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Associated Press

Posted on January 10, 2014 at 10:02 PM

Updated Saturday, Jan 11 at 7:02 AM

New documents show chief official believed NJ lane closings 'abusive' and violated federal law

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The September lane closings near the George Washington Bridge that caused huge traffic jams and now appear to have been politically orchestrated by a member of Gov. Chris Christie's administration and key allies violated federal law, a chief official said in an email ordering the lanes reopened.

The Sept. 13 email was among thousands of pages released Friday 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.

The documents show 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 after repeated questions from the media over the closings went unanswered.

"I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates federal law," Patrick Foye, authority executive director, said in the email. An appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Foye called the decision to close the lanes "abusive" and ordered them reopened.

Bill Baroni, a Christie-appointed deputy director for the authority who has since resigned, forwarded a copy of the email to Christie's scheduling secretary.

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W.Va. residents head into weekend without tap water after chemical spill into treatment plant

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A company president apologized to West Virginia residents for a chemical leak that got into a public water treatment system, and a state agency ordered Freedom Industries to remove its remaining chemicals from the site.

About 300,000 people in nine counties entered their third day Saturday without being able to drink, bathe in, or wash dishes or clothes with their tap water. The only allowed use of the water was for flushing toilets.

Officials remain unclear when it might be safe again.

Federal authorities, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, began investigating how the foaming agent escaped from the Freedom Industries plant and seeped into the Elk River. Just how much of the chemical leaked into the river was not yet known.

"We'd like to start by sincerely apologizing to the people in the affected counties of West Virginia," company President Gary Southern said. "Our friends and our neighbors, this incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated and we are very, very sorry for the disruptions to everybody's daily life this incident has caused."

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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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Will my identity be stolen? Answers to questions about the Target data breach

NEW YORK (AP) — Target's massive pre-Christmas security breach may have affected more than 70 million people.

The incident could turn out to be one of the largest data breaches on record for a retailer, surpassing an incident uncovered in 2007 that saw more than 90 million records pilfered from TJX Cos. Inc.

Target Corp. disclosed last month that about 40 million credit and debit cards may have been affected by the breach that occurred between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15. But according to new information released Friday, those criminals also stole personal information — including names, phone numbers as well as email and mailing addresses — from as many as 70 million customers who could have shopped at stores outside of that timeframe.

Some overlap exists between the two data sets.

Here's what you need to know if you think your data was compromised:

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US and allies planning a peace conference for Syria that few believe will succeed

WASHINGTON (AP) — In its last-ditch attempt to get moderate Syrian opposition groups to the negotiating table, the Obama administration faces the prospect that a no-show wouldn't be such a bad thing.

With less than two weeks to go before a long-planned peace conference in Switzerland, the main Western-backed moderate political group seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad has still not decided if it will attend. It's the latest frustration for the U.S. and allies who have spent the last 18 months trying to negotiate a transition of power from Assad to a new, representative government.

But even if the Syrian National Coalition agrees to attend the Jan. 22 peace meeting — as Secretary of State John Kerry will push this weekend in Paris with the coalition's newly re-elected president — analysts say it does not have enough credibility with other Syrian groups to sit as an official counterbalance to Assad's regime. And it might not matter, in the long run, if they don't show.

"If the expectations to begin with are very low, then you can't really fail — can you?" Kamran Bokhari, a Toronto-based expert on Mideast issues for the global intelligence company Stratfor, said Friday. "The constraints that the U.S. has are clear to the international community, and it's not going to be a surprise.

"What would be a surprise is if they are able to make a difference," Bokhari said. "So nobody has too high of expectations."

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Gay Utah couples rejoice over federal recognition for more than 1,000 same-sex marriages

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Gay couples in Utah have experienced a helter-skelter wave of emotions over the last three weeks: They were suddenly allowed to marry, then saw the weddings stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court and were told the state wouldn't recognize the unions.

Now, the federal government has intervened and said it will recognize their weddings.

The announcement Friday by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that the government will honor gay marriage in Utah marked the latest strong show of support for same-sex weddings 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.

Gay couples rejoiced over the news.

Seth Anderson and Michael Ferguson were the first gay couple to legally marry in Utah, and they were thrilled at the thought of having the same federal benefits as straight couples. They plan to file their taxes jointly because of the change.

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India says there's no standoff with US as expelled Indian diplomat returns home

NEW DELHI (AP) — India's government says there's no standoff with the U.S. over the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat in New York, appearing eager to defuse a controversy that has threatened bilateral ties.

After meeting with Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, on Saturday following her return to New Delhi, Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid downplayed tensions with the U.S.

He said the two countries would sort out their issues.

Khobragade was indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury on accusations that she exploited 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. She denies the charge.

She was allowed to return home in an apparent compromise with India.

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Veterans groups take issue with proposal designed to streamline VA's disability claims work

WASHINGTON (AP) — For veterans seeking disability compensation, the application process is supposed to be so easy that a handwritten note on a napkin will initiate a claim or an appeal. A proposed rule from the Obama administration would change that, and veterans groups are sounding the alarm.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says the many ways that requests for disability compensation arrive actually hamper its ability to administer benefits, and they contribute to a claims backlog that has about 400,000 veterans waiting more than 125 days for a decision. At times, workers spend so much time trying to figuring out what's being claimed and trading letters with applicants that it's slowing down decisions for everyone.

The VA's solution: Require veterans to use a standard form when they file for disability compensation — or appeal a decision, and throw in some incentives for those who use a computer.

The response to the proposed rule from the nation's major veterans groups?

"Draconian" and "heavy-handed," said the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "A seismic change" that will "poison" the disability claims process, said the American Legion. "The most serious, egregious attack on a veteran-friendly disability claim system in VA history," declared the law firm of Bergmann & Moore, which specializes in pursuing disability claims.

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Southern rocker Gregg Allman feted by fellow star musicians at tribute concert in Atlanta

ATLANTA (AP) — An all-star lineup of musicians feted Gregg Allman Friday night at a tribute concert heralding the southern rock luminary and the blues rock that influenced many artists to follow his band's early 1970s success.

Traditionally, Allman's biggest fans have been in the audience, dancing and swaying to his southern rock ensemble's well known songs like "Melissa" and "Midnight Rider." But on this night those effusing about Allman the most were on stage in Atlanta, performing for him and beside him — including Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal and Vince Gill.

Allman said he was humbled by the outpouring of appreciation from his musical colleagues.

"I try not to think about it just directly. It's kind of like we all came to the gig together," Allman said backstage before the show. "It's pretty overwhelming but I've got the music to hang onto, to keep me on the ground. Otherwise they'd have to take me out of here on a string, like a balloon."

Allman, who has come back strong from a liver transplant in recent years, said he feels years younger and fit enough to go on the road again.

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Johnson, Livingston help Nets outlast Heat 104-95 in 2 overtimes for 5th straight victory

NEW YORK (AP) — Shaun Livingston was flying all over the court. LeBron James could only sit and watch.

Joe Johnson scored 32 points, Livingston helped Brooklyn dominate the second overtime after James fouled out, and the Nets beat the Miami Heat 104-95 on Friday night for their fifth straight victory.

Livingston had two baskets and two blocked shots in the second OT, finishing with 19 points, a career-high 11 rebounds and five assists over 51 minutes in a sensational effort while starting for injured Deron Williams.

The Nets followed the lead of a player who spent years revitalizing a career that was sidetracked by a horrific knee injury, jumping on the Heat early and fighting them off late.

"Gutsy. Gutsy," Kevin Garnett said. "I thought we fought for 48-plus minutes."

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