Rail strike averted with Senate vote, Biden renews ties with France: 5 Things podcast

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On today's episode of the 5 Things podcast: Rail strike averted with Senate vote

Bipartisan leaders in Congress said they had no choice. Plus, Biden renews ties with France and the Supreme Court takes on Biden's student loan forgiveness plan.

Podcasts: True crime, in-depth interviews and more USA TODAY podcasts right here.

Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below. This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.

Cherie Saunders:

Good morning. I'm Cherie Saunders, and this is 5 Things you need to know Friday, the 2nd of December 2022. Today, Congress averts a rail strike, plus a congressional report details PPP fraud, a look at US/France relations, and the Supreme Court takes on Biden's student loan forgiveness.

A nationwide freight rail strike has been averted after the Senate voted yesterday to impose a tentatively approved labor deal. The 80 to 15 vote marked the first time in 30 years that Congress intervened to stop a rail strike. The house passed the legislation on Wednesday. President Joe Biden told reporters Thursday morning that a rail strike would've decimated the US economy and triggered a recession. The bill adopts a tentative agreement reached in September between union leaders and freight operators. It includes a 24% pay increase over five years, $5,000 bonuses, voluntary assigned days off, but only one paid day off, a major sticking point in getting the union's approval. An additional measure passed in the House would've provided rail workers with seven paid sick days, but the Senate rejected the addition of paid sick time, ignoring the demands of progressives who said the railroads could afford it. Senate passage of the bill was the final step before it heads to President Joe Biden's desk to be signed into law.

A congressional subcommittee issued its final report Thursday about financial fraud supercharged by online lending during the pandemic. The report alleged executives and their families enriched themselves through the government's Paycheck Protection Program. South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, the Democratic Chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, focused much of the 130 page report on the companies Womply and Blueacorn, two major players that fused tech and financing to speed up lending. Turns out Womply had zero lending experience before the pandemic and Blueacorn didn't even exist. Altogether, the two companies captured more than $3 billion in fees for facilitating business loans. The startups are not banks, but worked as middlemen marketing to struggling businesses and quickly approving loans with partner banks.

Clyburn called the fraud unveiled by his committee "inexcusable misconduct," and asked the Small Business Administration, its oversight watchdog, and the Department of Justice to further investigate. Representatives for Blue Acorn and Womply did not immediately respond to USA TODAY. As of October, the Justice Department's fraud section has charged 235 defendants with pandemic fraud charges across 162 cases. It has estimated the total loss in those cases to be about $336 million.

More than 300 guests were in attendance for Thursday night's state dinner at the White House as President Biden hosted French President Emmanuel Macron. Producer PJ Elliott spoke with USA TODAY White House correspondent Francesca Chambers to find out more on the relationship between the two presidents.

Francesca Chambers:

Presidents Biden and Macron stressed through the entire state visit that the United States and France had been in a long alliance dating back to the Revolutionary War. But that doesn't mean that the two countries don't have their issues with one another. President Macron pushed President Biden on the trade relationship between the United States and Europe.

PJ Elliott:

Francesca, why did it take so long for these two to get together? Biden's been president for two years now.

Francesca Chambers:

The COVID-19 pandemic had prevented large gatherings at the White House, so this was President Biden's first state dinner. But that's not to say that the two leaders haven't had a chance to get together. When they were both in Bali at the G20 summit recently, they got to talk to each other while they were there.

PJ Elliott:

Francesca, what about the war in Ukraine? Will France and the US be able to work together on this?

Francesca Chambers:

President Biden said in a news conference that the United States would stand with Ukraine against Vladimir Putin's brutality, and that both the US and France would continue to show strong support for the Ukrainian people. Now, he first said that he had no immediate plans to contact Vladimir Putin, but then he also said that he was prepared to meet with the Russian leader if he decided he's looking for a way to end the war. Biden said that if Putin were willing to end the war, he'd be happy to sit down with him to see what he wants, but he would only do so in consultation with NATO allies, including France. President Macron said that it's important for the United States to continue supporting Ukraine. He also said that France would never urge the Ukrainians to make a compromise that was not acceptable for them. He said that sustainable peace would only come from Ukrainians deciding the moment and the conditions in which they would negotiate about their territory and their future.

PJ Elliott:

So what about the state dinner? How did that go?

Francesca Chambers:

It was a bipartisan affair. Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, attended the dinner, as well as Republicans such as Maine Senator Susan Collins.

Cherie Saunders:

The Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to hear oral arguments about President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness program. The move will address a months-long legal battle over whether the administration exceeded its authority when it decided to cancel debt owed by millions of Americans. In a brief order, the Supreme Court kept the program's launch on pause. That means Biden will continue to be blocked from implementing loan forgiveness at least until the Supreme Court rules next year. The court said it would hear arguments in February.

Six conservative states - Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Carolina - argue that Biden overstepped his legal authority with the program, and that it violates the constitutional principle of separation of powers. Biden enacted the debt relief plan under the Heroes Act. The post 9/11 legislation gives the president authority to forgive student loan debt in association with military operations or national emergencies. A federal judge in Missouri dismissed the state's request to block the program last month saying they lacked standing to sue. On appeal, the US Court of Appeals for the eighth circuit sided with the state's request to temporarily halt the program. The Biden administration appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

Tennesseans are claiming that a flawed medical examiner led to wrongful convictions throughout the state. Charles Harlan was a key witness in several murder prosecutions and despite decades of concerns about his work, no one has reassessed his testimony. Producer PJ Elliott spoke with justice reporter Mariah Timms of the Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network, about her story.

Mariah Timms:

What I wanted to do here was take a step back from just looking at an individual case, although that's in here, and look at not just how wrongful convictions happen, but how the court system essentially is not set up to fix them the way we have it in Tennessee. So, I have been in touch with the Tennessee Innocence Project fairly regularly over the past few years. I've covered their cases before and they alerted me to this case being filed in Giles County, Tennessee. So, at first, it seemed, hey, here's a perfect case to show there were errors in the original trial with the original confession investigation, and let's take a look at why it's so hard to get back into court even if you have a really solid argument that your case should be at least reviewed, if not fully overturned, start the whole thing over.

And then, I kept reading and I found more and more this name kept popping up. Actually, the filing down there is nearly 100 pages. I looked through thousands of pages of evidence and it's over and over about this one guy, Charles Harlan, who is now deceased, but was a medical examiner in Nashville and the surrounding counties. I think it would amaze you how much I had to cut out of this story of Charles Harlan's mistakes, or errors or decision making that I think we would now say was terrible decision making that eventually led to him losing his job in Nashville and actually, his medical license across the state of Tennessee, permanently. But he just kept showing up in all of these cases.

PJ Elliott:

So who's the prisoner? Were you able to talk to any friends or relatives of the prisoner that was wrongfully, or claims that they're wrongfully convicted?

Mariah Timms:

I have not talked to Wayne Burgess's family. I've reached out a little bit to people involved with the case. It's an ongoing case. The state has yet to reply, so we don't actually know if this is going to get into court on its merits anytime soon. There is a hearing now set, a status hearing coming up, which will likely set those deadlines for the state to reply.

PJ Elliott:

Is there any reason why the former medical examiner would've done something like this?

Mariah Timms:

I'm paraphrasing a source here, but it seems like he was kind of just bad at his job. There's no clear through line that I can see that he was either really focused on calling things homicides so the prosecution had a case, or the other side that he was very interested in helping defense attorneys. It seems a toss up either way. Some of this, who knows if updated medical training passed him by and he didn't know that things were updated and new understandings as they come along, but I haven't been able to talk to him since he died in 2013, I think. So, I can't even answer that question.

PJ Elliott:

How was he able to keep a job so long? How did this all go unnoticed?

Mariah Timms:

I kind of think it didn't. There were complaints about his work. There was a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment in the workplace. It was not ultimately a successful lawsuit. His contract was not renewed as assistant' medical examiner. He stopped being called on in different cases. I'm sure he was on lists in different prosecutor's offices of, "Hey, maybe don't call him in if we don't have to." But, that's, I think a key element to this story, is that there really isn't a regulation on that.

There are things you have to do in order to become the medical examiner, and depending on the jurisdiction, what those look like. But, there's nobody going back and checking your work necessarily, especially if you're looking at cases where the defendant likely had appointed counsel, which many of these we can look at broad stats of people who end up getting convicted of crimes or heavy sentences, even if they take a plea deal, and they are usually disproportionately people with lower income. That's just true across the country.

PJ Elliott:

Mariah, you did such a great job on this story and for anybody that wants to take a look at it's on thetennessean.com. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mariah Timms:

Thanks for having me. It's a big story and it's going to keep going, I'm sure.

Cherie Saunders:

Thanks for listening to 5 Things. You can find us seven mornings a week on your favorite podcast platform. If you like the show, please subscribe, leave us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. You can catch up on all the news you need to know throughout the day on USATODAY.com. I'm Cherie Saunders and I'm back tomorrow with more of 5 Things from USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rail strike avoided, Congress probes PPP fraud: 5 Things podcast