LOCAL, STATE, NATIONAL, GLOBAL

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Steve Bannon 'Build the Wall' fraud trial set to begin

MANHATTAN (CN) — Steve Bannon’s cohort in the We Build the Wall fundraising fraud appeared before a jury Tuesday morning for the start of his federal trial.

The We Build the Wall campaign to crowdfund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border was spearheaded by Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage and Steve Bannon, the erstwhile chief White House strategist to former President Donald Trump. Along with two associates, Kolfage and Bannon were indicted in August 2020 on charges that they siphoned donors’ money from the organization for their personal use.

Twenty months later, just Timothy Shea of Castle Rock, Colorado, stood Tuesday morning in a courtroom on the 15th floor of the Southern District of New York to begin trial.

Bannon, the highest-profile figure in the scheme, escaped liability in the case when then-President Trump issued him a pardon on his last day in office, while Kolfage and co-defendant Andrew Badolato both pleaded guilty last month.

Shea is charged in a superseding indictment with three criminal counts: conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and falsification of records.

Prosecutors allege Shea operated a shell company, the intentionally "vague-sounding" Ranch Property Marketing and Management, to draft fake invoices and payment requests to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars in We Build the Wall donation funds to himself and his partners in the scheme.

With Bannon calling their outfit a "volunteer organization," We Build the Wall raised some $25 million in private donations but built just 3 miles of fencing along the border. According to their indictment, Bannon and Kolfage alone used more than $1 million in We Build the Wall donations to pay for a boat, a 2018 Land Rover Range Rover, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery and other assets.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Moe recounted for jurors on Tuesday how the creators of We Build the Wall made public assurances to donors that 100 percent of donated funds would go to the building of a wall at the Southern border, and "not a penny" would go to Kolfage as the president of their non-profit company.

In reality, "Timothy Shea and his partners were working behind the scenes to steal money for themselves. It was a coordinated scheme to steal money from the organization and pay kickbacks," the prosecutor said in her 16-minute opening argument. "They were committing fraud, plain and simple."

By 2019, Moe noted, Shea had gotten a tip that complaints from donors led authorities to begin investigating We Build the Wall. She said that’s when he drafted inflated invoices and signed backdated documents.

Shea’s defense attorney John Meringolo urged jurors to set aside their personal feelings and politics about erecting a border fence and look at the evidence he said will disprove the government’s shell-company theory.

We Build the Wall did build two walls along the Southern border, Meringolo said in his 24-minute opening argument.

"The Army Corps of Engineers said it couldn’t be done or if it was going to get done it was going to cost $41 million and take two years. … Tim’s part of this team that builds the wall, whether you like it or not, they built this wall for $6 million," he said. "So maybe we should hire them to do our roads in New York.

"I submit to you if it’s not a shell company, they’re not proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and that’s not guilty," argued Meringolo, who has previously represented organized crime figures John "Junior" Gotti and reputed Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino.

Timothy Shea, the only the co-defendant who is going to trial on a criminal indictment for involvement in the We Build The Wall donation scheme, owns an energy drink company called Winning Energy whose cans bear a cartoon superhero image of Donald Trump and was marketed to the MAGA crowd as containing "ultra-hydra- ting liberal tears."

Shea owns an energy drink company called Winning Energy whose cans bear a cartoon superhero image of Trump. The beverage was marketed to the former president’s conservative patriot base as containing "ultra-hydrating liberal tears."

Prosecutors contend that Shea misappropriated funds from We Build the Wall to operate Winning Energy.

Meringolo briefly donned a Winning Energy trucker hat in the courtroom during his opening argument on May 24 to demonstrate that the energy drink was a real company, complete with canned beverages and apparel and "clearly not a shell company."

In an April filing, Meringolo said he "intends to call Mr. Bannon as a witness" for Shea’s defense.

Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an anti-immigration hardliner not named in the indictment but described as We Build the Wall’s general counsel on its website, is also expected to testify in the trial.

The trial is being presided over by Obama-appointed U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres.

Revelations of the Clotilda

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Team members place a piece of timber from the Clotilda shipwreck in a bin filled with river water during a May 2022 study by the Alabama Historical Commission. Photo by Daniel Fiore/Alabama Historical Commission via Courthouse News

Exploration of sunken slave ship reveals charred timbers, artifacts

By JOHN BRACKIN, Contributing Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) — The last ship to bring slaves to the United States from Africa in 1860 was set ablaze near the mouth of the Mobile River following the illegal voyage, and a recent archaeological assessment of the sunken vessel revealed the charred timber and other parts that remain.

"We have just concluded the 10-day project to assess Clotilda. As you’ve heard, we did it on time, and we’ve made some interesting discoveries. With those discoveries have come additional ques- tions," James Delgado, maritime archaeologist with SEARCH Inc., said at a Thursday night meeting in Mobile, Ala. "As the next few

The Alabama Historical Commis- sion conducted a 10-day marine assessment of the Clotilda, a sun- ken ship that illegally transported slaves to America in 1860 and was scuttled in the Mobile River.

months unfold, given the number of scientists, the number of laboratories that we’re working with, answers will also come."

Beginning last May 2, the Alabama Historical Commission, or AHC, conducted a scientific exploration of the infamous vessel, in partnership with SEARCH Inc., Diving with a Purpose, Resolve Marine, and others. Working from a large, red barge anchored near the wreckage, a series of scuba divers explored the site, retrieving timber and other artifacts from the muddy water.

According to Delgado, the project included a conservation analysis that required careful treatment of the retrieved pieces, including the disarticulated timbers that were found scattered outside the ship.

"As every timber came out, the way we worked this was basically a military style using the triage system,” he said. “What we would do is we would lay everything down on the deck of the barge directly adjacent to a large bin that was filled with river water. We didn’t want to take that timber out and then shock it basically and upset the equilibrium that might have preserved it by putting it into a different type of water. So, river water to river water, and we didn’t keep them out that long.”

Before the scientific assessment could even begin, however, Delgado said the team had to remove the trees that had accumulated along the wreckage.

"Major focus at first was to gain access to Clotilda, for the first time being able to go into a variety of areas, but also to relieve the stress from the number of trees that have come down the river over the years and lodged against it or in it," said Delgado.

The story of the Clotilda dates back to the eve of the American Civil War, when the importation of slaves had already been banned approximately five decades before. An Alabama plantation owner named Timothy Meaher masterminded the affair, in which 110 slaves were brought back across the Atlantic Ocean from the African country now known as Benin. Having completed the trip, the perpetrators burned and scuttled the Clotilda somewhere in the swampy waters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta to hide the evidence of their crime.

For years afterwards, the ship’s exact whereabouts remained something of a maritime mystery until its wooden remains were positively identified in May of 2019, after a local journalist named Ben Raines had located the ship a year before. According to Delgado, the latest exploration revealed several significant pieces that further confirmed the identity of the ship and provided more clues into the ship’s destruction.

"We did find more diagnostic artifacts that, of course, spoke more to the fact that, yes, this is Clotilda. We found more material, more wood now that was very definitely burned," he said.

Divers also recovered a lead pipe, which was preliminarily identified as being a hawse pipe used for raising and lowering the anchor, as well as a cast iron pulley that was most likely a piece of the ship’s steering mechanism.

The success of the project was due in part to the river conditions over the prior two weeks, which Delgado said were the best the team had ever experienced while working at the site.

"The river was basically flat. The cur- rent was negligible," he said. "Sediment movement was practically nothing."

Project manager Aaron Jozsef with Resolve Marine concurred, saying, "From a weather standpoint, we were totally blessed." In addition to the notoriety attached to the ship itself, the story of Clotilda is also significant because of the survivors. Following the Civil War, more than 30 of the slaves that had been transported aboard the

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An artifact retrieved from the site of the Clotilda shipwreck sits aboard the Resolve Marine barge. Photo by Daniel Fiore/Alabama Historical Commis- sion via Courthouse News

ship, and survived their subsequent years of captivity, united to form a community called Africatown. That community, which is located just north of downtown Mobile, still exists today, though it has been largely industrialized and its population has decreased greatly from its high point in the 1960s.

For the remaining residents, many of whom are directly descended from the survivors of the Clotilda, the discovery of the sunken schooner has provided hope that the area can be revitalized. A new museum is currently under construction, and a new welcome center is also being developed using restoration funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The ultimate fate of the Clotilda is yet to be determined, but there are those who believe that the ship should be raised in its entirety and displayed in a world-class museum in Africatown. Raines, whose new book "The Last Slave Ship" details the journalist’s discovery of the ship and the complex history of Africatown,contends that the vessel is too important to leave submerged.

"This is a globally important archaeological artifact," Raines said in a recent phone interview. "This is the most intact slave ship ever found. It is the only slave ship ever found involved in the American trade, and it is the best documented ship in terms of what we know about the people who did it, the White enslavers, and the African American people who were captured and on the ship."

According to Raines, a museum in Africatown large enough to house the Clotilda would be the best way to preserve not only the story of the Clotilda but also the African diaspora.

"Ultimately, the Clotilda is sort of the origin story for the African diaspora, and I mean globally, not just in Alabama or America, but all people whose ancestors arrived in the hold of a ship," he said. "It’s wholly unlike anything else in the historical record for any enslaved people. That’s why the Clotilda is so important. Not just because it was the last slave ship, but because it is the best documented."

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In this undated image released by SEARCH Inc. in May 2019, archaeological survey teams seek the the location of the slave ship Clotilda, in delta waters north of Mobile Bay, Ala. Remains of the schooner were identified and verified near Mobile after months of assessment. Photo by Daniel Fiore/SEARCH, Inc.

According to Darron Patterson, the president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, the most important thing for the descendants is that their legacy be preserved.

"The main agenda should be Africatown," he said. "We’re trying to make sure that as we go forward that every- body understands that the main thing is the survival of that community and heritage honoring those 110 souls."

He said they would specifically like to see additional support from the city of Mobile.

"The biggest thing for us is getting the city onboard," he said. "Montgomery and cities like Montgomery have embraced their slave history and because of that, the entire community can prosper. We’d like to see the city of Mobile take the same tack, aggressively undertake what is going to be a major tourist boom here when Africa- town becomes what it will become in about two or three years."

In the meantime, four of the artifacts retained from the recent archaeological exploration will be preserved by the project’s conservation partner, Terra Mare Conservation. Those items include the possible steering apparatus, the lead pipe, a muddy plank and a section of the hull.

"Terra Mare has been working with AHC on those to develop a conservation plan to get them preserved so that they can be out of the water and available and visible and to be displayed in a museum setting," Delgado said. "Those four artifacts really help tell the story if you will, not only in terms of the scientific assessment, and how to conserve them and what would happen if more of Clotilda was to come up, but they speak to the human side of the story."

Speaking at the community meeting on Thursday, conservator Claudia Chemello cautioned that the conserva- tion would not be a short process, however, as the items present a variety of different challenges.

"It takes a long time," she said. "The steering part that was shown on the slide, it has at least three or four different materials together on one artifact. That is the most challenging conservation problem."

The rest of the items that were retrieved from the water during the project were returned to the wreck for onsite conservation. According to the AHC, the data that was collected during the project will be analyzed and event- ually put into a report, which will enable the AHC to develop a management plan for the wrecked vessel.

"As the guardian of the Clotilda, the Alabama Historical Commission takes the stewardship of this priceless artifact extremely serious," Lisa Jones, state historic preservation officer and executive director of the AHC, said in a statement. "The preservation of the Clotilda is important to Africatown and the nation. Careful consideration for the protection, preservation, and interpretation of the Clotilda has been methodical, strategic and deliberate."

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A consortium of California state government made the return of Bruce's Beach to the legal owners possible led by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Steven Bradford and Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn. Courtesy Governor's office

Judge denies petition to block County’s efforts to return property to rightful heirs

LOS ANGELES (MNS)Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff denied a petition filed by a Palos Verde Estates resident seeking to block the return of the property, which was unjustly taken from property owners Charles and Willa Bruce.

The Bruces operated a beach resort catering to Black residents before it was  condemned by Manhattan Beach city officials in the 1920s.

The judge agreed with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the California State Legislature that there is ample evidence that the city’s takeover of the property in the 1920s was racially motivated.

The County’s plan to return the property to the Bruces’ rightful heirs is a proper remedy for past racial discrimination, the judge found.

 

Judge Beckloff held that “redressing past acts of discrimination as well as preventing such acts in the future benefits the whole of the community and its general welfare.  The public purpose served by [the County’s efforts under California Senate Bill 796] is direct and substantial.”

This important action “works to strengthen government integrity, represents governmental accountability, and works to eliminate structural racism and bias . . . [and] fosters trust and respect in government.” Beckloff wrote in his ruling.

“Los Angeles County is doing the right thing in returning this property to the Bruces’ legal heirs, and this court ruling clearly affirms that,” said Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell, Chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “I’d like to thank the Court for recognizing that we are on the right side of history and striking down this attempt to slow the arc of justice in this case.”

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who initiated the County’s efforts to return the property with her motion co-authored by Supervisor Mitchell in April 2021, said: “When we return this property to the Bruce family, we will be making history and righting a century-old injustice. I was not surprised when a lawsuit was filed to try to stop us, but I am also not surprised that the judge ruled in our favor. Returning this property is both right and lawful.”

In his ruling, Judge Beckloff denied a petition filed by a Palos Verdes Estates resident attempting to block the County’s transfer of the property under provisions of California Senate Bill 796. The bill, signed into law by Governor Newsom in 2021, eliminated the statutory restrictions previously placed on Bruce's Beach that had prohibited the County from transferring the land back to the legal heirs of Charles and Willa Bruce.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors was represented in this matter by attorneys Byron J. McLain, Anum Amin, and Kristina M. Fernandez Mabrie from Foley & Lardner LLP.

To access the ruling click here.

Background: In the early 1900s, the Bruces operated a successful seaside resort that welcomed Black beachgoers from all over Los Angeles. In 1924, the Manhattan Beach Board of Trustees voted to condemn Bruce’s Beach and the surrounding land through eminent domain under the ostensible purpose of building a park, but it is well documented that this move was a racially motivated attempt to drive out the successful Black business and its patrons.  The land was condemned in 1929, the Bruces' resort was demolished, and the Bruces left Manhattan Beach.

In 1948, the City of Manhattan Beach transferred the beachfront part of the condemned land, including the former location of the Bruces' resort, to the State of California.  This land remained State property until 1995, when the State transferred it to the County as part of a larger transfer of eight State beaches to the County. When the land was originally transferred from the State to the County, it included statutory conditions that restrict use and ownership of the land.

Senator Steven Bradford introduced Senate Bill 796, “Returning Bruce’s Beach to its Rightful Owners,” to eliminate the statutory restrictions previously placed on Bruce's Beach that prohibited the County from transferring the land back to the legal heirs of Charles and Willa Bruce. On September 30, 2021, that bill was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom.

On April 20, 2021, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to take the first steps toward returning Bruce’s Beach by instructing the L.A. County CEO’s Office to develop a plan to return the property and by sponsoring Senate Bill 796 to lift state restrictions on the return of the land.

On October 5, 2021, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted for the L.A. County CEO Office’s Anti-Racism, Diversity, and Inclusion (ARDI) Initiative to follow these steps to return Bruce’s Beach to the rightful owners.

For more information about the property, please visit the Bruce’s Beach website.

Metropolis News Service.

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Seismologist Lucy Jones of the Center for Science and Society, said the expected short-term increase of 1-3 feet in sea level would only be an issue near the beach. NOAA Video screen shot

Tsunami No Cause for Panic

Sea rise of 1-3 feet an issue 'near beach' only

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Southland beaches were under a tsunami warning today after an underwater volcano erupted in the South Pacific.


People were advised to move off the beach and out of the harbors and marinas, avoid the coastline and not

to go to the coast to watch the tsunami. All beaches in Orange County and many beaches and piers in Los Angeles County were closed, but no evacuation orders were in place.


The warning was in effect for Alaska, Hawaii and the entire West Coast.
 

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano, near Tonga, erupted late Friday. A tsunami hit Tonga's largest island, Tongatapu, according to CNN, which reported that waves were flooding the capital.


Waves capable of producing strong currents hazardous to swimmers, boats, and coastal structures arrived starting at Southland beaches at 7:50 a.m. Wave heights of 1 to 2 feet were expected.


"Seeing some surges on the Port San Luis tsunami gauge. Reporting up to a 24 cm residual so far. That's

9.4 inches or about 19 inches from the bottom and top of the residual," the National Weather Service's Los Angeles office tweeted at 8:08 a.m. The NWS said at 7:05 a.m. that there were "no significant concerns about inundation."


The agency reported at 10:14 that "tsunami surging has been reported at all coastal locations," including

1 feet in Los Angeles. The Santa Monica Fire Department said the tsunami was not expected to cause major damage to beaches or to the Santa Monica Pier.


Seismologist Lucy Jones, founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, said the expected short-term increase of 1-3 feet in sea level would only be an issue near the beach.


"Tsunamis are not one wave. It's more like sloshing and that sloshing can continue for a day. Just because

the first wave has passed, it is not time to go see the beach," Jones tweeted, adding that "much tsunami damage happens in ports because of the currents. Moving water has huge momentum."