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January 16, 2019

In response to the housing crisis in Seattle, Microsoft announced late Wednesday it is pledging $500 million to build affordable housing in the region.

Microsoft is based in the suburb of Redmond, and in many areas where tech giants have their headquarters, low-and middle-income homeowners are being priced out. During a meeting attended by New York Times reporters earlier this week, Microsoft President Brad Smith and CEO Satya Nadella said they were worried about their employees being able to afford housing in an area where prices are skyrocketing. "We are going to invest quite a bit," Nadella said. "Of course, we have lots of software engineers, but the reality is that a lot of people work for Microsoft. Cafeteria workers, shuttle drivers. We have a real challenge. We don't have enough affordable housing units."

In December, the government published a report that found the Seattle region needs 156,000 more affordable housing units, and if the area continues to grow at its current rate, an additional 88,000 units are needed by 2040. Catherine Garcia

January 15, 2019

President Trump's inaugural committee had $107 million to work with, and a deep dive shows that $1.5 million was spent at the Trump International Hotel, $924,000 paid for seven-foot-high wreaths and moss-covered obelisks, and $10,000 covered makeup for 20 aides attending an evening event, The New York Times reports.

To determine how much was spent on the inaugural events, the Times reviewed documents and interviewed people involved with the committee. Trump's committee raised tens of millions more than Barack Obama and George W. Bush's committees, with most of the money coming from large corporations, including Bank of America and AT&T, and wealthy GOP donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Inaugural committees have to report every donation to the Federal Election Commission, but for the most part are able to use the money as they please.

The Times reports that about $5 million was donated to charity; $2 million was paid to Trump campaign official Brad Parscale's firm for ads to drum up interest for inaugural events; and $6.4 million went to pay for hotel rooms that were never occupied, as the guests made their own arrangements. First lady Melania Trump's friend Stephanie Winston Wolkoff received $1.6 million for overseeing events and creating a documentary that ended up never seeing the light of day.

Winston Wolkoff and her friend Jonathan Reynaga formed WIS Media Partners to manage things, and brought on another party planner, David Monn, who spent $924,000 on decorations for a candlelight dinner at Union Station, the Times reports. WIS Partners ultimately received almost $26 million, which it paid out to other vendors.

It is illegal for foreigners to make donations to inaugural funds, and now federal prosecutors in New York are investigating whether money was funneled to the committee through Americans, as well as if any donations weren't recorded, the Times reports. Read more about the committee's spending, and Winston Wolkoff's testy relationship with other aides, at The New York Times. Catherine Garcia

December 27, 2018

Workers in 20 states will ring in the new year with higher wages.

Minimum wage will increase in 20 states on Jan. 1, with a boost of five cents an hour in Alaska all the way up to $1.50 per hour in New York City. In November, voters in Missouri and Arkansas passed ballot measures to increase minimum wage in their state, while increases in 18 other states are due to legislation already passed or inflation adjustments, MoneyWatch reports. At least five million Americans will see a raise, the Economic Policy Institute said.

It's been nearly 10 years since Congress last increased the federal minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. David Cooper, senior economic analyst at the research group EPI, told MoneyWatch that if Congress isn't going to raise the federal minimum wage, "state lawmakers are feeling compelled to do it, and even local lawmakers. The minimum wage is such a simple, straightforward way to improve wages for people." Catherine Garcia

December 4, 2018

A one-and-a-half page letter Albert Einstein wrote in 1954 to philosopher Eric Gutkind was sold at auction on Tuesday for nearly $3 million — almost twice the amount expected by Christie's in New York.

Known as the "God Letter," it was written in German, Einstein's response to Gutkind's book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt. Einstein wrote that "the word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish." Einstein, who was Jewish, said he found that "the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people."

Einstein was religious as a child, but his biography Einstein: A Life says he "abandoned his uncritical religious fervor" at age 13. "As so often during his life, he refused and disturbed the accepted categories," Nick Spencer, a senior fellow at the Christian think tank Theos, told The Guardian. "We do the great physicist a disservice when we go to him to legitimize our belief in God, or in his absence." Catherine Garcia

November 20, 2018

The Department of Homeland Security is paying undercover informants inside the migrant caravan headed to the southern border, two DHS officials told NBC News on Tuesday.

There are about 4,000 migrants in the caravan, most of them from Central America, and to communicate, they are using WhatsApp to text. DHS personnel are monitoring those messages, the officials said, as well as working with the Mexican government to keep track of the size of the caravan and any possible security threats.

On Monday, DHS announced that on Sunday night, it had gathered intelligence indicating that some migrants planned on running through the lanes at the border crossing near San Diego. The northbound lanes were closed for three hours, and no migrants attempted to rush through.

It's not known how much the Department of Homeland Security is spending on the informants. In a statement, DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman told NBC News the department has "an obligation to ensure we know who is crossing our borders, to protect against threats to the homeland, and any indication to the contrary is misinformed." Catherine Garcia

November 15, 2018

David Hockney's "Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)" sold on Thursday for $90.3 million, setting a new auction record for a living artist.

Christie's in New York estimated that the 1972 oil painting would fetch $80 million. The bidding lasted nine minutes, with the two most active bidders calling in by telephone. The previous record was held by Jeff Koons, whose "Ballon Dog (Orange)" sold in 2013 for $58.4 million.

Hockney, 81, is considered one of the most influential British artists. Before the sale, Ana Maria Celis, vice president of postwar and contemporary art at Christie's, said auction houses can "rarely say, 'This is the one opportunity to buy the best painting from the artist.' This is it." Catherine Garcia

October 15, 2018

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Monday released a proposal requiring drug companies to reveal how much their medications cost in television ads.

"Right now, drug companies are required to disclose the major side effects a drug can have — but not the effect that buying the drug could have on your wallet," the department said in a statement. The law would apply to brand-name drugs covered by both Medicare and Medicaid, CBS News reports, as long as a typical course of treatment costs more than $35 every month.

PhRMA, the drug industry's largest trade group, said it's open to putting prices up on a website, but believes if prices are revealed in commercials, that could "discourage patients from seeking needed medical care." Catherine Garcia

September 11, 2018

Should Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) vote to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, her yet-to-be-determined Democratic opponent in 2020 will receive at least $1 million from angry donors.

Using the platform Crowdpac, the Maine People's Alliance, Mainers for Accountable Leadership, and activist Ady Barkan launched a crowdfunding campaign that has already raised $1 million, but with a catch. If Collins votes to confirm Kavanaugh, all that money will be sent to the TBD Democrat running against her. If she votes no, the money will not be collected.

All eyes are on Collins, as well as her fellow moderate Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Collins has said she wants to ensure Roe v. Wade is not overturned, but also voted for Kavanaugh already, when he was nominated in 2006 to the U.S. Court of Appeals. In a statement, Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Collins, said "anybody who thinks these tactics would work on Sen. Collins obviously doesn't know her. Sen. Collins will make up her mind based on the merits of the nomination. Threats or other attempts to bully her will not play a factor in her decision-making whatsoever."

Adav Noti of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center told The Washington Post on Tuesday that this campaign could violate federal bribery laws. "I think they're playing a game to avoid the literal application of the bribery statute," Noti said. Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for the group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibilities, disagrees, telling the Post: "It seems kind of icky but it doesn't rise to the level of bribery because there's no agreement. It's just the way money and politics tend to work these days." Catherine Garcia

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