Sunday, August 25, 2013

March on Washington 50-year anniversary

Photo: The Oklahoman, Jim Beckel

Peja West, 6, waves a pair of American flags above her head while dancing at the foot of the steps on the north side of the Capitol. West, from Spencer, came to the rally with her grandmother, mother and her baby sister.

A diverse crowd of about 300 people rallied on the north side of the State Capitol Saturday Aug. 24, 2013, to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. Most of the crowd marched more than a mile from Stiles Park, walking up Lincoln Blvd., to the statehouse. Many in the crowd carried signs or banners, and some wore shirts bearing images of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his impassioned oratory to a crowd of nearly 250,000 on the Washington Mall on Aug. 28, 1963.

At the time, it was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation's capital. King's remarks to the crowd, now known as the "I Have A Dream" speech, brought a national focus to the civil rights struggle in America and is credited with being a large influence to secure enough votes in Congress for the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year.

Youth see march anniversary as chance to lead
Associated Press
August 25, 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mary-Pat Hector of Atlanta was operating much like a 1960s civil rights activist as she laid plans for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. She was constantly on the phone as she confirmed event details, tweaked the draft of the speech she gave at Saturday's rally at the Lincoln Memorial and prepared for a presentation.

Mary-Pat is 15 years old.

Just as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott at age 26, and Rep. John Lewis helped to lead freedom rides at 23, young Americans like Mary-Pat are not letting age get in the way as they seek more than a contributing role in the push for social reform...

Friday, August 16, 2013

Daddy's Girl: How An African 'Princess' Banked $3 Billion In A Country Living On $2 A Day

Isabel dos Santos, Africa's Richest Woman (Photo credit: Bruno Fonseca/EPA/Newscom)

Kleptocracy ("rule by thieves") is a form of political and government corruption where the government exists to increase the personal wealth and political power of its officials and the ruling class at the expense of the wider population, often without pretense of honest service. This type of government corruption is often achieved by the embezzlement of state funds.

Daddy's Girl: How An African 'Princess' Banked $3 Billion In A Country Living On $2 A Day
By Kerry A. Dolan and Rafael Marques de Morais

LAST DECEMBER Isabel dos Santos commemorated her tenth wedding anniversary to Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo with a party. Subtlety wasn’t on the menu. She jetted in dozens of friends and relatives from as far as Germany and Brazil, who joined with hundreds of local guests in Angola for three days of lavishness, including a bash at the Fortress of Sao Miguel in the capital city of Luanda and a beachside Sunday brunch on the posh Mussulo peninsula. The invitation, according to one attendee, came in a sleek white box, promising a celebration of “a decade of passion/ a decade of friendship/ a decade worth a hundred years. …”

Sindika Dokolo

A decade worth $3 billion is more like it. At 40 Dos Santos is Africa’s only female billionaire, and also the continent’s youngest. She has quickly and systematically garnered significant stakes in Angola’s strategic industries–banking, cement, diamonds and telecom–making her the most influential businessperson in her homeland. More than half of her assets are held in publicly traded Portuguese companies, adding international credibility. When FORBES outed her as a billionaire in January the government disseminated the news as a matter of national pride, living proof that this country of 19 million has arrived.

The real story, however, is how Dos Santos–the oldest daughter of Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos–acquired her wealth. For the past year FORBES has been tracing Isabel dos Santos’ path to riches, reviewing a score of documents and speaking with dozens of people on the ground. As best as we can trace, every major Angolan investment held by Dos Santos stems either from taking a chunk of a company that wants to do business in the country or from a stroke of the president’s pen that cut her into the action. Her story is a rare window into the same, tragic kleptocratic narrative that grips resource-rich countries around the world.

President José Eduardo dos Santos

For President Dos Santos it’s a foolproof way to extract money from his country, while keeping a putative arm’s-length distance away. If the 71-year-old president gets overthrown, he can reclaim the assets from his daughter. If he dies in power, she keeps the loot in the family. Isabel may decide, if she is generous, to share some of it with her seven known half-siblings. Or not. The siblings are known around Angola for despising one another.

“It is not possible to justify this wealth, which is shamelessly displayed,” former Angolan prime minister Marcolino Moco tells FORBES. “There is no doubt that it was the father who generated such a fortune.”

Isabel dos Santos declined to speak with FORBES for this article. Her representatives failed to respond to detailed questions sent months ago but last week issued this statement: “Mrs. Isabel dos Santos is an independent business woman, and a private investor representing solely her own interests. Her investments in Angolan and/or in Portuguese companies are transparent and have been conducted through arms-length transactions involving external entities such as reputed banks and law firms.” In turn, the spokesman accuses this article’s coauthor, an Angolan investigative journalist, of being an activist with a political agenda. The Angolan government jailed Marques de Morais in 1999 over a series of articles critical of the regime and has brought new criminal defamation charges against him over his 2011 book, Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola.

Finally, a representative of Mrs. Dos Santos said that any allegations of illegal wealth transfers between her and the government are “groundless and completely absurd.” That could well be. When your father runs the show, and can dictate which national assets are sold and at what price, what’s theft of public resources in one country can be rendered legal with a swipe of the pen.

President José Eduardo dos Santos could not be reached for comment. That is unfortunate, because the Dos Santoses, as Moco notes, have “some explaining to do.”

FOR THREE CENTURIES the Portuguese extracted wealth from this mineral-rich country on Africa’s southwestern coast. Almost immediately after Angola won independence in 1975, various internal factions began battling one another for the right to do the exact same thing. From this chaos, which lasted 27 years, Dos Santos, who had studied oil engineering in Soviet Azerbaijan and served as foreign minister upon independence, eventually emerged as president in 1979. He’s held on to power ever since, making him the planet’s third-longest-serving nonroyal head of state.

The president met his first wife (he’s been married at least twice), Tatiana Kukanova, while a student in Azerbaijan, and his first child–Isabel–was born there. By age 6 Isabel dos Santos was in Angola’s presidential palace, and while the family’s lifestyle wasn’t over-the-top by profligate African dictator standards (save the president’s dalliances–at least five of his children are from various mistresses), the family had Christmas trees flown in from New York and $500,000 worth of bubbly imported from a Lisbon restaurateur. There was decadence enough for Isabel to earn the nickname “the Princess.”

During Isabel’s upbringing the Angola economy sputtered, crippled by two factors: ongoing civil war and Dos Santos’ socialist policies. “In the 1980s you’d go to the supermarket and there would only be noodles on the shelves. There wasn’t much there,” says University of Southern California associate professor emeritus Gerald Bender, who’s been studying Angola since 1968. For cloistered Isabel that reality was likely invisible; she eventually attended King’s College in London, where her mother, now a British citizen, lives, and earned an undergraduate degree in engineering.

However, as civil war resumed by the end of 1992, Isabel left for Angola’s capital city, Luanda, in a rush, allegedly after receiving death threats in London.

By the late 1990s, when the civil war was winding down –a ceasefire was formally declared in 2002–President Dos Santos, like the Soviets he had studied under in the 1960s, was embracing a grab-what-you-can form of capitalism. Over the past decade Angola has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. GDP grew at an 11.6% annual clip from 2002 to 2011, driven by a more than doubling of oil production to 1.8 million barrels a day. The government budget sits at $69 billion, up from $6.3 billion a decade ago.

But predictably, precious little of the windfall has made it to the people. Some 70% of Angolans live on less than $2 a day. And by the government’s own count, 10% of the country’s population is scrambling for food due to drought and bureaucratic neglect. So where’s the money going? Start with a paranoid president-for-life. The state security apparatus sucks more funds from the budget than health care, education and agriculture combined. A lot is clearly stolen: Between 2007 and 2010 at least $32 billion of oil revenue went missing from the federal ledger, according to the International Monetary Fund, which later tracked most of the money to “quasi-fiscal operations.” Angola comes in at 157 out of 176 nations ranked by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. It trails shining stalwarts of participatory democracy such as Yemen and Kyrgyzstan. And it’s within this environment that Isabel dos Santos has surfaced with an estimated net worth of $3 billion.

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ISABEL DOS SANTOS’ formative business experience came at Miami Beach. Not the Florida city, but rather a rustic chic beachside bar and restaurant in Luanda that tries to emulate its namesake, down to the mediocre food and indifferent service. In 1997 the owner, Rui Barata, was having issues with health inspectors and taxmen. His solution: bringing in Isabel dos Santos, then 24, as his partner, with the idea, contemporaries say, that her name would keep pesky government regulators at bay. Her initial investment was negligible, according to a source with knowledge of the deal, and the restaurant thrived: Sixteen years later it’s still a weekend hot spot.

The lesson–the equity stake available to those with a gilded name–couldn’t have been lost on Isabel dos Santos, who was entering adulthood at the exact same time Angola’s riches were being unlocked. Here’s what followed:

First, Grab the Diamonds. Angola is the world’s fourth-largest diamond producer, selling an estimated $1 billion in gems every year from mines situated in the country’s northeast. The mines’ exclusive concession-holder is the state-owned company, Endiama.

In 1999 President Dos Santos pushed Endiama to form a diamond-selling partnership. Three Israeli diamond merchants, including Lev Leviev, who FORBES now estimates is worth $1.5 billion, promised contacts and expertise. The power behind the venture, according to British court records, was Russian arms dealer Arkady Gaydamak–a former confidant of President Dos Santos during the civil war of 1992-2002. The new company would be called Ascorp.

Leviev and his partners, including Gaydamak, would wind up with 24.5% of Ascorp. The government would retain 51%. The most surprising major shareholder? Isabel dos Santos, who emerged with a 24.5% stake through a Gibraltar investment company, Trans Africa Investment Services, that she had set up with her mother, according to TAIS’ annual report. (Leviev did not respond to a request for comment, and Gaydamak could not be reached at press time.)

Angola’s 2010 constitution bars the president from stealing public money and acts of corruption, which would seem to prohibit the use of his position for the private enrichment of his family. No matter: Angola’s Council of Ministers, controlled by her father, approved the Ascorp deal anyway. “In a country with separation of powers and real democracy, these presidential actions to enrich his family would have caused legal procedures for his impeachment,” says lawyer Salvador Freire, president of the human rights group Maos Livres. “In Angola he is the law.”

Ascorp was a cash cow, yielding millions of dollars in dividends per month, according to British court documents, but as the “blood diamond” business attracted international scrutiny in the middle of the 2000s, Dos Santos transferred to her mother total control of TAIS, now renamed Iaxonh Limited, according to Gibraltar’s Registry of Companies records accessed by FORBES. It’s quite a parking spot, safely under the control of a British citizen, with Isabel dos Santos conveniently sitting in Angola as her mother’s sole heir. The mother could not be reached for comment.

Telecom: Father Knows Best. In 1997 President Dos Santos issued a decree concerning the increasingly valuable telecommunications spectrum it controlled: The government must undertake a public bidding process for new telecom licenses.

Two years later he defied his own decree–by issuing a new one. The government could grant such a license without a public tender, as long as the grantee was a joint venture with the state. Eleven months after that the president, backed by his rubber stamp Council of Ministers, granted Unitel the right to be the first private mobile telephony operator in the country–with the condition that he had sole power to approve the project and to decide on the shareholding structure of the company, since it involved state funds. The state-owned oil company got a 25% stake, and Isabel emerged with her own 25% stake. A spokesman for Isabel dos Santos said she contributed capital for her Unitel stake but declined to specify how much. A year later Portugal Telecom paid $12.6 million for another 25% stake.

It was one hell of an investment. Mobile phones have revolutionized Africa, and as one of just two mobile phone networks in Angola, Unitel had amassed 9 million subscribers. Revenue last year was $2 billion, making it Angola’s largest private company.

Her share is worth at least $1 billion, based on discussions with several analysts who follow Portugal Telecom.

Banking: A Friend in Europe. As Isabel dos Santos diversified her Angolan business interests, in 2005 she diversified her network of powerful patrons. Enter Americo Amorim, a Portuguese billionaire worth $4.3 billion who has spent his life expanding his family’s business empire from cork to real estate, tourism and, especially, oil. The billionaire, who did not comment for this story, was early to seek deals in Angola after hostilities ended. When the Dos Santos clan made a move into banking in 2005, they did so in partnership with Amorim and Fernando Teles, a Portuguese national who had been CEO of another Angolan bank. They formally opened Banco Internacional de Credito, known as BIC, according to the company’s annual reports.

The hand of Isabel’s father again played a role: President Dos Santos, as head of the Council of Ministers, formally authorized the foreign investment in the capital of the bank. Specifically how it was financed is murky, as there is no public record showing who put money into the bank. BIC’s latest annual report shows that Amorim owns 25% of the bank. Various documents reveal that another 25% is held through an investment vehicle controlled by Isabel dos Santos. Her spokesman says she was a founding member of the bank and had independent means to pay her share from her early business ventures.

Regardless, BIC was a hit, in large part because of a deal to lend money to … the Angolan government. BIC made loans to the state worth $450 million, in addition to more than $350 million made to private ventures. BIC had assets of $6.9 billion in 2012. Isabel dos Santos’ stake is worth at least $160 million, FORBES estimates, based on the bank’s book value listed in its latest annual report. BIC officials could not be reached for comment.

Oil: A Strange Partnership. Oil is Angola’s greatest natural asset. The country produces 650 million barrels per year, most of it exported. The state-owned oil firm, Sonangol, is so profitable that it was only a matter of time before the Dos Santos family would start looking for ways to hitch a ride on its success. Isabel’s banking partner, billionaire Americo Amorim, would play the key role.

In 2005 Amorim set up a subsidiary, Amorim Energia. He would control it with a 55% stake. The remaining 45%, at least originally, went to Sonangol via a Netherlands holding company called Esperaza Holding B.V. At the end of that year Amorim Energia went shopping, acquiring 33.3% of Galp Energia, Portugal’s former state-owned oil company, for roughly $1 billion, according to press reports. At the end of 2006, according to investigative not-for-profit Global Witness, 40% of Sonangol’s stake in Esperaza ended up with a Swiss company called Exem Holding. No documents could be found that definitively tie Exem Holding to Isabel dos Santos, but her fingerprints are everywhere. Her husband, Sindika Dokolo, was put on the Amorim Energia board at the request of Esperaza, according to Global Witness. And the chairman of Isabel dos Santos’ holding company is also on the boards of Fidequity, a subsidiary of Exem Holding, and entities called Exem Energy and Exem Oil & Gas, according to public filings. Last year Amorim Energia paid $726 million for an additional 5% of Galp. Isabel’s estimated 6.9% stake in Galp is worth a recent $924 million.

Cement: Safeguarding the “Public Interest.” For most of President Dos Santos’ reign there’s only been one cement factory in Angola, owned by a firm called Nova Cimangola. By mid-2004 the government owned 39.8% of it, state-owned oil company Sonangol’s captive bank, BAI, owned 9.5%, and the remaining 49% was owned by Swiss firm Scanang, which was in the process of being taken over by Portuguese cement company Cimpor. The government began demanding a bigger stake, arguing that the factory was a strategic asset for national reconstruction in the aftermath of the war. On Oct. 29, 2006 the president’s Council of Ministers’ Resolution 78/06 approved a $74 million payment to buy out Cimpor, declaring that the expenditure was necessary to safeguard “public interest, to restore the legality and to maintain the shareholding control of Nova Cimangola by national entities, incorporated in Angola.” The $74 million payment, according to an Angolan newspaper, came from BIC, the bank half-owned by Amorim and Isabel dos Santos. The government would now own 89%, while BAI and Angolan individuals would control the remaining 11%.

What followed, however, showed that the larger goal wasn’t to give Angola a larger stake but rather certain Angolans. Prior to the council’s approval a company called Ciminvest was incorporated in Angola. Ciminvest was initially fronted by the president’s former legal counsel, according to the articles of incorporation he signed. At one point Portuguese billionaire Americo Amorim owned an estimated 30% of Ciminvest, but his representative confirms that he transferred his stake in 2009. He would not comment on who took over the stake or what was paid for it. The real owners are now widely understood to be Isabel dos Santos and her husband, though documents detailing ownership are not publicly available. However, Isabel admits on her resume that she chairs the board of Nova Cimangola, which she controls through Ciminvest. Without much ado, at no apparent cost, the company that was presidentially mandated to be controlled by “national entities” had become controlled by Isabel dos Santos.

ISABEL DOS SANTOS’ holdings are more than just squirreled away assets to be unearthed in case of a rainy day. They throw off hefty dividends that allow her to buy yet more assets in businesses seemingly unrelated to the exploitation of Angolan properties, such as her $500 million stake in Portuguese media firm ZON.

Meanwhile, her father has taken steps to legally protect himself from all the plundering. Under Angolan law President Dos Santos’ decision to grant a license to Unitel for the personal benefit of his daughter could be considered an abuse of power. To cover his legal bases, in 1992 the president fiddled with the law to reduce it to two grounds: taking bribes or betraying the country. Technically, he can argue, neither was violated in the case of Unitel.

The larger strategy, though, is to portray Isabel as a hero. In January, after FORBES declared her a billionaire, the Angolan regime’s mouthpiece (and the country’s only daily newspaper), Jornal de Angola , claimed that “while we give our best for Angola without poverty, we are elated with the fact that businesswoman Isabel dos Santos has become a reference in the world of finances. This is good for Angola and it fills Angolans with pride.” Angolans should be mortified, not proud.

Co-author Rafael Marques de Morais is an Angolan investigative journalist based in Luanda. He runs the corruption watchdog website Maka Angola.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Religious family, angry at US gov't, comes home to America after "leap of faith" leaves them lost at sea

Mr. Gastonquay and child
What's the difference between a "leap of faith" and simply not bothering to think? Why would God give these people brains if he didn't want them to be used? Especially when they have two small children.

Religious family leaves US, gets lost at sea
By Greg Moore
Aug 10, 2013

PHOENIX (AP) — A northern Arizona family that was lost at sea for weeks in an ill-fated attempt to leave the U.S. over what they consider government interference in religion will fly home Sunday.

Hannah Gastonguay says she and her husband “decided to take a leap of faith” when they took their two small children and her father-in-law then set sail from San Diego for the tiny island nation of Kiribati in May.

But just weeks into their journey the Gastonguays hit a series of storms that damaged their small boat, leaving them adrift. They were eventually picked up by a fishing vessel, transferred to a cargo ship and taken to Chile where they are resting.

Their flights home were arranged by U.S. Embassy officials. The State Department was not available for comment.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Have Mexicans forgotten the billions looted from PEMEX by government officials? Peña Nieto struggles to reform PEMEX

PEMEX is the only oil company in the history of the world to lose money. The money went by the billions into the pockets of corrupt government officials appointed to run the company.

In 1928 President Cardenas nationalized the oil companies because he thought Mexico was being exploited by American oil companies. It turned out that corruption cost the Mexican people far more than American profiteers ever did. The national oil company was a drain on Mexico's finances when it should have been a windfall.

Now Peña Nieto wants to open the out-dated, inefficient oil company to international investment, and many lawmakers and citizens oppose it.

It seems they would prefer to lose large amounts of money to rich Mexicans rather than lose small amounts of money to rich Americans. Ironically, rich Mexicans tend to spend and invest a good deal of money in the U.S. Poor Mexicans then have to leave their homes to go to the U.S. to harvest food and wash dishes--often for rich Mexicans! Resentment is often irrational. It reminds me of the Bernie Madoff affair: Jews just couldn't believe that a fellow Jew would rip them off on such a mind-boggling scale.

AP Photo by Edward Verdugo: Explosion at Pemex headquarters 2013 (See third article below.)

Mexico's president on dangerous ground as he pushes Pemex reform
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto wants to open the Pemex oil monopoly to private and foreign investment. To many Mexicans, that's blasphemy.
By Tracy Wilkinson and Richard Fausset
Los Angeles Times
August 5, 2013

MEXICO CITY — If Mexico had a crown jewel, it would be the giant state oil monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex. Year after year, it has poured billions of dollars into the state treasury, historically paying for schools, hospitals, dams, highways, ports and more.

The seizure of foreign oil companies 75 years ago that created the company is a cause for annual celebrations affirming Mexico's fierce sense of independence from outside interference.

Yet even as the country's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, credits Pemex with building the nation, his administration acknowledges that the notoriously inefficient conglomerate is in trouble: If it is not opened to private and foreign investment, Mexico, the world's ninth-largest oil producer, will become a net energy importer by 2020, officials say.

As Peña Nieto moves ahead with a plan to overhaul Pemex, he is navigating the most perilous political minefield of his young presidency. He is toying with taboos and challenging revered perceptions surrounding the nation's top revenue earner. And he is meeting with impassioned opposition.

At the back of a recent rally for Pemex, Jesus Castillo Sanchez, a 46-year-old handyman, waved a giant Mexican flag as if he'd just taken a hill in battle. Booting the foreign oil companies in 1938 "gave Mexico its true independence from the great powers," Castillo said. "After [the foreigners] bring their oil platforms, they will bring their armies and their troops."

The president is expected to introduce landmark energy reform legislation, including proposals addressing Pemex, as early as this week.

The government and industry experts contend that Mexico needs advanced technical expertise from outside companies to find and retrieve oil and gas from deep water and shale-rock formations that are believed to hold more than half the country's estimated 14 billion barrels of reserves.

But "Pemex is not allowed … to choose associations … to reduce the level of risk that you run" in deep-water exploration, Carlos Morales Gil, Pemex director of exploration and production, said in an interview. "What Pemex needs is budget autonomy and flexibility" to form joint ventures, he said.

Making that possible could require changing the constitution, and that could prove a bruising battle for Peña Nieto. The matter is so sensitive, so wrapped up in Mexico's ability to assert its independence from foreign meddling, that when Peña Nieto, speaking in London, suggested that the other major political parties had already agreed to reform, several politicians back in Mexico went ballistic.

Yet the problems plaguing Pemex are legendary. With corruption, poor management, a union that demands enormous benefits and a corporate structure that fosters duplicate jobs, Pemex is a model of how not to run an oil company.

According to a 2011 study by the Texas-based Baker Institute, Pemex, with about 140,000 employees, produced revenue of $585,000 per employee, a quarter of the per-employee revenue of British oil giant BP and about half that of the partially state-owned Brazilian oil company Petrobras.

Morales, the Pemex executive, acknowledged that Mexico was 30 years behind the industry standard in deep-water exploration. Pemex, he said, hadn't felt pressure to pursue the riskier search because it had so much readily accessible shallow-water and inland oil. Consequently, Mexican engineers did not keep up with the widening technological know-how that has benefited competitors.

A case in point is the Cantarell oil field, in the Bay of Campeche. It was discovered in 1976 by a fisherman who noticed his nets were being ruined by oil. Pemex engineers soon realized he had stumbled on one of the largest oil fields in the world.

But in the mid-2000s, production at Cantarell peaked, and it has declined rapidly, while a second big find, Ku-Maloob-Zaap, has already been bled of two-thirds of its reserves.

In all, Pemex's production of crude has declined steadily to 2.6 million barrels a day — from a high in 2004 of 3.5 million — stabilizing only in the last year or so.

There's plenty more out there, but experts say Mexico can't get to it without outside help.

"Mexico, outside of the U.S., probably has the widest array of energy plays that anybody has in the world: shallow water, deep water, shale gas, shale oil, tremendous marginal fields that have largely been neglected over the last 40 years," said John Padilla, managing director of the international energy consulting firm IPD Latin America. "It's too much for any one company to handle. There's nobody in the world that could do that."

The Mexican Constitution says that raw materials found in the land, like oil and gas, belong to the state, requiring a constitutional amendment for future agreements that might touch on ownership of resources.

Private operators could pay a tax, based on percentage of revenue or profit, for the right to pump. Or they could enter into joint-venture agreements with Pemex, each side sharing risks and benefits.

But how outside investors share revenue, and Mexico's long-standing refusal to cede any ownership of the oil itself, remain a key obstacle...

New York Times
February 23, 2001

Mexican lawmakers opposed to President Vicente Fox want to remove four businessmen from the board of the state-owned oil company Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, saying Mr. Fox's appointments violate the Constitution. ''Private citizens can't be members of Pemex's board as representatives of the state,'' said Carlos Aceves, a legislator from the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party. Mr. Fox stunned the nation when he named the billionaire Carlos Slim Helú and three other top executives to ...

PEMEX Blast: Gas Leak Caused Explosion At Mexican Oil Company Headquarters
Huffington Post

MEXICO CITY — A water-heating system may have leaked gas into a tunnel beneath the headquarters of Mexico's national oil company for more than seven months before it was accidentally detonated by a maintenance crew's improvised lighting system, officials said Tuesday, adding fresh detail to the narrative of the petroleum giant's worst disaster in a decade.

Mexico's attorney general said Monday night that a gas buildup was responsible for the explosion that collapsed three floors of the administrative building in Petroleos Mexicanos' Mexico City headquarters complex, killing 37 people and leaving dozens hospitalized. He said the investigation had detected traces of methane. Methane is the primary component of most of the natural gas used for cooking and heating in homes and businesses. It also is found in coal mines, and is naturally produced by the decomposition of organic matter in sewers and landfills...

Friday, August 02, 2013

Does George Zimmerman’s car hero story add up?

George Zimmerman was never mentioned until days after this SUV turned over. Then the policeman who reported the accident, and Zimmerman himself, began to mention the connection. The policeman was an enormous fan of Mr. Zimmerman.

Does George Zimmerman’s car hero story add up?
These conspiracy theorists are convinced Trayvon Martin's killer staged a car crash to boost his beleaguered image
By Alex Seitz-Wald
Jul 26, 2013

It seemed stranger than fiction, as even his lawyer acknowledged, that George Zimmerman’s first appearance just days after he was acquitted for the killing of Trayvon Martin would be to rescue a nice family of four from their overturned SUV. But that’s what reportedly happened on July 17, leading his defenders to call him a hero and some critics to claim the event was a hoax aimed at boosting his popularity.

It does seem like an odd coincidence: Zimmerman just happened to be on the scene of the crash at the right moment, and happened to have a fire extinguisher with him to put out the flaming car. And now the family he saved abruptly canceled the press conference they had planned to thank Zimmerman. It’s all too much to believe for the Zimmerman Rescue Truthers, who emerged immediately after the news broke.

“Even if we had a videotape of the accident, they would still say it was made up. So you can’t really respond to people who just don’t want to listen to the truth,” Zimmerman defense attorney Mark O’Mara told CNN. “The idea that this was made up — it’s just the same people who refuse to accept the jury’s verdict, just want to be angry, just want to hate George Zimmerman, are still going to hate him.”

He’s probably right. As we’ve noted, conspiracy theories are basically impossible to stamp out. And in this case, the circumstances are just too weird, and the potential public relations benefit for Zimmerman — and thus the perceived incentive to stage the scene — too obvious to explain away for those who are upset about the verdict. Fox News, whose opinion hosts have pretty openly sided with Zimmerman, reported that at an NAACP meeting, “there was a lot — a lot — of skepticism, people saying they don’t believe a word of this.”

“Zimmerman can pull someone from a burning car, but he can’t a push 17-year-old, 150 pound boy off of him?” asked one tweeter. On Twitter, the skeptics appeared to be be predominantly liberal and disproportionately minorities — the same kinds of people who have been pushing for harsher punishment of Zimmerman all along — while others questioned the police officers involved.

“There’s something fishy about this #Zimmerman Rescue,” another person tweeted. “Feels too perfectly timed and convenient.”

One blog advancing the conspiracy narrative that went viral posted screen shots of what appears to be the Facebook page of the officer who responded to the crash, which shows that he posted numerous photos and messages supporting Zimmerman days before and after the accident. Most criticized the media and liberals who turned the case into a race issue. “If Trayvon Martin had been killed in Afghanistan, Barack Obama wouldn’t even know his name,” reads one popular image macro the officer posted. Yet the officer, who posted about other activities of his duty life, didn’t post anything about his run in with Zimmerman. The only reference to the accident was a few days later, when he linked to a local news story and wrote, “I sorta made the news…”

That conspiracy blog even claims that it has a source, whom it does not identify, who saw phone records showing that the officer alerted Zimmerman about the crash before authorities arrived so Zimmerman could end up in the police report and look like a hero. We asked the unnamed blogger for more info about his or source, but the blogger didn’t respond.

Theorists have also speculated that Zimmerman might have a police scanner, given his work as a neighborhood watchman and his current fear for his own safety, and that he used it to respond to the crash before authorities could get there.

They also wonder why none of the multiple 9-1-1 calls mention Zimmerman, though some mention two men on the scene, and why O’Mara says his client didn’t mention the crash when they met the next day. And why none of the family members in the crash mentioned the crash on their Facebook or Twitter pages. And why are there no photos of the crash? All the data points don’t really make sense together — was the entire crash staged, or did Zimmerman show up to intentionally take credit for saving the family? — but various skeptics differ on how much of the accident they think was staged.

Still, even O’Mara acknowledged that the whole thing is a bit weird. “I will acknowledge it was coincidental four or five days after the verdict, but it was not set up, or staged. Really, do you think we would’ve set up a family of four on the side (of the road), destroying an SUV?” the defense lawyer told a local TV station.

The family Zimmerman helped save, he said, didn’t feel comfortable coming forward given all the heat on Zimmerman at the moment. Indeed, TV news trucks have been staked out near their house, much to their dismay, but in refusing to speak with the press, even just to confirm that Zimmerman was on the scene, they’ve helped fuel the conspiracy narrative.

Can corporations have religious beliefs?

All Corporations Go to Heaven
The Supreme Court will soon decide if CEOs can impose their religious convictions on the people who work for them.
By Dahlia Lithwick
Aug. 1, 2013

Remember the big dustup last summer over the contraception mandate in President Obama’s health reform initiative? It required companies with more than 50 employees to provide insurance, including for contraception, as part of their employees’ health care plans. The constitutional question was whether employers with religious objections to providing coverage for birth control could be forced to do so under the new law. The Obama administration tweaked the rules a few times to try to accommodate religious employers, first exempting some religious institutions—churches and ministries were always exempt—and then allowing companies that self-insure to use a separate insurance plan to pay and provide for the contraception. Still, religious employers objected, and lawsuits were filed, all 60 of them.

A year later, the courts have begun to weigh in, and the answer has slowly begun to emerge: maybe yes, maybe no. It all depends on whether corporations—which already enjoy significant free-speech rights—can also invoke religious freedom rights enshrined in the First Amendment.

Last Friday, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the contraception mandate, rejecting a challenge from a Pennsylvania-based cabinetmaker who claimed that as a Mennonite he should not be compelled to provide contraceptive coverage to his 950 employees because the mandate violates the company’s rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The owner considers some of the contraception methods at issue—specifically, the morning-after and week-after pills—abortifacients.

The appeals court looked carefully to the precedent created by Citizens United—the 2010 case affording corporations free-speech rights when it came to election-related speech—to determine whether corporations also enjoy constitutionally protected religious freedom. Writing for the two judges in the majority, Judge Robert Cowen found that although there was “a long history of protecting corporations’ rights to free speech,” there was no similar history of protection for the free exercise of religion. “We simply cannot understand how a for-profit, secular corporation—apart from its owners—can exercise religion,” he concluded. “A holding to the contrary … would eviscerate the fundamental principle that a corporation is a legally distinct entity from its owners.”

Cowen also flagged the absolute novelty of the claims, noting that there was almost no case law suggesting that corporations can hold religious beliefs. “We are not aware of any case preceding the commencement of litigation about the Mandate, in which a for-profit, secular corporation was itself found to have free exercise rights.” Finally he took pains to distinguish the corporation, Conestoga, from its legal owners. “Since Conestoga is distinct from the Hahns, the Mandate does not actually require the Hahns to do anything. … It is Conestoga that must provide the funds to comply with the Mandate—not the Hahns.”

Judge Kent Jordan, dissenting at length in the case, said that for-profit, secular corporations can surely avail themselves of the protections of the religion clauses. “To recognize that religious convictions are a matter of individual experience cannot and does not refute the collective character of much religious belief and observance ... Religious opinions and faith are in this respect akin to political opinions and passions, which are held and exercised both individually and collectively.”

The 3rd Circuit decision creates a significant split between the appeals courts, because a few short weeks earlier, the Colorado-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., finding by a 5–3 margin that corporations can be persons entitled to assert religious rights. Hobby Lobby is a chain of crafts supply stores located in 41 states. The 10th Circuit upheld an injunction blocking the contraception requirement because it offended the company owners’ religious beliefs. The majority in the 3rd Circuit wrote that it "respectfully disagrees" with the 10th Circuit. A split of this nature makes Supreme Court review almost inevitable.