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Officials: More than 100 Iowa worker pension payments stolen

DES MOINES (AP) | Pension payments stolen from the accounts of more than 100 Iowa public employee retirees have been returned to them, state officials said Thursday.

The Iowa Public Employees' Retirement System said 103 accounts were compromised in mid-October. The system serves workers for state and local governments and school districts. It sends payments totaling about $1.8 billion a year to 115,000 retirees.

Hackers obtained stolen Social Security numbers and birthdates, used the information to register for online account access and diverted the payments to different financial institutions, retirement system spokeswoman Judy Akre said. The system learned of the crime Tuesday, she said.

She would not give a specific amount for how much was stolen from the accounts. She said it was "several hundred thousand dollars."

Only accounts that had not previously established a username and password for their online access were affected, Akre said. Officials have not determined where the hackers obtained the stolen information, but do not think it was taken directly from the retirement system.

No arrests had been reported as of Thursday afternoon.

The crime was reported to the FBI and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

"We're meeting with people from both agencies right now," Akre said Thursday morning.

The system has reissued the payments to the correct financial institutions so the retirees will not lose money, she said. The retirees are being asked to check with their financial institutions to ensure the October payments were properly credited.

"That process takes a few days, so those members will have their funds either on or before Nov. 7," Akre said.

A message left Thursday for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation in Des Moines was not immediately returned.

A spokesman for the FBI in Omaha, which covers Iowa as well as Nebraska, said the agency is aware of the pension payment thefts and is working with Iowa law enforcement authorities. He declined to comment further.

After 32 years, Cristy Tass forced out of the fitness business in Mason City

MASON CITY | For someone who was in the fitness business for 32 years, the end came quickly for Cristy Tass.

Cristy's Fitness Center, one of three fitness outlets she owned over the years, closed Oct. 31 after just six weeks in business.

A former records clerk for the Mason City Police Department, Tass started Jazzercise in 1985 and had that franchise for 15 years.

In 1997, she opened Curves. "The two franchises overlapped for a while," she said.

Business was booming for years, with membership hitting 500 in 2007. "Then we went into a downslide, with just 137 members this year," said Tass, "but I think we were starting to come out of it."

Tass made the decision to cut ties with Curves and opened Cristy's Fitness Center six weeks ago in the same building where she has done all her business at 339 S. Delaware Ave.

Within days of opening, Tass received a "cease and desist" notice from Curves, citing a violation of a non-compete agreement.

She said she decided not to stay open because the odds were not on her side. "I broke the non-compete clause and I knew it," said Tass. "We were probably going to close anyway."

She is required to stay out of the fitness business for a year and has not ruled out the possibility of opening another center in the future. In the meantime, a liquidation sale is being held Saturday.

On Thursday, as she prepared for the sale, Tass reflected on all the customers she has helped over the past three decades. "It has been a dream to serve you," she wrote in a Facebook message to them.

Tass and her husband, Steve, who owns an auto repair business next door, own the fitness center building and intend to lease it.

She said her future plans are uncertain but has confidence everything will work out for the best.

"I'm waiting on the Lord," she said with her characteristic smile.

Gubernatorial candidate calls for new CAFO moratorium, stricter regulations in Iowa


Alarmed by the seemingly unbridled development of large-scale livestock facilities across rural Iowa, John Norris is calling for a moratorium on new construction and more regulatory authority for county governments.

Norris, who believes the road to the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor runs through rural Iowa, said the growth of CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations — is one of the issues he hears on the campaign trail. Last week, in northeast Iowa the focus was on a 10,000-head cattle feeding and methane digester near Monona.

Construction on the facility that will feed as many as 20,000 cattle a year already has damaged a trout stream in the Bloody Run Creek watershed, he said.

“There’s probably no place in Iowa where you should have 10,000 cows in the same confinement center, but the fact that it’s in this fragile land in northeast Iowa that is so beautiful doesn’t seem right — and we’re doing nothing about it,” Norris said.

Norris, who grew up on a southwest Iowa farm and was a small-business owner, is calling for a moratorium on CAFO construction until the state has regulations in place that will protect the environment and neighboring land owners.

In addition, he wants to empower counties to be able to set their own “unique” limits to protect tourism and fragile lands. And finally, he called for a master matrix that has teeth in helping regulate CAFOs.

“There’s no reason we can’t have a strong agriculture industry, but we shouldn’t have to degrade the environment and our natural resources to obtain it,” said Norris. “Economic development that degrades quality of life is not a positive path forward. That’s not sustainable.”

Norris also has been struck by voters’ concerns about mental health — the lack of services and level of care available in Iowa.

“The fact that it is raised at every setting is indicative of serious problems and a little bit surprising that it has been so dominant when there are other issues that people are concerned about,” he said. “There’s just nowhere to turn for so many folks and nearly every family is affected by it.”

Norris, who was in Cedar Rapids for a fundraiser hosted by Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers and City Council member Justin Shields, believes he’s best positioned among the Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls to bring rural Iowans who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 back to the Democratic fold.

He doesn’t want to see Democrats waste the opportunity that Republican control of the governor’s office and both legislative chambers presents.

Norris isn’t ready to predict a Democratic wave in 2018 “because there’s a lot of mistrust for both parties.”

“We have to make a case for ourselves,” he said. “They’re not going to hand it to us, but they’ve certainly set the plate for us with the budget mess, the Medicaid fiasco, with not addressing the water quality issues. Collective bargaining (changes) have energized teachers like they’ve never been energized before and county government workers.

“There’s a hunger there for someone to step up and govern responsibly and now we have to make sure we step into that void with some ideas that motivate people to get behind us,” he said.

Ashley Stewart / ASHLEY STEWART, The Globe Gazette 

Pig in a North Iowa confinement. 

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Amid Russia probe, Iowan Sam Clovis withdraws nomination for federal post

SIOUX CITY | Sam Clovis, a Northwest Iowan who has been questioned in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged meddling by Russia in the 2016 campaign, on Thursday withdrew his nomination to a Department of Agriculture post.

Clovis wrote a letter to President Donald Trump, saying he wanted the president to withdraw his nomination to become the chief scientist in the Agriculture Department.

"The political climate inside Washington has made it impossible for me to receive balanced and fair consideration for this position. The reckless assaults on you and your team seem to be a blood sport that only increases in intensity every day," Clovis wrote.

A CNN report earlier Thursday said the Clovis nomination was imperiled due to his connection to the Russia probe.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the leading Democrat on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, on Wednesday wrote Clovis with more questions regarding his actions in 2016, when he was a co-chairman of the Trump presidential campaign.

Stabenow said the questions need answers, after information surfaced this week from criminal filings that were reported against former campaign officials for Trump, who is a Republican.

"The emerging information about his role in the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia raises serious concerns. As we consider his nomination, I will be looking into these facts, along with his questionable qualifications," Stabenow said in a release that also included her questions for Clovis.

Clovis, who now is a White House aide to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, testified last week before a grand jury seated in Washington, D.C., NBC News first reported Wednesday.

Clovis, a former Morningside College professor and Sioux City radio talk show host, was propelled into the middle of Mueller's high-stakes probe on Monday with the unsealing of court documents related a guilty pleading by George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

Papadopoulos, who was secretly arrested in July for lying to the FBI and pleaded guilty last month to those charges, is cooperating with Mueller's investigation, according to the documents.

As national campaign co-chair and senior policy adviser of the Trump campaign, Clovis was asked to form a national security advisory committee. The members included Papadopoulos, who was not approached by the campaign for consultation, other than one meeting he attended in March 2016, Victoria Toensing, the attorney for Clovis, said in a statement to the Journal.

In his plea filing, Papadopolous admitted he told Trump and other top campaign national security officials during the March 31 meeting that he had contact with intermediaries for Russia who said they could set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulos continued to email campaign officials about a possible meeting with individuals claiming to work for the Russian government who were offering "dirt" in the form of emails from Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

In an August 2016 email, among the court documents uncovered Monday, Clovis urged Papadopoulos to "make the trip, if it is feasible."

To Clovis' knowledge, Toensing said in the statement, all of Papadopoulos' communications with the campaign were "self-generated." Clovis never told Papadopoulos that "a principal foreign policy focus of the campaign was an improved U.S. relationship with Russia," because that was not Clovis' view of Trump's foreign policies priorities, Toensing said.

For weeks, Democrats had urged Trump to withdraw the nomination of Clovis, contending his background as an economics professor at Morningside College in Sioux City does not fit for the agriculture post.

Also in his letter, Clovis, a military veteran, said, "I have served this nation for 50 years with dignity, honor and integrity and will continue to do so." He added that "it saddens me" that the nomination would not go through to fruition.

John Skipper / submitted photo