Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Nightowl Newswrap

Guess what San Joaquin Valley? You suck. Poverty, poor health and plenty of school dropouts have put the San Joaquin Valley's 20th Congressional District dead last in a new national scorecard that ranks the overall well-being of residents. Even notoriously grim Appalachia fares better than the congressional district that sweeps in Fresno, Kings and Kern counties, the study, released Wednesday, shows.

If his charges are constitutional, then he deserves the rights afforded by the constitution, right? A Navy judge on Wednesday rejected a bid by Osama bin Laden's driver to have his charges dismissed because, his lawyers claimed, they did not exist as war crimes at the time of his November 2001 capture in Afghanistan. Lawyers for Salim Hamdan, 37, accused of material support for terror and conspiracy, had asked the judge to dismiss his case, invoking the constitutional right against ''ex post facto'' application of law. Congress defined the charges as war crimes in the 2006 Military Commissions Act that set up the Guantanamo war court, where so far 20 detainees here face possible charges. Seven could be executed, if convicted, although not Hamdan, for whom the maximum punishment is life in prison. ''The government has shown, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Congress had an adequate basis upon which to conclude that conspiracy and material support for terrorism have traditionally been considered violations of the law of war,'' Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred, a judge, wrote in the six-page ruling. Defense lawyers called the decision a marginal victory because, as they interpreted it, Allred agreed to consider their ex post facto argument as a U.S. constitutional issue — before he rejected it.

Psych! You get nothing! ExxonMobil has balked at paying $488 million in interest on punitive damages that plaintiffs say it owes for its role in the 1989 Prince William Sound oil spill in Alaska, saying "there is no good reason" for the Supreme Court to assess interest. Last week, the people who are owed money from the Exxon Valdez lawsuit asked the Supreme Court to make it clear that they should receive interest, even though the court cut the punitive damages award in June from $2.5 billion to $507 million. On Tuesday, the oil giant disagreed. In its filing, the company says that "the court has held that $507.5 million is the legally correct amount necessary to deter Exxon and others from future oil spills," and not millions more in interest. "The deterrent for future oil spills will thus be the same whether post-judgment interest is paid or not," the company wrote. "Future spills in Exxon's position will know that their punishment will be in an amount up to the extent of the damage they cause." Also, the company adds that there's no reason to penalize it by awarding another $488 million when "the substantial delay here was not in any sense Exxon's fault," but was that of the plaintiffs, who disagreed with a lower court decision. Please bear in mind: Exxon Mobil made history on Friday by reporting the highest quarterly and annual profits ever for a U.S. company, boosted in large part by soaring crude prices. Exxon, the world's largest publicly traded oil company, said fourth-quarter net income rose 14% to $11.66 billion, or $2.13 per share. The company earned $10.25 billion, or $1.76 per share, in the year-ago period. The profit topped Exxon's previous quarterly record of $10.7 billion, set in the fourth quarter of 2005, which also was an all-time high for a U.S. corporation. Just so you know...

Housing sector woes continue: Home builders' business outlook plunged this month to the lowest level since record keeping began more than 20 years ago, reflecting worsening industry conditions as the housing slump, rising gas prices and sagging consumer confidence combine to undermine the sales of new homes. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo housing market index fell in July to a record low of 16, down from 18 in June, the Washington trade group said Wednesday. The index has been on a downward trajectory since May as the industry's fortunes have soured. Tighter lending standards, rising mortgage defaults and fear about the housing market's future have sidelined buyers, stinging major builders like D.R. Horton Inc., Pulte Homes Inc. and Centex Corp. "Builders are reporting that traffic of prospective buyers has fallen off substantially in recent months," David Seiders, NAHB's chief economist, said in a statement.

Will the blue crabs ever come back? Chesapeake Bay crabber Paul Kellam has advice for the teenage boys who help tend his traps every summer: You better have a backup plan. It's an anxious summer for watermen harvesting the Chesapeake's best-loved seafood, the blue crab. The way some see it, the crabbing business here isn't just dying. It's already dead. Crabs have thrived in the bottom muck of the Chesapeake and its tributaries even as centuries of overfishing harmed oysters, fish and other species in the nation's largest estuary. Now blue crabs are in trouble, too, and when they go, a way of life is sure to go with them. "There was a time when crabbers were only out here from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Now, it's about all we have left," says Kellam, 53, steering his 30-year-old rig "Christy" out of the Potomac River and onto the bay for a day of crabbing. The contradictory decor in the cabin sums up the outlook of today's waterman: a red wooden good-luck horseshoe dangles over a mud-splattered copy of "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook." The bay's blue crab stock is down about 65 percent since 1990 due to overfishing and water pollution, according to Virginia and Maryland fisheries managers. The states have imposed steep cuts on this year's female crab harvest, aiming to reduce the number of crabs taken by more than a third. For Kellam and his neighbors in southern Maryland, where the working rigs and crab picking houses that sustained these communities for generations have been replaced by yachts and vacation homes, hopes are dim that the blue crabs will ever come back.

Things are tough all over: Officials in Flint, Mich., say they've had to replace hundreds of manhole covers and grates that were probably stolen and sold for scrap. The Flint Journal reported Monday that nearly 400 cast iron covers and grates have been taken from streets in the past year. A cover can fetch $20 from a scrap yard but can cost the city more than $200 to replace. Officials in neighboring Burton say they've lost about 200 covers and grates during the same period. Utilities supervisor Mike Holzer says it leaves behind holes up to 35 feet deep. Genesee County officials say they've been able to reduce thefts of county-owned covers by outfitting them with a bolt that is turned by a wrench only they have.

If it worked to send Christopher Hill off on his own, why the hell not? These people don't "do" diplomacy, so hope for the best: The United States said Wednesday it was sending a top envoy to weekend nuclear crisis talks with Iran on a "one-time" mission to underline Washington's conditions for ending the atomic stalemate. Under Secretary of State William Burns will go "to listen" to Tehran's reply to an incentives offer for freezing uranium enrichment, said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who emphasized "we are not there to negotiate." But the number-three US diplomat's presence at Saturday talks between EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Tehran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili will "clarify the consequences" -- more sanctions -- if Iran rejects the package, she said. And Burns may restate US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's offer to "meet with her (Iranian) conterpart anytime, anywhere, to move forward on negotiations of they would halt uranium enrichment," said Perino. His mission to Geneva, a reversal of US President George W. Bush's past policy for grappling with Iran's suspect nuclear program, comes with time fast running out for a solution before Bush's term ends in January 2009. So where the hell is James A Baker? Where the hell is Lawrence Eagleburger? Where the hell is a Republican diplomat with previous experience? No offense to Burns, but what the hell? No one wants to help out the Bush Administration?

Good God, I am never moving to a large city. Ever. Nor am I ever going dumpster diving again. New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut. It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether. Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice!

Remember, it's not fraud if it was done by a Republican just to make money--it's capitalism that results in a massive bailout by taxpayers: Now-defunct IndyMac Bancorp Inc. is under investigation by the FBI for possible fraud in connection with home loans made to risky borrowers, The Associated Press has learned. CBS News' Stephanie Lambidakis confirmed that the FBI is investigating the failed bank and that the probe began before its collapse. The investigation is focused on the company - which was taken over last Friday by the FDIC - and not individuals who ran it, according to a law enforcement official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation. IndyMac Bank's assets were seized by federal regulators after the mortgage lender succumbed to the pressures of tighter credit, tumbling home prices and rising foreclosures. The bank is the largest regulated thrift to fail and the second largest financial institution to close in U.S. history, regulators said.

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