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"McCaskill on Main Street" Tour kicks off Monday

Friday, 14 March 2014 08:28 Published in Local News
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is planning a series of town hall meetings and other events across Missouri next week to discuss expanding job and business opportunities.
The tour, dubbed "McCaskill on Main Street," begins Monday. McCaskill says the meetings will give her a chance to answer questions from families and businesses about efforts to create jobs.
 
The Missouri Democrat says she has worked with Republican colleagues to write the Federal Permitting Improvement Act, designed to cut through federal red tape and expedite infrastructure projects.
 
McCaskill also says she has worked with a group of senators to introduce two proposals to provide billions of dollars in loans and loan guarantees for infrastructure projects without using federal tax dollars.
McCaskill's office said Thursday a schedule of the meetings was pending.
 

WEST READYING SANCTIONS AFTER CRIMEA VOTE

Friday, 14 March 2014 06:27 Published in National News

LONDON (AP) — With little hope of halting a vote to separate a strategic Ukraine peninsula from the rest of the country, the West is readying to impose harsh sanctions on Russia for what U.S. officials described as Moscow's insistence in undermining the new upstart government in Kiev, and fueling tensions among those who oppose it.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to London on Friday to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a last-minute bid to stave off a new chapter in the East-West crisis over Ukraine. On Sunday, Ukraine's pro-Russian Crimea region will vote whether to secede, and perhaps join Russia, in anger over new leaders in Kiev who seek to forge stronger economic ties with Europe.

A small group of Ukrainian protesters with posters reading "NATO Save Ukraine" awaited Kerry as he arrived at Downing Street for a meeting with Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague ahead of his talks with Lavrov.

Cameron underlined the threat of sanctions when he sat down with Kerry, telling him that "we want to see progress as much as you do."

"We want to see Ukrainians and the Russians talking to each other. And if they don't then there are going to have to be consequences," he added.

Kerry thanked his British hosts for their strong position, saying that "we're all hoping that we don't get pushed into a place where we have to do all this. But we'll see what happens."

European and U.S. leaders have repeatedly urged Moscow to pull back its troops in Crimea, and stop encouraging local militias there that are hyping up the vote as a choice between re-joining generations of ties with Russia or return to echoes of fascism from Ukraine's dark World War II era, when some residents cooperated with the Nazi occupiers.

Western officials instead have asked Russia to start diplomatic talks with Kiev as a way of de-escalating the tensions.

But the Crimea vote seemed all but a done deal — and experts said it would almost certainly result in breaking away from Ukraine.

Kerry told a Senate panel on Thursday that he planned to make clear how high the stakes are when he sees Lavrov in London. He suggested he would press Russia to accept "something short of a full annexation" of Crimea — but did not elaborate on what that might entail.

"There will be a response of some kind of the referendum itself and, in addition, if there is no sign of any capacity to be able to move forward and resolve this issue, there will be a very serious series of steps on Monday in Europe and here," Kerry told senators.

"My hope is that they will come aware of the fact that the international community is really strong and united on this issue," he said.

His comments echoed those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who hours earlier said Russia risks "massive" political and economic consequences if it refuses to soften its stance against the new government in Kiev.

The showdown has been cast as a struggle for the future of Ukraine, a country with the size and population similar to France, which is caught between its long-standing ties and traditions with Russia and more progressive and economic opportunities in the West. Twice in as many months, Russia has moved thousands of troops to its border with Ukraine that U.S. officials have described as an intimidation tactic cloaked as a military exercise.

It was not clear, however, whether Russia would heed the warnings, and Moscow has refused demands by the West to pull back troops from Crimea and respect Ukraine's territorial boundaries. Under a long-standing security agreement with Ukraine, Russia is allowed to deploy up to 25,000 troops to the Crimean Peninsula, and has a large navy there.

"There are limits on how much blunt force, in terms of sanctions and isolation, will move somebody who doesn't seem to have been particularly responsive to that throughout his career," said John Norris, a security expert at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress think-tank in Washington. He was referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kerry and Lavrov have spoken almost daily as the Ukraine crisis has unfolded but have yet to find any common ground.

At the Senate hearing, Kerry said Moscow should expect the U.S. and European Union to take measures against it on Monday if Russia accepts and acts on a decision by Crimea to secede from Ukraine. The U.S. and EU say the vote Sunday violates Ukraine's constitution and international law. Russia has said it will respect the results of the referendum.

In another show of support for Ukraine's sovereignty, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Thursday, a day after the new prime minister met with President Barack Obama. The White House said Biden told Yatsenyuk that the U.S. "stands firmly behind Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in ensuring Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Obama has imposed limited sanctions against unidentified Russian officials thought by the U.S. to be directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine.

But Congress on Thursday put off a vote that would have expanded those sanctions, as well as approve $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine and International Monetary Fund revisions to help Kiev. The Senate won't vote on the measure until March 24 at the earliest, when lawmakers return from a weeklong recess, while House Republicans are pushing their own Ukraine aid bill that includes no Russia sanctions or IMF provisions.

Sen. John McCain sharply criticized fellow Republicans for not acting "when the people of Ukraine are crying out for our help." He said he'd never been more embarrassed by members of his own party.

"Don't call yourself Reagan Republicans," McCain said. "Ronald Reagan would never let this kind of aggression go unresponded to by the American people and we're not talking about troops on the ground. We are talking about responses that impose sanctions and punishment for Vladimir Putin."

AP EXCLUSIVE: FBI BALKS AT POT BACKGROUND CHECKS

Friday, 14 March 2014 06:25 Published in National News

SEATTLE (AP) — The FBI is refusing to run nationwide background checks on people applying to run legal marijuana businesses in Washington state, even though it has conducted similar checks in Colorado — a discrepancy that illustrates the quandary the Justice Department faces as it allows the states to experiment with regulating a drug that's long been illegal under federal law.

Washington state has been asking for nearly a year if the FBI would conduct background checks on its applicants, to no avail. The bureau's refusal raises the possibility that people with troublesome criminal histories could wind up with pot licenses in the state — undermining the department's own priorities in ensuring that states keep a tight rein on the nascent industry.

It's a strange jam for the feds, who announced last summer that they wouldn't sue to prevent Washington and Colorado from regulating marijuana after 75 years of prohibition.

The Obama administration has said it wants the states to make sure pot revenue doesn't go to organized crime and that state marijuana industries don't become a cover for the trafficking of other illegal drugs. At the same time, it might be tough for the FBI to stomach conducting such background checks — essentially helping the states violate federal law.

The Justice Department declined to explain why it isn't conducting the checks in Washington when it has in Colorado. Stephen Fischer, a spokesman for the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, referred an Associated Press inquiry to DOJ headquarters, which would only issue a written statement.

"To ensure a consistent national approach, the department has been reviewing its background check policies, and we hope to have guidance for states in the near term," it said in its entirety.

In Washington, three people so far have received licenses to grow marijuana — without going through a national background check, even though the state Liquor Control Board's rules require that that they do so before a license is issued.

"The federal government has not stated why it has not yet agreed to conduct national background checks on our behalf," Washington state Liquor Control Board spokesman Brian Smith said in an email. "However, the Liquor Control Board is ready to deliver fingerprints as soon as DOJ is ready."

In the meantime, officials are relying on background checks by the Washington State Patrol to catch any in-state arrests or convictions. Applicants must have lived in Washington state for three months before applying, and many are longtime Washington residents whose criminal history would likely turn up on a State Patrol check. But others specifically moved to the state in hopes of joining the new industry.

"Both Washington state and Washington, D.C., have been unequivocal that they want organized crime out of the marijuana business," said Alison Holcomb, the Seattle lawyer who authored the legal pot law. "Requiring, and ensuring, nationwide background checks on Washington state licensees is a no-brainer."

The FBI has run nationwide background checks since 2010 on applicants who sought to be involved in medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado, Daria Serna, a spokeswoman for that state's Department of Revenue, said in an email. The applicants provide fingerprints to Revenue's Marijuana Enforcement Division, which turns them over to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. The agency conducts a statewide background check and supplies the prints to the FBI for a national check.

Because Colorado launched its marijuana industry by converting medical dispensaries to recreational pot shops, it's likely that no additional background checks were required for the key employees of those shops, Serna said. However, all new employees of recreational or medical shops must undergo the same background checks — and those are still being processed, Serna said.

In Washington, officials use a point system to determine whether someone's criminal history is too concerning to grant them a license to grow, process or sell marijuana under the state's law, passed by voters in 2012. A felony within the past 10 years normally disqualifies an applicant, as does being under federal or state supervision for a felony conviction.

The state received more than 7,000 applications during a monthlong window that began in November. Applicants are required to supply fingerprints and disclose their criminal history, with omissions punishable by license forfeiture or denial. But without a federal background check, there's no way for state officials to verify what the applicants report.

Under rules adopted by the Liquor Control Board, the applicants' fingerprints must be submitted to the State Patrol and the FBI for checks as a condition of receiving a license. Asked whether issuing licenses without the FBI check contradicted that rule, Smith wrote: "Applicants have provided the prints necessary for running the check."

Deborah Collinsworth, manager of the Washington State Patrol's Identification and Criminal History Section, said she first asked the FBI in April 2013 about conducting national background checks on pot-business applicants.

"They haven't responded because marijuana is still federally illegal," Collinsworth said. "That's the rub."

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