July 29, 2014

A Rossen Reports investigation has found that a number of department stores, including Macy's and JCPenney, are marketing gems filled with lead glass as "real" rubies.

Rossen Reports staffers, along with a professional gemologist, visited Lord & Taylor, Macy's, JCPenney, and Littman Jewelers, purchasing items that contained "rubies." Salespeople at all of the stores told them the rubies were "real," "natural," and "genuine." But when they sent their purchases to two different labs, all of them contained "high contents of lead glass."

One of the purchase rings was essentially "fish tank gravel," Christopher Smith, president of American Gemological Labs, told Today. Smith explained that lead glass includes air bubbles, while natural rubies don't have bubbles. He suggests shoppers have jewelry appraised by a gemologist to avoid being duped.

JCPenney and Lord & Taylor are offering refunds for "dissatisfied customers." Watch Today's report on the ruby investigation below. --Meghan DeMaria

10:45 a.m. ET

When a handful of NATO leaders' wives took a photograph together at the Royal Castle of Laeken, in Brussels, on Thursday, there was a conspicuous suited figure in their ranks. Gauthier Destenay, the husband of Luxembourg's gay prime minister, Xavier Bettel, had been invited to join the first ladies:

Destenay, who married Bettel in 2015, was flanked by "First Lady of France Brigitte Macron, First Lady of Turkey Emine Gulbaran Erdogan, Queen Mathilde of Belgium, [the Norwegian Secretary General's partner] Ingrid Schulerud, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev's partner Desislava Radeva, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel's partner Amelie Derbaudrenghien, Slovenia's Prime Minister Cerar's wife Mojca Stropnik, First Lady of Iceland Thora Margret Baldvinsdottir," and Melania Trump, The Daily Mail reports. Jeva Lange

10:40 a.m. ET

More than 100 United Nations peacekeepers recruited from the Sri Lankan military were identified as the operators of a child sex ring in Haiti, The Associated Press reported Friday, but none were ever prosecuted or jailed after repatriation.

The U.N. does not have legal jurisdiction over the peacekeepers to bring its own charges, and it has now implemented a stricter screening process for would-be peacekeepers from Sri Lanka intended to better weed out recruits connected to military units that have been accused of war crimes. Still, the U.N. continues to deploy Sri Lankan peacekeepers despite these grave — and still unresolved — allegations.

"This is a pattern repeated around the world," the AP report notes. "Strapped for troops, the U.N. draws recruits from many countries with poor human rights records for its peacekeeping program." "Sometimes the U.N. needs troops," former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the AP. "And they are so desperate that they accept troops that they will normally not accept if they had the choice."

Last month, a broader AP investigation into peacekeeper misconduct counted some 2,000 allegations of sexual assault by U.N. peacekeepers around the world since 2005. About 300 of those cases involved children, but jail time was rare across the board. In Haiti, the nine children who alleged abuse said the peacekeepers baited them with offers of food. One boy estimated he was forced to have sex with about 100 peacekeepers, averaging four daily for several years. Bonnie Kristian

10:38 a.m. ET

Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough on Friday criticized President Trump for spending his NATO speech Thursday scolding leaders for not paying enough for their collective defense. Trump, speaking at NATO's headquarters in Brussels, chastised members for "not paying what they should be paying" and issued a reminder that some still owe "massive amounts." NATO leaders could be seen smirking and exchanging looks during Trump's lecture.

While Scarborough agreed that member nations "should carry their load," he wasn't a fan of how Trump delivered that message. "Do not call them out," Scarborough said. "When you have, the entire world is watching and most importantly [Russian President] Vladimir Putin is watching. It seemed like yesterday was his love note to Vladimir Putin. It really did. By, first of all, attacking the allies and then by not moving forward and saying that they were going to do what we've always done and defend any country that was attacked."

Watch Scarborough critique Trump's speech below. Becca Stanek

9:38 a.m. ET

The number of nonimmigrant visas issued to people in Muslim-majority countries declined steeply in April, Politico reported after analyzing data posted this week by the State Department. In nearly 50 Muslim-majority countries, 20 percent fewer nonimmigrant visas were issued in April compared to the monthly average issued in 2016. These drop-offs were noted in spite of the fact that President Trump's immigration executive order, which temporarily bans travel from multiple Muslim-majority countries, is held up in court.

In the six countries — Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen — affected by Trump's second immigration executive order, the number of nonimmigrant visas plummeted 55 percent in April compared to last year's averages. In just Arab countries, nonimmigrant visas dropped almost 30 percent in April.

William Cocks, a spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, argued that visa demand "is cyclical" and "not uniform throughout the year," but three immigration experts told Politico the declines likely weren't purely coincidental. "Some people may have canceled trips," said immigration lawyer Stephen Pattison. "Some people may have traveled last year but not this year. But I think it would be naive to assume that’s what's going on in Washington isn't having an effect on consular adjudications."

The State Department did not publish the number of visa applications submitted or rejected, so Politico was unable to extrapolate whether the drops were because the U.S. government is denying more visa applicants, or because fewer people want to visit Trump's America.

Read more about the effects of Trump's travel ban in Muslim-majority countries — and worldwide — at Politico. Becca Stanek

9:22 a.m. ET

Award-winning author and poet Denis Johnson died Thursday at the age of 67, The Washington Post reports. "Denis was one of the great writers of his generation," Farrar, Straus & Giroux president and publisher Jonathan Galassi said in a statement. "He wrote prose with the imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was."

Johnson is best known for his hazy, freewheeling collection of linked stories, Jesus' Son, and he won the 2007 National Book Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his Vietnam War novel, Tree of Smoke. His most recent novel, The Laughing Monsters, was published in 2014.

"No American novelist since William Burroughs has so flagrantly risked 'insensitivity' in an effort to depict the pathology of addiction," The New York Times wrote of Johnson in 1992.

"My ear for the diction and rhythms of poetry was trained by — in chronological order — Dr. Seuss, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and T.S. Eliot," Johnson once said. "Other influences come and go, but those I admire the most and those I admired the earliest (I still admire them) have something to say in every line I write." Jeva Lange

9:03 a.m. ET

Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel is looking to challenge Sen. Sherrod Brown for his Senate seat in November 2018. Only some conservatives in Ohio, including allies of Gov. John Kasich, are failing to work up much enthusiasm for the Trump loyalist, BuzzFeed News reports. They have another conservative in mind: J.D. Vance, the bestselling author of Hillbilly Elegy.

Vance's book has been credited as "key to understanding distressed pockets of Appalachia and the white working-class voters who carried Trump to the White House," BuzzFeed News writes. And Vance, 32, has long been suspected of trying to nudge his way into politics; his current project is a nonprofit, Our Ohio Renewal, that addresses local problems such as the opioid crisis.

What's more, "the donors are kind of wishy-washy on Josh [Mandel]," one Republican activist told BuzzFeed News. But Vance "resonates with everyday mom-and-pop voters. He taps into an undercurrent of Americana. He could beat Sherrod Brown in a heartbeat."

Former Kasich adviser Jai Chabria, who is working with Vance, agreed that "since J.D. has moved back to Ohio and begun traveling the state, he has clearly generated a tremendous amount of interest."

But Chabria refused to sate anyone's curiosity about if Vance will run for the Senate. "There is plenty of time to have that conversation at the right time," he said. Jeva Lange

8:11 a.m. ET

Following the election of Republican Greg Gianforte to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's vacated House seat in Montana on Thursday night, Democrats might be feeling pessimistic after a series of close, but ultimately unsuccessful, special elections. Yet "these are tangible signs of progress for Democrats and indicators that the House could be in play in 2018," Axios writes. "Princeton electoral politics statistician Sam Wang, citing a 12-point GOP underperformance in the Kansas race, and a 7-point underperformance in Georgia [which will have a runoff between the Democrat and the Republican candidates in June], emails Axios that 'even a 5-point underperformance in November 2018 would be enough to put House control within reach for Democrats.'"

As it turns out, this could even be a case of history repeating itself. A "similar situation" occurred in 2009 "when three blue-state seats opened up following Obama's win," Axios writes. "The GOP gained ground in each of those special elections (without winning), foreshadowing the 2010 midterms when Republicans picked up 63 seats and took control of the House."

Read the entire analysis at Axios. Jeva Lange

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