Thursday, April 25, 2013

Justice says Lance Armstrong was 'unjustly enriched'

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

The federal government filed a 28-page complaint against Lance Armstrong on Tuesday that details several years of lying, cheating and manipulating by the former cyclist for the sake of winning and financial reward.

According to the complaint, Armstrong earned a $17.9 million salary as a cyclist from 1998 to 2004 – much of it paid by the U.S. Postal Service's $40 million agreement to sponsor Armstrong's cycling team.

By filing the complaint Tuesday, the Justice Department followed through with its announced plan in February to sue Armstrong, his cycling team's management company and Johan Bruyneel, his manager who earned a $1.7 million salary. The suit accuses them of civil fraud and seeks damages that could amount to $120 million.

"The Defendants… made false statements, both publicly and directly to the USPS, that were intended to hide the team's misconduct so that those invoices would be paid," said the complaint obtained by USA TODAY Sports. The suit says Armstrong was "unjustly enriched" in cheating to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles, which were stripped last year.

Under the False Claims Act, the government could receive triple the damages it proves at trial, possibly the $40 million sponsorship amount times three. But the suit is not going to hinge on proving Armstrong used banned drugs and blood transfusions to boost himself on the bike, as the cyclist confessed to that in January. Instead, the case will focus on legal questions such as whether his doping violated USPS contract agreements and whether the USPS suffered damages because of Armstrong's doping.

Armstrong's attorneys also claim the six-year statute of limitations should void most of the suit, which originated in a similar suit against Armstrong filed in 2010 by a former cycling teammate, Floyd Landis.

"The DOJ's complaint against Lance Armstrong is opportunistic, and insincere," Armstrong attorney Elliot Peters said in a statement provided to USA TODAY Sports. "The U.S. Postal Service benefited tremendously from its sponsorship of the cycling team. Its own studies repeatedly and conclusively prove this. The USPS was never the victim of fraud. Lance Armstrong rode his heart out for the USPS team, and gave the brand tremendous exposure during the sponsorship years."

The government disagrees, saying Armstrong misled the USPS and violated his sponsorship agreement by doping.

"Because the Defendants' misconduct undermined the value of the sponsorship to the USPS, the United States suffered damage in that it did not receive the value of the services for which it bargained," the suit states.

As the whistleblower who brought the case in 2010, Landis stands to get part of the award if the suit succeeds. Landis, who won the Tour de France in 2006, also has admitted to doping. Last year, he faced his own federal court case in which he admitted to defrauding 1,765 people who donated to a defense fund set up to help him falsely deny doping charges. He entered into a deferred prosecution agreement and agreed to pay back $478,354.

His attorney, Paul Scott, said in a statement Tuesday night that "Mr. Landis is pleased to see the United States take this important step toward recovering taxpayer dollars lost to fraud." He disputed the claim from Armstrong's attorney that the USPS was not damaged.

"It plainly does more damage than good to the policies, programs and international standing of the United States for it to be associated with a cycling team that dopes to win," Scott said in the statement to USA TODAY Sports. "The fact that the team's fraud was concealed for many years does not take away from the fact that the United States was harmed. Even if the USPS received some ephemeral media exposure in connection with Mr. Armstrong's false victories, any illusory benefit from those times will be swamped over time immemorial by the USPS forever being tied to the largest doping scandal in the history of sports."

Finally: Jury Selected For Michael Jackson Death Trial

Story originally appeared on

The inquiry into the death of the Prince of Pop Michael Jackson took a step forward today (April 23) as a jury consisting of six men and six women has been selected to preside over the wrongful death case brought against promotion company AEG by the late singer's family. The Jackson family are blaming AEG Live for Jackson's death as they hired Dr Conrad Murray, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after supplying Jackson with a surgical anaesthetic in 2011.

The trial is expected to go on for some time, estimated at around three months, a factor that made the selection process for the jury a difficult one. Biases in Jackson's favour and ties to AEG also made certain would-be jurors easy to eliminate from the drawn out procedure of finding a jury for the case. After filing through over 100 applicants for the case though a full, hopefully unbiased and civil list of jurors has been found. Legal teams representing both sides of the trial have now begun questioning potential candidates to sit as one of the six alternative jurors, who will be drafted into the courtroom should one of the regular jurors become unable to serve.

The legal action brought forward by the Jackson family accuses the promoters of Jackson's This Is It comeback shows in London of failing to check the credentials of his physician Dr. Murray. Jackson was scheduled to perform 50 comeback shows in the British capital before his untimely death in 2010. The Jackson family are suing the company for a massive $40 billion (£26bn), with the being held in Los Angeles as soon as all formalities have been ironed out. Although no set date has been given by the judge, the hearing could begin as early as this week.

Suit filed to stop air traffic controller furloughs

Story originally appeared on the LA Times.

Pilots and a top airline group have filed a lawsuit to stop the federal government from cutting work hours for air traffic controllers this weekend, saying the furloughs will lead to travel delays of up to an hour across the country.

Airlines for America, a trade group for the nation's airlines, on Friday joined a pilots association and operators of regional carriers in a suit that asks the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to prevent job furloughs called for under the so-called budget sequestration.

The court is not expected to respond to the suit until next week. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration has called on the nation's air traffic controllers to take one to two furlough days for every two-week pay period starting Sunday to help the FAA cut more than $600 million from its annual budget.

The airlines and pilots groups say the furloughs are unnecessary and will only frustrate travelers and hurt the nation's rebounding economy. The cuts in work hours among controllers, they argue, will reduce the capacity of the nation's air traffic system, delaying as many as 6,700 flights per day.

"The FAA plan is irresponsible and unnecessary," Nicholas E. Calio, president and chief executive of Airlines for America, said at a news conference. The Air Line Pilots Assn. and the Regional Airline Assn. are also plaintiffs in the suit.

Calio said the FAA should try to find savings by cutting other areas of its budget, such as maintenance and long-term planning.

FAA officials said they don't comment on pending litigation but noted that transportation officials have addressed such suggestions in the past. During a White House press conference in February, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said there was no way to avoid the furloughs.

"Our lawyers are looking at every contract to see what penalties we would have to pay as we begin to cut or adjust contracts," he said. "We're looking at everything possible; and everything possible that's legal, we will do."

Calio said he doesn't expect the Court of Appeals to respond to the lawsuit until next week at the earliest. Until then, he said, delays will ripple across the air traffic system, damaging the nation's resurging economy.

"If delays take effect, it will not be very long before the entire system comes to a grinding halt," said Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Assn., which represents more than 50,000 pilots at 34 U.S. and Canadian airlines.

At Los Angeles International Airport, the nation's third-busiest airport, delays will average about 10 minutes but could extend up to 67 minutes, according to the FAA.

Earlier this month the FAA delayed the closure of the control towers at 149 municipal and regional airports until June. But FAA officials said they could not postpone the furlough of air traffic controllers.

Airline officials and pilots said the furloughs won't threaten the safety of air travel.

"If we can't safely operate a flight, it won't go," Moak said.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., which represents about 14,700 controllers, issued a statement Friday saying Washington's budget feud has turned the nation's aviation system into a "political football."

"We believe the FAA should consider postponing these furloughs just as they did the tower closures in order to work toward a solution that keeps controllers on the job and the American aviation system operating at full capacity," said Paul Rinaldi, the group's president.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

MIT shooting triggers massive police operation

Story originally appeared on Freep.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — A Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus police officer was shot and killed Thursday night at the school's campus, authorities said, triggering a massive display of police force in the Boston area.

Police exchanged gunfire a short time later with one or more persons in Watertown, a city next to Cambridge, a short time after the MIT shooting. At least one and perhaps more explosions were heard in Watertown.

The events unfolded overnight as the entire Boston metro area was on high alert following Monday's fatal bomb explosions during the Boston Marathon and as the FBI was leading a massive manhunt for suspects.

It was not known if the Watertown events were related to the MIT shooting or the fatal explosions earlier in the week. But police response was massive with armored SWAT-type vehicle present as well as FBI and National Guard personnel.

Video from WCVB-TV showed police officers with guns drawn and apparently giving orders to a man face down on the street in Watertown.

An explosion could be heard, and police ordered journalists and spectators to move far back. Multiple police agencies were represented at the scene. Officers said they were looking for another suspect.

"I heard sirens, then a ton of gunshots.,'' said Adam Healy, 31, a behavioral specialist for autism who lives less than a mile from the scene. "And then I heard an explosion amid the gunshots. After the explosion, the sky lit up. "

Dan MacDonald, 40, sitting in a second story Watertown apartment, said he first heard sirens, then gunshots.

"It was about 10 to 15 shots. then there was an onslaught," he said. "There were 25 to 60 shots within 45 seconds. Then the shots stopped and boom. It was like dynamite."

After a loud boom, police pushed spectators and media back more than 200 yards from the scene. More Boston Police in armored vests arrived, along with a special operations truck, SWAT vehicle and police dogs.

Police told residents to stay in their homes.

Stephanie Guyotte, spokeswoman for the Middlesex District Attorney's office, said the situation in Watertown was still unfolding and she had no information on the suspects.

Police in Cambridge, where the school is located, issued a pair of Tweets saying that a campus officer reported shot around 10:30 p.m. had died.

"Police, DA Investigating Fatal Shooting of Campus Police Officer In Cambridge,'' the department Tweeted.

Massachusetts State Police said it was assisting Cambridge and campus police in their investigation.

State police said no one had been arrested.

MIT campus police referred a caller to the campus news bureau, where no one answered calls. MIT posted on its website shortly before 2 a.m. that police advised that the suspect in the officer's death was no longer on campus.

State police spokesman Dave Procopio said the shooting took place about 10:30 p.m. local time outside an MIT building. The injured officer was described as a male but no further information about him was released.

Procopio says authorities are searching for a suspect or suspects.

About 11,000 people attend the school. The MIT campus is in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston and less than two miles from Copley Square, where two bombs exploded Monday near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, triggering a massive manhunt for what the FBI said were two suspects.

The school posted a statement on its website saying only that there had been gunshots heard near the Stata building on campus. It said the area was cordoned off by police and urged students to stay away from the area.

The Cambridge police posted a statement on Twitter that they do not have a suspect in custody.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

McDonald's settles suit over non-halal chicken

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

DETROIT — A judge on Wednesday finalized a $700,000 settlement between McDonald's Corp. and members of Michigan's Muslim community over claims a suburban Detroit restaurant falsely advertised its food as prepared according to Islamic law.

Ahmed Ahmed, the Dearborn Heights man who represents plaintiffs in the class-action suit, claims he bought a chicken sandwich in September 2011 at the restaurant but found it wasn't halal. Islam forbids consumption of pork, and God's name must be invoked before an animal providing meat for consumption is slaughtered.

The McDonald's restaurant chain and one of its franchise owners agreed in January to the tentative settlement that would be shared by Ahmed, as well as a Muslim-run Detroit health clinic, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn and lawyers.

The two sides met Wednesday for final approval before Wayne County Circuit Judge Kathleen Macdonald, who has overseen the case and refereed objections by outside groups since a preliminary deal was announced in January. The settlement was originally set to be finalized March 1, but Macdonald extended the public comment period after pressure from Dearborn lawyer Majed Moughni, who criticized the class-action settlement on Facebook and was temporarily barred from communicating publicly about the case.

Ahmed's portion of the settlement is considered an "incentive award" and represents his work on the case, his attorneys say.

"As a firm, we've borne the burden of litigating this case for over 19 months, and have paid a steep price in time and money to do so," Kassem Dakhlallah, an attorney whose firm represents Ahmed and the class, told The Associated Press in an email. "We are happy that we are able to finalize this case and get the settlement funds paid to the Huda Clinic to be used for medical care for the community, and to the Arab American National Museum to be used to allow our young ones to continue their educations after high school."

Macdonald said she was "proud to preside over" the long case and resolution reached by both sides.

The lawsuit technically covered anyone who bought the halal-advertised products between September 2005 and January from the restaurant and another McDonald's in the city with a different owner. The other location wasn't a defendant or a focus of the investigation.

Dakhlallah has said he was approached by Ahmed, and they conducted an investigation. A letter sent to McDonald's and the restaurant franchisee, Finley's Management, by Dakhlallah's firm said Ahmed had "confirmed from a source familiar with the inventory" that the restaurant had sold non-halal food "on many occasions."

In the settlement notice, Finley's Management said it "has a carefully designed system for preparing and serving halal such that halal chicken products are labeled, stored, refrigerated, and cooked in halal-only areas." The company added it trains its employees on preparing halal food and "requires strict adherence to the process."

McDonald's attorney Thomas McNeill said the investigations and negotiations proved that if a problem arose, "it was isolated and rare."

Dakhlallah said giving money to the charities is the best outcome, since most people wouldn't have kept their receipts, making "identifying class members who have valid claims nearly impossible."

Moughni argues that Dakhlallah and his colleagues could have made greater attempts to find those who were harmed and, failing that, identified more relevant organizations, such as Dearborn's public schools. He said the clinic is several miles away from the restaurant and the museum has nothing to do with halal food.

Macdonald disagreed, calling the charities "appropriate recipients," but Moughni said he's considering an appeal.

"We think it's wrong," he said. "It's unfair for the class members."

There are only two McDonald's in the United States that sell halal products and both are in Dearborn, which has one of the nation's largest Arab and Muslim communities. Overall, the Detroit area is home to about 150,000 Muslims of many ethnicities.

Broadcasters appeal Aereo video-streaming ruling

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Major broadcasters, including PBS, Fox and Univision, are asking a federal appeals court to reconsider a decision that allows TV-streaming start-up Aereo to proceed with its business.

The continued existence of Aereo, which streams over-the-air TV broadcasting to paying subscribers in and near New York City, "threatens to cause massive disruption to the television industry, and will adversely impact the public's access to the quality and diversity of programming," the broadcasters claim in the Monday filing.

STORY: Pay-TV operators start streaming live TV outside home

Earlier this month, a panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York affirmed a court decision that Aereo doesn't violate broadcasters' copyrights by streaming their programming via the Internet. With their latest appeal, the broadcasters are asking for consideration of the ruling by the full appeals court.

"Unless reversed, that decision will wreak commercial havoc by allowing new and existing distributors to design around this license requirement and profit from the delivery of copyrighted programming while paying nothing for it," the filing read.

Consumers who want better access to network TV programming without buying cable have cheered on start-ups such as Aereo. But broadcasters say that costs them advertising revenue and also the retransmission fees that cable companies pay to carry their channels.

Backed by longtime media mogul Barry Diller, Aereo retransmits broadcast TV content using a farm of mini-antennas in Brooklyn. Each antenna receives the TV signal, and allows a subscriber to view or record the content through Aereo's streaming technology. Subscribers need an Internet connection and then pay Aereo fees ranging from $1 a day to $80 a year.

Aereo says it does not infringe on broadcasters' copyrights because its mini-antennas are individually leased by the subscribers. That, says Aereo, makes the subsequently streamed content a "a private performance" for each paying subscriber and is not subject to licensing agreements.

Broadcasters say that all services that retransmit broadcast programming to the public are engaged in "public performances" that require licenses from copyright owners.

In a dissenting opinion to the appeals court ruling issued on April 1, Judge Denny Chin of the Second Circuit sided with broadcasters. Calling Aereo's technology "a sham," Chin argued that the company has no reason to use a multitude of tiny antennas rather than one central antenna other than to make its copyright argument. "The system is a Rube Goldberg-like contrivance, over-engineered in an attempt to avoid the reach of the Copyright Act and to take advantage of a perceived loophole in the law," he wrote.

Aereo has announced plans to expand its service this year to 22 markets, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

'Gang of Eight' immigration bill draws mixed reviews

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

WASHINGTON — When Roy Beck finally saw the details of an immigration deal brokered by a bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday, the outspoken opponent of granting legal status to the nation's unauthorized immigrants had a hard time finding the right words to express himself.

"I just never expected the bill to be this bad," said Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a group that helped sink the last attempt to change the nation's immigration laws in 2007 and is trying to do the same this time.

With so many components in the far-reaching bill, reactions varied Tuesday after the Senate's "Gang of Eight" released details of their proposal. Senate aides say they plan on formally filing the bill Tuesday, and are planning a news conference to unveil the legislation Wednesday.

President Obama weighed in Tuesday after receiving a briefing from two members of the Gang of Eight: Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The president said the bill was filled with "commonsense steps that the majority of Americans support" and pledged his support to getting it passed through Congress.

"This bill is clearly a compromise, and no one will get everything they wanted, including me," the president's statement read. "But it is largely consistent with the principles that I have repeatedly laid out for comprehensive immigration reform."

Aside from opening the door to legal status for the nation's estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants, Beck says the bill adds even more competition for unemployed Americans by bringing in a huge influx of foreign workers through visas for high-tech and low-skilled workers.

"Every politician that has run for office over the last 10 years has said, 'Jobs. Jobs are No. 1.' And yet, everything in this bill is about bringing in more people to compete for American jobs," Beck said. "This whole bill is written as if the nation is in the throes of a terrible labor shortage."

Yet many business and labor groups have endorsed the plan. When the Gang of Eight holds its news conference announcing the bill, they will be joined by business leaders, like the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as labor leaders from the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union.

Immigrant and religious groups that have been focused on getting people who are in the country illegally on a path to citizenship are worried about the obstacles created by the plan.

Unauthorized immigrants could get temporary legal status within six months of the bill passing, but most would have to wait 10 years and pay more than $2,000 in fines and penalties before they could apply for a green card. They also had to have arrived in the U.S. before Dec. 31, 2011.

Bishop Ricardo McClin, pastor of the Church of God Restoration in Kissimmee, Fla., said he was pleased by the progress of the Gang of Eight and its attempts to legalize many of the nation's unauthorized immigrants.

"Unfortunately, the proposed legislation falls short by placing unnecessary obstacles and delays in the path to citizenship and could unfairly exclude some of the 11 million aspiring Americans who are our neighbors, friends, family and fellow-worshipers," said McClin, a member of the PICO National Network, a group that works with 1,000 religious congregations around the country.

Others in the religious community struck a more upbeat tone. Members of the evangelical community have proven critical to convince conservative voters and politicians to support the Senate immigration plan.

Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals said there's enough in the bill to stop the deportation practices that have broken up families and speed up visa wait times to maintain that support.

"We're encouraged by what they're trying," said Carey, vice president of government relations for the association. "The current system has failed abysmally in keeping families together. People are waiting 10, 20 years to be united with their relatives. So if those problems are being resolved, that would be a major step forward."

Republicans on the Gang of Eight, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have also tried to calm critics worried about border security. When Washington last passed a sweeping change to immigration laws in 1986, it allowed up to 3 million people here illegally to get legal status, but it failed in its other promise of securing the border.

The Senate bill allocates up to $7 billion to the nation's southwest border with Mexico, including 3,500 more Border Patrol agents, the ability to use National Guardsmen to help monitor the region and more surveillance technology. The bill states that Homeland Security must monitor 100% of the border, and intercept 90% of people trying to cross over it. It would require all U.S. businesses to use the federal E-Verify program to check the immigration status of new employees, and require the government to develop a system to track all immigrants who enter and exit the country.

But there is no requirement that the borders be deemed secured by any measurement before people can apply for green cards, a requirement that had been discussed during the Senate negotiations but was left out of the bill.

"It does not surprise me that the security goals do not have to be met," said Janice Kephart, former counsel for the September 11 Commission and a national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that opposes the immigration plan. "The fact is, the Gang of Eight knows the administration would reject their proposal if security was actually a metric that has to be achieved."

Monday, April 15, 2013

California's dormant death penalty system faces another legal test

Story originally appeared on Contra Costa Times.

Now more than seven years since the last execution in California, the state this week will try again to revive its dormant death penalty system in an appeals court considering the latest legal tangle over San Quentin's lethal injection procedures.

In a hearing Tuesday, the 1st District Court of Appeal will review a Marin County judge's 2011 order stopping executions because prison officials failed to comply with administrative rules in revising California's three-drug execution method. The Brown administration appealed the ruling, likely assuring the state will not execute anyone this year on its 734-inmate death row.

Even as the appeal proceeds, prison officials continue to craft a new execution procedure that would rely on a single drug to put condemned killers to death, similar to methods other states such as Arizona, Washington and Ohio set up to short-circuit challenges to the three-drug procedures. A prison spokeswoman said last week there is no timetable for adopting a single-drug method.

But California appears a long way from resolving a morass of state and federal legal battles over lethal injection.

Switching to the single-drug approach would likely require a new round of administrative hearings, which could take a year or more. Resolution of the legal battle in the 1st District would only pave the way for a return to the federal courts, which first put executions on hold in 2006. And states across the country, including California, are facing fresh problems over a shortage of drugs used in executions, and questions over whether they've obtained them legally from overseas manufacturers.

"With California, even if they have a (method in place), that's not the last issue," said Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor. "Any state like California moving so glacially is going to be really behind."

The San Francisco-based 1st District will hear arguments in one aspect of California's legal problem. In response to a federal judge's orders, the state in 2010 adopted new execution procedures designed to address concerns inmates might suffer an inhumane death during the lethal injections; those included changes in training, how the drugs are administered and the construction of a new execution chamber.

But in Marin County, Superior Court Judge Faye D'Opal found the state did not comply with the administrative rules and blocked San Quentin from using the new procedures. Among the findings was that prison officials failed to explain why the state did not choose the single-drug method, which involves a fatal dose of a sedative, despite the fact California's own expert recommended that alternative.

In court papers, Attorney General Kamala Harris' office argues the state did more than enough to satisfy the rules, including holding public hearings and considering more than 29,000 public comments. Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said such administrative rules should not take precedence over enforcement of a state law such as the death penalty statute.

"The (judge) in this case completely failed to tailor its remedy to minimize interference with enforcement of the law punishing murder, a law of the highest importance," he said.

But Steven Mayer, the lawyer for death row inmates challenging the procedures, said prison officials "hellbent on doing whatever they wanted to do" botched the effort.

"What's unusual about this case is how bad a job the (California prison department) did," Mayer said.

The appeal is unfolding in the aftermath of November's narrow defeat of Proposition 34, which would have abolished California's death penalty. Death penalty foes are already mobilizing for another try to take the issue back to the voters.

Meanwhile, if the courts clear the way, California would experience an unprecedented rush of executions because more than a dozen death row inmates have lost their final legal appeals and are eligible for firm execution dates, including condemned Alameda County killer Harvey Lee Heishman and San Mateo County's Robert Green Fairbank Jr.

Trump grilled in court over contract dispute

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Donald Trump takes the witness stand to defend himself in a breach-of-contract lawsuit brought by a former business partner.

NEW YORK — Real estate mogul Donald Trump sat on the hot seat Friday, instead of barking "You're fired" at would-be apprentices on TV.

Testifying in Manhattan Supreme Court over a contract dispute, the star of All-Star Celebrity Apprentice was grilled by a plaintiff lawyer over his decision to halt checks to a firm involved in landing a licensing deal that paid him at least $3 million for the use of his well-known name.

Trump tried to answer yes-no questions with repeated interjections that supported his version of events. But the co-author of Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life found himself uncharacteristically silenced by Justice Eileen Brantsen, who's presiding over the jury trial.

"Mr. Trump, please, evidence is a question and an answer," said Bransten in one of two mini-scoldings she gave him from the bench. "Please refrain from anything else."

But he still managed to argue that it was fellow TV star Regis Philbin who first suggested the licensing agreement to him, not the company that's suing him.

"This all happened because of the success of The Apprentice," Trump also insisted.

The case centers on Trump's dealings with ALM International, a New York firm that sought clothing industry licensing deals on his behalf. ALM helped arrange a 2004 meeting with executives of apparel giant PVH, formerly known as Phillips-Van Heusen. With ALM involved in subsequent negotiations, PVH ultimately licensed Trump's name for a line of dress shirts and formal neckware.

In the acrimonious, ALM alleges Trump improperly halted its payments in 2008 after paying the firm approximately $300,000 over 11 consecutive quarters — a period in which court records show the Donald personally signed checks to the firm for its efforts.

"Mr. Trump decided he didn't want to pay anymore, notwithstanding the fact that there was an agreement that my client get 10% of whatever Mr. Trump got for each and every time the contract with PVH was renewed and continued," ALM attorney Jay Itkowitz argued during opening statements on Tuesday.

Trump attorney Jeffrey Goldman argued in his opening response that the apparel deal wasn't signed until after an agreement that authorized ALM to seek marketing opportunities for Trump had expired. The agreement stated ALM had to be involved in "significant negotiations" to collect on any licensing deal, and that stipulation wasn't met, Goldman said.

"So we submit that when you hear all of that, nothwithstanding all the noise about who my client is, that you will find, based upon the writings, that there was no such contract for us to breach," Goldman told the jury. "And you will find, therefore, that plaintiff, notwithstanding the wealth of my client, is not entitled to any damages."

Far from settling the dispute, Trump instead wants to recover all or a part of the payments he contends were made in error.

The case is among several civil lawsuits nationwide that have alleged improper actions by Trump in marketing or other business deals collectively cost clients, buyers or associates millions of dollars in losses. The lawsuit also provides a glimpse at the management style of the well known real estate executive and TV star.

Trump has portrayed himself as a shrewd businessman in his best-selling The Art of the Deal and frequent pronouncements on a Twitter feed that lists more than 2 million followers. But on the witness stand Friday, he sought to characterize the ALM payments as a mistake by testifying that he regularly signs thousands of payment checks while only occasionally checking supporting documents.

Itkowitz had Trump examine a copy of the first payment check he'd signed to ALM, and asked whether he'd looked at the accompanying invoice.

"Depends on your definition of look," responded Trump, who on Friday sported a white dress shirt and deep red tie.

The plaintiff lawyer presented copy after copy of similar payment checks and invoices Trump signed to ALM over nearly a three-year period. He noted that the documents had been vetted, prepared and authorized by Trump staffers.

"If one of your executives authorized a check to someone who wasn't entitled to it, you'd call them into the boardroom, wouldn't you?" said Itkowitz, alluding to the location where Trump lectures and fires apprentices on his TV show.

"I would not be happy," said Trump.

Itkowitz, trying to counter defense claims that ALM failed to produce a licensing deal of the size stipulated in the firm's agreement with Trump, asked the mogul whether he or his staffers ever sent a written complaint to the company demanding better terms.

"Mr Trump, you're not a shy person, are you?" asked Itkowitz, when Trump said he was unaware of such a letter.

"I'm shyer than people think," responded Trump.

Itkowitz similarly asked whether Trump or his staffers ever wrote to an ALM representative disputing the firm's claim to a 10% commission on all royalties paid by PVH.

"Using the word 'wrote' on paper, I am not aware of," said Trump.

Defense lawyers, who indicated after Friday's trial session that Trump's testimony would bolster the defense case, will get a chance to have him offer a more favorable interpretation of the case with his scheduled return to the witness stand on Monday.

"Now he's saying it's all a mistake," said Itkowitz outside the courtroom Friday. "Ultimately, whether that was a mistake will be decided by the jury."

McCotter sues ex-campaign aides

Story originally appeared on the Detroit News.

Detroit — Former U.S. Rep Thaddeus McCotter filed a lawsuit Friday against two of his former campaign staffers alleging the pair purposely submitted phony signatures which kept him off the primary ballot for re-election.

McCotter is suing former campaign aide Don Yowchuang, McCotter's deputy district director, and Dillon Breen, campaign internfor turning in fake nomination petition signatures. McCotter left Congress in July in the wake of the scandal.

In the lawsuit, McCotter said Yowchuang, 33, of Farmington Hills and Breen, 20, of Livonia "willfully and purposefully did not obtain the requisite number of signatures, and both defendants were aware that they did not have the legal amount of signatures" when the Nominating Petitions for the August Primary were filed with the Michigan Secretary of State's office on May 15, 2012.

Efforts to reach Yowchuang and Breen on Friday were unsuccessful.

Last August, Attorney General Bill Schuette said his public integrity unit found alleged fraud in connection with the petitions for the Livonia Republican. He said some of the signatures had been copied and altered.

On Jan. 18, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Margie Braxton dismissed the charge of conspiracy to commit a legal act in an illegal manner, a five-year-felony, against Yowchuang and another McCotter aid, Paul Seewald, 47, of Livonia.

Schuette has appealed the dismissal.

Yowchuang pleaded no contest in November in Wayne County Circuit Court to 10 counts of forgery, a five-year felony, and six counts of falsely signing a nominating petition as circulator, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to three years' probation and 200 hours of community service.

Two other McCotter staffers were charged.

Lorianne O'Brady, 52, of Livonia, a scheduler for McCotter pleaded no contest to five counts of falsely signing a nominating petition as circulator last September. Mary Melissa Turnbull, 58, of Howell faces a hearing Tuesday.

Bernie Porn, head of the Lansing polling firm EPIC/MRA, said it's nearly certain McCotter, who served five terms in Congress, would have been re-elected if not for the scandal. His redrawn 11th District leaned more Republican than before, Porn said.

Plans for customs checkpoint in Middle East questioned

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

A proposed shortcut through customs in the Middle East remains contentious in Congress, as airport security lines get longer at home with spending cuts.

At a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing Thursday on the Department of Homeland Security, two lawmakers voiced opposition to a proposal to set up a customs checkpoint in Abu Dhabi.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano explained that the goal is to push the U.S. border farther out, to protect against terrorism. Similar checkpoints are already established in Ireland, Canada and the Caribbean.

"We believe it is better for the security of our country to push our borders out," Napolitano said. "Why the Middle East? For obvious reasons. For tactical and strategic concerns, it's much better for us to do our work overseas than here."

But the proposal -- which would also help travelers avoid long lines in the U.S. -- has long drawn opposition from U.S. airlines and pilots because it is viewed as an advantage for foreign-owned airlines such as Etihad because no U.S. airlines have direct flights to Abu Dhabi.

A provision tucked into the current federal spending law prevents any third-party reimbursement for such customs facilities, although that policy could change when spending legislation is approved for the year starting Oct. 1.

"The administration needs to get behind U.S. airlines and U.S. workers by immediately dropping this flawed proposal," said Capt. Lee Moak, president of Air Line Pilots Association, a union with 51,000 members, who sent Napolitano a letter last week opposing the proposal.

Nicholas Calio, president of the trade group Airlines for America, also argued against the checkpoint Wednesday as an incentive for the department "to shift its sources to funding to those with the deepest pockets rather than addressing the greatest need."

At the hearing, the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said he would prefer to shorten customs lines that are several hours long in Miami.

"It's going to cause some real economic difficulties for the country because the waiting times are just unacceptable," Rogers said.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, also asked why she would create a facility benefiting foreign airlines while staffing is needed in Houston.

"What's the logic?" he asked.

Napolitano said the government would be reimbursed for the Abu Dhabi station, so it wouldn't cost taxpayers anything. She said President Obama's budget would allow reimbursement for customs checkpoints, with the first in the United Arab Emirates and the second perhaps in Dubai.

"Compared to what Miami needs, it's a drop in the bucket," Napolitano said. "I agree with you we have a personnel shortage."

J.C. Penney can sell Martha Stewart goods

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

NEW YORK (AP) — J.C. Penney can sell some goods designed by Martha Stewart that were destined for shelves this spring —for now, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled Friday.

Rival department store chain Macy's Inc. had sought to bar J.C. Penney Co. from selling some items designed by Martha Stewart under the name JCP Everyday. Macy's has an exclusive deal with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia to sell some categories of items under the Martha Stewart name.

The ruling lets Penney sell the items, which are labeled JCP Everyday and don't carry the Stewart name, until the lawsuit is fully decided. Macy's said in a statement that it plans to appeal the ruling.

In afternoon trading Friday, shares of J.C. Penney were down 7 cents to $14.85 apiece after being down more than $3.60 a share before the news broke.

Judge Jeffrey Oing cautioned that the ruling is preliminary and Penney could still face costly damages if Macy's prevails in the case.

"This decision has not been very easy to make," said Oing, who heard arguments from both sides for nearly three hours before he made his decision.

The two retailers are locked in a court battle over a relationship with Martha Stewart. Macy's is suing Martha Stewart for breaching an exclusive contract that it had with the merchandising and media company in certain goods like bedding and bath items. Penney made a deal to open Martha Stewart mini-shops, which had been planned for this spring. It also sued Penney for having no regard for the contract.

A temporary order made last summer still bars Penney from selling Martha Stewart branded goods in the exclusive product categories. Macy's had argued that selling the JCP Everyday goods, which included items covered by the contract, would confuse customers and create harm to Macy's. Macy's attorneys also argued that the double house logo that resembles the letter "M'' would give shoppers the idea that the merchandise was from Martha Stewart.

Oing said Friday that Macy's didn't prove irreparable harm. Macy's may face some financial pressure but "it's not like a building torn down," he said.

But he warned Penney lawyers to stay away from using Martha Stewart name in advertising when it comes to the products covered by the contract.

"You are to stay away from the Martha Stewart brand and label at all costs," he warned.

The ruling provides temporary relief for Penney, which is in a cash crunch following a failed turnaround plan by its former CEO Ron Johnson, who was ousted Monday. The company suffered a nearly billion loss and saw a 25 percent drop in revenue in the latest year as Johnson's plan to get rid of most discounts and bring in hip new brands failed to resonate with shoppers.

Penney has been hoping that an overhauled home area, being rolled out this month, will help it recover. It was counting on the Martha Stewart mini-shops to anchor the area. But those plans are on hold. The company is going ahead and adding Martha Celebrations areas, which house paper products and stationery. Those items are not covered by Macy's exclusive contract.

Analysts estimate that if Penney couldn't sell the JCP Everyday goods, it could take a hit of as much as $100 million.

Both companies returned to court this week after a three-week court-ordered mediation that didn't lead anywhere.

The trial started in mid-February and included three weeks of testimony from a parade of witnesses, including Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren, Penney's Johnson and Martha Stewart herself.

The two suits were consolidated for the bench trial.

Late Thursday, a published report said J.C. Penney is consulting with bankers at Blackstone Group on how the struggling store chain can raise $1 billion in cash.

An online report from The Wall Street Journal said one option being discussed with Blackstone is selling a minority stake in Penney. The paper reports Penney is looking to possible investors. The financial paper cited people familiar with the matter.

The development follows the Plano,Tex.-based company's move Monday to oust Johnson after 17 months on the job. His plan to overhaul the Penney failed to resonate with customers and resulted in nearly a billion dollars in losses and a 25% drop in revenue last year.

Neither Blackstone nor Penney could be immediately reached for comment.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

BP calls first witness at trial over Gulf spill

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — BP's first witness at a trial over the deadly Deepwater Horizon disaster testified Monday that the company safely drilled its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico before a series of mistakes led to an April 2010 blowout, which triggered the nation's worst offshore oil spill.

Retired LSU petroleum engineering professor Adam "Ted" Bourgoyne Jr., an expert in drilling operations, said crew members and BP supervisors on the rig followed "normal industry practices" before encountering problems as they tried to plug the well.

"I think the well was drilled safely, basically because standard industry practices were followed. There were no major problems that weren't properly handled," he said. "I even noted that they were taking extreme care to follow all the safety procedures with respect to reporting little minor things that happened, like washers falling out of derricks."

Bourgoyne said he disagreed with many conclusions of Alan Huffman, an expert witness for the federal government who testified earlier in the trial. Huffman accused BP of deviating from industry standards and continuing to drill despite clear signs of trouble.

Huffman concluded that BP repeatedly failed to drill with a "safe drilling margin," which he defined as the cushion between the well's mud weight and its fracture gradient. The mud weight must be kept heavy enough to keep fluids from flowing up the well without fracturing the formation that is being drilled.

"One of the things that Dr. Huffman suggested was that the way that the drilling margin was managed presented dangers, extreme danger to the men and women onboard the Deepwater Horizon. Do you agree with that?" BP attorney Mike Brock asked Bourgoyne.

"No, I don't agree with that at all," he responded.

Bourgoyne said he believed the drilling margin allegations had no connection to the blowout.

He also disagreed with Huffman's claims that BP repeatedly misrepresented the well's pressure integrity test results and gave federal regulators a "very false impression" of what was happening during the drilling operation.

"Did your review indicate that BP conducted an appropriate pressure integrity test at each interval where it should be conducted?" Brock asked.

"Yes, they did," Bourgoyne said.

Bourgoyne joined many other experts and government investigations in concluding that crew members failed to properly monitor the well and rig supervisors misinterpreted a key safety test just before the blowout.

"They called it a pass when it was a fail," he said of the test. "It was surprising that they called it a pass. I think the data was clearly there."

Two BP well site leaders, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, are charged with manslaughter in the deaths of 11 rig workers and await a separate trial. Their indictment accuses them of misinterpreting the same test.

Bourgoyne said the BP supervisors and crew members employed by rig owner Transocean Ltd. discussed the test results "as a group" and ultimately "bought into" an alternate explanation for abnormal drill pipe pressure.

"This is very surprising to me, but it happened. And I think it was a group decision," he said. "They had a lot of confidence in one another, and once they made the decision, they were convinced they were right."

Plaintiffs' attorney Jim Roy asked Bourgoyne if a "moron" ought to know whether the test is a success based on the pressure readings.

"No comment?" Roy asked.

"No comment," replied Bourgoyne, who later added, "I think, in general, this crew was competent and had the appropriate training. Why they made this mistake, you can't explain it."

Bourgoyne said the blowout could have been averted if the test had been properly interpreted, but he identified "a lot of contributing causes to this disaster."

"It takes a whole series of failures to line up for something like that to happen," he said.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is hearing testimony without a jury. Barring a settlement, he could decide how much more money BP and its contractors owe for their roles in the catastrophe.

The first phase of the trial, which has entered its seventh week, is designed to identify causes of the blowout and assign fault to the companies involved. Barbier plans to hold a second phase that examines BP's efforts to stop the spill and quantifies how much oil spilled into the Gulf.

Testimony by BP witnesses is expected to last at least two weeks.

Matty Moroun's company sues U.S. leaders, Canada to stop competing span

Story originally appeared on Freep.

WASHINGTON -- The owner of the Ambassador Bridge has filed a lawsuit against a number of federal officials -- the U.S. secretaries of state, transportation and homeland security among them -- and the Canadian government as the company tries to block the building of a rival Detroit River bridge, and force approval for its own second span to Windsor.

The new complaint, now quietly winding its way through federal court in Washington, D.C., was filed in February but was dated Nov. 9, just three days after last year's referendum in which Michigan voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have required a statewide and local vote before the state spent any money on a new international bridge or tunnel to Canada.

In the lawsuit, the Detroit International Bridge Co., the family business controlled by Manuel (Matty) Moroun that owns the 84-year-old Ambassador Bridge, claims a "perpetual and exclusive franchise right" to operate the crossing free of competition from another span. It says the proposed New International Trade Crossing would "destroy" the value of its franchise, and argues that the process by which the State Department would approve a deal between Michigan and Canada to build the rival bridge is unconstitutional.

"No one's ever argued it. It's never really come up," said Hamish Hume, a lawyer at Boies, Schiller & Flexner in Washington, which represents the bridge company. His argument: A 1972 act giving the State Department authority to approve international bridges is unconstitutional because Congress never spelled out, as Hume says it needed to, what principle to use in making its decisions.

A decision on the presidential permit needed to move forward on the NITC bridge could be announced at any time by Secretary of State John Kerry, but the bridge company already is seeking an injunction against such a permit. It will be weeks, however, before all the various agencies named in the complaint -- which was added to a lawsuit involving the Coast Guard filed three years ago -- respond to the court.

Most of those involved declined to talk at length about the lawsuit, though Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., said he is "confident of both the merits and the legality of the (NITC) bridge."

Ken Silfven, spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder, said the complaint "is nothing that we didn't anticipate."

"We expected these delay tactics based on their track record," he said. "After all is said and done, though, the bridge will be built."

The bridge company is looking for a judgment that its franchise rights are "exclusive of all contiguous and injurious competition in the form of any other bridge between Detroit and Windsor" and to stop other agencies, including those coming under Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, from putting up obstacles or otherwise delaying approvals for a second Ambassador Bridge span.

As of last week, State Department personnel said officials were still working on the NITC application, noting some 15,000 comments had been received on it. The lawsuit, they said, had no bearing on the timing of a decision.

Government lawyers declined to talk about the complaint, but made clear in court filings their position that the process for issuing a presidential permit -- a responsibility granted to the executive branch by Congress in 1972 -- meets constitutional muster. In filings, they called the bridge company's arguments "futile."

Hume said if the State Department were to issue a permit to the NITC, the bridge company would look to a judge to block it under the points raised in the complaint.

"It's pretty obvious they (the bridge company) are throwing whatever they can at the wall and hope something sticks," said Andrew Finn, an expert on Canada and border policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

But Finn didn't completely reject what he called "the closer question" of a lawsuit against the State Department should it approve a presidential permit for the new rival bridge. Besides the constitutional question, the argument would be that while Congress gave the president authority to approve international crossings in 1972, the creation of the Ambassador Bridge predates that, with legislation passed by both Congress and the Canadian parliament in 1921.

The bridge company also has taken the position that those acts were tantamount to a treaty and created a franchise that can't be destroyed without superseding acts by both legislatures, despite the fact that dozens of presidential permits have been issued over the years.

"I think what they're saying is, we're special and this is the one place you can't do it," Finn said. He didn't find the argument convincing, but said it's always possible a judge could disagree.

Certainly, the case has settled into a more esoteric part of the law. Few experts could be found with experience in litigating such a question regarding an international crossing and Hume acknowledged there have been few bridge permits granted in cases like this for agreements between a state and a foreign power, which he argues are prohibited.

In the 1980s, the owner of a bridge in Presidio, Texas, failed in his attempt to get the Supreme Court to block a neighboring bridge from being built, though some of the claims raised were different than those here.

The Canadian government has offered to pay Michigan's $550-million share of the $2.1-billion overall cost of the NITC bridge, but the complaint said there is no economic justification for the new bridge.

The bridge company argues in the complaint that 75% of its truck traffic and 40% of its passenger traffic could be diverted to the new bridge, reflecting "a long-standing desire on the part of the Canadian government to eliminate private ownership of the Detroit-Windsor bridge crossing."

Also in February, state Rep. Fred Durhal, D-Detroit, filed a lawsuit in Ingham County against Snyder, claiming the governor can't enter into an agreement with Canada without legislative approval.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Farmington Hills lawyer to help businesses, unions navigate right-to-work laws

Story originally appeared on Freep.

LANSING -- As the state implements Michigan's controversial right-to-work laws, Travis Calderwood is the man tasked with communicating how the new policies will affect business owners, labor leaders and workers statewide.

Calderwood, 34, of Farmington Hills was hired in February to fill an opening that the state advertised as a "freedom to work" specialist, a term used by proponents of the laws, which ban mandatory union dues as a condition of employment.

But when it comes to Calderwood's specific job, the description belies the true purpose of his role in state government, he said.

Calderwood said he doesn't advocate for one side or the other in the divisive debate.

"I'm advocating for people to follow the law," Calderwood said. "Regardless of what the law is, I've made many an oath to uphold it."

Since starting his job seven weeks ago, Calderwood said he has fielded inquiries from a variety of people who will be directly affected by the right-to-work laws.

Business owners, union leaders and workers want know how the laws affect their individual circumstances. Detailed explanations often are required.

The right-to-work laws affect labor contracts put into place on or after March 28, so most workers or businesses won't see the impact for several years.

"My role is to provide education and information to make sure there's no misconception about the laws," he said.

Calderwood said he also has had to debunk concerns that right-to-work could affect other labor laws, such as collective bargaining or exclusivity in union representation.

In December, when the Legislature passed right-to-work amid massive protests at the Capitol that drew national attention, Calderwood was practicing law for Collins & Blaha in Farmington Hills.

His work there included representing local school districts on labor issues, he said.

As everything unfolded in Lansing, Calderwood said he was watching with a keen interest in how the actions by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder would affect his clients.

"This is a very critical point in Michigan," Calderwood said. "I wanted to make sure that I could be part of it and bring that fairness and equity to it."

He said he was fully aware that the position would be under public scrutiny.

"The role of the Bureau of (Employment) Relations is, we're a neutral administrative body. We're not here to pick sides," he said.

Calderwood will make $92,000 a year for the position in the bureau, which is based in Detroit's Cadillac Place.

Director Ruthanne Okun said Calderwood was selected out of 50 applicants.

She said his "wonderful background, good demeanor" and understanding of what the job required made him stand out.

"He was the best candidate to fairly implement this law," Okun said.

Calderwood, a Michigan native, received his bachelor's degree from Hillsdale College and his law degree from the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor.

During law school, Calderwood had an internship as a clerk in the Michigan Court of Appeals, serving under Brian Zahra, who now is a Michigan Supreme Court justice.

When lawmakers passed the right-to-work laws, they also appropriated $2 million to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to help implement them. All of that money was funneled to the Bureau of Employment Relations.

It will help pay for Calderwood's salary through September as well as mailings, informational posters and any travel that Calderwood needs to do for his job, Okun said.

The funding for implementing right-to-work has been one of the sticking points in the political battle over the laws.

Republicans said the appropriations were necessary and routine, but Democrats and other critics alleged the funding was included in the laws just to circumvent one way opponents could seek to overturn them.

Under the Michigan Constitution, legislation that includes an appropriation cannot be subject to repeal through a public referendum.

Judge refuses to block BP settlement payouts

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge on Friday rejected BP's request to block what could be billions of dollars in settlement payouts to businesses that claim the company's 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico cost them money.

Before the ruling, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier already had upheld court-appointed claims administrator Patrick Juneau's interpretation of settlement terms governing payments to businesses affected by the spill. Barbier said he saw no reason to change his March 5 ruling on the same matter and issue a preliminary injunction that would block Juneau from making payments to businesses.

Barbier also on Friday dismissed a separate lawsuit that BP filed against Juneau, who had argued he was entitled to immunity from the suit.

BP argued that Juneau made decisions in January that expose the company to fictitious losses that were never contemplated in the settlement.

"We think it rewrites the contract. We think it rewards people who have no losses," BP attorney Rick Godfrey said.

Private plaintiffs' attorneys who brokered last year's deal with BP say the London-based oil giant's allegations are baseless and self-serving. Steve Herman, one of the lead plaintiffs' attorneys on the case, said BP's request was merely a legal gambit designed to clear another path for an appeals court to review the matter.

Rick Stanley, Juneau's lawyer, said his client has a duty to follow the judge's orders and "move this (settlement) process forward."

"He did not participate in the negotiation of it. He really has no position about the wisdom of the settlement agreement or how it came to be. He just wants to do his job as claims administrator," Stanley said.

Barbier scheduled Friday's hearing before BP appealed his March 5 ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans earlier this week.

"Seems like this whole exercise is a belt-and-suspenders operation," Barbier said of BP's separate request for preliminary injunction.

"Not quite," Godfrey said.

"There's no subtlety here. You're trying to get this issue to the 5th Circuit," Barbier said.

BP spokesman Scott Dean said the company "will evaluate how to proceed" in light of Barbier's latest ruling "to protect our rights and prevent continued meritless awards."

"BP believes today's proceedings and the related filings were necessary steps on the way to appellate review in the 5th Circuit, which has not yet considered this issue," Dean said in a statement.

BP estimated a year ago that it would spend roughly $7.8 billion to resolve tens of thousands of claims by businesses and individuals covered by the settlement. The company now says it can't give a reliable estimate for the total value of the deal.

Morning-after pill to go over the counter, be available to girls of all ages

Story originally appeared on Freep.

A judge's ruling Friday that would allow women access to the morning-after pill without pharmacists or ID checks -- and, for teens younger than 17, now without a prescription -- could cut down on unintended pregnancies in Michigan, according to reproductive rights advocates.

"We are thrilled whenever there is further access to ensure women can have a baby when they want one and reduce the unintended pregnancy rate," said Lori Lamerand, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Mid and South Michigan.

But others said they worry the ruling could expose girls to sexually transmitted diseases and erode parents' abilities to protect their daughters.

In a tweet late in the day, the Michigan Catholic Conference called the opinion of U.S. District Judge Edward Korman in New York "complete disregard for children's safety and parental rights."

And earlier in the day, Deirdre McQuade, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Pro Life Activities, said in a written statement that the pill "makes young adolescent girls more available to sexual predators."

"The court's action," the statement continued, "undermines parents' ability to protect their daughters from such exploitation and from the adverse effects of the drug itself."

On Friday, Korman struck down age restrictions on the emergency contraception sold as Plan B One-Step and its generic versions. He called the Obama administration's rule that limits Plan B to prescription-only for teens younger than 17 as "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable."

Those restrictions must change within 30 days, Korman ruled.

Currently, the pill can be obtained through only family planning clinics or pharmacists. The ruling Friday means the pill can be moved from behind the counter at major drugstores or carried by convenience stores and round-the-clock supermarkets.

The pill prevents pregnancy with a high dose of hormones that prevent the release of an egg that could be fertilized. Side effects can include nausea, vomiting, cramping, menstrual changes and diarrhea.

It must be used within three days and is most effective when used immediately.

That means every hour counts -- a problem for women without access to a 24-hour pharmacist, for teens who must find a health care provider to write a prescription and for those living in the country illegally and others without ID, said Susannah Baruch, interim president and CEO of Washington-based Reproductive Health Technologies Project.

"We want (the pill) between the condoms and the pregnancy tests. That's where it belongs and (is available) when people need to access it," Baruch said.

One in 9 sexually active women in the U.S. ages 15 to 44, or about 5.8 million, had used emergency contraception at least once between 2006 and 2010, according to a report released in February by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most had used it just once or twice, and it was most commonly used among those who were 20 to 24 years old, never married, Hispanic or non-Hispanic white women and those who attended college, according to report.

About half had used it because of unprotected sex; the other half used it as an extra precaution in case their first line of birth control failed.

Last year, Planned Parenthood's 17 southeast Michigan health centers dispensed 11,195 doses of emergency contraception. Just 6% of its patients last year were younger than 17, according to a spokeswoman.

The new ruling will make it easier for teens to protect themselves in an emergency, said Sarah Zimmerman, 17, a senior at Community High School in Ann Arbor and a peer educator with Planned Parenthood. In January, she met with parents and educators at an all-day conference sponsored by the Farmington Hills-based nonprofit Parent Action for Healthy Kids to discuss, in part, how to talk to kids about sex.

Most often, she said, teens who seek her advice tell her they need Plan B as backup protection after condoms broke, and most of them understand that it is "not the first method of birth control you want to be using," she said.

Zimmerman said most teens aren't on hormonal birth control such as oral contraceptives. Rather, they rely on condoms that are cheap and accessible through family planning clinics or at gas stations and other retail outlets.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Former Atlanta schools superintendent posts bond

Story originally appeared on Chron.

ATLANTA (AP) — Former Atlanta schools superintendent Beverly Hall was released from jail after posting bond on charges associated with her alleged involvement in a standardized test cheating scandal.

Hall left the Fulton County jail just before 11 p.m. Tuesday after posting bond of $200,000. The 66-year-old didn't speak to reporters as she arrived at the jail around 7:30 p.m. flanked by her attorneys. A grand jury had recommended a $7.5 million bond for Hall, but that was reduced after negotiations with prosecutors.

Hall and 34 subordinates were indicted Friday in the test cheating scandal that rocked Atlanta Public Schools. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard had set a Tuesday deadline for the educators to surrender at the jail.

All but a handful of them met the deadline to turn themselves in.

Mick Philpott was loving father, lawyer tells court in mitigation

Story originally appeared on the Guardian.

Defence says there is no evidence children were harmed deliberately as judge prepares for sentencing, now adjourned to Thursday

The sentencing of Mick and Mairead Philpott, who killed their six children in a house fire, has been adjourned until Thursday.

Mrs Justice Thirlwall, who heard mitgation from lawyers acting for the couple, said sentencing would take place at 10.30am at Nottingham crown court.

The court was told on Wednesday that Philpott was a loving father despite a history of violence towards women.

Mick and Mairead Philpott, together with Paul Mosley were found guilty on Tuesday of the manslaughter of six children as they slept in a house in Derby.

The court heard there had been violence in all of Philpott's relationships, which the judge, Mrs Justice Thirlwall, said troubled her: "There has been violence in every single relationship, has there not?"

In mitigation Philpott's barrister Anthony Orchard QC said he was a very good father who did not mean to harm his children.

Orchard said the plan to set the fire had gone "disastrously wrong" because it spread too quickly.

The Philpott home was set ablaze in a conspiracy involving the parents in May last year. Mick Philpott wanted to frame a former lover, Lisa Willis, for the arson attack as revenge for her leaving him.

Orchard asked for the minimum term possible for Philpott. Orchard said: "Despite Mr Philpott's faults he was a very good father and loved those children. All the witnesses, even Lisa Willis, agree on this. There is no evidence at any stage that he deliberately harmed any of them."

Orchard continued: "He is, as is Mairead, a parent who lost six children. He has never been able to grieve or even to bury them.

"His behaviour when he was with the doctors was consistent with extreme grief when he was at the hospital."

Orchard said Philpott, 56, would have to live with the jury's verdicts, and the fact that they said he had killed his children.

"He will have to live with the hatred and hostility of the press and the public for the rest of his life," he added.

The crown outlined Philpott's past offences, which the judge said she would take into account in deciding how long the sentences should be.

Philpott has a previous conviction in 1978 for attempting to kill a woman who wanted to leave him, whom he stabbed a dozen times.

Philpott, aged 21 at the time of the attack, was convicted of the attempted murder of Kim Hill and of grievous bodily harm to her mother in December 1978. He was sentenced to seven years, with the judge then warning that he was a dangerous man.

After the attack Hill had to be revived twice and the court heard on Wednesday that she still lived with the effects of the attack.

Before the murder attempt Philpott had attacked her, breaking her fingers. When Hill wanted to leave him, he became so enraged he decided to kill her so that no other man could have her.

Orchard said Philpott's conviction for attempted murder was a "long time ago" and there was no evidence of anything like that being repeated.

Nottingham crown court was told that in 1991 Philpott headbutted someone while working and received a conditional discharge for actual bodily harm. He was also cautioned for attacking his wife after slapping her in the face and dragging her out of the house.

In 2011 he was involved in a road rage incident to which he pleaded guilty.

Shaun Smith QC, for Mairead Philpott, said she would "forever be known as a child killer", and accepted she faced punishment.

He said her real sentence would be the loss of her children and that she had been dominated by her husband during their 12-year relationship.

Smith told the judge: "There was only one dominant person in that relationship."

He added: "She would do whatever he said, whatever he wanted," and described her attempts to keep her husband's affections as "utter folly".

But the children led happy lives despite living for a time with their mother, father and their father's girlfriend.

Smith said there was no evidence "any of these children were in any sort of danger or peril prior to that night [of the fire] whatsoever."

He said: "They were well looked-after. They were well nourished. They were happy children."

Smith said: "There were absolutely no problems as far as these children were concerned [with the living arrangements]; no suggestion they were out on the street causing trouble."

Smith told the judge: "The entirety of the evidence in this case is that Mairead Philpott was an extremely good mother to all 11 children. No one, we respectfully submit, can dispute the grief that she feels. Nobody can even understand it. It's palpable. It has been visible."

During the sentencing and mitigation the Philpotts were in the dock of the court.

Philpott wore a grey suit, pink tie and medallion. His wife wore a black cardigan.

Manslaughter carries a maximum term of life imprisonment.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Lawsuit: Older Fords can suddenly speed up

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

A multistate lawsuit filed Thursday says 2002-10 Ford Motor vehicles contain a "design defect" in the electronic control of the gas pedals, making them susceptible to sudden, unintended acceleration.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of Ford owners in 14 states is seeking class-action status and goes into great detail about the alleged defect in the models named in the lawsuit that don't have brake override technology. That technology stops the car if both the brake and the gas pedal are activated at the same time. Ford began installing it, known as "brake over accelerator," in all vehicles it makes in 2010.

"For too long, Ford has put its own financial interests ahead of its consumers' safety," says Chicago-based attorney Adam Levitt, one of the lawyers leading the litigation. "We hope this lawsuit sheds light on this important situation and requires Ford to correct its ways, compensate its customers and put them first."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are seeking compensatory damages for the lost value of the affected cars -- the difference between what they paid for the cars vs. the value of the defective vehicles. The lawsuit also asks Ford to "fix the problem."

Lawyers involved in the case told USA TODAY in late March that most Ford owners probably don't realize their cars could take off on their own.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the southern district of West Virginia. It cites a 2011 report by the Transportation Department's inspector general that showed Ford had the same number of deaths and injuries from these electronic throttle controls as Toyota: 374 from 2003 through 2009. Ford had 22% of all complaints of unintended acceleration during that period, more than any of the other major auto manufacturers, the report said.

A review of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's data shows complaints regarding sudden acceleration in Ford vehicles (including Lincolns and Mercurys) soared from 2005 to 2007, with injuries due to sudden acceleration at their highest rates from 2004 to 2006.

But Ford released a statement Thursday that said: "NHTSA has investigated alleged unintended accelerations many times over many years and has concluded that driver error is the predominant cause of these events. NHTSA's work is far more scientific and trustworthy than work done by personal injury lawyers and their paid experts. In rare situations, vehicle factors, such as floor mats or broken mechanical components, can interfere with proper throttle operation, and manufacturers have addressed these rare events in field service actions."

Tom Murray, a Sandusky, Ohio, plaintiff lawyer who is writing a book on unintended acceleration, says Ford's failure to install brake override means the company didn't have a "fail safe" to protect people if the cars took off on their own. Murray says he has several clients who were in crashes involving runaway Fords.

Toyota recalled nearly 8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles in the U.S. in 2009 and 2010 over problems related to gas pedals that could stick and floor mats that could interfere with the gas pedal. The months of publicity and congressional hearings helped prompt the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to propose a rule requiring all vehicles to have brake override.

But plaintiff lawyers continue to insist that there were problems with Toyota's electronic throttle controls that made even some recalled cars take off on their own.

"We learned from Toyota that these problems are real," says Mark DiCello, a Cleveland plaintiff attorney involved with the new lawsuit.

However, NHTSA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration concluded in a 2011 report that it could not find evidence of electronic malfunctions in Toyota models.

"It's easy not to believe sudden acceleration exists unless you're behind the wheel when it takes off," says West Virginia plaintiff lawyer Niall Paul.

"Ford has a long history of these cars taking off in various points," says Edgar "Hike" Heiskell, a West Virginia plaintiff lawyer involved in the litigation. "It's obviously a dangerous situation."

He points to the decisions by BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen to install brake override several years ago.

Tom Baloga, BMW's recently retired vice president of engineering, says it wasn't sudden acceleration, however, but the perception of it that prompted German automakers to install brake override.

"German auto manufacturers realized that identifying driver-caused sudden acceleration was a PR disaster so they agreed among themselves to adopt their own type of brake-accelerator override with electronic gas pedals," Baloga says. "This voluntary initiative adapted to U.S. conditions where technical circumstances and emotional reactions blur investigations."

"Qualified investigators" have repeatedly dismissed the idea that "electronic gremlins" are causing sudden acceleration, Baloga says, "but the emotional component keeps coming back."

Asked whether they are going to sue other major automakers over the models with electronic throttle control that don't have brake override, the lawyers say they hope they don't have to.

"We hope this would cause the other manufacturers to do what's right and what's safe," Paul says.

Owners of these Ford models with electronic throttle control are considered plaintiffs in the lawsuit if the vehicles were purchased in any of these states: West Virginia, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia or Wisconsin.

•Ford brand: 2005-2009 Crown Victoria, 2005-2010 E-Series, 2007-2010 Edge, 2009-

2010 Escape, 2005-2010 Escape HEV, 2005-2010 Expedition, 2004-2010 Explorer,

2007-2010 Explorer Sport Trac, 2004-2010 F-Series, 2005-2007 Five Hundred, 2009-

2010 Flex, 2008-2010 Focus, 2005-2007 Freestyle, 2006-2010 Fusion, 2005-2010

Mustang, 2008-2010 Taurus, 2008-2009 Taurus X, 2002-2005 Thunderbird, and 2010 Transit Connect

Lincoln brand: 2003-2006 LS, 2006-2008 Mark LT, 2009-2010 MKS, 2010 MKT,

2007-2010 MKX, 2006-2010 MKZ, 2005-2009 Town Car, and 2006-2010 Zephy

Mercury brand: 2002-2005 Cougar (XR7), 2005-2009 Grand Marquis, 2009-2010 Mariner, 2005-2010 Mariner HEV, 2006-2010 Milan, 2005-2007 Montego, 2004-2010Mountaineer, and 2008-2010 Sable

SAC portfolio manager arrested by FBI

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

The Justice Dept. has targeted another veteran of one of the nation's largest hedge funds with insider trading.

Portfolio manager Michael Steinberg, a senior member of hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors, was arrested at his New York City home early Friday by FBI agents on charges that he used inside information to generate $1.4 million in profits for SAC Capital, the $15 billion hedge fund founded by billionaire Steven Cohen.

A five-count indictment says Steinberg, 41, used the information trading shares of Dell and computer chip maker Nvidia. He pleaded not guilty at a Friday federal court hearing and was released on $3 million bail. If convicted, Steinberg faces a prison term of up to 20 years for each charge.

Steinberg is the latest current or former SAC Capital employee to be charged or implicated with insider trading. On March 15, two SAC affiliates agreed to pay $616 million to the government to settle civil charges of insider trading, a record settlement involving insider trading. SAC neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing.

Steinberg's arrest had been expected after former SAC analyst Jon Horvath, pleaded guilty last year to using illegally obtained information trading Dell shares. Horvath has been cooperating with the government and had implicated Steinberg.

In a related civil complaint against Steinberg, the Securities and Exchange Commission said the information allowed him to generate $6.4 million in profits and avoided losses for Cohen's hedge fund.

The FBI says its five-year insider trading probe has resulted in over 70 arrests so far.

"Mr. Steinberg was at the center of an elite criminal club, where cheating and corruption were rewarded," said George Venizelos, head of the FBI's New York office. "Research was nothing more than well-timed tips from an extensive network of well-sourced analysts."

U. S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Steinberg "was another Wall Street insider who fed off a corrupt grapevine of proprietary and confidential information cultivated by other professionals who made their own rules to make money. With lightning speed in at least one case, Mr. Steinberg seized on the opportunity to cash in and tried to keep his crime quiet, as charged in the indictment."

But Steinberg's attorney, Barry Berke, said Steinberg did nothing wrong and that his client's trades were based on detailed analysis along with other information he properly obtained. "Caught in the crossfire of aggressive investigations of others, there is no basis for even the slightest blemish on his spotless reputation," Berke said in a statement.

SAC Capital spokesman Jonathan Gasthalter said: "Mike has conducted himself professionally and ethically during his long tenure at the firm. We believe him to be a man of integrity."

Still, Friday's arrest, followed by January's arrest of another former hedge fund manage, heightened speculation that the government is taking a hard look at Cohen's practices. In the January case, a criminal complaint repeatedly referenced as a "Hedge Fund Owner."

Cohen has yet to be charged. SAC has said Cohen and the company are cooperating with the inquiry and "are confident that they have acted appropriately."

Separately, an Australian former research analyst - extradited to the U.S. from Hong Kong to face trial in an insider trading case - was scheduled to appear in a New York federal court Friday afternoon.

Trent Martin, 33, faces conspiracy and securities fraud charges, accused of trading illegally ahead of the public announcement of IBM's 2009 acquisition of a software company, SPSS.

Prosecutors say a corporate lawyer on the legal team representing IBM had shared inside information with his close friend, Martin, believing it would be kept confidential.

Bill prevents Michigan governments from requiring employers to provide paid sick leave

Story originally appeared on Freep.

LANSING -- Michigan cities could not require employers to provide paid sick leave under a bill approved Thursday by a Senate committee.

In a 4-1 vote, the Senate Reforms, Restructuring and Reinventing Committee advanced a bill to ban local governments from requiring employers to provide paid or unpaid leave not required by state or federal law.

A similar bill was earlier approved by a House committee. Each will now be considered by the full Senate and House, respectively.

The bill is backed by business groups, such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, who say such employment matters should be regulated at the state or federal level to prevent a patchwork of laws across a state.

It's opposed by some labor groups and Mothering Justice, a group based in the Detroit area that seeks to empower moms and influence public policy on their behalf.

Danielle Atkinson, a founding director of the group, said providing paid sick leave is a public health issue, which locals should be able to regulate to prevent people in the food service industry from going to work sick. Many working moms also need paid leave so they can stay home and take care of their sick children, she said.

No local government is actively considering such an ordinance, but Mothering Justice would like to approach local units and encourage them to pass such ordinances, she said.

A poll the group commissioned suggests 60% of Michigan residents support allowing workers to earn paid sick days. But respondents weren't asked whether they favor allowing local governments to require such benefits.

Justin Winslow, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Restaurant Association, told the committee that ordinances requiring extra employee leave have passed in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle and put restaurants there at a competitive disadvantage.

Six states, most recently Indiana, have passed bills to prevent such local ordinances, he said.

"Employers can provide these options ... to all their employees as they see fit," said Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton.

The Michigan Municipal League opposes the legislation because it violates local control, spokesman Matt Bach said.

Sen. Coleman Young II, D-Detroit, said the bill is "horrible" and "unnecessary."

Retail fraud is more than just shoplifting -- and now it's a felony

Story originally appeared on Freep.

Veteran cops recall when most shoplifters were loners who quietly pilfered a few bucks of trinkets after being struck -- conventional wisdom said -- by lapses in self-restraint.

Therapists gave the act a classy name: kleptomania.

But now, law enforcement agents are seeing more sophisticated thefts that they are calling organized retail fraud.

Aimed at this sophisticated style of shoplifting, a new state law goes into effect Sunday with stiffer penalties against organized retail crime.

• Related: Detroit couple face fraud charges in Meijer gift card sprees

The law turns what has been a misdemeanor with light jail sentences into a five-year felony. Among the elements that turn ordinary shoplifting into organized retail crime are a dozen circumstances, from deactivating store security devices to conspiring with accomplices and receiving stolen store goods. Virtually anything stolen for the purpose of resale falls under the act.

"This is a completely different type of perpetrator, doing this strictly for profit, and a lot of times operating in very organized groups of two, three or more individuals," said Sgt. Andy Breidenich of the Troy Police Department.

At places like Troy's Somerset Collection and Oakland Mall, investigators say these fraud artists sometimes act alone but more often assign accomplices to be decoys and getaway drivers. Some conspire with store clerks and dash from stores only with items they can readily sell -- designer clothes, cologne, liquor, jewelry and electronics.

"The recession isn't driving this. Criminals do because it pays," said Breidenich, founder of a network that links retail-fraud investigators from Detroit to Saginaw.

The prevalence of shoplifting has risen nationwide at annual rates of 3%-4% for the last five years, forcing the average American household to pay an estimated $500 yearly to cover the losses, said Richard Mellor, vice president for loss prevention with the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C.

Michigan is one of about 15 states to have passed special laws to deal with organized shoplifters, Mellor said.

"We're advocating this type of legislation around the country. We're actually trying to get a federal law like this passed, because many of these people cross state lines with this merchandise," he said.

"The ordinary shoplifter, the amateur who's out there but not part of a group that's brazen, they get deterred much more easily. And the retailers are very good at dealing with those people," Mellor said.

But the perpetrators of organized theft are much harder to stop, he said.

"Sometimes they take a whole rack of clothing, or a whole shelf of the same product, and out the door it goes," he said.

Troy police offered an example of how the new law will differ when it comes to penalties for shoplifters.

A 40-year-old Clinton Township man stole a shopping cart full of Red Bull energy drinks from a Kroger store in December. The man, who has a lengthy criminal history, planned to sell the drinks to party stores. Charged under Michigan's existing Retail Fraud II statute (second degree), the maximum penalty the man faced was 93 days in jail. Under the new law, he could have received five years in prison.

The new laws render obsolete Michigan's traditional penalty brackets, which date to 1931. The lightest sentences went to those guilty of third-degree retail fraud, punishable by up to 93 days in jail for stealing anything worth up to $200. Now, police said, if someone steals a low-value item but does so with elements of the organized retail crime statute, that defendant could face a prison term and a fine of $5,000.

The sponsor of the new law is state Rep. Joe Graves, R-Argentine Township. Graves said he was moved to propose the law by his wife, Denise Graves.

"My wife's spent 26 years as a manager for Meijer, and she told me a lot of stories" about the growing problem of merchandise theft, he said.

"We all pay for this fraud."