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UK leader’s office apologizes for party before royal funeral

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LONDON (AP) — Boris Johnson’s office apologized to the royal family on Friday for holding staff parties in Downing Street on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral last year — the latest in a catalogue of allegedly lockdown-breaching gatherings that are threatening to topple the British prime minister.

Farewell parties for Johnson’s departing spin doctor and another staffer, complete with late-night drinking and dancing, took place on April 16, 2021, the night before Queen Elizabeth II sat alone at her husband’s funeral because of social distancing rules in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Johnson spokesman Jamie Davies acknowledged that news of the gatherings had caused “significant public anger.”

“It’s deeply regrettable that this took place at a time of national mourning and No. 10 has apologized to the palace,” he said, using a term for the prime minister’s 10 Downing St. office.

Johnson’s former communications director James Slack — who is now deputy editor-in-chief of tabloid newspaper The Sun — apologized “unreservedly” for the “anger and hurt” caused by his farewell party.

Johnson’s office said the prime minister wasn’t in Downing Street, where he both lives and works, on April 16, and had been unaware any gatherings were planned.

But each new revelation about social events inside the prime minister’s office while most in the the U.K. were enduring lockdowns has weakened his hold on power and strengthened calls for him to resign. A scandal that began weeks ago with a report of a December 2020 Christmas party has grown to about a dozen alleged social events in 10 Downing Street and other government buildings.

The former head of the government’s COVID-19 task force, Kate Josephs, apologized on Friday for holding a drinks gathering in her office in December 2020. The Daily Mirror reported that Johnson encouraged his office staff to “let off steam” at regular after-work “wine time Fridays.” The paper said staff had a wine fridge delivered to Downing Street to hold supplies for the gatherings.

So far none of the alleged parties have been denied by Johnson’s office.

The prime minister is not alleged to have attended many of the soirees. But earlier this week, Johnson apologized for going to a Downing Street garden party in May 2020, when the U.K. was under strict lockdown and people were banned by law from meeting more than one person outside their households. Millions were cut off from family and friends, and even barred from visiting dying relatives in hospitals.

Most indoor social gatherings were also banned in April 2021, and funerals were limited to 30 people.

The symbolism of the April parties’ timing has appalled many in Britain. The Daily Telegraph, which broke the news, said Downing Street staff drank, danced and socialized late into the night, and that at one point an employee was dispatched with a suitcase to a nearby supermarket to buy more booze. The next day, the widowed queen sat alone in a church at Windsor Castle to say goodbye to her husband of 73 years.

Photos of the monarch, clad in black and wearing a face mask, became a powerful image of the isolation and sacrifice endured by many during the pandemic.

Many Conservatives fear “partygate” could become a tipping point for a leader who has weathered a series of other storms over his expenses, and his moral judgment.

In a sign of growing Conservative anger at the revelations, the party’s association in the staunchly Tory district of Sutton Coldfield in central England voted unanimously on Thursday night to withdraw its support from Johnson.

“The culture starts at the top, doesn’t it?” said Simon Ward, a Conservative local councilor. He said people across the country had been asked to make “massive sacrifices” during the pandemic.

“I think we have the right to expect everybody in government and in those positions of leadership to follow those same rules and guidelines as well,” he said.

Johnson said in his apology on Wednesday that he understood public “rage,” but stopped short of admitting wrongdoing, saying he had considered the garden gathering a work event to thank staff for their efforts during the pandemic.

Johnson urged people to await the conclusions of an investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray into all the party allegations. Gray, a respected public servant who has investigated past allegations of ministerial wrongdoing, is expected to report by the end of the month.

The government says Gray’s inquiry is independent, but she is a civil servant and Johnson is, ultimately, her boss. Gray could conclude that Johnson broke the code of conduct for government ministers, though she does not have the power to fire him. Johnson has not said what he will do if she found he was at fault.

Johnson does not have to face voters’ judgment until the next general election, scheduled for 2024. But his party could seek to oust him sooner if colleagues believe the leader they chose for his popular appeal has become toxic.

Under Conservative rules, a no-confidence vote in the leader can be triggered if 54 party lawmakers — 15% of the total — write letters demanding it.

Roger Gale, a Conservative lawmaker who has long been critical of Johnson, said he had already submitted a letter calling for a leadership change.

“I do think that minds are now, over this weekend, being focused upon the need to take the necessary action,” he said. “I believe that there is some momentum which is growing.”

Cabinet ministers are standing by Johnson, at least for now.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss — often cited as a potential successor to Johnson — said she understood “people’s anger and dismay” at the party revelations.

But she said “I think we now need to move on.”

Jill Lawless, The Associated Press

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DHS pauses disinformation board amid free speech questions

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Department of Homeland Security paused its new disinformation governance board Wednesday and its board’s director will resign, following weeks of criticism from Republicans and questions about whether the board would impinge on free speech rights.

While the board was not formally shuttered, it will be reviewed by members of a DHS advisory council that’s expected to make recommendations in 75 days. Nina Jankowicz, picked to lead the board, wrote in her resignation letter that the board’s future was “uncertain,” according to her letter, obtained by The Associated Press.

Federal and state agencies treat disinformation as a national security threat. But the new board was hampered from the start by questions about its purpose and an uneven rollout that further confused its mission. The phrase “Ministry of Truth” — a reference to George Orwell’s “1984” — has repeatedly trended online in discussions about the board.

Some of the attacks on Jankowicz have used sexist and anti-Semitic slurs. A Fox News personality recently questioned whether Jankowicz should have agreed to lead the board while pregnant.

The Washington Post first reported the board would be paused.

Conservative pundits and right-leaning media have often focused directly on Jankowicz, a researcher on Russian disinformation named to lead the board. Critics have pointed to statements made by Jankowicz that questioned the provenance of a laptop said to belong to Hunter Biden, the president’s eldest son, and replayed a TikTok video she taped about disinformation to the tune of a song from “Mary Poppins.”

DHS officials have described the board as an internal working group intended to study definitions of disinformation across the department. They have not explained why they chose Jankowicz, who is not a lawyer and had a well-known public profile.

Supporters of Jankowicz have accused the department of not doing enough to protect her from trolls and online attacks.

“It is deeply disappointing that mischaracterizations of the board became a distraction from the Department’s vital work, and indeed, along with recent events globally and nationally, embodies why it is necessary,” Jankowicz wrote in her resignation letter.

Russia has tried to influence the last two presidential elections by boosting false stories and using social media to inflame divisions in American society on issues like race and the coronavirus pandemic. It has continued to spread false and misleading narratives about its invasion of Ukraine. U.S. intelligence officials have also accused China and Iran of peddling disinformation to Americans.

Experts on disinformation warned the controversy around the board could hurt existing efforts to identify and stop the spread of false narratives about elections and hot-button issues in American society. DHS has several ongoing programs to counter disinformation, including the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s efforts to debunk claims of election fraud.

Some speculated the board was developed by DHS in response to billionaire Elon Musk’s plan to buy Twitter, driven in part by a desire to loosen the platform’s rules around tweets. Others put out false claims that Jankowicz planned to edit the tweets of everyday Twitter users.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced the creation of the board in late April, saying it would highlight Russian disinformation and false claims that encourage people to migrate to the U.S.-Mexico border. The board was immediately controversial, with Republican lawmakers questioning whether President Joe Biden’s administration was trying to police narratives it opposed.

The top Republicans on two key congressional oversight committees said they had a “complete lack of information about this new initiative.” And Mayorkas was attacked repeatedly over the board in recent appearances on Capitol Hill. Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, told Mayorkas the board was a “terrible idea” that “communicates to the world that we’re going to be spreading propaganda in our own country.”

DHS also faced the prospect of a lawsuit. Twenty Republican attorneys general, led by Jason Miyares of Virginia, threatened Mayorkas with legal action “unless you turn back now and disband this Orwellian Disinformation Governance Board immediately,” Miyares said in a statement.

Nomaan Merchant And Amanda Seitz, The Associated Press

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Crime

Buffalo suspect: Lonely, isolated — and a sign of trouble

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By Bernard Condon And Michael Hill in Conklin

CONKLIN, N.Y. (AP) — In the waning days of Payton Gendron’s COVID-19-altered senior year at Susquehanna Valley High School, he logged on to a virtual learning program in economics class that asked: “What do you plan to do when you retire?”

“Murder-suicide,” Gendron typed.

Despite his protests that it was all a joke, the bespectacled 17-year-old who had long been viewed by classmates as a smart loner was questioned by state police over the possible threat and then taken into custody and to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation under a state mental health law.

But a day and a half later, he was released. And two weeks after that, he was allowed to participate in graduation festivities, including riding in the senior parade, where he was photographed atop a convertible driven by his father and festooned with yellow-and-blue balloons and signs reading, “Congratulations” and “Payton Gendron.”

That account of Gendron’s brush with the law last spring, according to authorities and other people familiar with what happened, emphasized the same point school officials made in a message to parents at the time: An investigation found no specific, credible threat against the school or any individual from that sign of trouble.

That same young white man bought a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, traveled three hours to Buffalo and went on what authorities say was a racist, livestreamed shooting rampage Saturday in a crowded supermarket that left 10 Black people dead.

Gendron, now 18, was arraigned on a state murder charge over the weekend and a court-appointed public defender entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. He remained jailed under suicide watch as federal prosecutors contemplate hate-crime charges.

Even as the FBI swarmed the comfortable home where Gendron lived with his parents and two younger brothers, neighbors and classmates in this community of 5,000 near the New York-Pennsylvania line say they saw no inkling of the young man now being described on television.

And they say they saw nothing of the kind of racist rhetoric seen in a 180-page online diatribe, purportedly written by Gendron, in which he describes in minute detail how he researched ZIP codes with the highest concentrations of Black people, surveilled the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, and carried out the assault to terrorize all nonwhite, non-Christian people into leaving the country.

Classmates described Gendron as a quiet, studious boy who got high marks but seemed out of place in recent years, turning to online streaming games, a fascination with guns and ways to grab attention from his peers.

When school partially opened again early last year after COVID-19-related shutdowns, Gendron showed up covered head to toe in a hazmat suit. Classmate Matthew Casado said he didn’t think the stunt -– he called it “a harmless joke” — went down well with other students.

“Most people didn’t associate with him,” he said. “They didn’t want to be known as friends with a kid who was socially awkward and nerdy.”

Gendron excelled in sciences, once earning top marks in a state chemistry competition. But he was known for keeping to himself and not talking much. And when he did talk, it was about isolation, rejection and desperation.

“He talked about how he didn’t like school because he didn’t have friends. He would say he was lonely,” said Casado, who graduated with Gendron last year.

At one point last winter, Gendron’s mother called Casado’s mother with a request: Please have Matthew call Payton because he had no friends and needed to talk.

The two boys ended up going to flea markets together, watching YouTube videos and shooting guns on nearby state land over the next few months. Casado said that he had never heard his friend talk of anything violent.

“I didn’t think he would hurt a fly,” he said.

Some neighbors had a similar view, seeing the family as happy and prosperous, with both Paul Gendron and his wife, Pamela, holding stable jobs as civil engineers with the New York state Department of Transportation, earning nearly $200,000 combined, according to online records.

Dozens of their Facebook posts over the years show the parents and their three boys — often dressed in matching outfits — enjoying amusement park vacations, going on boat trips, shooting laser tag guns and opening presents on Christmas morning.

Carl Lobdell, a family friend who first met Gendron on a camping vacation a dozen years ago, said he was shocked that Payton was identified as the suspect in the mass shooting.

“He was very friendly, very respectable,” said Lobdell, adding that his family had grown so close to the Gendrons that they even attended Payton’s graduation party last year. “When I heard about the shooting … I just cried.”

The family did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend, nor did Gendron’s attorney. No one answered the door Monday at the family home, surrounded by a neat, spacious lawn. Near the front door was a tiny right hand pressed in concrete with a heart symbol and the words, “PAYTON 2008.”

One parent of a Susquehanna Valley High student said she was furious that the student who was investigated for making the threat last year — whom she later discovered was Gendron — was still allowed to participate in all graduation activities. The woman asked not to be identified because she feared harassment.

According to a recording of a conference call of federal and local law enforcement officials Monday that was obtained by The Associated Press, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said Gendron’s comments he made in school in June 2021 were “generalized statements” and not targeted at anyone in particular or at a specific location, which is why no criminal charges were filed. He said the state police “did everything within the confines of the law.”

Gendron enrolled at Broome County Community College and later dropped out. The school wouldn’t say why. And according to online writings attributed to him, he began planning his assault on the Buffalo supermarket beginning at least in November, saying he was inculcated into his racist views online.

“I was never diagnosed with a mental disability or disorder, and I believe to be perfectly sane,” according to one passage.

A new, 589-page document of online diary postings emerged Monday that authorities have attributed to Gendron, and some of its passages tracked with the account AP’s sources gave of his high school threat investigation.

“Another bad experience was when I had to go to a hospitals ER because I said the word’s ‘murder/suicide’ to an online paper in economics class,” said one entry. “I got out of it because I stuck with the story that I was getting out of class and I just stupidly wrote that down. That is the reason I believe I am still able to purchase guns.”

“It was not a joke, I wrote that down because that’s what I was planning to do.”

___

Condon reported from New York. Eric Tucker in Washington, Michael R. Sisak in New York and news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed.

___

Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected]

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