LONDON (AP) — Former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium not once but twice, a British judge was told Tuesday, as an inquiry opened into the slaying one lawyer called an act of nuclear terrorism ordered by Moscow.
Ben Emmerson, attorney for Litvinenko's widow, said the KGB spy turned Kremlin critic was the victim of an "assassination by agents of the Russian state."
He said the 2006 killing "was an act of nuclear terrorism on the streets of a major city which put the lives of numerous other members of the public at risk."
Litvinenko, who had become a Britain-based critic of the Kremlin, fell violently ill on Nov. 1, 2006 after drinking tea with two Russian men at a London hotel. He died three weeks later, aged 43, of "acute radiation syndrome."
Litvinenko's extraordinary killing — and his deathbed statement that he was poisoned on orders from President Vladimir Putin — soured Russian-British relations for years. Judge Robert Owen, who is overseeing the inquiry, said the issues raised by the death "are of the utmost gravity."
No one has ever stood trial for Litvinenko's killing. Britain and the dead man's family have accused Russia of involvement. Moscow denies the claim, and has refused to extradite the two men identified by Britain as the prime suspects.
Robin Tam, the inquiry's legal counsel, said in an opening statement that the inquiry was not a trial whose job was to determine guilt — but that it would try to follow the evidence wherever it led.
Outlining key evidence, Tam said that detectives had found "a large number of positive traces" of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 in London locations visited by Litvinenko and the two suspects: Dmitry Kovtun and former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi. Ingesting a tiny amount is enough to kill.
Tam said the inquiry would hear evidence that Litvinenko "was poisoned with polonium not once, but twice" and the poisoning "met with at least some success" on both occasions. Litvinenko complained of feeling ill a couple of weeks before he was hospitalized, after an earlier meeting with Kovtun and Lugovoi.
The inquiry would also hear from a witness who says Kovtun asked him if he knew a London cook who could put a "very expensive poison" in Litvinenko's food, Tam said.
Kovtun and Lugovoi have strongly denied involvement in Litvinenko's death. The judge said they have been invited to give evidence to the inquiry by video link from Russia.
Litvinenko's widow, Marina, has said she hopes the inquiry will reveal the long-buried truth about her husband's death.
The investigation first stalled because Russia refused to hand over the suspects, then because British authorities would not disclose secret intelligence evidence. Under the terms of the inquiry, that evidence will be heard, but in secret.
Public hearings at London's Royal Courts of Justice are due to last until April, and Owen said he hoped to publish his findings by the end of the year.
Owen has already said that he has seen secret British government material that "established a prima facie case that the Russian state was responsible" for Litvinenko's death.
Tam said the inquiry would look at Litvinenko's role in Russia's first Chechen war and his later sympathy for the Chechen cause, and would hear evidence that the ex-spy converted to Islam on his deathbed.
He said the inquiry would look at Litvinenko's relationships with the late Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and with slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and his increasingly vocal criticism of the Kremlin.
Tam said the judge would need to ask himself whether such actions would have made Moscow authorities regard him "as an irritant, or worse."
He said the inquiry also would consider whether British security agencies, Berezovsky, underworld figures or Chechens could have been responsible — or even whether Litvinenko's death was an accident or suicide.
Emmerson said these theories were "absurd." He said Litvinenko was killed after exposing links between the Kremlin and organized crime that showed Putin to be "a common criminal dressed up as a head of state."
Emmerson said that when all the evidence had been heard, "Mr. Litvinenko's dying declaration will be borne out as true."
"The trail of polonium traces leads not just from London to Moscow but directly to the door of Vladimir Putin's office," he said.
BUCHANAN, Liberia (AP) — The auburn-red soil and lush green vegetation lured the foreign investors to Liberia's third-largest city with visions of environmental gold.
They formed a company, Buchanan Renewables, and set anchor, crafting a plan to convert swaths of rubber trees into biomass chips that would power the impoverished nation and fuel their own profits.
The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a little known U.S. government agency 4,700 miles away, backed the venture with $217 million in loan approvals from 2008 to 2011.
Two years later, Buchanan shuttered its Liberian operations and dismissed 600 workers. It never built a promised power plant, so instead of powering a country in need, it shipped its biomass chips to Europe.
It repaid the U.S. government loans. It paid its non-African employees handsomely. But it left behind fields of depleted rubber farms and a trail of allegations of sexual abuse and workplace hazards.
From the start, an Associated Press examination found, OPIC's support for the power project in this western African country was marked by questionable due diligence and deep political links. Even for ostensibly philanthropic projects meant to aid the world's poorest, profit and corporate opportunities can intersect with family and business ties among Washington's political elite.
In Liberia, Buchanan's CEO was James Steele, a larger than life former U.S. military figure and onetime Texas business partner of OPIC's then-president and CEO, Robert Mosbacher Jr.
Mosbacher's father was commerce secretary under President George H.W. Bush. Steele drew acclaim, and attracted controversy, over his role in U.S. military exploits from Iran-Contra to Iraq, where he performed work for President George W. Bush's defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Even before the Liberian project, Mosbacher had tapped Steele as a consultant to help OPIC develop power projects in hard-pressed countries. Over 22 months from 2006 to 2008, the agency paid Steele $390,000 for consulting and an additional $114,556 in travel, the AP found. Then it approved three loans to support Buchanan's vision in Liberia.
The venture collapsed amid tension between the company and Liberian government, questions from the U.S. Embassy and the withdrawal by a vital financier. As tensions escalated, troubling stories emerged: charcoal producers having to trade sex for wood that was promised as part of the undertaking; Buchanan's machinery cracking open an ancestor's grave on one family farm; the company leaving piles of woodchips that attracted stinging ants and fouled local waters.
Some women said they became pregnant after trading sex for sticks with Buchanan staff members in Liberia. "If we didn't have sex with the employees they wouldn't give you sticks," Sarah Monopoloh, chairwoman of a local charcoal sellers union, told the AP. She said she miscarried. "I nearly died in the process," Monopoloh said.
Tree planter Aderlyn Barnard was knocked unconscious, breaking a leg and wrist and dislocating an arm, when the company's clearing machine felled her with a tree. "I am one of the victims," she said. "Right now I am disabled."
To Mosbacher, who abstained from the OPIC's loan approval, the project was an opportunity lost.
"This was absolutely for the best of intentions and that's why it was literally the biggest disappointment I had from all my time at OPIC," said Mosbacher, the agency head from 2005 to 2009. "What seemed to be a home run, a win-win, just didn't work out the way any of us had hoped."
Backing the project at every stage was a U.S. agency that approves more than $3 billion a year in global financing but whose profile is so low it regularly cancels annual public hearings because no one signs up to speak.
In all, OPIC handed out $77 million of the $217 million approved in Liberia.
The last loan came under the current president and CEO, Elizabeth Littlefield. As the longtime head of the global Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, she once bought a fleet of scooters so executives could quickly zoom down the hallways in their office in Washington, D.C.
When OPIC approved the final loan, worth $90 million, in 2011, the agency did not conduct an onsite environmental and social check for a project in a country haunted by a decade-long civil war and history of abuses against women, the AP found.
"There was just an utter failure of the due diligence process that OPIC is supposed to follow," said Natalie Bridgeman Fields, executive director of the Accountability Counsel, a San Francisco legal organization representing laborers in Liberia. "There are a lot of deep issues of that society that would require a high level of due diligence."
OPIC's own Office of Accountability questioned the agency's review process.
Buchanan's senior management had no prior experience in the rubber sector or in operating a commercial venture in Liberia, the accountability office said. The agency approved the loans despite incomplete background reviews involving key figures at OPIC and Buchanan, it found.
Littlefield called the report "unprecedented" and said OPIC was making reforms.
"OPIC is pleased to see that the report did not uncover any failure by OPIC to apply the policies and procedures that were in place at the time," she wrote.
For the men and women lured by Buchanan's promises, the project's collapse left a painful legacy.
"The workers are still grieving today," said Alfred Brownell, executive director of Green Advocates International, a legal advocacy group in Monrovia, the Liberian capital. "The only thing Liberia got was the massive cutting down of rubber trees."
BIG MANDATE, LOW PROFILE
The Liberian financing is one piece of an $18 billion portfolio for a U.S. agency that issues loans, loan guarantees and political risk insurance.
Its projects span the globe, including solar power plants in Chile, palm oil plantations in Honduras and hydropower generation facilities in Georgia.
OPIC operates from Washington with a staff of 230. President Barack Obama appointed Littlefield, a former World Bank official and steady Democratic donor, the agency's 10th CEO.
Launched in 1969 by President Richard Nixon, OPIC bills itself as the U.S. government's development finance institution.
Of $3 billion in financing it approved last budget year, a record $1.2 billion was committed for renewable energy. Self-sustaining, the agency has returned money to the U.S. coffers 37 straight years.
Despite its global mission, OPIC flies under the radar. Littlefield herself has called it the "best-kept secret in government." For an agency operating in 102 countries, it rarely undergoes deep scrutiny. Its Office of Accountability — created in 2005 — has issued reports on just five deals over a period when OPIC has approved more than 530 projects.
The office's previous director served through September to finish the Liberia report. The position has been vacant since.
OPIC's financings have sometimes been the subject of criminal fraud investigations, raising questions about the agency's loan review process.
Last September, a Texas businessman got 27 months in prison for defrauding OPIC and a private company of nearly $1.7 million in a project to produce toilet paper and napkins in Mexico, the Justice Department said. OPIC had guaranteed 97.5 percent of losses in the company's $10 million financing.
Earlier, four defendants got prison for defrauding OPIC from 2003 to 2005 in securing a $9.4 million loan to fund a milling and bakery project in Estonia.
The most noteworthy criminal case involves InnoVida Holdings Inc., a Miami Beach, Florida, company that won a $10 million OPIC loan to help build prefabricated housing for victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida who is considering running for president in 2016, served as a board member of InnoVida when the loan was approved in January 2010. Bush later left InnoVida and is not accused in the criminal case.
InnoVida's owner, Claudio Osorio, pleaded guilty in 2013 to wire fraud and money laundering. One charge involved the $10 million OPIC loan, which prosecutors said Osorio used to repay investors and for his own benefit. In a Miami courtroom, Osorio got 12½ years in prison.
His Haiti plan had been in development for months when the earthquake struck, prompting OPIC to accelerate the project. OPIC loaned $3.3 million before the fraud was unmasked, money it seeks to recover in bankruptcy proceedings.
OPIC spokesman Charles Stadtlander said the criminal cases were isolated incidences spread over a decade for an agency that consistently maintains a default rate below 1 percent.
"That's something private institutions would aspire to," he said, "and we are doing this in some of the most challenging environments across the world." He said OPIC plans to fill the accountability director position, a job that he said was created to respond to complaints.
While the Export-Import Bank has received congressional scrutiny in recent months, OPIC has been spared such attention.
"Most of the public has never even heard of OPIC, much less what it does," said Doug Norlen, a senior program manager with Friends of the Earth, a coalition of environmental groups, and among the few people who follow the agency. "Usually when I start to talk to people about OPIC they think I am talking about OPEC."
Norlen has seen OPIC sharpen its focus on protecting the environment. But he believes the agency still must improve transparency, noting that OPIC — while touting its overall successes — does not publicly disclose the outcomes of individual projects.
"There can be some very negative development impacts, displacement, human rights violations and environmental degradation," Norlen said. "We think they should disclose that."
OPIC posts brief descriptions of projects it approves but not regular updates on their status. Stadtlander said the agency is "trying to get better at reporting that out."
A STATE LUNCHEON, DAWN OF A PROJECT AND JIM STEELE
The Liberia project's origins spawned during a state luncheon in 2006, when then-CEO Mosbacher walked through a receiving line and met Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's president. She asked whether OPIC was open to doing business in Liberia.
"She said, 'Help us.' And the president was standing next to her," Mosbacher recalled. "And he said, 'Mosbacher, help her.'"
That was George W. Bush, who appointed Mosbacher as CEO.
Power was Liberia's priority. Mosbacher turned to his friend Steele, who that year had returned from Iraq, to pursue potential energy projects.
They had worked together in the family business of Mosbacher Sr., the Texas oilman and prominent Republican who died in 2010.
In 1995 the elder Mosbacher had plucked Steele from Enron, where he worked on gas pipelines and power plants overseas. Steele became president and CEO of Mosbacher Power Group, where Mosbacher Jr. was vice chairman. Three years later, Steele became president and chief executive of TM Power Ventures, a joint venture between TECO Power Services and Mosbacher Power Group, where Mosbacher Jr. was vice chair.
Earlier, Steele spent 24 years in the Army. He earned decorations including a Silver Star in Vietnam, when, after his troop encountered gunfire, he "crawled through the hail of hostile fire" to rescue an injured comrade.
His military exploits also have led to scrutiny. In the 1980s, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee called Steele to testify about the Iran-contra scandal.
In Iraq, the retired colonel served as special envoy for Rumsfeld and senior counselor to top diplomat Paul Bremer for Iraqi security forces.
Steele did not respond to AP interview requests through Mosbacher and a speaker's bureau that represented him.
At OPIC, Mosbacher said he retained Steele as a consultant to help the organization explore power projects in emerging markets. He said OPIC lacked the internal business development staffing to aggressively seek new undertakings, saying it is "staffed mostly to react to projects brought to it."
In all, OPIC paid nearly $505,000 from August 2006 to May 2008 for Steele's consulting and travel costs to Liberia, Central America, Central Asia, Pakistan and the Middle East. He stayed at the Hyatt Regency Dubai, Four Seasons hotels in Vancouver and Amman, Jordan and the Islamabad Serena Hotel, according to records obtained by AP under the Freedom of Information Act.
His global travels and accompanying bills were so extensive, Steele wrote to OPIC one Friday evening in October 2006. "Help!" he emailed. "My credit card bills are in the tens of thousands and no OPIC reimbursement as yet. Thanks, Jim"
The following Tuesday morning, an OPIC staffer alerted colleagues: "Please make it a point to pay his invoices right away. He is a contractor in the President's office."
In early 2008, Steele traveled to Monrovia as an OPIC consultant.
Ultimately, he made acquaintance with John McCall MacBain, a philanthropist whose Pamoja Capital investment arm became the lead foreign sponsor of the Liberian biomass venture.
Steele became CEO of Buchanan Renewables, and in each of the three loans from OPIC that followed, was one of the U.S. sponsors. MacBain did not respond to interview requests.
LOANS AND RED FLAGS
Mosbacher saw no issue between his stewardship of the agency and loans approved to a company employing his former business colleague. He said there was "complete disclosure" about Steele's role. OPIC's subsequent investigation disputed this.
"I didn't own any part of his business," Mosbacher said. "I didn't have any financial relationship with him whatever."
The accountability office said their close, past relationship raised potential reputational risks for the government agency. The report did not name the executive and the OPIC official it said "had been involved in various transactions and professional activities."
AP confirmed the report was referring to Steele and Mosbacher.
OPIC conducts diligence checks on the corporate officers to whom it gives money. It conducted these reviews on other executives with Buchanan Renewable Energy (BRE), the parent company. But the accountability office said OPIC was not provided this information involving Steele when it approved the project.
OPIC's board approved the biggest loan in September 2008, a $111.7 million financing to help Buchanan Renewables (Monrovia) Power Inc. build a rubber wood fired biomass electricity generation facility. The loan would bankroll 75 percent of the $148.9 million total cost.
Though Mosbacher supported funding the project, he did not vote on this loan, the agency said.
The government of Liberia never signed off on the power plant, and the money was not handed out. Still, the approval signaled OPIC's support for Buchanan's Liberian blueprint.
Also in 2008, OPIC approved a $15 million loan to help Buchanan Renewables Fuel Liberia Inc. produce wood chips from unproductive rubber trees. OPIC disbursed the money in March 2009, and Buchanan began harvesting rubber trees on the vast Firestone Plantation north of Monrovia.
The final $90 million loan allowed Buchanan Renewables Fuel to expand its biomass operation by contracting with local plantation and farm owners to remove aged rubber trees, and process them into wood chips. Plans called for Buchanan to plant new seedlings to rejuvenate farms.
By 2012, OPIC had handed out $62 million of the $90 million. The company was portraying itself as a good neighbor in Buchanan, a port city some 90 miles south of Monrovia. "Welcome to the City of Buchanan," one billboard announced. "The Home of Buchanan Renewables. Working Towards (sic) a Brighter Future."
The promises proved hollow.
The project's collapse was triggered by myriad factors converging in a country where large projects are challenging under any circumstances.
Buchanan's executives, new to commercial enterprises in Liberia, set overly ambitious projections, the watchdog report concluded. Its owner overpaid for key assets on the ground, straining pressure for production even as operating expenses were high, with Buchanan paying "generous benefit packages for expatriate employees."
Unable to build its power plant, the company ended up shipping biomass chips to Europe.
Other problems arose. Under its agreement, Buchanan was to share discarded pieces of Firestone rubber trees with charcoal producers from nearby Freeman Reserve.
"The workers took advantage of that," said Sarah Singh, an Accountability Counsel lawyer who visited Liberia. "They would call them your girlfriend. As long as you were their girlfriend they would set aside sticks for you so you could make a living."
Liberia had drawn shame for abuses against women during the country's civil war. One 1998 study said 49 percent of women interviewed reported "at least one act of physical or sexual violence by a soldier or fighter." A U.N. report said sexual violence was a characterizing feature of the civil war.
Tensions escalated between charcoal producers and industry.
Before Buchanan set up shop, area charcoalers sustained their trade by tapping discarded trees that Firestone no longer used from the company's mammoth plantation. With Buchanan clearing trees, Firestone prohibited farmers from producing charcoal on its land. The situation became so intense, Firestone hired an ex-rebel commander who patrolled the plantation with AK-47s, advocates said.
OPIC's accountability office explored this conflict. Buchanan Renewables Fuel "operators required charcoalers to pay for the roots and branches that BRF had previously agreed to give them at no cost, and a Firestone contractor posted 'no burning' signs and demanded $350 (Liberian dollars) as 'registration' for permission to burn," it said. "Female charcoalers who could not afford the payment for wood were offered the opportunity to pay with sexual favors."
Buchanan and Firestone managers told OPIC they did not sanction these practices.
Joseph and Charles Bryant, who ran a family farm, told advocates investigating the project's aftermath that Buchanan's machinery cracked open a grave on the family's farm. They blamed contaminated runoff from discarded wood chips for polluting a nearby creek, and said a 3-year-old child who drank water died. The AP was not able to verify the cause of the child's death.
Another worker suffered a snake bite after not getting proper footwear. The company dumped woodchips on area farms, attracting stinging ants and fouling the water supply when rains came.
Overall, former accountability director Keith Kozloff concluded that worker complaints "have varying degrees of credibility. Importantly, several allegations have a significant degree of credibility." Asked in an interview to cite his most important reform, Kozloff cited one suggesting enhanced due diligence involving human rights.
Mosbacher learned of the abuses reading the report. "I hope it's not true. If it is, it's extremely disappointing and unexpected," he said. "Jim Steele had a pretty darn impressive military record for years and is a high integrity guy, so if that was going on, I can't imagine he knew about it."
A PROJECT'S COLLAPSE
Workers weren't the only ones raising questions. By March 2012, the U.S. Embassy cabled OPIC questioning Buchanan's business model and citing "tense exchanges" between the company and President Sirleaf.
A month later, an OPIC policy compliance group conducted its sole visit to Liberia, but said it failed to find any problems related to worker rights or environment, health and safety.
Others saw problems. That May, Swedish financiers withdrew from the enterprise. In November 2012, a former Buchanan human resources official sent OPIC a letter citing labor problems.
By January 2013, Buchanan Renewables Fuel cancelled a remaining commitment of $28 million it could have borrowed from OPIC, sold its fuel and power group, and repaid its debt. Within months, the company that pledged to revive the economy dismissed 600 workers.
In January 2014, worker advocates filed a formal complaint to OPIC. When Littlefield directed Kozloff to launch a "lessons-learned" review, she shared her view that the U.S. agency was not to blame. "Unfortunately, for reasons outside of OPIC's control, these projects did not progress as planned and our clients folded their operations in Liberia in early 2013," she wrote.
In Liberia, workers are still waiting to be compensated for their losses.
"In the end, only the poor farmers and the poor charcoal sellers became the losers," said Brownell. "If (Buchanan Renewable Energy) was able to fully pay OPIC's loan, why wasn't it able to address the impact it had on the small farmers and the workers?"
Charcoal producer Monopoloh asks the same question. "Our charcoal business was fine," she said, "until BRE came."
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A historic New Orleans cemetery that may have started New Orleans' tradition of above-ground crypts will soon be off-limits to tourists on their own because of repeated vandalism among the tombs, the Roman Catholic archdiocese that owns the property has announced.
Starting in March, entry to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and its labyrinth of mausoleums will be restricted to the relatives of the dead buried there and to tourists whose guide is registered with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
"We've had unlicensed tour guides and others handing out markers and instructions on how to mark up various tombs," archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald said Monday.
One of the most famous tombs, reputed to be the burial site of 19th Century voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, is repeatedly marked with Xs and, in late 2013, was covered from one end to the other with pink latex paint.
"We also have people leaving trash in the cemetery, littering, setting up camp in the cemetery," she said in an interview.
Established in 1789, the cemetery surrounded by 10-foot-high brick walls is the oldest remaining graveyard in this city beside the Mississippi River, which has grown into a Deep South tourist destination renowned for Mardi Gras, jazz, Cajun cuisine and the sometimes elaborate mausoleums that make its cemeteries known as "cities of the dead."
Early burials in St. Louis No. 1 are thought to have been below ground or in low tombs that held a single coffin partly above ground, according to the website for Save Our Cemeteries, a cemetery restoration nonprofit. Concrete and marble burial vaults, experts believe, were built on top of those earlier graves tombs to accommodate later burials.
All told, St. Louis No. 1 covers an entire city block with "a maze of tombs and aisles," the organization notes.
Those include walls of "oven vaults" for people who could not afford stand-alone mausoleums and elaborate tombs for members of various societies.
The thousands of people buried in the cemetery include Homer Plessy, who was the plaintiff in Plessy v Ferguson, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation laws were constitutional; the first mayor of New Orleans, Etienne de Bore; and world chess champion Paul Morphy.
Sherri Peppo, director of the archdiocesan cemeteries office, said in a news release Monday that several tombs have been broken into and vandalized in the past year. The statement said even security cameras were stolen.
Complicating matters, a local legend has it that the voodoo priestess Laveau will grant a wish for someone who makes an X on the tomb believed to be hers, turns around three times, knocks on the tomb and shouts the wish.
"We needed to take some steps to protect both the sacred nature of the cemetery and preserve the history that is there as well," Peppo said.
Registration for tour guides will begin in February, the archdiocese said. Tour companies and independent guides must show insurance and a city license. Guides who occasionally bring tours to the cemetery can pay $40 for a one-time pass; those giving regular tours must pay the archdiocese a registration fee of $4,500 to $5,400 a year. The lower amount is for those paying once a year.
Both policy and fees are reasonable, said Amanda Walker, director of Save Our Cemeteries, which gives tours of St. Louis cemeteries 1 and 2 and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 to raise money for restoration of the tombs. Her nonprofit has partnered with the archdiocese for years to hire security at the cemeteries.
She noted that cemetery tours currently are being conducted by guides for "pure profit."
"None of the money goes to the cemetery," she noted.
McDonald said relatives of those buried in the cemetery are asked, meanwhile, to get in touch with the archdiocese to make entry arrangements — likewise for scholars and those conducting genealogical research.
The new fees are expected to pay to staff the cemetery during business hours and take unspecified security measures that officials are declining to reveal.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Cory and Erin Blanchard can measure the milestones of their lives together so far - 1,105 days of dating, 11 days between their engagement and their wedding, and exactly one month between Erin's ultrasound and her surgery after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
They had dreamed of a huge wedding at a plantation house in New Orleans, followed by a reception with a big brass band that kept everyone dancing late into the night.
"When we got the diagnosis back, none of that seemed to matter anymore," Erin said. "Neither one of us thought we were shorting ourselves. It just felt like this is the way it should have always been done."
On Saturday, Jan. 17, they were married in a brief ceremony, followed by a reception at Trim Tab Brewing Company.
The makeshift tables of wooden pallets balanced on kegs, with Mardi Gras masks and beads were scattered on the tabletops. The guests ate gumbo and king cake and enjoyed a steady flow of locally brewed beer.
A few days before Christmas, Erin's ultrasound showed several masses. After that, their plans remained hypothetical until doctors confirmed it was thyroid cancer. At first, they worried it would seem they were rushing into it, that they were scared.
"I just wanted to have that moment with him - that public proclamation of love before we go down this path," Erin said. "I didn't want it tarnished in any way. If I have to have radiation, chemo, whatever might come, I didn't want this to be affected by whatever aftermath was going to be there."
Cory and Erin - usually meticulous in planning the details of an elaborate party - had about a week to put together a ceremony others spend a year or longer planning. Each day brought more wedding preparation - buying rings, booking a venue, ordering a dress, setting up a registry - but also more help than they expected.
"The outpouring of support over the wedding and what's going on health-wise, the surgery, was completely overwhelming," Erin said. "People at work would come to me and tell me their church congregation lifted me up in prayer - literally people I barely know. A while ago, if someone had told me that, I would think it's a little strange, but it is touching, very humbling and it made me feel very lucky."
Even with such short notice, more than 100 people attended. Though the big brass band couldn't be booked and there were a few minor hitches, their wedding went well, Cory said.
"Most people know us well enough to realize we weren't able to put everything we have into throwing this event," Cory said.
And, despite the circumstances, there was a degree of practicality that appealed to them.
The ceremony saved them thousands of dollars and months of stressing about wedding plans, and family and friends pitched in to make sure the day went as smoothly as possible.
Sometime down the road - their second or third or fifth anniversary - they'll throw that big, celebratory, New Orleans-style party they always wanted.
From their first date watching a Saints game to their Mardi Gras-themed wedding, their shared love of all things New Orleans has been evident.
They grew up just a few miles apart, but they met in Alabama three years ago, when Cory was living in Tuscaloosa and Erin in Birmingham.
Though Erin had reservations after a previous relationship, Cory knew how he felt from early on. Eventually, the couple had no doubt they wanted to spend their lives together.
In June 2014, they bought a house, knowing the decision would mean pushing back their marriage plans.
"We were OK with that," Erin said. "We weren't married yesterday, and we're married today, and here we sit in the same places we normally do."
In the days leading up to her surgery last Thursday, she remained calm, reassured with Cory by her side and her family's support. At a follow-up appointment this week, they will learn what the next steps for treatment will be.
Erin knows she can count on Cory, who has been supportive while she works a full-time job and studies for her graduate school classes. She hopes to graduate in the spring of 2016.
"I'm hoping it all seems like a blur when I'm done," she said. "It will be challenging but doable."
BRZEZINKA, Poland (AP) — A Jewish leader stood before 300 survivors of the Nazis' most notorious death camp on Tuesday and asked world leaders to prevent another Auschwitz, warning of a rise of anti-Semitism that has made many Jews fearful of walking the streets, and is causing many to flee Europe.
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, made his bleak assessment on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, speaking next to the gate and the railroad tracks that marked the last journey for more than a million people murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
He said his speech was shaped by the recent terrorist attacks in France that targeted Jews and newspaper satirists.
"For a time, we thought that the hatred of Jews had finally been eradicated. But slowly the demonization of Jews started to come back," Lauder said. "Once again, young Jewish boys are afraid to wear yarmulkes on the streets of Paris and Budapest and London. Once again, Jewish businesses are targeted. And once again, Jewish families are fleeing Europe."
The recent attack in Paris, in which four Jews were killed in a kosher supermarket, is not the first deadly attack on Jews in recent years. Last May a shooting killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels and in 2012 a rabbi and three children were murdered in the French city of Toulouse.
Europe also saw a spasm of anti-Semitism last summer during the war in Gaza, with protests in Paris turning violent and other hostility across the continent.
"This vilification of Israel, the only Jewish state on earth, quickly became an opportunity to attack Jews," Lauder said. "Much of this came from the Middle East, but it has found fertile ground throughout the world."
One Holocaust survivor, Roman Kent, became emotional as he issued a plea to world leaders to remember the atrocities and fight for tolerance.
"We do not want our past to be our children's future," the 85-year-old said to applause, fighting back tears and repeating those words a second time.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who was in Saudi Arabia to pay respects after the death of King Abdullah, issued a statement paying tribute to the 6 million Jews and millions of others murdered by the Nazis.
"The recent terrorist attacks in Paris serve as a painful reminder of our obligation to condemn and combat rising anti-Semitism in all its forms, including the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust," Obama said. A U.S. delegation to the ceremony was led by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he said: "My job as prime minister of Israel is to make sure that there won't be any more threats of destruction against the state of Israel. My job is to ensure that there won't be any reasons to establish any more memorial sites like Yad Vashem."
The commemorations in Poland, which during World War II was under Nazi occupation, were also marked by a melancholy awareness that it will be the last major anniversary that a significant number of survivors will be strong enough to attend.
"The survivors are completely gutted that in their lifetime they went through what they went through and that now they are at the end of their life and they don't know what kind of world they are leaving for their grandchildren," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation. "That is very disappointing for them. We have let them down."
Politics also cast a shadow on the event, with Russian President Vladimir Putin absent — even though the Soviet Red Army liberated the camp — the result of the deep chill between the West and Russia over Ukraine.
Among those in attendance were French President Francois Hollande, who has vowed to fight the violent extremism that has wounded his nation, as well as the presidents of Germany and Austria, the perpetrator nations that have spent decades atoning for their sins.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was also there in a sign of Poland's strong support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.
Poland apparently snubbed Putin, though officials don't say that openly. The organizers, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the International Auschwitz Council, opted for a form of protocol this year that avoided direct invitations by Poland's president to his foreign counterparts. The organizers instead simply asked countries that are donors to Auschwitz, including Russia, whom they planned to send. Poland's Foreign Ministry says Putin could have attended if he wished.
The Russian delegation was led by Sergei Ivanov, Putin's chief of staff.
The public spat comes at a low point in relations between Russia and the West, following Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and its support for the rebel forces battling Kiev's troops in eastern Ukraine. Poland has been vocal in condemning Russia's actions in Ukraine, which has plunged the continent into one of the worst East-West crises since the end of the Cold War.
Some of the survivors said they thought Putin should have been there, given the fact that Soviet soldiers fought and died to liberate the camp, and Russia is the successor state to the Soviet Union.
"They lost their lives and we should honor them," said Natan Grossmann, a survivor who now lives in Munich.
In Moscow, Putin visited the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center and used the occasion to press the Russian points on Ukraine. He spoke of the Ukrainian nationalists' collaboration with the Nazis in killing Jews during the war, and he accused Ukrainian authorities today of killing civilians in Donetsk and Luhansk in cold blood.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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The federal government's failure to enforce the nation's child protection laws is a "national disgrace" that leaves abused children vulnerable to future harm, according to a three-year study by two child advocacy groups.
The 110-page report released Tuesday identified some of the same failures reported in December by The Associated Press after an eight-month investigation into hundreds of children who died of abuse or neglect in plain view of child protection authorities.
"Our laws are weak. We don't invest in solutions. Federal laws aren't enforced. And courts are turning their backs. This creates a trifecta of inertia and neglect," said Amy Harfeld, policy director at the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, which wrote the report with the nonprofit group First Star.
AP's investigation, published Dec. 18, also revealed a system in crisis, hobbled by weak federal oversight, budget constraints, worker shortages and a voluntary data collection system so flawed that nobody can say with accuracy how many children die from abuse or neglect each year.
The AP found that at least 786 children died of abuse and neglect over a six-year span — many of them beaten, starved or left alone to drown — while agencies had good reason to know they were in danger. That figure represents the most comprehensive statistics publicly available, but the actual number who died even as authorities were investigating their families or providing some form of protective services is likely much higher because antiquated confidentiality laws allow many states to withhold vital information, shrouding their failures.
The federal government estimates an average of about 1,650 children have died annually from abuse or neglect in recent years, whether or not they were known to the child welfare system, but many experts believe the actual number is twice as high. And many more suffer from near-fatal abuse and neglect every year.
"Almost everything that happens to these children is cloaked in endemic secrecy, and most efforts by the media and advocates to provide the public with much needed transparency — which leads to accountability — are thwarted by the very governmental entities and officials who have turned their backs on their official duties to children," the groups said.
Michael Petit, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the Federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities and serves as adviser to the advocacy group Every Child Matters, said he agreed with what he has read thus far in the report, entitled "Shame on U.S."
"The report is saying what a lot of people have been experiencing," Petit said, who wasn't speaking on the commission's behalf. "I share many of those sentiments that the federal government is not providing the kind of oversight needed."
The Children's Advocacy Institute and First Star fault all three branches of federal government for failing to protect children.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for implementing and enforcing federal child welfare laws and programs, but the agency largely takes a hands-off approach, allowing states to self-certify that they are in compliance with federal requirements.
"There is no meaningful oversight and the states know it," the report said.
Agency spokeswoman Laura Goulding did not immediately return a call and an email seeking comment on the report Monday.
Congress needs to mandate that HHS impose fines, withhold funds or take other punitive actions when states don't follow federal regulations, the report said.
Because HHS and Congress so rarely hold states accountable for their failings, filing a lawsuit is usually the only way private parties can challenge problems within the child welfare system. But lawsuits are time consuming, expensive and often limited in their reach, covering violations in only one state or county rather than widespread systemic failures, the groups said.
"Federal courts have turned their backs on private attempts to enforce federal child welfare law and Congress has shown little interest in advancing the law itself," the report said.
Emily Douglas, a child welfare expert at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass., called the report's findings about the judicial branch's shortcomings particularly revealing.
"When something goes wrong, usually you hear that the state child welfare agency is a wreck or that the governor is stepping in to fire someone," Douglas said. "But increasingly judges are going to be on the radar about the important role that they play in determining these kids' safety. Judges are not trained social workers, so are we sure they always know the risk factors when deciding children should be sent back home?"
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org