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Wednesday, March 31 Nine Circles of Hell!
Wednesday, March 31st
Cash-strapped communities end speed limit “cushion”
Speeding 'cushion' may dwindle due to recession
The recession may be claiming a new victim: the 5-10-mph “cushion” police and state troopers across the USA have routinely given motorists exceeding the speed limit. As cities and states scramble to fill budget gaps with revenue from traffic citations, “not only are the (speeding) tolerances much lower, but the frequency of a warning instead of a ticket is way down,” says James Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, a Wisconsin-based drivers' rights group that helps its members fight speeding tickets.
“Most people, if they're stopped now, are getting a ticket even if it's only a minor violation of a few miles per hour,” Baxter says. He cites anecdotal evidence of drivers being pulled over at slower speeds.
Blacks 50% less likely to be helped by government anti-foreclosure program
The Washington Independent
Survey Finds Racial Disparities Under Anti-Foreclosure Program
Black homeowners are roughly 50 percent less likely than whites to receive help under the largest of the administration's anti-foreclosure programs, according to a new survey of qualified families.
The findings have raised questions on Capitol Hill about the fairness of the program, led housing advocates to reiterate calls for a more aggressive foreclosure prevention initiative, and put the White House on the defensive just as it steps up its multi-pronged strategy to stabilize the troubled housing market.
Launched by the Obama administration 13 months ago, the $75 billion Home Affordable Modification Program provides financial incentives to mortgage lenders and servicers who agree to reduce monthly payments for struggling homeowners. Candidates for the program must live in the home in question, and their mortgage payments must exceed 31 percent of the family's income. The program, designed to reach between 3 million and 4 million homeowners by 2012, has led to roughly 116,000 permanent modifications thus far.
Yet just 24 percent of black respondents eligible for mortgage modifications under the HAMP have received one, according to a survey conducted over the last two months by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, an advocacy group. By contrast, roughly 36 percent of HAMP-eligible whites benefited from a modification under the program. That disparity, NCRC President John Taylor said last week, should compel the White House to take a closer look at the participating banks to ensure that they're complying with the nation's fairness-in-lending laws.
“Not only is the program really just not making the dent in the [foreclosure] problem,” Taylor told lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee on Thursday, “it's not really being administered in a way that's fair across the board.”
Big Energy fixes laws to stop solar power expansion
Big Energy Firms Blocking Solar Power in South
As citizens, businesses and non-profit organisations seek to transition to cleaner power sources like solar and wind, some big energy firms whose business models rely on polluting sources are standing in the way.
In Georgia, the energy company Georgia Power has lobbied for favourable public policies at the Public Service Commission (PSC) and State legislature that are making it difficult for the state's residents to transition to solar power.
IPS learned that the Dekalb County school system wanted to put solar panels on their schools, but could not do it because of state policies like the Territorial Electric Service Act of 1973 which gives Georgia Power a monopoly over the purchase of energy.
“In Georgia, we have about a dozen state policies preventing creation of solar energy,” James Marlow, vice chair of the Georgia Solar Energy Association, told IPS. “One of those is the Territorial Act.”
“If you're looking at a school, one of the common ways [of setting up solar panels] is using a power purchase agreement or PPA,” Marlow said.
Typically, one of the biggest obstacles for businesses and organisations to switch to solar energy is the initial cost of obtaining and installing the panels. A PPA allows a school system, for example, to obtain the panels for no cost from a solar installation company which finances the panels.
Then, the school can purchase the energy from the solar installation company, which would own the panels, for a 20-year period. Marlow said that a PPA client typically pays for the panels after the first five years and then saves money on energy for the next 15, all the while avoiding the use of dirty energy.
However, because of Georgia's Territorial Act, individuals, organisations, and businesses with solar panels can only sell their energy to Georgia Power. This means they cannot enter a PPA with a solar installation company and may have difficulty affording the panels in the first place.
Other states like Colorado have taken a different approach to encourage the use of solar panels. They charge all energy customers 50 cents a month, a very low amount, to support the purchase of solar energy from producers.
Resource extraction company bankrolls climate change deniers
US oil company donated millions to climate sceptic groups, says Greenpeace
A Greenpeace investigation has identified a little-known, privately owned US oil company as the paymaster of global warming sceptics in the US and Europe.
The environmental campaign group accuses Kansas-based Koch Industries, which owns refineries and operates oil pipelines, of funding 35 conservative and libertarian groups, as well as more than 20 congressmen and senators. Between them, Greenpeace says, these groups and individuals have spread misinformation about climate science and led a sustained assault on climate scientists and green alternatives to fossil fuels.
Greenpeace says that Koch Industries donated nearly $48m (£31.8m) to climate opposition groups between 1997-2008. >From 2005-2008, it donated $25m to groups opposed to climate change, nearly three times as much as higher-profile funders that time such as oil company ExxonMobil. Koch also spent $5.7m on political campaigns and $37m on direct lobbying to support fossil fuels.
In a hard-hitting report, which appears to confirm environmentalists' suspicions that there is a well-funded opposition to the science of climate change, Greenpeace accuses the funded groups of “spreading inaccurate and misleading information” about climate science and clean energy companies.
“The company's network of lobbyists, former executives and organisations has created a forceful stream of misinformation that Koch-funded entities produce and disseminate. The propaganda is then replicated, repackaged and echoed many times throughout the Koch-funded web of political front groups and thinktanks,” said Greenpeace.
“Koch industries is playing a quiet but dominant role in the global warming debate. This private, out-of-sight corporation has become a financial kingpin of climate science denial and clean energy opposition. On repeated occasions organisations funded by Koch foundations have led the assault on climate science and scientists, 'green jobs', renewable energy and climate policy progress,” it says.
The groups include many of the best-known conservative thinktanks in the US, like Americans for Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato institute, the Manhattan Institute and the Foundation for research on economics and the environment. All have been involved in “spinning” the “climategate” story or are at the forefront of the anti-global warming debate, says Greenpeace.
Koch Industries is a $100bn-a-year conglomerate dominated by petroleum and chemical interests, with operations in nearly 60 countries and 70,000 employees. It owns refineries which process more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day in the US, as well as a refinery in Holland. It has held leases on the heavily polluting tar-sand fields of Alberta, Canada and has interests in coal, oil exploration, chemicals, forestry, and pipelines.
Obama authorizes offshore oil drilling in places it's never happened before
The New York Times
Obama to Open Offshore Areas to Oil Drilling for First Time
The Obama administration is proposing to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time, officials said Tuesday.
The proposal – a compromise that will please oil companies and domestic drilling advocates but anger some residents of affected states and many environmental organizations – would end a longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, covering 167 million acres of ocean.
Under the plan, the coastline from New Jersey northward would remain closed to all oil and gas activity. So would the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border.
The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska would be protected and no drilling would be allowed under the plan, officials said. But large tracts in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska – nearly 130 million acres – would be eligible for exploration and drilling after extensive studies.
The proposal is to be announced by President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Wednesday, but administration officials agreed to preview the details on the condition that they not be identified.
The proposal is intended to reduce dependence on oil imports, generate revenue from the sale of offshore leases and help win political support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation.
But while Mr. Obama has staked out middle ground on other environmental matters – supporting nuclear power, for example – the sheer breadth of the offshore drilling decision will take some of his supporters aback. And it is no sure thing that it w
ill win support for a climate bill from undecided senators close to the oil industry, like Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, or Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana.
Despite agency denials, immigration official says deportation quotas exist
The Washington Post
ICE officials set quotas to deport more illegal immigrants
Seeking to reverse a steep drop in deportations, U.S. immigration authorities have set controversial new quotas for agents. At the same time, officials have stepped back from an Obama administration commitment to focus enforcement efforts primarily on illegal immigrants who are dangerous or have violent criminal backgrounds.
The moves, outlined in internal documents and a recent e-mail by a senior US Immigration and Customs Enforcement official to field directors nationwide, differ from pledges by ICE chief John T. Morton and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, to focus enforcement on the most dangerous illegal immigrants. That approach represented a break from the mass factory raids and neighborhood sweeps the Bush administration used to drive up arrests.
In a Feb. 22 memo, James M. Chaparro, head of ICE detention and removal operations, wrote that, despite record deportations of criminals, the overall number of removals was down. While ICE was on pace to achieve “the Agency goal of 150,000 criminal alien removals” for the year ending Sept. 30, total deportations were set to barely top 310,000, “well under the Agency's goal of 400,000,” and nearly 20 percent behind last year's total of 387,000, he wrote.
Beyond stating ICE enforcement goals in unusually explicit terms, Chaparro laid out how the agency would pump up the numbers: by increasing detention space to hold more illegal immigrants while they await deportation proceedings; by sweeping prisons and jails to find more candidates for deportation and offering early release to those willing to go quickly; and, most controversially, with a “surge” in efforts to catch illegal immigrants whose only violation was lying on immigration or visa applications or reentering the United States after being deported.
“These efforts must be sustained and will be closely monitored,” Chaparro told field directors in the e-mail, which was obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Washington Post.
ICE spokesman Brian P. Hale distanced the agency from Chaparro's remarks, saying, “Portions of the memo were inconsistent with ICE, inconsistent with the administration's point of view and inconsistent with the secretary.” He added that the agency has moved to “clarify” the situation …
Advocates on the right and left pounced on the memo and other ICE documents, saying they showed that the agency is being neither tough nor consistent in targeting the worst offenders …
The steps appear at odds with a statement made by Morton in August, when he told reporters ICE had ended quotas in a program to capture illegal immigrants violating court deportation orders.
“I just don't think that a law enforcement program should be based on a hard number that must be met,” Morton said. “So we don't have quotas anymore.”
- After reading that frightening story, make certain to check out The New York Times' article, “How One Marijuana Cigarette May Lead to Deportation.”
Afghan police torture innocent boys into confessions
Two-Thirds of Boys in Afghan Jails Are Brutalised, Study Finds
Nearly two of every three male juveniles arrested in Afghanistan are physically abused, according to a study based on interviews with 40 percent of all those now incarcerated in the country's juvenile justice system.
The study, carried out by US defence attorney Kimberly Motley for the international children's rights organisation Terre des Hommes, reveals a justice system that subjects juveniles, many of whom are already innocent victims, to torture, forced confessions and blatant violation of their rights in court.
Motley, who may be the only practicing Western defence attorney in Afghanistan, told IPS that the study shows the need for alternatives to introducing juveniles into what she calls the “injustice system”.
The author personally interviewed 250 of the 600 juveniles in jails and rehabilitation centres across the country, including half the 80 girls and 40 percent of the 520 boys, as well as 98 professionals working in the system.
Although only two of the girls interviewed reported being beaten by police, 130 out of the 208 boys under the age of 18 interviewed said they had been beaten. The interviews were carried out by Motley in 28 provinces from September through December 2009.
Those statistics parallel the findings of a study published by the U.N. Children's Fund and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in 2008, which found that 55 percent of boys and 11 percent of girls reported having been beaten upon their arrest.
Virtually all the male juveniles said the police beatings were aimed at forcing them to sign a confession. They said they had signed either while being beaten or threatened with being beaten, and that the confessions were then used to convict them.
The testimony of the juveniles themselves on brutalisation by police was consistent with Motley's interviews with juvenile court judges. Forty-four percent of the judges interviewed indicated that juveniles complained routinely about torture and physical abuse by police officers. Another 33 percent refused to answer when asked whether they had heard such complaints.
Many of the boys interviewed by Motley reported that they been beaten by several police simultaneously. In one case, a 17-year-old said he was “kicked liked an animal” by six or seven policemen after his arrest.
One juvenile charged with putting up signs around the city threatening terrorist acts told Motley that he signed a confession only after having been subjected to electric shock and hung from the ceiling by the National Security Police. The torture continued for more than two months, according to the boy.
The prosecutor in the case admitted to Motley that she had not only been aware of the accusations of torture but had seen marks on the boy's body indicating that the confessions had indeed been obtained under torture.
In Sudan, “The legal environment for free and fair elections does not exist”
Agence France Presse
Sudan elections 'rigged,' winner to be illegitimate: ICG
Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir has long been working to ensure next month's elections are rigged, making the eventual winner illegitimate, the International Crisis Group said on Tuesday.
“The legal environment for free and fair elections does not exist,” Fouad Hikmat, the ICG's special adviser for Sudan, said in a statement from the Brussels-based think-tank.
“The international community should acknowledge that whoever wins will lack legitimacy.”
The ICG report accused Beshir's National Congress Party of “long-term plans to rig the elections” including by using manipulated results of a 2008 census to draw up electoral districts in its favour.
In addition, it said, the NCP had “co-opted traditional leaders and bought tribal loyalties” everywhere in the African nation, but most notably in its war-torn western region of Darfur.
“Winning big in Darfur is central to the NCP's plan to capture enough votes in the north to ensure its continued national dominance,” said the ICG statement.
The report comes ahead of talks Wednesday on a possible poll boycott by opposition parties and the former southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the minority members of the NCP-led unity government.
“If the SPLM refuses the elections, we will reject the (2011) referendum” on southern independence, Beshir said on Monday.
Euro football plagued by an epidemic of match-fixing
Match-fixing dogs European football
Is European football experiencing an epidemic of match-fixing that is beyond the power of the authorities to control?
You could easily draw this conclusion from the number of recent arrests – 46 last week in Turkey, 15 in Germany in November – and from the evidence gathered by investigators in Germany's north-western city of Bochum.
They spent much of 2009 listening in on the telephone conversations of a group they believe fixed the outcome of more than 200 football matches across Europe and made millions of euros by betting on them.
The group preyed on the small, the weak, the vulnerable.
And according to police documents, as well as the carrot and stick of bribe and threat, they considered other possibilities, including that of drugging footballers, either with the help of a team doctor or the hotel kitchen staff preparing their food.
Most Germans had probably never heard of Verl (population 25,000), let alone its semi-professional football team – or not until it emerged that the team captain, Patrick Neumann, had accepted a 500-euro bribe to throw a game.
His lawyer said threats, from one of those arrested in November, had left his client with no choice.
Germans are more likely to have heard of Osnabrueck (population 160,000), though probably not for its football club, currently in the German third division.
Many, however, will now be familiar with the name of one of its players in the 2009 season, Marcel Schuon, because of his role in the match-fixing scandal.
A central defender in his mid-twenties, Schuon had shown promise as a teenager, but was probably never going to make it to the top.
He also had a gambling habit that by his own admission had run out of control, and by the spring of 2009 he had accumulated “a mountain of debt”.
At that point, as Schuon tells it, the owner of the betting shop to whom he owed money suggested a way out of his predicament.
“He wanted a penalty, a red card, or an own goal,” he said in a statement to police.
Schuon says he agreed, because he was scared of the man and wanted to “calm him down”. But he says he did not act on his promise.
“I realised during the game, that I couldn't influence the game on my own,” he says.
The whole Osnabrueck team put in a lacklustre performance and lost to Augsburg 3-0.