Amazon’s Exit Could Scare Off Tech Companies From New York

Amazon jilted New York City on Valentine’s Day, scrapping plans to build a massive headquarters campus in Queens amid fierce opposition from politicians angry about nearly $3 billion in tax breaks and the company’s anti-union stance.

With millions of jobs and a bustling economy, New York can withstand the blow, but experts say the decision by the e-commerce giant to walk away and take with it 25,000 promised jobs could scare off other companies considering moving to or expanding in the city, which wants to be seen as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast.

“One of the real risks here is the message we send to companies that want to come to New York and expand to New York,” said Julie Samuels, the executive director of industry group Tech: NYC. “We’re really playing with fire right now.”

In November, Amazon selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, as the winners of a secretive, yearlong process in which more than 230 North American cities bid to become the home of the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the city’s selection at the time as the biggest boon yet to its burgeoning tech economy and underscored that the deal would generate billions of dollars for improving transit, schools and housing.

Opposition came swiftly though, as details started to emerge.

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal, such as the company’s demand for access to a helipad. Some pleaded for the deal to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether.

“We knew this was going south from the moment it was announced,” said Thomas Stringer, a site selection adviser for big companies. “If this was done right, all the elected officials would have been out there touting how great it was. When you didn’t see that happen, you knew something was wrong.”

Stringer, a managing director of the consulting firm BDO USA LLP, said city and state officials need to rethink the secrecy with which they approached the negotiations. Community leaders and potential critics were kept in the dark, only to be blindsided when details became public.

“It’s time to hit the reset button and say, “What did we do wrong?”‘ Stringer said. “This is fumbling at the 1-yard line.”

Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials and that a number of them had “made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward.”

Not that Amazon is blameless, experts say.

Joe Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company’s high-profile bidding process may have stoked the backlash. Companies usually search for new locations quietly, in part to avoid the kind of opposition Amazon received.

“They had this huge competition, and the media covered it really aggressively, and a bunch of cities responded,” Parilla said. “What did you expect? It gave the opposition a much bigger platform.”

Richard Florida, an urban studies professor and critic of Amazon’s initial search process, said the company should have expected to feel the heat when it selected New York, a city known for its neighborhood activism.

“At the end of the day, this is going to hurt Amazon,” said Florida, head of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “This is going to embolden people who don’t like corporate welfare across the country.”

Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss.

Google is spending $2.4 billion to build up its Manhattan campus. Cloud-computing company Salesforce has plastered its name on Verizon’s former headquarters in midtown, and music streaming service Spotify is gobbling up space at the World Trade Center complex.

Despite higher costs, New York City remains attractive to tech companies because of its vast, diverse talent pool, world-class educational and cultural institutions and access to other industries, such as Wall Street capital and Madison Avenue ad dollars.

No other metropolitan area in the U.S. has as many computer-related jobs as New York City, which has 225,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas each have a greater concentration of their workers in tech.

In the New York area, the average computer-related job pays roughly $104,000 a year, about $15,000 above the national average. Still, that’s about $20,000 less than in San Francisco.

Even after cancelling its headquarters project, Amazon still has 5,000 employees in New York City, not counting Whole Foods.

“New York has actually done a really great job of growing and supporting its tech ecosystem, and I’m confident that will continue,” Samuels said. “Today we took a step back, but I would not put the nail in the coffin of tech in New York City.”

Families of British IS Brides Plead for Repatriation

Pressure is mounting on the British government to decide whether it will repatriate — and prosecute when possible — dozens of the Islamic State group’s surviving British-born recruits, currently held by U.S.-led Kurdish forces in northeast Syria.

Britain, like other European countries, has been reluctant to take back IS recruits, whether male fighters or so-called jihadi brides as well as their children. A small number have been repatriated to their countries of origin, but hundreds are awaiting political or legal resolution of their cases as their appeals for help have largely been ignored.

The discovery this week in a refugee camp of a pregnant 19-year-old British woman who joined the militant group along with two girlfriends in 2015 has reignited a furious debate in Britain about what to do with surviving IS recruits, especially those who joined when still teenagers.

Public pleas for repatriation of male fighters, as well as IS brides languishing in overcrowded refugee and detention camps in northern Syria, weren’t helped this week by the defiance of Shamima Begum, who is nine months’ pregnant with her third child. She was a schoolgirl when she sneaked off from her home in east London and joined IS in Syria. She and two friends married IS fighters, in her case a Dutchman who converted to Islam.

She expressed no remorse in an interview with The Times newspaper for joining IS, telling a reporter, “I don’t regret coming here.” She said the sight of a severed head of a captured fighter that had been discarded by a jihadist “didn’t faze me at all.” The pregnant teenager did speak of the deaths from malnutrition and illness of her first two children, saying she fled to the Kurds hoping to be returned to Britain for the sake of her still-to-be-born child so her infant can receive proper medical care in Britain’s national health service.

“I’ll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child,” she said. She said IS deserved to be defeated. “There was so much oppression and corruption that I don’t think they [IS] deserved victory.”

Her family, along with the relatives of her friend Amira Abase, have called on the British government to allow both of them back, saying they represent no threat and should be forgiven for their youthful errors. They say they were groomed by IS and too young to be held responsible. Kadiza Sultana, the third girl, was killed in an airstrike in 2016.

“I have no doubt the government should let them back in and teach them, so they learn from their mistakes,” said the father of Amira Abase. She is believed still to be with IS forces. Begum’s elder sister, Renu, told a British broadcaster she hoped her sibling would be allowed back to Britain. She added that her sister is “pregnant and vulnerable,” adding “it’s important we get her … home as soon as possible.”

Warning from Britain

There’s little public sympathy for the girls’ plight, however, and Begum’s interview has prompted a media firestorm. In a poll by Britain’s Sky News, 76 percent of respondents said the girls should be barred from returning.

Britain’s security minister, Ben Wallace, has said the government won’t help with Begum’s repatriation, although as a British citizen she has the right to return.

But he warned in a statement, “Everyone who returns from taking part in the conflict in Syria or Iraq must expect to be investigated by the police to determine if they have committed criminal offenses, and to ensure that they do not pose a threat to our national security. There are a range of terrorism offenses where individuals can be convicted for crimes committed overseas and we can also use Temporary Exclusion Orders to control an individual’s return to the U.K.”

London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has said that Begum should not be allowed back into Britain, if the security services believe she poses a risk to national security.

But the reporter who interviewed her, Anthony Loyd, said he believes Begum is an “indoctrinated jihadi bride” and urged against “judging her too harshly.”

In December, a Belgian judge issued an order for the repatriation of half a dozen children and a pair of Belgian mothers, both IS recruits, from a Kurdish-controlled camp in northeast Syria. The women, Tatiana Wielandt and Bouchra Abouallal, both in their mid-20s, are being held in the al-Hol camp, one of several housing about 584 jihadi brides and 1,250 children, the offspring of IS fathers, most of them foreign fighters.

​US  position

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are now threatening to transport British IS fighters detained by the Kurds to the American detention center at Guantanamo Bay for prosecution before military commissions. Washington is especially keen to prosecute two alleged members of the so-called “Beatles” terror gang, Londoners El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, for their suspected participation in the torture and beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers, including American reporters James Foley and Steve Sotloff. 

An estimated 800 captured IS foreign fighters are being held by the Kurds. Officials from France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have said for more than a year that they are highly reluctant to accept the repatriation of IS foreign fighters or their wives, despite appeals by the Kurds and the Trump administration to do so. U.S. officials fear the fighters will be able to slip away, if they are not returned to their home countries.

European officials say they represent security risks and that there would be technical and legal difficulties in prosecuting them. Repatriated foreign fighters and their wives would try to use the courts for propaganda purposes, if prosecutions were mounted, they fear. Official British figures show that only one in 10 British IS fighters who managed to return home has been prosecuted. Most have been required to join rehabilitation programs.

French Yellow Vest Figure on Trial, New Protests Planned

A prominent figure of the French yellow vests has gone on trial in Paris for allegedly organizing illegal demonstrations, as the movement prepares for a 14th consecutive weekend of protests.

Eric Drouet was arrested for organizing demonstrations on Dec. 22 and Jan. 2 in Paris without declaring them to authorities.

He acknowledged he didn’t follow the rule, saying Friday he doesn’t consider himself a protest organizer.

The Paris prosecutor requested a 500-euro ($563) fine and a one-month suspended prison sentence. The court’s decision will be announced on March 29.

Drouet is a known figure of the movement, repeatedly calling for demonstrations on social media.

Yellow vest protesters are planning new protests on Saturday and Sunday in Paris and other cities to denounce French President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies.


Russia Detains US Investor, Colleagues in Moscow on Suspicion of Fraud

Russia has detained American investor Michael Calvey, the U.S. founder of the Moscow-based Baring Vostok private equity group, on suspicion of fraud.

A spokeswoman for Moscow’s Basmanny district court says Calvey was detained along with other members of the firm on Thursday. The court will rule later Friday afternoon on whether to keep them in custody.

According to Baring Vostok’s web site, the private equity group holds more than $3.5 billion in committed capital.

Prosecutors allege that Calvey, a senior partner who set the fund up in 1994, worked in concert with his colleagues to steal $37.5 million (2.5 billion rubles). If convicted, the men could face up to 10 years in prison.

Interfax is reporting that Calvey’s detention stems from a dispute over Russia’s Vostochny Bank, in which Baring Vostok is a controlling shareholder.

Vostochny, whose portfolio is based on Siberian and Far Eastern markets, ranks among Russia’s 30 largest banks by assets.

Before starting at Baring Vostok, Calvey worked for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Salomon Brothers.


Asylum-Seekers in US Head for Tiny Canadian Border Town

Where the U.S. north-central states of North Dakota and Minnesota come together at the Red River, there sits across the border in Canada, the tiny town of Emerson, Manitoba. In recent years, a number of people have illegally crossed into Canada there to claim asylum and start a new life. More from VOA’s Jeffrey Young, who journeyed to Emerson and Manitoba’s capital, Winnipeg.

Neighbors Mull Ways to Get Aid Into Venezuela

Venezuelans and their neighbors are looking for ways to get desperately needed humanitarian aid into Venezuela. The country’s disputed President Nicolas Maduro has ordered a blockade at the border with Colombia to prevent an aid convoy from getting through. Maduro claims the United States is using the aid convoy to attempt a coup. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports Venezuela’s interim leaders are planning to help the convoys enter Venezuela later this month.

Haitian President to People: ‘I Hear You’

Haitian President Jovenel Moise has broken his silence after eight days of violent protests during which protesters demanded his resignation.

“I hear you,” Moise said in an evening address to the nation, televised on the national television station, TNH, and streamed live on Facebook.

“I will never betray you. You are the reason I ran for president. I’m working for you,” he vowed, reminding the country’s most underprivileged citizens that like them, he, too, came from humble beginnings.

Moise has been widely criticized by politicians and citizens alike for failing to publicly respond to the demands of the people. He has also been vilified for his government’s lack of transparency and its ineffectiveness.

Economic hardship

Protesters nationwide have criticized soaring prices, sky-high inflation and corruption, which have led to worsening living conditions for many.

Moise sought to diminish tensions by saying he understands the frustrations that led to the mass protests. Progress takes time, especially for the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, he said.

The president announced that he has taken a series of measures to make life better for Haitians and has asked Prime Minister Jean Henry Ceant to communicate those measures and apply them immediately. After his speech he tweeted that the prime minister would announce new economic measures on Friday.

“The crisis we are confronting is extremely serious,” Moise said. “The people took to the streets in July 2018 to demand change. I heard you. That’s why I chose an electoral rival — notary public Jean Henry Ceant — as my prime minister. Five months later, the crisis has worsened and it threatens the very foundation of this nation.”

Moise warned those who seek to “force the country in a direction that is not in our interest” that they will not succeed. He said only a multiparty dialogue can solve the current crisis.

Senate Leader Carl Cantave Murat echoed that opinion earlier Thursday during a midday press conference.

Protesters undeterred

According to VOA Creole’s reporter in Port-au-Prince, gunfire rang out in various neighborhoods as soon as the president’s speech ended.

Reaction on Facebook immediately following the address was mixed. The 1,000 comments left on TNH’s Facebook page ranged from “finally” and “nice address darling” to “why did it take you so long to say something?” and “is he serious?”

VOA Creole reporters say protesters were back in the streets Thursday night, seemingly undeterred by the president’s address. The national police, PNH, are using tear gas, according to reports.

Meanwhile, in Washington the State Department has raised its travel alert for Haiti to level 4, the most serious. “Do not travel, due to crime and unrest,” the advisory reads.

Matiado Vilme and Florence Lisene in Port-au-Prince, and State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.

Report: Facebook, FTC Discuss Multibillion Dollar Fine

A report says Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission are negotiating a “multibillion dollar” fine for the social network’s privacy lapses.

The Washington Post said Thursday that the fine would be the largest ever imposed on a tech company. Citing unnamed sources, it also said the two sides have not yet agreed on an exact amount. 

Facebook has had several high-profile privacy lapses in the past couple of years. The FTC has been looking into the Cambridge Analytica scandal since last March. The data mining firm accessed the data of some 87 million Facebook users without their consent. 

At issue is whether Facebook is in violation of a 2011 agreement with the FTC promising to protect user privacy. Facebook and the FTC declined to comment.