Daily Archives: December 21, 2010

Strongest mid-December snap in a half century; regional cold records topple for 3rd straight night

Three nights of record-breaking, teeth-chattering, crop-threatening cold marked the most profound such event for mid-December in a half-century, meteor­ologists said.

palmbeachpost.com | Dec. 15, 2010

By Eliot Kleinberg

One more round of “very cold,” but not freezing, temperatures early today was expected before Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast finally could get back to Christmas shopping unimpeded.

“The good news is we are nearing the end of this cold snap,” National Weather Service forecaster Chuck Caracozza said Wednesday.

By the end of lunch hour Wednesday, the mercury had jumped to 60 degrees. That’s more like it.

Overnight and this morning, lows in coastal Palm Beach County were set to drop into the low 40s and a freeze watch was in place overnight for interior Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, meaning a chance of below-freezing temperatures.

Overnight on the Treasure Coast, temperatures were expected to dip to the 20s in some spots, and perhaps the low 20s well into the interior.

That meant one more night of danger to crops.

But across South Florida, today’s forecast should bring good cheer. It calls for highs in the low 70s and lows in the mid 50s.

It will take awhile to gauge the fallout from the most bitter freeze since a historic one in 1962.

Across the region, temperatures were 20 to 25 degrees below normal for this time of year, the weather service said.

Wednesday’s low of 35 at Palm Beach International Airport broke the 1962 record of 36. The wind chill was 31.

Records fell in Vero Beach, Clewiston and Okeechobee, and were tied in Belle Glade and Okeechobee.

In all, 125 people spent Tuesday night at shelters supervised by the American Red Cross: seven in Stuart, one in Belle Glade, three in Okeechobee and 114 at the Westgate Community Center in suburban West Palm Beach.

Image of Christ in Fort Pierce held 27 Tuesday.

Things will cool off again by the end of the weekend, but not much.

Lows are forecast to be in the upper 50s early Sunday, and the high around 70. And highs early next week will be in the upper 60s and low 70s.

The other side of the cold snap, a stressed water supply and high wildfire potential, won’t moderate as rapidly as the chill.

“This year is not the typical wildfire year,” Florida Department of Forestry specialist Melissa Yunas said. “We did not receive enough tropical moisture in the summer months. In addition, the cold fronts are not bringing in substantial rain.”

And it will be awhile before the extent of damage is known in the interior, where farmers sent helicopters over fields again Wednesday morning in a bid to save crops hit by three cold snaps in as many weeks.

East Gate Farm near Belle Glade lost an entire field of corn. Supervisor Willie Murphy said that soon, after this latest round of cold, “we’ll know what’s alive and what’s dead.”

Staff writers Alexandra Seltzer and Cynthia Roldan contributed to this story.

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Snow chaos: Coventry’s coldest December for 120 years

THIS month is set to become the coldest December in Coventry and Warwickshire since records began 120 years ago.

coventrytelegraph.net | Dec 21, 2010

By Cara Simpson, Duncan Gibbons and Sam Dimmer

The average temperature for the first three weeks of the month was -0.2 degrees Celsius, compared to a December average of 5C.

The mercury plummeted to a teeth-chattering -11C on Sunday night – the coldest since 1981.

The big chill is set to continue with sub-zero daytime temperatures and the risk of more snow right up to Christmas Eve.

Steve Jackson, of Coventry’s Bablake Weather Centre, said: “We may well be on the verge of an historic winter record, with every chance that this December could become the coldest December in Coventry since 1890.’’

Motorists this morning faced more dangerous driving conditions.

Warning as the show chaos continues

PEOPLE are being warned to stay at home as the deep freeze tightens its grip on Coventry and Warwickshire.

All trains through Coventry were suspended after power cables came down in a tunnel between Tile Hill and Berkswell yesterday afternoon.

The cables, which were tangled around a train, needed to be untangled before being replaced. Services around the region were diverted away from the affected line but commuters in the city were left stranded.

Vatican Bank hit by financial scandal… again

Investigators are closing in on the Pope’s bank, dissatisfied by claims that it will change its ways

Independent | Dec 20, 2010

By Victor Simpson and Nicole Winfield

Roberto Calvi was found hanging from scaffolding on Blackfriars Bridge, his pockets loaded with bricks. Both the Calvi and Sindona cases remain unsolved.

This is no ordinary bank. The ATMs are in Latin, priests use a private entrance, and a life-sized portrait of Pope Benedict XVI hangs on the wall. Nevertheless, l’Istituto per le Opere di Religione (the Institute for Religious Works) is a bank, and it is under harsh new scrutiny, including money-laundering allegations that led police to seize €23m (£19.5m) in Vatican assets in September. Critics say the case shows that the “Vatican Bank” has never shed its penchant for secrecy and scandal.

The Vatican calls the seizure of assets a “misunderstanding” and expresses optimism that it will be cleared up quickly. But court documents show that prosecutors say the Vatican Bank deliberately flouted anti-laundering laws “with the aim of hiding the ownership, destination and origin of the capital”. The documents also reveal investigators’ suspicions that clergy may have acted as fronts for corrupt businessmen and the Mafia. The documents pinpoint two transactions that have not been reported: one in 2009 involving the use of a false name, and another in 2010 in which the Vatican Bank withdrew €650,000 from an Italian bank account but ignored bank requests to disclose where the money was headed.

The new allegations of financial impropriety could not have come at a worse time for the Vatican, already hit by revelations that it sheltered paedophile priests. The corruption probe has also given new hope to Holocaust survivors who tried unsuccessfully to sue the Vatican in the US, alleging that Nazi loot was stored in the bank.

Yet the scandal is hardly the first for the centuries-old bank. In 1986, a Vatican financial adviser died after drinking cyanide-laced coffee in prison. Another was found dangling from a rope under London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982, his pockets stuffed with money and stones. The incidents blackened the bank’s reputation, raised suspicions of ties with the Mafia, and cost the Vatican hundreds of millions of dollars in legal clashes with Italian authorities.

On 21 September, financial police seized assets from a Vatican Bank account at the Rome branch of Credito Artigiano. Investigators said the Vatican had failed to furnish information on the origin or destination of the funds, as required by Italian law. The bulk of the money, €20m, was destined for the American JP Morgan’s Frankfurt branch in Germany, with the remainder going to Banca del Fucino, an Italian bank. Prosecutors alleged the Vatican ignored regulations that foreign banks must communicate to Italian financial authorities where their money has come from. All banks have declined to comment.

In another case, financial police in Sicily said in late October that they had uncovered money laundering in- volving the use of a Vatican Bank account by a priest in Rome whose uncle was convicted of association with the Mafia. Authorities say some €250,000, illegally obtained from the regional government of Sicily for a fish-breeding company, was sent to the priest by his father as a “charitable donation”, then sent back to Sicily from a Vatican Bank account using a series of home-banking operations to make it difficult to trace.

The prosecutors’ office stated in court papers last month that while the bank has expressed a “generic and stated will” to conform to international standards, “there is no sign that the institutions of the Catholic Church are moving in that direction”. It said its investigation had found “exactly the opposite”.

Legal waters are murky because of the Vatican’s special status as an independent state within Italy. This time, Italian investigators were able to move against the Vatican Bank because the Bank of Italy classifies it as a foreign financial institution operating in Italy. However, in one of the 1980s scandals, prosecutors could not arrest the then bank head Paul Marcinkus, an American archbishop, because Italy’s highest court ruled he had immunity. Marcinkus, who died in 2006 and always proclaimed his innocence, was the inspiration for Archbishop Gilday in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III.

The Vatican has pledged to comply with EU financial standards and create a watchdog authority. Gianluigi Nuzzi, author of Vatican SpA, a 2009 book outlining the bank’s dealings, said it is possible the Vatican is serious about coming clean, but he is not optimistic. “I don’t trust them,” he said. “After the previous big scandals, they said ‘we’ll change’ and they didn’t. It’s happened too many times.” He said the structure and culture of the institution is such that powerful account holders can exert pressure on management. In addition, some managers are simply resistant to change.

The list of account holders is secret, though bank officials say there are some 40,000-45,000 among religious congregations, clergy, Vatican officials, and lay-people with Vatican connections. The bank chairman, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, who is also chairman of Santander’s Italian operations, was brought in last year to bring the Vatican Bank in line with Italian and international regulations. Mr Gotti Tedeschi has been on a public speaking tour extolling the benefits of a morality-based financial system. “He went to sell the new image … not knowing that inside the same things were still happening,” Mr Nuzzi said. “They continued to do these transfers without the names, not necessarily in bad faith, but out of habit.”

It does not help that Mr Gotti Tedeschi himself and the bank’s number two, Paolo Cipriani, are under investigation for alleged violations of money-laundering laws. Both were questioned by Rome prosecutors on 30 September, although no charges have been filed. In his testimony, Mr Gotti Tedeschi said he knew little about the bank’s day-to-day operations, noting that he had been in the job less than a year.

According to the prosecutors’ interrogation transcripts, Mr Gotti Tedeschi deflected most questions about the suspect transactions to Mr Cipriani. He in turn said that when the Holy See transferred money without identifying the sender, it was the Vatican’s own money, not a client’s. Mr Gotti Tedeschi rejected a request for an interview but has stated that he questions the motivations of prosecutors. In a speech in October, he described a wider plot against the church, decrying “personal attacks on the Pope” and “the facts linked to paedophilia”. As the Vatican proclaims its innocence, the courts are holding firm. An Italian court has rejected a Vatican appeal against the order to seize assets.

The Vatican Bank was founded in 1942 by Pope Pius XII to manage assets destined for religious or charitable works. The bank, located in the tower of Niccolo V, is not open to the public. There are about 100 staffers, 10 bank windows, a vault for safe-deposit boxes, and ATMs that open in Latin but can be accessed in modern languages. In another concession to modern times, the bank recently began issuing credit cards.

During the scandals three decades ago, the Sicilian financier Michele Sindona, who had been appointed by the Pope to manage the Vatican’s foreign investments, brought in Roberto Calvi, a Catholic banker in northern Italy. After Sindona’s banking empire collapsed in the mid-1970s, his links to the mob were exposed, sending him to prison in 1980 and his eventual death from poisoned coffee six years later. Calvi, who inherited his role, headed Banco Ambrosiano, which collapsed in 1982 after the disappearance of $1.3bn in loans made to dummy companies in Latin America. The Vatican had provided letters of credit for the loans.

Calvi was found a short time later hanging from scaffolding on Blackfriars Bridge, his pockets loaded with bricks and $11,700 in various currencies. After an initial ruling of suicide, murder charges were filed against five people, including a major Mafia figure, but all were acquitted after being tried. While denying wrongdoing, the Vatican Bank paid $250m to Ambrosiano’s creditors. Both the Calvi and Sindona cases remain unsolved.

Vatican Bank mired in money laundering scandal in latest stain on “God’s Bankers”

AP | Dec 11, 2010

by NICOLE WINFIELD, VICTOR L. SIMPSON

Paul Marcinkus, an American archbishop. Italy's highest court ruled he had immunity.

VATICAN CITY (AP) — This is no ordinary bank: The ATMs are in Latin. Priests use a private entrance. A life-size portrait of Pope Benedict XVI hangs on the wall.

Nevertheless, the Institute for Religious Works is a bank, and it’s under harsh new scrutiny in a case involving money-laundering allegations that led police to seize euro23 million ($30 million) in Vatican assets in September. Critics say the case shows that the “Vatican Bank” has never shed its penchant for secrecy and scandal.

The Vatican calls the seizure of assets a “misunderstanding” and expresses optimism it will be quickly cleared up. But court documents show that prosecutors say the Vatican Bank deliberately flouted anti-laundering laws “with the aim of hiding the ownership, destination and origin of the capital.” The documents also reveal investigators’ suspicions that clergy may have acted as fronts for corrupt businessmen and Mafia.

The documents pinpoint two transactions that have not been reported: one in 2009 involving the use of a false name, and another in 2010 in which the Vatican Bank withdrew euro650,000 ($860,000) from an Italian bank account but ignored bank requests to disclose where the money was headed.

The new allegations of financial impropriety could not come at a worse time for the Vatican, already hit by revelations that it sheltered pedophile priests. The corruption probe has given new hope to Holocaust survivors who tried unsuccessfully to sue in the United States, alleging that Nazi loot was stored in the Vatican Bank.

Yet the scandal is hardly the first for the centuries-old bank. In 1986, a Vatican financial adviser died after drinking cyanide-laced coffee in prison. Another was found dangling from a rope under London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982, his pockets stuffed with money and stones. The incidents blackened the bank’s reputation, raised suspicions of ties with the Mafia, and cost the Vatican hundreds of millions of dollars in legal clashes with Italian authorities.

On Sept. 21, financial police seized assets from a Vatican Bank account at the Rome branch of Credito Artigiano SpA. Investigators said the Vatican had failed to furnish information on the origin or destination of the funds as required by Italian law.

The bulk of the money, euro20 million ($26 million), was destined for JP Morgan in Frankfurt, with the remainder going to Banca del Fucino.

Prosecutors alleged the Vatican ignored regulations that foreign banks must communicate to Italian financial authorities where their money has come from. All banks have declined to comment.

In another case, financial police in Sicily said in late October that they uncovered money laundering involving the use of a Vatican Bank account by a priest in Rome whose uncle was convicted of Mafia association.

Authorities say some euro250,000 euros, illegally obtained from the regional government of Sicily for a fish breeding company, was sent to the priest by his father as a “charitable donation,” then sent back to Sicily from a Vatican Bank account using a series of home banking operations to make it difficult to trace.

The prosecutors’ office stated in court papers last month that while the bank has expressed a “generic and stated will” to conform to international standards, “there is no sign that the institutions of the Catholic church are moving in that direction.” It said its investigation had found “exactly the opposite.”

Legal waters are murky because of the Vatican’s special status as an independent state within Italy. This time, Italian investigators were able to move against the Vatican Bank because the Bank of Italy classifies it as a foreign financial institution operating in Italy. However, in one of the 1980s scandals, prosecutors could not arrest then-bank head Paul Marcinkus, an American archbishop, because Italy’s highest court ruled he had immunity.

Marcinkus, who died in 2006 and always proclaimed his innocence, was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s character Archbishop Gilday in “Godfather III.”

The Vatican has pledged to comply with EU financial standards and create a watchdog authority. Gianluigi Nuzzi, author of “Vatican SpA,” a 2009 book outlining the bank’s shady dealings, said it’s possible the Vatican is serious about coming clean, but he isn’t optimistic.

“I don’t trust them,” he said. “After the previous big scandals, they said ‘we’ll change’ and they didn’t. It’s happened too many times.”

He said the structure and culture of the institution is such that powerful account-holders can exert pressure on management, and some managers are simply resistant to change.

The list of account-holders is secret, though bank officials say there are some 40,000-45,000 among religious congregations, clergy, Vatican officials and lay people with Vatican connections.

The bank chairman is Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, also chairman of Banco Santander’s Italian operations, who was brought in last year to bring the Vatican Bank in line with Italian and international regulations. Gotti Tedeschi has been on a very public speaking tour extolling the benefits of a morality-based financial system.

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The ghost towns of China: Amazing satellite images show cities meant to be home to millions lying deserted


This $19 billion development is packed with blocks of empty houses

20 new cities being built every year in the country’s vast swathes of free land

Daily Mail | Dec 18, 2010

These amazing satellite images show sprawling cities built in remote parts of China that have been left completely abandoned, sometimes years after their construction.

Elaborate public buildings and open spaces are completely unused, with the exception of a few government vehicles near communist authority offices.

Some estimates put the number of empty homes at as many as 64 million, with up to 20 new cities being built every year in the country’s vast swathes of free land.

The photographs have emerged as a Chinese government think tank warns that the country’s real estate bubble is getting worse, with property prices in major cities overvalued by as much as 70 per cent.

Of the 35 major cities surveyed, property prices in eleven including Beijing and Shanghai were between 30 and 50 per cent above their market value, the China Daily said, citing the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Prices in Fuzhou, capital of the southeastern province of Fujian, had the worst property bubble with average house prices more than 70 per cent higher than their market value, according to the survey conducted in September.

The average price in the 35 cities surveyed was nearly 30 per cent above the market value, the report said.

Property prices have remained stubbornly high despite the government adopting a slew of measures since April including hiking minimum downpayments to at least 30 per cent and ordering banks not to provide loans for third home purchases.

Prices in 70 major cities were up 0.2 per cent in October from the previous month and 8.6 percent higher than a year ago, official data showed.

The increase came after prices gained 0.5 per cent month on month in September, which was the first increase since May.

Massive stimulus measures taken since 2008 to fend off the financial crisis injected huge amounts of liquidity in the market and have been blamed for fuelling real estate prices.

‘The government target is not clear and policy is incoherent,’ CASS senior research Ni Pengfei was quoted saying.

According to research carried out by Time magazine, fixed-asset investment in the Asian country accounted for more than 90 per cent of its overall growth – with residential and commercial real estate investment making up nearly a quarter of that.

Regional governments across China have been building massive real estate projects, including Kangbashi in Inner Mongolia and Zhengzhou New District, which have remained empty, because of the high prices and interest in investment.

Kangbashi, which was built in just five years, was meant to be the urban centre for Ordos City – a wealthy coal-mining hub home to 1.5million people.

It was filled with office towers, administrative centres, museums, theatres and sports facilities as well as thousands of homes, but remains virtually deserted.

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Chavez given dictatorial power to rule by decree


Numero Uno. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez  Photo: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Chavez given power to rule by decree for 18 months

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been granted power to rule by decree for 18 months by his followers in parliament.

Telegraph | Dec 18, 2010

By Philip Sherwell, New York

His critics said the move turns the country into a near-dictatorship. It comes just two weeks before a new national assembly is sworn in with a larger opposition bloc that could have frustrated some of his plans to create a socialist state.

The firebrand leader had only asked his allies for the right to govern without referring to congress for a year. Instead, they handed him the powers for 18 months as proof of their “revolutionary commitment”, said Cilia Flores, the national assembly president.

The official reason for the move was to allow Mr Chavez to deal with the devastating aftermath of weeks of floods by fast-tracking tax increases and funding for construction of new homes.

But amid a fresh wave of nationalisations of farms and businesses, he has already outlined a long list of new laws that extend far beyond relief and reconstruction.

He taunted the incoming opposition congressmen in a television address.

“You won’t be able to make a single law, little Yankees,” he said, deploying one of his favourite insults, which depicts his opponents as American stooges.

“We’re going to see how you make laws now.”

The 18-month period means the opposition will be blocked from any significant role in Venezuelan politics until just months before the 2012 presidential election.

The lame-duck parliament dominated by Chavez allies is also planning a revised “Social Responsibility Law” which would impose tough regulations on the internet and ban online messages “that could incite or promote hatred,” create “anxiety” in the population or “disrespect public authorities”. The country’s broadcast media already faces similar controls.

The law granting presidential decree powers – for the fourth time in his nearly 12-year presidency – also will allow him to enact measures involving telecommunications, the banking system, information technology, the military, rural and urban land use and the country’s “socio-economic system.”

His foes accused him of taking advantage of the floods to stage a crude power grab by violating the constitution as he tried to impose a Cuban-style system.

Julio Borges, a recently-elected congressman, said the opposition will keep fighting and that “the Cuban project is going to fail.”

The new congress takes office on Jan 5 with 67 of the 165 seats controlled by the opposition – which would have been enough to remove the two-thirds majority needed to approve some types of major legislation and to confirm Supreme Court justices.

Anticipating that shift, pro-Chavez lawmakers earlier this month appointed nine new Supreme Court justices, reinforcing the dominance of judges widely seen as friendly to his government.

Lawmakers on Friday also approved a separate law that describes banking as a “public service” and clears the way for increased state intervention in the sector. Venezuela’s private banks make up about 70 per cent of the industry, while the government controls the rest.

The moves seem aimed at intimidating opponents and neutralising potential obstacles ahead of the presidential race. In September’s parliamentary elections, the pro- and anti-Chavez camps emerged with a nearly even split of the popular vote.

Soviet-style dictator of Belarus brutally suppresses post-election uprising


Tens of thousands of opponents of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko rally in the center of Minsk  Photo: AFP

Belarus strongman brutally suppresses post-election uprising

Alexander Lukashenko, the Soviet-style leader of Belarus, has brutally suppressed a post-election rebellion, living up to his reputation as “Europe’s last dictator.”

Telegraph | Dec 20, 2010

By Andrew Osborn, Moscow

Thousands of baton-wielding riot police violently crushed an opposition protest in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Sunday night thwarting an attempt to storm the main government building.

As Mr Lukashenko’s officials declared him the winner of Sunday’s presidential election with almost 80 per cent, he sounded a defiant note.

“There is not going to be a revolution in Belarus,” the 56-year-old autocrat declared. “What was attempted yesterday (Sunday) in Minsk is banditry.”

Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 making him Europe’s longest serving leader, insisted that the vote had been “honest.” But international observers and the opposition disagreed. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe declared that the count in Sunday’s vote was “bad or very bad” in half the electoral precincts.

The European Union and the United States weighed in with sharp criticism too.

“The United States strongly condemns all election day violence,” the US embassy in Minsk said. “We are especially concerned over the excessive use of force by the authorities including the beating and detention of several presidential candidates.”

Seven of the nine presidential candidates opposing the president were arrested, while riot police made more than 600 arrests, according to Mr Lukashenko. One of the candidates, Vladimir Neklyaev, was badly beaten as he led his supporters in protest. Seven men wearing civilian clothing later plucked him from his hospital bed as his wife screamed and drove him off in an unknown direction.

Russia, which has been keeping Mr Lukashenko’s regime afloat for years with cheap oil and gas in return for nominal loyalty, refused to condemn the vote, calling it an internal matter. Sandwiched between Russia and the European Union, Mr Lukashenko has kept Belarus stuck in a neo-Soviet time warp. It only has a population of just under ten million people but is strategically important as it hosts Russian oil and gas pipelines supplying the European Union.

Mr Lukashenko has latterly attempted to court the European Union in order to counterbalance Moscow’s influence. His harsh reaction to Sunday’s protests is however likely to end that rapprochement.