Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies during a remote video hearing held by subcommittees of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on “Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation” in Washington, U.S., March 25, 2021. U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee/Handout via Reuters
March 26, 2021
By Elizabeth Culliford
(Reuters) – Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted his frustration with U.S. lawmakers’ questions on the social media platform during a hearing about misinformation on Thursday, leading one member of congress to call out his multi-tasking. ( https://twitter.com/jack/status/1375152199433527296?s=20)
Lawmakers grilled Dorsey and the CEOs of Facebook and Google’s parent Alphabet for almost five hours. Tensions were high as they asked them to answer “yes or no” to questions ranging from whether their platforms bore any responsibility for the Jan. 6 riot to whether they understood the difference between the two words.
During the hearing, Dorsey tweeted “?” with a poll asking Twitter Inc users to vote “yes” or “no.” Democratic Representative Kathleen Rice asked: “Mr. Dorsey, what is winning, yes or no, on your Twitter account poll?”
Dorsey told her that “yes” was winning, to which she replied: “Your multi-tasking skills are quite impressive.”
Facebook Inc CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Alphabet Inc CEO Sundar Pichai were also witnesses at the joint hearing by two subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Lawmakers from both parties tried throughout the hearing to pin down the tech CEOs with questions needing only “yes” or “no” answers, interrupting them when they tried to give longer ones. Lawmakers quizzed the executives over concerns from COVID-19 misinformation, harassment, hate speech and extremism.
As the hearing took place, Dorsey also liked tweets criticizing aspects of the session, including asking why members of Congress were mispronouncing Pichai’s name, and replied to a tweet confirming that he was barefoot during the call. His poll on Thursday afternoon had more than 71,000 votes.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford; Additional reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Chris Sanders and David Gregorio)
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A squawking parrot has interrupted the bizarre court proceedings of Eve Black, who boasted about breaching a Melbourne checkpoint in a viral video at the height of Victoria’s hard lockdown.
Ms Black, whose real name is Eugenia Limberiou, appeared via video link in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday.
She is accused of failing to produce her licence and stating a false name and address at a separate incident in Carlton in July last year.
The 28-year-old was represented in court by a “good friend” called Zev, who did not give his last name, and who claimed to be a paralegal with decades of experience.
“I’m currently not certified as a practitioner,” Zev told the court, before a loud squawking interrupted him.
He told the court that Ms Black, who recently told her Instagram followers about the benefits of staying with nuns in an orthodox convent, was seeking to have the charge against her thrown out because it was “misleading and contradictory”.
“At no point did she attempt to give a false name or address,” Zev said.
He asked the court for a “plea and abatement”, a term on which judicial registrar Alison Paton questioned him.
“Well, what do you mean by a plea and abatement? That’s not a term that’s available in this court,” Ms Paton said.
“What you’ve described to me in respect to the charge itself sounds to me as though Ms Limberiou is wishing to plead not guilty.”
Ms Paton told Ms Black and her friend that the case would proceed to the next stage, which involves an informal meeting with police to discuss the charges.
Court documents have revealed the dramatic moments leading up to Ms Black’s arrest at Carlton on July 29, 2020.
Shortly after 1:30pm, two police officers approached the 28-year-old’s car and asked her to produce her driver’s licence.
But Ms Black allegedly took exception to the request.
“She was argumentative and uncooperative and wound up the window and locked the door, refusing to acknowledge or respond to police requests.”
Police say that after a number of repeated requests, they warned the 28-year-old that they would use force to arrest her, but she allegedly continued to refuse.
They then broke her driver’s side window, pulled her from the car and arrested her, and put her in the back of a police van.
Ms Black was later fined $1,652 for breaching the Chief Health Officer’s directives during the stage three lockdown.
Ms Black, who has since moved to Brisbane, spoke sparingly, only telling the court that she consented to Zev representing her.
He objected to the media getting access to official court documents, including charge sheets.
“Yeah, no consent given by Eugenia for the media to have any part of this,” he said.
“Ms Limberiou would like to remind the court in this instance of her privacy, in accordance with the Privacy Act.”
But that was rejected by the court.
“I can indicate that the Privacy Act does not apply to court proceedings,” the judicial registrar said.
Ms Black will return to court in July.
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On Friday, Supreme Court Justice Timothy Ginnane ruled in her favour and granted an injunction, which prevents Labor from hearing her charges until the court considers the matter and examines more evidence in detail.
Ms Kairouz’s lawyers challenged the validity of Labor’s charges, and argued the ALP’s national executive didn’t have the power to intervene in a state issue.
She listed 26 Labor figures as defendants, including former premier Steve Bracks and former federal MP Jenny Macklin – who were appointed as administrators of Victorian Labor by the national executive – and federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese.
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A block on mobile data networks across Myanmar on Monday scuppered a scheduled video court appearance by ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as protesters returned to the streets after the bloodiest day since the military coup six weeks ago.
At least 44 protesters were killed on Sunday (local time) as security forces cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrations, taking the death toll since the coup to more than 120, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) monitoring group.
Myanmar has been in uproar since the coup, with daily protests demanding a restoration of democracy despite the junta’s increasingly forceful attempts to quell dissent.
The court hearing for Ms Suu Kyi – who spent more than 15 years under house arrest during previous military rule – was scheduled for 10am on Monday in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, but it was postponed until 24 March, her lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told AFP.
“There’s no court hearing because there’s no internet and the hearing is conducted by video conference… We cannot do video,” he said.
Myanmar authorities have throttled the internet every night for several weeks, normally restoring services in the morning, but monitoring service Netblocks said mobile data networks were kept offline on Monday.
Ms Suu Kyi faces at least four charges: possessing unlicensed walkie-talkies, violating coronavirus restrictions, breaching telecommunications laws, and intent to cause public unrest.
Military authorities have also accused her of accepting illegal payments of $600,000 in cash as well as a large quantity of gold – allegations her lawyer says are “groundless”.
Khin Maung Zaw had previously complained he was not allowed to meet Ms Suu Kyi, who has been in custody since the coup, and on Monday said police have appointed two junior lawyers on his team to have the power of attorney.
“The police have no right to decide who represents the defendants,” he said, adding that the whole situation is “strange” – from the lack of Wi-Fi in the court to the appointment of junior lawyers.
Khin Maung Zaw (C), lawyer of Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, speaksafter a virtual hearing was unable to proceed in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, on 15 March.
Ms Suu Kyi’s postponed hearing came a day after violent clashes between security forces and protesters, and the torching of several Chinese-owned factories in a textile-producing district of commercial hub Yangon as many protesters believe Beijing is supportive of the coup.
The AAPP on Monday said six more deaths had been confirmed to add to an overnight toll of 38, making Sunday the deadliest single day since the military seized power.
Six Yangon townships were under martial law by morning – anyone arrested there faces trial by military tribunal rather than civilian courts, with sentences ranging from three years’ hard labour to execution.
But protesters were undeterred on Monday, with local media publishing images showing crowds gathering in Karen state and a sit-in protest in Myanmar’s second-largest city Mandalay.
State-run television confirmed on Monday that a police officer was shot dead in the city of Bago, 60 kilometres northeast of Yangon, during a protest.
The Chinese embassy in Myanmar issued a statement condemning the actions of “destroyers” after the violence in Yangon’s garment-producing townships, urging the police to “guarantee the security” of Chinese businesses.
Taiwan, meanwhile, advised its companies in Myanmar to fly the island’s flag to avoid being targeted.
‘Junta leaders don’t belong in power’
International alarm over the bloodshed is growing, but so far Myanmar’s generals have shown no signs of heeding calls for restraint.
Tom Andrews, United Nations special rapporteur on rights in Myanmar, tweeted that he was “heartbroken” and “outraged” at Sunday’s events.
“Junta leaders don’t belong in power, they belong behind bars,” he wrote.
“Their supply of cash & weapons must be cut now.”
Heartbroken/outraged at news of the largest number of protesters murdered by Myanmar security forces in a single day. Junta leaders don’t belong in power, they belong behind bars. Their supply of cash & weapons must be cut now. I appeal to UN member states to heed my call to act. pic.twitter.com/QxuES4Mhii
UN envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener also condemned Sunday’s bloodshed, while the country’s former colonial ruler Britain said it was “appalled” by the use of force “against innocent people”.
Last week, Mr Andrews said there was growing evidence that the junta was committing crimes against humanity – including murder, forced disappearances and torture.
Amnesty International has also accused the Myanmar military of premeditated killings and using battlefield weapons on unarmed protestors.
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On any given day, 15-year-old Cruz Lemming can be found in the gym or on the footy field, earning his place on the Nudgee College rugby union open team.
Under bright-coloured headgear are two cochlear implants that help him interpret sounds, but profound hearing loss won’t stop the prop playing his best rugby.
In 2019 and at just 14 years old, Cruz was selected in Queensland’s 15 years and under rugby union side, catching the eye of keen Brisbane scouts who later offered him a scholarship to the private college.
“I’ve never been down on myself just because I have slightly worse hearing. I’ve got the devices that make me hear, and I am hearing normally,” he said.
Ten years ago, Gold Coast parents Tracy and Dion Lemming made the “heartbreaking” decision for their five-year-old son Cruz to undergo cochlear implantation surgery.
Cruz’s hearing had rapidly deteriorated over 18 months and while the technology would help him to hear and speak, Mrs Lemming said she felt torn.
“It’s a bit scary when you’re confronted with that. Cruz had a little bit of hearing left, but my husband and I both felt we were taking something off him,” Ms Lemming said.
“We said to him, ‘You’re going to have this operation that will help you with your hearing so you can hear like everyone else. But when you don’t have your hearing aids on, you won’t be able to hear anything’.”
Pronouncing the letter S and high pitch sounds were a struggle for young Cruz, but he soon overcame these difficulties with the help of audiologists, Ms Lemming said.
“When a little kid will ask ‘What are those?’, he will explain what it does, he’s pretty good at educating people and it’s never held him back but we’ve never made a big deal about it either.”
Cruz says he often shares his story with anxious families and their young children who he connects with at not-for-profit specialist support centre Hear and Say.
“They will come in with questions like ‘Will I be able to hear properly, will I be normal at school?’,” Cruz said.
“I’ll catch people staring at my head but it’s not a problem, it’s not every day you come across it. Some people would get annoyed, but I don’t care.”
Hear and Say audiologist Greer McDonald, who has assisted Cruz and his family over many years, says her work involves optimising hearing levels, testing his implants, and ensuring he has spare devices.
“As much as we rehabilitate hearing to the best we can, there will still be concerns with certain areas like noise.
“This will be a lifelong journey for Cruz and me. We do assessments every year.”
Celebrating Cruz’s “beautiful wins” with parents Tracy and Dion is a highlight of the job, Ms McDonald said.
“I enjoy that because I see him so regularly that you see them grow up as people. You see how the intervention has helped them.”
Hearing Awareness Week runs from March 1 to 7.
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West Coast is set to have the option of unleashing Willie Rioli on an AFL field in late 2021 after the club and suspended forward finally received clarity on the player’s drugs ban.
Multiple reports on Thursday indicated Rioli, who played in West Coast’s 2018 premiership, had been officially handed a two-year ban after allegedly tampering with a urine sample during a drug test following an Eagles training session in 2019.
As Rioli has already served 18 months of the suspension, he’ll be eligible for Eagles selection from August 20. It’s also been reported Rioli will be permitted to train with West Coast from June 20.
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The backdated ban could be confirmed as early as Thursday afternoon.
Sport Integrity Australia (formerly ASADA) will have the option of appealing the ban but is reportedly unlikely to do so.
SEN reported Rioli was told several weeks ago he’d been given a two-year ban, but he remained in case SIA appealed. That appeal deadline has now passed.
The Eagles were hoping they would’ve known Rioli’s fate by January after the suspended Eagle finally fronted an AFL anti-doping tribunal the previous month.
West Coast coach Adam Simpson in January said he “absolutely” had concerns about the Rioli’s AFL future, but the two-year ban — half of the maximum four-year penalty — is a positive development for Rioli and the Eagles.
After being drafted by West Coast with Pick 52 in the 2016 national draft, Rioli has kicked 46 goals in 38 games and played a key role in the club’s 2018 premiership triumph.
MORE TO COME
Sarah Olle and Tom Morris are joined by Richmond’s Ellie McKenzie on the latest AFLWeekly podcast
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Ahead of Hearing Awareness Week, the bubbly Brisbane girl’s mother, Heidi Dredge, wants families to know they need not despair if a child has hearing loss, that technology and support have outpaced perceptions of hearing loss.
It comes as new data from First Voice reveals 94 per cent of Australians are unaware it’s possible for children born deaf to learn to listen and speak as well as children with typical hearing.
Not-for-profit Hear and Say chief executive Chris McCarthy said it was sobering that most Australians did not realise potential outcomes if their children got the right diagnosis, technology and specialised speech therapy.
“We’re seeing amazing outcomes for children with hearing loss,” he said.
“Children that are going through our program have got clear, natural spoken language and I would challenge people that didn’t know they have a hearing loss to pick it up.”
Ms Dredge said there were no signs in her pregnancy and no family history of hearing loss, but Zia’s hearing loss was identified in the Healthy Hearing screening for all newborn babies in Queensland.
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The deadly US Capitol riot on 6 January exposed devastating security and intelligence weaknesses, with military authorities reacting too slowly to calls for National Guard backup against an overwhelming mob, security officials told Congress on Tuesday local time.
In the first Senate hearing on the security failings, featuring US Capitol Police and Washington police chiefs and congressional sergeants at arms, the officials acknowledged they were blindsided by lack of intelligence and response coordination to the worst domestic insurrection since the Civil War.
In compelling testimony, they painted a picture of officers badly outnumbered by armed and coordinated insurgents.
They pointed to a series of intelligence shortcomings about the threat level including assessments of “remote” and “improbable” chances of major violence on January 6, even though extremist groups like the Proud Boys made clear they were coming to Washington that day to stir up trouble.
“These criminals came prepared for war,” said the US Capitol Police’s then-chief Steven Sund.
Yet “no entity, including the FBI, provided any intelligence indicating that there would be a coordinated violent attack on the United States Capitol by thousands of well-equipped armed insurrectionists,” a situation that left his officers “significantly outnumbered” against a violent mob.
Steven Sund resigned his post in the wake of the riot, which left five people dead including one police officer and four others.
Two other police officers died by suicide shortly afterwards.
Supporters of former Preisdent Donald Trump climbing the west wall of the US Capitol in Washington during the 6 January riot.
House sergeant-at-arms Paul Irving and Senate sergeant-at-arms Michael Stenger also stepped down.
At a rare joint hearing of the Senate’s homeland security and rules committees,Mr Irving testified that “the intelligence was not that there would be a coordinated assault on the Capitol, nor was that contemplated in any of the inter-agency discussions that I attended in the days before the attack.”
‘Worst of the worst’
The unprecedented breach of the citadel of American democracy occurred on 6 January after then-president Donald Trump whipped up a crowd of his supporters, urging them to march on Congress and “fight like hell.”
The riot, fuelled by Mr Trump’s repeated false claims that the election was rigged, appeared aimed at blocking the certification of Joe Biden as winner of the 3 November vote.
Captain Carneysha Mendoza, US Capitol Police testifies in a Senate committee hearing
Getty Images North America
Washington’s acting police chief Robert Contee said his officers were literally “fighting for their lives” on Capitol Hill.
But he was “stunned at the response” by the Department of the Army, which he said was “reluctant” to send National Guard troops to protect the Capitol.
Officials participating in the hearing agreed that a thorough review of intelligence sharing operations and internal processes is needed to determine reforms to be made in order to avoid any repeat of 6 January.
Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Gary Peters, a Democrat, described 6 January as “one of our nation’s darkest days,” and said the security problems at the Capitol marked “a systemic and leadership failure” that must be addressed.
Senators also heard a gripping account of the unrest by Capitol Police Captain Carneysha Mendoza, including how she helped keep a group of rioters at bay as they forced their way into the building.
“This was by far the worst of the worst,” Captain Mendoza said, noting how rioters deployed “military-grade CS gas,” commonly known as tear gas, in the Rotunda as they fought with police.
“We could have had 10 times the amount of people working with us, and I still believe the battle would have been just as devastating,” she said.
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Razor wire on fencing and National Guard troops still in place on Capitol Hill on Tuesday are haunting reminders of the deadly assault on Jan. 6 that left 140 police officers injured and five people dead.
The fallout from the attack continues as the Senate holds the first public meeting into security failures as part of a joint investigation by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
Testifying are top officials responsible for security at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Three of those officials, former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, former Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger and former House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, resigned in the immediate wake of the attack.
Also being questioned is the Metropolitan Police Department’s acting chief, Robert Contee. His agency provided backup for the Capitol security force that was overrun by the pro-Trump mob.
The first witness, though, was Capitol Police Capt. Carneysha Mendoza, who gave a first-hand account about the brutality of the assault.
When she arrived at the scene, Mendoza told lawmakers, she immediately noticed, as a military veteran, a heavy smoke-like residue that she identified as military-grade CS gas, “The rioters continued to deploy CS into the Rotunda. Officers received a lot of gas exposure, which is worse inside of the building rather than outside because there is nowhere it could go. I have received chemical burns to my face that still have not healed to this day.”
She said she was in engaged in the battle for almost four hours and that even if Capitol Police had 10 times the number of officers, they would have been overmatched.
“As an American and as an Army veteran, it is sad to see us attacked by our fellow citizens. I’m sad to see the unnecessary loss of life. I’m sad to see the impact this has had on Capitol Police officers. And I’m sad to see the impact this has had on our agency and on our country,” she said.
In his opening statement, Sund called the attack on the Capitol “the worst attack on law enforcement and our democracy” that he’s seen in his 30-year-career and laid blame on various federal agencies for poor planning, not the Capitol Police.
“Based on the intelligence that we received, we planned for an increased level of violence at the Capitol and that some participants may be armed. But none of the intelligence we received, predicted what actually occurred,” Sund said.
The former chief said that “extensive” preparations were put in place ahead of the riot including “intelligence and information sharing with our federal and local partners, and department officials, implementing significant enhancements for Member protection, the development of extensive operational enhancements to include the additional posting of officers around and inside the congressional buildings, a significant civil disobedience deployment, and an expanded perimeter, and the distribution of additional protective equipment for the officers.”
Sund, sometimes getting emotional, said as late as Jan. 5 there was a meeting with top intelligence officials including the FBI – and they provided no new intelligence.
“We properly planned for a mass demonstration with possible violence, what we got was a military-style coordinated assault on my officers and the violent takeover of the Capitol building,” he said.
Stenger, the former Senate sergeant at arms, speaking publicly for the first time, said in his opening remarks that Washington, D.C., is a “unique environment” for law enforcement in the region and said everything should be reviewed.
“There is an opportunity to learn lessons from the events of January 6th. Investigations should be considered as to funding and travel of what appears to be professional agitators. First Amendment rights should always be considered in conjunction with professional investigations,” he said.
Contee, in his opening remarks, noted that his police officers are barred from making arrests on Capitol grounds but based on the experience of prior demonstrations they knew violence was a possibility. He too made clear that MPD intelligence did not predict what occurred on Jan. 6.
“The District did not have intelligence pointing to a coordinated assault on the Capitol.”
Contee noted police officers found pipe bombs outside of the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee headquarters nearby. His said his department had four objectives on Jan. 6: stopping rioters, securing the perimeter, allowing Congress to resume and making arrests.
He said he was “stunned” by the U.S. Army’s response, saying military officials were “reluctant to send the D.C. National Guard to the Capitol.”
“While I certainly understand the importance of both planning and public perception – the factors cited by the staff on the call – these issues become secondary when you are watching your employees, vastly outnumbered by a mob, being physically assaulted,” he said.
Contee says he was “shocked” that the Army did not more quickly agree to deploy the National Guard.
“The Army staff responded that they were not refusing to send them, but wanted to know the plan and did not like the optics of boots on the ground at the Capitol,” he said.
During his opening statement, Irving, the former House sergeant at arms, also speaking publicly for the first time, told lawmakers that he spoke with Sund and Stenger on Jan. 4 about using 125 unarmed National Guard troops to work traffic duty near the Capitol to free up Capitol Police officers.
Irving said the idea of “optics” did not play a role in his decision not to station National Guard troops at the Capitol beforehand, saying the intelligence he received didn’t warrant it.
“Let me be clear, optics, as portrayed in the media, played no role whatsoever in my decisions about security. And any suggestion of the contrary is false. Safety was always paramount when making security plans for January 6th. We did discuss whether the intelligence warranted having troops at the Capitol, and our collective judgment at that time was no—the intelligence did not warrant,” Irving said
A dispute on a key point — when the National Guard was requested — arose when GOP Sen. Roy Blunt asked Irving about his statement that he approved the assistance as soon as Sund asked for it.
“Mister Sund stated that he asked for the National Guard assistance at 1:09, and you approved — it was approved at 2:10. Why would it take an hour to approve National Guard assistance on your part in that moment of crisis?”
“Senator, from my recollection, I did not receive a request for approval for National Guard until shortly after 2 p.m.,” Irving answered.
“All right. Let me get that straightened out, Blunt responded. “Mr. Sund, do you know when you asked for National Guard assistance? Was it 1:09 or:0 2 p.m.?”
“It was 1:09, sir,” Sund answered.
“Sir, I have no recollection of a conversation at that time,” Irving then told Blunt. “I was on the floor during the Electoral College session.”
Lawmakers said they will use the hearing to determine what security is needed in Washington moving forward.
The committee chairs, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Gary Peters, D-Mich., said another hearing will include representatives from the Department of Defense, FBI, Homeland Security, and other agencies. Lawmakers from both parties said they want to prevent incidents like the siege from ever happening again.
Earlier this month, ABC News obtained a copy of a letter sent by Sund, who said the intelligence leading up to the event didn’t indicate it would become as violent as it did.
“Perfect hindsight does not change the fact that nothing in our collective experience or our intelligence – including intelligence provided by FBI, Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and D.C. Metropolitan Police (MPD) – indicated that a well-coordinated, armed assault on the Capitol might occur on Jan. 6,” Sund wrote.
In his letter, he wrote intelligence officials indicated Jan. 6 would be similar to previous mostly peaceful post-election demonstrations in November and December.
Sund said he directed the Capitol Police to have every sworn officer working, and activated seven Civil Disturbance Unit platoons, which included approximately 250 officers. Four of those platoons were equipped with helmets, protective clothing and shields.
On Jan. 5, Sund hosted a virtual meeting focused on the Jan. 6 event as well as the inauguration. “During the meeting, no entity, including the FBI, provided any intelligence indicating that there would be a coordinated violent attack on the United States Capitol by thousands of well-equipped armed insurrectionists,” Sund wrote.
“There is no question that on Jan. 6, a breakdown of leadership, preparation and response allowed domestic terrorists — including white supremacist and anti-government groups — to breach the Capitol in an attempt to overturn a free and fair election,” Peters told ABC News in a statement. “The American people deserve to know how it happened and what actions lawmakers will take to prevent hate groups and dangerous conspiracy theorists from further attacking our country.”
“The entire intelligence community seems to have missed this,” he added.
In his opening remarks, the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, remembered Capitol Police officer Howard Liebengood, who days afterward died by suicide. “No officer was more dedicated to the mission of the Capitol Hill Police Department admission and duty to serve and protect. And I’m proud to call him a friend,” Portman said.
Portman added he wants to know why “the Capitol was overtaken in a matter of hours, we need to know whether Capitol Police officers were properly trained and equipped to respond to an attack on the Capitol, and if not, why not. And we need to know why the Capitol complex itself was so vulnerable and insecure, that it could be so easily overrun.”
ABC News’ Jack Date and Trish Turner contributed to this report.
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The Morrison Government minister tasked with overseeing a cross-party review of parliamentary workplace culture in the wake of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation admits he declined to meet with a former member of his own staff despite knowing she had made “serious allegations” of sexual assault.
SA senator and federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has responded to an opinion piece published in InDaily today, in which his former staffer Chelsey Potter calls for swift cultural and procedural change in Canberra, demanding “new robust, clear processes for complaints of bullying, sexual harassment and assault”.
Potter went public in the Sydney Morning Herald in July 2019 with an allegation she was sexually assaulted by a Liberal colleague, who was reported at the time to “strongly deny” the allegation.
In InDaily today, she writes that she approached her former boss Birmingham, in whose office she had worked at the time of the alleged assault, in the days before the article was published.
“I felt it was important that he knew why I was speaking out years later… I wanted him to understand the processes – along with the culture I experienced – that discouraged disclosure or complaints,” she writes.
“Moreover, I needed him to hear what happened to me, as an employer, party powerbroker and my friend.”
She said Birmingham declined to meet with her, despite having been made aware of her allegations.
In response to questions from InDaily, Birmingham today confirmed the pair exchanged text messages on Friday July 26, 2019 – almost four days before the Sydney Morning Herald article was published.
He told InDaily in a statement that “Ms Potter contacted me via text message saying: ‘Hi Simon, I meant to text earlier but if you’re around Adelaide this weekend, it would be great to grab a quick beer. I know how insanely busy you are so I completely understand if you can’t. It’d be good to catch up. Cheers, Chels’
“I responded to Ms Potter on the same day stating: ‘Thanks Chels. Unfortunately I am not in a position to catch up this weekend. I understand you have made some serious allegations to media about an incident that you claim occurred during your time working in my office. I encourage you to talk to professionals about such matters and suggest that the Women’s Information Service (https://officeforwomen.sa.gov.au/womens-information-service) or 1800Respect (https://www.1800respect.org.au) may be appropriate options.’”
Birmingham said that “at no other point has Ms Potter raised these claims with me or anyone else in my office, or sought to discuss them with me”.
“Sexual harassment or assault of any kind are completely unacceptable in all circumstances,” he said.
“I share Ms Potter’s publicly stated wish to see cultural changes that help to prevent such incidents and improved handling practices.
“I encourage past and present parliamentary staff to participate in the multi-party, independent review that is being established to achieve fundamental change on these matters.”
In Potter’s InDaily article, she writes that since that exchange, and after the publication of her allegation, she was “yet to receive a call” from her former boss.
“We haven’t spoken about it at all,” she said.
Today, Birmingham said: “I will be getting in touch with Ms Potter to discuss the establishment of the review and to encourage her to engage with it.”
“The allegations made by Ms Potter that were first reported on the Sydney Morning Herald website on Monday 29 July 2019 are serious and are deeply distressing,” he said.
“I was first made aware of these serious claims when my office was contacted by a journalist in the week prior to the article being published.
“The Sydney Morning Herald story made clear that the alleged incident had never been raised with me by Ms Potter.
“The 2019 article related to an alleged event in 2015. By 2019 neither of the individuals involved were employed by me or any other Member of Parliament.”
On July 31 2019, Birmingham was asked about the allegation, and another by an unrelated complainant in the same article, in an interview on ABC Radio Adelaide.
At the time, he said the allegations were “all news to me”, and did not disclose that one of the complainants was a former member of his staff.
“It came as a surprise when I heard that journalists were asking about it in the last couple of days,” he said at the time.
“What I would say to anybody, whether they work in government or elsewhere is… you know, obviously these allegations themselves are deeply concerning and distressing but anybody in those sorts of circumstances should use the type of proper processes that are available to them.
“They should obviously… contact police.
“If they need additional assistance, they should reach out to government-funded organisations like 1800RESPECT or the Women’s Information Service in South Australia.
“In terms of dealing in the workplace, they should use, again, the processes that are there, raise it with their employer.
“I do note, in this story, that in both cases the individuals state they did not raise it with the Member of Parliament they were employed by.
“They should raise it with their employer.”
He said there were “very clear processes” within the Department of Finance, which he now oversees, for federal staff to “seek advice, request counselling, lodge a complaint [or] request a formal investigation… so we do have quite clear processes that are in place and I would urge anybody in any of these circumstances to reach out and to use those processes”.
In the wake of a rape allegation last week by Brittany Higgins, a former staffer to defence industry minister Linda Reynolds, Birmingham was appointed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to “work with all political parties and independents across the parliament to establish an independent multi-party review into the way in which workplace matters are managed around parliamentary staff, how we can provide for a culture in an environment that reduces and minimises the risk of such terrible sexual assaults or any other harassment or wrongdoing occurring”.
Birmingham told ABC radio this morning: “We are clearly admitting the inadequacy of what is there.”
“That is why this process is being undertaken, because the stories told by Brittany Higgins and by others over the last couple of years are a clear demonstration of the fact that too many people don’t feel that they can go through with police complaints,” he said.
Asked this morning whether there had ever been a similar complaint of assault or harassment in his own office, Birmingham replied: “Never that has been brought to me, but I am aware of a former staff member of mine who has, subsequent to leaving my office, raised allegations.”
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“The issue was never brought to me or my office – it was taken to the media some time after [Ms Potter] had ceased employment in my office,” he said.
“I think we can all learn how to try to create an environment for better support.”
He said if a staff member came to him with similar allegations today, he would “try to bring the police in and urge those discussions” and “encourage the individual involved to seek independent counselling, support services and advice there so that they can be supported”.
“And I would give them my absolute commitment in undertaking that they had my full support, that their job was secure, and that I backed all of the decisions that they would make in relation to pursuing such a horrific instance through the appropriate channels with police while also getting all of the emotional support that clearly anybody in those circumstances needs,” he said.
Asked if he felt his office dealt with Potter’s claim using “best practice”, he said: “Look, I don’t know… I think we can all learn how to provide even better support and assistance on these things – and that is why we’re having an independent review.”
Meanwhile, more women have come forward to allege sexually assault by the same political staffer accused of raping Brittany Higgins inside Parliament House.
After a second woman came forward over the weekend, a third has told The Australian she was assaulted while working as a coalition volunteer during the 2016 election campaign.
She was barely out of school at the time of the alleged attack, which she said occurred after a night out drinking with the then-political staffer.
Later today, a fourth woman also came forward to allege inappropriate sexual behaviour by the same political staffer accused of raping Brittany Higgins.
The woman alleges the former Liberal Party staffer reached under the table to stroke her thigh at a Canberra bar in 2017.
She has filed a report at a police station in Canberra and will make a formal statement later this week.
The woman came forward to the ABC after Brittany Higgins last week alleged she was raped by the man in 2019.
The allegations come as Higgins, who says she was raped inside a parliamentary office in 2019, prepares to make a statement to Australian Federal Police.
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