Essential Politics: A California congresswoman helps a family search for answers – Los Angeles Times

Imagine learning from the local news that your son or brother, a paratrooper in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, is dead. For one family in California, that was just the beginning.

The shock and confusion only worsened as the military opened — and then closed — a probe into the brutal homicide, with no indication of what happened to 21-year-old Enrique Roman-Martinez.

Welcome to today’s Essential Politics newsletter. I’m Nolan D. McCaskill, a congressional reporter at The Times who will be taking you a little deeper into my reporting this week on a family’s search for answers.

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Case closed?

George Floyd’s murder is what immediately comes to mind for me when I think about Memorial Day 2020. His death, captured on cellphone video, led to a rare conviction of the white police officer who killed him after pinning his knee on the 46-year-old Black man’s neck for several minutes.

But last week I learned of another case from around that same time, one of a Hispanic man who was killed. But there was no cellphone video to ignite global protests, no namesake legislation and no trial. The only parallels are the loss of life and the grief both families will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Roman-Martinez went camping with seven fellow soldiers for Memorial Day weekend that year. He was last seen on May 22, 2020, at a campsite on an island off the coast of North Carolina, and reported missing the following evening.

A week later, partial remains washed ashore on Shackleford Banks Island, according to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. Dental records and DNA determined it was Roman-Martinez, and an autopsy revealed he was decapitated and “the remainder of the body in this case was not available for examination.”

Today, Army Spc. Enrique Roman-Martinez—a local hero committed to serving a cause greater than oneself—was laid to rest.

A life so dedicated to his country was taken far too soon.

Rest in peace, Enrique. We will not stop fighting to find justice for you and your family. pic.twitter.com/6Ir33J1wdA

— Rep. Norma Torres (@NormaJTorres) August 22, 2020

What happened? We don’t know.

But Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona), wants answers. In a letter to the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, Sean O’Donnell, she requests an investigation into the Army’s probe.

“Regrettably,” she says in the letter, exclusively obtained by The Times, “the Army declared the investigation closed this summer, with no justice for Roman-Martinez or his family.”

In a statement to The Times, the Army Criminal Investigation Command said it welcomes “an outside view and will follow up on any investigative leads that the IG identifies.”

Torres told me over the phone last week that her district office has been in touch with the family since they first reached out to her on social media.

“They were initially pretty upset about how long … it took the Army to notify them of the incident,” Torres said. “Even that Enrique was missing. They told our office that they had found out about the incident by watching the news, that a body had been found and they had just been told that Enrique was missing, so they just assumed that this — not even a body, but partial body — had been found, they assumed that it was their son.”

The Army CID began offering up to $50,000 in August for credible information about Roman-Martinez’s death, and it created a specialized task force with special agents and FBI personnel.

But even after hundreds of warrants, subpoenas and interviews, plus seven site visits for air, land and sea searches, no evidence was uncovered linking anyone to Roman-Martinez’s murder.

“This tragic death is a real mystery on what exactly happened,” CID Special Agent Steve Chancellor, a criminal investigator with 40 years’ experience, said in an Aug. 2 statement. “All logical theories or suspicions that were developed to date have been investigated and either discounted or disproven.”

In our conversation, Torres credited the military for its responsiveness to her requests for briefings. But she also raised questions about the conduct of the seven other soldiers on the camping trip, noting that they waited almost a full day before reporting their colleague missing. And she criticized the Army’s bureaucratic hurdles.

“At which point do you realize or recognize that you do not have … the resources in-house to deal with this,” she asked. “Was that before or after a head surfaces? Was that before or after you have seven colleagues refusing to provide information? At which point do you break through this bureaucracy and seriously engage in trying to get some information about this case?”

“I hate to have to tell the Army how to conduct their day-to-day business when it comes to missing and murdered enlisted members of our military, but at this point I feel that I have no other choice,” Torres added.

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The latest from the campaign trail

Campaign finance reports were due Friday for the July through September fundraising period. The House Democratic and Republican fundraising groups both raised record sums in the third quarter, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee outraising the National Republican Congressional Committee by $10 million.

Here are the California delegation’s top fundraisers for the quarter:

  1. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield): $3 million raised; $7 million cash on hand.

    McCarthy would likely become the next speaker of the House if Republicans win control of the chamber next year

  2. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine): $2.7 million raised; $14.5 million cash on hand

    Porter is a frontliner, meaning she represents one of House Democrats’ most competitive seats. The second-term lawmaker is also deputy chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

  3. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco): $2.5 million raised; $8.9 million cash on hand

    Pelosi has kept quiet about her future, but this term in Congress could be her last.

  4. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank): $2.5 million raised; $15.4 million cash on hand

    Schiff chairs the House Intelligence Committee and sits on Select Committee to Investigate the Attack on the U.S. Capitol.

  5. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.): $1.7 million raised; $5.3 million cash on hand

    Padilla was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the seat Vice President Kamala Harris vacated in January. He is running in 2022 to serve his first full term.

Honorable mentions: Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita) raised $1 million with $1.3 million cash on hand, Rep. Young Kim (R-La Habra) raised $981,000 with $1.9 million cash on hand and Rep. Josh Harder (D-Turlock) raised $909,000 with $5.7 million cash on hand.

The view from Washington

— In what may be the last of her 17 terms in Congress, Nancy Pelosi is trying to push another massive package of legislation through Congress. But this time around, our columnist Mark Z. Barabak warns, may be even tougher than when Pelosi was shepherding the Affordable Care Act through Congress.

— A congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol voted Tuesday night to hold former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon in contempt for not cooperating with its inquiry, a significant escalation in the panel’s efforts to get answers about the insurrection from the firebrand political operative, reports Del Quentin Wilber.

— The Biden administration has asked the Supreme Court to suspend a Texas law that bans most abortions there, David G. Savage reports, setting the stage for yet another battle over abortion.

— How is Los Angeles connected to a Nebraska congressman’s indictment? The FBI began investigating $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions from Gilbert Chagoury. The money, which went to Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and three other U.S. politicians, was funneled through a group of Californians between 2012 and 2016.

— Children aged 5 to 11 will soon be able to get a COVID-19 shot at their pediatrician’s office, local pharmacy and potentially even their school, the White House said Wednesday as it detailed plans for the expected authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for younger children in a matter of weeks.

The view from California

Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said he will “step back” from participating in City Council meetings and committees — rather than resign — after being indicted last week on federal charges. But City Council members will hold a special session today to consider suspending him, Dakota Smith and Benjamin Oreskes write, noting that doing so would prevent him from attending council and committee meetings, using discretionary funds, engaging in constituent services and more.

— Unvaccinated Los Angeles city workers who haven’t told the city they’re seeking a vaccine exemption may have until Dec. 18 to get the jab — if the city’s “last, best, and final offer” to labor groups on vaccine mandates is approved. Emily Alpert Reyes has the details.

— Agents in the Customs and Border Protection’s San Diego region have intercepted more than 330 marine vessels with 1,751 people in the past year, according to reporting from Andrea Castillo on the ground in San Diego. That figure includes the migrants who were intercepted as well as the U.S. citizens who are suspected of smuggling them.

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