Garcia starts well as locals dominate Australian PGA

FILE PHOTO: Spain’s Sergio Garcia in action during the first round Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith

(Reuters) – U.S. Masters Champion Sergio Garcia carded a bogey-free, five-under-par 67 at the Australian PGA Championships in Queensland on Thursday to trail local pair Jordan Zunic and Adam Bland by a single stroke after the opening round.

Bland surged to the top of the leaderboard with the help of six birdies in seven holes, while Zunic closed with an eagle-three on the par-five ninth to overtake Garcia, who had set the early clubhouse target at a rain-delayed Royal Pines.

The Spaniard, playing in Australia for the first time since 2010, is the only non-local in the top 14 and sits joint-third alongside Marc Leishman, Daniel Nisbet, Michael Wright and veteran Peter Senior.

“I wouldn’t say that it was amazing but it was good,” Garcia said after his round at the tournament co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour of Australasia and European Tour.

“The most positive thing for me would be to go a bogey-free round, which I didn’t realize until we got done.

“Hopefully I’m able to do more of the same but every day’s a different story and it also depends on the weather. If it gets windy it can be quite tricky, this course.”

Former Australian Masters winner Senior announced his retirement in 2016 but returned to action on Thursday with a spotless round that included five birdies to match Garcia’s score.

Seven players, including Rhein Gibson, Greg Chalmers and Cameron Smith, were a further shot behind in joint-eighth.

Defending champion Harold Varner III, recent Hong Kong Open winner Wade Ormsby and 2013 U.S. Masters champion Adam Scott are well off the pace on one-under.

(Reporting by Aditi Prakash in Bengaluru)

Unstoppable Venus sets sights on 2020 Olympics

Tennis – WTA Tour Finals – Singapore Indoor Stadium, Singapore – October 29, 2017. USA’s Venus Williams in action during the final against Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki. REUTERS/Edgar Su

(Reuters) – Evergreen American Venus Williams has dismissed any notion of announcing her retirement anytime soon, saying she is eager to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The 37-year-old had a successful year in the absence of her sister Serena through pregnancy, climbing to number five in the singles rankings after finishing runner-up at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the WTA Finals.

The seven-time grand slam winner has competed in five previous Olympics tournaments, starting in 2000, and has won three golds in the women’s doubles event with Serena and one gold in the singles competition.

“I have no plans of stopping soon,” Williams told American magazine Entrepreneur. “It seems somehow that 2020 Tokyo is on the horizon. Isn’t that wild? I’m trying to stick around for that.”

The Williams sisters along with ATP Tour veterans Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have re-established their dominance at the top of the sport with Serena winning her 23rd grand slam title aged 35 at the 2017 Australian Open.

Spaniard Nadal, 31, reclaimed the men’s number one spot with six trophies this year, while 36-year-old Federer finished second after winning seven titles. The pair split the season’s four grand slams between them.

The sisters will resume their rivalry next season as Serena is expected to make a long-awaited return following the birth of her daughter in September.

(Reporting by Aditi Prakash in Bengaluru)

Matt Lauer apologizes after ‘Today’ firing as more women come forward

FILE PHOTO: Host Matt Lauer pauses during a break while filming NBC’s “Today” show at Rockefeller Center in New York, U.S., May 3, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Gina Cherelus and Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – “Today” show host Matt Lauer apologized for what he called his “troubling flaws” in a statement read out on the popular NBC morning show on Thursday, a day after the network fired him for inappropriate sexual behavior.

As his 20 years as a fixture of U.S. morning television came to an abrupt end, the married 59-year-old found himself joining the fast-growing ranks of powerful men in U.S. entertainment, politics and media to be felled in recent months by accusations of sexual misconduct.

Lauer said in his statement that some of the accusations against him were “untrue or mischaracterized” without explaining further but said that “there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed.”

He was fired after a female colleague complained to NBC officials on Monday evening about a pattern of inappropriate sexual behavior that began while they were on assignment at the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics in Russia, according to NBC statements.

Since then, at least two more women have gone to NBC with similar complaints against Lauer, the “Today” show reported on Thursday. None of the women have been publicly identified.

“Repairing the damage will take a lot of time and soul searching and I’m committed to beginning that effort,” Lauer said in the statement, which was read by his former co-host Savannah Guthrie at the start of Thursday’s broadcast.

“It is now my full-time job,” the statement said. “The last two days have forced me to take a very hard look at my own troubling flaws.”

Lauer said he was “truly sorry” for pain he had caused.

Reuters has not independently verified the accusations. NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack said the network had never received a complaint about Lauer’s conduct prior to Monday but that “we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident.”

Lauer was promoted to a host of the “Today” show in 1997 and went on to become one of NBC’s highest-paid personalities, reportedly being paid $20 million a year. The network did not respond to questions about its plans for replacing Lauer.

Media analysts say his abrupt departure could send some viewers to morning-news rivals, at least in the short term. “Today” dominated the morning rating wars for much of Lauer’s tenure but in 2012 was dethroned by “Good Morning America” on Walt Disney Co’s <DIS.N> ABC network.

Comcast Corp <CMCSA.O>, the largest U.S. cable television company, owns NBCUniversal.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus and Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Alden Bentley and Bill Trott)

Sundance works to make film festival safer amid Hollywood sex scandal

FILE PHOTO: Kevin Kane prepares the stage at an opening day news conference for the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, U.S. on January 22, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Sundance Film Festival organizers say they are working with law enforcement to make the annual independent film showcase in January a safer place in the wake of sexual harassment accusations sweeping Hollywood.

“Sundance is really the first grand community gathering after all this has hit. So we’re looking for ways to form a community around it … and making it very safe — not only a safe place to do your work but a safe place to talk about these issues,” festival director John Cooper told Reuters.

“We’ve always worked closely with local law enforcement and also the security in hotels. We’re upping the game on code of conduct. We’ve always had a code of conduct for our staff and volunteers (and) we’re presenting that broadly to the whole community,” he added.

Movie producer Harvey Weinstein, formerly a major force in independent films and a staple at Sundance, has been accused by more than 50 women of sexual harassment or assault over the past three decades.

Some of the accusations against Weinstein involve incidents said to have taken place at the 10-day Sundance festival in Park City, Utah.

Weinstein has denied having non-consensual sex with anyone. Reuters has been unable to independently confirm any of the allegations.

Several Hollywood actors, filmmakers and agents have stepped down in the past two months following sexual misconduct allegations leveled against them.

Cooper said Weinstein, who was fired as chief executive of his award-winning Weinstein Company in October, has not applied for a credential to the Sundance festival this year.

Sundance Film Festival, organized by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, unveiled its 2018 line-up of movies and documentaries on Wednesday, many featuring female leads.

They include “Eighth Grade,” a coming-of-age story of a 13-year-old girl, “The Kindergarten Teacher” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as a teacher helping a young prodigy, and “The Tale” in which Laura Dern plays a woman examining her sexual history.

“The performances and the women you see on screen are strong and complex and have deep psychology in these characters that you often don’t see,” said Trevor Groth, the festival’s director of programming.

Other films profile actress and activist Jane Fonda, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, Japanese visual artist Yayoi Kusama and Yazidi ISIS survivor Nadia Murad.

“They’re all from different walks of life and backgrounds and fields, but all with the same passion and drive to make their mark on the world,” Cooper said.

(Reporting by Piya Sinha-RoyEditing by Sandra Maler)

U.S. radio host Keillor fired over accusation of improper behavior

FILE PHOTO: Author and radio personality Garrison Keillor listens to U.S. President Barack Obama speak at a campaign rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. October 23, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – U.S. radio host Garrison Keillor, creator of the long-running folksy variety show “A Prairie Home Companion,” has been fired over an accusation of inappropriate behavior, Minnesota Public Radio said on Wednesday.

“Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) is terminating its contracts with Garrison Keillor and his private media companies after learning of allegations of his inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him,” the organization said in a statement. It gave no details.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Keillor told it in an email that the behavior involved him putting his hand on a woman’s back.

“I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized,” the Star Tribune quoted Keillor’s email as saying. “I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it.”

He said he was “the least physically affectionate person” on his show.

David O’Neill, a Keillor representative, did not respond to a request for comment. Reuters was not able to independently confirm the allegation.

Keillor, 75, is the latest U.S. media personality to lose a job in recent weeks because of misconduct accusations.

NBC said on Wednesday it had fired anchor Matt Lauer from its morning television show “Today” after a female colleague accused him of inappropriate behavior. Lauer has yet to comment on the accusation.

Keillor is best known as the creator of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a mixture of gentle comedy sketches, music and social commentary, which he hosted from 1974 to 2016.

He created a fictional Minnesota town, Lake Wobegon, which featured in the show and in a number of novels he wrote.

MPR said it would end rebroadcasts of that show hosted by Keillor, as well as distribution and broadcast of his shorter “The Writer’s Almanac” spots.

MPR said it was notified of the incident last month and retained an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation.

“While we appreciate the contributions Garrison has made to MPR and to all of public radio, we believe this decision is the right thing to do,” Jon McTaggart, president of MPR, said in the statement.

Earlier this week, Keillor wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post defending Democratic U.S. Senator Al Franken from Minnesota, who has apologized after being accused of groping several women.

“This is pure absurdity and the atrocity it leads to is a code of public deadliness. No kidding,” Keillor wrote.

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Alistair Bell)

Crackle Sets Premiere Date for 50 Cent-Produced Drama ‘The Oath’

VARIETY-ENTERTAINMENT-TV/NEWS:’Power’ photocall, 57th Festival of Television, Monte Carlo, Monaco – 20 Jun 2017

By Joe Otterson

LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) – Crackle announced the premiere date for the upcoming drama series “The Oath” on Thursday.

The series, which hails from executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson,” will debut on on March 8. The series stars Ryan Kwanten, Cory Hardrict, Arlen Escarpeta, Katrina Law, J.J. Soria, and “Game of Thrones” alum Sean Bean.

The 10-episode series explores a world of gangs made up of those sworn to protect and defend. It sheds light on corrupt and secret societies that are nearly impossible to join, but once inside, members will do what they must to protect each other from enemies on the outside and from within their own ranks.

Created by Joe Halpin, who worked as a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy in South Central for 17 years, 12 of which as an undercover officer, the series looks at the complicated dynamics in these organizations and documents the lives of those willing to risk it all, to have it all.

Jackson executive produces via his G-Unit Film & Television Inc.. Todd Hoffman and Dennis Kim of Storied Media Group, and Anne Clements also executive produce. Halpin serves as writer and showrunner. The series is directed by Jeff T. Thomas and Luis Prieto.

McCain backs U.S. Senate tax bill, boosting chances of approval

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) talks to reporters as he arrives for the weekly Republican party caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican drive to push sweeping tax legislation through the U.S. Senate picked up momentum on Thursday with the endorsement of Senator John McCain, as party leaders pursued behind-the-scenes deals to secure enough votes for passage.

McCain, who was instrumental in defeating the Republican push to overturn Obamacare earlier this year, said the bill was “far from perfect” but would boost the economy and provide tax relief for all Americans. But Republican Senator Susan Collins told reporters she was still not committed to backing it.

The Republican-controlled Senate was expected to begin a potentially chaotic “vote-a-rama” on amendments from Republicans and Democrats before moving to a final vote late on Thursday or early on Friday.

U.S. financial markets have rallied on optimism that the measure will pass, a sentiment shared by outside conservative groups that hope to see the first major overhaul of the U.S. tax code since 1986, when Republican Ronald Reagan was president. U.S. stocks extended gains on Thursday after McCain said he would back the tax legislation.

“It’s the most unified effort I’ve seen on any issue in many years,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group aligned with billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.

President Donald Trump and his Republican allies have been under mounting pressure to enact a package of tax cuts for businesses and individuals before January, giving them their first major legislative victory.

Republicans acknowledge that failure to pass a tax bill could alienate donors and jeopardize their control of the Senate and House of Representatives in next year’s congressional elections, even though opinion polls show the public is divided.

Among Americans aware of the Republican tax plan, 49 percent said they were opposed, up from 41 percent in October, according to a Nov. 23-27 Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday. The latest online poll of 1,257 adults found 29 percent supporting the plan and 22 percent saying they “don’t know.”

Democrats say the Republican tax plan is a giveaway to corporations and the wealthy at the expense of working Americans.

The House approved its own tax bill on Nov. 16. If passed this week, the Senate legislation would need to be reconciled with the House version before a final bill could be sent to Trump.

As an initial action on Thursday, Senate Republicans were expected to take a procedural vote that would formally replace the House bill with their own legislation.

KEEPING THEM GUESSING

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell did not appear to have enough votes to pass the legislation as the day began, with several Republican lawmakers keeping their colleagues guessing about where they would come down in the end. Trump has publicly insulted several senators who have ultimately expressed doubts about the tax plan.

Republicans have a 52-48 majority in the 100-member Senate, giving them enough votes to approve the bill if they can hold together. With Democrats united in opposition, they can afford to lose support from no more than two of their own members. Vice President Mike Pence would be able to break a 50-50 tie.

The Senate voted along party lines to begin the debate on Wednesday and later turned away a Democratic attempt to return the legislation to the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee for reconsideration.

But some Republicans have withheld support for final passage as they press Republican leaders for changes that would prevent tax cuts from expanding the federal deficit, allow Americans a federal deduction for up to $10,000 in property taxes and give bigger tax breaks to so-called pass-through enterprises, including small businesses.

The Senate bill would cut the U.S. corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent after a one-year delay and reduce the tax burden on small businesses and individuals, while adding $1.4 trillion to a federal debt load that already surpasses $20 trillion.

Some Republicans want to lower the corporate tax rate to only 22 percent and forgo income tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Republican Senator Roy Blunt told reporters the 20-percent corporate rate “won’t be raised much at all.”

Another major sticking point in the Senate is how the bill deals with the federal deficit and the national debt. Senator Bob Corker, one of the few remaining Republican fiscal hawks, wants a tax snap-back provision in the bill that would raise taxes automatically if economic growth targets are not hit in the future to offset a higher deficit.

That trigger proposal has become a target of growing criticism among conservative Republicans and lobbyists, including interest groups aligned with the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, who say the prospect of tax hikes could undermine future economic growth.

Democrats and independents have sought to persuade nonpartisan Senate officials to disqualify parts of the bill, including one to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as impermissible under Senate rules, an aide said.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Makini Brice, Amanda Becker; Editing by Peter Cooney and Nick Zieminski)

Attorney general meets with House intelligence panel

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrives for closed door interview with the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol in Washington, U.S., November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions met behind closed doors on Thursday with members of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee as it investigates possible Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

He was expected to spend at least two hours in the interview.

The panel is among several congressional committees, along with the Justice Department’s special counsel Robert Mueller, investigating alleged Russian interference in the campaign and potential collusion by President Donald Trump’s campaign.

Moscow has denied any meddling and Trump has said there was no collusion.

When he was a Republican U.S. senator, Sessions was an early supporter and close adviser to Trump during his run for the White House.

Later on Thursday, the intelligence committee said it was meeting with Erik Prince, who founded the private military contractor Blackwater and also was a supporter of Trump’s presidential campaign.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Trott)

Trump considers plan to replace Tillerson with CIA chief: U.S. officials

A combination photo of Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo (L) on May 11, 2017 and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, U.S., November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/Yuri Gripas/File Photos

By John Walcott and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is considering a plan to oust Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has had a strained relationship with his boss over North Korea and other issues, senior administration officials said on Thursday.

Tillerson would be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo, known as a Trump loyalist, within weeks under a White House plan to carry out the most significant staff shakeup so far of the Trump administration.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton would be tapped to replace Pompeo at the Central Intelligence Agency, the officials told Reuters.

It was not immediately clear whether Trump had given final approval to the latest staff shakeup, but one of the officials said the president asked for the plan to be put together.

Tillerson’s long-rumored departure would end a troubled tenure for the former Exxon Mobil Corp chief executive who has been increasingly at odds with Trump over policy challenges such as North Korea and under fire for his planned cuts at the State Department.

Tillerson was reported in October to have privately called Trump a “moron,” something which the secretary of state sought to dismiss.

That followed a tweet by Trump a few days earlier that Tillerson should not waste his time by seeking negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear and missile program.

Trump asked John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, to develop the transition strategy and it has already been discussed with other officials, one administration source said.

Under the plan, which was first reported by the New York Times, the staff reshuffle would happen around the end of the year or shortly afterward.

Asked if he wanted Tillerson to remain in his job, Trump sidestepped the question on Thursday, telling reporters at the White House: “He’s here. Rex is here.”

“There are no personnel announcements at this time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later told reporters.

Tillerson’s departure has been widely rumored for months, with attention focused on Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as his likely replacement.

But Pompeo, a former member of Congress, has increasingly moved to the forefront as he has gained Trump’s trust on national security matters.

Tillerson, 65, has spent much of his tenure trying to smooth the rough edges of Trump’s unilateralist “America First” foreign policy, with limited success. On several occasions, the U.S. president publicly undercut his diplomatic initiatives.

A source familiar with Tillerson’s thinking said Tillerson’s original plan when he took the job as top U.S. diplomat, was to leave in February.

“His plan was to make it a year and then find a reason to leave. Who knows if that still holds?” the source said.

Senator Bob Corker, a senior voice in U.S. foreign policy, spoke to Tillerson on Thursday and said the secretary of state was unaware of any plans to oust him.

If carried out, the staff changes would be the latest in a string of departures and firings in Trump’s administration in recent months, including his chief of staff, national security advisor and FBI director.

“There’s so much churn. It feels like whiplash,” a State Department official said.

FOREIGN POLICY HARDLINER

Pompeo, a foreign policy hardliner, especially on Iran, has publicly talked about how the spy agency is becoming more aggressive and how he has been focusing on deploying more CIA officers overseas.

Pompeo has offered effusive praise for Trump in interviews and speeches despite the president’s public criticism of U.S. intelligence agencies and his dismissal of the finding by some of them that Russia conducted an influence campaign to boost Trump over his rival, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 election.

Pompeo also has downplayed the extent of Russia’s intervention, saying that Moscow has sought to influence U.S. elections for decades.

While Trump has expressed deep skepticism of the U.S. intelligence community — he once compared its behavior to that of Nazi Germany — Pompeo has called the president an “avid consumer” of intelligence who is grateful to intelligence professionals.

Tillerson has at times put distance between himself and Trump’s positions.

He joined Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in pressing a skeptical Trump not to pull the United States out of an agreement with Iran and world powers over Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.

Tillerson has taken a more hawkish view than Trump on Russia and tried to mediate a dispute among key U.S. Mideast allies, after four Arab nations launched a boycott of Qatar over its alleged Islamist extremist ties.

In late September, while on a trip to Beijing, Tillerson said that Washington was probing North Korea to see whether it is interested in dialogue, and had multiple direct channels of communication with Pyongyang.

The next day, Trump appeared to dismiss those efforts in a tweet, telling Tillerson that he was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea.

Tensions have also run high between Tillerson and veteran diplomats who oppose his proposed staff and budget cuts.

His tenure has coincided with the departure of dozens of veteran foreign policy hands, and many of the State Department’s senior policy making positions remain unfilled.

(Reporting by John Walcott and Steve Holland Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, David Brunnstrom and Yara Bayoumy; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Conyers hospitalized as top House Democrat calls for his resignation

U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-MI) participates in a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. July 12, 2016. Picture taken July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Amanda Becker and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday called on Democratic Representative John Conyers to resign, saying sexual harassment allegations against him were serious and credible, and that “zero tolerance means consequences for everyone.”

“The brave women who came forward are owed justice,” Pelosi told reporters. “Congressman Conyers should resign.”

Earlier on Thursday, an attorney for Conyers, 88, said the congressman, who returned to Detroit, Michigan, on Tuesday, had been hospitalized. He declined to provide details, but local media, citing a family spokesman, said his ailments were stress-related.

“Congressman John Conyers has taken ill and is currently hospitalized,” attorney Arnold Reed said on Twitter. Reed said he would release more details later on Thursday.

Conyers has already stepped down as the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, but he has resisted calls to resign from the House entirely. Reed told Reuters on Wednesday Conyers did not plan to resign.

Pelosi’s call for his resignation marked a shift. She had previously called for the House Ethics Committee to launch an investigation of the allegations, which it has done, but had stopped short of saying Conyers should step down.

Adding to the pressure, House Speaker Paul Ryan, the leading Republican in the chamber, also called for Conyers’ resignation. He referred to allegations detailed in a television interview on Thursday morning by a former Conyers’ staffer, Marion Brown.

Brown told NBC’s “Today” show that the congressman had “violated my body” and frequently propositioned her for sex.

“No one should have to go through something like that, let alone here in Congress, so yes I think he should resign. He should resign immediately,” said Ryan, who said he had just been briefed on allegations against Conyers.

Reuters has not verified the allegations.

Republican and Democratic House members on Wednesday introduced a bill that would bar public funds from being used to settle sexual harassment claims against members and require previously made payments to be made public.

Conyers reportedly used public funds to settle a claim from a woman who worked in his office.

There has been a flurry of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations in recent weeks against public figures, including former Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein, Democratic Senator Al Franken and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

(Additional reporting by Makini Brice, Katanga Johnson and Richard Cowan; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Andrew Hay)

Ex-priest took confession, then murdered Texas beauty queen -prosecutors

FILE PHOTO: Former priest John Feit, 83, is shown in this Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) photo received after his arrest in Arizona, U.S. on February 9, 2016. Courtesy MCSO/Handout via REUTERS

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – A former Roman Catholic priest took the confession of a Texas beauty queen, then lured her to a church rectory and killed her, prosecutors said on Thursday to start a trial for a 1960 murder that has been one of state’s most notorious cold cases.

In opening statements at a state court in the border county of Hidalgo, prosecutors said John Feit, 84, charged with the murder 57 years ago of Irene Garza, then 25, engaged in “betrayal, murder and cover-up,” local media reports from the courtroom said.

Feit, who used a walker when he entered court, has denied the charges and his lawyers will make opening statements later.

Garza, a former Miss South Texas and second-grade school teacher, was a devout Catholic who often went to confession, prosecutors told the court, the reports said.

After the April 1960 attack, Feit returned to the church and continued to hear confessions, prosecutors said.

Garza’s body was found five days later in a nearby canal. An autopsy showed that Garza had been raped while comatose and died of suffocation, according to the Texas Rangers, a statewide police agency.

Robert Ammons, a prominent trial lawyer who is not involved in this case, said prosecutors would face major challenges.

“Many of the relevant witnesses who would have information are either dead or their memories have faded with time, and that will allow the defense to challenge their testimony,” he said.

“In 1960, we didn’t have the forensic methodology that exists today, collection of trace evidence, DNA, all the things that prosecutors rely on in the 21st century didn’t exist then,” he said.

Feit had initially been considered by authorities a suspect but was not indicted. He had been implicated in the assault of another woman a few weeks before Garza’s disappearance, but pleaded no contest and served no jail time.

Shortly after Garza’s body was found, Feit was ordered by his church superiors to leave the South Texas city of McAllen, the Dallas Morning News reported.

Feit later left the priesthood and moved to Arizona, where he started a family.

Texas Rangers investigating cold cases reported in 2002 that a local priest had told them, shortly after Garza’s body was found, that he had seen scratches on the hands of Feit, who was a visiting priest at the time.

Father Joseph O’Brien, also told investigators that Feit had confessed to the murder, law enforcement officials said. Feit has denied that.

(Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

CVS closes in on deal to buy health insurer Aetna: source

A CVS Pharmacy store is seen in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – CVS Health Corp <CVS.N> is moving closer to a more than $66 billion cash and stock deal to buy health insurer Aetna Inc <AET.N> which could be announced as early as Monday, a source familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

Shares of both companies rose on the news, which was originally reported by the Wall Street Journal. CVS shares were up 2.7 percent and Aetna shares rose 0.7 percent in late morning trading.

The companies are in advanced stages of negotiating a deal that would value Aetna at between $200 and $205 per share and would be comprised mainly of cash, the Journal said. (http://on.wsj.com/2j5V1yn)

Sources told Reuters earlier this month that the deal would value the company at more than $200 per share.

The deal would combine CVS, one of the largest U.S. pharmacy benefits managers and drugstore chains, with Aetna, one of the oldest health insurers, whose far-reaching business ranges from employer healthcare to government plans nationwide.

Healthcare consolidation has been a popular route for insurers and pharmacies, under pressure from the government and large corporations to lower soaring medical costs.

Pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) such as CVS negotiate drug benefits for health insurance plans and employers, and have in recent years taken an increasingly aggressive stance in price negotiations with drugmakers.

They often extract discounts and after-market rebates from drugmakers in exchange for including their medicines in PBM formularies with low co-payments.

A tie-up with Aetna could give CVS more leverage in its price negotiations with drug makers.

(Additional reporting by Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Savio D’Souza and Marguerita Choy)

Verizon plan to launch 5G broadband lifts shares

The Verizon logo is seen on the side of a truck in New York City, U.S., October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Verizon Communications Inc <VZ.N> shares rose 2 percent in midday trading on Thursday after the No. 1 U.S. wireless carrier said it would launch next-generation high-speed Internet services in three to five U.S. markets in 2018.

The company said on Wednesday it had successfully tested its 5G broadband service in 11 markets this year and that its first commercial launch was planned for Sacramento, California, in the second half of 2018. 5G is expected to offer faster speeds and response times, and higher capacity.

Both Verizon and rival AT&T Inc <T.N> have been testing faster broadband services, where the last leg of the connection is delivered via a radio signal to a home or business using high-band wireless airwaves known as millimeter wave.

Verizon shares were up 2.1 percent at $50.96.

The service, called fixed wireless, is considered to be the first application of 5G technology and could eventually be a competitor to the high-speed Internet services offered by cable companies. Verizon said it estimates the market opportunity for initial 5G residential broadband services to be about 30 million households nationwide.

Shares of cable companies Charter Communications Inc <CHTR.O> and Altice USA Inc <ATUS.N> were down 2.6 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively. Shares of Comcast Corp <CMCSA.O>, the largest U.S. cable provider, fell 0.3 percent.

(Reporting by Anjali Athavaley; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Express Scripts CEO sees Amazon as a potential partner: CNBC

FILE PHOTO – The logo of Amazon is seen at the company logistics center in Lauwin-Planque, northern France on February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol/File Photo

(Reuters) – Express Scripts Holding <ESRX.O> sees Amazon.com Inc <AMZN.O>, which has been reported to be interested in entering the pharmacy market, as a possible partner rather than a competitor, the chief executive of the pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) said on Thursday on CNBC.

Express Scripts, the biggest PBM in the United States, and drug distributors have been under pressure by the speculated entry of Amazon into the prescription drug market.

“What (Amazon) will see is the magic isn’t in lower net prices to consumers,” CEO Tim Wentworth said. “It’s getting the right drug to consumers and helping them navigate the system.” (http://cnb.cx/2nlcc3w)

Wentworth was speaking to CNBC at the Forbes Healthcare Summit conference in New York. He made similar comments last month to analysts.

Last month, Express Scripts said it would “stand well” against any possible competition from Amazon in the pharmacy benefit management business, but added that the company would be a “natural collaborator” for the ecommerce giant.

PBMs negotiate drug benefits for health insurance plans and employers, and have in recent years taken an increasingly aggressive stance in price negotiations with drugmakers.

They often extract discounts and after-market rebates from drugmakers in exchange for including their medicines in PBM formularies with low co-payments.

(Reporting by Caroline Humer in New York and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Savio D’Souza)

Sears’ shares soar as loss narrows; sales continue decline

A Sears logo is seen at a store in Schaumburg, Illinois, September 23, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo

By Sruthi Ramakrishnan

(Reuters) – Sears Holdings Corp <SHLD.O> cut its third quarter loss by almost $200 million compared to a year ago, the company said on Thursday, benefiting from lower operating costs as it shut scores of Kmart and Sears outlets.

The company, whose warning of the risk of bankruptcy earlier this year was symbolic of the troubles of America’s biggest traditional retailers, racked up its 24th straight quarter of sales declines, reporting a double-digit drop in comparable sales at both Sears and Kmart.

Shares of Sears, which have been down more than 50 percent this year, surged 27 percent to $5.36 in pre-market trade and were the biggest gainers before the open.

“Losses are still terrible, but they are less bad than forecast and progress has been made in reducing them since last year,” Neil Saunders, Managing Director of GlobalData Retail, told Reuters.

He added that the pension deal Sears struck earlier this month also provides some certainty over future costs and will help the company’s bottom line in 2018 and 2019.

Sears said this month it had struck a deal that will help it reduce contributions to its pension plan for the next two years and monetize real estate that had formerly been protected.

Saunders, however, said the results gave little cause for celebration. “We still believe that Sears is a dying business … Nothing in this latest set of results changes our view.”

Once the largest U.S. retailer, Sears in March flagged doubts that it could continue as a going concern as it suffered from the Amazon-fuelled shift in shoppers from the mall to the web.

It has struck brand licensing deals and promoted its shopper loyalty program in efforts to turn itself around.

“The improvement is reflective of the success of the strategic priorities we outlined earlier this year,” the firm’s billionaire owner, Chairman and Chief Executive Eddie Lampert said in a statement.

He said Sears had streamlined operations, reduced inventory and minimized operating expenses.

The company’s net loss attributable to shareholders was $558 million in the third quarter, in line with guidance of $525-$595 million given earlier this month but down from $748 million a year earlier.

Sears said it had taken in more than $270 million from sales of real estate and other assets in the third quarter, as well as an additional $167 million after the close of the quarter.

It used the proceeds to pay down debt; long-term debt and obligations fell to $2.03 billion at the end of the quarter from $2.41 billion three months earlier.

(Additional reporting by Siddharth Cavale in Bengaluru; editing by Savio D’Souza and Patrick Graham)

New vaccine, long-acting drug trials buoy hopes in HIV fight

A nurse (L) hands out a red ribbon to a woman, to mark World Aids Day, at the entrance of Emilio Ribas Hospital, in Sao Paulo December 1, 2014. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON (Reuters) – Researchers announced the launch of two big studies in Africa on Thursday to test a new HIV vaccine and a long-acting injectable drug, fuelling hopes for better ways to protect against the virus that causes AIDS.

The start of the three-year vaccine trial involving 2,600 women in southern Africa means that for the first time in more than a decade there are now two big HIV vaccine clinical trials taking place at the same time.

The new study is testing a two-vaccine combination developed by Johnson & Johnson <JNJ.N> (J&J) with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The first vaccine, also backed by NIH, began a trial last November.

At the same time, GlaxoSmithKline’s <GSK.L> majority-owned ViiV Healthcare unit is starting another study enrolling 3,200 women in sub-Saharan Africa to evaluate the benefit of giving injections every two months of its experimental drug cabotegravir.

The ViiV initiative, which is expected to run until May 2022, also has funding from the NIH and the Gates Foundation.

Women are a major focus in the fight against the sexually transmitted disease since in Africa they account for more than half of all new HIV infections.

ViiV is also running another large study with its long-acting injection in HIV-uninfected men and transgender women who have sex with men. That study started in December 2016.

Although modern HIV drugs have turned the disease from a death sentence into a chronic condition and preventative drug treatment can help, a vaccine is still seen as critical in rolling back the pandemic.

The latest vaccine experiments aim to build on the modest success of a trial in Thailand in 2009, when an earlier vaccine showed a 31 percent reduction in infections.

“We’re making progress,” said J&J Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels, who believes it should be possible to achieve effectiveness above 50 percent.

“That is the goal. Hopefully, we get much higher,” he told Reuters.

The new vaccines require one dose to prime the immune system and a second shot to boost the body’s response.

Significantly, J&J’s latest vaccine uses so-called mosaic technology to combine immune-stimulating proteins from different HIV strains, representing different types of virus from around the world, which should produce a “global” vaccine.

One reason why making an HIV vaccine has proved so difficult in the past is the variability of the virus.

Initial clinical results reported at an AIDS conference in Paris in July showed the mosaic vaccine was safe and elicited a good immune response in healthy volunteers.

Some 37 million individuals around the world currently have HIV and around 1.8 million became newly infected last year.

(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; editing by Andrew Heavens and Jason Neely)

Music producer Russell Simmons steps down after sex assault claim

FILE PHOTO: Producer Russell Simmons take part in an “I am Muslim Too” rally in Times Square Manhattan, New York, U.S. February 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Music producer Russell Simmons said on Thursday he was stepping down from his fashion and production businesses after a screenwriter said in a column in the Hollywood Reporter that Simmons sexually assaulted her in 1991.

Jenny Lumet, the screenwriter daughter of the late movie director Sidney Lumet, in a Thursday Hollywood Reporter column accused Simmons of forcing himself on her in his New York apartment in 1991.

Simmons, 60, the co-founder of hip-hop label Def Jam Records and also a film producer, apologized for his behavior in a statement on his Instagram site.

Reuters could not independently confirm the allegation and representatives for Simmons did not replay to a request for comment.

“While her memory of that evening is very different from mine, it is now clear to me that her feelings of fear and intimidation are real,” Simmons said in his Instagram statement. “While I have never been violent, I have been thoughtless and insensitive in some of my relationships over many decades and I sincerely apologize.”

Lumet could not immediately be reached for comment.

Simmons is regarded as one of the most influential entrepreneurs in the hip-hop world. He also founded the fashion lines Phat Farm and Tantris, and co-produced films and TV shows including “The Nutty Professor” and “Def Comedy Jam.”

Simmons is the latest powerful man in entertainment to be accused of sexual misconduct. “Today” show host Matt Lauer on Thursday apologized for “troubling flaws” after being fired by NBC television for inappropriate behavior.

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Alden Bentley)

Froome to race in 2018 Giro d’Italia

FILE PHOTO: Chris Froome (GBR) of United Kingdom competes. REUTERS/Bryn Lennon/Pool
Picture Supplied by Action Images

By Martyn Herman

(Reuters) – Britain’s Chris Froome will attempt to become the first rider to claim the Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double for 20 years after confirming on Wednesday he would tackle both races in 2018.

Italian great Marco Pantani was the last man to achieve the feat in 1998, since when several greats have tried and failed.

Team Sky’s Froome won the Tour de France for a fourth time in five years in July before going on to become the first Briton to claim victory in the Vuelta. If he wins the Giro he would be only the third rider to hold all three Grand Tour titles at once.

With the three-week 3546.2​km Giro beginning in Jerusalem on May 4 and the Tour starting two months later Froome is taking on a daunting task, but he is confident he will be in optimum shape to rule in Rome and Paris.

“It’s something the team have considered carefully and we’ve talked about a lot,” the 32-year-old Froome said in a statement.

“We know that it would be a significant feat in the modern era to win both the Giro and the Tour in the same season, but the way we managed things this year gives me confidence that I can successfully target both races.”

Froome, who has not ridden the Giro since 2010 and is yet to claim the Maglia Rosa, could benefit from an extra week between the two races next year, owing to a slightly later Tour start due to the clash with the soccer World Cup in Russia.

The Giro, which will feature eight summit finishes and brutal climbing days in the final week, promises a fierce battle for the general classification with Froome up against twice former winner Vincenzo Nibali and 2017 champion Tom Dumoulin.

“It’s a unique situation for me, having won the Tour and Vuelta and now having the opportunity to go to the Giro and attempt to win a third consecutive Grand Tour,” Froome said.

“It’s really exciting to be able to take on a new challenge, to do something that perhaps people wouldn’t expect and to mix it up. It’s a whole new motivation for me to see if I can pull off something special next year.”

Team Principal Dave Brailsford said he was excited about Froome’s chances.

“We’ll be taking Chris to the Giro with the aim of winning three consecutive Grand Tours, and then going on to France with the goal of winning the Tour,” Brailsford said.

“Some of the very best riders have attempted to win the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the same season but very few have been successful, it’s a challenge we have enormous respect for.”

(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Ed Osmond)

Serena, Kuznetsova uncertain of playing Australian Open

Tennis player Serena Williams attends the 2017 Glamour Women of the Year Awards at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

(Reuters) – Former world number one Serena Williams has yet to make a decision about her participation at the Australian Open, while world number 12 Svetlana Kuznetsova is also a doubt for the first grand slam of 2018 after undergoing wrist surgery.

Williams was around two months pregnant when she captured her 23rd grand slam singles title in Melbourne earlier this year and was hoping to defend her crown next January following the birth of her daughter in September.

“Serena is getting ready for 2018,” the 36-year-old American’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou told CNN. “She is practicing and getting back in shape. I will be joining her soon in Florida.

“We will see how her body is reacting and how her tennis level is and we will take a decision regarding Australia.”

Russian Kuznetsova told local media that she was recovering from wrist surgery conducted earlier this month after separate injuries to the area and said there was no specific time frame for her return.

“I had two injuries in my wrist, so I had to do the operation,” the 32-year-old double major winner said.

“There’s a very complicated diagnosis. I’m still recovering and the doctor does not talk about specific dates when I can start training and play. Australia, most likely, I will have to miss.”

Meanwhile, Victoria Azarenka, who has not played since July due to an ongoing child custody battle, is set to return at the ASB Classic in January but will be without coach Michael Joyce, who released a statement on their partnership.

“Vika is an extremely talented player. While I am excited to see her return to tennis, I encourage and respect her decision to put her family first,” Joyce said of the Belarusian two-time Australian Open champion and former world number one.

“It is with deep regret that I have decided to move forward with my coaching career while she continues to work out her private life. I look forward to seeing her on the tour soon and wish her the best of luck.”

The Australian Open will be held from Jan. 15-28.

(Reporting by Aditi Prakash in Bengaluru)

WHO fears complacency as progress against malaria stalls

FILE PHOTO: An Anopheles stephensi mosquito obtains a blood meal from a human host through its pointed proboscis in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters November 23, 2015. A known malarial vector, the species can found from Egypt all the way to China. REUTERS/Jim Gathany/CDC/Handout via Reuters

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Progress in the global fight against malaria has stalled amid signs of flatlining funding and complacency that the mosquito-borne disease is less of a threat, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.

Malaria infected around 216 million people in 91 countries in 2016, an increase of 5 million cases over the previous year, the WHO said in its annual World Malaria Report. It killed 445,000 people, about the same number as in 2015.

The vast majority of deaths were in children under the age of five in the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Globally … after an unprecedented period of success, we are no longer making progress,” said Abdisalan Noor, a WHO expert on malaria and lead author of the report. “I am concerned that we have become complacent.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added that “in some countries and regions, we are beginning to see reversals in the gains achieved”.

Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO’s global malaria program, said that partly due to funding, and partly due to governments shifting focus away from malaria, the progress seen in the past decade is no longer being sustained.

“We want (this to be) a wake-up call to the malaria community,” he told reporters on a teleconference. “We are not on track, and we need to get back on track.”

Overall funding for malaria has leveled off since 2010. In 2016, an estimated $2.7 billion was invested in malaria control and elimination efforts globally. In 2015, funding totaled $2.9 billion – almost the same as in 2010.

The WHO says a minimum annual investment of $6.5 billion is needed by 2020 to meet targets on controlling malaria by 2030.

The WHO report found that when analyzed on a country-by-country per capita basis, funding in countries where there is a high threat of malaria has fallen to an average of less than $2 per year per person at risk.

Noor said that alongside stagnating funding, the report found “equally concerning” gaps in access to and use of vital malaria prevention, diagnostic and treatment tools such as bed nets, indoor spraying and primary healthcare.

Fewer than half of households in countries in sub-Saharan Africa have enough bed nets to protect against mosquito bites, and only about a third of children in Africa with a fever have access to free public health sector medical care.

Tedros, who spent many years as a government minister fighting malaria in Ethiopia before coming to the WHO, said it would take robust financial resources and political leadership to swing the pendulum back towards a malaria-free world

“We are up against a tough adversary. But I am also convinced that this is a winnable battle,” he said.

(Editing by Alison Williams and William Maclean)

Sign-up pace much slower in week 4 of 2018 Obamacare enrollment

FILE PHOTO: A sign on an insurance store advertises Obamacare in San Ysidro, San Diego, California, U.S., October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The pace of people signing up for individual insurance under Obamacare slowed significantly during the fourth week of 2018 enrollment, as nearly 37 percent fewer people signed up for the health care plans than in the previous week, a U.S. government agency reported on Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that 504,181 people signed up for 2018 Obamacare individual insurance in the 39 states that use the federal government website HealthCare.gov for the week ended Nov. 25, down from 798,829 people in the previous week. New consumer sign-ups fell to 152,243 from 220,323 in the previous week.

Total sign-ups reached 2.78 million during the first four weeks of enrollment, which lasts through Dec. 15.

The figures do not include enrollment in Washington, D.C. or the 11 states that run their own enrollment and websites. The subsidized individual insurance is part of former President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, often known as Obamacare.

(Reporting by Michael ErmanEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Health secretary nominee Azar says drug pricing a top priority

Alex Azar testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on his nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Yasmeen Abutaleb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Alex Azar, a former drug industry executive who Republicans have nominated to run the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on Wednesday promised to lower drug prices that he said are too high, saying he would look at abuse of patent laws that delays generic competition.

Azar, who worked at Eli Lilly & Co, said his top priorities would be drug pricing, affordable healthcare, Medicare innovation and the opioid crisis that has killed tens of thousands of Americans.

“The current system of pricing insulin and other medicines … that system is not working for the patients who have to pay out of pocket, and we have to recognize that impact,” Azar told members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions during a hearing that is part of the confirmation process.

Both Democratic and Republican senators repeatedly pressed Azar, who is also a former drug industry lobbyist, on how he would rein in rising prescription drug prices.

The hearing grew contentious when Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren pressed him on whether drug company chief executives should be held personally accountable for actions like price fixing and Azar declined to answer the question.

Two Democratic lawmakers last year called for a federal probe into whether Eli Lilly, Sanofi SA, Merck & Co and Novo Nordisk A/S colluded to set prices on insulin and other diabetes drugs.

Azar also said he would support a bipartisan Senate bill that would help stabilize the Affordable Care Act, Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement. But he said he did not think the measure was a long-term solution to “problems inherent in the Affordable Care Act.”

(Reporting by Yasemeen Abutaleb, Writing by Caroline Humer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Bosnian-Croat war crimes convict dies after taking ‘poison’ in court: TV

A wartime commander of Bosnian Croat forces, Slobodan Praljak, is seen during a hearing at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands, November 29, 2017. ICTY via REUTERS TV

By Stephanie van den Berg and Bart H. Meijer

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – A Bosnian Croat wartime commander died after swallowing what he said was poison in a U.N. war crimes courtroom on Wednesday after losing an appeal against a 20-year prison sentence, Croatian state TV said.

Slobodan Praljak, 72, died in hospital in the Hague after he was seen drinking from a flask or glass as a U.N. judge read out the ruling against him and five other suspects, state TV reported, citing unnamed sources.

The apparent courtroom suicide, which was broadcast on a video feed, came in the final minutes of the last judgment at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which closes next month.

“I just drank poison,” he said. “I am not a war criminal. I oppose this conviction.”

After gulping down the drink, Praljak sat back down and slumped in his chair, a lawyer who was in the courtroom at the time said.

U.N. court representatives and Dutch hospital officials declined to comment on his condition.

Croatian General Marinko Kresic, speaking earlier on Croatian TV, said he had spoken to the wife of another defendant, Milivoje Petkovic, who was in The Hague. “She confirmed that he drank the poison and that he is in a very grave health condition,” he said.

The presiding Judge Carmel Agius suspended the hearings and paramedics raced to the courtroom, which was declared a crime scene by Dutch authorities. As forensic investigation got underway, the courtroom was sealed off, and the public was instructed to leave.

“Don’t take away the glass,” Agius said, instructing the guards to lower blinds and block a glass-partition separating the court from the public.

In the chaotic moments that followed, guards and paramedics raced in and out of the courtroom. Ambulances were seen leaving the tribunal, but there was no official confirmation of Praljak’s condition.

A reading of the judgment, which was also deciding on charges against five other suspects, resumed more than two hours after Praljak said he had poisoned himself.

“The Dutch authorities have already commenced an investigation into what happened this morning,” he said.

The incident upstaged the appeals ruling, which was important for Croatia, where parliament was suspended so lawmakers could follow the reading of the verdict.

“NOT A WAR CRIMINAL”

The court upheld convictions of Praljak and five other Bosnian Croats: Jadranko Prlic, the political leader of the Croatian province of Bosnia, along with military and police figures Bruno Stojic, Milivoj Petrovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic.

Judges upheld findings that there was a criminal conspiracy that included the regime of neighbor Croatia under then-President Franjo Tudjman with the goal of “ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population” of parts of Bosnia to ensure Croatian domination.

The defendants on Wednesday received sentences ranging from 10 to 25 years. The decision cannot be appealed.

The chairman of Bosnia’s inter-ethnic presidency, Dragan Covic, a Croat, said: “He showed before the whole world what kind of sacrifice he is ready to make to prove that he is not a war criminal.”

The ICTY, established in 1993 by the U.N. Security Council, indicted 161 war crimes suspects from Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Of the 83 convicted, more than 60 of them were ethnic Serbs.

The court’s lead suspect, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, died of a heart attack in March 2006 months before a ruling in his genocide case.

Former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic was found guilty of genocide by the U.N. war crimes tribunal last week and sentenced to life in prison for his role in massacres and ethnic cleansing during Bosnia’s war.

Two defendants awaiting trial committed suicide by hanging themselves in their U.N. cells, according to court documents. Slavko Dogmanovic died in 1998 and Milan Babić was found dead in his locked cell in 2006.

(Additional reporting by Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo and Maja Zuvela in Mostar; Writing by Anthony Deutsch)

Meghan Markle departs ‘Suits’ after engagement to Prince Harry

(L-R) Actresses Sarah Rafferty, Gina Torres and Meghan Markle attend the USA Network and The Moth’s Characters Unite Event at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, California February 15, 2012. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – U.S. actress Meghan Markle has wrapped up her role on legal drama series “Suits” after seven seasons, USA Network and Universal Cable Productions said in a statement on Tuesday, a day after Markle and Britain’s Prince Harry announced their engagement.

Markle, 36, played Rachel Zane on the cable network drama, rising up the ranks from paralegal to lawyer. The character is engaged to be married to Mike Ross, played by Patrick J. Adams.

Markle has completed all her filming for the seventh season, which will return in early 2018, the network said.

“We want to send our most heartfelt congratulations to Meghan Markle and Prince Harry on their engagement,” USA Network and Universal Cable Productions, both units of Comcast Corp, said in a joint statement.

“Meghan has been a member of our family for seven years and it has been a joy to work with her. We want to thank her for her undeniable passion and dedication to Suits, and we wish her the very best,” the statement added.

Markle and Harry, 33, announced on Monday they were getting married in May 2018.

The couple met on a blind date in July 2016 and said their relationship had blossomed “incredibly quickly.”

(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Cristiano Ronaldo climbs Instagram ranks, Selena Gomez most-followed

2017 American Music Awards – Arrivals – Los Angeles, California, U.S., 19/11/2017 – Selena Gomez. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo muscled his way into Instagram’s top-followed ranks this year as he documented his career and growing family, but pop star Selena Gomez still reigned supreme on the social media platform.

Ronaldo, who was named Forbes’ highest-paid soccer player this year with $93 million in earnings, climbed to No. 2 with 116 million followers on Instagram, up from 82.8 million followers and the No. 6 slot last year.

Gomez remained the most-followed person on Instagram with 130 million followers this year, up from 103 million last year.

Ronaldo, 32, a striker for Real Madrid, has posted numerous photos and videos on Instagram this year both on and off the soccer field. He notched three of the ten most-liked posts on Instagram this year, all documenting his growing family.

The athlete announced that he was a father to newborn twins born to a surrogate mother in June, in a post that garnered more than 8.2 million likes. His most popular post clocked more than 11 million likes in November, announcing the birth of his baby daughter with his girlfriend Georgina Rodriguez.

In 2010, Ronaldo said he became father to a son and had full custody. The mother’s identity was not publicly announced.

Facebook Inc-owned Instagram has more than 500 million daily active users and 800 million monthly active users. The platform allows users to post photos, videos and this year introduced instant ‘stories,’ where posted videos and photos disappear after 24 hours.

Singers Ariana Grande and Beyonce held onto the third and fourth most-followed spots with 115 million followers and 108 million followers respectively this year, while reality star Kim Kardashian West held onto the fifth spot with 104 million fans.

Beyonce’s February photo announcing her pregnancy with twins was the most-liked photo on Instagram this year, with more than 11.1 million likes.

Taylor Swift dropped from No. 2 to No. 6 after the 27-year-old disappeared from social media earlier this year after a highly publicized breakup with British DJ Calvin Harris and feuds with Katy Perry, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

She returned to Instagram in August with a scrubbed Instagram profile and promoted her new music on her feed.

Among the data compiled by Instagram between Jan. 1 and Nov. 17, the most popular hashtag used was #love, the city most featured in posts was New York and the most-Instagrammed location was Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; editing by Grant McCool)

Trump calls for boycott of television network CNN: tweet

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with reporters after meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) at the White House in Washington, U.S. November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump urged a boycott of CNN on Wednesday, ramping up his fight against the television network as his administration fights AT&T Inc’s deal to buy CNN’s owner Time Warner Inc.

Trump has criticized the proposed deal, which the Justice Department has sued to stop. Legal experts have said the president’s attacks on CNN could hobble his administration’s case.

The president, who regularly assails mainstream media, has long criticized CNN, calling the network “fake news” and saying he no longer watches it, while lauding rival Fox News. His call for a boycott appeared to be a step up in his attacks.

“Great, and we should boycott Fake News CNN. Dealing with them is a total waste of time!,” Trump wrote in a Twitter post.

Trump was responding to a post by his spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, who in her own post on Tuesday night praised reports that CNN would not attend an annual holiday party held at the White House for news media.

It was not immediately clear if Trump in his post was calling for a wider boycott against CNN or one by White House staff. Representatives for the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Representatives for CNN also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trump’s tweet on Wednesday. A CNN spokesperson told Politico that it would not attend the party “in light of the President’s continued attacks on freedom of the press and CNN” but would send a reporting crew to cover the event, Politico reported on Tuesday.

The network and its journalists have repeatedly defended CNN’s work against previous presidential attacks.

The Department of Justice’s challenge is unusual move given that pay TV and wireless company AT&T does not directly compete with TV show maker Time Warner. The department has said the lawsuit is a law enforcement decision, not a political one.

(Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Texas victim’s family files first claim against U.S. Air Force over church massacre

A memorial is seen at the site of the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Tina Bellon

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Parents of one of the victims killed in the Nov. 5 shooting rampage at a Texas church filed a claim on Tuesday against the U.S. Air Force in what appeared to be the first legal action in connection to the incident.

The administrative claim, which was filed directly with the Air Force in Washington, said the military acted negligently when it failed to report the criminal record of gunman Devin Kelly to a federal database that would have prevented him from legally purchasing a firearm.

Kelly killed 26 people and wounded more than 20 at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

The Air Force said in a statement it did not comment on specific claims. “Every claim that is filed is thoroughly processed and researched in accordance with established law and regulations,” said Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman.

The claim was filed by Joe and Claryce Holcombe, parents of Bryan Holcombe, who was fatally shot in the back while walking to the church pulpit to lead the congregation in worship, according to the filing.

The San Antonio couple lost nine relatives in the shooting.

The claim filed on Tuesday is the first step plaintiffs need to take if they want to sue an entity of the U.S. government. A lawsuit can be filed six months later, during which time the government can investigate the accusations and offer a settlement.

Legal experts have said the Air Force would not be able to claim federal immunity in the case, but cautioned that any lawsuits faced a prolonged uphill battle over specific legal questions.

Kelly was convicted five years ago by a general court-martial of assaulting his then-wife and stepson while he was in the Air Force, offenses that made it illegal for him to possess a firearm.

The Air Force said in a statement on Nov. 7 that it did not enter that information into a federal database used in background checks for firearms purchases, something it was legally required to do.

On Tuesday, the Air Force said there were at least several dozen cases of serious crimes involving its personnel that it failed to report to the federal database.

(Reporting by Tina Bellon; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)

Trump to visit Utah next week, expected to announce monument decision

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 27, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump is set to visit Utah on Monday and is expected to announce his decision on whether to reduce the size of two national monuments where drilling and mining are banned, an administration official said on Tuesday.

Trump is expected shrink the Bears Ears National Monument, set aside by former Democratic President Barack Obama, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, preserved by former Democratic President Bill Clinton. The trip was first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.

Trump has pushed to roll back regulations that prevent development. To that end, he had ordered a review of the size of 27 monuments: land with cultural, historical or scientific importance preserved from development by past presidents under the Antiquities Act.

Last month, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump would travel to Utah in early December, and U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said Trump would reduce the size of the monuments.

Environmental groups and Native American tribal organizations plan to protest Trump’s planned visit on Saturday at Utah’s state capitol at what they call “The Rally Against Trump’s Monumental Mistake.”

The announcement is expected to touch off a legal battle with environmental groups and Native American tribes. The Navajo Nation and the four other tribes that created and co-manage the Bears Ears monument plan to file a lawsuit the next day.

“We will be fighting back immediately. All five tribes will be standing together united to defend Bears Ears,” said Natalie Landreth, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other conservation groups also plan litigation against the Trump administration to challenge changes to both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, said Steve Bloch, director of SUWA.

Bloch said conservation groups are concerned that Trump’s announcement will include an order to offer areas in the monuments for public lease sales for coal mining or oil and gas drilling.

Industry groups like the oil lobbying organization the American Petroleum Institute have said in the past that both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante were unfairly designated as monuments and needed to be reviewed.

Some Utah county officials welcome a reduction in the size of the monuments, which they say has restricted road access to protected areas.

In Kane County, where 60 percent of land is located within Grand Staircase, commissioner Dirk Clayson plans to attend Trump’s event if he is invited.

“We are grateful that somebody is listening to our local voice,” he said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton and Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Chris Reese)

Bubble trouble? Bitcoin tops $11,000 after $1,000 surge in 12 hours

Bitcoin (virtual currency) coins placed on Dollar banknotes are seen in this illustration picture, November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

By Jemima Kelly and Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss

LONDON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Bitcoin zoomed past $11,000 to hit a record high for the sixth day in a row on Wednesday after gaining more than $1,000 in just 12 hours, stoking concerns that a rapidly swelling bubble could be set to burst in spectacular fashion.

After soaring more than 1,000 percent since the start of the year, bitcoin rose as much as 15 percent on Wednesday.

It topped $10,000 for the first time in early Asia trading, before surging above $11,000 less than 12 hours later to reach $11,395 on Luxembourg-based Bitstamp, one of the largest and most liquid cryptocurrency exchanges, and then dipping back below $11,000.

Bitcoin’s rapid ascent has led to countless warnings that it has reached bubble territory in recent weeks. But the warnings have had little effect, with dozens of new crypto-hedge funds entering the market and retail investors piling in.

The world’s largest bitcoin wallet provider, San Francisco-based Coinbase, signed up 300,000 new users between last Wednesday and Sunday, during the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, according to data compiled by Altana cryptocurrency fund manager Alistair Milne. It now counts more than 13 million customers.

The evidence suggests that few of the users are buying bitcoin to use it as a means of exchange, but are speculating to increase their capital.

“What’s happening right now has nothing to do with bitcoin’s functionality as a currency – this is pure mania that’s taken hold,” said Garrick Hileman, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School.

“This is very much a bubble that will very much correct itself at some point and people need to be very careful.”

Hileman, who last week gave a lecture to the Bank of England on the risks of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, also flagged the risk of the whole market collapsing entirely.

“There’s always the possibility that some fundamental cryptographic flaw that we can’t solve craters the whole space, or that regulators unite and decide this represents systemic risk and actually could trigger the next financial crisis,” he said.

“EXIT RAMPS”

Created in 2008, bitcoin uses encryption and a blockchain database that enables the fast and anonymous transfer of funds outside of a conventional centralized payment system.

It has far outstripped gains seen in any traditional asset classes or currencies this year. It rise accelerated in recent months as exchanges such as the CME Group Inc and the Chicago Board Options Exchange announced plans to offer futures contracts for the cryptocurrency.

Sceptics say it a classic speculative bubble with no relation to real financial market activity or the economy – most famously JPMorgan boss Jamie Dimon, who labeled it a “fraud”.

But even Dimon and others who say bitcoin represents a bubble – now the consensus view among mainstream investors – do not deny its price rise could still have further to go.

“It’s got all the shapings of your tulip bubble chart (but) that tells you nothing about where that price line could go depending on the number of people who wish to own it,” Standard Life’s head of investment strategy, Andrew Milligan, said on Wednesday. “Who is to say it doesn’t reach $100,000?”

In some emerging markets, bitcoin had hit well over $10,000 previously. In Zimbabwe, bitcoin traded at $17,875 on Monday. Tuesday’s price in Zimbabwe was not available.

In South Korean exchanges, too, bitcoin was already close to $11,000 or higher early this week.

The fact that bitcoin now provides “exit ramps” from national currencies that were becoming easier to use, Hileman said, could exacerbate any future financial crisis. Coordinated regulatory action might therefore be necessary in order to stave off an “economic calamity”, he said.

Despite its mushrooming value, however, Bank of England Deputy Governor Jon Cunliffe said on Wednesday bitcoin was not big enough to pose a risk to the global economy.

Mike Novogratz, a former macro hedge fund manager at Fortress Investment Group, said in a Reuters Investment Summit earlier this month that mainstream institutional investors were about six to eight months from adopting bitcoin.

(Additional reporting by Marius Zaharia in Hong Kong, Vidya Ranganathan in Singapore, and Helen Reid and Dhara Ranasinghe in London; editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Kim Coghill and Larry King)

U.S. expands leniency for companies that disclose foreign bribery

FILE PHOTO: The exterior of the U.S. Department of Justice headquarters building in Washington, DC, U.S. on July 14, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Joel Schectman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department will extend greater leniency to companies that voluntarily alert authorities when they learn employees have paid bribes to foreign officials.

The new guidelines will allow most companies to avoid prosecution altogether if they fully disclose foreign bribery, cooperate in the investigation and take steps to avoid future misconduct, senior Justice Department officials told reporters on a conference call on Thursday.

The new rules are expected to be announced on Monday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

They mark an expansion of a pilot program, launched in 2016 by the Obama Administration, that was intended to encourage more companies to come forward when they discover foreign bribery. In exchange, they would get lighter penalties.

While that program also offered the possibility of avoiding prosecution, the new guidelines will offer companies the “presumption” that charges will be dropped if they comes forward and fully cooperates.

In cases when the misconduct is so severe that the Justice Department cannot drop the charges, the guidelines will still allow companies that come forward to get a 50 percent reduction of the lowest level of penalty.

Justice Department officials say the new guidelines will offer companies a greater incentive to come forward. The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act makes it a crime for companies to bribe overseas officials to win business.

The expanded leniency program for corporate bribery comes at a time when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked prosecutors to take a tougher line against criminals, particularly in drug cases.

But the cooperation requirements that companies must meet before prosecutors will drop the charges against companies will be “rigorous” and will give authorities more ammunition to pursue individual executives involved in the crimes, the officials said.

“I don’t think it’s accurate at all to portray or understand this policy as giving a pass to corporate crime,” a U.S. Justice Department official said.

(Reporting by Joel Schectman; Edited by Damon Darlin and Susan Thomas)

Build fast, fix later: speed hurts quality at Tesla, some workers say

FILE PHOTO: Model S side panels await installation at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, June 22, 2012. REUTERS/Noah Berger/File Photo

By Alexandria Sage

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – After Tesla’s Model S sedans and Model X SUVs roll off the company’s Fremont, California assembly line, the electric vehicles usually make another stop – for repairs, nine current and former employees have told Reuters.

The luxury cars regularly require fixes before they can leave the factory, according to the workers. Quality checks have routinely revealed defects in more than 90 percent of Model S and Model X vehicles inspected after assembly, these individuals said, citing figures from Tesla’s internal tracking system as recently as October. Some of these people told Reuters of seeing problems as far back as 2012.

Tesla Inc <TSLA.O> said its quality control process is unusually rigorous, designed to flag and correct the tiniest imperfections. It declined to provide post-assembly defect rates to Reuters or comment on those cited by employees.

The world’s most efficient automakers, such as Toyota <7203.T>, average post-manufacturing fixes on fewer than 10 percent of their cars, according to industry experts. Getting quality right during initial assembly is crucial, they said, because repairs waste time and money.

At Tesla “so much goes into rework after the car is done … that’s where their money is being spent,” a former Tesla supervisor said.

The Silicon Valley automaker said the majority of its post-assembly defects are minor and resolved in a matter of minutes.

Tesla has enthralled consumers with sleek designs, clean technology and legendary acceleration on its pricey cars. A Consumer Reports survey found 91 percent of Tesla owners would buy again.

Still, the magazine and market researcher J.D. Power have dinged the company on quality, citing troubles such as faulty door handles and body panel gaps. Bernstein analyst A.M. (Toni) Sacconaghi, Jr. test-drove one of the company’s new Model 3 sedans earlier this month, writing that the fit and finish were “relatively poor.” Tesla owners have complained on web forums of annoying rattles, buggy software and poor seals that allow rainwater to seep into the interior or trunk.

Auto industry experts say the company’s survival now depends on its ability to crank out high-quality cars in volume as it begins to build its first mass-market car, the Model 3, which starts at $35,000.

Tesla has never turned an annual profit and is burning through $1 billion a quarter. That is unsustainable without fresh cash or a big increase in sales to mainstream customers who may prove less forgiving of potential defects.

“We’ve never doubted Tesla’s ability to make exciting products with top specifications, but there’s a difference between unveiling something and then actually making it perfectly in large volume. Tesla has not perfected the latter yet,” Morningstar analyst David Whiston wrote earlier this month.

Musk has vowed Tesla would become “the best manufacturer on Earth,” helped by a new, highly automated assembly line and a simpler design for the Model 3. However, production woes have slowed deliveries of the much-anticipated sedan.

Snags are normal with any new launch. But chronic defects with Tesla’s established Models S and X show a company still struggling to master basic manufacturing, workers said.

Known as “kickbacks” within Tesla, these vehicles have glitches as minor as dents and scratches to more complex troubles such as malfunctioning seats. Easy fixes are made swiftly on the factory floor, workers said.

Trickier cases head to one of Tesla’s outdoor parking lots to await repair. The backlog in one of those two lots, dubbed the “yard,” has exceeded 2,000 vehicles at times, workers told Reuters.

Tesla denied to Reuters that such “repair lots” exist.

Reuters interviewed nine current and former Tesla employees, including a former senior manager, with experience in assembly, quality control and repairs on Model S and Model X. All requested anonymity because the company required them to sign non-disclosure agreements. Four of the people were fired for cause, including two last month as part of a mass dismissal of hundreds of workers for what Tesla said was poor performance. Sacked workers who spoke with Reuters denied they were poor performers.

People with knowledge of Tesla’s internal quality data shared those figures with Reuters. The news agency was unable to confirm the information independently.

Defects included “doors not closing, material trim, missing parts, all kinds of stuff. Loose objects, water leaks, you name it,” another former supervisor said. “We’ve been building a Model S since 2012. How do we still have water leaks?”

For a graphic on Tesla’s losses, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2AgMYIB

BUILD FAST, FIX LATER

Tesla disputed workers’ portrayal of the automaker as struggling to produce defect-free vehicles. A spokesperson described a rigorous process that requires all cars to pass more than 500 inspections and tests. Any reworking of cars after assembly reflects the company’s commitment to quality, the spokesperson said.

“Our goal is to produce perfect cars for every customer,” Tesla said in a statement. “Therefore, we review every vehicle for even the smallest refinement. Most customers would never notice the work that is done post production, but we care about even a fraction of a millimeter body gap difference or a slight paint gloss texture. We then feed these improvements back to production in a pursuit of perfection.”

Employees who worked on Model S and Model X described pressure to keep the assembly line moving, even when problems emerged. Some told of batches of cars being sent through with parts missing – windshields in one case, bumpers in another – because there were none on hand. The understanding, they said, was that these and other flaws would be fixed later.

Quality inspectors would sometimes find more defects than those reported by workers in the internal tracking system when a car came off the line. “We’d see two issues, that’s pretty good. But then we’d dig in and there would be like 15 or 20,” one person said.

One persistently tricky area was alignment, where body parts had to be “muscled,” in the words of the senior manager, to a certain degree of flushness. Not every team follows the same rule book, workers said, resulting in gaps of different size.

Tesla denied that its quality control is inconsistent and said its “extensive” process for locating and fixing errors was “very successful.”

Some workers traced the challenges to Musk’s determination to launch vehicles faster than the industry norm by shortening the design process, skipping some pre-production testing, then making improvements on the fly. Such improvisation leads to high repair rates, employees said.

For a March report called “Beyond the Hype,” J.D. Power found creaks, scratches and poor door alignment on new Model S and Model X vehicles, issues it blamed on the company’s lack of manufacturing experience. The overall quality of Tesla vehicles, it concluded, was “not competitive” within the luxury segment, lacking “precision and attention to detail.”

Such sloppiness is a rarity in luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz <DAIGn.DE> and BMW <BMWG.DE>, said Kathleen Rizk, director of global automotive consulting at J.D. Power.

“Those companies have been manufacturing forever,” she said. “They have stopgaps.”

Tesla said its high customer satisfaction proves it is building the “safest and best-performing cars available today.”

(Reporting By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Peter Henderson and Marla Dickerson)

NBC News fires ‘Today’ co-host Matt Lauer for sexual misconduct

FILE PHOTO: Host Matt Lauer pauses during a break while filming NBC’s “Today” show at Rockefeller Center in New York, U.S., May 3, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Gina Cherelus

NEW YORK (Reuters) – NBC News fired popular “Today” show host Matt Lauer after receiving what it called a detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace, the network said on Wednesday.

NBC News chairman Andrew Lack said that, after serious review, the complaint received on Monday night represented “a clear violation” of the company’s standards.

“As a result, we’ve decided to terminate his employment,” Lack said in a statement. “While it is the first complaint about his behavior in the over twenty years he’s been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident.”

Lauer’s agent Ken Lindner did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Reuters was unable to independently confirm the accusation against Lauer.

The news was announced by “Today” co-anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb at the start of the talk show, a staple of U.S. morning television for more than six decades that, NBC says, averages more than 4 million viewers.

“This is a sad morning at ‘Today’ and at NBC News,” Guthrie said, visibly shaken. “We just learned this moments ago just this morning. As I’m sure you can imagine we are devastated.”

Lack’s statement did not say who made the accusation.

“We are deeply saddened by this turn of events,” Lack’s statement said. “But we will face it together as a news organization – and do it in as transparent a manner as we can.”

During Wednesday’s show, NBC News reporter Stephanie Gosk said the colleague had accused Lauer of serious misconduct “throughout 2014.” An NBC representative did not respond to a request for more details.

Fellow NBC News anchor Willie Geist, who hosts the “Today” show’s Sunday program, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he was stunned, especially given Lauer’s role.

“Matt Lauer is the most powerful person at NBC News, arguably,” Geist said, referring to Lauer as a friend and mentor who he said had always led by example on the show’s set.

Comcast Corp, the largest U.S. cable television company, owns NBCUniversal. Shares of Comcast rose 1.6 percent to $36.84 in early trade on Nasdaq.

TRUMP TWEETS

U.S. President Donald Trump responded with messages on Twitter calling for some of Lauer’s colleagues to also be fired.

“Wow,” Trump tweeted about the Lauer announcement. “But when will the top executives at NBC & Comcast be fired for putting out so much Fake News. Check out Andy Lack’s past!” he added, without further explanation.

An NBC spokeswoman did not respond to questions about Trump’s comments.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-Republican candidate Trump was accused by 13 women who publicly said that in the past he had physically touched them inappropriately in some way, the Washington Post reported.

Trump denied the accusations, accused rival Democrats and the media of a smear campaign, and went on to win the election. Reuters did not independently confirm the accusations against Trump.

Since Lauer took over the anchor chair in 1997, “Today” has dominated morning show ratings.

According to Fortune Magazine, Lauer signed a two-year deal in 2016 that would pay him $20 million per year. He joined “Today” in January 1994 and has interviewed presidents George Bush and Barack Obama and broadcast from seven Olympic games.

There were reports that journalists from multiple outlets had been investigating complaints against Lauer.

Elizabeth Wagmeister and Ramin Setoodeh, two Variety reporters, said they had been working for months on a story about sexual harassment allegations by multiple women against Lauer. “NBC was aware that Variety was working on a bombshell story about sexual harassment allegations against Matt Lauer,” Setoodeh wrote on Twitter.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus and Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Alden Bentley, Howard Goller and Nick Zieminski)

Woods hopes to be a winner in another comeback

Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the seventh hole during Monday’s practice round of the Hero World Challenge golf tournament at Albany.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

By Steve Keating

(Reuters) – Tiger Woods makes another return to competitive golf this week and despite 10 months on the sidelines recovering from a fourth back surgery, the 14-time major winner’s goal remains the same — to win.

While Woods’s famous competitive fires continue to rage the former world number one conceded he may have to temper his expectations at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.

He takes on an elite 18-player field that includes eight of the top 10 in the current world rankings.

“I just really want to be able to compete this week, play all four days and give myself a chance on the back nine on Sunday to win this thing,” a relaxed and smiling Woods told a news conference on Tuesday from the Albany Club.

“I don’t know where I’m at, I don’t know how hard I can hit, what shots can I play. I don’t know what the future entails in that regard because I am still learning this body.”

This marks the third time Woods, 41, has attempted a comeback at the Hero World Challenge, the charity event he hosts.

Just last year Woods made a similar return at the Hero following a 16-month hiatus for previous back surgeries and the initial reports were upbeat after he completed four rounds.

Yet two months later he succumbed to more back pain and returned to the operating table.

Woods, however, insists it is different this time.

“I was still struggling with some nerve issues down my leg when I came back at Isleworth (the previous venue for the event), last year I was the same but it was not where it’s at now,” said Woods. “It’s different than my prior two comebacks at this event. Last year I was still struggling and this year is night and day.

“There’s still some apprehension going forward and no doubt this week is a big step for me, to be able to play golf, be explosive and hit shots.”

Woods said he has made no plans on his competitive future beyond the Hero World Challenge.

While the state of his game remains a big question mark, he made it clear that he has undergone a dramatic improvement in his quality of life.

“The neatest thing for me is to be able to get up out of bed and I can grab a club and not use it as a crutch,” smiled Woods. “Now I’m able to take a swing, you have no idea how exciting that is, I’m just so thankful I’ve had this procedure and am back to this point.

“I’ve only been doing this for a month, give me a little more time. Let me play this event and see what I can or can’t do and I will have a better understanding once I’m at game speed.”

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)

Ravens in playoff position after topping Texans

Nov 27, 2017; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Chris Moore (10) returns a kickoff as Houston Texans wide receiver Chris Thompson (14) defends at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore Ravens defeated Houston Texans 23-16. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

(The Sports Xchange) – The Ravens executed a fake punt that led to a Javorius “Buck” Allen touchdown, and Alex Collins ran for another score in Baltimore’s 23-16 victory over the Houston Texans on Monday night.

Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs also came up with huge play, a strip-sack of Texans quarterback Tom Savage late in the fourth quarter. The fumble was recovered by Baltimore defensive tackle Willie Henry.

The Ravens (6-5) have consecutive wins for the first time since the opening two weeks of the season, and they retook the sixth and final AFC playoff spot.

Baltimore overcame a huge performance by Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who caught seven passes for 125 yards.

Baltimore is 12-1 in night games at home since coach John Harbaugh took over the team in 2008. The Ravens have also won 10 consecutive prime-time matchups at M&T Bank Stadium, the longest streak in the NFL.

Houston (4-7) pulled to within 20-16 on a 37-yard field goal by Ka’imi Fairbairn with 8:36 remaining in the game. The Texans were driving again on their next possession, but Suggs’ strip-sack led to a 49-yard field goal by Justin Tucker that gave Baltimore the 23-16 margin.

Ravens safety Anthony Levine sealed the win with the first interception of his career with just over two minutes left.

Baltimore’s Joe Flacco completed 20 of 32 passes for 141 yards and had a key 25-yard run on the game’s final possession.

The Ravens had three takeaways, giving them an NFL-leading 26.

Savage, filling for the injured Deshaun Watson, was 22 of 37 for 252 yards with two interceptions.

The Ravens’ defense had three penalties for 39 yards on the Texans’ opening drive. That helped set up a four-yard touchdown run by Lamar Miller.

Baltimore got a spark when Sam Koch threw a 22-yard pass to Chris Moore on a fake punt early in the second quarter. Two plays later, Allen tied the game on a 10-yard run.

An interception by safety Tony Jefferson and a 29-yard run by Collins on a fourth-and-1 set up the Ravens’ next score. Collins capped the drive with an 8-yard run, and Baltimore had its first lead, 14-7, with 6:44 left in the half.

Fairbairn and Tucker traded field goals in the final two minutes, and the Ravens led 17-10 at the break.

Talk show host Seth Meyers to host 2018 Golden Globes

FILE PHOTO: TV host Seth Meyers arrives for the 40th Anniversary Saturday Night Live (SNL) broadcast in the Manhattan borough of New York February 15, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Late night talk show host Seth Meyers will host the 2018 Golden Globe movie and television awards ceremony in January, organizers said on Monday.

It will be the first Golden Globes hosting gig for Myers, 43, whose “Late Night with Seth Meyers” airs on NBC.

The Golden Globes ceremony, an informal and boozy dinner attended by hundreds of A-list stars, is one of the biggest in the Hollywood awards season that culminates with the Oscars in March.

The 2018 ceremony will take place on Jan. 7 in Beverly Hills and will be broadcast live on NBC, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which votes on the awards, said in a statement.

Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, said in a statement that Meyers “will be taking a closer look at this year’s best movies and television with his unique brand of wit, intelligence, and mischievous humor.”

Meyers began his television career on satirical sketch show “Saturday Night Live” in 2001 and was a cast member for 13 seasons, serving as head writer for nine seasons.

As Golden Globes host, he follows in the footsteps of Jimmy Fallon, British comedian Ricky Gervais, and comedy duo Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant)

SoftBank offers to buy Uber shares at 30 percent discount

The Uber logo is seen on mobile telephone in London, Britain, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Heather Somerville and Liana B. Baker

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp is offering to purchase shares of Uber Technologies Inc at a valuation of $48 billion, a 30 percent discount to its most recent valuation of $68.5 billion, a person familiar with the matter said on Monday.

The investment, which was approved by the Uber board in October, would also trigger a string of governance changes at Uber that would limit some early shareholders’ voting power, expand the board from 11 to 17 directors and cut the influence of former Chief Executive Travis Kalanick.

The investment and board moves are supported by new Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi and come at the end of a year of scandals and change for Uber, including the announcement last week that executives covered up a major hack in 2016.

The consortium of investors led by SoftBank and Dragoneer Investment Group plan to take a stake of at least 14 percent in the ride-services company. The tender offer will launch on Tuesday, sources told Reuters, and investors have nearly a month to respond.

The SoftBank-led investor group will acquire two of the new board seats, with the remaining four going to independent directors.

If there are not enough interested sellers, SoftBank can still walk away from the deal. SoftBank is also expected to make a separate $1 billion investment in the company at the $68.5 billion valuation.

Another person familiar with the deal said the offer price was in line with what investors had been expecting. SoftBank’s offer is close to what Uber was worth in 2015, when shares were priced a little less than $40 apiece for a $51 billion valuation, according to data from PitchBook Inc.

Even at the discounted price, Uber is the world’s second-highest valued private venture-backed company, after China’s ride-service company Didi Chuxing, and the offer is a chance for early investors to lock in substantial profits and for employees to cash in shares that have to date only had value on paper. Shareholders, including employees, with at least 10,000 shares are eligible to sell.

Nearly all secondary transactions, when a new investor purchases from existing shareholders, come at a discount to the company’s valuation.

However, the 30 percent discount is steep given Uber’s plan to launch an initial public offering in 2019, said Phil Haslett, co-founder and head of investments at secondary marketplace EquityZen. Usually valuation cuts of this size happen when a company is at risk of being sold at a heavy discount, which Uber is not.

“It really comes down to a re-pricing of Uber’s value,” Haslett said.

Since it was valued at $68.5 billion more than a year ago, the company has been hit by scandals, including accusations of sexual harassment. It has also weathered federal criminal probes into software Uber used to deceive regulators and allegations of paying bribes to authorities in Asia, and a lawsuit by Alphabet Inc’s self-driving unit Waymo, accusing Uber of stealing trade secrets.

Most recently, Uber revealed that the data of 57 million Uber customers and 600,000 drivers had been stolen in a breach more than a year ago, and that the company had paid two hackers $100,000 to cover it up. Since then, governments across the globe have launched investigations into the incident. The scandal raised questions about whether SoftBank would try to renegotiate the deal for better terms.

But Uber said on Friday it had informed SoftBank about the data breach prior to informing the public. However, “our information at the time was preliminary and incomplete,” a spokesman said.

A person familiar with the matter said SoftBank would have already factored any negative impact from the breach into its negotiations with Uber.

Bloomberg reported the offer price earlier on Monday.

(Reporting by Heather Somerville and Liana B. Baker. Additional reporting by Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Editing by Peter Henderson, Richard Chang and Lisa Shumaker)

Arby’s restaurant owner to buy Buffalo Wild Wings for $2.4 billion

A pedestrian walks past a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in New York, U.S., February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

(Reuters) – Arby’s restaurant owner Roark Capital Group will buy Buffalo Wild Wings Inc <BWLD.O> for $2.4 billion, months after an activist investor won seats on the chicken wing restaurant’s board following a proxy fight demanding management change.

Buffalo Wild Wings shares were up 6.6 percent at $156 in premarket trading on Tuesday.

Private equity firm Roark will buy the company for $157 per share, representing a premium of 7.2 percent to the restaurant’s Monday’s close.

Roark’s offer is at a 34 percent premium to the stock price on Nov. 13, the last trading day before media reports that private equity firm had made an offer of more than $150 per share.

The deal is the latest in a flurry of restaurant takeovers by private equity firms. In October, casual dining chain Ruby Tuesday was bought by NRD Capital for about $335 million, while Luxembourg-based JAB Holdings took U.S. food chains Panera Bread and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts private over the last two years.

Including debt, the Buffalo Wild Wings deal is valued at about $2.9 billion.

Activist hedge fund Marcato Capital Management, which had put pressure on the company to pursue strategies to boost its stock price, said it would vote for the deal.

Marcato, which owns 6.4 percent of Buffalo Wild Wings, won three seats on the company’s board in June after a sustained campaign criticizing its performance under Chief Executive Sally Smith.

Following the deal close, expected during the first quarter of 2018, Buffalo Wild Wings will become a privately held unit of Arby’s and operate as an independent brand.

Barclays served as financial adviser and White & Case LLP as legal adviser to Arby’s. Goldman Sachs & Co LLC served as financial adviser and Faegre Baker Daniels LLP as legal counsel to Buffalo Wild Wings.

(Reporting by Sruthi Ramakrishnan in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta)

Amazon is a potential customer, says Textron aviation chief

FILE PHOTO: An Amazon.com Inc driver stands next to an Amazon delivery truck in Los Angeles, California, U.S. on May 21, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

(Reuters) – Textron Inc sees Amazon.com Inc as a potential customer, the head of the company’s aviation business told CNBC on Tuesday, given the increased need for freight and transport with a booming ecommerce industry.

“We see the whole freight industry as something that is going to double in the next 15 years, so we are investing in that market,” Textron aviation chief executive, Scott Ernest, said.

Textron makes the Beechcraft and Cessna jets and services the Hawker brand of business jets.

Logistics companies have seen a surge in ecommerce packages over the last decade, especially during the holiday season.

FedEx Corp on Tuesday agreed to buy some of Textron’s newly-launched Cessna SkyCourier 408.

(Reporting by Arunima Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Savio D’Souza)

U.S. boom in RV shipments keeps rolling

FILE PHOTO: Recreational vehicles sit in a parking lot at the Thor Industries Heartland RV Assembly Plant in Elkhart, Indiana, U.S. on June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Lott/File Photo

By Timothy Aeppel

(Reuters) – The boom in U.S. recreational vehicle sales keeps on rolling, thanks to a strong economy and a wave of retiring Baby Boomers and others filled with wanderlust.

Shipments of RVs in 2017 are expected to hit their highest in nearly four decades, according to data from the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. That would mark the eighth straight year of growth.

RV shipments are expected to hit 505,600 in 2017, a 17.4 percent jump from last year, and then hit 520,700 in 2018, according to the association. “Each and every month this year was the best on comparable record for that month,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, the RVIA’s president, speaking at a trade show in Louisville, Kentucky.

RV sales are quick to suffer when consumer confidence wilts, as happened during the Great Recession. Shipments plunged by a third in 2008 and then fell more than 30 percent in 2009. But in 2010, as the economy recovered and discretionary spending revived, sales surged more than 46 percent.

Low gasoline prices have helped fuel sales in recent years, as have low interest rates that have eased financing of items that range in price from $10,000 to $1 million. The vast bulk of shipments – an estimated 444,100 units this year – are so-called towables. The rest are motor homes.

Prices of RVs have increased by an annual rate of 2 percent since 2007, the RVIA says.

Michael Happe, chief executive of Winnebago Industries Inc. <WGO.N>, a major manufacturer, says Americans of all ages are increasingly focused on health and outdoor living, which helps fuel sales of his company’s products.

But there are other reasons for the industry’s growth. Happe noted that there are more vehicles than ever on the road, such as large sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, that are capable of pulling trailers.

“And they’re not just being used by snowbirds going from New York to Florida,” he said. More people are working out of RVs, such as oil-patch and seasonal workers, and there is growing demand for RVs used for tailgating at sport events.

Winnebago is based in Forest City, Iowa, but RV manufacturing is heavily concentrated in northern Indiana, which produces about 85 percent of the U.S.’s RVs. Indiana is home to the two largest producers, Thor Industries Inc. <THO.N> and Forest River Inc., owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway <BRKa.N>. The production boom has strained labor markets in the region, with many factories struggling to expand quickly enough to meet demand.

(This version of the story corrects stocks symbol for Thor Industries in the final paragraph)

(Reporting by Timothy Aeppel; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Trump: ‘I don’t see a deal’ with Democrats on keeping government open

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about tax legislation at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 27, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said he will meet on Tuesday with the Democratic leaders of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, to discuss keeping the government open but cited differences with them.

“Meeting with “Chuck and Nancy” today about keeping government open and working. Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes. I don’t see a deal!” Trump said in a Twitter post.

(Reporting by Doina ChiacuEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Fraternity hazing death sends 31 men to Pennsylvania court

FILE PHOTO: The house where Chun Hsien Deng died after a hazing ritual during a fraternity retreat in 2013 is pictured in Blakeslee, Pennsylvania, September 17, 2015. Five people were charged in the 2013 death of a freshman at New York City’s Baruch College during a hazing ritual, police in Pennsylvania said on Tuesday, the first of 37 people that prosecutors may charge in the fatal incident. Members of the college’s Pi Delta Psi fraternity brutally assaulted Chun “Michael” Deng, 19, during an initiation rite in Tunkhannock Township, northern Pennsylvania, in September 2013 and delayed taking him to the hospital, contributing to his death, police said. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By David DeKok

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) – Dozens of former members of a New York fraternity will head back to a Pennsylvania court this week to face charges in the 2013 hazing death of a Baruch College freshman during an initiation ritual in the state’s Pocono Mountains.

Chun “Michael” Deng, 19, died from head injuries while pledging to become a member of Pi Delta Psi, an Asian-American cultural fraternity at Baruch in Manhattan.

Sixteen former fraternity members were due to appear on Tuesday in Monroe County Court of Common Pleas in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, with another 15 scheduled there for Wednesday. Four other young men linked to the case pleaded guilty in May to being accomplices to voluntary manslaughter and other charges.

Last week, Pi Delta Psi itself was convicted of charges including aggravated assault, a felony, and involuntary manslaughter, a misdemeanor, but was acquitted of third-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, both felonies. Prosecutors and defense lawyers said it was the first U.S. conviction of a fraternity in a pledge hazing death.

Deng died after being injured in a ritual known as the “glass ceiling” at a home the fraternity rented in the Poconos, about 100 miles (155 km) west of New York City.

During the incident, Deng was blindfolded, wore a 30-pound (14 kg) backpack and ran a gauntlet of fraternity members who tackled and knocked him down on the snow-covered ground in December 2013, police said.

The college students waited for more than an hour before driving him to a hospital, authorities said.

Deng, a nationally competitive handball player from the New York borough of Queens, was the only child of his China-born parents.

Among those defendants due in court on Wednesday is Andy Meng, brother of U.S. Representative Grace Meng of New York.

Deng’s death and others like it have led to sharp criticism of the fraternity and sorority system in U.S. universities, where prospective members often must endure brutal rituals to gain admission into the social organizations. At Pennsylvania State University in February, student Timothy Piazza died after an alcohol-fueled pledging ordeal.

In the Baruch case, Queens, New York, residents Sheldon Wong, 25, Charles Lai, 26, Kenny Kwan, 28, and Raymond Lam, 23, pleaded guilty in May and are due to be sentenced on Dec. 4 by Judge Margherita Patti-Worthington.

They could face up to 27 years in prison, although state guidelines call for 22 to 36 months.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

Hawaii urges top U.S. court not to fully allow Trump’s travel ban

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. on November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The state of Hawaii on Tuesday urged the U.S. Supreme Court not to allow President Donald Trump’s latest travel ban that would bar entry of people from six Muslim-majority countries to go into full effect after it was partially blocked by lower courts.

Lawyers for the Democratic-governed state, which filed a legal challenge to the ban, were responding to the Trump administration’s request last week asking the conservative-majority court to allow the ban to go into effect completely.

Hawaii’s lawyers wrote that the latest ban, Trump’s third, discriminates against Muslims in violation of the U.S. Constitution and is not permissible under immigration laws.

On Nov. 13, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the ban to go partly into effect, lifting part of a district court judge’s nationwide injunction.

The Republican president’s ban was announced on Sept. 24 and replaced two previous versions that had been impeded by federal courts.

The ban currently applies to people from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Chad who do not have connections to the United States. Those with family relationships and other formal connections with the United States, such as through a university, can enter the country.

In a separate case in Maryland spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal judge partly blocked the ban. The administration has also asked the Supreme Court for that injunction to be lifted.

The ban also covers people from North Korea and certain government officials from Venezuela, and lower courts have allowed those provisions to go into effect.

Trump has said the travel ban is needed to protect the United States from terrorism by Muslim militants. As a candidate, Trump had promised “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Exclusive: Dance colleague identifies Putin’s younger daughter

FILE PHOTO: Katerina Tikhonova (L), daughter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, dances with Ivan Klimov during the World Cup Rock’n’Roll Acrobatic Competition in Krakow, Poland, in this April 12, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Jakub Dabrowski/Files

By Jack Stubbs and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A colleague of Katerina Tikhonova from the world of acrobatic rock’n’roll has confirmed that she is the younger daughter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The confirmation from a World Rock’n’Roll Confederation (WRRC) official comes two years after Reuters first disclosed Tikhonova’s relationship to the president and was publicly challenged post publication.

WRRC Vice President for Legal Affairs Manfred Mohab told Reuters he knew Tikhonova through their work together on the confederation’s presidium.

When asked whether he knew Tikhonova was Putin’s daughter, he said: “Yes. I know her, yes of course.” Asked a second time, he nodded and said: “Yes.”

The Kremlin and Tikhonova did not respond to requests for comment.

Andrey Akimov, deputy chairman of the board of directors at Russian lender Gazprombank, told Reuters in 2015 Tikhonova was Putin’s daughter but later denied the statement. Reuters also confirmed her identity through two other sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. [http://reut.rs/2ztup0f]

After the report, Gazprombank said Akimov was “surprised and bewildered” by the quotes attributed to him by Reuters and that he had made no such remarks. [http://reut.rs/2zHzVAJ]

Akimov and a representative for Gazprombank did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Putin, a former KGB intelligence officer, is famously guarded about his private life and has fought to keep his two daughters, Maria and Katerina, away from the public eye.

While Katerina’s identity has been widely assumed, it has never been confirmed by Tikhonova herself, her representatives or the Kremlin, which says it does not comment on the private lives of Putin’s close relatives.

Mohab is the first official to publicly identify her relationship to the Russian president since Akimov in 2015.

Tikhonova, who uses a surname inherited from her grandmother, runs publicly-funded projects at Moscow State University and serves as the WRRC’s vice president for expansion and marketing.

Aged 31, she is a major player in acrobatic rock’n’roll, a niche dance discipline she has competed in and helps manage through senior positions at the WRRC and the Russian national federation.

She is also married to Kirill Shamalov, the son of one of Putin’s closest friends, who has since made a fortune of at least $1 billion through dealings in Russia’s largest petrochemical company. [http://reut.rs/2BfT74A]

Mohab spoke to Reuters on Sunday on the sidelines of the World Cup Rock’n’Roll European Championship in Moscow. Asked if Tikhonova’s personal connection to the president had been a boon for acrobatic rock’n’roll, he said: “Yes, of course.”

The sport is developing thanks to Russia, he said. “We have an expansion project which is working on all continents and in a of lot countries. And this is all going out from Russia.”

With just over 200 adult pairs in the WRRC world rankings, acrobatic rock’n’roll remains a relatively obscure discipline in competitive dancing that is most popular in eastern Europe.

Around 9,000 people actively participate in acrobatic rock’n’roll in Russia and organizers aim to add another 3,000 people by 2020, according to the national federation.

Reuters reported in December last year that Moscow was building a publicly-funded $30 million complex for the sport on the outskirts of the city, an investment which dwarfs that spent in other countries and on some bigger sports in Russia.

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Trump refers to a ‘Pocahontas’ in Congress at meeting with veterans

U.S. President Donald Trump hosts an event honouring the Native American code talkers, including Thomas Begay (L) and Peter McDonald, in front of a painting of President Andrew Jackson, at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 27, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said there was a “Pocahontas” in the U.S. Congress during a meeting on Monday with Native American World War Two veterans in an apparent derogatory reference to Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

After listening to one veteran speak at length about his experience as a “Navajo code talker” during the war, Trump heaped praise on the veterans and said he would not give prepared remarks himself.

“You were here long before any of us were here,” Trump said. “Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.”

Trump repeatedly referred to Warren as “Pocahontas,” the name of a famous 17th-century Native American, during his presidential campaign in a mocking reference to Warren’s having said in the past that she had Native American ancestry.

Warren, one of the Senate’s most prominent liberal Democrats, is a noted legal scholar who taught at Harvard Law School and served as an adviser to former President Barack Obama before she was elected to the Senate in 2012.

“It is deeply unfortunate that the president of the United States cannot even make it through a ceremony honoring these heroes without having to throw out a racial slur,” Warren said on MSNBC.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders disputed the characterization of Trump’s remark as a racial slur.

“I think what most people find offensive is Senator Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career,” Sanders told reporters.

Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, questioned the “use of the name Pocahontas as a slur … Once again, we call upon the president to refrain from using her name in a way that denigrates her legacy.”

Trump’s comment immediately trended on social media. The word “Pocahontas” appeared 12 times on Twitter every second, according to social media analytics company Zoomph.

Trump’s knock at Warren came as his administration is embroiled in controversy over the Consumer Financial Protection Board, which Warren helped develop before entering politics.

The agency, set up to protect Americans from abusive lending practices after the financial crisis, has been under attack by Trump since he took office in January.

On Friday, Trump named his budget director as the interim head of the agency, after its outgoing chief named someone else to the job, setting up a court battle.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Angela Moon; Editing by Leslie Adler and Tom Brown)

Europe’s HIV epidemic growing at alarming rate, WHO warns

FILE PHOTO: HIV self tests are displayed in a pharmacy in Bordeaux, France, September 15, 2015. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – The number of people newly diagnosed with HIV in Europe reached its highest level in 2016 since records began, showing the region’s epidemic growing “at an alarming pace”, health officials said on Tuesday.

That year, 160,000 people contracted the virus that causes AIDS in the 53 countries that make up the World Health Organization’s European region, the agency said in a joint report with the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Around 80 percent of those were in eastern Europe, the report found.

“This is the highest number of cases recorded in one year. If this trend persists, we will not be able to achieve the … target of ending the HIV epidemic by 2030,” the WHO’s European regional director, Zsuzsanna Jakab, said in a statement.

The trend was particularly worrying, the organizations said, because many patients had already been carrying the HIV infection for several years by the time they were diagnosed, making the virus harder to control and more likely to have been passed on to others.

Early diagnosis is important with HIV because it allows people to start treatment with AIDS drugs sooner, increasing their chances of living a long and healthy life.

“Europe needs to do more in its HIV response,” said ECDC director Andrea Ammon. She said the average time from estimated time of infection until a person is diagnosed is three years, “which is far too long”.

The report said new strategies were needed to expand the reach of HIV testing – including self-testing services and testing provided by lay providers.

Almost 37 million people worldwide have the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. The majority of cases are in poorer regions such as Africa, where access to testing, prevention and treatment is more limited, but the HIV epidemic has also proved stubborn in wealthier regions like Europe.

The WHO European Region comprises 53 countries, with a population of nearly 900 million people.

The ECDC/WHO report found that over the past ten years, the rate of newly diagnosed HIV infections in this region has risen by 52 percent from 12 in every 100,000 of population in 2007 to 18.2 for every 100,000 in 2016.

That decade-long increase was “mainly driven by the continuing upward trend in the East,” the report said.

An ECDC study published earlier this year also found that around one in six new cases of HIV diagnosed in Europe are in people over the age of 50.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

UK gives Pfizer world’s first over-the-counter Viagra approval

FILE PHOTO: The Pfizer logo is seen at their world headquarters in New York April 28, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) – Pfizer’s big-selling erectile dysfunction drug Viagra has been given a green light for sale without a prescription in Britain, the first country to grant it over-the-counter status.

The U.S. drugmaker said on Tuesday it was working on plans to launch the non-prescription version of the medicine, known as Viagra Connect, in the United Kingdom in the spring of 2018.

The drug will only be available in pharmacies and its supply will depend on pharmacists’ assessment of its suitability for each individual.

Viagra has been one of the pharmaceutical industry’s most successful prescription products since its launch in 1998, following a serendipitous discovery of its effects by researchers who had been studying it as a heart medicine.

It achieved peak worldwide sales of more than $2 billion in 2012 but sales have since declined as patents have expired, prompting Pfizer to explore extending its brand value as a non-prescription drug.

Viagra is so far the only erectile dysfunction medicine to be reclassified from “prescription only medicine” to “pharmacy” status in Britain. The change follows a lengthy review by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Pfizer will continue to make Viagra available as a prescription drug but the option of also buying it over-the-counter is likely to reduce demand for potentially ineffective and dangerous fakes.

“It’s important men feel they have fast access to quality and legitimate care, and do not feel they need to turn to counterfeit online supplies which could have potentially serious side effects,” said Mick Foy, the MHRA’s group manager in vigilance and risk management of medicines.

(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Alexander Smith and Mark Potter)

British actress sues Harvey Weinstein in New York alleging sex trafficking

FILE PHOTO: Harvey Weinstein speaks at the UBS 40th Annual Global Media and Communications Conference in New York, NY, U.S. on December 5, 2012. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

(Reuters) – An aspiring British actress sued Harvey Weinstein in New York federal court on Monday accusing the movie producer of sex trafficking by inviting her to a hotel room in France and sexually assaulting her.

The civil lawsuit filed by Kadian Noble in U.S. District Court in New York accused Weinstein of violating a U.S. federal sex trafficking law in February 2014 in Cannes, France.

The lawsuit alleged that Weinstein “was able to force or coerce Kadian into sexual activity in his hotel room because of his promise to her of a film role and use of his influence on her behalf.”

Holly Baird, a spokeswoman for Weinstein, said on Monday in an emailed statement, “Mr. Weinstein denies allegations of non-consensual sex.”

“Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances,” Baird said.

Weinstein has denied having non-consensual sex with anyone.

Reuters has been unable to independently confirm any of the allegations.

In the same lawsuit, Noble also sued the Weinstein Company and Weinstein’s brother Bob, accusing them of being aware of Harvey Weinstein’s behavior.

Officials with the Weinstein Company, headed by Bob Weinstein, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

The sex trafficking law has a 10-year statute of limitation.

More than 50 women have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexually harassing or assaulting them over the past three decades.

In the fallout from the accusations, Weinstein was fired from The Weinstein Co, the independent studio he co-founded in 2005 with his brother Bob, and expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Police in New York, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and London have said they are investigating allegations of sexual assault that have been made against Weinstein.

Also on Monday, the Directors Guild of America said in a statement that Weinstein resigned from the organization.

(Reporting by Ben Klayman Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar lead male-dominated Grammy nominations

FILE PHOTO – Beyonce arrives with husband Jay-Z at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala 2015 celebrating the opening of “China: Through the Looking Glass,” in Manhattan, New York, U.S. on May 4, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Jay-Z’s soul-baring album on love, life and social fractures led the Grammy Award nominations on Tuesday with eight nods in a list that saw women sidelined in some major categories and Katy Perry excluded completely.

Jay-Z’s “4:44” album was nominated for album of the year, one of the top three Grammy accolades. The album’s title track and “The Story of O.J.” songs were nominated in song and record of the year.

“4:44” will compete for album of the year against R&B star Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic,” New Zealand pop singer Lorde’s “Melodrama,” hip hop artists Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn.”

Lamar landed seven nominations overall, Mars got six including the top three categories and Childish Gambino, the alter-ego of actor Donald Glover, scored five nominations.

“Despacito,” the hit from Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi featuring Justin Bieber and Daddy Yankee landed three nominations including record and song of the year.

The 60th Grammy Awards, music’s biggest night honoring the year’s achievements across more than 80 categories, are scheduled for Jan. 28 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

Music released between October 2016 and September 2017 qualified for this year’s awards and will be voted for by members of the Recording Academy, made up of music industry professionals.

Newcomer R&B singer SZA was the most-nominated female artist with five nods including best new artist, in which she will face singers Julia Michaels, Alessia Cara, Khalid and rapper Lil Uzi Vert.

Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” album will not be eligible this year due to its November release, but she garnered two nominations including writing country group Little Big Town’s “Better Man.”

The most notable ommission from Tuesday’s Grammy nominations was Canadian hip hop artist Drake, whose “More Life” album dominated streaming, charts and radio play since its March release.

British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, whose “Divide” album topped charts around the world, garnered two nominations in the pop categories. Lady Gaga and Kesha landed two nods each in the same categories as Sheeran.

Pop star Katy Perry, who is yet to win a Grammy award, did not score a single nomination for her “Witness” album.

The absence of some of the biggest female artists marked a stark contrast with the 2017 awards, when Beyonce led the nominations and Britain’s Adele swept the top awards. Neither released new music this year.

(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy)

NFL: Highlights of Sunday’s National Football League games

Nov 26, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Chris Boswell (9) and wide receiver Antonio Bryant (84) meet on the field after defeating the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field. A game-winning kick by Boswell as time expired gave the Steelers a 31-28 victory. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

(The Sports Xchange) – Highlights of Sunday’s National Football League games:

Pittsburgh 31, Green Bay 28

Chris Boswell’s 53-yard field goal with no time left gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a 31-28 win over the Green Bay Packers.

Brett Hundley, the third-year injury replacement for injured Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, gave Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers the full Rodgers treatment with touchdown passes of 39, 54 and 55 yards.

But the old veteran Roethlisberger found his go-to receiver, Antonio Brown, in the late going to set up Boswell’s game-winning kick.

Pittsburgh (9-2) won its sixth consecutive game while Green Bay (5-6) lost its second in a row.

Carolina 35, New York Jets 27

Linebacker Luke Kuechly returned a fumble for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter as the Carolina Panthers topped the New York Jets 35-27.

Kaelin Clay then returned a punt for a touchdown to provide insurance for the Panthers (8-3), who won their fourth game in a row to set up a first-place showdown with the Saints next week in New Orleans. Carolina also completed its first-ever sweep of the AFC East.

With the Jets up 20-18, quarterback Josh McCown fumbled the ball as he was hit by defensive end Wes Horton. Kuechly scooped the ball and returned it 34 yards for his second career touchdown.

Oakland 21, Denver 14

Derek Carr threw two touchdown passes, Marshawn Lynch ran for a score, and Oakland gave its playoff hopes a boost with an emotional 21-14 victory over Denver.

The Raiders (5-6) pulled to within one game of the first-place Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West. Carr completed 18 of 24 passes for 253 yards, while Lynch gained 67 yards on 26 carries.

The Broncos (3-8) lost their seventh straight game and trail Kansas City by three games.

Buffalo 16, Kansas City 10

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor used his arms and his legs to send Buffalo to a much-needed 16-10 win, buoying the Bills’ playoff hopes while sending Kansas City reeling to its third straight defeat.

Taylor completed 19 of 29 passes for 183 yards while running nine times for another 27 yards in his return as the starting quarterback after getting benched in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman last week.

The Chiefs drove into Buffalo territory for a potential game-winning score late in the fourth quarter, but cornerback Tre’Davious White picked off a pass from Alex Smith to seal the win.

Seattle 24, San Francisco 13

Russell Wilson threw two touchdown passes and ran for a TD, lifting Seattle to its fourth consecutive road win, 24-13 over the 49ers.

The victory was the Seahawks’ eighth straight in the regular season over the 49ers (1-10). Seattle improved to 7-4.

The Seahawks’ defense limited the 49ers to a pair of Robbie Gould field goals before Jimmy Garoppolo threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to wideout Louis Murphy as time expired.

Arizona 27, Jacksonville 24

Phil Dawson kicked a career-long 57-yard field goal with one second remaining in regulation to lift Arizona to a 27-24 victory over Jacksonville.

Dawson made all four of his field-goal attempts, also connecting from 34, 42 and 48 yards.

The win snapped a two-game losing streak for the Cardinals (5-6) and ended a four-game winning streak for the Jaguars (7-4).

Cincinnati 30, Cleveland 16

Rookie Joe Mixon rushed for a career-high 114 yards on 23 carries and a touchdown, and Andy Dalton passed for 214 yards and two touchdowns, lifting the Bengals to a 30-16 victory over the winless Browns.

Cincinnati (5-6) revived its dormant rushing attack with a season-high 152 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, to help keep its slim playoff hopes alive.

The mistake-prone Browns (0-11) had a pair of drive-stalling penalties in the first half and a dropped touchdown pass by Corey Coleman in the end zone in the third quarter.

Atlanta 34, Tampa Bay 20

Atlanta All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones burned Tampa Bay again, extending his banner success against the Buccaneers in a 34-20 victory by the Falcons.

Jones, who came in with just one touchdown, caught 12 passes for 253 yards and two scores as the Falcons won their third game in a row, beating the Bucs 34-20.

The victory for the Falcons (7-4) snapped a two-game winning streak by the Buccaneers (4-7).

Tennessee 20, Indianapolis 16

For the second time this season, the Titans rallied in the fourth quarter to beat the Colts, this time 20-16.

The Titans (7-4) began their comeback with 1:50 remaining in the third quarter on Marcus Mariota’s 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Delanie Walker, That cut the deficit to 16-13.

Indianapolis (3-8) produced only three second-half points and was outscored 14-3 after leading by seven at halftime.

Philadelphia 31, Chicago 3

Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz threw for three touchdowns, including one to Alshon Jeffery, to lead the Eagles to a 31-3 rout of the Bears.

The Eagles (10-1) did most of their damage in a dominating first half in which they outscored the Bears 24-0 while outgaining them in yardage 272-33.

The victory over the NFC North cellar-dwelling Bears (3-8) was the ninth in a row for NFC East-leading Philadelphia, which improved to 6-0 at home this season.

Wentz upped his NFL-best touchdown total to 28 while going 23 of 36 for 227 yards.

New England 35, Miami 17

Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes, two to tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the Patriots cruised to their seventh straight victory, a 35-17 rout of the Miami Dolphins.

Running back Rex Burkhead also scored twice (one pass, one run) as the Patriots (9-2) sent Miami (4-7) to its fifth straight loss — and its eighth straight at Gillette Stadium.

Brady had a string of 189 straight passes without an interception snapped, but went on to complete his 83rd game with at least three touchdown passes.

He has 26 touchdown passes this season, a record for quarterbacks in a season after turning 40.

Los Angeles Rams 26, New Orleans 20

Jared Goff passed for two touchdowns and Drew Brees was held to one as the Los Angeles Rams beat the New Orleans Saints, 26-20.

The Rams (7-4) won for the fifth time in six outings as the Saints (8-3) had their eight-game winning streak snapped.

Goff, who did not throw a touchdown pass in last week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings, clicked with veteran Sammy Watkins and rookie Josh Reynolds. Greg Zuerlein added four field goals, three from at least 46 yards, as the Rams prevailed.

New Orleans, which averaged 30.2 points during its winning streak, was stifled by the Rams’ defense, which sacked Brees three times. The Saints, who were 3-for-13 on third downs, entered the game averaging 415 yards but were held to 346.

(Editing by Rory Carroll/Andrew Both)

Formula One’s owners have plenty of work to do

Formula One – F1 – Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates – November 26, 2017. Chase Carey, chief executive and chairman of Formula One (C) arrives at starting grid of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

ABU DHABI (Reuters) – The Formula One season ended at the weekend with even some drivers stifling a yawn but the sport’s new owners remained upbeat about their investment and future prospects.

“I feel good about where we’re at,” chairman Chase Carey told reporters at the Abu Dhabi circuit ahead of Sunday’s dull finale.

“I think we’ve made headway this year. It’s early days so we’re not declaring victory. But I feel good about the momentum we’ve got.”

There may be storm clouds brewing and battles to be fought but the flamboyantly mustachioed boss, who replaced former supremo Bernie Ecclestone in January when Liberty Media completed their takeover, sounded optimistic.

A new logo presented on Sunday heralds an extensive re-branding of the global series, with a big push into digital platforms, and there is plenty more to come even if details remain scarce.

Work on the more complex issues, such as implementing a cost-cap, rebalancing revenues distributed to teams and a rules blueprint for the future, is just getting started.

“The initiatives that we have underway — whether it’s cost, revenues, engines — the reality is that there is broad-based support for the broad direction of where we’re going,” said Carey.

“As you get into the specifics there are always going to be differences, that’s just the reality of life. What we need to do is find the right compromises.

“Nobody gets everything they want but everybody’s better off than they were before.

“So I think our goal would be to try and find those compromises and I think we honestly believe we’re going to get a compromise.”

The American and his team — including ex-Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn and former ESPN executive Sean Bratches — have plenty to keep them busy.

Making the racing more exciting and competitive is a priority, with the season fizzling out in the later stages after Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and eventual champion Lewis Hamilton had looked like battling down to the wire earlier in the year.

Sunday’s race under the Abu Dhabi floodlights was so processional that Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, one of the most exciting drivers on the grid, did not attempt to hide his boredom.

“If I had a pillow in the car I could have fallen asleep,” declared the 20-year-old.

STIFF RESISTANCE

Creating a more level playing field and fairer revenue distribution to teams after current commercial agreements expire in 2020 is high on the list but Liberty can expect stiff resistance with several competing interests at play.

Ferrari, the sport’s oldest and most successful team, have already warned they could quit if they do not like what the future holds.

“You’ve got a long list of parties so this is a game of three-dimensional chess in finding the right balance,” said Carey.

“What you try to find is compromises that really are at the end of the day in the best interests of the sport and ultimately the fans.”

Liberty has ramped up investment in the sport, spending on infrastructure and putting a marketing, research and digital operation in place.

That has led to a drop in earnings which has hit revenue payouts to the 10 teams with payments, at $273 million in the third quarter, 14 percent lower than the same period last year.

That has raised concerns but Carey said it was all part of growing a business. “Realistically, to grow things, usually there’s no free lunches,” he said.

(Editing by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris)