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Associated Press

Posted on July 5, 2012 at 7:01 AM

Subprime lender Countrywide bought influence with Washington elite with mortgage discounts

WASHINGTON (AP) — The former Countrywide Financial Corp., whose subprime loans helped start the nation's foreclosure crisis, made hundreds of discount loans to buy influence with members of Congress, congressional staff, top government officials and executives of troubled mortgage giant Fannie Mae, according to a House report.

The report, obtained by The Associated Press, said the discounts — from January 1996 to June 2008 — were not only aimed at gaining influence for the company but to help mortgage giant Fannie Mae. Countrywide's business depended largely on Fannie, which at the time was trying to fend off more government regulation but eventually had to come under government control.

Fannie Mae was responsible for purchasing a large volume of Countrywide's subprime mortgages. Countrywide was taken over by Bank of America in January 2008, relieving the financial services industry and regulators from the messy task of cleaning up the bankruptcy of a company that was servicing 9 million U.S. home loans worth $1.5 trillion at a time when the nation faced a widening credit crisis, massive foreclosures and an economic downturn.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee also named six current and former members of Congress who received discount loans, but all of their names had surfaced previously. Other previously mentioned names included former top executive branch officials and three chief executives of Fannie Mae.

"Documents and testimony obtained by the committee show the VIP loan program was a tool used by Countrywide to build goodwill with lawmakers and other individuals positioned to benefit the company," the report said. "In the years that led up to the 2007 housing market decline, Countrywide VIPs were positioned to affect dozens of pieces of legislation that would have reformed Fannie" and its rival Freddie Mac, the committee said.

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Malware make knock thousands off Internet on Monday; how to check whether you are vulnerable

WASHINGTON (AP) — The warnings about the Internet problem have been splashed across Facebook and Google. Internet service providers have sent notices, and the FBI set up a special website.

But tens of thousands of Americans may still lose their Internet service Monday unless they do a quick check of their computers for malware that could have taken over their machines more than a year ago.

Despite repeated alerts, the number of computers that probably are infected is more than 277,000 worldwide, down from about 360,000 in April. Of those still infected, the FBI believes that about 64,000 are in the United States.

Users whose computers are still infected Monday will lose their ability to go online, and they will have to call their service providers for help deleting the malware and reconnecting to the Internet.

The problem began when international hackers ran an online advertising scam to take control of more than 570,000 infected computers around the world. When the FBI went in to take down the hackers late last year, agents realized that if they turned off the malicious servers being used to control the computers, all the victims would lose their Internet service.

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Mexico's new leader could focus law-enforcement on small local gangs that rob, extort, kidnap

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's next president has boldly promised to halve the number of kidnappings and murders during his six-year term by moving law enforcement away from showy drug busts and focusing on protecting ordinary citizens from gangs.

Yet Enrique Pena Nieto said remarkably little specific about his anti-crime strategy during the three-month campaign that ended with his still-contested victory in Sunday's election.

That ambiguity has fed fears at home and abroad that Pena Nieto might look the other way if cartels smuggle drugs northward without creating violence in Mexico. Many analysts wonder if Pena Nieto is holding back politically sensitive details of his plans, or simply doesn't know yet how he'll be prosecute the next stage of Mexico's drug war.

Some hints are starting to seep out. A close acquaintance, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, told The Associated Press that the president-elect has discussed a new offensive against the smaller, local gangs that have cropped up in many Mexican states and earn money through kidnapping and extortion in addition to drug dealing.

President Felipe Calderon's 5 1/2-year war against the big cartels has been criticized by some for fracturing control of territory and smuggling routes, spawning smaller gangs like La Linea in Chihuahua state and La Barredora in the city of Acapulco that view ordinary citizens as their primary source of illicit income.

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Head of Syria's observer mission says violence is 'unprecedented'

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The violence in Syria has reached unprecedented levels, the head of the country's U.N. observer mission said Thursday, insisting there must be a cease-fire in order for his teams to resume their work.

About 300 U.N. monitors were sent to Syria to provide an unbiased look at the violence, but they have been confined to their hotels since June 15 because of the bloodshed.

"The escalation of violence, allow me to say, to an unprecedented level, obstructed our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue," Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood told reporters in the Syrian capital Damascus.

More than 14,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, according to activists. As the conflict grinds on, the violence has become widespread and chaotic. Besides the government crackdown on dissent, rebel fighters are launching increasingly deadly attacks on regime targets, and several massive suicide attacks this year suggest al-Qaida or other extremists are joining the fray.

Syria severely restricts the media in the country, making it difficult to gain a credible account of events on the ground.

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Pakistani official: First NATO truck has crossed into Afghanistan after 7-month closure ends

CHAMAN, Pakistan (AP) — The first truck carrying supplies to American and NATO troops in Afghanistan has crossed the Pakistani border after a seven-month long closure of the supply routes by Pakistan ended earlier this week.

The reopening is a rare bright spot in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, which had closed the routes in retaliation for American airstrikes in November that killed 24 Pakistani border troops. Disagreements over issues like American drone strikes and Islamabad's alleged support for Taliban militants still hamper a relationship vital to stabilizing neighboring Afghanistan.

During the closure, the U.S. was forced to use more costly and lengthy routes through the former Soviet Union. After months of back-and-forth negotiation, Pakistan reopened the routes on Tuesday after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologized for the border deaths.

A paramilitary official at the Chaman border crossing, Fazal Bari, said the first truck moved across the border around noon local time on Thursday. The Chaman border crossing in the province of Balochistan is one of two used by trucks carrying supplies to Afghanistan. The other called the Torkham crossing is further north in the Khyber Pass, a high mountainous area.

In the port city of Karachi, truck drivers were preparing their vehicles for the trip. Thousands of trucks and tankers have been stuck at ports in Karachi waiting for the transit ban to be lifted as diplomatic wrangling dragged on.

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Hundreds of thousands of Americans have a throwback Fourth of July: Hot and without power

MOUNT VERNON, Va. (AP) — George Washington never had air conditioning, but he knew how to keep cool: a mansion with lots of windows elevated on the banks of a wide, rolling river and lots of ice cream, maybe with a little brandy.

It was a little like the old days without electricity Wednesday, as the nation's capital region celebrated Independence Day the better part of a week into a widespread blackout that left millions of residents sweltering in 90-plus degree heat without air conditioning. Utilities have slowly been restoring service knocked out by a freak storm Friday from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic, and at least 26 people have died in the storm or its aftermath.

At George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, one of the most popular Fourth of July attractions was a demonstration of 18th-century ice cream making, one of Washington's favorite desserts. Historical interpreters Gail Cassidy and Anette Ahrens showed the crowds how cocoa beans were roasted and ground into a paste for chocolate ice cream, made using ice hauled up in massive blocks from the Potomac River and stored underground to last as long into the summer as possible.

As for beverages, Washington was no stranger to alcohol, enjoying imported Madeira wine from Portugal, distilling his own whiskey and enjoying a fruity brandy cocktail called Cherry Bounce.

Washington was his own architect at Mount Vernon, "and he was very good at it," said Dennis Pogue, associate director for preservation at Mount Vernon. The piazza, which runs the length of the mansion, is "kind of California living in the 18th century," Pogue said.

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Wildfire: Some Western cities ban fireworks on Fourth; blazes grow throughout region

DENVER (AP) — Parts of Colorado celebrated Independence Day sans fireworks with some communities banning the holiday displays to guard against the further spread of wildfire across the region.

Though rain cooled Colorado's blazes Wednesday, more than a dozen wildfires elsewhere in the West chewed through bone-dry timber and brush.

Wildfires in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado sent haze and smoke across Colorado's Front Range, prompting air-quality health advisories as firefighters warned of growing fires in sparsely populated areas.

In Colorado Springs, there was good news in the fight against the most destructive fire in state history.

Light rains that fell early Wednesday helped calm the Waldo Canyon Fire, which has scorched 28 square miles, killed two and destroyed almost 350 homes. Firefighters predicted full containment of the fire by Sunday, with more rain, cooler temperatures and higher humidity predicted through the weekend.

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Romney says Obama health care mandate is a tax, maintains that Mass. mandate is not a tax

WOLFEBORO, N.H. (AP) — Mitt Romney on Wednesday said requiring all Americans to buy health insurance amounts to a tax, contradicting a senior campaign adviser who days ago said the Republican presidential candidate viewed President Barack Obama's mandate as anything but a tax.

"The majority of the court said it's a tax and therefore it is a tax. They have spoken. There's no way around that," Romney told CBS News. "You can try and say you wish they had decided a different way but they didn't. They concluded it was a tax."

Romney's comments amounted to a shift in position. Earlier in the week, senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney viewed the mandate as a penalty, a fee or a fine - not a tax.

The Supreme Court last week ruled that the federal requirement to buy health insurance or pay a penalty is constitutional because it can be considered a tax. The requirement is part of the broad health care overhaul that Obama signed into law in March 2010.

An identical requirement was part of the state health care law that Romney enacted when he was governor of Massachusetts.

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Joey Chestnut wins 6th straight hot dog-eating title in Coney Island by downing 68

NEW YORK (AP) — Joey Chestnut won his sixth straight Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest at Coney Island, downing 68 dogs and buns on Wednesday to tie his personal best in a sweaty, gag-inducing spectacle.

Last year, the 28-year-old San Jose, Calif., man nicknamed "Jaws" won with 62 hot dogs. He bested his main rival this year by 16 dogs, scarfing down all 68 in 10 minutes in the sweltering summer heat to take home $10,000 and the mustard yellow belt.

"I feel good, it was a great win," Chestnut said after the contest, adding he wished he could have eaten a record number of hot dogs for the audience. "I tried my best. I'm looking forward to next year already."

Second place went to Tim Janus of New York with 52 hot dogs, who received $5,000. Third place went to Patrick Bertoletti of Chicago with 51, who won $2,500.

Chestnut was neck-and-neck with competitors during the first half of the contest, but he pulled ahead in the remaining minutes, choking down dog after dog, while other competitors slowed as the clock wound down.

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AP PHOTOS: Americans celebrate 236 years of independence with fireworks and food

Across the United States, Americans celebrated 236 years of independence with backyard barbeques, family gatherings and, of course, fireworks.

While many celebrations have been scaled-down or canceled due to weather-related power outages and concerns of spreading wildfires amid dry, hot weather, many were still celebrating, albeit in less-than-traditional ways.

Hundreds of thousands from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic are spending the Fourth of July like America's founders did in 1776: Without the conveniences of electricity and air conditioning.

In the nation's capital, thousands of visitors from across the country took part in Independence Day celebrations despite high temperatures and the threat of thunderstorms.

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