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America on Edge

Tax Gift to the Rich

January 3rd 2012

Politics - K Street NW

Todd Dagres, a prominent venture capitalist and independent movie producer, earned $3.5 million in 2003, and paid not a cent in federal income tax.

The IRS challenged the math, and sent Dagres a bill for $981,980 in back taxes, plus $196,369 in penalties.

So Dagres lawyered up. His attorneys waived one lucrative tax break to exploit an even better one, and claimed victory in the case in March.

In the course of the dispute, Dagres offered five years of his tax returns as evidence in U.S. Tax Court. His testimony, tax forms and other documents offer a rare glimpse of how wealthy Americans work the angles to keep from paying taxes. Read more ..


The Gender Edge

Study Finds Most Paramedics are Victims of Abuse in the Workplace

December 29th 2011

Health/Medicine - Paramedics

More than two-thirds of paramedics surveyed have experienced verbal, physical or sexual abuse on the job, new research has found. Verbal abuse by patients and their friends or relatives, Emergency Medical Service (EMS) co-workers or bystanders, was the most commonly reported, followed by intimidation and physical abuse, the study found. "EMS providers can experience violence in the workplace as they perform their jobs in unpredictable environments and near people in crisis," said Blair Bigham, the lead investigator. "Anecdotal reports and workplace safety records have highlighted cases of verbal, physical and sexual abuse, yet until now, there has been little scientific research. More research is needed to understand the impact of this workplace violence."

Bigham is an advanced care flight paramedic for York Region EMS and Ornge, and an associate scientist at Rescu, based at S. Michael's Hospital. Rescu is part of the Resuscitations Outcomes Consortium, a large, multinational research collaboration of 10 sites across the United States and Canada, studying how promising new tools and treatments can improve survival rates among people who suffer cardiac arrest or life-threatening traumatic injury outside of hospitals. Read more ..


Broken Banking

Whistleblowers Ignored, Punished by Lenders, Dozens of Former Employees Say

December 29th 2011

Finance - Wells Fargo

Darcy Parmer ran into trouble soon after she started her job as a fraud analyst at Wells Fargo Bank. Her bosses, she later claimed, were upset that she was, well, finding fraud. Company officials, she alleged in a lawsuit, berated her for reporting that sales staffers were pushing through mortgage deals based on made-up borrower incomes and other distortions, telling her that she didn’t “see the big picture” and that “it is not your job to fix Wells Fargo.” Management, she claimed, ordered her to stop contacting the company’s ethics hotline. In the end, she said, Wells Fargo forced her out of her job.

Parmer isn’t alone in claiming she was punished for objecting to fraud in the midst of the nation’s home-loan boom. iWatch News has identified 63 former employees at 20 financial institutions who say they were fired or demoted for reporting fraud or refusing to commit fraud. Their stories were disclosed in whistleblower claims with the U.S. Department of Labor or court documents. “We did our jobs. We had integrity,” said Ed Parker, former fraud investigations manager at now-defunct Ameriquest Mortgage Co., a leading subprime lender. “But we were not welcome because we affected the bottom line.” Read more ..


Broken Banking

Ex-WaMu Worker Claims he was Shunned for Refusing to Push Toxic Loans on Borrowers

December 29th 2011

Corporate Logos - Washington Mutual

In the case of the salesman who wouldn’t sell, the two sides have starkly different tales to tell. Greg Saffer says conscience and common sense prevented him from pushing the product his bosses wanted him to sell – “Option ARM” home loans that, he says, put homeowners at risk. “I’m not going to steer people into a loan program that might not be good for them just because it’s more profitable for the company,” he says.

JP Morgan Chase Bank counters that Saffer didn’t sell because he didn’t have the chops to close deals. “Rather than a paragon of virtue, Saffer was simply a guy who could not sell loans in an increasingly tough market,” the bank’s lawyers say in legal papers. JP Morgan is matched against Saffer because it bought Saffer’s ex-employer, Seattle-based Washington Mutual Bank, in September 2008, after regulators seized WaMu in what was the largest bank failure in U.S. history. Saffer charged in a lawsuit filed in 2009 in Los Angeles Superior Court that he was forced out of his job for refusing to take part in “fraudulent schemes.” In testimony in the lawsuit and in documents in  arbitration proceedings, he claims WaMu retaliated against him because he refused to push “toxic” Option ARMs and mislead borrowers about how the loans worked and how much they would cost. Read more ..


American Economy on Edge

Senate Committee Finds Most 'Trapped' Offshore Income is Already in U.S.

December 18th 2011

Money - Money Money Money

A select group of U.S. multinational corporations have been furiously lobbying for a tax holiday, they say, to bring more than a trillion dollars in so-called “trapped” foreign earnings back home and invest it in the American economy.

But a Senate report released Thursday shows the money is anything but trapped. Some of the richest firms have already brought hundreds of billions of dollars back to America, without paying U.S. taxes, and invested it in US banks, bonds, stocks and other assets. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations surveyed some of the best known U.S. multinationals and found that 27 of the cash-flush firms, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, had invested almost $250 billion in the United States. “Those foreign earnings are not trapped or locked offshore at all,” said Sen. Carl Levin, the Democrat from Michigan who chairs the subcommittee. “About half of the so-called offshore funds were actually onshore.” Read more ..


Nicaragua on Edge

Thousands of Sugar Cane Workers Die as Wealthy Nations Stall on Solutions

December 17th 2011

Nicaragua - cane_worker

Maudiel Martinez is 19 years old and has a shy smile, a tangle of curly black hair and a lean, muscular build shaped by years of work in the sugarcane fields. For most of his adolescence, he was healthy and strong and spent his days chopping tall stalks of cane with his machete.

Now Martinez is suffering from a deadly disease that is devastating his community along with scores of others in Central America, where it has decimated the ranks of sugarcane workers. The same illness killed his father and his grandfather and affects all three of his older brothers. “This disease eats our kidneys from inside us,” Martinez said. “We don’t want to die, and we feel grief because we already know that we’re hopeless.”

Martinez’ illness stands at the heart of a lethal mystery — and legacy of neglect by industry and governments, including the United States, which have resisted pleas for aggressive action to spotlight the malady and find a remedy. Wealthier nations are more focused on spurring biofuels production in the region’s sugarcane industry and keeping up the heavy flow of sugar to U.S. consumers and food manufacturers than the plight of those who harvest it. Read more ..


The Toxic Edge

EPA Allowed Unsafe Handling of Asbestos, IG Says

December 17th 2011

Construction - Demonlition

The Environmental Protection Agency has allowed the use of unapproved methods to demolish buildings containing asbestos, threatening public health and possibly violating worker safety rules, the EPA’s inspector general has concluded.

In an “early warning report” to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that speaks to the urgency of the matter, Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. noted that asbestos is a human carcinogen “with no safe level of exposure.” Nonetheless, Elkins found, the agency allowed its own employees and contract workers to be exposed to the toxic, fire-resistant mineral — widely used in buildings after World War II — during tests in Texas and Arkansas in 2006 and 2007.

Elkins said his office’s preliminary research showed that the unsafe demolition methods — designed to save time and money — have been used more recently at the Hanford Superfund Site near Richland, Wash., a former Department of Energy nuclear weapons production site, and are under consideration at a DOE-owned uranium enrichment facility in Paducah, Ky. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Beirut Bank in Hezbollah Money Laundering Operation

December 15th 2011

Terrorism - lebanese canadian bank

Ledgers from the Lebanese Canadian Bank have revealed the covert operations of terrorist organization Hezbollah, according to a New York Times article. In February, the Obama administration accused the notoriously secretive bank of laundering money on the behalf of an international cocaine ring linked to Shiite militants Hezbollah.

Investigations by the Drug Enforcement Administration have exposed a global operation to conceal the source of illegal gains, with the Lebanese Canadian Bank at the center of activities. The findings appear to confirm the suspicions of  international law enforcement agencies, who believe that Hezbollah’s terrorist operations are funded by overseas loyalists involved in drug trafficking and a range of criminal activities.

A recent announcement by Federal prosecutors in Virginia revealed that a key player in the Lebanese Canadian Bank case had been formally charged with trafficking drugs and laundering money for Columbian cartels and deadly Mexican gang Los Zetas. Read more ..


Broken Banking

Management Gurus Claim They Were Blindsided by Toxic Culture at Countrywide

December 14th 2011

Corporate Logos - countrywide
Cynder Niemela

On her first day at Countrywide Financial Corp., Cynder Niemela gave a talk to a gathering of her new colleagues. Every company, she said, has its own culture. Each is a tribe with its own rituals and myths.

Niemela, a management guru who’d worked for Boeing and other big employers, told the group of executives that research showed it took 16 months for a worker to become fully part of a corporate “tribe.” That time would allow her, she added, to offer a fresh perspective on how things were done at Countrywide. Afterwards, she recalls, one of her new colleagues introduced himself and, with a knowing smile, said, “I can’t wait to see if you’re here 16 months from now.” She lasted 16 months, but not much longer.

Countrywide fired her, Niemela claimed, after she raised questions about fraud against customers and employee discontent with top management. The last straw, she alleged in an arbitration claim, came after she complained that higher-ups had revised and distorted one of her PowerPoint presentations in an effort to obscure the company’s problems with employee dissatisfaction and turnover. Read more ..


The Bear is Back

Russian Plans to Disrupt US and European Relations Over Missile Defense

December 13th 2011

Russian Topics - putin

Tensions between the United States and Russia have risen in the past month over several long-standing problems, including ballistic missile defense (BMD) and supply lines into Afghanistan. Moscow and Washington also appear to be nearing another crisis involving Russian accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The crises come as Washington struggles over its many commitments in the world and over whether to focus on present events in Afghanistan or future events in Central Europe. Russia has exploited the U.S. dilemma, using its leverage in both arenas. However, if Moscow takes its aggressive moves too far, it could spark a backlash from the United States and Central Europe.

The Persisting Disagreement over BMD

The U.S. BMD scheme for Europe has long been a source of U.S.-Russian tensions. Washington argues that its European BMD program aims to counter threats emerging from the Middle East, namely Iran, but its missile defense installations in Romania and Poland are not slated to become operational until 2015 and 2018, respectively, by which time Russia believes the United States will have resolved its issues with Iran. Moscow thus sees U.S. missile defense strategy as more about the United States seeking to contain Russia than about Iran. Moscow does not fear that the United States is seeking to neutralize or erode Russia’s nuclear deterrent, however; the issue is the establishment of a physical U.S. military footprint in those two states — which in turn means a U.S. commitment there. Romania and Poland border the former Soviet Union, a region where Russia is regaining influence. Read more ..


America on Edge

An Epidemic of Expulsions

December 11th 2011

Education Topics - Education - Child at Blackboard

As he waited for his first disciplinary appeal hearing to begin this fall, the sixth-grade student began sobbing.

He was barely 11 years old. He had been expelled again—for the rest of the school year—from his Bakersfield elementary school district, this time for alleged sexual battery and obscenity.

The offense: “Slapping a girl on the buttock and running away laughing,” according to school documents.

The boy’s pro bono attorney, a retired FBI agent, was appalled.

“This, on his record, puts him right up there next to the kid who raped somebody behind the backstop,” said Tim McKinley, who spent 26 years in the bureau, much of it locking up murderous members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.

For the boy’s local school board in Kern County, the punishment fits the crime. It upheld a panel’s initial approval of expulsion.

For McKinley, the discipline is dramatic overkill sure to prove counter-productive for both the child and the community at large.

These days such disagreements are hardly unusual. In California’s southern Central Valley, Kern County is at the leading edge of a contentious debate over where to draw the line in exacting school discipline. Teachers want a safe environment in which to teach. Parents want to know their children are secure and not getting bullied. And no-nonsense school districts in this conservative oil and agribusiness region are suspending and expelling students for a broad range of indiscretions. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Google's War Against Small Businesses

December 11th 2011

Computer Topics - Google HQ

The secret behind Google’s profit growth has been revealed in a ZDNet report. The internet giant has launched an attack on smaller businesses who gain revenue from affiliate programs. 

By favoring larger brands in its search engine results, Google has increased revenue by billions but, according to ZDNet, such combative tactics are costing jobs as smaller firms that profit from affiliate marketing are displaced. While analysts and media are preoccupied by the publicity of Google’s non-revenue schemes, including G+ and driverless cars, the plan to position itself as the largest affiliate has, until now, gone undetected. Read more ..


Broken Banking

The Secret Bank Bailout

December 3rd 2011

Economy - One Million Dollars

For over two years, the Federal Reserve and banking giants concealed what is now known to be the largest rescue package in US history. According to Bloomberg Markets Magazine, while bankers were painting a rosy picture of financial health to their investors, they were borrowing tens of billions in emergency loans. On December 5, 2008, the Federal Reserve bailed out the banks to the tune of a staggering $1.2 trillion. These loans came at a time when the banks could enjoy the Fed’s below-market rates and, as Bloomberg reported in its January 2011 issue, this resulted in estimated income for those banks of $13 billion.

As Congress—unaware of the bailout—thrashed out legislation to avoid another collapse, the rescued banks, unnamed by the Fed at the time, continued to lobby against government legislation. Bloomberg reports that 29,000 pages of Federal Reserve documents and over 21,000 central bank transactions acquired under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) give a new account of the economic crisis of 2007 to 2009. Taxpayer dollars helped maintain a structure for even greater growth for the biggest banks, their anonymity giving Congress a false picture of their health and reducing the probability the flawed regulatory system would be addressed. Read more ..


Broken Banking

DOJ Reviewing Banks for Breaking Antitrust Laws with Debit Card Fees

November 25th 2011

Economy - credit cards

The Department of Justice is reviewing the activity of major banks for possible antitrust law violations related to an attempt earlier this year to raise debit card fees.

The DOJ is looking to see if the financial institutions acted in concert as they tried — unsuccessfully — to impose the fees, according to a letter sent to Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) last week. 

"The Department of Justice is reviewing the statements and actions by banks and their trade associations regarding possible increases in consumer fees for using debit cards," Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote in a Nov. 16 letter. "Please be assured that if it finds that individuals, banks or other parties may have violated antitrust laws, the department will take appropriate action."

The DOJ letter is a response to a Welch letter from October that asked the attorney general to examine possible antitrust violations. Welch welcomed the letter as a hurdle that banks would face in raising fees on consumers, which he and many other Democrats opposed. Read more ..


The Edge of Food

Fish Tales Causing the Demise of the Bluefin Tuna

November 21st 2011

Food - Bluefin Tuna on sales floor
A routine catch of Bluefin Tuna on a sales floor in Japan

Nearly 50 countries that trade in high-priced Eastern Atlantic Bluefin Tuna agreed earlier this month to transform an archaic paper-based method for tracking fish into a digitalized system that officials say will make it harder for fleets to smuggle plundered bluefin into market.

Member countries of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the body charged with protecting the bluefin stocks threatened by overfishing, will implement the new electronic system by the time ships set out in the spring of 2013.

Last year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) exposed the paper-based Bluefin Catch Document scheme as so full of holes as to render it virtually useless. The system was riddled with inaccuracies and inconsistencies and did little to stop the thriving black market in bluefin. Before the ICIJ report, officials had lauded the system as a successful deterrent to illegal trade — a way to track every fish from hook, through fattening farms and to the final buyer. Read more ..


Poisoned Places

In Smelter Town, Decades of Dirty Air, Disease—and Bureaucratic Dawdling

November 21st 2011

Environment Topics - Asarco Copper plant, AZ
Asarco Plant (credit: Emma Schwartz/iWatch)

As Betty Amparano sees it, the failures that all but ruined her town—Hayden, Arizona—occurred on multiple levels.

A copper smelter failed to keep toxic air pollution in check. The state failed to lean on the smelter’s owner, Asarco. And the federal government failed, until days ago, to override the state.

“The bottom line is that the whole town is contaminated,” said Amparano, who was born in Hayden and has lived here most of her life.

Soil tainted by airborne metals has been excavated from hundreds of yards. In some families, generations claim to have suffered ill effects from bad air. Deaths from cancer are common. Regulators have done little; for people who live here, the sense of betrayal is profound.

On November 10, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved against Asarco for what the EPA describes as more than six years of illegal emissions of arsenic, lead, chromium and seven other dangerous compounds from the smelter. The agency issued an unpublicized administrative action that could result in millions of dollars in fines from Asarco for allegedly being in “continuous violation” of the Clean Air Act since June 2005. The action is a slap at both the company and the state—another measure of failure. Read more ..


Poisoned Places

Town Divided over Major Employer’s Permission to Pollute

November 20th 2011

Environment Topics - Ash Grove Plant, KS

“This person right here has cancer. His granddaughter has cancer.”

Jeff Galemore pointed to house after house as he steered his white pickup through a tree-lined neighborhood in Chanute, Kansas, a town of 9,000 on the state’s southeastern prairie.

“This gal has cancer,” the 53-year-old oilfield worker continued. “The one across the street from where I live has cancer. Two houses south of me has cancer. But they repeatedly tell us there’s not a problem.”

Three miles north and east, part-time Lutheran minister and pecan grower Ken Lott wondered why it had been so quiet on his rural Chanute farm. “I used to have bullfrogs out here all the time,” explains Lott, 71. It’s been at least seven years since he’s heard the melodic croaking.

At the opposite end of town, retired railroad worker Dale Stout, 80, lamented the deaths of seven hedge trees that were almost as old as him. “They planted it after the dust bowl,” Stout said of the sturdy row of trees used as windbreaks and natural fences. “You don’t just up and kill a hedge tree.” Read more ..


The Solyndra Scandal

Chu Declares Final Solyndra Decisions "Were Mine"

November 19th 2011

Obama Admin Topics - Steven Chu

Energy Secretary Steven Chu will take full responsibility for approving a $535 million loan guarantee to the now-bankrupt solar firm Solyndra during a House hearing Thursday, insisting that politics did not influence the decision.

“As the Secretary of Energy, the final decisions on Solyndra were mine, and I made them with the best interest of the taxpayer in mind. I want to be clear: over the course of Solyndra’s loan guarantee, I did not make any decision based on political considerations,” Chu will say, according to written testimony made public by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday evening.

“My decision to guarantee a loan to Solyndra was based on the analysis of experienced professionals and on the strength of the information they had available to them at the time.” Read more ..


Poisoned Places

Few Criminal Cases Target Big Air Polluters

November 19th 2011

Environment Topics - China Urban Pollution

For a decade, hazardous emissions from a refinery regularly swept into a mostly poor, minority neighborhood in Corpus Christi known as Hillcrest, where residents complained of odors, dizziness, vomiting and a range of conditions from asthma to cancer.

In June 2007, jurors found the refinery’s owner, Citgo Petroleum Corp., guilty of two felony criminal violations of the Clean Air Act for failing to control emissions of benzene, a carcinogen, from two massive, uncovered tanks at its refinery on the southern cusp of Texas.

It seemed a major victory for the federal government in its quest to punish Clean Air Act violators. The Justice Department, which prosecuted the case, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which investigated Citgo, said the verdict sent an important message. Read more ..


Poisoned Places

Community Coated in Black—Until Citizens Fought Back

November 18th 2011

Environment Topics - Continental Carbon Plant, OK

Here in Ponca City, Oklahoma, the land of big skies and broad terrain, the air pollution flowing from local industry was so palpable residents could touch it. On their hands, on their shoes, on their pets, their clothes, their cars, their windows, their grass, their doors, their children’s toys.

For more than a decade, residents of this city of 25,000 filled the local Department of Environmental Quality office with so many complaints they required 20 binders to hold. Those complaints, some coming from members of the Ponca Tribe of Indians living nearest the plant, blamed Continental Carbon Co., manufacturer of carbon black, a product used in tires, rubber and plastic goods. The plant manufactures carbon black from petroleum refinery residual oil, and the finished substance is a form of almost pure carbon, classified as a possible carcinogen.

Homeowners said a black dust cascaded from the plant and blanketed their lives. One mother insisted her child ride her bike, with training wheels, inside the house to avoid the carbon black. A teenager kept his prized Dallas Cowboys jersey wrapped in a plastic bag inside the house to avoid black smudges. Others complained their dogs’ feet turned black walking through town; when they cleaned the dogs, the tub developed a ring of black. White tennis shoes changed color. Read more ..


Poisoned Places

Many Americans Left Behind in the Quest for Cleaner Air

November 18th 2011

Environment Topics - Smokestacks

For all of her 62 years, Lois Dorsey has lived five blocks from a mass of petrochemical plants in Baton Rouge. She worries about the health of people in her life: A 15-year-old granddaughter, recovering from bone cancer. A 59-year-old sister, a nonsmoker, felled by lung cancer. Neighbors with asthma and cancer.

She's complained to the government about powerful odors and occasional, window-rattling explosions—to no avail, she says. Pollution from the plants—including benzene and nickel, both human carcinogens, and hydrochloric acid, a lung irritant—continues.

“If anything," said Dorsey, herself a uterine cancer survivor, "it’s gotten worse."

Americans might expect the government to protect them from unsafe air. That hasn’t happened. Insidious forms of toxic air pollution—deemed so harmful to human health that a Democratic Congress and a Republican president sought to bring emissions under control more than two decades ago—persist in hundreds of communities across the United States, an investigation shows. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Iran's Canadian Banker Exposed

November 2nd 2011

Iran - Mahmoud Reza Khavari
Mahmoud Reza Khavari

As details of the Iranian terror plot to blow up the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC become clearer, the U.S. and other Western allies will look to punish Iran. One of the most powerful ways to influence Iran is through the banking sector. Through an interesting turn of events, Canada is in a position to exert significant financial leverage through one individual in particular.

One of the world's most important international bankers is currently residing in Toronto after fleeing his country of origin. Mahmoud Reza Khavari was until recently the head of Iran's Bank Melli, an institution notorious for assisting in Iran's proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and financing of terrorism. Canadian authorities have yet to take action against Mr. Khavari, who represents a potential gold mine of information regarding how Iranian banks raise and move money around the globe. Read more ..


Honduras on Edge

No End of Impunity for Assassins of the Journalists of Honduras

October 31st 2011

Latin American Topics - Dead Journalists Society

As always, but with an unusual quota of aggression since 2010, freedom of speech and the personal security of Honduran journalists are under permanent attack from groups, gangs, and individuals who launch their strikes under a cloak of anonymity. The journalist Medardo Flores, a relentless supporter of former President Manuel Zelaya, is the latest victim of the wave of violence directed toward members of the Honduran working press. With all the disrespect attributable to the government of Porfirio Lobo, as demonstrated here, it is not unreasonable to presume that the perpetrators, along with their underlying political motives, want to silence such journalists at any cost.

“President Lobo, who is killing the journalists?” is the question that is being raised by various national and international bodies, though they are only answered with silence and impunity. This prolonged state of deeply disturbing uncertainty has all but eliminated freedom of expression and investigative journalism in the country, two concepts that Hondurans badly need to protect their fragile, budding democracy and extremely delicate human rights situation. The dark forces behind this wave of menacing injustice comprise a broad collection of foreboding tactics ranging from common violence to political violence to the activities of drug cartels, which have silenced journalists reporting on the subject of corruption and other crimes related to narco-trafficking out of fear of losing their lives. Read more ..


Green Scandals

Energy’s Risky $1 Billion Bet on Two Politically-connected Electric Car Makers

October 24th 2011

Technology - Fisker Karma and Tesla Model S
Fisker Karma; Tesla Model S

Standing in a shuttered General Motors plant in Wilmington, Del., Vice President Joe Biden heralded a half-billion-dollar Department of Energy loan that would transform the idled site into a production line for electric cars.

“Folks, we’re making a bet,” Biden said on Oct. 27, 2009. “We’re making a bet in the future, we’re making a bet in the American people, we’re making a bet in the market, we’re making a bet in innovation.”

That loan is part of a $1 billion bet the Energy Department has made on two politically connected California electric carmakers producing sporty—and pricey—cutting-edge autos. One is Fisker Automotive, the project heralded by Biden and backed by a powerhouse venture capital firm whose partners include former Vice President Al Gore and a campaign donor to President Obama. The other is Tesla Motors, whose prime backers include a major fundraiser for Obama and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Read more ..


The Solyndra Scandal

Fundraiser for Obama Urged Solyndra Deal from the Inside

October 12th 2011

Obama Admin Topics - Steven Spinner

An elite Obama fundraiser hired to help oversee the administration’s energy loan program pushed and prodded career Energy Department officials to move faster in approving a loan guarantee for Solyndra, even as his wife’s law firm was representing the California solar company, according to internal emails made public late Friday, October 7.

“How hard is this? What is he waiting for?” Steven J. Spinner, who worked in the Obama administration’s energy loan guarantee program, wrote in August 2009. “I have OVP [the Office of the Vice President] and WH [the White House] breathing down my neck on this.” Spinner, a high-tech consultant and energy investor who raised at least $500,000 for Obama’s campaign, joined the DOE in April 2009. Read more ..


Global Economy on Edge

Nearly €6 billion in Subsidies Fuels Spain’s Ravenous Fishing Fleet

October 5th 2011

Europe Topics - Akrana - fishing boat

Decades of overfishing have left Europe’s fish stocks in peril and its fishermen in poverty. It’s an impasse paid for by EU taxpayers. Yet a proposed revision of the EU’s fishing law, hailed as a sweeping reform, is rapidly losing momentum.

A look at the industry’s biggest player—Spain—shows what officials are up against. Billions of euros in subsidies built its bloated fleet and propped up a money-losing industry. All the while companies systematically flout the rules while officials overlook fraud and continue to fund offenders, an ICIJ investigation has found.

“Spain has earned its bad reputation,” said Ernesto Penas Lado, director of policy and enforcement at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. “The problem is others don’t have the reputation and deserve it just as much.” Read more ..


The Race for Solar

E-Mail Trail shows Obama Administration's Early Concerns over Solyndra

October 3rd 2011

Obama Admin Topics - Obama solyndra
President Obama and Solyndra officials

Administration officials raised concerns about a 2010 visit by President Obama to a Solyndra manufacturing plant in California, arguing that the visit would embarrass the White House if the company ultimately went bankrupt, emails released Monday show.

In the days before Obama visited the now-bankrupt solar company's facility on May 25, 2010, one OMB official wrote an email to a colleague that said, “Hope doesn’t default before then.” Another official said, “I am increasingly worried that this visit could prove embarrassing to the Administration in the not too distant future, given 1) what we just heard today from DOE that Solyndra is delaying their IPO at least until the end of the year, and 2) what the auditors said about Solyndra making it through the year absent new financing.” Solyndra canceled plans to go public in June of 2010. Read more ..


The Mortgage Meltdown

Mortgage Industry Tanks, Fraud Continues at Countrywide

September 27th 2011

Economy - Foreclosure

The mortgage market was struggling in March 2007 when Countrywide promoted Eileen Foster to executive vice president and tapped her to take over the company’s mortgage fraud unit.

Home prices were sputtering, borrower defaults were climbing, and the industry leader, Countywide, would soon be forced to ask Bank of America for an infusion of capital to help it keep afloat.

The fraud investigation unit was also struggling. The company had laid off several experienced investigators, according to Foster. Those who remained were faced with an ever-growing number of fraud complaints.

Foster had roughly two dozen investigators working for her, but only four or five had real investigative chops, Foster says. Many of the rest had been brought over to the unit from clerical jobs, she says. Read more ..


Economic Recovery on Edge

Countrywide Protected Fraudsters by Silencing Whistleblowers

September 27th 2011

Economy - Home Foreclosure

In the summer of 2007, a team of corporate investigators sifted through mounds of paper pulled from shred bins at Countrywide Financial Corp. mortgage shops in and around Boston.

By intercepting the documents before they were sliced by the shredder, the investigators were able to uncover what they believed was evidence that branch employees had used scissors, tape, and Wite-Out to create fake bank statements, inflated property appraisals and other phony paperwork. Inside the heaps of paper, for example, they found mock-ups that indicated to investigators that workers had, as a matter of routine, literally cut and pasted the address for one home onto an appraisal for a completely different piece of property.

Eileen Foster, the company’s new fraud investigations chief, had seen a lot of slippery behavior in her two-plus decades in the banking business. But she’d never seen anything like this. Read more ..


The Race for Solar

Congressional Republicans Take a Closer Look at Obama-Solyndra Solar Connections

September 26th 2011

Obama Admin Topics - Obama solyndra
President Obama meets Solyndra executives

House Republicans have sunk their teeth into the bankruptcy of an Obama administration-backed solar firm, and they made it clear this past week that they’re not letting go. Unlike other GOP-led probes of the White House that quickly faded away, Republicans are vowing to intensify their investigation into the California-based Solyndra. The company declared bankruptcy and laid off 1,100 workers this month just two years after receiving a $535 million stimulus-law loan guarantee from the administration.

The incident has ignited a firestorm in Washington, leaving the White House scrambling to defend itself against Republican allegations that the administration missed a series of red flags that hinted at Solyndra’s pending financial collapse. The debacle is a messaging nightmare for the White House, which has invested a huge amount of political capital in the stimulus law and its clean energy agenda. Read more ..


The Race for Solar

Solyndra Investigation Expands, with Agents Visiting Executives’ Homes

September 11th 2011

Energy Topics - solyndra HQ

Federal agents have expanded their examination of the now-bankrupt California solar power company Solyndra, visiting the homes of the company’s chief executive, a founder, and a former executive, examining computer files and documents.

Agents visited the homes of CEO Brian Harrison and company founder Chris Gronet. Agents also visited the home of a third executive involved in the company from the start, according to a source who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity because of the legal sensitivity of the situation.

Gronet, reached at his home Friday morning, did not dispute that his home was visited by federal agents a day earlier.

“I’m sorry,” Gronet said in an interview. “You probably understand full well that I cannot comment.” Read more ..


The Obama Edge

State Department Spends Emergency Dollars on Parties

August 30th 2011

Politics - Truman Bldg/State Dept HQ

Money from a State Department fund meant for urgent needs—such as evacuating diplomats from posts in Egypt or Libya—has been spent on a kitchen renovation, holiday and retirement parties, and on white suits for President Obama’s inauguration.

An audit by the department’s inspector general raises questions about whether State Department officials have gone beyond the purpose of a law allowing U.S. diplomatic officials to tap into a so-called “K Fund.” The money is set aside for “unforeseen emergencies arising in the diplomatic and consular service,” such as moving personnel out of suddenly unstable regimes, rewarding tipsters for information about terrorist activities, and defraying the unexpected costs of visiting officials. Read more ..


Economic Reform on Edge

Bank-backed House Lawmakers Try to Kill IRS Plan to Identify $1 Trillion in Foreign Accounts

August 2nd 2011

Economy - One Million Dollars

Two U.S. House members who collected large campaign donations from the financial industry are pushing legislation to block an Internal Revenue Service plan to discourage foreign tax evaders and money launderers from stashing money in U.S. banks.

Legislation sponsored by Democrat Gregory Meeks of New York and Republican Bill Posey of Florida would stop the IRS from requiring American banks to report interest paid to foreign citizens who live outside the United States and have deposits in U.S. banks. In announcing the legislation, Meeks and Posey echoed the arguments of American bankers who say the IRS proposal could chase foreign capital away from the United States.

“At a time when our economy is experiencing a nascent recovery, the last thing we want to do is discourage foreign investment in the United States,” Meeks said in a statement. “We must protect America’s reputation as the best place in the world to invest and do business.” Read more ..


Economic Recovery on Edge

Borrower Nightmares: $700 Dormitory Fee Costs Family its Car

July 17th 2011

Economy - car keys and cash

When Mildred Morris’s son won a coveted spot at the New York drama and performing arts college that trained singer-songwriter Jason Mraz and TV actor Jessie Tyler Ferguson of “Modern Family,” she was overjoyed. The drama, however, extended beyond school.

Morris started the process of securing a college loan to pay tuition for her son, Jonathan, to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, but she was caught off guard by an unexpected and sudden $700 fee to hold a dormitory room for him.

A single mother of two in the town of Martinsburg, W.Va., 90 minutes northwest of Washington, D.C., Morris works in the technical support branch for the Coast Guard office that issues merchant seamen the equivalent of a driver’s license. Read more ..


America's Nazi Nexus

Infamous Auschwitz Tattoo Began as an IBM Number

June 16th 2011

Investigation - IBM in Auschwitz Phone Book Cropped

Auschwitz Phone Book Shows IBM Hollerith Buro Phone # 4496

In August 1943, a timber merchant from Bendzin, Poland, arrived at Auschwitz. He was among a group of 400 inmates, mostly Jews. First, a doctor examined him briefly to determine his fitness for work. His physical information was noted on a medical record. Second, his full prisoner registration was completed with all personal details. Third, his name was checked against the indices of the Political Section to see if he would be subjected to special punishment. Finally, he was registered in the Labor Assignment Office and assigned a characteristic five-digit IBM Hollerith number, 44673. The five-digit Hollerith number was part of a custom punch card system devised by IBM to track prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, including the slave labor at Auschwitz.

The Polish timber merchant's punch card number would follow him from labor assignment to labor assignment as Hollerith systems tracked him and his availability for work, and reported the data to the central inmate file eventually kept at Department DII. Department DII of the SS Economics Administration in Oranienburg oversaw all camp slave labor assignments, utilizing elaborate IBM systems. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

DNC to Return Lobbyist Donations Accepted in Violation of Internal Policy

June 5th 2011

Politics - Obama campaign bus

The Democratic National Committee will reimburse at least 10 registered federal lobbyists who donated to the committee—a violation of the organization’s stated policies—after OpenSecrets brought the donations to the DNC’s attention.

Research findicates the party accepted a number of contributions from federally registered lobbyists during the 2010 election cycle.

“We’re in the process of reimbursing the money,” DNC spokeswoman Caroline Ciccone said. “For whatever reason, be it human error, they gave donations that were out of line with our policy.” Read more ..


Economic Recovery on Edge

Credit Unions Remake Themselves in Image of Payday Lenders

May 31st 2011

Economy - Payday Loan Sign

To millions of member-customers, credit unions are the financial equivalent of a trusted uncle, dispensing prudent loans for cars, homes, and education without the profit motive of traditional banks.

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), which supervises and insures about 4,600 federally-chartered credit unions, says they operate with a “not for profit but for service” philosophy, providing “an alternative to the oppressive loan rates charged by predatory lenders.”

But encouraged by federal regulators, an increasing number of credit unions are competing directly with traditional payday lenders, selling small loans at prices far higher than they are permitted to charge for any other product. Read more ..


Edge of Cybersecurity

Serious Security Flaws with RFID-equipped Credit and Debit Cards Revealed

May 18th 2011

Technology - RFID Credit Card
RFID Credit Card

Researchers have been able to create a “magic wand” that reads cards at a distance shows that more work needs to be done on wireless encryption.

“The report from the Portland, Oregon-based TV channel Katu, in which researchers found that $20 worth of electronics could read the card details of payment cards in peoples’ wallets and purses, at a range of four inches, is very worrying,” said Andy Kemshall, technical director of the 2 factor authentication company.

“Here at SecurEnvoy, we spend our time advising clients on their best options to better defend their data assets, yet here we apparently have a number of card associations issuing payment cards that can have their details lifted by waving a fraudulent reader at users’ wallets, purses and pockets, as they walk past,” he added. Read more ..


The Obama Edge

White House Visitor Logs Riddled with Holes

April 18th 2011

Presidential - White House gate
Credit: Emma Schwartz

A foot of snow couldn’t keep Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jennifer Hudson and other celebrities away from a star-studded celebration of civil rights era music hosted by President Barack Obama and the First Lady at the White House on Feb. 9, 2010.

Dylan’s haunting rendition of “The Times They are A-Changin” was a highlight of the dazzling evening. The digitally friendly White House even posted the video of his performance on its website.

But you won’t find Dylan (or Robert Zimmerman, his birth name) listed in the White House visitor logs—the official record of who comes to call at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, maintained by the Secret Service. Ditto Joan Baez. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Koch’s Web of Influence

April 18th 2011

Politics - Koch Industries building

At an EPA hearing last summer, representatives from Koch Industries argued that moderate levels of the toxic chemical dioxin should not be designated as a cancer risk for humans.

When members of Congress sought higher security at chemical plants to guard against terrorist attacks, Koch Industries lobbyists prowled Capitol Hill to voice their opposition.

And when Congress moved to strengthen regulation of the financial markets after recent collapses, Koch Industries—a major commodities and derivatives trader—deployed a phalanx of lobbyists to resist proposed changes. Read more ..



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