You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1
Local
featured
New Year's Holiday Roundup

Here are some facts, schedules and other information you might want to know for the 2019 New Year’s Day holiday weekend:

Weather forecast

The four-day New Year’s weekend is expected to offer a mixed bag of temperatures and sky conditions but no precipitation. Saturday will be partly cloudy with highs in the teens. Sunday will be sunny with highs in the low 30s. New Year’s Eve will be partly cloudy with highs in the upper 20s. New Year’s Day will be cloudy with highs in the single digits.

Celebrations

• The L.E. Phillips YMCA Sports Center, 3456 Craig Road, will host the 14th annual Royal Credit Union New Year’s Event from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Family-oriented activities will be offered including DJ entertainment, games, inflatables, face painting, limo rides, prizes and a large balloon drop.

Tickets for the event — which is sponsored by RCU — cost $5. Children younger than 3 are admitted free.

For more information call the center at 715-552-1200 or visit ecsportscenter.com.

• Several events are planned Monday for the third Light Up Eau Claire New Year’s Eve in downtown Eau Claire:

Annual CMEC Noon Year’s Eve celebration, 10 a.m. to noon, Children’s Museum of Eau Claire, 220 S. Barstow St., $7.

Lantern-making workshop, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Pablo Center at the Confluence, 128 Graham Ave., free.

Free movies from 1 to 5 p.m. at Micon Downtown Budget Cinema, 315 S. Barstow St.

Ice sculpture unveiling, 5 p.m., Barstow and Eau Claire streets.

Rock’N New Year’s Family Skate, 6 to 9 p.m., Hobbs Ice Arena, 915 Menomonie St., $4.

Xcel Energy’s Lismore Lantern Parade, 6 p.m. Parade starts at Graham Avenue and Gibson Street. Line-up begins at 5:30 p.m.

Light Up Eau Claire live music starting at 6 p.m. at various downtown venues. Wristband is $15 for those 21 and older or $10 for just all-ages venues. Includes entrance to all eligible venues.

Fireworks, midnight, Phoenix Park.

Travel

Common sense is the rule for people celebrating during the New Year’s holiday.

AAA of Wisconsin offers tips: Insist on seat belt use for everyone in your vehicle; don’t drink and drive; if you drink, use a designated driver; watch for changing weather conditions; drive at speeds appropriate for traffic and weather conditions; be patient.

Gasoline prices entering 2019 will be lower than what they were entering 2018. The average statewide price for gas is $2.10 a gallon, which is 33 cents lower than last month and 35 cents lower than last New Year’s.

For Wisconsin road conditions, call 511. The report can also be accessed at 511wi.gov.

Government

Courthouses in Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn counties are closed Tuesday.

City halls in Eau Claire and Menomonie are closed Tuesday. Chippewa Falls City Hall is closed Monday and Tuesday. Altoona City Hall is open from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. Monday and closed Tuesday.

L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and closed Tuesday. The Chippewa Falls Public Library is open from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday and closed Tuesday. The Menomonie Public Library is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and closed Tuesday. The Altoona Public Library is open from 9 a.m. to noon Monday and closed Tuesday.

Garbage

Trash pickup for the area’s two largest waste disposal companies — Advanced Disposal Services and Waste Management — will be a day later than normal next week after Tuesday.

Financial institutions

Financial institutions with personal service will be closed New Year’s Day.

Movies, museums

AMC Classic Oakwood 12 at Oakwood Mall in Eau Claire, Micon Cinemas in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, and CEC Theatres in Menomonie will be open New Year’s Day.

Chippewa Valley Museum in Carson Park is closed Monday and Tuesday.

Football

In the NFL, the Green Bay Packers close out their season by hosting the Detroit Lions at noon Sunday on FOX.

The college football playoff semifinal games will be on Saturday. Notre Dame plays Clemson at 3 p.m. and Oklahoma plays Alabama at 7 p.m. Both games are on ESPN.

Five college bowl games will be played on New Year’s Day:

Outback Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Iowa, 11 a.m. ESPN2; Fiesta Bowl: LSU vs. University of Central Florida, noon, ESPN; Citrus Bowl: Kentucky vs. Penn State, noon, ABC; Rose Bowl: Washington vs. Ohio State, 4 p.m., ESPN; Sugar Bowl: Texas vs. Georgia, 7:45 p.m., ESPN.

Contact: 715-833-9207, dan.holtz@ecpc.com


International
AP
Trump makes first visit to US troops in harm's way

AL-ASAD AIRBASE, Iraq — In an unannounced trip to Iraq on Wednesday, President Donald Trump staunchly defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from neighboring Syria despite a drumbeat of criticism from military officials and allies who don’t think the job fighting Islamic State militants there is over.

Trump, making his first presidential visit to troops in a troubled region, said it’s because the U.S. military had all but eliminated IS-controlled territory in both Iraq and Syria that he decided to withdraw 2,000 troops from Syria. He said the decision to leave Syria showed America’s renewed stature on the world stage and his quest to put “America first.”

“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump told U.S. servicemen and women at al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq, about 100 miles west of Baghdad. “We’re respected again as a nation.”

The decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria, however, stunned national security advisers and U.S. allies and prompted the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was not on the trip, and the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic extremist group. The militant group, also known as ISIS, has lost nearly all its territory in Iraq and Syria but is still seen as a threat.

Iraq declared IS defeated within its borders in December 2017, but Trump’s trip was shrouded in secrecy, which has been standard practice for presidents flying into conflict areas.

Air Force One, lights out and window shutters drawn, flew overnight from Washington, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad in darkness Wednesday evening. George W. Bush made four trips to Iraq as president and President Barack Obama made one.

During his three-plus hours on the ground, Trump did not meet with any Iraqi officials but spoke on the phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. He stopped at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany on his way back, for a second unannounced visit to troops and military leaders.

Trump’s Iraq visit appeared to have inflamed sensitivities about the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. The two major blocs in the Iraqi parliament both condemned the visit, likening it to a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

The airbase where Trump spoke is about 155 miles from Hajin, a Syrian town near the Iraqi border where Kurdish fighters are still battling IS extremists. Trump has said IS militants have been eradicated, but the latest estimate is that IS still holds about 60 square miles of territory in that region of Syria, although fighters also fled the area and are in hiding in other pockets of the country.

Mattis was supposed to continue leading the Pentagon until late February, but Trump moved up his exit and announced that Patrick Shanahan, deputy defense secretary, would take the job on Jan. 1 and he was in “no rush” to nominate a new defense chief.

“Everybody and his uncle wants that position,” Trump told reporters traveling with him in Iraq. “And also, by the way, everybody and her aunt, just so I won’t be criticized.”

Critics said the U.S. exit from Syria, the latest in Trump’s increasingly isolationist-style foreign policy, would provide an opening for IS to regroup, give Iran a green light to expand its influence in the region and leave U.S.-backed Kurdish forces vulnerable to attacks from Turkey.

“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” said Trump, who wore an olive green bomber style jacket as he was welcomed by chants of “USA! USA!” and speakers blaring Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the USA.”

“We’ll be watching ISIS very closely,” said Trump, who was joined by first lady Melania Trump, but no members of his Cabinet or lawmakers. “We’ll be watching them very, very closely, the remnants of ISIS.”

Trump also said he had no plans to withdraw the 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq. That’s down from about 170,000 in 2007 at the height of the surge of U.S. forces to combat sectarian violence unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.

Trump spoke on the phone with the prime minister, but the White House said security concerns and the short notice of the trip prevented the president from meeting him face-to-face.

The prime minister’s office said “differences in points of view over the arrangements” prevented the two from meeting but they discussed security issues and Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria over the phone. Abdul-Mahdi’s office also did not say whether he had accepted an invitation to the White House. But Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on the flight back that the Iraqi leader had agreed to come.

Trump said that after U.S. troops in Syria return home, Iraq could still be used to stage attacks on IS militants.

“We can use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria,” he said. “If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard” that they “really won’t know what the hell happened.”

Trump said it’s time to leave Syria because the U.S. should not be involved in nation-building, and that other wealthy nations should shoulder the cost of rebuilding Syria. He also said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to battle “any remnants of ISIS” in Syria, which shares a border with Turkey.

“The nations of the regions must step up and take more responsibility for their future,” Trump said, promising a “strong deliberate and orderly withdrawal” of forces from Syria

Trump had faced criticism for not yet visiting U.S. troops stationed in harm’s way as he comes up on his two-year mark in office. He told The Associated Press in October that he “will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly necessary.

Trump told reporters that he had planned to make the trip three or four weeks ago, but word of the trip started getting out and forced him to postpone it.

Iraqi leaders declared an end to combat operations against IS a year ago but the country’s political, military and economic situation remains uncertain. It continues to experience sporadic bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, which most people attribute to IS.

On Dec. 15, the U.S.-led coalition launched an airstrike in support of Iraqi troops who were chasing IS fighters toward a tunnel west of Mosul. The strike destroyed the tunnel entrance and killed four IS fighters, according to the U.S. military in Baghdad. The last U.S. service member to die in Iraq was in August, as the result of a helicopter crash in Sinjar.

Trump had planned to spend Christmas at his private club in Florida, but stayed behind in Washington due to the partial government shutdown.

Trump campaigned for office on a platform of ending U.S. involvement in foreign trouble spots, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon is also said to be developing plans to withdraw up to half of the 14,000 American troops still serving in Afghanistan.


Business
AP
FBI concerned by money mules roped into fraud schemes

WASHINGTON — The email caught the executive at a small company by surprise one morning in 2016. The company’s owner, or so he thought, was requesting a money transfer to pay for supplies from a new vendor.

It wasn’t until that night when the executive, hours after the money had been transferred and still puzzled by the out-of-the-blue demand, texted the owner to make sure he’d heard the request correctly.

The befuddled reply was disheartening: “I just saw your message about a wire transfer today. What is that about?”

It was all part of a fraud scam that targeted companies, schools and nonprofits in Connecticut and elsewhere in the United States and that resulted this month in a 45-month prison sentence for one of the culprits. The case is part of a seemingly endless cycle of money laundering schemes that law enforcement officials say they’re scrambling to slow through a combination of prosecution and public awareness.

Beyond the run-of-the-mill plots, officials say, is a particularly concerning trend involving “money mules” — people who, unwittingly or not, use their own bank accounts to move money for criminals for purposes they think are legitimate or even noble.

The “mule” concept has attracted renewed attention with this month’s release of Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule,” a real-life tale of an elderly horticulturist who smuggled cocaine for a Mexican cartel. But the modern-day mules of most concern to the FBI are people who get themselves entangled in complicated, international money laundering schemes that cause huge economic losses and show no signs of stopping.

“They trial and error this stuff and they see what works and they see what doesn’t,” FBI supervisory Special Agent James Abbott said in an interview. “It’s a much higher success rate when you have a lot of money using somebody else’s account going through there instead of trying to cross the border with a physical transportation of cash.”

The FBI and international law enforcement agencies have stepped up efforts against the fraud and say they’re building bigger cases than before. Europol said this month it had identified 1,504 money mules, arresting 168, in a continent-wide bust. The FBI in June announced the arrests of 74 people, including 29 in Nigeria, for schemes targeting businesses and the elderly, and has launched a publicity campaign called “Don’t Be a Mule.”

The money mule cases are an offshoot of more generic frauds encountered by the FBI, including schemes that dupe people into thinking they’ve won the lottery and can claim their prizes by wiring an advance payment, or that trick the unsuspecting into believing a relative has been arrested and needs urgent bail money or that a supposed paramour they’ve met online requires cash. In cases like the Connecticut one, fraudsters assume identities of executives and scam employees into wiring cash.

That’s what happened in 2016 at Beacon Systems, a Texas company where a new employee received emails from someone she thought was the chief executive officer instructing her to transfer nearly $100,000 for a vendor-related payment.

Several weeks later, Kerry Williams, the CEO whose identity was impersonated, was on her way to the airport when the FBI contacted her and explained how the company had been victimized as part of a much broader swindle. A dual Nigerian-U.S. citizen was ultimately sentenced to four years in prison in connection with the scheme.

“It makes you kind of paranoid,” Williams said, describing how the experience also made the SAP consulting firm more vigilant. “Even to this day, we’re overly cautious about everything. I think you kind of go to that extreme.”

As for money mules, they’re persuaded, sometimes with the incentive of keeping a cut of the funds, into allowing money transfers into their own bank accounts at the direction of a fraudster they may mistake for an online friend or romantic partner, a military officer overseas or an employer. They’re then instructed to transfer those funds elsewhere, into accounts controlled by criminals.

In one example, the FBI says, a fraudster posing as an Army captain stationed overseas recruited a man he met online to be a money mule, saying he was making arrangements to travel home and needed the man’s help receiving and sending some funds. The FBI says $10,000 was wired into the man’s account. He was then instructed to withdraw it in small increments and send it to a woman in Texas.

The mules are sometimes witting conspirators. Other times, they’re elderly, lonely or just confused. The ones the FBI concludes are merely unwitting are given stern warnings but generally avoid prosecution.

“When we approach them and talk to them and explain to them what they’ve been doing, a lot of times, the horror is there, said Steven D’Antuono, an FBI section chief specializing in financial crimes. “It’s all walks of life, all educational levels. Anyone can fall victim to this.”

In the Connecticut case, the executive recounted those horrors in a letter to the judge before the sentencing of one of the defendants earlier this year.

The executive, whose name and company are redacted in the letter, described feeling initially apprehensive about the money transfer instructions and advising the company owner that it was a “lot of money for supplies.”

That night, he described the interactions to his wife, who asked if he was really certain the emails were legitimate. He suddenly wasn’t so sure, realizing for the first time he may have been duped.

“Because of crimes like these,” he wrote, “our society is losing much of the trust and openness that we once experienced.”


Front-page
featured
Property tax assessments for Menards, Walmart Eau Claire locations challenged

Two retailers — Menards and Walmart — are again challenging their property tax assessments in the city of Eau Claire.

The suits, filed in Eau Claire County Court by attorneys from the same Milwaukee law firm, claim the 2018 assessments of their properties are excessive.

News of the latest series of suits — each of the plaintiffs took legal action earlier this year challenging their 2017 property assessments — didn’t surprise Jay Winzenz, the city’s finance director.

“This is the same thing they are doing all over the state … the same cast of characters,” said Winzenz, noting certain large commercial retail property owners are trying to reduce their property tax bills using loopholes, ultimately shifting the burden to other taxpayers.

According to court records:

In its suit Keystone Corp. and Menard Inc., 5101 Menard Drive, assert the value of two properties, located at 3619 Hastings Way, should be $6.5 million and $1 million — not the $10.09 million and $1.68 million set by the city assessor’s office.

In a separate suit, Menard Inc. contends the assessment of $10.95 million for the property at 3210 N. Clairemont Ave. should actually be no more than $7 million.

And Chippewa Valley Partners of Bentonville, Ark., argue the $12.6 million assessment for Walmart, 3915 Gateway Drive, is $4.1 million more than it should be.

Each plaintiff is asking the court for a determination that the values of the properties are no higher than they allege, a finding each is entitled to a refund of all taxes paid on the portion of the assessment that was excessive and an award of court costs, including attorney fees.

In each case, the plaintiffs filed objections to the 2018 assessments of their properties with the city’s Board of Review. At the scheduled board hearing, the board granted each waivers of the BOR hearing.

Since 2015, the Board of Review has the authority to waive a board hearing at the request of the property owner or assessor or at its own discretion, according to the state Department of Revenue’s website, and allow the property owner to appeal directly to the circuit court.

In July, 11 civil suits challenging property tax assessments and seeking refunds were filed against the city. According to the state court website, all cases remain open.

Going forward, “I have no doubt there will be additional court filings,” Winzenz said.

Contact: 715-830-5838, christena.obrien@ecpc.com, @CTOBrien on Twitter