Airbnb bans ‘party houses’

ORINDA – Airbnb’s chief executive officer said the company was taking actions against unauthorized parties in the wake of a deadly shooting at a Halloween party held at an Airbnb rental home in California.

In a series of tweets, Brian Chesky said Saturday the San Francisco-based company is expanding manual screening of “high risk” reservations and will remove guests who fail to comply with policies banning parties at Airbnb rental homes.

He also said the company is forming a “rapid response team” when complaints of unauthorized parties come in.

“We must do better, and we will. This is unacceptable,” he tweeted.

Five people died after a Thursday night shooting that sent some 100 terrified partygoers running for their lives in the San Francisco suburb of Orinda.

The four-bedroom home had been rented on Airbnb by a woman who told the owner her dozen family members had asthma and needed to escape smoke from a wildfire, a person with knowledge of the transaction informed local and national news agencies. A fire burning in Sonoma County about 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of Orinda earlier in the week fouled the air over a wide area.

The owner was suspicious of a one-night rental on Halloween and before agreeing reminded the renter that no parties were allowed, said the person with knowledge of the transaction, who was not authorized to publicly disclose the information and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

The owner, Michael Wang, said his wife reached out to the renter Thursday night after neighbors contacted them about the party. The renter said there were only a dozen people at the home but Wang said he could see more people on video from his doorbell camera.

“We called the police. They were on the way to go there to stop them, but before we got there the neighbor already sent us a message saying there was a shooting,” he attested.

No arrests had been made and there was no immediate word on a motive for the attack. Two guns were found at the property, authorities said.

Three people, all from the Bay Area, died at the scene and a fourth died at the hospital, authorities initially said. The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office identified them Friday evening as Tiyon Farley, 22, of Antioch; Omar Taylor, 24, of Pittsburg; Ramon Hill Jr., 23; and Javin County, 29. The sheriff’s office identified a fifth victim, 19-year-old Oshiana Tompkins of Vallejo and Hercules, late Friday night, saying she died at a hospital.

Taylor’s father, Omar Taylor Sr., said his son was hired to play music at the party.

“Wrong place, wrong time,” he said.

Other people were wounded by gunshots or injured in the panic that followed, authorities said.

The party at the four-bedroom house apparently was advertised on social media as an “Airbnb mansion party.”

Orinda, with a population of about 20,000, requires short-term rental hosts to register with the city annually and pay an occupancy tax. The maximum occupancy is 13 people.

Orinda city documents show officials issued violations in March for exceeding the home’s maximum occupancy and illegal parking. City Manager Steve Salomon said the homeowner had resolved previous complaints lodged in February over occupancy and noise and in July over overflowing trash.

Airbnb is “urgently investigating” what happened, spokesman Ben Breit said in an email.

Airbnb has banned the renter from its platform and the home has been removed as a listing, he said.

One attendee said he was enjoying the music and watching people dance when he heard shots and people started running.

The screaming seemed to last forever, said Devan, who asked that his last name not be used because he feared for his safety.

“Everybody started running, scrambling,” he said. “People were just collapsing and friends were helping friends. It was a scary situation and then as everyone is panicking and stuff, there were more shots.”

Devan shot a video posted to Instagram that showed a wounded man on the ground and a police officer standing over him and a woman saying she needs to go to the hospital “because my hand’s been blown off.”

On Friday, police tape surrounded the block as people came to collect their cars and other belongings. One woman in tears told reporters the father of her child had been killed. She left before giving her name.

Romond Reynolds picked up the car of his son, 24-year-old Armani Reynolds, who he said was left comatose by the shooting.

“All I know is that he’s a victim and was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Reynolds said.

Neighbor Shahram Saki, 61, said in a phone interview that some fleeing partygoers hid in the bushes in his front yard and others begged to be let into his home.

“They were screaming for help. I told them, ‘You gotta get out of here,'” Saki said. “I was scared to death, anything could have happened.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Greater Houston preparing for heavy rain, flooding from Imelda

HOUSTON – Officials in the Greater Houston metropolitan area were preparing high-water vehicles and staging rescue boats Tuesday as Tropical Storm Imelda moved in from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to dump up to 18 inches of rain in parts of Texas and Louisiana over the next few days.

The storm, which formed Tuesday, made landfall near Freeport, Texas, with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph.

Jeff Linder, a meteorologist and director of flood operations for the Harris County Flood Control District in Houston, said the main threat from Imelda remained the potential for heavy rainfall and flooding.

“We have a few things in our favor. The ground is dry. It’s been dry for a while here as we’ve come through summer,” Lindner said. “The initial parts of this rainfall will go toward saturating the ground.”

Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, said Greater Houston, along with parts of the upper Texas coast and East Texas, could get “significant rainfall” through Thursday as the storm moves north. Imelda’s rain bands were also stretching across into Louisiana.

Imelda was the first named storm to impact Greater Houston since Hurricane Harvey , according to the National Weather Service. Harvey dumped nearly 50 inches (130 centimeters) of rain on parts of the flood-prone city in August 2017, flooding more than 150,000 homes in Greater Houston and causing an estimated $125 billion in damage in Texas.

Lindner says while there is the potential for some isolated structure flooding in the metropolis, widespread house flooding from Imelda “doesn’t look likely at this point.”

But Lindner said that residents who live in flood prone areas should still be mindful and take some extra precautions.

Some parts of Harris County and neighboring Galveston County had already received about 4 inches of rain through Tuesday afternoon.

The Galveston school district announced it was canceling classes on Wednesday.

In a tweet Tuesday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner asked residents to be “alert and weather aware.”

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday placed numerous resources on standby across Texas. The Texas Division of Emergency Management will be rostering four boat squads in coastal areas. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will be moving boats to support the Beaumont area and adjacent regions.

Meanwhile Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Humberto in the Atlantic Ocean is posing a stronger threat to Bermuda, though it was more than 500 miles away. Meteorologists also said newly formed Tropical Storm Lorena in the Pacific Ocean could produce heavy rains and flooding in Mexico by Thursday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Minor leaguers seek investors, donations to make ends meet

PHOENIX – Jeremy Wolf loved being a professional baseball player. The New York Mets were his favorite team as a child, and it was a dream fulfilled when they selected him in the 31st round in 2016.

The reality was something else. From first pitch to the final out was a blast, but the time between games was filled with anxiety. His meager signing bonus wasn’t delivered until after his first season ended. In the meantime, he needed money for rent, cleats, bats, car payments, food and more—an impossible amount to cover on his $1,100 per month salary. Then he hurt his back, was cut 16 months after he signed, and left baseball with a couple thousand dollars in credit card debt.

“It’s really great to play minor league baseball,” Wolf said. “It’s an honor and a privilege. But I can’t eat privilege.”

He and others are trying to do something about that.

MLB generates billions in revenue each season, yet players throughout its minor leagues are sleeping on air mattresses, skipping meals and purchasing equipment on the cheap while making as little as $3,300 per season. The inequity of baseball’s pay system is attracting private companies eager to invest in players in exchange for a cut of potential big league paydays—one is even organizing direct investments by MLB and NFL players. Meanwhile, Wolf is helping minor league players use online crowdfunding to ask fans to provide money for meals, rent, cleats and other essentials.

Minor leaguers at the lowest levels can make as little as $1,100 per month despite spending 50-to-70 hours per week at the ballpark. A lawsuit alleging MLB violated minimum wage and overtime requirements was pre-empted last year when congress passed the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which stripped minor leaguers of the protection of federal minimum wage laws.

MLB is also pushing Arizona lawmakers to exempt minor league players from minimum wage laws there, a move that would affect hundreds of players who are not paid during spring training.

The Toronto Blue Jays decided last month to boost minor league salaries by 50 percent, making them an outlier among the major league’s 30 clubs.

For players elsewhere, addressing short-term needs can be a dire matter. Most get signing bonuses of just a few thousand dollars, and they only pull in a salary during the season, which is either three or five months long, depending on the league.

Expenses in-season vary by organization, but players usually have to find their own equipment, at least one meal per day, and pay clubhouse dues. Housing is tricky, especially this time of year. Thursday is opening day across most of the minor leagues, and that means many players have been scrambling this week to arrange apartments across the country. It’s a tough task, made all the trickier because those players’ employers haven’t written them a check since September.

Wolf founded More Than Baseball to help address those needs. The group uses online donations—it’s raised over $2,000 so far this spring—to help fund meals, rent and other necessities. It sets players up for group discounts with landlords and baseball equipment companies, finds offseason jobs and internships for players, arranges host families, and provides career services so players have options when they’re playing days end.

“In a way we’re mitigating stress,” Wolf said. “And if we mitigate stress, we’re going to allow the kids to just enjoy playing minor league baseball.”

More Than Baseball’s staff includes a few retired players, including former Yankees outfielder Slade Heathcott. It also has labor lawyers, marketing professionals and economists as advisers.

Other professionals from outside baseball have stepped in, too, to offer resources as investors. Some companies, like Big League Advance, propose minor leaguers cash to cover costs now, then take a cut of their future earnings if they make the majors.

Another option is Pando Pooling, a private company that allows players to pool their future earnings, increasing the chance of a life-changing pay day in a career where many top prospects never cash a million-dollar paycheck. For instance, a group of five third-round draft picks could agree to enter a pool together. If four players wash out due to injury or poor performance but one player becomes a star worth hundreds of millions of dollars, each of those players get a share of those earnings.

“We want players to be more comfortable with their decision to be a baseball player and to feel secure in their financial outcome,” co-founder Charlie Olson said.

There are stipulations. Pool contributions from a single player are capped at $20 million, and players don’t begin to contribute until they’ve earned at least $1.6 million in their career—roughly the amount a player would make via the major league minimum in his first three seasons before becoming eligible for arbitration.

“I think Pando presents an opportunity that hasn’t been presented in the past,” said Indians minor leaguer Logan Ice, a second-round pick in 2016 who leads his Pando pool. “It gives players a way to diversify the risk in baseball, which is a risky profession.”

Pando has more than 200 players on board, and it’s eyeing expansion. It has launched a similar operation with football players, who also face long-term uncertainty because NFL contracts are not guaranteed.

It also is considering a new model: pairing successful pro athletes with aspiring prospects. Olson says both MLB and NFL players have expressed interest in backing minor league baseball players, offering cash and other resources like access to trainers and nutritionists in exchange for a percentage of future earnings.

“We’re trying to find as many ways as possible to help improve the lives for professional baseball players,” Olson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Texas bans clergy from executions after Supreme Court ruling

DALLAS – Texas prisons will no longer allow clergy in the death chamber after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the scheduled execution of a man who argued his religious freedom would be violated if his Buddhist spiritual adviser couldn’t accompany him.

Effective immediately, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will only permit prison security staff into the execution chamber, a spokesman said Wednesday. The policy change comes in response to the high court’s ruling staying the execution of Patrick Murphy, a member of the “Texas 7” gang of escaped prisoners.

Texas previously allowed state-employed clergy to accompany inmates into the room where they’d be executed, but its prison staff included only Christian and Muslim clerics.

In light of this policy, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas couldn’t move forward with Murphy’s punishment unless his Buddhist adviser or another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing accompanied him.

One of Murphy’s lawyers, David Dow, said the policy change does not address their full legal argument and mistakes the main thrust of the court’s decision.

“Their arbitrary and, at least for now, hostile response to all religion reveals a real need for close judicial oversight of the execution protocol,” Dow said

Murphy’s attorneys told the high court that executing him without his spiritual adviser in the room would violate the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The 57-year-old—who was among a group of inmates who escaped from a Texas prison in 2000 and then committed numerous robberies, including one where a police officer was fatally shot—became a Buddhist while in prison nearly a decade ago.

In his concurring opinion, the court’s newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, wrote that Texas had two options going forward: allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room, or allow religious advisers only in the viewing room, not the execution room.

“The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, called the new policy “cruel and unusual,” and urged the department to reconsider.

Prison chaplains will still be able to observe executions from a witness room and meet with inmates on death row beforehand, said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jeremy Desel. He declined to elaborate on the reasoning behind the policy change.

The change brings Texas in line with most other death penalty states, which do not allow clergy into the execution chamber, according to Robert Dunham, a lawyer and executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. But it is also likely to open new legal fights for America’s busiest execution state, he said.

The policy change could be challenged as generally discriminating against religion and as retroactively targeting Murphy despite having a general formulation, Dunham said. If these arguments are presented to the high court, a ruling could have implications for how executions are conducted around the country, he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Murphy’s case followed a similar appeal in February, when the court ruled Alabama could execute a Muslim inmate without his Islamic spiritual adviser present in the execution chamber. The court decision that allowed Dominique Ray to be executed attracted public criticism , and Dunham said the ruling staying Murphy’s execution might have been an effort by the justices to avoid further blowback.

“When you look at the court’s order, they were hoping that Texas would give them a way out by accommodating Patrick Murphy’s request,” he said. “Texas has chosen not to do that, so it’s likely that the ball with be back in the proverbial judicial court.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

House votes to end support for Yemen war

WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday voted to end American involvement in the Yemen war, rebuffing the Trump administration’s support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia.

The bill now heads to President Donald Trump, who is expected to veto it. The White House says the measure raises “serious constitutional concerns,” and Congress lacks the votes to override him.

By a 247-175 vote, Congress for the first time invoked the decades-old War Powers Resolution to try and stop a foreign conflict. The Senate vote was 54-46 on March 13.

“The president will have to face the reality that Congress is no longer going to ignore its constitutional obligations when it comes to foreign policy,” said Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said the humanitarian crisis in Yemen triggered by the war “demands moral leadership.”

The war in Yemen is in its fifth year. Thousands of people have been killed and millions are on the brink of starvation. The United Nations has called the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, acknowledged the dire situation in Yemen for civilians, but spoke out in opposition to the bill, saying it was an abuse of the War Powers Resolution.

“This radical interpretation has implications far beyond Saudi Arabia,” McCaul said. He warned that the measure could “disrupt U.S. security cooperation agreements.”

Democrats overcame a Republican attempt to divide the majority party through a procedural motion involving Israel just minutes before the Yemen vote. Republicans wanted to amend the Yemen bill with language condemning the international boycott movement and efforts to de-legitimize Israel. Democrats argued the amendment would kill the Yemen resolution, and most of them voted against the Israel measure.

“This is about politics, this is about trying to drive a wedge into this caucus where it does not belong,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said to applause from Democrats. Deutch described the boycott movement as “economic warfare,” but called on lawmakers to vote against the amendment.

“The Jewish community also has a history of standing up against atrocities like the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. My colleagues are trying to block us from standing in support of human rights,” he said.

Opposition to the Saudi-led war in Yemen gathered support last year in the aftermath of the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post columnist was killed in October by agents of the kingdom, a close U.S. partner, while he was in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence agencies and lawmakers believe that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Khashoggi, who had written articles critical of the Islamic kingdom.

Lawmakers from both parties have scrutinized U.S.-Saudi ties and criticized Trump for not condemning Saudi Arabia strongly enough.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mormons repeal ban on baptisms for children of LGBT parents

SALT LAKE CITY – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Thursday repealed rules unveiled in 2015 that banned baptisms for children of LGBT parents and made same-sex marriage a sin worthy of expulsion.

The surprise announcement by the faith widely known as the Mormon Church reverses rules that triggered widespread condemnations from LGBT members and their allies and marked a jarring shift from the church’s push to carve out a more compassionate stance on LGBT issues.

The rules banned baptisms for children living with LGBT parents until they turn 18, disavowed same-sex relationships and received approval from global church leaders.

With the change, children of LGBT parents can now be baptized as long as their parents approve the baptisms and acknowledge that the children will be taught church doctrine, the church said in a statement from its highest leadership group called the First Presidency.

The faith said in a statement that it is not changing its doctrinal opposition to same-sex marriage and still considers same-sex relationships to be a “serious transgression.”

But people in same-sex relationships will no longer be considered “apostates” who must be kicked out of the church, the statement said.

“The very positive policies announced this morning should help affected families,” the leaders said in the statement. “In addition, our members’ efforts to show more understanding, compassion and love should increase respect and understanding among all people of goodwill.”

The change marks the biggest move yet by church President Russell M. Nelson, who has made a flurry of changes to how the church functions since taking over the faith in January 2018.

Troy Williams with the LGBT-advocacy group Equality Utah called the announcement a big step forward.

“Clearly this is a great development for the church,” he said. “I think this will go a long way toward healing Latter-day Saint families that have LGBT members.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

President Trump signs memorandum to stem counterfeit goods trafficking

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed a presidential memorandum on Wednesday to rein in what the administration calls the “Wild West” of online trafficking in counterfeit goods.

The memorandum is aimed at stopping the sale of counterfeit products on sites like Amazon, eBay and the People’s Republic of China’s e-commerce leader, Alibaba.

“This president has decided that it’s time to clean up this Wild West of counterfeiting and trafficking,” said Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council.

“The central core of the problem is that right now, third-party online marketplaces … have zero liability when it comes to trafficking in these counterfeit goods. That simply has to stop. We are going to attack that on numerous fronts.”

In a statement released on Wednesday, Amazon said that it “strictly prohibits” the sale of counterfeit products and welcomes more coordinated support from law enforcement to stem the problem. Amazon said that last year it spent more than $400 million fighting counterfeits, fraud and other forms of abuse.

“We have built industry-leading tools like Brand Registry, Transparency and our newly launched Project Zero to protect our customers and help rights owners drive counterfeits to zero,” the company said. “With these and other tools, we ensure that over 99% of the products that customers view on Amazon never receive a complaint about counterfeits.”

Navarro said discussion of possible actions the administration will take to deter online trafficking in counterfeit merchandise is premature. He says the directive orders the Department of Homeland Security to work with other agencies on a report identifying the scope of the problem. The report also is to identify the origin of the fake goods and recommend administrative, regulatory, legislative or policy changes to stem the problem.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that the value of trade in counterfeit and pirated goods is about a half trillion dollars a year, with roughly 20% infringing on U.S. intellectual property, according to the directive.

The U.S. is engaged in a trade dispute with the People’s Republic of China after the Trump administration made several complaints, including that the PRC was stealing U.S. trade secrets and forcing companies to give them technology to access its market. Trump imposed tariffs on $250 billion of Communist Chinese imports, about half what the United States buys from that country. China retaliated with tariffs on about $110 billion of U.S. items. Trade talks are ongoing.

Navarro told reporters in a conference call, however, that the new memorandum has nothing to do with the U.S.-PRC trade talks or Trump’s criticism of Amazon owner, Jeff Bezos. Trump has accused Amazon of not paying its fair share of taxes, harming the U.S. Postal Service and putting brick-and-mortar stores out of business.

A recent Government Accountability Office report examined four categories of frequently counterfeited goods, and, based on a small sample of these goods purchased through various online third-party marketplaces, investigators found that more than 40% were counterfeit, Navarro said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.