LINCOLN — A group of Republican lawmakers launched a new effort Friday to require voter identification in Nebraska.
This time, they are backing Legislative Resolution 292CA, a proposed constitutional amendment that would require that a poll worker review a photograph or digital image of each voter to verify the person’s identity before the person could vote.
The proposal would leave it up to the Legislature to spell out how the requirements would be implemented and what exemptions might be allowed.
State Sen. Andrew LaGrone of Gretna introduced the measure along with 13 co-sponsors, all registered Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. LaGrone said he offered the proposal because he believes that Nebraskans overwhelmingly back voter ID requirements.
“I think it’s an important issue that the people of Nebraska want the Legislature to take seriously,” he said. “They deserve to have a say.”
If approved by the Legislature, the measure would appear on the November ballot for voters to decide.
Getting through the Legislature has proven impossible for past proposals. Opponents blocked voter ID measures eight years in a row, ending in 2018. No such legislation was introduced last year.
John Cartier, director of voting rights at Civic Nebraska, vowed to fight the new measure as well. He called the measure unnecessary, saying that voter fraud is not a tangible problem in the state and that such a law could disenfranchise thousands of Nebraska voters.
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“It’s easy to create hype around voter ID, but it never results in good policymaking or more secure elections,” he said.
Secretary of State Bob Evnen, who made voter ID a major part of his election campaign, said he was not involved with crafting the new proposal but supports it. He said the vast majority of Nebraskans also support the idea.
“I don’t consider this controversial,” he said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states have passed voter ID laws, including at least two that put voter ID requirements in their constitutions. But the courts have blocked enforcement of the requirements in two states, including a constitutional amendment passed in 2018 in North Carolina.
Of states where the laws are in effect, 18 require IDs with photographs, and 16 accept other forms of identification as well, such as a bank statement with a name and address.
Some allow voters without IDs to cast provisional ballots, which are then checked against voter registration records. Others require the voter to return with an ID before a provisional ballot can be counted.
LaGrone said LR 292CA was written to give lawmakers the most flexibility possible in deciding how to implement the requirements. Issues to be decided would include whether to exempt any voters from the requirements and what types of identification would be accepted.
He said the proposal would apply only when people vote in person at the polls. He said the requirements would not apply to early voting and mail elections.
Papillion residents with New Year’s resolutions to hit the gym more often will soon have a $51 million source of motivation to get in shape.
Monday marks the opening of Papillion Landing, the city’s new community recreation center. Take a stroll around the 120,000-square-foot facility, and it becomes clear: This isn’t your drab, musty recreation center of the past.
Papillion Landing features an indoor water park, an indoor playground and a large gym. It has a yoga studio, a cycling room and an area with free weights and weight machines.
Another portion of the building includes a digital library, classrooms, a ballroom for weddings and other events, and an outdoor courtyard.
Designers used many natural elements in the recreation center. Large windows allow a lot of natural light into the pool and cardio areas. Earth-tone colors and wood were incorporated in many of the design elements.
“I wanted this place to feel really warm to people,” said Lori Hansen, who has worked as Papillion’s recreation director for 22 years.
Crews broke ground on Papillion Landing more than two years ago. The center, Papillion’s first community recreation center, is located about a half-mile west of the city’s downtown at 1046 W. Lincoln St.
The original cost of this phase of Papillion Landing was about $48 million. Through construction cost savings, last month, the City Council was able to greenlight the addition of a softball complex and soccer fields to the north side of the center. Those were expected to be built during future additions to the area.
The fields pushed the total phase one cost to almost $51 million. The city bonded about $61.5 million for the community center and other recreation improvements. A half-cent sales tax and grants also contributed.
Some of Papillion Landing’s highlights:
Papillion Landing’s main pool includes a squiggle-shaped waterslide and can be roped off into a four-lane lap pool or reconfigured to allow for leisure swimming.
A lazy river creates a current for swimmers to fight against or lean into. The river also features a vortex pool that will make you feel like you’re swimming in a large (sanitary) toilet bowl.
A children’s pool with zero-depth entry gets as deep as 6 inches and has a play area with a slide and fountains.
The pool’s locker room differs from traditional ones in that the main area is gender neutral. It includes 20 small private changing rooms, 12 private changing rooms with showers and four family changing rooms with showers, toilets and sinks.
Trent Albers, spokesman for the City of Papillion, said the locker room was designed with input from families who said they wanted more private spaces to be with their children while changing.
Families are a big focus of Papillion Landing, Hansen said.
There’s a colorful indoor playground where children can burn off energy. Nearby rooms can be rented to serve as a cake-and-presents home base for birthday parties.
Elsewhere, a child watch center will oversee youngsters for up to two hours while their guardians exercise or do work in the digital library.
The watch center has an abundance of toys and a miniature movie theater. In the future, it will include an outdoor play area.
The center can accept 10 children ages 6 months to 2 years and 20 children ages 3 to 10. Guardians must remain in the building while their children are under supervision.
Papillion Landing’s gym can be configured into three full-size basketball courts, six volleyball courts or six pickleball courts.
Seven laps on a running track on the second level of the gym equal 1 mile.
The rec center’s gym and field space comes at a crucial time in the city, Hansen said. A growing population of youth sports leagues has made local gym space hard to come by.
“Part of the reason that the community center’s so essential is that this community is growing hand over fist and the gyms are full,” Hansen said. “The high schools (have) a lot of activities going on with their teams.”
An 81,000-square-foot field house next to Papillion Landing opened in late 2018. It has a turf field that can be divided into quadrants. The center, which is available for rent, also hosts practices for teams like the Omaha Beef and the new Union Omaha soccer team.
An outdoor soccer field next to the field house opened late last year.
Papillion Landing has all the basics: There’s a room with free weights and weight machines and an aerobic space with treadmills, cardio machines and workout balls.
“We tried to get enough for the average user to still enjoy and still have challenging pieces for (serious weightlifters),” Hansen said.
One room is dedicated to quieter activities like yoga and tai chi. A larger aerobics room will be used for activities like dance classes and Zumba, Hansen said.
Another room includes more than a dozen exercise bikes. Workouts will be led by an instructor and screens at the front of the room can virtually transport participants to destinations like the Swiss Alps.
Access to the digital library, a youth center and a computer room does not require a Papillion Landing membership.
Users will have free access to e-books, audiobooks, digital magazines and videos. The space will host classes and sessions on how to use certain technologies.
Computers, tablets and other hardware were donated by Facebook.
Outside the library, a lobby area with seating and a fireplace is also open to the public. The space will one day feature a Hard Bean Coffee station.
“We wanted people to feel like this was their place to come whether they were a member or not,” Hansen said.
The center also has a space for weddings, reunions and corporate meetings called the Chrysalis Event Center.
Within the center, a ballroom can hold 220 people for bigger events or be divided into three sections that can hold 75 apiece. It features a catering kitchen.
A reception area can accommodate networking or cocktail hour events. An outdoor courtyard features lounge seating, string lights and a fire pit.
The event center also has a 6,000-square-foot multipurpose space reminiscent of a high school gym. It has an attached stage and can hold up to 750, depending on the room’s configuration.
Papillion Landing offers monthly and annual memberships. Prices vary based on age and number of members.
A single membership for Papillion residents ages 18 to 54 is $500 a year. A “squad” membership for a Papillion family is $750 a year.
The community will have three opportunities — Jan. 24, Feb. 21 and March 13 — to visit Papillion Landing for free.
More information about the recreation center’s services can be found on the Papillion Landing website.
A prosecutor described it as 25 days of hell.
A 17-year-old girl was kidnapped in early 2019, taken to a hotel and forced to pose for nude photos that would be used as sex advertisements.
She was raped by at least six men. The money the men paid for sex was given to Darius L. Alston, who said he would kill the girl’s family if she didn’t prostitute herself.
For one meeting, Alston drove the girl to a man’s truck, where the man beat her, held her at gunpoint and sexually assaulted her until she bled. After the encounter, Douglas County prosecutor Beth Beninato said, she had to walk 2 miles until Alston picked her up again.
“His job is selling human beings for money, that’s his job,” Beninato said of Alston. “He is a menace to society.”
Alston, 29, was sentenced Friday by Douglas County District Judge Marlon Polk to 40 to 60 years on two counts of sex trafficking. Following state sentencing guidelines, he will be eligible for parole after about 20 years and must be released after 30 years. He also must register as a sex offender.
From Feb. 10 to March 7, Alston advertised the girl on websites for sex. When he first picked her up at her home, he took her to a hotel room at Travel Inn Omaha near 108th and L Streets and told her that a man would be arriving soon. He said she had to do whatever he wanted for $80.
The girl then had to give the money to Alston, who was in his car in the parking lot.
Alston also forced another young woman, age 18, to have sex with men for money. She initially was charged in connection with her involvement in the scheme because the 17-year-old said she helped take photos and collect the money.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said it’s typical in sex trafficking cases for men to coerce females to recruit other females.
“It fits the dynamics of these kinds of cases,” Kleine said.
After more interviews, investigators determined the 18-year-old also was a victim and dropped charges against her. She provided a wealth of information that helped prosecutors with Alston’s case and led to the indictment of an Iowa man, Beninato said.
Cindy Tate, an assistant public defender, said the 18-year-old was able to act as a victim in order to evade prosecution. She noted that Alston did not sexually assault the young women. She also said he did not threaten them — he just treated the crime of opportunity as a business.
In a statement to the court, Alston said he was raised by three women: his mother, his aunt and his grandmother, all of whom were in the courtroom Friday. He also has nine children, four of whom are girls.
He asked Polk for probation in order to be with his kids and show them what a man is.
“I would never try to degrade any woman, intentionally or purposefully,” Alston said.
Beninato said Alston’s words rang hollow.
“A real man is someone who respects and supports his fellow human beings. Not disrespect. Not forcing people in situations by terrorizing them to sell them for sex,” she said. “He’s not thinking about his kids. He’s thinking about his pocket.”
Polk said he knew “in less than 10 seconds” that probation was not appropriate for Alston.
“The part of this I can’t put together is you say that you were in the good hands of so many women in your life and you have four daughters of your own, but yet you turn around and do this to these girls?” he said.
Tate said at one point when visiting Alston in jail, she asked him how he would feel if a man were telling his daughters to prostitute themselves. It seemed that something clicked, she said.
“There was no response, but the look on his face said it all,” Tate said. “I don’t think Mr. Alston had ever placed a name or a face to these female victims. Once it was put in perspective for him, that’s when the lightbulb went off.”
After Polk issued the sentence, three women left the courtroom, yelling and sobbing. Alston’s relatives, who continued to loudly cry in the courthouse, declined to comment.
Kleine and Beninato said the public needs to understand that sex trafficking is happening in Omaha and elsewhere in Nebraska.
“A lot of people hear the term ‘human trafficking’ and they think, ‘Well, that doesn’t happen in Nebraska or Omaha,’ ” Kleine said. “But it’s real and it does and we’re seeing it and we’re handling these kinds of cases.”
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran announced early Saturday that its military "unintentionally" shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed this week, killing all 176 aboard, after the government had repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible.
The plane was shot down early Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad. No one was wounded in the attack on the bases.
A military statement carried by state media said the plane was mistaken for a "hostile target" after it turned toward a "sensitivemilitary center" of the Revolutionary Guard. The military was at its "highest level of readiness," it said, amid the heightened tensions with the United States.
"In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit," the statement said.
It apologized for the disaster and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent such "mistakes" in the future.
It also said those responsible for the strike on the plane would be prosecuted.
The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Iran had denied for several days that a missile caused the crash. But the U.S. and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The Canadian government had earlier lower the nation's death toll from 63.
On Friday, the U.S. had promised "appropriate action" in response to its assessment that an Iranian missile was responsible for downing the jetliner.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directly pinned the blame on Iran, after Canadian, Australian and British leaders announced similar intelligence conclusions on Thursday.
Pompeo said that an investigation would continue into the incident and that once it was complete he was "confident that we and the world will take appropriate action as a response." Leaders had said the plane appeared to have been unintentionally hit by a surfaceto-air missile.
Earlier Friday, Iran had denied the Western allegations.
Hassan Rezaeifar, head of the Iranian investigation team, said that recovering data from the black box flight recorders could take more than a month and that the entire investigation could stretch into next year. He also said Iran may request help from international experts if it is not able to extract the flight recordings.
After the killing of Soleimani last Friday, the Iranian public had rallied around the leadership, with hundreds of thousands joining the general's funeral processions in several cities.
But sentiments in Iran are still raw over the government's crackdown on large-scale protests late last year sparked by an economic crisis exacerbated by U.S. sanctions. Several hundred protesters were reported to have been killed in the clampdown.
Those fissures could break open again. Iran still points to the accidental downing of an Iranian passenger jet by U.S. forces in 1988, which killed all 290 people aboard, as proof of American hostility.
Videos verified by the Associated Press appear to show the final seconds of the ill-fated airliner.
In one video, a fast-moving light can be seen through the trees as someone films from the ground. The light appears to be the burning plane, which plummets to the earth as a huge fireball illuminates the landscape.
Someone off-camera says in Farsi: "The plane has caught fire. ... In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. God, please help us. Call the fire department!"
Pompeo also called Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne to offer his condolences for the Canadians who perished in the crash and offered "U.S. support for full cooperation with any investigation," the State Department said.
In an interview with Fox News' Laura Ingraham that aired late Thursday, Pompeo said commercial airliners need to know if it is safe to fly into and out of Tehran.
"If the international community needs to shut down that airport, so be it," he said.
Germany's Lufthansa airline said it and subsidiaries were canceling flights to and from Tehran for the next 10 days as a precautionary measure, citing the "unclear security situation for the airspace around Tehran airport." Other airlines have been making changes to avoid Iranian airspace.
Britain's Foreign Office has advised against all travel to Iran, and against all air travel to, from or within the country.