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Mon Valley woman waives cat neglect case

MONONGAHELA – The cost of caring for nearly 200 cats that were seized in Donora and Monessen from their owner has grown to hundreds of thousands of dollars while officials await the surrender of the animals.

A Washington Area Humane Society police officer said Wednesday he might file additional charges in the case against Christie Dee Harr, 41, of Monessen.

“There has to be accountability and we have to make sure she never does this again,” said Kelly Proudfit, the Eighty Four-based society’s executive director.

The Humane Society of the United States on Oct. 30 seized the cats from a rundown former Roman Catholic church and rectory in Donora and another house in nearby Monessen, properties that were under Harr’s control. They also rescued a dog and chickens at the Donora location on Second Street.

The society’s officer also charged Harr that day with two felony counts of aggravated cruelty to animals stemming from an older case involving a sick cat that was allegedly denied veterinarian care.

Harr on Wednesday waived those charges to Washington County Court of Common Pleas, avoiding a preliminary hearing before District Judge Mark Wilson. She is free on $5,000 unsecured bond.

She and her attorney, Bruce W. Blissman of East McKeesport, both left district court that afternoon without commenting.

“There may be new charges, but not today. Everything is under review,” said John Paul Lewis, an assistant county district attorney assigned to the case.

Proudfit said the rescued animals are still being cared for at an undisclosed location. The society has the option of waiving the cost of care against Harr if she allows the national society to put the animals up for adoption.

Local police warn of IRS scams during tax season

As tax season approaches, local police warn that scammers impersonating officials with the Internal Revenue Service are likely to start calling.

Though Chartiers Township Police Chief James Horvath says his department has not received any reports yet, he expects they will begin soon.

“We start getting them right around now,” Horvath said, adding that they will last until after the April 15 filing deadline.

These scams usually involve phone calls from individuals who demand payment in the form of a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer, according to the IRS website.

They may also threaten arrest by local law enforcement. In some cases, the IRS says scammers may even visit a victim’s home or business claiming to be an IRS employee.

The IRS website notes that there are circumstances in which the IRS may call or physically come to a home or business. However, it would only be after several notices have been sent in the mail, which is how the IRS mainly communicates with taxpayers.

Horvath said he once received one of the scam phone calls.

“They called me at home and said we had some transactions, and it wasn’t reported to the IRS,” Horvath said. He immediately recognized the call as a scam.

“Hopefully a lot of people who are getting these know it’s a scam,” Horvath said.

Scammers are also finding other ways to target people.

FedEx recently warned that scammers are sending emails and text messages disguised as official messages from the company. On its website, FedEx says millions of these messages are sent daily.

A scam text message will typically include a fake tracking number for a package and a link. The link will lead to a website that will ask for personal information, which can then be used to defraud the victim.

FedEx says it does not send unsolicited messages asking for payment or personal information.

Horvath said he has not heard any reports of this particular scam, but is expecting the scam will make its way to Chartiers Township.

“Sooner or later, they’ll get around to it,” Horvath said.

Horvath’s advice for anyone who receives a call from an apparent IRS employee, or an unusual text message from FedEx is to report it to police.

“Just ignore it,” Horvath said. “We’re here every day. Call us. It doesn’t hurt to check.”

Trump defense: Ukraine 'quid pro quo' not impeachable

WASHINGTON – In a striking shift from President Donald Trump’s claims of “perfect” dealings with Ukraine, his defenders asserted Wednesday at his Senate trial that a trade of U.S. military aid for political favors – even if proven – could not be grounds for his impeachment.

Trump’s defense spotlighted retired professor Alan Dershowitz, a member of their team who said that every politician conflates his own interest with the public interest. Therefore, he declared, “it cannot be impeachable.”

The Republicans are still hoping to wind up the impeachment trial with a rapid acquittal. Democrats are pressing hard for the Senate to call additional witnesses, especially Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton. Bolton’s forthcoming book contends he personally heard Trump say he wanted military aid withheld from Ukraine until it agreed to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden – the abuse of power charge that is the first article of impeachment.

As Chief Justice John Roberts fielded queries in an unusual question-and-answer session, Texas Republican Ted Cruz asked, Does it matter if there was a quid pro quo?

Simply, no, declared Dershowitz, who said that many politicians equate their reelection with the public good.

“That’s why it’s so dangerous to try to psychoanalyze a president,” he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democrat leading the House prosecutors, appeared stunned.

“All quid pro quos are not the same,” he retorted. Some might be acceptable some not. “And you don’t need to be a mind reader to figure out which is which. For one thing, you can ask John Bolton.”

With voting on witnesses later this week, Democrats, amid the backdrop of protesters swarming the Capitol, are making a last-ditch push to sway Republicans to call Bolton and others to appear for testimony and ensure a “fair trial.”

Trump faces charges from the House that he abused his power like no other president, jeopardizing Ukraine and U.S.-Ukraine relations by using the military aid as leverage while the vulnerable ally battled Russia. The second article of impeachment says Trump then obstructed the House probe in a way that threatened the nation’s three-branch system of checks and balances.

Over two days, senators are grilling the House Democrats prosecuting the case and the Republican president’s defense team. Dozens of questions were asked and answered Wednesday in rapid-fire fashion, with senators under orders to sit silently without comment, submitting their questions in writing. They expect to keep going Thursday.

Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer asked whether the Senate could really render a fair verdict without hearing from Bolton or acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, both potential eye witnesses to Trump’s actions.

“Don’t wait for the book. Don’t wait ’til March 17, when it is in black and white to find out the answer to your question,” Schiff told the Senate.

That publication date is now in doubt. The White House on Wednesday released a letter to Bolton’s attorney objecting to “significant amounts of classified information” in the manuscript, including at the top secret level. Bolton and his attorney have insisted that the book does not contain any classified information.

The White House action could delay the book’s publication if Bolton, who resigned last September – Trump says he was fired – is forced to revise his draft.

GOP senators are straining to balance the new revelations with pressure for quick acquittal. They have been sternly warned by party leaders that calling Bolton as a witness could entangle the trial in lengthy legal battles and delay Trump’s expected acquittal.

White House lawyers made exactly that point. Attorney Pat Philbin said in response to the Democrats’ first question: “This institution will effectively be paralyzed for months.” It was echoed by others.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell huddled privately with senators for a third consecutive day, acknowledging he didn’t yet have the votes to brush back Democratic demands for witnesses now that revelations from Bolton have roiled the trial.

Republican ideas for dealing with Bolton and his book were fizzling almost as soon as they arose – among them, a witness “swap” with Democrats or issuing a subpoena for Bolton’s manuscript.

Most Republican senators don’t want to extend the trial by calling Bolton, and most Democrats would rather avoid dragging the Bidens further into the impeachment proceedings. The Bidens were a focus of defense arguments though no evidence of wrongdoing has emerged.

Bolton writes in a forthcoming book that Trump told him he wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine until it helped with investigations into Democratic rival Joe Biden. That assertion, if true, would undercut a key defense argument and go to the heart of one of the two articles of impeachment against the president.

“I think Bolton probably has something to offer us,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. She met privately Wednesday with McConnell.

Trump disagreed in a tweet Wednesday in which he complained that Bolton, after he left the White House, “goes out and IMMEDIATELY writes a nasty & untrue book. All Classified National Security.”

The uncertainty about witnesses arises days before crucial votes on the issue. In a Senate split 53-47 in favor of Republicans, at least four GOP senators must join all Democrats to reach the 51 votes required to call witnesses, decide whom to call or do nearly anything else in the trial.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine tried to give fresh momentum to a one-for-one witness deal saying it’s “very important that there be fairness, that each side be able to select a witness or two.” But Democrats dismissed those offers.

“It’s irrelevant. It’s a distraction,” said Schumer.

Collins, Murkowski and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney signaled an interest in calling Bolton or other witnesses and questions and answers at times appeared directed directly at them.

Schiff’s response to Dershowitz focused on one particular senator: He asked his audience to imagine what would have happened if then-President Barack Obama asked the Russians to dig up dirt on then-candidate Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee?

Romney standing at the back of the chamber smiled occasionally at mention of his name.

Far from voiding the last election, Schiff said, impeachment is protecting the next one, in 2020, from any future Trump efforts to ask foreign governments to intervene.

Republicans tried to engage the president’s defense, at times raising the profile of the still anonymous government whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine sparked the impeachment inquiry. Democrats kept focused on the case for Trump’s conviction and removal, which would require 67 votes in the Senate and seems unlikely.

At times, there were telling exchanges. In one, the White House team could not fully respond when Collins and Murkowski asked if Trump had ever pursued Biden investigations before the former vice president announced his presidential bid in 2019.

In another, Dershowitz acknowledged he has changed his thinking on what the Founders intended with impeachment and keeps “refining” his views.

One person watching from the sidelines Wednesday was Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, w ho arrived at the Capitol but could not enter the Senate with his court-ordered electronic-tracking device. He has turned over evidence for the investigation, and said he wants to testify.


Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor, Matthew Daly, Laurie Kellman and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.

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Houston officer in charge found dead in Pittsburgh

The Houston Borough police officer in charge was found dead inside a car in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

Mark Hall, 47, had been reported missing by Pittsburgh police Monday. In a Facebook post, police said he was last seen in the West End on Jan. 23 and may have been driving a 1999 purple Toyota Sienna.

Hall was found unresponsive inside a car in the Hot Metal Parking Garage on Sidney Street in the South Side at 1:23 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office. Hall was pronounced dead 15 minutes later.

The medical examiner’s office has not reported a cause and manner of death, but their investigation along with Pittsburgh police is ongoing.

Houston Mayor James Stubenbordt said Hall had been staying with his sister in Pittsburgh. He would have had four years on the job as Houston’s officer in charge in May. He had worked as a patrol officer for the part-time police department prior to that.

Stubenbordt said the last time he spoke with Hall was on Jan. 22. Hall did not show up for work on Jan. 24 or 26. According to Stubenbordt, he had not called off.

Stubenbordt said Hall’s sister called to check to see if he had reported to work. He described Hall as an outgoing person, and well-loved by the community.

“He would go out of his way to help anybody. He was that type of an officer,” Stubenbordt said. “He was dependable. He didn’t shirk any of his duties ... It makes a difference in a small community.”