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FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — An Army general who carried on a three-year affair with a captain and had two other inappropriate relationships with subordinates was reprimanded and docked $20,000 in pay Thursday, avoiding jail time in one of the military's most closely watched courts-martial.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, the former deputy commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division, was believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on sexual assault charges. But earlier this week those charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to inappropriate relationships by asking the women for nude pictures and exchanging sexually explicit email with them.

Sinclair, 51, smiled and hugged his two lawyers in the courtroom. Outside the building, he made a brief statement.

"The system worked. I've always been proud of my Army," said Sinclair, whose attorney said he plans to retire. "All I want to do now is go north and hug my kids and my wife."

The case unfolded with the Pentagon under heavy pressure to confront what it has called an epidemic of rape and other sexual misconduct in the ranks.

As part of the plea deal, Sinclair's sentence could not exceed terms in a sealed agreement between defense lawyers and military attorneys. The agreement, unsealed Thursday, called for Sinclair to serve no more than 18 months in jail, but Col. James Pohl's punishment was much lighter.

The judge did not explain specifically how he came to the sentence and prosecutors did not immediately comment. Capt. Cassie L. Fowler, the military lawyer assigned to represent the accuser's interests, had a grim expression after the sentence was imposed and declined to comment.

Sinclair's fine breaks down to $5,000 a month for four months. He earns about $12,000 a month, according to testimony earlier in the week.

Retired Lt. Col. Gary D. Solis, who teaches law at West Point and Georgetown University, called Pohl's ruling lenient.

"I can't believe it," said Solis, who served 26 years of active duty in the Marine Corps and tried hundreds of cases as a military judge. "I know Judge Pohl to be one of the best judges in the Army judicial system, but ... this is an individual who should not be a general officer. He should have gone to jail and dismissed from the Army."

Sinclair will now go before Fort Bragg commander Maj. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, who approved Sinclair's plea deal, and he'll get either a verbal or written reprimand. Then he'll appear before a board to determine whether he will lose any rank, which could cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits.

The defense calculated that if Sinclair were allowed to retire and be demoted by two ranks, he would lose $831,000 in retirement benefits by age 82.

In closing arguments, prosecutors argued Sinclair should be thrown out of the Army and lose his military benefits, while the defense said that would harm his innocent wife and children the most. Prosecutors did not ask the judge to send Sinclair to jail, even though the maximum penalty he faced on the charges to which he pleaded guilty was more than 20 years.

The judge could have dismissed Sinclair from the Army, which would have likely wiped out his Veterans Administration health care and military retirement benefits.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys offered contrasting arguments about the seriousness of the misdeeds that felled the general.

"It's not just one mistake. Not just one lapse in judgment. It was repeated," prosecutor Maj. Rebecca DiMuro said. "They are not mistakes. We are not in the court of criminal mistakes. These are crimes."

The general also pleaded guilty to adultery and using his government-issued credit card to pay for trips to see his mistress and other conduct unbecoming an officer.

In the charges that were dropped as part of the plea deal, Sinclair had been accused of twice forcing the female captain to perform oral sex during their affair.

The Army's case against Sinclair started to crumble as questions arose about his primary accuser's credibility and whether military officials improperly rejected a previous plea deal because of political concerns.

A military lawyer representing Sinclair argued that his wife, Rebecca, had made a significant investment in the Army by holding leadership positions in organizations that helped soldiers' families. Maj. Sean Foster said Rebecca Sinclair and the couple's two sons would be hurt the most if the general lost benefits.

Sinclair's wife hasn't been present during the court proceedings and was not there Thursday.

When a letter from his wife was read aloud, Sinclair buried his head in his hands, appeared to cry and dabbed his eyes with tissues.

In the letter, Rebecca Sinclair said she hasn't fully forgiven her husband but that she didn't want the Army to punish him and his family further with a significant reduction to his pension and other benefits.

"Believe me when I tell you that the public humiliation and vilification he has endured are nothing compared to the private suffering and guilt that he lives with every day," she wrote.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called the case a strong argument for her recent unsuccessful effort to strip commanders of the authority to prosecute cases and give that power to seasoned military lawyers.

"This case has illustrated a military justice system in dire need of independence from the chain of command," Gillibrand said in a statement. "It's not only the right thing to do for our men and women in uniform, but would also mitigate issues of undue command influence that we have seen in many trials over the last year."

Gillibrand is expected to renew her effort to change military law this spring when the Senate begins work on a defense policy bill.

___

Biesecker reported from Raleigh, N.C.

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BEIJING (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama plans to avoid politics and focus on education and people-to-people contacts on her first visit to China.
 
Mrs. Obama's schedule includes a speech to Chinese and American students at Peking University and visits to the cities of Xi'an in the west and Chengdu in the southwest.
 
She was due to arrive Thursday, traveling with her mother and two daughters on the seven-day, three-city visit.
 
On Friday, Mrs. Obama is due to spend the day with Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
 
"I think this is a very good opportunity to improve the China-U.S. relations, as the first lady can represent the soft side of diplomacy," said Wang Dong, a political scientist at Peking University's School of International Studies.
 
"Michelle Obama herself has been accomplished in areas such as women's rights, children issues and education, and I think members of the Chinese public are anticipating her visit with a positive attitude," Wang said.
 
The first lady intends to avoid contentious issues such as human rights, trade and cybersecurity, according to White House officials preparing the trip.
 
They said the first lady will use her personal stories to express American values. On Tuesday, she is due to visit a high school in Chengdu.
 
"Her focus on people-to-people relations, her focus on education and youth empowerment is one that we believe will resonate in China," Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters ahead of the visit. "We also believe it's a message that is really fundamentally in the interest of the United States."
 
The first lady and her family also will visit the imperial palace and Great Wall in Beijing. While in Xi'an, she plans to visit ancient city walls and the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum. In Chendgu, the first lady is scheduled to visit a panda conservation center.
 
The trip provides an opportunity for President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping to cultivate a personal relationship through their wives following their meeting in Sunnylands in California last year, Wang said.
 
"Such a personal relationship with mutual trust is crucial, as the China-U.S. relationship has entered a more challenging phrase," Wang said.
 
Her host is Peng Liyuan, Xi's wife, who accompanied her husband on the Sunnylands visit but did not meet Mrs. Obama, who stayed in Washington. Her absence left some Chinese grumbling and the visit allows the first lady to make up for it.
 
"I think this provides a natural reason to stay engaged" before Xi and Obama can meet again, Wang said.
 
The trip also gives Peng unusual prominence in a Chinese official culture that usually keeps leaders' spouses in the background.
 
Peng, a popular folk singer, was better known than Xi before he became Communist Party leader and president.
 
"She has a good presence on television," said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "This is a formidable soft power china can use for the world to see China is not a monolithic society."
 
Chinese media have compared the dress styles of the two women with side-by-side photos.
 
The newspaper China Daily devoted a full page Thursday to their fashion choices.
 
"They know that what they do will be put under a microscope, including the clothes they don, and they parlay that kind of influence into exposure for causes with larger meanings," the newspaper said.
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ATLANTA (AP) — Democrats in the conservative Deep South are looking to recapture some old political magic in the 2014 elections.
 
President Barack Obama's party is running candidates with familiar names, like Carter and Nunn in Georgia, in hopes of rebuilding clout where Republicans rule. Given their recent political struggles in the region, some Democrats say they have nothing to lose.
 
"We need known quantities while we continue to build our bench for the future," said Georgia Democratic Chairman DuBose Porter, a failed candidate for governor in 2010. "This gives us a short game and a long game."
 
The candidates are carefully managing their family connections and their own political histories — a tactic that reflects the risk of looking like a party of the past and the sheer difficulty of winning in the face of widespread disdain for Obama and his signature health care law.
 
Southern Democratic Party leaders counter that it's still their best shot to restore an old majority coalition: blacks, urban liberals and just enough whites from small towns and rural areas. That would mean remixes and retreads successfully luring voters who have trended Republican or stayed home in recent years while the GOP built a virtual monopoly on statewide offices.
 
In Georgia, Democratic hopes are pinned on new generations of old political families. In South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi former officials and a previously unsuccessful candidate are waging comebacks.
 
Georgia's likely lineup for November looks a lot like the 1970s, when governor-turned-president Jimmy Carter and Sen. Sam Nunn towered over the state's politics. This year, it's Michelle Nunn, a nonprofit executive in Atlanta, making her political debut by running for her father's old job in Washington. Jason Carter, who toddled around the White House Rose Garden and Oval Office when his grandfather was president, already serves in the Georgia Senate, but he's making his first statewide bid by running for Republican Gov. Nathan Deal's seat.
 
In South Carolina, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen is trying to unseat Republican Nikki Haley four years after she beat him by 60,000 votes, a margin of 4.4 percent.
 
Mississippi Democrats, meanwhile, hope former Rep. Travis Childers can knock off the winner of a potentially bruising Senate Republican primary between Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party challenger Chris McDaniel, a state lawmaker.
 
"We're losing elections because Democrats stay home and we're not persuading independents," Mississippi Democratic Chairman Rickey Cole said. "In a statewide race, we have to look to our known prospects first to get those folks back."
 
And in Alabama, where Republicans hold every statewide federal, executive and judicial office, Democrats are turning to former congressman and state legislator Parker Griffith to take on popular Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, even though Griffith has switched parties multiple times.
 
Georgia Democrats say the races are an opportunity to prove what they've claimed for years, that demographic shifts in the growing state will loosen the GOP's grip and make it a battleground — including in the 2016 presidential election — alongside Virginia and North Carolina.
 
So far the Democratic candidates have tried to steer their campaigns away from the past, despite their familiar names.
 
Carter's campaign biography calls him a "ninth-generation Georgian," but alludes to his 89-year-old grandfather only with a notation of the grandson serving as a Carter Center trustee. When Jason Carter first ran for state senator in 2010, he didn't tap his family connection publicly until days before the election; he and Jimmy Carter knocked on doors together in Carter's district, just east of downtown Atlanta and the former president's library and international humanitarian center. The candidate rarely mentions his grandfather in public remarks, instead using campaign stops and Senate floor speeches to draw contrasts with Deal on education and other issues.
 
Nunn, who is on leave of absence as CEO of former President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light Foundation, is far more likely to emphasize her ties to the first family of Republican politics than to mention her 75-year-old father. It was the elder Nunn — not his daughter — who appeared publicly with Vice President Joe Biden when he came to Atlanta this month to raise money for Senate Democratic candidates.
 
After she filed papers to be on the June primary ballot, the younger Nunn bristled at questions about never holding office and capitalizing on her name. She trumpets her first-timer status as a benefit: "I don't believe career politicians are the answer."
 
But Porter argues that well-known names allow a targeted appeal other Democrats might not have.
 
"Michelle and Jason can raise money and energize young people in their own right," Porter said, adding that as professionals with school-age children — Carter is an Atlanta attorney — they can appeal to others like them, including independents and Republicans in the populous Atlanta suburbs.
 
"Beyond that," Porter said, "their last names get other folks to take a closer look. It provides voters a comfort level they might not otherwise have."
 
It's those "other folks" — older, conservative whites outside metropolitan areas — who've been increasingly hard for Democrats to reach.
 
Sheheen notes often that he grew up in the same town where he now practices law. His father and uncle were active in state government, though they weren't household names. The home county that sends him to the Legislature opted for Mitt Romney over Obama in 2012 by 18 percentage points, well ahead of Romney's 10-point margin statewide.
 
Sheheen supports expanding the Medicaid insurance program under Obama's health care law, something that appeals to core Democrats, including black voters who make up more than 30 percent of the electorate. But he couches it in terms of local economies — healthy workers, financially stable community hospitals — in an effort to target more pragmatic Romney voters.
 
The outreach is more complicated for Childers in Mississippi and Griffith in Alabama. In Congress, both voted against Obama's health care overhaul but were unable to hold their congressional seats in the 2010 Republican tide.
 
Childers, then a longtime county clerk, won a 2008 special House election and months later was re-elected with 55 percent of the vote, well ahead of Obama's 37 percent in the district.
 
Griffith won his seat with 52 percent, which was 14 percentage points ahead of Obama.
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