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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Schilling Talks About Son's Asperger's

The wife of former baseball star Curt Schilling has written a book about raising a child with Asperger's syndrome, WCVB-TV in Boston reported.

Schilling won three World Series wins in 23 years in major league baseball, but that was nothing compared to the daily challenges he and his wife, Shonda, faced with one of their four children.

Shonda's new book is called "The Best Kind of Different," about her 10-year-old son Grant, who has the high-functioning form of autism. Grant loves his pets, the station said. There's Griffin, the bird, and his friendly pug, Georgia.

Shonda Schilling said that a lot of kids with Asperger's have trouble looking people in the eye, but that's not the case for Grant. His unique behavior is quite the opposite. Grant doesn't understand appropriate contact behavior in social settings. In other words, he is not able to understand people's boundaries.

That's just one symptom. Another is having sensory issues.

"If he would cry, I could never understand," said Shonda. "He would drop to the floor, and I would go to try and hug him, and you couldn't touch him. I just felt so defeated, sitting there going, 'What do I do?'"

Not only did Grant not behave like his other three brothers and sister, his parents said he could be unusually difficult and disruptive.

"He was getting punished, verbally punished and yelled at, and scolded and timed out," said Curt Schilling. "And, in his mind, 'Why am I getting punished? I'm just being myself.'"

Finally, in the summer of 2007, at the age of almost 8, Grant was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

For Shonda and Curt, there was some relief that now they had a name and an explanation for why Grant behaved the way he did. But she also admits, as a mother, there was a tremendous sense of guilt.

"How did I not see it? How did I not notice this earlier? And how did I yell at a child, ever that was never his fault?"

The guilt, the anguish and the journey the Schilling family has taken is chronicled in Shonda's book. The words flowed from her heart, she said.

"It was very therapeutic for me to be able to say the things I've been feeling and put them down on paper."

In chapter after chapter, those feelings were eye opening for the man she'd been married to for nearly 18 years. Curt said that was the hardest part for him about reading his wife's book.

"I didn't realize how alone she was during the years Grant was growing up and I was playing. It made me look like a deadbeat dad in a sense, like I didn't want to participate, or I didn't have the desire to participate, and I always looked at it as I never had an option. I did what I did and I was committed to doing what I was doing because that's the only way I knew how. One of the things you understand about Asperger's is, routine is king. They love routine, they love consistency, and I was never routinely, consistently in his life," Curt said.

Curt's absence, Grant's Asperger's, three other children with ADHD, including one of them with an eating disorder, and Shonda's own skin cancer scare drove her into depression and the couple into therapy.

"Part of the strength of our marriage," said Curt, was, "we've always agreed, leaving was never an option."

But leaving baseball was an option. The ace pitcher said he could pitch again after his shoulder surgery in June 2008 but, he said, he instantly realized he never wanted to throw another major league ball again.

"I was so tired of saying, 'I love you, congratulations, happy birthday, you're punished, good night, you're in time out,' over the phone. I'd spent our entire marriage and my kid's entire lives, nine months a year, doing that. And so it was easy and from the day I made the decision, I have not regretted a second of it. I haven't missed any of it."

Shonda was certainly ready for him to quit, too.

"Our kids are happier than they've ever been. Baseball was fun, but this is the life they have always wanted," she said.

As good as life is these days, there will always be challenges, especially with Grant. There is no cure for Asperger's Syndrome. Each week, things will change, there will be new skills they all have to learn, but at the end of the day, there is just love for their son.

Shonda and Curt both said they would not change a single thing for the path they have been on and the lessons they have learned.

On the Web:

Asperger's Syndrome website

Asperger's Syndrome on the Mayo Clinic website

Asperger's Syndrome on KidsHealth.org

WCVB-TV, Boston; Apergers.com; The Best Kind of Different.

Fed Reserve Reveals What Bailout Billions Bought

A 360 Degrees Perspective

After two years of secrecy, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York is disclosing key details about billions of dollars of risky investments it bought while rescuing insurance giant American International Group Inc. and supporting the sale of failed investment bank Bear Stearns.

The New York Fed today said what investments are held by three companies it created to buy them from Bear Stearns, AIG and AIG's business partners. The New York Fed also revealed their current values.

Wednesday's disclosure marks a sharp reversal for the Fed, which has long refused to disclose many key details about the bailouts, including what assets it holds in these companies, and what assets it accepted as collateral when making low-cost loans to banks.

These "toxic" investments were at the heart of the 2008 financial crisis. Their values often are based on the values of thousands of underlying mortgage loans, which were pooled and sliced up into complex securities and other financial products.

Once homeowners started defaulting on the risky subprime mortgages that made up these pools, banks didn't know how much the investments were worth. That made it nearly impossible to sell or trade them.

When Bear Stearns teetered in March 2008, the New York Fed brokered the company's sale to JPMorgan Chase & Co. The New York Fed created Maiden Lane LLC to buy $30 billion of investments that JPMorgan was unwilling to take over.

It was the first major bailout of the financial crisis, occurring almost six months before the collapse of investment bank Lehman Bros. pushed the global financial system to the brink.

"It's a step in the right direction...

The ultimate goal is full transparency

and accountability."

- Rep. Darrell Issa, (R) California, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

In buying those assets, the new disclosures show, the Fed took on billions of dollars worth of risky derivatives called credit-default swaps -- insurance-like products that pay off when a company defaults on its debt or a bond fails to produce the expected returns. The company also holds $1.49 billion in whole residential mortgage loans, mortgage securities backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and loans for hotels and other commercial real estate.

The New York Fed created Maiden Lane II LLC and Maiden Lane III LLC to support the $182 billion AIG rescue. The former bought mortgage-backed bonds from AIG's insurance subsidiaries. The latter bought investments AIG had insured that were held by other big banks.

The New York Fed, then run by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, paid banks full price for investments that already had lost much of their value. It needed to buy them so banks like Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Societe Generale would cancel AIG's insurance obligations.

Critics have argued these "backdoor bailouts" cost taxpayers billions more than necessary because Geithner and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson did not demand concessions from the banks.

The holdings of Maiden Lane III were disclosed in January, over the objections of the New York Fed. Maiden Lane II holds about $34.5 billion in mortgage-backed investments that are not guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The Fed has said its secrecy was necessary to help rebuild confidence in the financial sector and stabilize the banking system.

Critics argue for more transparency given that the bailouts could have cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.

Identifying the assets "would compromise the New York Fed's ability to maximize value for the taxpayer in the long-run," New York Fed President William Dudley wrote this month.

Dudley was responding to a request for the information from California Rep. Darrell Issa, the top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Issa has been a leading critic of the bailouts, and has successfully pushed the New York Fed to disclose more information about the AIG rescue.

In January, Issa released details about the holdings of Maiden Lane III. He disputed the Fed's argument that revealing details would upset financial markets and drive down the values of the investments.

Issa sent letters to the New York Fed and JPMorgan on March 3 requesting more information about the Bear Stearns bailout. He was reacting to reports that the assets held by Maiden Lane LLC had lost nearly 10 percent of their value.

JPMorgan is cooperating with the congressional probe, a bank spokeswoman said.

Issa called Wednesday's disclosures "a step in the right direction" but said they didn't go far enough.

"The ultimate goal is full transparency and accountability," Issa said in a statement. "There are still a number of outstanding requests for information that the (New York Fed) has either refused or ignored."

Asked about the New York Fed's about-face, a bank spokeswoman referred to a statement that says in part: "The Federal Reserve recognizes the importance of transparency to its financial stability efforts and will continue to review disclosure practices with the goal of making additional information publicly available when possible."

The disclosures were only possible after the New York Fed struck deals with JPMorgan and AIG about how much information it would reveal.

The disclosures omit all whole residential mortgages held by the Maiden Lane companies because describing them would violate borrowers' privacy.

The Federal Reserve Bank of NY; The Wall Street Journal; Bloomberg; Washington Post; AP.

360 Degrees - Blog Sponsor Ad - March 2010
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GOP Hopes Call For Health Care Repeal Won't Burn Them

A 360 Degrees Perspective

Top Republicans are starting to worry about their health care rallying cry "Repeal the bill" - it just might singe GOP candidates in November's elections, they fear, if voters begin to see benefits from the new law.

Democrats, hoping the GOP is indeed positioning itself too far to the right for the elections, are taking note of every Republican who pledges to fight for repeal. Such a pledge might work well in conservative-dominated Republican primaries, they say, but it could backfire in the fall when more moderate voters turn out.

At least one Republican Senate candidate, Mark Kirk of Illinois, has eased back from his earlier, adamant repeal-the-law stance. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which fiercely opposed President Obama's health legislation, now urges opponents to pursue a "more effective approach" of trying to "minimize its harmful impacts."

For Republicans, urging a full repeal of the law will energize conservative activists whose turnout is crucial this year. But it also carries risks, say strategists in both parties.

Repeal is politically and legally unlikely, and some grass-roots activists may feel disillusioned by a failed crusade.

"It's just not going to happen," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said of repeal in a speech Wednesday. "It's a great political issue," he said, but opponents will never muster the 67 votes needed in the 100-member Senate.

Over the next few months, Democrats say, Americans will learn of the new law's benefits, and anger over its messy legislative pedigree may fade.

Republican leaders are moving cautiously, wary of angering their hard-right base. In recent public comments, they have quietly played down the notion of repealing the law while emphasizing claims that it will hurt jobs, the economy and the deficit.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who chairs the committee responsible for electing GOP senators this fall, said in an interview, "The focus really should be on the misplaced priorities of the administration" and Congress' Democratic leaders.

Asked if he advises Republican Senate candidates to call for repealing the law, Cornyn said: "Candidates are going to test the winds in their own states. ... In some places, the health care bill is more popular than others."

Three weeks ago, Cornyn told reporters he thought GOP Senate candidates would and should run on a platform of repealing the legislation.

Cornyn and others increasingly are focused on several corporations' claims that a provision of the new law that cancels a tax benefit will hurt profits and hiring. This approach places a greater premium on pivoting to the economy instead of dwelling on the legalistic process of trying to repeal the complex law.

"The health care debate provides a natural segue into talking about the economy and jobs," said Nicklaus Simpson, spokesman for the Senate Republican Conference, a policy group.

Obama said last week he would relish a Republican bid to repeal the new law.

"My attitude is, go for it," Obama said in Iowa on Friday. "If these congressmen in Washington want to come here in Iowa and tell small-business owners that they plan to take away their tax credits and essentially raise their taxes, be my guest."

Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said his team began pressing Republican candidates months ago to state whether they support repeal of the health care legislation. Most of them have, and Democrats plan to use it against them this fall.

"You never want to wage a campaign telling voters you want to take something away from them," Menendez said.

In Illinois, where there's a spirited battle to fill the Senate seat Obama once held, Kirk recently said he would "lead the effort" to repeal the measure. But on Tuesday, when asked repeatedly by reporters whether he still wants it repealed, Kirk would say only that he opposes the new taxes and Medicare cuts associated with the law.

In Delaware, Rep. Mike Castle is one of the few top Republican Senate candidates who has declined to pledge to fight for the health law's repeal. Christine O'Donnell has made it central to her underdog bid to deny him the GOP nomination.

"We must repeal this health bill horror," she said in a statement, assailing Castle's "cynical refusal to fight" for that cause.

The conservative Club for Growth is on her side. It launched a "Repeal It" campaign in January, and is urging supporters to back only those candidates who make the pledge.

Menendez said candidates seeking the GOP nominations in many states "are facing tremendous pressure from the tea party, from the party base" to embrace a position that could hurt them when more independent and moderate voters turn out in the general election.

He said Democrats will ask these GOP opponents why they want to restore insurance companies' ability to deny coverage to people with medical problems and to young adults who otherwise can stay on their parents' health plans until age 26.

Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, doesn't think Menendez's plan will work.

"If Democrats genuinely believe this is a winning political issue for them in November," Walsh said, "it's obvious they haven't learned a thing from their losses in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts."

Those losses - in two governors' races and a special Senate race - occurred before the health bill became law, and Democrats predict a dramatically different landscape by November. Unsavory dealmaking and arm-twisting, which Democratic congressional leaders used to pass the measure without a single GOP vote, will soon be forgotten, these strategists say.

The GOP candidates who have embraced repeal-the-bill pledges all over the country are counting on them to be wrong.

Reuters; Washington Post; Boston Herald; NY Daily News; AP; FOX News.

Old Letter: Former Pope Knew Of Abuse

The head of a Roman Catholic order that specialized in the treatment of pedophile priests visited with the then-pope nearly 50 years ago and followed up with a letter recommending the removal of pedophile priests from ministry, according to a copy of the letter released Wednesday.

In the Aug. 27, 1963 letter, the head of the New Mexico-based Servants of the Holy Paraclete (Holy Spirit) tells the pope he recommends removing pedophile priests from active ministry and strongly urges defrocking repeat offenders.

The letter, written by the Rev. Gerald M.C. Fitzgerald, appears to have been drafted at the request of the pope and summarizes Fitzgerald's thoughts on problem priests after his Vatican visit.

A message left with the Paraclete order at one of their two existing facilities in Missouri was not returned. A number for the second facility was disconnected. The offices of the Vatican spokesman were closed late Wednesday.

Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, defended the church and said it was unlikely Paul VI ever saw the letter.

"The fact of the matter is, the prevailing ideas at the time about how to deal with abusive behavior were not adequate," Tamberg said. "Clearly, society and the church have evolved new understandings of what causes sexually abusive behavior and how to deal with it."

Fitzgerald opens the five-page letter by thanking the pope for an audience the day before and says he is summarizing his thoughts at the pope's request on the "problem of the problem priest" after 20 years working to treat them.

He tells Paul VI that treatment for priests who have succumbed to "abnormal, homosexual tendencies" should include psychiatric, as well as spiritual, counseling -- but goes on to warn about the dangers of leaving those individuals in ministry.

The letter also touches on priests who have consensual affairs with women.

"Personally, I am not sanguine of the return of priests to active duty who have been addicted to abnormal practices, especially sins with the young," Fitzgerald wrote.

"Where there is indication of incorrigibility, because of the tremendous scandal given, I would most earnestly recommend total laicization," he wrote. "I say 'total' ... because when these men are taken before civil authority, the non-Catholic world definitely blames the discipline of celibacy for the perversion of these men."

The letter proves that Vatican officials knew about clergy abuse decades ago and should have done more to protect children, said Tony DeMarco, an attorney for clergy abuse victims in Los Angeles.

The church has come under fire for transferring priests accused of sexual abuse to other parishes, rather than reporting the abuse to civil authorities and removing them from ministry.

Fitzgerald's letter shows the pope knew how pervasive and destructive the problem was, DeMarco said.

"He says the solution is to take them out of the priesthood period, not shuffle them around, not pass them from diocese to diocese."

The letter was released in Los Angeles by attorneys who represented more than 500 victims of clergy abuse in their record-breaking $660 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2007.

It's among thousands of pages of clergy abuse documents that are to be released as a condition of the settlement after review and approval by a judge overseeing the process.

The letter released Wednesday is different from a 1957 letter made public last year in which Fitzgerald seeks help from the Bishop of Manchester, N.H. in finding a placement for a priest leaving the treatment program.

Attorneys also released a 250-page, redacted transcript of the 2007 deposition of the Rev. Joseph McNamara, who took over the Paraclete after Fitzgerald.

Reuters; AP; LA Times; Washington Post.

In Washington...


With all the things going on in D.C. these days, here are some things in the works that haven't been getting a lot of coverage.

Lawmakers Push For Speedier Tax Refunds

Give people their money. It's the rallying cry of lawmakers around the country pushing back against states that are delaying tax refunds to shore up their budgets. Holding on to the refunds allows states to use the money for other purposes, earn interest on it or simply wait until there's enough cash to cover the checks. But the cost can be an unhappy public.

"It's not the state's money, it's the people's money," said Missouri Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem. "It's money they've overpaid to the state, and they deserve to get their money back in a prompt time."

Hawaii, North Carolina and New York are delaying refunds this year. Minnesota delayed some business tax refunds last year and may do so again. Alabama is waiting to send out millions of dollars in refunds until it has the cash.

Some lawmakers want to force money to be returned faster - even as their states face budget deficits and falling revenue.

Missouri delayed sending refunds last year to beef up its cash reserves. But a backlash from taxpayers has led Republican lawmakers to push legislation to stop it from happening again.

Right now, the state can hold tax refunds up to four months -- or until mid-August -- without paying interest. Legislation that has cleared the Missouri House would slice the grace period to a month and a half.

The Hawaii House also has endorsed a tighter deadline, which would require refunds to be issued three months after taxpayers file returns, rather than within three months of April 20, the state's filing deadline.

A bill already filed in the New York Assembly is aimed at preventing refund delays. Lawmakers justify it by pointing out that taxpayers usually don't get more time to pay the money they owe.

Creg Maroney of Pleasant Valley, N.Y., said he and his wife filed state tax returns more than a month ago and have not received the $1,600 they planned to put toward property taxes.

"I feel taken advantage of," said Maroney, a 40-year-old excavator and member of the anti-tax We The People Foundation. "I feel robbed."

Refunds are not legally due until June 1 in New York, so the state won't pay interest to taxpayers on delayed refunds, even though taxpayers face interest costs if they miss their April 15 filing deadline.

State officials say budget troubles have left them no choice. The Pew Center on the States estimated states have filled more than $300 billion in budget holes through a variety of methods since December 2007.

Matt Anderson, a spokesman for the New York governor's budget office, said the state lowered the maximum amount of refunds it would issue during the first three months of the year from $1.75 billion to $1.25 billion.

The remaining $500 million is to be released when the state's new budget year starts Thursday. New York plans to roll about $2 billion worth of expenses into next year's budget to make up its deficit.

"Clearly there are some taxpayers who view this as an inconvenience, and they're certainly correct," Anderson said. "The reason we have to take action like this is we are in dire circumstances."

In Hawaii, which faces a projected $721 million budget hole, Gov. Linda Lingle plans to hold on to $275 million by waiting to issue tax refunds for personal, corporate and fiduciary income taxes. State officials say by law they can hold refunds until July for those who file their returns on time and even longer for those who are late.

North Carolina stalled refunds last year and plans to do so again because tax collections remain weak.

"It's very much like the way a family manages their checkbook at the end of the month," Revenue Secretary Kenneth Lay said in February. "When you're writing those checks to pay your bills, you want to make sure that you have enough in the account to pay each one of them."

Even without proposed new deadlines from lawmakers, some states are adopting new strategies to avoid delays.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon plans to borrow $200 million from a pool of federal stimulus money. So far this year, Missourians who filed electronically have been issued refunds in an average of less than six business days. For paper filers, it has been less than nine days, though the averages are expected to rise, said Revenue Department spokesman Ted Farnen.

Kansas, meanwhile, has delayed state payments for public schools over the last five months to keep tax refund checks moving quickly.

Gov't Set To Ban Texting By Truck, Bus Drivers

The Transportation Department on Wednesday proposed a ban on text messaging at the wheel by interstate truck and bus drivers, following up on its call to reduce distractions that lead to crashes.

The proposal would make permanent an interim ban announced in January by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, applying to drivers of buses and commercial trucks over 10,000 pounds. The drivers could face civil or criminal penalties.

The proposal "keeps our commitment to making our roads safer by reducing the threat of distracted driving," LaHood said.

As navigation systems, cell phones and mobile electronics have become ubiquitous in cars and trucks, safety advocates and the government have pushed for restrictions. The Transportation Department reports that 5,870 people were killed and 515,000 injured in 2008 in crashes connected to driver distraction, often involving mobile devices or cell phones.

Trucking and bus industry officials support the texting ban and many companies already have policies in place against texting behind the wheel. The government prohibition doesn't apply to onboard devices that allow dispatchers to send text messages to truck drivers, but industry officials say most of the devices have mechanisms preventing their use while a truck is moving.

Clayton Boyce, a spokesman for American Trucking Associations, said his trade group was analyzing the proposal but has supported LaHood's efforts. "Texting while driving is a serious safety hazard, which is why ATA also supports texting bans for drivers of automobiles," he said.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia already prohibit all drivers from texting behind the wheel, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Another nine states restrict texting by novice drivers.

The government, industry and safety organizations have found common ground on texting and driving, concerned that typing out a message on a mobile device can take a driver's eyes off the road for a dangerous number of seconds.

Research by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration shows that drivers who send and receive text messages take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds out of every 6 seconds while texting. At 55 miles per hour, that means the driver is traveling the length of a football field without looking at the road.

Texting has grown exponentially in recent years and become a favorite form of communication among teens. The wireless industry association CTIA reported that the number of text messages sent by its members' customers increased from 32.6 billion in the first six months of 2005 to 740 billion in the first six months of 2009.

John Walls, a CTIA spokesman, said the group supports a ban on texting for all drivers: "Those are two completely incompatible behaviors - texting and safe driving."

The public has until May 3 to comment on the Transportation Department's proposed ban, and after reviewing comments the department can issue its new rule.

President Obama signed an executive order directing federal employees not to use text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles or with government-owned equipment, effective at the end of last year.

Congress has also shown interest in curbing distracted driving. Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey have introduced legislation to urge states to pass laws banning texting by all drivers. The bill would reduce federal highway aid by 25 percent to states that fail to enact bans.

FAA Investigates Near Mid-Air Crash Over SF

Federal investigators are looking into the weekend near collision of a commercial jet and small airplane near San Francisco International Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration is taking "strong measures to make sure something similar does not occur in the future" following Saturday's near-miss between United Airlines Flight 889 to Beijing, China, and a light-wing airplane, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. The National Transportation Safety Board also is investigating.

The closest the planes came to each other was 300 feet vertically and 1,500 feet horizontally, Gregor said. The United flight continued to Beijing with no further incident.

According to Gregor, air traffic controllers cleared the United flight, a Boeing 777 carrying 251 passengers, for takeoff at 11:15 a.m. and quickly spotted the Cessna 182 flying south.

The controller radioed both planes' pilots, Gregor said, and the jet's automatic traffic collision avoidance system alerted its pilots of the small aircraft approaching, causing them to level the jet's climb.

"The Cessna pilot reported that he had the 777 in sight, and adjusted his path to maneuver above and behind the 777," Gregor told The Associated Press in an e-mail.

United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said the airline is fully cooperating with the investigation and that it reported the incident to NTSB. She said this kind of near, mid-air collision is "unusual" for United.

Gregor said the controller should have noticed the Cessna earlier, but noted that the pilots were quickly contacted once the situation was recognized.

David Caldwell, union representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at the SFO tower, had no immediate comment on the investigation.

"We have to go through a process to make a fair evaluation of what happened, and if we need to fix something, we fix something," Caldwell said.

Gregor said the FAA does not keep statistics on near misses, and that they are reported by pilots. However, he said misses this close are rare and need to be properly scrutinized.

NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said its investigation could take three to 12 months.

"If we determine at any point in the investigation that there was a serious safety issue ... we can issue safety recommendations," Knudson said.

US House of Representatives; We The People Foundation; The Wall Street Journal; US DOT; American Trucking Association; Governors Highway Safety Association; Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration; CTIA; NTSB; FAA; Valerie Bauman in Albany, N.Y., and Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh, N.C., contributed material for this report.


UN Haiti Donor Pledges Surpass Targets To Reach $5.3 Billion

The amount - to be spread out over the next two years - exceeds the $4bn requested by the Haitian government to rebuild infrastructure. In total, donors pledged $9.9 billion for the next three years and beyond, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said in New York.

"This is the down-payment Haiti needs for wholesale national renewal," Mr Ban said.

The aim of the conference was to help the country "build back better" after the 12 January earthquake killed 200,000 people and left one million more homeless. The biggest contributions came from the United States and the 27-member European Union. The question on many minds is oversight and accountability. Also will this be enough to help the 'wayward child' of the Caribbean?

On the Web:

UN

Iranian Scientists Defects To US

An Iranian nuclear scientist who has been missing since June has defected to the US, according to a US media report. ABC News is reporting that Shahram Amiri had been resettled in the US and was helping the CIA in its efforts to block Iran's nuclear program.

Mr Amiri disappeared in Saudi Arabia while on a Muslim pilgrimage.

Iran accused the US of abducting him but Washington denied any knowledge of the scientist. The CIA has declined to comment on the latest report.

Mr Amiri worked as a researcher at Tehran's Malek Ashtar University, according to Iran's state-run Press TV channel.

However, some reports said he had also been employed by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, and had wanted to seek asylum abroad.

CIA operation? The US and its Western allies suspect Iran of secretly developing nuclear weapons - a claim denied by Tehran. According to ABC, the scientist has been extensively debriefed, and has helped to confirm US intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear program.

His defection was apparently the result of a wider operation, under which the US has been approaching Iranian scientists, sometimes through relatives living in America, to try to persuade them to defect.

By making this defection public, it appears the Americans are putting more psychological pressure on the Iranian authorities, says the BBC's Tehran correspondent Jon Leyne, who is in London.

Iran's nuclear program is the subject of extensive intelligence work in the West with the aims of gathering information on it, preventing Iran buying equipment for it and, reportedly, sabotaging the program by selling Iran defective parts on the black market, our correspondent says.

Quite how important Mr Amiri is, or what information he can provide, has not emerged, our correspondent adds.

US Navy Aircraft Goes Down In Arabian Sea

A US Navy plane with four crew members on board has crashed into the Arabian Sea, the US Fifth Fleet said.

It said in a statement that the E-2C Hawkeye aircraft experienced mechanical malfunctions, forcing the crew to perform a controlled bail-out. Three of the four crew were later recovered and a search is now under way for the fourth crew member.

An investigation has been launched into the incident. The crew was stationed on the USS Dwight D Eisenhower. The aircraft had crashed into the sea at about 1400 local time (1000 GMT) on Wednesday, the statement said.

It said the plane "was returning from conducting operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan when the problems had occurred.

The identities of the crew are being withheld pending notification of next-of-kin.

Obama Eases Offshore Drilling Ban

Oil firms could be given the chance to explore for reserves off the US coast for the first time in decades, under plans outlined by President Obama.

The White House says drilling will be allowed off Virginia and considered off much of the rest of the Atlantic coast. The plans would overturn moratoriums on exploration put in place in the 1980s. Analysts say the move, designed to cut dependency on foreign oil, is aimed at appeasing Republicans to help pass Mr Obama's climate-change proposals.

The Democrat-backed climate change bill, which calls for binding emissions' limits, has been languishing in Congress for months amid Republican opposition.

But Republicans have opposed much of Obama's domestic agenda, and were quick to dismiss his oil drilling plans. John Boehner, Republican leader in the House of Representatives, welcomed the end of the moratorium in the east, but said keeping the ban on other areas "makes no sense".

Environmental campaigners also denounced the plans, with Greenpeace saying it added to the US "addiction to oil".

Seniors Fear Health Reform Will Hurt Medicare

Seniors aren't breaking out the champagne for President Obama's health care law, and for good reason.

While Democrats hail the overhaul as their greatest health care achievement since Medicare, seniors fear it's a raid on that same giant health care program - a bedrock of retirement security - in order to pay for covering younger, uninsured workers and their families.

There's no doubt that broad cuts in projected Medicare payments to insurance plans, hospitals, nursing homes and other service providers will sting. What hasn't sunk in yet is that the new law also improves the lot of many Medicare beneficiaries. Obama is hoping that most will eventually conclude the plusses outweigh the minuses.

Keenly aware that this is a congressional election year, Democrats structured the law so virtually all the cuts start next year and take effect only gradually. For this year, the law provides a sweetener. More than 3 million seniors who have been falling into a Medicare prescription coverage gap will get a $250 rebate, a down payment on closing the "doughnut hole."

Nonetheless, seniors are anxious.

It's going to take a while before the verdict is in. Change will come slowly to Medicare, which covers 46 million seniors and disabled people. There will be winners and losers:

  • Gross cuts in projected payments to insurers, hospitals and other providers total $533 billion over 10 years, according to a preliminary analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. About $100 billion will be plowed back into Medicare, leaving a net cut of $428 billion. Medicare spending will continue to grow under the law, just not as fast. The reductions are smaller (about 6 percent) than Democratic President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress came up with in 1997 (12 percent). Still, they're deep enough that some experts believe a future Congress will reconsider them.
  • The law strengthens traditional Medicare, which covers about three-fourths of seniors, by improving preventive care and increasing payments to frontline primary care doctors and nurses serving as medical coordinators. But it gradually reduces generous government subsidies to private insurance plans, Medicare alternatives that have lately gained popularity. That could lead to an exodus from the private plans.
  • The most significant new benefit - closing Medicare's prescription coverage gap -- won't be fully phased in until 2020. That's a long time if you're old and frail. The coverage gap starts after the first $2,830 spent on medications in a year. Seniors then pay entirely out of their pocket until they have spent $4,550, when the government starts picking up 95 percent of the tab. After the rebate this year, seniors in the gap will get a 50 percent discount on brand name drugs in 2011, and a smaller break on generics. The discounts gradually ramp up until the "doughnut hole" is closed.
  • One change has received little attention but could have major consequences. The law authorizes a variety of experiments to provide better care for seniors struggling with multiple chronic illnesses - about half the program's beneficiaries. Prominent voices in the medical community have been clamoring for the government to use Medicare as a laboratory for change. If the approach succeeds, fewer people may end up in the hospital for bad drug reactions and other common problems.

Many seniors in private insurance plans under Medicare Advantage will face higher premiums and reduced benefits as subsidies are scaled back over three to six years to bring the private plans' costs in line with those of traditional Medicare.

"Beneficiaries will notice that, and they're going to be unhappy because it's a takeaway," said Moon, who directs the health care program at the American Institutes for Research.

Government payments to the private plans - about 10 percent richer than per-person spending for traditional Medicare - have enabled them to offer comprehensive coverage for less. Seniors flocked to sign up, boosting enrollment to about one quarter of all Medicare beneficiaries.

The same cuts will benefit seniors in traditional Medicare, who have been paying higher monthly premiums to support the government's generosity. There's also a potential silver lining for private plans. The law allows them to earn bonus payments for high quality.

Such nuances got lost in an emotional debate that veered off into "death panels" and "pulling the plug on grandma." Nothing that drastic was ever in the bill. Still, Republicans accuse Obama of slashing Medicare, and polls show the message has stuck.

An Associated Press-GfK survey in March found that 54 percent of seniors opposed the legislation then taking final shape in Congress, compared with 36 percent of people age 18-50.

AARP and other major organizations representing seniors supported the law, despite the polls. Now they're planning a sustained outreach campaign to call attention to the legislation's benefits. It might not be an easy sale.

Explosion Levels Northern Kentucky Home

A huge explosion leveled a home in northern Kentucky on Wednesday, firefighters said. A dispatcher said the Fort Wright home exploded and caught fire just before 10 a.m., Cincinnati TV station WLWT reported.

No injuries were reported. Images from the scene show some walls were blown out and the roof collapsed after the blast. The home's owner told WLWT the house had been vacant for some time and that she had recently taken a deposit check from prospective renters. The owner said the house is insured.

Firefighters said they were leaning toward a gas leak as the cause of the blast. Gas and electric services were still turned on at the home.

UN; ABC News; USN/US DoD; AP; WLWT-TV, Cincinnati.

360 Degrees - Blog Sponsor Ad - March 2010
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360 In-Depth: More Families Depend On Subsidized School Lunches

In the midst of a blistering recession, more families are flocking to the federal program that gives students free or reduced-priced lunches.

Schools are watching for who enrolls in the program because it gives teachers insight into life at home and officials consider it a barometer of poverty.

The numbers are telling.

During the 2008-2009 school year, about 19 million students received free and reduced lunches, which is 895,000 more than the previous year -- a jump of nearly 5 percent and that greatly outpaced the overall increase in school enrollment, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service. Typically, the increases are about 1 to 2 percent each year.

"We have seen record program growth over the past two years as we go through this difficult period," said Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the subsidized lunch agency.

Meanwhile, 78 percent of school nutrition directors surveyed in the fall said they had noticed an increased number of students eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals for the 2009-2010 school year, according to the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit that represents those who prepare school meals.

"This year principals have commented

that it is the worst they have seen

it in terms of families trying to

just stay afloat."

- Luanne Nelson, Omaha, Nebraska Public School district

To qualify for the mostly federally funded school meal program, a family of four can earn no more than $28,665 for free lunch and $40,793 for reduced-cost lunches of no more than 40 cents. The guidelines are different in Alaska and Hawaii, where families can earn more and still qualify.

As more students get subsidized lunches, some cash-strapped districts say they are struggling to provide the meals with the amount of money the federal government provides. Schools are forced to dip into other parts of their budgets and they're pressing lawmakers for more funding. For all, it's a stark example of how the recession is hurting families.

In Nebraska, 67 percent of the Omaha Public Schools' 47,000 students are receiving free or subsidized lunches, up from 62 percent last year.

"This year principals have commented that it is the worst they have seen it in terms of families trying to just stay afloat," said district spokeswoman Luanne Nelson. "There has been a marked decline in family income."

The federal government picks up most of the tab for the subsidized meal program, with some states kicking in a small amount. The money is supposed to cover lunches, but the School Nutrition Association said many districts have to squeeze funds for the meals out of other areas of their budgets.

"The reimbursement rate for school lunches hasn't kept pace with the cost of goods," said Lynn McCawley, a spokeswoman in Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland. "This is especially true as we focus on selecting healthier school lunch choices. As the quality goes up so does the price."

However, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service said its most recent analysis, released in April 2008 and based on data from the 2005-06 school year, found that the reimbursement rate covered the cost of meals. The rate is recalculated each year to help payments keep pace with costs.

To help schools further, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is urging Congress as it prepares to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act to dole out more money.

Regardless of whether districts are losing money or breaking even, they are watching the subsidized meal numbers with interest because of what it signifies their students face at home.

"Families are struggling more and more," said Jennifer Adach, of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, who notes that demand for food stamps is also up.

In the Columbus, Ohio, area, about half the students in South-Western City Schools district receive subsidized meals, and officials say they try to ensure the meals are very nutritious.

"It drives us to make sure we are serving fresh fruits and vegetables every day and whole grains, foods that they might not have access to at home," said Beth Glitt, who oversees the district's foodservice department.

And when life is not stable at home, everything changes. Superintendent Mike Mathes, whose district is on the outskirts of Topeka, Kan., said one of the most heartbreaking stories he has come across is 11 students from three families crowded into a rental home and a trailer parked outside.

"The number one priority in those kids' lives isn't school, it's surviving," Mathes said.

His staff received training on teaching students in poverty as the district's free and reduced-price numbers grew.

Among other things, teachers are being advised to think hard about asking students to bring $5 for a field trip or $10 for a class T-shirt.

"Now with a third of our kids living in poverty," he said, "they may not have $5."

On the Web:

National School Lunch Program

National School Lunch Act on Wikipedia

US. Dept. of Agriculture; Dept. of Education; The Wall Street Journal; Reuters; AP.

Who's Running Whom? Toyota Spent $1.4 Million On 4Q Lobbying

The North American branch of automaker Toyota Motor Corp. spent $1.4 million lobbying Congress and the federal government during the fourth quarter on issues related to distracted driving, consumer protections and patents, according to a recent filing.

The company, part of the world's largest automaker, spent more in the fourth quarter than the $1.25 million it allotted to lobbying in the same quarter of 2008. It was also more than the $1.2 million Toyota spent on lobbying during the third quarter of 2009, according to a disclosure report filed Jan. 20 with the House clerk's office.

Toyota was dealing with the first of a string of recalls during the fourth quarter over issues of sudden unintended acceleration. But most of the automaker's major recall woes and bad publicity -- which included several congressional hearings - didn't develop until the beginning of 2010.

Among the issues that Toyota lobbied on were pedestrian safety, bills to curb texting while driving, a bill enacting new consumer protections and legislation to support the development of new vehicle technologies like electric power.

US House of Representative; Reuters; Wall Street Journal; AP.

DOJ: Effort Against ID Theft Falls Short


An internal review has found that the Justice Department has not done enough to fight identity theft, the fastest-growing crime in the country.

Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine says in a report that the department is falling short in efforts to combat identity theft, and that the issue has faded as a priority over the past two years.

Federal authorities reported last year that identity theft affects an estimated 10 million Americans annually.

A Justice Department spokeswoman says the agency agrees with the inspector general's recommendations to improve coordination among law enforcement offices, and is implementing them.

US Dept of Justice.

UPDATE: Rhode Island Flooding 'Unprecedented'

A 360 Degrees Perspective

A record-shattering rainstorm hammered the Northeast on Tuesday, delivering widespread flooding for the second time this month and unleashing particular havoc in Rhode Island, a tiny coastal state already beleaguered by a sagging economy and backbreaking unemployment rate.

The storm soaked all corners of what is known as the Ocean State, pushing rivers over their banks, closing roads and schools, and requiring hundreds of people to evacuate, including by boat. The rain finally tapered off by Tuesday afternoon but resumed in Providence by evening, with officials bracing for what is expected to be the most severe flooding to hit the state in more than 100 years.

As flood waters began to sweep through first floors in some areas, rivers from Maine down to the New York area weren't even expected to crest until Wednesday or Thursday.

"None of us alive have seen the flooding that we are experiencing now or going to experience," Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri said Tuesday night. "This is unprecedented in our state's history."

The rain came as residents were still recovering from a storm two weeks ago that dumped as much as 10 inches on the region and led the President to declare a major disaster in all but one Rhode Island county. Business owners in the flood zone are still grappling with the impact of lost income.

"It's definitely devastating," said liquor store owner Maria Medeiros, whose family-owned business in Providence now abuts raging rapids of water and streets barricaded by the police. "Situations like this, what can you do?"

Across the street, workers in a Blockbuster video store scrambled to raise DVDs to top shelves to avoid any damage.

Carcieri last week cited what he called the state's "fragile economic climate" and an estimated $220 million state budget deficit when he asked Obama to declare a federal disaster. The state's unemployment rate has hovered for months around 13 percent and has long been among the highest in the nation.

"Rhode Island's state and local governments have scant financial resources to support a robust recovery effort," Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse wrote in asking Obama to extend the disaster to all of Rhode Island and also to make a federal emergency declaration.

Obama issued an emergency declaration late Tuesday for the state, ordering federal aid for disaster relief and authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate relief efforts.

Even fishermen were hit: Shellfish beds in Rhode Island and Massachusetts were closed because of sewage overflows and failures at wastewater treatment facilities caused by flooding.

National Guard troops were activated in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Scattered home evacuations were reported in those states, as well, and residents in flood-prone areas of New Hampshire were put on alert that they may have to leave. No deaths were reported in those states as of Tuesday evening.

The nearly 14 inches of rain that fell this month in Boston broke the previous March record of 11, according to the National Weather Service. New Jersey and parts of New York City also set March records. And by Tuesday afternoon, Providence had recorded more than 15 inches of rain in March, becoming the rainiest of any month on record.

In one water-weary neighborhood along the Pawtuxet River in Cranston, basements were flooded by early Tuesday morning as water levels approached waist-deep levels toward the end of the street. One resident hung a sign: "FEMA + State + City of Cranston. Buy our houses."

"Right now it's bad and getting worse," said Brian Dupont, a real estate broker who owns two homes on the street. He feared the dozens of sandbags protecting the homes would offer minimal protection.

"We've got a saying, 'It's like trying to shovel against the tide.' It's terrible, terrible," said Dupont, who was afraid the home might now be unsellable.

Standing water pooled on or rushed across roads in the region, making driving treacherous and forcing closures.

Interstate 95, a major East Coast thoroughfare, was closed for about a quarter-mile in Warwick, R.I., because of flooding and down to one lane in other areas of Rhode Island. In Maine, a dam in Porter let loose Tuesday morning, sending a torrent of water down country roads. No evacuations or injuries were reported.

North of New York City, a man in his 70s drove past a barricade onto a flooded section of the Bronx River Parkway and had to be rescued from the roof of his truck, Westchester County police said. On Long Island, rain coupled with tides inundated a 20-mile stretch of oceanfront road in Southampton.

In Connecticut, heavy rains caused the earth under a Middletown apartment complex parking lot to give way, leaving two buildings teetering over the ravine of a river. Residents have been evacuated to an emergency shelter at a local high school.

Weather-related delays averaged three hours at Newark Liberty International Airport and two hours at New York's La Guardia Airport, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In New York City, a mudslide caused some interruptions on a commuter rail line in the Bronx.

Reuters; FOX News; The Weather Channel; The National Weather Service/NOAA; Associated Press writers Bob Salsberg in Wayland, Mass., Stephen Singer and Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Conn., Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine, and Samantha Henry in Newark, N.J.contributed to this report.

New Claims State Vatican Protected Priest

Lawyers representing an alleged victim of sex abuse claim the Vatican instructed church officials in Florida to shelter a priest from Cuba who was later accused of pedophilia.

Attorney Jessica Arbour, who represents an alleged victim of the Rev. Ernesto Garcia-Rubio, released a 1968 letter from the Vatican to the Archdiocese of Miami, stating the cleric had been forced to leave Cuba "because of serious difficulties of a moral nature (homosexuality)."

Arbour contends that the wording of the letter was used at the time as code for pedophilia, though archdiocese officials disputed that.

The claims come during a new wave of questions about the Roman Catholic church's response to sexual abuse allegations in Ireland and Germany, and about the roles Pope Benedict XVI played when he was an archbishop in his native Germany and then prefect of the Vatican's moral watchdog office.

"I think it means exactly what it says," Miami archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said of the Vatican's reference to homosexuality. "And certainly homosexuality does not equate to child predators."

The letter goes on to state that the archbishop of Miami "will wish to have this information so that whatever steps are necessary may be taken to protect this priest with your accustomed paternal charity."

Arbour says the priest was put in a position where he was "literally fed victims," often unaccompanied children who came as refugees from Cuba, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Arbour said the priest would take the children in, and that he would require them to have sexual contact with him.

If the child refused, Garcia-Rubio would threaten to deport them, Arbour said.

"He was given access to a very vulnerable population that had a constant stream of potential victims," she said.

Garcia-Rubio left to work in Honduras in the 1980s, at which time letters were sent to the bishop there expressing concern about the priest's behavior, Agosta said.

The priest voluntarily withdrew from the priesthood in 1999, Agosta said. His current location was not immediately clear.

Benedict is not specifically named in any of the documents, but Arbour notes he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith between 1981 and 2005. In that role, Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, could have taken action to defrock, or remove Garcia-Rubio from the priesthood, Arbour said.

"There's 20 years of opportunities for Ratzinger to stop him and he didn't," Arbour said.

Garcia-Rubio first petitioned the Vatican to remove him from the priesthood -- which is called being laicized -- in 1994, a request that would have fallen under Benedict's jurisdiction as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Arbour said.

"Six years later, he still hadn't been laicized," Arbour said. "It was because they had lost the paperwork in Rome."

Garcia-Rubio later filed the petition again and it was granted. Arbour does not have any evidence Garcia-Rubio abused children after he first entered his petition. Agosta said the 1968 letter came from the Apostolic Nuncio because there was no communication with churches in Cuba at the time, nine years after the revolution in which Fidel Castro took power.

"The only reason the Vatican was involved in that particular time in 1968 was because the priests were removed by Fidel Castro out of Cuba," Agosta said.

WSVN-TV, Miami; Miami Herald; FOX News; Reuters; AP.