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September 23, 2008

Two Charged in Motorcycle Death

An Andover woman whose body was found Friday may not have died in a motorcycle accident, investigators said.

Natasha Waalen, 28, had injuries that were not consistent with an accident, including several blows to the head but no bruises or scratches on her feet or lower legs, even though she was found barefoot, the complaint said in an article by The Pioneer Press.

Waalen's boyfriend and father of her 4-year-old daughter has been arrested in connection with the death. Ryan Boland, 33, faced charges of second-degree intentional murder and was on a $1 million bail, the Anoka County attorney's office said. A complaint filed by the office suggested that Boland's brother Timothy Boland, 31, may have assisted and is expected to be charged Tuesday.

However, some of Waalen's family members have hinted that the brothers may not be affiliated with the crime.

Jeff Waalen, Natasha's father, said police were "barking up the wrong tree" in charging the Bolands. He suspected the culprit was a man whom Natasha had threatened to sue.

"It would be easier for me to believe something else than thinking it was the guy she had known for 10 years," he told The Star Tribune.

Bank Bailout Faces Challenges

Congressional members expressed concerns about the $700 billion bailout for collapsed banks at a hearing Tuesday.

"I won't give a check for $700 billion...without safeguards built in," Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) told CNN in an interview. The Senate's Banking Committee Chairman said it would be the "height of irresponsibility" to approve the bill so close to the November presidential election.

However, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke have urged lawmakers to pass the bill quickly.

"We must now take further, decisive action to fundamentally and comprehensively address the root cause of this turmoil," Paulson said. "When the financial system doesn't work as it should, Americans' personal savings, and the ability of consumers and businesses to finance spending, investment and job creation are threatened."

The bill would give major banking institutions the option to sell bad debts to the Treasury fund, the BBC reported. The fund would then sell the assets once the economy has stabilized and their value is greater.

Dodd called the plan "stunning and unprecedented in its scope and lack of detail," and would give Paulson "absolute impunity" in managing the Treasury fund, as reported by The New York Times.

The Bush administration has urged Congress to pass the bill this week.

11 South African Cabinet Members Resign

The South African government announced Tuesday that 11 cabinet members have resigned, following an announcement that the nation's president would also be leaving office.

The cabinet officials, including a finance minister who was seen as being key in maintaining economic management, have said they would help the new administration, according to The New York Times.

“All the ministers have expressed their availability to assist the incoming administration," a statement issued by President Thabo Mbeki said.

However, the African National Congress secretary general said six of the ministers "had no intention of serving in the new government," the BBC reported.

The ANC is divided between Mbeki supporters and ANC leader Jacob Zuma, who is expected to win the national elections next year.

Mbeki resigned after the ANC called on him to leave office after a judge through out a corruption case against his rival Zuma, saying the Mbeki administration had political interference in the case, CNN reported Tuesday.

The "vexatious, scandalous and prejudicial" ruling cost Mbeki his office, the ousted president said.

The ANC's deputy president is expected to take office Thursday and remain as president until the spring elections.

September 16, 2008

Arrests During RNC Being Investigated

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has said there will be an investigation into the actions of police during the Republican National Convention, in which 818 arrests were made.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has also announced plans for a post-RNC investigation, with former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andy Luger leading the independent investigation, according to the Minnesota Daily.

Coleman has recently been criticized for not supporting free speech. "He stood by while police were used to suppress political dissent," St. Paul resident John Schatz told The Pioneer Press. Schatz was one of 30 people who recently protested in front of a home where Coleman was holding a fundraising event. The group was protesting raids of self-described anarchists and the appointment of Heffelfinger and Luger to the independent investigation team.

Both investigation teams will be looking into several factors of the convention, including security protocol and police training. The investigation will also look at the numerous arrests made, including several on-duty journalists.

Most of the arrests ended in misdemeanors, according to Minnesota Public Radio. It may take several months for the courts to determine which people were accidentally arrested.

In the meantime, several legal organizations are offering assistance to those arrested, explaining what legal options are available. Some representatives of the organizations are optimistic.

"People are aware that they have the right to protest and to express themselves," said Bob Kolstad, a criminal defense lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild, which will represent some of the people arrested at the RNC. "I'm sure that they will assert those rights in court and hopefully at least in some of the cases the prosecutors will agree with that position and just dismiss some of the cases."

Violence Continues in Bolivia

Martial law has been declared in Bolivia, where violence over a proposed constitution has killed 30 people.

Bolivian President Eva Morales, the first indigenous person elected to be president, has struggled to maintain order since being elected three years ago. His recent proposals to change the poor nation's constitution, including a clause that would allow him to run for a second term, have resulted in riots in the Pando province, according to Yahoo News.

Other proposed changes would centralize power and give landless peasants fallow terrain in an effort to re-distribute wealth amongst Bolivian citizens, the BBC reported.

Morales arrived in Chile to meet with other South American leaders to "to explain to the presidents of South America the civic coup d'etat by governors in some Bolivian states in recent days." However, no opposition leaders were present at the meeting in Santiago.

Other nations in South America are keen to resolve the issue, the BBC said, as they rely on Bolivia for natural gas.

Some leaders have blamed the US for causing and spreading the violence throughout Bolivia, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez calling it "a conspiracy directed by the US empire."

Chavez is a close ally with Morales, and both leaders expelled US ambassadors last week, accusing them of supporting oppositional parties. Ambassadors for both nations rejected the claims.

September 15, 2008

Lehman Bros Announces Bankruptcy

One of the largest investment banks in the country filed for bankruptcy protection, sending stocks plummeting Monday.

The announcement from Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest investment bank in the US, came after the company lost billions of dollars from the recent mortgage crisis that crippled much of the market in previous months, according to the BBC.

Lehman, which had $639 billion in assets and $613 billion of debt, crumpled due nearly $60 billion in "soured" real estate investments, according to Forbes. The collapse is the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson cited "past excesses" as a source for the recent turmoil on Wall Street, but encouraged confidence "in the soundness and the resilience of our financial system.?

“As I’ve long said, the housing correction is at the root of the challenges facing our markets and our financial institutions," Paulson said. "I believe that we’ve taken very important steps with respect to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and they’re amongst the most important actions we can take to work through this turmoil.?

Following the announcement by Lehman, Merrill Lynch also announced the wealth-management company would be purchased by Bank of America in a $50 billion deal. Merrill Lynch closed flat on the day, while Bank of America dropped by 21 percent, according to The New York Times.

Investors are not certain about Bank of America's decision to purchase Merrill Lynch, Marc Pado, a U.S. market strategist for Cantor Fitzgerald & Co., told Yahoo News. "There's some concern they might have bit off more than they could chew," said Pado.

The takeover means that three of the five top U.S. investment banks have collapsed following the mortgage crisis, less than six months after the crisis began, the BBC reported. There are also growing fears that American International Group (AIG), a major insurer, will collapse as well, as the company recently sought $40 billion in loans from the government.

September 12, 2008

I-35W Bridge May Open Soon

The newly-constructed I-35W bridge could open as soon as next Tuesday, the Star Tribune reported.

The new bridge is expected to be stronger and more environmentally-friendly. Mixed within the concrete is a fly ash, produced when coal is burned. The fly ash has been mixed with the concrete of the bridge, in an effort to prevent water from seeping through the concrete.

"It's not common concrete at all," said Kevin MacDonald, vice president of Cemstone. The Mendota Heights company was the main subcontractor for the project, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "We shouldn't be using any concrete, anywhere, without fly ash."

The $234 million bridge features 10 lanes and can accommodate light-rail transportation, the Minnesota Daily reported.

The new bridge was built over the site of the previous bridge, which collapsed on August 1, 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145. The National Transportation Safety Board has nearly concluded an investigation into the collapse and will detail the findings in November, the Star Tribune said.

Pope Begins First Tour of France

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Paris Friday, calling on the nation's secular government to find a place for religion.

"Religion and politics must be open to each other," the pope said. "The presence of Christian values is fundamental for the survival of our nations and our societies."

The pope's words echo those of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who called for "positive secularism" to develop the "meaning we want to give to our existences." His comments, along with his decision to invite the pope, have led to harsh criticism, CNN reported.

Sarkozy has called for open conversations about religion, saying it was "legitimate for democracy and respectful of secularism to have a dialogue with religions," The New York Times reported.

However, his words may not sit well. Although roughly 60 percent of France's 65 million citizens are Roman Catholic, only 11 percent consider religion "very important," the Pew Research Center found. France is also home to the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Europe, according to the BBC.

Hurricane Ike Approaches Texas

Texas residents have been told to evacuate or "face certain death" as Hurricane Ike approaches Galveston and Houston.

The National Weather Service issued mandatory evacuations for several counties, saying the hurricane could strengthen to a Category Three by Saturday morning, when it is expected to make landfall. The evacuation orders were issued after officials found some people were ignoring the previous warnings, according to the BBC.

In Galveston, waves have already breached the 17-foot-high seawall, destroying a fishing pier and flooding downtown. County and city officials are encouraging citizens to evacuate low-lying areas. The National Hurricane Center is projecting surges over 22 feet high.

“Our biggest concern is getting every human being out of the storm surge area,? Harris County judge Ed Emmet told The New York Times. About 60 percent of the island's population has followed evacuation orders, according to city officials.

The storm has already left 80 people dead after sweeping through Cuba and Haiti, the latter still recovering from three other hurricanes (Fay, Gustav and Hanna).

Although Ike is expected to reach a Category Three hurricane by landfall, with winds peaking at over 120 mph, the storm surges are expected reach levels only seen in Category Five hurricanes, considered the most rare and powerful storms, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The Discovery Channel cited the combination of shallow coastal waters and Ike's unusually large size as "a good recipe for surge," said Benton McGee, supervisory hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "We're already seeing water being piled up in the Gulf. On top of that you're going to have water forced into the bays along the coast."

This is not the first hurricane to devastate Galveston. In 1900, the deadliest hurricane in US history struck the island, leaving 6,000 dead.