Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Obama Breaks Promises to Black Farmers

As a senator, Barack Obama led the charge last year to pass a bill allowing black farmers to seek new discrimination claims against the Agriculture Department. Now he is president, and his administration so far is acting like it wants the potentially budget-busting lawsuits to go away.

APThe change isn't sitting well with black farmers who thought they'd get a friendlier reception from Obama after years of resistance from President George W. Bush.

"You can't blame it on the Bush administration anymore," said John Boyd, head of the National Black Farmers Association, which has organized the lawsuits. "I can't figure out for the life of me why the president wouldn't want to implement a bill that he fought for as a U.S. senator."

At issue is a class-action lawsuit known as the Pigford case. Thousands of farmers sued USDA claiming they had for years been denied government loans and other assistance that routinely went to whites. The government settled in 1999 and has paid out nearly $1 billion in damages on almost 16,000 claims.

Farmers, lawyers and activists like Boyd have worked for years to reopen the case because thousands of farmers missed the deadlines for participating. Many said the filing period was too short and they were unaware of the settlement until it was too late.

The cause gained momentum in August 2007 when Obama, then an Illinois senator, introduced Pigford legislation about six months into his presidential campaign.

Although the case was hardly a hot-button political issue, it had drawn intense interest among African-Americans in the rural South. It was seen as a way for Obama to reach out in those areas, where he was not well-known and where he would need strong support to win the Democratic primary.

The proposal won passage in May as sponsors rounded up enough support to incorporate it into the 2008 farm bill. The potential budget implications were huge: It could easily cost $2 billion or $3 billion given an estimated 65,000 pending claims.

With pressure to hold down costs, lawmakers set an artificially low $100 million budget. They called it a first step and said more money could be approved later.

But with 25,000 new claims and counting, the Obama administration is now arguing that the $100 million budget should be considered a cap to be split among the successful cases.

The position — spelled out in a legal motion filed in February and reiterated in recent settlement talks — would leave payments as low as $2,000 or $3,000 per farmer. Boyd called that "insulting."

Boyd noted that Obama's legislation specifically called for the new claimants to be eligible for the same awards as the initial lawsuit, including expedited payments of $50,000 plus $12,500 in tax breaks that the vast majority of the earlier farmers received.

"I'm really disappointed," Boyd said. "This is the president's bill."

"They did discriminate against these farmers, maybe not all of them, but a lot of these people would prevail if they could go to court," he said.

The administration wouldn't discuss specific budget plans or commit to fully funding the claims.

But in a statement to The Associated Press, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the department agrees that more needs to be done and is working with the Justice Department to "ensure that people are treated fairly."

Kenneth Baer, a budget spokesman for the White House, also suggested that the White House is planning to do more.

"The president has been a leader on this issue since his days as a U.S. senator and is deeply committed to closing this painful chapter in our history," Baer said in a statement.

Obama Is Shirtless -- And Retouched -- In Latest Magazine Cover

Finally: a president we can crush on!

Our toned commander-in-chief graces the May 2009 cover of Washingtonian Magazine wearing nothing but swimming trunks and shades. The image was taken from a paparazzi shot of him vacationing in Hawaii last Christmas.

It's Barack Obama at his most natural -- well, almost. One detail has been retouched, and it's not the four-pack (sorry, Mr. President, I can't quite give you six).

According to AOL News, the image was apparently altered to make Obama's swimming trunks red. In the original photo, Obama's trunks are black.

As Dollars Dwindle, Opportunity Knocks for NJ and Higher Ed

By Richard A. Lee

Rutgers University is trying something new this weekend. It’s called Rutgers Day and it takes place Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the school’s Busch, College Avenue and Cook/Douglass campuses.

Rutgers Day is designed to showcase New Jersey’s state university to the people of the Garden State. “Think of it as a great, big one-day show-and-tell for New Jersey, a celebration of our great state and a great university,” the school says on its Rutgers Day website.

Although the date for Rutgers Day was selected several months ago, the timing of the event could not be more fortuitous, given the current economic crisis. The downturn in the economy is forcing everyone to tighten their belts, including state governments and institutions of higher learning.

In New Jersey, Governor Jon S. Corzine has proposed a $29.8 billion budget that calls for $4 billion in cuts, including a $15.5 million reduction in state aid for Rutgers. In a message to the university community, Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick delivered the sobering news that “searches for critical positions will be cancelled; courses and sections will be eliminated; important services provided to our students, staff, and faculty will be reduced; maintenance of our facilities will be scaled back; and major projects will be delayed.” He also said layoffs may be unavoidable: “Dedicated men and women whose work is important to Rutgers will, unfortunately, lose their jobs in an extraordinarily difficult job market.”

Times are tough all around. But tough times also create opportunities. And now is one of those times. In fact, we all should take heed of a piece of advice that John F. Kennedy offered some 50 years ago: “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger, and one representing opportunity. The danger now is clear. But let us also make the most of our opportunities. For if they are lost now, they may never come again.”

The danger that the economic crisis poses for state government and higher education in New Jersey is clear. The opportunity may lie in Rutgers Day – not in the event itself, but rather in its spirit.

For the past six years, I have spent a day or two a week on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus – taking courses as a Ph.D. student and teaching classes as an adjunct instructor. During the rest of the week, I’m in Trenton following state government, where I worked for several years before joining the Hall Institute.

At Rutgers, I see brilliant scholars conducting ground-breaking research to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. In Trenton, I see tremendous problems that need solutions. We need to make a greater effort to bring these two worlds together and harness the academic talent at Rutgers to tackle the major public policy issues confronting our state.

Neither of these entities operates in a vacuum. Indeed, there are many programs and people at Rutgers who already are working hand-in-hand with the state. But they represent just the tip of the iceberg. Furthermore, the nexus between state government and higher education in New Jersey need not be limited to Rutgers. There are talented scholars at all of our institutions whose research skills could be valuable to the state.

So if you want to have fun, go to Rutgers Day on Saturday. It’s free and there are more than 350 activities. You’ll find dance, music, games and more -- maybe even some inspiration for strengthening the bond between academia and government in order to make New Jersey a better place for us all.

# # #

Richard A. Lee is Communications Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey. A former journalist and Deputy Communications Director for the Governor, he also teaches courses in media and government at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a Ph.D. in media studies.

Prosecutors say teen pirate was brazen ringleader

Prosecutors say Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse was not shy about making his presence known on the Maersk Alabama, brazenly tearing through the ship in a way that belied his young age and skinny, 5-foot-2 frame.

He was the first to board the ship, fired a shot at the captain, helped steal $30,000 in cash from a safe, and bragged about hijacking ships in the past, authorities said.

But the swagger authorities say the 18-year-old displayed on the ship had evaporated by the time he entered a federal courtroom Tuesday to face a piracy charge that carries a mandatory life prison sentence. He is the first pirate charged in the United States in more than a century.

The tough demeanor he was alleged to have shown on the high seas dissolved into audible sobs as his lawyers notified the court that they had spoken to his family in Somalia. When the judge asked him if he understood that court-appointed lawyers would represent him, the teenager responded through a translator: "I understand. I don't have any money." He still had a tattered white bandage on his left hand that resulted from getting stabbed by a sailor during the skirmish.

His defense lawyers portrayed Muse as a frightened kid and not the violent pirate depicted by prosecutors. They believe he is 15 years old and should be given greater protections under international law because of his age and the circumstances of his situation, and predicted he would be exonerated.

"As you can tell, he's extremely young, injured and terrified," lawyer Deirdre von Dornum said.

Muse was charged with several counts, including piracy under the law of nations. That charge carries a mandatory penalty of life in prison.

The decision by the federal government to bring Muse to justice here has thrust the teenager into international spotlight and has raised legal questions about whether the U.S. is going too far in trying to make an example of someone so young.

Muse's age was called into question by differing accounts, but the judge who heard arguments about the issue ruled Tuesday that he can be tried as an adult. The government says he's 18.

On Wednesday, his mother, Adar Abdirahman Hassan, reiterated that her son is 16.

"I plead with the American judges not to commit an injustice against Abdiwali and hand down an unfair verdict on my son," Hassan said from her home in Galkayo town.

Muse appeared in court as investigators released new details of the hijacking in a criminal complaint against the defendant, the oldest of 12 children and the son of parents who scraped together a few dollars a day in Somalia selling milk and tending to a small herd of camels, cows and goats.

The complaint by FBI agent Steven E. Sorrells provided dramatic new details about the seizure of the ship and what transpired before three pirates were shot by U.S. snipers and Muse was captured.

Sorrells said that the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, told him he fired multiple warning flares at the pirate boat to try to chase them away as they approached in the middle of the night April 8.

The agent said Muse was the first pirate to board the boat when he climbed up a portable ladder, armed with a gun, as the boat was about 280 miles off the coast of Somalia.

"From the deck of the Maersk Alabama, Muse fired his gun at the captain who was still in the bridge," Sorrells said. The bridge is an enclosed room in the rear of the ship that provides a view of the deck and the surrounding waters.

The agent said Muse entered the room, told the captain to stop the ship and "conducted himself as the leader of the pirates."

After the other pirates boarded the boat, three of them accompanied the captain to a safe where he took out about $30,000 in cash, which was then taken by the pirates, the agent said.

Sorrells said the pirates held Phillips on a lifeboat for four days, with Muse telling the captain at one point that he had hijacked other ships before.

But Muse wasn't the most savvy pirate.

Investigators said Muse was tricked into leaving his weapon behind with fellow pirates when he went to hunt for other crew members. A crew member apparently told Muse the crew would be afraid to surrender if he was armed.

With Muse searching the boat with a flashlight after the power was shut off by a crew member, one of them hid briefly and then tackled him, the agent said. Another crew member then helped tie Muse's hands with wire and took him to a room where other crew members were, Sorrells said. Later, Muse was freed when he and the other pirates left the boat with the captain to begin their four days on the lifeboat.

After the captain tried to escape by jumping in the water, the pirates fired a gun at him and later tied him up and hit him, Sorrells said.

The crew member who stabbed Muse said Tuesday that the teenager counted himself lucky to raid a U.S. ship and carried himself as the leader of the pirate gang.

"He was surprised he was on a U.S. ship. He kept asking, `You all come from America?' Then he claps and cheers and smiles. He caught himself a big fish. He can't believe it," crewmember ATM "Zahid" Reza said. Muse planned to demand at least $3 million, Reza said.

He said Muse told him it was his dream to come to America. "His dreams come true, but he comes to the U.S. not as a visitor, but as a prisoner," Reza said.

The details of Muse's life are murky, with his parents in Somalia insisting he was tricked into getting involved in piracy. His mother said he was "wise beyond his years" — a child who ignored other boys his age who tried to tease him and got lost in books instead.

"The last time I saw him, he was in his school uniform," the teen's mother, Adar Abdirahman Hassan, 40, told The Associated Press by telephone Tuesday from her home in Galkayo. "He was brainwashed. People who are older than him outwitted him, people who are older than him duped him."

Omar Jamal, executive director of Somali Justice Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, said his Somali immigrant organization made contact with family members of the pirates during the hostage standoff.

Muse's family members "don't have any money. The father has some camels and cows and goats outside the city. ... The father goes outside with the livestock and comes home at night. Father said they don't have any money, they are broke," Jamal said.

Muse's mother sells milk at a small market every day, saving around $6 every month for school fees for her oldest son. She pays $15 a month in rent.

Jamal said his organization was working to get a lawyer for Muse and to find if he has medical or mental problems.

"What we have is a confused teenager, overnight thrown into the highest level of the criminal justice system in the United States out of a country where there's no law at all," Jamal said.

Alfred P. Rubin, a professor of international law at Tufts University who wrote a book on piracy, said there had not been a major pirate prosecution in the United States since 1885, when the American ship Ambrose Light was attacked by pirates.

Reza, the West Hartford, Conn., crew member who stabbed Muse, plans to testify against him in his trial, but hopes not to see him.

"No, I don't want to see him. Not at all. I hate his face. I could have died," Reza said.

Associated Press writers Katie Nelson in West Hartford, Conn.; Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia; and Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

NFL commissioner: Contrition is Vick's only hope

The decision lies in the hands of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

The opportunity lies at the feet of Michael Vick.

Based on Goodell's comments Tuesday night in Lexington, all the former Virginia Tech quarterback has to do is pick it up, seize that second chance and run.

If you're reading this in prison, Michael, here's some advice:

Don't hedge your apology. When you talk to the commissioner, speak from the heart. Stutter if you must. But mean what you say, then act accordingly. Only then will you be paying football again.

Vick is scheduled to be transferred to home confinement on May 21 and released from federal custody on July 20.

But before he can even think about returning to the football field, he's got to be reinstated to the league by the Goodell, a man who has built a reputation as a hardliner on discipline.

That's the bad news for the Vick.

The good news?

Goodell, in town Tuesday for a leadership presentation at Washington and Lee, sounds like he's ready to reinstate Vick - provided the quarterback shows that he's a different man than the one who pleaded guilty to bankrolling a dogfighting ring in August 2007.

"I've said before that I'll review the matter once he's completed all of his legal issues," Goodell said following his presentation.

"And at that point in time, I will want to meet with Michael. I will want to meet with his people. I will want to meet with other professionals to understand: Does he understand the mistakes he made? Is he genuine and (does he) have remorse for those actions? And is he prepared to handle himself different going forward? That will ultimately be my decision."

Goodell will not be conned.

"Do not reflect poorly on the shield" has been his motto since taking over the league almost three years ago, and almost every action he's taken has been in accordance with that philosophy. He's instituted a stiff personal conduct policy. He's suspended players. He's confiscated draft picks.

"I think that's part of who he is; it's the core of his fabric," says his older brother Bill Goodell, a W&L law school graduate who helped lure the commissioner to Tuesday's event.

"It's part of the reason I wanted him to come to W&L. It's about integrity. It's about performance. It's about honor. It's about civility. He embodies all of those things."

While Roger Goodell said "there's no greater impact" on a player than suspending him, he doesn't like doing it.

"It's the least fun for me," he said.

"Players love to play the game. Coaches love to coach the game. You don't want to do that. Our efforts here are to try help people avoid making mistakes, not having to discipline people. I'm not trying to reinforce failures. We're trying to create success."

Vick still has a chance to be one of those preferred stories. But ultimately, this isn't up to the sheriff. It's up to the ex-con.

UN conference: Economic crisis could fuel hatred

GENEVA (AP) — The world racism conference looked beyond the Middle East on Wednesday to concerns over the economic crisis, with speakers warning that increased joblessness could lead to greater intolerance of foreigners if governments fail to act.

A day after more than 100 countries passed a declaration of solidarity, speakers focused on the economic plight affecting the whole world and how nations should put into practice their pledges to fight racism.

"It would be naive to expect that our efforts will succeed in putting a quick and irreversible end to prejudice and hate," said Terry Davis, head of the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog.

He said countries cannot force people to be tolerant, but can promote dialogue among people of different races, religions and ethnicities. In the battle against hatred, "there are no easy fixes and no quick wins," he said.

Haiti, which relies heavily on money sent back by its citizens working abroad, said it could be hurt significantly by xenophobia linked to the crisis, which it claimed is already "increasing the hate against foreigners and especially against migrant workers."

Vice Foreign Minister Jacques Nixon Myrthil said "racism and discrimination are far from being reduced and are even taking worse forms," echoing a statement at the conference's opening by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Ban said Monday it was important that nations address new technologies that were spreading hate messages more rapidly. He predicted "social unrest, weakened government and angry publics" contributing to increased intolerance, if countries failed to address the economic problems facing them.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said the global economic crisis meant many countries were cutting back on government programs.

But "efforts to diminish racism and xenophobia need not be among them," he said, adding that much of the effort to combat racism costs little money.

The discussions were more thematic on Wednesday after the tensions of the Middle East dominated proceedings at the start of the weeklong event.

On Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the first government speaker to take the podium — launched into an angry diatribe against Israel, calling it the most "cruel and repressive racist regime." That sparked a walkout by European delegates, and strong condemnations from the United Nations, U.S. and several other Western countries.

The U.S. decided to skip the conference before it started out of concern it would focus largely on Israel at the expense of other issues.

Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland also boycotted. They were joined by the Czech Republic after Ahmadinejad's speech.

Disruption by mainly pro-Israel, Jewish and Iranian groups throughout the conference has prompted the United Nations to withdraw 46 access passes, spokesman Rupert Colville said.

On Monday, a pair of rainbow-wigged protesters threw clown noses at Iran's president and later, about 100 members of pro-Israel and Jewish groups tried to block Ahmadinejad's entrance to a scheduled news conference.

The anti-racism conference, including preparatory meetings, is estimated to cost around $5.3 million, Colville said.

E-mails Led Cops to Accused 'Craigslist Killer' Philip Markoff

Philip Markoff, the medical student accused of being the so-called "Craigslist Killer," had e-mail correspondence with at least two of his victims, police say.

Markoff made a court appearance in Boston yesterday after authorities arrested him for the murder of 26-year-old masseuse Julissa Brisman, whom they believe Markoff tied up, robbed and then murdered.

Though gambling debts may have been the monetary motive, Markoff’s alleged disdain for women may have also played a role, according to Suffolk County’s District Attorney Daniel Conley. "Philip Markoff is a man who is willing to take advantage of women — to hurt them, to beat them, to rob them," he said, Boston’s CBS 2 reports.

Markoff’s fiancĂ©, Megan McAllister, insists otherwise. She wrote to news organizations yesterday to proclaim her beloved’s innocence. That doesn’t explain, of course, why investigators found a gun and zip ties in his home. Brisman and another victim, who survived, were bound with such ties.

Reports: Freddie Mac official found dead

David Kellermann, the acting chief financial officer of Freddie Mac, was found dead at his home Wednesday morning in what broadcast reports said was an apparent suicide.

WUSA-TV and WTOP Radio reported that David Kellermann was found dead in his Northern Virginia home. The 41-year-old Kellermann has been Freddie Mac's chief financial officer since September.

Sabrina Ruck, a Fairfax County police spokesman, confirmed to The Associated Press that Kellermann was dead, but she could not confirm that he committed suicide.

Kellermann's death is the latest blow to Freddie Mac, a government controlled company that owns or guarantees about 13 million home loans. CEO David Moffett resigned last month.

McLean, Va.-based Freddie Mac and sibling company Fannie Mae, which together own or back more than half of the home mortgages in the country, have been hobbled by skyrocketing loan defaults and have received about $60 billion in combined federal aid.

Kellermann was named acting chief financial officer in September 2008, after the resignation of Anthony "Buddy" Piszel, who stepped down after the September 2008 government takeover. The chief financial officer is responsible for the company's financial controls, financial reporting and oversight of the company's budget and financial planning.

Before taking that job, Kellerman served as senior vice president, corporate controller and principal accounting officer. He was with Freddie Mac for more than 16 years.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Reports say the acting chief financial officer of Freddie Mac has been found dead in an apparent suicide.

WUSA-TV and WTOP Radio are reporting that David Kellermann was found dead in his Northern Virginia home Wednesday morning.

The 41-year-old Kellermann has been Freddie Mac's chief financial officer since September.

Sabrina Ruck, a Fairfax County police spokesman, confirmed to the AP that Kellermann was dead, but she could not confirm that he committed suicide.