Members of Rowan County (N.C.) Board of Commissioners start their board meetings with Christian prayers.

Court draws line on church-state separation
A divided en banc U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals settled a church-state dispute by ruling that a North Carolina county board’s ritual of opening its meetings with a Christian prayer was constitutionally offensive. The court held that the Rowan County commissioners’ practice violated the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment which together create a bulwark against governmental sponsorship of a religion while protecting the right of all citizens to follow any religion they choose. “The Constitution does not allow what happened in Rowan County. The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity,” the appeals court said.

Chickens take global tour on way to U.S. plates
The first shipment of processed poultry products to reach the U.S. following the lifting of a trade ban originated in a filthy Chile slaughter house, was shipped to a cooking and processing plant in China that was not subject to USDA inspection, and was carried across the ocean to food manufacturers who packaged the product for delivery to America’s dinner plates, Food & Water Watch said. A USDA audit of the Chilean chicken slaughterhouse noted non-compliances in the plant’s sanitation procedures and final product defect processes, FWW said.

Massive hot dog recall is underway
Marathon Enterprises Inc., a food manufacturer in the Bronx, N.Y., is recalling 7.2 million pounds of hot dog products because they may be contaminated with bone fragments. The hot dogs are sold under several brand names such as Sabrett’s, Stew Leonard’s, Papaya King, Nathan’s Private Label, and Katz’s Delicatessen. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said the recall follows the report of a minor oral injury associated with consumption of the product, and several complaints of extraneous material found within the product.

Back-to-school sales expected to hit $83.6 billion
Retailers are predicting that total back-to-school spending will reach $83.6 billion, a more than 10% increase from last year’s $75.8 billion. According to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey, families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $687 per student, a total of $27.3 billion, and college students and their families plan to spend an average of $970, a total of $54.1 billion.

Federal welfare benefits are out of synch
An examination of six key federal programs for low-income people found wide variances in eligibility requirements and discrepancies in the level of benefits they provided, the Government Accountability Office said. Together, the six programs distributed $540 billion of benefits in a single year. GAO reviewed the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, Housing Choice Voucher program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Supplemental Security Income, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Air Force discloses Trump travel costs
Responding to a Freedom of Information Act request and a related FOIA lawsuit, the U.S. Department of the Air Force disclosed $2.3 million in expenses for presidential flight travel in February through mid-March, Judicial Watch said. The Air Force produced information about seven trips, including $89,246 to fly Vice President Pence to the Super Bowl game in Houston; and, $598,000 to fly President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Mar-a-Lago where they played a round of golf.

Disability lawyer gets 12-year sentence for fraud
Eric Conn, 56, a Social Security disability lawyer in Pikeville, Ky., was given a 12-year prison sentence for fraudulently obtaining more than $550 million in benefits for thousands of claimants, the Department of Justice said. He was also ordered to pay more than $106 million in restitution to the Social Security Administration. DOJ said Conn paid $10,000 a month to an SSA administrative law judge who approved falsified medical applications for disability benefits. Conn pleaded guilty to the charges and was awaiting sentencing when he fled from federal custody and remains a fugitive. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has posted a $20,000 reward for information leading to Conn’s arrest.

Nigerian re-entered U.S. to file false tax returns
Kevin Williams (aka: Kunlay Sodipo), 56, a Nigerian national found living in St. Louis, Mo., pleaded guilty to filing more than 2,000 fraudulent federal income tax returns that produced more than $12 million in refunds. Williams was deported from the U.S. in 1995 but he illegally returned in 1999. According to the Department of Justice, Williams registered to vote and cast ballots in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections.

Psychology testers are sentenced for fraud
Rodney Hesson, 47, and Gertrude Parker, 63, both of Slidell, La., were given 180-month and 84-month prison sentences, respectively, for a $25.2 million Medicare fraud that was carried out through nursing homes in Alabama, Florida, Lousiana and Mississippi, the Department of Justice said. Hesson and Parker owned two psychological testing companies which provided services to the nursing homes, and billed Medicare for services that the nursing home residents did not need or did not receive, DOJ said.

Rip ‘n Read is a daily compilation of press releases found on hundreds of websites that are maintained by the federal government, think tanks, watchdog groups and national advocacy organizations. Press releases selected for this feature are, in the opinion of the editor, exceptionally newsworthy, interesting or just plain curious.

The press releases and documents linked to this report were posted on their websites on Friday, July 14

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