Tuesday, April 20, 2010

China To Hold Day Of Mourning For Quake Victims

China ordered flags be flown at half-staff and a halt to all entertainment, including online games and sports events, for a national day of mourning Wednesday to honor more than 2,000 people killed by a devastating earthquake in a remote Tibetan region.

Similar arrangements were made two years ago following a larger and deadlier earthquake in southern China's Sichuan province that left nearly 90,000 dead or missing. Such high-profile displays of government concern are also likely aimed at tamping any potential unrest among the mostly Tibetan victims.

Tibetan anger over political and religious restrictions and perceived economic exploitation by the ethnic majority Han Chinese have sometimes erupted in violence.

The death toll from the massive April 14 quake in remote Yushu county in Qinghai province, high on the Tibetan plateau, rose Tuesday to 2,046, the provincial press center reported. More than 12,000 were injured and 196 people were still missing, it said. By China's measure the quake was a magnitude 7.1, while the U.S. Geological Survey put it at 6.9.

Hail, snow and sleet hit the high-altitude region on Tuesday, slowing rescue work and causing some delays on the main highway linking the disaster area to the provincial capital of Xining. Some aid-laden trucks slowed to a crawl or got stuck on the icy, winding mountain passes.

Three people were rescued Monday, including a 4-year-old girl and an elderly woman who survived under the rubble for five days because relatives used bamboo poles to push water and rice to them until rescuers pulled them out. The rescues were hailed by state media as a miracle and repeatedly played on television news broadcasts.

Six days after the quake, there appeared little hope of finding more survivors in the frigid conditions.

In Qinghai, officials planned to commemorate the dead Wednesday with mourning ceremonies and three minutes of silence across the province, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Flags will be lowered across the country and at Chinese embassies and consulates overseas, marking one week since the earthquake hit, China's Cabinet announced Tuesday. The Ministry of Culture separately ordered online entertainment, including games as well as music and movie downloads, be suspended for the day. Live entertainment, such as theater and dance performances were also to be postponed, it said on its official website.

The Chinese government has poured in aid to Tibet and surrounding regions, such as Qinghai, where residents have frequently chafed under Chinese rule.

14 Reputed Gambino Family Members Face Charges

Authorities have charged 14 reputed members and associates of the Gambino crime family on counts including sex trafficking, murder and racketeering.

The charges were described at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says it appears to be the first time that a crime family was accused of setting up its own interstate sex trafficking ring.

Bharara says it's more evidence that organized crime lives on, despite repeated prosecutions.

Among the charges are an allegation that those who were trafficked included a 15-year-old girl. Authorities say the women were under the age of 20.

Mortgage Aid Program Called More Prone To Scams

Recent changes to the Obama administration's mortgage assistance program may make it more vulnerable to fraud, a government watchdog says.

The changes, announced last month, are intended to make it easier for struggling homeowners to avoid foreclosure. But the administration hasn't done enough to warn the public about fraud and hasn't included sufficient safeguards to prevent abuse, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, said.

"Criminals feed on borrower confusion, and frequent changes to the programs provide opportunities for experienced criminal elements to prey on desperate homeowners," inspector general Neil Barofsky wrote in a quarterly report issued Tuesday.

Last month, the Treasury Department revised the $75 billion mortgage assistance program it first rolled out last year. It is intended to prevent 3 million to 4 million home foreclosures by encouraging mortgage lenders to lower monthly payments.

So far only about 170,000 homeowners have qualified for mortgage modifications and critics charge the effort isn't making much headway. In a report last month, Barofsky's office said that a lack of planning and shifting rules on who qualifies has slowed the program's progress.

In response to the criticisms, the administration made several changes. Mortgage lenders will receive incentive payments if they reduce the amount borrowers owe. That would help homeowners with mortgages larger than their homes are worth -- a situation known as being "underwater."

In addition, unemployed homeowners can get their mortgage payments cut to 31 percent of their income for three to six months.

In his report, Barofsky called the changes "a potentially important step forward for homeowner relief."

But, while the changes were announced "with great fanfare, little was done at the time to warn borrowers" about potential fraud, the report said.

The administration's existing program has already spawned fraudulent schemes, the report said, such as one in which borrowers are tricked by "thieves" into paying upfront for modifications that never materialize.

Under the changes announced last month, Treasury isn't requiring appraisals to determine a home's value in cases where mortgage principle is reduced, the report said. That could make it easier for mortgage lenders to fraudulently qualify for incentive payments.

Treasury should instead follow the Federal Housing Administration's guidelines, which require the use of an FHA-approved appraiser, the report recommended.

In response, Treasury Department officials told the inspector general they will soon initiate a public service campaign warning against fraud. Treasury officials didn't respond to the recommendation that the FHA's guidelines should be followed.

Goldman Earns $3.3B In 1Q As Fraud Case Looms

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said Tuesday its first-quarter earnings almost doubled to $3.3 billion as its trading business again surpassed the rest of the financial industry. It was a bit of good news for the bank as it faces a government civil fraud charge.

Goldman Sachs earned $5.59 a share on revenue of $12.78 billion as bond, commodities and currency trading buoyed its profits for yet another quarter. That was well above expectations of analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters. In the fourth quarter, Goldman Sachs earned a record $4.79 billion.

Goldman Sachs also reported sharply higher fees from underwriting stock and debt offerings.

Even as it reported another strong quarter, the bank is facing a major challenge after being charged Friday in a civil fraud lawsuit by the Securities and Exchange and Commission. The SEC alleges that Goldman Sachs and one of its vice presidents misled investors who bought complex financial products that were expected to fail.

CEO Lloyd Blankfein in a statement thanked the bank's supporters without specifically mentioning the SEC case.

The company said it set aside $5.5 billion in the first three months of the year to pay employee salaries and bonuses, up 17 percent from last year. However, Goldman Sachs said the percentage of revenue set aside for compensation in the quarter fell from 50 percent to 43 percent year-over-year.

Banks' high levels of compensation, including bonuses, have come under heavy criticism since the financial crisis that began in 2008. Lawmakers and the public have complained that the banks were rewarding the same employees whose risky trading practices helped plunge the country into recession. Goldman Sachs, because of its great success in trading, has come under particular sharp criticism.

Survey: Limits Keep Teens From Bad Texting

Teenagers have embraced text messaging as their main form of communication, but mobile phones are often a source of tension with parents and schools, a new survey found.

The frequency with which teens text has overtaken every other form of interaction, including instant messaging and talking face-to-face, according to a study scheduled for released Tuesday by researchers at Pew Research Center and the University of Michigan.

Three-quarters of teens now own cell phones, up from 45 percent in 2004. Of those who own cell phones, 88 percent text, up from just over half in 2006.

At the same time, cell phones and teens' attachment to them are a source of conflict with parents and schools. Many parents limit cell phone use and 48 percent said they use it to monitor their kids' whereabouts - either by using GPS technology or calling the child to check in. Not surprisingly, the parents of girls aged 12 and 13 were more likely to say they monitor cell phone use.

The limits did seem to have tangible benefits. Teens were less likely to report regretting a text they sent, or having sent sexual content by text message, if their parents placed limits on text messaging. They were also less likely to us their cell phones dangerously while driving.

Schools, the survey found, often ban cell phones from classrooms, and some from school grounds entirely, seeing them as a "disruptive force." Still, more than half of teens who own mobile phones said they have sent a text message during class, even though their school bans mobile phones.

Despite all the media attention to "sexting," only 4 percent of teens said they have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else via a text message. Teens who pay their own cell phone bills were more likely to send "sexts" than those whose parents pay for all or part of their bill.

The survey of 800 teenagers aged 12 to 17 and their parents was conducted on landlines and cell phones from June to September 2009. It was conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the University of Michigan's Department of Communication Studies.

Bear Freed After Head Gets Stuck In Milk Can

Vermont wildlife officials on Sunday freed a young bear's head from a milk can after it apparently got stuck trying to reach food, WPTZ-TV in Plattsburgh reported.

State biologist Forrest Hammond, along with some help from firefighters and police, spent about 45 minutes Sunday afternoon getting the old-fashioned milk jug off the 120-pound bear's head, according to Vermont Fish and Wildlife spokesman John Hall.

The bear was found meandering through the woods, bumping into boulders and trees with the milk jug stuck on its head.

Hammond had to tranquilize the bear and first tried to soap up his head and pull the milk jug off, but that didn't work and he eventually had to use metal shears to get it loose.

"He just did an excellent job of getting out there," Hall said. "It's important, too, that nobody got hurt," he said, adding that the bear was released into the wild.

Hall said the bear was a young male.

"He was probably out on his own this spring, and desperate for food, and made a mistake," Hall said.

The milk jug had some bird seed in the bottom and wildlife officials believe that's what the bear was after.

Hall said the bear probably took the can from someone's residence and reminded homeowners to take bird feeders out of their yards in the spring to avoid attracting bears.

USGS; China Daily; AP; Reuters; BBC; US Attorney's Office, NY; TARP; Wall Street Journal; Bloomberg; University of Michigan; WPTZ-TV, Plattsburgh, Vermont.

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