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Sen. Sasse calls it 'crazy' to not have more answers on Jeffrey Epstein's controversial death

WASHINGTON — Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer testified Tuesday that the FBI is investigating the possibility of a “criminal enterprise” when it comes to Jeffrey Epstein’s death in custody.

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sawyer also said she’s not aware of evidence that would contradict the coroner’s finding of suicide. But she noted the FBI and inspector general both have ongoing investigations into the matter.

Sawyer said those ongoing investigations limit what she could say about the case at the moment.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and a member of the committee, said that was “crazy” given that Epstein was found dead in his cell in mid-August and Thanksgiving is approaching.

“You’ve got a whole bunch of women who were raped by this guy,” Sasse told her. “This is a sex trafficking ring in the United States. This guy had evidence. He’s got co-conspirators, and there are victims out there who want to know where the evidence has gone.”

That Epstein was on suicide watch and still able to hang himself has contributed to speculation about whether his death might have actually been a homicidal cover-up to protect those co-conspirators.

Two jail guards were recently arrested, accused of falsifying records to indicate they had checked on Epstein when they had not.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Sasse noted that Sawyer was pulled out of retirement to run the bureau in the wake of Epstein’s death.

“You’re in your job because of this crisis, right?” Sasse said. “You come here today and you say you can’t testify about it, but the reason you’re director now is because the last guy got fired, right?”

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Sawyer seemed exasperated herself at the repeated questions and referred time and again to the ongoing investigations. Staff are prevented from discussing what happened or even seeing the evidence involved until such probes are completed, she said.

Sawyer said she would be happy to share all the information once those investigations are done.

“But until I have that information, there’s nothing I can tell you,” she told Sasse. “If I don’t have the information, I cannot share anything with you.”

Earlier in the hearing, Sawyer said every one of the inmates is treated equally, but Sasse suggested Epstein should have received higher priority.

“This is different,” Sasse said. “Because it isn’t just about the individual inmate who might kill themselves. It’s about the fact that that bastard wasn’t able to testify against his other co-conspirators.”

After finding his questions rebuffed, Sasse took a different approach and asked how many people are sleeping on the job when they should be guarding federal inmates.

“We have a few, sir,” Sawyer replied.

She said most prison staff members are good employees, and she’s working to root out those who are not.

“If someone is well-trained, well-experienced and chooses not to do their job, we want them gone,” she said. “I assure you of that.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., followed Sasse and asked whether any policies have been changed as a result of Epstein’s death.

Sawyer responded that their policies are sound, and the issue is staff not following those policies.

She suggested personnel issues contributed to the situation, because the prison population has grown faster than staffing could increase.

“We grew so big with so few staff that we were stretched to our limits,” she said.

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'Meth. We're on it,' says South Dakota in ridiculed ad campaign that cost $449,000

South Dakota is on meth — at least, that's the message behind a new anti-drug ad campaign so widely mocked that one marketing expert could only laugh before calling it "a colossal blunder."

The "Meth. We're On it." awareness initiative was introduced Monday by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, to address the state's methamphetamine crisis. In a news release, officials underscored the importance of combating drug use in a state where twice as many 12- to 17-year-olds reported using meth compared with the national average.

"South Dakota's meth crisis is growing at an alarming rate. It impacts every community in our state, and it threatens the success of the next generation," Noem said in a public service announcement. "This is our problem, and together, we need to get on it."

"Let's get meth out of South Dakota," she added.

'Honestly, it's not for everyone': A look back at how Nebraska chose its tourism slogan

The state's Department of Social Services paid a Minneapolis ad agency nearly $449,000 this fall for the effort, the Argus Leader reported, citing the state's finances website. Several of the advertisements feature photos of people stamped with the "Meth. I'm On It." motto. Noem also requested more than $1 million in funding to support meth treatment services, according to the news release, and a website - onmeth.com - promises to connect residents to preventive and treatment resources.

But Bill Pearce, assistant dean at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business, said any sincere messaging by the governor was lost by an ad campaign that embodies "poor strategy and poor execution."

"I can't imagine this is what they intended to do; any good marketer would look at this and say: 'Yeah, let's not do that,' " Pearce said. "I'm sure South Dakota residents don't like being laughed at. That's what's happening right now."

Pearce said the advertisements - which are placed on television, billboards and posters - feel like domestic policy more than an actual effort to reach the people who need the resources.

"This is not about trying to find people in the tough parts of town that are hiding from society and using meth," he said. "This is about telling everyone in the state: 'I know we've got a problem, and I'm addressing it.' Nobody thought about the ramifications. The Twitter reactions are hysterical."

By Monday evening, social media had a field day with the slogan and accompanying ads, which, many said, make it sound as though everyone in the state is using the drug.

Beth Egan, an associate professor for advertising at Syracuse University, had similar concerns about the ad. Her first reaction, she said, was: "What were they thinking?"

"One of the things that struck me is, obviously everyone gets the play on words, they're trying a twist," she said. "But what they're missing is that advertisers no longer have control over the conversation. You need to be mindful of how consumers are gonna take it and run with it in their own way."

Egan was also struck by how much South Dakota spent on the campaign when about 882,235 people live in the state.

"I know they're not necessarily looking for a financial return, but that's a lot of money," she said.

Appearing to respond to the backlash in a Sunday evening tweet, Noem bought into the adage that any publicity is good publicity. She suggested the campaign was successful because so many people were talking about it.

In a separate statement emailed to The Washington Post, she called the anti-meth initiative "a bold, innovative effort like the nation has never before seen."

"South Dakota's anti-meth campaign launch is sparking conversations around the state and the country," she said. "The mission of the campaign is to raise awareness - to get people talking about how they can be part of the solution and not just the problem. It is working."

But Pearce isn't buying it.

"There's another trope that goes 'When they're running you out of town, pick up a baton and pretend you're leading the parade,' " he said. "That's what this feels like."

Photos: OWH front pages through the years​

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City Council approves 3% tax on vaping products, makes tobacco tax permanent

The Omaha City Council passed the city’s first tax on vaping products Tuesday and, with a barely discussed amendment, made permanent the city’s broader occupation tax on tobacco.

The council approved the city’s own tobacco tax in 2012 as a way to support construction of the new cancer center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Then-councilwoman Jean Stothert, who was running for mayor, expressed reservations about the new tax. It passed with a sunset clause that would kill the tax at the end of 2022.

On Tuesday, as the vaping tax neared approval, Council President Chris Jerram and Councilman Ben Gray made a motion to strike the sunset language from the wider tobacco tax ordinance.

Gray said he had talked about making the change to boost the city’s bottom line for months, and Jerram defended the change as better reflecting the public health nature of the tax. “Unfortunately, smoking and vaping are not going away,” Jerram said.

But council members Aimee Melton and Brinker Harding said they couldn’t support such a change without discussing what it would do, whether the changes should be made and why.

“When they passed it there was a sunset in it, and they’re gonna change it in 30 seconds,” Melton said, criticizing the process by which it was passed.

Said Harding: “There was no mention of it before the vote.”

Even City Treasurer Donna Waller expressed surprise about the change, saying she would need more time to figure out what the council had done and where the money would go.

She said later that any funds above the $35 million to be paid over 10 years to UNMC’s Buffett Cancer Center would go to the city’s general fund.

The city estimates the vaping tax could raise up to $1 million a year.

Stothert said after the vote that she supports the change to make the tax permanent, but she wants to earmark additional funds from the tax for street and road maintenance. She also said she supports expanding the tax to cover vaping so that vapers are treated the same way the tax treats smokers and so fewer people might vape.

“As a matter of fairness and health and safety, I support taking the sunset away,” she said. “If we can use it for roads, I would be in support of that.”

Jerram said the mayor would have to make a decision based on what the council passed, a change that contains no restrictions on how the money would be spent.

He said he prefers setting aside some of the money for public health research. He said he’d like to see tax receipts for six months after the change before deciding what to do with the funds.

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Stothert’s leverage on this issue could be limited. The council needs only five votes to override a potential veto. The measure passed 5-2. It goes into effect 15 days after it becomes law.

Under Tuesday’s other major change to the tax — expanding it to cover vaping products — vaping will get 3% more expensive in Omaha.

Public health advocates, council supporters and Stothert have said such a vaping tax could help some young people choose not to start.

Local vaping retailers warned that passing the tax would drive more vaping purchases online and beyond the city limits, threatening sales tax collections.

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Grace: UNO grad 'in the middle of a social revolution' hopes people back home are paying attention

It is 2 a.m. in Hong Kong and Will Patterson, like many a sleep-deprived graduate student, is wide awake.

He’s usually up at this hour, editing video in his postage stamp of an apartment not far from the University of Hong Kong, where he is enrolled in a master’s degree program in journalism.

Turmoil in this international port city, a former British colony under Chinese control, has meant his campus is closed and his classes are moved to online. But for this 22-year-old Omahan, his journalism education is taking place right on the streets.

“I landed in the middle of a social revolution,” said Patterson, a Douglas County West High and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate. “I’ve never seen Molotov cocktails before. And now I’m seeing hundreds.”

What journalism student in his right mind would sleep through this?

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 

Molotov cocktails are left over at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus on Tuesday. Police tightened their siege of the university campus where hundreds of protesters remained trapped overnight Tuesday in the latest dramatic episode in months of protests against growing Chinese control over the semiautonomous city.

So when I call to ask about questions journalistic — What are you seeing? What is going on? — and motherly — Are you safe? Should you come home? — Patterson has the thoughtful, idealistic and sometimes breezy bearing that comes with being in your 20s.

“It’s been a really weird 48 hours,” he says on what is Monday afternoon in Omaha and early Tuesday in Hong Kong. (Hong Kong is 14 hours ahead of Omaha.)

What has happened on Sunday and Monday marks another pivotal moment in a battle between protesters and the Hong Kong government that has stretched for almost six months.

It started as a protest by young people against legislation that would allow the Hong Kong government to extradite people to mainland China. Two million people in this city of 7 million took to the streets. The law then was abandoned.

But both sides have dug in, protests have turned violent, university campuses have become fortresses of resistance and the latest flashpoint was at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, a half-hour walk from where Patterson lives.

The city was controlled by the British for more than 150 years before being turned back to Chinese rule in 1997. The power transfer created a “one country, two systems” model in which Hong Kong could retain its semiautonomous rule under which it had flourished into a massive business capital with English and Chinese as the main languages.

But a consequence was a deep income divide between an ultrawealthy business class and young people who can’t afford the city and are pushing for more democratic rule and freedoms. Protests had occurred in years before. But people revolted this time in a way that has been more lasting and had more dire consequences. Protesters have been killed, injured and detained as the clampdown hardened.

Will Patterson

Enter Patterson.

He got interested in journalism in college and spent three years working for UNO’s student newspaper, The Gateway. He was the arts and entertainment editor and opinion editor. One of his most formative experiences was working for Omaha Magazine, where then-executive editor Doug Meigs, who used to live and work in Hong Kong, urged Patterson to consider applying to graduate school there. He knew Patterson could get valuable international experience in a key market for international media.

For his part, Patterson wanted to work internationally and figured the best way to get that start was to study in another country. He’d always wanted to go to Hong Kong and landed there a few days after his August graduation from UNO.

The city “where east meets west” has continued to fascinate him. Here, he is an observer: A friend to some of the protesters, an interloper in another country’s push-pull, a journalist-in-training who is watching the story unfold right in front of him and he is trying to tell that story through video. Right now, social media is his only outlet, though he’s using the material for classes that have been moved online.

Though Patterson’s university is not under siege, barricades are erected.

Patterson said it’s hard to know when or whether the protest movement will climax.

“Things consistently get to a point where I say to myself, ‘That’s it. That’s the crescendo. The government HAS to back down,’ ” he said. “At every moment, I would think to myself that things can’t get worse than this.”

Then it does.

He bought a respirator and goggles for the tear gas. He bought a hard hat for the bricks.

“So far, nothing has struck me at any clash or gathering,” he said.

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He wears a bright yellow vest stamped “PRESS,” given to him by a previous Hong Kong University journalism student. Most of the news media members wear these vests. Protesters are in all black with masks.

Patterson said he’s heard about incidents where police ask the media members to prove they work for news organizations. He is collecting footage for his classes, his personal portfolio and, he hopes, a news organization that might want to use them. So far, he has not been questioned, “but I try to avoid situations where that might happen.”

The scariest moment he’s faced happened just last week when he went to the heart of Hong Kong’s financial center where protesters had built elaborate barricades and disrupted transportation in that part of the city.

The protest was peaceful; no sign of police until suddenly, an armored police vehicle slammed through brick and bamboo barricades erected by protesters. Tear gas was fired into the crowd. Police pointed cans of pepper spray at the press.

“It was all happening too fast for me to film,” Patterson said.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 

Protesters react as police fire tear gas in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong on Monday. As night fell, police tightened a siege Monday at a university campus as hundreds of anti-government protesters trapped inside sought to escape. 

According to the New York Times, on Monday, about 1,000 students at Polytechnic University had barricaded themselves inside. They were throwing petrol bombs, and police were answering back with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Police had the place surrounded and were telling protesters that there was only one way out. Through them. By Tuesday morning, about 100 remained and by the afternoon, the number was under 20. They were teenagers and college students. Police had detained some 1,100 people — the largest roundup on a single day, the Times said.

Penalties for rioting can be 10 years in prison.

The Times described how some students tried to escape through a sewer pipe. Some rappelled from a bridge.

Patterson worries for them: Young people willing to go as far as it takes.

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in Omaha — 11:30 p.m. in Hong Kong — Patterson said he’d seen news reports saying some 1,000 people at Polytechnic University had been arrested. He said other reports said “thousands” of petrol bombs were found at a different university, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. (The Times report said about 4,000.)

“I think that’s indicative that despite the arrests, things are going to continue for some time,” he said in an email.

Patterson has no plans to leave. He wants to stay and bear witness. He just hopes people back home are paying attention.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 

Protesters take a rope down from a bridge to a highway Monday to escape from police at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus. Others tried to escape through a sewer pipe.