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News Brief: Flynn Faces Sentencing, Moonves' Severance, Toxic Mine Dust

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn is going to be facing his sentencing today.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We think that he will walk free because of his cooperation with investigators. But his lawyers have publicly disagreed with prosecutors over exactly how the FBI questioned Flynn. And that is just one event in a busy week. Flynn's ex-business partner also faces charges stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller's probe. And the Senate Intelligence Committee released findings on Russian social media campaigns during the 2016 election.

GREENE: OK. Let's bring in NPR's Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department.

Hi there, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK. So Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser - this is all over what he told the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Right? He's admitted to misleading them.

LUCAS: That's right. He's admitted to lying to the FBI, and Flynn will be in federal court here in Washington for sentencing today. He will have a chance to speak before he's sentenced to show the judge that he's taken responsibility for his crime. And it will be really interesting to hear what Flynn has to say today in light of the tension that we've seen in the past week or so between his attorneys and the special counsel's office.

So remember that Robert Mueller's team recommended no prison time for Flynn. They said that he has cooperated extensively. It's been substantial, provided cooperation in the Russia probe as well as other investigations. Then Flynn's lawyers, in court filings, suggested that the FBI had actually been underhanded in its initial interview with Flynn because Flynn did not have an attorney present with him when he was interviewed by two FBI agents. Prosecutors have knocked that down. They said Flynn was a former top-level intelligence and military official. He knew not to lie to federal agents. There's been a lot of tension over that. All of that said, though, Flynn still has a very good chance of walking out of court today with no prison time.

GREENE: OK. And then we have - not to confuse things even more with this complicated story...

GREENE: ...But Flynn's former business partner is now being charged with trying to help Turkey get custody of this cleric who has been living in the United States, who the president of Turkey thinks might have - or he's accused him of playing a role in the attempted coup in Turkey. How does this all have anything to do with the Russia investigation?

LUCAS: Well, this is a spinoff from that. This was actually brought by charges that were brought by prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia. And what this is about - basically, Flynn's former business partner, a man by the name of Bijan Rafiekian, has been accused by the government of basically working to conspire unlawfully, covertly influence U.S. policy.

Basically, he was working on behalf of the Turkish government as a foreign agent, and he hid that fact. What the indictment says is that he was working on a scheme to smear this Turkish cleric, a man by the name of Fethullah Gulen who lives in exile here in the U.S. Prosecutors say that the goal of this scheme was to get the U.S. to extradite Gulen to Turkey. Turkey has been pressuring the U.S. on this for ages. Court papers say that the Turkish government was footing the bills for all of this undisclosed lobbying. They were getting updates on the work. Rafiekian didn't register with U.S. authorities as required by the law.

GREENE: OK. And then we have, also, these new Senate Intelligence Committee reports that are giving us a much deeper look at the Russian social media campaigns and efforts to influence the U.S. election.

LUCAS: That's right. They give us the most comprehensive look yet at how a Russian troll factory was using social media to try to influence Americans. The new nitty-gritty details that we get out of this - one of the most interesting things they say is that Russians targeted African-Americans more than any other community. One of the main messages pushed to them was that it was best to just boycott the vote. And they also make clear that the Russians used every major social media platform out there to try to influence Americans.

INSKEEP: They were saying boycott the vote - in effect, don't go vote for Hillary Clinton. That was the message there.

LUCAS: Exactly.

GREENE: Which was part of the effort, it appears, to get President Trump elected.

All right, NPR's Ryan Lucas, we appreciate it. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. So Les Moonves is not going to be getting his $120 million severance payment after all.

INSKEEP: He was the CEO of CBS and was one of television's most influential figures and then was fired in September. Multiple women accused Les Moonves of sexual misconduct and also of retaliating against women who resisted him. And now the company's board of directors says he did not fully cooperate when CBS investigated.

GREENE: OK. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans is here.

Good morning, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: OK. This was one of the big, big questions still looming, whether Les Moonves would get that huge severance. So how did this - the board at CBS arrive at this decision?

DEGGANS: Well, Moonves was forced to step down after The New Yorker magazine published allegations from several women claiming he had sexually harassed or assaulted them. And the CBS board wound up hiring two law firms to look into allegations against Moonves and harassment misconduct allegations at CBS News and even in CBS' wider corporate culture.

GREENE: OK. They hired two law firms. What did those firms actually find?

DEGGANS: Well, the reports haven't been made public. But The New York Times reported on early drafts, which said that investigators had evidence that Moonves had lied to them and tried to destroy texts showing he attempted to find acting work for one accuser. In its statement, the board accused Moonves of breaching his contract and, quote, "willful material misfeasance." I had to look that word up (laughter). That means...

GREENE: And what'd you find?

DEGGANS: ...Performing an official duty in an improper or unlawful manner. And Moonves' attorney has said in a statement that the conclusions were baseless, his client corroborated fully and he vehemently denies assaulting anyone.

GREENE: But isn't it worth asking right now if there is a cultural problem at CBS? I mean, this is not the only case of sexual harassment there.

DEGGANS: Exactly. CBS was once known as the Tiffany Network. It bills itself as the most watched network in America. But they've also had multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Anchor Charlie Rose was fired last year. Jeff Fager, the executive producer of their top news magazine, "60 Minutes," was let go in September. The New York Times, last week, reported on a $9.5 million settlement with actress Eliza Dushku after she claimed that she was harassed while she was working on the CBS drama "Bull." As a critic, I've pointed out CBS' lack of new shows starring women for years, but executives have often shrugged off criticism in the past.

GREENE: Well, are they shrugging off criticism now? Or are they doing anything, you know, more broadly to deal with all of this?

DEGGANS: Well, the board has said that it's created this new position called chief people officer that's going to revamp its human resources departments. They say their diversity and inclusion efforts have been, quote, "inadequate." And they're going to give those efforts more attention and resources. Last week, CBS announced that it was going to give $20 million that had been held back from Moonves' original payout to several organizations that are going to work to eliminate workplace sexual harassment.

CBS' board also admitted they've heard from employees who say powerful people at the company were not held accountable. Now, the question is whether CBS is going to hold them accountable now without big stories in the press to pressure them.

GREENE: All right, NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans this morning.

Eric, thanks a lot.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. So thousands of American coal miners are suffering and, in some cases, dying from a disease caused by toxic dust.

INSKEEP: Now we know what happened and why. NPR's Howard Berkes and the PBS program "Frontline" have been investigating an epidemic of advanced black lung disease. And they've learned that federal regulators had plenty of evidence of this threat going back more than 20 years but did not do what they could have done to stop it.

GREENE: And Howard joins us now.

Howard, thanks for bringing this reporting to us. We appreciate it.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So before we get to exactly what went wrong here, I just want to be really clear. We're talking about coal miners in coal mines, black lung disease. But this isn't necessarily about breathing in coal dust, right?

BERKES: That's right. It's about coal miners inhaling silica dust. And that's 20 times more toxic than coal dust. It's generated when miners cut into rock while they're mining coal. And more and more of that has been happening in the last 30 years because the big coal seams in Appalachia, in particular, are mined out. And what remains are thinner seams. So when miners end up cutting coal, they're also cutting rock with it. And that creates these clouds of silica dust.

GREENE: Which it sounds like can cause, I mean, some horrific health consequences.

BERKES: Well, the silica particles that are created are very fine. They're barbed and sharp. They're easily inhaled. They lodge in the lungs forever. They turn lungs basically crusty and useless. One pulmonologist described it as suffocating while alive. Here's what miners told us about this, by the way. This is Jerry Helton, Bernard Carlson, Jackie Yates, Charles Shortridge, Jimmy Wampler, Edward Fuller and Roy Mullins.

JERRY HELTER: The doctor says my lungs started shutting down. They said they is hardened just like a lump of coal.

BERNARD CARLSON: You get up hacking, spitting black and blood.

JACKIE YATES: Coughing to the point of almost throwing up.

CHARLES SHORTRIDGE: It's a death sentence.

JIMMY WAMPLER: We're going to die from it.

EDWARD FULLER: There's no cure for it.

ROY MULLINS: And knowing that that's coming to you, it's pretty hard to take.

GREENE: Wow - Howard, just hearing one voice after another there. I mean, what regulations are there in place to help, you know, stop this from happening to these miners?

BERKES: You know, there are a lot of regulations that are supposed to control exposure to coal mine dust, but they don't directly address silica dust, or quartz. We acquired and analyzed 30 years of data collected by federal regulators as they measured dust exposure in coal mines. This is what we were investigating. And even though these regulators are measuring dust just a fraction of the time, the regulators still found toxic levels of exposure more than 21,000 times.

This is Jim Weeks. He's a federal mine safety official in the Obama administration.

JIM WEEKS: They didn't pay sufficient attention. And you know, we've got the bodies to prove it. I mean, these guys wouldn't be dying if people had been paying attention to quartz. It's that simple.

GREENE: I mean, that's a direct accusation - that if there had been more attention paid, I mean, there wouldn't have been these deaths. And your investigation has found that regulators really should have known that this was happening and done something?

BERKES: The data that we found is in their records. We also found internal memos from as far back as the Clinton administration showing that federal mine safety officials were alarmed by clusters of advanced lung disease. They recognized the connection to silica exposure. They were worried about the ongoing risk to miners. They sent warnings to mining companies. But no administration, then or since, in more than 20 years, Democratic or Republican, did anything about silica.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Howard Berkes. And Howard, I know you're going to have a lot more about your investigation tonight on All Things Considered. And there's a lot more from your reporting at npr.org.

Howard, we appreciate it. Thank you.

BERKES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLYRHYTHMICS' "CACTUS BLOSSOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.