(WASHINGTON) -- The House Ethics Committee has opened a bipartisan investigation into the wide-ranging allegations against Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., as he grapples with a Justice Department investigation into alleged sex trafficking, the panel said in a statement Friday.
The inquiry, according to a statement from the panel's Democratic and Republican leaders, will review allegations of sexual misconduct, illegal drug use, misuse of state identification records and campaign funds, and whether the congressman accepted a bribe or gift in violation of House rules.
Gaetz will also be investigated over allegations that he shared photos and videos of naked women with other members of Congress on the House floor, claims first reported by CNN and confirmed by ABC News.
Gaetz, who has not been charged in connection with the probe, has denied any wrongdoing.
"Once again, the office will reiterate, these allegations are blatantly false and have not been validated by a single human being willing to put their name behind them," his office said in a statement Friday.
Gaetz was defiant in a speaking appearance at the "Save America Summit" fundraiser at Trump Doral on Friday night.
"The smears against me range from distortions of my personal life to wild -- and I mean wild -- conspiracy theories," he told the audience. "I won't be intimidated by a lying media, and I won't be extorted by a former DOJ official and the crooks he is working with. The truth will prevail.”
The House Ethics Committee can recommend action to the full House, including a reprimand, censure or expulsion. The first two require a simple majority, but expulsion requires a two-thirds vote of the chamber.
It can also make criminal referrals to the Justice Department, which can still ask the panel to defer its investigation amid its ongoing criminal inquiry based in Florida.
The committee does not have jurisdiction over former members of Congress, so the investigation would be closed if Gaetz were to resign. Gaetz on Monday said that he will not leave Congress.
Gaetz on Friday announced the hiring of defense attorneys Marc Mukasey and Isabelle Kirshner, one day after federal prosecutors signaled that his associate Joel Greenberg is considering taking a plea deal as he faces sex trafficking charges.
Mukasey, the son of former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, has worked as an attorney for former President Donald Trump, and currently serves as the lead attorney for the Trump Organization as it faces investigations from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the New York State Attorney General.
On Friday, the House Ethics Committee also announced that it would investigate allegations that Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., groped a female lobbyist in 2017. Reed has apologized for his actions and has said he will not seek reelection or run for governor of New York next year.
"We have already publicly addressed this situation and consistent with that are cooperating with the House Ethics Committee to bring this matter to conclusion," Reed said in a statement Friday.
(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden will create a commission to study possible changes to the Supreme Court, including adding seats or instituting term limits, the White House announced Friday.
The establishment of a commission to study the issue was a campaign promise from Biden, who has never explicitly said if he supports court packing or instituting term limits.
But Biden has indicated that he believes the court should not be subject to the political swings of the electoral cycle.
"The last thing we need to do is turn the Supreme Court into just a political football, whoever has the most votes gets whatever they want," Biden told the CBS News program 60 Minutes in October 2020. "Presidents come and go. Supreme Court justices stay for generations."
The 36-person commission is set to study debate for and against making changes to the court, hold public meetings to solicit opinions from outsiders, and provide a report to the White House after 180 days. It is unclear if the commission will provide recommendations to Biden, or simply analysis of the arguments for and against reform.
Biden has been under pressure to add seats to the bench to compensate for a right-ward political shift after former President Donald Trump appointed three nominees.
One of those appointees, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, filled an Obama-era vacancy after then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delayed the confirmation process in the Senate through the 2016 election. The third appointee, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, filled the vacancy left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death in the final months of the Trump administration. Six of the nine current Supreme Court Justices were appointed by conservative presidents.
The commission will have 36 members, some of them prominent names. Legal adviser to Biden's campaign Bob Bauer and Yale Law School professor Cristina Rodriguez will serve as chairs of the commission. Among the commissioners are renowned constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, NAACP President Sherrilyn Ifill, Brennan Center for Justice President Michael Waldman, and voting rights expert Michael Kang.
Liberal activist groups see Biden's appointment of the commission as merely delaying a decision on whether to add seats to the court.
“This White House judicial reform commission has a historic opportunity to both explain the gravity of the threat and to help contain it. But we don’t have time to spend six months studying the issue — especially without a promise of real conclusions at the end,” said Aaron Bellini, director it Take Back the Court, a group pushing for more justices on the bench.
Justice Stephen Breyer, the court's most senior liberal, warned Tuesday against partisan proposals to expand the court and the branding of its current makeup as "conservative."
"It is wrong to think of the Court as another political institution," Breyer said in remarks prepared for delivery at Harvard Law School. "And it is doubly wrong to think of its members as junior league politicians."
"Structural alteration motivated by the perception of political influence can only feed that perception, further eroding that trust," he said.
Congress would have to approve any changes to the court Biden might propose, and he would be sure to face strong opposition from Republicans. There have been nine justices on the bench since 1869.
(NEW YORK) -- For Tarra Simmons, a representative in the Washington legislature, Wednesday was a "full-circle moment."
After initially failing in 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee restored voting rights to more than 20,000 people with felony convictions who are out of prison, but still under community supervision.
Simmons, one of the bill's sponsors, knows the impact of disenfranchisement firsthand. After being "born into generations of addiction and incarceration and poverty and violence," Simmons was sentenced to prison in 2011 for selling a small amount of prescription drugs to financially fuel her own drug addiction, which she said resulted from trying to suppress the post-traumatic stress of her childhood.
She served 16 months, spent another four on work release and lost her right to vote through it all.
"Your life is just destroyed," Simmons told ABC News, explaining the barriers people with felony convictions face trying to rejoin their communities, like finding a job, paying fines and navigating child custody battles. "I see why it sends people back to prison."
Simmons did not go back to prison; she went to law school and became a civil rights attorney -- but only after she won a unanimous opinion from the Washington Supreme Court, which ruled the state's Bar Association could not prevent her -- or anyone else -- from taking the exam because of her past conviction.
She remarried seven years ago, adding a step-daughter to her family. Her youngest of two sons turned 18 on Tuesday; the older is 28. The whole family gets together for dinner at least once a week in the home they own.
"And now here I am, a freshman -- only been on the job for two months -- and the governor is signing my first bill," she said.
The sweeping, nationwide effort to enact legislation with restrictive voting provisions has overshadowed an even greater endeavor to do the opposite. While lawmakers in 47 states have introduced 361 restrictive voting bills as of the end of March, proposed bills expanding voting outnumber that figure by more than twofold, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.
In several states, these expansive bills tackle felony disenfranchisement, which, according to the Brennan Center, disproportionately impacts Black Americans.
"The movement that we're seeing this year is fantastic. It's also a part of a trend that's been going on for a number of years now," said Sean Morales-Doyle, the deputy director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the New York-based think tank. "We still have a long way to go, but the fact that we're seeing all this movement ... helps me think that maybe we will get where we need to go soon."
Last month, Virginia's governor used his executive authority to return civil rights, including voting eligibility, to people who have completed their incarceration sentence. In November, California voters approved Proposition 17, restoring voting rights to those who have completed their prison terms. In 2019, Colorado, New Jersey and Nevada enacted similar legislative reforms.
Though financial hurdles still exist, Florida voters approved an amendment in 2018 ending permanent disenfranchisement for people convicted of felonies, excluding murder and sex crimes. Kentucky and Iowa's governors, Democrat Andy Beshear and Republican Kim Reynolds, issued executive orders in 2019 and 2020, respectively, ending most permanent felony disenfranchisement in their states as well. The District of Columbia has taken the most significant step, beginning in 2020 to restore voting rights to people still incarcerated. Just two states, Vermont and Maine, allow people in prison to vote.
"There's a lot of momentum here, and I think it's really a policy that lawmakers are realizing is popular with voters across the political spectrum," Morales-Doyle told ABC News. "Everyone believes in forgiveness and second chances."
New York is expected to follow in Washington's footsteps by codifying voting eligibility for people with felony convictions who are on parole, and a similar bill has been introduced in Connecticut.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order in 2018 restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions who are on parole. However, like any executive action, it's not permanent, and for this specific issue, governors must use their executive pardon authority, which is cumbersome and can lead to weekslong delays in restoring voting eligibility, according to Morales-Doyle.
In Virginia, the legislature is trying to amend the state constitution to permanently restore voting rights to people with felony convictions, post-incarceration. It passed both chambers this year and must again in 2022's session before being on the ballot for voters to decide that November.
Daniel O'Donnell, who has represented a district on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the New York Assembly since 2002, has been trying to expand voting rights to people on parole in his state for the past five years. He's driven by his experience chairing the Corrections Committee while in office and his work as a public defender before that.
He said at the core of this fight is a decadeslong misunderstanding of what community supervision, like parole, means.
"In their minds, parole means 'get out of jail free,' when actually what parole means is you get supervised, and people don't realize how strict that supervision is," O'Donnell told ABC News. "If you are successfully on parole, you're living a very restricted life -- and you're living a very restricted, law-abiding life because even the most minor infraction could end up (with) you getting off parole."
Like Washington state's bill, New York's includes a provision that requires notifying people with felony convictions that they will regain their right to vote upon release from prison and assisting them with re-registration. O'Donnell described this as an essential step in the process, since re-assimilating into society is critical to prevent people from reoffending.
"If we keep on treating people as the other, they're going to behave like the other," O'Donnell said. "What they need is incentives to not commit again. So the better their life is, the more they feel connected to their neighborhood, and their neighbors and their community, the less likely they are to recommit."
Simmons, the Washington lawmaker, echoed that sentiment.
"When you are told that you are not worthy of being a part of that collective decision making, it's like another layer of stigma that you walk through the world with, and that internalized message that I am not worthy ... that this community doesn't want me here is what leads people to being isolated," she said. "In that isolation, people are more likely to relapse with their substance use disorder or commit a new crime because they're not connected."
She believes part of the problem is "people mistake punishment with reentry."
"The years of time that people spend in prison is a sufficient deterrent, is a sufficient punishment," Simmons said. "When we over punish people, when we saddle them with thousands of dollars of court fines and fees and we take away the right to vote and we tell them that they can't get a job or a place to live -- all of that is actually harming all of us because that's creating more crime."
O'Donnell said he expects New York's bill, which has already passed the state Senate, to pass in the assembly later this month or in early May, which would send it to Cuomo's desk.
Morales-Doyle stressed that while the recent progress is commendable, the work is not finished.
People think of Washington, New York and California as "progressive, blue states," he said, but the fact that those states have progressed on this issue in just the last six months "shows that there's a lot of room for progress in almost every part of the country."
And the "fight" should not stop there, he added.
"Just giving people the right to vote back doesn't mean that people appreciate and understand they have that right, and that they're being encouraged to exercise it and really (that) we have an inclusive democracy that welcomes people to the table," he said. "And I think we have work to do there even after people get the right to vote legally."
(RICHMOND, Va.) -- Ben Jealous, a prominent civil rights leader who helmed the NAACP for five years, is endorsing Democrat Jennifer Carroll Foy in the race to be Virginia's next governor -- handing the former state delegate a significant boost one day after her rival, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, secured a high-profile endorsement from Gov. Ralph Northam.
In endorsing Carroll Foy, Jealous invoked her "lived experiences" to argue that she is both prepared to meet the moment and be a strong steward of the commonwealth's future.
"Jennifer Carroll Foy's commitment to justice and equity stands head and shoulders above the crowd," said Jealous, who currently serves as the president of People For the American Way. "As a public defender, she saw the two-tiered criminal justice system up close: one that's left Black Americans behind and one that works for everyone else. As a leader in the legislature, Jennifer took on tough fights for justice -- and she won."
"Her proven track record, and plans for Virginia, rooted in her lived experiences as a working mom and someone who has struggled herself, make her uniquely qualified to be Virginia's next governor. She's a fresh leader ready to lead the fight for a more just Virginia where no one gets left behind," he added.
Jealous pursued a campaign to become Maryland's first Black governor in 2018, but was unsuccessful. He rarely wades into primaries but is supporting Carroll Foy's bid, seeing her as aligned with his views and with the might to win, according to a source familiar with the endorsement.
Carroll Foy said she is "proud" to have his support, and that of the group he leads, and assured that she is committed to building a more equitable commonwealth.
"I am proud to be on the front lines fighting for justice for all Virginians because I know what it's like to make impossible decisions just to survive. I'm dedicated to moving Virginia forward so that everyone has the opportunity to thrive," she said in a statement.
The move by Jealous, once the youngest president of the NAACP in its history, underlines a tricky intraparty clash over the politics of race that has been an undercurrent in the contest -- two years after Northam came under intense pressure to resign, including from McAuliffe, when a racist yearbook photo of him from the 1980s emerged.
For Carroll Foy, earning Jealous' backing counters the snub from the state's top Democrat. Northam decided to support McAuliffe as his successor over any one of the diverse, and potentially historic, candidates on the Democrats' deep bench.
Carroll Foy and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan are both competing to be the first Black female governor in the nation's history. Northam also chose McAuliffe over his own deputy, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, only the second African American elected statewide in Virginia, who also became embroiled in controversy over sexual assault allegations which he denied.
Some Democrats see McAuliffe, who is white, as potentially impeding history in Virginia. He is the apparent front-runner in the race, with widespread name recognition, fundraising prowess and a slate of Democratic leaders in the state lining up behind his bid, including more than 150 Black leaders from across the commonwealth.
But Carroll Foy is proving to be a formidable contender, raising $1.8 million in the first three months of the year and ending the quarter with $2.3 million in the bank. And she isn't the only one answering Northam's endorsement of McAuliffe.
McClellan, who played a key role in recently passing a sweeping voting rights bill for the commonwealth, contended that "Virginia has the worst record of electing women in America" and made clear she is hoping to change that.
"It's no surprise to see one governor endorse another. But this election is up to the voters of Virginia. Virginians aren't looking backward; they're looking forward," she said in a statement hours after Northam's endorsement. "Virginians are looking for a new perspective: the perspective of a mother, a Black woman and a leader driving progress for 15 years in Richmond."
(ATLANTA) -- A coalition of civic participation groups have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the provisions of Georgia's new election law that dictate how and to whom non-government entities can mail absentee ballot applications.
The plaintiffs -- VoteAmerica, Voter Participation Center and Center for Voter Information -- allege in the complaint filed Wednesday evening by the Campaign Legal Center that the new requirements are "unconstitutionally vague and overbroad" and violate their First Amendment and due process rights.
They are asking for the provisions to be declared unconstitutional and blocked from being enforced.
This is the fifth lawsuit filed targeting the Peach State's sweeping election overhaul, which Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law March 25. Democrats and voting rights activists have blasted the bill as "Jim Crow 2.0," but Republicans have rejected that characterization and defended the bill amid backlash that's advanced beyond the political realm. Corporate leaders have spoken out in opposition, and the MLB decided to move its 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver in protest of the new law -- SB 202, the "Election Integrity Act of 2021."
Under the law, third-party groups are still allowed to mail absentee ballot applications, but the rules for doing so have changed.
The bill bans anyone except the secretary of state and local election officials from sending absentee applications to voters who've already requested or received an absentee ballot, or voted. Every duplicate ballot application sent is subject to a $100 fine from the State Election Board, whose members, along with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, are the defendants in the case.
It's also now illegal for third-party groups to send voters applications with their information already filled out.
"These new requirements are not only costly and burdensome on nonprofit organizations who work to encourage political participation and facilitate access to absentee voting for Georgians — in some cases they are impossible to comply with or would present such prohibitively expensive financial burdens that some groups, like (the) Plaintiffs ... may have no choice but to cease their operations in Georgia altogether," the complaint stated.
Several voter engagement organizations mass-mailed applications to Georgia voters ahead of the November election and January runoff, and voters complained about the volume as well as receiving applications after they had already submitted one.
In the weeks leading up to an election, the secretary of state's office publishes and regularly updates absentee voter data spreadsheets, which lists every voter who has already requested an absentee ballot or cast a ballot, either by mail or early in person. This information is publicly available, and organizations sending applications would need to compare these spreadsheets to their list of registered voters.
Applications from a non-government entity also must now "prominently display a disclaimer" on the application that states, "This is NOT an official government publication and was NOT provided to you by any governmental entity. It is being distributed by [insert name and address of person, organization, or other entity distributing such document or material]."
The complaint alleges this provision is "compelling them to engage in misleading and confusing speech mandated by the Government, and limiting their right to freely associate with others."
(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that the state is suing the U.S. government in an attempt to resume cruising in the U.S. after more than a year of the industry being shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have tens of thousands of Floridians -- not just in this county alone but throughout the state -- who depend on the viability of our cruise industry for their livelihoods, for their jobs, for their ability to feed their families," the Republican governor said at a press conference in Miami-Dade County on Thursday.
Since March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has blocked cruise ships that carry more than 250 people from sailing in U.S. waters.
Last week, the CDC issued a "Conditional Sail Order," in an effort to "establish agreements at ports where they intend to operate, implement routine testing of crew, and develop plans incorporating vaccination strategies to reduce the risk of introduction and spread of COVID-19 by crew and passengers."
DeSantis called the CDC's order "unreasonable" and "not rational" saying, "people are going to cruise one way or another, the question is are we going to do it out of Florida, which is the number one place to do it in the world, or are they going to be doing out of the Bahamas or other locations."
During the first six months of the pandemic the cruise hiatus caused Florida to lose an estimated $3.2 billion in economic activity, including 49,500 jobs that paid $2.3 billion in wages, according to a report from the Federal Maritime Commission.
"Florida is fighting back," Desantis said, insisting that they will win in court. "We don't believe the federal government has the right to mothball a major industry for over a year based on very little evidence and very little data."
DeSantis said "there's really just no end in sight" for the cruise lines because even if the CDC approves cruise ships to sail in U.S. waters he believes the agency will "probably" make it "cumbersome."
The CDC's return to sailing framework has required cruise lines to submit lengthy, detailed plans on how they would handle a positive case on board, identify appropriate quarantine locations, as well as making them conduct test cruises with volunteer passengers.
Major cruise lines have said they will require future guests to be fully vaccinated.
Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Norwegian are resuming North American cruises this summer with ships sailing out of the Caribbean. Since their voyages won't involve departures or stops at any U.S. ports, they don't need approval from the CDC. They only had to obtain officials' approvals at their planned destinations.
The CEOs of the cruise lines referred to vaccines as "key" and a "game changer" in allowing them to end the cruise lines' yearlong halt of operations.
The Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement that it is "grateful for Governor DeSantis' support of the cruise community and we appreciate his efforts to restart cruising safely."
"Tens of thousands of Floridians rely on cruising for their livelihoods, including longshoremen, taxi drivers, travel agents and tour operators, ports, and numerous suppliers and vendors that make the cruise industry work," the statement continued. "Ultimately, the CDC and the entire U.S. cruise community want the same thing -- the responsible resumption of cruising from the U.S. this summer."
After the CDC announced last week it is safe for vaccinated individuals to travel, cruise lines thought their vaccination requirements would be enough to resume cruises, however, the CDC is still recommending against all non-essential travel.
The CDC did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.
(WASHINGTON) -- Moderate Democrat Joe Manchin reaffirmed that he will not back proposed changes to the Senate filibuster rule or support "shortcutting the legislative process through budget reconciliation," dealing a possible blow to President Joe Biden's agenda.
Manchin, who has been trumpeting the need for bipartisanship for months, said in a Washington Post op-ed published Wednesday evening that he will not support any effort to overturn the rule that requires 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate.
"I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster," the West Virginia Senator wrote.
In the evenly divided Senate, overturning the rule would require the support of all Democrats. Without Manchin's backing, Biden may have to trim some of his most ambitious legislative efforts or abandon them entirely.
Chief among Biden's priorities are two multi-trillion dollar infrastructure proposals and a bill that would implement major voting reforms.
"There's a real long laundry list of things that I think many Democrats would like to get though the House and the Senate," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball at the UVA Center for Politics. "For Democrats on certain things they are stuck."
Democrats currently hold the House and Senate by razor-thin margins, which Kondik said could easily slip during the 2022 midterm elections.
"The clock is ticking here," Kondik said. "If I was in the Democratic majority in the House and the Senate I would look at this and say 'boy if we are going to act on things we need to act now.'"
Eli Zupnik, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide and spokesperson for Fix Our Senate, a progressive group that says its "highest priority is the elimination of the filibuster" said Democrats owe it to voters to act swiftly.
"If the filibuster is allowed to remain as a partisan weapon that Sen. (Mitch) McConnell can use to continue his gridlock and obstruction, then Democrats will be blamed for breaking their promises on voting rights, raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, gun safety and so much more," Zupnik said.
The most pressing roadblock comes as Biden looks to move forward on the first phase of his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal. The proposal would provide billions to expand broadband internet, replace lead pipes, repair highways and bridges. Businesses and large corporations would see a bump in their tax rate to fund it.
The tax hike is a non-starter with Republicans.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to fight the Biden proposal "every step of the way" during a press conference in Kentucky. He's called the package a "Trojan horse" for Democratic priorities unrelated to infrastructure, and said he does not believe it will get support among his conference, making sixty votes seem all but impossible.
Majority Leader Schumer was dealt an early win on Biden's infrastructure proposal this week when the Senate parliamentarian ruled that he could utilize budget reconciliation, a procedural tool that allows him to bypass the 60-vote threshold, to move the bill.
Democrats already made use of this tool once this year to pass Biden's $2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill down strict party lines in March. Schumer has not yet said whether he intends to use it again.
Even if he tries, he would need the support of all 50 Senate Democrats. It's not clear he has it.
Manchin said, in a radio interview on Monday, that he opposes the Biden tax hike and doesn't favor use of reconciliation to pass the larger proposal. He also said six or seven other Democrats agree with him, giving them considerable "leverage" in negotiations over the bill.
In his Washington Post op-ed, Manchin said he was "alarmed" by the use of the process to snake around the 60-vote threshold.
"I simply do not believe budget reconciliation should replace regular order in the Senate," Manchin wrote.
"Republicans, however, have a responsibility to stop saying no, and participate in finding real compromise with Democrats," he continued.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close Biden ally, set the stage early on Wednesday for a likely compromise.
"It's more likely that we'll have a package that's not paid for" and that is "less robust", Coons said during a Punchbowl News forum.
Biden has other priorities -- including voting rights -- that will also be hampered by Manchin's resolve on the filibuster rule. Since voting reform likely wouldn't qualify under reconciliation, Democrats will have no choice but to try to cobble together 60 votes.
If they can't, then Kondik suggests that the $2 trillion COVID bill passed earlier this year could end up being Biden's signature legislative accomplishment despite unified government control.
"It's reasonable to wonder is this going to be the big piece of legislation that comes out of Biden's first two years," Kondik said. "And maybe it is, maybe that's the high point."
ABC News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.
(WASHINGTON) -- Federal prosecutors said Thursday that Joel Greenberg, an associate of Rep. Matt Gaetz who is currently facing sex trafficking charges, is considering taking a plea deal -- which Greenberg's attorney hinted could involve Greenberg cooperating with the federal government's investigation into allegations involving Gaetz.
Greenberg was indicted last year for allegedly trafficking a teenage girl for sex in 2017, and the Justice Department is also trying to determine whether Gaetz had sex with the 17-year-old, according to sources. Greenberg pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Thursday's hearing, in a federal Orlando courtroom, ended with an agreement that if there is not a plea agreement in place by May 15, Greenberg's trial will be moved to July. The trial was originally scheduled to start on June 1.
Following the hearing, Greenberg's attorney, Fritz Scheller, told reporters, "I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today."
Gaetz, who has denied any wrongdoing, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from ABC News.
The federal investigation targeting Gaetz is specifically looking into whether he and an associate in his home state of Florida provided cash or other things of value to women they had sex with after connecting online, sources have told ABC News.
Gaetz's congressional office on Thursday released a statement attributed to "The Women of the Office of U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz" that defended the congressman against the allegations.
"In our office and under Congressman Gaetz’s leadership, women are not only respected, but have been encouraged time and time again to grow, achieve more, and ultimately, know our value," said the statement, whose authors were not individually identified. "At no time has any one of us experienced or witnessed anything less than the utmost professionalism and respect. ... Thus, we uniformly reject these allegations as false."
(ALBANY, N.Y.) -- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is embroiled in the biggest scandal of his career following accusations from a slew of women of inappropriate behavior.
Several women -- including Anna Ruch, 33; Lindsey Boylan, 36; and Charlotte Bennett, 25 -- have come forward to accuse the governor of unwanted advances.
The allegations are only adding to Cuomo's political woes as his administration is under investigation for its handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic.
His fall from public grace comes after he emerged early in the pandemic as a star among Democratic leaders for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Dec. 13, 2020
Boylan, a former aide to Cuomo, was the first to accuse the governor of sexual harassment and kissing her against her will.
In December, she wrote a series of tweets sharing her allegations for the first time.
She tweeted, "Yes [Cuomo] sexually harassed me for years. Many saw it, and watched."
"I could never anticipate what to expect: would I be grilled on my work (which was very good) or harassed about my looks," she continued. "Or would it be both in the same conversation? This was the way for years."
At the time, the governor denied the accusations.
"I believe a woman has the right to come forward and express her opinion and express issues and concerns that she has," Cuomo said in December. "But it's just not true."
Boylan expanded on the allegations in a Medium piece in which she accused Cuomo of acting inappropriately with her when she worked for the state's economic development agency.
Boylan said she first encountered the governor in January 2016 and her boss at the economic development agency informed her Cuomo had a "crush" on her.
In October 2017, Boylan alleged that Cuomo invited her to play strip poker as they were on a government plane together.
One year later, Boylan said she was promoted to deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor, a position she initially turned down "because I didn't want to be near him." She ultimately accepted following Cuomo's insistence.
She also alleged that Cuomo kissed her on the lips without warning on one occasion in 2018 at his New York City office.
"As I got up to leave and walk toward an open door, he stepped in front of me and kissed me on the lips," Boylan wrote. "I was in shock, but I kept walking."
She resigned in September of that year.
"There is a part of me that will never forgive myself for being a victim for so long, for trying to ignore behavior that I knew was wrong," Boylan said. "The Governor exploited my weaknesses, my desire to do good work and to be respected. I was made to believe this was the world I needed to survive in. ... It was all so normalized … that only now do I realize how insidious his abuse was."
When approached by The New York Times for comment on her claims, Cuomo's press secretary, Caitlin Girouard, dismissed them as "quite simply false."
Bennett came forward to share her account to the Times in a story published Feb. 27.
She accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, alleging he asked questions about her sex life.
Bennett, who was first hired by Cuomo's administration in early 2019, worked as an executive assistant and health policy adviser until November when she left his office.
Bennett alleged that on June 5 she was alone with Cuomo in his state Capitol office when he allegedly asked her questions about her personal life that she interpreted as insinuating a sexual relationship.
She claims he asked her if she thought age made a difference in romantic relationships, whether she was monogamous in her relationships and if she ever had sex with older men.
In that June meeting, she said Cuomo made her uncomfortable when he allegedly complained about being lonely in the pandemic and said he "can't even hug anyone" and asked, "Who did I last hug?"
"I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared." Bennett told the Times. "And I was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job."
She said she shared what happened with Cuomo's chief of staff, Jill DesRosiers, and was transferred less than a week later to another job within the administration in a different part of the Capitol. She also said she gave a statement to a special counsel to the governor that same month.
In the end, Bennett said she decided against pushing an investigation because she liked her new job and "wanted to move on."
In response to her allegations, Cuomo stated in a press release: "I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate. The last thing I would ever have wanted was to make her feel any of the things that are being reported."
Cuomo said Bennett was a "valued member" of his staff with "every right to speak out" and he disclosed that Bennett had spoken to him about being a survivor of sexual assault.
Bennett left state government in the fall and now lives and works in a neighboring state.
The same day Bennett's account was published, the governor named former federal judge Barbara Jones to conduct a review of the claims. However, the move faced backlash and state leaders demanded an independent probe.
Cuomo bent to pressure and asked New York Attorney General Letitia James for a formal referral to create a special counsel with subpoena power to investigate the claims against him.
He issued a statement Sunday saying, "I never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm."
He added that some of his comments "may have been insensitive or too personal," "made others feel in ways I never intended" and "have been misinterpreted as unwanted flirtation."
"To be clear I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to," he said.
That same day, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has clashed with the governor in the past, issued a statement denouncing Cuomo's alleged behavior, saying, "the State legislature must immediately revoke the Governor's emergency powers that overrule local control." He called for two fully independent investigations into the personal misconduct allegations and deaths at nursing homes.
New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi also denounced the governor's behavior, telling ABC News his alleged behavior was "inappropriate." She had called on the governor to resign on Feb. 27.
"It's abusive and it scares people because it's terrifying and the governor of New York should not be acting that way," Biaggi said.
The New York Times published an account of alleged misconduct from Ruch. Unlike Boylan and Bennett, she did not work with Cuomo.
She met him at a wedding reception in New York City in September 2019 and alleged Cuomo placed his hands on her bare lower back and face and "asked if he could kiss her." She also shared a photo of the alleged incident with the paper.
She said the incident left her "uncomfortable and embarrassed" and she felt she "didn't have a choice in that matter." Cuomo ended up kissing her on the cheek, according to Ruch.
James also announced on Monday that her office would begin an independent investigation, which included subpoena power, into allegations of sexual harassment against the governor. James' office told ABC News Monday evening it read Ruch's account in the Times and will decide whether to incorporate it into the just-launched investigation.
Rep. Kathleen Rice has become the first New York Democrat in Congress to join mounting calls for Cuomo to resign in wake of the allegations.
Six Democratic state lawmakers also called for Cuomo to be impeached.
In a statement shared with ABC News, the lawmakers said Cuomo used his power to "belittle, bully and harass his employees and colleagues" and impeachment proceedings "are the appropriate avenue" for accountability. It further states Cuomo's withholding of information in regards to nursing home deaths is "sufficient to justify impeachment proceedings."
The New York Attorney General's Office opted to incorporate Ruch's account into the ongoing investigation into Cuomo, a source familiar with the matter told ABC News.
The attorney general's office will not limit the scope of the probe in case additional allegations surface. At the end of the investigation, a public report will be released.
By evening, the State Assembly and State Senate prepared a bill to curb Cuomo's emergency powers granted during the pandemic. It will still allow Cuomo to extend existing emergency directives related to the pandemic, but repeal other emergency powers.
"The legislation introduced today will repeal the temporary emergency powers immediately, while allowing executive actions critical to public health to remain," state officials said in a statement.
Karen Hinton, a former press aide to Cuomo, claimed he behaved inappropriately with her when she worked as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Her account was published by The Washington Post on March 6.
She claimed Cuomo, summoned her to his dimly lit hotel room in Los Angeles and told the Post he embraced her with a "too long, too tight, too intimate" hug after a work event in December 2000.
Hinton, who was married at the time, claimed she pulled away from Cuomo, "but he pulled her back toward his body," according to the Post.
"I thought at that moment it could lead to a kiss, it could lead to other things, so I just pull away again, and I leave," Hinton said to the Post.
Hinton's second husband, Howard Glaser, worked for Cuomo at HUD. He served as a top deputy to Cuomo in the governor's mansion for five years.
Also, on Saturday, a fifth woman, Ana Liss, who served as a policy and operations aide to Cuomo from 2013 to 2015, came forward with allegations against Cuomo that were published by The Wall Street Journal.
She said the governor asked her if she had a boyfriend, called her sweetheart, touched her on her lower back at a reception and once kissed her hand as she rose from her desk.
"It's not appropriate, really, in any setting," Liss said to the Journal.
Cuomo's director of communications, Peter Ajemian, denied Hinton's account to the Post, saying: "This did not happen. Karen Hinton is a known antagonist of the Governor's who is attempting to take advantage of this moment to score cheap points with made up allegations from 21 years ago," Ajemian said. "All women have the right to come forward and tell their story -- however, it's also the responsibility of the press to consider self-motivation. This is reckless."
The Albany Times-Union reported that a sixth woman, a current member of the governor's Executive Chamber staff, accused Cuomo of inappropriate conduct.
The staffer, who has not been named, accused the governor of inappropriately touching her late last year during an encounter at the governor's mansion after she had been summoned there to do work.
She had not filed a formal complaint with the governor's office. Her claims were recently reported to the governor's counsel by other Executive Chamber employees, the Times-Union reported.
Cuomo said he was unaware of the sixth claim against him during a Tuesday call with reporters.
"I'm not aware of any other claim. As I said last week, this is very simple. I never touched anyone inappropriately. As I said last week I never made any inappropriate advances. No one ever told me at the time I made them feel uncomfortable," Cuomo said.
On Wednesday, he followed that up with a statement, saying, "As I said yesterday, I have never done anything like this. The details of this report are gut-wrenching. I am not going to speak to the specifics of this or any other allegation given the ongoing review, but I am confident in the result of the Attorney General's report."
New York state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said Thursday that the Assembly Judiciary Committee would begin an impeachment investigation.
"After meeting with the Assembly Majority Conference today, I am authorizing the Assembly Judiciary Committee to begin an impeachment investigation, led by Chair Charles D. Lavine, to examine allegations of misconduct against Governor Cuomo," Heastie said in a statement. "The reports of accusations concerning the governor are serious. The committee will have the authority to interview witnesses, subpoena documents and evaluate evidence, as is allowed by the New York State Constitution."
"I have the utmost faith that Assemblymember Lavine and the members of the committee will conduct an expeditious, full and thorough investigation," he added. "This inquiry will not interfere with the independent investigation being conducted by Attorney General James."
The investigation would be the first step in a bid to impeach the governor. But while the Assembly investigation may start the legislature down the path toward impeachment, it also has a stalling effect. It gives the Assembly speaker control of the process and staves off calls for an immediate resolution.
New York Attorney General Letitia James said the Assembly investigation will not conflict with the one her office is leading.
"Today's action by the New York state legislature will have no bearing on our independent investigation into these allegations against Governor Cuomo. Our investigation will continue," she said in a statement.
At least 121 members of the state Assembly and Senate, including 65 Democrats and 56 Republicans, have said Cuomo should resign, according to a count by The Associated Press.
Jessica Bakeman, who worked as a part of the Capitol press corp while working for Politico New York in 2014, accused Cuomo of behaving inappropriately with her in a first-person piece for The Cut published March 12.
She claimed that during a 2014 holiday party at the Executive Mansion, Cuomo grabbed her hand and refused to let go. Instead he "put his other arm around my back, his hand on my waist, and held me firmly in place while indicating to a photographer he wanted us to pose for a picture."
He allegedly said to her, "Am I making you uncomfortable? I thought we were going steady." She was 25 at the time.
She wrote: "I never thought the governor wanted to have sex with me. It wasn't about sex. It was about power. ... He wanted me to know that he could take my dignity away at any moment with an inappropriate comment or a hand on my waist."
"The way Cuomo operates is by daring women to make an impossible choice: endure his abuse silently or speak up and risk your career," she added.
The governor's attorney did not respond to ABC News' request for comment on this allegation. But Cuomo has generally denied any of the new allegations against him and urged the public to wait for the results of the attorney general's investigation.
Bloomberg reporter Valerie Bauman tweeted on March 18 that she observed "rampant sexism and sexual harassment" during Cuomo's tenure as New York Attorney General, from 2007 to 2010, when she covered Albany for The Associated Press. She was 25 at the time.
She said Cuomo never touched her inappropriately or said anything she felt she could report to her boss, but "he did make me uncomfortable, as did a lot of men in Albany."
She said the current governor "did appear to take an interest in me."
During one press conference in 2007 he made "unwavering eye contact." After the event he "beelined" for her. "He took my hand, entered my personal space and looked into my eyes as he announced, 'Hello, I'm Andrew Cuomo,'" Bauman wrote.
Shortly after that meeting, a Cuomo staffer called her and asked if she had interest working for the attorney general's office. She declined.
Cuomo's lawyer did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment on Bauman's claims.
Alyssa McGrath, 33, was the first current Cuomo employee to come forward.
In a March 19 piece in The New York Times, she claimed Cuomo would ogle her body, remark on her looks, call her beautiful in Italian and make suggestive comments to both her and another executive aide.
She did not accuse the governor of making sexual contact with her, but she told the Times she believed his actions amounted to sexual harassment.
McGrath said the anonymous current aide who accused Cuomo of groping her in the Executive Mansion, as reported by the Times-Union, described the encounter to her. She said the aide told her the governor asked her to not talk about the alleged incident.
Cuomo's lawyer, Rita Glavin, responded to McGrath's allegations to the Times by saying that Cuomo "has greeted men and women with hugs and a kiss on the cheek, forehead, or hand. Yes, he has posed for photographs with his arm around them. Yes, he uses Italian phrases like 'ciao bella.'"
"None of this is remarkable, although it may be old-fashioned. He has made clear that he has never made inappropriate advances or inappropriately touched anyone," she added.
McGrath's lawyer told ABC News: "The governor's deflections are not credible. This was not just friendly banter. Ms. McGrath understands the common phrase 'ciao Bella.' As she herself says: 'I would not call my parents to find out what that phrase means. I know what that phrase means.'"
Another woman, Sherry Vill, 55, came forward on March 29 in a press conference with attorney Gloria Allred with allegations that the governor inappropriately touched and kissed her in 2017.
Cuomo met with her during a tour of flood damage near her town in Greece, New York, Vill said. The governor took her by the hand, pulled her in and kissed her on both cheeks, Vill said.
"That's what Italians do, kiss both cheeks," the governor allegedly told Vill.
Vill described the incident as being "manhandled" and called the encounter "uncomfortable." She said that she was afraid to come forward sooner because she feared retaliation.
She said she was not pressing charges or filing suit for this incident but was planning to meet with the state attorney general to discuss the matter.
Allred shared photos of Vill with Cuomo from the tour and a screenshot from a video where Cuomo appears to kiss Vill's cheek.
"During times of crisis, the governor has frequently sought to comfort New Yorkers with hugs and kisses," Glavin said. "As I have said before, the governor has greeted both men and women with hugs, a kiss on the cheek, forehead or hand for the past 40 years."
On April 7, the female aide who alleged Cuomo groped her inside the Governor's Mansion in November discussed the alleged incident with the Albany Times-Union.
The woman, a current aide to the governor who's remained anonymous, claimed Cuomo "groomed her" for two years with a pattern of tight hugs and kisses on the cheek.
She said that one time he said to her, "Oh, if you were single, the things that I would to do you," she told the newspaper.
The woman said to the paper that she was summoned to the mansion on a weekday in November last year to help Cuomo with an iPhone problem. When she reached his office on the second floor, he allegedly rose from his desk and groped her.
"That wasn't just a hug," she said. "He went for it and I kind of like was, 'Oh, the door is right there.' ... I was mortified that a woman who works here is going to come in and see. ... I was terrified of that happening, because that's not who I am and that's not what I'm here for."
She said she told him, "You're going to get us in trouble" and he allegedly proceeded to slam the door and said, "I don't care" and he approached her a second time. This time he "reached under her blouse and his hand was grasping one of her breasts over her bra," she said.
She said she didn't remember telling him "stop," but she did tell him, "You're crazy," which led him to finally stop.
"It definitely was a hit to his ego," she told the paper. "And then it was almost like instantly he was done. … He turned around and walked back to his desk. He didn't say anything. I walked myself out to the front door and nothing was said."
A month after the incident, he allegedly told her to stay silent about the encounter.
She said she interpreted those comments as a threat. "I was a liability, and he knew that," she said.
Rita Glavin, Cuomo's attorney, told ABC News in response to this allegation, "The people of New York know the governor -- he has spent 40 years in public service and in the public eye. He has repeatedly made clear that he never made inappropriate advances or inappropriately touched anyone."
"The attorney general's review of this claim and others, including evolving details and new public statements by complainants or their surrogates, must be thorough, fair and provide the truth," she added.
ABC News' Aaron Katersky and Ivan Pereira contributed to this report.
(CINCINNATI) -- The Brent-Spence Bridge between Kentucky and Ohio is a linchpin of commerce in the United States, but it's aging badly, and for years, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate's most powerful Republican, has called for it to be replaced.
Now, though, McConnell is flatly opposed to President Joe Biden's sweeping infrastructure plan that would likely do just that, and it's become a symbol of how even local priorities popular with Republicans and Democrats alike can't bridge the partisan divide in Washington.
A stone's throw from the double-decker structure, rolling cement mixers and grinding truck wheels at a Cincinnati concrete facility nearly drown out the sound of traffic from the bridge that has long drawn the attention of presidents, governors and senators alike.
For Brad Slabaugh, who is the vice president and general manager of Hilltop Companies, the traffic is always noticeable: If his concrete cannot make it across the bridge in time, it hardens -- and he loses money.
"If it takes twice as long to get to a project," Slabaugh told ABC News, "then that means either half the service or twice the amount of equipment and drivers to supply." He said leaders in Washington do not understand the stakes.
Delays on the Brent Spence Bridge are an almost daily part of life in the region, which crosses the Ohio River between Ohio and Kentucky. An average of 175,000 vehicles drive across it each day -- more than twice the 80,000 it was designed to handle -- and it has become emblematic of the aging bridges, roads and waterways President Joe Biden wants to fix with a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan he unveiled last week.
McConnell told reporters last week that he’d like to see the bridge repaired -- as do many of his constituents who are happy to see Washington try to improve the bridges and roads they drive on every day.
But despite that, he said he would "fight" Biden's proposals "every step of the way," since, he said, they are too broad and should not be paid for by taxing corporations, as the president has suggested.
'A choke point for the entire country'
Situated at the intersection of two major highways, Interstates 71 and 75, the double-decker Brent Spence Bridge serves as a central funnel for trucks shipping goods across North America. Tens of thousands of trucks traverse it daily, carrying goods from Michigan to Florida and states in between.
A 2009 study found that freight worth the equivalent of 3% of the nation's gross domestic product passes over the bridge each year, according to Ohio and Kentucky's transportation departments.
Traffic jams are frequent, though, providing a constant headache for locals and creating a ripple effect on the roads across the region.
"It's a choke point for the entire country," Brent Cooper, the president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, told ABC News.
In 1986, its emergency shoulders were removed to make way for more vehicles. As the traffic increased, in 1998 the Federal Highway Administration deemed it "functionally obsolete."
Chunks of concrete fell from the top level onto the bottom in 2014, damaging a car. Late last year, officials shut down the bridge for 41 days after a fiery crash forced significant repair work.
'This bridge needs to be fixed'
Biden's sweeping infrastructure plan proposes fixing the 10 "most economically significant bridges in the country" and repairing "the worst 10,000 smaller bridges."
While the White House declined to name any specific bridges as contenders -- saying a bidding process would determine which would receive funding -- the Brent Spence Bridge has widely been seen as a likely recipient of funds. The project could cost $2.5 billion.
"If the Brent Spence Bridge is not on that list, it is a very bad list," Mark Policinski, the CEO of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, which oversees transportation funding for the region, told ABC News.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said last week that "the Brent Spence Bridge is just one very important example that, unfortunately, is repeated in many places around the country," when asked about it during an interview with Spectrum News. He called the bridge "a glaring illustration of why we need to invest with a lot more ambition in our nation's infrastructure."
Policinski said there was bipartisan agreement that improvements must be made.
"Doesn't matter if you are Republican or Democrat, doesn't matter if you are in Kentucky or Ohio," he said. "This bridge needs to be fixed."
Traffic leads to financial losses for businesses
The international confectionary company that makes Mentos and Airheads candy, Perfetti Van Melle, employs 460 people at its factory and distribution center in Erlanger, Kentucky, a short drive from the Brent Spence Bridge.
Its plant, nestled in an industrial park near large Amazon and Coca-Cola facilities, ships over 3 million Airheads bars a day. Many travel over the bridge.
When the bridge was closed late last year, the company incurred financial penalties when some of the 400 trucks that come and go from its facilities could not deliver products on time, according to its president and CEO for North America, Sylvia Buxton.
"All of the business leaders that I've spoken to are very supportive of the infrastructure package," Buxton said. "This is long overdue. There's been a lack of spending in this area for decades, and it's definitely starting to show."
Paco Tello, the company's vice president of manufacturing for North America, said the company chose to base its operations near the bridge due to easy access to nearby interstates. But he said further delays on the bridge could hit their bottom line.
“Any disruption or any problem that you encounter on that bridge will potentially cause a supply problem or delays for our customers,” Tello said. “So it could represent additional costs.”
GOP opposed to tax hikes, calls Biden proposal 'Trojan horse'
Biden's infrastructure package proposed raising the corporate tax rate to 28% from the 21% it dropped to under a GOP tax law in 2017, as well as a series of other tax measures aimed at America's wealthiest businesses.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have bashed the tax hikes and branded the package as a “Trojan horse” for other Democratic priorities that they say do not fit the bill of traditional infrastructure spending.
While Biden's massive spending plan included money for roads, bridges, and waterways, it also proposed significant investments in broadband internet, the power grid, a network of electric vehicle charging stations, public buildings and caregivers. It also called for the elimination of all lead pipes carrying drinking water.
“I can’t imagine that somewhere in the multi-trillion dollar bill there wouldn’t be money for the Brent Spence Bridge,” McConnell said at a press conference in northern Kentucky last week. “Whether that’s part of an overall package I can support, I can tell you that if it’s going to have massive tax increases and trillion more added to the national debt, not likely.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, told ABC News he backs the Biden proposal, praising the president for working to make gains on the bridge that prior administrations have failed to deliver on.
"I’m hopeful Senator McConnell will want to be part of this solution and make it bipartisan," Brown said. "But Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans don't get to decide what's partisan or bipartisan, the American public do the American public wants a big infrastructure bill. It's going to fix the Brent Spence Bridge."
McConnell's office declined to comment for this article.
From Obama to Trump, failure to 'get this done'
But national politicians have long called for the Brent Spence Bridge to be replaced, and skepticism runs high among locals.
In 2011, President Barack Obama used the bridge as a backdrop to promote government infrastructure spending -- calling out McConnell, who was Senate minority leader then, too, as well as then-House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
"Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge," Obama said. "Help us rebuild America. Help us put this country back to work."
During the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump held a rally in nearby Wilmington, Ohio, and pledged to replace the bridge.
"We've gone through multiple presidents, multiple governors of both parties, and they've been unable to get this done," Cooper said.
In an evenly divided Senate, Biden will need the support of every Democratic senator -- and 10 Republicans -- unless Democrats decide to go it alone. Not all support that route, though.
The White House has said it wants to see "major progress" by Memorial and a bill passed "by the summer."
"We would like to see progress by Memorial Day," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. "We would like to see the bill passed this summer."
That same day, he said he still hoped Republicans would come to the table with realistic ideas.
"We'll be open to good ideas and good-faith negotiations," Biden said. "But here's what we won't be open to: We will not be open to doing nothing. Inaction simply is not an option."
(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden announced limited steps, using his executive power, to address gun violence Thursday -- three weeks after three mass shootings and under pressure to act.
Biden announced six actions, including asking the Department of Justice to issue a proposed rule to regulate the sale of so-called "ghost guns" within 30 days. Those firearms are assembled from kits of parts purchased online and don't have serial numbers, making them difficult to track.
"Gun violence in this country is an epidemic," Biden said in remarks delivered in the White House Rose Garden before an audience of gun control advocates and Democratic lawmakers who have pushed for gun control legislation on Capitol Hill. "It’s an international embarrassment," he said.
But even while touting the actions he took Thursday, Biden acknowledged he can only do so much without cooperation from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
"I asked the attorney general and his team to identify for me immediate concrete actions I could take now without having to go through the Congress," Biden said.
He later conceded that repealing immunity for gun manufacturers, which would require legislation, is a main priority, and something he wished he could do now. Biden promised on the campaign trail to send such a bill to Congress on the first day of his administration, but has yet to do so.
"If I get one thing on my list, the Lord came down and said, Joe, you get one of these, give me that one," Biden said. "Because I tell you what, there would be a come to the Lord moment these folks would have real quickly."
Among the steps announced Thursday are a proposed rule stating that a device marked as a stabilizing brace, capable of turning a pistol into a short-barreled rifle, be subject registration under the National Firearms Act.
The president, who was joined by Attorney General Merrick Garland, also announced his nomination of David Chipman to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Chipman, a former ATF agent, has most recently served as a high-profile gun control advocate with the gun control advocacy group named for former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot in the head in a 2011 shooting in her district while meeting with constituents.
Biden also called for investments in evidence-based community violence intervention, asked the DOJ to publish model "red flag" legislation for states within 60 days and issued a new annual report on firearms trafficking, which hasn't been done since 2000.
There is nothing related to assault rifles in these actions and there will be no legislative proposal from Biden, though senior administration officials stress that these are only initial actions, leaving room for more to come down the road.
The president's moves are limited and it remains unclear how effective they will be or if they will face any legal challenges.
These are highly anticipated actions follow his pledge to pursue gun control reforms as a candidate and early in his presidency. On the campaign trail, Biden said he would ban online sales of firearms, close the so-called Charleston loophole and promised to pursue measures that would keep guns away from those who could hurt themselves or others.
But the president has fallen short in his promise on gun reform and it hasn't been a priority for this administration. He focused on COVID-19 relief right out of the gate and is now focusing on his infrastructure proposal.
When he held his first and only news conference in March, Biden said "it's all about timing" when he explained why he didn't think now was the time to spend political capital on gun reform.
Regardless, his announcement was welcomed by advocates and victims of gun violence and recent mass shootings, even though it comes as Congress remains paralyzed on the issue. Despite Democrats' control of Congress, they still need the support of 10 Republicans in the Senate to advance any gun control legislation.
The House has passed piecemeal reform bills largely along party lines, but they have not been taken up in the Senate. That reality has led gun-reform groups in recent weeks to endorse progressive calls to eliminate the Senate's 60-vote threshold.
Biden is also expected to be joined on Thursday by gun control advocates and some Democratic lawmakers who have pushed for gun control legislation on Capitol Hill.
(NEW YORK) -- In the last four months, five states have legalized recreational marijuana, meaning now 30% of the country allows its adult residents to possess and use cannabis.
At least two more states are poised to be added to that list following the passage of cannabis legalization bills this year.
Marijuana policy experts and advocates say this national trend is indicative of a shift in Americans' perspectives on marijuana.
Arguments from elected officials and voters that centered around perceived dangers of marijuana substance abuse or a rise in criminal activities have quelled as evidence has grown to show there are economic, social and health benefits from a state regulated cannabis industry, according to Mason Marks, a law professor at Gonzaga University and a fellow-in-residence at Harvard Law School's Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics.
"It’s turning out to be very antiquated," Marks said of past opposition to legalizing marijuana.
Marks and other experts say there will be stronger legalization efforts in the near future. However, they noted there would still be an uphill battle before the country sees any true national repeal of its marijuana laws.
As of April 7, 15 states have legalized recreational and medical marijuana through voter ballot initiatives or state bills. The New Mexico and Virginia state legislatures passed bills this session that would repeal their respective prohibitions on cannabis and are awaiting signatures from their governors.
State leaders have led their legalization efforts by emphasizing how a regulated market could help boost their coffers in a post-pandemic economy and acknowledging the decades of social justice issues that were created by current and previous drug laws.
When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the state bill to legalize marijuana last week, he touted the estimated $350 million in annual tax revenues that the bill would bring and said it would "right the wrongs of the past by putting an end to harsh prison sentences." This was in sharp contrast to four years ago, when Cuomo told reporters he was opposed to legalizing marijuana, calling it "a gateway drug."
"As of this date, I am unconvinced on recreational marijuana," Cuomo said in February 2017.
Marks said Cuomo's changing sentiments are in line with the rest of the country. Since 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize and regulate, national support for ending cannabis prohibition has risen from 48% to 68%, according to a February Gallup poll.
Steven Hawkins, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project, told ABC News he believes the near-decade of legalized marijuana in the country has shown people that decriminalizing and regulating marijuana doesn't result in bad consequences for communities.
A study released in 2019 by Washington State University found "no statistically significant long-term effects of recreational cannabis laws, or the initiation of legal retail sales, on violent or property crime rates," in Washington state or Colorado.
Hawkins said more Americans are also realizing the decades of unequal treatment brought by state drug laws and are more vocal in rectifying them. He noted that there were over 650,000 arrests for cannabis-related offenses last year, 90% of which were for possession, and the majority of those arrests were of minorities.
"I think most people have come to realize that cannabis has not been a gateway drug but a gateway to the criminal justice system," Hawkins told ABC News.
Hawkins said there will be more pressure on other states to change their laws, but warned that there will still be more work ahead, even in places where voters approved legalization measures.
In South Dakota, 225,260 voters, or roughly 54% of the electorate, voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that legalized recreational marijuana, according to state election results. Four other states also passed ballot measures on Election Day that legalized marijuana.
The South Dakota ballot measure, however, was challenged in a lawsuit filed by state officers on behalf of Gov. Kristi Noem.
In February, Circuit Judge Christina Klinger ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating the measure violated the state's single-subject rule and was a revision of the constitution rather than an amendment, and the decision is pending an appeal.
"Governor Noem swore an oath to protect both the South Dakota and United States Constitution. Amendment A was passed in an unconstitutional fashion, so as part of her duty as governor, she is supporting the lawsuit challenging the amendment," Ian Fury, a spokesman for Noem, said in a statement to ABC News.
Hawkins said the suit is undermining the will of the voters, who he noted mostly voted for Republicans in the congressional and presidential race. He added that he believes the suit won't dissipate strong support from South Dakotans.
"If anything, it would slow down the process," Hawkins said of the legal action taken by opponents in South Dakota. "What South Dakota shows is the electorate crosses political lines when it comes to cannabis."
Marks said the ultimate battle will come in Washington, D.C. As more states legalize marijuana, Congress will have to come up with legislation that addresses the national drug laws.
However, there is still some work to be done on the federal level, according to Marks.
President Joe Biden said there needed to be more recreational cannabis legalization research before he could fully support it.
In an interview with Politico last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he wants to see a bill introduced, even if the president isn't fully on board.
"I want to make my arguments to him, as many other advocates will," Schumer told Politico. "But at some point, we're going to move forward, period."
Marks said he thinks it is concerning that the president and congressional leaders aren't in sync on the issue. He predicted they're going to have to make a concerted effort to address the growing support and success of legalized marijuana in the states.
"It really is a public health consideration, whether the state legislators or other leaders say it or not," he said. "People are going to use this no matter what, and we've got to do make sure it’s done safely."
(LITTLE ROCK, Ark.) -- Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a staunch, longtime conservative, said Wednesday that amid the GOP-led culture wars, Republicans had "veered" from their principle of limited government and that the GOP doesn't need to "engage in every cultural battle."
This week, the governor found himself at odds with his state’s legislature over its House Bill 1570, which bans gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth. On Monday, Hutchinson vetoed the bill but correctly predicted the legislature would override his decision, which happened the following day.
The move makes Arkansas the first state in the country to prohibit medical treatment for transgender youth who are younger than 18 years old and also made it a lightning rod in an emerging political culture war broadly backed by many Republican legislatures.
Hutchinson told ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl and Political Director Rick Klein on Wednesday that the passage of the legislation contradicts some of the traditional principles the Republican party aims to uphold.
"It puts the legislature interfering with decisions that parents make with the guidance of doctors," Hutchinson said of the recently passed legislation on ABC News' "Powerhouse Politics."
"The worst thing about the bill is that it didn't have a grandfather clause," Hutchinson added. Without this kind of clause, the governor said current patients going through hormonal treatment in Arkansas would have their access to medical care withdrawn.
"We've veered from our intellectual concepts of a limited role of government," he said. "We have moved more toward the cultural, social conservative side and we have veered from that balance of a limited role in government, so we need leaders that will step up and say ‘let's think this through and let's, let's lead and let's not just simply play to those that want to engage in every cultural battle.'"
While issuing his veto of the bill earlier this week, Hutchinson called H.B. 1570 "vast government overreach" and outlined how the bill would set a precedent that would allow the government to interfere with personal decisions made by patients, parents and health care experts. Prior to making his decision, Hutchinson said he met with transgender youth and health providers.
"The government doesn't need to be involved in every decision. If we're going to be a party of a restrained government, and limited government, and we actually have to practice that at some point," he said on the podcast, while also predicting more bills aimed at transgender issues are likely to land on his desk in the near future.
According to Hutchinson, socially conservative groups that help make up the Republican party are attempting to "slow down" a perceived "shift" in society with their involvement in the debate over transgender rights. He added that at times that results in addressing "a non-existent problem."
"I've always believed that if you do it in that fashion, you're going to have unintended consequences because you're not dealing with something concrete, and so I think it's a bad policy," he said in reference to H.B. 1570.
Hutchinson's veto comes on the heels of South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem's veto of a sweeping bill that would have banned transgender women and girls from female sports. Critics were quick to point out that the Arkansas governor signed similar legislation -- which the ACLU called "discriminatory and shameful."
The Arkansas governor defended his approach to the bill, telling Karl and Klein that he believes each piece of legislation should be considered on its own.
"The girls in sport bill said that you cannot be a biological male and compete in girls athletics and girls sports. To me, that protects the integrity of the sport. I signed that, but it did give people the impression that this was anti-transgender," he said.
Hutchinson isn’t the only Republican leader to recently make headlines. This week, lawmakers in Georgia and Texas faced fallout from some of the nation’s top businesses over their state’s restrictive voting legislation. The biggest pushback occurred when Major League Baseball moved this year's All-Star Game out of Atlanta following controversy generated by Georgia's sweeping new law.
Although Hutchinson conceded that "major corporations do have a concern about the reputation of a state," he disapproved of corporations’ recent involvement in voting rights.
"You can agree or disagree with a state's voting policies, but I don't believe that's where corporations and sports should fight the battle. I don't at all," he said.
As for ongoing politics in Arkansas, the term-limited governor says he intends to stay out of the ongoing primary between former Trump administration press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
"There's going to be a conservative governor that follows me here in Arkansas, and as for me, I spent a lot of years in private sector and I enjoy that side of it, but I also am very concerned about our country and I hope there's opportunities that can help shape our country's future and also the debate as we go into 2022. So I expect to be engaged," Hutchinson said.
(ATLANTA) -- The Georgia lawmaker who was arrested for knocking on the door while Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a sweeping election bill won't be prosecuted, the district attorney announced Wednesday.
Democrat Park Cannon was escorted out of the statehouse last month after she repeatedly knocked on the door of Kemp's office as he held a private livestream of the bill signing, which added new voting requirements for Georgia residents following the results of the 2020 election that flipped the traditionally red state to blue.
Cannon argued that the public and other members of the General Assembly should be allowed to witness the event. Video showing Cannon as she was escorted out of the statehouse went viral, and she faced charges of obstructing law enforcement and disrupting a general assembly session.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis announced Wednesday that Cannon would not be prosecuted.
Interviews from multiple citizen witnesses and Capitol police, video evidence and police reports were reviewed before Willis decided to "close this matter," according to a statement. The case will not be presented in front of a grand jury, Willis said.
"While some of Representative Cannon’s colleagues and the police officers involved may have found her behavior annoying, such sentiment does not justify a presentment to a grand jury of the allegations in the arrest warrants or any other felony charges," the statement said.
After the incident, Cannon's attorney, Gerald Griggs, said she was "shaken but resolved" and that she was arrested in an area where state lawmakers normally have access to.
"It reminds us of the 50s and the 60s in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia and South Carolina," Griggs said. "But I think the governor needs to understand that we are not going to sit back on George Wallace type tactics and not respond the same way we responded to George Wallace. So I think the rest of the country needs to take a very strong look at the tactics that are being used in Georgia. The Justice Department needs to get involved. There needs to be passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect voting rights. And we need the Justice Department to crack down on the tactics of these local and state officials that are trying to silence voters and silence people."
ABC News' Alex Mallin and Briana Stewart contributed to this report.
(ALBANY, N.Y.) -- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill Tuesday night repealing a law that protected health care facilities, including hospitals and nursing homes, and their employees from coronavirus lawsuits.
The Emergency or Disaster Treatment Protection Act was enacted last year in the pandemic and was designed to give health care centers and staffers immunity from liability.
The repeal comes as Cuomo's administration is under a federal investigation for the handling of COVID-19 nursing home deaths. Cuomo's handling of the crisis, coupled with sexual misconduct allegations against the governor, are leading to some calls for him to step down.
New York Sen. Alessandra Biaggi announced via Twitter that the legislation will "fully repeal the blanket immunity NY granted healthcare facilities and nursing homes."
"Tonight I am thinking of those who lost loved ones in nursing homes. This moment is thanks to their tireless advocacy and persistence," she added in the tweet,
Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.
Michael Balboni, the executive director of Greater New York Health Care Facilities Association, opposes the repeal.
Balboni told ABC News that the law enacted in the early days of the pandemic was designed to give immunity to doctors being called into the field and short-staffed facilities that were "all hands on deck." He noted that health care facilities and staffers could still be sued over gross negligence.
"To do this now seems to be piling on an industry that has already had so much death and devastation. And I don't really see how this is going to help anybody ... This is is an opportunity to rebuild better. And we're not doing that, we're still in the mode of casting blame," he said.
The Greater New York Hospital Association also opposed the repeal, saying the public health threat is far from over.
"We strongly oppose this repeal. In passing these fair and balanced liability protections last year, Albany recognized the incredible sacrifices that health care workers, hospitals, and other facilities made in caring for COVID-19 patients under extraordinarily challenging circumstances," Brian Conway, spokesman of Greater New York Hospital Association, told ABC News.
"This pandemic is not over. We remain concerned about potential future surges as the coronavirus reinvents itself through variants and mutations, even as vaccinations increase," Conway said.
In New York there have been more than 40,861 COVID-19 deaths and more than 1.9 million COVID-19 infections, according to state data.
In March, Cuomo released a nursing home guidance that patients were allowed to reenter nursing homes even if they had COVID-19. Cuomo rescinded that order in May 2020.
In January 2021, New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report stating Cuomo's office understated the toll of COVID-19-related deaths in state nursing homes by as much as 50%. That report stated that many nursing home residents died from coronavirus in hospitals after being transferred out of nursing homes, yet their deaths weren't published in total nursing home death data.
In February, it became known that at least 15,000 long-term care facility residents had died statewide during the pandemic. In late January, the state said 8,700 had died, a figure that didn't include residents who died after being transferred to hospitals.