ontario news watch

WASHINGTON (AP) — A cyberattack caused a nearly daylong outage of the nation’s new 988 mental health helpline late last year, federal officials told The Associated Press Friday. Lawmakers are now calling for the federal agency that oversees the program to prevent future attacks.

“On December 1, the voice calling functionality of the 988 Lifeline was rendered unavailable as a result of a cybersecurity incident,” Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said in an email.

The attack occurred on the network for Intrado, the company that provides telecommunications services for the helpline. The agency did not disclose details about who it believes launched the attack or what kind of cyberattack occurred. Intrado is working with a third-party assessor to investigate the incident and law enforcement agencies have been notified of the breach, SAMHSA said.

The national 988 phone number, which can be reached by text, chat or voice calling, has become a lifeline for millions of Americans seeking help during a mental crisis, with millions of calls pouring in during the first six months since its launch in July. The system is designed to work similarly to 911 — it’s a universal, easy-to-remember number that people can call in an emergency to reach a human who is working around the clock in a local call center.

Those who tried on Dec. 1 to reach the line for help with suicidal or depressive thoughts were instead greeted with a message that said the line is “experiencing a service outage.” Text and chat services, however, remained available to those who needed help.

The Federal Communications Commission said in December it was investigating the outage. Intrado said at the time that the company was “experiencing an incident that is impacting production across numerous systems” and is “working diligently to restore service.” Intrado could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

Last week, Democrat Rep. Tony Cárdenas and Republican Rep. Jay Obernolte, both of California, introduced a bill calling for better coordination and reporting around cyberattacks on the 988 system.

“Even a few hours’ outage of the national suicide hotline can cost American lives,” Obernolte said in a press release introducing the bill. “It’s critical that we mitigate the risks of future disruptions to the service and take steps to resolve cybersecurity vulnerabilities that could put the hotline at risk.”

Amanda Seitz, The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — As the Manhattan district attorney’s office ramps up its yearslong investigation of Donald Trump, a new book by a former prosecutor details just how close the former president came to getting indicted — and laments friction with the new D.A. that put that plan on ice.

Mark Pomerantz, who oversaw the investigation until early last year, writes in “People vs. Donald Trump: An Inside Account” that then-District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. authorized him in December 2021 to seek Trump’s indictment.

After scouring Trump’s life and business, Pomerantz writes that prosecutors agreed on a case involving allegations that Trump falsified records by inflating the value of assets on financial statements he provided lenders.

Vance was leaving office within weeks, but expressed confidence that his successor, Alvin Bragg, would agree with his assessment, Pomerantz writes.

But Bragg and his team, after taking control of the investigation in January of 2021, had other ideas — expressing trepidation about the strength of evidence and the credibility of a key witness.

They decided not to proceed — at least not with the speed Pomerantz and co-lead prosecutor Carey Dunne had wanted. The stagnation compelled both men to leave the office.

“Once again, Donald Trump had managed to dance between the raindrops of accountability,” Pomerantz writes in the book, which is set to be published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster.

The Associated Press and other news outlets received copies of the book Friday.

Trump has threatened legal action against Pomerantz and Simon & Schuster for what he contends are “defamatory statements” and “groundless falsehoods” about his alleged criminal conduct.

Messages seeking comment were left Friday for Trump’s lawyers.

Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and said the New York investigations are attempts by Democrats to keep him out of the White House.

The 304-page volume weaves Pomerantz’s behind-the-scenes account of the spirited battle over whether to charge Trump with anecdotes from his decades-long career as a mafia prosecutor and white-collar litigator.

The book also works to temper the drama surrounding Pomerantz’s split from Bragg, which spilled into the public last year when his resignation letter appeared in The New York Times.

Pomerantz portrays the dispute not as a brawl, but as a legitimate difference of opinion shaped by lengthy Zoom calls and telephone conversations. During the sessions, Pomerantz writes that he and Dunne would detail the pros and cons of pursuing a Trump indictment, while Bragg or members of his team pushed back with questions and concerns.

At first, Pomerantz writes, Bragg seemed overwhelmed by other matters — managing the massive D.A.’s office and dealing with blowback from his approach to prosecuting certain crimes. He writes that Bragg showed up late to an initial meeting where he laid out the case and that Bragg ended up looking at his phone most of the time. The D.A. was more attentive at subsequent sessions, Pomerantz said.

At one point, he writes, Bragg said that he “could not see a world” in which he would indict Trump and call Trump’s long-estranged former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen as a witness.

Cohen, who claims to have intimate knowledge of Trump’s financial dealings, was convicted in a parallel federal case of lying to Congress.

Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, said in a statement Friday: “We were treated respectfully and professionally by Mr. Mark Pomerantz and his team. We appreciated their integrity and hard work. Despite the denied allegations concerning Mr. Cohen’s credibility, I can confirm that Mr. Cohen will continue to cooperate with DA Bragg and his team, speaking truth to power — as he has always done.”

Aside from a few blunt emails he wrote criticizing Bragg’s deliberateness, Pomerantz said his rift with the D.A. was civil.

“There was never any yelling or screaming,” he writes of their final conversation in February 2022. He defended Bragg against people suggesting he had an ulterior motive not to indict, saying that they “had no clue about how these prosecutorial decisions are made or were bloodthirsty for some action against Trump,” Pomerantz writes.

Bragg’s office sought last month to delay the book’s publication, saying in a letter to Pomerantz and Simon & Schuster that it could “materially prejudice” the investigation. Pomerantz said nothing in the book jeopardizes the probe. Simon & Schuster said it will release the book as scheduled.

In a statement Friday, Bragg said he hasn’t read the book, and “won’t comment on any ongoing investigation because of the harm it could cause to the case.” He defended his decision to refrain from charging Trump.

“After closely reviewing all the evidence from Mr. Pomerantz’s investigation, I came to the same conclusion as several senior prosecutors involved in the case, and also those I brought on: more work was needed. Put another way, Mr. Pomerantz’s plane wasn’t ready for takeoff,” Bragg said. “Our skilled and professional legal team continues to follow the facts of this case wherever they may lead, without fear or favor. Mr. Pomerantz decided to quit a year ago and sign a book deal.”

The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York also expressed concerns, writing in a statement Friday that it was “unfortunate and unprecedented” for a former prosecutor to speak out during an ongoing investigation.

Pomerantz joined the D.A.’s office in 2021 as a special assistant district attorney to lead the Trump probe. He writes that early in his involvement they weighed charging Trump and his company under the state’s version of the federal racketeering law, given the array of tax, fraud and other potential crimes they were investigating.

Pomerantz likened Trump’s cunning, charisma and ability to “stay one step ahead of the law” to that of late Gambino crime family boss John Gotti, whose son, John A. Gotti, he prosecuted while an assistant U.S. attorney.

When he arrived at the D.A.’s office, Pomerantz writes, the investigation was so broad “it seemed unfocused and sprawling.”

In 2021, Pomerantz’s team charged Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, and its longtime finance chief, Allen Weisselberg, with evading taxes on fringe benefits given to company executives. Weisselberg pleaded guilty and is serving a five-month jail sentence. The Trump Organization was convicted in December and fined $1.6 million.

Under Bragg’s direction, the district attorney’s office recently returned to a part of the investigation that had long-ago stalled: payments made to two women on Trump’s behalf in 2016 to keep them quiet about alleged affairs.

Pomerantz portrays the hush-money payments — made or arranged by Cohen — as perhaps the most challenging, legally fraught of the potential cases against Trump.

He writes that while a case could be made that Trump falsified business records by logging Cohen’s reimbursement for one of the payoffs as legal fees, he could only be charged with a misdemeanor under New York law — unless prosecutors could prove he falsified records to conceal another crime.

Vance abandoned the hush-money angle in 2019, pivoting the investigation’s focus to other matters, but Pomerantz said he revisited it when he joined the office in January 2021, looking for a way to make more serious felony charges stick. He considered whether Trump could be charged with money laundering and explored if one of the women who got money, Stormy Daniels, had demanded payment to remain quiet, thereby extorting him.

Pomerantz said the hush-money matter became known around the office as the “zombie” case.

Still, Pomerantz wrote, “Over the months that I and others worked on the case, we developed evidence convincing us that Donald Trump had committed serious crimes,” Pomerantz writes.

Even if a conviction wasn’t a certainty, Pomerantz said he thought they owed it the public to bring the case to trial.

“Losing it would be better than not even trying,” he wrote.


Follow Michael Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak and send confidential tips by visiting https://www.ap.org/tips/

Michael R. Sisak, The Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A detainee’s body was found dead about 18 hours after five men attacked him in a South Carolina jail where the sheriff said many cell doors don’t lock — the latest troubling incident in a detention center described as a “death trap” by the lawyer for a different man found dead last year with fresh rat bites on his body.

Five other detainees have been charged with the murder after officers found Antonius Randolph dead in a pool of blood on the afternoon of Jan. 27. The 29-year-old accused serial rapist’s death at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center comes after several federal lawsuits, a troubling audit and a hiring scandal that have left the interim director promising what the Post and Courier reported as “a series of sweeping changes.”

The incident has added to mounting concerns over the conditions at the jail in South Carolina’s capital city.

The most recent South Carolina Department of Corrections audit found over a dozen violations of state standards at the embattled facility. According to the annual report for 2022, the jail is beset by overcrowded housing units, inadequate staffing and lagging pest control. The audit revealed that some detainees were kept in fire-damaged cells, while another handicapped person was housed in a cell noncompliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Some cells reportedly had malfunctioning locks in need of repair.

Indeed, an investigation into Randolph’s death also found that many cell doors do not lock, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said at a Friday news conference. Richland County Coroner Naida Rutherford told reporters that Randolph would not have recovered had he been found earlier. Neither official would share details surrounding what Lott called a “very brutal” attack by five other detainees.

“It’s an outrageous example of the failure of the jail administrators to protect individuals within their care,” Burnette Shutt & McDaniel attorney Stuart Andrews said of the latest death. Andrews represents Disability Rights South Carolina in a federal lawsuit filed in April that alleged detainees with disabilities were held in unsafe and unsanitary cells for up to 24 hours a day.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department said the investigation is ongoing and more charges are expected. The county expressed “heartfelt condolences” to Randolph’s family in a Jan. 27 statement. The Associated Press reached out to the Richland County communications director with questions about local officials’ response. The AP did not hear back after being directed to a statement released earlier today but not posted online.

Three people have now died in the correctional facility’s custody over the past 12 months.

A separate federal lawsuit filed this past summer alleged deliberate indifference in the death of Lason Butler. Officials found the 27-year-old man dead on Feb. 12, 2022, with fresh rat bites and no running water, according to the lawsuit. The Richland County coroner ruled the death a homicide and noted a “lack of action” by the jail staff.

Butler lost more than 40 pounds (18 kilograms) over a two-week period spent in a room where he frequently lay naked and was placed on suicide watch despite officials’ knowledge that the unit was unfit to serve people with mental health issues, according to the lawsuit. Police had arrested Butler last January for reckless driving, failure to stop for blue lights and a suspended license.

In the wake of Randolph’s death, Butler’s lawyers called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center. In a Friday press release, attorney Bakari Sellers called the facility a “death trap.”

Attorneys with the Columbia-based Strom Law Firm also referenced a series of January TikTok videos reported by the Post and Courier that claim to show unsanitary conditions like clogged toilets and undercooked food inside the center.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control gave the jail a “C” food grade in January after an inspection revealed meat cooked to poor temperatures, food stored on the floor and dishes kept outside. A Feb. 1 follow-up inspection resulted in an “A” rating.

The jail has been without a permanent leader since its director, Tyrell Cato, was fired in September after The State reported he had lost his previous job over accusations of sexual harassment.


James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

James Pollard, The Associated Press

EDMONTON — Alberta’s high court is being asked to overturn a review board decision relating to the stabbing deaths of five young people at a Calgary house party on the grounds the former provincial justice minister interfered. 

The lawyer for Matthew de Grood, in a filing to Alberta’s Court of Appeal, says her client was denied a fair Alberta Review Board hearing last fall, and argues former minister Doug Schweitzer’s statements and actions played a role.

“The justice minister’s comments and his direct recruitment of certain individuals to the Review Board has created an apprehension of bias that affected the fairness of his 2022 annual review,” lawyer Jacqueline Petrie argued in a document filed Thursday.

“The Review Board, and more directly the chair of his hearing, did not treat (de Grood) in an impartial and procedurally fair manner.

“The disposition the board made was not reflective of the actual risk he poses but rather is the result of political interference and public pressure not to discharge him or grant him the privileges he seeks.”

Schweitzer and Alberta Justice did not immediately return requests for comment.

De Grood, 31, was found not criminally responsible in 2016 for the killings two years earlier of Zackariah Rathwell, Jordan Segura, Kaitlin Perras, Josh Hunter and Lawrence Hong because he was suffering from schizophrenia at the time.

Since then, he has been under supervision and his case is reviewed by the Alberta Review Board yearly to determine his mental state and whether he can transition further back into the community while not jeopardizing public safety.

Schweitzer, who has since retired from politics, weighed in on de Grood’s case in his role as justice minister in October 2019 after the panel granted de Grood freedom to transition from institutional care to a supervised Edmonton group home setting along with unsupervised passes to the surrounding area.

Schweitzer at the time took to Twitter to say he has heard from Albertans “frustrated and disturbed” over the decision and said he would lobby the federal government to review the release rules while pursuing options to ensure the board processes “respect victims.”

Soon after, the chair of the review board resigned and, said Petrie, in the months that followed Schweitzer appointed new panel members that “were politically aligned with the provincial government,” which she said raise reasonable doubts on whether the board could be considered fair and impartial on de Grood’s case.

A year after the 2019 decision, the review board, with its new chair and members, reversed the freedoms granted de Grood. That decision was later overturned by the Court of Appeal on the grounds it was unreasonable and not supported by the evidence.

Last fall, the review board declared him a serious threat to public safety and said he must be kept under constant supervision in an Edmonton group home.

Petrie argues evidence at the latest hearing showed de Grood was stable under medication, has family support and is a low-risk to reoffend. She said the board failed to assess the evidence properly or apply the proper legal tests in making its decision.

De Grood’s 2016 trial heard evidence he attacked the individuals at a party, held to mark the end of the school year, believing the devil was talking to him and a war was about to begin that signalled the end of the world.

He told officers he knew what he did was “atrocious” but he was killing Medusas and werewolves.

The Crown deadline for responding is Feb. 28. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden and his Cabinet will embark on a post-State of the Union “blitz” to at least 20 states next week to discuss his economic agenda after his Tuesday night address to Congress, the White House announced Friday.

Biden is expected to devote much of his second State of the Union address to highlighting his efforts over the past two years to create jobs, fight inflation and improve the nation’s infrastructure as he gears up for an expected run for reelection. After the speech, the president, vice president, and members of the Cabinet will hold over 30 events in two days to drive the message home to the American people in their communities.

“During the State of the Union, President Biden will outline how the past two years has seen historic job growth, falling inflation, higher wages, and record investments coming back to America,” the White House said. “The economic travel blitz showcases how the president’s vision is creating jobs, rebuilding our infrastructure, lowering costs for families, tackling climate change, investing in our future and delivering for families too often left behind.”

On Wednesday, Biden will visit Wisconsin to discuss job creation, while Vice President Kamala Harris will visit Atlanta to promote the administration’s clean energy initiatives. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will visit a Tennessee battery manufacturing facility, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be in North Carolina to discuss grants for climate-smart production practices, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will tour an Omaha, Nebraska, high school and discuss lowering higher education costs with students.

On Thursday, the president will travel to Tampa, Florida, to talk about his efforts to lower prescription drug costs and protect Social Security and Medicare. Harris will highlight electric vehicle investments in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will visit Carson City, Nevada, to announce an investment in battery manufacturing and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will celebrate the award of a $150 million grant to replace a highway bridge in Lake Charles, Indiana.

Other Cabinet-level visits will focus on Veterans Affairs programs in Texas, economic opportunity for Black Americans in Oklahoma, plans to plug orphan wells in Pennsylvania and efforts by farmers and ranchers in Kansas to address climate change.

With Republicans now in control of the House, the Biden administration’s focus is shifting from legislating to implementing the massive infrastructure and climate bills passed in the last Congress — and to trying to make sure Americans credit the president for the improvements.

The travel follows Biden’s stops this week in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia focused on rail and water infrastructure projects funded by the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Chinese balloon drifting high above the U.S. and first revealed over Montana has created a buzz down below among residents who initially wondered what it was — and now wonder what its arrival means amid a chorus of alarm raised by the region’s elected officials.

The balloon roiled diplomatic tensions as it continued to move over the central U.S. on Friday at 60,000 feet (18,288 meters). Secretary of State Anthony Blinken abruptly canceled an upcoming trip to China.

Curiosity about the bobbling sky orb swept the internet, with search terms like “where is the sky balloon now?” and “spy balloon tracker” surging on Google. On Facebook, wobbly videos of blue skies and the white splotch filled speculative feeds as communities tried to track its path over the U.S.

In Montana — home to Malmstrom Air Force base and dozens of nuclear missile silos — people doubted Beijing’s claim that it was a weather balloon gone off course. And the governor and members of Congress pressed the Biden administration over why the military did not immediately bring it down from the sky.

“I question whether or not we would even found out about this if people hadn’t spotted it in Billings,” said Chase Doak, a resident of the southern Montana city who appears to have captured some of the first known video footage and photographs of the balloon.

“It needs to be removed from the sky somehow,” Doak added. “And if China is now taking responsibility, they need to answer for why it’s here in our airspace.”

A white balloon with what appeared to be a solar array hanging beneath it was seen over Billings Wednesday afternoon, around the same time the local airport was temporarily shut down and a day before the Pentagon revealed it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon over the state.

Initial speculation over its origins ranged from the foreign to the extra-terrestrial.

Todd Hewett of Billings said his 10-year-old son Matt saw the balloon and thought it was a comet he had been looking for. Hewett got some shaky footage, using a cellphone to take video through a telescope, and came away skeptical of the Chinese claim that it was a civilian weather balloon. He wanted the federal government to take action.

“Shoot it down,” he said. “If we could somehow pierce the bottom of it to allow some of the gas to escape to allow for a more controlled descent (that) would be nice .. but if we can’t do that … blow it up.”

Montana has some experience with balloons launched by adversaries: Japan in World War II targeted the western U.S. with incendiary “balloon bombs” that were floated over North America with plans to harm people and start forest fires. More than 30 of the bombs made of rice paper landed in Montana, according to the Montana Historical Society.

In Oregon, five children and a pregnant woman on a church picnic were killed in 1945 when they found one of the bombs and it exploded.

On Friday in Kansas City, Missouri, the National Weather Service said it received reports of a large balloon in the Kansas City metro area and posted two images of white orbs taken from the weather station office in Pleasant Hill, Missouri. The service confirmed it was not a National Weather Service balloon.

The Live Storm Chasers Facebook page included several posts from people who reported seeing a white orb that could be the balloon over Missouri at midday Friday.

Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke put out a poll to his constituents early Friday saying the balloon was still over the state and asking if should be shot down. When the Pentagon said the balloon had since drifted over the central U.S., Zinke remained unappeased and raised the possibility that China had more than one balloon over the U.S., during an interview with The Associated Press.

“I don’t know if that’s the only balloon. We’ve asked for those answers,” he said.

The former U.S. Navy SEAL said the balloon should have been shot down. “The message that it gives to our allies is, we’re not capable of dealing with a balloon,” he said.

Republicans in Montana have grown increasingly outspoken in recent years about China posing a threat to U.S. national security. A bill pending before the state Legislature would ban “foreign adversaries” from owning, leasing or renting critical infrastructure or farmland.

The bill did not name any countries but its sponsor, Republican state Sen. Ken Bogner of Miles City, singled out China as being interested in acquiring lands and resources in the U.S. to “help them with spying efforts.”

Bogner said Friday that the balloon over Billings was “yet another example” of China’s attempts to operate within the U.S.

That anti-China sentiment marks a shift from a just a few years ago, when Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines visited China, hosted the Chinese ambassador on a visit to a Montana ranch and helped secure a deal to export more beef to China.

The beef deal later fell through, and Daines has since emerged as a strong critic of China.

“This is not the first time a Chinese balloon has entered American airspace over sensitive national security areas,” Daines said in a Friday statement to the AP. “I don’t think anyone believes this was merely a civilian aircraft.”

Matthew Brown And Amy Beth Hanson, The Associated Press

OTTAWA — Canada has announced it is imposing a new round of sanctions on Russian media personalities and companies accused of spreading disinformation about Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly announced the latest sanctions against 38 individuals and 16 entities, saying those affected are propagating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lies.

Among those added to Canada’s blacklist are several Russian singers, including former contestants on the popular Eurovision singing contest, as well as actors and athletes.

The list also includes one of Russia’s largest state-owned media groups, MIA Rossiya Segodnya, which owns and operates a large number of Russian-language companies. 

Many of the new additions had already been sanctioned by Canada’s allies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago. 

The new measures come amid questions about the effectiveness of Canada’s sanctions regime.

The Canadian Press reported this week that as of June 7, Canada had ordered $123 million in assets within Canada frozen, and $289 million in transactions had been blocked under sanctions prohibitions related to Russia.

But by late December, the RCMP said only $122 million in assets were listed as seized, and $292 million in transactions had been blocked despite hundreds more people associated with Russia being put on the sanctions list.

The police force did not provide an explanation for why the sums reported by financial institutions had hardly changed during that period.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2023.

The Canadian Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Dominion Energy’s ongoing push for yet another year of legislative tinkering with the way its rates are regulated took a surprise turn this week, when a Virginia House committee whittled down a company-backed bill ratepayer advocates have fiercely opposed.

The vote Thursday afternoon came after Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration and the House speaker’s office got involved behind the scenes and then the administration weighed in publicly for the first time on the dispute, which has simmered since before this year’s legislative session officially kicked off.

Del. Terry Kilgore, the sponsor of the House version of the legislation, put forward a new, stripped-down substitute on Thursday, which no longer included a provision that would have increased Dominion’s return on equity, a measure of profitability.

“It’s a simple bill — a lot simpler than it started,” said Kilgore, a longtime ally of Dominion, the parent company of the state’s largest electric utility and Virginia’s largest corporate donor.

Kilgore told the House Commerce and Energy Committee his bill would increase the frequency of Dominion’s rate cases before the State Corporation Commission, moving them from every three years to every two, and would give the commission additional discretion to adjust rates as they see fit.

Kilgore’s bill, like a companion Senate version, initially contained provisions that effectively would have bumped up the return on equity, which is set by the SCC. Dominion has said the change it was seeking was reasonable and would help keep the company competitive as it seeks to raise money for the billions worth of renewable energy projects it has committed to building.

But that proposal drew a backlash from ratepayer advocates and others, who said the legislation was just the latest example of the company trying to use the legislature to meddle with the job of regulators.

The way rates are set for the utility, Dominion Energy Virginia, as well as the authority regulators have to adjust them is a perennial issue at the General Assembly. In recent years, the company has pushed through legislation that minimized the chances that it would have to lower its rates. That’s despite regulators having routinely found that the utility’s rates provide excessive profit.

“We have monopolies in Virginia. The role of monopoly regulators is to make sure that power prices are fair. And when the monopoly utility gets to dictate its own profit margins, that takes away the regulators’ power to ensure that customers are treated fairly,” Will Cleveland, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in an interview earlier this week.

The law center is among a coalition of environmental groups, big businesses and ratemaking reform groups have been opposing the legislation. A council of the AFL-CIO has joined Dominion in backing the bill.

Also gone from Kilgore’s latest bill is a provision that involved rolling $300 million worth of charges in what are called rate adjustment clauses, or riders, into base rates. The company had pitched doing so as a way to lower customers’ monthly bills.

Travis Voyles, Youngkin’s acting secretary for natural and historic resources, said Kilgore’s amended measure and two separate rate-related measures intended to shore up the State Corporation Commission’s authority that advanced Thursday were priorities for the governor.

Altogether, the bills “present straightforward, foundational and commonsense ways to move the conversation on energy forward and target processes to improve predictability, accountability and the restoration of the SCC’s independent authority. An appropriate balance is needed,” Voyles said.

A representative of Attorney General Jason Miyares, whose office represents the interests of consumers in SCC proceedings, also backed Kilgore’s amended bill.

A Dominion lobbyist, Katharine Bond, said of the amended Kilgore bill that the company was “supportive of it moving through this process” and urged its passage.

“We continue to support comprehensive legislation that provides immediate relief for our customers, stronger SCC authority and a simpler regulatory process. We appreciate the process moving forward and will continue working with all the stakeholders,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said Friday.

Longtime observers of energy policy said the moment marked a stark departure for a committee where Dominion-backed measures typically sail through.

“From what Dominion asked for at the beginning to what it appears they’re going to get, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a move like that, certainly not in my time in energy policy or in the General Assembly,” said Greg Habeeb, a former Republican House member and now a lobbyist whose firm represents a variety of clients who opposed the legislation as it was introduced.

The focus now turns to the Democrat-controlled Senate, where that chamber’s version cleared a committee last week after about 15 minutes of discussion but has been stalling on the floor for several days rather than being advanced to a final vote. That could now could happen early next week.

Another powerful Dominion ally, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, is carrying his chamber’s version.

Saslaw’s bill has been through some amendments but is closer to the versions he and Kilgore introduced than the current House bill.

His version also would also allow the company to issue bonds to spread out upcoming fuel cost increases — which the company says are attributable largely to the war in Ukraine — over a 10-year period, adding interest but averting customers from bearing the spike all at once.

“The goal is to have more affordable rates while enabling investments that are needed to be made to the electric grid with the new sources of power that they’re currently working on,” Saslaw said of his version as a whole earlier this week in a committee hearing.

Dominion has long been a powerhouse at the state Capitol, where it currently employs or retains more than two dozen lobbyists.

In the month of January before the session began, the company donated over $300,000 to lawmakers, leadership caucuses and political action committees, according to records maintained by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

“We contribute equally to candidates from both parties in support of public policy that promotes affordable, reliable and clean energy,” Ruby said.

Sarah Rankin, The Associated Press

EDMONTON — The Alberta government says it will require post-secondary institutions to report annually on their efforts to protect free speech on campus. 

A news release from the Department of Advanced Education does not detail exactly what must be included in these reports, or say what the consequences would be if the requirements are not met. 

Minister Demetrios Nicolaides signalled changes were coming earlier this week after the University of Lethbridge reversed its decision to host a speech by a former Mount Royal University professor whose comments on residential schools have drawn fierce criticism. 

Frances Widdowson was fired from Mount Royal in late 2021 after she spoke of the educational benefits of residential schools while questioning whether abuses at the institutions amounted to cultural genocide. 

Widdowson’s campus speech this week was to centre on concerns that a mob mentality and “woke policies” increasingly threaten academic freedom.

The Alberta government says the latest move builds on its earlier work in 2019, when it required all 26 publicly funded post-secondary institutions in Alberta to either endorse the Chicago Principles on free expression, or develop a policy consistent with them. 

“It is abundantly clear that more needs to be done to ensure our institutions are adequately protecting free speech,” Nicolaides said in a written statement Friday.  

Alberta’s post-secondary institutions should be bastions of free speech and academic freedom that promote critical thinking. I will continue to explore greater steps we can take to strengthen free speech on campus.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2023. 

The Canadian Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union governments tentatively agreed Friday to set a $100-per-barrel price cap on sales of Russian diesel to coincide with an EU embargo on the fuel — steps aimed at ending the bloc’s energy dependence on Russia and limiting the money Moscow makes to fund its war in Ukraine.

Diplomats representing the 27 EU governments set the cap on Russian diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline ahead of a ban taking effect Sunday. It aims to reduce Russia’s income while keeping its diesel flowing to non-Western countries to avoid a global shortage that would send prices and inflation higher.

The information was provided by diplomats from 3 different EU member nations ahead of a formal announcement by the Group of Seven major industrialized nations. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the official announcement would come later.

The $100-per-barrel cap applies to Russian diesel and other fuels that sell for more than the crude oil used to make them. Officials agreed on a $45-per-barrel limit on Russian oil products that sell for less than the price of crude.

The deal follows a similar G-7 agreement to limit the price of Russian crude oil to $60 a barrel. All the price ceilings are enforced by a requirement for the world’s largely Western-based shippers and insurers to abide by sanctions and handle oil products only priced at or above the limits.

Russia has said it will not sell to countries obeying the oil cap, but because its oil is selling for less than $60 per barrel, it has kept flowing to the global market. The price caps encourage non-Western customers that have not banned Russian oil to press for discounts, while outright evasion — though possible — carries additional costs such as organizing off-the-books tankers.

The ambassadors of the 27 EU nations put forward the decision, and national governments have until early Saturday to react with a written objection. No changes to the deal were expected.

Europe has been steadily reducing its diesel supplies from Russia from around half of all imports. Diesel is key for the economy because it is used to power cars, trucks carrying goods, farm equipment and factory machinery. Prices have spiked since Russia invaded Ukraine on rebounding demand and limited refinery capacity in some places.

If the price cap works as intended and Russian diesel keeps flowing, fuel prices should not skyrocket, analysts say. Europe could get alternate supplies of diesel from the U.S., India and the Middle East, while Russia could seek new customers outside Europe.

However, the impact of the cap will be unpredictable as shippers reroute flows of the fuel to new destinations, and longer sea journeys could strain tanker capacity.

Fossil fuel sales are a key pillar of Russia’s budget, but European governments previously hesitated to cut off their purchases because the economy was heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, oil and diesel. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, that has changed.

Europe cut off Russian coal and later banned its crude oil on Dec. 5. Meanwhile, Moscow has halted most supplies of natural gas to Europe, citing technical issues and a refusal by customers to pay in Russian currency. European officials say it is retaliation for sanctions and an attempt to undermine their support for Ukraine.


McHugh reported from Frankfurt, Germany.

Raf Casert And David Mchugh, The Associated Press