- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

Obama berates AIG, pledges administration will pursue `every legal avenue’ to rescind bonuses

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Joining a wave of public anger, President Barack Obama blistered insurance giant AIG for “recklessness and greed” Monday and pledged to try to block it from handing its executives $165 million in bonuses after taking billions in federal bailout money.

“How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat?” Obama asked. “This isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents. It’s about our fundamental values.”

Obama aggressively joined other officials in criticizing American International Group, the company that is fast becoming the poster boy for Americans’ bailout blues.

The bonuses could contribute to a backlash against Washington that would make it tougher for Obama to ask Congress for more bailout help _ and jeopardize other parts of the recovery agenda that is dominating the start of his presidency. Thus, the president and his top aides were working hard to distance themselves from the insurer’s conduct, to contain possible political damage and to try to bolster public confidence in his administration’s handling of the broader economic rescue effort.

Obama had scheduled a speech Monday to announce new help for recession-pounded small businesses. But first, he said, he had a few words to say about AIG. He lost his voice at one point and ad-libbed, “Excuse me, I’m choked up with anger here.” It was just a light aside, but he meant the sternness of his remarks to come through.

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Obama offers plan to help small businesses, pushes big banks to lend to economy’s ‘heart’

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Barack Obama freed billions of dollars to help the nation’s small businesses on Monday, hoping to get credit flowing again to Main Street as well as Wall Street and showering praise on the little guys of American industry who have been complaining about being left out of rescue efforts.

The centerpiece of Obama’s latest plan will allow the government to spend up to $15 billion to buy the small-business loans that are now choking community banks and lenders. That, in turn, could allow those banks to start lending money again to small companies to invest, pay bills and stay afloat.

“You deserve a chance. America needs you to have a chance,” Obama said in an appeal to all those who run small businesses or hope to one day.

Obama’s effort was, at one level, fundamental to helping the economy rebound. Small businesses have created about 70 percent of the new jobs over the past decade, and as their credit lines have dried up, so has their ability to thrive or survive.

There was also a political component to all the attention the president gave to small businesses. The White House is aware of the nation’s bailout fatigue; hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have gone to prop up financial giants who made poor decisions, while many others who have done no wrong have paid the price.

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Austrian admits incest but pleads innocent to murder, enslavement charges as trial begins

ST. POELTEN, Austria (AP) _ An Austrian who fathered seven children with a daughter he held captive for 24 years refused to even speak to her for years, coming into the squalid cellar only to rape her, often in front of the youngsters, a prosecutor said Monday.

Wearing a mismatched gray suit and hiding his face behind a folder as the trial began, Josef Fritzl pleaded guilty to incest and false imprisonment, but he denied enslaving his daughter Elisabeth or murdering her newborn son. He pleaded only partially guilty to additional counts of rape and coercion.

The 73-year-old Fritzl faces up to life in prison if convicted of the negligent homicide charge, which stems from the death of the 2-day-old baby boy, who investigators contend might have survived if he had gotten medical care. Incest, by contrast, carries only a one-year sentence.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser portrayed Fritzl as a callous and contemptuous captor who held his daughter in a filthy cramped cellar that didn’t even have a shower or warm water and repeatedly raped her in front of the children.

“For the first years there was no communication … he came, took her, left again,” Burkheiser said.

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US military says it shot down Iranian unmanned aircraft last month over Iraqi territory

BAGHDAD (AP) _ U.S. jets shot down an Iranian unmanned surveillance aircraft last month over Iraqi territory about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Monday. A U.S. statement said the Ababil 3 was tracked for about 70 minutes before U.S. jets shot it down “well-inside Iraqi airspace” and that the aircraft’s presence over Iraq “was not an accident.”

An Iraqi official said the Iranian aircraft went down near the Iraqi border town of Mandali. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The Ababil is believed to have a maximum range of about 90 miles and can fly up to 14,000 feet. It is primarily designed for surveillance and intelligence-gathering.

U.S. officials have frequently accused the Iranians of supplying weapons, training and money to Shiite extremist groups opposed to the U.S. military presence and to the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

Iran has denied links to militant groups inside Iraq and says the instability in this country is a result of the U.S. “occupation.” The Iranians consider the presence of about 140,000 U.S. troops in a neighboring country as a threat to their national security.

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Wall Street gives up most of its gains after 4-day rally; Financial stocks pare advances

NEW YORK (AP) _ Wall Street’s big rally fizzled _ and maybe that’s OK.

Analysts said Monday’s pullback after a four-session surge didn’t necessarily signal that traders were reconsidering their newfound optimism about financial stocks, a main driver behind last week’s advance.

In fact some viewed the measured easing in stocks as reassuring following a surge of more than 9 percent in major indicators last week, more than the market has moved in some years.

“This is healthy,” said Dave Rovelli, managing director of trading at brokerage Canaccord Adams in New York. “The best thing for this market is that we don’t go up aggressively. A steady rise of a few up days then a down day would be a lot better than 1,000 points up.”

Stocks rose for much of the session as investors snapped up hard-hit financial shares. Comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and reassuring news from a British bank eased some worries about the overall economy and prospects for financial companies struggling with bad debt.

Bernanke said Sunday the recession would probably end this year if the government’s efforts to revive the banking industry succeed. In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Bernanke said fixing the economy will require getting banks to lend more freely and financial markets to work more normally again.

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Prisoners gone wild: At small-town Texas jail, the inmates ran the asylum, authorities say

MONTAGUE, Texas (AP) _ For months, perhaps longer, the Montague County Jail was “Animal House” meets Mayberry. Inside the small brick building across from the courthouse, inmates had the run of the place, having sex with their jailer girlfriends, bringing in recliners, taking drugs and chatting on cell phones supplied by friends or guards, according to authorities. They also disabled some of the surveillance cameras and made weapons out of nails.

The doors to two groups of cells didn’t lock, but apparently no one tried to escape _ perhaps because they had everything they needed inside.

The jailhouse escapades _ some of which date to 2006, according to authorities _ have rocked Montague (pronounced mahn-TAYG), a farming and ranching town of several hundred people near the Oklahoma line, about 65 miles northwest of Fort Worth.

There were whispers in the past year about an affair between a female jailer and male inmate, but folks dismissed the rumors as small-town gossip. It was not until late last month, when a Texas grand jury returned a 106-count indictment against the former sheriff and 16 others, that the inmates-gone-wild scandal broke wide open.

The indictment charged Bill Keating, sheriff from 2004 until December, with official oppression and having sex with female inmates. The others indicted include nine guards _ seven women and two men _ who were charged with various offenses involving sex or drugs and other contraband. Four inmates also were charged.

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Obama administration rejects SC gov’s request to use stimulus cash to pay down state debt

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ The Obama administration on Monday rejected South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s request to use $700 million in federal stimulus cash to pay down state debt. White House Budget Director Peter Orszag said in a letter to the Republican that the federal stimulus law doesn’t allow President Barack Obama to make an exception for that cash. Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer had no immediate response, but the governor has said he would reject part of the stimulus money if Obama wouldn’t give him flexibility in spending it.

The $787 billion stimulus legislation sets strict rules for the $53.6 billion being sent to help state budgets, Orszag wrote. It calls for 82 percent of the money to be used for public schools and colleges and 18 percent on public safety and other government services.

“Congress has not authorized the executive branch to waive any of the above statutory requirements,” Orszag’s one-page letter said.

Last week, Sanford wrote Obama, saying he wanted to use the money in part to pay down future obligations in the state’s retirement system.

“If your administration determines that it is unable to grant us this flexibility, we will in turn opt not to pursue these funds,” Sanford wrote.

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Pint-sized raptor lived 75 million years ago in what is now Canada, researchers report

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Imagine a vicious velociraptor like those in “Jurassic Park,” but only as big as a modern chicken. That’s what Canadian researchers say they have found, the smallest meat-eating dinosaur yet discovered in North America. This pint-sized cousin of velociraptor, weighing in at 4-to-5 pounds, “probably hunted and ate whatever it could for its size _ insects, mammals, amphibians and maybe even baby dinosaurs,” according to Nicholas Longrich of the University of Calgary.

The creature lived 75 million years ago in the swamps and forests of southern Alberta, Longrich and colleague Philip J. Currie report in Tuesday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There has been plenty of evidence for large and medium-size dinosaurs in North America, but not small ones, Longrich said in a telephone interview. Now researchers see there was a dinosaur filling that niche also.

The bones of the small raptor were discovered among fossils that had been collected a quarter-century ago and remained in a museum drawer, Longrich explained.

Similar small dinos have been uncovered in China in the last few years, and studying those helped the researchers identify this North American version.

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Person familiar with talks: Ivan Rodriguez, Astros closing in on $1.5 million, 1-year deal

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) _ The Houston Astros and catcher Ivan Rodriguez are closing in on a $1.5 million, one-year contract, a person familiar with the talks told The Associated Press on Monday. The deal would contain $1.5 million in performance bonuses based on games and plate appearances, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the agreement had not yet been announced by the team.

Houston needed a veteran catcher to replace Brad Ausmus, who became a free agent and signed with the Dodgers. The Astros have several young catchers in camp who need time to develop. Houston used Ausmus, J.R. Towles and Humberto Quintero at the position last season.

It appeared earlier that Quintero would be the starter this season, but he’ll likely move to a backup role.

Rodriguez’s talks with Houston were first reported by espn.com.

The 37-year-old, a 13-time Gold Glove winner, began last season in Detroit, was traded to the Yankees in July and hit .276 with seven homers and 35 RBIs in 115 games.

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