Top-Level Meetings Signal Warming of US–China Ties

Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao was in the U.S. this week, meeting with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai. The meetings took place days after President Joe Biden signaled a thaw in bilateral relations strained by trade and security issues and the takedown by a U.S. fighter jet of a Chinese espionage balloon over American territory in February. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara reports. …

US Revokes License of Drug Distributor Over Opioid Crisis Failures

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration stripped one of the nation’s largest drug distributors of its license to sell highly addictive painkillers Friday after determining it failed to flag thousands of suspicious orders at the height of the opioid crisis. The action against Morris & Dickson Co., which threatens to put the company out of business, came two days after an Associated Press investigation found the DEA allowed the company to keep shipping drugs for nearly four years after a judge recommended the harshest penalty for its “cavalier disregard” of rules aimed at preventing opioid abuse. The DEA acknowledged the time it took to issue its final decision was “longer than typical for the agency” but blamed Morris & Dickson in part for holding up the process by seeking delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its lengthy pursuit of a settlement that the agency said it had considered. The order becomes effective in 90 days, allowing more time to negotiate a settlement. 12,000 unusually large orders DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in the 68-page order that Morris & Dickson failed to accept full responsibility for its past actions, which included shipping 12,000 unusually large orders of opioids to pharmacies and hospitals between 2014 and 2018. During this time, the company filed just three suspicious order reports with the DEA. Milgram specifically cited testimony of then-company president Paul Dickson Sr. in 2019 that Morris & Dickson’s compliance program was “dang good,” and he didn’t think a “single person has gotten hurt by [their] drugs.” “Those statements from the president of a family-owned and -operated company so strongly miss the point of the requirements of a DEA registrant,” she wrote. “Its acceptance of responsibility did not prove that it or its principals understand the full extent of their wrongdoing … and the potential harm it caused.” Roots go back to 1840 Shreveport, Louisiana-based Morris & Dickson traces its roots to 1840, when its namesake founder arrived from Wales and placed an ad in a local newspaper selling medicines. It has since become the nation’s fourth-largest wholesale drug distributor, with $4 billion a year in revenue and nearly 600 employees serving pharmacies and hospitals in 29 states. In a statement, the company said it has invested millions of dollars over the past few years to revamp its compliance systems and appeared to hold out hope for a settlement. “Morris & Dickson is grateful … Continue reading “US Revokes License of Drug Distributor Over Opioid Crisis Failures”

US Charges 2 in Beijing-Directed Targeting of Falun Gong

Two Los Angeles residents have been charged with acting in a Beijing-directed scheme targeting U.S.-based practitioners of the Falun Gong group that is outlawed in China, the U.S. Justice Department said on Friday. John Chen, also known as Chen Jun, and Lin Feng were arrested in California on accusations of supporting Chinese efforts to strip the tax-exempt status of a U.S. entity run by Falun Gong practitioners, the department said in a statement. The department described the scheme as part of a broader campaign by China’s government to target its U.S.-based critics. The charges were announced a month after federal agents arrested two New York residents on suspicion of operating a Chinese “secret police station” in Manhattan’s Chinatown district. A complaint against Chen and Lin was filed in federal court in the Southern District of New York, the department said. Reuters was not immediately able to reach them or their lawyers for comment. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately provide comment. Chen and Lin in 2023 attempted to bribe an undercover federal agent acting as a U.S. tax official to advance a complaint that would strip the Falun Gong entity’s federal tax exemption, the department said. The two paid $5,000 in cash bribes and promised to pay substantially more to advance the complaint with the Internal Revenue Service’s whistleblower program, it said. The bribes were intended to carry out China’s aim of “toppling … the Falun Gong,” the department quoted Chen as saying on an intercepted call. Stripping the entity’s exempt status would increase its federal tax obligation. Falun Gong, based broadly around meditation, was banned by China in 1999 after 10,000 members appeared at the central leadership compound in Beijing in silent protest. The group has called for people to renounce the ruling Chinese Communist Party. China’s government has described the group as a cult organization that threatens national stability. …

US Trade Representative, China’s Commerce Minister Clash on APEC Sidelines

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai raised complaints about China’s state-led economic policies during a meeting on Friday with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao, who objected to U.S. tariffs and trade policies, their offices said. But statements from the U.S. Trade Representative’s office and China’s Commerce Ministry both emphasized the need for Washington and Beijing to maintain communication on trade. “Ambassador Tai highlighted the need to address the critical imbalances caused by China’s state-led, nonmarket approach to the economy and trade policy,” USTR said in a statement released after the meeting on the sidelines of an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Detroit. “She also raised concerns about PRC [People’s Republic of China] actions taken against U.S. companies operating there,” the statement said. China’s Commerce Ministry said in a statement that Wang raised complaints about U.S. economic and trade policies toward China, including U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods, economic and trade issues related to Taiwan, and on the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) that excludes China. Tai on Saturday will hold a ministerial meeting of countries in the IPEF talks, which exclude China and aim to provide a U.S.-centered alternative to its influence. Last week, she announced initial trade agreements with Taiwan. China claims the self-governed island as its own territory. USTR is conducting a four-year review of U.S. tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese imports, imposed in 2018 and 2019 by then-President Donald Trump. Tai has long raised objections to China’s attempts to dominate certain industries using massive state subsidies and said such issues continue to come up in the relationship. Asked during a press conference whether the U.S. would resort to using further trade tools to address China’s practices, such as a new “Section 301” investigation that could lead to more U.S. tariffs, Tai said that “aspects” of the Biden administration’s response were already evident in U.S economic policies. “The benefit of sitting down and having a conversation with interlocutors from Beijing is so that we can understand each other better and understand how we are experiencing the impacts that we have on each other’s economies,” Tai said. Cabinet-level discussion Wang’s meetings with Tai in Detroit and with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in Washington on Thursday marked the first Cabinet-level exchanges in months between U.S. and Chinese officials, following a series of setbacks that raised tensions between the world’s two largest economies. Tai … Continue reading “US Trade Representative, China’s Commerce Minister Clash on APEC Sidelines”

Regulators Take Aim at AI to Protect Consumers, Workers

As concerns grow over increasingly powerful artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT, the nation’s financial watchdog says it’s working to ensure that companies follow the law when they’re using AI. Already, automated systems and algorithms help determine credit ratings, loan terms, bank account fees, and other aspects of our financial lives. AI also affects hiring, housing and working conditions. Ben Winters, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said a joint statement on enforcement released by federal agencies last month was a positive first step. “There’s this narrative that AI is entirely unregulated, which is not really true,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Just because you use AI to make a decision, that doesn’t mean you’re exempt from responsibility regarding the impacts of that decision. This is our opinion on this. We’re watching.’” In the past year, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau said it has fined banks over mismanaged automated systems that resulted in wrongful home foreclosures, car repossessions and lost benefit payments, after the institutions relied on new technology and faulty algorithms. There will be no “AI exemptions” to consumer protection, regulators say, pointing to these enforcement actions as examples. Consumer Finance Protection Bureau Director Rohit Chopra said the agency has “already started some work to continue to muscle up internally when it comes to bringing on board data scientists, technologists and others to make sure we can confront these challenges” and that the agency is continuing to identify potentially illegal activity. Representatives from the Federal Trade Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Department of Justice, as well as the CFPB, all say they’re directing resources and staff to take aim at new tech and identify negative ways it could affect consumers’ lives. “One of the things we’re trying to make crystal clear is that if companies don’t even understand how their AI is making decisions, they can’t really use it,” Chopra said. “In other cases, we’re looking at how our fair lending laws are being adhered to when it comes to the use of all of this data.” Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act, for example, financial providers have a legal obligation to explain any adverse credit decision. Those regulations likewise apply to decisions made about housing and employment. Where AI make decisions in ways that are too opaque to explain, regulators say the algorithms shouldn’t be used. “I think there was … Continue reading “Regulators Take Aim at AI to Protect Consumers, Workers”

Oath Keeper Gets 8½ Years in Prison in Latest January 6 Sentencing 

An Army veteran who stormed the U.S. Capitol in a military-style formation with fellow members of the Oath Keepers was sentenced Friday to more than eight years in prison, a day after the far-right group’s founder received an 18-year prison term in the January 6, 2021, attack.  Jessica Watkins, of Woodstock, Ohio, was acquitted of the seditious conspiracy charge that Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of in November, but jurors convicted her of obstruction and conspiracy to impede Congress’ certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.  She was the third member of the anti-government group to receive her punishment this week in one of the most serious cases the Justice Department has brought in the riot. Rhodes’ 18 year-term was the longest sentence that has been handed down so far in the hundreds of Capitol riot cases.  U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said that while Watkins was not a top leader, like Rhodes, she was more than “just foot soldier,” noting that at least three others charged in the riot wouldn’t have been there if she hadn’t recruited them to join. He sentenced her to 8½ years behind bars.  “Your role that day was more aggressive, more assaultive, more purposeful than perhaps others,” he told her.  ‘Just another idiot’ Watkins tearfully apologized for her actions before the judge handed down her sentence. She condemned the violence by rioters who assaulted police, but said she knew her presence at the Capitol “probably inspired those people to a degree.” She described herself as “just another idiot running around the Capitol” on January 6.  “And today you’re going to hold this idiot responsible,” she told the judge.  The judge, for his part, said her personal story of struggling for years to come to terms with her identity as a transgender woman made it especially difficult for him to understand why she had shown “a lack of empathy for those who suffered” on January 6. Watkins testified at trial about hiding her identity from her parents during a strict Christian upbringing and going AWOL in the Army after a fellow soldier found evidence of her contact with a support group for transgender people.  During the nearly two-month trial in Washington’s federal court, lawyers for Watkins and the other Oath Keepers argued there was no plan to attack the Capitol. On the witness stand, Watkins told jurors she never intended to interfere with … Continue reading “Oath Keeper Gets 8½ Years in Prison in Latest January 6 Sentencing “

US Labor Department: Child Labor Violations Have Been on the Rise

The US Labor Department says the number of children employed in violation of labor laws has been on the rise since 2015. While the total number of violations is still lower than it was two decades ago, experts say the increase is troubling. For VOA News, Maxim Moskalkov has the story. Camera and video edit: Andre Sergunin and Anna Rice …

Japan and US to Commit to Closer Chip Cooperation in Joint Statement

Japan and the United States will issue a joint statement on technology cooperation on Friday that will commit them to closer cooperation in research and development of advanced chips and other technologies, a Japanese government source said. Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yasutoshi Nishimura and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo will meet in Detroit in the U.S. on the sidelines of the 2023 APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade Meeting, Yomiuri reported earlier. In addition to semiconductors, they will discuss artificial intelligence and quantum technology, the newspaper added. They want to deepen ties between research and development hubs in Japan and the U.S., the Japanese official told Reuters, asking not to be identified because he is not authorised to talk to the media. It will be another incremental step as they map out their future technology cooperation, he added. As Washington and Tokyo reduce their exposure to Chinese supply chains amid growing tension, they are working together to expand chip manufacturing to ensure access to advanced components that they see as essential for economic growth. Japan has established a new chip maker, Rapidus, that is working with International Business Machines Corp (IBM)(IBM.N) to develop advanced logic semiconductors, and is offering subsidies to U.S. memory maker Micron Technology Inc (MU.O) so it can expand production there. Japan, along with the Netherlands, has also agreed to match U.S. export controls that will limit the sale of some chipmaking tools in China. The meeting between Nishimura and Raimondo comes after the leaders of the Group of Seven advanced democracies agreed at a meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, to reduce their exposure to China because of its “economic coercion.” Raimondo on Thursday met China’s Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao in Washington where the pair exchanged views on trade, investment and export policies. …

Top US, Chinese Trade Officials Meet in Washington

The top Chinese and U.S. business and trade officials met Thursday in Washington, an infrequent direct conversation between leaders of the world’s two biggest economies. The U.S. Commerce Department said in a statement Thursday that Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimond had “candid and substantive discussions on issues relating to the U.S.-China commercial relationship.” Thursday’s meeting, the department said, “was part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage” the U.S.-China relationship. While U.S. President Joe Biden met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Bali last November, Thursday’s trade talks in Washington were the first cabinet-level meeting in the U.S. capital between American and Chinese officials during the Biden administration. Wang is in the United States for the 2023 APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade Meeting, in Detroit — a city in the U.S. state of Michigan — on Thursday and Friday. Common concerns In the Washington talks, China expressed its views on China-U.S. relations and issues of common concern, Shu Jueting, the Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesperson, told a regular briefing in Beijing. On Monday, Wang met with representatives of U.S. firms in Shanghai, including Johnson & Johnson, 3M, Dow, Merck, and Honeywell, according to the ministry, telling them that “China will continue to welcome U.S.-funded enterprises to develop in China and achieve win-win results.” But China on Sunday declared U.S. chip manufacturer Micron a national security risk and banned the firm from selling its memory chips to key domestic industries. The ban followed a series of raids on American consultancies operating in China. ‘De-risk’ without ‘decoupling’ Wang’s trip to the U.S. follows a recent summit in Hiroshima, Japan, of the leaders of the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries, at which Biden and other G7 leaders took aim at China over “economic coercion” and said they would “de-risk” without “decoupling” from the world’s second-largest economy on an array of products. “China hopes the G7 will not abuse trade and investment restrictions while saying that they will not seek to decouple from the country,” Shu said. Wang met earlier in May with U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns in Beijing amid speculation about a visit from top U.S. officials. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip in February after the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon that flew over sensitive military sites. Raimondo and Blinken, as well as … Continue reading “Top US, Chinese Trade Officials Meet in Washington”

White House Releases First-Ever National Antisemitism Strategy

The White House on Thursday released the first-ever national strategy aimed at countering antisemitism amid a rise in violence against members of the Jewish community and a gain in antisemitic beliefs among Americans. Prominent American religious advocacy groups noted that the White House strategy would placate critics who worry about conflating criticism of the Israeli state with antisemitism. The White House did this by not basing the strategy solely on the definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Although its definition of antisemitism does not mention Israel, many of its cited examples of antisemitism do. “At its core, antisemitism divides us, erodes our trust in government, institutions and one another,” said second gentleman Douglas Emhoff at the launch of the strategy. “It threatens our democracy while undermining our American values of freedom, community and decency. Antisemitism delivers simplistic, false and dangerous narratives that have led to extremists perpetrating deadly violence against Jews.” Emhoff, who is Jewish, described disturbing incidents in recent American life, such as schoolchildren finding swastikas drawn on their desks and parents of young children being met with slurs at school drop-offs. In 2022, according to the Anti-Defamation League, there were nearly 3,700 antisemitic incidents throughout the United States. More than one-third of those incidents involved vandalism or assault. The White House said 63% of reported religiously motivated hate crimes affect members of the Jewish community — although Jews account for only 2.4% of the nation’s population. Overall, Jews are the target of 4% of all reported hate crimes in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And the ADL, which helped the White House shape the new strategy, reported earlier this year that 85% of Americans believe at least one anti-Jewish trope — a jump from 61% in 2019. Global implications Antisemitism also has global implications, said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in praising the strategy. “The strategy reaffirms the United States’ commitment to combat antisemitism globally — including efforts to delegitimize or isolate the state of Israel at the U.N.,” she said in a statement. The four-pillar plan — which includes increasing awareness and understanding of antisemitism and why it matters; improving safety for Jewish communities; reversing the normalization of antisemitism; and building cross-community solidarity — has gained support from prominent American Jewish and Muslim groups. “We welcome President Biden’s commitment to confronting the threat of antisemitism, a … Continue reading “White House Releases First-Ever National Antisemitism Strategy”

Biden’s Pick for Joint Chiefs Post Has History of Firsts

The Air Force fighter pilot whom President Joe Biden nominated Thursday to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff got his call sign by ejecting from a burning F-16 fighter jet high above the Florida Everglades and falling into the watery sludge below. It was January 1991, and then-Captain Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. had just enough time in his parachute above alligator-full wetlands for a thought to pop into his head. “Hope there’s nothing down there,” Brown said in an interview at the Aspen Security Forum last year. He landed in the muck, which coated his body and got “in his boots and everything.” That’s how the nominee to be the country’s next top military officer got his call sign: “Swamp Thing.” Brown, now a four-star general and the Air Force chief, was introduced by Biden on Thursday as his nominee. If confirmed, Brown would replace Army General Mark Milley, whose term ends in October. Biden made the announcement during a Rose Garden event on Thursday afternoon. “[Brown] gained respect across every service from those who have seen him in action and have come to depend on his judgment,” Biden said. “More than that, he gained the respect of our allies and partners around the world, who regard General Brown as a trusted partner and a top-notch strategist,” he added. The call sign story was a rare inner look into Brown, who keeps his cards close to his chest. He’s spent much of his career being one of the Air Force’s top aviators, one of its few Black pilots and often one of the only African Americans in his squadron. To this day, his core tenets are to “execute at a high standard, personally and professionally,” Brown said this month at an Air Force Association conference in Colorado. “I do not play for second place. If I’m in, I’m in to win — I do not play to lose.” He’s been many firsts, including the Air Force’s first Black commander of the Pacific Air Forces, and most recently its first Black chief of staff. If confirmed, he would be part of another first — the first time the Pentagon’s top two posts were held by African Americans, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin the top civilian leader. Brown would not be the first African American to be chairman, the Pentagon’s top military post; that distinction went to the … Continue reading “Biden’s Pick for Joint Chiefs Post Has History of Firsts”

Biden: US Debt Ceiling Talks Going Well, but No Deal Reached Yet

President Joe Biden said Thursday that negotiations with Republican lawmakers to raise the U.S. government’s borrowing limit and set future spending levels are going well, while assuring Americans the country will not default on its obligation to pay its bills. White House budget negotiators continued to talk with representatives of Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to sort out the last details of a deal, but no agreement was announced as lawmakers began to leave Washington ahead of the country’s annual Memorial Day weekend. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is not scheduled to return until Tuesday — just two days ahead of June 1, the date Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says the government could run out of cash to meet its obligations if the country’s existing $31.4 trillion debt ceiling is not increased so the government can borrow more money. Both the House and Senate need to approve the debt limit increase before Biden can sign it into law. The focus of the negotiations, Biden said, was on future spending, for the budget year starting in October and beyond. Republicans are trying to sharply curb spending, while the Democratic president and his congressional colleagues are trying to keep as much funding as possible in place for their legislative priorities. At the U.S. Capitol, McCarthy said he had directed his negotiators “to work 24/7 to solve this problem.” He said that “every hour matters” but that a deal could come together “at any time.” He has repeatedly said the government cannot continue to run up massive deficits totaling about $1 trillion annually, adding to the long-term debt total. “We have to spend less than we spent last year,” McCarthy said. “That is the starting point.” A key Democratic lawmaker, Representative Katherine Clark, characterized the negotiations as “a battle between extremism and common sense.” Republicans, she said, “want the American people to make an impossible choice: devastating cuts or devastating debt default.” The Fitch Ratings agency put the United States’ AAA credit on “ratings watch negative,” warning the government is at risk of a possible downgrade because of what it described as brinkmanship and political partisanship surrounding the debate over lifting the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling has been raised 78 times since 1960, including three times under Republican President Donald Trump. Nonetheless, Fitch said it “still expects a resolution” in the current debt ceiling and budget negotiations. A Treasury Department statement late … Continue reading “Biden: US Debt Ceiling Talks Going Well, but No Deal Reached Yet”

Software Problems Delay US F-16 Deliveries, Taiwan Says

Taiwan’s order of 66 advanced new F-16V fighter jets from the United States will not be completed until 2026 because of software problems, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said Thursday, marking the latest delay in U.S. weapons deliveries since manufacturers turned their attention to Ukraine after Russia invaded last year. Earlier this month, the self-ruling island’s defense minister said the delay was a result of supply chain disruptions, but on Thursday he added that the holdup was due to flight control software issues. “In principle by 2026 the 66 aircraft will all arrive. There is absolutely no problem with this,” Chiu told reporters at parliament. The United States approved the $8 billion sale of Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan in 2019. Once complete, the deal will take the island’s F-16 fleet to more than 200 jets, the most in Asia, according to Reuters. The defense buildup is important to Taiwan because of rising concerns that China will try to take the island — which Beijing claims as its own — by force. Since last year, Taiwan has complained about delays of U.S. weapons deliveries, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Manufacturers have turned supplies to Ukraine after Russia invaded last year. But to the U.S. House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, delivering weapons to Taiwan is an urgent priority. On Wednesday, the committee adopted 10 policy recommendations for Congress, including that the United States should deliver the “backlogged” military equipment Taiwan had ordered. Several other recommendations also related to bolstering Taiwan’s defense capabilities.   The first two F-16s in the order were supposed to have been delivered between October and December of this year, but that has been pushed back to between July and September of 2024, Taiwanese officials said this month. Lockheed spokesperson Liz Lutz told Bloomberg that the company is working “closely with the U.S. government to address challenges in support of U.S. security objectives.” While visiting Taiwan last month, Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was trying to speed up the arms deliveries. “On the weapons issue, I sign off on those deliveries, and we are doing everything in our power to expedite this,” he said. Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Chamber of Commerce, told VOA Mandarin that foreign military support for Taiwan is “just one piece of the puzzle.” Xiaoshan Xue contributed to this report. Some … Continue reading “Software Problems Delay US F-16 Deliveries, Taiwan Says”

US Imposes Sanctions on Head of Wagner Group in Mali

The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on the head of the Wagner Group in Mali, accusing the Russian private army of trying to obscure its efforts to acquire military equipment for use in Ukraine, and of working through Mali and other countries.  The U.S. Treasury Department in a statement also accused Ivan Aleksandrovich Maslov, whom it described as the head of Wagner paramilitary units and the group’s principal administrator based in Mali, of working in close coordination with Malian government officials to execute the group’s deployment in Mali.  “Treasury’s sanctions against the most senior Wagner Group representative in Mali identify and disrupt a key operative supporting the group’s global activities,” Brian Nelson, the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.  The move comes after State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller on Monday said there were indications that Wagner has been attempting to purchase military systems from foreign suppliers and route those weapons through Mali.  Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, on Wednesday dismissed the U.S. allegations as a “hoax” in a news conference, and she urged Washington to examine the effect of its own military exports. …

Ex-Trump Advisor Bannon’s Trial Over Border Wall Scheme Set for May 2024

Steve Bannon, a one-time advisor to Donald Trump, is set to go on trial on May 27, 2024, on criminal charges over a push to fund the former U.S. president’s signature wall along the U.S. southern border, a New York judge said in a court hearing on Thursday. New York state prosecutors in Manhattan accuse Bannon of defrauding donors who contributed more than $15 million to the “We Build the Wall” fundraising drive. According to the indictment, Bannon concealed his role in diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars to the drive’s chief executive.  Bannon, 69, has pleaded not guilty to charges of money laundering, conspiracy and scheming to defraud.  Justice Juan Merchan at the brief hearing gave Bannon’s lawyers until Oct. 6 to file a possible motion to dismiss the charges. Merchan said he would rule on any such motion at a hearing on April 29.  Bannon was initially charged over the fundraising push by federal prosecutors in Manhattan but received a presidential pardon from Trump during the final hours of his term. That pardon covered federal but not state charges. Brian Kolfage, a decorated U.S. Air Force veteran who led the funding push, was sentenced last month to 4-1/4 years in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges of misappropriating funds for the campaign. An associate, Andrew Badolato, was sentenced to three years in prison.   Another defendant in the case, Timothy Shea, is set to be sentenced on June 13 after his conviction at trial last October.  Construction of a border wall was a key element of Trump’s hardline immigration policies during his presidency, supported by his fellow Republicans but opposed by Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups.   …