Sunday, June 30, 2013

Gay marriage opponents ask Supreme Court to reimpose California ban

By Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Opponents of gay marriage filed a long-shot petition on Saturday with the Supreme Court asking the justices to immediately halt same-sex weddings taking place in California since Friday, when an appeals court lifted a 5-year-old ban on gay matrimony.

Marriage ceremonies of gay and lesbian couples went ahead after a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco removed its stay of a trial judge's order declaring the gay marriage ban, known as Proposition 8, unconstitutional.

The stay had been in force while the decision striking down Prop 8, a state constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2008, was appealed to the Supreme Court. Political supporters of the measure were left to appeal the case because state elected officials declined to defend it.

But the justices on Wednesday ruled Prop 8 proponents lacked legal standing to defend the ban, a decision that left the trial judge's ruling intact and paved the way for gay marriage in the state to resume.

The Supreme Court had said its ruling would not go into effect for at least 25 days, the amount of time normally given the losing party, in this case, Prop 8 backers, to seek a rehearing of the matter.

But California Attorney General Kamala Harris publicly urged the appeals court to lift its stay sooner than that, and on Friday the 9th Circuit did so in a surprise move that prompted a flurry of hastily arranged same-sex weddings up and down the state.

Harris herself officiated the very first one, a ceremony in which one of the two couples named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Prop 8, Kristin Perry and her fianc?e, Sandy Stier, exchanged vows on a balcony overlooking the grand staircase at San Francisco City Hall.

Dozens more couples lined up on Saturday at City Hall as officials kept the doors open to accommodate gay and lesbian couples eager to tie the knot.

The scene was upbeat but subdued, with many couples casually dressed as they waited to obtain marriage licenses. The calm was punctuated about every 15 minutes by loud clapping when a wedding ended, as family and friends of a newly wedded couple joined in applause with marriage license applicants.

City Administrator Naomi Kelly said at least one couple came from as far away as Texas.

One pair of San Francisco newlyweds, Ken and David Miller, who have been together for 24 years, said they decided to seize the moment on Saturday out of concern that the window for same-sex nuptials could somehow close again.

"We knew how the courts can play games and pull the plug," said Ken Miller, 60. "But the courts are closed over the weekend and the city was open, so we thought we should do it."

In their application asking the Supreme Court to overrule the 9th Circuit and reinstate the gay marriage ban, opponents argued the appeals court had jumped the gun in lifting its stay.

The Arizona-based group Alliance Defending Freedom argued that the 9th Circuit lacked authority to act when it did, and that it violated the terms of its own stay requiring the ruling remain in place "until final disposition by the Supreme Court."


But the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which sponsored the federal court challenge to Prop 8, issued a statement insisting the 9th Circuit acted under its own "broad discretion" to issue its stay in the first place.

"Now that the Supreme Court has decided that the injunction against Proposition 8 must stand, it was entirely appropriate for the 9th circuit to dissolve its stay of that injunction," the alliance said in a statement.

Foundation lawyer Ted Boutrous said Friday's move was hardly unprecedented and that appeals courts had acted similarly in previous, lower-profile cases without drawing attention. Prop 8 supporters, he said, "should hang it up and quit trying to stop people from getting married."

Margaret Russell, a constitutional law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law in California, told Reuters the petition by Prop 8 backers had little chance of success.

"The 25 days isn't a final date. It's a period of time, and the 9th Circuit has the right, actually, to act within the 25 days," Russell said. "They lost the case, so I think that's a weak petition and a weak argument."

Daria Roithmayr, a University of Southern California law school professor, said she expected the petition to be dismissed.

With the federal appeals court action on Friday, California became the 10th state, in addition to the District of Columbia, where gay marriage is legal. Laws legalizing same-sex marriage are due to go into effect in the coming weeks in three more states - Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota.

About 18,000 gay couples were previously married in California during a five-month window in 2008 after the state Supreme Court swept aside an earlier ban but before Prop 8 was passed in November of that year.

In August 2010, then-U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker declared Prop 8 unconstitutional following a three-week trial that marked the first challenge in federal court to any state law barring same-sex matrimony. It was his injunction against further enforcement of Prop 8 that had remained stayed by the appeals court pending resolution of the case.

The renewed tolling of wedding bells for same-sex couples in California capped a historic week for gay rights nationwide. The Supreme Court on Wednesday also struck down a U.S. law that denied various federal benefits to married gay couples.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis; Writing by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Patrick Creaven in San Francisco and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Eric Walsh and Eric Beech)


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Saturday, June 29, 2013

3rd man sought in Aaron Hernandez murder probe; Puma drops NFL star

Law enforcement officials have confirmed that Aaron Hernandez, who has been charged in the murder of Odin Lloyd, is also being investigated for two 2012 murders. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports and NBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom discusses the revelations.

By Richard Esposito and Erin McClam, NBC News

A third man was in custody Friday in Florida in an expanding murder investigation swirling around Aaron Hernandez, the star NFL tight end accused of orchestrating the shooting death of a friend.

Massachusetts State Police

Ernest Wallace, 41, known as ?Fish,? turned himself in in the Miami suburb of Miramar, police said. Massachusetts police had said they were seeking him as an accessory after murder, and that he was considered armed and dangerous. They were on their way to Florida to pick him up, NBC affiliate WHDH in Boston reported.

Hernandez, an All-Pro who was released by the New England Patriots after his arrest earlier this week, is charged with first-degree murder in the execution of the friend, Odin Lloyd. He was denied a second request for bail Thursday.

Sources told NBC News that he was being investigated in another case ? the drive-by killings of two men in Boston last year. The men were shot to death in an SUV after leaving a nightclub.

Hernandez, who is being held in a Massachusetts jail, lost a second endorsement deal Thursday. The Puma sportswear company, which signed Hernandez to a two-year deal in April, told CNBC it was ending the relationship ?in light of the current situation.? CytoSport, maker of the Muscle Milk supplement drink, dropped Hernandez as a pitchman last week.

Authorities have said Hernandez took part in Lloyd?s killing in the early hours of June 17 after summoning two friends from out of state. Lloyd?s body was found in an industrial park near Hernandez?s home in North Attleborough, Mass. Hernandez has pleaded not guilty.

Connecticut authorities said Thursday that they had charged another man in connection with Lloyd?s killing ? Carlos Ortiz of Bristol, the city where Hernandez grew up. He was charged as a fugitive and agreed to return to Massachusetts, authorities said.

Authorities have not spelled out the connection they believe Wallace and Ortiz have to the killing. They have said Lloyd was killed by two shots fired from someone standing above him, but they have not said who they believe pulled the trigger.

Ortiz was being held on $1.5 million bail. His public defender declined comment on Thursday.

Prosecutors say that text messages ? including from Lloyd to his sister when he was worried about his safety ? and surveillance video are part of their case against Hernandez. The judge who denied his second request for bail, Renee Dupuis of Superior Court in Fall River, described the state?s case as ?circumstantial but very, very strong.?

Prosecutors said they had uncovered four new pieces of evidence in less than 24 hours after searching a condo leased by Hernandez. They said they had found ammunition, a clip and a picture of Hernandez with a Glock handgun.

William McCauley, an assistant district attorney, also said that Hernandez had interfered with the investigation by home surveillance-camera video and instructing his girlfriend not to talk to investigators.

?The evidence of his guilt is overwhelming,? prosecutor William McCauley said.

Hernandez?s lawyers argued that he deserved bail because of his upstanding character and clean record, and because he was not a risk to flee. They noted that he stayed put last week, when rumors circulated that Hernandez was about to be arrested.



This story was originally published on


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Penguins' Bylsma to coach US Olympic team in Sochi

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma listens to a question during a news conference in Boston, Thursday, June 6, 2013. The Penguins are down 3-0 to the Boston Bruins in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs. Game 4 is scheduled for Friday. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma listens to a question during a news conference in Boston, Thursday, June 6, 2013. The Penguins are down 3-0 to the Boston Bruins in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs. Game 4 is scheduled for Friday. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2013, file photo, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma outlines a drill during an NHL hockey practice at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. USA Hockey hired Bylsma on Saturday, June 29, 2013, as the coach for the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team at the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Dan Bylsma has never coached hockey at the international level. The Pittsburgh Penguins coach does, however, know how to win while juggling a roster dotted with superstars.

That was good enough for USA Hockey to select Bylsma as coach of the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team at the 2014 Winter Olympics on Saturday, hoping the free-flowing style he teaches translates well to the wider rinks that await in Sochi, Russia in February.

The 42-year-old Michigan native didn't hide from the glaring hole in his resume moments after being introduced. When asked how he was going to build on his limited experience in international coaching, Bylsma quickly offered a correction.

"I don't have any experience," Bylsma said with a laugh. "So 'very little' is wrong."

The next eight months should take care of that as the U.S. vies for its first gold medal since the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.

The U.S. won silver in 2002 at Salt Lake City and was runner-up to Canada in Vancouver three years ago, losing 3-2 in overtime when Penguins star Sidney Crosby beat U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller 7:40 into the extra session.

Bylsma, who won the 2009 Stanley Cup with Crosby, was watching the game from a restaurant when he saw his captain take a pass from Jarome Iginla and race in on Miller to produce one of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport.

"I got off of my chair because I had a pretty good notion he was going to put that home for the win," Bylsma said.

NHL officials will meet with the players' association, the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation in New York on Monday to iron out an agreement allowing the league's top players to compete in Sochi.

Once approved, Bylsma will have to find a way to slow down Crosby and 2012 NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin, who is expected to play for his native Russia.

"I'm also a little bit concerned (Crosby) knows me as a coach, my strengths and my weaknesses he's going to bring that to the attention of the Canadian team," Bylsma said.

Nashville Predators general manager David Poile, who will serve in the same capacity for Sochi, called Bylsma "one of the very best coaches in the league."

Bylsma played nine years as a defensive-minded forward for the Los Angeles and Anaheim from 1995-2004 before moving into coaching. He replaced Michel Therrien as Penguins' coach in February 2009 and guided Pittsburgh to the third championship in franchise history.

He won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL Coach of the Year in 2011 and helped the Penguins post the best record in the Eastern Conference during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Pittsburgh advanced to the conference finals before being swept by the Boston Bruins. The Penguins rewarded Bylsma with a two-year contract extension through 2017 a week after their season ended.

The process of building the Olympic team will begin with an orientation camp in Washington D.C. in late August.

Poile expects the core of the team that won silver in Vancouver to return but allowed changes need to be made. The U.S. has historically struggled in Olympic competition overseas. The last time the U.S. team medaled at an Olympics outside of North America came in 1972 when it won silver in Sapporo, Japan and hasn't medaled at an Olympics in Europe since 1956.

"We can't be the same type of team because we haven't had success over there," Poile said.

Bylsma's system should help. The Penguins are regularly among the highest scoring teams in the NHL thanks in part to a talented core and a style of play that focuses on puck control and pressure. It's made Pittsburgh one of the most feared teams in the league. Now Bylsma hopes to do the same in the Olympics.

"We have one goal in Sochi," Bylsma said, "and that's to go over there and win gold."

Associated Press


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BlackBerry Shipped Just 2.7M BB10 Handsets In Q1 2014

z10-13BlackBerry didn't break out its individual BB10 device sales in its quarterly earnings report released earlier this morning, but during its conference call to discuss its performance CEO Thorsten Heins revealed that it shipped 2.7 million handsets during the quarter, which is not a great number. Nokia shipped 5.6 million Lumia devices in Q1 of 2013, for instance, and AT&T reported 4.8 million iPhone activations alone during its Q1 reporting.


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Nearly One in Five Members of Congress Gets Paid Twice

To solve the debt crisis, Americans?who are already suffering in these tough economic times?will have to make even more sacrifices, Rep. Mike Coffman told his House colleagues last year. So, leaning on his military service, the 58-year-old Colorado Republican argued that members of Congress should take the first step and abolish their congressional pensions. ?If there?s one thing I learned in both the United States Army and the Marine Corps about leadership, it was leading by example,? Coffman lectured them, pointing to his chest at a committee hearing. ?Never ask anyone to do anything that you yourself would not be willing to do.?

What Coffman left unsaid that day in a speech about his bill?s ?symbolic? importance was that he was collecting a $55,547 state-government pension in addition to his congressional paycheck. Having spent two decades as an elected official in Colorado, he has received retirement benefits since 2009, the year he arrived in Congress.

?We did not want to double-dip on the taxpayers in a time of fiscal challenge.??Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., who declines his pension

Coffman is not alone. About 90 members from both chambers collected a government pension atop their taxpayer-financed $174,000 salary in 2012, National Journal found in an examination of recent financial records. Including a dozen newly elected freshmen who reported government pensions last year, the number now stands above 100. That?s nearly one-fifth of Congress. One lawmaker, freshman Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, received $253,323 from her government pension last year?a sum that, combined with her congressional salary, will make her better paid than President Obama this year.

Congressional pensioners span the ideological spectrum, from tea-party conservatives who rail against government waste to unabashed liberals. They are among the richest members (Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., with a net worth of at least $42.8 million in 2011) and the poorest (Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who reported between $15,000 and $50,000 in the bank and at least $600,000 in mortgage and loan debts). Overall, Democrats draw government pensions more often than Republicans?by a ratio of 2-to-1. Some lawmakers draw on multiple public retirement packages, including the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, who collected $65,000 from three different pensions in 2012.

All told, current members of Congress pocketed more than $3.6 million in public retirement benefits in 2012, the investigation found. The actual figure is almost certainly even higher because disclosure is uneven. Some lawmakers reported retirement earnings in ranges; others listed pensions but no amounts at all. This analysis, which included historical data from the Center for Responsive Politics, also does not include most military retirements, because lawmakers are not required to report them (although those who voluntarily did so were included). Members who served last year but are gone now were not included; freshmen who reported collecting pensions as candidates in 2012, such as Beatty, were included.

The practice of piling a pension atop a paycheck is legal, if unsavory to many. Taxpayer groups and some conservatives have condemned the practice as ?double-dipping?; they say elected officials shouldn?t simultaneously draw a public pension while cashing a government paycheck, because taxpayers ultimately foot at least part of the bill for both. ?You?re paying them twice,? says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.Fixed pensions are a fading memory for most American workers, who are still smarting from losses to their 401(k)s during the credit crisis?even if those accounts have since recovered. The fact that federal lawmakers can draw large retirement payments atop generous taxpayer-funded salaries only helps fuel the widespread sense that the ruling class in Washington puts its own interests first.


Many states and municipalities forbid the practice of retiring and then taking a full-time job within the same governmental system. But those rules don?t apply to members of Congress when they are drawing a federal paycheck and, typically, a state or local pension. ?It?s a hard nut to crack as far as addressing it, because it?s different jurisdictions,? Ellis says. And federal lawmakers who have served before on the state level can garner gold-plated retirement benefits, because state legislators often write their own generous rules to allow earlier retirement or fatter pensions.

Take Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, 57, who has been collecting her Louisiana pension since late 1997, the year she joined the Senate. She was only 41. (Louisiana voters had passed a constitutional amendment to ban pensions for new state legislators in 1996, the year before. But Landrieu, who had spent eight years as a legislator, could withdraw hers because she was grandfathered in.) The average Louisiana state worker hired in recent years, by contrast, can?t retire with a full pension until age 60. Landrieu lists her annual pension payout as between $15,000 and $50,000. ?They?re two different levels of government, and it?s completely permissible,? says Landrieu, who served two terms as state treasurer after her time as a state legislator. ?I have every intention of maintaining it and continuing.?

Like Landrieu, most lawmakers collecting public pensions say they deserve the payout because they put in the time and contributed to their retirement from their own paychecks. ?I?m just saying I worked hard 33 years,? says Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., a former detective who helped hunt down the Green River serial killer and retired as King County sheriff. He earned a $109,101 pension in 2012?fourth highest in Congress. ?Anyone who looks at a 33-year career and watches someone retire and says they don?t deserve that retirement, I would vigorously disagree with that.?

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, accepted a $55,000 pension last year. ?I spent over 30 years working in state government and receive a pension just as all other qualified state retirees do,? he said in a statement. Clyburn, the state?s former human-affairs commissioner, has collected roughly $1 million in pension benefits since joining Congress in 1993.

Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, says such packages can erode public trust in an institution where it?s already in short supply. ?Retirement packages remain a concern for taxpayers because they naturally invite comparison to their own situations,? he says. And there aren?t many Americans earning a six-figure paycheck and a five- or six-figure pension.

Or, in Beatty?s case, a quarter-million-dollar pension. Beatty spent more than eight years in the Ohio Statehouse, including a stint as Democratic leader, before landing a job in 2008 as the senior vice president of outreach and engagement at Ohio State University. It was a plum post that came with a $320,000 salary, plus benefits, that vastly inflated her pension. At the time, Ohio used the three highest years of salary to calculate pension payouts; Beatty was in the university job for three years and 20 days. Beatty?s spokesman, Greg Beswick, says she began collecting the money last year, when she was a candidate.

Among Republicans, the biggest retirement package belongs to Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, who has cashed more than $300,000 in combined pay and pensions in each of the last five years. Poe is only 64. He was a Texas prosecutor and a judge, so he has received two pensions since his arrival in Congress in 2005. They were worth $139,382 in 2011. (An ?accounting error? that provided him only 11 months of payments from one pension dropped the total to $126,743 last year, according to Poe spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes.) ?Under the law of the State of Texas he has earned a pension for his public service to both the county and the state,? Hynes said in an e-mail. In his first eight years in Congress, Poe earned more than $1 million in retirement pay.

Some double-dippers occupy congressional leadership posts. Besides Cornyn and his three pensions, Sen. Roy Blunt, the Republican Conference vice chairman, collected $36,721 in retirement benefits last year from his previous service in Missouri. Records show that Blunt, 63, has collected a pension since 2005. In the House leadership, besides Clyburn, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat, received $20,481 from a pension last year. He has been collecting since 1999 from his dozen years in the Maryland Legislature.

Although the House Ethics Committee?s guidelines say ?you must disclose? pension payments as earned income, congressional disclosure is inconsistent. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., list their pensions but not how much?or even if?they withdrew. (Brown?s office did not return calls for clarification.) Others leave their pensions off their forms entirely for years at a time. In a series of amended filings last year, for instance, Cornyn reported that he?d been receiving one of his three pensions as far back as 2006. During his failed Senate campaign, former Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., had to update a decade of disclosures to reflect a state pension he?d previously hidden from public view. He called it an ?unintentional oversight.?


Those collecting pensions range from some of the poorest in Congress to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., whom the Center for Responsive Politics ranked as the third-wealthiest senator in 2011. (His net worth was between $79.6 million and $120.8 million.)

That didn?t prevent Blumenthal from cashing his annual $47,000 state pension, even as Connecticut?s depleted pension fund has struggled. A 2012 study by the Pew Center on the States said the state had barely half the money it needed to pay its long-term retirement obligations, the third-worst ratio in the nation.

Blumenthal bristles when asked about whether his personal wealth and congressional salary allow him to forgo the pension. ?The benefits I?m receiving from the state were earned over more than two decades of public service, and they?re two separate entities, two separate governments, and ? they?re being paid according to law,? he says. ?I?m not going to comment as to any aspect of my financial disclosure. I would just say, I seek to give back through public service and other ways such as the charitable contributions that my wife and I make.?

Feinstein is the second-wealthiest lawmaker to draw a pension, according to CRP?s rankings, which estimate the California Democrat?s net worth at between $42.8 million and $98.7 million. Her pension, worth $54,925 in 2012, is from her time as mayor of San Francisco. She has collected about $850,000 in retirement benefits since she joined the Senate two decades ago. Feinstein declined to comment for this story.

Feinstein is hardly the longest-tenured congressional pensioner. That honor falls to 90-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall, the oldest member of the House, who spent a decade in the Texas Legislature before taking a seat in Congress in 1981. The Republican (who was a Democrat until 2004) has been collecting a Texas state pension ever since. In those 32 years he earned some $1.3 million in retirement benefits. (Many years in the 1980s he didn?t list specific amounts; this analysis presumes his pension remained flat during those years.) His 2012 pension was $65,748. ?I didn?t write the law,? Hall said in a statement. ?I complied with the law, and I contributed as was allowed under the law during my official service in Texas.?

Not every member of Congress who is eligible for a pension chooses to collect. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., a retired Army colonel who won his seat in 2010, says he writes a check every month for his full military pension, minus taxes owed, to the U.S. Treasury. It was a decision he came to jointly with his wife. ?The salary that we get as a congressman is very generous,? Gibson says. ?We did not want to double-dip on the taxpayers in a time of fiscal challenge.?

The Gibsons aren?t rich by congressional standards. They hold no stocks, bonds, or mutual funds?only a single bank account with between $100,000 and $250,000. It earned less than $1,000 in interest last year. Still, he declined to judge his better-off colleagues who are collecting twice. ?It?s a personal decision people have to make,? he says.

Rep. William Keating of Massachusetts, who pulled $110,743 from his pension in 2012?second-largest of any Democrat?donates all of it, after taxes, to a nonprofit that assists child-abuse victims. ?The work done by the caring professionals there is priceless,? Keating, a former legislator and district attorney, said in a statement.


Many states offer especially sweet pension packages for their elected officials.

Take the curious case of Rep. Trey Gowdy. The conservative Republican served for a decade as a district attorney in South Carolina, where the retirement system requires 24 years of service to qualify for a pension. But a controversial perk allows solicitors and judges to purchase extra years of service without actually working them. The practice, called ?airtime,? lets employees draw bigger pensions if they fork over a lump sum on the front end.

It appears Gowdy exercised this option. (His office refused multiple requests to clarify his activity.) His financial records report a loan in 2009 of between $250,000 and $500,000 for ?purchase of SC solicitors and judges retirement.? So, in 2011, the year after he rode the tea-party wave into Congress promising to slash government spending, he reported $88,432 in pension income?one of the 10 largest in Congress. He was 46.

Last year, Gowdy reported a far smaller pension. His spokesman, Nicholas Spencer, says Gowdy listed the package in a different section of the report ?because pensions are not reportable as outside earned income,? citing advice from ?Ethics counsel.? The House Ethics panel?s published guidelines, however, say pensions should be reported as income.

In Maine, special rules allow former governors to collect a pension no matter how many total years of state service they?ve accrued. That?s how Angus King, who served two terms as governor and now is the state?s independent U.S. senator, collected a $30,488 pension last year. ?It?s under the law, and it has no relationship to whatever I do after,? King says. As for the idea of forgoing it because of his $174,000 Senate salary, he says, ?I don?t quite see the argument.?

In Pennsylvania, former state legislators can start collecting their pensions a decade earlier than most other state workers. That?s how Republican Rep. Charlie Dent started collecting his $16,000 pension in 2010, the year he turned 50. And how Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a Democrat, garnered her legislative pension beginning in 2005, the year she was sworn into Congress. She was 56 at the time. Schwartz is currently running for governor and would decline her $18,340 pension if elected, her spokesman Greg Valada says.

In 2001, Pennsylvania state legislators boosted their own pensions by 50 percent. The same state law lifted teacher and rank-and-file state worker pensions by only half that. Both Dent and Schwartz were among those who voted against the Pennsylvania pension bump. But Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach, 58, voted for it, and now he?s a beneficiary. He has collected a legislative pension since 2003. It was worth $15,400 last year and became the subject of attack ads by his Democratic opponent. He e-mailed a statement: ?Again, this is information that has been shared with my constituents countless times and has been fully disclosed every year.? Gerlach noted that he paid into the system for 12 years.

?It?s really unconscionable?the fact that they?re collecting a pension while drawing a salary for service at the federal level,? says Leo Knepper, executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a conservative group that fashions itself as a state version of the Club for Growth. ?Our pension system is $48 billion underfunded. Honestly, I don?t know how they can look voters in the eye.?

Knepper reserved his biggest rage for Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., who served in the Statehouse for 24 years, and brought home $90,867 in retirement benefits last year. A member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Pitts has received $1.4 million from his pension since he joined Congress in 1997. His office says his pension tops $90,000 annually because he combined his service in the military and as a teacher. Knepper says he?s galled that Pitts ?really represents himself as a conservative? to voters while ?absolutely double-dipping.?

Not all tea-party activists are in agreement. Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, one of the nation?s most active groups, doesn?t begrudge federal lawmakers who make use of the current pension system. ?An employee is going to take advantage of any benefits they?re provided?it?s just human nature,? Russo says. Instead, conservatives should focus on enacting broader change, he says. ?The person who gets the benefit didn?t create the system.?


Reforming that system, Coffman says, is the point of his legislation to eliminate congressional pensions. ?The part that I oppose is having a defined-benefit retirement plan for members of Congress?and have argued against a defined-benefit program when I was at the state level,? he tells National Journal.

But isn?t he taking part in a defined-benefit program?

?I am,? he replies. ?I am.?

Coffman?s $55,547 retirement benefit is a pittance in the scheme of the state?s pension-fund finances, but, as he argued when he presented his pension-axing bill in committee, symbolism matters. Colorado?s pension fund has been under duress in recent years. State workers there must now contribute more, work longer, and receive less after retirement under a 2010 law, says Katie Kaufmanis, a spokeswoman for Colorado?s retirement system.

A former state treasurer who had a seat on Colorado?s pension board, Coffman had previously taken on the most extreme cases of ?double-dipping? at the state level, in which state or school employees would retire, collect a pension, and then be rehired by the exact same employer. ?The state?s pension fund is bleeding red, and the little things like this are aggravating it,? Coffman told the Colorado Springs Business Journal in 2004. ?Maybe we should suspend pensions [when people go] back to work,? he added.

Coffman?s situation isn?t exactly the same: He?s collecting state benefits and a federal paycheck, not double-dipping with the same employer. (?I?m a military retiree too,? Coffman notes. He resigned his state treasurer post in 2005 to rejoin the Marines and serve in Iraq.) Still, he stumbles in defending his decision to draw both a paycheck and a state pension. ?I fought for reform when I was in state, and I?m fighting to reform the system now,? he says. ?At states, they ought to end the defined-benefit portion programs.? I?m certainly a beneficiary of it, but at the state level that?s unsustainable, too, and that?s going to have to change.?

Other Republicans, too, have introduced legislation to limit congressional pensions while collecting a public retirement benefit. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Fla., the former Hernando County sheriff, earned $72,339 from his pension last year; he introduced legislation in 2011 and 2013 to let House members opt out of their congressional pension (it?s currently mandatory) and titled it the Congress Is Not a Career Act. Nugent presented his measure to the same committee on the same day as Coffman made his proposal.

Nugent says he introduced the bill so he could decline a congressional retirement because ?as you point out, I already have a pension.? He further saves taxpayers money by declining federal health insurance coverage, he says. But he objects to the suggestion that he could or should bypass taking his local-government pension while in Congress. ?Why wouldn?t I? Why wouldn?t I?? he asks. ?After 38 years in law enforcement, I worked hard, stuck it out, and I retired, which is kind of what I signed up for.?

Nugent explains that while cops deserve a pension, members of Congress may not. So what about all his colleagues pulling in pensions for state legislative service? ?I don?t begrudge anyone. That?s a personal choice on their part,? Nugent says, adding, ?That?s between them and their constituents.?

Conservative solutions for America?s finances, in turns out, don?t always correlate with conservative solutions to lawmakers? personal finances. Cornyn, the triple-pension-collecting senator from Texas, has regularly railed against government waste. Rep. Bill Posey, a Florida Republican, touts on his official website his votes to reform and cut congressional pensions. He makes no mention of his $14,495 state pension. And Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican and a tea-party-style conservative long before the term existed, has railed against a bloated public sector?and the looming pension crisis in his home state?for years. Yet when he arrived in Congress in 2009, he began collecting two taxpayer-supported state pensions, worth $9,579 in 2012. Why didn?t he pass on them? ?You?d have to take up that question with Mrs. McClintock,? he says.


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Can Britain?s Banks Thrive Under Regulation?

147355913 The Canary Wharf headquarters of Barclays Bank,which was fined about $450 million for manipulating the Libor inter-bank lending rate.

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Last year?s Libor scandal was a shock to the body politic in London. Despite all that had gone before, the public and their representatives were stunned to learn that bankers had systematically undermined the foundations of a global market benchmark ?for personal gain. Britain?s chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, felt compelled to launch a parliamentary inquiry. On June 19, after a year?s work, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards finally laid a large egg.

Bankers will certainly regard the outcome as what in England we like to call a ?curate?s egg? (served a rotten egg by his bishop, a young clergyman, when asked whether the egg was to his liking, replied that it was ?good in parts?). They will choke on the commission?s recommendation of a new criminal offense for reckless conduct that leads to taxpayer bailouts, reinforced by a new ?senior persons? regime that would ascribe all bank functions to a specific individual, who would be held personally liable when things go wrong.

The commission argues that ?top bankers dodged accountability for failings on their watch by claiming ignorance or hiding behind collective decision-making.? Its members aim to make that impossible. If they have their way, behaving recklessly with banking assets will result in a prison sentence, with no Monopoly-style ?get out of jail free? card for financial masters of the universe.

I can already hear the sound of lawyers sharpening their pencils: The offense must be defined specifically enough to withstand a human-rights challenge. But, if implemented, the commission?s proposed regime would certainly be tougher than what is now on offer in New York or other banking centers. And British MPs are noticeably impatient with what they consider the glacial pace of change in global regulation; they want action now.

If the United Kingdom does proceed in this unilateral way, what would the consequences be for London?s banking industry? Would New York, Frankfurt, or even Paris receive a competitive boost as international bankers, alarmed at the prospect of time behind bars if their derivative trades blow up again, flee the City?

The commission?s members offer two, somewhat contradictory, answers to that question. The first is that, frankly, they don?t care. ?The risk of an exodus should be disregarded,? the commission says, noting that the advantages of being a global financial center have been accompanied by serious associated risks to the domestic economy. Unlike the United States, where the financial sector is smaller as a share of GDP, the U.K. economy has still not recovered the output lost in the post-2008 Great Recession, owing to continued retrenchment in the banking sector.

The commission?s members do recognize that London?s loss of status as a global financial center would be costly in terms of jobs and output, so they developed a second line of argument. ?There is nothing inherently optimal,? they say, about a level playing field in international finance. Attempts to develop a single European financial market have, in their view, forced countries to respond to the failings revealed by the 2008 crisis at the speed of the ?slowest ship in the convoy.?

By contrast, the commission argues, ?there may be big benefits to the U.K. as a financial center from demonstrating that it can establish and adhere to standards significantly above the international minimum.? In addition to the tough new regime of personal accountability, the commission would supplement the Basel standards on bank capital with a tight leverage ratio.

The British government, preoccupied with finding ways to stimulate growth as the next election approaches, will no doubt think hard before making any changes that might drive business offshore. But the government is caught between a rock and a hard place, hemmed in by a parliament that, strongly backed by a bank-hostile press and public opinion, is eager to enact reforms, and by EU directives to implement a tougher regime.

So, is the commission right that the government should move quickly on reform and disregard the consequences?


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Friday, June 28, 2013

Justin Bieber Sued for Allegedly Going MMA on Photographer


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Obama yet to have African legacy like predecessors

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) ? President Barack Obama is receiving the embrace you might expect for a long-lost son on his return to his father's home continent, even as he has yet to leave a lasting policy legacy for Africa on the scale of his two predecessors.

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush passed innovative Africa initiatives while in the White House and passionately continue their development work in the region in their presidential afterlife. Obama's efforts here have not been so ambitious, despite his personal ties to the continent.

His first major tour of Africa as president is coming just now, in his fifth year, while Bush and Clinton are frequent fliers to Africa. Bush even will be in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, next week at the same time as Obama, although they have no plans to meet. Instead, their wives plan to appear together at a summit on empowering African women organized by the George W. Bush Institute, with the former president in attendance.

Spirited crowds greeted Obama on his visit to French-speaking Senegal, Africa's westernmost country, with revelers frequently breaking into song and dance at the sight of the first African-American president. However thrilled they were to see him, many said they wish his visits weren't so rare.

"Two visits in five years, it's not enough," said Faye Mbissine, a 30-year-old nanny who took an early morning bus to come see Obama on Thursday outside the presidential palace. "We hope that he can come more."

Manougou Nbodj, a 21-year-old student, said he hopes Obama will bring American resources like jobs and health care. "If Obama can work with Macky Sall the way that George Bush worked with Africa before him, then we will be happy," he said, referring to the Senegalese president.

One of Bush's chief foreign policy successes was his aid to Africa, including AIDS relief credited with saving millions of lives and grants to reward developing countries for good governance. Bush followed on momentum on African policy that began under Clinton, who allowed several dozen sub-Saharan countries to export to the U.S. duty-free.

Obama has continued the Bush and Clinton programs during tough economic times. But his signature Africa policy thus far has been food security, through less prominent programs designed to address hunger through policy reform and private investment in agriculture.

Obama's mantra on Africa is it doesn't need handouts, but investment to spur self-sufficient economic growth. He plans to announce Friday that Senegal is joining his New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and will receive $134 million in investments from private companies and $47 million from the United States.

Witney Schneidman, former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said Obama's efforts are not like Bush's AIDS initiative "where you put people on a medicine to save their lives ? very, extremely important. This is more of a structural change, and I think that's going to take time."

Under Clinton and Bush "you had this major funding, major attention, major initiatives going to Africa, and then President Obama came in, and there was a sense of stall, in a way," said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said that's understandable as he grappled with wars and an economic crisis, and she gave Obama credit for working diplomatically with African governments in his first term.

But, she said, "they weren't big, splashy initiatives that got peoples' attention either in Africa or here at home, and no big money and no big ideas that really helped define what Obama was about in Africa."

That's a disappointed those who were expecting more from the first African-American president, especially after his speech during a brief stopover in Ghana his first summer in office, in which he spoke personally of his father's life in Kenya and declared "a new moment of great promise" in Africa. "I have the blood of Africa within me," Obama said.

Schneidman argued that Obama's personal connection may also have been an impediment to deeper engagement in his first term. "The whole birther movement here in the U.S. that was sort of questioning his place of birth to begin with ... I think it was a real constraint on dealing with Africa," Schneidman said.

Mwangi Kimenyi, a Kenyan who directs the Brookings Institutions' Africa Growth Initiative, said Obama may be a victim of misplaced sky-high expectations on the continent when he was first elected.

"Africans still consider Clinton their president," Kimenyi said. "If you go to Africa and mention Clinton ? I mean, he is a hero, even today. I don't think President Obama is going to approach the level of President Clinton at all, in terms of respect, in terms of what they feel, and it's partly because, as one whose family is from Africa, the expectations were rather high. I mean, they expected him to do more, to do more visits, to actually relate better with Africans, to understand the continent better."

"There is not that feeling that, you know, we have our son there," Kimenyi said. "There's probably more reference of a prodigal son than a, you know, son."

Clinton first drew extensive attention to Africa in 1998 when he made the longest trip ever by a U.S. president, with stops in six countries that had never before been visited by any occupant of the Oval Office. He's scheduled to come back this summer for what has become an annual visit, with his Clinton Foundation investing in myriad wide-ranging projects in Africa on health, agriculture and climate change.

Bush's trip this week is his third in 19 months to promote his Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon partnership to combat breast and cervical cancer in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. On this visit, he and his wife, Laura, plan to help renovate a cervical cancer screening and treatment clinic in Zambia before heading to Tanzania for the African First Ladies Summit advocating investment in programs for women and girls.

Obama foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes said the president is signaling increased engagement with the current trip and hopes it will prove to be a "pivotal moment" of Africa's growth taking off.

"Frankly, Africa is a place that we had not yet been able to devote significant presidential time and attention to," Rhodes said. "And there's nothing that can make an impact more in terms of our foreign policy and our economic and security interests than the president of the United States coming and demonstrating the importance of our commitment to this region."


Associated Press writer Robbie Corey-Boulet contributed to this report.


Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at


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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Socrata Raises $18M For Platform To Open Government Data

socrata_logo_thumbSocrata has raised $18 million to further the extension of its open-data platform now used at all levels of government to present information for the general public. The Series B round of financing was led by OpenView Venture Partners, with participation from existing investors Morgenthaler Ventures and Frazier Technology Partners.


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Angry Birds Trilogy slingshots to Nintendo's Wii U and Wii consoles on August 13th

Angry Birds Trilogy slingshots to Nintendo's Wii U and Wii consoles on August 13th

As if its flock of angry fowl weren't already near-ubiquitous, Rovio's today announced an August 13th release date for the Wii and Wii U versions of Angry Birds Trilogy. The Finnish company had previously committed to the two Nintendo ports earlier this year, prompted by the success of the title on the 3DS, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Rovio's not just pushing out a repackaged redo, either -- this collection bundles the original Angry Birds game with Seasons and Rio, while also adding some new levels. And given the finger-flicking origins of the franchise, gamers will be able to make use of the Wii U's GamePad for that famed asymmetric play (read: GamePad-only) and touch controls. If you haven't already exhausted your lust for flipping Rovio's birds, then the dog days of summer should see you and that Wii U making nice. Of course, by then you could also be flinging zombie-like Pikmin with reckless abandon. What's a Wii U owner to do?

Filed under: ,


Source: Polygon


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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How fish swim: Researchers examine mechanical bases for the emergence of undulatory swimmers

June 24, 2013 ? How do fish swim? It is a simple question, but there is no simple answer.

Researchers at Northwestern University have revealed some of the mechanical properties that allow fish to perform their complex movements. Their findings, published on June 13 in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, could provide insights in evolutionary biology and lead to an understanding of the neural control of movement and development of bio-inspired underwater vehicles.

"If we could play God and create an undulatory swimmer, how stiff should its body be? At what wave frequency should its body undulate so it moves at its top speed? How does its brain control those movements?" said Neelesh Patankar, professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. "Millennia ago, undulatory swimmers like eels that had the right mechanical properties are the ones that would have survived."

The researchers used computational methods to test assumptions about the preferred evolutionary characteristics. For example, species with low muscle activation frequency and high body stiffness are the most successful; the researchers found the optimal values for each property.

"The stiffness that we predict for good swimming characteristics is, in fact, the same as the experimentally determined stiffness of undulatory swimmers with a backbone," said Amneet Bhalla, graduate student in mechanical engineering at McCormick and one of the paper's authors.

"Thus, our results suggest that precursors of a backbone would have given rise to animals with the appropriate body stiffness," added Patankar. "We hypothesize that this would have been mechanically beneficial to the evolutionary emergence of swimming vertebrates."

In addition, species must be resilient to small changes in physical characteristics from one generation to the next. The researchers confirmed that the ability to swim, while dependent upon mechanical parameters, is not sensitive to minor generational changes; as long as the body stiffness is above a certain value, the ability to swim quickly is insensitive to the value of the stiffness, the researchers found.

Finally, making a connection to the neural control of movement, the researchers analyzed the curvature of its undulations to determine if it was the result of a single bending torque, or if precise bending torques were necessary at every point along its body. They learned that a simple movement pattern gives rise to the complicated-looking deformation.

"This suggests that the animal does not need precise control of its movements," Patankar said.

To make these determinations, the researchers applied a common physics concept known as "spring mass damper" -- a model, applied to everything from car suspension to Slinkies, that determines movement in systems that are losing energy -- to the body of the fish.

This novel approach for the first time unified the concepts of active and passive swimming -- swimming in which forcing comes from within the fish (active) or from the surrounding water (passive) -- by calculating the conditions necessary for the fish to swim both actively and passively.


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Brother ImageCenter ADS-2500W High Speed Document Scanner review

Earlier this year, Bill and I reviewed several of the Panasonic KV-Series document scanners. We both agreed that they were very?capable?pieces of hardware. The only issue I had with it is that Panasonic had not developed OSX drivers for those of us who use Macs, a huge oversight in my opinion. My only viable option [...]


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Gold probes may offer valuable insight into cancer

June 25, 2013 ? Nanoprobes made from gold could be used to predict people's cancer risk -- and the effectiveness of treatments, following research by University of Strathclyde academics.

The nanoprobes could allow scientists to study cancer cells in minute detail -- using a highly-sensitive imaging technique known as FRET microscopy -- with the aim of identifying tumour-causing properties. The nanoprobes could also be used to measure how effective medicines are, at a sub-cellular level of detail, while another application could be the identification of contaminants in food and water supplies.

Dr Yu Chen, of the University's Department of Physics, said: "The technology could allow the simultaneous detection of multiple types of RNA related to cancer, which would then raise the possibility of scientists eventually being able to screen patients, in order to predict their risk of developing disease. By allowing us to see what is happening inside cells, we also hope this research will also lead to the development of techniques to study the efficacy of drugs."

Co-worker Professor David Birch, also of the Physics Department, said: "We are very excited about the potential applications of this multi-disciplinary approach, which harnesses expertise from physics, chemistry, biology, engineering and medicine. We hope it will lead to the development of a new generation of biological imaging and sensing techniques that underpin improvements in healthcare for a range of diseases."

The team also believes FRET microscopy with gold nanoparticles could be used to improve food and water safety. Co-worker Dr Jun Yu, of the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, said: "This new approach to imaging RNA at a single-cell level may also allow scientists to develop new methods to identify various microbes which may have contaminated food and water. Food safety is a global challenge and using novel nanoprobes to detect food contamination by various microbes will open up a new way of addressing this crucial issue."

Gold nanoparticles - less than 1000th of the width of a human hair - have a number of advantages over organic dye molecules that are used at present for studying cells with fluorescence microscopy. They are more photostable - meaning they are unchanged by exposure to light - are more sensitive because they can probe over a longer distance, and are less toxic to cells.

Dr Chen said: "The nanoprobes are based on a type of 'molecular handshake', called F?rster resonance energy transfer -- or FRET, in which gold nanoparticles are linked with a fluorescent protein, via a hairpin-structured single stranded DNA. Upon interacting with the target mRNA in the cell, the hairpin structure dissolves and a fluorescent signal occurs -- enabling the tracking and quantification of the disease-related mRNA at a cellular level, even down to the level of single molecules."

Scientists believe they can be used to deliver other molecules, such as cancer drugs, directly to disease tissues -- bypassing normal, healthy cells. Also, they are economical to produce because they only use a tiny trace of the precious metal.

The 18-month project, backed with ?119,000 investment from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. It aims to develop a new approach for imaging message ribonucleic acids (mRNA) - a kind of nucleic acid present in all living cells that carries genetic codes from DNA to make protein. By examining key mRNAs at a cellular level, scientists could be able to detect diseases -- such as cancer -- at an early stage, and to study how effective a particular treatment is.


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Monday, June 17, 2013

Obese male mice father offspring with higher levels of body fat

June 16, 2013 ? Male mice who were fed a high-fat diet and became obese were more likely to father offspring who also had higher levels of body fat, a new Ohio University study finds.

The effect was observed primarily in male offspring, despite their consumption of a low-fat diet, scientists reported today at the annual meeting of The Endocrine Society in San Francisco, Calif.

"We've identified a number of traits that may affect metabolism and behavior of offspring dependent on the pre-conception diet of the father," said Felicia Nowak, an associate professor of biomedical sciences in Ohio University's Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine who is lead author on the study.

The researchers point to epigenetics -- the way genes are expressed, as opposed to mutations in DNA that are "hard-wired into the genes" -- as a possible cause of these inherited traits. Because gene expression is impacted by environmental and lifestyle factors, this finding suggests that individuals with obese fathers may be able to proactively address health concerns.

The effect of parents' diet and weight on children has been well-established in humans, Nowak explained, but scientists have been studying the issue in mice to learn more about the biological mechanisms behind the phenomenon. The Ohio University team studied the impact of the high-fat diet only with male mice parents, as most of the previous research had focused on female mice parents.

To conduct the study, the researchers fed male mice a high-fat diet for 13 weeks before mating. (The female mates were fed a matched low-fat diet.) Male and female offspring were fed a standard low-fat diet and studied at 20 days, six weeks and at six and 12 months.

Compared with offspring from control mice (who were fed the low-fat diet), the male offspring of paternal mice with diet-induced obesity had higher body weight at six weeks of age. They also were more obese at the six- and 12-month study markers. In addition, the male offspring of obese fathers had different patterns of body fat composition -- a marker for health and propensity for disease -- than the control mice.

The researchers were surprised, however, to find that the offspring of the obese paternal mice also were more physically active. At six weeks, the male offspring voluntarily ran more, and their female siblings demonstrated the same behavior at six and 12 months, the scientists report. Nowak's team is studying possible causes for this behavior, which might offset the increased body fat and reduce the offspring's risk of metabolic disease such as diabetes and heart disease.

In the next phase of the research, the team will seek to identify the genes responsible for the physiological and behavioral changes. This, in turn, may inform clinicians about possible epigenetic factors in human obesity.

"Early detection and prediction of risk for obesity, diabetes and related diseases will enable individuals and health care workers to delay or prevent the related disabilities and increase life expectancy," Nowak said. The study was funded by the Ohio University Research Council and the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.


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Saturday, June 15, 2013

How Obama crossed his own line on Syria after months of debate

By Warren Strobel and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Obama's decision to arm Syrian rebels for the first time follows an intense, nearly two-year debate within the White House in which the president and his closest advisers consistently expressed skepticism about U.S. intervention in a Middle East civil war, current and former officials said.

The two deciding factors in the decision to change course, they said, were growing military gains by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, aided by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, and harder intelligence that the Syrian military had used chemical weapons in the form of sarin nerve gas.

Which of the developments played a greater role in tipping the balance was unclear. Publicly, the Obama administration pointed to the evidence of chemical weapons use, which one senior administration official said had "ripened" in the last two weeks.

Some of the U.S. officials said on Friday that the real game-changer in Obama's calculus on Syria was not the chemical weapons issue - which had been known about for months - but the growing role of Lebanese-based Hezbollah.

The battlefield advances by Hezbollah have raised the prospect that Assad could stay in power for some time. The Shiite militia's decision to get more directly involved in the conflict against mostly Sunni rebels has also heightened the war's sectarian divide, and increased Sunni-Shiite tensions in neighboring Lebanon.

U.S. officials and European diplomats also cited as a factor in Obama's decision a looming meeting next week with G8 allies - especially France and Britain - in which Syria will be a major issue.

"Had they not made the beginnings of a move on the issue, the G8 meeting would have been pretty hard on the president," said a European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Obama was roundly criticized by Syria hawks in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere for first suggesting in April that chemical weapons may have been used in the Syrian civil war, crossing a "red line" he set last year, but not then following up with actions against the Damascus government.

But in an interview 10 days ago, well before the White House announced Obama's decision on Thursday, a senior aide insisted that the chemical weapons question had never been dropped.

There are "clear instructions from the president that we are not walking back from the red line," the senior administration official said at the time. "The intelligence community is all over this."

The White House on Thursday announced that it had concluded that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons, and said Obama had decided to supply direct military assistance to the opposition.

While Obama crossed a line of his own in making the move - the White House had for more than a year resisted calls to arm the rebels - he appears determined to keep the United States from getting sucked too deeply into Syria's sectarian civil war.

European officials and others with close knowledge of the situation said the United States would supply the Western-backed Syrian Military Council with automatic weapons, light mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

While significant, the weaponry will not include shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADs that could bring down Syrian military planes and helicopters, officials said.

And for now, Washington is not backing the establishment of a "no-fly zone" over Syria, which would involve a major commitment of U.S. and European air power to counter Syria's extensive air defenses, they said, in part because there is no international consensus on the step.

"This is, in a way, a low-cost option," a former U.S. official with extensive contacts in the region said of the White House's new steps, worrying that the U.S. military aid was months too late.

The White House and State Department declined to publicly detail what sorts of weaponry and other materiel will be sent to the rebels, or how quickly it will arrive.


While Obama has been consistently cautious about U.S. involvement in Syria, his team has been at times less than unified.

Obama's original decision, in August 2011, to call on Assad to leave power, was preceded by intense debate in Washington, London and other capitals, according to diplomats and former officials.

The Pentagon has been consistent in opposing deep U.S. military involvement, such as a no-fly zone.

Last fall, however, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA chief David Petraeus presented a joint proposal for the United States to arm the rebels. The White House turned down the idea.

In the current situation, Secretary of State John Kerry is said to have been active in pressing Obama on the need to do more.

"The constituency within the administration for doing more is much more significant that it was in the past," said Dennis Ross, who was a senior Middle East adviser to Obama. "But the hesitancy remains, I believe."

Ross, who left government in December 2011, said that during his time at the White House, Obama would closely question the wisdom and consequences of Syria options presented by his advisers.

"What's fair to say, he wanted to be very cautious about the kinds of commitments we would make, he wanted to know even then, look if we're going to take steps, I want to hear, tell me where that leads to," Ross said in an interview this week. "Tell me what's the consequence of doing 'X'. And tell me how that is going to improve the situation and make an outcome that we favor more likely."

Ross said that during his time at the Obama White House, the U.S. experience in recent wars, which highlighted the difficulty in changing conditions in Islamic countries, weighed heavily in the president's thinking.

"I don't think you can look at it independently from Iraq and Afghanistan. And particularly the sense that these are easy to get into and hard to get out of," Ross said.

Obama's calculus would have been different, he added, if there had been a "more coherent, more credible and more compelling" opposition in Syria.

A senior Western diplomatic source gave a similar account, saying Obama essentially tells his aides to prove to him that American intervention would improve the situation.

"It's a legitimate position," this source said. "I don't see at this point the Americans authorizing the delivery of heavy weapons."

It remains to be seen whether the aid will change a military picture that has seen Assad's forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters, steadily regain ground against the rebels, capturing the key city of Qusair and preparing for an assault on rebel-held areas of northern Syria.

"We believe that we can make a difference," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said, when asked if the U.S. aid was too little. He noted that Arab nations and Turkey are also supporting the Syrian opposition.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Obama's decision was made some days ago, but would not be more specific.

"This has been something that the national security team and the president has been discussing for weeks. I know the White House said the president decided long before this week," Psaki said.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wrouhgton, Mark Hosenball, Susan Cornwell in Washington, Lou Charbonneau in New York and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Alistair Bell and Tim Dobbyn)


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Twenty-Seven NBA Players Confirmed For 2013 USA Basketball Men's National Team Mini-Camp

-- Twenty Players With Prior USA Experience Included On Mini-Camp Roster --

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (June 12, 2013) - Highlighted by 20 players owning USA Basketball experience, including one 2012 Olympic gold medalist and also featuring the last three NBA Draft No. 1 selections, USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo today announced that 27 players are confirmed to attend the 2013 USA Basketball Men's National Team mini-camp that will be held July 22-25 in Las Vegas, Nev.

Accepting invitations to participate in the 2013 USA Basketball Men's National Team mini-camp were: Ryan Anderson (New Orleans Pelicans); Harrison Barnes (Golden State Warriors); Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards); Mike Conley (Memphis Grizzlies); DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento Kings); Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans); DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors); Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons); Kenneth Faried (Denver Nuggets); Derrick Favors (Utah Jazz); Paul George (Indiana Pacers); Taj Gibson (Chicago Bulls); Gordon Hayward (Utah Jazz); Jrue Holiday (Philadelphia 76ers); Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers); DeAndre Jordan (Los Angeles Clippers); Ty Lawson (Denver Nuggets); Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs); Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers); Greg Monroe (Detroit Pistons); Chandler Parsons (Houston Rockets); Larry Sanders (Milwaukee Bucks); Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors); Dion Waiters (Cleveland Cavaliers); Kemba Walker (Charlotte Bobcats); John Wall (Washington Wizards); and Tyler Zeller (Cleveland Cavaliers).

Recently named 2013-16 USA Basketball National Team head coach and Duke University's Naismith Hall of Fame mentor Mike Krzyzewski will direct the mini-camp. Serving as assistant coaches are USA Basketball and Syracuse University veteran coach Jim Boeheim, Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau and New Orleans Pelicans head coach Monty Williams.

"The group of players we have assembled for the mini-camp are extremely talented and very versatile. This is an important opportunity for each one of them because we will be evaluating which players will continue to be involved in future USA National Team training camps and teams," said Colangelo, who has seen USA National teams compile a 62-1 record since taking charge of the USA Basketball Men's National Team program in 2005. "Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Rudy Gay, Eric Gordon, Danny Granger, and Andre Iguodala were all guys who played in our 2009 mini-camp and went on to play for the 2010 USA World Championship and 2012 U.S. Olympic teams that won gold. I'm sure it will not be much different this time around and some of the players involved in this mini-camp will be members of upcoming USA National teams.

"The majority of these players have prior USA Basketball experience including 10 members of last summer's USA Select Team that helped prepare the U.S. Olympic Team. This year is an important first step in the rebuilding of the USA National Team roster for the 2014-16 international competitions, and we believe we have compiled a roster of not only outstanding basketball talents, but individuals who will represent the United States in the manner we expect."

The invited players will assemble in Las Vegas on July 21, and will conduct daily training sessions July 22-24 (12:00-2:30 p.m. PDT) and close out the mini-camp with the 2013 USA Basketball Showcase, a blue-white intra-squad game on Thursday, July 25, 6 p.m. PDT at the Thomas & Mack Arena on the campus of UNLV. All USA practices will take place at UNLV's Mendenhall Center and are closed to the general public.

Tickets for the 2013 USA Basketball Showcase on July 25 go on sale June 13. Tickets start at $10 and can be purchased by calling 702-739-FANS or at

"This is an exciting group of versatile and very talented players," said Krzyzewski, the USA head mentor who has led U.S. teams to gold at back-to-back Olympics. "This group has a really good blend of experience, both with USA Basketball and in the NBA. The mini-camp will feature a lot of younger players who are emerging in the NBA and it will give us our first opportunity to see them at this elite level. I'm really anxious to get to work with them."


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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Iranian diplomat detained for three months without lawyer: sources

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A senior Iranian diplomat linked to Iran's reformists, who has been detained at Tehran's notorious Evin Prison for three months, has been denied access to his attorney for the entire time, sources familiar with the case told Reuters on Monday.

Bagher Asadi, who was previously a senior diplomat at Iran's U.N. mission in New York and most recently a director at the secretariat of the so-called D8 group of developing nations in Istanbul, was arrested in mid-March in Tehran for unknown reasons, sources said last month.

"He has a lawyer but he has been denied access to him for three months," a source familiar with the case told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "He (Asadi) has not been given the papers to sign by the authorities so he can see his lawyer. It's just a way of denying him (the lawyer) access to his client."

Another source confirmed the remarks. Iran's U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The first source said that Asadi's lawyer is Houshang Pourbabaee, a prominent Iranian attorney who has represented other Iranian reformists.

The sources said that denying Asadi access to a lawyer during three months of detention was a violation of basic human rights and widely accepted norms for justice.

According to the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, a document adopted at a U.N. meeting in 1990, "All persons are entitled to call upon the assistance of a lawyer of their choice to protect and establish their rights and to defend them in all stages of criminal proceedings."

Iran's judiciary and Foreign Ministry have confirmed the 61-year-old Asadi's arrest but given no details as to why he was being held. The sources who spoke to Reuters about Asadi's detention say it may be linked to Friday presidential election in Iran.

On the positive side, a source said that Asadi had been moved out of solitary confinement at Evin Prison. The source gave no details regarding his current confinement conditions.

A February report by U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, described a number of cases of alleged torture and abuse at Evin Prison, including beatings and solitary confinement.

In January 2004, Asadi wrote an opinion piece that ran in the New York Times in which he made clear his affinities with the reformist philosophy of Mohammad Khatami, who was then Iran's president.

Iran's reformists have been sidelined since conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidential election in 2005, succeeding Khatami. Ahmadinejad will be stepping down in August, having served two terms. Reformist candidates have been barred from running in Friday's election.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Asadi in 2003 to a panel of eminent persons on U.N. relations with civil society.

U.N. rapporteur Shaheed said in March that Tehran's silencing of journalists and opposition leaders could jeopardize the legitimacy of the presidential election.

Opposition leaders Mehdi Karoubi and Mirhossein Mousavi, both candidates in the 2009 election, are under house arrest following mass protests over alleged fraud in the re-election of Ahmadinejad that year.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)


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Monday, June 10, 2013

The Xbox One Launches In November for $500

The Xbox One Launches In November for $500

We've finally got those last, important details. The Xbox One will be available this coming November for $500. There's no word on any options, so it sounds like it's $500, take it or leave it. Maybe we'll get something subsidized later on, but for now, it's one-price-and-load-out-fits-all.




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