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    A federal jury began deliberations Wednesday over whether the former head of a private Christian school that novelist Nicholas Sparks founded in his North Carolina hometown was browbeaten into resigning, then slandered by the author when he described the educator as suffering from mental illness. The 10 jurors must decide unanimously whether Saul Hillel Benjamin is due damages from the author of 'Message in a Bottle' and 'The Notebook,' his foundation or Epiphany School of Global Studies. The former school headmaster was pushed out of the job he held for less than five months in 2013 because some parents at the school in New Bern, about 120 miles (195 kilometers) east of Raleigh, were unhappy about his new focus on diversity and gay students, Benjamin's lawyers said. Pressure from some vocal parents, coupled with the demands of Sparks' entertainment career, led the writer and the school to breech Benjamin's dual contracts with the school and Sparks' foundation, attorney Lawrence Pearson said. Those contracts were worth more than $256,000 a year, Benjamin's contract showed. 'He had unhappy customers. He wanted to make a change and he wanted to do it fast,' Pearson told jurors Wednesday in describing Spark's actions. Then, 'in order to justify that Mr. Benjamin had, poof, disappeared, he described him as suffering mental disability.' Sparks has published nearly two dozen novels, almost half have been turned into films. He and his wife founded Epiphany School, which opened in 2006 and now enrolls about 500 students between kindergarten and 12th grade. A key decision for jurors was whether Benjamin resigned his job days before Sparks and the school's other trustees would discuss firing the educator for causes that included lying about his work experience and job performance. For example, attorneys said, Benjamin lied that the school's finances were slightly above water when they were deeply in the red. They also said the educator had taken to calling people who disagreed with him bigots and racists behind their backs. 'He was unprofessional and a liar,' said Rick Pinto, the school's attorney. Sparks testified that Benjamin accepted $150,000 to resign instead of risk being fired. Evidence showed Benjamin handwrote an initial resignation letter and later added a resignation email to Sparks and other trustees. Benjamin countered that his resignation was involuntary and that it violated his contracts. Other evidence includes Sparks emailing fellow trustees seemingly to solicit grievances from faculty members that would provide the board with proof that Benjamin was unfit. Sparks wanted to avoid a big payout, explaining that if Benjamin was 'fired without cause, it will cost the school $664,000, plus the remainder of this year's salary,' the author wrote in an email. Jurors also could consider punitive and compensatory damages if they determined Benjamin was pushed out in violation of federal disability-protection laws because school trustees thought he suffered from a mental illness. Sparks could be forced to pay damages if jurors decide he slandered Benjamin by telling people he believed the educator suffered from Alzheimer's or bipolar disease. Sparks testified for more than eight hours over the past week and told the whole truth about what happened, said the writer's attorney, Jay Silver. 'This trial was not about what was done to Saul Benjamin, but what was done by Saul Benjamin,' Silver said. ___ Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio .
  • When Amanda Berg heard that President Donald Trump mocked the accents of the leaders of South Korea and Japan at a recent fundraiser, it brought back painful memories from her childhood. Berg, a Korean American who grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado, recalled kids doing the 'stereotypical pulling at the eyes and the mocking accent.' It made her feel like she was a foreigner in her own community. Berg, a registered Democrat, is among a growing and crucial bloc of Asian American voters leaning further to the left in the age of Trump, and his stunt angered her and many others. 'It empowers people who would be predisposed to doing that kind of thing anyway,' said Berg, a high school English teacher in Denver. 'And it makes it acceptable to be openly, increasingly discriminating.' Trump has used racist rhetoric to fire up his conservative base ahead of the 2020 election — most notably against four Democratic congresswomen of color. Telling them to 'go back' to their home countries triggered widespread outcry last month, but his mocking of Asian accents garnered a more tepid reaction. Some worry the frequency of Trump's racially offensive remarks makes them easier to shrug off, a concern that could weigh on an Asian American voting group that's only growing in power. The Asian American voting-age population has more than doubled in the past two decades, leaping from 4.3 million in 1998 to 11.1 million in 2018 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A majority of those new voters lean Democratic. By 2016, some Asian ethnic groups that had leaned Republican shifted into the Democratic camp, said Natalie Masuoka, an associate professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. A Pew Research Center survey said 53% of Asian American registered voters in 1998 identified with the Democratic Party. That figure rose to 65% in 2017. 'They are adding more and more new voters to the electorate,' Masuoka said. 'Alongside Latino immigrants, they're important for candidates to mobilize.' Asian American voters also could become a key factor in swing states. In Nevada, Asians make up 5% of registered voters and 9% of the eligible voting population. They comprise 5% of registered voters in Virginia and are 6% of the eligible voting population. The GOP, meanwhile, remains appealing to Asian Americans who are strongly anti-communist, as many are in Vietnamese communities. Some data also suggests that a large proportion of Filipinos and wealthy, higher-educated Chinese Americans are more likely to go Republican, Masuoka said. But it may be hard for some to look past Trump's words. 'He's willing to use Asian stereotypes, Asian accents in his public speeches,' Masuoka said. 'In that way ... the way Americans are talking about race is now shifting possibly back to what historically was effective before the civil rights revolution' — explicit and sometimes offensive talk about race. The New York Post reported that Trump imitated South Korea President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both close U.S. allies, at a fundraiser in the Hamptons this month. Trump used a fake accent to boast about Moon relenting in negotiations over the costs of U.S. military aid to South Korea and when rehashing talks with Abe had about trade tariffs. In the past, such comments have led to outrage. In 1995, then-New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato used a faux Japanese accent when discussing O.J. Simpson trial Judge Lance Ito, who is Japanese American, in a radio interview. The Republican senator's apology was criticized at the time by the Asian American Defense and Education Legal Fund. 'It was a time where even though we were very offended by the remarks, we thought it might make a difference to ask for an apology. But with President Trump, one doesn't expect that,' said Margaret Fung, the group's executive director. 'That's part of the way he speaks, the way he acts which is offensive. Unfortunately, it doesn't get the kind of attention that maybe it should.' Officials for Trump's re-election campaign defended his record with Asian Americans. 'The Asian American community has never been stronger than under President Trump's leadership,' campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. 'Millions of Asian Americans have secured access to the strongest economy in modern history, with the Asian American unemployment rate hitting a record low under the leadership of President Trump.' A representative for the White House did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment. Trump supporters like Farhana Shah, of the Arizona GOP Asian American Coalition, however, say his personality is irrelevant. She praised Trump for creating jobs, passing a tax cut and keeping the country safe. Shah, who emigrated from Bangladesh in 2006 and is self-conscious at times about her own accent, also disagrees that Trump's accent mimicking was racist or done out of cruelty. 'He has a humorous attitude. He has a funny way of expressing things,' Shah said. 'Did he harm any political negotiations? Did the leaders (themselves) react to that? If not, then it didn't do any big harm. So why should I get offended?' Shah has gotten into debates with those who question her support for Trump. 'President Trump might not speak very posh, but he is trying to resolve these problems,' Shah said. ___ Associated Press Polling Editor Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report. Tang reported from Phoenix and is a member of the AP's race and ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttangAP
  • The largest-ever project in the U.S. to remove thousands of juniper trees to help imperiled sage grouse has started in Idaho. Junipers provide perches for raptors that attack and kill sage grouse. Junipers also force out sagebrush and other plants that produce bugs that sage grouse eat. Sage grouse also feed on the sagebrush during the winter. Overall, sage grouse numbers have dwindled from an estimated 16 million before European settlement of the West to no more than 500,000 today in 11 western states. The project that began last spring in Idaho aims to remove junipers on 965 square miles (2,500 square kilometers) of state and federal land. 'What we're doing here is turning the sagebrush steppe habitat that's marginal nesting habitat for grouse into immediate, quality nesting habitat for grouse,' said Josh White of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The project that is estimated to take 10 to 15 years could become a template for other western states as junipers have expanded because of fire-suppression efforts. Juniper-removal projects have been carried out before, but not on this scale. Environmental groups fought the Idaho project contending it was being driven by grazing interests. 'When you remove vegetation and disturb the ground, that's when invasive species come in,' said Scott Lake of Western Watersheds Project, citing fire-prone cheatgrass in particular. But federal officials gave the final approval earlier this year. Some cutting was done in the spring, and the pace picked up in the last three weeks with crews of 50 to 60 workers with chain saws cutting down junipers. 'Historically, fire would have kept these trees in check,' said Ben Sitz of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 'We're trying to preserve the diversity we have.' The project is designed around sage grouse breeding grounds, called leks, where males perform elaborate rituals. The project area contains numerous leks, both active and abandoned as junipers moved in. Radio-telemetry on sage grouse has determined that leks ideally have no or few trees within a 6-mile (9.5-kilometer) radius, which gives nesting sage grouse hens the best chance to raise their chicks. That means each lek needs about 115 square miles (295 square kilometers) of treeless sagebrush. The project aims to cut down junipers within that distance of leks. Junipers are being cut where sagebrush still covers most of the ground. Thicker stands of junipers that have pushed out sagebrush are being left as those areas would take decades to become suitable sage grouse habitat. But those thicker stands could be targeted for a future project. Rancher and Owyhee County Commissioner Jerry Hoagland said ranchers want the junipers removed to improve cattle grazing. Ranchers have 'been recognizing the effects of the junipers over the years,' he said, noting cut areas have led to more water. 'We're getting lots and lots of stream flows running again that haven't run for 70, 80 years.' Only a small percentage of the area involves state-owned land, but not treating it could leave thousands of acres of federal public land unsuitable for sage grouse. 'We're all working together to try to find ways to achieve mutually agreeable outcomes,' said Dustin Miller, director of the Idaho Department of Lands.
  • After nearly collapsing onstage recently, country singer Drake White has revealed he has a brain condition that disrupts normal blood flow. White told 'People' magazine that he's known about the condition since his diagnosis in January and he has been undergoing a series of procedures to cut off blood flow to the affected vessels. He says he's been diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation, which is an abnormal tangle of arteries and veins in the brain. The 35-year-old 'Livin' the Dream' singer had to be helped by a band member after nearly falling mid-performance last Friday during a concert in Roanoke, Virginia. The magazine said it was unclear if his near-collapse onstage was related to his condition or his treatment.
  • King of Israel? The second coming? The chosen one? President Donald Trump is known to have a healthy ego. But a string of comments Wednesday went to a higher level. First, Trump thanked conservative radio host and supporter Wayne Allyn Root for his praise. In a tweet, Trump quoted Root calling the president 'the best president for Israel in the history of the world' and claiming Jewish people in Israel love Trump 'like he's the King of Israel. They love him like he's the second coming of God.' The messianic imagery may have stuck in Trump's head. Later in the day, as the president was defending his trade war with China, he cast himself as a reluctant warrior. Somebody had to do it and he was the one, he told reporters. 'I am the chosen one,' he said, turning and looking up to the sky. 'Somebody had to do it.
  • The divide between retail winners and losers is widening. That became even more evident Wednesday with the latest batch of earnings reports: Big-box stores and off-price retailers have been responding faster to shoppers' increasing shift online with expanded deliveries and better merchandise. But many mall-based clothing chains and department stores continue to suffer weak sales as they struggle to lure in shoppers. 'There is an increasing polarization in retail,' said Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail. 'It's a vicious cycle, and it's difficult to pull out of the tail spin.' In fact, for the first two fiscal quarters of this year, earnings at off-mall retailers rose 3%, compared with a drop of 29% for mall-based retailers, according to Retail Metrics, a retail research firm, which analyzed results at 105 retailers. On Wednesday, Target raised its annual earnings guidance after reporting strong sales and traffic. It was helped by its same-day delivery services, as well as a strong lineup of homegrown brands. Lowe's, the nation's second largest home improvement retailer behind Home Depot, blew past Wall Street's second-quarter earnings expectations, buoyed by strong demand for spring goods and sales to contractors. Both companies' stocks soared. Earlier this week, Home Depot handily beat second-quarter profit expectations, while Walmart raised its outlook for the year last week and off price chains like T.J. Maxx are also faring well, resonating with shoppers who love to treasure hunt. But clothing chains and department stores haven't differentiated their merchandise enough, and now discounters are further squeezing them by pushing into more affordable trendy fashions, retail industry analysts say. Last week, Macy's lowered its annual earnings guidance after its earnings suffered in the second quarter as it slashed prices on unsold merchandise. J.C. Penney's is in worst shape. It posted another quarter of sales declines. Kohl's shares, meanwhile, fell Tuesday after posting a sales decline though business improved later in the quarter. Nordstrom is expected report declining second-quarter profits and sales late Wednesday. Saunders and other analysts say that they started to see a clear divide between retail's winners and losers four or five years ago, but that gap has gotten more pronounced because of a combination of factors. For several years, a strong economy provided tail winds to retailers of all stripes, and last year's tax cuts gave merchants a nice sugar high. But as the economy starts developing some cracks, vulnerable retailers will become even more exposed. Analysts also say that the shift to online shopping keeps accelerating, giving a big advantage to retailers like Target and Walmart who've been able to invest billions of dollars in online deliveries and in their stores. Some mall-based retailers are now looking at other ways to bring in shoppers, including subscription rental services and carving out areas to sell second-hand clothes. But for some, it may be a case of too little, too late. 'In a world where consumers have more choices than ever, inferior brick-and-mortar experiences will go away,' said John Mulligan, Target's chief operating officer Wednesday. Target's comparable store sales, which include online sales, rose 3.4 % as customer traffic jumped 2.4%. Online sales soared 34%. The Minneapolis company raised profit expectations for the year, sending its shares up 19%. Shares in Lowe's Co., which is based in Mooresville, North Carolina, were up more than 10%. Still, it is an uncertain time for even surging retailers like Target. The Trump administration has imposed a 25% tariff on $250 billion in Chinese imports. A pending 10% tariff on another $300 billion in goods would hit everything from toys to clothing and shoes that China ships to the United States. And it appears the retailers that have been winning all along will be the ones to better navigate the tariff storms. Target's CEO Brian Cornell told analysts that while the trade wars present an additional layer of uncertainty and complexity, he pointed to the company's diverse assortment, deep expertise in global sourcing and sophisticated set of manufacturing partners around the world. Meanwhile, Macy's said last week that its shoppers don't have an appetite for higher prices in a ballooning U.S. trade war with China. The department store was forced to raise prices on some luggage, housewares and furniture to offset the costs of a 25% tariff implemented in May. Macy's vowed not to increase prices as a result of the 10% tariff, but CEO Jeff Gennette said the company will be speaking with vendors about ways to offset rising costs if the trade war escalates. _____ Follow Anne D'Innocenzio on Twitter . ___ This story has been updated to correctly identify the Target executive quoted in reference to brick-and-mortar stores. It is Chief Operating Officer John Mulligan, not CEO Brian Cornell.
  • The federal budget deficit is expected to balloon to more than $1 trillion in the next fiscal year under the first projections taking into account the big budget deal that President Donald Trump and Congress reached this summer, the Congressional Budget Office reported Wednesday. The return of $1 trillion annual deficits comes despite Trump's vow when running for office that he would not just balance the budget but pay down the entire national debt. 'The nation's fiscal outlook is challenging,' said Phillip Swagel, director of the nonpartisan CBO. 'Federal debt, which is already high by historical standards, is on an unsustainable course.' The office upped this year's deficit projection by $63 billion and the cumulative deficit projection for the next decade by $809 billion. The higher deficit projections come even as the CBO reduced its estimate for interest rates, which lowers borrowing costs, and as it raised projections for economic growth in the near term. The number crunchers at CBO projected that the deficit for the current fiscal year will come to $960 billion. In the next fiscal year, which begins Oct 1, it will exceed $1 trillion. The CBO said the budget deal signed into law earlier this month, which took away the prospect of a government shutdown in October and the threat of deep automatic spending cuts, would boost deficits by $1.7 trillion over the coming decade. Increased spending on disaster relief and border security would add $255 billion. Downward revisions to the forecast for interest rates will help the picture, trimming $1.4 trillion. Swagel said the federal debt will rise even higher after the coming decade because of the nation's aging population and higher spending on health care. To put the country on sustainable footing, Swagel said, lawmakers will have to increase taxes, cut spending or combine the two approaches. The CBO projects that the economy will expand more slowly, from 2.3% this year to 1.8% on average in the next four years. The assumption reflects slower growth in consumer spending and government purchases, as well as the effect of trade policies on business investment. It also projects the unemployment rate will remain close to its current level of 3.7% through the end of 2020 and then rises to 4.6% by the end of 2023. The CBO's estimate is the first to reflect the hard-won budget and debt deal signed into law earlier this month. 'The recent budget deal was a budget buster, and now we have further proof. Both parties took an already unsustainable situation and made it much worse,' said Maya MacGuineas, president of the private Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. MacGuineas said lawmakers should ensure the legislation they enact is paid for and redouble efforts to control the growth in health care costs and restore the solvency of the Social Security program. Her organization is focused on educating the public on issues with significant fiscal policy impact. Senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway pivoted to the president's desire to fund the military and other programs when asked about the report. 'We're always concerned about the deficit,' Conway said. 'We also need to fund a lot of the projects and programs that are important to this country.
  • The will that Jeffrey Epstein signed just two days before his jailhouse suicide puts more than $577 million in assets into a trust fund that could make it more difficult for his dozens of accusers to collect damages. Estate lawyers and other experts say prying open the trust and dividing up the financier's riches is not going to be easy and could take years. 'This is the last act of Epstein's manipulation of the system, even in death,' said attorney Jennifer Freeman, who represents child sex abuse victims. Epstein, 66, killed himself Aug. 10 in New York while awaiting trial on federal sex trafficking charges. The discovery of the will with its newly created 1953 Trust, named after the year of his birth, instantly raised suspicions he did it to hide money from the many women who say he sexually abused them when they were teenagers. By putting his fortune in a trust, he shrouded from public view the identities of the beneficiaries, whether they be individuals, organizations or other entities. For the women trying to collect from his estate, the first order of business will be persuading a judge to pierce that veil and release the details. From there, the women will have to follow the course they would have had to pursue even if Epstein hadn't created a trust: convince the judge that they are entitled to compensation as victims of sex crimes. The judge would have to decide how much they should get and whether to reduce the amounts given to Epstein's named beneficiaries, who would also be given their say in court. 'Wealthy people typically attempt to hide assets in trusts or other legal schemes. I believe the court and his administrators will want to do right by Epstein's victims, and if not, we will fight for the justice that is long overdue to them,' attorney Lisa Bloom, who represents several Epstein accusers, said in an email. She said attorneys for the women will go after Epstein's estate in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the will was filed and where he owned two islands. Bloom said it was 'gross negligence' on the part of Epstein's lawyers and jail personnel to allow him to sign a new will, given that he had apparently attempted suicide a short time before. Bloom called a will 'a classic sign of impending suicide for a prisoner.' The lawyers who handled the will have not returned calls for comment. The assets listed in the 20-page document include more than $56 million in cash; properties in New York, Florida, Paris, New Mexico and the Virgin Islands; $18.5 million in vehicles, aircraft and boats; and art and collectibles that will have to be appraised. Typically in any case, trust or not, there is a pecking order of entities that line up to get a share of an estate, said Stephen K. Urice, a law professor at the University of Miami. First in line would be the government — in Epstein's case, several governments — which will collect any taxes owed on his properties and on his estate itself. Next would be any other creditor to whom Epstein owed money, such as a bank or mortgage company. Lawsuits against the estate by victims would come into play somewhere after that. Epstein's only known relative is a brother, Mark Epstein, who has not responded to requests for comment. It is unclear whether he was named a beneficiary. One other possibility is that the U.S. government will seek civil forfeiture of Epstein's properties on the grounds that they were used for criminal purposes. The government would have to produce strong evidence of that at a trial-like proceeding. If it prevailed, it would be able to seize the properties, sell them and distribute the proceeds to victims. Federal prosecutors declined to comment on the possibility of a forfeiture action. ____ Associated Press writer Jim Mustian in New York contributed to this story.
  • The North Dakota Health Department's acknowledgment this week that a 2015 pipeline leak of liquid natural gas is hundreds of thousands of gallons larger than reported raises questions about how many other spills and leaks are underreported — and state officials were not immediately able to answer Wednesday. State Environmental Quality Chief Dave Glatt said the agency does not update initial public reports on spills but is considering doing so in the future. 'I get it — people want more information,' Glatt said. The agency said Tuesday that a 2015 pipeline spill of gas liquids, or 'condensate,' at a western North Dakota natural gas plant that was first reported as just 10 gallons (8 imperial gallons) is at least hundreds of thousands of gallons larger and may take an additional decade to clean up. The initial state report on the spill at Oneok Partners LP's Garden Creek I gas processing plant was never updated, even as Oneok updated the state on cleanup. In October, Oneok told the state it had recovered 240,000 gallons (nearly 200,000 imperial gallons) of the liquid gas and cleanup continued. The environmental blog DeSmog, which first reported the discrepancy, reported that the spill may be as large as 11 million gallons (9 million imperial gallons). The blog cited an unidentified person who provided a draft document on a cleanup plan. The company said the actual amounts of the release aren't known. Glatt said the company could face sanctions but has not yet because of its efforts to clean up its site. 'We still have that option,' he said. Some groundwater was affected, regulators said, but the spill didn't reach beyond the facility's boundaries. Glatt said groundwater monitoring wells have been placed completely around the natural gas factory. Glatt said it is illegal under state law to alter a document, but the agency may create supplemental documents to update estimates on a spill size, something that was not done for the Oneok spill. Wayde Schafer, spokesman for the state's Sierra Club chapter, said the state's current policy of reporting spills 'is kind of worthless.' Timely, accurate and accessible information would hold companies and regulators accountable, he said. 'The public needs to be able to trust these reports,' he said. Until recently, North Dakota regulators were not obliged to tell the public about oilfield-related spills. The state's policy changed in 2013 after a wheat farmer in northwestern North Dakota discovered a massive spill that has been called one of the biggest onshore spills in U.S. history. State and company officials kept it quiet — even from then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple — for more than a week and only disclosed it after questions from The Associated Press. The Health Department subsequently announced it would use its website to publish information on all spills reported to the department. Glatt said the agency may now develop a user-friendly tracking system on its website to update the status on reported spills. ___ Follow James MacPherson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MacPhersonJA
  • School officials in Orange County, California, said they will reopen an investigation into a group of high school students seen on video giving Nazi salutes last year after more racist images surfaced, according to a report Wednesday. The initial video obtained by the Daily Beast — which posted about 8 seconds of it — shows members of the boys' water polo team at Pacifica High School in an empty room that administrative officials say was later used for an athletic banquet. The video showed about 10 boys in a stiff-arm salute while singing a Nazi marching song. The Garden Grove Unified School District said in a statement that the footage was recorded last November but that administrators hadn't become aware of the video until March. It said the students were unsupervised at the time. The district said Monday that administrators had 'addressed the situation with all students and families involved,' but failed to specify what disciplinary actions it took. The Los Angeles Times reported that since Monday officials said several other videos showing students engaged in hate speech have surfaced. Those videos will be examined as part of the district's reopened investigation. It was not immediately clear what's on the new videos or whether they included students from Pacifica High. 'This new information, which continues to unfold minute by minute, demands a school-wide call to action to address the severity of these claims to ensure hate speech never happens again,' Pacifica High School Principal Steve Osborne said. 'Hate speech will not be tolerated. This is not who we are.' Osborne apologized during a school board meeting Tuesday for failing to address the original video with the entire school immediately after it was brought to administrators' attention. He added that the school had been in communication with the Anti-Defamation League and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles in an effort to expand anti-bias education for students. It's not the first time a high school in Orange County has dealt with its students engaged in Nazi portrayals. Students from schools in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District faced suspension in an unrelated incident in March after photos emerged of them playing beer pong with cups set up in swastika formation.