- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2010

GAO

Phony products win Energy Star label

Fifteen phony products - including a gasoline-powered alarm clock - won the Energy Star label in a test of the program’s vulnerability to fraud.

A recent report says government investigators tried to pass off 20 fake products as energy-efficient, and only two were rejected. Three others didn’t get a response.

The Government Accountability Office concluded the program is susceptible to fraud and abuse.

The program run by the Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to identify energy-efficient products to help consumers. Tax credits and rebates serve as incentives to buy Energy Star products.

But the GAO says Energy Star doesn’t verify claims made by manufacturers - which might explain the gasoline-powered alarm clock.

LOUISIANA

Charges reduced in phone caper

NEW ORLEANS | Federal prosecutors have filed reduced charges against conservative activist James O’Keefe and three others accused of trying to tamper with the phones in Sen. Mary L. Landrieu’s New Orleans office.

A filing Friday in U.S. District Court charges them with entering a federal building under false pretenses, a misdemeanor. They had been arrested Jan. 25 on felony charges.

The new charges are contained in a bill of information, which often signals a plea deal.

Mr. O’Keefe gained notoriety by masquerading as a pimp in a stunt that embarrassed the ACORN liberal-activist organization.

In the Landrieu incident, Mr. O’Keefe has said he was investigating complaints that constituents couldn’t reach the senator’s office to comment on her support for health care reform.

NOAA

Winter season finished warmer than normal

It will probably come as a surprise to most Americans, but the winter just finished was the fifth warmest on record, worldwide.

Oh, sure, nearly two-thirds of the country can dispute that from personal experience of a colder-than-normal season.

But while much of the United States was colder than usual, December to February - climatological winter - continued the long string of unusual warmth on a global basis.

And parts of the United States did join in, with warmer-than-normal readings for the season in New England and the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, Maine had its third-warmest winter on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports.

NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center reports that worldwide the average temperature for winter was 54.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s 1.08 degrees F (0.60 C) above average for the three-month period.

Contributing to the warmth was an El Nino, a periodic warming of water in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which can influence weather over large areas.

LABOR

State jobless rates stabilize; layoffs slow

The Labor Department says state unemployment rates stabilized last month, reflecting a broader nationwide trend.

Sixteen states said their jobless rates were unchanged in February, seven reported declines and 27 reported increases.

That’s an improvement from January, when 30 states saw their rates rise, and much better than December, when joblessness rose in 43 states.

The nationwide unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in February, the same as the previous month. Layoffs are slowing as the economy is recovering, and there are signs that employers are stepping up hiring.

COURT

Campaign contribution limits struck down

A U.S. appeals court struck down Friday limits on individual contributions to independent political advocacy groups that want to spend money directly to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress.

The unanimous ruling by nine federal appellate judges held the limits violated constitutional free-speech rights under the First Amendment. The decision cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in January in another campaign-finance case.

The two rulings together are expected to unleash a flood of money ahead of the congressional elections in November and in other political campaigns such as the 2012 presidential contest.

Two months ago, the high court ruled 5-4 that corporations can spend freely to support or oppose federal candidates on the grounds limits violated free-speech rights. President Obama opposed the decision for what he called giving special interests more power.

AGRICULTURE

Black farmers’ settlement still not done deal

A $1.25 billion settlement between black farmers and the Agriculture Department is at risk of unraveling after Congress adjourned for a two-week break without approving the spending.

The settlement, to which the Obama administration agreed last month, has been hailed as the final chapter in a decades-long struggle by blacks who say they faced discrimination from local USDA offices in trying to get loans or other aid.

But it included a clause allowing plaintiffs to back out if money wasn’t appropriated by March 31 - a timeline that Congress missed when it left Friday.

While plaintiffs aren’t saying they will break from the deal, a lead advocate says it’s unclear whether the dozens of lawyers involved can stick together.

GUN LAWS

Judge upholds ruling on firearms ownership

A federal judge has upheld limitations on gun ownership that the District of Columbia put in place following the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision overturning the city’s outright ban on handguns.

Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case, had challenged the new regulations, claiming the registration procedures, a ban on most semiautomatic weapons and other limitations violate the intent of the high court’s decision.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina, a 1994 appointee of President Clinton, sided with the city Friday.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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