Weekly News Roundup: Grassley Releases Steele Letter, Top DOJ Official from Iowa to Step Down

Also: Iowa Senate scales back mid-year budget reductions, fetal heartbeat bill advances, Associated Press reporters fight for better health benefits

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US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, left, swears in Rachel Brand as an associate attorney general in May 2017. Photo: Matthew T. Nichols for the Department of Justice via Wikimedia Commons

The Informer’s weekly news roundup, presented in partnership with KHOI community radio.

Grassley Releases Declassified Steele Criminal Referral

On Tuesday, Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham released a declassified letter regarding Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled the controversial dossier on alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The senators, who are both members of the Judiciary Committee, initially wrote the letter and sent it to the Justice Department in January. It questions whether Steele made false claims to the FBI and whether the bureau’s application for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to wiretap former Trump aide Carter Page was based on inadequate evidence. Page was brought to the Trump team by former Morningside College professor Sam Clovis, whose slapdash vetting failed to recognize that Page had caught the attention of the FBI in 2013 when Russian spies attempted to recruit him. The FBI began to surveil Page shortly after he was named as a Trump foreign policy adviser.

Top-Ranking Justice Department Official from Iowa to Step Down

The No. 3 official at the Justice Department and a graduate of Pella Christian High School, Rachel Brand is planning to step down from the federal law enforcement agency after nine months, according to a report Friday in the New York Times. Brand has received considerable attention in recent months because of the potential that she could assume a leading role in overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election on behalf of the Trump campaign. President Trump has repeatedly criticized Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the official currently overseeing the investigation, leading many to believe that he may be fired. Instead of taking over for Rosenstein should that happen, Brand instead plans to join Walmart as the company’s top legal adviser.

Iowa Senate Scales Back Mid-Year Budget Cuts

A mid-year budget-reduction bill passed Thursday on a party-line vote in the Iowa Senate would cut spending from the state’s general fund by about $32 million for the current fiscal year ending June 30. The bill is intended to cover a $34.5 million state funding shortfall and includes significant budget cuts to public universities, the court system, and the Department of Human Services. Senate Democrats continued to oppose the cuts, although they were about $18 million less than what Republicans had initially proposed. The bill will now be taken up in the House, where GOP lawmakers have proposed roughly $34 million in budget cuts.

Fetal Heartbeat Bill Advances to Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee

A bill sponsored by Iowa Republicans that would ban all abortions except for cases of medical emergencies after a heartbeat is detectable in a fetus advanced from a state Senate subcommittee by a 2-1 vote on Thursday. The proposal will now be taken up by the full Judiciary Committee. If it became law, it would allow doctors who perform non-emergency abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected to be charged with a Class D felony punishable by up to five years in prison. But the law would likely be unconstitutional and almost certainly face legal challenges because of the precedent set in the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade that a woman has a right to an abortion up until the point her fetus is viable outside the womb.

Associated Press Reporters Negotiate for Better Health Benefits

The News Media Guild is negotiating with the Associated Press over the company’s recent decision to hike employee health insurance premiums. The guild claims that the health insurance costs would eclipse the salary increases that the AP has planned for its employees, including reporters, in effect negating their raises. On Thursday, AP Iowa Statehouse reporter Barbara Rodriguez voiced her support for the guild’s efforts in a tweet:

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.