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Sunday, 4 November 2012

Gas Shortage Likely To Last For Several More Days

Even as power returns to parts of the region assailed by Hurricane Sandy, millions of drivers seeking gasoline appear likely to face at least several more days of persistent shortages.

Drivers in the New York area have been struggling to find gasoline ever since Hurricane Sandy slammed the area last week, causing power outages and port closures. The gasoline shortage has delayed relief efforts, deprived workers of pay, and caused frustration for many.

Gasoline is scarce mostly because of power outages. Electricity is necessary for refining gasoline and delivering it to drivers. Since utilities have begun restoring power and the New York harbor has partially reopened, the crisis is expected to abate in the next several days. Still, the scarcity of gasoline inconvenienced many on Saturday.

But the shortage delayed relief efforts as volunteers struggled to secure transportation for their supplies. Several hundred bags of food, toiletries, and clothes -- part of a local relief drive -- were stacked waist-high outside the Firehouse restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side on Saturday. The gasoline shortfall nearly stymied organizers' efforts to get the supplies to Staten Island and the Rockaways, where many victims still are without power or food.

The mayor's office had offered to send a truck, according to lawyer Michael Klein, who is organizing the relief effort, but it was severely delayed. "They [the victims] literally are cold, they have no food and they are gutting their houses simultaneously because the water was 5-feet high across the Rockaways," Klein told The Huffington Post. "Only the organized trucks and bus systems can get enough fuel to get these big loads in to help them."

Finally, Rich Cervini, a media executive from Upper Saddle River, N.J., managed to track down a rental truck with a gas tank three-quarters full -- about enough to make it to the Rockaways and back, according to his brother Dave Cervini. But he still had to leave behind hundreds of bags. A truck from the mayor's office arrived two hours later to pick up 400 more bags of supplies, according to Klein.

Several drivers waiting in a line that stretched for six blocks for the BP gas station on 36th Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan Saturday afternoon said they typically have to go to four or five stations before they finally find one with gasoline -- then they still have to wait about two hours for it.

Some government officials are responding to the crisis. The Department of Defense is giving away 12 million gallons of gasoline at five mobile stations in New York City and Long Island, where first responders are prioritized and drivers have a 10-gallon limit.

Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) signed an executive order on Friday rationing gasoline in 12 New Jersey counties, where as of Saturday drivers could buy gas only every other day.

The gasoline shortage has caused financial distress for some cab drivers. The line to the BP gas station on Saturday afternoon consisted mostly of cabs. Several drivers said they have to use about three hours of their shift every day to find and wait for gasoline. They said that they have lost between $300 and $1,000 over the past week from rides they were not able to make, since they had no gasoline or were waiting in line.

"I'm hardly making my lease," said Shahid Bangash, a New York City taxi driver, as he filled his tank at the BP gas station. He said he was unable to work for five days after the storm and only started again on Saturday.

Reggie Ridley, a janitor from Harlem, said that this past week, he has woken up three hours earlier than usual -- around 5:30 a.m. -- to start looking for gasoline. Once, he was unable to find gasoline at all, so he had to park his car at a garage and take the subway to work. He needs his car to go to work and to take his wife and children to and from work and school, respectively.

"I've been very tired. No sleep," he said. "Every place I go, it's been a long line, four- to five-blocks deep."

The dearth of gasoline has worn thin the patience of some drivers. Two drivers battling for a place in line at a gas station in Greenlawn, N.Y., got out of their cars and wrestled on the street for five minutes before bystanders intervened, said Mauro Angeles, a graphic designer from Long Island, who visited 25 gas stations over the past few days and was able to buy gasoline only twice.

But some drivers have kept their frustration to a minimum. Kofi Nimako, a New York City taxi driver who has lost $400 to $500 over the past week to long waits for gasoline, said he is glad just to have survived the storm. "Some people lost their lives, and I'm still alive, so I'm happy," he said.

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Thank you, Ian [Editor]

IRS Not Enforcing Rules On Separation Of Church And State

IRS Not Enforcing Rules On Separation Of Church And State:
NEW YORK (AP) — For the past three years, the Internal Revenue Service hasn't been investigating complaints of partisan political activity by churches, leaving religious groups who make direct or thinly veiled endorsements of political candidates unchallenged.
The IRS monitors religious and other nonprofits on everything from salaries to spending, and that oversight continues. However, Russell Renwicks, a manager in the IRS Mid-Atlantic region, recently said the agency had suspended audits of churches suspected of breaching federal restrictions on political activity. A 2009 federal court ruling required the IRS to clarify which high-ranking official could authorize audits over the tax code's political rules. The IRS has yet to do so.
Dean Patterson, an IRS spokesman in Washington, said Renwicks, who examines large tax-exempt groups, "misspoke." Patterson would not provide any specifics beyond saying that "the IRS continues to run a balanced program that follows up on potential noncompliance."
However, attorneys who specialize in tax law for religious groups, as well as advocacy groups who monitor the cases, say they know of no IRS inquiries in the past three years into claims of partisanship by houses of worship. IRS church audits are confidential, but usually become public as the targeted religious groups fight to maintain their nonprofit status.
"The impression created is that no one is minding the store," said Melissa Rogers, a legal scholar and director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina. "When there's an impression the IRS is not enforcing the restriction — that seems to embolden some to cross the line."
The issue is closely watched by a cadre of attorneys and former IRS officials who specialize in tax-exempt law, along with watchdog groups on competing sides of the church-state debate.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which seeks strict limits on religious involvement in politics, and the Alliance Defending Freedom, which considers the regulations unconstitutional government intrusion, scour the political landscape for any potential cases. While Americans United gathers evidence it hopes will prompt an IRS investigation, the Alliance Defending Freedom jumps in to provide a defense. Neither group knows of any IRS contact with houses of worship over political activity since the 2009 federal ruling.
Nicholas Cafardi, a Duquesne University Law School professor and Roman Catholic canon lawyer who specializes in tax-exempt law, said he has heard of no IRS inquiries over churches and politics in the last three years. Neither has Marcus Owens, a Washington attorney who spent a decade as head of the IRS tax-exempt division and is now in private practice.
Owens, who was with the IRS through 2000, said the agency had once initiated between 20 and 30 inquiries each year concerning political activity by churches or pastors. He said he knows of only two recent cases the IRS pursued against houses of worship or pastors, and neither involved complaints over partisan activity.
"What the IRS is desperate to do is to avoid signaling to churches and pastors that there is no administrative oversight," Owens said. "The IRS has been vigilant with regard to civil fraud and criminal cases, but those aren't all that common."
The tax code allows a wide range of political activity by houses of worship, including speaking out on social issues and organizing congregants to vote. But churches cannot endorse a candidate or engage in partisan advocacy. The presidential election has seen a series of statements by clergy that critics say amount to political endorsements. Religious leaders say they are speaking about public policies, not candidates, and have every right to do so.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has recently taken out full-page ads in major newspapers, featuring a photo of renowned evangelist Billy Graham, urging Americans to vote along biblical principles. Graham met last month with Mitt Romney and pledged to do "all I can" to help the Republican presidential nominee.
In a survey last week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 40 percent of black Protestants who attend worship services regularly said their clergy have discussed a specific candidate in church — and the candidate in every instance was President Barack Obama.
This Sunday, Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., ordered all the priests in his diocese to read a statement urging Catholics to vote and stating that, "Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord."
In Texas, a pastor of a small independent church posted a sign on the front of the building that read, "Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim." Romney is the first Mormon nominee for president by a major party. Opponents of Obama, who is Christian, have spread false rumors that he is Muslim.
Renwicks made his comments Oct. 18, at a Washington seminar on tax-exempt organizations presented by the American Law Institute-Continuing Legal Education. Responding to a moderator's question about the status of church audits, Renwicks said, "we're basically holding any potential church audits — they're basically in abeyance.
"I haven't done a church audit in quite some time," said Renwicks, according to a recording of the talk provided by the American Law Institute. "There were one or two — what I'd call somewhat, maybe potentially egregious cases — where I thought maybe, we need to go out there, but even those were put in abeyance until we get the signature issue resolved."
An IRS reorganization in 1998 put responsibility for authorizing the audits in the hands of lower-ranking IRS officials. A Minnesota pastor, who faced an audit over his 2007 endorsement from the pulpit of Rep. Michele Bachmann, argued the IRS was violating its own rules. In 2009, a federal judge agreed, prompting a formal IRS rule-making process that continues today.
Dean Zerbe, a former senior counsel to the Senate Finance Committee who specializes in tax fraud and abuse, said the audits are "an extremely hellish area for the IRS to deal with."
The agency has to balance enforcement with churches' First Amendment rights. Even when the federal agency finds an outright violation, the penalty for houses of worship is usually little more than a warning. The IRS has revoked nonprofit status in just a handful of these cases since the rules for religious groups were adopted in 1954.
Last month, more than 1,500 pastors, organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, endorsed a candidate from the pulpit and then sent a record of their statement to the IRS, hoping their challenge would eventually end up in court. The Alliance has organized the event, called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," since 2008. The IRS has never contacted a pastor involved in the protest.
"I think people are misled to think the IRS wakes up every morning wanting to knock on the door of a church or synagogue," said Zerbe. "Most senators blanch at the idea of having an IRS agent in the pews listening to what's going on from the pulpit. ... I think the IRS in some ways reflects that similar discomfort."

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Thank you, Ian [Editor]

Youngest Ponzi Schemer Ever?

Youngest Ponzi Schemer Ever?:
He's a model/actor/world traveler who now finds another title affixed to his name -- alleged Ponzi schemer.
Beyond his pin-up good looks and dazzlingly white smile, former Florida Atlantic University student Donald R. French Jr. stands out from the never-ending parade of South Floridians accused of running investment frauds. Federal authorities say he was just 21 years old when he launched a $10 million "classic Ponzi scheme" he used to transform himself from a boy from Michigan into an international jet-setter.
Local attorneys who track investment fraud cases say they have never heard of anyone so young accused of convincing people to entrust him with millions of dollars. French formed a Boca Raton-based company in March 2008, promising returns of up to 50 percent a year with investments in foreign currencies, emeralds and even a solar-energy project in Italy, according to federal court records.
Using the money, he set up a home in Rome, traveled to 30 countries and was a high roller in Las Vegas, court documents show. His wild ride ended this summer when he was detained in South Africa and brought back to Las Vegas for passing bad checks at casinos. He's now in South Florida facing a wire fraud charge related to his company, D3 Capital Management.
His arraignment in West Palm Beach federal court had been scheduled for Friday, but it was postponed after his attorney wrote that French and federal authorities are "seeking to resolve this matter" -- an indication that they are talking about a plea deal.
Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law school professor, said investors typically fall for financial frauds run by people who have an air of experience and that usually means a few gray hairs on top of the schemer's head. He said a young person trying to pull off a Ponzi scheme would have to overcome that hurdle.
"We know Ponzi schemers have to be very good actors," Jarvis said. "That's what they are at a base level...You have to give people a reason to invest with you. You have to get people to like you."
French clearly harbored dreams of making it as an actual actor, appearing in a 2007 Italian movie "Matrimonio alle Bahamas." He has his acting resume and head shots up on an Italian casting agency's website.
In addition, there's a lavishly filmed four-minute movie trailer on YouTube featuring French and a young boy as brothers. It's not entirely clear what the movie is about -- or even its name -- but there are underwater shots of French and the boy scuba diving with dolphins and elaborate aerial shots of them climbing a mountain, running over a suspension bridge and running on a pier.
There are no indications that the film was ever completed.
Fort Lauderdale attorney Jeffrey Sonn, who represents victims of securities and investment fraud, said that in his 27 years of tracking such cases, he can't remember an accused Ponzi schemer as young as French.
"Ponzis are very similar in that they usually include a charismatic promoter who has the appearance of great success," Sonn said. "People are naturally drawn to other people who appear very successful...The Ponzi scheme promoter normally will live very well -- fancy cars, fancy jewelry, fancy homes and going to the better restaurants."
Federal court documents indicate that once the money started flowing for French, he began driving high-end cars and racked up gambling debts of more than $565,000 in Las Vegas. He made $1.48 million in debit card purchases, while withdrawing $1.28 million in cash, according to court records.
French acknowledged to a FBI special agent in July that he only invested a small fraction of investors' money, using his "gift of gab" to manipulate people, court documents show.
While a 21-year-old taking on the role of successful financier may seem hard to believe, South Florida has proved to be fertile ground for fraudsters shedding their past lives.
Former bar bouncer Sean Healy pulled off a $16.7 million Ponzi scheme before it collapsed in 2009 and he was sent him to prison for 16 years. While Ronnie E. Bass Jr., who once managed a fast food restaurant, masterminded a $12 million Delray Beach-based scam targeting Haitian Americans. He was sentenced last year to 17 years behind bars.
South Florida is second only to the New York City area as far as the number of federal securities and investment fraud investigations and prosecutions. More than 100 people have been arrested in South Florida since December 2010 on such fraud charges.
"South Florida is certainly a good place to go to pick the pockets and pocketbooks of the wealthy," Jarvis said.
None of French's investors -- including one who entrusted him with almost $2 million -- have publicly come forward. No lawsuits have been filed against French locally.
But a consumer website, pissedconsumer.com, offers insight into how investors became increasingly frustrated with him. In August 2011, someone wrote French was ripping off people.
"[French has been] taking money from people (his own friends and family included) only to realize his plans would not work out and since 2008 he has been hiding in Rome, Italy, to avoid any federal consequences," the anonymous poster wrote. "If this man or any of his associates contact you about doing business RUN!'
The comment section that followed become a gathering site for former investors and acquaintances. Someone posting as "Victim101" wrote: "I will do everything in my power to hunt him down."
Others pleaded for French to contact his investors.
"If Donald would contact his investors and tell them what is going on, and where the fund and everyone's money stand, it will allow everyone to understand the situation much better...For a lot of us it's a lifetime of savings," wrote another commenter in January.
jburstein@tribune.com, 954-356-4491 or Twitter @jkburstein ___
(c)2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services


The posts and articles provided by our news desk our not always our own personal views.Tweet at  #AceNewsServices and email us at News & Views 

Thank you, Ian [Editor]