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Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Unity's Gracie Schoonhoven hits past Kuemper's Bethany Schleisman during Kuemper Catholic vs Unity Christian Class 3A quarterfinal-round state volleyball action played Wednesday at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Diplomats accuse Trump as impeachment hits Americans’ TVs

WASHINGTON — On Day One of extraordinary public impeachment hearings, the top American diplomat in Ukraine revealed new evidence that President Donald Trump was overheard asking about political “investigations” that he later demanded from Ukraine in exchange for military aid.

The revelation came as House Democrats pressed their case for Trump’s impeachment before the American people after weeks of closed-door interviews.

Wednesday’s account from a pair of career diplomats was a striking though complicated one that Democrats say reveals a president abusing his office, and the power of American foreign policy, for personal political gain.

"The matter is as simple and as terrible as that," said Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, as he opened the daylong hearing. "Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency itself."

Career diplomat William Taylor, the charge d’affaires in Kyiv, offered new testimony that Trump was overheard asking on the phone about "the investigations" of Democrats that he wanted Ukraine to pursue that are central to the impeachment inquiry.

Trump said he was too busy to watch on Wednesday and denied having the phone call. "First I’ve heard of it," he said when asked.

All day, the diplomats testified about how an ambassador was fired, the new Ukraine government was confused and they discovered an "irregular channel" — a shadow U.S. foreign policy orchestrated by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that raised alarms in diplomatic and national security circles.

The hearing, playing out on live television and in the partisan silos of social media, provided the nation and the world a close-up look at the investigation.

At its core, the inquiry stems from Trump’s July 25 phone call when he asked Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, for "a favor."

Trump wanted the Ukraine government to investigate Democrats’ activities in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden — all while the administration was withholding military aid for the Eastern European ally that is confronting an aggressive neighbor, Russia.

Both sides tried to distill it into soundbites.

Democrats said Trump was engaged in "bribery" and "extortion." Republicans said nothing really happened — the military aid was ultimately released after Congress complained.

Trump restated his aggressive defense with rapid-fire tweets, a video from the Rose Garden and a dismissive retort from the Oval Office as he met with another foreign leader.

"It's a witch hunt. It's a hoax," he said as he appeared with visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by his side.

Across the country, millions of Americans were tuning in — or, in some cases, deliberately tuning out.

Viewers on the right and left thought the day underscored their feelings. Anthony Harris, cutting hair in Savannah, Georgia, had the hearing on in his shop, but he said, “It’s gotten to the point now where people are even tired of listening.”

The hours of partisan back-and-forth did not appear to leave a singular moment etched in the public consciousness the way the Watergate proceedings or Bill Clinton’s impeachment did generations ago.

"No real surprises, no bombshells," said committee member Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah.

Still, the session unspooled at least partly the way Democrats wanted with the somber tones of career foreign service officers telling what they knew. They sounded credible.

The witnesses, the graying Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent in his bow tie, defied White House instructions not to appear. Both received subpoenas.

They are among a dozen current and former officials who already testified behind closed doors. Wednesday was the start of days of public hearings that will stretch into next week.

Taylor, who was asked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to return to Ukraine as Trump was firing Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, introduced new information Wednesday.

He testified that a staff member recently told him of overhearing Trump when they were meeting with another diplomat, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, at a restaurant the day after Trump’s July 25 phone call to the Ukraine president that sparked the impeachment investigation.

The staff member explained that Sondland had called the president and they could hear Trump on the phone asking about "the investigations." The ambassador told the president the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, Taylor testified.

In the face of Trump’s denial, Schiff expects the person to appear before investigators for a closed-door deposition. He is David Holmes, the political counselor at the embassy in Kyiv, according to an official unauthorized to discuss the matter and granted anonymity.

Republicans argued that even with the diplomats at the witness table the Democrats have only second- or third-hand knowledge of Trump’s alleged transgressions.

A Trump ally on the panel, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, mockingly called Taylor the Democrats’ "star witness" and said he’d "seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this."

top story
Sports betting off to hot start at Hard Rock in Sioux City

SIOUX CITY – Gamblers at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sioux City wagered over $1.2 million on football, baseball, basketball and other sports during the downtown casino’s first full month of sports betting.

Sports wagering became legal in Iowa in mid-August, but the Hard Rock didn’t take its first bets until Sept. 20. During those final days of September, the casino’s handle totaled $282,652. In October, the handle grew to $1,220,939.

Anthony Torres, Hard Rock's director of sports book operations, said the downtown casino is well on its way to exceeding its initial sports books projections for the last half of 2019. 

"We're going to hit the six month's goal in 103 days," Torres said Wednesday. "I'm really excited about the volume we've been getting. The customer loyalty has been outstanding."

[Ho-Chunk CEO: Expanded gaming and horse races would boost rural Nebraska.]

The casino continues to see lots of first-time sports betters, he added.

"Week after week, we're still getting, 'Hey, this is the first time I've done this. Can you help me?'" he said. 

Among the 19 state-licensed casinos, the Hard Rock’s sports betting handle was the 11th highest in October, according to figures released this week by the state Racing and Gaming Commission. Prairie Meadows in suburban Des Moines was the runaway leader with over $17.8 million in total bets. Isle Capril in Waterloo had the second most with nearly $3.8 million, followed close behind by the $3.7 million bet at Ameristar II, one of three casinos in Council Bluffs.

The Hard Rock’s numbers have room to grow. The casino currently only accepts sports bets placed by patrons inside the casino. Torres said the Hard Rock expects to add online betting by early December.

Only a handful of Iowa's casinos currently offer gamblers an online option, which under state law requires patrons to first register at a casino. Out-of-state residents who register can place online bets on their smart phones or other devices, but only within the state's borders.

Grand Falls Casino Resort, located in rural Lyon County, just across the South Dakota border, is one of the seven Iowa casinos offering both retail and online sports better.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Papers listing games that can be betted on are on a rack at the sports book area at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

In October, Grand Falls’ sports wagering handle totaled over $1.3 million, with $828,786 coming from retail betting and $499,933 from online bets.

Grand Falls’ adjusted net receipts from sports betting — accounting for winner payouts – totaled $212,547 in October, after paying out $1,116,173 in winnings.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Jacob Bossman, Iowa House Dist. 6 representative from Sioux City, places a bet at the sports book area at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

The Hard Rock collected $182,704 in net receipts, after paying out $1,038,255 in winnings last month.

Overall, Iowa gamblers placed $46.5 million in bets in October, pushing the overall handle for wagers online or in person to $93.6 million since it became legal in mid-August. Sports betting increased from nearly $38.53 million in September.

The overall total of $93.6 million breaks down to nearly $51.4 million wagered online using apps offered by seven casinos, and $42.2 million in retail sports betting

The Casino Queen in Marquette is the only state sanctioned casino without a sports betting license.

Gallery: Remembering Sioux City restaurants that have closed

“The interest in October was pretty good,” said Wes Ehrecke of the Iowa Gaming Association — an umbrella group for the 19 licensed casinos. "As this continues to mature, the interest will continue to grow and likewise the revenues to the state."

Max Bichsel, vice president of U.S. business for the Gambling.com Group, a marketing company in the sports betting industry, said the state is early into sports wagering and still has an immature market that will expand significantly once all the casinos with state licenses offer sports betting and online options become more common.

“I think Iowa has a lot more potential to unlock,” said Bichsel, who business publishes comparison sites for legal online gambling services and provides sports betting tips, picks and expert commentary. “That’s really an inhibitor to growth and really getting the numbers up there in the hundreds of millions versus the tens of millions in terms of handle. I think that’s the way that you exponentially grow the business, so that’s really the only down side of those Iowa numbers — thinking what they could be.”

GALLERY: 9 Iowa state employees who made more than $900,000 in 2018

Iowa’s decision to initially require in-casino registration for mobile sports betting apps is hindering online action and growth overall, he said, when compared with other states.

That requirement will end Jan. 1, 2021, under legislation approved last session and signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds last May that legalized betting not only on pro and college athletics, but also on daily fantasy sports such as at DraftKings and FanDuel.

Overall adjusted gross revenue from sports betting — accounting for winner payouts — grew from $4.9 million in September to $5.6 million in October and stood at $12.78 million for the year to date, according to commission data. Sports betting has brought in $861,846 of state tax revenue based upon a tax rate of 6.75 percent.

According to data so far, the growth in sports betting does not appear to be coming at the expense of other gambling. For the first three months of fiscal 2020 — that’s July, August and September — overall gambling numbers at state-licensed casinos were up about 7 percent compared with the same quarter a year ago.

Rod Boshart of the Journal Des Moines Bureau contributed to this story.

PHOTOS: 33 images of Sioux City pizza from the past and present

Earl Horlyk, Sioux City Journal 

Spalding Environmental Sciences Elementary School fifth graders Kevin Bock, left, and Brian Gomez strain strawberry pulp into a cheesecloth-lined cup in a special biomedical science class at the Sioux City Community School District's Career Academy

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