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News Brief: Manhattan Trump Probe, Pipeline Security, Opioid Trial

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just what does a Manhattan prosecutor think he knows about the businesses of former President Trump?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We can't fully answer that question, but a group of citizens may soon be able to. The Washington Post first reported that the Manhattan district attorney has convened a grand jury. The prosecutor has not confirmed the move, which would typically take place in secret.

INSKEEP: It is confirmed that the prosecutor has obtained access to the former president's tax records. So let's sort through what we know with Ilya Marritz of WNYC. Good morning.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Based on the evidence that you have, what could prosecutors be looking at?

MARRITZ: Scheme to defraud, falsification of business records, insurance fraud, criminal tax fraud - those are among the possible charges that have been mentioned by Cy Vance Jr., the Manhattan DA, in his public filings. And we know quite a bit about the business practices underlying those possible crimes. Vance began with the hush money scheme to silence two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump during the twenty 2016 campaign. Recall that former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen went to jail for his role in that scheme, but nobody else was ever charged.

From there, Vance reached further back in time to investigate other business practices Michael Cohen described, understating and overstating the value of the Trump business or his business revenues, either to get bigger loans or smaller tax bills. Now, to be clear, both Trump the man and Trump the business are under investigation. This probe could also result in charges against people close to him, like family and employees.

INSKEEP: So we don't know who, if anyone, would be indicted at any point. But you give us a sense of the range of possibilities. And now we have The Washington Post reporting a grand jury investigation. The grand jury, of course, is the group that would vote as a group on any indictment. What does it mean that we're hearing about this at all?

MARRITZ: Well, it is just such an extraordinary situation. Usually, the grand jury process plays out in secret, but as we have seen, nothing ever unfolds in the expected way when it comes to Donald Trump and the courts. This entire probe has played out at least partly in public view. And that's in large part because Donald Trump tried to block it every step of the way, forcing prosecutors to go to court to get the records they were seeking. This case went to the Supreme Court twice and prevailed both times, or this probe, I should say. And along the way, there have been leaks and just intense media coverage.

So a grand jury means there will be a panel of men and women, as you say, ordinary citizens being presented with evidence of potential wrongdoing. And according to The Washington Post, this grand jury will be impaneled for six months, meeting three days a week. Now, at the end of this, district attorney Cy Vance may choose to seek an indictment or he may just use the grand jury to gather evidence and corral witnesses. But either way, it is a meaningful step forward in the investigation.

INSKEEP: OK, so again, based on what you know, what's likely to come next?

MARRITZ: Well, we recently learned that Vance is joining forces with another New York prosecutor who's also been examining Trump for about two years. And that's Attorney General Letitia James. They're sharing information and manpower. James' investigation went from a purely civil matter to also include criminal charges. In the meantime, Vance has been ramping up. He hired an outside firm to do forensic accounting analysis on this huge volume of financial records. And he also hired a big outside lawyer, Mark Pomerantz, who specializes in organized crime and white-collar crime, to help him figure out what charges, if any, to bring.

INSKEEP: And let's just turn for a second to the former president. We'll recall he was defeated in the 2020 election, was knocked off social media after effectively attempting to overthrow the government, but still has freedom of speech. Is he saying anything about all this?

MARRITZ: Yes, he is. He posted on his website (reading) this is a continuation of the greatest witch hunt in American history. And he went on (reading) New York City and state are suffering the highest crime rates in their history. And instead of going after murderers, drug dealers, human traffickers and others, they came after Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: I guess we just have to note, highest crime rates in their history - false statement. Ilya, thanks very much.

MARRITZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Ilya Marritz of WNYC joined us via Skype. Ilya, thanks.

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INSKEEP: A brief panic over gasoline prices has prompted the federal government to act against the danger of something worse.

MARTIN: Thousands of drivers, maybe even you, definitely me, waited in long lines or drove around seeking a station with some gas. A ransomware attack disrupted the Colonial Pipeline. This is a network that supplies gasoline all up and down the East Coast. Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said the aim was to leave no computer system, public or private, vulnerable.

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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: It's why we began a 60-day sprint in the Department of Homeland Security to focus the American public on this threat, to focus American businesses, energies, on this threat. And we are working very closely in a public-private partnership to inform the American business landscape.

MARTIN: New reporting by The Washington Post reveals the federal government plans further regulation of the industry.

INSKEEP: Our friends by the Post are having a banner day of reporting, and that includes Post reporter Ellen Nakashima. Good morning.

ELLEN NAKASHIMA: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is the federal government planning to do?

NAKASHIMA: Well, at the Department of Homeland Security, which houses the Transportation Security Administration, leadership has decided to use its executive power to impose new requirements, mandatory requirements on the pipeline industry. So on one level - this is for cybersecurity. On one level, it's to prevent a repeat of the Colonial Pipeline attack. And on a more fundamental level, it's to increase the resilience of a critical sector to cyberthreats.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask about one detail of this? When I hear TSA, Transportation Security Administration, I think of the people guarding metal detectors at airports. Are they the people to do cybersecurity for pipelines?

NAKASHIMA: That's right. Absolutely. It's interesting that this agency that's mostly known for aviation also, when it was created back in 2001, absorbed responsibility for protection of pipelines. It got it from the Department of Transportation. And it's sort of an artifact of the post-9/11 reorganization in that the pipelines were seen as a mode of conveyance, as, you know, transporting oil, natural gas and fuel. And so that's how they became the overseers of pipeline security, and that included cybersecurity.

INSKEEP: And so then what is it that the federal government can do or make businesses do that they haven't thought to do or haven't paid to do on their own?

NAKASHIMA: Well, the rules have not yet been released, but my understanding is that the general intent here at TSA is to drive companies toward stronger cybersecurity, not by prescribing particular types of software tools to use but by describing outcomes or performance goals to say, you know, make sure a pipeline control system cannot be accessed remotely from the internet. And the idea is to allow the company latitude in how it accomplishes the goal but to require compliance. And the point is they're no longer voluntary. Companies that don't comply could face stiff financial penalties.

INSKEEP: Ellen, thanks very much for your reporting, really appreciate it.

NAKASHIMA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Ellen Nakashima of The Washington Post.

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INSKEEP: Huntington and Cabell County, W.Va., is at the center of a federal trial that could decide if opioid distributors helped to spur a public health crisis.

MARTIN: Three of the nation's largest drug distributors are all on trial in West Virginia. Communities say AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson kept shipping opioids to pharmacies while ignoring years of evidence that prescription drugs were being diverted for illegal use. The outcome of the trial could show whether these massive corporations are liable for their failure to stem the nationwide opioid epidemic.

INSKEEP: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is in Charleston, which is West Virginia's capital, joins us now. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the companies accused of doing?

MANN: Well, what we know factually is that these drug wholesalers kept shipping millions of opioid pills to pharmacies in Cabell County. And West Virginia's attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, told NPR that this went on for years, even after addiction rates and overdoses surged.

PATRICK MORRISEY: Absolutely outrageous. When you see the volume of pills that are flooding into these small communities to assert that, you know, somehow you didn't know or, well, we didn't think it had to be enforced this way, this is an absurdity of that - everyone knew.

MANN: And internal documents, Steve, revealed during this trial do show these companies kept detailed records of the really astonishing volume of opioids they were shipping.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's pretty well documented. You've reported on it in the past, but now we hear a little bit involuntarily, I guess, from the companies because they're testifying here. What do they say?

MANN: Yeah, and we heard from executive Michael Oriente, who oversees opioid shipments for McKesson. That's one of the companies being sued in civil court. Documents show he and other executives kept raising the amount of opioids that pharmacies could order. But Oriente pointed out that McKesson told the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration exactly how it's safety monitoring system worked. And for the most part, he said federal regulators allowed it to keep happening. And that's really the argument that's being made by the drug industry, that they were just filling legal prescriptions with oversight from the government.

INSKEEP: OK, so the defense is no one stopped me. But they are confronted with all this evidence at a federal trial. What is some of that evidence showing?

MANN: Yeah, there was this really embarrassing email chain that's been revealed during this trial showing top executives at AmerisourceBergen shared a joke about people addicted to prescription opioids, calling them pillbillies, talking about their hunger for hillbilly heroin. That's a reference to OxyContin. I was talking yesterday with Amanda Coleman, who runs a shelter for people in Huntington, W.Va., who are homeless and experiencing addiction. And she brought this up.

AMANDA COLEMAN: The utter disregard for lives here, the dehumanization of words like pillbillies, it's horrifying.

MANN: And one of AmerisourceBergen executives was asked about this email chain during the trial. He said he regretted forwarding it and said the company has an ethical culture. He described it as being of the highest caliber.

INSKEEP: What happens if the companies are found guilty?

MANN: Yeah, people here in West Virginia hope their share of any payout would go to drug treatment and therapy programs. I spoke about this with Herb Dickerson, who's one of the people suffering addiction in Huntington.

HERB DICKERSON: We need it. We need it. We're human beings. We're not animals. We just lost our way. We're just people looking for help up.

MANN: So a lot at stake here. And we should know soon, Steve, whether these companies will be forced to provide some of that help.

INSKEEP: Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Brian Mann is NPR's addiction correspondent. He's in Charleston, W.Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.