Farmer Behind the U.S.’s Largest Organic Food Fraud Scheme Dies by Suicide.

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Farmer Behind the U.S.’s Largest Organic Food Fraud Scheme Dies by Suicide.

A Missouri farmer blamed for running the largest organic food fraud scheme in U.S. history has died by suicide, weeks before he was to report to federal prison to begin serving a 10-year term, a coroner said Tuesday.

Police officers found Randy Constant dead in a vehicle in his garage at his home in Chillicothe, Missouri, on Monday evening, hours after federal investigators held a news conference in Iowa to highlight the prison sentence he had received. Livingston County Coroner Scott Lindley said he concluded that Constant died from carbon monoxide poisoning, and that finding was confirmed by a post-mortem examination at the University of Missouri Medical Center.

A federal judge sentenced Constant at a hearing on Friday for leading what prosecutors dubbed the “Field of Schemes fraud.” But he granted Constant the ability to self-report to prison in coming weeks after the Bureau of Prisons decided where to place him, a routine accommodation for white-collar defendants.

“We are still in shock and disbelief over yesterday’s events, when my husband took his own life,” Constant’s wife, Pam, said in a statement. “I know Randy was deeply ashamed of his conduct. As much as we tried to be there for him … it was clearly just too much for Randy.”

She said he would be remembered as “a wonderful father, community leader, tireless volunteer and my beloved husband of 39 years.”

The death comes as federal law enforcement officials are under fire for failing to prevent the suicide of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died in a Manhattan jail while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.

Prosecutors say Constant falsely marketed non-organic corn and soybeans as certified organic on a massive scale. His sales amounted to 7 percent of organic corn grown in the U.S. in 2016 and 8 percent of the organic soybeans. Overall, from 2010 to 2017, he sold more than 11.5 million bushels of grain, or enough to fill 3,600 rail cars, prosecutors said.

Constant owned an Iowa-based brokerage, which sold his grain primarily as feed for chickens and cattle. Those animals were then marketed for their meat and meat products that were advertised as organic.

U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams said during the sentencing that Constant’s fraud did “extreme and incalculable damage” to consumers and undermined confidence in the nation’s organic food industry. He said consumers were fooled into paying extra to buy products ranging from eggs to steak that they believed were better for the environment and their health. Instead, they purchased food that relied on farming practices they opposed, including the use of chemical pesticides to grow crops.

Williams also gave prison terms to three Overton, Nebraska, farmers whom Constant recruited to join the scheme. Michael Potter, 41, was ordered to serve two years behind bars; James Brennan, 41, was sentenced to one year, eight months; and his father, 71-year-old Tom Brennan, was given a three-month sentence.

Prosecutors did not seek their immediate detention in federal custody, which is routine for defendants who are not seen as dangerous or flight risks.

Williams gave all four the option of entering custody immediately, surrendering in two weeks to a regional U.S. Marshals office, or self-reporting to the prison designated by the bureau of prisons. All four chose the final option, which typically might give a defendant three to six more weeks of freedom before incarceration. Williams warned they would have to pay their own way and show up on time or face potential legal consequences.

Constant had been free on bond since pleading guilty to wire fraud last December, and had cooperated with investigators since 2017. He apologized to his victims and his family and appeared to be in decent spirits Friday, smiling at times and thanking his lawyer Mark Weinhardt.

Weinhardt described his client last week as a 60-year-old “pillar of the community” who had served on the school board and donated his time and money to local causes and the Methodist church. He said he was stunned by the contradiction between Constant’s record of good deeds and his lengthy fraud.

“Mr. Constant is a real puzzle,” he said.

He said that Constant would be broke and unable to farm for the rest of his life. He had sold his home and his wife had returned to teaching to support the family, Weinhardt said.

Prosecutors had introduced evidence that Constant often traveled to Las Vegas during the scheme, spending money on gambling and women with whom he had sexual relationships.

Constant’s death came as authorities publicized his prison term, which they said would deter other farmers from defrauding the National Organic Program.

“Randy Constant and his co-conspirators lied to the American public and cheated thousands of consumers,” U.S. Attorney Peter E. Deegan Jr. said. “For years, Constant put personal greed and self-interest above all else.”


Parkland students unveil sweeping gun-control proposal hoping for youth voting surge in 2020.

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Parkland students unveil sweeping gun-control proposal hoping for youth voting surge in 2020.

The student activists who crashed the political arena after the mass shooting last year at their high school in Parkland, Fla., are throwing their weight behind a new and ambitious gun-control program that they hope will set the tone for the debate following the most recent mass shootings and headed into the 2020 elections.

The students are speaking out for the first time since 31 people were killed in one weekend in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. They hope their plan — unveiled Wednesday morning — will be considered by President Trump as well as his Democratic presidential rivals and will serve as a catalyst for a surge of youth voters next year.

“I think similarly to a lot of the country, I’m in a lot of pain right now,” said David Hogg, 19, a co-founder of March for Our Lives and a survivor of the shooting in February 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “You see these shootings on TV every day and very little happening around it. It’s painful to watch. And I think it’s been really hard for me and many of the other students and people that we work with to find hope in this time.

“But I think that this plan is something that we can truly — as a country and as Americans united against violence and fighting for peace — can get behind.”

March for Our Lives has been focused on voter registration and outreach across the country over the past year and a half, building a national infrastructure with more than 100 chapters centered on grass-roots organizing. They hope to turn that into droves of voters at the polls next year.

Called “A Peace Plan for a Safer America,” the ambitious platform, which was obtained by The Washington Post, goes much further than the current debate over universal background checks and “red flag” laws, which would apply to people who could be a danger to themselves and others.

After El Paso and Dayton, President Trump signaled that he was open to both ideas, but he told National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre on Tuesday that universal background checks are now off the table.

The Peace Plan would create a national licensing and gun registry, long a nonstarter with gun rights advocates; ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; implement a mandatory gun buyback program; and install a “national director of gun violence prevention” who would report directly to the president and coordinate the federal response to what advocates call a national public health emergency.

It would dramatically increase restrictions around owning guns in ways sure to spark fierce blowback, including raising the age to 21 from 18 for those who want to buy guns. It calls for a “multi-step” gun licensing system, overseen by a federal agency, that would include in-person interviews and a 10-day wait before gun purchases are approved. The license would be renewed annually.

In the vein of the Green New Deal, the Peace Plan takes a holistic approach to gun violence by also calling for automatic voter registration when those eligible turn 18, along with the creation of a “Safety Corps,” which the authors compare to a Peace Corps for gun violence prevention. The plan also proposes community-based solutions like mental health services, as well as programs to address and prevent suicide, domestic violence and urban violence.

“It’s bold. It’s nothing like anyone else is proposing. We are really setting audacious goals,” said Tyah-Amoy Roberts, a Parkland survivor who is on the March for Our Lives board of directors. “And more than anything, what we are seeking to do is be intersectional. We know and acknowledge every day that gun violence prevention is not just about preventing mass shootings.”

Roberts noted that the effort is also a means of taking ownership of the conversation that has stalled legislatively in Washington — a plan “written by us, for us.”

“We are changing the conversation around gun violence itself because we don’t want the narrative to come from people who haven’t experienced it — to come from people who benefit from the sale of guns. We want the narrative to come from people who understand it from its very root,” she added.

Hogg, Roberts and Charlie Mirsky, the political director of March for Our Lives, hope the 2020 Democratic candidates embrace and campaign on their platform. The first test of its resonance will come Oct. 2 in Las Vegas, when March for Our Lives will host a forum dedicated to addressing gun violence in partnership with Giffords, the group run by former congresswoman and shooting survivor Gabrielle Giffords.

The issue of gun violence has recently become a much more dominant concern for the 2020 presidential candidates. Raw emotions have hit many of them as they have met advocates from Moms Demand Action and other groups whose members have been affected by gun violence. During one poignant moment, Andrew Yang broke down in tears at a gun forum in Des Moines this month.

“My hope is that they focus like a laser on youth turnout,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said of March for Our Lives’s 2020 efforts, after reviewing the proposal. “The election is over the minute young people decide to turn out. The only reason that Trump would get reelected is if young people stay home. The issue of gun violence is one of the only issues that truly motivate young people to shake off their indifference and aversion to voting.”

Democrats, who in the past would at least nod toward gun owners and do photo ops while hunting, are embracing gun control with greater urgency than they have in any election in recent memory, a sign that they are sensing movement among voters. During the 2018 midterms, when Democrats recaptured the House majority, nearly 70 percent of registered voters said gun policy was “very important” to them, ranking the issue ahead of taxes and immigration, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

Former vice president Joe Biden favors renewing an assault weapons ban and implementing a federal gun buyback program. Several Democrats have said they support gun licensing, including Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), while Biden has been skeptical of such a plan.

“Gun licensing will not change whether or not people buy what weapons — what kinds of weapons they can buy, where they can use them, how they can store them,” Biden said in June.

March for Our Lives is calling for a mandatory buyback of all assault weapons and a voluntary buyback of handguns and other firearms. O’Rourke has said that he would support a mandatory buyback program, while Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have been more skeptical, pushing for voluntary programs.

“Political parties believe they have all this power, but in reality the power in the U.S. resides in the culture and what we choose to prioritize,” Hogg said. “Movements are bigger than political parties.”

Hogg, Mirsky and Roberts, who are heading to college this fall, stressed the bipartisan need for lawmakers to adopt the plan — or at least to consider parts of it. And despite their disillusionment with Trump and his inaction on gun policy, they would welcome a meeting with him at the White House.

“I don’t know if he’d be sincere about it, but I would accept any meeting I could get regardless of political party because we must make these things happen,” said Hogg.

“Donald Trump wants gun reform,” said Mirsky. “If you look at what he does when he’s unfiltered, he will tweet about universal background checks. He was saying that Republicans are owned by the NRA. These are the things he says when he’s speaking off the cuff. . . . Donald Trump’s instincts are not what the problems are here. It’s clearly and shamelessly the NRA money that is flowing in there.”

NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter, commenting on the plan, said: “The gun-control community is finally being marginally honest about their true wish list. The simple fact remains their proposals and ideas are out of the mainstream, and most people will understand their real intent goes beyond what they publicly state.”

March for Our Lives has fiercely denounced what it says is the undue influence of the NRA in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, while the gun rights group has pushed back against the students’ calls for gun safety laws. Hogg called the NRA “the big tobacco of violence in the U.S.” and claimed that “they don’t care about gun owners, like my father.”

“The NRA cares as much about gun owners’ safety as the tobacco industry cared about smokers not getting cancer,” Hogg said.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Charlie Mirsky, the political director of March for Our Lives, was not a student or survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.


Scientists worried by thousands of tardigrades crash-landing on the moon: ‘We have no idea what can happen’

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Scientists worries by thousands of tardigrades crash-landing on the moon: ‘We have no idea what can happen’

The Beresheet lunar lander mission on April 11 was historic: Funded and deployed by Space IL, it was the first Israeli spacecraft to travel beyond Earth’s orbit and the first private landing on the Moon.

Artist impression of a tardigrade. Thousand of these microscopic creatures could be on the surface of the moon.ISTOCK

Unfortunately for SpaceIL, things didn’t go as planned: Seconds before Beresheet (Hebrew for “beginning”) was supposed to land, it lost contact with the control room. During the braking procedure, the main engine stopped operating. By the time it was brought back online, it was too late for a soft landing and Beresheet crashed onto the surface.

On board was a “lunar library” created by the Arch Mission Foundation as kind of time capsule for the combined knowledge of human civilization. The library contained samples of human DNA and 30 million pages of digital and analog data, including a full copy of Wikipedia, an Israeli flag, a Torah and a copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

It also housed thousands of tardigrades—microscopic eight-legged animals also known as “water bears.”

The creatures were chosen for their unique biological qualities: Tardigrades have the ability to survive for incredibly long periods without food or water, entering a dormant phase where their metabolic functions come to a complete stop. In lab conditions, scientists have brought tardigrades back to life after ten years in this state. But it’s not clear how long they could last in the near-vacuum of Moon.

Arch Mission co-founder Nova Spivack told AFP he believed the chances that the tardigrades survived the crash “are extremely high.”

Having those creatures unmonitored on the Moon’s surface, even in suspended animation, has some scientists concerned.

NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection (OPP) has established guidelines for how sterile planetary missions need to be. “Uncontrolled biological contamination of the Moon’s surface is not scientifically ideal,” said OPP director Dr. Lisa Pratt in a statement after the crash.

Other scientists were more upset: Astrobiologist Monica Vidaurri posted a Twitter thread in which she detailed the potential ramifications of letting private organizations dump whatever they want on the Moon’s surface.

“Tardigrades on the Moon is not good,” wrote Vidaurri, who works as a science consultant at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “It is not exciting. It is not cute. It is the result of a major gap in accountability for planetary protection and ethics between public and private science, and we have no idea what can happen as a result.”

Some dismissed her concerns as paranoia: “The Moon is a dead world with no atmosphere, crazy temperature swings, and high radiation,” tweeted one person on the thread. “Nothing can happen to dried out husks.”

Others came to Vidaurri’s defense.

“I think you’re entirely missing the point, which is about the absence of regulations or controls on how these kinds of actions are considered,” added Chris Britt, an outreach scientist for Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes. “What if a private company sent a mission to Europa and contaminated it? There are no processes in place to stop it, is the point.”

With another Moon mission not planned until 2024, though, “It is unlikely that [the tardigrades] will be rescued in time,” physicist Rafael Alves Batista told AFP. “So my guess is that, even if they survived, they are doomed.”

Still, there are good arguments for not sending terrestrial life to other planets—chief among them avoiding “false positives” for biomarkers of life by future explorers.

Scientific American‘s Caleb Scharf believes that tardigrades were probably already on the Moon’s surface before the Beresheet incident. The tiny animals have existed on our planet for more than 530 million years—through five mass extinctions. Scharf argues meteor impact ejections from Earth may have wound up there at some point and left tardigrade fossil samples—or even hibernating tardigrades.

“Water bears” have become a popular subject of research, with studies isolating the genes that trigger their hibernation and implanting it into other organisms. The U.S. military is funding studies, for example, that use tardigrade DNA to preserve vaccines, human blood and organs.

Although NASA has criticized the failed mission, America’s space agency has done its part to contaminate the surface of the Moon, too: The Apollo astronauts left almost a hundred bags of feces there in the late 60s and early 70s.

Despite the setback, the Arch Mission Foundation isn’t giving up: It’s partnering with another private spaceflight company, Astrobotic, to send a copy of Wikipedia encoded as synthetic DNA to the Moon in 2021.


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