Sign up for our COVID-19 newsletter to stay up-to-date on the latest coronavirus news throughout New York By Justin Elliott, ProPublicaIt was one of the uglier scandals of the Bush administration: Top officials at an agency dedicated to protecting whistleblowers launched a campaign against their own employees based on suspected sexual orientation, according to an inspector general report.Staffers were abruptly reassigned from Washington, D.C., to a new office 500 miles away in Detroit in what the head of the office reportedly described as an effort to “ship [them] out.” Staffers who refused were fired.Crude anti-gay emails were found in the agency chief’s account.Now one of the major players in the scandal has a new assignment: He works in the Trump administration.In December, James Renne was appointed to the Trump “landing team” at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as part of the transition effort between the election and the inauguration. He was then hired Jan. 30 in a senior role at the Department of Agriculture, though his exact job duties are not clear.Renne was part of the wave of early political appointees on so-called “beachhead teams,” whose role is to lay the groundwork for the new administration’s policies. (We published details on hundreds of beachhead hires, obtained through public records requests.)In the Bush administration, Renne was hired in 2004 as deputy special counsel of the Office of Special Counsel, the small federal agency that is supposed to protect employees across the government from retaliation for whistleblowing. The tenures of Renne and his boss, Special Counsel Scott Bloch, were almost immediately mired in controversy after career employees said they were improperly fired. Language stating that job discrimination protections extend to sexual orientation also disappeared from the agency website.A little-noticed inspector general report, released in 2013, depicts Renne as a central player in the efforts. Bloch and Renne, it found, hatched the plan to abruptly open a new “Midwest Field Office” in Detroit and reassign career staff there. Employees who declined to move lost their jobs.The report found that the employees were targeted for no legitimate reason, pointing to “facts which reflect that Mr. Bloch and Mr. Renne may have been motivated in their actions by a negative personal attitude toward homosexuality and individuals whose orientation is homosexual.”One evening shortly after he was hired in 2004, Renne took the lead in removing the language from the agency’s website about how job protections cover sexual orientation, the report says.From the report: “Mr. Renne was depicted as intently searching the OSC website with the assistance of a senior career official to identify passages which interpreted [the nondiscrimination law] as extending protection to employees on the basis of their sexual orientation. According to this account, Mr. Renne demanded that OSC’s information technology manager remove these materials from the website immediately.”That change was later the subject of congressional hearings.Renne did not respond to requests for comment. The Department of Agriculture, which hired him, declined to comment.The scandal at the Office of Special Counsel dragged on for years, spawning congressional and criminal investigations.In a formal complaint filed at the time, the employees who were reassigned to Detroit pointed to a “Concerned Catholic Attorneys” letter Renne had signed in 2000 that is a broadside against a range of gay rights efforts. It warns that the “homosexual lobby’s power has grown exponentially.”The inspector general report found that Renne played a central role in the plan to open a Detroit office, noting that “the reorganization was formulated by Mr. Bloch and Mr. Renne very early in their tenure.” An outside consultant they hired to help with the plan told investigators that “it appeared that Mr. Bloch may have been heavily influenced by Mr. Renne.”That consultant, retired Lt. Gen. Richard Trefry, told investigators:Mr. Bloch indicated to General Trefry that there was a sizeable group of homosexuals employed by OSC, which had developed during the years prior to his taking office, that he “had a license” to get rid of homosexual employees, and that he intended to “ship them out.”The report continues:Further, in the portions of Mr. Bloch’s official e-mail account that were available to the investigative team, there were crude and vulgar messages containing anti-homosexual themes that appeared to have been forwarded from his personal email. … Similarly, Mr. Bloch’s public media references to [his predecessor as Special Counsel, Elaine] Kaplan contained repeated, negatively-phrased assertions regarding her sexual orientation. For example, in interviews he granted during 2007, Mr. Bloch described her as a “lesbian activist,” a “public lesbian,” a “well-known gay activist”, and similar depictions.Now in private practice, Bloch told ProPublica the report is “filled with untruth, outright falsehoods, and innuendo.” When the report was released, Bloch denied that he ever talked about targeting gay employees.The inspector general report says it was based on interviews with more than 60 people and examination of over 100,000 emails.The affected employees ultimately came to a settlement with the government. The terms were not released.During the investigation into his tenure, Bloch’s home and office were raided by the FBI and he ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge arising from his hiring the company Geeks on Call to do a “seven-level wipe” on his government computers. Years later, Bloch later unsuccessfully sued the government over his firing.There’s little public record of what Renne has been doing since his time working with Bloch. The Trump landing team announcement identified him as working for Renne Law. A fellow member of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence landing team said that Renne had worked at the ODNI inspector general office. And Bloch said he also heard that Renne had gotten a job in the intelligence community after their work together. An ODNI spokesman declined to comment.ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.
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25 November 2015The Department of Basic Education has received a donation of R117-million – to be made over a period of 10 years – from the Motsepe Foundation towards sporting and cultural competitions.Of this, R55-million will be allocated over the first five years to the Kay Motsepe Schools Football Cup, the ABC Motsepe Schools Choral and Traditional Eisteddfod, and the Kay Motsepe Schools Netball Cup. The announcement was made on 24 November in Johannesburg.In the subsequent five years, from 2021 to 2025, the Motsepe Foundation will contribute another R62.5-million.The foundation is committed to supporting and developing innovative solutions, leadership activities, internships and development programmes and other initiatives that will enhance education, sustain and provide opportunities for the benefit of the current and emerging generation of leaders, according to the organisation.The department and the foundation are in discussions to identify prizes for the winners of the various categories of the choral and traditional eisteddfod, as well as the netball cup.The football cup has been running for the past 10 years and is believed to have the largest prize money in a schools competition in the world. The winning school receives R1-million from total annual prize money of R3.4-million. Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga. (Image: South African Government News Agency)There were 25 000 public and private schools in South Africa, said Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, and each school, from rural and urban areas, would be invited to participate in all three competitions.“Sporting and cultural activities in education help advance social cohesion and are an integral part of a holistic education system,” she said at the announcement. “As the Department of Basic Education, we are extremely grateful to the Motsepe Foundation for this generous contribution, which we believe will go a long way in advancing the development of our learners within the system.”These educational programmes would help to enhance the national identity of learners and promote the country’s diverse cultural understanding. Co-founder and deputy chairperson of the Motsepe Foundation, Precious Moloi-Motsepe.(Image: The Motsepe Foundation)Sport and music made an important contribution to the growth and development of youth; they also helped young people to become good role models, said Precious Moloi-Motsepe, the co-founder and deputy chairperson of the Motsepe Foundation.“My father-in-law, ABC Motsepe, loved choral and traditional music and before he started his businesses, the school where he was the headmaster participated in choral and traditional music competitions. I am also excited that we will be sponsoring netball, which is very popular among our girls,” she said.The South African Football Association (Safa) has also supported the Motsepe Foundation and the department in promoting football in schools.Source: South African Government News Agency
Trina Roache APTN InvestigatesAfter years of conflict over the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador, an Inuk leader is finally at the table negotiating an agreement with the crown corporation in charge of it.Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, said a deal is in the works with Nalcor Energy that will see future benefits for the Southern Inuit.“Protests will have to end sometime. And at the end of the day, most of these end with negotiations, or they end with agreements,” said Russell. “If we’re really going to have reconciliation, it is around the table.”The benefits agreement Russell is negotiating with Nalcor could provide employment, business opportunities, and partnerships in future renewable energy initiatives in Labrador.Russell couldn’t attach a dollar figure just yet but said more information would be coming soon.With the hydro project at Muskrat Falls 85 per cent complete, Russell said he had hoped consultation would have taken place before now.But he’s optimistic about the direction of talks now.“There’s either been no relationship or a very failed relationship,” said Russell. “And I just see this as an opportunity.”Russell said his community development agreement looks way beyond Muskrat Falls.“It’s important. I’m not diminishing the significance of it or what it symbolizes,” said Russell. “Yet not every relationship or not every act of reconciliation can be seen through that prism. There’s more to our lives than Muskrat Falls.”But Muskrat Falls will be making headlines for a long time to come.On Monday, the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador announced a public inquiry into the hydroelectric project.The inquiry will look at how the costs of the megaproject doubled to $12.7 billion over the last several years.The cost of electricity for people in the province could double by 2022.But for many Inuit in Labrador, the costs go beyond a dollar amount.The dam casts a huge shadow on people downstream.“Muskrat Falls threatens our very existence as Inuit,” said Amy Norman, in a media release about a 15-stop tour organized by environmental and social justice groups, like the Sierra Club of Canada.Norman, an Inuk woman from Labrador, will speak about Muskrat Falls at the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts on Thanksgiving Day, an event organized by the United American Indians of New England.“It is poisoning our food webs, and contaminating the country foods we depend on, both physically and spiritually. It is forcing us to cut ties with the land,” said Norman. “To continue this project knowing the damage it will cause is cultural genocide.”Roberta Frampton Benefiel, a Labrador land protector and director of the Grand Riverkeeper Labrador Inc., is the main speaker on the tour called ‘MegaDams; MegaDamage.’She started in Halifax on Wednesday evening and is trekking through Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and New England.“Noise needs to be made everywhere this power has a potential market,” Benefiel told the two dozen people who came out to hear her talk about Muskrat Falls.“Green and clean?” Benefiel shakes her head. “These megaprojects are devastating the north.”The more immediate goal of the tour is to build a network of activists ready to rally against the project.But Benefiel ultimately wants the project stopped.The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has said that with costs of Muskrat Falls sitting at $12 billion, it’s too expensive to pull the plug now.“At the very least,” said Benefiel, “if we can get more education about these hydro projects and the impacts, that’s success.”Back in Labrador, Russell is focused on building a new relationship with Nalcor Energy.“One that is more meaningful and more significant,” said Russell. “And that can avoid some of the mistakes of the past, where we have been shut out, there’s been no consultation or inadequate consultation.”In an emailed statement to APTN, Nalcor Energy wrote, “Our ongoing dialogue with the leaders of NCC have been positive and productive. At this time, a formal agreement has not yet been finalized.“We look forward to continued dialogue with community and Indigenous leaders as we work together to build stronger relationships in Labrador.”In 2010, the province and Nalcor Energy signed an Impact Benefits Agreement with the Innu, who have a land claim in the area of the dam.But the two Inuit groups were left out.As concerns over Muskrat Falls mounted, Russell was a key figure in the ongoing actions against the project.He was arrested during a protest in 2013. He fought a previous injunction at Muskrat Falls in court and had it thrown out.At a community meeting livestreamed last year, he famously tore up the current injunction.At the peak of the rallies at Muskrat Falls in October 2016, Russell was part of the marathon meeting with the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador that ended in a deal to address environmental and cultural impacts of the dam downstream.“The agreement that was reached is maybe a small glimmer of hope that the attitudes of government is changing,” said Russell.“Am I disappointed that the some of the very specific undertakings that were part of the agreement have not been honored? Absolutely I am. But having said that I also believe that the spirit of intent of what we agreed to is still alive.”The deal promised that though initial flooding of the reservoir would occur before the winter of 2016, the water would be released come spring before the waters warmed up.The goal was to avoid creation of methylmercury.The toxin is naturally created when trees and topsoil are flooded.Concerns that methylmercury produced at Muskrat Falls will contaminate the traditional foods for Innu and Inuit downstream was at the heart of the ongoing protests.But news came this summer that the water levels could not be fully released. And the Independent Expert Advisory Committee to study and help mitigate the impacts of methylmercury is underway now but was late starting.“It’s happening with the project three quarters of the way done and so there are certain inherent limitations and challenges,” said Russell.Other critics of the Muskrat Falls project are less understanding.“Nalcor came out and said, guess what? We were wrong. We can’t lower the water. In fact, we’re actually going to raise it a little bit higher this winter and we’re never going to lower it again,” said Denise Cole, an Inuk land protector in Labrador.“So it put a lot of egg on the face of people – Indigenous governments, provincial and federal governments – that were supposed to all be having this wonderful relationship. That was the script every time we asked a question.”Cole wants the project paused until Indigenous concerns are addressed.“As long as there’s a colonial government that’s hell-bent on exploiting and destroying land, water, and lives in indigenous communities,” said Cole, “then we will always have to continue to fight for this.”For Cole, reconciliation and Muskrat Falls is like oil and water.“I keep saying you cannot have truth and reconciliation in a land of lies and oppression,” she said. “There has to be a deep consultation that happens with the Indigenous and downstream communities that are impacted by the Muskrat Falls project.“And then, only then, if they achieve the free, prior, and informed consent should this project be allowed to proceed.”The fight is far from over.Muskrat Falls is only the first phase of the Lower Churchill hydro project.A second, much larger dam, is planned at Gull Island, a traditional gathering place for the Innu.The environmental approvals are in place for Gull Island, but there’s no timeframe for when work might begin.Russell said it’s important to be at the table because it’s clear Nalcor Energy isn’t going anywhere.And neither are the Inuit.“Is it a risk bringing in the room? Of course, there is a risk being in the room cause people will accuse you of saying, well, my gracious. You were on the protest line one day and now you’re in talking to the enemy the next day,” said Russell. “I don’t see it in that way.“And reconciliation will happen through conversations,” said Russell. “Through negotiations, through agreements, through actions.”