September 28, 2022

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Kidnappers admit to holding four migrants hostage at gunpoint

17 min read
Two men have pleaded guilty to kidnapping and holding victims for ransom for three days

More from: March 2, 2022

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  • Advanced Manufacturing: Innovation Institutes Report Technology Progress and Members Report Satisfaction with Their Involvement
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Departments of Commerce, Defense (DOD), and Energy (DOE) have established a network of innovation institutes—known as Manufacturing USA institutes—to promote research, development, and commercialization of advanced manufacturing technologies. Manufacturing USA institutes reported making progress toward achieving their technology goals. Progress on institute projects is often tracked using technology readiness levels (TRL), a standardized scale for assessing maturity and risk. GAO’s analysis of institute information found that projects moved through a range of TRLs (see figure). Many moved from TRL 4 to 6, taking a manufacturing technology from a point where it could be demonstrated in a lab to a point where a prototype system could be created in a simulated production environment. Advancement of Technology Readiness Level (TRL) for Completed Manufacturing USA Institute Projects, as of March 2021 Note: Circle size illustrates the number of projects (but is not in direct proportion). Results from a survey administered by GAO to institute members found that smaller manufacturers (those with fewer than 500 employees) were generally engaged and satisfied with their institutes’ activities, such as collaborating on projects and providing input on institute priorities. Larger businesses and academic institutions reported similar levels of satisfaction. Officials noted that some factors, such as cost of membership, may limit smaller manufacturer engagement, and identified initiatives to help offset the cost. Commerce, DOD, and DOE have implemented GAO’s prior recommendations on interagency collaboration and developing sustainability criteria. However, Commerce has not fully implemented two of GAO’s prior recommendations related to network-wide performance goals for the Manufacturing USA program. By not implementing these recommendations, Commerce is missing an opportunity to better observe and report on progress made toward achieving the purposes of the Manufacturing USA program. Why GAO Did This Study In recent decades, the U.S. trade balance in advanced technology products declined, resulting in a $130 billion deficit as of 2018. The Manufacturing USA institutes seek to stimulate leadership in advanced manufacturing innovation. Members include companies, nonprofits, academic institutions, and state and local governments. Members receive benefits such as access to shared facilities, equipment, and intellectual property. As of August 2021, Commerce, DOD, and DOE have provided $1.7 billion to the institutes. The Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act of 2014, as amended, includes a provision for GAO to assess the Manufacturing USA program. This third report examines institutes’ progress toward technology goals, smaller manufacturers’ engagement with the institutes, and implementation of prior recommendations, among other things. GAO collected institute information via a questionnaire, surveyed a generalizable sample of institute members, and interviewed agency officials and institute representatives.

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  • Environment and Natural Resources Division Distributes Memorandum Summarizing Enforcement Policies and Priorities
    In Crime News
    On Friday, the Environment and Natural Resources Division publicly distributed a memorandum summarizing important principles and priorities for environmental enforcement. The memorandum, issued Jan. 14 by outgoing Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark, emphasizes that robust enforcement of our nation’s environmental laws remains one of the division’s highest priorities. It emphasizes that, when engaged in criminal and civil enforcement, it is important that the division continue to enhance the fair and impartial application of the law.

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  • Trafficking: Use of Online Marketplaces and Virtual Currencies in Drug and Human Trafficking
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Drug and human traffickers are increasingly using online marketplaces and virtual currencies to connect with buyers and obscure the source of payments, according to agency documentation and interviews with agency officials. However, according to the Department of Homeland Security, traffickers continue to primarily use cash. Online marketplaces facilitate trafficking by providing anonymity, connecting buyers and sellers, and allowing a range of payment methods, including virtual currencies (see figure). These marketplaces often use the “dark web,” a hidden part of the internet that users access using specialized software. Traffickers use virtual currencies and peer-to-peer mobile payment services because transactions are somewhat anonymous, making detection by law enforcement more difficult. However, all transactions on a public blockchain (the technology used by some virtual currencies) can be tracked to some extent. Summary of Participants Involved in Drug Trafficking Using Online Marketplaces and Virtual Currency Several federal law enforcement agencies investigate and prosecute trafficking cases involving virtual currency and online marketplaces, including through interagency partnerships. In addition, federal regulators oversee financial institutions’ processes and controls to comply with anti-money laundering requirements, including reporting of potential trafficking activities to law enforcement. State regulations such as licensing requirements for money transmitters and other virtual currency businesses also can help impede trafficking, although such requirements vary by state. Law enforcement and others can use blockchain analytics tools to investigate suspected illicit activity that uses virtual currencies, but these tools can be of limited effectiveness. Many virtual currency transactions are permanently recorded on public blockchains, allowing them to be matched to user information collected by virtual currency platforms that comply with anti-money laundering requirements. However, law enforcement’s ability to detect and track illicit uses of virtual currencies may be hindered by criminals’ use of privacy technology, and by some market participants’ noncompliance with anti-money laundering requirements, according to law enforcement officials and analytics firms. Why GAO Did This Study Drug and human trafficking are longstanding and pervasive problems. Federal law enforcement agencies have noted the use of online marketplaces, such as social media sites and messaging platforms, in drug and human trafficking. Further, agencies have expressed concern about traffickers’ increased use of virtual currencies—that is, digital representations of value that are usually not government-issued legal tender. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 includes a provision for GAO to review how a range of methods and payment systems, including online marketplaces and virtual currencies, are used to facilitate drug and human trafficking. This report examines what is known about drug and human traffickers’ use of online marketplaces and virtual currencies, efforts by federal and state agencies to counter such trafficking, and benefits and challenges virtual currencies pose for detecting and prosecuting drug and human trafficking, among other objectives. GAO reviewed federal agency and industry documentation and GAO’s relevant body of past work; interviewed officials at federal and state agencies and industry and nonprofit stakeholders; and reviewed recently adjudicated cases involving the use of virtual currencies in drug or human trafficking. For more information, contact Michael E. Clements at (202) 512-8678 or clementsm@gao.gov or Gretta Goodwin at (202)512-8777 or goodwing@gao.gov.

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  • Georgia Man Pleads Guilty in New York Federal Court on Charges Related to Ponzi and COVID-19 Fraud Schemes
    In Crime News
    Christopher A. Parris, 41, formerly of Rochester, New York, and currently of Lawrenceville, Georgia, pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to commit mail fraud related to a Ponzi scheme, as well as to wire fraud involving the fraudulent sale of purported N95 masks during the pandemic.

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  • Florida Recording Artist and Pennsylvania Man Charged for Role in $24 Million COVID-Relief Fraud Scheme
    In Crime News
    A Florida recording artist and a Pennsylvania towing company owner have been charged for their alleged participation in a scheme to file fraudulent loan applications seeking more than $24 million in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

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  • Rural Hospital Closures: Affected Residents Had Reduced Access to Health Care Services
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO found that when rural hospitals closed, residents living in the closed hospitals’ service areas would have to travel substantially farther to access certain health care services. Specifically, for residents living in these service areas, GAO’s analysis shows that the median distance to access some of the more common health care services increased about 20 miles from 2012 to 2018. For example, the median distance to access general inpatient services was 3.4 miles in 2012, compared to 23.9 miles in 2018—an increase of 20.5 miles. For some of the less common services that were offered by a few of the hospitals that closed, this median distance increased much more. For example, among residents in the service areas of the 11 closed hospitals that offered treatment services for alcohol or drug abuse, the median distance was 5.5 miles in 2012, compared to 44.6 miles in 2018—an increase of 39.1 miles to access these services (see figure). Median Distance in Miles from Service Areas with Rural Hospital Closures to the Nearest Open Hospital that Offered Certain Health Care Services, 2012 and 2018 Notes: GAO focused its analysis on the health care services offered in 2012 by the 64 rural hospitals that closed during the years 2013 through 2017 and for which data were available. For example, in 2012, 64 closed hospitals offered general inpatient services, 62 offered emergency department services, 11 offered treatment services for alcohol or drug abuse, and 11 offered services in a coronary care unit. To examine distance, GAO calculated “crow-fly miles” (the distance measured in a straight line) from the geographic center of each closed rural hospital’s service area to the geographic center of the ZIP Code with the nearest open rural or urban hospital that offered a given service. GAO also found that the availability of health care providers in counties with rural hospital closures generally was lower and declined more over time, compared to those without closures. Specifically, counties with closures generally had fewer health care professionals per 100,000 residents in 2012 than did counties without closures. The disparities in the availability of health care professionals in these counties grew from 2012 to 2017. For example, over this time period, the availability of physicians declined more among counties with closures—dropping from a median of 71.2 to 59.7 per 100,000 residents—compared to counties without closures—which dropped from 87.5 to 86.3 per 100,000 residents. Rural hospitals face many challenges in providing essential access to health care services to rural communities. From January 2013 through February 2020, 101 rural hospitals closed. GAO was asked to examine the effects of rural hospital closures on residents living in the areas of the hospitals that closed. This report examines, among other objectives, how closures affected the distance for residents to access health care services, as well as changes in the availability of health care providers in counties with and without closures. GAO analyzed data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program (NC RHRP) for rural hospitals (1) that closed and those that were open during the years 2013 through 2017, and (2) for which complete data generally were available at the time of GAO’s review. GAO also interviewed HHS and NC RHRP officials and reviewed relevant literature. GAO defined hospitals as rural according to data from the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. GAO defined hospital closure as a cessation of inpatient services, the same definition used by NC RHRP. GAO defined service areas with closures as the collection of ZIP Codes that were served by closed rural hospitals and service areas without closures as the collection of ZIP Codes served only by rural hospitals that were open. GAO provided a draft of this report to HHS for comment. The Department provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact James Cosgrove at (202) 512-7114 or cosgrovej@gao.gov.

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  • Questions for the Record Related to the Benefits and Medical Care for Federal Civilian Employees Deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO appeared before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Armed Services on September 18, 2007, to discuss the benefits and medical care for federal civilian and U.S. government contract employees deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. This report responds to Congress’ request that GAO provide answers to questions for the record from the hearing. The questions are (1) What are the congressional requirements for medical tracking of deployed military servicemembers and civilians? and (2) What work has GAO conducted on this topic?Following GAO’s May 1997 report, Congress enacted legislation3 that required the Secretary of Defense to establish a medical tracking system to assess the medical condition of servicemembers before and after deployments to locations outside of the United States. This legislation was amended by a provision in the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007. The current legislation amends elements of the system and the quality assurance program as well as adds criteria for referral for further evaluations and minimum mental health standards for deployment. Since the 1990s, GAO has highlighted shortcomings with respect to the Department of Defense’s (DOD) ability to assess the medical condition of servicemembers both before and after their deployments. Following GAO’s May 1997 report, Congress enacted legislation that required the Secretary of Defense to establish a medical tracking system for assessing the medical condition of servicemembers before and after deployments. In September 2003, we reported that the Army and Air Force did not comply with DOD’s force health protection and surveillance requirements for many servicemembers deploying in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Central Asia and Operation Joint Guardian in Kosovo. Our report also raised concerns over a lack of DOD oversight of departmentwide efforts to comply with health surveillance requirements. In September 2004, we reported similar issues related to DOD’s ability to effectively manage the health status of its reserve forces. In November 2004, we reported that overall compliance with DOD’s force health protection and surveillance policies for servicemembers who deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom varied by service, by installation, and by policy requirement. In October 2005, we reported that evidence suggested that reserve component members have deployed into theater with preexisting medical conditions that could not be adequately addressed in theater, and that DOD had limited visibility over the health status of reserve component members after they are called to duty and is unable to determine the extent of care provided to those members deployed with preexisting medical conditions despite the existence of various sources of medical information. In February 2007, the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Health Protection and Readiness published a new instruction on force health protection quality assurance. This policy applies to military servicemembers, as well as applicable DOD and contractor personnel. The new policy requires the military services to implement procedures to monitor key force health protection elements such as pre- and post-deployment health assessments. In our June 2007 report on DOD’s compliance with the legislative requirement to perform pre- and post-deployment medical examinations on servicemembers, DOD lacked a comprehensive oversight framework to help ensure effective implementation of its deployment health quality assurance program, which included specific reporting requirements and results-oriented performance measures to evaluate the services’ adherence to deployment health requirements.

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  • Chronic Health Conditions: Federal Strategy Needed to Coordinate Diet-Related Efforts
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found According to the latest federal data available, selected chronic health conditions linked to diet are prevalent, deadly, and costly. These diet-related conditions include cardiovascular diseases (heart disease and stroke), cancer, diabetes, and obesity. For example, 2018 federal data show: Prevalence. Forty-two percent of adults had obesity—or approximately 100 million U.S. adults. Mortality. Cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes accounted for half of all annual deaths in the U.S. (about 1.5 million deaths). People living in southern states, men, and Black Americans had disproportionately higher mortality rates than those living in other regions, women, and other races. Cost. Government spending, including Medicare and Medicaid, to treat cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes accounted for 54 percent of the $383.6 billion in health care spending to treat these conditions. The increase in certain diet-related conditions over time indicates further potential threats to Americans’ health. For example, the prevalence of obesity among adults was 19 percent higher in 2018 than in 2009. GAO identified 200 federal efforts related to diet—fragmented across 21 agencies—for reducing Americans’ risk of chronic health conditions. The efforts fall into four categories (see table). Federal Agencies’ Efforts to Address Diet as a Factor of Chronic Health Conditions Categories Number of efforts Examples of activities Total efforts 200   Research 119 Collect and monitor data, conduct or fund studies, review research to develop guidelines on healthy eating Education and clinical services 72 Inform program beneficiaries, counsel health care patients, inform the public with mass communication Food assistance and access 27 Provide food or assistance in purchasing food, improve community access to healthy food Regulatory action 6 Issue requirements or recommendations for food producers, manufacturers, and retailers Source: GAO analysis of agency information. | GAO-21-593 Note: Effort numbers do not add up to 200 because some efforts fall into multiple categories. Agencies have taken some actions to coordinate, such as by establishing interagency groups. However, they have not effectively managed fragmentation of diet-related efforts or the potential for overlap and duplication. Such fragmentation has impacted the agencies’ ability to achieve certain outcomes. For example, according to agency officials and nonfederal stakeholders, agencies have not fully addressed important gaps in scientific knowledge where research is sparse, including on healthy diets for infants and young children. A federal strategy for diet-related efforts could provide sustained leadership and result in improved, cost-effective outcomes for reducing Americans’ risk of diet-related chronic health conditions. Why GAO Did This Study Many chronic health conditions are preventable, yet they are leading causes of death and disability in the United States. In addition, people with certain chronic health conditions are more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 than people without them. Poor diet is one prominent risk factor for chronic health conditions, alongside tobacco use, physical inactivity, and others. Numerous federal agencies have a role in addressing diet and its link to chronic health conditions. GAO was asked to review diet-related chronic health conditions and federal efforts to address them. This report examines (1) federal data on prevalence, mortality, and costs of selected diet-related chronic health conditions; (2) federal diet-related efforts to reduce Americans’ risk of chronic health conditions; and (3) the extent to which federal agencies have coordinated their efforts. GAO selected conditions with established scientific links to diet. GAO then analyzed federal data on prevalence, mortality, and health care spending; reviewed agency documents; interviewed officials from 21 federal agencies with a role in diet, as well as nonfederal stakeholders; and compared agency actions with selected leading practices for collaboration, which GAO has identified in prior work.

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  • EEG Testing and Private Investment Companies Pay $15.3 Million to Resolve Kickback and False Billing Allegations
    In Crime News
    Two Texas companies have agreed to pay a combined $15.3 million to resolve allegations of kickbacks and other misconduct resulting in the submission of false claims to federal health care programs.

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  • Federal Judges Reinventing the Jury Trial During Pandemic
    In U.S Courts
    A group of federal judges around the country are reinventing the jury trial so that it is not only a fair forum for the administration of justice, but also a safe experience for everyone in the courtroom, including defendants and jurors.

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  • Department Of Justice And U.S. Patent And Trademark Office To Host Public Workshop On Promoting Innovation In The Life Science Sector
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will host a virtual public workshop on Sept. 23rd and 24th, 2020 to discuss the importance of intellectual property rights and pro-competitive collaborations for life sciences companies, research institutions, and American consumers. 

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  • Disaster Recovery: Additional Actions Needed to Identify and Address Potential Recovery Barriers
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Limited research exists on the relationship between disaster outcomes and the six federal recovery programs included in this GAO review: the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Individual Assistance and Public Assistance programs, National Flood Insurance Program, and Hazard Mitigation Grant Program; the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Disaster Loan program; and Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery. The design of the nine available studies did not allow GAO to draw conclusions about causal relationships between federal disaster recovery programs and overall recovery outcomes. Of the studies that were available, GAO grouped the findings into two categories: (1) socioeconomic outcomes and (2) community resilience outcomes. Our review of socioeconomic studies suggested that outcomes of disaster assistance for individual programs may be uneven across communities. This review also suggested that federal programs may enhance community resilience and prevent flood-related fatalities for vulnerable residents. Limited research exists on the relationship between participation in select federal recovery programs and individual, community, and program characteristics. However, GAO found that some studies and stakeholder perspectives provided insight into the relationships between socioeconomic, demographic, community, and programmatic characteristics and participation. For example, a study of counties in one state found greater levels of flood mitigation in communities with larger tax revenues and larger budgets for emergency management. In addition, officials representing states said larger cities can hire a third party to manage disaster recovery, but small towns and rural areas may lack resources to contract for disaster recovery services. Similarly, an official representing tribal nations told GAO that not all tribal nations have sufficient funding to develop emergency management departments, which can be a barrier to accessing federal resources. Further, representatives from voluntary organizations told GAO that conditions of socioeconomic vulnerability—such as lower-income households or homelessness—may present barriers to participating in federal recovery programs. Some of the six federal recovery programs in this report have taken some actions that could help officials identify and address potential access barriers and disparate outcomes. However, programs lack key information—data and analysis—that would allow them to examine patterns and indicators of potential access barriers and disparate recovery outcomes. Moreover, the programs have not taken action to determine (1) the universe of data needed to support this kind of analysis; and (2) sources and methods to obtain those data when the programs do not already collect them, including overcoming key challenges. These programs also lacked routine, interagency processes to address such barriers within or across recovery programs on an ongoing basis. Systematic efforts to collect and analyze data, and routine, interagency processes to address any identified access barriers or disparate outcomes, would help ensure equal opportunity to participate in disaster recovery in a meaningful way. Such actions would be consistent with the National Disaster Recovery Framework and recent governmentwide equity initiatives. Why GAO Did This Study Disasters affect numerous American communities and cause billions of dollars of damage. Many factors affect individual and community recovery. Recently, federal actions have focused on equitable administration of federal recovery assistance. Members of Congress asked GAO to report on the impact of federal disaster recovery programs on various societal groups. This report addresses (1) research findings on recovery outcomes related to select federal programs, (2) research findings and recovery stakeholder perspectives on participation in select federal recovery programs, and (3) the extent to which federal disaster recovery agencies have taken actions to identify and address potential access barriers and disparate outcomes. GAO conducted a literature review to summarize key research findings and interviewed state, tribal, and nonprofit recovery stakeholders to gain their perspectives. GAO analyzed program documentation and interviewed federal program officials from the six federal programs selected because of their historically large obligations for disaster recovery.

    [Read More…]

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