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Appeals Court Wary of GOP Operative’s Campaign Finance Appeal

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Appeals Court Wary of GOP Operative’s Campaign Finance Appeal

A federal appeals court appeared unlikely to reverse a Republican political operative’s conviction for funneling political contributions from a Russian billionaire to former President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard Jesse Benton’s challenge on Monday in a case that delved into complex campaign finance laws and communications to the jury at trial.

Benton, a one-time aide and grandson-in-law to Ron Paul, the former Texas GOP congressman and presidential candidate, is fighting his conviction on six counts of campaign finance violations and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

On appeal, Benton has challenged instructions given to the jury on how to consider a since-pardoned campaign finance conviction, and how a political contribution should’ve been defined.

Judge Florence Pan signaled she was inclined to find that Benton had missed his chance to challenge jury instructions at trial.

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“I don’t see why you’re relieved of your obligation to contemporaneously object at the time the jury instructions are submitted,” Pan said. “You agreed to the jury instructions that were given, and now you’re challenging the same jury instructions that you co-sponsored.”

Judge Karen Henderson similarly questioned why Benton “couldn’t have lodged an objection to this” at the time.

Still, when questioning Justice Department lawyer, W. Connor Winn, she raised concerns about the instruction allowing the jury to consider Benton’s earlier campaign finance conviction in 2016 for which he was pardoned by Trump.

“I would think a lay juror would think, if he did the first one, he did this one,” she said.

Pan also appeared skeptical of Benton’s argument taking issue with the government’s decision to charge him under both the Federal Election Campaign Act and a financial recordkeeping law. Benton’s lawyer, Nicholas Harper of Gibson Dunn, told the judges that these statutes weren’t meant to overlap.

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“The government routinely charges overlapping statutes,” Pan said. “What you’re proposing is extremely novel.”

Judge Bradley Garcia also said that the distance in time between when the two statutes were passed, and “what is going on” in the more recent recordkeeping statute, “might be a problem for you.”

Foreign Money

Benton was once a force in Republican politics. He also managed Senate campaigns for Kentucky Republicans Rand Paul, Ron Paul’s son, and Mitch McConnell, now minority leader.

Benton was indicted in 2021 after prosecutors said he solicited a sizable contribution from Roman Vasilenko, labeling it as consulting services and then giving some of the funds to Trump’s campaign committee.

According to prosecutors, Vasilenko wired Benton $100,000, and Benton in exchange arranged for Vasilenko to visit the US and attend a fundraising event for Trump, where the businessman could meet and take a photo with him.

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Benton then sent $25,000 to Trump’s fundraising committee to cover Vasilenko’s ticket, and didn’t disclose that the money came from Vasilenko, prosecutors said.

Campaign finance laws prohibit foreign nationals from making contributions to political committees, or related to federal presidential elections.

Benton was initially indicted in the scheme alongside Douglas Wead, a former official in the George H. W. Bush administration. Wead died before trial.

At the appeals court, Benton’s lawyers honed in on Vasilenko’s intent when providing the funds to Benton.

In court filings, they argued that Vasilenko “had no interest” in US politics and didn’t provide the funds for the purpose of swaying the campaign, and that the government had provided “bare bones” evidence to the contrary. They also contended the jury had been “misled” in instructions related to this issue.

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Benton’s team also took issue with the lower court’s decision to allow his prior conviction to be raised at trial.

“The district court’s decision to admit Mr. Benton’s prior conviction contravened the President’s judgment that he is innocent of those offenses and improperly swayed the jury to convict,” Benton said in court papers.

The government said in court papers that Benton had asserted a “novel argument” on the standard for a political contribution, and regardless, that they had presented “ample evidence” that Vasilenko intended to influence the election.

The case is: USA v. Jesse Benton, D.C. Cir., No. 23-3028 Oral Argument

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Dartmouth, Northwestern, Rice and Vanderbilt settle financial aid lawsuit | CNN Business

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Dartmouth, Northwestern, Rice and Vanderbilt settle financial aid lawsuit | CNN Business


New York
CNN
 — 

Four more private universities have agreed to settle a lawsuit which alleged they violated antitrust laws in determining financial aid amounts for admitted students, according to court documents filed Friday.

Dartmouth College, and Rice, Vanderbilt and Northwestern universities agreed to pay a total of $166 million to settle claims filed in a 2022 class action lawsuit alleging the schools colluded on the amount of financial aid awarded to students, while favoring applicants from wealthier families. The settlement comes after Yale, Columbia, Duke, Brown and Emory agreed to pay a combined $104.5 million to settle their portions of the case last month. In 2022, the University of Chicago agreed to settle for $13.5 million.

The agreement is awaiting preliminary approval from a federal judge. If approved, the total settlement amount in this case will now be $284 million.

US antitrust law allows higher education institutions to work together to come up with financial aid awards for applicants as long as they do not weigh any student’s ability to pay tuition when considering whether to accept them, a practice referred to as “need-blind” admission.

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But attorneys for the eight former students who brought the lawsuit forward say 17 of the top universities in the country either failed to adhere to need-blind admission or colluded with such schools in setting their financial aid awards, which has reduced price competition among the schools and disfavored students who need financial aid, according to court documents.

CNN reached out to the four schools for comment.

“We are committed to removing financial barriers for our students … We maintain the University did not commit any wrongdoing and that the plaintiffs’ claims are baseless,” a Northwestern spokesperson said in a statement. “However, the University has agreed to settle this case — without admitting liability — so that we can put this matter behind us and focus on Northwestern’s global eminence, excellent teaching, innovative research, and the personal and intellectual growth of our students.”

A spokesperson for Dartmouth said the school “has a long history of making education affordable for generations of students and their families,” adding the school has spent more than a billion dollars in financial aid since 2014. “Nearly 15% of this year’s first-year class is attending Dartmouth without responsibility for paying tuition, housing, meals and many other fees, and more than half of the class receives some form of financial aid. Dartmouth is unwavering in its commitment to provide financial aid based solely on the individual needs of our students.”

A Vanderbilt spokesperson told CNN in a statement: “Though we believe the plaintiffs’ claims are without merit, we have reached a settlement in order to maintain our commitment to the privacy of our students and families and keep our focus on providing talented scholars from all social, cultural and economic backgrounds one of the world’s best undergraduate educations.”

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Rice University did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

“These 10 settlements shine the spotlight on the seven remaining elite universities that have yet to do the right thing and rectify the overcharges to their alumni and students who came from working class and middle class backgrounds,” said Robert Gilbert, one of the lead attorneys representing the former students.

The ratcheting pressure is reflected in the individual amounts each school has settled for. Since Chicago’s settlement, which was finalized in September, the settlement costs have grown steadily steeper. The universities reaching an agreement last month are paying between $18.5 million and $24 million. Meanwhile, Dartmouth, Rice, Vanderbilt and Northwestern’s settlements range from $33.75 million to $55 million each.

The seven remaining universities that have not settled include the University of Pennsylvania, along with Notre Dame, Georgetown, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology.

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Just after closures result in hundreds of layoffs, Senate Finance moves bills to scale back safety net – WV MetroNews

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Just after closures result in hundreds of layoffs, Senate Finance moves bills to scale back safety net – WV MetroNews

Over the past couple of weeks, about 1,500 West Virginians have learned they’ll lose their jobs because big companies are shutting down their workplaces.

Cleveland-Cliffs announced its tinplate production plant in Weirton will idle in April, resulting in potential job losses for 900 workers. Then, Allegheny Wood Products closed its doors and eliminated about 600 jobs at multiple locations.

Despite all those job losses, the Senate Finance Committee on Saturday took up two bills that would significantly restrict unemployment benefits in West Virginia.

The bills now go to the full Senate. Members of the committee noted that very similar bills have come up in past years but have not become law.

Josh Sword

Organized labor leaders said they will urge their members to reach out to senators and delegates and tell them to reject any attempt to take away unemployment benefits.

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“This is quite possibly the most heartless act I’ve seen in my 25 years of representing working people at the Capitol,” said Josh Sword, president of West Virginia AFL-CIO.

“To take earned benefits away from nearly 2,000 hard-working people who are losing their jobs through no fault of their own is unimaginably cruel and completely unnecessary.”

Workforce West Virginia’s director testified before the committee that the overriding reason for the changes would be shoring up the state’s unemployment trust fund. Right now, the trust fund has a balance of $387,657,779.05.

State officials cited economic models showing that a prolonged unemployment rate of 10% could bankrupt the trust fund in 91 weeks. In other words, the state’s unemployment trust fund could go just short of two years during a recession considered severe before being exhausted.

Scott Adkins

“We’re trying to be proactive because we’re going in the wrong direction on that trust fund balance,” Scott Adkins, acting director of Workforce West Virginia, told senators.

“Severe recession — 18 months, and we’ll be looking to this body for funding or we’ll be looking to the feds.”

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Senate Bill 840 makes a range of changes, most significantly using West Virginia’s seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate to determine the maximum number of weeks of benefit eligibility. So, for example, if the average unemployment rate is below 5.5 percent, the maximum duration of benefits would be 12 weeks.

The most recently released figures showed West Virginia’s unemployment rate at 4.3 percent. The current maximum duration for unemployment benefits is 26 weeks.

That bill specifies that West Virginians would only remain eligible for unemployment benefits if they conduct at least four work search activities each week. There are 10 activities that would qualify, like completing job applications or taking a civil service exam.

The bill lowers the maximum weekly benefit rate from its current 66 and two thirds of the average weekly wage in West Virginia down to 55 percent. The amount is not to exceed $550, according to the bill.

Senate Bill 841 focuses on  unemployment taxes and benefits. It’s a companion bill that reflects some of the changes proposed by SB 840.

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Jack Woodrum

Lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee brought up the situations at Cleveland-Cliffs and Allegheny Wood Products, wondering how they might affect the state.

“Recently we’ve had two major employers in the state that have closed their doors. How’s that gonna impact the fund?” asked Senator Jack Woodrum, R-Summers.

Adkins said the closures will have significant effects, even as the state works to help laid off employees find other jobs as quickly as possible. “It could have a major impact on the trust fund, sure,” he said.

Mike Oliverio

Senator Mike Oliverio, R-Monongalia, also asked about the effects of closures like the one at Alleghany Wood Products.

“I’m just anxious about this trigger that could limit employment benefits when we have people who are pretty good wage earners. Oftentimes we think about unemployment comp for folks in lower wage classifications, but these are folks with pretty good wages and as they attempt to replace that on a temporary basis I’m a little bit anxious about us stepping in with a cap right now.”

Oliverio wanted to know if there are alternatives.

Adkins said that’s up to the Legislature.

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“I mean, I don’t want to convey that the trust fund’s in dire straits. It’s not. It’s in pretty good shape,” he said. “But a major recession coming down the pike could have a pretty significant impact on the trust fund.”

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Why Gen Z Is Surprisingly Susceptible to Financial Scams

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Why Gen Z Is Surprisingly Susceptible to Financial Scams

The internet reacted in horror last week at the story of how a financial-advice columnist at The Cut lost $50,000 in a scam, but for many young adults, the tale may be uncomfortably familiar.

While younger, digital savvy folks may be adept at using the internet, Generation Z—born between 1995 and 2012—is more than three times as likely to fall for online scams compared to baby boomers, per a 2023 Deloitte report.

Experts say part of the reason for that is scams are often tailored to the younger generation—more than half of which spends an average of at least four hours on social media daily. “Older generations are going to [fall for] standard phishing schemes through email, or where they get you on the phone, and tell you that your children and grandchildren are in trouble,” says Jonathan H. Swanburg, president of TSA Wealth Management. “The younger generation may just see an ad on Facebook, or Instagram, or TikTok for some investment that’s going to pay you 10% a month with no risk.”

Financial planners point to these get-rich-quick schemes as opportunities to prey on the generation that has inherited inflation, high housing costs, and increased debt. At the same time, younger adults are generally more trusting of what they see online. A Pew Research Center report from 2022 found that adults under age 30 are almost as likely to trust the information they see on social media as information they learn from national media outlets.

“They are not vetting the way you would vet a property manager, or would allow the property manager to do the right amount of research to fix something for you,” says Catherine Valega, a certified financial planner based in Winchester, Mass. “You have too much information coming from people who aren’t really credentialed. With the onset of social media, it probably made things 10 times worse for the younger generation.”

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Falling for a scam can prove pricey. In 2023, consumers lost an all-time high of more than $10 billion to fraud, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). That number is a 14% increase of reported losses compared to the year prior.

Experts warn that the number of people that fall for frauds or scams may only increase as scams become more complex. Andrew Fincher, a certified financial planner, notes that scammers often attempt to disguise their messages as real emails, texts, or phone calls from a bank—which could be particularly pernicious for the younger adults more comfortable living their lives online. Advancements in AI can also pose risks to consumers as technology makes the scams increasingly elaborate and realistic. “If you’re not paying attention to it, it’s a lot easier to let things go by the wayside,” he says. “Younger adults, typically are going to have a lot more of their finances online—so they do mobile banking, saving passwords in your phone, using similar passwords.” That can make it a lot easier for scammers to access multiple accounts if there’s a security breach.

“The older generation doesn’t have a problem with that because they were never addicted to [being] online and things were never that easy,” adds Valega. “They’ve also had complete distrust of everything online and digital.”

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