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Local Farms to Benefit from USDA Project


HARTFORD — Connecticut is one of eight states selected by the United States Department of Agriculture to participate in the pilot project to buy fruits and vegetables for school meals.

The program is provided for under the federal Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the Farm Bill. Under the program, Connecticut will be able to increase its purchases of locally-grown fruits and vegetables for its state-assisted school meal program.

Officials said this is great news for local farmers and the economy because the state is home to a large farming community.

Nationally, USDA Foods – provided by the USDA to schools – make up about 20 percent of the foods served in schools. States use their USDA Foods allocation to select items from a list of 180 products including fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, poultry, rice, low fat cheese, beans, pasta, flour and other whole grain products.

This pilot program will allow the selected states to use some of their USDA Foods allocation to purchase unprocessed fruits and vegetables directly, instead of going through the USDA Foods program.

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Tickets on Sale for Governor’s Inauguration Event


HARTFORD — Tickets are now available for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov.  Nancy Wyman’s gubernatorial inauguration ceremony on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015.

The ceremony will be held at the William A. O’Neill State Armory on 360 Broad Street in Hartford and is free and open to the public.

Tickets are not necessary and seats are first come, first served.  Doors will open at 11:30 a.m. and the ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m.

The state’s constitutional officers – Attorney General George Jepsen, State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, State Treasurer Denise L. Nappier, and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill – will also be sworn into office during the ceremony.

The traditional inauguration parade will step off at 11:30 a.m. that morning, commencing near the intersection of Jewell Street and Trinity Street in downtown Hartford, proceeding under the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, turning right onto Capitol Avenue past the State Capitol building, then turning right onto Broad Street and ending at the State Armory.

Guests attending the inauguration ceremony should plan for road closures in the areas surrounding the State Capitol and the State Armory during the parade.

As was previously announced, the 2015 Connecticut Inaugural Ball will be hosted by the First Company Governor’s Food Guard and held later that evening at the Connecticut Convention Center.

Tickets to that event are on sale now and can be purchased online at www.ctinauguralball.com or via telephone by calling 860-246-7772.

 

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President Obama Lifts Bans on Cuba


By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a move that has been hailed as historic, President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed an executive order to “re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba.”

The move to thaw the relationship with this communist country comes after months of secret talks between the Obama administration and Cuban officials in Canada and the Vatican. Talks culminated with a 45-minute conversation on Tuesday between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, which detailed ways the United States would end 53 years of enmity that has caused disagreement in the Caribbean basin. Fidel Castro was not involved in these discussions, officials said.

Obama had to forgo Congress. Only Congress, which imposed sanctions on Cuba in 1961, can dismantle them completely. So the president’s move was mostly a symbolic but powerful one, according to a White House official on background call before Obama’s live speech. This move represents the most significant changes to America’s Cuba policy in more than 50 years, a White House official said.

“These are the steps that I can take to change these policies,” Obama said in his televised speech from the East Room, emphasizing the limits of his unilateral move to help the U.S. “normalize relations” with Cuba.

Unresolved disputes remain, however. Cubans urged for an end of the U.S. pro-democracy programs in Cuba, which they see as a subversive attempt to overthrow Castro. The White House stood firm on those demands, refusing to disrupt that policy.

Obama’s executive order bodes well for Cuba’s economy because Cuba agreed to release political prisoners, including “a very frail” Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who U.S. officials said was wrongfully imprisoned. The order now allows travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.

Former Florida Governor and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, challenged Obama’s move toward Cuba, saying to USA Today: “I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship.”

Bush has  favorable ratings in  large Cuban-American constituencies in Florida.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, said he would do all he can as the incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block Obama’s plan.

While politicos plan to make moves in Congress, most Americans will now be able to travel to Cuba. Previously, there was a ban on all travel to Cuba. Now, government officials and academicians can travel there.

“With the changes I’m announcing today, it will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, and Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island,”  Obama said.

Other benefits to Americans in this move also allows Cuban Americans to travel and send remittances to their family, US embassies will now be in Cuba, and easier trade relations.

Travel for tourist activities are still banned.

Photo Credit: President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Cuba and the release of American Alan Gross, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

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Another Top Aide for Gov. Malloy Resigns


By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

HARTFORD — Another top aide to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will be stepping down by January 2015.

Andrew Doba, the governor’s communications director, will resign at the end of Malloy’s first term. Mark Bergman is expected to fill Doba’s position, according to a press release by sent by Malloy’s office on Tuesday.

“From historic storms to unimaginable tragedy to the day-to-day operations of state government, we have faced many challenges over the last four years.  With Andrew’s help, we have effectively communicated our vision for the state in the face of this adversity,” Malloy said.  “I want to thank him for his service, and wish him well in whatever is next.”

Doba, a native from Ansonia who has been working as Malloy’s spokesman for three years, said he was honored that he got the chance to honor the governor’s agenda. He previously worked as Westport First Selectwoman Diane Farrell, a democrat.

“As tough as it’s been, the work we did to advance the Governor’s agenda has been the best job I’ve ever had,” Doba said. “ And while I’m sad to leave, I’m fortunate to have a number of opportunities that I look forward to pursuing in the coming years.”

So far, Doba marks the third top official from Malloy’s administration to step down.

Sources said they expect other top aides to resign before Malloy begins his second term. Last week, Luke Bronin, Malloy’s chief legal counsel who served two years on the job, announced his resignation. He said many Hartford residents have urged him to challenge Mayor Pedro Segarra.

Additional resignations from the Malloy administration includes Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, State Board of Education Member Andrea Comer and Higher Education Commissioner Lewis Robinson.

Doba will stay on as a Senior Adviser to assist with the transition, help with the coming inauguration and the start of the legislative session.

His final date of state service will be determined in the coming weeks.

“I am honored to continue to work with Governor Malloy as he continues to build a better, stronger Connecticut,” Bergman said.  “I look forward to working in his administration to continue to build on Connecticut’s progress over the last four years.”

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Mortgage Officer Sentenced for Fraud


NEW HAVEN —  A former loan officer at GMAC Mortgage and Countrywide Home Loans is expected to serve five years in prison for his role in a mortgage fraud scheme arising from the purchases of more than 40 properties in New Haven, New Jersey, according to state officials.

U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced that Andrew Constantinou, 58, of Unionville, Connecticut, was previously convicted on April 18, 2014, of all counts charged in the indictment following a three-week trial before Chief U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall.

The jury found him guilty of conspiracy to commit mail, wire, and bank fraud. Judge Hall imposed the sentence today in New Haven federal court.

According to documents filed in this case and the evidence at trial:

From 2006 to 2008, Constantinou and others conspired to defraud mortgage lenders of millions of dollars of mortgage proceeds by inflating the contract price that the sellers of the properties had actually agreed to accept. The scheme involved multi-family properties in New Haven.

The lower sale price, which ranged from approximately $30,000 to $145,000 less than the contract price, was not disclosed to the lenders from which the buyers obtained financing to purchase the properties. In most of the fraudulent transactions, the buyers did not make any deposits or down payments. Constantinou and his conspirators used some of the fraudulently obtained mortgage proceeds to cover the down payments and deposits. At or shortly after a closing, the borrowers would often receive thousands to tens of thousands of dollars in cash back, although these payments were not disclosed to the lender.

Constantinou and his conspirators submitted to mortgage lenders false HUD-1 forms that often did not match another, undisclosed HUD-1 form that was actually used to disburse the fraudulently obtained proceeds at the closing. As a result of the submission of the false HUD-1 forms and other false documentation in support of the loan, including fictitious leases and false information about the borrower’s assets and liabilities, the mortgage lenders would issue mortgages based on the inflated sales price.

Constantinou was a loan officer at GMAC Mortgage from 2006 to 2007 and at Countrywide Home Loans from 2007 to 2008.  He submitted and received commissions from fraudulent loans as part of the scheme without disclosing the existence of inflated contract prices, secret contract addenda that contained large repair credits, false leases, and other false documentation.

Constantinou worked with an unindicted conspirator, who was a licensed mortgage broker, to originate additional loans as part of the conspiracy. Constantinou and the mortgage broker were former partners at C&S Mortgage and had agreed, by the terms of a 2004 settlement agreement with the Connecticut Department of State Banking, to receive no commissions or money from each other. Notwithstanding that settlement agreement, Constantinou engaged in this mortgage fraud scheme by referring fraudulent transactions to the mortgage broker who, in some instances, paid kickbacks to Constantinou through a shell company and the account of Constantinou’s daughter.

Nearly all of the properties purchased as part of this conspiracy went into default and have been foreclosed upon, causing losses of more than $7 million to lenders.

In addition to the prison term, Judge Hall sentenced Constantinou to serve five years of supervised release and pay restitution of $2.1 million.

Ten defendants have been charged and convicted for their participation in this mortgage fraud conspiracy, including two loan officers, four attorneys, and a real estate agent.  Genevieve Salvatore, Bradford Rieger, Lawrence Dressler, Kwame Nkrumah, and Jacques Kelly have each been sentenced. Menachem Yosef Levitin, Ronald Hutchison Jr., Charles Lesser, and Jeffrey Weisman each await sentencing.

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UConn Begins New Stem Cell Research


STORRS — The University of Connecticut recently announced a new stem cell research collaboration in the field of rare disease with Cheshire, CT-based Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

The collaboration will expand on the work of Dr. David J. Goldhamer, Professor, Molecular & Cell Biology and Associate Director of the UConn Stem Cell Institute.

Dr. Goldhamer has identified the offending progenitor cell type that drives the pathology of a group of diseases and has developed physiologically relevant disease models. These models will be used to further understand the pathophysiology of these disorders and to test potential therapeutics.

“This collaboration targets unmet medical needs for patients while demonstrating the vitality of the life science community in Connecticut,” said Dr. Jeff Seemann, UConn’s Vice President for Research. “As part of Connecticut’s flagship public university and a top 20 public research institution, UConn’s faculty routinely offers tools and expertise to fuel the innovative needs of industry, and that are critically necessary to industry’s ability to succeed in today’s highly competitive global marketplace.”

The research collaboration is expected to focus on the discovery and testing of therapeutic candidates to treat rare and disabling disorders for which there are currently no effective treatments.

Connecticut was one of the first states to fund stem cell research.

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Deadline to Enroll in ObamaCare Today


Updated Monday, December 15, 2014 @ 5:34 p.m.

HARTFORD — In order to begin health coverage under the Affordable Health Care Act by January, residents must enroll by this Monday, state officials said.

Consumers who elect not to enroll before the Dec. 15  deadline will still have until Feb. 15 to enroll and avoid a tax penalty.

Connecticut residents, who are enrolled  in health insurance after Feb. 15, 2015, will be fined either 2 percent of household income over the federal income tax filing threshold, or $325 per individual, $162.50 per child, or $975 for families– whichever is greater.

This is an increase from last year’s tax penalties, which were 1 percent of household income over the federal income tax filing threshold, or $95 per person and $47.50/child, whichever was greater.

After the Feb. 15, 2015 deadline, only people with special circumstances like a change of address, change in employment, or birth may enroll for coverage.

Residents can compare plans and shop for coverage online, over the phone, or with the help of an in-person assister. Call center representatives are available  at 1‐855‐805-HEALTH (4325).

In-person assistance is available at the AHCT enrollment centers in New Britain and New Haven, at 12 Community Enrollment Partner sites, and via licensed insurance brokers. For more information, visit www.accesshealthct.com.

In advance of tonight’s midnight deadline for coverage beginning Jan. 1, Access Health CT Acting CEO Jim Wadleigh has released the following statement:

“The deadline to sign up for quality, affordable health care coverage that begins on Jan. 1, 2015 is tonight at midnight.  If customers have an application started and select a plan before midnight tonight, they can still get coverage beginning Jan. 1, as long as they complete the application and get us all the relevant information by midnight this Friday, Dec. 19.

We hope that this grace period will allow ample time for customers to complete their applications and have any remaining questions answered. We urge costumers to use Access Health CT’s customer resources to get the assistance they need to get coverage beginning on Jan. 1, 2015.

 

 

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Congress Passes Massive Spending Bill


Updated Monday, December 15, 2014 at 9:39 a.m.

By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

WASHINGTON —  After much wrangling between the White House and Congress late Saturday, the Senate passed a $1.1 trillion spending package expected to be signed by President Barack Obama by this week.

The Senate greenlighted the measure in a 56-40 vote. Several liberal Congressional leaders called the omnibus spending bill a compromised budget. That’s becasue conservative lawmakers scaled back Obama’s health and immigration policies. The bill only funds the Department of Homeland Security until February. This department oversees most immigration policies.

The Senate also nixed all spending on Obama’s signature education initiative,, Race to the Top. And there is no funding for Common Core Stte Standards.  Moreover, Republicans weakened the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which installed policeis to protect homeowners and other financial consumers. And Democrats compromised, saying they secured more money for enforcment budgets.

The rollback on key provisions of the Dodd-Frank law would allow big banks to sell off risky fiancial instruments, while having access to federal aid if banks falter. Some obervers noted that similar measures have helped created the 2008 recession and forced government to bail out banks that were “too big to fail.”

The massive omnibus spending bill will fund the federal government operations through September 2015.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) voted againt the measure, saying it’s clear this is not an acceptable budget to many Democrats.

“I was really so heartbroken to see the taint that was placed on this valuable appropriation bill from on high,” she said on the House floor.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) disagreed with that characterization of the spending bill, calling it a “responsible” bill put forth by a bipartisan vote to “keep the government running and address the American people’s priorities.”

Before the measure passed in the House with a 219-206 vote, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough urged House Democrats to vote for the bill. And the White House administration issues a statement, saying the administration was opposed changes to the Dodd-Frank Act, aimed at reducing taxpayer risk.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), speaking about the Dodd-Frank regulations, said that the move on fiancial reform reflects a conservative agenda rather than a progessive one.

“The alternative to passing this bill would be worse–another short-term continuing resolution or a government shutdown,” Murphy said in a statement released to the press. “Either would inflict real pain on millions of people in Connecticut and across the country.”

The bill also appropriated billions to fight Ebola in the U.S. and overseas, supports Connecticut economy by funding defense programs, which is a life blood of the state’s economy.

“The bill will surge manufacturing whith more Blackhawk helicopters, F135 Engines for the Joint Strike Fighter,  development for new submarines and combat rescue helicopters, he said.

Other Congressional leaders opted to avert another shutdown as the one in 2013.

Rep. Jim Himes, (D-Conn.) said he voted for the measure because the “doesn’t want a government shutdown and because everyone” demand that the U.S. government be functional–not dysfunctional.

Other key measures include increased limits on individual contributions to national political paerties and a reduced budget for the Internal Revenue Service.

In addition, the spending bill funded core domestic government operations and provided money for military operations abroad.

 

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Pew Study: More Americans Support Gun Rights


By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.,  many across the nation called on Congress to pass gun control measures that would require background checks and restrict individuals from attaining assault weapons.

Two years later, a new survey says there is growing support for gun owners, reversing the sentiment immediately after 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered an elementary school and killed 20 students, six adults and his mother. Lanza reportedly committed suicide.

According to a Pew Research Center study that marks the two-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings,  there’s a shift in atttiudes about whether gun ownership does more to protect people or put them in harm’s way.

Currently,  52 percent of those surveyed says it is more imporant to protect the rights of American gun owners, while 46 percent say it is more imporant to control who owns a gun, the reports says.

“Support for gun rights has edged up from earlier this year, and marks a substantial shift in attitudes since shortly after the Newtown school shootings, which occurred two years ago this Sunday,” the report reads. “The balance of opinion favored gun control in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown tragedy in December 2012, and again a month later.”

The report also says that nearly six in ten Americans, or 57 percent, say gun ownership does more to proetc people from becoming victims of crime, while 38 percent say it does more to endanger personal saftey. In the aftermath of the Newtown tradegy, 49 percent said guns do more to proetect people. And 37 percent of those surveyed two years ago said guns place people at risk.

The Pew report comes on the heels of renewed effort to get Congress to regulate firearms. Two groups, Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, released a report earlier this week that counted 95 school shootings since Newtown.

Gun reform advocates disagreed with the Pew Study findings, saying the wording of the questions about gun ownership is skewed.

Ron Pinciaro, president of the CT Voters for Gun Safety, said other surveys have favored what he said should be referred to as “gun violence prevention” policies.

“When they’re using the term ‘gun control,’ there’s kind of a bias attached to that. I would expect that that’s how the data would come out,” he said.

Scott Wilson, President of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said the poll results accurately reflect the growing sentiment two years after the shootings in Newtown.

“I am not surprised to see the outcome of this poll. I do believe that after a shock period when a tragedy such as Sandy Hook occurs, people realize that law enforcement can’t be everywhere to protect people and it falls to people to protect themselves. The rational side of humanity eventually takes over,” Wilson said.

As of December 2014, there have been an estimated 126 school shootings since the shooting at Columbine in 1999.

 

 

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Flags Fly Half-Staff for Sandy Hook Victims


By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

HARTFORD — This Sunday will mark the two-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting in Newtown.

That’s why Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has directed the United States and Connecticut flags to fly at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on  Dec. 14, to honor of the 20 children and six adults killed after 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered the school and opened fire.

Lanza committed suicide before state police arrived on the scene.

It wasn’t Connecticut’s first shooting massacre. But it was the first that shook almost every soul in Connecticut and beyond when they learned about the young victims and saw their faces in newspapers, on television and on social media.

The Newtown mass shooting was the deadliest mass shooting at a school in the U.S. And it was the most deadliest school shooting by an individual after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.

Many searched for a motive behind such killings. And for almost a year, the state probed the depths of the killer’s psyche for clues,  hoping to plumb the depths of  what they saw as an evil act. But they found little to soothe the wound that has yet to heal two years late.

A November 2013 report issued by the Connecticut State Attorney’s office concluded that Lanza acted alone. And there was no no evidence that explain why he killed those children, teachers and his mother.

See Report Here.

National and state leaders pledged to “never forget” this shooting, which has galvanized many in Newtown and across the nation. Together, they pushed for ways to mitigate the damage caused by the mass shooting, or to stave off another Sandy Hook shooting incident in Connecticut and across the country.

The victims’ families, other Newtown residents and supporters formed a group called The Sandy Hook Promise . They lobbied Congressional leaders who introduced legislation that included a banned on assault weapons and the Manchin-Toomey Amendment to expand background checks before gun purchases.  

Both measures failed in the Senate.

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