WASHINGTON (AP) — Confronting skeptical Republicans, attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch pledged a new start with Congress and independence from President Barack Obama Wednesday, even as she defended the president's unilateral protections for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.
"If confirmed as attorney general, I would be myself. I would be Loretta Lynch," the nominee told her Senate confirmation hearing as Republicans showered criticism on the current occupant of the job, Eric Holder. They said Holder was contemptuous of Congress and too politically close to Obama, and repeatedly demanded assurances that Lynch would do things differently.
"You're not Eric Holder, are you?" Texas Republican John Cornyn, one of the current attorney general's most persistent critics, asked at one point.
"No, I'm not, Sir," Lynch responded with a smile.
It was a moment that summed up a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that was often more about Obama and Holder than about Lynch, who is now the top federal prosecutor for parts of New York City and Long Island. If confirmed, she would become the nation's first black female attorney general.
Holder, Cornyn contended, "operated as a politician using the awesome power conferred by our laws on the attorney general." Lynch asked the senator to take note of "the independence that I've always brought to every particular matter," and she said that when merited she would say no to Obama.
On immigration, Lynch faced numerous questions from Republicans critical of the administration's new policy granting work permits and temporary deportation relief to some 4 million people who are in the country illegally. The committee chairman, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, called the effort "a dangerous abuse of executive authority."
Lynch said she had no involvement in drafting the measures but called them "a reasonable way to marshal limited resources to deal with the problem" of illegal immigration. She said the Homeland Security Department was focusing on removals of "the most dangerous of the undocumented immigrants among us."
Pressed by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a leading immigration hard-liner, she said that citizenship was not a right for people in the country illegally but rather a privilege that must be earned. At the same time, when Sessions asked whether individuals in the country legally or those who are here unlawfully have more of a right to a job, Lynch replied, "The right and the obligation to work is one that's shared by everyone in this country regardless of how they came here."
The hearing was the first such proceeding since Republicans retook control of the Senate in January. Lynch is expected to win confirmation without difficulty in the end, in part because Republicans are so eager to be rid of Holder. He has been a lightning rod for conservatives over the past six years, clashing continually with lawmakers and becoming the first sitting attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress.
Lynch found occasions to differentiate herself from Holder but without contradicting him, as she answered senators' largely cordial questions.
In one example, she stated without hesitation under questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham that she considers the death penalty an effective punishment and has sometimes sought it in her district. That was a rhetorical shift from Holder, who has expressed personal reservations about the punishment, particularly in light of recent botched executions, but who has also sought it in past cases.
On another controversial topic, Lynch said that current National Security Agency intelligence-gathering programs are "constitutional and effective." She said she hopes Congress will renew three expiring provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the FBI to obtain search warrants and communications intercepts in intelligence cases.
Lynch, a daughter of the segregated South, was accompanied at the hearing by about 30 family members and friends. Her mother, a retired English teacher and librarian, was unable to make the trip, but her father, who is a retired minister, sat behind her throughout the hearing along with her husband and several members of her college sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, wearing their trademark bright red.
Beyond his clashes with Congress, Holder has faced accusations from critics that he has aligned himself more with protesters alleging police violence than with members of law enforcement, a contention he and the Justice Department have strongly denied — but one that resonated in the aftermath of recent high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of white officers.
It's an area Lynch is familiar with. She helped prosecute the New York City police officers who beat and sexually assaulted Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997, and her office in New York is currently leading a civil rights investigation into the police chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island last summer. Lynch has been U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New since 2010, a role she also held from 1999 to 2001.
Lynch told senators that one of the most important issues facing the country is "the need to resolve the tensions that appear to be discussed and appear to be rising between law enforcement and the communities that we serve." She said that the best way to deal with the problem is to get all parties to meet and talk, "helping them see that, in fact, we are all in this together."
A treasure hunter locked in a legal battle over one of the greatest undersea hauls in American history was arrested in Florida after more than two years on the lam, authorities said Wednesday.
The U.S. Marshals Service tracked Tommy Thompson to a Hilton hotel in West Boca Raton and arrested him Tuesday, said Brian Babtist, a senior inspector in the agency's office in Columbus, Ohio, where a federal civil arrest warrant was issued for him in 2012 for failing to show up to a key court hearing.
Authorities didn't immediately explain how they were finally able to track down Thompson, whom they called "one of the most intelligent fugitives ever sought by the U.S. Marshals."
Thompson made history in 1988 when he found the sunken S.S. Central America, also known as the Ship of Gold. In what was a technological feat at the time, Thompson and his crew brought up thousands of gold bars and coins from the shipwreck. Much of that was later sold to a gold marketing group in 2000 for about $50 million.
The 161 investors who paid Thompson $12.7 million to find the ship never saw returns from the sale. Two of them sued — a now-deceased investment firm president and the Dispatch Printing Company, which publishes The Columbus Dispatch newspaper and had invested about $1 million.
That legal battle is ongoing, and those close to Thompson say it was his undoing.
Gil Kirk, who heads a Columbus real estate firm and is a former director of one of Thompson's companies, told The Associated Press last year that Thompson never cheated anyone. Kirk said proceeds from the 2000 sale of the gold all went to legal fees and bank loans.
"He was a genius, and they've stolen his life," Kirk said of those who sued.
Thompson went into seclusion in 2006, moving into a mansion called Gracewood in Vero Beach, Florida. Six years later, after the arrest warrant was issued, Thompson vanished.
When the property's caretakers searched the mansion, they found prepaid disposable cellphones and bank wraps for $10,000 scattered about, along with a bank statement in the name of Harvey Thompson showing a $1 million balance, court records said. Harvey, according to friends, was Thompson's nickname in college.
Also found was a book called "How to Live Your Life Invisible." One marked page was titled: "Live your life on a cash-only basis."
Columbus attorney Rick Robol, who at one time defended Thompson's company, has said there's no proof Thompson stole anything. He said he's been concerned about Thompson's health, which is why he called the arrest "the best thing that can happen for everybody."
Babtist said Thompson was arrested along with his longtime companion, Alison Antekeier, and the couple had been staying in a two-person suite at the Hilton for two years.
The hotel is in an upscale suburban area surrounded by golf courses, country clubs and gated communities. It's less than 10 miles from the beach, and it has a pool and a running track.
The Marshals Service said Thompson Antekeier had no vehicles registered in their names and that Antekeier used public buses and taxis to move around Palm Beach County.
"The couple offered no resistance at the time of the arrest and readily admitted to being the targets of the extensive investigation," the Marshals Service said in a news release.
Thompson was set for an initial appearance in federal court Thursday in West Palm Beach, while Antekeier was scheduled for an extradition hearing Feb. 4. It's unclear whether she was ordered to remain in custody until the hearing.
No criminal charges have been filed against Thompson, but Babtist said the treasure hunter will likely be ordered held in custody until he appears before an Ohio judge to give an accounting for the gold's sale and his actions.
"I don't imagine he's going to get any bond because he's already been a fugitive and knowingly evaded law enforcement," Babtist said. "I don't know what kind of means he has as far as money goes, but I'm sure they don't want to take any chances with him leaving the country or absconding again."
In one of the worst shipping disasters in American history, the S.S. Central America sank in a monster hurricane about 200 miles off the South Carolina coast in September 1857; 425 people drowned and thousands of pounds of California gold were lost, contributing to an economic panic.
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a rare show of bipartisanship over President Barack Obama's health care law, a Senate committee voted unanimously Wednesday to exclude veterans from the 50-worker threshold that triggers required coverage for employees under that statute.
The Senate Finance Committee vote was 26-0, a departure from the usual party-line fights over Obama's showcase 2010 law.
Yet senators' comments suggested that party-line battling over many aspects of the statute — and other laws — could erupt when the measure reaches the full Senate. Lawmakers described potential amendments ranging from restoring expired tax credits to paying veterans a $10.10 hourly minimum wage to exempting additional workers from the 50-employee threshold.
"We should consider other categories of Americans who also should be relieved of this job-killing provision," said Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa.
Despite repeated pledges by Republicans now running Congress to repeal and replace the health care law, Democrats said the committee's actions Wednesday were an acknowledgment that such efforts were going nowhere. Obama has promised to veto any congressional effort to dismantle the law.
"Senators do not make changes to laws that are going away," said Sen. Ron Wyden, R-Ore.
Obama's law is gradually phasing in a requirement that companies with at least 50 workers offer health coverage to their employees. The Senate bill would let employers exclude from that count veterans who receive health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs or the military.
Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the bill "will help our nation's veterans find needed jobs" and encourage small businesses to hire them.
Democrats said they shared that goal but doubted it would have much effect.
"It really won't have much impact either way, other than somebody's talking point," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said afterward.
There are relatively few firms on the cusp of having 50 workers who could avoid providing health care to their entire work force by hiring qualified veterans.
Using Census Bureau figures, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation says that 28,000 of the nation's 5.7 million employers have from 44 to 49 workers. Kaiser data shows that 83 percent of companies with 25 to 49 workers already offer health benefits to their employees.
The House approved the legislation earlier this month 412-0 with White House support.