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Boxer Mayweather to serve 90 days in jail for attack

A Las Vegas judge sentenced boxer Floyd Mayweather on Wednesday to six months behind bars for a 2010 attack on the mother of his children, but half of that jail term was suspended, officials said.

Mayweather, the World Boxing Council welterweight champion, pleaded guilty to one count of battery and no contest to two counts of harassment after reaching a deal with prosecutors, said Mary Ann Price, spokeswoman for the Clark County Courts.

Those charges were part of a criminal complaint against Mayweather, 34, that originally included charges of robbery, grand larceny and coercion over an altercation at the home of his former girlfriend, Josie Harris.

Las Vegas Judge Melissa Saragosa sentenced Mayweather to six months in jail, but she only ordered him to serve three months behind bars, officials said.

Saragosa suspended the other three months of the sentence, but if he is arrested again or fails to complete certain parts of his sentence he would have to spend those three months in jail, said Tess Driver, spokeswoman for the Clark County District Attorney's Office which prosecuted the case.

The judge ordered Mayweather to complete 100 hours of community service and attend a 12-month domestic violence program, officials said.

Mayweather, who lives in Las Vegas, must report to court on January 6 to be transferred to jail, officials said.

An attorney for Mayweather could not be reached for comment.

Mayweather originally faced a maximum sentence of over 30 years in jail in the case, Driver said.

A criminal complaint against Mayweather states he battered Harris in November 2010, when he grabbed her by the hair, threw her to the floor and struck her. The robbery and larceny charges against Mayweather related to allegations that he took Harris' cell phone.

Five-division world champion Mayweather, a flamboyant fighter renowned for his trash-talking before bouts, is widely regarded as the best defensive fighter of his generation.

The boxer known as "Money" improved his professional record to a perfect 42-0, including 26 knockouts, with a fourth-round knockout of Victor Ortiz in Las Vegas in September to claim the World Boxing Council welterweight title.

He is due back in court for a separate case next week, when he is expected to plead guilty to a charge of misdemeanor battery against a security guard, Driver said. That would carry a $1,000 fine, she said.

US alarmed by violence in Egypt

WASHINGTON  — Alarmed by ongoing violence and abuse of female demonstrators in Egypt, the Obama administration is pressing its concerns with top Egyptian officials.

The State Department said Wednesday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had spoken by phone on Tuesday to Egypt's prime minister to register deep U.S. concerns about the situation, particularly attacks on women participating in election protests. Clinton made the call after bluntly calling the treatment of the women a "disgrace." She said it dishonors this year's revolution that ended decades of repressive rule.

Clinton's comments were denounced as interference by some Egyptian officials, but State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland rejected the characterization. She said the U.S. will continue to speak out in favor of human rights around the world.

BofA Coughs Up $335 Million To Settle Discriminatory Lending Case With DoJ

Bank of America's acquisition of Countrywide was not the greatest of deals to say the least, and a $335 million settlement today with the Department of Justice is more proof of that.

The settlement resolves accusations that Countrywide Financial engaged in discriminatory mortgage-lending practices that predate BofA's 2008 purchase of the firm. The Department of Justice was investigating the lender's lending practices to minorities as far back as 2004.

Specifically the DoJ was looking at whether or not Countrywide charged African American and Latino home buyers excessive interest rates, fees and other mortgage-related costs.

In July Countrywide agreed to a $108 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over claims of unlawful practices. About 450,000 homeowners who were overcharged by Countrywide Home Loans would receive checks in the mail from the Federal Trade Commission as part of its settlement with the lender.

Since buying Countrywide BofA has been plagued with mortgage-related lawsuits and legal battles. In August the bank entered an $8.5 billion settlement with big investors including PIMCO, the Federal Reserve of New York and BlackRock over claims that it sold bad mortgage securities. That settlement is currently being held up as some parties question the settlement's fairness.

There are similar claims being made by government sponsored entities (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The bank has already paid out $3 billion to the GSEs for repurchase claims but there's more claims waiting. In a recent SEC filing BofA said it "is not able to anticipate changes in the behavior of the GSEs from the Corporation’s past experiences. Therefore, it is not possible to reasonably estimate a possible loss or range of possible loss with respect to any such potential impact in excess of current accruals on future GSE provisions if the behavior of the GSEs changes from past experience."

Bank of America shares have been pounded this year--down 61% so far. On Monday shares fell under $5 to close at $4.99--a level not seen since March 2009.

CEO Brian Moynihan has been busy trying to rebuild the bank's image and financials. He rolled a corporate restructuring program this year dubbed "Project New BAC" that includes laying off about 30,000 employees, slashing annual expenses by $5 billion, selling "non-core" assets.

Why the Winter Solstice Arrives This Week

Winter officially arrives late Wednesday or in the wee hours of Thursday, depending on the time zone you are in.

The official time corresponds to 12:30 a.m. EST (9:30 p.m. PST, or 5:30 a.m. Universal Time) Thursday (Dec. 22). This is the point when the northern half of our planet will face directly away from the sun.

This means that days, which have up until now been growing shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, will begin to lengthen.

This happens because the Earth rotates on an axis that is tilted by 23.5 degrees, so the planet leans one way or another as it travels around the sun. This doesn't make much difference for folks living around the Earth's equator, but for those of us farther north, or south, this tilt creates seasons.

The winter solstice marks the end of fall and the beginning of winter. During the solstice, the northern half of the Earth is facing away from the sun, hence it will experience its shortest day of the year as the planet rotates.

The effect of this tilt, and of the solstice, depends on your latitude. Everything above the Arctic Circle will remain shrouded in darkness, with no sun that day, and to the north, the North Pole goes without sunlight for months. Farther south in the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice day becomes longer.

The opposite occurs in the Southern Hemisphere. There, the December solstice marks the arrival of summer. 

For those of us in the north, the days may begin to grow longer, but the coldest days are still to come. This is because ocean temperatures drive much of the weather on the continents, and they continue to cool in the relative lack of sunlight this time of year.

Oil prices rise on lower inventories

NEW YORK — Oil prices rose Wednesday after a government report showed a dramatic drop in U.S. crude supplies.

Benchmark crude rose $1.43 to finish at $98.67 a barrel in New York. Brent crude was up 98 cents, ending at $107.71 a barrel in London.

Oil inventories typically fall at the end of the year because refiners draw down their inventories for tax reasons, but Wednesday's drop was far larger than analysts expected.

The Energy Information Administration said Wednesday that inventories fell by 10.6 million barrels. Analysts on average forecast a drop of 2.3 million barrels, according to Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill.

Phil Flynn, an analyst at PFG Best in Chicago, said inventory declines in recent weeks have been slower than normal, so refiners were likely playing catch-up. "They are hiding it from the tax man," he said.

After the first of the year, refiners will start building up their supplies again.

Oil prices were also pushed up by better global economic news and fears that strife in some important oil-producing nations could restrict supplies.

Tensions between Iran and Western nations are rising over Iran's nuclear ambitions, raising fears that oil from the world's fourth biggest producer may be kept from reaching markets in the coming weeks.

Oil traders also are concerned about political instability in Kazakhstan, which exports about 1.3 million barrels of oil per day, about 1.5 percent of world demand. The Central Asian nation has been battling political protests that have resulted in about 15 deaths in the last month.

Encouraging news about consumer confidence in Germany, a debt auction in Spain and more housing construction in the U.S. sent world stock markets soaring and oil prices up more than three percent on Tuesday. On Wednesday, however, stock markets in the U.S. and Europe fell back on worries over Europe's ongoing debt crisis. This likely stopped oil from rising even further than it did, analysts say.

Retail gasoline prices were little changed at a national average of $3.21 per gallon, according to AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service.

In other energy trading, heating oil rose 6 cents to finish $2.9087 per gallon, and gasoline futures rose 4 cents to end at $2.6199 per gallon. Natural gas rose 3 cents to finish the day at $3.1550 per 1,000 cubic feet.

China's Baidu removed from U.S. "notorious markets" list

Since 2006, the Office of the Unites States Trade Representative has identified so-called “notorious markets”—online and physical marketplaces that specialize in the sale and distribution of counterfeit or pirated goods. Earlier this year, the USPR started issuing out-of-cycle reports on notorious markets, and the most recent update (PDF) lists the usual spate of Torrent sites, deep linkers, and online lockers, along with infamous physical markets like New Dehli’s Nehru Place, Kiev’s Petrivka Market, and China’s PC Malls. However, one long-time entry in the list has been removed: China’s leading search engine Baidu, which this year inked a major licensing agreement with music publishers.

However, China’s widely-used online consumer- and business-oriented online shopping service Taobao remains on the list. China also accounts for four of the 15 physical markets on the list.

“Several commenters reported that pirated and counterfeit goods continue to be widely available on China-based Taobao,” the USTR said in its report. “While stakeholders report that Taobao continues to make significant efforts to address the problem, they recognize that much remains to be done.”

The report also called out Modchip.ca and Consolesource—both well-known purveyors of game console mods—along with pay-to-download services that appear to be clones of Russia’s former Allofmp3. Torrent indexers weren’t exempt from the list, either: whlie the report notes Torrent indexers can be used for lawful purposes, sites like The Pirate Bay, IsoHunt, BtJunkie, Kat.ph, and torrentz.eu are well-known for carrying unlicensed and illegal material—the report also singles out Torrent-trackers like Demonoid and zumunda, both of which are the subject of criminal prosecutions. Other online services getting the squinty-eyed stare from the USTR include online storage services like Megaupload and Putlocker, and the online forum Warez-bb.

Although the USTR’s report doesn’t claim to be exhaustive—or even reflect legal proceedings against alleged pirates—it does try to call attention to marketplaces where “copyright piracy on a commercial scale and trademark counterfeiting continue to thrive.”

Vaclav Havel's coffin transported to Prague Castle

PRAGUE  — Thousands of Czechs joined Vaclav Havel's widow, relatives and friends in a somber procession through the capital Wednesday, paying their respects to the late Czech president. Thousands of others clapped as his casket rolled by.

The casket containing Havel's body was being transported from the Prague Crossroads, a former church Havel turned into a cultural center, to Prague Castle, the seat of the presidency, where the body will be on display until Friday's state funeral.

Many of those who lined the streets greeted the black car carrying the coffin with applause.

"He's a moral authority for me, an icon," said Jakub Sevcik, 35. "It's my last opportunity to say goodbye."

The presidents of France and Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy and Christian Wulff, as well as many other world leaders are expected to attend the funeral at the country's biggest and most famous church, St. Vitus Cathedral.

Thousands waited patiently for hours when the coffin with Havel's body went on display Monday to pay tribute to the former leader who died Sunday at age 75. Three days of national mourning began Wednesday.

Havel's flag-draped casket was placed on a historic caisson for the final part of the journey Wednesday and was escorted by an honor guard to the place where he spent more than 12 years as president. The caisson, drawn by six black horses, is the same that bore the coffin of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's first president after it was founded in 1918, during his funeral in 1937.

Havel's successor and political archrival Vaclav Klaus, Prime Minister Petr Necas and other Czech leaders joined Havel's family, while thousands packed the square in front of the castle in the cold rain and applauded.

During an official memorial on Tuesday, Klaus called Havel "a brave man" who "was not afraid of making personal sacrifices for his views."

Havel was a dissident playwright who spent years in communist prisons before he led the 1989 peaceful revolution that ended more 40 years of communist rule.

"Our Velvet Revolution will be always connected with his name," Klaus said. "He contributed to the international prestige and authority of the Czech Republic in the world as no one else."

Scenarios: Payroll tax break fate uncertain

WASHINGTON  - A tax break for about 160 million U.S. workers is set to expire in 10 days and Republicans in the House of Representatives and Democrats are battling over how to extend it.

House Republicans have rejected a two-month extension that the Senate overwhelmingly approved in order to give lawmakers more time to negotiate a full year deal. Instead, House Republicans are demanding immediate negotiations to settle differences over a year-long extension by December 31.

It is unclear how this can get sorted out. But here are some possible scenarios on how lawmakers might proceed.

CONTINUED STANDOFF

The standoff between the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-led House could continue through Christmas and New Year holidays and the 4.2 percent tax rate workers' pay into Social Security snaps back to 6.2 percent on January 1.

Senate Democrats say they need the House to pass the Senate bill as a good faith gesture that a year-long deal would be negotiated in good faith. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will not engage in talks with the House until Congress passes the temporary bill he negotiated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Right now a continued standoff has a good probability of playing out. It involves frequent press conferences by both sides to try to pin blame on each other for the smaller paychecks after January 1.

RETROACTIVE RELIEF

If Congress fails to act by December 31, Congress could return to Washington in early January to sort out the conflict and make the payroll tax break retroactive to January 1.

Also tied to the payroll tax bill are an extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed and a provision to avert a pay cut for doctors treating patients on the Medicare health program for the elderly.

Any resolution would also make those provisions retroactive to January 1. It has been done before on unemployment benefits, doctors' payments and other tax issues. This scenario is likely if the standoff spills over into the new year.

A number of economists say failure to extend the payroll tax cut could threaten the sluggish U.S. economy. Several said this week that the economy could withstand a short-term lapse in the law, if a deal were reached sometime in January.

GIVING IN

Either the Senate or the House could cave in to what is bound to be increasing public pressure to act. Reid and McConnell could dispatch some negotiators to talk with the House and try to work out an agreement by the deadline.

It would take some finessing to do this in a way that saves face for Democrats who control the Senate. At this point they show no signs of bowing to House Republicans.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are facing increasing pressure from some in their own party to pass the Senate bill. It is unlikely they would just throw in the towel and capitulate. But House Republicans might save face by passing something similar to the Senate bill and then forcing a quick negotiation with the Senate on that.

OBAMA JUMPS IN

The Democratic president, who is putting off a Hawaii vacation while Congress squabbles, could take on a bigger role in pushing for a deal. He spoke by telephone separately on Wednesday with House Speaker John Boehner and Reid to urge passage of the Senate bill to give time to negotiate a one-year extension.

There are potential pitfalls for Obama to get more involved. His popularity is rising somewhat in public opinion polls and he might not want to put that at risk, especially after he failed to broker a major budget deal with Republicans last summer. But even if he doesn't become a broker, he will likely use the power of his bully pulpit to slam Republicans, claiming they are standing in the way of a middle-class tax cut.

Why the Winter Solstice Arrives This Week

Winter officially arrives late Wednesday or in the wee hours of Thursday, depending on the time zone you are in.

The official time corresponds to 12:30 a.m. EST (9:30 p.m. PST, or 5:30 a.m. Universal Time) Thursday (Dec. 22). This is the point when the northern half of our planet will face directly away from the sun.

This means that days, which have up until now been growing shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, will begin to lengthen.

This happens because the Earth rotates on an axis that is tilted by 23.5 degrees, so the planet leans one way or another as it travels around the sun. This doesn't make much difference for folks living around the Earth's equator, but for those of us farther north, or south, this tilt creates seasons.

The winter solstice marks the end of fall and the beginning of winter. During the solstice, the northern half of the Earth is facing away from the sun, hence it will experience its shortest day of the year as the planet rotates.

The effect of this tilt, and of the solstice, depends on your latitude. Everything above the Arctic Circle will remain shrouded in darkness, with no sun that day, and to the north, the North Pole goes without sunlight for months. Farther south in the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice day becomes longer.

The opposite occurs in the Southern Hemisphere. There, the December solstice marks the arrival of summer. 

For those of us in the north, the days may begin to grow longer, but the coldest days are still to come. This is because ocean temperatures drive much of the weather on the continents, and they continue to cool in the relative lack of sunlight this time of year.

Labor board gives U.S. unions a rare victory

WASHINGTON - The U.S. labor movement has not gotten the sweeping changes to organizing rules that it wants from the Obama administration, but a new rule may give unions a modest boost.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Wednesday unveiled a rule that is expected to shorten the time frame for union elections. The board runs the elections.

The rule, which labor unions favor, would limit pre-election legal challenges and give more authority to NLRB hearing officials to speed up the process.

"This rule is about giving all employees who have petitioned for an election the right to vote in a timely manner and without the impediment of needless litigation," said NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce, a Democratic appointee of President Barack Obama.

Lawyers for the largest business lobbying group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, filed a lawsuit in Washington to try to block the rule, which is scheduled to take effect on April 30. They say election periods could become so short that they could "ambush" employers and violate their free-speech rights.

The rule echoes a high-profile dispute from Obama's first year in office in 2009 over how to run unionization elections.

Back then, labor unions hoped a Democratic-led Congress would give them the option of using "card check" elections, in which workers decide whether to unionize by signing a petition. The idea failed, leaving unions with the secret ballots that employers say reduce possible intimidation.

Unions have since turned their attention to what the NLRB can do under existing law.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the new NLRB rule a "modest but important" step. "Many more improvements are needed to protect workers' rights," he said.

U.S. union membership has declined. In 2010, 11.9 percent of wage and salary workers were union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was down from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available.

The NLRB strategy has limits for unions. One of their allies, Craig Becker, a former lawyer for the AFL-CIO and SEIU unions, will be forced to leave the board this month because he never received confirmation from the U.S. Senate.

After Becker leaves, the NLRB will not have the quorum it needs to function unless the Senate confirms Obama's pending nominees, or Obama appoints them during a Senate recess.

Separately, congressional Republicans have proposed restricting the NLRB's authority with legislation that would set election timelines and affect which employees could vote in a union election.

The courts will be another battleground. Randy Johnson, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the new rule "has no conceivable purpose but to make it easier for unions to win elections," thereby restricting the rights of employers.

"The elimination of these rights has long been on the wish list of organized labor, and the board has dutifully granted that wish today," Johnson said.

8 US soldiers charged in comrade's death

NEW YORK  — Eight U.S. soldiers have been charged in the death of a fellow GI who apparently shot himself in Afghanistan after being subjected to what a community activist said were assaults and racial taunts from his comrades.

Pvt. Danny Chen, a 19-year-old from New York's Chinatown neighborhood, was found in a guard tower in Kandahar province Oct. 3 with what the Army said appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In a statement, the Army said Wednesday that eight soldiers in his company have been charged with crimes ranging from dereliction of duty to manslaughter.

The Army gave no details on exactly what role the other soldiers are alleged to have played in Chen's death. But a community activist raised the possibility that their bullying drove him to suicide.

Chen's fellow soldiers had dragged him across the floor, threw stones at the back of his head, forced him to hold liquid in his mouth while upside down as part of an apparent hazing, and called him "Jackie Chen" in a mocking accent in a reference to the action star Jackie Chan, according to Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans.

The details of his alleged hazing came from Facebook and email messages, discussions with cousins and a few pages of Chen's journal released by the Army, OuYang said at a Chinatown news conference.

"Whether suicide or homicide, those responsible for mistreating Danny are responsible for his death," she said.

At the news conference, Chen's relatives said they were encouraged by the charges.

"We realize that Danny will never return, but it gives us some hope," said Yen Tao Chen, his father, speaking through a translator.

Community activists said the Army still has not fully explained the circumstances of Chen's death. They are meeting with Pentagon officials Jan. 4.

"We need to know the whole truth," Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said. She added: "Racial discrimination and intolerance have no place in today's military."

The Army announced earlier it is investigating Chen's death.

Chen was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

In a statement, the Army identified the soldiers charged as 1st Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas, Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, Spc. Thomas P. Curtis, Spc. Ryan J. Offutt and Sgt. Travis F. Carden. Their hometowns were not immediately released.

VanBockel, Holcomb, Hurst, Curtis and Offutt were charged with the most serious offenses, including involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, and assault and battery.

Schwartz, the only officer among the accused, with charged with dereliction of duty.

Underwear bomber seeks new US lawyer

The young Nigerian man dubbed the "underwear bomber" after trying to blow up a packed US-bound airliner wants a new lawyer to help him with an upcoming sentencing hearing.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 25, represented himself in the high profile case and pleaded guilty on the second day of his October trial against the advice of his court-appointed standby counsel.

He faces a mandatory minimum of life in prison without parole after pleading guilty to eight terrorism charges related to the plot to kill 289 people on a transatlantic flight using explosives hidden in his underwear.

In a letter posted on the court's docket Monday, Abdulmutallab told Judge Nancy Edmunds that his relationship with standby counsel Anthony Chambers, a prominent Detroit criminal lawyer, "is strained to say the least."

He complained that Chambers hasn't visited him since the trial, sending instead associates to help prepare for the Jan 12 sentencing hearing.

He also accused Chambers and his associates of lying to him and treating him "with contempt."

He asked Edmunds to appoint a Muslim lawyer, writing "I find there is more understanding when the person is of the same religion."

Edmunds set a hearing to deal with the motion for January 6.

The botched plot, which US officials say was the work of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, failed because the explosives did not fully detonate and instead caused a fireball.

Passengers and crew members were able to restrain Abdulmutallab and put out the fire as the Northwest flight from Amsterdam made an emergency landing in Detroit on December 25, 2009.

The incident triggered global alarm and led the United States to adopt stringent new screening and security measures.

The reputation of the US intelligence services also took a hit because Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker, had warned the CIA about his son's growing radicalization.

EPA tells nation's dirty power plants to clean up

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is cracking down on the largest remaining source of uncontrolled toxic air pollution in the U.S. — the nation's power plants.

The EPA announced on Wednesday long-overdue national standards to cut mercury and other toxic air pollutants from power plants, a regulation that will force the oldest and dirtiest facilities to close or clean up.

The rule comes after intense lobbying from some power producers and criticism from Republicans, who said it would threaten jobs and electric reliability.

To ease those concerns, the administration will encourage states to make available an additional year to comply with the rule. Case-by-case extensions could also be granted to address local reliability issues.

Some in the industry wanted an automatic and longer delay.

Exclusive: Italian banks tap 116 billion euros of ECB loans

ROME/MILAN  - More than a dozen Italian banks, including top lenders UniCredit and Intesa Sanpaolo , tapped 116 billion euros ($143.52 billion) of new three-year loans offered by the European Central Bank, nearly a quarter of the total, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The ECB's first ever offer of three-year loans on Wednesday drew demand for a massive 489 billion euros from 523 banks, raising hopes a credit crunch can be avoided and that the money could be used to buy Italian and Spanish bonds.

"It's a 116 billion euros," one senior banking source told Reuters. Two other sources confirmed that amount.

The Italian figure includes 40.4 billion euros of state-backed bank bonds which were used as collateral for the loans. But banks could also offer other types of collateral for the ECB loans, such as government bonds for example.

A document from Italy's stock exchange Borsa Italiana showed 14 banks had listed state-guaranteed bank bonds on the MOT regulated bond market, a pre-requisite for those bonds to be accepted as collateral for the ECB new loans.

The biggest amount, 12 billion euros, of state-backed bonds was taken up by Intesa Sanpaolo , which confirmed it had used them as collateral for the loans, and said that these would help it complete pre-funding for its wholesale medium and long term maturities for 2012.

The stock exchange document showed Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena has listed bonds for 10 billion euros, while UniCredit has floated 7.5 billion euros of bonds.

Among the other 14 banks are Banco Popolare with bonds worth 3 billion euros, Banca Popolare di Sondrio , Banca Etruria , Banca Popolare dell'Emilia Romagna and Credito Emiliano .

HELPING THE REAL ECONOMY

UniCredit and the Italian banking association poured cold water on the idea that the fresh and cheap ECB liquidity would prompt banks to buy more government debt.

"I am convinced that liquidity should support the real economy and thus avoid a credit crunch," UniCredit CEO Federico Ghizzoni said in a radio interview on Wednesday.

Banking lobby ABI, which has strongly criticised the European Banking Authority for forcing Italian banks to mark-to-market their domestic government bond holdings, was scathing.

"The EBA rules are a deterrent for buying sovereign bonds, so not even the ECB's important liquidity injection -- of almost 500 billion euros -- can be used to support sovereign debt," ABI director general Giovanni Sabatini told reporters.

"The EBA created this problem: the new toxic assets are sovereign bonds, in the eyes of the market. Banks not only will not increase their exposure, but they will probably cut it, and this creates a potential problem for refinancing sovereign debt."

Italian banks have 192 billion of domestic government bonds on their books, of which 160 billion euros are spread among the five top lenders. They have substantially increased their reliance on the ECB for borrowing since July, as Italy got sucked ever deeper in the euro zone debt crisis and their access to wholesale debt markets froze.

In November, ECB funding for Italian banks rose to 153 billion euros from 111 billion euros a month before. In June it stood at just 41 billion euros. ($1 = 0.7628 euros)

No prosecution from Ariz. Fiesta Bowl ticket probe

PHOENIX— More than two dozen Arizona politicians who received free game tickets or trips from the Fiesta Bowl will not face criminal charges, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

The investigation into whether the elected officials illegally accepted or failed to report the gifts did not find enough evidence to pursue criminal cases, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said.

He blamed inconsistent state laws, vague reporting requirements and a legal requirement that prosecutors prove a defendant "knowingly" violated the law as major factors in his decision.

"I understand the appearance of impropriety argument, and how it can be reported," Montgomery said. "But there's a difference ... in what it looks like and what we can do as prosecutors."

"They had to know at the time they filed it that it was incomplete or false," he added.

The decision removed a pall that has been cast over many state lawmakers since April, when Montgomery began investigating whether politicians violated a law banning acceptance of free game tickets in most cases and failed to report receiving free trips or tickets.

Montgomery called on the state Legislature to overhaul the state's rules for lobbyists and state lawmakers, toughen reporting requirements, ban gifts outright and make some violations a felony. He said changes were needed "in order for the public's expectation of open and honest government to be met."

Combining reporting and gift laws into one simplified statute will help clear up confusion and help prosecutors if they need to pursue a case, he said. He advocated the gift ban or, at the least, the allowance of only gifts of very low retail value.

Elected officials should accept "nothing - you can accept a handshake and that's it," Montgomery said.

He also said he wants a law to require quarterly financial reporting by lobbyists, from the current yearly mandate, and an online system for easier compliance.

In addition to a possible felony charge for "knowing and intentional" violations, Montgomery wants clarifications that allow misdemeanor criminal or civil penalties for reckless reporting failures. He suggested that legislative staff attorneys be removed from their role advising lawmakers, to avoid any attorney-client privilege issues.

"We're going to have to have some changes if we're going to meet the public's expectation of openness and disclosure," he said.

Federal authorities are separately investigating other aspects of the Fiesta Bowl scandal, including an alleged scheme to reimburse employees for political contributions. One former executive already has been charged in that case.

The county attorney's probe was prompted by an internal Fiesta Bowl investigation into illegal political contributions and lavish spending by top bowl officials. Montgomery took over the case after the Arizona Attorney General's office declared a conflict of interest.

The internal investigation, released in March, included evidence that 31 current or former Arizona politicians received free game tickets or trips, many in apparent conflict with state law that bars receipt of free tickets in most cases. Many also failed to report what they received on their required annual financial disclosure reports.

The Fiesta Bowl has asked the politicians who received more than $161,000 worth of free trips or game tickets to explain how they benefited the tax-exempt group, and it implied it may ask them to repay the costs if the expenditures can't be justified. Some had already done so.

Twenty-eight of those Montgomery investigated were current or former state lawmakers, and he said his office's 8-month probe involved going through 4,000 pages of documents that included nearly 10 years of financial disclosure statements. He also investigated three prominent lobbyists.

The county attorney said some lawmakers told his office that they accepted the trips as ambassadors of the state, not for personal benefit or enjoyment. Former state Senate President Russell Pearce typically disclosed all gifts, tickets and trips, but not the Fiesta Bowl trips, which Montgomery said could mean the Republican legislator believed he did not have to report those items.

"There were some legislators who were angry that I was investigating them because they thought it was clear they had done nothing wrong," Montgomery said.

Topping the recipients were Pearce, who received more than $39,000 in tickets, trips and other freebies. From 2002 through 2009, Pearce went on VIP trips sponsored by the Fiesta Bowl to games in Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Pasadena, Boston and Dallas. Other top recipients were former Republican lawmaker Robert Blendu with $17,213, and Democratic state Sen. Linda Lopez with $16,877.

Longtime bowl President and CEO John Junker was fired after the internal investigation. On June 13, the bowl hired University of Arizona President Robert Shelton to lead the efforts to repair its reputation. Bowl officials have been cooperating with local, state and federal investigations.

The scandal at the Fiesta Bowl, which also hosts the national football championship every four years, put its role as one of the four top-tier bowl groups in jeopardy. But it avoided the worst sanctions — the loss of the championship game and its NCAA license.

The Bowl Championship Series fined the Fiesta Bowl $1 million, and the NCAA placed it on probation for a year.

Obama calls Boehner, urges deal on payroll tax

WASHINGTON  - In a bid to end a worsening standoff over extending a tax break for Americans, President Barack Obama urged Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday to pass a short-term extension and return to talks on a year-long deal in the New Year.

Obama telephoned Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, to stress his willingness to work with Congress to get an agreement on the expiring payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Obama asked Boehner and House Republicans to drop their opposition to a short-term measure that the Senate passed overwhelmingly at the weekend and signaled an unwillingness to reopen negotiations now, as Republicans are demanding.

Obama and many economists say the payroll tax cut is crucial to the country's fragile economic recovery.

Carney said the two-month extension negotiated by the Senate was "the only option to ensure that middle class families are not hit with a tax hike in 10 days."

It was not immediately clear how Boehner and his fractious caucus will react to the offer.

House Republicans have been coming under heavy fire from fellow Senate Republicans and conservatives over their refusal to consider the two-month deal eked out by the Senate leadership on Friday night. Senate negotiators had been unable to agree on how to pay for a longer-term extension.

Boehner's control over his caucus, which includes many Tea Party-aligned fiscal conservatives, has come under increased scrutiny after House members revolted against the Senate deal.

Senate Democrats, sensing they have a political advantage on an issue that has sharply divided Republicans in the Senate and the House, are refusing to reopen negotiations. Most have already left Washington for the holidays.

Labor board approves new union election rules

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a win for organized labor, the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday approved sweeping new rules that would speed the pace of union elections, possibly making it easier for unions to gain members at companies that have long rebuffed them.

Business groups quickly denounced the move, saying it limits the time that employers have to educate workers about the impact of joining a union. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already filed a federal lawsuit challenging the rules.

The rules, which take effect April 30, simplify procedures and reduce legal delays that can hold up union elections after employees at a work site gather enough signatures to form a union.

"This rule is about giving all employees who have petitioned for an election the right to vote in a timely manner and without the impediment of needless litigation," board chairman Mark Pearce said.

Unions say the old rules allowed companies to file frivolous appeals, stalling elections for months or years. The new rules could help unions make inroads at businesses like Target and Wal-Mart, which have successfully resisted union organizing for years.

But business groups claim the new plan allows "ambush" elections that don't give company managers enough time to respond.

"This decision erodes employers' free speech and due process rights, and opens the door to rushed elections that will deny employees access to critical information and time to consider the issues at hand prior to entering the voting booth," said Katherine Lugar, executive vice president for public affairs at the Retail Industry leaders Association.

Most union elections currently take place between 45 to 60 days after a union gathers enough signatures to file a petition. The new rules could shorten that time by several weeks, depending on the situation.

Many employers use the time leading up to an election to talk to workers about the cost and impact of joining a union. But union officials claim the lag time is often used to pressure or intimidate workers against forming a union.

"It's good news that the NLRB has taken this modest but important step to help ensure that workers who want to vote to form a union at their workplace get a fair opportunity to do so," said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.

While union leaders publicly tried to play down the new rules as a modest development, labor experts called the change significant. Unions have seen their ranks dwindle steadily over the last three decades to 11.9 percent of the work force.

"Employers wouldn't have fought against it so hard if it wasn't going to make a difference," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

One way employers can currently delay union elections is to raise questions about which workers should be included in a bargaining unit. Supervisors aren't eligible for union membership, and the company and union can spend months litigating that issue.

Under the new rules, questions about the makeup of bargaining units are resolved after the election takes place.

"This isn't going to change the world, but it's one step, and we haven't had a step towards workers' rights in a very long time," Bronfenbrenner said.

The rules were approved by the board's two Democratic members. Its lone Republican, Brian Hayes, has not yet cast his vote, but he is expected to cast a dissenting opinion sometime before the rule takes effect.

Hayes is so strongly opposed to the plan that he threatened to quit the commission last month, claiming its Democratic members were ignoring longstanding procedures in their haste to finish the rules.

The final rules were scaled back from an earlier version that would have required employers to hand over to union organizers a list of employees' e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

The board rushed to approve the new rules before the end of the year, when the term of Democratic member Craig Becker expires. The board currently has only three members instead of the usual five, and the Supreme Court has ruled that it can't issue any decisions with less than three members in place.

Congressional Republicans have blocked President Barack Obama from filling vacant posts on the board, and lawmakers have used procedural tactics to prevent Obama from bypassing the Senate to make recess appointments.

The lawsuit filed by business groups late Tuesday claims the board circumvented its own operating procedures to finalize this rule, and that the rule itself short-circuits safeguards meant to ensure fair elections.

"The blatantly partisan purpose of this rule is to ensure that employers have no time to talk to their workers about unionizing, and that the only information workers will get will come from the union," said Robin Conrad, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's public policy law firm, the National Chamber Litigation Center.

Microsoft says 2012 CES tech show will be its last

NEW YORK  — Microsoft Corp. is pulling out of the International Consumer Electronics Show, the largest trade show in the Americas. It's joining Apple in saying that it prefers to put on its own events when the time is right to show off its products.

Microsoft said the next show, to be held Jan. 9-12 in Las Vegas, will be the last show at which it has a booth or the CEO delivers the customary kick-off speech.

The software company has been one of the biggest U.S. supporters of the event, which gathered nearly 150,000 people this year. Originally focused on living-room electronics, the show has become the big annual U.S. event for all consumer technology after the demise of big computer-focused shows such as Comdex.

Microsoft says it will continue to use CES as a place to connect to customers, but it won't have a booth because its product milestones don't align with the show's January timing.

At the upcoming show, CEO Steve Ballmer is scheduled to speak about its upcoming Windows 8 operating system. But the software isn't expected to be ready until late next year, so computer makers won't have any real Windows 8 products at the show.

"They're not cooked yet. So he's going to be stuck trying to present a bunch of stuff that will be months away from being ready," said technology industry analyst Rob Enderle

Apple doesn't participate in trade shows at all after pulling out of the Macworld Conference after 2009.

The Consumer Electronics Association, which organizes CES, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

NASA Announces Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, Earth-Sized Planets

The good news is NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has found two exo-solar planets, Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, which are approximately the same size as Earth. The bad news is that both worlds orbit far too close to its sun for life to exist on them, according to Space Ref.

Kepler 20 is a star about 1,000 light years from Earth, located in the constellation Lyra. Kepler has discovered five planets circling Kepler 20, all of them within what would be the orbit of Mercury.

Kepler-20e is 0.87 the radius of Earth and orbits its star every 6.1 days. Its surface temperature is 1,400 degrees, enough to melt glass.

Kepler-20f is 1.03 times the radius of Earth and orbits its star every 19.6 days. Its surface temperature is 800 degrees, about the same as the day side of Mercury.

The other planets of the Kepler-20 system, Kepler-20b, Kepler-20c and Kepler-20d, orbit their star every 3.7, 10.9 and 77.6 days. The other planets are about the size of Neptune or slightly smaller and are thought to be gas giants.

The Kepler 20 system is vastly different from our own solar system. In our solar system, rocky worlds are closer to the sun, with gas giants like Jupiter farther out. Kepler 20 has gas giants and rocky worlds space alternately very close to the star around which they orbit. This has astronomers puzzled.

The Kepler currently is in a heliocentric orbit, trailing Earth. It detects candidates for exo-solar planets by measuring the dimming of light between it and a target star. So far it has detected more than 2,000 candidates for exo-solar planets. After a candidate planet is detected, the planet is confirmed with various ground-based and space-based telescopes. As of this writing, 714 of these planets have been confirmed.

Until the confirmation of Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, the planets confirmed by the Kepler space telescope have ranged from gas giants larger than Jupiter to "super Earths," or planets about 2 1/2 times the size of Earth, such as Kepler-22b.

Kepler 22b was the first planet confirmed to be within the "habitable zone" in which it orbits just far enough from its star to allow for liquid water. Scientists hope to soon confirm the existence of an Earth sized world that lays in the habitable zone, therefore possibly having Earth-like life.

Gunmen kidnap 5 Iranian engineers in Syria

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's official news agency says gunmen in Syria have kidnapped five Iranian engineers building a power plant in a central region of the country roiled by political unrest.

Wednesday's report quotes a statement from Iran's Embassy in Damascus as saying that the engineers were seized Tuesday morning on their way to work in the city of Homs.

The statement says Iranian authorities have asked the Syrian government to identify the assailants and get the engineers released.

Syria has been Iran's closest ally in the Arab world for three decades.

The 9-month-old uprising in Syria has left President Bashar Assad with few international allies — with the vital exception of Iran, which the U.S. and other nations say is helping drive the deadly crackdown on dissent.

Wall Street slips as Oracle miss casts doubt on technology

NEW YORK  - U.S. stocks fell on Wednesday as weak earnings from Oracle raised concerns about the health of the tech sector ahead of the start of fourth-quarter earnings season in January.

Sentiment also fell on concerns that cut-rate loans from the European Central Bank's recent funding operation will not be used to buy Italian and Spanish debt, which would help lower elevated yields and lower pressure on refinancing for the debt-stricken countries.

Oracle Corp. , the world's No. 3 software maker, joins a growing list of companies, including some of technology's biggest and oldest names, whose results and outlooks have raised alarm bells about business conditions.

"Oracle results were very bad and they provide a wet blanket for corporate tech spending as we go into the new year," said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist at RDM Financial in Westport, Connecticut.

"Capital spending was supposed to be one the bright spots for U.S. markets and comments from Oracle throw that into doubt," he said.

Oracle's shares slumped 13.5 percent to $25.22 after the company's results missed Wall Street's forecasts for the first time in a decade. Shares of other tech companies also fell. IBM was the biggest drag on the Dow, down 3.8 percent to $179.99, and the Philadelphia semiconductor index <.SOX> fell 1.9 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> dropped 50.56 points, or 0.42 percent, to 12,053.02. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> fell 5.32 points, or 0.43 percent, to 1,235.98. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> lost 46.91 points, or 1.80 percent, to 2,556.82.

In Europe, banks took nearly 490 billion euros in three-year cut-price loans from the European Central Bank on Wednesday. Markets had run up ahead of the tender, but a widening of the yield spread between German and Italian debt suggested that money was not flowing where it is most needed.

An Italian banking group said banks would not increase their exposure to sovereign debt even after the ECB offering because European Bank Authority rules discourage it.

Ryan Larson, head of equity trading at RBC Global Asset Management in Chicago, said unconfirmed talk was circulating in the market that banks would use ECB loans to buy German bonds and not to support the debt of Spain and Italy.

"That kind of spooked the market," he said. "While it is a positive development in terms of the lending facility there are still a lot of problems out there."

He said he was not able to confirm any of the market speculation.

Tuesday's rally had lifted the S&P 500 above its 50-day moving average. Many investors and traders are looking for a seasonal "Santa rally" into the end of the year and are keen to jump on any signs of momentum.

"A lot of money managers have underperformed the market and it puts on a little pressure to be invested," said Eric Kuby, chief investment officer for North Star Investment Management Corp. in Chicago. "If you don't think there's a big sell-off coming, you're probably looking to buy stocks on any dip."

As the Christmas and New Year holidays approach, equities will likely become more volatile as volume peters out.

U.S.-listed shares of Research in Motion Ltd jumped 11 percent to $13.90 after Reuters reported that Amazon and other potential bidders had been looking at making an offer for the BlackBerry maker, although interest had cooled somewhat.

The latest economic data showed sales of previously owned U.S. homes surged in November, but revisions to data for the last four years showed the housing market recession was deeper than previously thought.

Shares of Walgreen Co lost 2.7 percent to $32.56 after the largest U.S. drugstore chain posted lower quarterly profit on pressured margins.

Contract electronics manufacturer Jabil Circuit Inc posted first-quarter revenue below estimates and sees lower revenue in the second quarter. Shares fell 5.2 percent to $18.91.

Hard-to-Kill Alien Planets Survive Dying Star's Last Gasp

Astronomers have discovered two potential alien planets that apparently survived being engulfed by their bloated, dying parent star.

The discovery is a surprise to many scientists, as it had been widely believed that no planet could withstand such a thorough and intense scorching, researchers say. Also a surprise: The hardy alien worlds seem to have inflicted their own damage on the expanded star, stripping it of much of its mass.

"To our knowledge, there has been no previous case reported where such a strong influence on the evolution of a star seems to have occurred," said study lead author Stephane Charpinet, of the University of Toulouse in France.

Studying a dying star's light

Charpinet and his colleagues made the find using NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, which recently discovered the first two Earth-size worlds beyond our solar system.

For the new study, detailed in tomorrow's (Dec. 22) edition of the journal Nature, the researchers didn't set out looking for alien planets. Instead, they were studying a dying star called KIC 05807616. The star was once a "normal" main-sequence one like our own sun, but it's now several steps farther down the path of stellar evolution. [Vote! The Most Intriguing Alien Planets of 2011]

For instance, KIC 05807616 has already gone through its red-giant phase, bloating up dramatically after exhausting the stores of hydrogen fuel in its core. The star has since collapsed to a shrunken vestige of its former self, becoming what's known as a hot B subdwarf.

While studying KIC 05807616's light, Charpinet and his team noticed periodic brightness variations recurring every 5.8 and 8.2 hours. They determined that these variations were caused by two small planets zipping around the star in extremely close orbits.

Kepler normally detects planets by what's known as the "transit method," flagging the tiny brightness dips caused when a planet crosses in front of — or transits — a star's face, blocking some of its light.

But in this case, the researchers concluded that they weren't seeing dimming caused by planetary transits. Instead, Kepler was flagging light that the planets themselves were reflecting and emitting.

"Light that is directly emitted or reflected from extrasolar planets has been detected in the past, but this is the first time that this particular method has been used for the discovery of a planetary system," astronomer Eliza Kempton, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote in an accompanying essay in the same issue of Nature.

The two newfound planet candidates, known as KOI 55.01 and KOI 55.02, still need to be confirmed by follow-up observations. Both appear to be slightly smaller than Earth, but they hug their host star much more closely than our planet does.

Both orbit at less than 1 per cent of the Earth-sun distance (which is about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers), researchers said, so both planets are almost certainly far too hot to support life as we know it.

Destroyed gas giants

The two potential exoplanets likely didn't start out so small and so close-in, researchers said. Before KIC 05807616 became a red giant, both alien worlds were probably Jupiter-like gas giants sitting farther away from the star.

But then KIC 05807616's stellar envelope bloated immensely, engulfing the two planets. This seems to have had serious consequences for both the star and the alien worlds, researchers said. [The Strangest Alien Planets]

"As the star puffs up and engulfs the planet, the planet has to plow through the star's hot atmosphere and that causes friction, sending it spiraling toward the star," study co-author Betsy Green, of the University of Arizona, said in a statement. "As it's doing that, it helps strip atmosphere off the star. At the same time, the friction with the star's envelope also strips the gaseous and liquid layers off the planet, leaving behind only some part of the solid core, scorched but still there."

These dramatic events could shed light on the evolution and ultimate fate of planetary systems, researchers said. Astronomers know of many systems with close-in giant planets, and some of them could eventually go down a similar road, leaving behind burnt-out planetary cores and a shrunken dwarf star.

Our own solar system will probably take a slightly different path, however. Our sun will become a red giant in about 5 billion years, likely expanding to engulf and thoroughly cook Mercury, Venus and Earth. But the sun will feel no reprisals, for these planets are too small to take a piece out of our star in the process, Charpinet said.

"It likely takes the engulfment of sufficiently massive giant planets comparable to Jupiter to influence the evolution of a star," Charpinet told SPACE.com in an email. "Our sun has giant planets, but they are probably too far away from it to be caught in the expanding star envelope during the red-giant phase."

NY judge rejects gripe over Soviet arms case juror

NEW YORK  — A federal judge has rejected requests by lawyers for a Russian arms dealer to conclude that a juror acted inappropriately in convicting him.

Judge Shira Scheindlin (SHYND'-lihn) interviewed the juror from the trial of Viktor Bout (boot) at a brief hearing Wednesday. The juror said she had seen the film "Lord of War" before the trial began. Bout's exploits were an inspiration for the movie.

The juror said she didn't realize until after the trial was over that the movie pertained to Bout.

The jury convicted Bout last month after concluding he conspired to sell weapons to South American terrorists. Bout could face as much as life in prison when he is sentenced in February.

Bout was extradited last year from Thailand. He was arrested there in 2008.

Missing AZ girl believed killed, dumped in trash

Associated Press — Police say they now believe a 5-year-old Glendale girl missing for more than two months was killed and that her body was dumped in a trash bin across town.

That's the most substantive information that Glendale police have released about what they believe happened to 5-year-old Jhessye Shockley, who was reported missing Oct. 11.

Police didn't specify who they think killed the little girl.

A month ago, detectives arrested Jhessye's mother, Jerice Hunter, on a child abuse charge related to the girl and announced at the time that they didn't believe they'd find her alive.

Hunter was released days after her Nov. 21 arrest when prosecutors said they wanted further investigation.

Police say she has declined to submit to a lie-detector test.

Congresswoman: NY soldier was harassed, assaulted

NEW YORK — A congresswoman says a soldier from New York faced racial harassment and assault before he died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez said at a news conference Wednesday in Manhattan's Chinatown that fellow soldiers called Pvt. Danny Chen "Jackie Chen" in a derisive accent.

She says he was dragged across a floor, had stones thrown at the back of his head and was forced to hold liquid in his mouth while upside down as part of apparent hazing.

The Army said Wednesday that soldiers in his company have been charged with crimes ranging from dereliction of duty to involuntary manslaughter in Chen's Oct. 3 death.

The Army announced earlier that it was investigating Chen's death.

Vatican: No plans to limit Sistine visitors

VATICAN CITY — The director of the Vatican Museums says there are no plans to limit the number of visitors who flock to the Sistine Chapel to admire Michelangelo's frescoes, despite harmful dust build-up.

Antonio Paolucci says the Vatican is convinced the chapel can accomodate the growing number of visitors without risking harm to the paintings.

Paolucci wrote in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano on Wednesday that a study with high-tech instruments of levels of dust, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide from the breath of tourists is nearing its end.

Some 4 million people visit the chapel in the Museums annually. He says experts will devise an improved air conditioning system to lower pollutant levels.

No prosecution for Ariz. Fiesta Bowl ticket probe

PHOENIX— More than two dozen Arizona politicians who received free game tickets or trips from the Fiesta Bowl will not face criminal charges, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

The investigation into whether the elected officials illegally accepted or failed to report the gifts did not find enough evidence to pursue criminal cases, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said.

He blamed inconsistent state laws, vague reporting requirements and a legal requirement that prosecutors prove a defendant "knowingly" violated the law as major factors in his decision.

"Sure, we had incidents where people amended their disclosure statements. None of that assisted us in establishing whether or not they knew at the time of their (original) filing," Montgomery said. "They had to know at the time they filed it that it was incomplete or false."

The decision removed a pall that has been cast over many state lawmakers since April, when Montgomery began investigating whether politicians violated a law banning acceptance of free game tickets in most cases and failed to report receiving free trips or tickets.

Montgomery called on the state Legislature to overhaul the state's rules for lobbyists and state lawmakers, toughen reporting requirements, ban gifts outright and make some violations a felony.

"Despite the public's legitimate expectations that current laws ensure a reasonable degree of open and honest government, Arizona's statutes governing receipt of gifts and reporting requirements fall short of meeting those expectations," Montgomery said.

Combining all reporting and gift laws into one simplified statute will help clear up confusion and help prosecutors if they need to pursue a case, he said. He advocated the gift ban or, at the least, the allowance of only gifts of a very low retail value. He also said he wants a law to require quarterly financial reporting by lobbyists, from the current yearly mandate, and an online system for easier compliance.

In addition to a possible felony charge for "knowing and intentional' violations, Montgomery wants clarifications that allow misdemeanor criminal or civil penalties for reckless reporting failures. He suggested that legislative staff attorneys be removed from their role advising lawmakers, to avoid any attorney-client privilege issues.

"We're going to have to have some changes if we're going to meet the public's expectation of openness and disclosure," he said.

Federal authorities are separately investigating other aspects of the Fiesta Bowl scandal, including an alleged scheme to reimburse employees for political contributions. One former executive already has been charged in that case.

The county attorney's probe was prompted by an internal Fiesta Bowl investigation into illegal political contributions and lavish spending by top bowl officials. Montgomery took over the case after the Arizona Attorney General's office declared a conflict of interest.

The internal investigation, released in March, included evidence that 31 current or former Arizona politicians received free game tickets or trips, many in apparent conflict with state law that bars receipt of free tickets in most cases. Many also failed to report what they received on their required annual financial disclosure reports.

The Fiesta Bowl has asked the politicians who received more than $161,000 worth of free trips or game tickets to explain how they benefited the tax-exempt group, and it implied it may ask them to repay the costs if the expenditures can't be justified. Some had already done so.

Twenty-eight of those Montgomery investigated were current or former state lawmakers, and he said the probe involved going through 4,000 pages of documents that included nearly 10 years of financial disclosure statements. He also investigated three prominent lobbyists.

Topping the recipients were former state Senate President Russell Pearce, a Republican who received more than $39,000 in tickets, trips and other freebies. From 2002 through 2009, Pearce went on VIP trips sponsored by the Fiesta Bowl to games in Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Pasadena, Boston and Dallas. Other top recipients were former Republican lawmaker Robert Blendu with $17,213, and Democratic state Sen. Linda Lopez with $16,877.

Longtime bowl President and CEO John Junker was fired after the internal investigation. On June 13, the bowl hired University of Arizona President Robert Shelton to lead the efforts to repair its reputation. Bowl officials have been cooperating with local, state and federal investigations.

The scandal at the Fiesta Bowl, which also hosts the national football championship every four years, put its role as one of the four top-tier bowl groups in jeopardy. But it avoided the worst sanctions — the loss of the championship game and its NCAA license.

The Bowl Championship Series fined the Fiesta Bowl $1 million, and the NCAA placed it on probation for a year.

NM woman gives birth in truck during snowstorm

SANTA FE, N.M. — Russell LeFevre learned how to birth a baby in nursing school using clamps, blankets, a suction bulb that clears a baby's mouth of mucus and other medical supplies.
When his wife's water broke in the front seat of a truck as it sped down an icy New Mexico highway in a snowstorm Tuesday, LeFevre just had his hands, some jackets and shoelaces.
It was enough.
His wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to a 6-pound, 11-ounce baby girl inside the truck on Old Las Vegas Highway between Canoncito and Santa Fe, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported (http://bit.ly/rRMAgp). The family is well enough to go home to Canoncito on Wednesday.
Elizabeth LeFevre said she started having contractions around midnight Tuesday. The pains intensified enough that by 2 a.m., LeFevre, her husband Russell and their 3-year-old daughter loaded into a truck driven by her brother-in-law and headed for the hospital. They took the highway because Interstate 25 was shut down amid blizzard conditions.
"We got like two miles down the highway, and I told him there was probably no chance we were going to make it to the hospital," Elizabeth LeFevre said. "As soon as I said that, my water broke."
Russell LeFevre said that when he checked his wife after her water broke, the baby was already halfway out. The other half of the baby came out in minutes.
"I turned her (the baby) to the side and gave her a little back slap, and she coughed up some goop, and I wrapped her up in a jacket," he said.
He also put the placenta in a jacket.
Russell LeFevre works as a nurse's assistant at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe and had just graduated from nursing school Dec. 8, so he had some training.
"(But) in the moment I was totally unprepared to deliver a baby in my truck," he said. "I had shoelaces instead of clamps, and I was wiping out her mouth with my finger instead of a suction bulb. It was pretty wild."
During the birth, Russell LeFevre's brother Neil was on the phone with an emergency dispatch operator, who had been talking the family through the birth. The operator advised them to tie off the baby's umbilical cord with a shoelace.
After the baby was born, the family headed for a fire station near Eldorado, but no one answered when they banged on the door. They then approached a state police officer who gave them blankets and called an ambulance to take them to Christus St. Vincent.
The pair named the baby Joanna Mallory LeFevre.
Russell LeFevre said his 3-year-old daughter, Renee, was "so good" during the whole ordeal and tried to comfort his wife through her labor pains by patting her on the head and telling her, "It's going to be OK."
"It was amazing," Russell LeFevre said. "We got her into the ambulance and the paramedic said we did a great job. The baby was healthy and pink and crying."

Bank of America close to settling with DOJ

NEW YORK  — Bank of America is close to announcing an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to settle allegations that its Countrywide Financial unit violated fair lending practices on mortgages.

An announcement is expected at 3 p.m. Eastern Wednesday, according to a person with knowledge of the settlement. The person wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

The Justice Department has investigated Countrywide for abusive lending practices for mortgage loans made between 2004 and 2008.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America Corp. bought the nation's largest subprime lender Countrywide Financial Corp. in 2008.

Cohesiveness, fitness favors Miami Heat in 2011-12

The starter's gun sounds Christmas Day on an National Basketball Association (NBA) sprint of a season that will reward cohesiveness and fitness in a compressed 66-game campaign that has the Miami Heat as clear front-runners.

Miami's 'Big Three' of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together as free agents last year and the nucleus made it to the NBA Finals before falling to the Dallas Mavericks.

After one season to work out the kinks, the Heat look ready to show they really have a hold on a league that used a five-month lockout of players to get a labor agreement that gave owners a bigger share of revenues and reshaped rules toward improving competitive balance.

James, who shied away from crunch-time responsibilities in the Finals, showed his commitment to claiming a maiden title by making an off-season pilgrimage to Houston for a tutorial on post moves from Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon.

In preparation for the season's December 25 start, teams held hurry-up training camps that coincided with a frenzied free-agent signing period that produced winners and losers.

The Heat index shot up, the Mavericks lost some firepower and the lowly Los Angeles Clippers created an instant rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant by adding premier point guard Chris Paul and other pieces.

Miami improved by adding sweet-shooting small forward Shane Battier, while Dallas may have taken a step back after losing center Tyson Chandler (New York Knicks), forward Caron Butler (Clippers) and back-up guard J.J. Barea (Minnesota Timberwolves) despite welcoming two-times NBA champion Lamar Odom to Texas.

A disgruntled Odom was ultimately traded by the Lakers, who had included the versatile forward in a trade offer to league-owned New Orleans for Paul, which was nixed by the NBA.

The Chicago Bulls, who reached the Eastern Conference final against Miami, added a potentially key piece in shooting guard Richard Hamilton, who could provide just the complement to point guard Derrick Rose, the NBA's reigning most valuable player.

While the impact of provisions on competitive balance is yet to be seen, the season figures to be ruled by teams that already know how to play together and can withstand the rigors of a schedule that includes three games in three days for all teams and stretches for some of five games in six nights.

Veteran-laden teams like the Boston Celtics, with their aging impact trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, could start fast but may wear down come playoff time.

The San Antonio Spurs could be in the same boat as Boston, ready to hit the hardcourt smoothly with a veteran trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker, but eventually challenged to keep step with last year's Western Conference runners-up the Oklahoma City Thunder.

BIG UNKNOWN

The Thunder, with a young core of NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant and guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden leading the way, may be ready to reach the Finals.

The Knicks and Clippers are rounding into shape as possible contenders, but might need time to gel.

The Clippers, who won 32 games last year and have exceeded the .500 mark once in the last 19 years, have a new look.

Besides adding premier point guard Paul, they have also welcomed former Mavs forward Butler and veteran guard Chauncey Billups to a young squad that boasts former overall number one pick Blake Griffin and talented center DeAndre Jordan.

Chandler brings a defensive presence down low for the Knicks, whose high-scoring duo of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire continue to blend their skills after half a season together in New York.

One big unknown factor in the season is the fate of Dwight Howard, the powerful center of the Orlando Magic, who is in a lame duck season with free agency looming.

Viable suitors for Howard include the Lakers, Mavericks and the New Jersey Nets, whose imminent move to Brooklyn gives them appeal as a true second New York City team with outstanding point guard Deron Williams already in place.

Census: Population slowing in large portions of US

WASHINGTON — Many states that posted big population gains in the 2010 census are now seeing their decade-long growth fizzle, hurt by a prolonged economic slump that is stretching into larger portions of the South and West.

New 2011 estimates released Wednesday by the Census Bureau are the first state numbers since the 2010 count, which found the nation's population growth shifting to the Sun Belt.

As a whole, the U.S. population grew by 2.8 million, reaching 311.6 million people. That growth of 0.92 percent was the lowest since the mid-1940s.

Washington, D.C., grew faster than any state in the nation, climbing by 2.7 percent from April 2010 to July of this year. It was the first time the District led states in growth since the early 1940s. Texas was next-fastest growing, followed by Utah, Alaska, Colorado and North Dakota.

States that prospered during the real estate boom, such as Arizona, Nevada and Florida, were already beginning to show a drop in growth when their populations were officially counted a year ago. Since then, the slowdown has spread to other burgeoning areas whose populations had previously withstood much of the dampening effects of the sluggish economy.

They include Georgia, South Carolina, Utah and Idaho, whose annual growth over the last two years is now the weakest than any time in the last decade.

Texas, the big 2010 winner owing to a diversified economy that attracted new residents during the recession, is seeing its growth slow as fewer people move there. In contrast, Democratic-leaning states such as California and New York are losing fewer residents to other states than before.

"Record low migration has continued to put a damper on what looked to be a Sun Belt growth explosion just five years ago," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "States that seemed immune from the housing bust are now experiencing declining population growth as employment opportunities in a variety of industries contract, and as mortgages seem nearly impossible to obtain."

The Census Bureau released state population estimates as of July 1, 2011. The data show annual changes through births, deaths, and domestic and foreign migration.

In all, 38 states showed lower growth in 2010 and 2011 than in either of the previous two years during the recession. Twenty-three of these states are in South and West region. Moreover, 28 states showed either slower in-migration or greater out-migration than in either of the first two years of the recession. These include Nevada and Arizona, but also Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Colorado and Utah.

Three states — Rhode Island, Michigan and Maine — lost population.

Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, said if the 2010 count had been held this year, Minnesota would have lost a seat in the House of Representatives and North Carolina would have picked up one due to the shifting population figures. Based on continuing losses, Rhode Island is now closer to losing one of its seats with just 41,000 people to spare. "It's definitely not moving in Rhode Island's favor," he said.

California remained the most populous state, followed by Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.

Wall Street extends losses with Nasdaq down 2 percent

NEW YORK - Stocks extended losses on Wednesday as doubts rose about the effectiveness of the European Central Bank's massive funding operation to tackle the region's debt crisis.

The Nasdaq also was dragged lower by Oracle Corp which fell more than 13 percent, trading near $25.00.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was down 76.21 points, or 0.63 percent, at 12,027.37. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was down 8.50 points, or 0.68 percent, at 1,232.80. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was down 52.09 points, or 2.00 percent, at 2,551.64.

Verizon battles a network problem again

NEW YORK - Verizon Wireless engineers worked on fixing "an issue" with its high-speed wireless network in the early hours of Wednesday, the second high-profile service problem this month for the company that boasts it is the "most reliable."

The problem follows a December 8 outage that prevented some U.S. customers from accessing the Internet on their wireless devices for about 24 hours.

By 11.30 AM spokesman Tom Pica said the No. 1 U.S. mobile provider's fourth generation (4G) LTE network was "returning to normal" but did not provide any details.

"Throughout this time, 4G LTE customers were able to make voice calls and send and receive text messages. The 3G data network operated normally," Pica said.

Customers from around the country complained about the outage on Verizon's 4G LTE Community website, with reports of service problems in places as far flung as Houston, central Indiana and Seattle.

"I'm livid. What happened to Verizon? I've been with them for years, but nothing but problems for the last few months," said one user.

Other users were still complaining later in the morning.

Verizon Wireless is owned by Verizon Communications Inc and Vodafone Group Plc.

Aaron Rodgers is 2011 AP Male Athlete of Year

GREEN BAY, Wis. — When Aaron Rodgers needs to rekindle the feelings that drove his rise from a junior college quarterback to Super Bowl MVP, he doesn't have to look too far.

Rodgers held on to the many rejection letters he received from marquee college programs as he was coming out of high school. Even today, he leaves a few of them sitting out at his house.

"I chose the couple that I thought were most demeaning to display in a space in my house that really nobody is able to see but myself," Rodgers said. "It's something that I think is important to keep fresh on your mind. Maybe not every day, but once a week your eyes might pan across it and you have a little laugh about the journey you've been on — at the same time, remembering that there still are people out there that you can prove something to."

Good luck finding those doubters now.

Rodgers is the 2011 Male Athlete of the Year, chosen by members of The Associated Press, after he turned in an MVP performance in the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in February and then went on to lead his team on a long unbeaten run this season.

Rodgers received 112 votes out of the 212 ballots submitted from U.S. news organizations that make up the AP's membership. Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander finished second with 50 votes, followed by tennis standout Novak Djokovic (21), Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton (6) and NASCAR champion Tony Stewart (5).

Rodgers is one of three quarterbacks to receive the honor in the past five years. The New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees won in 2010 and the New England Patriots' Tom Brady won in 2007.

Rodgers says it still feels "surreal at times" to be considered among the biggest names in sports.

"Those guys are household names, the best of the best," Rodgers said. "(It's) special to win the award, and something I'll remember."

Through 14 games this season, Rodgers has completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 4,360 yards with 40 touchdowns and six interceptions. The Packers are 13-1, and Rodgers' play is leaving people speechless — even his coach, Mike McCarthy.

"I'm running out of things to say about him," McCarthy said earlier this month, after Rodgers drove the Packers into position for a last-second, game-winning field goal to beat the New York Giants.

Green Bay's 19-game winning streak came to an end at Kansas City on Sunday, but the Packers remain a strong favorite to repeat as champions. That's thanks in large part to Rodgers' knack for making big plays without major mistakes.

It has been a long and challenging journey out of obscurity for Rodgers, who wasn't offered a big-time scholarship out of high school and had to play a year in junior college. Then came his agonizing wait on draft day, three seasons on the bench behind Brett Favre and a tumultuous first year as a starter.

If Rodgers' path to stardom had been smoother, he says he wouldn't be the player — or person — he is today.

"It's something that gives me perspective all the time, knowing that the road I took was difficult. But it did shape my character and it shaped my game as well," Rodgers said. "I try and keep that on my mind as a good perspective, but also as a motivator, knowing that it took a lot to get to where I am now and it's going to take a lot to stay where I'm at."

Strangely, earning widespread respect throughout the sports world could become a challenge in and of itself for Rodgers, who draws motivation from proving himself to his doubters and critics.

Is that becoming more difficult?

"It would only be tougher if you stopped remembering or drawing or thinking about those things," Rodgers said. "And I think a great competitor has to have at least some sort of chip on their shoulder, or at least the attitude that you have something to prove every time you take the (field)."

Unable to attract attention from a big-time college program, Rodgers played a year at Butte College in Oroville, Calif., near his hometown of Chico. His play there eventually got the attention of Cal coach Jeff Tedford, and Rodgers transferred.

Rodgers thrived at Cal and went into the 2005 NFL draft expecting to be taken early in the first round. But he didn't hear his name called until the Packers chose him with the 24th overall pick.

Once in Green Bay, Rodgers found himself backing up Favre, a revered Packer who didn't necessarily like the idea that the team had put his eventual successor in place. Favre kept fans and the franchise on their toes every offseason, flirting with the idea of retiring but always coming back.

Then came the summer of 2008, when tension between Favre and the Packers' front office finally snapped after Favre retired, changed his mind and asked for his job back — or a chance to play elsewhere. Favre was traded to the New York Jets and Rodgers finally had his chance.

Rodgers wasn't immediately embraced by a segment of fans who supported Favre. He even was booed at the team's "Family Night" scrimmage. He stayed calm on the outside and played pretty well in his first year as a starter despite the team's 6-10 record.

But he still had his doubts.

"I had a lot of confidence in my abilities," Rodgers said. "But the doubts and worries are associated with, 'How am I going to be perceived by my teammates? How's my performance going to be scrutinized?' And you go through a point where you're reading your own clippings. You're 6-10 your first season, and you're reading some of these (Internet) comment boards, in the back of your mind, that negative voice is telling you, 'You know, you're not going to live up to any expectations you put on yourself, and you're not as good as you think you are.' Those can mess with you a little bit, but you can also draw some motivation from those negative thoughts. And I did."

Rodgers led the Packers to the playoffs in 2009 season — then won it all last February.

"I think a weight comes off your shoulders after you win a Super Bowl, and you realize that all those doubts and worries and successes and failures you had before then, a lot of those get wiped away and the slate almost goes clean," Rodgers said. "Because you won the ultimate prize, and you had the chance to silence some of your critics, the challenges change, the way you're viewed changes. I think a lot of the things that you really worried about too much become very little in importance."

Oakland council rejects port disruption measure

OAKLAND, Calif. — Oakland officials have rejected a measure that called on city leaders to use more aggressive policing to prevent disruptions at the port, following an anti-Wall Street demonstration earlier this month that blocked longshoremen from reporting to work.

The Oakland Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/v1Jbwl) the measure failed to garner the six votes it needed to pass the City Council on Tuesday.

Council members said they're open to considering another resolution to prevent a port shutdown. But they want further study and cost estimates before taking any such resolution to a vote.

Tuesday's measure was proposed after anti-Wall Street protesters disrupted truck traffic and blocked longshoremen from reporting to work for nearly 24 hours on Dec 12. Much of the port was shut down, resulting in millions of dollars in losses.

Police mostly stood back during the demonstration.

Tuesday's council meeting was repeatedly interrupted by Occupy protesters opposed to the resolution.

Daggers hidden in book at Reagan Airport

WASHINGTON — The Transportation Security Administration says officers found two throwing daggers hidden in a hollowed-out book at a checkpoint at Reagan-Washington National Airport.

A TSA spokesman says a passenger was stopped Monday when officers found the knives in the person's carry-on bag. The daggers measured just over a half-foot long and were hidden in the hard-cover book.

The passenger was flying to Chicago and surrendered the knives and book.

The TSA has the authority to fine passengers who bring deadly weapons into the airport checkpoint. It was not known if this was done in this case.

A spokesman for the airport did not immediately return a call for comment.

Activists say Syrian troops kill 100 in village

BEIRUT  — Government forces surrounded residents of a restive Syrian village in a valley and killed all those trapped inside — more than 100 people — in a barrage of rockets, tank shells, bombs and gunfire that lasted for hours, a witness and two activist groups said Wednesday.

The attack on Tuesday pushed the death toll for two days of violence across Syria to more than 200, and was one of the deadliest single events of the entire nine-month uprising against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian rule.

The White House reacted by renewing its call for Assad to step down, saying his regime does not deserve to rule.

The offensive targeted the village of Kfar Owaid, about 30 miles from the northern border with Turkey. It is part of the rugged mountainous region of Jabal al-Zawiyah, which has been the scene of clashes between troops and army defectors and intense anti-government protests for weeks. Syrian troops began attacking the region on Saturday, residents said.

"It was an organized massacre," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "The troops surrounded people then killed them."

Syrian officials have not commented on the allegations.

The White House said Assad's regime has no credibility and has "flagrantly violated" its commitment to end violence. The statement said the Obama administration is deeply disturbed by continued reports of government-backed violence against the Syrian people.

One villager who is an anti-government activist told The Associated Press by telephone that scores of residents and activists fled Tuesday morning to the nearby Budnaya Valley, where they were completely surrounded by troops. The forces bombarded them with tank shells, rockets and heavy machine gun fire. The man, who identified himself only as Abu Rabih for fear of government reprisal, said troops also used bombs filled with nails to increase the number of casualties.

"What happened yesterday was a crime against humanity," Abu Rabih said. He said 110 people were killed in the attack and 56 of the dead were buried in Kfar Owaid on Wednesday. Others were buried in villages nearby.

According to activists, all of those in the valley were unarmed civilians and activists, there were no armed military defectors among them.

Abu Rabih said the Jabal al-Zawiyah region has been under intense attack by government forces since Saturday.

Assad agreed Monday to allow foreign monitors under an Arab League plan aimed at stopping the bloodshed. But the huge toll from the crackdown on Monday and Tuesday has reinforced opposition suspicions that Assad is just playing for time to stall a new round of international condemnation and sanctions. The crackdown has already left Assad internationally isolated and under tremendous pressure from the Arab world as well as the west.

The Arab League plan calls for Syria to halt its crackdown, open talks with the opposition, withdraw military forces from city streets and allow in human rights workers and journalists

Despite intensified violence, the Arab League appeared to be going ahead with its plans to send the monitors.

In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby appealed to the Syrian government to shoulder its responsibilities to protect civilians in compliance with its pledges to abide by the League's plan. He expressed deep concern about reports of an escalation of violence, especially in the provinces of Idlib, Homs, Daraa and Deir el-Zour.

The 22-member Arab League has also suspended Syria's membership and leveled economic and diplomatic sanctions.

The White House warned Damascus that additional steps will be taken to pressure Assad's regime if the Arab League initiative is not fully implemented.

In Paris, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said "everything must be done to stop this murderous spiral into which Bashar Assad is leading his people more every day." He added: "It is urgent that the U.N. Security Council pass a firm resolution demanding the end to this repression."

The German government's human rights commissioner, Markus Loening, called for an immediate end to violence against deserters and demonstrators. "It is dreadful to see how Bashar Assad and his helpers are clinging onto power and trampling on the Syrian population's wish for dignity and freedom."

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said "it is unacceptable" that so many people were killed even after Assad's regime agreed to an Arab League plan to halt the bloodshed.

Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council described the attack as "brutal massacres and genocide" saying the group has sent messages to members of the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on Syria. The SNC also urged the international community in a statement for international protection of the Syrian people.

Assad's regime agreed to allow the monitoring mission after Arab leaders warned they would turn to the U.N. Security Council to try to end the crackdown.

The Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful protests in March, has become increasingly militarized in recent weeks, with clashes nearly every day between troops and army defectors who have joined the movement against Assad. Idlib province has witnessed some of the most intense clashes. The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have died in unrest since March.

On Wednesday, the Observatory said security forces shot dead three people in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani and one in the northern town of Saraqeb. It added that troops stormed the town of Dael in the southern province of Daraa wounding dozens of people. The LCC said 12 people were killed Wednesday, five of them in the central province of Hama.

Activists said this bloody crackdown may be an attempt by the regime to crush defectors before the monitors arrive in the country. On Monday, security forces killed up to 70 army defectors as they were deserting their military posts in Idlib near the Turkish border, activists said.

"The regime is trying to control the situation before the Arab League send its observers but it's over. The regime will go," Abdul-Rahman said.

Abdul-Rahman corroborated the account of the witness in Kfar Owaid. He said troops on the outskirts of the village surrounded and fired on crowds of civilians and activists trying to flee out of fear they would be detained. The group, which uses a network of local activists to collect information on the crackdown, said 111 were killed in Kfar Owaid Tuesday.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, also said more than 100 people were killed. The accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has banned most foreign journalists and places heavy restrictions on the work of local reporters.

In Damascus, the Iranian embassy said Wednesday that five Iranian engineers who work at an electricity station in the central Syrian city of Homs have been kidnapped. It said the engineers were kidnapped Tuesday in the restive city that has witnessed intense anti-regime activities.
 
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