BRIDGETON — The Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office had no significant updates Tuesday on the whereabouts of missing city girl Dulce Maria Alavez, 5.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pressed Ukraine’s leader to “look into” his Democratic rival Joe Biden as well as his own enduring grievances from the 2016 election, according to a rough transcript of a summer phone call that is now at the center of Democrats’ presidential impeachment probe.
Trump repeatedly urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to work with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer. At one point in the conversation, Trump said, “I would like for you to do us a favor.”
The president’s words set the parameters for the debate to come — just the fourth impeachment investigation of an American president in the nation’s history. The initial response highlighted the deep divide between the two parties: Democrats said the phone call amounted to a “shakedown” of a foreign leader, while Trump — backed by the vast majority of Republicans — dismissed it as a “nothing call.”
The call is one part of a federal whistleblower complaint about the president’s activities. After being stymied by the administration, lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees got their first look at the complaint Wednesday. Congress is also seeking an in-person interview with the whistleblower, who remains anonymous.
Trump spent the day meeting with world leaders at the United Nations, a remarkable TV split screen even for the turbulence of the Trump era. On his schedule: a meeting with Zelenskiy.
In a lighthearted appearance before reporters, Zelenskiy said he didn’t want to get involved in American elections but added that in the phone call, “Nobody pushed me.” Trump chimed in, “In other words, no pressure.”
The next steps in the impeachment inquiry were still developing a day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the probe. Moderate Democrats, including some from districts where Trump remains popular, urged the speaker to keep the inquiry to Ukraine and not expand into other issues Congress has already been investigating.
“We need to be disciplined about how we communicate,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan. “The minute we’re talking about the intricacies of process is the minute that we are losing people.”
Pelosi announced the impeachment probe Tuesday after months of resistance to a process she has warned would be divisive for the country and risky for her party. But after viewing the transcript Wednesday, Pelosi declared: “Congress must act.”
Trump, who thrives on combat, has all but dared Democrats to move toward impeachment, confident that the specter of an investigation led by the opposition party will bolster rather than diminish his political support.
“It’s a joke. Impeachment, for that?” Trump said during a news conference in New York. He revived the same language he has used for months to deride the now-finished special counsel investigation into election interference, declaring impeachment “a hoax” and the “single greatest witch hunt in American history.”
Republicans largely stood by the president and dismissed the notion that the rough transcript revealed any wrongdoing by Trump.
“I think it was a perfectly appropriate phone call, it was a congratulatory phone call,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican. “The Democrats continually make these huge claims and allegations about President Trump, and then you find out there’s no there there.”
The memo released by the White House was not a verbatim transcript but was instead based on the records of officials who listened to the call. The conversation took place July 25, one day after special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill about his investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference.
In the 30-minute phone call with Zelenskiy, Trump encourages the Ukrainian leader to talk with Giuliani and Barr about Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Trump, immediately after saying he and Zelenskiy would be in touch, references Ukraine’s economy, saying: “Your economy is going to get better and better I predict. You have a lot of assets. It’s a great country.”
At another point in the conversation, Trump asks Zelenskiy for a favor: his help looking into a cybersecurity firm that investigated the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee and determined it was carried out by Russia. Trump has falsely suggested Crowdstrike was owned by a Ukrainian.
In the days before the call with Zelenskiy, Trump had ordered the freezing of $400 million in military aid for Ukraine — prompting speculation that he was holding out the money as leverage for information on the Bidens. Trump has denied that charge and the aid package does not come up in the conversation.
Trump has sought to implicate Biden and his son in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.
Biden said it was “tragedy” that Trump was willing to “put personal politics above his sacred oath.” He singled out Trump’s attempts to pull Barr and the Justice Department into efforts to investigate Biden, calling it “a direct attack on the core independence of that department, an independence essential to the rule of law.”
While the possibility of impeachment has hung over Trump for many months, the likelihood of a probe had faded after special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation ended without a clear directive for lawmakers.
Since then, the House committees have revisited aspects of the Mueller probe while also launching new inquiries into Trump’s businesses and various administration scandals that all seemed likely to drag on for months.
Details of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine prompted Democrats to quickly shift course. By the time Pelosi announced the probe, about two-thirds of House Democrats had announced they were moving toward impeachment probes.
The burden will probably now shift to Democrats to make the case to a scandal-weary public. In a highly polarized Congress, an impeachment inquiry could simply showcase how clearly two sides can disagree when shown the same evidence rather than approach consensus.
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Laurie Kellman, Andrew Taylor, Eric Tucker and Zeke Miller in Washington and Jonathan Lemire and Deb Riechmann in New York contributed to this report.
Get on the bus
ATLANTIC CITY — As a single woman living on her own at the Best of Life Apartments, Nancy Katz developed a method during the past year and a half to get all her groceries, including fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.
Katz, 70, orders her dry and canned goods and heavy stuff from Walmart, which delivers them to her home. She buys all her fresh meats and vegetables every two weeks at the Absecon ShopRite, courtesy of bus rides provided by Atlantic County’s Division of Intergenerational Services.
“I like the convenience of getting on the bus to come here,” Katz said. “It (ShopRite) is always well stocked, and the place is clean.”
The bus-to-grocery-store program has been a help to Katz, who sold her car and no longer has to pay for gas or car insurance as a person on a fixed income.
The bus program also gives her independence, so she does not have to rely on her son, who lives in Atlantic City, to take her to the supermarket.
Atlantic County offered this type of service for years throughout the county with the exception of Atlantic City because the resort had its own service, County Executive Dennis Levinson said.
Two years ago, the county initiated services for Atlantic City residents as one of several measures that helped the city save $1 million. The county now provides multiple grocery runs in the city each week to either the Absecon ShopRite or the Ventnor Acme with an average of 125 riders, Levinson said.
ShopRite and Acme offer more choices of fruits and vegetables than what is available at most grocery and corner convenience stores in Atlantic City.
“Food insecurity is a real problem for many seniors because of medical and mobility issues as well as the financial considerations of living on fixed incomes that may limit their access to healthy foods,” Levinson said. “Atlantic County offers Meals on Wheels and free transportation to grocery stores.”
The county’s free bus rides for seniors to supermarkets compensates for the fact that Atlantic City has not had a proper supermarket for 15 years, and the resort has been labeled a food desert.
Jerry Goldberg, 67, who also lives in the Best of Life Apartments, is one of the dozens of people who have benefited for about two years from the county’s free rides to larger supermarkets. The ShopRite in Absecon is about 60,000 square feet.
During a recent trip to ShopRite, Goldberg bought quite a bit, including coffee, free medicine for his diabetes, avocados, onions, sweet potatoes, milk, broccoli, whole wheat bread, peaches, honeydew melon and wild-caught salmon. Once in a while, he also takes the bus on Tuesdays to Acme to purchase Empire Kosher chicken.
Goldberg takes the free bus ride to the supermarkets outside Atlantic City because gasoline is expensive.
“I drive. I have a vehicle,” said Goldberg, who added on the bus, he is introduced to people of new cultures and has interesting conversations. “Why not take advantage of this program? It’s a great program. For nothing, you can’t beat it.”
J.T. Wagner, 65, has taken a jitney to discount supermarket Save-A-Lot in Renaissance Plaza on Atlantic Avenue and a cab back to her home at Best of Life. She also has accompanied a friend in a car and taken a bus to travel there.
Wagner does not like to travel to Save-A-Lot by herself — one of the reasons she takes the free county bus rides to Acme and ShopRite.
On a recent Wednesday, Wagner had fish, vegetables and milk in her ShopRite cart.
“I think ShopRite has the biggest variety,” said Wagner, who added she hardly ever has to see the doctor because she eats correctly and has a positive attitude. “I’m all about the fresh food.”
A Vineland teacher is being investigated after “offensive and unacceptable” social media posts regarding the disappearance of 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez last week, school officials confirmed.
Joseph Rossi, Vineland schools’ executive director of personnel, said the district was made aware of the posts allegedly made by a district employee.
“Central Administration began an immediate investigation and discovered the post was made by a teacher,” Rossi told The Press. “Appropriate action was taken. An outcome will be reached after consultation with the Board of Education’s Personnel Committee.”
BRIDGETON — The Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office had no significant updates Tuesday on the whereabouts of missing city girl Dulce Maria Alavez, 5.
The Vineland Daily Journal identified the employee as Jennifer Hewitt Bishop. According to the Journal report, the post was related to a discussion of Dulce in which Hewitt Bishop allegedly wrote, “They’re Mexican, it’s their culture. They don’t supervise their children like we do.”
Rossi confirmed the employee is an elementary special education in-class resource teacher.
Neither Hewitt Bishop nor Lou Russo, the Vineland Education Association president, was available for comment.
Dulce disappeared the afternoon of Sept. 16 from a park in Bridgeton where she was playing with her little brother while her mother waited in a car parked about 50 yards away with an 8-year-old relative.
She was last seen wearing a yellow shirt with a koala bear on the front, black and white pants with butterflies and flowers on them and white dress sandals. She has brown eyes, weighs 60 to 70 pounds, has long brown hair, is about 3 feet tall and is Hispanic.
A $35,000 reward has been offered to anyone with information leading to Dulce’s whereabouts. The Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, State Police and the FBI are investigating. Dulce now appears first on the FBI “Most Wanted” list of 90 kidnapped or missing people.
Authorities say they are still looking for a man in a red van who has been described by investigators as both a possible suspect and a possible witness in the girl’s disappearance. Investigators also have reportedly spoken to the girl’s father, who, according to Dulce’s family, is in Mexico.
Investigators continue to analyze information as well as the hundreds of tips that have been received through the FBI tip line (800-CALL-FBI) and the Bridgeton Police Department’s tip411 text service.
Anyone with video or pictures may upload them to fbi.gov/alavez.
The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report.
MULLICA TOWNSHIP — Township Committee on Tuesday night tabled a resolution to promote Capt. Brian Zeck to acting chief after receiving questions from the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, which recently placed a monitor in the department.
The Prosecutor’s Office is overseeing the transition of power in the Police Department as embattled Chief John Thompson prepares to retire Jan. 1. Both the township and Thompson requested help from the Prosecutor’s Office, each has said.
“We are tabling because we had an inquiry from the Prosecutor’s Office,” said Committeeman Larry Riffle, who is the head of public safety for the township. “We need time to discuss it.”
MULLICA TOWNSHIP — The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office is overseeing the Mullica Township Police Department at the request of Township Committee and embattled Chief John Thompson, who plans to retire Jan. 1.
Riffle said he could not comment further on the prosecutor’s inquiry until the committee is able to discuss it.
In a statement Tuesday night, Riffle said the township invited Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner to help with the transfer of power from Thompson to Zeck because “that transition of power has not been as orderly and efficient as anticipated,” and asked the Prosecutor’s Office to act as a trainer and mentor to Zeck as he prepares to take over the department. The township also asked the office to review police policies, procedures, rules and regulations that may need to be changed “for the proper and efficient operation of the Police Department.”
On Wednesday, township Solicitor CherylLynn Walters released to The Press a Sept. 5 letter from Tyner to township labor attorney John C. Hegarty that outlines the Prosecutor’s Office’s role in the Police Department.
“As I indicated in our meeting last week, it is my intention to appoint Captain Kevin Hincks from my office to serve as a monitor of the operation of the Mullica Township Police Department ... beginning September 9, 2019, and ending December 31, 2019,” Tyner wrote.
He said Hincks would work with Thompson and Zeck to complete an audit of the evidence room, a manpower study, a survey of policies and procedures, an evaluation of the command structure and an evaluation of the deployment of manpower.
“Please understand that this is not a ‘takeover’ of the department, nor is it an expression of any lack of faith in the department as a whole,” Tyner wrote.
He said all parties — the township, Thompson, Zeck and the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police — “have indicated that they welcome our assistance and will work cooperatively to make this a positive transition of leadership after Chief Thompson’s retirement becomes effective on January 1, 2020.”
The township and Police Department have been engaged in internal investigations of Thompson and disputes over contracts for Thompson and Zeck, who is Mayor Chris Silva’s son-in-law. In August, 10 of the department’s 11 members participated in a vote of no confidence in Thompson.
“The makeup of Township Committee and their relationship with Captain Zeck has created an unhealthy environment, which is unfortunate,” Thompson’s attorney, Philip Burnham, wrote recently in an email.
MULLICA TOWNSHIP — Embattled police Chief John Thompson has rescinded both his request to be put on paid administrative leave for six months and his application to the state pension system to retire Jan. 1.
Burnham said township officials had “opened and fueled bogus investigations against Chief Thompson, creating an almost toxic environment within the Police Department.”
Riffle took issue with that comment Tuesday night, reading a statement prepared by Hegarty.
“For Mr. Burnham to state that the failure to support the chief’s decision to terminate another officer was the catalyst for discord within the Police Department or that the committee created ‘an almost toxic environment with the Police Department’ is simply false,” Riffle read. “The goal, as evidenced by the steps taken by the township so far, has always been and remains to ensure the township has an efficient, cohesive and outstanding Police Department which is in full compliance and in lockstep with the chief law enforcement agency in Atlantic County.”
On Aug. 3, the committee voted at a special meeting to accept Thompson’s retirement as of Jan. 1. Committeewoman Kristi Hanselmann said at the time Thompson would work in an advisory capacity, meeting weekly with Zeck, to ensure a smooth transition of leadership.
MULLICA TOWNSHIP — Two weeks after giving police Chief John Thompson a new contract and retroactive raise, Township Committee approved his request to be put on paid leave through the end of the year, when he will retire.
Silva for a time oversaw public safety in the township. The retired police officer gave up responsibility for public safety in June and has recused himself from votes affecting Thompson.
Some in town have felt he was trying to push Thompson out of the job to benefit Zeck.
Others have felt Thompson alienated his department and many in town last year with his failed attempt to dismiss veteran Officer Paul “P.J.” Sarraf, who has sleep apnea and other medical conditions that prevent him from working late night and overnight shifts.
Through much of this year, the township had been negotiating with Thompson, with the committee proposing and then pulling a vote on a settlement with him over an internal investigation. The committee then gave him a retroactive pay raise and six months of paid administrative leave with the understanding he would retire Jan. 1.
Thompson announced in June he was going on paid administrative leave for six months, then in July abruptly changed his mind and asked the committee to rescind his administrative leave, which it did.