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Senate confirms U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas as director of national intelligence

The U.S. Senate confirmed U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Heath, as director of national intelligence Thursday, elevating him to a Cabinet-level position in the Trump administration and creating a vacancy for his congressional seat in Northeast Texas.

Elected in 2014, Ratcliffe has represented the 4th Congressional District, which includes Bowie, Cass, Camp, Titus, Marion and Morris counties plus a part of northern Upshur County, along with several other counties.

Ratcliffe was up for reelection this November and had won the Republican primary in March.

An online post by James Dickey, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, says a nominee to replace Ratcliffe on the November ballot will be chosen by a Congressional District Executive Committee, made up of precinct and county chairmen from the 4th Congressional District. That meeting is slated for 1 p.m. Aug. 8 at the Hopkins County Regional Civic Center in Sulphur Springs, Dickey wrote.

Gov. Greg Abbott will not call a special election to finish Ratcliffe’s term this year, according to an Abbott spokesman, John Wittman.

Ratcliffe’s Senate confirmation vote Thursday was 49-44 and brought a relatively smooth conclusion to a nomination process that started off rocky.

President Donald Trump first tapped Ratcliffe for the position, which oversees the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies, in July. But his path to becoming director of national intelligence initially hit a snag when the The Washington Post reported that a claim on Ratcliffe’s website that he arrested “over 300 illegal immigrants on a single day” as a federal prosecuting attorney was an exaggeration. He also faced questions over whether he overstated his role as a federal prosecutor in a terrorism financing case.

Before being elected to Congress, Ratcliffe was a U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Texas and served eight years as mayor of Heath, a city that sits on the eastern shore of Lake Ray Hubbard and straddles Rockwall and Kaufman counties.

Ratcliffe withdrew from consideration within a week of his July nomination as questions were raised about his credentials and whether he inflated parts of his biography. But Trump nominated him six months later, calling him an “outstanding man of great talent.”

Ratcliffe has been a vocal ally for Trump, defending the president during impeachment hearings in 2019. He was reportedly considered as a potential replacement for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

His nomination has received strong support among Republicans. At Ratcliffe’s confirmation hearing, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called the nominee a man of character who understood the difference between being a politician and being an appointed official.

Retiring U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, a former CIA undercover agent, also endorsed Ratcliffe, citing his professional experience, “capacity to selflessly lead,” and understanding of “threats to our security and way of life.”

All of the Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee voted against advancing his nomination. But the minority party allowed the chamber to move quickly on a full vote on the nomination this week to get a Senate-confirmed nominee into the job in place of controversial acting Director Richard Grenell.

As acting director, Grenell made personnel changes and ordered reviews of the national intelligence director’s office that critics feared were an attempt to clean house. Some members of the Senate intelligence committee said an acting director shouldn’t be engaging in reforming the intelligence apparatus. But Grenell’s office disputed fears of a purge and said some of the reforms he was considering or implementing had been recommended by past directors.

The last Senate-confirmed intelligence director, former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, was popular with his former colleagues in Congress but left the post last summer after clashing with the president.

In his confirmation hearing, Ratcliffe expressed a need for the intelligence community to remain apolitical.

“I will deliver the unvarnished truth,” Ratcliffe said. “It won’t be shaded for anyone. What anyone wants the intelligence to reflect won’t impact the intelligence I deliver.”

Ratcliffe’s initial election to his congressional seat in 2014 came as a surprise to many and was hailed as a sign of the power of the tea party movement. That year, he unseated the now-late Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall. Hall was a 91-year-old, 17-term congressman.

Ratcliffe attended the University of Notre Dame and earned a law degree from Southern Methodist University.

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Weather forecast, pandemic change Memorial Day ceremonies; no Gregg courthouse event planned

Storms forecast for Monday and the COVID-19 pandemic have forced changes to area Memorial Day observances.

Gregg County’s traditional ceremony will not take place Monday at the courthouse, according to organizer Joe Burke.

Burke, an Operation Desert Storm veteran, said veterans groups also have ruled out conducting the ceremony inside the parking garage of the courthouse because of the need to maintain social distancing.

Instead, Burke said Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4002 will open its doors at noon Monday at 401 Ambassador Row and feature a veteran participation report by post member Ben Gurganus on the history and significance of Memorial Day. He said Gurganus will give a talk and a slide presentation, and food likely will be provided afterward.

“We are not going to hold a ceremony where we do a 21-gun salute,” Burke said.

He said the post will maintain social distancing by limiting occupancy to 75 people, one-quarter of the maximum capacity, and added that the post will stay open until 8 p.m. Monday.

Social distancing will not be an issue at a ceremony set for 9 a.m. Monday at the U.S. Veterans Monument at Harris Street Park in Kilgore because it will take place in a large area, said John Edney, chairman of the Veterans Monument Committee-Kilgore. However, he said the event will be canceled if it rains.

Edney said the area can hold as many as 100 people. Skip Beal, a Vietnam War veteran and retired Baptist preacher, will be the guest speaker.

Panola County veterans plan to observe Memorial Day beginning at 11:30 a.m. Monday at the Veterans Memorial next to the Panola County Historical and Genealogical Association, 213 N. Shelby St., in Carthage.

Panola Couny Judge LeeAnn Jones said she consulted with state officials to authorize an outdoor ceremony as long as social distancing is observed.

Dick Shawver, incoming commander of the Texas Department of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, will be the guest speaker.

Member of the local American Heritage Girls will read the names of Panola County war dead, and retired Air Force veterans Ben and Frank Sepaugh will place a remembrance wreath.

The Rev. Kevin Otto of First United Methodist Church in Carthage will deliver the opening and closing prayers, and the Rev. Kirby Hill of Southside Baptist Church in Carthage will perform taps.

The annual ceremony is jointly sponsored by VFW Post 5620, American Legion posts 353 and 151 and the Panola County Historical and Genealogical Association.

Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport will offer a Veterans Memorial Day Hot Dog Drive-Thru beginning at 11 a.m. today near the rear south parking area, 510 E. Stoner Ave. The Veterans Canteen Service will cook the hot dogs and serve them inside paper bags with chips, condiments and bottled water.

Overton Brooks employees who will distribute the food will wear personal protective equipment and observe safety guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Closer to home, Lakeview Memorial Gardens at 5000 W. Harrison Road in Longview will not conduct its annual Memorial Day ceremony. However, staff has been placing miniature American flags on gravestones of veterans, an employee said.

Texas Amvets in East Texas will use the holiday to accept donations to help veterans pay for housing, clothing and food, volunteer Danny Dover said. Donations will be accepted through credit cards by calling (903) 291-1916.

May 22

May 22, 1961: It was R.G. LeTourneau Appreciation Day as the industrialist returned from New York, where he received the International Progress Award from the American Society of Tool and Manufacturing Engineers. “The great honor which you have received also is an honor to our city,” Mayor J. Clyde Tomlinson said.

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East Texas sees jump of 94 in coronavirus cases, mostly in Titus County

The 25-county East Texas region saw a jump of 94 cases of the novel coronavirus on Thursday, due in large part to 61 newly reported cases in Titus County.

Other counties posting increases in positive test results included Gregg, Smith, Camp, Morris and Harrison, which also reported one more COVID-19 death Thursday.

Titus County recorded 59 new cases on Wednesday, followed by two new cases Thursday, according to County Judge Brian Lee said.

The county has has two deaths, according to the Texas State Department of Health Services.

Titus County became a Northeast Texas hot spot for COVID-19 a little more than a week ago — which surprised officials in the area where Mount Pleasant serves as county seat.

They expected the trend to begin earlier, Lee said.

The county logged its first case at the beginning of April, he said.

“We expected this to get started back then,” Lee said.

Case numbers didn’t started jumping until May, tied in part to the first free testing drive offered by the state on May 9 in Mount Pleasant.

Facebook posts Lee made showed that 40 cases on May 12 became 79 cases on May 13. Some days since then have showed jumps of 11, 17, 22 and Wednesday’s 59, ending at 220 cases as of Thursday.

Lee said the state’s totals for the county tend to lag behind what the county itself is able to count from positive test results.

More testing is taking place, Lee said, but that’s not the primary driver of the county’s increasing COVID-19 cases.

More people are sick, he said.

Lee said he and other officials he speaks with each day believe the increasing number of cases are connected to the county’s biggest employer, the Pilgrim’s chicken processing plant in Mount Pleasant where about 2,800 people work. But it’s not just Pilgrim’s, he said, because the area has other businesses with plant work environments.

“We knew whatever they had in force out there at the time (at Pilgrim’s),” delayed a larger outbreak in Titus County, Lee said. “What caused it to erupt here recently, we’ll never know.”

Lee said Pilgrim’s has worked to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among its employees.

“Despite the great job Pilgrim’s has been doing in staving this off for quite a while, I think it’s finally catching up,” he said, recalling a recent visit he made to the plant in which he saw all employees in masks and being screened for temperatures. Break rooms are closed.

The company sent its more vulnerable workers home with pay and has encouraged employees who aren’t feeling well to stay home, Lee said.

“A lot of those employees share residences with people that work in other plant environments in other locations in town,” he said.

He said Titus County’s population is more than 50 percent Latino.

“This is a tightknit social group,” he said.

Titus County, though, is an “industry-intensive community,” not just with Pilgrim’s, but with trailer and fence manufacturing, a chocolate plant and a nearby a Lowe’s distribution center.

“This is a Titus County problem,” he said of the number of COVID-19 cases that have developed there in the past couple of weeks. “It’s a manufacturing-related matter in many of these cases that we’ve been able to trace to.”

The state conducted voluntary on-site testing of Pilgrim’s employees at the plant earlier this week, but Lee said those results are not yet available.

Pilgrim’s corporate office, JBS in Greeley, Colorado, did not immediately respond to a phone message on Thursday.

A Facebook post by Titus Regional Medical Center showed it was treating 14 patients for COVID-19 as of Thursday.

Gregg County

In Gregg County, County Health Administrator A.J. Harris reported that three more people had received positive results for the virus, bringing the county’s total to 187 as of Thursday.

Harris said 1,904 total tests had been administered in the county as of Thursday, with 1,607 results returning negative and 109 results still pending.

The county’s recoveries stand at 57, and the it has had four deaths from the virus.

Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said the daily results show “our community spread is clearly going down.”

Recent spikes in the county’s totals were the results of cases inside nursing homes, he said.

“I think there’s a handle on everything,” Stoudt said.

The county has not yet received all the results from three days of drive-thru testing the state conducted in Longview last week.

Other counties

In Harrison County, County Judge Chad Sims said the new death brings his county’s death toll to 23.

Sims also reported five new COVID-19 cases, raising the cumulative total for the county to 228. In addition, the county recorded 21 new recoveries, increasing that total to 60. The county now has 145 active cases.

He said 17 of the recoveries were from patients over 60 years old.

“This is great news that many in our older age group are overcoming the virus,” he said. “Please continue to join me in remembering all of these affected.”

In Smith County, coronavirus cases increased by three, pulling that county’s total up to 198, according to the Northeast Texas Public Health District.

The county has had 142 recoveries and now has 52 active cases. It has had four deaths.

Tyler hospitals on Thursday were treating 23 patients from East Texas for the coronavirus.

In Camp County, the number of positive cases rose by three for a total of 32, according to the state health department.

In Morris County, County Judge Doug Reeder posted one new case, raising that county’s total to 15. Reeder said the county’s total has risen by six in the past eight days. It has had five recoveries.

“Many of these are due to increased testing not only in Morris County, but in adjacent counties as well,” he said.

Across the 25-county region, the number of recorded COVID-19 cases was at least 2,349 by Thursday evening, up from 2,255 a day earlier. The region reported 108 total deaths as of Thursday, one more from Wednesday.

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Some East Texas summer camps to open, with changes

As Texas starts to reopen from COVID-19 closures, local summer camps are ramping up plans to welcome children, though some camps will be different from the norm.

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced another round of businesses allowed to reopen, including youth camp operations, starting May 31.

Longview World of Wonders normally offers several sessions of camps at its hands-on children’s museum in downtown, but interim Executive Director Rhonda Bullard said the governor’s plan did not allow such museums to open yet.

“We’re hopeful he updates that soon and things change,” she said. “But until it does, we will stay closed.”

At the Longview Museum of Fine Arts, summer classes will begin the first week of June, but with limitations, according to its website.

A maximum of 10 students will be allowed in the physical classroom, the website says. Additional class spots will be available to allow students to watch and participate via a Zoom livestream.

Supplies for Zoom participants can be picked up at the museum one week before class begins, the website says.

The Longview Public Library’s summer reading program is going totally virtual, Youth Services Supervisor Jenna Yeakley said.

“Basically, what that looks like is daily events that are going to be online via our Facebook page to keep kids busy,” she said. “In addition to that, they have reading goals that they’re trying to meet varying on age range. They can get a prize for meeting them, and they have activities they can do at home and get rewards.”

The Boy Scout camps at George W. Pirtle Scout Reservation near Lake Murvaul will begin in July, according to the website.

Some local colleges already had canceled their summer camps before the governor’s announcement Monday, and they will keep them closed, including LeTourneau University in Longview and Tyler Junior College.

Kilgore College spokesman Chris Craddock said in a written statement the college has not yet made a decision about its summer camps.

The RecSports Summer Camps at the University of Texas at Tyler are on hold, according to a written statement from the university. The camps could start June 15.

University leadership is meeting this week to consider the implications of the governor’s directives, spokesman Lucas Roebuck said.

The Tyler Museum of Art does not plan to host summer camps, despite Abbott’s blessing to open, Executive Director Christopher Leahy said.

In the past, the museum has hosted six weeks of summer camps filled with arts activities.

Pine Cove, a Christian summer camp at Lake Tyler, has not canceled camps but had to make adjustments to its original plans for the summer.

“We have revised our cancellation policies to serve our camper families well, as we know every family has been impacted differently by COVID-19,” according to its website.

Pine Cove submitted a health and safety plan for review by Abbott’s appointed Texas Strike Force regarding how to safely open up camp.

The camp was prohibited from opening its first planned week, which would have begun this coming Monday, and its website says campers who were registered for that week either rescheduled to later in the summer or chose to reserve for 2021. The camp’s website says it will open for overnight youth camps beginning May 31.