January 15th, 2012
An Italian prosecutor confirms he's investigating allegations from passengers and others that the captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia abandoned the stricken liner before all the passengers had left.
Officials believe the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, had brought the 114,500-tonne vessel too close to the shore, where it struck the rock, tearing a large gash in the hull.
Three people are confirmed dead after the huge cruise ship carrying more than 4,200 people ran aground on Friday night. Three people -- a South Korean couple and a crew member -- have reportedly been rescued.
Rescuers found the crew member, chief purser Manrico Gianpetroni, after hearing his screams. He suffered a broken leg, Reuters reports.
Rescue crews were searching for 17 missing people in or around the ship, down from around 40 people who were unaccounted for right after the luxury liner went down, Sky News reports.
Updated at 6:50 a.m. ET:
The U.S. Embassy in Rome issues a statement revising the number of Americans estimated on board the Costa Concordia to 125 from 126.
"We continue to account for and provide emergency assistance to them," the Embassy via Twitter.
A Korean couple on their honeymoon were taken off the ship early on Sunday. A third person, reportedly a crew member, was being removed late Sunday morning, according to Sky News.
Stringer/Italy / Reuters
An Italian rescue worker is seen hanging from a helicopter with a person recovered from the Costa Concordia on Sunday.
The task is akin to searching a small town - but one tilted on its side, and largely in darkness and submerged in freezing water. Scores of divers were taking part.Just after dawn on Sunday, a team made voice contact with a third survivor still on board the ship. "We are doing the impossible to reach this person," coastguard spokesman Luciano Nicastro told Italian television.After midnight, rescue workers had found the two South Koreans still alive in a cabin, after locating them from several decks above, and brought them ashore, looking dazed but unharmed.
January 14th, 2012
Fox Charlotte / by Reneé LaSalle
CR Note: Rerun. Been there; done that. Get some new material, Colbert. See the 2007 video below.
Rock Hill, SC - Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert says, “I am proud to announce that I am forming an exploratory committee to lay the ground work for my possible candidacy for the Presidency of the United States of South Carolina. I'm doing it!"
The late night announcement Thursday from Colbert made it unofficially official, a tongue in cheek bid to enter and win the South Carolina GOP Primary.
Rick Hill resident Robin Gover says, “I think people take life too seriously & it's funny."
But it may not be a joking matter. In one South Carolina poll the Palmetto State native came out ahead of candidate Jon Huntsman, who finished 3rd in New Hampshire.
Winthrop Freshman Eddie Adams says, “He's pretty good at what he does. I'd say he's up there, he's very competitive."
Sadly for Colbert fans everywhere, it's not gonna happen...">Winthrop Associate Professor of Political Science & African American Studies Adolphus Belk, Jr. says, “The filing deadline has already passed and the South Carolina GOP Primary does not allow write in candidates." ">Professor Belk says any write-in-votes for the comedian wouldn't be considered legitimate and would be tossed out, “A person might simply be saying, 'None of the above. I want something else.'"
Colbert made a similar joking attempt to run on both party tickets for the 2008 primaries.
Rock Hill resident Angela Murdock says, “They'll let anybody run so I guess he feels like he can run too."
This isn't the first time South Carolina politics have been fodder for the late night comedians. Failed Senatorial candidate Alvin Green was ridiculed for a lack of experience (among other things) and Former Governor Mark Sanford made the comedy circuit over antics surrounding his Argentinian mistress.
York Tech student Russell Brown says, “Yeah, it's a joke.">Still, many say it's not the nomination Colbert is really after.
Tega Cay resident Dan Wilkins says, “It's a way for him to get more attention, it's all he's known for is poking fun at people to get attention and make a name for himself."
Professor Belk says fans of The Colbert Report aren't likely to vote for the Republican primary & it's highly unlikely the comedian will sway votes from GOP contenders.
January 14th, 2012
Bank of America Corp. has told U.S. regulators that it is willing to retreat from some parts of the country if its financial problems deepen, according to people familiar with the situation.
Executives at the Charlotte, N.C., financial giant put the potential move on a list of emergency scenarios submitted to the Federal Reserve last year, these people said. While people close to Bank of America insist that no retreat is imminent, even the possibility of selling branches and losing customers it spent huge sums to lure underscores the depth of its problems.
Among the 7,400 U.S. banks and savings institutions, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. are the only coast-to-coast giants. For the past 20 years, Bank of America and predecessor NationsBank Corp. relentlessly acquired other financial institutions in a form of manifest destiny that shook the U.S. banking industry. The 1998 takeover of BankAmerica Corp., of San Francisco, and 2004 purchase of FleetBoston Financial Corp., Boston, left the combined bank with sizable muscle in nearly every large metropolitan area in the country.
Over the course of its long expansion, Bank of America, currently the country's second-largest bank by assets, pushed its way into every nook and cranny of the financial system. But in doing so the bank left itself more exposed than any major bank to the severe economic downturn of 2008-2009, the weak recovery since and a litany of mortgage-related lawsuits.
Bank of America stumbled at a time when the entire U.S. banking industry was going through its worst crisis since the 1930s, prompting a federal bailout of many of the nation's largest financial institutions. Still, some of Bank of America's worst wounds, particularly its 2008 purchase of Countrywide Financial Corp., were self-inflicted.
Its share price has tumbled 55% in the past year, the worst performance of any major U.S. bank. In the third quarter, J.P. Morgan leapfrogged Bank of America to become the biggest U.S. bank by assets.
Bank of America Chief Executive Brian Moynihan put a possible geographic retrenchment on the list submitted in the middle of last year to Fed officials. Also on the list is a potential sale of a separate class of shares tied to the performance of Merrill Lynch & Co., the securities firm owned by Bank of America, according to people familiar with the matter. Merrill was sinking when Bank of America swooped in to buy the firm in 2008, but has since turned itself around. The Fed, which acts as the company's primary regulator, asked for documentation about contingency plans last year in response to uncertainty about a U.S. recovery and the downward swing in Bank of America's share price.
The drastic moves would be seriously considered only if Bank of America needs to raise more capital to cushion itself from mortgage woes and other turmoil. The exercise wasn't intended to force immediate action but rather to prepare Bank of America if its situation worsened, according to a person familiar with the Fed's approach. But Mr. Moynihan, other top executives and directors of the sprawling bank are grappling with scenarios that were unthinkable even during the worst moments of the financial crisis.
The 52-year-old Mr. Moynihan was promoted to CEO in 2010 to fix a bad situation inherited from predecessor Kenneth D. Lewis, who pushed hard for the Countrywide acquisition. "I see these times as a vindication of our model," Mr. Lewis said in 2007 after announcing the agreement to buy Countrywide. The deal has haunted Bank of America ever since, saddling the company with huge losses and legal woes.
So far, Mr. Moynihan has made progress retooling Bank of America into a leaner and more focused company. That is a shift away from its longstanding emphasis, especially before the financial crisis, on growth.
Mr. Moynihan declined to comment through a bank spokesman.
"We are a less risky, smaller, better capitalized, and more streamlined company since Brian became CEO," the spokesman said. "The progress we have made has not been done without challenges and setbacks, but…we believe will deliver long-term value for shareholders." He added that the bank had shed billions in noncore businesses and assets and reorganized the company and its leadership under Mr. Moynihan.
Financial results due next Thursday are expected to show only a tiny profit at Bank of America for 2011. In addition to its other woes, the bank is being squeezed by an industrywide revenue decline, tougher regulations and rocky financial markets.
The pressure is mounting on Mr. Moynihan, and some directors and executives are frustrated by some of his decisions and recent public-relations gaffes, especially a plan to charge customers $5 per month to make purchases with a debit card, according to people familiar with the matter. Bank of America abandoned the plan after it invoked political fury and became a punch line on late-night talk shows. This week, the company decided to ask advertising agencies to compete for a new campaign designed to improve Bank of America's tarnished brand.
Mr. Moynihan, who joined Bank of America when it bought Fleet, has struggled to convince regulators that he has done enough to steady the bank, which has $2.2 trillion in assets and branches in nearly every state.
The bank still is operating under a secret U.S. sanction known as a memorandum of understanding, which puts the bank under stricter oversight, despite steps taken by Mr. Moynihan to consolidate risk controls and shed assets. Regulators have warned the board that the sanction could escalate to a more formal, public enforcement action if they aren't satisfied with the results of the ongoing shake-up. Bank of America recently submitted a new capital plan to the Fed as part of a new round of banking-industry stress tests.
In his first two years as CEO, Mr. Moynihan sold assets deemed nonessential, wrestled with the mortgage mess and scrambled to shore up Bank of America's balance sheet to help cushion the company from future economic shocks. To cut costs, Bank of America last fall announced 30,000 job cuts, or 10% of its overall work force, and thousands of additional job cuts are expected this year.
Some analysts said Bank of America is likely to shrink the size of its core banking operations no matter what happens to the company's financial situation. The reason: As Bank of America tightens its belt, smaller cities that are less profitable than big ones look increasingly expendable. The company already has signaled that it plans to get rid of 750 of its 5,700 branches in the next few years.
About $60 billion of the bank's roughly $1 trillion in deposits are scattered across 310 geographic areas with a population of less than 500,000 each, according to research firm FIG Partners. "These small, seemingly irrelevant cities could be quite meaningful for another small bank," the firm said in a recent report.
As the troubles pile up, Mr. Moynihan also has been bruised by public-relations stumbles. He hinted publicly that a dividend increase was likely, and then the Fed rejected the company's request. Last year Mr. Moynihan said share sales wouldn't be needed to raise new capital, and then late in the year the bank announced a plan to issue billions in common stock, although bank officials said the sale wasn't solely designed to raise capital.
Before the debit-card retreat, the chief executive privately rejected a suggestion by Joseph Price, Bank of America's consumer-banking chief, that Bank of America take more time to learn whether the fee would work, said people familiar with the discussion. The message was "we are not going to learn anything more" by proceeding slowly, this person added.
A Bank of America spokesman said, "Although Brian approved the reversal of the debit-fee decision, he wasn't at the center of the original decision-making that was done by the business leaders who made the decision."
The bank's openness about the charge was part of a larger push by Mr. Moynihan to ensure greater transparency around fees imposed by the bank.
Bank of America announced the $5-a-month debit-card fee in an employee memo in September but dropped the fee before it was implemented. Mr. Price left the bank in September. He couldn't be reached for comment, and his lawyer wouldn't discuss the incident.
Unlike predecessors Mr. Lewis and Hugh L. McColl Jr., a former Marine who ran the bank for 18 years, Mr. Moynihan has always had a delicate grip on the bank's top job.
Directors picked him after talks with an outside candidate collapsed. The unanimous vote that led to Mr. Moynihan's promotion came after director William P. Boardman, a former Visa International Inc. chairman, changed his "no" vote to keep it from going public, according to people familiar with the situation.
Mr. Boardman, who retired from the board last year, dropped his opposition to Mr. Moynihan because he worried it would damage outside confidence in Bank of America, these people said.
Directors knew from the start that Mr. Moynihan, an Ohio-born lawyer, would have his hands full. Shortly after he joined Bank of America, an internal assessment by the bank concluded that he failed to communicate effectively, didn't include enough people in decisions, tended to micromanage and surrounded himself with people who weren't experienced enough, according to people familiar with the report.
Still, higher-ranking executives thought Mr. Moynihan had great potential, so they tried to coach him, these people said. But after a clash with other executives over the 2007 takeover of private-banking operation U.S. Trust from Charles Schwab Corp., Mr. Moynihan was told again that he needed to be more inclusive, people familiar with the situation said.
Since becoming CEO in January 2010, Mr. Moynihan has made numerous attempts to be more open and seek out advice, according to people close to him. For example, after there was internal criticism about a public appearance for Mr. Moynihan following the financial crisis, the bank sought help for Mr. Moynihan from several executive coaches about how to communicate more effectively.
But some directors and executives became troubled by what they saw as confusion among some of his lieutenants.
Bank of America's finance chief and chief accounting officer learned about the bank's decision to publicly disclose in a securities filing the Fed's denial of the dividend-increase request only when news outlets published headlines, according to people familiar with the situation. Mr. Moynihan approved the filing.
A director who backed the decision to promote Mr. Moynihan to chief executive said his handling of the matter showed a "very inexperienced team dealing with a situation it had never dealt with before."
Given the bank's mammoth size and many challenges, some board members also suggested to Mr. Moynihan that it would be wise of him to name an operations chief, according to people familiar with the discussions. The Bank of America spokesman said Mr. Moynihan had envisioned appointed a chief operating officer since the day he took over as CEO.
In September, Mr. Moynihan installed two executives as co-chief operating officers. One of them, Thomas Montag, had openly sought the CEO job before Mr. Moynihan got it.
Directors also told Mr. Moynihan that they wanted quicker updates about mortgage losses and lawsuits, and the chief executive has tried to keep the board more informed, according to people familiar with the situation.
Mr. Moynihan also took the unusual step of traveling around the U.S. with Charles Holliday Jr., Bank of America's chairman, last summer to ask each director for input about the company's strategy. The CEO is trying to "demonstrate a great partnership with [his] chairman," said one person close to the company.
Another person familiar with the board's recent discussions about Mr. Moynihan said they are working hard to help him improve his performance. "Who else is going to run the ship?" this person said. "That's a dilemma."
January 14th, 2012
National Post / By Parisa Hafezi
Iran said on Saturday it had evidence Washington was behind the latest killing of one of its nuclear scientists, state television reported, at a time when tensions over the country’s nuclear program have escalated to their highest level ever.
In the fifth attack of its kind in two years, a magnetic bomb was attached to the door of 32-year-old Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan’s car during the Wednesday morning rush-hour in the capital. His driver was also killed.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton denied responsibility and Israeli President Shimon Peres said Israel had no role in the attack, to the best of his knowledge.
“We have reliable documents and evidence that this terrorist act was planned, guided and supported by the CIA,” the Iranian foreign ministry said in a letter handed to the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, state TV reported. The Swiss embassy represents U.S. interests in a country where Washington has no diplomatic ties.
The spokesman for Iran’s Joint Armed Forces Staff, Massoud Jazayeri, said: “Our enemies, especially America , Britain and the Zionist regime (Israel), have to be held responsible for their actions.”
Iran in the past has accused Israel of causing a series of spectacular and sometimes bloody mishaps to its nuclear programme. Israeli officials do not comment on any involvement in those events, although some have publicly expressed satisfaction at the setbacks.
Feeling the heat from unprecedented new sanctions, Iran’s clerical establishment has brandished its sword by threatening to block the main Mid-East oil shipping route, starting to enrich uranium at an underground bunker and sentencing an Iranian-American citizen to death on spying charges.
State TV said a “letter of condemnation” had also been sent to Britain, saying the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists began after the head of Britain’s MI6 spy service announced intelligence operations against states seeking nuclear weapons.
The West says Iran’s nuclear programme is aimed at building a bomb. Tehran says it has the right to peaceful nuclear power.
Tehran has urged the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to condemn the latest killing.
After years of international sanctions that had little impact on Iran, U.S. President Barack Obama signed new measures on New Year’s Eve that, if fully implemented, would make it impossible for most countries to pay for Iranian oil.
Washington is requiring that countries gradually reduce their purchases of Iranian oil in order to receive temporary waivers from the sanctions.
The European Union is expected to unveil similar measures next week, and announce a gradual oil embargo among its member states, who collectively buy about a fifth of Iran’s exports.
The combined measures mean Iran may fail to sell all of the 2.6 million barrels a day of exports it relies on to feed its 74 million people. Even if it finds buyers, it will have to offer steep discounts, cutting into its desperately-needed revenue.
On Tuesday shipping sources told Reuters Iran was storing an increasing supply of oil at sea – as much as 8 million barrels – and was likely to store more as it struggles to sell it.
Iran denies it is having trouble: “There has been no disruption in Iran’s crude exports through the Persian Gulf … We have not stored oil in the Gulf because of sanctions as some foreign media reported,” oil official Pirouz Mousavi told the semi-official Mehr news agency on Friday.
The sanctions are causing real hardship on the streets, where prices for basic imported goods are soaring, the rial currency has plummeted and Iranians have been flocking to sell rials to buy dollars to protect their savings.
The pain comes less than two months before a parliamentary election, Iran’s first since a presidential vote in 2009 that was followed by eight months of street demonstrations.
Iran’s authorities successfully put down that revolt by force, but since then the “Arab Spring” has shown the vulnerability of authoritarian governments in the region to protests fueled by anger over economic difficulty.
Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz leading to the Gulf if sanctions are imposed on its oil exports, and has threatened to take unspecified action if Washington sails an aircraft carrier through the strait, an international waterway.
Military experts say Tehran can do little to fight the massive U.S.-led fleet that guards the strait, but the threats raise the chance of a miscalculation that could lead to a military clash and a global oil crisis.
The Pentagon said on Friday that small Iranian boats had approached close to U.S. vessels in the strait last week, although it said it did not believe there was “hostile intent.”
The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the nuclear dispute. Iran says it would retaliate if attacked.
The tension has caused spikes in global oil prices in recent weeks, although prices eased at the close of last week’s trading on the prospect of reduced demand in economically stricken European countries. Brent crude fell 82 cents to settle at $110.44 a barrel on Friday.
The chances for an imminent easing of tension look even more remote as the nuclear deadlock continues because of Iran’s refusal to halt the sensitive nuclear work.
Last week Iran began enriching uranium underground – the most controversial part of its nuclear programme – at a bunker deep below a mountain near the Shi’ite holy city of Qom.
Nuclear talks with major powers collapsed a year ago. Iran says it wants the talks to resume, but the West says there is no point unless it is willing to discuss a halt to uranium enrichment, which can be used to make material for a bomb.