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August 21, 2014

Bank of America has finally reached a settlement to pay a whopping $16.65 billion to the government for selling badly-designed mortgage-backed securities in the run up to the financial crisis.

Those mortgage-backed securities had been advertised to investors, including public pension funds and federally-insured financial institutions, as safe, strong investments with little risk. But the financial crisis saw those investments lose billions and billions of dollars. Securitization — which was supposed to decrease risk by spreading it out throughout the system, for example by bundling up lots of different mortgages together into mortgage-backed securities, and then selling those securities to investors — in reality turned the minor risk of mortgagees defaulting on their loans into a systemic risk that crashed the economy.

Many (but not all) of these mortgage-backed securities were created by Countrywide and Merrill Lynch, two firms Bank of America acquired during the financial crisis at pennies on the dollar. But those firms' assets came with the added burden of responsibility for their prior activities, for which Bank of America is now paying a steep price.

The settlement — which according to The Wall Street Journal is approximately equal to the firm's profits for the last three years — is the single largest settlement ever reached between the U.S. and a single company.

The terms of the settlement involve the bank paying $9.65 billion to government agencies, including the Justice Department, several states, and other government agencies. Much of that money will go to paying down the national debt.

And those payments are in addition to providing $7 billion worth of aid to customers through a variety of actions such as modifying mortgages for borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth, and donating money to housing counseling agencies.

The settlement is similar to other deals with major players in the financial industry for similar conduct. In July, Citigroup paid out $7 billion, and late last year JP Morgan Chase paid $13 billion. John Aziz

9:20 a.m.

Roopkund Lake is filled with hundreds of human skeletons, and no one knows why.

The high-altitude lake, which sits in India's Himalayas, has been an archaeological mystery since the morbid contents were discovered by a forest ranger during World War II. There are several extremely creepy details about the lake, which harbors an estimated 500 bodies in its depths. For one thing, "not a single skeleton found so far is intact," The Atlantic reports. For another, the bodies sometimes float back up to the surface, often with their "flesh still attached," The Independent writes.

And for another, the best working theory for explaining why there is a lake full of human bones in the first place just got completely blown out of the water.

Until recently, archaeologists had believed that Roopkund Lake was the site of a massive tragedy that took place some 1,000 years ago — perhaps the skeletons belonged to a group of travelers who had gotten caught in a storm and perished. That theory was swiftly disproven in a new study released Tuesday in Nature Communications, which analyzed the DNA of 37 of the skeletons.

It turns out that while the people indeed perished some 1,000 years ago, it didn't happen all at once. It happened sporadically over time, and as recently as the early 1800s. Plus the bodies weren't South Asian, as one might expect at a lake in India; their DNA makeup was more akin to people from the Mediterranean region, some thousands of miles away.

On the one hand, this is pretty cool for geneticists, who study patterns of human migration. On the other hand, a creepy lake filled with dead bodies just got way harder to explain. Read some of the new theories at The Atlantic. Jeva Lange

9:14 a.m.

This fall, ABC will draw the largest audience ever to witness a season of Dancing with the Stars, period!

At least, that's probably what former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer would tell you after on Wednesday being announced as a contestant on the dance competition show's upcoming season. He appeared on Good Morning America along with the rest of the recently-announced cast, with some of his fellow stars this season including Kate Flannery, Kel Mitchell, Christie Brinkley, and James Van Der Beek.

Spicer actually came close to starring on Dancing with the Stars before, evidently being asked on in 2017, but he reportedly turned the show down due to being too busy. That was pretty soon after Spicer left the White House, but his schedule has apparently cleared up since then.

Spicer won't actually be the first Trump administration official to wind up on Dancing with the Stars, with Energy Secretary Rick Perry having competed in the fall 2016 season prior to being hired by President Trump. He was eliminated after three weeks. Check out the full line-up for the next season of the show here; sadly, Melissa McCarthy is not included. Brendan Morrow

8:46 a.m.

Don't look now, but President Trump just tweeted out a quote suggesting that Jewish people everywhere should love him as if he's the "second coming of God."

Trump on Wednesday morning promoted a claim from Wayne Allyn Root, a conservative radio host and author who was the Libertarian vice presidential nominee in the 2008 presidential election and has promoted numerous unfound conspiracy theories. Root, whose words the president calls "very nice," bafflingly declares that Jewish people in Israel love Trump like he's the "second coming of God," not to mention the "King of Israel."

This odd statement comes a day after Trump concluded in the Oval Office that any Jewish people who vote for Democrats do so either because of a "total lack of knowledge" or "great disloyalty," a claim that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) mocked on Twitter by writing, "The popular vote was #DisloyalToTrump." The president has been on a cable-news-quoting tear on Wednesday, so don't be surprised if even more odd statements from even more conspiracy theorists wind up on his feed by mid-morning. Brendan Morrow

7:59 a.m.

Is there still a chance that Spider-Man could swing back home into the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Potentially, although it's not looking good.

Reports emerged on Tuesday that Disney and Sony failed to reach an agreement that would allow them to continue sharing ownership of the Spider-Man character, with Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige no longer set to be involved in the upcoming sequels starring Tom Holland.

This would likely mean that Spider-Man would exit the Marvel Cinematic Universe completely, no longer being able to interact with any of the Avengers in future films. Considering Spider-Man was just recently set up as a crucial component to the rest of the Marvel franchise, and effectively the next Iron Man, this would be a radical shift.

Sony in a statement now says that "we are disappointed but respect Disney's decision." The point of contention, according to Deadline's Tuesday report, was Disney wanting a 50-50 co-financing arrangement on future Spider-Man films. This was reportedly far too high for Sony, which made counteroffers that Disney turned down. The current deal sees Marvel get five percent of the first-dollar gross.

In its response, though, Sony suggests the issue is actually that Feige does not have "time" to work on a movie series not owned by Disney due to his "many new responsibilities," but Deadline writes that this "seems like spin."

Sony also says that "we hope this might change in the future," leaving the door open for a deal to still happen. Indeed, Variety cites a source as saying a deal remains possible, although talks are not currently ongoing. But The Wrap reports that Disney "considers the matter closed," even as Sony believes that "negotiations are ongoing."

If director James Gunn can be re-hired nearly eight months after his public firing, anything's possible when it comes to Marvel. But should nothing change, don't expect Spider-Man to do whatever an Avenger can. Brendan Morrow

7:39 a.m.

The heads of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) correctly identified the nascent opioid abuse epidemic in March 2006 and nearly convinced then-Surgeon General Richard Carmona to issue an official call to action, the most potent tool the surgeon general has to alert the public, Politico reported Wednesday. But for reasons that aren't fully clear, "the effort didn't lead to any real action, and the toll of death and addiction climbed."

"Why it then didn’t happen is still a mystery to me," Geoffrey Laredo, a former senior NIDA adviser who worked closely on the call to action, tells Politico. "We were facing what we believed was a public health crisis that needed to be addressed and we had what we thought was an agreement with the surgeon general to do a thing. We produced that thing ... and then it never saw the light of day."

Carmona told Politico he held a number of meetings about the call to action with Health and Human Services Department officials and the George W. Bush White House Domestic Policy Council, but his office was dealing with other big crises, like obesity and bioterrorism. "The [opioid] crisis was in its infancy," he said. "It wasn't like we dropped the ball." His term ended a few months after NIDA Director Nora Volkow pressed him for urgent action, and when an acting surgeon general took over, "what little momentum had built for a public warning evaporated," Politico says.

"Had the call to action succeeded it would have been the first major attempt by the federal government to counteract the aggressive marketing of pharmaceutical companies that had led doctors to liberally — too liberally, in retrospect — prescribe the painkillers," Politico reports. Instead, "more than 133,000 people have died from prescription opioids since then — and hundreds of thousands more from street drugs including heroin and illicit fentanyl." Read more about the failed warnings at Politico. Peter Weber

6:02 a.m.

An Australian appellate court Wednesday upheld the 2018 conviction of Cardinal George Pell on charges of sexually molesting two 13-year-old boys in 1996 and 1997. The 2-to-1 verdict in Victoria's Court of Appeals sends Pell back to prison, where he is serving a six-year sentence. Pell's lawyer said the 78-year-old prelate will likely appeal the decision to Australia's High Court, though there's no guarantee the nation's final arbiter would agree to hear his appeal. Pell, the former Vatican finance minister and archbishop of Melbourne, is the senior-most Catholic prelate convicted of sexual abuse. He maintains that he is innocent.

Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said she and Justice Chris Maxwell "decided that it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty," adding that dissenting Justice Mark Weinberg "could not exclude as a reasonable possibility that some of what the complainant said was concocted."

Advocates for sexual abuse victims cheered the verdict, the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference said it respectfully accepted the verdict, and the Vatican, which is conducting its own investigation of Pell, confirmed "its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to pursue, through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members of the clergy who commit such abuse." Peter Weber

5:01 a.m.

As soon as Wednesday, the Trump administration is expected to publish sweeping new rules for detaining minors who cross the U.S.-Mexico border, seeking to sidestep or terminate the Flores Settlement Agreement that has determined how the U.S. treats migrant children since 1997, ABC News and The New York Times report. The new rules, a version of which were proposed in September 2018 but never enacted, could allow the government to detain migrant children for longer than 20 days, revise the minimum standards of care children are afforded, and end some of all of the other protections set out in the Flores agreement. Once published, the rules will likely be challenged in court.

Administration officials told the Times that the new rules will maintain the underlying purpose of the Flores settlement and that all children will be "treated with dignity, respect, and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors," as required under Flores. Migrant advocates disagree. "The proposed regulations do not implement the settlement," Peter Schey, who filed the original 1985 lawsuit with colleague Carlos Holguin, tells the Times. "They abrogate key terms of the settlement."

In the version of the rules proposed last year, the administration argued it can "terminate" Flores protections if it establishes its own replacement regulations. Trump and other Republicans say the Flores settlement encourages migrant parents to flee Central America with their children so they won't be locked up indefinitely. The Obama administration tried and failed to get out from under the Flores restrictions.

Schey and Holguin have returned to court again and again to enforce the settlement, and they've enlisted lawyers and law students to visit detention facilities, like the one in Clint, Texas. "It's like we are playing whack-a-mole," Holguin told the Times. "If someone had told me in 1985 that our work to protect children would continue into 2019," he added, "there is no way I would have believed it." Read more about this history of the Flores settlement at The New York Times. Peter Weber

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