FORMER BUNCOMBE OFFICIAL PLEADS GUILTY TO FRAUD & CONSPIRACY: The Asheville Citizen-Times reports the plea by former Buncombe County assistant manager Mandy Stone was part of a deal in which she agreed to assist a federal county corruption probe. The deal with the U.S. Attorney's Office was reached last week, and a judge is set to rule Wednesday on whether to accept the deal. Stone's plea means she admits to conspiring with former county staffers Jon Creighton and Michael Greene, both of whom have pleaded guilty. Greene's mother and former county manager Wanda Greene has pleaded not guilty to charges in the scheme. Prosecutors say they took bribes from Georgia-based contractor Joe Wiseman, who hasn't been charged.
GOVERNOR DEFENDS VETO OF CAMPAIGN SECRECY BILL: On the eve of a one-day session to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill making campaign finance investigations confidential, the governor pointed to election-fraud allegations in the 9th Congressional District as proof that greater transparency is needed. Cooper’s office released a statement by the Democratic governor on Wednesday calling the controversy over absentee ballots centered in Bladen County “disturbing” and describing the General Assembly’s legislation as “astonishing.” He said it “mandates secrecy” and makes it harder to prosecute those who break the law. The governor issued a public plea for voters to urge their legislators to uphold the veto. Cooper said the bill was rushed through the legislature and should be set aside so that he and lawmakers could negotiate a new bill. “Tell legislators that you don’t want to protect politicians who commit fraud,” Cooper said in the statement. “... We are down to the last five days of the lame-duck Republican super majority. Don’t let the last act make it easier on criminals.”
ENVIRONMENTAL OFFICIAL TAKES PLEA DEAL IN FLINT WATER POISONING CASE, GIVES DAMNING TESTIMONY: The plea from Busch, a water supervisor in the state Department of Environmental Quality, relates to his failing to address concerns during an unruly January 2015 meeting in which Flint residents complained about the city's discolored and smelly water after the April 2014 switch from a Detroit-area system to using the Flint River. Busch, who had faced involuntary manslaughter and other felony charges, said in a Flint courtroom Wednesday that he had conversations with state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon about legionella bacteria before March 2015 — many months before Lyon and Gov. Rick Snyder publicly announced a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the Flint area. Some experts have blamed the outbreak on the use of the river. Lyon, a member of Snyder's Cabinet, is the highest-ranking of the 15 state or local officials to be charged in relation to the water crisis.
NO COMPROMISE IN SIGHT FOR TRUMP'S BORDER WALL GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN: With a partial government shutdown stretching past Day 5, the impasse over funding a wall at the southwestern border has highlighted the debate over effective border security, with a breakthrough possibly hinging on a semantic argument: What is a wall? Lawmakers will return to Capitol Hill on Thursday to resume negotiations over either a stopgap spending bill to reopen nine federal departments and several government agencies or broader measures to fund the government through September. But the White House and Democrats remain at odds over the $5 billion that President Trump is demanding for a wall, his signature campaign promise. Democrats say they have little reason to negotiate. The administration has spent only 6 percent of the $1.7 billion allocated during the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years for physical barriers on the border, they said. About $1.3 billion was designated in 2018 for different types of fencing in areas that would have covered about 96 miles, but rising costs have shaved off 12 miles.
AFTER TRUMP VISIT, IRAQI GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS DEMAND US MILITARY LEAVE: Iraqi lawmakers Thursday demanded U.S. forces leave the country in the wake of a surprise visit by President Donald Trump that politicians denounced as arrogant and a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Politicians from both blocs of Iraq's divided Parliament called for a vote to expel U.S. troops and promised to schedule an extraordinary session to debate the matter. "Parliament must clearly and urgently express its view about the ongoing American violations of Iraqi sovereignty," said Salam al-Shimiri, a lawmaker loyal to the populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Trump, making his first presidential visit to troops in a troubled region Wednesday, said he has no plans to withdraw the 5,200 U.S. forces in the country. Containing foreign influence has become a hot-button issue in a year that saw al-Sadr supporters win the largest share of votes in May elections. Al-Sadr has called for curbing U.S. and Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs.