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Toxic Edge

Government and Capitalist Alliance Makes Russia an Asbestos Behemoth

August 30th 2010

Health/Medicine - asbestos hazard

In the aptly named city of Asbest, in the Ural Mountains 900 miles (1500 km) northeast of Moscow, the dominance of Russia’s asbestos industry — the world’s largest — is on clear display. Just east of the city is the massive open-pit Uralasbest mine. At seven miles (11 km) long and 1-½ miles (2.5 km) wide, it is nearly half the size of Manhattan — and more than a thousand feet (300 meters) deep. Nearly half a million metric tons of asbestos are gouged from the mine each year.

Seventy thousand people live in Asbest, once known as “the dying city” for its extraordinary rates of lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases. But Uralasbest does not appear to have suffered any loss of status. It and other Russian asbestos producers operate with the swagger that comes from unwavering government support. Controversy bypasses them, perhaps in no small measure because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is their ally. Nothing, it seems, is allowed to interfere with an industry that employs 400,000 people and, along with its counterpart in neighboring Kazakhstan, generates at least $800 million a year. Read more ..


The Mortgage Meltdown

Some Foreclosure Rescue Scams Involve Lawyers, Mortgage Pros

August 23rd 2010

Economy - Foreclosure

Desperate U.S. homeowners facing foreclosure are being duped by con artists. The scammers employ a variety of schemes such as a “forensic mortgage loan audit” that promises to find errors in loan origination terms that will help the homeowner negotiate a loan modification or even cancel the loan, according to the Government Accountability Office. Many of the rescue schemes use telemarketing techniques and operate across state lines, making it difficult for local or state officials to prosecute. Some schemes were organized by former mortgage industry professionals or use the names of attorneys to add credibility or help them skirt state laws. California, for example, prohibits companies from charging advance fees but exempts licensed attorneys.

Other mortgage rescue schemes highlighted by the GAO:

  • Offers to negotiate new mortgage terms on behalf of a distressed homeowner for an up-front fee averaging around $3,000, then providing little or no help.
  • Convincing homeowners to transfer the deed of their home to save it from foreclosure. The scam artist, who promises to sell it back to the homeowner in the future, then has control of the property and can make money by either taking out a second loan on the home or selling it to someone else.
Read more ..

The Nuclear Edge

What Would Happen in an All-Out Nuclear War?

August 16th 2010

Military - Atomic Mushroom Cloud

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and on August 9, 1945, dropped another on Nagasaki. Since then, neither the United States nor any other nation has ever used nuclear weapons in anger. The threat of nuclear war, however, has been omnipresent, and many scholars, government officials, and civilians discussed and thought about scenarios for a possible nuclear war during the Cold War.

The U.S. Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) published The Effects of War in 1979, which predicted the horrendous effects of a nuclear strike between the Soviet Union and the United States. Of course, the Soviet Union no longer exists, but the threat of a “limited” nuclear war breaking out somewhere in the world remains, between India and Pakistan for example. Read more ..


The Toxic Edge

Brazil's Lone Heroine Fights for Rights of Asbestos Workers

August 9th 2010

Health/Medicine - asbestos hazard

Inching along at rush hour in her battered black Chevrolet Corsa, Fernanda Giannasi joked about the pariah status she’s attained with the Brazilian asbestos industry. “I have no name,” she said. “I’m just ‘That woman.’”

No wonder. Giannasi, an inspector with the federal Ministry of Labor and Employment, has been trying to shut down the industry for the past quarter-century. She says that white asbestos — mined in the central Brazilian state of Goiás, turned into cement and other domestic products and increasingly sent abroad — has taken countless lives and will take countless more unless it is banned nationwide. The idea that it can be used safely, she says, is “a fiction.” Read more ..


A Toxic Edge

India’s Wide Use of Asbestos Brings Dire Warnings

August 2nd 2010

Health/Medicine - Asbestos - Bangladesh

Every day, the swirling waters of the Arabian Sea bring misery to Alang, the world’s largest ship-breaking yard in western India’s Gujarat state. An estimated 55,000 workers, unmindful of the lethal effects of asbestos-laden material in the vessels, slave for long hours and, in the process, are exposed to deadly fibers. The Indian government is aware of the risks but loath to interfere: The men need jobs, and the Indian economy, among the world’s fastest-growing, needs secondary steel from the beached vessels. “Reclamation and recycling,” says Pravin Nagarsheth, president of the Iron Steel Scrap and Ship Breakers Association of India (ISSAI), “is a highly lucrative business.”

One hundred-twenty miles (two hundred kilometers) north of Alang, workers at hundreds of dusty asbestos factories in the city of Ahmedabad face similar hazards in the name of economic development: lung cancer, asbestosis, and a rapacious malignancy, usually found in the chest cavity, called mesothelioma. In this case the end product is asbestos sheet, widely used in construction. Read more ..


The Toxic Edge

Exporting an Epidemic: A Global Asbestos Crisis

July 26th 2010

Health/Medicine - asbestos hazard

In Osasco, Brazil, an industrial city on the western flank of Sao Paulo, the past is buried beneath a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a Sam's Club at the intersection of Avenida MariaCampos and Avenida dos Autonomistas. Here the Eternit asbestos cement factory was shuttered in 1993 and demolished in 1995 after 54 years of operation. Here three generations of workers—pouring asbestos into giant mixers with cement, cellulose and water, emptying bags, cleaning machinery—were immersed in fiber-rich white dust, setting themselves up for diseases that would debilitate many of them in retirement and kill some of them in an excruciating fashion. Scores have died since the mid-1990s, at least 10 of mesothelioma, a rare malignancy that eats into the chest wall and dispatches its victims swiftly. Aldo Vincentin succumbed at age 66 in July 2008, only three months after his diagnosis. “They knew about the dangers of the materials and they didn’t protect my husband,” his widow, Giselia Gomes Vincentin, says of Eternit. “I think many people will still die.” Read more ..


Travel Safe

The Shifting Landscape of Passport Fraud

July 26th 2010

Crime Topics - Passport Fraud

The recent case involving the arrest and deportation of the Russian intelligence network in the United States has once again raised the subject of document fraud in general and passport fraud in particular. The FBI’s investigation into the group of Russian operatives discovered that several of the suspects had assumed fraudulent identities and had obtained genuine passports (and other identity documents) in their assumed names. One of the suspects assumed the identity of a Canadian by the name of Christopher Robert Mestos, who died in childhood. The suspect was arrested in Cyprus but fled after posting bail; his true identity remains unknown. Three other members of the group also assumed Canadian identities, with Andrey Bezrukov posing as Donald Heathfield, Elena Vavilova as Tracey Foley and Natalia Pereverzeva as Patricia Mills.

Passport fraud is a topic that surfaces with some frequency in relation to espionage cases. (The Israelis used passport fraud during the January 2010 operation to assassinate Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas militant commander.) Passport fraud is also frequently committed by individuals involved in crimes such as narcotics smuggling and arms trafficking, as well as by militants involved in terrorist plots. Because of the frequency with which passport fraud is used in these types of activities — and due to the importance that curtailing passport fraud can have in combating espionage, terrorism and crime — we thought it a topic worth discussing this week in greater detail. Read more ..


The Urban Poor

Legal Aid Societies under Investigation as they Help the Poor and Help Themselves

July 19th 2010

Social Topics - baltimore povery art
Baltimore blight

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Tony West hailed Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau with a rousing speech a few weeks ago that equated the nonprofit group with great American poverty fighters like Adlai Stevenson, Thurgood Marshall, and Clarence Darrow.

The Maryland group is “an institution where the overriding charge is to do not what is popular, or partisan, or political, but to do what is right,” the Justice Department’s top civil attorney boasted May 20 at an annual awards celebration in which the group rented out a red-bricked banquet hall inside Baltimore’s Camden Yard’s baseball stadium.

Unbeknownst to West at that moment, though, prosecutors inside his own department were preparing a criminal case exposing how Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau failed for more than a decade to catch one of its top executives, who is accused of systematically defrauding the federally funded program.

Six days after West’s speech, Legal Aid Bureau’s former chief financial officer was charged in U.S. District Court in Baltimore with stealing, along with an accomplice, more than $1 million in federal, state and private monies that were supposed to help the poor get legal help but were instead spent on such things as personal junkets to Atlantic City for gambling and prostitutes, officials said. Read more ..


Travel Safe

Security Features for e-Passports Assembled in High-Risk Locations

June 21st 2010

Travel - Passport

Last month, a gunman opened fire on an insurance building in the ancient Thai city of Ayutthaya, piercing the glass windows of the People’s Alliance for Democracy headquarters with 11 millimeter caliber bullets.

A few weeks earlier, bombs made from powerful plastic explosives were detonated near transmission towers in the same city in an unsuccessful effort by terrorists to darken the manufacturing district. The violent episodes hardly registered in the United States. Few Americans have heard of Ayutthaya, after all, or know of a reason to pay attention to it.

But there is a reason, one directly connected to America’s security. The key electronic components for millions of American e-Passports, the crown jewel of a new U.S. border security system, have been put together inside a little-known factory in Ayutthaya for the past four years. Read more ..


The Edge of Lobbying

Five Lobbyists for Each Member of Congress on Financial Reforms

May 24th 2010

Economy - Financial reform now protest

More than 850 banks, hedge funds, companies, associations, and other organizations hired 3,000-plus lobbyists to work on the reform bills, according to an examination of lobbying disclosure data for all of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010. However, public outrage over Wall Street’s role in the 2007-09 financial meltdown blunted industry attempts to win loopholes in the measure now before the U.S. Senate.

Most of the big players in American business lobbying were active as regulatory reform proposals worked their way through Congress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce deployed 85 lobbyists, including 49 hired from outside lobbying firms. Among financial services groups, the Securities Industry and Financial Market Association employed 54 lobbyists, including 37 from outside firms. The American Bankers Association deployed 53 lobbyists, the Business Roundtable 42, and the Mortgage Bankers Association 29, according to Center data.

In the financial services industry, some 175 companies and groups—ranging from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to CME Group Inc. to the Private Equity Council—hired lobbyists to try to weaken or eliminate reform proposals aimed at banks and the capital markets. A distant second was the energy and utilities sector, with 91 companies and organizations, followed by manufacturing with 66 firms. Read more ..


The BP Spill

Training Exercises Showed Gaps in Government Preparedness Before BP Oil Spill

May 17th 2010

Energy / Environment - Oil Spill Cleanup Crew

Over the last eight years, the U.S. government has conducted four major drills to prepare for a massive oil spill, the results of which foreshadowed many of the weaknesses in coordination, communication, expertise, and technology that have plagued the federal response to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to interviews and after-action reports, the training exercises conducted in 2002, 2004, 2007, and just this past March caused federal officials to express concern about a host of issues. Most prominent among them:

  • coordination and communication between the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, especially involving the process for naming a National Incident Commander (NIC) to take charge of the crisis;
  • a slow or inaccurate flow of information from the industry, particularly caused by companies' desire to protect proprietary information and officials' tendency to exclude industry representatives from the government's command center; and
  • a lack of expertise and modern technology for closing a spewing oil well leak and containing a slick through controlled burns and dispersants.

Since then, the government has faced questions about why it took so long to declare the spill an emergency, why it didn’t use Pentagon planes sooner to spray dispersants and why it lacked a ready supply of specialized booms to contain and burn the growing oil slick. Read more ..


The Edge of Oil

OSHA Says 97% of Worst Industry Violations Found at BP Refineries

May 17th 2010

Energy / Environment - BP Refinery Explosion
BP's Renegade Refinery after Explosion

Two refineries owned by oil giant BP account for 97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years, a Center for Public Integrity analysis shows. Most of BP’s citations were classified as “egregious willful” by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and reflect alleged violations of a rule designed to prevent catastrophic events at refineries.

BP is battling a massive oil well spill in the Gulf of Mexico after an April 20 platform blast that killed 11 workers. But the firm has been under intense OSHA scrutiny since its refinery in Texas City, Texas, exploded in March 2005, killing 15 workers. While continuing its probe in Texas City, OSHA launched a nationwide refinery inspection program in June 2007 in response to a series of fires, explosions, and chemical releases throughout the industry. Read more ..


The Edge of Lobbying

“Road Gang” Highway Lobby Wary as "Livability" Advocates Gain Momentum

May 3rd 2010

Transportation Topics - Broken Road

Bob Schafer just laid off another worker.

Schafer is a manager at Ranger Construction, a Florida-based company that builds roads in a state famously fueled by its own growth. For more than three decades, Ranger Construction helped connect all that development, but the economic recession has forced the company to cut more than one-third of its staff, which has dwindled to under a thousand.

Looking ahead, Schafer worries whether state funding cuts might eventually mean laying off even more workers. “It could shut the lights out,” Schafer says. At more than six feet tall, Schafer makes an imposing figure at construction sites. He appears as focused as he is bald — which is to say completely. Read more ..


The Edge of Recovery

Mortgage Defaults Could Leave Taxpayers Holding the Bill

April 26th 2010

Economy - Foreclosure

A District nonprofit organization that says it helps cash-strapped homeowners avoid foreclosure is under federal investigation for instead helping lenders make high-risk loans that leave the government on the hook if they go bad, according to sources familiar with the probe. Federal officials say they are concerned that the Rainy Day Foundation could be thwarting government efforts to weed out mortgage lenders that make too many precarious loans.

The Federal Housing Administration, which encourages homeownership by guaranteeing mortgages made by qualified lenders, has long struggled to keep companies from slipping risky loans under its protective umbrella. The agency has done this in part by barring lenders if too many of their borrowers default.

The Rainy Day Foundation advertises that it can help lenders remain in the FHA’s good graces. For a fee of about $600 per borrower, paid by lenders, home builders and real estate firms to cover the cost of making mortgage payments for distressed borrowers, the group promises to limit defaults during the two years after a loan is made, the period watched most closely by the FHA. Rick Del Sontro, chief executive of the Rainy Day Foundation, said in an interview that his group provides an important service to borrowers and lenders. Read more ..


Edge on Wikipedia

Wikipedia—The Dumbing Down of World Knowledge

April 12th 2010

Corporate Logos - Wikipedia logo

Jay Leno probably said it best a few weeks ago when he joked that when Wikipedia's servers briefly went down for some three hours, it left the world without a source for false and erroneous information. But many in our information-driven society believe it is no joke. A growing community of the informed believes that Wikipedia, the constantly-changing knowledge base created by a global free-for-all of anonymous users, now stands as the leading force for the dumbing down of world knowledge. If Wikipedia's almost unstoppable momentum continues, critics say, it threatens to quickly reverse centuries of progress in the sharing of verifiable knowledge with its highest aspiration being genuine fact. In its place would be a constant cacophony of fact and falsity that Wikipedia's critics call a “law of the jungle.”

By way of background, Wikipedia's 2.3 million-plus unvetted entries are contributed by anonymous users known only by colorful and sometimes bizarre and shadowy pseudonyms, often in a sort of “anything goes” perpetual intellectual wrestling match. In the 2008–2009 period, an estimated 132 million edits were logged and viewed by 342 million unique visitors worldwide. A pillar of Wikipedia doublespeak establishes this rule: “Wikipedia has no firm rules.” But actually, there are rules—and many of them. Original research is forbidden. For example, the world's leading experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, sea turtles or methanol could not contribute their knowledge based on their peer-reviewed findings. But anyone with an ax to grind on either topic could. Read more ..


Edge of Terrorism

How Safe are America's Subways?

April 5th 2010

Transportation Topics - Washington Metro
Washington D.C. Metro

A sarin gas attack on Japan's subway system in 1995. A foiled subway terror plot in New York City. Attacks on underground trains in London in 2005. The twin suicide bombings in Moscow.

Terrorists have repeatedly made underground transit systems a target of their planned attacks. But the fortification of U.S. subway systems remains an open question. Despite more than $1 billion spent by Washington to protect public transit in recent years, U.S. subway systems are only now starting to address threats that have been known for years. The recent bombings of two Moscow commuter trains, killing more than three dozen, may add urgency to a problem that security experts say has taken a back seat to airline safety.

New York City’s subway system, the country’s largest, remains “behind schedule and over budget” on many of its security upgrades and has run out of money to fully deploy its much ballyhooed project—begun nearly five years ago—to create an electronic anti-terrorism surveillance system, according to a little-noticed audit released two months ago by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. Napoli. Read more ..


The Lobby Edge

Lobbyists for Big Business Reap Rewards of Healthcare Debate

March 29th 2010

Politics - K Street NW

While patients, taxpayers and lawmakers debate the impact of the health care reform law President Obama signed on Tuesday, one result of the epic battle is clear: a bonanza for K Street.

And among lobby firms that worked the issue, the richest Ranking of the top dozen with the most clients involved in health care last year reveals a host of high-profile Washington concerns — companies like Patton Boggs LLP, Alston & Bird, LLP, Holland & Knight LLP and the Podesta Group. About 1,750 businesses and organizations spent at least $1.2 billion in 2009 on lobbying teams to work on health reform and other issues, according to an analysis of Senate lobby disclosure documents. Since lobbyists are not required to itemize the amount spent on each issue, the precise amount that went to health reform remains unknown. But if only 10 percent of that lobby spending went toward health reform, the amount would total $120 million – and that’s likely a record for a single year’s spending on a particular issue, experts say. Read more ..


Sexual Assault on Campus

'Undetected Rapists' on Campus: A Troubling Plague of Repeat Offenders

March 1st 2010

Social Topics - Sullen Woman

Elton Yarbrough was a young man seemingly on his way up: An economics major at Texas A&M University; a member of the university’s military cadet corps; a musician in the marching band; the pride of little Palestine, Texas; and soon to be an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

But police say he was also one other thing: A serial rapist.

The one-time Texas A&M senior is now sitting in a Texas prison until at least 2015 for felony sexual assault. Five women, including four female A&M students, testified Yarbrough raped or sexually assaulted them between 2003 and 2006, although he was only tried on one assault charge. Yarbrough says he is innocent.

Yarbrough is one of six alleged serial offenders at colleges across the country found during a year-long investigation of sexual assault on college campuses. The six were accused of assaulting multiple women in court records, campus records or other public documents.

However, students who reported being raped by fellow students told of at least five other men whom they suspected of, or had heard of, assaulting other women. Those men probably look a lot like Yarbrough did to Texas A&M administrators and to his fellow students: A promising young student with an outstanding resume of achievements. As one of his accusers would later write in a statement read at a university judicial proceeding, “If you cannot trust another student with a record which appears as impeccable as Elton’s, then who can we really trust in life?”
Read more ..


The Edge of Lobbying

Why 650 Local Governments Use Lobbyists To Get Cash for Buses, Trains, and Roads

January 25th 2010

Transportation Topics - Broken Road

Last September, city fathers in Dubuque, Iowa, lured three members of the White House cabinet to the banks of the Mississippi River on the same day they welcomed officials from one the world’s biggest corporations, IBM. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, accompanied by a host of aides, all climbed aboard the city’s green trolley car. Among their stops: Dubuque’s renovated harbor area, and then the historic millwork district — once the nation’s largest — and the nearby Roshek building, a depression-era department store undergoing a grand remodel.

Meanwhile, Dubuque’s private sector guest, IBM, was over at the convention center announcing plans to make the city a living laboratory for its Smarter Planet program. Up to 1,300 new IBM employees will begin fielding tech service calls later this year at the Roshek building, and the company hopes those workers will also be able to enjoy the fruits of a sweeping partnership between IBM and its host city — a partnership aimed at creating an integrated transportation system involving smart new bus routes, pedestrian-friendly streets, and arterial roads to take trucks out of neighborhoods. Read more ..


Sexual Assault on Campus

Barriers Curb Reporting of Campus Rape and Discourage Victims

December 14th 2009

Social Topics - Sullen Woman

Buried in the pages of the 2006 student handbook for Dominican College, a small Catholic institution in the northern suburbs of New York City, were five dense paragraphs about what would happen if a student reported a rape.

The college would investigate. That much is required by law. Evidence would be collected and preserved. And if the alleged rapist were another student, campus disciplinary proceedings would ensue, allowing both sides to speak before a hearing board.

The policy was tested in May 2006, with Megan Wright, 19, a freshman from New Jersey. After drinking heavily with others in a friend’s dorm room, she woke up in pain on a Sunday morning, with blood in her underwear. On Monday, she elbowed through a lunchtime rush of students to the glass office of director of residence life Carlyle Hicks to report that she had been raped by a man — or men — she could not identify.

But Wright found cold comfort in Hicks’ response.

“He didn’t seem to have a clue,” says Wright’s mother Cynthia McGrath, who attended the meeting. Hicks didn’t mention a word about a campus disciplinary process, says McGrath, or even ask if the shy redhead was okay. “Just a lack of concern, like he couldn’t be bothered.” Read more ..


Sexual Assault on Campus

Sexual Assault on Campus Often Shrouded in Secrecy

December 7th 2009

Social Topics - Sullen Woman

Three hours into deliberations by the University of Virginia’s Sexual Assault Board, UVA junior Kathryn Russell sat with her mother in a closet-like room in sprawling Peabody Hall. Down the corridor, two professors and two students were deciding her fate. Russell was replaying in her mind, endlessly, details of her allegations of rape when, she remembers, Shamim Sisson, the board chair, stepped into the room and delivered the order: You can’t talk about the verdict to anyone.

That stern admonition was a reminder of the silence Russell had been keeping since, she says, she struggled to break free from a fellow student’s grip in her dorm. That’s the account she gave local authorities, who declined to prosecute. And that’s what, in May 2004, she told the UVA Sexual Assault Board, whose decision she’d considered “my last resort.” Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Is India "the Next China" as It Confronts Climate Change?

November 23rd 2009

Environment Topics - India Air Pollution

The image of the new India is that of a nation on the move: rapid economic growth, a rising middle class, big infrastructure projects, and global business deals. All these suggest that India may be the next China, the next economic superpower to emerge from the developing world.

But there is another side to the world’s largest democracy: About 60 percent of Indians live on less than $2 per day. Over half the country’s billion-plus people lack formal access to electricity. In some of India’s more crowded states, like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, with a combined population of 250 million residents, have no electricity for a good part of the day. Villages in much of India’s outback are not connected to a power grid at all.

It is against this stark backdrop — against the pressing national imperative to reduce poverty and improve education and healthcare — that India grapples with how to address climate change. For years, the Indian government has viewed global warming through this domestic lens, arguing that mandated caps on greenhouse gas emissions would stunt its explosive economic growth and that, in any case, the industrialized world should bear the responsibility of relieving a problem it started decades ago. Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Climate Lobby Goes Global as Copenhagen Showdown Looms

November 9th 2009

Energy / Environment - Pollution Made in China

In the poor, but mineral-rich mountains of the eastern United States known as Appalachia, coal millionaire Don Blankenship hosts a rally for “Friends of America” to hear country music and “learn how environmental extremists and corporate America are both trying to destroy your jobs.”

On the other side of the globe, with an eye on his venture in an Australian port town known both as a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and a smokestack industry haven, aluminum billionaire Oleg Deripaska battles that nation’s program to address climate change as “destructive for jobs, destructive for new and existing investment.”

And in China, ambitious renewable electricity plans look like an important step toward tackling global warming, but progress lags due to built-in and deeply entrenched favoritism for cheaper fossil fuel. “There’s no need for anyone to get over-excited,” says Lu Qizhou, the government appointee who heads China’s big power industry group. Change from the coal-fired energy system will be slow and won’t outpace “the market’s ability to cope.” Read more ..


The Edge of Lobbying

Thousands of Special Interests Rush in to Influence New Transportation Bill

October 5th 2009

Transportation Topics - Highways

Speaking from a lofty perch not unlike the one he occupies as ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, Florida Representative John Mica looked out upon a sea of familiar faces last month at a suburban Dallas hotel. Mica was addressing the 12th Annual Transportation and Infrastructure Summit.

The conference drew more than 1,100 participants, including many veterans of transportation lobbying wars past and present. Among them: the CEOs of three of America’s freight railroad giants, directors of some of the West’s largest transit agencies, and representatives from engineering giants like Kansas City-based HNTB.

“I’ve had a chance to hear from some of you,” Mica told the luncheon crowd of transportation pros as they picked at a dessert of tiramisu, “but not all of you. … I need your ideas.”
“We don’t know if we can succeed,” he went on. “We know we can’t succeed without you getting involved.”

And with that the legislator pointed a finger back at the transportation lobby — a lobby that spent at least $45 million in Washington in the first half of this year, mostly to “help” Congress craft a new transportation bill. That lobby is composed of almost 1,800 entities of all stripes, and they are employing at least 2,100 lobbyists with intimate knowledge of transportation politics to make their cases.

Over the past two decades, this is the way federal transportation policy has largely been made in America — by a quasi-private club of interest groups and local governments carving out something for everyone, creating a nationwide patchwork of funded bypasses, interchanges, bridges, and rail lines with no overarching philosophy behind it. “Applying patches to our surface transportation system is no longer acceptable,” Read more ..


Iran's Nuke and North Korea's Nukes

Super Bunker-Buster Bombs Fast-Tracked for Possible Use Against Iran and North Korea Nuclear Programs

September 21st 2009

Military - MOP GBU57
GBU 57 A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator

The Pentagon is accelerating by three years plans for a super bunker buster, the GBU-57A/B or Massive Ordnance Penetrator or MOP, a powerful new bomb aimed squarely at the underground nuclear facilities of Iran and North Korea. The gargantuan bomb—longer than 11 persons standing shoulder-to-shoulder or more than 20 feet base to nose, weighs 30,000 pounds. Some 18 percent of its total weight is comprised of explosives. Guided by a precision GPS system, the MOP can penetrate an unprecedented 200 feet down before exploding with devastation into an underground bunker, such as those buried in Iran and North Korea currently used to shield rogue nuclear programs. Now Congress has quietly advanced $68 million into the 2009 budget to accelerate the purchase and deployment of ten such super bunker busters making clear they are for possible use against the regimes in Iran or North Korea. Pentagon planners are rushing to beat by months the latest June 2010 deadline for just four such bombs, and have been subsequently directed to increase the number of MOPs to at least ten.

In early July 2009, the Defense Department told a Congressional committee that the MOP was the "weapon of choice" for an “urgent operational need” enunciated by both the U.S. Pacific Command, tasked with North Korea, and the Central Command, tasked with Iran. In doing so, the Pentagon accelerated the program by three years. Read more ..


The Edge of Lobbying

Lobbyists Crowded into Washington for Climate Legislation

September 21st 2009

Politics - Capitol Building at night

More than 460 new businesses and interest groups jumped into lobbying Congress on global warming in the weeks before the House neared its historic vote on climate change legislation, an analysis of lobbying records shows.

The surge in the 12 weeks leading up to the June 26 vote meant that about 1,150 different companies and advocacy organizations were promoting their vision of how the nation should tackle climate change, a more than 30 percent cumulative jump over the 880 companies and associations that were storming Capitol Hill on the issue as the year began. Some 190 of the interest groups that were lobbying in the first quarter of the year did not continue their lobbying in the April-June time period.

It’s impossible to say with certainty how much money was spent on lobbying the climate bill, since businesses don’t have to detail expenses for separate issues they are pushing in Congress — like climate, health care, the economic stimulus, or taxes. But so many groups were lobbying climate that even if the issue consumed only 10 percent of their efforts, the cost would have been more than $27 million in just the second quarter-from April through June. Read more ..


Coke and Confiscation

Coca-Cola Accused of Near-Criminal Collusion in Egypt’s Anti-Jewish Ethnic Cleansing

September 21st 2009

Jewish Topics - Coke Poster

In a stunning new court filing, Coca-Cola has been accused of near-criminal collusion in Egypt’s program of ethnic cleansing and property seizures targeting Jews during the 1960s.

The long-standing case involves Egyptian Jewish businessman Refael Bigio and his family against his former partner, Coca-Cola in the illicit takeover of the family bottling business and property near Cairo. The conflict was covered extensively last year by The Cutting Edge News in a special report (see April 14, 2008 Page One, “Coca-Cola and Confiscation: On Passover, an Egyptian Jew Battles Coca-Cola in the USA for a Modern Day Injustice”)

The Egyptian government takeover occurred in 1962 during the openly anti-Jewish regime of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Coca-Cola joined in the process by purchasing the Bigios’seized property for a relative pittance. The process is reminiscent of the Nazi program of Aryanization against German Jewish property during the 1930s. Egypt’s government has long ago ruled its Nasser-era seizure of the Bigio property was illegal, but Coca-Cola refuses to reimburse the Bigios for the factories the company’s overseas operations took over.

Now, after years of international litigation and fruitless negotiation, Bigio’s attorneys have fired a stinging motion for summary judgment, asserting that the uncontradicted facts surrounding Coca-Cola’s actions were so blatant that the court should immediately find the corporation guilty.

“Coca-Cola is not," wrote attorney Nathan Lewin in his motion, “as it likes to portray itself, a trusting and guileless American corporation that in 1994 innocently purchased a 'minority interest' in some remote business entity that utilizes the Bigios’ property. The undisputed evidence, “ he continues, “establishes that Coca-Cola witnessed how the Bigio family – with which it was intimately bound in a mutually profitable business relationship between the 1940s and 1962 – was victimized by Nasser’s ethnic-cleansing policy of taking Jewish property and expelling Jews from Egypt. Read more ..


America's Economic Collapse

Subprime Players Who Broke the System Get Tax Money To Fix Their Mess

August 31st 2009

Economy - Money Money Money

Firms that fed off the subprime lending frenzy that devastated the banking system are lining up to collect more than $21 billion in taxpayer funds meant to help bail out borrowers now in trouble on their loans.

The funds come from the federal government’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), begun in February by the Obama administration to coax lenders into modifying mortgages that might otherwise result in foreclosure. According to an analysis of public records, of the 25 top participants in the program, at least 21 were heavily involved in the subprime lending industry. Most specialized in servicing subprime loans, but several both serviced and originated the loans.

Among those on the list:
• At least two firms that earlier settled charges of illegal collection practices brought by federal regulators; another was placed under federal supervision before voluntarily surrendering its bank charter;
• A subprime subsidiary of top-bailout recipient American International Group Inc. (AIG);
• Two former subsidiaries of Merrill Lynch & Co. and one former subsidiary of Lehman Brothers, investment banks that helped underwrite the subprime boom, and;
• A subsidiary of the now-sold, former No. 1 subprime lender in the nation, Countrywide Financial Corp. Read more ..


Eugenics in America

Government Death Panels and Mass Murder was Always an Option in 20th Century America's War Against the Weak

August 24th 2009

Book Covers - War Against the Weak

This article is based on the award-winning bestseller War Against the Weak--Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race  (Dialog Press). Buy it here

The summer of 2009 has been rife with misplaced fears about government death panels arising from proposed insurance reform. These fears are not based on anything in the proposed legislation. But government death panels and mass euthanasia were always a public option during the first decades of the twentieth century. This campaign to exterminate all those deemed socially or medically unworthy was not conducted by the worst segments of our society but by the elite of the American establishment. They saw themselves as liberals, progressive, do-gooders—and even utopians— trying to create a more perfect society.

The mission: eliminate the existence of the poor, immigrants, those of mixed parentage, and indeed anyone who did not approximate the blond-haired blue-eyed ideal they idealized. This racial type was termed Nordic, and it was socially deified by a broad movement of esteemed university professors, doctors, legislators, judges and writers. They called themselves eugenicists. This widely accepted extremist movement was virtually created and funded by millions in corporate philanthropy from the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune through a complex of pseudoscientific institutions and population tracking offices at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island. From there, leading academics supported by big money lead a termite-like proliferation of eugenics into the laws, social policies and curricula of the nation. During these turbulent decades, eugenics enjoyed the active support of the government, especially the U.S. Department of Agriculture which wanted to breed men the way they bred cattle, and many state and county offices.

Indeed, Eugenics was enacted into law in some 27 states during the first decades of the twentieth century, and then exalted as the law of the land by the U. S. Supreme Court. In a famous 1927 opinion, revered jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes compared social undesirables to bacteria to be wiped out. The sanctioned methods to be used were nothing less than a combination of pseudoscientific raceology, social engineering, ethnic cleansing and abject race law, designed to eliminate millions in an organized fashion. More specifically, the American eugenics movement sought to continually subtract the so-called “bottom tenth” of America. These were to include Blacks, Native Americans, Southern Italians, East Europeans, Jews, Hispanics, the poor, criminals, the intellectually unaccepted, the so-called “shiftless,” and many others. The drive for perfection even included excising the existence of Appalachians with brown hair, frequently rounded up by county officials for confinement. When this effort began in the early twentieth century, some fourteen million Americans were targeted for elimination. Read more ..


America's Economic Collapse

Appraisers with Revoked Licenses Still Profit in Real Estate Industry

August 10th 2009

Economy - Home Foreclosure

In 2007, a mortgage lender flagged the work of veteran Florida home appraiser Jerome Woolf for review, a process that often leads to an appraiser losing a lender’s business — a potentially disastrous financial hit for a small businessman like Woolf.

The review paperwork confused Woolf. His signature was on the original appraisal, but the home was in St. Lucie County. Woolf never worked that far north on Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Woolf suspected Serge R. Wainer. A year before, Wainer had worked for Woolf as an appraisal trainee. Woolf described his former apprentice as a middle-aged man who bristled under his oversight, often performing incomplete and inaccurate appraisals.

Convinced Wainer swiped his digitally scanned signature and fixed it on the appraisal, Woolf reported the incident to the police and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Read more ..


Edge on Homeland Security

Eighty Congressional Committees Now Oversee Tangled Homeland Security Mess

July 20th 2009

Politics - Capitol Building at night

Tom Ridge, the Department of Homeland Security’s first secretary, testified before the 9/11 Commission on a May morning in 2004. Ridge spoke before a hall packed with emotional New Yorkers, about two miles from the site of the World Trade Center. His subject, however, was Washington.

When Commissioner Tim Roemer asked for suggestions on improving DHS, Ridge brought up an institution in which both he and Roemer had served: Congress. It would be helpful, Ridge said, if Congress took a look at the number of committees that had power over DHS.

"I think we could be even more effective in what we’re doing," he began, "if there was some means of reducing, frankly, the multiple layers of interaction that we encounter every single day."

"Well, sir, you’re very polite about it," Roemer responded. "It is absolutely absurd that Congress would require you to report to 88 different subcommittees and committees when we’re supposed to be fighting al-Qaeda."

Five years ago, the 9/11 Commission, a congressionally mandated panel investigating al-Qaeda’s 2001 attacks, made 41 recommendations on such topics as improving screening at airports and creating a director of national intelligence. Commissioners say Congress and the executive branch have enacted 80 to 90 percent of their suggestions. The recommendation that Congress "create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security" is a notable exception. Read more ..


America’s Economic Collapse

Mortgage Confession: How I Helped Ruin the Economy for Ten Bucks an Hour

July 6th 2009

Economy - Money Money Money

The following recounts my experiences working for the Loan Delivery Department of a large multinational bank (hereafter known as The Bank) in Western New York during the hyper-inflated housing market. Almost all economists see the bursting housing bubble as a primary cause of the current global financial crisis. While there are many factors and actors to blame for the current crisis, my story highlights the impact securitization—the packaging and reselling of pools of mortgage loans—had on bank behavior.

Specifically, since the majority of profits for many banks were being generated by fees from loans, and as quickly as new loans were made, they were put into pools and sold to investment banks—who then manipulated these into more exotic financial instruments to sell to global investors—the banks’ incentive was to generate as many loans as possible, risk be damned! Everyone up and down the mortgage loan food chain was making money hand over fist, and no one wanted the gravy train to stop. But, as you will soon see, it required the complicit fraudulent behavior of banks (and others) to maintain it. Finally, while most analyses on the cause of the crisis have rightfully been directed at so-called “sub-prime loans,” my experience shows that fraudulent behavior was endemic, as the loans I dealt with were all classified as “prime mortgages.” Read more ..


Financing Terrorism

Terrorism and Tobacco--How Cigarette Smuggling Finances Jihad and Insurgency Worldwide

June 29th 2009

Palestine Topics - Gaza Tunnel Smuggler

For centuries, blue-turbaned nomadic Tuareg tribesmen have led caravans of camels across the expanses of the Sahara. Laden with millet and cloth from Africa’s West Coast, the caravans traveled unmarked paths to trade for salt and dates in Timbuktu, across the sand plains of Niger, and into the mountain oasis of the Algerian south.

Smugglers take the same routes today — driving SUVs along paved roads or with guidance from the Tuareg and satellite phones — to move weapons, drugs, and, increasingly, humans — through the Sahara for transport across the Mediterranean Sea. The paths are no longer known as the Salt Roads of the Tuareg, but as the “Marlboro Connection,” named after the most lucrative contraband along this 2,000-mile corridor.

Among those who control this underground trade is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algeria-based terrorist organization widely believed to have been backed by Osama Bin Laden. Descended from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known by its French acronym, GSPC) the group has hundreds of members and is blamed for a bloody campaign of bombings, murders, and kidnappings across North Africa and Europe. The lead smuggler, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, 37, is blamed for the 2003 kidnappings of 32 European tourists and the 2006 murder of 13 Algerian customs officials. “They are a significant threat,” says Lorenzo Vidino, author of Al Qaeda in Europe. “Of all Islamic terrorist groups, they have the most extensive and sophisticated network in Europe… And among their activities, smuggling is particularly important.” Read more ..


North Korea's Nukes

North Korea Missile Threat Against Hawaii and Alaska Has Been Expected for Ten Years—Iran Regime a Full Partner

June 22nd 2009

Korea Topics - Gates Inspecting Missile
Defense Sec. Gates Inspects Alaska Silos

This continuing coverage of America’s oil crisis arises from the The Plan: How to Save America When the Oil Stops—or the Day Before (Dialog Press). Buy it here.

In a frantic race with high winds, bone-chilling ice storms and rattled political nerves, the American defense establishment has been rushing to meet the threat now faced by Hawaii, Guam, Alaska and possibly the West Coast of the United States mainland—an advanced North Korean Taepodong-2 missile. The now-contested regime of Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been a full partner in the development.

Bellicose and prone to tantrums, North Korea’s bizarre strong man Kim Jong-Il has ordered a missile test of the new advanced Taepodong-2 missile, apparently in the direction of U.S. territory. Hawaii, Guam and Alaska are in the crosshairs. The defense establishment is convinced the decisive moment will once again come provocatively on America’s national holiday, July 4. This moment has been coming for more than a decade, and the Pentagon, North Korea and Iran have been preparing for it.

Alarm first sounded in 1999 when American defense officials realized that the Taepodong 1 missile, which doubled as an Iranian Shabab, was just the first phase of a decade-plus program by North Korea and Iran to develop an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Named for the Taepodong village where it is developed, the long-range Tae-pondong-1 was capable of 2,000 km, enough to threaten its neighbors. But the new Taepodong-2 could achieve double that range, more than 4,000 km—most of the way to Hawaii—and was, therefore, approaching the status of ICBM. With the right wind conditions, this newer missile when further developed could reach the outer territories of the United States. If armed with a reduced-weight payload, and favorable weather conditions, a properly guided TD-2 could reach the United States, perhaps far inland, American defense planners feared. Read more ..


Edge of Crime

The Montenegro Connection: Love, Tobacco, and the Mafia

June 22nd 2009

Investigation - Montenegro Cigarette Destruction
Montenegrin Customs Officer Destroys Smuggled Cigarettes

“My little cat... I'm going crazy without you.... You have repeatedly betrayed me, I think.... Little cat, when are you coming? ... I love you, little cat.”

On Jan. 4, 2001, Dusanka Pesic Jeknic, representative of the Montenegrin trade mission in Milan, Italy, was speaking on the phone at her home in the southwest of the city. Milo Djukanovic, at that time president of Montenegro, was calling from the capital Podgorica. Billions of people around the world had just hailed the New Millennium. Dusanka, nicknamed “Duska,” the beautiful 41-year-old widow of the late foreign minister of Montenegro, was alone, far from her country. And she spoke out freely about everything: love, tobacco, and crime.

Eight years after Jeknic's loving conversation with her president, transcripts of her phone calls, wiretapped by the Italian police for 20 months, are attached to hundreds of thousands of court records filed by the prosecutor's office in Bari, in southern Italy. Read more ..


Edge on Crime

Canada’s Boom in Smuggled Cigarettes--Indian Tobacco Factories and Organized Crime Control a Billion-Dollar Black Market

June 8th 2009

Crime Topics - Tobacco Farmer
Canadian Tobacco Farmer Gary Godelie

Gary Godelie has been a tobacco farmer most of his life, struggling to keep alive a family farm that produces what most everyone agrees is a death crop. Whacked by global competition undercutting his prices, not to mention a dwindling number of Canadian smokers, he often thinks of getting out of the business.

Nothing brought this thought home more clearly than a series of events that began one hot July day in 2006 when two men drove up to his southern Ontario farm and offered to buy his entire crop. That surprised Godelie because anybody in the tobacco business would know that Canadian growers are part of a tightly regulated quota system. Buyers have to be federally licensed and can buy only through the marketing board.

“I said, 'Well no. I can't sell you tobacco. I have to sell it to the legal system,'” Godelie recalled. “They kind of looked at me and laughed and like said, 'Why would you want to do that when we're offering you cash money, a deal here, you know.' 'Well, no, I'm not going to do that kind of stuff.'”

The two men drove off and Godelie thought that was the end of it. Read more ..


America's Economic Collapse

Lenders Pushed Appraisers to Inflate Home Values--and then the Bubble Burst

June 1st 2009

Economy - Foreclosure

In 2004, years before plummeting real estate values turned Fort Myers, Florida, into a top five foreclosure capital, appraiser Mike Tipton faced a dilemma. Tipton’s employer, eAppraiseIT, sent him to value a two-bedroom home in a new subdivision built by the developer D.R. Horton. Paperwork given by the appraisal management company to Tipton included a $245,000 estimated value.

But after inspecting the home and comparing it to five similar houses that had recently sold, Tipton set the value at $237,000--$8,000 less than the estimate. He knew the difference might disappoint DHI Mortgage, the prospective buyer’s lender, which is a subsidiary of developer D.R. Horton. And indeed it did. The lender, in a process appraisers say was common in the boom days before the housing bubble burst, asked Tipton to redo the appraisal. It sent paperwork through eAppraiseIT asking him to reconsider the value. It gave him different homes to use for comparisons.

"If you read between the lines, they wanted a larger value," Tipton said. "I told them no, I wasn’t changing my report."

Read more ..

America's Economic Collapse

Predatory Lending: A Decade of Warnings as Congress and the Fed Fiddled

May 25th 2009

Politics - Capitol Building at night

A little more than a decade ago, William Brennan foresaw the financial collapse of 2008.  As director of the Home Defense Program at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, he watched as subprime lenders earned enormous profits making mortgages to people who clearly couldn’t afford them.

The loans were bad for borrowers — Brennan knew that. He also knew the loans were bad for the Wall Street investors buying up these shaky mortgages by the thousands. And he spoke up about his fears. “I think this house of cards may tumble some day, and it will mean great losses for the investors who own stock in those companies,” he told members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging in 1998.

It turns out that Brennan didn’t know how right he was. Not only did those loans bankrupt investors, they nearly took down the entire global banking system.

Washington was warned as long as a decade ago by bank regulators, consumer advocates, and a handful of lawmakers that these high-cost loans represented a systemic risk to the economy, yet Congress, the White House, and the Federal Reserve all dithered while the subprime disaster spread. Long forgotten Read more ..


Energy Politics

Inside The “Clean Coal” Lobby

May 25th 2009

Energy / Environment - Coal

They’ve brought coal above ground.

They’ve put the black rock on billboards in the swing states, and they’ve splashed it on full-page ads in CQ Weekly, Roll Call, Politico, and The Washington Post. They sponsored presidential debates on CNN, and their "clean coal" boosters were a fixture on the campaign trail. They’ve rolled out a series of TV spots from the firm that promised that what happens in Vegas will stay in Vegas.

They’re the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a collection of 48 mining, rail, manufacturing, and power-generating companies with an annual budget of more than $45 million—almost three times larger than the coal industry’s old lobbying and public relations groups combined. ACCCE (pronounced "Ace") is just celebrating its first birthday, but it has already become a juggernaut shaping the terms of the climate change debate on Capitol Hill—even while weathering a high-profile assault by critics who accuse it of peddling hot air.

ACCCE’s considerable impact will be on display this week at House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings on a new draft climate bill penned by panel chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, and Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. Just a year ago, Waxman and Markey backed a moratorium on new coal-fired electricity plants. But their latest draft would allow new coal plants through 2015, if they are retrofitted to cut carbon dioxide output some 40 to 60 percent within another decade. The technology to do that does not yet exist, but not to worry: the new measure would set up a $1 billion-a-year clean coal research fund to help.

While not, of course, endorsing an approach that could fundamentally reduce U.S. coal demand, ACCCE has nevertheless declared itself "encouraged that the... draft focuses on the key role that coal plays in meeting growing U.S. electricity needs." Greenpeace, meanwhile, has objected to "the untold billions of dollars in handouts [to the coal industry] for the false promise of carbon capture and sequestration."

Read more ..

America's Economic Collapse

Billion Dollar Bailout Banks Financed the Subprime Industry and America’s Economic Meltdown

May 18th 2009

Economy - Bundles of Cash

The top subprime lenders whose practices are largely blamed for triggering the global economic meltdown were owned or bankrolled by banks now collecting billions of dollars in bailout money—including several that have paid huge fines to settle predatory lending charges.

These big institutions were not only unwitting victims of an unforeseen financial collapse, as they have sometimes portrayed themselves, but enablers that bankrolled the type of lending that has threatened the financial system.

These are among the findings of an analysis of government data on nearly 7.2 million "high-interest" or subprime loans made from 2005 through 2007, a period that marks the peak and collapse of the subprime boom. The computer-assisted analysis also reveals the top 25 originators of high-interest loans, accounting for nearly $1 trillion, or about 72 percent of such loans made during that period.

Investigation found that U.S. and European investment banks invested enormous sums in subprime lending due to unceasing demand for high-yield, high-risk bonds backed by home mortgages. Those banks made huge profits while their executives collected handsome bonuses until the bottom fell out of the real estate market.

Read more ..


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