#Benghazi News: What did the ARB and Benghazi Committee know about Alamir, Eclipse and Xpand?

Posted: 3:53 am ET

 

Via HuffPo:

A middleman the State Department relied on to hire unarmed guards at the U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, previously worked with a company that’s now at the center of a massive international bribery scandal.

The FBI and law enforcement agencies in at least four other countries are investigating allegations ― first published by The Huffington Post and Fairfax Media ― that a Monaco-based company called Unaoil bribed public officials to secure contracts for major corporations in corruption-prone regions. In Libya, Unaoil partnered with a Tripoli-based businessman named Muhannad Alamir. A former Unaoil employee who served as a confidential source for the FBI told investigators that Unaoil and Alamir bribed Libyan officials. Unaoil and Alamir deny they bribed anyone.

Alamir started working with the State Department in early 2012, less than three years after cutting ties with Unaoil. He provided Blue Mountain Group, the small British security firm that won the Benghazi guard contract, with the license it needed to legally operate in Libya.
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Despite the damning internal review and seven prior congressional probes, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly in 2014 to establish a special committee to further investigate the 2012 attack. Two years and $7 million later, the committee released an 800-page report. Democrats dismissed it as a partisan attack on Clinton, by then their expected presidential nominee.

The report echoed earlier criticisms of security lapses, but revealed little substantive information about the contracting process that contributed to the problem. The Benghazi committee report mentioned Blue Mountain 12 times. Alamir, Eclipse and Xpand weren’t mentioned once.

 

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Congress “Examines” @StateDept FOIA Compliance, Talks Hillary, Hillarrry, Hillarrrrry

Posted: 4:20 pm ET

 

On September 8, the House Oversight and Reform Committee (HOGR) held a hearing Examining FOIA Compliance at the State Department. The hearing has four State Department officials as witnesses starting with Patrick Kennedy, the Under Secretary for Management and Janice Jacobs, the agency’s Transparency Coordinator. It also includes two staffers from the Executive Secretariat. Some members expressed appreciation for the work these officials have done, one referring to them as “clean-up” people at State.

For the most part, it’s the kind of theater that we’ve come to expect from the Congress. One member asked about the Yemen War and the arm sales to Saudi Arabia. In an FOIA hearing.  More than a couple members used the hearing to throw darts at the absent Hillary Clinton. No, no response required from any of the witnesses in those segments. Another member wants the State Department to go get Colin Powell’s emails from his tenure at the State Department. A member brought up Colin Powell’s role in the lead up to the Iraq War. There was a bit of discussion on retroactive classification and Foreign Government Information (FGI). Another member wanted to know the names of the people who are processing and redacting FOIA requests. We stopped watching when Chaffetz did a quiz show on what Congress should not be able to see.  We include the links below to the prepared statements of the State Department officials as well as the hearing page here, if you want to watch the video.

Oh, get ready, apparently over the next few days, the Committee will hold a couple more hearings like this. On September 12, it will hold a hearing on classification and redactions in FBI’s investigative file. On September 13, it will hold a hearing on the preservation of records at the State Department. This last one is also called an “examination.” By October, we might see hearings focusing on an Examination of the State Department’s Cafeteria Selection.  It remains to be seen if the next hearings will result in any findings at all, or if perhaps this is nothing but a roundabout way of getting folks an audition for spoken entertainment with Audible.

 

The Honorable Patrick F. Kennedy Under Secretary for Management U.S. Department of State Document
The Honorable Janice Jacobs Transparency Coordinator U.S. Department of State Document
Ms. Karin Lang Director, Executive Secretariat U.S. Department of State Document
Mr. Clarence N. Finney, Jr. Deputy Director for Correspondence, Records, and Staffing Division, Executive Secretariat U.S. Department of State Document

Here’s the GOP side talking about putting the “e” at the end of potato and Hilary Clinton.

Here’s the Dems talking about the GOP and Hillary Clinton.

Welcome to the next 60 days of depressing nightmare on the Hill, in addition to the other one unfolding on teeve. Excuse us now, we’ll just go find us some cats for therapy.

 

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Snapshot: Investor EB-5 Visa Program (FY2013 – FY2015)

Posted: 12:18 am EDT

 

Excerpted from the prepared statement of Nicholas Colucci, the Chief of the Immigrant Investor Program Office for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at the House Judiciary Committee Hearing, “Is the Investor Visa Program an Underperforming Asset?”, February 11, 2016:

Congress created the EB-5 visa program in 1990 as a tool to stimulate the U.S. economy by encouraging foreign capital investments and job creation. The EB-5 program makes immigrant visas and subsequent “green cards” available to foreign nationals who invest at least $1,000,000in a new commercial enterprise (NCE) that will create or preserve at least ten full- time jobs in the United States. A foreign national may invest $500,000 if the investment is in a targeted employment area (TEA), defined to include certain rural areas and areas of high unemployment.

The regional center program which has been in the news lately was first enacted in 1992, and provides an allocation of EB-5 visas to be set aside for investors in regional centers designated by USCIS. According to Mr. Colucci, there are currently 796 regional centers. This is up from about 588 at the end of fiscal year (FY) 2014, and 11 at the end of 2007.

 STATISTICS

In FY 2013, USCIS approved a total of:
• 3,699 Form I-526 petitions (Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur)
• 844 Form I-829 petitions (Petition by Entrepreneur to Remove Conditions)
• 118 Form I-924 applications (Application for Regional Center Under the Immigrant Investor Program)

In FY 2014, USCIS approved a total of:
• 4,925 I-526 petitions
• 1,603 I-829 petitions
• 294 I-924 applications

In FY 2015, USCIS approved a total of:
• 8,756 I-526 petitions
• 1,067 I-829 petitions
• 262 I-924 applications

Note: Form I-526, Petition for Immigrant Investor, is filed by all immigrant investors. Approval classifies the investor under section 203(b)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act so that he or she (and derivative beneficiaries) can apply for an immigrant visa or for adjustment of status to conditional permanent resident. If admitted as an immigrant or adjustment of status is approved, the immigrant investor generally must then file Form I-829, Petition by Entrepreneur to Remove Conditions, within 90 days of the two year anniversary of his or her admission or adjustment as a conditional permanent resident. Other EB-5-specific forms include Form I-924, Application For Regional Center Under the Immigrant Investor Pilot Program, which is used to apply for regional center designation, and Form I-924A, Supplement to Form I-924, which approved regional centers file annually to demonstrate continued eligibility for the designation.

 

Related items:

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New London Embassy: Design Passed the Full Mockup Blast, So Why the “Augmentation Option” For $2 Million?

Posted: 2:58 am EDT

 

Back in July last year, we wrote about the New London Embassy (NLE) project. Our trusted source told us that the project “went into construction before its glass facade design was tested to confirm it will meet blast standards.” Our source further explained that  the testing was needed only because the New London Embassy does not use known, familiar, window systems. The curtain wall apparently has no frames to ‘bite’ the glass and retain it under blast. That is a new technique for OBO we’re told, so the bureau reportedly had no basis to analyze the design (see New Embassy Construction Hearing: Witnesses Not Invited, and What About the Blast-Proof Glass?).

On December 8, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on the New London Embassy Project. Below is an excerpt from State/OIG Steve Linick’s prepared statement (PDF):

In July 2015, OIG published the findings of its performance audit of the London NEC construction project.1 During this audit, OIG reviewed the Department’s evaluation and approval of the project design, including the design of the outer façade of the Chancery building,2 which comprises two layers. The outermost layer consists of a scrim stretched over a network of thin aluminum components. The scrim wraps the building to the east, west, and south, acting as a screen. Underneath the scrim, a glass curtain wall with an aluminum frame forms the inner layer of the building’s envelope.

OIG’s first objective was to determine whether the Department resolved security issues with the curtain wall design before allowing construction to begin. The Department’s physical security standards require all new office buildings such as the Chancery at the London NEC to provide blast protection to keep people and property safe from an attack. Moreover, by law and Department policy, the Department must certify to Congress that the project design will meet security standards prior to initiating construction.

OIG found that the Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO) did not obtain blast-testing results for the Chancery’s curtain wall design before the Department certified the project and authorized initiation of construction. As discussed in more detail below, initiating construction prior to security certification and blast testing increased the financial risk to the Department and taxpayers, and was contrary to the Department’s policy.

A second objective for OIG was to determine whether the Department adhered to Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) requirements in negotiating a price for the NEC. OIG found that the contracting officer responsible for the NEC construction contract awarded the construction portion of the contract without requiring the contractor to provide an explanation of approximately $42 million in cost differences between the initial proposal and the final proposal. Because the contracting officer did not obtain sufficient information when negotiating the final price for the construction portion of the contract as required by the FAR, OBO was unable to assess fully the contents of the construction proposal that the contracting officer ultimately accepted and used as the basis for the firm-fixed-price award.

A practice that does not comply with 12 FAM 361.1

Since at least 2003, the Department has followed the practice of issuing limited notices to proceed, as set forth in the 2003 draft agreement, thereby authorizing construction contractors to begin limited tasks (not including foundation work) prior to certification. This practice, however, does not comply with 12 FAM 361.1, which states that “no contract should be awarded or construction undertaken until the proponent of a project has been notified by the Department that the appropriate certification action has been completed.” Notwithstanding the prohibition in 12 FAM 361.1, DS approved OBO’s request for early site work and construction of the piling foundation of the London NEC in November 2012, more than a year before certification and blast testing.

Concerns with the security of the curtain wall

The London NEC’s outer façade design was new and was never previously evaluated or tested by DS. The glass curtain wall design used in the NEC needed to meet a variety of security criteria, including forced-entry/ballistic resistant (FE/BR) and blast-protection requirements. As early as November 2012, DS notified OBO of its concerns with the curtain-wall design. DS informed OBO that there were substantial omissions and deficiencies of essential information related to FE/BR testing, curtain-wall sound mitigation, and blast-design methodology. This meant that DS would not accept computer modeling of the curtain wall to certify whether it would meet blast requirements and thus would require field validation as a condition to certify the project. CSE also expressed concerns with the security of the curtain wall and notified DS that its concerns would “need to be resolved by either a follow-on design or a written agreement” from OBO.

An “alternate curtain wall system” – just in case

Based on that written assurance and prior to any blast testing, the Under Secretary of State for Management certified to Congress on December 16, 2013, that the London NEC would be constructed in a secure manner and would provide adequate and appropriate security for sensitive activities and personnel. During this timeframe, OBO tasked the design firm for the NEC to develop solutions in the event the curtain wall failed the blast test. Specifically, OBO worked with the contractor to develop an “alternate curtain wall system” that was acceptable to DS for certification without blast testing.

An “augmentation option”— for an additional cost of $2 million

DS oversaw two series of component-level blast tests in February and April 2014. According to DS, the tests were necessary to determine the viability of employing structural silicone for the curtain wall. However, because the test results were mixed and inconclusive, OBO and DS agreed that the full mockup blast test would be the only valid test of the design. The full mockup blast test occurred on May 28, 2014, and according to DS, the design passed. Nevertheless, DS and OBO reached an agreement incorporating what became known as an “augmentation option”— for an additional cost of $2 million. Employing this option, although not necessary to meet standards, was intended to provide an added measure of security.

As noted in our audit, OIG recognizes that the Department’s decision to initiate construction of the London NEC prior to completing the required blast testing was driven by a schedule to complete construction by 2017. However, by initiating construction without first completing blast testing, the Department committed itself to the construction of a building that could have required significant redesign, potentially placing millions of dollars at risk.

 

The House Oversight Committee hearing page is here with the rest of the video clips and the prepared statements of the witnesses from OIG, OBO, and Diplomatic Security.

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FASTC Fort Pickett v. FLETC Glynco: GA Senator to Hold Hearing on Diplomatic Security Training Center

Posted: 2:09  pm EDT

 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its review of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC) project (see this) last month.  This project has been  a subject of contention in Congress; the VA delegation is supportive, of course, of its site location in Fort Pickett, Virginia and the Georgia and Texas representatives are pushing for the site to be built in the FLETC facility in Glynco, Georgia. The FASTC project has been on a long battle to get done since 2011, see the details and updates here, but it really has been on the planning stage for more than a decade.

Tomorrow, October 8, Senator David Perdue, Jr. , the junior Senator from Georgia and the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee that oversees budget and operations for the State Department will chair another hearing on the FASTC project. The witnesses include representatives from DS, GAO and FLETC:

Screen Shot 2015-10-07

We expect that the prepared statements and a video of the hearing will be posted here when available.

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Republicans got mad, mad, mad about danger pay, local guards, violence; calls for closures of consulates in Mexico

Posted: 3:37 am EDT

 

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Gregory Starr, State’s assistant secretary at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said in towns like Nuevo Laredo, Mexico — which borders Laredo, Texas — danger pay is not warranted. While U.S. federal employees are prohibited from leaving consulate grounds in the town that recently did away with its local police force, Starr said the workers can easily “walk across the border and be in a Walmart or a Dairy Queen.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the committee’s chairman, said that convenience would do little to appease family members of Foreign Service officers stationed in the town.

“Shame on you for saying that,” Chaffetz said. “It’s so dangerous they can’t even go outside.” He added employees facing decreased pay should not blame Republicans or funding shortfalls: “You can look at the Obama administration.”

Chaffetz said the cuts were “not useful” and would damage morale, noting the problem fell with State’s management. Starr maintained the department was “not having trouble staffing” the positions in the Mexican towns, and noted employees in some areas of the country would receive a pay bump.

Danger pay is generally used for areas with “civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism or wartime conditions which threaten physical harm or imminent danger to the health or well-being of an employee,” according to federal statute.

There are about 2,800 State employees in Mexico, but the number involved in areas with crime is “minimal,” according to the department’s Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Sue Saarino. She said in some areas employees are told to stay off the street at night, but “we think it’s manageable.”

The HOGR Hearing: Violence on the Border, Keeping U.S. Personnel Safe was held on September 9.

The video is here, if you have the interest to watch it:

Back in February, we blogged about the expected changes in danger pay (see Danger Danger, Bang Bang — State Department Eyes Changes in Danger Pay). We were under the impression that congressional interest was driving these changes.

Danger Pay

During the hearing, we learned that the State Department has indeed changed its danger and hardship pay incentives. The example cited during the hearing is Matamoros which reportedly gets a 5% bump in danger pay, with Tijuana and Nueno Laredo seeing a reduction of 5% respectively.  DS Starr said that Nuevo Laredo is more safe now than it has been and that the violence in the Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo are not directed at our people. Also those assigned in Mexico can cross into the United States, whereas those assigned in Mali or Chad, for instance, do not have that option.

In fact, according to the State Department’s Allowances Office, only Ciudad Juarez has been able to keep its danger pay differential, currently at 15% as of the September 6 update.  When we last posted about this in February, Nogales was at 10%, Matamoros and Tijuana were at 15% and Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey were at 20%.  With the exception of Ciudad Juaraez, all have lost their danger pay differential.  The representative from WHA says that the staff knew what they were getting into, knew the dangers, and that the allowances can change anytime.

Staffing MX posts

DS says that the incentives are generally reviewed once a year, and that State has had no problem staffing the Mexican posts.  Is that true? Of course, he did not say that part of the reason there is no problem with staffing the Mexican posts is that most jobs there are filled by entry level officers whose assignments are “directed” by State. They do not have the option to decline those assignments. How about the mid-level and senior staffing, any gaps there? How many excursion tours  are offered to Civil Servants to fill those gaps?

Security and Local Guards

DS A/S Starr in response to a query also admitted that there were six times more security incidents in Matamoros in February than the previous month.

Mr. Chaffetz railed that State is talking about training the police force but that there is no police force in Nuevo Laredo.  DS acknowledged that the local police is not functioning but that it cooperates with federal and state authorities in Mexico.

The same congressman was not happy that the local guards are only paid $316/month. DS explained that this is the prevailing wage. The congressman still wasn’t happy. We get the sense that if those local guards were paid 3x the Mexican prevailing wage, the congressman would be railing that the guards are overpaid. This has an easy fix, of course. One, Congress could allow the State Department to issue the local guard contracts base on best value instead of lowest price. That means the guards protecting our U.S. mission overseas are paid good wages not based on the lowest price the contractors can get away with.  Or, if that’s not acceptable, Congress could fund U.S. citizen private security guards to protect all our 275 missions overseas. But that won’t come cheap and we suspect Congress would  not be up for that.

Close the Consulates

Another congressman, Mr. Mica, called for closing all our consulates in Mexico.  We laughed out loud watching the video. No one else laughed.

“There has to be consequences. How many consulates do we have? I count about nine in Mexico. Is that right? I think we should close every one of those consulates immediately. Put the properties up for sale,” Mica said. “I think you have to have consequences for actions. The place is out of control.”

Mr. Cartwright picked-up Mr. Mica’s idea and asked the DHS/CBP and AFGE representatives how would closure of these consulates cut down the violence.  The witnesses were restrained in their response.

Travel Warnings

Mr. Hurd, the former undercover CIA officer who is now representing Texas’s 23rd congressional district complained that Mexico is treated like one place and it’s not. He said that 80% of violence occurs in 20% of the country and wanted to see the Travel Warning reflective of that. Mr. Hurd did talk a lot but he is probably the only one in that panel who previously served with members of the Foreign Service overseas.

I got as far as Mr. Hurd, then I finally had to give up. Did I miss a lot?

Our congressional representatives appeared to be easily distracted and jumped from one topic to the next. In most cases, they seemed to enjoy hearing themselves talk rather than listen to their witnesses. Which makes me wonder if they were really interested in the answers … why bother with hearings if minds are already made up?

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Congressional Drama Features Ex-Clinton IT Staffer Bryan Pagliano, Good Excuse to Check Your PLI Coverage

Posted: 5:27 am EDT
Updated: 3:03 pm EDT

 

Bryan Pagliano worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and reportedly helped manage her server at that time. When Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, Pagliano got a job at the State Department.  This report citing public federal records says that he was classified as a GS-15 in his job as a special advisor and deputy chief information officer at the State Department. He earned around $140,000 per year from 2010-2012.  He was also reportedly paid personally by the Clintons to continue managing the private server from 2009 to 2013.

The State Department confirmed on September 3, that Mr. Pagliano was employed by the State Department from May 2009 through February 2013 as an IT specialist, and that he currently serves as a contractor working in the Bureau of Information Resource Management (State/IRM). The State Department also said that it was not consulted on Mr. Pagliano’s decision to take the 5th.   “He has pleaded the Fifth, so to speak. It’s certainly not an admission of guilt, as we all know, but it’s his constitutional right, so we respect that,” the official spokesperson said.

That’s not the end of it, of course. The House Select Committee on Benghazi is reportedly requiring Mr. Pagliano’s presence, which prompted a stern letter Wednesday from Pagliano’s lawyer, who accused the panel and its chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), of engaging in political theater and abusing its subpoena power, according to the Washington Post. Politico also has a report today noting that Pagliano’s lawyer, Mark MacDougall has said in a letter to two congressional panels that he did not ask any Congressional committees for immunity, but “in the event that any committee of the Congress” does authorize such a judicial order, “Mr. Pagliano will, of course, comply with such an order.”

Even if you’re in no danger of getting snared in the Clinton controversies, isn’t this case a good reminder to review one’s Professional Liability Insurance coverage? PLI covers not just admin and disciplinary matters, but also congressional and OIG investigations. For eligible employees, the State Department regulations allow the reimbursement of up to 50% of PLI cost (see 3 FAM 3840 – pdf).

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HOGR Hearing: Violence on the Border, Keeping U.S. Personnel Safe

Posted: 2:47 pm EDT

 

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on September 9, to examine the efforts to ensure the safety of U.S. personnel and assets in northern Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexican border. The Committee notes on its introduction the risks posed to U.S. personnel and the public by the criminal violence in northern Mexico are numerous including:

  • February 2015the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros reported 227 separate security incidents in the U.S. border region.
  • May 2015two government buildings in Matamoros were struck by bomb attacks. 
  • June 2015a gunman on the Mexican side of the border fired multiple shots at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter. 
  • June 2015a U.S.-contracted vehicle was hijacked by armed criminals which resulted in the theft of over 11,500 Border Crossing Cards.

The video is available here. The witnesses include three officials from the State Department (DS, OBO, WHA), an official from DHS/CBP, and a representative from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).  There is no representative from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) in this hearing.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09

U.S. Mission Mexico | Border Posts

William H. Moser Deputy Director, Bureau of Overseas Building Operations U.S. Department of State Document
Gregory B. Starr Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Diplomatic Security U.S. Department of State Document
Sue Saarnio Deputy Assistant Secretary, Western Hemisphere Affairs U.S. Department of State Document
Robert L. Harris Director, Joint Task Force – West U.S. Customs and Border Protection Document
Brandon Judd President, National Border Patrol Council American Federation of Government Employees Document

The hearing is also available here via C-SPAN.

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State Dept to Release 5,000 Pages to Benghazi Panel, No Hearing With Kerry Top Aide For Now

Posted: 12:40  am EDT

 

On July 22, The Hill reported that the Gowdy committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks announced it has called on one of Secretary of State John Kerry’s top aides to appear this week. The panel apparently wanted Jon Finer, Kerry’s chief of staff, to appear on July 29th to discuss the State Department’s compliance with the panel’s investigation.

Late on July 27, The Hill reported that the State Department has agreed to release 5,000 pages of documents to the House Select Committee on Benghazi tomorrow, July 28. This document release temporarily cancels Mr. Finer’s appearance before the panel but chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) has not ruled out any future appearance.

The new document dump comes after a standoff between the State Department and the House panel, which had previously ordered a top aide to Secretary of State John Kerry to testify on Wednesday.

After the department committed to releasing the 5,000 new pages to the committee, the hearing with that aide — Kerry’s chief of staff, Jon Finer — will be postponed until after Kerry has completed a marathon string of briefings and hearings to sell the international nuclear deal with Iran.
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“If the State Department does not fulfill this production, or if production continues to be anemic and underwhelming, we will move forward with scheduling a compliance hearing before the committee,” he added.

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SFRC: Iran Nuclear Agreement Review, July 23, 10am – With Kerry, Moniz, and Lew

Posted: 4:24  am EDT
Updated: 4:21 pm EDT

 

Date: Thursday, July 23, 2015
Time: 10:00 AM
Location: Senate Dirksen G50
Presiding: Senator Corker

Witnesses

  1. The Honorable John F. Kerry
    Secretary Of State
    U.S. Department of State
    Washington , DC
  2. The Honorable Ernest Moniz
    Secretary
    U.S. Department of Energy
    Washington , DC
  3. The Honorable Jacob Lew
    Secretary
    U.S. Department of the Treasury
    Washington , DC

Prepared statements and video of SFRC hearing should be available here on July 23.

Update: Here is the Secretary of State:

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