Saturday, December 6, 2008

To repair Rhode Island roads, report calls for new tolls, taxes and higher fees

PROVIDENCE — Driving your car may take on a new and larger meaning — for your wallet.


Sneak peek: The new way to get onto the Iway

To fix its crumbling roads and bridges and rescue the state’s financially challenged public transit system, a draft report made public yesterday says the state should consider charging tolls at the state line on every interstate highway and creating a new tax for each mile a vehicle is driven.

The report calls for tolls on a new Sakonnet River Bridge, increasing the state gas tax and a long list of other things related to using the roads. One proposed tax would apply to anything made from petroleum, from paint to detergent to plastics

The proposals would mean a drastic shift in the way the state finances transportation — away from borrowing and near-complete reliance on federal money — toward spending more by using money raised through taxes and fees.

It could also mean a large policy shift on public transportation. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority is in such financial trouble that officials have been planning major service cutbacks and calculating just when it would run out of money during the next several months. The draft report includes plans to save the bus system from immediate dismemberment by covering its $8-million budget deficit and to maintain existing service for at least 10 years.

The panel, Governor Carcieri’s Blue Ribbon Panel for Transportation Funding, was formed because the lack of maintenance over the years has caught up with the system. More than half of the state’s roads are in fair, poor or “failed” condition, according to the Department of Transportation, and 164 bridges of 772 are classified as structurally deficient.

Two of the state’s most important bridges, the Pawtucket River Bridge, carrying Route 95, and the Sakonnet River Bridge, carrying Route 24 to Aquidneck Island, have 18-ton weight limits, are off-limits to large trucks and need to be replaced before they get worse.

The panel is supposed to produce a final report shortly. The members took no votes yesterday but seemed in agreement on most of the major elements of the plan. An exception that will apparently be removed involved diverting some state sales tax money that is used to support the existing state budget. The recommendations will go to the governor, and most would also need approval by the General Assembly.

Carcieri has not endorsed any of the recommendations.

“We’re not ready to decide what we’re going to choose,” spokeswoman Amy Kempe said. However, the panel is co-chaired by the governor’s top present and past transportation appointees, DOT Director Michael P. Lewis and Jerome F. Williams, the previous DOT director who is now state director of administration.

The draft report, prepared by the DOT, includes two “scenarios,” one producing an estimated $150 million per year and the other $300 million per year, the amount the DOT says it really needs to make necessary repairs within 10 years.

The major elements include:

•Both new and higher fuel taxes. The proposals include increasing the gasoline tax, now 30 cents, by up to 15 cents per gallon by 2016, which would raise an estimated $64 million per year. They also include a new “petroleum products gross earning tax,” beginning with the equivalent of 10 cents per gallon of gasoline in 2010 and adding another 5 cents in 2014. That would affect all petroleum products, from gasoline and aviation fuel to those made from petroleum derivatives, such as plastics, paint and fertilizer. It would eventually raise about $66 million per year, the draft report says.

•Car registration fees, now $60 for two years, would rise $40 per year immediately and could more than double, to $140, by 2013, depending on which version was used, raising up to $46 million per year.

•A new mileage fee. The $150-million plan would not include it, but the $300-million plan would impose a half-cent-per-mile fee, raising an estimated $50 million per year. But officials said yesterday that they expect to eliminate the transfer of some sales tax revenue to the transportation system, proposed elsewhere in the report. Raising the mileage fee to 1 cent per mile would make up the difference.

At a half-cent per mile, driving 10,000 miles per year would cost $50 per vehicle. One cent would cost $100.

Also referred to as a VMT fee (for vehicle miles traveled), the mileage fee would be based on odometer readings reported by vehicle owners when they renew their registrations. The mileage could be verified during mandatory auto inspections, the study says. Robert A. Shawver, the DOT’s assistant director, said that although one state, Oregon, is pilot-testing a similar fee, Rhode Island’s would be the first of its kind in the country.

•Tolls. The $150-million plan could include tolls, $3 per car and $6 per truck, only at the Connecticut border, yielding an estimated $39 million per year. The $300-million plan would include similar tolls where all of the state’s interstate highways (Routes 95, 295 and 195) cross the state line, and would raise $60 million per year.

While most of the other fees and taxes would affect primarily Rhode Islanders, the tolls would be aimed at out-of-state vehicles which, if they pass through the state without stopping for fuel, now use the roads for free.

•Tolls on a new Sakonnet River Bridge. The plan relies heavily on shifting the estimated $210-million cost of a new Sakonnet River Bridge, now the DOT’s responsibility, to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority. It also assumes that the authority would borrow the money to pay for the bridge and charge tolls to pay the cost. Shawver said it isn’t clear how much the tolls would be, but guessed they would be in the $3-per-car range. That would take the cost of the new bridge off the DOT’s hands, while giving the authority the prickly job of imposing the tolls.

Some recommendations, such as a higher gas tax, could be put into effect quickly. Others, such as tolls, would take years to put into effect. Lewis said the state would try to implement the tolls jointly with Massachusetts and Connecticut, building one set of tollbooths and splitting the money.

The DOT has had a series of expensive embarrassments involving its construction projects over the years. One question yesterday concerned the agency’s ability to efficiently spend roughly twice as much money per year as the $354 million it spends now.

Suzanne Greschner, policy director at the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council and a panel member, said she looked through the draft report and found nothing about making sure that the DOT can handle the money effectively. Taxpayers, she said, need to know that the money would be spent effectively.

Several of the proposals are certain to be controversial. In addition to imposing new taxes and sharply higher fees that would affect most citizens, one is already starting to heat up an old regional dispute.

Putting tolls on the new Sakonnet River Bridge attracted loud opposition in the past from legislators whose constituents now use the existing deteriorating bridge for free.

Yesterday, Keith W. Stokes, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, denounced the toll proposal and said he wanted to know why tolls on the heavily traveled Washington Bridge, on Route 195 in Providence, isn’t one of the proposals.

One major difference between the two plans involves borrowing. The $150-million plan would rely on $450 million in borrowing, something that has already gotten the DOT into a financial hole. The $300-million plan would would eliminate the borrowing and rely instead on higher registration fees and the proposed tax on mileage.

New England border protection chief charged with hiring illegal immigrants

(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

Henderson leaving the courthouse with her lawyer, Oscar Cruz.

By Jonathan Saltzman and Andrew Ryan, Globe Staff

The regional director of Homeland Security, Customs, and Border Protection was charged today with repeatedly hiring illegal immigrants to clean her Salem home after one cleaner wore a wire during an undercover investigation.

Lorraine Henderson is the director of the Port of Boston, overseeing 190 armed federal officers who patrol major airports and shipping terminals in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

"She’s supposed to be deporting aliens, not hiring them," said Assistant US Attorney Brian T. Kelly, chief of the public corruption unit.

Agents arrested Henderson at her Salem home at 8 a.m. Standing this afternoon in US District Court in Boston, she wore jeans and a gray sweatshirt and did not enter a plea to a charge of encouraging an illegal immigrant to remain in the country. If convicted, she faces as much as 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The initial appearance lasted 15 minutes and Henderson said little, responding to questions from Magistrate Judge Robert B. Collings about whether she understood her legal rights with one-word answers. Collings released her on a $25,000 unsecured bond and ordered her to surrender her passport. Henderson has been placed on paid administrative leave, a US Attorney's spokeswoman said.

According to an eight-page affidavit unsealed today, Henderson had employed a Brazilian woman to clean her home for $75 to $80 every few weeks for several years. Henderson's fellow officers at US Customs and Border Protection told her in 2005 and 2006 that it was against the law to hire illegal immigrants and urged her to find another housekeeper. Not only did she ignore the advice, according to the affidavit, but when the housekeeper took time off to have a baby, Henderson also allegedly hired two of the housekeeper's Brazilian friends who were also in the country illegally.

After having a baby, the original housekeeper allegedly came back to work for Henderson, who counseled her to avoid detection by law enforcement. The housekeeper told her, according to the affidavit, that she had been living in the United States illegally for seven years after paying a man to smuggle her across the Mexican border.

"You have to be careful 'cause they will deport you. Be careful," Henderson told the housekeeper in a conversation Sept. 9, 2008, that was recorded on the wire. "Wow, wow, if you leave they won't let you back … you can't leave, don't leave … 'cause once you leave you will never be back."

After the conversation that day in her Salem home, Henderson increased the woman's pay from $75 to $80, according to the affidavit. The housekeeper, whose name was not included in the affidavit, agreed to wear a wire after being approached by a special agent with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Car dealer offers second car for free

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Buy one, get one free: it's a familiar sales pitch for happy-hour cocktails or last season's fashions, but now a Belgian car dealer is luring customers with just that line.

Antwerp-based Cardoen, which sells about 10,000 new and nearly new cars per year, started the promotion at the end of November and said it would run until December 15.

During that period, customers can choose from a range of new, full-price cars -- the cheapest being a 22,800 euro ($28,930) Hyundai van -- and then pick a second free vehicle from a selection that goes up to 14,000 euros.

"People have been coming in from all over Belgium and abroad," Cardoen's Commercial Director Ivo Willems said, adding that Cardoen's eight showrooms had seen more than 10 times their usual number of visitors since the promotion began.

"People will still buy cars, you just have to give them as much advantage as possible, to sell in an innovative way."

Willems said Cardoen was able to run the promotion without losing money because distributors in southern Europe had been so desperate to get cars off their lots that they were selling them to Cardoen at large discounts.

The move underscores how difficult the situation has become for an auto industry buckling under a global economic downturn.

Belgian new car registrations fell 16.4 percent year-on-year in November, according to data released Monday. In Spain, sales nearly halved.

Willems said Cardoen had yet to see an impact on its sales from the downturn.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Camels found wandering in Mexican border city

(AP) Police officers restrain two stray camels in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008. The...
Full Image

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) - It may have seemed like a mirage: Two camels nibbling on a pine tree along a street in this desert metropolis on the Texas border. Police tried lassoing the animals, which lunged at the officers with snapping teeth as onlookers chuckled.

But in the end, officials say all it took was some juicy green leaves on a branch held by the caretaker to lure the camels back into captivity.

Police spokesman Jaime Torres says the camels named Yull and Tobi escaped early Wednesday from the warehouse of a businessman, who had bought the animals for a planned amusement park.

Mexico has seen a rash of escaped animals lately, including four tigers, a 500-pound lion and a five-ton elephant.

NJ woman sues Pa. sports bar for toilet seat break

A woman is suing a Pennsylvania sports bar and restaurant, saying she got stuck inside a toilet bowl for 20 minutes after the seat broke

Kathleen Hewko of Delran Township, N.J., says she was in the bathroom at Starters Pub near Allentown when the handicapped toilet seat she was sitting on cracked and dumped her into the bowl.

Hewko says in her lawsuit filed in federal court in November that she had hip surgery prior to the Nov. 19, 2006, incident and was re-injured when the seat broke.

The lawsuit names Starters and Kohler Co., the company that made the toilet seat.

Representatives from both companies said they couldn't comment.

Convict's Mother Goes Undercover for Months, Gets Dirt on Juror

NEW YORK — Doreen Giuliano was obsessed with saving her son from a life behind bars after he was convicted of murder.

She gave herself an extreme makeover — blonde dye job, fake tan, sexy wardrobe, phony name — and began spying on jurors. She befriended one juror to root out any possible misdeeds at the trial, and for nearly eight months, they drank at bars, smoked marijuana and shared meals in her tiny Brooklyn hideaway.

The juror eventually opened up to her about his time as a juror, completely unaware that this seductive older woman was the same dutiful mother who sat through the entire trial just a few feet (meters) away from him.

The bizarre saga has become the basis for a defense motion filed this week demanding that the verdict be set aside, while exposing the desperate attempt that Giuliano made to win her son's freedom.

"What she did was extraordinarily commendable," said one of Giuliano's lawyers, Ezra Glaser. "It shows the love of a mother and the great lengths she'll go to to help her child."

The juror, naturally, doesn't quite see it that way. Jason Allo faces the possibility of being hauled into court to explain conversations recorded by a seductive undercover mother wearing a wire.

"He didn't do anything wrong," said his attorney, Salvatore Strazzullo. "We're going to defend Mr. Allo's actions to the full extent of the law."

Among other things, the motion accuses the 33-year-old Allo of concealing that he had personal knowledge that Giuliano's son, John Giuca, ran with a rough crowd, and of defying orders to avoid news coverage once the highly publicized proceedings started. It argues that Allo "admitted the outside information he obtained about the case prejudiced him against Mr. Giuca."

A spokesman for the Brooklyn District attorney's office said only that the motion was being reviewed. But the defense is a longshot: Courts rarely overturn guilty jury verdicts.

Guica was convicted of the 2003 murder of Mark Fisher, a 19-year-old college student from Andover, New Jersey, who had gone to an after-hours party Guica hosted in Brooklyn while his parents were out of town.

Prosecutors say Giuca, then a skinny 20-year-old, was a leader of a self-styled gang called the Ghetto Mafia. At trial, prosecutors said Fisher was targeted for showing "disrespect" by sitting on a table in Giuca's house.

Giuca ordered another gang member "to go show that guy what's up," then gave the shooter a .22-caliber handgun, prosecutors said. At dawn, police responding to a report of gunshots found Fisher's body shot five times and dumped on a sidewalk.

It took more than a year for police to arrest the shooter. Giuca was taken into custody one month later after authorities secured witnesses who linked him to the crime.

A jury deliberated only two hours before convicting Giuca of second-degree murder in 2005. He and the gunman were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison by a judge who told them that because the killing was callous, "my sentence will be callous."

Lawyers for Giuliano and Allo refused requests to speak to their clients. But court papers — along with a piece in Vanity Fair magazine and an article in The New York Times based on interviews with Giuliano and Allo — detail a story of despair and deception.

Giuliano, 47, says she was driven by the belief her son was set up by authorities and vilified in the press.

"My main concern was that John got a fair trial," she said.

Said Allo: "I understand her motivation, but that's not right."

Allo's lawyer declined to discuss Giuliano's tactics. But her lawyer said under state law, she "had a right to record those conversations."

"Ultimately, the only person who acted inappropriately was Mr. Allo," Glaser said.

By Giuliano's own account, her son's conviction nearly gave her a nervous breakdown. In 2006, she hatched a plan to begin spying on jurors to see if she could uncover any misconduct.

She eventually zeroed in on Allo, a construction worker with a shaved head living in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. She tailed him for months, once even wearing a head scarf as a disguise.

While casing his apartment, "His cat sat in the window," she said. "So I knew I'd say I was a cat-lover when I met him."

In the fall of 2007, Giuliano reinvented herself. She slimmed down at the gym, rented an apartment in Allo's neighborhood and printed business cards with her assumed name: Dee Quinn, a a recent West Coast transplant.

Her husband initially told her she was crazy, but backed down. Soon she orchestrated a chance meeting with Allo on the street, pretending to be a lonely single woman from California and giving him her phone number.

Giuliano began inviting Allo over to her place and to soften him up. He never recognized her from her days sitting through the trial.

"She was offering me wine, offering to smoke weed," he said.

There also was flirting. But both said it never went any further. Mainly, they talked. And her digital tape recorder rolled.

She says she struck gold in late 2007, while grilling her new friend about his jury duty.

"I'll tell you this but I would never tell anybody else," he said, according to transcripts prepared by the defense. "I actually had some type of information."

Allo went on to explain that he didn't know Giuca directly, but used to hang out in his clique and heard rumors about the Fisher slaying — something he failed to mention when questioned under oath during jury selection. Asked if he had been curious about newspaper accounts of the trial, he responded that he'd read them. He also bragged that he had been the first one during deliberations to vote for a conviction.

"I shouldn't have been in that jury," he said.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

School cancels Christmas nativity in favour of Muslim Eid celebrations

junior school has cancelled its Christmas performances because they got in the way of the Muslim children celebrating Eid.

Greenwood Junior School sent out a letter to parents saying the three day festival of Eid al-Adha, which takes

place between 8-11 December, meant that Muslim children would be off school.

That meant planning for a traditional pantomime were shelved because the school felt it would be too difficult

to run both celebrations side by side.

The move has left parents furious.

Janette Lynch, whose seven-year-old son Keanu attends the school, in Sneinton, Nottingham, said: "The head has

a whole year to plan for Eid and so she should be able to plan for both religious festivals.

"I have never heard of this at a school. It is the first year my son has been there and a lot of the mums like

me were really looking forward to seeing the children on stage.”

She said a letter, sent from “The staff at Greenwood Junior School', said: "It is with much regret that we

have had to cancel this year's Christmas performances. This is due to the Eid celebrations that take place

next week and its effect on our performers.”

Following outrage from parents, the school was forced to send out a second letter saying that the Christmas

play would be done in January.

Sent by the head teacher, Amber Latif, and Yvonne Wright, chair of governors, it apologised for “any

misunderstanding” but said it had to respect “the cultures and religions of all the children”.

It added: "The Christmas performance has not been cancelled outright but has been postponed until the New


Parents said they were originally told the performance was cancelled because children wanted to celebrate Eid

with their families at home, and planning of the school year made it difficult to move performance dates to

another week.

Sajad Hussain, 35, of who has two children at Greenwood Junior, said: "My children will be off for the two

days next week to see their family.

"It's not that complicated; they could have one event on one day and another on another day, they should have

both celebrations at the school.

"If you do not have both it becomes a racist thing and that's why you have to be careful If an issue is made

out of it, it could become nasty."

Yesterday, a statement issued by Greenwood Junior, said: "We would like to apologise for any confusion caused

as a result of [the original] letter we sent out and would like to reassure parents and the community that

Christmas has not been cancelled at Greenwood Junior School.

"For very practical reasons we have taken the difficult decision to re-arrange some significant events on the

school calendar to ensure maximum pupil and staff attendance.

Fisherman Finds Long-Lost Class Ring in 8-Pound Bass

BUNA, Texas — A class ring lost for decades in an East Texas lake is back with its owner after turning up in a fish caught the day after Thanksgiving.

Joe Richardson of Buna told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he wishes he knew "how many fish it's been in."

Richardson was fishing at Lake Sam Rayburn about two weeks after his 1987 graduation from Universal Technical Institute in Houston when he lost the ring.

The 41-year-old mechanic says on Nov. 28 he received a call from a fisherman who had reeled in a more than 8-pound bass. The ring that had been in the fish had "Joe Richardson" etched in the band.

Richardson says the fisherman did an Internet search and made several calls before reaching him and returning the ring.

Buna is about 110 miles northeast of Houston.

Woman arrested for Xmas decoration thefts

WESTMINSTER, Md., Dec. 3 (UPI) -- A woman in Manchester, Md., has been arrested for allegedly stealing christmas decorations from her neighbors' lawns, police say.

Police allege Gabriele Margo Markert, 51, stole $360 worth of holiday lawn decorations from her fellow town residents, including a 4-foot-tall Santa Claus, The Carroll County (Md.) Times said Tuesday.

Also included among the stolen Christmas items were a snowman lawn decoration, a lighting stand and several holiday ornaments.

Police said the missing decorations were allegedly found in Markert's home following Monday morning's thefts.

While an investigation into the thefts is still under way, police have charged Markert with three misdemeanor theft charges.

The Times said Markert is being held at Carroll County Detention Center until her upcoming bail review hearing.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Port St. Lucie woman says ex-boyfriend snatched wig, rode away on bike

— A 20-year-old woman told police the wig she was wearing got snatched by an ex-boyfriend, who pedaled away on a bicycle, according to a report released Monday.

The victim said she left a party and was walking east on Southeast Voltair Terrace about 3 a.m. Friday when her ex-boyfriend came up on a bicycle.

She said he started arguing and yanked off a black wig that was sewn to her natural blond hair. The ex-boyfriend reportedly slapped her after she began chasing him.

Investigators found the victim's hair in "disorder." She said she and the alleged wig-snatcher lived together for eight months. She knew his first name, but apparently recalled only the first letter of his last name.

The ex-boyfriend called the victim's cell phone while an officer was there. Speaking to an officer via the cell phone, he admitted pulling the wig off and leaving when the victim started crying and said she was calling authorities.

The ex-boyfriend hung up after police asked for his last name. Investigators continue to try to identify the alleged wig-puller.

Deer gets revenge after hunter shoots him

SEDALIA, Mo. (AP) - A hunter bagged a big buck on the second day of firearms season, but the kill caused him a lot of pain. Randy Goodman, 49, said he thought two well-placed shots with his .270-caliber rifle had killed the buck on Nov. 19. Goodman said the deer looked dead to him, but seconds later the nine-point, 240-pound animal came to life.

The buck rose up, knocked Goodman down and attacked him with his antlers in what the veteran hunter called "15 seconds of hell." The deer ran a short distance and went down, and died after Goodman fired two more shots.

Soon Goodman started feeling dizzy and noticed his vest was soaked in blood.

So he reached his truck and drove to a hospital, where he received seven staples in his scalp and was treated for a slight concussion and bruises.

Message in a Beer Bottle Found 39 Years Later - 400 Miles Away

NORTH HALEDON, N.J. — A message in a bottle tossed into the ocean off Barnegat Bay has turned up in North Carolina — 39 years later.

The note was sealed in a Schaefer beer bottle. It was dated Aug. 17, 1969 and read: "If found notify the North Haledon Fire Co. .2."

Mark Ciarmello and his 3-year-old daughter found the bottle along a beach in Corolla, N.C., in October. That's about 400 miles from where it was released.

The Downingtown, Pa., resident says he got on his cell phone, called North Haledon and e-mailed photos of the bottle to the firefighters.

No one is sure who tossed the bottle. But firefighters suspect it was during one of the many fishing trips that they used to take years ago.