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Coal leases
Cheney bill limiting future coal moratoriums passes committee

A bill that puts a stopper on any future coal lease moratoriums passed in the U.S. House Natural Resource Committee on Thursday.

Proposed by Rep. Liz Cheney, the bill would make any future moratoriums on federal coal leases contingent on congressional approval.

An Obama-era hold on new coal leases was a sticking point in coal-rich Wyoming, where many saw it as part of a political and regulatory “war on coal.”

This bill would keep a presidential administration from interfering in the coal market, Cheney said in a statement.

“For far too long Obama-era energy policies attacked our state’s fossil fuel industry,” Cheney said. “Coal is a national treasure and President Obama’s war on coal did real damage to the livelihoods of the people and communities in our state.”

The moratorium was put in place in anticipation of an overhaul of the nation’s coal lease program. The Obama administration released the results of a review suggesting changes just days before President Donald Trump took office.

The moratorium was later lifted by the Trump Administration.

However, a challenged market following large lease sales that shored up company reserves have been a more effective deterrent to new leasing. Coal plant closures and competition from natural gas and renewables have put increasing pressure on the coal sector, depressing spending on expansion.

Wyoming is at the center of the recent coal lease and royalty debates. It is the nation’s largest producer of coal. All of its large surface mines are federal coal resources, and until last year, a flush of coal lease bonus money served as the revenue source for school buildings and major maintenance.

Wyoming coal companies supported Cheney’s bill when it was first proposed earlier this year. Gillette-based Cloud Peak said in earlier interviews that the bill was an important check against future meddling from Washington.

“The continued ability to efficiently maintain these mines through leasing additional tracts is critical to ensuring ‘the maximum economic recovery of coal,’ as required under the Mineral Leasing Act, said Spokesman Richard Reavey in July.

But environmental groups supported the moratorium as part of the overhaul of the country’s coal program, and fought the Obama-era expansions granted to Wyoming companies just before the moratorium was put in place.

Those that supported the moratorium say coal companies underpay on federal coal leases and royalties, shorting the taxpayer revenue. Coal companies have argued against this, pointing to the volume of taxes laid on each ton of coal that is shipped out of the PRB.

Coal has challenges behind and ahead, but the sector has become a conservative rallying cry for federal de-regulation.

For Cheney, this legislation could help ensure the longevity of coal and “prevent future unnecessary drags on economic growth.”

UW Football
Wyoming to play Central Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

The Wyoming football team will end its season in Boise, Idaho.

The Cowboys will play the Central Michigan Chippewas on Dec. 22 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the bowl announced Sunday.

“Personally, our coaching staff and our players are excited about the opportunity to play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl,” Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl said in a release. “We want to thank the bowl committee for this opportunity.”

The bowl will be held at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, the home of the Boise State Broncos. Wyoming played on the field’s blue turf on Oct. 21, losing 24-14 to Boise State.

The Chippewas went 8-4 this regular season, including 6-2 in the Mid-American Conference, tied for second place in the West.

Wyoming and Central Michigan have played twice. The Cowboys won 31-10 in 2000 in Laramie and lost 32-20 in 2002 in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

Wyoming went 7-5 in its regular season, losing the final two games after quarterback Josh Allen was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Allen has not said whether he will play in the bowl game, which is expected to be his final game with Wyoming.

The Cowboys are going to a bowl game in consecutive years for the first time since 1987-88, both of which resulted in Holiday Bowl losses. Wyoming lost in the now-defunct Poinsettia Bowl last season to BYU.

“We’re excited about being in a bowl game for the second year in a row,” Bohl said. “I think it is another indication of us building a program for long-term success here at the University of Wyoming.

“I know it’s been many years since Wyoming has gone to back-to-back bowl games, and we are proud of our players for achieving consecutive bowl appearances.”

Bohl joins Dave Christensen (two), Paul Roach (three) and Lloyd Eaton (two) as coaches who have taken Wyoming to multiple bowl games.

Wyoming, which is 6-8 in bowl games, has never before played in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Brett McMurphy reported Tuesday on The Score that Wyoming was “locked into” the Potato Bowl as the Mountain West’s representative.

“We are very excited to welcome Central Michigan and Wyoming to the 2017 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl,” said Kevin McDonald, executive director of the bowl. “There is always extra enthusiasm around the bowl when we have two first-time participants and this year will be no different.

“We have a great lineup of bowl-week events for the teams, their fans and the local community. Now we have two exciting teams with big-play capabilities who will put an exclamation mark on the festivities with a really competitive game.”

Trump lashes out at FBI in a series of tweets

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump launched a fresh attack Sunday on the credibility of his own FBI, responding to revelations that an FBI agent was removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team investigating Russian election meddling because of anti-Trump text messages.

Trump, two days after his former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, again denied that he directed FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating Flynn.

The Republican president offered a running Twitter commentary Sunday amid renewed focus on Mueller’s probe and Flynn’s decision to cooperate with the investigation as part of his plea agreement. Democrats said the developments suggested growing evidence of coordination between Trump’s circle and Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the panel is beginning to see “the putting together of a case of obstruction of justice” against Trump.

“I think we see this in indictments ... and some of the comments that are being made. I see this in the hyperfrenetic attitude of the White House, the comments every day, the continual tweets,” Feinstein said. “And I see it most importantly in what happened with the firing of Director Comey, and it is my belief that that is directly because he did not agree to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation. That’s obstruction of justice.”

In a series of tweets, Trump questioned the direction of the federal law enforcement agency and wrote that after Comey, whom Trump fired in May, the FBI’s reputation is “in Tatters — worst in History!” He vowed to “bring it back to greatness.” The president also retweeted a post saying new FBI Director Chris Wray “needs to clean house.”

The president seized on reports that a veteran FBI counterintelligence agent was removed from Mueller’s team last summer after the discovery of an exchange of text messages that were viewed as potentially anti-Trump. The agent, Peter Strzok, also had worked on the investigation of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, said Mueller removed Strzok from the team “immediately upon learning of the allegations.” He would not elaborate on the nature of the accusations. The person who discussed the matter with The Associated Press was not authorized to speak about it by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trump tweeted Sunday: “Tainted (no, very dishonest?) FBI ‘agent’s role in Clinton probe under review.’ Led Clinton Email probe.” In a separate tweet, he wrote: “Report: ‘ANTI-TRUMP FBI AGENT LED CLINTON EMAIL PROBE’ Now it all starts to make sense!”

Strzok’s removal almost certainly reflected a desire to insulate the investigators from any claims of political bias or favoritism. Trump and many of his supporters have at times sought to discredit the integrity of the investigation, in part by claiming a close relationship between Mueller and Comey and by pointing to political contributions to Democrats made by some lawyers on the team.

Following the tweets, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warned the president to tread cautiously. “You tweet and comment regarding ongoing criminal investigations at your own peril. I’d be careful if I were you, Mr. President. I’d watch this,” Graham said.

Mueller has been investigating whether Trump campaign associates coordinated with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and Strzok’s background in counterintelligence would have been seen as particularly valuable for a secretive FBI probe examining foreign contacts.

Mueller’s investigation so far has netted charges against four people, with the most recent criminal case brought Friday when Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

On Saturday, Trump tweeted that he “had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!”

The tweet suggested that Trump was aware when the White House dismissed Flynn on Feb. 13 that he had lied to the FBI, which had interviewed him weeks earlier. Comey has said Trump the following day brought up the Flynn investigation in private at the White House and told him he hoped he could “let this go.”

Amid questions raised by the tweet, Trump associates tried to put distance Saturday evening between the president himself and the tweet. One person familiar with the situation said the tweet was crafted by John Dowd, one of the president’s personal attorneys. Dowd declined to comment when reached by the AP on Saturday night.

California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said given that Mueller could have charged Flynn with more crimes but instead limited it to just one offense, “Bob Mueller must have concluded that he was getting a lot of value in terms of Gen. Flynn’s cooperation.”

“I do believe he will incriminate others in the administration. Otherwise, there was no reason for Bob Mueller to give Mike Flynn this kind of deal,” Schiff said, adding, “Whether that will ultimately lead to the president, I simply don’t know.”

Wyomingites raise money to help wrongfully convicted man

A Wyoming man freed after spending nearly a quarter century in prison for a crime he didn’t commit is still struggling to make ends meet. Now, his friends are trying to provide the financial help that the state has so far failed to do.

Andrew Johnson was convicted of a 1989 rape and sentenced to life in prison. He spent almost 24 years there. In 2008, state legislators passed a law allowing prisoners to petition for post-conviction DNA testing.

Johnson applied for the testing and the rape kit performed on Johnson’s accuser contained her then-fiance’s semen, not his. She had said at trial that she had not had sex with anyone during the time period of the alleged rape.

Johnson was granted a re-trial in 2013, before prosecutors dropped charges against him. A judge signed an order later that year proclaiming Johnson’s innocence.

Although he was eventually freed from the sentence associated with his wrongful conviction, Johnson has not received restitution from the state for the two-plus decades he spent in prison. Wyoming is one of 18 states that does not pay restitution to people incarcerated for wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA testing.

Chris and Rebecca Merrill, of Laramie, met Johnson shortly after his exoneration. Their interest in the first Wyoming man to be exonerated on DNA evidence led them to help him financially, Chris Merrill said. After developing a friendship over the course of four years, the Merrills started an online fundraiser to help Johnson with his bills.

“We really believe his society, and that’s us, … owes him a debt,” Chris Merrill said by phone Thursday.

“I’m part of it.”

Upon reading a Star-Tribune article chronicling Johnson’s financial woes after his release, Chris and Rebecca Merrill decided they wanted to help him. The couple contacted Johnson’s Rocky Mountain Innocence Center lawyer, Jennifer Hare Salem, who put them in touch with another lawyer, and eventually Johnson.

The couple bought Johnson a used Toyota, ensuring he would no longer have to walk to doctor’s appointments or work.

They have stayed in touch since. Chris Merrill said he talks to Johnson by phone on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Merrill, who worked for the Star-Tribune from 2008 to 2009, said that although Johnson is working, “it’s nothing to get ahead.”

Chris Merrill said that, as a citizen of Wyoming, he owes Johnson a debt. Johnson’s society wronged him and Merrill said he’s “part of it.”

After realizing there was only so much they could do for Johnson, the couple started an online fundraiser in an attempt to make restitution on behalf of Wyoming citizens. The fundraiser went live on Wednesday night and had raised $1,950 for Johnson by Friday afternoon. The fundraiser goal was set at $100,000, or which would equate to roughly $4,000 for each year of his incarceration.

“When the government fails to do the right thing,” Chris Merrill said, “It’s up to private citizens to pick up the slack.”

Legislation that would have provided restitution to wrongfully convicted people has been proposed in Wyoming but has never become law. A 2014 version of the legislation would have provided up to $500,000 to people who were wrongfully incarcerated and then exonerated through DNA evidence. The legislature’s two chambers failed to come to a consensus in that year’s budget session.

Johnson sued the city of Cheyenne in April, alleging police officers had failed to properly investigate the case and withheld evidence, which led to his conviction. In July, a federal judge ruled in favor of the city. Appeals filed in the following four months have not yet yielded a victory for Johnson.

Johnson said through Merrill that his attorneys had advised him not to speak to the press, given the ongoing appeals process. A Friday call to Johnson’s Cheynne attorney, Aaron Lyttle, went unanswered.

The fundraiser can be found at