feed. They could demand platforms feed them posts in the order written.

After signing the bill, DeSantis embarked on a media tour where he was hailed as “America’s Governor” by talk radio host Mark Levin and later told Fox News’ Sean Hannity he anticipated lawsuits challenging the new law.

“You can set your clock by it,” DeSantis told Hannity, musing the case could go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The clock struck Thursday when CCIA and NetChoice filed their 70-page complaint in the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, asserting violations of the First and Fourteenth amendments and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

“Rather than preventing what it calls ‘censorship,’ the act does the exact opposite: It empowers government officials in Florida to police the protected editorial judgment of online businesses that the state disfavors and whose perceived political viewpoints it wishes to punish,” the complaint asserts.

“This is evident from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ own press release that touts the act as a means to ‘take back the virtual public square’ from ‘the leftist media and big corporations,’ who supposedly “discriminate in favor of the dominant Silicon Valley ideology,” it says.

The Governor’s Office does not comment on specific lawsuits, but DeSantis’ spokeswoman Christina Pushaw told Florida Politics that “Big Tech” is outraged at the state’s audacity in “questioning Silicon Valley orthodoxy.”

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