Chief thug at Countrywide Financial charged with fraud

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One of America’s top mortgage tycoons, Angelo Mozilo, has been charged with fraud and insider dealing for allegedly lying to investors about a toxic build-up of billions of dollars in reckless loans at his Countrywide Financial homeloans empire.

The Securities and Exchange Commission launched a civil prosecution against Mozilo for making $140m in profit by selling Countrywide stock in 2006 and 2007 while concealing a looming deterioration in the business’s prospects from shareholders.

At the peak of America’s property boom, Countrywide was the nation’s biggest mortgage provider, servicing one in seven US homeloans. But the firm suffered catastrophic losses in the credit crunch and was rescued from possible bankruptcy by Bank of America last year…

“Countrywide portrayed itself as underwriting mainly prime quality mortgages using high underwriting standards,” said Robert Khuzami. “But concealed from shareholders was the true Countrywide, an increasingly reckless lender assuming greater and greater risk…”

The charges are the most prominent government prosecution to date arising from America’s meltdown in sub-prime mortgages. Mozilo has been widely vilified as the “sub-prime king”, accused by unions and politicians of exploiting customers with predatory mortgages. Charles Schumer, a prominent Democratic senator for New York, recently suggested that Mozilo should be “boiled in oil – figuratively”.

I wouldn’t suggest anything as mean as boiling in oil. Now, the guillotine – that’s a different story.

As good a time as any to reiterate what I saw leading up to this meltdown. State and federal governments abdicated their responsibility for oversight – allowing unlicensed, unregulated mortgages to be sold from storefronts.

Yes, the big banks and financial firms jumped on top of sub-prime mortgages with their own special greed; but, none of this could have happened without the collusion of sleazy politicians at every level of American governance.

O.A.S. lifts its suspension of Cuba – sort of

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After two days of intense negotiations, the Organization of American States has agreed to lift a cold war provision that suspended Cuba from the group but also accepted a list of conditions, backed by Washington, that Havana would have to meet before being allowed to return.

The compromise was a stunning about-face for the 34-nation group, which had been in what appeared to be an intractable stalemate that threatened to polarize the hemisphere.

At the grassroots level, the hemisphere has been polarized all the way back to the OAS decision to function full-time as a Washington flunky.

On one side, Washington had opposed any measure that would have ended Cuba’s suspension — imposed in 1962 — without requiring that the island nation agree to abide by the organization’s democratic principles before being allowed to return. Venezuela and Nicaragua led the opposition to any provision that set conditions for Cuba’s return…

A Latin American diplomat said that the risk of losing United States support for the organization, which gets 60 percent of its funds from Washington, weighed heavily on the group’s thinking.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, according to diplomatic protocol.

He also didn’t want to lose his free parking spot at the U.S. Treasury.

In the end, each side claimed victory, hailing the compromise as historic, even though it was largely symbolic. The resolution, for example, says that Cuba cannot return unless it asks to, and Havana has said repeatedly it has no interest in rejoining the group, which President Raúl Castro has denounced as a tool of American domination.

Hillary’s speechwriters made the best of a mediocre piece of politics. I think it’s clear the Obama administration would like to resolve the decades of rubberstamp politics that reduced the OAS to less than a footnote to Latin American history.

Before Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, the OAS had a small measure of respect as an independent body. They deserved it.

Congress and the CIA budgeted subservience along with policies of assault and murder from Chile and Argentina to Guatemala and El Salvador. Like so many, the OAS was bought and paid for by the American taxpayer – who paid as little attention to the process as they did the march to war in VietNam.

Political hacks in Italy want Nobel for Berlusconi. WTF?

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Ever since the Italian media began peering into Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s personal life — and found a host of attractive young women — his supporters have been furiously trying to change the subject.

Among them is a small group with a big plan: to nominate Mr. Berlusconi for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“An Italian hasn’t won the Nobel Peace Prize since 1907,” said Giammario Battaglia, a 36-year-old lawyer who helped start the initiative a few months ago. “We think it’s a good moment.”

He appears to be serious.

The group contends that Mr. Berlusconi, operating behind the scenes and using his close friendship with Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, helped end the conflict between Russia and Georgia last summer. “He saved human lives,” Mr. Battaglia said.

Some are not convinced that that rises to Nobel heights or that Mr. Berlusconi played such a role in ending the war. The claim “sounds quite implausible,” said Mark Medish, a Russia adviser to former President Bill Clinton and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace…

This week, a court began examining the use of government planes to shuttle guests to his Sardinian villa, while a court confiscated hundreds of photos of guests in various states of undress at pool parties, on the grounds that releasing them would violate the prime minister’s privacy…

A handful of members of the Italian Parliament have signed on to the Nobel effort’s Web site — with their campaign advertisements for this weekend’s elections for the European Parliament.

A handful of sycophants kissing the boss’s butt.

Gangbangers feel safer with their peers – though danger increases

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Children who join gangs feel safer despite a greater risk of being assaulted or killed, according to…research led by a Michigan State University criminologist. The findings by MSU’s Chris Melde…may help explain why youth continue to join street gangs despite the well-established danger.

“It’s a paradox,” said Melde, assistant professor of criminal justice. “Gang members essentially are not allowed to show fear and this can have a profound impact on adolescents. Their quest for acceptance, along with their immersion into this culture steeped in violence, may ultimately numb their reaction to violence, including their fear of victimization.”

While many researchers look at the downside of gang membership, Melde’s research explores the potential benefits – or at least the perceived benefits…The project is believed to be the first long-term analysis of its kind. Melde and his colleagues studied 1,450 public school students in the sixth through ninth grades during a two-year period. The students came from 15 schools in four states: Arizona, New Mexico, Massachusetts and South Carolina.

The students who joined gangs said they had higher levels of victimization, but also reported a relatively large decrease in fear at the same time. Victimization ranged from the fear of home invasion to being attacked.

The study also highlights a possible intervention point. Because fear, which affects decision-making, generally peaks immediately following a violent action – and before the gang can organize a response – Melde said that might be the best time to try convincing gang members to quit.

“Intervening in their lives right then may impact their decision whether they stay in a gang or not,” he said.

To me, the study demonstrates how little removed from the Stone Age many of our species still are. The “safety in numbers” ideology which may have worked well when we were cave dwellers venturing out onto the savannah is hardly worthwhile, nowadays.

But, the less educated you are – the more likely you are to accept such foolishness.

Obama reboots U.S./Muslim relationship

Click photo to watch the speech
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President Barack Obama sought a “new beginning” between the United States and Muslims around the world in a major speech…but offered no new initiative to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate,” the U.S. president said in a speech at Cairo University.

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said. “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.”

Obama’s speech, interrupted by applause and occasional shouts of “we love you,” was an effort to restore the tarnished U.S. image among many of the more than 1 billion Muslims around the world, badly damaged by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the treatment of U.S. military detainees…

The choice of Cairo for the speech underscored Obama’s focus on the Middle East, where he faces huge foreign policy challenges, from trying to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

How many Americans ask the same questions that people in the Middle East are asking? How many Americans questioned the policies that brought us to where we are?

How many of you believe that the relationship between the United States and the world of Islam can and will improve?

Here’s the prepared text of the speech.

Military report finds procedural errors in Afghan airstrike deaths

A military investigation has concluded that American personnel made significant errors in carrying out some of the airstrikes in western Afghanistan on May 4 that killed dozens of Afghan civilians, according to a senior American military official.

The official said the civilian death toll would probably have been reduced if American air crews and forces on the ground had followed strict rules devised to prevent civilian casualties. Had the rules been followed, at least some of the strikes by American warplanes against half a dozen targets over seven hours would have been aborted.

The report represents the clearest American acknowledgment of fault in connection with the attacks. It will give new ammunition to critics, including many Afghans, who complain that American forces too often act indiscriminately in calling in airstrikes, jeopardizing the United States mission by turning the civilian population against American forces and their ally, the Afghan government…

According to the senior military official, the report on the May 4 raids found that one plane was cleared to attack Taliban fighters, but then had to circle back and did not reconfirm the target before dropping bombs, leaving open the possibility that the militants had fled the site or that civilians had entered the target area in the intervening few minutes.

In another case, a compound of buildings where militants were massing for a possible counterattack against American and Afghan troops was struck in violation of rules that required a more imminent threat to justify putting high-density village dwellings at risk, the official said.

“In several instances where there was a legitimate threat, the choice of how to deal with that threat did not comply with the standing rules of engagement,” said the military official, who provided a broad summary of the report’s initial findings on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry was not yet complete…

I have a casual relationship with a few acquaintances with whom I discuss military history, strategy and tactics. A few are sometimes operational in Afghanistan and Iraq. I can tell you the best of those flying missions over those sad nations – are the kind of pilots who go by the book.

They know there’s reasons for “the book” – and preventing civilian casualties is reason #1. That doesn’t excuse the mistakes.

Bird Flu virus survives 600 days in a landfill

Amid concerns about a pandemic of swine flu, researchers from Nebraska report for the first time that poultry carcasses infected with another threat — the “bird flu” virus — can remain infectious in municipal landfills for almost 2 years. Their report is scheduled for the June 15 issue of ACS’ semi-monthly journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Shannon L. Bartelt-Hunt and colleagues note that avian influenza, specifically the H5N1 strain, is an ongoing public health concern. Hundreds of millions of chickens and ducks infected with the virus have died or been culled from flocks worldwide in efforts to control the disease. More than 4 million poultry died or were culled in a 2002 outbreak in Virginia, and the carcasses were disposed of in municipal landfills. Until now, few studies have directly assessed the safety of landfill disposal.

“The objectives of this study were to assess the survival of avian influenza in landfill leachate and the influence of environmental factors,” says the report. The data showed that the virus survived in landfill leachate — liquid that drains or “leaches” from a landfill — for at least 30 days and up to 600 days.

The creepy part is that the conclusion of the study says “that landfilling is an appropriate method for disposal of carcasses infected with avian influenza”. Appropriate for who? The virus is surviving in the liquid leaching out from the landfill!

They reference “typical” landfills. What about safety for the landfill operators and laborers? The safety spec may be wonderful on paper; but, sorry – I’m not convinced about the reality.