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News Brief: FAA Head On Capitol Hill, Jussie Smollett


The head of the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to get some tough questions today from members of the U.S. Senate.


And lawmakers are probably going to press the FAA's acting administrator, Daniel Elwell, on his agency's action - or maybe lack of action, rather - in the days after the second of two crashes involving the Boeing 737 Max. The most recent was that Ethiopian Airlines jet that crashed, killing all 157 people onboard. That happened earlier this month. A number of countries grounded all 737 Max planes the very next day. That was not the case here in the U.S. The FAA waited three days before grounding those planes. Here's Elwell explaining that decision to NPR.

DANIEL ELWELL: Nobody had data to act on it. It was all conjecture. And in aviation, the FAA and the U.S. has always acted on data.

GREENE: Let's bring in NPR's business reporter Jim Zarroli, who is going to be covering this hearing.

Hi, Jim.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: All right. So what do we expect? How tense is this going to get?

ZARROLI: This is being conducted by the aviation and space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, and they're going to be hearing from Elwell - also the head of the National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Department inspector general. And they're going to be talking about, you know, the whole process of how the 737 Max was certified, the steps the government took to stop the plane from flying after the crashes. Both the planes went down in very similar circumstances, right after takeoff. And in both cases, something appeared to go wrong with the computer system that was meant - that was supposed to stabilize the plane.

GREENE: One of the looming questions I know lawmakers and a lot of other people following this story have had is whether Boeing - I mean, this major American company - whether it's too close to the government, whether the FAA might've thought about Boeing's potential, you know, troubles if they grounded these planes. I mean, I'm sure those questions are going to come up, right?

ZARROLI: Yeah. I think we can expect questions about Boeing's efforts to train the pilots. Did they both - you know, did they go far enough? Did these - and, you know, in both cases, the planes were behaving erratically. The nose was dropping, and the pilots were trying to counter that. But tragically, they weren't able to. I think, in general, the hearing will focus just on how well the FAA is able to regulate Boeing. You know, has it left too many decisions about safety up to the company itself? Should it be doing more? And also, does it have the resources to do more? I mean, air travel has just gotten so much more common over the years, and there are people who say the FAA's budget hasn't kept up - so just a lot of tough questions about the running of the FAA and what its responsibility is right now.

GREENE: I know we heard a little bit of tape from Elwell a few minutes ago saying that, you know, his agency is one that just acts on data and bases decisions on data. Is that the essential message we're expecting to hear from him today or will his message change?

ZARROLI: Well, we have obtained a copy of his opening statement. So we know - and basically, he's going to talk about how the FAA certifies planes as safe. He's also going to talk about the two crashes. You know, he says after the first crash in Indonesia, the FAA ordered planes to instruct pilots in how to respond to stabilization problems. And, you know, after the second crash, it looked into the data. It didn't support grounding the plane so - at least until more information came in. So questions - senators are likely to ask why it took the U.S. so much longer to ground the planes than other countries did.

GREENE: Yeah, putting passengers in this country in the air when others were not flying on those planes anymore. All right. NPR's Jim Zarroli reporting for us.

Jim, thanks.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right. In a really stunning and controversial move, prosecutors have dropped all of the charges against "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett, who had been accused of staging a phony hate crime.

MARTIN: Yeah. Jussie Smollett claimed, earlier this year, that two masked men attacked him in downtown Chicago, yelling racist and homophobic slurs. A grand jury then concluded that the attack was, in fact, a hoax. Smollett was potentially going to face prison time for this. Now there's this deal where the actor will do community service, and the charges will all be dropped, as you noted. The city's police chief and the mayor are both furious about this decision.

GREENE: This is just an incredible turn in what has been a weird story to follow. NPR's Cheryl Corley has been following it from Chicago.

Hi, Cheryl.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

GREENE: All right. Just remind us about some of the details of this case and how we arrived here.

CORLEY: Well, this case actually began in late January. That's when Jussie Smollett said that he was attacked. And there was this huge outpouring of sympathy and support for him. And police began investigating it as a hate crime. But this has been such a huge case of - was Smollett actually the person who orchestrated this attack or not? And things started to change after police went through lots of video from security cameras. They ended up interviewing two brothers who said that Smollett paid them to take part in the attack. And Superintendent Eddie Johnson blasted Smollett, calling his story a hoax that the actor set up because he was unhappy with his salary on "Empire" and staged the attack for publicity.

So as you mentioned, a grand jury did charge him with 16 counts of disorderly conduct, accusing him of filing a false police report. And those are the charges that were dropped yesterday after Smollett agreed to give his $10,000 bond to the city, in addition to the community service you mentioned. And here's what he had to say yesterday.


JUSSIE SMOLLETT: This has been an incredibly difficult time - honestly, one of the worst of my entire life. But I am a man of faith. And I am a man that has knowledge of my history. And I would not bring my family, our lives or the movement through a fire like this. I just wouldn't.

CORLEY: And so now, Jussie Smollett has a clean slate.

GREENE: Rachel mentioned that the police chief, the mayor are really unhappy with this decision. Why?

CORLEY: Well, not just unhappy, they were pretty angry and not taking it very well at all. First, they felt blindsided. They didn't know before the court hearing that prosecutors were actually going to drop the charges. They learned about it while a graduation ceremony for new police recruits was underway yesterday. And second, they still believe that Jussie Smollett orchestrated a hoax. And they point to the grand jury, which listened to testimony and came back with that indictment. You know, last month, Police Superintendent Johnson said Smollett had dragged Chicago's reputation through the mud. Yesterday, he said that justice was just not served. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the decision to drop the charges a whitewash of justice. And here's more of what he had to say.


RAHM EMANUEL: This is an unbelievable - not just whitewash of justice - this is a person, now, who's been let off scot-free with no sense of accountability of the moral and ethical wrong of his actions.

GREENE: Cheryl, I just wonder - I mean, as people in the city of Chicago have followed this whole thing, could this have an impact on people who - I don't know - might think twice about coming forward and reporting a hate crime in the future?

CORLEY: Well, yeah. Yeah. Many people suspect that that might be the case, that this - and that this case might have a very chilling effect on that - with people afraid to report for fear that they just won't be believed at all.

GREENE: NPR's Cheryl Corley in Chicago.

Cheryl, thanks.

CORLEY: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right. The founder and the all-female staff of the Vatican women's magazine have abruptly resigned, citing what they call a climate of distrust.

MARTIN: Their publication has gotten a lot of attention for their recent work exposing the sexual abuse of nuns by priests. Those stories led to the rise of #NunsToo - playing off the #MeToo movement. In a letter of resignation to the pope, the editorial board of this magazine wrote that they believe there is a Vatican campaign trying to discredit them and put them under the direct control of men.

GREENE: All right. We have NPR's Sylvia Poggioli on the line from Rome.

Hi, Sylvia.


GREENE: So tell me more about this magazine first, if you can, and what prompted this abrupt decision to resign.

POGGIOLI: The magazine's called "Women Church World." it's the monthly supplement to the official Vatican daily "L’Osservatore Romano." And it was created seven years ago by Lucetta Scaraffia. In her final editorial, she said the new editor of the "L’Osservatore Romano," who arrived in December, had published articles in the main paper that were in contrast with the women's supplements editorial line. And she wrote an open letter to Pope Francis, saying, we are throwing in the towel because we feel surrounded by a climate of distrust and progressive delegitimization. We believe there are no longer the conditions to continue our collaboration with "L’Osservatore Romano." She added, it seems there's a return to the antiquated and arid custom of choosing women considered trustworthy from on-high, under the direct control of men. But in a statement, the paper's new editor, Andrea Monda, denied the charges that he had tried to interfere in the supplement.

GREENE: Tell me more about the woman who created this magazine, Lucetta Scaraffia.

POGGIOLI: She's a history professor at Rome University and a mother. She describes herself as a feminist, but she has towed the line on official doctrine. For example, she opposes the idea of women priests. But with an editorial staff of eight women - that includes nuns and women theologians - the supplement shook the male-dominated world of the Vatican in introducing a women's perspective in dealing with topics that had always been taboo in the Vatican.

Last year, they published an article denouncing the servitude of nuns to clergy. It said they work for close to nothing to cook and clean for bishops and cardinals. And Scaraffia was asked recently about the pope's description of the church as a woman. She said, we don't want to be turned into metaphors but be recognized and listened to.

GREENE: You've talked to her before - right? - in some of your reporting.

POGGIOLI: Yeah. We talked about her article last month that caused an uproar. It denounced the abuse of nuns by priests and the added trauma of raped nuns who were forced to have abortions or become outcasts when they gave birth to a child. She had spoken to hundreds of nuns from all over the world. And the article, in fact, sparked a sort of #NunsToo discussion. And it prompted Pope Francis to acknowledge that abuse of nuns by clergy is a problem, and he vowed to do something about it.

Another member of the church I spoke to, Sister Catherine Aubin, a French Dominican nun who teaches theology at a university in Rome, was equally outspoken when I asked how women are treated inside the Vatican.


CATHERINE AUBIN: (Speaking French).

POGGIOLI: She said, "we are unobserved, invisible, ignored and not respected."

GREENE: Wow, powerful language - NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reporting for us in Rome.

Sylvia, thanks, as always.

POGGIOLI: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jim Zarroli
Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.
Cheryl Corley
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.
Sylvia Poggioli
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.