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Donald Trump signs VA reform bill backed by Marco Rubio

President Donald Trump signed a bill into law aimed at reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs by allowing the secretary to dismiss bad employees.

The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, gives the VA secretary the authority to fire and demote employees. It also adds protections for whistleblowers, by prohibiting the secretary from using his or her authority to fire employees who filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel.

The measure — which passed the Senate on a voice vote, and the House on a 368-55 vote earlier this month — had the support of VA Secretary David Shulkin, and received significant bipartisan backing, including from Sen. Bill Nelson.

The bill signing comes more than three years after a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center, where some veterans died while waiting months for an appointment. The agency has been plagued with problems, and critics have complained that too few employees have been punished over the years.

“We have seen scandal after scandal come out of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and today we turn to a new chapter. The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act puts meaningful reforms in place to ensure VA employees are fulfilling their duty to serve veterans,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the vice chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, in a statement Friday. “If a VA employee is involved in misconduct, they should be demoted, suspended, or fired. Certainly not promoted or given a bonus. If a VA employee sees misconduct and wants to report it, they should not fear retaliation. This legislation is common-sense, and strongly bipartisan.”

Bilirakis wasn’t the only member of Florida’s congressional delegation who applauded Trump for signing the bill, Rep. Tom Rooney, an Okeechobee Republican, called the measure a “necessary reform” that was “long overdue and is essential to ensuring that our veterans are receiving the very best care.”

“This new law makes clear to VA managers: get the job done, or make way for someone who can,” he said in a statement. “Our veterans deserve better, and it’s time for serious accountability and oversight. I’m hopeful that we are providing Secretary Shulkin with the tools he needs to run the agency properly.”

Trump promised to reform the VA on the campaign trail, and cast the bill signing as a fulfillment of a campaign promise.

“What happened was a national disgrace and yet some of the employees involved in these scandals remained on the payrolls,” he said. “Outdated laws kept the government from holding those who failed our veterans accountable. Today we are finally changing those laws.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permission.

Ted Yoho gets pushback for challenging HUD’s ‘Housing First’ policy

Last week, North Florida Republican Ted Yoho co-signed a letter — along with 22 of his Republican colleagues — calling on Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson to review the agency’s ‘Housing First’ policy.

The lawmakers claim Housing First puts a tough strain on homeless shelters in Florida and across the nation.

GOP lawmakers say that policy, which actually began in the George W. Bush administration under former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, “removed any incentive for independent housing programs to operate under a model that includes mandatory services, accountability, or sobriety.”

“In doing this, the Department has effectively used its administrative and regulatory power to impose national priorities on communities, forcing communities and providers to maximize services for certain populations — chronically homeless adults — at the expense of other equally worthy populations — families, youth, and children — and particular program models, regardless of local circumstances, needs, or a program’s effectiveness to lift participants out of poverty,” the legislators write.

Housing First emphasizes finding secure shelter in the community first, in contrast to homeless programs that insist on preconditions such as sobriety or psychiatric care and moving through transitional housing.

Yoho and his cohorts complain that HUD’s current procedures in proving such assistance have come at the detriment of homeless families, youth, and children at risk.

Dawn Gilman is the CEO of Changing Homelessness based in Jacksonville. She submits the Continuum of Care grant application for Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, which is in Yoho’s district,  where veteran homelessness has dropped in her region by over 80 percent since adopting the Housing First policy.

Regarding the criticism by Yoho (and others) that families and youth are not being served as well under Housing First, she considers that as more of a resource issue.

“We have limited resources, so each community has to prioritize,” she says. “HUD gives us an incentive, to prioritize for those most vulnerable.”

Similar reductions in homelessness in communities using Housing First has been duplicated around the nation.

For example, under Housing First, the state of Utah has reduced their number of homeless people from nearly 2,000 people in 2005 to less than 200 as of the end of 2015, according to an NPR report.

In Colorado, officials reported a 73 percent reduction in emergency service costs for chronically homeless individuals with disabilities, for a 24-month period, as compared to the 24 months before entry under Housing First in 2012.

Sara Romeo is the CEO and executive director of Tampa Crossroads. She said it would be the absolute worse move by HUD to return to the old model to fight to end homelessness.

“The Housing First Approach is proven and we could actually see an end to homelessness in a few short years if everyone is following this new practice,” she says. “For over 50-years the shelter model did not end homelessness. The housing first model is actually working to humanely serve and assist homeless families. We have used this model to end veteran homelessness in Hillsborough County where our vet population has decreased from over 3000 to under 200 over the past 5-years. We should not continue to fund any agency who thinks the emergency shelter model is a means to ending homelessness.”

Over the years, Films has met with members of Congress like Bill Nelson, Marco Rubio, Al Lawson and John Rutherford, each of whom have been interested in what Changing Homelessness has been doing. She’s scheduled to meet with staffers from Yoho’s office soon.

Gilman says that while Florida definitely has a higher number of homeless families with children than in other parts of the country, there are better, more effective ways of dealing with that issue then to jettison the Housing First approach.

Bill Nelson blasts Senate health care plan, Marco Rubio says he’s looking at it

Florida’s Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio released a video statement Thursday saying he won’t judge the new Republican Senate health care bill until he has studied it, while Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson blasted it.

“Now we know why they tried to keep this secret,” Nelson said in a statement issued by his office a couple of hours after the bill, which was drafted under closed doors for weeks, was released.

“This bill is just as bad as the House bill, taking coverage away from millions of people and making huge cuts to Medicaid,” Nelson added. “If that weren’t enough, it also allows insurance companies to hike rates for older Americans. Fixing our nation’s health care system shouldn’t be a partisan issue. We should be working together, not plotting behind closed doors to make it worse.”

Rubio released a video statement in which he said he made it clear that if Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to have the bill passed by the end of next week — 4th of July weekend — that might or might not be possible.

“It may take me one day; it might take me a week,” Rubio said. “I think it’s really important that we do it the right way. I think it’s important that we know clearly what we’re voting on, what its implications are, and every question is answered.”

Rubio’s nine-minute video laid out several points he’ll be looking for, all having to do with Medicaid and the individual buyer’s marketplace.

He said he wants a bill that protects pre-existing conditions, yet provides flexibility so that if someone wants to purchase only catastrophic health insurance, that will be available as an acceptable option. He also wants health insurance tax credits tied to age and income.

His other issues dealt with how the federal legislation could impact Florida uniquely, particularly dealing with Medicaid. In particular, he noted that Florida has a “low baseline” for Medicaid payments, and he does not want the state penalized by a system that builds from a baseline forward in coming years.

 

Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley talk Israel, UN reform needs

On Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio spoke on Capitol Hill with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, addressing U.S. international engagement and needed reforms at the U.N.

It was more like a puff-piece interview than a probing dialogue, with no daylight between positions and rhetoric of the two.

Rubio referred to one of Haley’s challenges being that Trump’s campaign positions on foreign policy were less than clear; Haley saw that as an opportunity, especially in the wake of the strikes on Syria, which showed that the U.S, is “moving things.”

Much of the conversation came back to Israel.

Rubio was shocked by a permanent agenda item on the Human Rights Council targeting Israel, which both he and Haley found to be appalling.

Rubio described it as a “disproportionate focus on Israel,” with Haley emphatic about how Israel was getting bashed by “every single country.”

“It was abusive. They did it in a way that you could tell was a habit,” Haley said. “I did say that things needed to change.”

“Israel was kind of like the kid in the schoolyard that got picked on,” Haley said, with Rubio asserting that Haley’s “challenge” caused a reappraisal of UN member nations toward Israel.

Later on, Haley added that Israel is “getting ready” for Hezbollah, noting that conflict between Israel and Jordan would present a crisis.

Haley also lauded Jordan’s intake of Syrian refugees, noting that they prevent fraud by using “eyescans” at shop check out counters.

“We should be doing that,” Haley marveled, to prevent fraud.

“It is our job to support those host countries,” Haley said, regarding Jordan and Turkey.

 

Capitol Hill buzz: Marco Rubio joke-investigates Ivanka Trump hug

Sometimes all you can do is surrender to Twitter.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio probably started out his day Tuesday thinking about paid family leave, child care tax credits and other deep issues. But when Twitter went wild over an awkward photo of him leaning in for a hug with Ivanka Trump when she arrived for a Capitol Hill meeting, Rubio was smart enough to play along.

The photo, taken by an Associated Press congressional reporter with an iPhone, appears to show Trump declining to hug Rubio back as the two greet one another just outside the Capitol.

Twitter users dissected the seemingly awkward moment endlessly. They compared Rubio to Ralph Wiggum from “The Simpsons” when he doesn’t get a Valentine’s Day card, and to Dr. Evil from “Austin Powers” asking his son for a hug.

Rubio responded in a series of joking tweets late Tuesday, announcing that he would be investigating what he termed the “alleged failed hug.”

“We believe we have our own unclassified photographic evidence that will shed greater details on this incident,” the Republican senator said, adding, “We are also attempting to acquire multi-angle video which we believe will provide greater insight into this important matter.”

Rubio then posted a blurry photo, taken at a different moment, showing Trump’s hand on Rubio’s shoulder as he smiles. “New photo emerges providing more insight into alleged failed hug. (Faces blurred for security purposes),” was the accompanying caption.

Several minutes later that was followed up by another photo showing Trump with her hand on Rubio’s shoulder, and the caption “BREAKING NEWS: Additional photo from moments right after today’s alleged failed hug provide new details to this developing story.”

Trump herself joined in Tuesday evening, tweeting: “Anonymous sources say @marcorubio planned the alleged failed hug. I have no comment (but I would have hugged him anyway!)”

She then added: “Fake news! Marco is an excellent hugger.”

The Associated Press stands by its photo.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Andrew Gillum blasts Republicans for hiding ‘immoral disaster’ of Senate health care bill

Andrew Gillum blasted Senate Republicans Tuesday for “hiding” behind its Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill, an “immoral disaster” which is being written largely behind closed doors and without Democrat input.

But the Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic candidate for Florida Governor is not the only one. Gillum is part of a growing chorus of disapproval coming from both sides of the aisle.

Several Senate Republicans have also criticized their own party, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who questioned the lack of transparency in the process.

“The Senate is not a place where you can just cook up something behind closed doors and rush it for a vote on the floor,” the Rubio said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”

Despite Republicans wanting to vote on the bill is soon as next week, there has been, so far, no legislation presented for examination and few lawmakers (of either party) who even know what is in the proposal.

On Monday evening, Democrats took to the Senate floor for a series of lengthy speeches chastising Republicans — notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — for trying to push through a massive “back door” bill repealing the Affordable Care Act.

In response, Gillum released a statement giving somewhat backhanded praise to Rubio for cautioning against ramming a health care bill through the Senate.

“Senate Republicans are hiding their health care bill for one reason only: it’s an immoral disaster that will likely take health care away from more than 20 million Americans,” Gillum said. “Health care is a right in this country and state, and they are hiding behind closed doors because they don’t want us to know the truth.

“I was heartened to see Senator Rubio raise the transparency issue this weekend — if he feels so strongly about it, he should refuse to vote for it unless it receives full scrutiny.

“I’m glad his Democratic colleagues held the floor last night — we need to put up as many obstacles as possible to prevent Republicans from passing this bill that threatens the quality of life for so many Floridians.”

Is $44 million worth it to ANZ bank to draw the scrutiny of American regulators?

It’s Thursday afternoon in New South Wales, Australia, where just hours ago, the High Court there (Australia’s equivalent of a federal appeals court) just ruled against Jacksonville-based APR Energy, and in favor of the Australia-New Zealand Bank (ANZ), further solidifying a case of what one Australian parliamentarian referred to as “legalised theft.”

In a long-standing international dispute that FloridaPolitics.com has been following for some time, a Florida business, APR Energy appears to be on the precipice of a $44 million taking by a foreign bank, with the full complicity of the Australian system to do so.

In early 2014 APR leased tens of millions of dollars worth of U.S.-manufactured GE turbines and other equipment to Forge Group Power Pty Ltd, a private utility in Western Australia. Within roughly a month of receiving the equipment, Forge went bankrupt.

As with most leases, APR’s agreement with Forge maintained APR’s exclusive ownership of equipment and power generation facilities. The contract further stipulated that in the case of a breach, or bankruptcy filing by Forge, all leased facilities would be returned immediately to APR in Houston, Texas. ANZ Bank ignored APR’s ownership right, as well as Forge’s contractual obligations (more on that later), and seized APR’s property as their own under the then-recently enacted Personal Property and Securities Act (PPSA).

(In what must be a bitter irony for APR, Australian Parliament recent passed a law to reform the very provision of PPSA under which ANZ seized APR’s power facilities.)

In order to get their power generation facility back, APR was forced to post a $44 million letter of credit in favor of ANZ Bank to get its own property back. Five business days after today’s High Court ruling, ANZ can draw down on that letter of credit, in its entirety.

But new evidence obtained by FloridaPolitics.com clearly points to potential fraud on the part of ANZ Bank, prior to the execution of the original lease in question.

In August 2013 — nearly 6 months prior to Forge’s bankruptcy and ANZ’s subsequent seizure of APR’s equipment — ANZ issued a letter of credit to Forge on the basis of its collateral at the time, and in full knowledge of the lease it had signed with GE International (acquired shortly thereafter by APR); a lease which explicitly said Forge had no property or security rights over the leased equipment.

This smoking gun potentially proves the fraudulent nature of the entire process by which ANZ has held a Florida company financially hostage for more than three years.

And APR is no shrinking violet, fighting for what is rightfully theirs in both the Australian court system and the U.S. political process.

Numerous Senators and members of Congress from Florida and elsewhere — including both Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson — have weighed in on behalf of APR over the years. But they’ve done so simultaneous to APR’s case winding its way through the Australian civil justice system, and they’ve been respectful of that process.

Now that the Australian courts have spoken, expect that U.S. politicians, too, will speak up clearly, and strongly, on behalf of this U.S. company being robbed in plain daylight by a foreign bank, under a set of newly revealed circumstances that are highly suggestive, if not dispositive of, fraud.

Florida Congressman Dennis Ross recently sent a letter to ANZ’s U.S. executive, Truett Tate, asking for an “explanation of this taking of APR’s … property”, and asking if Tate was willing to meet with the House Committee on Financial Services to answer additional questions on the matter.

That letter, dated April 3 of this year, has yet to receive a response from Tate or ANZ.

Separately, another member of that same committee, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, sent a letter on April 7 to Thomas Curry, the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) — the agency responsible for overseeing foreign banks in the United States — requesting his office’s attention to ANZ’s activities. Gottheimer’s letter calls ANZ’s taking a “fraudulent conveyance and transfer of title under U.S. law”, while also reminding Curry of ANZ’s previous sanctions by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the U.S. Department of Treasury, in relation to ANZ’s business in hostile foreign dictatorships Myanmar, Sudan and Cuba.

Sources from within the House Committee on Financial Services tell us that proposed legislation is already in drafting, and soon to be filed, that would prohibit a financial institution, domestic or foreign, from receiving the proceeds of a fraudulent transfer, such as would occur if and when ANZ drew down on the $44 million credit line with APR. The legislation — modeled after similar laws on the books in 44 states — would also create a private cause of action against the beneficiary of a fraudulent transfer, including the potential for punitive damages. It would also expose the financial institute to disciplinary action by American regulators.

That an Australian court would ultimately rule in favor of an Australian bank in this dispute, was never much in question. Now the question is going to shift rapidly to ANZ Bank, as they consider whether $44 million is worth the ire and scrutiny of U.S. lawmakers, and their potential to make continuing to do business in the United States very, very difficult.

VA reform bill backed by Marco Rubio, Bill Nelson headed to Donald Trump

A bill to reform the Department of Veterans of Affairs is heading to President Donald Trump, after the U.S. House of Representatives approved it this week.

The House voted 368-55 on Tuesday to approve the the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, gives the VA secretary the authority to fire and demote employees. It also adds protections for whistleblowers, by prohibiting the secretary from using his or her authority to fire employees who filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel.

The bill cleared the Senate on a voice vote last week. It now heads to Trump for his signature.

The bill had significant bipartisan support in the Senate, including from Sen. Bill Nelson, who signed on as one of 39 co-sponsors.

The measure comes more than three years after a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center, where some veterans died while waiting months for an appointment. VA employees created secret lists to cover up delays.

The VA has been plagued by years of problems, and critics complain that too few employees are punished for malfeasance. The bill lowers the burden of proof needed to fire employees — from a “preponderance” to “substantial evidence,” allowing a dismissal even if most evidence is in a worker’s favor.

“At the end of the day, this bill is about holding the bad actors accountable, protecting the whistleblowers, and refocusing the VA on its missions to serve our nation’s heroes,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican during a floor speech Tuesday. “With the passage of the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, we are turning the page to a fresh start for the VA.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permission.

Cuba hardliners, U.S. defenders battle over new Donald Trump policy

Cuba’s best friends in the U.S. used to be a smattering of Washington policy wonks and leftists who sent donated school buses and computers to the communist-led island.

Five months into the Trump administration, Cuba has a new set of American defenders: a coalition of high-tech firms, farming interests, travel companies and young Cuban-Americans thrown into action by the looming announcement of a new Cuba policy. On the opposite side, hardline members of Miami’s Cuban exile community who suddenly have a direct line to the White House through Cuban-American Republican members of Congress and the administration.

President Donald Trump planned to announce the new policy on Friday in Miami but had not yet decided all the details, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana will remain open, but Americans can expect actions by the Departments of State, Treasury and Homeland Security to ban U.S. trade with any Cuban entity linked to the military. Also planned: a reduction in the number of categories for which Americans do not need U.S. government licenses to go to Cuba. The U.S. will demand greater internet access and the release of prisoners and return of American fugitives in Cuba. President Barack Obama’s repeal of the special Cuban immigration privileges known as wet-foot/dry-foot will not change, the official said.

“If this were a traditional policy environment, we’d be having great success,” said Collin Laverty, head of one of the biggest Cuba travel companies and a consultant for U.S. corporations seeking business in Cuba. “We’re certainly winning the debate for public opinion and in foreign policy circles, but unfortunately it appears that it’ll come down to a backroom political deal between the president and Cuban-American members of Congress.”

The most prominent figures still seeking a reversal in the opening are Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both Cuban-Americans. The Trump government wants to maintain good relations with both Rubio, who sits on the Senate committee investigating Trump’s relations with Russia, and Diaz-Balart, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Laverty is one of the most prominent figures in the new pro-Cuba lobby, which has been furiously tweeting and writing letters to the White House in a last-minute rush to sell the Trump administration on the benefits of the friendly relations established by President Barack Obama on Dec. 17, 2014. A particular focus is saving Obama’s easing of U.S. travel to Cuba, which tripled the number of American travelers to the island and pumped tens of millions of dollars into the island’s private hospitality sector.

“Thousands of Americans are visiting Cuba and fueling the fastest growth in its private sector since 1959,” CubaOne, a group of young pro-engagement Cuban-Americans, wrote in an open letter to Trump Monday.

After months of public silence, Airbnb last week released a report on its activities in Cuba, which have put $40 million into the hands of private bed-and-breakfast owners since the online lodging giant became the first major U.S. company into Cuba in the wake of Obama’s declaration of detente. Google, which installed servers on the island to speed Cuban internet service last year, spoke out for the first time Monday in favor of maintaining relations.

“Google has played a formative role in the first chapter of Cuba’s connectivity story, but this is just the beginning,” Brett Perlmutter, head of strategy and operations for Google Cuba, said at a conference in Miami on Monday. “Connecting Cuba will require an entire ecosystem of players … It will also require the US maintaining a policy that allows telecommunications firms work in Cuba.”

Even the Cuban government is getting into the game, with high-ranking diplomats tweeting pro-engagement articles and foreign correspondents given a series of interviews with officials from the powerful, secretive Interior Ministry about the new era of U.S-Cuban cooperation in areas such as human trafficking, drug smuggling and the prosecution of fugitives.

Two officials told The Associated Press that they were now in regular contact with the FBI, DEA and other U.S. law-enforcement agencies, sharing information about investigations that cross jurisdictions.

“The start of direct relations between the agencies has already shown results,” Lt. Col. Yoandrys Gonzalez Garcia, head of the Cuban National Police, told the AP. “Going back now would send a bad message to delinquents and criminals that there can be impunity.”

Those messages are scoffed at by many members of South Florida’s Cuban-American exile community, who call for starving Cuba of funds in order to topple its communist government and bring capitalism and multi-party democracy to the island. While most Americans support closer relations with Cuba, Cuban-Americans’ ability to influence Florida’s 29 electoral has long given them heavy influence over American policy.

“We’re confident that the president has listened to us. We’re confident that it will be a step in the right direction,” said Marcell Felipe, president of the Inspire America Foundation, an anti-Castro group that has been running ads on Spanish-language stations in Miami urging Cuban-Americans to demand a hardline policy from Trump.

He said he agreed with pro-engagement forces that their efforts were likely in vain.

“The real question to them there is, ‘Why is it that we have an inside line to the White House?” Felipe said. “It’s because we have the votes.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Joe Henderson: When U.S. plays the bully, other nations just take their money elsewhere

Cuba enjoyed a record year for tourism in 2016 when more than 4 million people found their way to that island nation.

That was a 13 percent increase from the year before, much of it attributable to relaxed travel rules between Cuba and the United States. That might change if President Trump, as expected, rolls back many of the liberalized policy changes from then-President Barack Obama toward Cuba.

If that happens, consider it a nod from Trump to Marco Rubio, Florida’s junior U.S. senator. Rubio is a hard-liner against normalizing relations with Cuba as long as the Castro family is in charge.

Funny thing about all that though. Even as the Trump administration continues to put the bully back in the international pulpit it now occupies, it seems our neighbors are figuring out just fine how to get along without the United States.

Remember Trump’s promise to “Build That Wall” to separate the U.S. from Mexico? Every action has an equal opposite reaction.

In March, Forbes reported that U.S. tourism could take a $1.6 billion hit this year because Mexicans have apparently decided to spend their money in Canada instead of here. There was an 82 percent jump in the number of Mexican tourists heading to the Great White North after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced visa-free travel for citizens of that country.

The number of Mexicans booking vacations to the U.S. dropped 9 percent during the same period.

Canada is taking advantage of the anti-Trump sentiment by tweaking the U.S. in another way. NPR reported about new Canadian policies that make it easier to lure international workers with highly valued tech skills.

Workers with those skills have traditionally taken jobs in places like Silicon Valley and Seattle but now are skittish about the U.S. immigration policies. One company even reported a 30 percent jump in applications from tech workers now in the United States.

Crain’s, a business website focused on New York, reported a significant drop in tourists and groups from European countries. It said the international youth group World Merit, based in England, had booked nearly 1,000 beds over 10 days starting in late August as part of an event connected to the United Nations.

That event now will take place in the United Kingdom.

Against that backdrop, Trump may be preparing to return the U.S. policy toward Cuba to the Cold War days. That will give people like Marco Rubio the chance to sound self-righteous and touch at a photo op.

When that’s done, Cuba — like every other nation — will just find a way to fill the void the U.S. leaves behind.

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