Friday, January 10, 2014

Published:

New documents show worries about bad publicity in NJ traffic-jam scandal

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Officials squabbled over media leaks and worried about bad publicity in the days after lane closings near the George Washington Bridge caused huge traffic jams that now appear to have been politically orchestrated by a member of Gov. Chris Christie's administration and key allies, documents released Friday show.

In the documents, officials appointed by Christie seemed more concerned about the political fallout than the effects of the gridlock in the town of Fort Lee during four mornings in September.

The thousands of pages were released by a New Jersey legislative committee investigating the scandal, which could haunt Christie's expected run for president in 2016. The documents mostly involve the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that runs the bridge.

Lawmakers are looking into allegations that Christie loyalists engineered the tie-ups to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election.

The documents show that the traffic mess created tension between New York and New Jersey appointees at the Port Authority, with the New York side angrily countermanding the lane closings.

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Surprisingly weak hiring in December puzzles economists, 'flies in the face' of other data

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It came as a shock: U.S. employers added just 74,000 jobs in December, far fewer than anyone expected. This from an economy that had been adding nearly three times as many for four straight months -- a key reason the Federal Reserve decided last month to slow its economic stimulus.

So what happened in December? Economists struggled for explanations: Unusually cold weather. A statistical quirk. A temporary halt in steady job growth.

Blurring the picture, a wave of Americans stopped looking for work, meaning they were no longer counted as unemployed. Their exodus cut the unemployment rate from 7 percent to 6.7 percent -- its lowest point in more than five years.

Friday's weak report from the Labor Department was particularly surprising because it followed a flurry of data that had pointed to a robust economy: U.S. companies are selling record levels of goods overseas. Americans are spending more on big purchases like cars and appliances. Layoffs have dwindled. Consumer confidence is up and debt levels are down. Builders broke ground in November on the most new homes in five years.

"The disappointing jobs report flies in the face of most recent economic data, which are pointing to a pretty strong fourth quarter," said Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets.

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Chemical spill brings W.Va. capital to standstill; tainted water means no showers, laundry

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- A chemical spill left the water for 300,000 people in and around West Virginia's capital city stained blue-green and smelling like licorice, with officials saying Friday it was unclear when it might be safe again to even take showers and do laundry.

Federal authorities began investigating how the foaming agent escaped a chemical plant and seeped into the Elk River. Just how much of the chemical leaked into the river was not yet known.

Officials are working with the company that makes the chemical to determine how much can be in the water without it posing harm to residents, said West Virginia American Water president Jeff McIntyre.

"We don't know that the water's not safe. But I can't say that it is safe," McIntyre said Friday. For now, there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it's in low-enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days.

Officials and experts said the chemical, even in its most concentrated form, isn't deadly. However, people across nine counties were told they shouldn't even wash their clothes in affected water, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

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Appeals court upholds multibillion-dollar BP settlement with Gulf Coast residents, businesses

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Over BP's objections, a federal appeals court on Friday upheld a judge's approval of the company's multibillion-dollar settlement with lawyers for businesses and residents who claim the massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico cost them money.

BP has argued that U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier and court-appointed claims administrator Patrick Juneau have misinterpreted settlement terms in ways that would force the London-based oil giant to pay for billions of dollars in inflated or bogus claims by businesses.

During a hearing in November before a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a BP lawyer argued that Barbier's December 2012 approval of the deal shouldn't stand unless the company ultimately prevails in its ongoing dispute over business payments.

But the divided panel ruled Friday that Barbier did not err by failing to determine more than a year ago whether the class of eligible claimants included individuals who haven't actually suffered any injury related to the spill.

Affirming Barbier's initial ruling in 2012, the court said in its 48-page majority opinion that it can't agree with arguments raised by BP and others who separately objected to the settlement.

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Federal recognition granted for more than 1,000 same-sex marriages in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The U.S. attorney general said Friday that the federal government would recognize same-sex unions in Utah, marking the latest significant show of support for gay marriage from the Obama administration.

The action means that more than 1,000 same-sex couples who were married in Utah in the last month can file federal taxes jointly, get Social Security benefits for spouses and request legal immigration status for partners, among other benefits.

The declaration by Attorney General Eric Holder marked the latest chapter in the legal battle over same-sex marriage in Utah that has sent couples and state officials on a helter-skelter wave of emotions over the last three weeks.

A federal judge overturned Utah's ban on same-sex marriage on Dec. 20, and hundreds of couples got married. The U.S. Supreme Court intervened this week and put a halt to the weddings until the courts sort out the matter. Utah then declared it would not recognize the weddings, but would allow couples to continue to receive whatever benefits they had obtained before the high court ruling.

Utah leaders reiterated on Friday that the state would not recognize same-sex weddings, meaning couples can receive federal benefits but are limited at the state level. The Mormon church weighed in again Friday, instructing local leaders that same-sex wedding ceremonies and receptions are prohibited in its churches and reiterating its belief that homosexuality is not condoned by God.

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Target says millions more customers than previously disclosed affected by data breach

NEW YORK (AP) -- Fallout from Target's pre-Christmas security breach is likely to affect the company's sales and profits well into the new year.

The company disclosed on Friday that the massive data theft was significantly more extensive and affected millions more shoppers than the company reported in December. As a result of the breach, millions of Target customers have become vulnerable to identity theft, experts say.

The nation's second largest discounter said hackers stole personal information -- including names, phone numbers as well as email and mailing addresses -- from as many as 70 million customers as part of a data breach it discovered last month.

Target announced on Dec. 19 that some 40 million credit and debit card accounts had been affected by a data breach that happened between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15 -- just as the holiday shopping season was getting into gear.

As part of that announcement, the company said customers' names, credit and debit card numbers, card expiration dates, debit-card PINs and the embedded code on the magnetic strip on the back of cards had been stolen.

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500 reported killed in weeklong rebel clashes in Syria, overshadowing fight against Assad

BEIRUT (AP) -- With nearly 500 people reported killed in a week of rebel infighting, many Syrians barricaded themselves in their homes Friday, while others emerged from mosques angrily accusing an al-Qaida-linked group of hijacking their revolution.

The rebel-on-rebel clashes have overshadowed the battle against President Bashar Assad and underscore the perils for civilians caught in the crossfire of two parallel wars.

The violence, which pits fighters from a variety of Islamic groups and mainstream factions against the feared al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have spread across four provinces in opposition-held parts of northern Syria.

The infighting is helping Assad, whose forces have clawed back some of the ground lost to the rebels in recent months as they bombard the north and other opposition regions with warplanes, heavy artillery and crude explosive-filled barrels dropped over rebel neighborhoods.

"The revolution has been derailed," said Abdullah Hasan, a self-described secular activist in the northern town of Maskaneh, where fighters from the al-Qaida-linked group swept in last month. "None of the groups fighting in Syria represent me now," he said, adding that he was nonetheless hopeful that the infighting would help purge extremists from the ranks of the rebels.

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US withdraws diplomat after India expulsion demand, hopes for end to bilateral spat

NEW DELHI (AP) -- The United States said Friday it was withdrawing a diplomat from India in hopes it would end a bitter dispute that started with the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat in New York.

Washington's announcement that it was complying with a demand from New Delhi for the expulsion of the U.S. official came hours after Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, left the U.S.

Khobragade, 39, is accused of exploiting her Indian-born housekeeper and nanny, allegedly having her work more than 100 hours a week for low pay and lying about it on a visa form. Khobragade has maintained her innocence, and Indian officials have described her treatment as barbaric.

In an apparent compromise, she was indicted by a federal grand jury but also granted immunity that allowed her to leave the United States. Khobragade arrived in New Delhi on Friday, where she was met at the airport by her father and a sister.

"She just said, 'Papa, I love you,' and that's all. And she's happy to be back, her father, Uttam Khobragade, told reporters. Khobragade left the airport separately through an exit that is not accessible to the public.

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After 3-plus years, North Carolina still working to fix academics concerns after NCAA probe

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina has been in an academic crisis mode for more than three years.

An NCAA investigation into the football program in 2010 expanded into a probe of how the nation's first public university provides academic help to athletes. It led to a discovery of fraud in a department with classes featuring significant athlete enrollments.

Now, the debate of balancing academics and big-time sports at the university has been reignited by comments from a reading specialist about the reading levels of football and basketball players.

"It really has just been like we've been under siege for the past three years," said Lissa Lamkin Broome, a banking law professor and UNC's faculty athletic representative. "Now to the extent that we've uncovered problems during this siege, that's a good thing -- to find those problems and weed them out and to try to put processes in place to hopefully ensure ... that some of this stuff doesn't happen again."

In a CNN story this week, Mary Willingham said her research of 183 football or basketball players at UNC from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level. She said she worked with one men's basketball player early in her 10-year tenure who couldn't read or write.

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Gadget Watch: iPhone case lets you see heat, to spot leaky insulation or moisture

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Remember the alien with heat vision in the movie "Predator"? You, too, can now stalk people in the jungle by their heat signatures -- or check your home's insulation for leaks, whichever is most useful to you.

FLIR Systems Inc. is launching its first consumer product, an iPhone jacket that contains a heat camera. Temperature differences show up in different colors on the screen. For instance, you can set it to show hotter things in yellow, medium-hot in red and cold in purple.

The FLIR One will cost $349, which compares with $995 and up for FLIR's professional thermal imagers. The resolution of the thermal image is low, but the jacket also contains a regular, visible-spectrum camera and overlays the images for a more detailed picture. The phone can record video or stills of the heat images.

WHAT YOU COULD USE IT FOR:

-- Spot leaky insulation in the house.