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ATLANTA — When Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign, he dubbed it the “battle for the soul of the nation.” Locals argue that battle is being waged in Georgia as the rest of the country looks on.

Democrats now control all of Washington, after Biden won Georgia and both Senate seats here flipped in January. But Republicans still run all the levers of state government here, and they’re rallying behind a sweeping new election law that could tilt the political pendulum back in their column in 2022, when nine statewide executive offices and a high-profile Senate race will be on the ballot.

SB 202, signed into law by GOP Gov. Brian Kemp in late March, is either the epitome of voter suppression or the embodiment of election integrity — depending on whom you ask. Biden decried the law as “Jim Crow in the 21st century,” though the final product didn’t restrict voting as much as some of the headline-grabbing early legislative proposals.

The clash over SB 202 is thrusting Georgia back into the national spotlight after a tumultuous year: Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was killed by white vigilantes. Rayshard Brooks, another Black man, was shot to death by police. Former President Donald Trump pressured local election officials to overturn his loss here. Then there was the March massacre targeting Asian Americans, and, less than two weeks ago, the arrest of a Black state legislator protesting the new law under the gold dome of Georgia’s state capitol.

The fight over the future of elections in Georgia — and, some say, the soul of the nation — is playing out on multiple fronts, materializing as not only a political battle but also a legal battle, a legislative battle and a moral battle. And now, as businesses from Coke to Delta condemn the law, and Republicans threaten to retaliate by zapping their tax breaks, it’s become a corporate battle, too.

On Friday, the sports world got involved, when Major League Baseball pulled its All-Star game and the draft out of the state. But not everyone, including Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff, agrees that boycotts are the answer.

What’s happening here is being duplicated across the country — Georgia is among the 47 states where legislators have introduced more than 360 restrictive voting bills, according to a tally by the Brennan Center for Justice — and elected officials and voters across the country are paying attention.

“We are the test once again for what happens and where this leads us down the road,” said Khadijah Abdur-Rahman, a Democratic Fulton County commissioner.

‘Mad, angry as hell’

Abdur-Rahman represents the largest district, land-wise, in the county. Her constituents run the gamut from working class, single-parent households and people who need affordable housing assistance, to upper-middle-class Black families. It’s a heavily Democratic district, but Republicans comprise about 15 percent of it, including a sprinkling of Black Republicans who the commissioner says believe the law is unnecessary.

On a Sunday afternoon, Abdur-Rahman sat in her downtown Atlanta office, talking to a reporter. On the coat rack hung a pair of purple boxing gloves, a reminder to Abdur-Rahman to never stop fighting for her constituents.

The day before, she was putting that principle to work, rallying outside City Hall, where the top row of steps was barricaded by the Atlanta Police.

Dozens of people were in attendance, wearing face masks and carrying signs that read “Jim Crow 2.0” and “Stop voter suppression,” a mix of white, Black and brown protesters. There were young adults and those with silver hair, including an elderly white woman in a wheelchair holding a lengthy sign highlighting the number of Republican state senators (34) and representatives (100) who “voted for white supremacy & fascism.”

A DJ set up shop while a seemingly endless roster of speakers let loose for more than two hours.

It was a rally, yes, but it also felt like a combination of church, a protest and a concert. Protesters chanted, “You about to lose yo’ job,” a pointed message to Kemp, who is up for reelection next year.

Abdur-Rahman took to the stage in the opening minutes of the rally.

“I can go to the ATM machine and use my card after hours, but I gotta vote between banker hours?” she shouted into the microphone. “It doesn’t make any sense. So what I say to you is, ‘I’m mad, I’m angry as hell, and we are coming together!’”

‘It’s just trying to make Republicans look bad’

At a barbecue joint in northeast Atlanta, two older white men sat at a table talking about Covid-19, China and congressional Democrats’ sweeping election reform bill. People would illegally vote 20 times if voter ID requirements weren’t in place, one of the men said, as his companion nodded in agreement.

But when approached by a reporter, their conversation ended abruptly, and they high-tailed it out of the restaurant.

Across the country, Republicans’ views on voting have shifted dramatically. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 48 percent of Republicans said everything possible should be done to make it easy to vote. But a new Pew Research Center survey published last week found that just 28 percent of Republicans felt that way. And more than 6 in 10 Republicans also said changing election rules to make it easier to register and vote would make elections less secure.

Republicans here say election integrity is a top concern for their constituents in Georgia.

“My constituents wanted it. They did. I hope that helps. Thank you,” sputtered state Rep. Mike Cheokas, a Republican, before hanging up the phone.

Others argue Democrats are stirring the pot to rally their own voters and score political points.

“Nobody’s stopping any Blacks [from voting]. Nobody’s stopping Black churches [from doing Souls to the Polls events],” Kathleen Thorman, chair of the Gordon County Republican Party, told POLITICO.

“Everybody wants everyone to vote that’s a registered voter, that’s a legal voter,” she said. “This attack has no merit. It’s ludicrous. It’s just trying to make Republicans look bad.”

We didn’t get everything that we wanted’

Democrats who weren’t in the trenches here wrote off Georgia a long time ago. They didn’t see the state as being anywhere within striking distance for them. But after Democrats swept the presidential election and two Senate runoffs, the state has become the center of the political universe in the U.S.

“This is who Georgia is, and we’re gonna continue to push forward and bring the rest of the country along with us,” said Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.), who represents the late John Lewis’ district in Congress and became the first Black woman elected to lead the state Democratic Party in 2019.

But now, Georgia Democrats’ biggest crusade is against SB 202, which will, among other things, reduce the time frame in which voters can request absentee ballots, requires an ID number or photocopy of an ID to request and return ballots, shortens the runoff period (which subsequently shortens the early voting window) — and prohibits anyone but poll workers from distributing water to voters waiting in line. The law, dubbed the “Election Integrity Act of 2021,” would also give the Republican-controlled state legislature more authority over the State Election Board.

Kemp quickly signed the bill into law on March 25 behind closed doors, flanked by six white men posed next to a portrait of a slave plantation. That image did not go unnoticed.

“It’s certainly symbolic of what he did, trying to take us back to those times on the plantation by signing that legislation,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said in an interview. “That’s representational of the Old South. The New South was represented on Nov. 3 and Jan. 5, when we elected President Biden in Georgia and when we elected two United States senators. … The New South will not be defeated.”

Tensions were further inflamed when Democratic state Rep. Park Cannon, a Black woman, was arrested by white law enforcement officers after knocking on Kemp’s door during the signing.

The entire episode is further galvanizing Black women across the state who have played key roles for years as organizers. In interviews, Black women here argue Republicans backed SB 202 because the state’s younger, increasingly diverse demographic makeup is threatening their hold on power. But rather than change the Republican Party’s policies to attract a diverse coalition of voters, they said, Republicans simply changed the rules under the guise of election integrity.

At the rally outside City Hall, Karli Swift, a Black woman with braids, glasses and a gray shirt emblazoned with Stacey Abrams’ face held aloft a poster with a message printed in big, bold, black letters: “F*ck around & find out — GA Black women,” it read in all-caps. A photo of her poster later went viral.

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A couple days later, at a table inside a Black-owned, members-only club called The Gathering Spot, Swift, a corporate lawyer who has worked for Democratic campaigns in the past, talked about what prompted her to show up that day.

“I was mad, tired,” Swift recalled. “It’s a sentiment that I think a lot of Georgians feel. Not even just Georgians.”

Georgia Republicans, she said, “passed a law that’s terrible. At the end of the day, it’s not going to help them get more voters, either, and then they have lit a fire under Democrats in Georgia. It’s like a lose-lose situation. I don’t know what they were thinking.”

You’re not capable of getting out to vote’

Republicans, for their part, insist the previous system was ripe for fraud and lament that the new law doesn’t go far enough. (Election officials have said there is no evidence that fraud occurred in the presidential race or Senate runoffs.)

“We didn’t get everything that we wanted, but it’s a really good start,” Jason Thompson, a Republican national committeeman from Georgia, said in an interview. “The trust in our elections system in Georgia was really at an all-time low.”

Kerry Luedke, the chair of the Cherokee County Republican Party, wrote in an email that her party was planning on sending thank-you notes to legislators who supported the bill, along with having a rally and social media campaign “to explain the facts of the legislation.”

“If I was somebody living in the Black community, I would be so insulted that people are basically telling me that I’m not capable of getting out to vote, and I’m not capable of getting an ID to vote. I would be so insulted,” said Thorman, the Gordon County GOP chair.

“[Democrats are] saying: ‘You’re not smart enough, you’re not sharp enough, you’re not capable of getting out to vote,’” Thorman added.

Voting laws have animated voters on both sides of the aisle, albeit for very different reasons. Democrats commend Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, for standing up to Trump’s attempts to overturn his election loss — but say he’s since caved to members of his party. On the other hand, he’s fallen deeply out of favor with conservatives.

“There’s no way in hell I’d ever vote for him again,” said Pamela Reardon, the co-founder and vice president of Metro Atlanta Republicans. Of Republican Geoff Duncan, she added: “I like to say, ‘Duncan is done.’ He is the lieutenant governor. He’s done.”

Democracy is good for business’

It’s unclear what, if any, legal action the Biden administration will take. Biden has said that protecting voting rights was something the Justice Department was examining.

When pressed for more information, the White House referred questions to the DOJ. “We are aware of the law, but [have] no further comment,” a DOJ spokesperson told POLITICO.

Meanwhile, Democrats and voting-rights groups have filed at least three separate lawsuits in federal court, and congressional Democrats are vowing to continue pushing for passage of legislation to expand voting access and address hate crimes. But it’s not clear how the litigation will play out in court. And Congress is unlikely to pass sweeping voting rights legislation without Senate Democrats first nuking the filibuster to allow bills to pass with a simple majority.

Voting rights advocates say they will educate voters on the new law and help them obtain valid ID in case they’re forced to play by Republicans’ new rules in the 2022 midterms — when Kemp, Duncan, Raffensperger and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock will all be on the ballot. And at the same time, activists are pressuring businesses headquartered in the state to come out against SB 202.

Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, had a pointed message for the business community: “Democracy is good for business. Voter suppression is not.”

Republicans are threatening to pull the tax credits of corporations that speak out against the new law. But some major corporations are doing just that. In a memo to employees last week, Delta CEO Ed Bastian wrote that “the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.” Alfredo River, president of Coca-Cola’s North America operating unit, in a statement issued by the company, vowed to “continue to work to advance voting rights and access in Georgia and across the country” and acknowledged the company’s “responsibility to protect” and “promote” the right to vote.

Some activists are pushing for a boycott of the state, which has been transformed by the entertainment industry in recent years. But others, from Ossoff to film mogul Tyler Perry, are insisting that a boycott will only hurt Georgians. On Wednesday, Abrams, the former state House minority leader and 2018 gubernatorial candidate who’s almost certain to seek a rematch with Kemp next year, released a video, asking outsiders not to boycott the state.

“Black, Latino, AAPI and Native American voters whose votes are the most suppressed under SB 202, are also the most likely the most to be hurt by potential boycotts in Georgia,” she said in the video. “For our friends across the country, please do not boycott us.”

And on Friday, after news broke that the baseball commissioner was pulling the All-Star Game out of Georgia, Abrams tweeted, “Disappointed @MLB will move the All-Star Game, but proud of their stance on voting rights.”

‘We are incredibly exhausted’

State Sen. Sheikh Rahman, a Democrat and an immigrant from Bangladesh, represents the most diverse district in the state Senate. His tenure represents many firsts, including the first Asian American state senator, first immigrant state senator and first Muslim legislator in the state.

Rahman said Republicans are scared of people like him. SB 202, he predicted, would “backfire” because Asian American and Pacific Islander voters are “not gonna stay on the sideline.”

Over the final weekend in March, on a cool, gloomy day, local and federal lawmakers — Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Al Green (D-Texas) and Andy Kim (D-N.J.) from the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and local Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.) and Williams — took a bus trip mirroring the 27-mile path the alleged shooter, a white man, took to attack three Asian American spas. The suspect killed eight people, including six Asian women. Local law enforcement has not called the killing spree a hate crime.

Elected officials laid fresh flowers outside Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, which sit across the street from each other in Atlanta. The entrance to Gold Spa was overwhelmed with withered flowers. Soggy signs read “Hate is a virus,” and “Stop Asian Hate.”

“For those of us living in Georgia, we’ve been in the spotlight the last year, and we are incredibly exhausted,” state Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democrat, told POLITICO.

“But all the things that are happening — the voter suppression bill, this shooting and the way that there were attempts to censor the perpetrator and dehumanize the victims, the arrest of Rep. Park Cannon,” Nguyen said, “we are going to remember those things.”

“We are going to use our power to make change,” she continued. “And that change includes going to the ballot box.”

Last Sunday, a similar message seeped into Warnock’s virtual sermon. The freshman senator, who still holds his position as the senior pastor of the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, stood in the empty sanctuary, preaching about a “governor” in the Bible who was confronted with a decision but failed to listen to a woman about which choice to make.

He never mentioned Kemp’s name, but as he spoke, a photo of the governor signing SB 202 and a video of Cannon’s arrest flashed across the screen.

Warnock told congregants he was talking about politics on a Sunday morning “because your vote is your voice,” and “democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea that all of us are children of the living God.”

Voter suppression “is not just a political issue,” Warnock said. “That’s a spiritual issue. That’s a moral issue.”

Zach Montellaro reported from Washington. Josh Gerstein and Sam Mintz contributed to this report.




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Queen sits alone at funeral for Prince Philip to set example

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Other royals who are in family bubbles are sitting together.

The service began with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby entering the chapel ahead of the coffin, followed by Philip’s children and three of his eight grandchildren, as a four-member choir sang “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Inside the Gothic chapel, the setting for centuries of royal weddings and funerals, the service was to be simple and somber. There will be no sermon, at Philip’s request, and no family eulogies or readings, in keeping with royal tradition. But Dean of Windsor David Conner will say the country has been enriched by Philip’s “unwavering loyalty to our queen, by his service to the nation and the Commonwealth, by his courage, fortitude and faith.”

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Philip spent almost 14 years in the Royal Navy and saw action in the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific during World War II. Several elements of his funeral have a maritime theme, including the hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” which is associated with seafarers and asks God: “O hear us when we cry to thee/For those in peril on the sea.”

Along with Philip’s children and grandchildren, the 30 funeral guests include other senior royals and several of his German relatives. Philip was born a prince of Greece and Denmark and, like the queen, is related to a thicket of European royal families.


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FBI says it interviewed FedEx mass shooter last year

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The shooter was identified as Brandon Scott Hole, 19, of Indianapolis, Deputy Police Chief Craig McCartt told a news conference. Investigators searched a home in Indianapolis associated with Hole and seized evidence, including desktop computers and other electronic media, McCartt said.

Hole began firing randomly at people in the parking lot of the FedEx facility late Thursday, killing four, before entering the building, fatally shooting four more people and then turning the gun on himself, McCartt said. He said he did not know if Hole owned the gun legally.

“There was no confrontation with anyone that was there,” he said. “There was no disturbance, there was no argument. He just appeared to randomly start shooting.”

McCartt said the slayings took place in a matter of minutes, and that there were at least 100 people in the facility at the time. Many were changing shifts or were on their dinner break, he said. Several people were wounded, including five who were taken to the hospital.

“You deserved so much better than this,” a man who identified himself as the grandson of Johal tweeted Friday evening. Johal had planned to work a double shift Thursday so she could take Friday off, according to the grandson, who would not give his full name but identifies himself as “Komal” on his Twitter page. Johal later decided to grab her check and go home, and still had the check in her hand when police found her, Komal said.

“(What) a harsh and cruel world we live in,” he added.

Smith, the youngest of the victims, was last in contact with her family shortly before 11 p.m. Thursday, family members said in social media posts late Friday. Dominique Troutman, Smith’s sister, waited hours at the Holiday Inn for an update on her sister. “Words can’t even explain how I feel. … I’m so hurt,” Troutman said in a Facebook post Friday night.

Weisert had been working as a bag handler at FedEx for four years, his wife, Carol, told WISH-TV. The couple was married nearly 50 years.

President Joe Biden said he had been briefed on the shooting and called gun violence “an epidemic” in the U.S.

“Too many Americans are dying every single day from gun violence. It stains our character and pierces the very soul of our nation,” he said in a statement. Later, he tweeted, “We can, and must, do more to reduce gun violence and save lives.”

A FedEx employee said he was working inside the building Thursday night when he heard several gunshots in rapid succession.

“I see a man come out with a rifle in his hand and he starts firing and he starts yelling stuff that I could not understand,” Levi Miller told WTHR-TV. “What I ended up doing was ducking down to make sure he did not see me because I thought he would see me and he would shoot me.”

Paul Keenan, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Indianapolis field office, said Friday that agents questioned Hole last year after his mother called police to say that her son might commit “suicide by cop.” He said the FBI was called after items were found in Hole’s bedroom but he did not elaborate on what they were. He said agents found no evidence of a crime and that they did not identify Hole as espousing a racially motivated ideology. A police report obtained by The Associated Press shows that officers seized a pump-action shotgun from Hole’s home after responding to the mother’s call. Keenan said the gun was never returned.

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McCartt said Hole was a former employee of FedEx and last worked for the company in 2020. The deputy police chief said he did not know why Hole left the job or if he had ties to the workers in the facility. He said police have not yet uncovered a motive for the shooting.

Police Chief Randal Taylor noted that a “significant” number of employees at the FedEx facility are members of the Sikh community, and the Sikh Coalition later issued a statement saying it was “sad to confirm” that at least four of those killed were community members.

The coalition, which identifies itself as the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the U.S., said in the statement that it expected authorities to “conduct a full investigation — including the possibility of bias as a factor.”

Varun Nikore, executive director of the AAPI Victory Alliance, a national advocacy group for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, said in a statement that the shootings marked “yet another senseless massacre that has become a daily occurrence in this country.”

Nikore remarked that gun violence in the U.S. “is reflective of all of the spineless politicians who are beholden to the gun lobby.”

FedEx Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Frederick Smith called the shooting a “senseless act of violence.”

“This is a devastating day, and words are hard to describe the emotions we all feel,” he wrote in an email to employees.

The killings marked the latest in a string of recent mass shootings across the country and the third mass shooting this year in Indianapolis. Five people, including a pregnant woman, were shot and killed in the city in January, and a man was accused of killing three adults and a child before abducting his daughter during at argument at a home in March. In other states last month, eight people were fatally shot at massage businesses in the Atlanta area, and 10 died in gunfire at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado.

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said the community must guard against resignation and “the assumption that this is simply how it must be and we might as well get used to it.”


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Gaetz ex-girlfriend feared alleged sex-trafficking victim taped call for feds

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Gaetz’s former girlfriend has played a bit role in the unfolding public drama — she is the woman who sent the lawmaker a nude video of her performing a hula hoop dance that he showed to other members of Congress.

But two of her friends, who declined to be identified publicly because of the sensational nature of the case, say she now suspects she was being set up when the alleged victim and another woman involved in the case called her to discuss the lawmaker in what she fears might have been a recorded conference call. The call took place sometime after Greenberg was indicted for the sex crime in August.

The friends did not provide details about exactly what was discussed, but one recounted that Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend said she was opposed to talking to authorities and is now worried that prosecutors might try to charge her with obstructing justice in order to get to Gaetz.

Tim Jansen, an attorney for Gaetz’s former girlfriend, declined to comment about his client. Greenberg’s lawyer, Fritz Scheller, also declined to talk. Gaetz has strongly denied allegations he engaged in any sex crimes.

The three women on the call were all present on a September 2018 trip to the Bahamas that authorities think may shed light on the allegations against Gaetz. Also present on that trip: Gaetz and two other Florida Republican political players, former Orlando-area aviation authority member and Gov. Ron DeSantis fundraiser Jason Pirozzolo and former state Rep. Halsey Beshears.

POLITICO is withholding the names of the women who went to the Bahamas, including his ex-girlfriend, because of the sensitive nature of the case and the allegations that while there, some of the women engaged in prostitution.

As the investigation intensified this winter, Beshears abruptly resigned in January as Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary — a post that made him the state’s top business regulator — noting he had contracted Covid-19. About that time, federal authorities seized the iPhones of Gaetz and his former girlfriend.

Federal authorities are examining the Bahamas trip to see if it violated the Mann Act, which forbids transporting people across state lines to engage in prostitution. One woman on the trip told POLITICO that no one engaged in prostitution.

The alleged victim in the sex-trafficking case had turned 18 almost nine months before the Bahamas trip. But Gaetz has acknowledged he’s the subject of a federal investigation into whether he had improper involvement with her as a 17-year-old.

A source familiar with the investigation wouldn’t say whether the alleged victim was cooperating with authorities. But when asked if she has been talking for months with the federal government, the source said “100 percent.”

While the alleged sex-trafficking victim is key to the case against Greenberg and the allegations against Gaetz, the lawmaker’s ex-girlfriend could play a pivotal role in the investigation of the trip, as well as other related controversies.

Gaetz was criticized for allegedly showing the hula hoop video to congressional colleagues, and he was also accused of engaging in revenge porn against his former girlfriend. But two of her friends say the woman, in her early 20s, did not object to him showing it to friends — provided he didn’t send it to others or post it on social media — because she was proud of her appearance and performance.

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“This is the best I will ever look in my life,” a friend who saw the video recalled her saying. “That’s how she is. It’s not revenge porn.”

The former girlfriend first met Gaetz while she attended college in the Orlando area in 2017. Greenberg, who established contact with her on the SeekingArrangement website — a dating website that connects women with so-called sugar daddies — made the connection. Soon after, she began dating Gaetz, although the relationship was not exclusive, friends said.

Gaetz later got her a job interning in the office of another Republican member of Congress, but that member let her go when it was discovered she was a Democrat, according to Democratic Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando, who promptly hired her when Gaetz told him of the matter.

Soto, who is not involved in the investigation, would not name the Republican lawmaker or comment about the case. But he said the woman was a hard worker in his office and that he had no complaints about her, other than some inquiries about whether Gaetz’s relationship with the intern was inappropriate.

“We wanted to protect her privacy from the media. She was just an intern,” Soto said. “I’ll also say she was fired by a Republican for being a Democrat. I found it offensive that she was fired for her political beliefs.”

Gaetz and the ex-girlfriend continued to date until well after the Bahamas trip in 2018. Friends said the two remained on good terms, although she was a source of friction between the lawmaker and Beshears. Beshears had apparently been taking her out on dates in Tallahassee, including a trip to the Florida State University president’s skybox at Doak Campbell Stadium, mutual friends said.

At the time, Beshears had recently been left by another girlfriend after she learned about the Bahamas trip. Beshears, then a state legislator, had flown several of the women on his private plane, which was briefly detained by U.S. Customs upon its return to Florida for questioning about the ages of several of the young women on the trip.

“Here was Halsey with three young women who could have been his daughters, and a Customs agent was like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?‘” said a source who was familiar with the incident.

Speaking to the partying group and the drama surrounding them, a different mutual friend said: “Tallahassee is like high school. But no one ever graduates.”


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