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Scott Eklund, Associated Press file 

Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett, left, catches a pass ahead of Tampa Bay cornerback Vernon III Hargreaves, right, during the second half of a game on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, in Seattle. (Scott Eklund, Associated Press file)

Closest witnesses kicking off big Trump impeachment week

WASHINGTON — Nine witnesses. Five hearings. Three days.

The Trump impeachment inquiry is charging into a crucial week as Americans hear from some of the most important witnesses closest to the White House in back-to-back-to-back live sessions.

Among them, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the wealthy donor whose routine boasting about his proximity to Donald Trump is now bringing the investigation to the president’s doorstep.

The witnesses all are testifying under penalty of perjury, and Sondland already has had to amend his earlier account amid contradicting testimony from other current and former U.S. officials. White House insiders, including an Army officer and National Security Council aide, will launch the week’s hearings Tuesday.

It’s a pivotal time as the House’s historic inquiry accelerates and deepens. Democrats say Trump demanded that Ukraine investigate his Democratic rivals in return for U.S. military aid it needed to resist Russian aggression and that may be grounds for removing the 45th president. Trump says he did no such thing and the Democrats are just out to get him any way they can.

On Monday, Trump said he was considering an invitation from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to provide his own account to the House, possibly by submitting written testimony. That would be an unprecedented moment in this constitutional showdown between the two branches of U.S. government.

Trump tweeted: “Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!”

A ninth witness, David Holmes, a State Department official who overheard Trump talking about the investigations on a phone call with Sondland while the ambassador was at a restaurant in Kyiv, was a late addition Monday. He is scheduled to close out the week Thursday.

Tuesday’s sessions at the House Intelligence Committee will start with Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer at the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, his counterpart at Vice President Mike Pence’s office.

Both are foreign policy experts who listened with concern as Trump spoke on July 25 with the newly elected Ukraine president. A government whistleblower’s complaint about that call led the House to launch the impeachment investigation.

Vindman and Williams say they were uneasy as Trump talked to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy about investigations of potential 2020 political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Vindman reported the call to NSC lawyers. Williams found it “unusual” and inserted the White House’s readout of it in Pence’s briefing book.

“I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen,” said Vindman, a wounded Iraq War veteran. He said there was “no doubt” what Trump wanted.

Pence’s role remains unclear. “I just don’t know if he read it,” Williams testified in a closed-door House interview.

Vindman also lodged concerns about Sondland. He relayed details from an explosive July 10 meeting at the White House when the ambassador pushed visiting Ukraine officials for the investigations Trump wanted.

“He was talking about the 2016 elections and an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma,” Vindman testified, referring to the gas company in Ukraine where Hunter Biden served on the board.

Burisma is what Tim Morrison, a former official at the National Security Council, who will testify later Tuesday referred to as a “bucket of issues” — the Bidens, Democrats, investigations — he had tried to “stay away” from.

Along with former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, their accounts further complicate Sondland’s testimony and characterize Trump as more central to the action.

Sondland met with a Zelenskiy aide on the sidelines of a Sept. 1 gathering in Warsaw, and Morrison, who was watching the encounter from across the room, testified that the ambassador told him moments later he pushed the Ukrainian for the Burisma investigation as a way for Ukraine to gain access to the military funds.

Volker provided investigators with a package of text messages with Sondland and another diplomat, William Taylor, the charge d’affaires in Ukraine, who grew alarmed at the linkage of the investigations to the aid.

Taylor, who testified publicly last week, called that “crazy.”

Republicans are certain to mount a more aggressive attack on all the witnesses as the inquiry reaches closer into the White House and they try to protect Trump.

The president wants to see a robust defense by his GOP allies on Capitol Hill, but so far they have offered a changing strategy as the fast-moving probe spills into public view.

Republicans first complained the witnesses were offering only hearsay, without firsthand knowledge of Trump’s actions. But as more witnesses come forward bringing testimony closer to Trump, they now say the president is innocent because the military money was eventually released.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, during an appearance Monday in Louisville, Ky., acknowledged the House will likely vote to impeach the president.

But the GOP leader said he “can’t imagine” a scenario where there is enough support in the Senate — a supermajority 67 votes — to remove Trump from office.

McConnell said House Democrats “are seized with ‘Trump derangement syndrome,’” a catch-phrase used by the president’s supporters. He said the inquiry seems “particularly ridiculous since we’re going into the presidential election and the American people will have an opportunity in the very near future to decide who they want the next president to be.”

GOP senators are increasingly being drawn into the inquiry

House Republicans asked to hear from Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who has firsthand knowledge of some of the meetings. GOP Sen. Rob Portman disputed an account from Morrison that he attended a Sept. 11 White House meeting urging Trump to release the Ukraine military aid. Portman’s office said the senator phoned in to the session.

Pelosi said the president could speak for himself.

“If he has information that is exculpatory, that means ex, taking away, culpable, blame, then we look forward to seeing it,” she said in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS. Trump “could come right before the committee and talk, speak all the truth that he wants if he wants,” she said.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Trump “should come to the committee and testify under oath. And he should allow all those around him to come to the committee and testify under oath.” He said the White House’s insistence on blocking witnesses from cooperating raises the question: “What is he hiding?”

The White House has instructed officials not to appear, and most have received congressional subpoenas to compel their testimony.

Those appearing in public have already giving closed-door interviews to investigators, and transcripts from those depositions have largely been released.

Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, is to appear Wednesday.

The wealthy hotelier, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, is the only person interviewed to date who had direct conversations with the president about the Ukraine situation.

Morrison said Sondland and Trump had spoken about five times between July 15 and Sept. 11 — the weeks that $391 million in U.S. assistance was withheld from Ukraine before it was released.

Trump has said he barely knew Sondland.

Besides Sondland, the committee will hear on Wednesday from Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, and David Hale, a State Department official. On Thursday, Fiona Hill, a former top NSC staff member for Europe and Russia, will appear.


Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Hope Yen in Washington and Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed.

No construction yet, but Yakima organizers "moving" on plans to build tiny home village for the homeless
 Phil Ferolito  / 

An effort to build 30 tiny houses with onsite services and security for homeless people near Milroy Park is still alive, even though there hasn’t been any apparent movement on construction, a project official said.

“Yeah, it’s been a quiet time, but behind the scenes we’ve been moving,” said David Helseth, president of the nonprofit Justice Housing Yakima.

The group proposed the project several years ago and faced many hurdles in finding a location.

A year ago, the nonprofit paid $452,000 for the 2.5-acre parcel that was once a nursery. The property is zoned for multifamily dwellings, which would be appropriate for such a village, said Joan Davenport, director of community development for Yakima.

Now, Justice Housing Yakima is planning fundraisers and seeking grants and other funding sources before producing a plan that would provide on-site services to the homeless as well as 24-hour security.

The project is being called Cottage Hill Village.

The nonprofit is ready to enter agreements with financial supporters that could make it all happen, but it’s too early to reveal who the contracts are with and what will be provided, Helseth said.

“Right now, we’re in conversations on a contract and can’t say anything yet,” he said.


The project hasn’t been met with open arms by everyone. Neighbors in the area have complained.

But Helseth said there will be rules to living in the village, on-site security and services to help homeless people deal with mental health or substance abuse issues.

The homes, each measuring 10 by 14 feet, would be built to code, he said.

Davenport said she has yet to see a project plan and couldn’t say much about it. She does see merit in what tiny homes could offer the homeless.

“The tiny home village concept could work really well here,” she said.

Service providers agree.

Homeless shelters, such as the Union Gospel Mission on North First Street and Camp Hope, where the homeless sleep in military tents behind the former Kmart, are full.

People at shelters often have no housing options beyond that, and typically end up back on the street as a result before cycling through the shelter again, said Lee Murdock, director of the Homeless Network of Yakima County.

The village will offer permanent housing, she said.

“It’s ideal,” Murdock said. “Some may pass on to mainstream housing, opening up a bed for someone else.”

Housing shortage

A village of 30 tiny homes would only help, city officials and service providers say.

City officials say a minimum of 330 new homes would need to be built each year over the next three decades to meet the projected housing demand, Davenport said.

Construction has drastically increased the past two years, but the homes being built are in markets well above affordable housing, she said.

City officials plan to further discuss the affordable housing shortage at a 4 p.m. meeting Dec. 5 at City Hall, she said.

Providing permanent housing has proved successful here — there’s just not enough of it, said Esther Magasis, manager of Yakima County’s homeless program.

“Because we have such a low vacancy rate right now, I think any housing for the community would be a positive,” she said. “We have such a high need.”

Public weighs in on Yakima school district levy proposal
 Janelle Retka  / 

Community feedback on two proposed Yakima School District levies has been positive but minimal, school officials said Monday.

During a public information opportunity at Washington Middle School on Monday evening ahead of a strategic planning meeting, about a dozen people asked for information on the four-year levy proposals, said district communications director Kirsten Fitterer.

Board member Martha Rice said community discussions had been largely positive, adding that things are in the early stages. She said if the board approved putting the levies on the ballot, a separate committee would begin campaigning, which would spark more community conversation around the topic.

“I think there are the beginnings of awareness in the community,” she said.

The meeting was an opportunity for community members to provide input before the school board decides whether to place a $2.50 education programs and operations levy and $0.54 capital improvements levy per $1,000 in assessed value on the ballot.

The two levies were recommended by the district’s levy advisory committee. The board is expected to vote on whether to place the levies on the ballot during a Tuesday business meeting.

The decision comes as the district’s existing four-year levy is set to expire in 2020. The new combined dollar amount of $3.04 per $1,000 in assessed value would be the same amount as voters approved locally four years ago.

But local and state school taxes have been revamped significantly in recent years, making the conversation more complex.

Funding changes

In 2018, the state increased statewide school taxes that would be redirected to districts and created limits for local levies in response to a lawsuit in which the state was found not to be fully funding basic education.

Local levies were capped at $1.50 per $1,000 in property value and their use was limited to enrichment programs, meaning things like general education teacher salaries couldn’t be paid for with local dollars.

In the Yakima School District, this meant that local dollars brought in by education levies were cut roughly in half from $14 million in 2017 to $7.9 million in 2019, according to Yakima County Assessor records.

At the same time, state taxes increased by about a dollar per $1,000 property value, and the money was redirected to districts statewide.

Looking at the combined district dollars countywide, property taxes collected for schools in Yakima County increased during this time from about $104 million in 2017 to $113 million in 2019, county assessor records show.

In the 2017-18 school year, the Yakima School District’s revenue — including local, state and federal funds — was about $214 million, according to district budget reports. The following two academic years, district revenue has hovered around $235 million.

Despite the increase in state taxes, the majority of districts statewide reported being negatively impacted. In addition to the funding changes, lawmakers removed salary guidelines, districts statewide increased teacher salaries and the state added new limits on how local taxes could be used.

In 2019, lawmakers raised the cap for most districts to $2.50 per $1,000 property value, or $2,500 per student — whichever is less. Seattle schools had a higher limit.

Districts also are allowed to run capital improvement levies for things such as technology contracts and building maintenance or repair, freeing up some general fund expenditures.

Levy proposals

On Monday, the Yakima school board accepted the levy advisory committee’s recommendation for each levy amount and duration. At this point, the board can either vote to put them on the ballot as proposed or deny them, but it can no longer adjust the amount or duration, said board President Raymond Navarro.

He said the board intends to vote during its business meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the district office, and there will be an opportunity for public comment beforehand.

If the board votes in favor of both levies, the new education levy alone would return local funds in 2021 to around the 2017 rate of $14 million, since property value has increased. If passed, the levy would also be matched by local effort assistance funds by the state, making up roughly $30 million in total.

The district would also receive a portion of the increased state school taxes.

The capital improvements levy would bring in another $3.2 million the first year, which could be used for technology contracts and address deferred maintenance.

Yakima school officials say the total $3.04 levy per $1,000 assessed value would help the local budget, which is expected to go into the red in the 2020-21 school year. They say this would help stabilize local funds for schools at a time when state dollars are fluctuating year-to-year.

“I get a lot of feedback,” said Navarro. “I have gotten some negative comments but overall it’s been very supportive from our community. They know that to continue, the levies are very important in terms of our school district educating our kids. ... Overall, we have a lot of support for it moving forward.”

Washington students have new options to earn a high-school diploma

It’s official: Starting this school year, Washington students no longer need to take a federal test to earn a high school diploma. Instead, students now have a new menu of options that acknowledge differences in their pursuits after high school.

The state’s Board of Education voted unanimously to approve a set of graduation pathways and other rules at its recent meeting in Bremerton. But some see the changes as a step back, because they think the new requirements lower the bar for earning a diploma.

Washington high schoolers were among the last in the nation required to pass a set of federally mandated tests to graduate. A state law signed this year nixed that requirement, and education officials have spent the past several months crafting alternative pathways.

The new rules could encourage school districts to identify students who may be eligible for one of the new graduation pathways.

“We’re feverishly putting together specific guidance” for students who may qualify for the career technical education (CTE) option, said Caleb Perkins, executive director of college and career readiness for Seattle Public Schools.

In Yakima County, officials from several school districts expressed excitement about the CTE option during a September community forum with Board of Education representatives. They said the change could make graduation more accessible to a broader range of students and help fill local employment gaps.

Starting with the class of 2020, students can choose from a long list of pathways that recognize multiple types of learning. The pathways also add flexibility for those interested in options other than a four-year college degree, such as the military or a technical profession. About 34% of Washington students enroll in a four-year college the year after they graduate from high school; 28% seek a two-year associate or technical degree and 38% don’t enroll in a higher-education institution, according to the state’s most recent data.

Students must also still meet a set of credit requirements and complete a personalized “high school and beyond plan” that charts their career and education goals.

“This takes some emphasis off testing in our system, which is a positive thing,” said Randy Spaulding, the state board’s executive director. “It also puts students’ different pathways and their goals on a level playing field.”

Leading up to the board vote, a draft of the rules drew intense interest from parents, education advocacy groups, business leaders and lawmakers. More than 450 people and organizations submitted written comments, board officials said.

In one letter to the board, a group of lawmakers who championed the state law that cut ties between graduation and the federal “Smarter Balanced” tests called the draft proposal “inconsistent with the intent of the Legislature.”

Legislators took particular issue with the proposed CTE pathway. The board’s proposal allowed students to take CTE courses in different disciplines. But according to the new law, students in such a pathway must take a sequence of related courses ensuring they’re prepared for additional training or to enter a career.

In response to the criticism, the board revised its rules, leaving it up to school boards to approve sequences of CTE courses. This gives school boards oversight, said Peter Maier, chair of the state Board of Education. But it also allows them flexibility to decide if certain courses fit together, he said, such as agriculture and robotics.

The board’s tweaks ultimately satisfied the lawmakers’ concerns.

“I’m pleased with the direction they’ve taken,” said state Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, who chairs the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. “They spelled it out more specifically than we have in the legislation.”

Not everyone is pleased. There’s no guarantee that CTE pathways are equitable across the state, said Libuse Binder, executive director at the nonprofit Stand for Children Washington. Binder also took issue with the military pathway, which allows students to graduate if they meet a minimum score on a military exam.

“If you are a student who is graduating without a degree or the training to set them up for the next phase of their life, the stakes are extremely high,” she said. “At the end of the day, we still feel that the bar is too low.”

Now that the rules are official, what’s next?

For students and families, the most important step is understanding them. To graduate, students must complete one of the following:

  • Pass the federal Smarter Balanced math and English tests.
  • Earn high school math and English credits by enrolling in “dual-credit” courses.
  • Pass certain Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge International exams, or pass certain “transition” courses that allow students to enroll in college-level coursework.
  • Reach minimum scores set by the state on the SAT or ACT.
  • Meet a combination of the above options in English and math.
  • Earn a minimum score on a military-
  • aptitude test.
  • Complete a special career technical education program or earn two credits in a set of CTE courses. These courses may be in the same discipline or two different ones. But in the case of the latter, individual school boards or local CTE advisory committees, as well as the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, must sign off.

Students graduating in 2020 who didn’t pass the Smarter Balanced tests are also eligible to apply for a waiver from the graduation requirements, but must show their readiness in other ways. This class is the last who can take advantage of the waiver. (The class of 2020 will also be able to access the new pathways.)