May 20, 2010

  • South Korea claims North Korea attacked navy vessel in March sinking
  • After protests, Thailand’s political future uncertain
  • Groups demand BP responsibility for oil disaster; Interior Department restructures oversight
  • Mexico’s President addresses congress on immigration and weapons ban
  • Government program for homeless veterans comes under scrutiny

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Cloture vote passes on Senate Financial Reform Legislation
The Senate passed a crucial vote on financial reform legislation today. The cloture passed 60 – 40, and allows the bill to move forward. In voting, three Republicans joined with all but two Democrats. The bill aims to regulate the banking industry and offer protections for consumers. It could see final passage in coming days.


Federal mine safety officials ask for more money to improve oversight
Federal Mine Safety officials testified before a Senate Committee today that they need more resources to ensure another accident such as the one at Upper Big Branch Mine doesn’t occur again.  Massey Energy and federal regulators are under fire after an explosion at the West Virginia mine killed 29 miners.

The Labor Department, which is charged with regulating mine safety, is looking at policy changes that will make oversight more efficient and effective.  Senate Committee Chair Tom Harkin said he is concerned by the current system.

“It just seems to me from all I’ve read and that our committee’s looked at, that under the current system, there just seems to be just every incentive for an operator to challenge just about every citation issued.  They can take advantage of the long delays, put off paying any fines well into the future.  Often these fines are substantially reduced as a result of the contest process, even when the violations are fully supported by the evidence.”

The Mine Safety Commission is recommending changes like discouraging frivolous challenges to safety violation fines by assessing penalties on mining companies for failed appeals.  But Labor Department Solicitor Patricia Smith says the onus of ensuring mine safety cannot rely only on the federal government.

“The problem is fundamentally a health and safety problem.  Mine operators must do a better job of eliminating unsafe conditions in the first place.  If MSHA inspectors can find violations, then mine operators should be able to find them also… and fix them before there are injuries and death.”

The Mine Safety & Health Review Commission is asking for appropriations for more administrative judges to help reduce the 16,000 case backlog.  But officials said, even if the Commission increased its judges from 10 to 26, the caseload would be still be nearly 10,000 after 3 years.

Federal Prosecutors are currently investigating allegations of “willful criminal activity” leading to the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine.  Massey CEO Don Blankenship was scheduled to testify today as well, but didn’t do so before FSRN airtime.


US Army opens investigation into solider involvement in Afghan civilian deaths
The US Military has launched a criminal probe against a “small number” of US soldiers serving in Afghanistan.  A statement said the soldiers were involved in the “unlawful deaths” of three Afghan civilians.  Details about when and where the incidents took place have not been released.  The army is also investigating the soldiers for “illegal drug use, assault and conspiracy.”  One soldier has been confined pending trial.  The number of civilian deaths has strained relations between the Afghan people and allied troops in the country.


Teen cell phone privacy suit filed in PA
A 17-year-old girl threatened with child pornography charges for having partially naked pictures of herself on her cell phone is now suing a Pennsylvania school district for violating her privacy.  FSRN’s Matthew Petrillo reports.

In January 2009, a teacher confiscated the cell phone of a student who made a banned call on school grounds. Under school policy, the phone should have been returned at the end of the day.  But after finding provocative images on the device, the school’s principal, instead, turned the phone over to police and gave the girl a three-day suspension.  The Wyoming County DA then allegedly threatened the teen with felony child pornography charges if she didn’t attend a sexual violence class.

The ACLU and lawyer Jacob Cohn from the Cozen O’Connor law firm are representing the teen.  Cohn says this case is as much about probable cause as it is about privacy rights:

“The students are started to be treated almost like they’re prisoners in a prison with the amount of respect that’s accord to their privacy, and that’s not right, that’s not Constitutional. If we don’t make sure some limits are established and respected, there will be no limits, there will be no privacy.”

While passing along images of minors remains a felony related to child pornography, some states, such as Vermont, are considering bills to make it OK to send such images between two children with consent.  Matthew Petrillo, FSRN, Pennsylvania.

US Okinawa base decision could be close
The relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Base at Futenma in southern Japan could be nearing finalization in spite of widespread protest in Okinawa.  Japanese news media, quoting unnamed sources, says Japanese PM Yukio Hatoyama is completing an agreement that bows largely to US demands for base relocation.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Japan next week, and Japanese media say an official announcement is expected on May 28th.


Malawi gay couple sentenced to maximum prison term for indecency
A gay couple in Malawi has been sentenced to a prison term of 14 years hard labor.  The couple, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, were jailed after holding an engagement ceremony last December.  The Judge said he granted the maximum sentence because he wanted to protect the Malawi people. Human rights groups are decrying the prosecution.  Several international donor-nations have criticized the government as well, including the US.  State Department Spokesperson Phillip Crowley:

“We view the criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity as a step backward in the protection of human rights in Malawi.  The government of Malawi must respect the human rights of all of its citizens.”

But despite the criticism, no countries have restricted aid to the Southern African country.



South Korea claims North Korea attacked navy vessel in March sinking
South Korea has officially blamed North Korea for the sinking of A navy vessel, that took the lives of 46 sailors on March 26th. President Lee Myung Bak is vowing to take action against North Korea and bring the case to the United Nations.  But, not all Koreans are sure how severely  the Kim Jong Il regime should be punished. From Seoul, Jason Strother has more.


After protests, Thailand’s political future uncertain
Today in Thailand, armed troops patrolled quiet streets in Bangkok and areas with burned out buildings. The government temporarily lifted the curfew and the last of the protesters left a temple where they sought refuge from the violence. Yesterday, at least 12 people were killed and scores injured as troops cracked down on a protest camp and protest leaders turned themselves in, ending at least for now, two months of street protests that paralyzed parts of the city. But the political future of Thailand remains uncertain.

Joining us is Dr. Kantahi Suphamongkhon, senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations. He served in New York as Thailand’s representative to the United Nations and is a former member of parliament. He’s also the former foreign minister in the administration of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from power in a coup in 2006.

Groups demand BP responsibility for oil disaster; Interior Department restructures oversight
Today marks the one-month anniversary of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers and launched a massive oil spill which continues to pollute the Gulf Coast. To mark the anniversary, the Energy Action Coalition organized more than 40 rallies, protests and vigils across the country today. Ethan Nuss is co-field director for the organization, a coalition of dozens of youth-led environmental and social justice organizations. He said they have several demands.

“First is to hold BP entirely responsible for the clean up of the disaster they’ve created; second is to ban any new offshore oil drillling from happening, that’s the root cause of this disaster we don’t want to allow it anymore; and third is to dramatically pivot to clean and safe energy that will help create sustainable communities and healthy communities here in the US and move away from the energy that harms our health and our environment.”

Nuss says they want to remove the new off-shore drilling provisions from the Senate’s pending climate change bill.

Meanwhile, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar signed an order Wednesday to fundamentally restructure the agency that oversees off shore oil drilling. The Minerals Management Service, or MMS, has come under criticism since the April 20th explosion for lax oversight and weak regulation. Salazar said the order would split the agency into three separate entities with independent missions.

“These three missions, energy development, enforcement and revenue collection are conflicting missions and must be separated, so today I am ordering the division of MMS into three distinct entities: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Office of Natural Resource Revenues.”

Salazar said each agency would have a distinct mandate. First, The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management would oversee conventional and renewable energy projects, and be in charge of leasing and planning. Second, the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, would be tasked with royalty and revenue collection and auditing. And third, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement would have the authority to “inspect, investigate, summon witnesses” and levy penalties or suspend and cancel drilling activities.

Responding to questions of why the department announced the reorganization only after the massive oil spill – even when widespread problems of the MMS had been known and identified – Salazar said the move is part of a longer process of reevaluation.

“This reorginzation is vital to our ongoing reform efforts. The employees of MMS deserve an organizational structure that fits the mission that they are asked to carry out. They will get greater clarity for their roles and responsibilities and we will be able to strengthen oversight of the companies that develop the nation’s energy resources.”

Salazar ordered his staff to develop details of the reorganization and report back within thirty days.


Mexico’s President addresses congress on immigration and weapons ban
Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon addressed a joint session of Congress today. Calderon had a stern message for lawmakers: reinstate the assault weapons ban and reform immigration. FSRN’s Leigh Ann Caldwell reports.


Government program for homeless veterans comes under scrutiny
An Obama program charged with getting homeless veterans off the street has been put on hold. One administration official told congress that it’s not working. FSRN’s Karen Miller has more.