Nation and world news briefs

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Ex-USC admissions official to plead guilty to running scam to admit unqualified Chinese students

LOS ANGELES — In exchange for money, a former admissions official at the University of Southern California helped graduate students from China gain acceptance to the school by submitting doctored transcripts, fraudulent letters of recommendation and bogus personal statements in their applications, according to a plea agreement filed in federal court.

Hiu Kit David Chong, an assistant director in USC’s Office of Graduate Admissions from 2008 to 2016, agreed to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud in an agreement signed last month and unsealed Wednesday.

Between February 2015 and December 2018, Chong purchased college transcripts from a supplier in China, who charged $1,000 to $2,000 per phony academic record, the plea agreement said. Chong submitted the transcripts, along with fake letters of recommendation and personal statements, on behalf of three international students who were admitted to graduate programs at USC.

Identified only by their initials — F.J., Z.L., and S.L. — they each paid Chong between $8,000 and $10,000, according to the plea agreement.

Chong has admitted falling for an FBI ruse that lured him into presenting a fictitious international applicant — “Lin Guoqiang” — to USC with doctored transcripts, in exchange for $8,500 in cash. Remarkably, the fake applicant was admitted to USC, Chong told the undercover agent. The ruse began in July 2017, when an agent emailed Chong with the subject line, “Help to get in university.” The agent was masquerading as “Alex,” whose friend’s son, Guoqiang, was applying to American universities with only a 2.1 grade-point average.

In a recorded phone call, Chong told the agent that while he couldn’t fabricate scores for standardized tests, such as the Graduate Record Examinations and Test of English as a Foreign Language, he could pay a surrogate to take it for him, the plea agreement said.

The following year, Chong met the agent in Los Angeles. The agent handed Chong Guoqiang’s transcript from a Chinese university, showing a 2.6 GPA. Four months later, the plea agreement said, Chong submitted an application on behalf of Guoqiang. His GPA was a 3.47.

In November 2018, Chong told the agent that the fictitious Guoqiang had been admitted to USC. The agent met him in December 2018 and handed over $8,500 in cash, according to the plea agreement. In all, Chong admitted collecting about $40,000 from international students and people he believed to be international students.

—Los Angeles Times


Sanders calls for delaying Wisconsin presidential primary

Sen. Bernie Sanders is pushing for delaying the Wisconsin primary that is scheduled for next Tuesday.

Sanders, I-Vt., wants the swing state to follow the lead of 15 other states that have delayed their votes over the coronavirus pandemic.

“People should not be forced to put their lives on the line to vote,” he said in a statement.

“The state should delay its primary extend early voting and switch to entirely vote by mail,” Sanders added.

There was no immediate comment from the campaign of Democratic front-runner Joe Biden.

Sanders urged his supporters to vote by absentee ballot in Wisconsin, a state he won in 2016 against Hillary Clinton.

Even though Biden has forged a commanding lead in the delegate race, Sanders has refused to end his campaign.

Four years ago, disgruntled Sanders supporters never fully backed Clinton, a key factor in President Donald Trump’s narrow Electoral College victory.

—New York Daily News


Joshua Tree National Park closes to all visitors over coronavirus

Joshua Tree National Park closed indefinitely to all visitors Wednesday amid the coronavirus pandemic, the park’s website says. The 800,000-acre desert park earlier had closed campgrounds and access roads into the park but allowed walkers and cyclists to enter.

The California park took action after consulting “with the local county health office to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the website says. Rangers will continue to patrol the park. Visitor centers, services and roads had closed indefinitely earlier in March to discourage visitors, but media reports say hikers and climbers flooded the park.

National parks across the country are closed or have scaled back services and operations to try to contain the public health pandemic. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Canyonlands and Arches in Utah and much of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area have completely shut.

Other popular national parks, such as Grand Canyon in Arizona and Zion in Utah, have shut services, campgrounds and some roads but kept natural areas open to hikers. Critics say these parks should be closed also because too many people are continuing to come and not practicing social distancing and other public health safety measures.

The Washington Post on Tuesday reported that at least seven National Park Service employees have tested positive for the coronavirus. The Arizona Republic reported that a person who lives in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim of the canyon also tested positive. A stay-at-home order went into effect in Arizona on Tuesday.

National parks earlier stopped collecting entrance fees earlier because of the pandemic.

—Los Angeles Times


World climate talks delayed due to coronavirus pandemic

LONDON — A major U.N. climate summit scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland, has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“The world is facing an unprecedented global challenge, and countries are rightly focusing on fighting COVID-19,” British lawmaker and COP26 President Alok Sharma wrote on Twitter late on Wednesday. The meeting is officially called the 26th Conference of the Parties.

“Due to this, COP26 has been postponed.” The conference was set for November in the Scottish seaport.

The decision was made jointly by the United Nations, Britain and Italy, the conference said on its official Twitter feed.

“In light of the ongoing, worldwide effects of COVID-19, holding an ambitious, inclusive COP26 in November 2020 is no longer possible,” the statement read further.

Sharma added, “The world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge, and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting COVID-19. That is why we have decided to reschedule COP26.

“We will continue working tirelessly with our partners to deliver the ambition needed to tackle the climate crisis, and I look forward to agreeing a new date for the conference,” the COP26 president said.

The climate summit was due to firm up more ambitious climate protection plans.