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Politics
AP
Not Guilty: Senate acquits Trump of impeachment charges

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump won impeachment acquittal Wednesday in the U.S. Senate, bringing to a close only the third presidential trial in American history with votes that split the country, tested civic norms and fed the tumultuous 2020 race for the White House.

With Chief Justice John Roberts presiding, senators sworn to do “impartial justice” stood at their desks to state their votes for the roll call — “guilty” or “not guilty” — in a swift tally almost exclusively along party lines. Visitors, including the president’s allies, watched from the crowded gallery. Roberts read the declaration that Trump “be, and is hereby, acquitted of the charges.”

The outcome Wednesday followed months of impeachment proceedings, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House to Mitch McConnell’s Senate, reflecting the nation’s unrelenting partisan divide three years into the Trump presidency.

What started as Trump’s request for Ukraine to “do us a favor” spun into a far-reaching, 28,000-page report compiled by House investigators accusing an American president of engaging in shadow diplomacy that threatened U.S. foreign relations for personal, political gain as he pressured the ally to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden ahead of the next election.

No president has ever been removed by the Senate.

A politically emboldened Trump eagerly predicted vindication, deploying the verdict as a political anthem in his reelection bid. The president claims he did nothing wrong, decrying the “witch hunt” and “hoax” as extensions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian 2016 campaign interference by those out to get him from the start of his presidency.

Trump’s political campaign tweeted videos, statements and a cartoon dance celebrating that he was “vindicated.” Trump himself tweeted that he would speak from the White House on Thursday about “our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax.”

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said there will always be “a giant asterisk next to the president’s acquittal” because of the Senate’s quick trial and the Republicans’ rejection of witnesses.

A majority of senators expressed unease with Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine that resulted in the two articles of impeachment. But two-thirds “guilty” votes would have been needed to reach the Constitution’s bar of high crimes and misdemeanors to convict and remove Trump from office. The final tallies fell far short.

On the first article of impeachment, abuse of power, the vote was 52-48 favoring acquittal. The second, obstruction of Congress, also produced a not guilty verdict, 53-47.

Only one Republican, Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s defeated 2012 presidential nominee, broke with the GOP.

Romney choked up as he said he drew on his faith and “oath before God” to announce he would vote guilty on the first charge, abuse of power. He voted to acquit on the second.

Both Bill Clinton in 1999 and Andrew Johnson in 1868 drew cross-party support when they were left in office after an impeachment trial. President Richard Nixon resigned rather than face revolt from his own party.

Ahead of voting, some of the most closely watched senators took to the Senate floor to tell their constituents, and the nation, what they had decided. The Senate chaplain opened the trial with daily prayers for the senators, including one Wednesday seeking “integrity.”

Influential GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is retiring, worried that a guilty verdict would “pour gasoline on the fire” of the nation’s culture wars over Trump. He said the House proved its case but it just didn’t rise to the level of impeachment.

“It would rip the country apart,” Alexander said before his vote.

Other Republicans siding with Trump said it was time to end what McConnell called the “circus” and move on. Trump ally GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said it was a “sham” designed to destroy a presidency.

Most Democrats, though, echoed the House managers’ warnings that Trump, if left unchecked, would continue to abuse the power of his office for personal political gain and try to “cheat” again ahead of the the 2020 election.

During the nearly three-week trial, House Democrats prosecuting the case argued that Trump abused power like no other president in history when he pressured Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, ahead of the 2020 election.

They detailed an extraordinary shadow diplomacy run by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani that set off alarms at the highest levels of government. After Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine, Trump temporarily halted U.S. aid to the struggling ally battling hostile Russia at its border. The money was eventually released in September as Congress intervened.

When the House probed Trump’s actions, the president instructed White House aides to defy congressional subpoenas, leading to the obstruction charge.

One key Democrat, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones — perhaps the most endangered politically for reelection in a state where Trump is popular — announced he would vote to convict. “Senators are elected to make tough choices,” Jones said

Questions from the Ukraine matter continue to swirl. House Democrats may yet summon former national security adviser John Bolton to testify about revelations from his forthcoming book that offer a fresh account of Trump’s actions. Other eyewitnesses and documents are almost sure to surface.

In closing arguments for the trial the lead prosecutor, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., appealed to senators’ sense of decency, that “right matters” and “truth matters” and that Trump “is not who you are.’’

“The president’s basic lack of character, his willingness to cheat in the election — he’s not going to stop,” Schiff told The Associated Press on Wednesday, predicting more revelations would become public. “It’s not going to change, which means that we are going to have to remain eternally vigilant.”

Pelosi was initially reluctant to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump when she took control of the House after the 2018 election, dismissively telling more liberal voices that “he’s not worth it.’’

Trump and his GOP allies in Congress argue that Democrats have been trying to undercut him from the start.

But a whistleblower complaint of his conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy set off alarms. The call had been placed the day after Mueller announced the findings of his Russia probe.

When Trump told Pelosi in September that the call was perfect, she was stunned. “Perfectly wrong,” she said. Days later, the speaker announced the formal impeachment inquiry.

The result was the quickest, most partisan impeachment in U.S. history, with no Republicans joining the House Democrats to vote for the charges, though one GOP congressman left the party and voted for impeachment and two Democrats joined Republicans to oppose. The Republican Senate kept up the pace with the fastest trial ever, and the first with no witnesses or deliberations.

Trump’s legal team with star attorney Alan Dershowitz made the sweeping, if stunning, assertion that even if the president engaged in the quid pro quo as described, it is not impeachable, because politicians often view their own political interest with the national interest.

McConnell, who commands a 53-47 Republican majority, braced for dissent, refusing efforts to prolong the trial with more witnesses, arguing the House should have done a better job.

Some GOP senators distanced themselves from Trump’s defense, and other Republicans brushed back calls from conservatives to disclose the name of the anonymous whistleblower. The Associated Press typically does not reveal the identity of whistleblowers.

Trump’s approval rating, which has generally languished in the mid- to low-40s, hit a new high of 49% in the latest Gallup polling, which was conducted as the Senate trial was drawing to a close. The poll found that 51% of the public views the Republican Party favorably, the first time the GOP’s number has exceeded 50% since 2005.

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Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Laurie Kellman, Matthew Daly, Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.


Local
top story
Gun rights center stage again at Atlantic County freeholders

NORTHFIELD — Freeholders are weighing all of their options before determining whether they should approve a resolution to make Atlantic County a Second Amendment sanctuary.

“Once we receive information back from our solicitor, we will make a decision whether to move forward with the resolution,” Freeholder Ernest Coursey, a Democrat, said at a meeting Tuesday. “We have received a multitude of letters. We take it seriously and appreciate your concerns and comments.”

Coursey said the freeholders’ Public Safety Committee, which he chairs, met to discuss the request. Cape May County freeholders recently passed a similar resolution, as did Egg Harbor Township Committee on Wednesday night.

Sandy Hickerson, of Absecon, is the organizer of the Atlantic County 2A Sanctuary group, which is seeking the resolution.

There are similar groups in most counties in the state, she has said, and they are part of a national group fighting what they say are increasing restrictions on legal gun ownership.

Similar groups protested against restrictive gun legislation in Richmond, Virginia, a couple weeks ago. In general, they argue restrictions on gun sales and ownership harm legal gun owners and do nothing to curb the use of guns by gangs and other criminals.

Hickerson attended Tuesday’s meeting with about 15 members of her group, after about 50 members attended a freeholder meeting two weeks ago to introduce the freeholders to the idea of the resolution.

“On behalf of the New Jersey Second Amendment Sanctuary movement, thank you and the Public Safety Committee for doing your homework and doing what you said you would do,” Hickerson said Tuesday.

Hickerson said she had forwarded information to freeholders about 44 bills pending in the New Jersey Legislature that would interfere with legal gun ownership, including one to raise the legal age for purchasing guns from 18 to 21. The group is seeking freeholder help in opposing some of those bills.

Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica reminisced about being allowed to take a hunting rifle with him to school and leave it in his locker when he was a student at Holy Spirit High School in the 1960s.

Sandra Russo, of Northfield, said she favors gun control laws like the state’s Red Flag law, which allows authorities to remove guns from the homes of people a judge deems a danger to themselves or others.

Atlantic County budget up slightly in 2020

NORTHFIELD — Atlantic County’s budget is estimated to increase slightly to $216.7 million in 2020, with the amount to be raised by taxes going up less than 1% to $151.6 million, County Executive Dennis Levinson said Tuesday.

She doesn’t understand the group’s opposition to such laws, she said.

“About 200 guns have been surrendered,” Russo said, “after families realized something terrible could happen. This sanctuary-city language has spilled over to gun sanctuary — I don’t know what the end is. It concerns me there could be a progression to open carry becoming acceptable.”

Hickerson said in many cases under the state’s red flag law, the families did not surrender their guns, but they were taken from them.

James Casas, of Egg Harbor Township, said he has worked in the mental health field, and the important thing is to remove people who pose a danger to others from the public.

“We had a case in (another state) where a man’s weapons were taken from him because of a red flag law. Two days later he stabbed his mom with a samurai sword. Why did they remove the gun and not the person?”

Eileen Toland, of Northfield, said many gun sanctuary activists “believe in a baseless conspiracy about federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans.”

It “scares the hell out of me,” she said, calling some of the activists radicals.

“This movement is not going away. Now it’s in our backyards,” Toland said. “Guns are purchased for one reason — to shoot. It’s up to the owner to decide what to shoot at: a bull’s-eye, a deer or a person.”

That comment inspired one of the group’s members to quote the Founding Fathers on the issue.

“An unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man,” she quoted Thomas Jefferson; and “To disarm the people is the most effectual way to control them,” she quoted George Mason.

“This should make us afraid, shouldn’t it?” she said.


Crime
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Bridgeton officials continue search for missing 5-year-old, police chief says

BRIDGETON — Police sought to reassure residents Tuesday that investigators are doing everything possible to find 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez, who disappeared from a City Park playground in mid-September.

“The case remains front and center,” police Chief Michael Gaimari Sr. said in a Facebook post, amid negative social media posts and news regarding tips from psychics. “Investigators have pursued and continue to pursue every investigative lead and possibility and I believe they have made significant progress in the overall investigation even though we have not located the child or determined the exact circumstances surrounding her disappearance.”

He added that investigators have been “working daily on the investigation based at an undisclosed location near the city.”

“Law enforcement understands that the lack of information on the whereabouts of Dulce or the definite circumstances surrounding her disappearance causes apprehension in the community and among those close to her and the family,” Gaimari said. “But we have to remain focused on the task at hand and rely on a factual-based investigation to attain an eventual conclusion.”

He cautioned the public about falling prey to “erroneous and unsubstantiated” information on social media.

“It’s easy to post that police or the city or county or anyone is not doing enough when we have not located Dulce, and I understand,” he said. “But I can assure you that all the agencies involved, inclusive of the City of Bridgeton, Mayor Kelly and City Council are fully committed in resolving this investigation and have contributed all resources available, including substantial amounts of overtime for investigators throughout the past four months.”

FBI Special Agent in charge Gregory W. Ehrie said that the organization remains involved in the investigation and will continue to do so.

“We will not stop looking for that child until there is a resolution,” he said.

Dulce disappeared Sept. 16 while playing with her 3-year-old brother in City Park. Her mother, Noema Alavez Perez, 19, was sitting in her car with an 8-year-old relative at the time.

State Police issued an Amber Alert for Dulce a day after she went missing. Since the girl’s disappearance, officials have searched for her using dogs, helicopters and boats, to no avail.

There have also been several citizen-led searches and flyer campaigns. On Sunday, hundreds combed the area around the school Dulce attended, 6abc reported, after a psychic told the family she was dead and buried behind the school.

Hundreds of card readers and psychics have reached out to help find Dulce, said Jackie Rodriguez, who acts as the spokeswoman for the family, though she added the girl’s grandmother is religious and does not believe in them.

“We are aware and respect that law enforcement are behind it and doing a great job. They are not obligated to tell anyone what they are doing,” Rodriguez said. “So I think we should respect and not try to interfere with the investigation.”

In addition to police, investigators from the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, State Police and the FBI are involved in the case, which has included ground searches with and without dogs, reviewing “exorbitant” amounts of video, and interviews with witnesses and potential witnesses, Gaimari said.

They’ve also followed up on tips from psychics, he said, “’only’ when the information ‘may’ have some ‘slight possible connection.’” However, following “’random’ information” would take investigators away from “legitimate avenues of investigation,” he added.

The investigation will not be conducted in the media, either news or social, Gaimari said, adding more than 5,000 flyers have been posted or distributed in the community, and updates are shared regularly.

“I still believe there is legitimate information out there that could help,” he said. “And I’m urging those that have that information to contact us by calling or through TIP411 anonymous text line, subtext Bridgeton.”

Anyone with information can call Bridgeton police at 856-451-0033 or the FBI at 800-CALL-FBI. Pictures or videos can be uploaded to fbi.gov/alavez.

PHOTOS from the march for missing Dulce Maria Alavez

Charles J. Olson / for The Press/  

Noema Alavez Perez, mother of Dulce Maria Alavez, clutches a picture of her daughter during a march to Bridgeton City Hall on Jan. 6.


Patrick Semansky  

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., tears her copy of President Donald Trump’s s State of the Union address after he delivered it to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. Vice President Mike Pence is at left. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)


Local
featured
West Wildwood residents get answers on $1.75M sewer bond ordinance

WEST WILDWOOD — Members of the Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood are reconsidering their attempt to repeal a $1.75 million sewer bond ordinance after finally getting some of their questions answered at a meeting Wednesday night.

“I feel like we got some answers,” said Concerned Taxpayers Treasurer Susan Czwalina after the meeting. “We have to go through the numbers and see if it all makes sense. I wish we’d had this information two weeks ago.”

Mayor Christopher Fox said the project would replace sanitary sewers on Poplar Avenue from Arion to G Street, and on G from Poplar to Glenwood, a total of about seven blocks.

The road beds would be raised, and paving and curbing would be replaced. It is needed because of flooding issues and because breaks in the pipes are causing flood water to enter the system, resulting in almost five times as much water running through it as expected for the population.

After replacement, sewer costs for the borough should go down, said engineer James Oris of Remington and Vernick.

Oris said the borough is applying for U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grants that would pay for about half of the cost and the rest would be financed with a low-interest 40-year USDA loan.

The project will not go forward if the borough does not get the grants, Fox said.

It is necessary to bond the full amount because the grant is a reimbursement grant, according to the auditor with Bowman and Company. The borough would have to pay to have the work done, then get reimbursed and pay off the bonds.

Concerned Taxpayers had recently started a petition drive to force a public vote on the bond ordinance, which was passed by the Borough Commission last month at a special meeting where residents said Commissioners Scott Golden and Amy Korobellis could not answer basic questions about the project to be funded.

“I’m not going to sign it,” said resident Joe Kline after the meeting. “I don’t like the way they selected the street, but I agree with the engineer the work has to be done.”

West Wildwood officials say attorney told them to do it

WEST WILDWOOD —  Commissioners said they were acting on the advice of their solicitor when they made a pact with Police Chief Jackie Ferentz not to use extensive disciplinary records against her in defending a lawsuit she brought alleging wrongful firing.

Some residents had pointed out that Golden lives on Poplar in the affected area, as does Fox’s wife Debbie Fox, and two other municipal employees.

Mayor Fox said Poplar was chosen because the borough already had a $156,000 grant to use in that location, and because it is one of the worst streets for flooding.

According to the group, state law requires 41 signatures of registered voter residents on a petition to force a public vote. That would represent 15% of the votes cast in the municipality in the last general election, according to the group.

The deadline to file the petition is Feb. 13, the group said.

“As you are aware, the borough’s poor judgment in the past has led to taxpayers footing the bill for a $1.7 million lawsuit to police Chief Jackie Ferentz and her Lawyer, Michelle Douglas,” said a letter dated Jan. 28 from Concerned Taxpayers to residents. “This represents a $23,000 monthly expense as Douglas receives $18,000 and Ferentz $5,000 for years to come.”

Douglas will be fully paid in 42 months under the plan, and Ferentz in 200 months.

“Lest we forget, the new in-house (West Wildwood) solicitor is Mary Bittner, the same attorney who was directly involved in the Ferentz case, with the result being denied coverage by the Joint Insurance Fund and the payments now being made by you, the taxpayers.”

The group estimated new costs per sewer connection could exceed $30 more per quarter, for an average household sewer bill of $870 per year.

But the auditor estimated the financing for the low-interest loan would amount to about $30,000 a year, costing the average sewer customer about $36 extra per year. He said it would be added to sewer bills, not to the municipal tax rate.