Archive for May, 2010

Ex-Boyfriend Calls Feds Over Actress’s Marriage Fraud

Monday, May 17th, 2010

A Mexican soap opera actress and her husband have been charged with orchestrating a sham marriage so that she could stay in the country, according to federal authorities.

Fernanda Romero, 28, is a singer, actress and model who began her career at age 16 by touring Mexico and Central America with a pop group. She then moved to Mexican television, hosting programs and acting in commercials. Romero has appeared in print and television ad campaigns for Rock & Republic jeans, Clean and Clear, Apple, Pepsi and JC Penney. According to the Internet Movie Database, she has also appeared in at least 15 television shows and movies since 2005, including a Telemundo original production called “Wounded Soul.”

Prosecutors, acting on a tip given to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, found that Romero paid Kent Ross, a pizza delivery person and musician, an undisclosed amount to marry her. The two had a wedding ceremony on June 12, 2005, but never lived together, according to the federal complaint filed last week.

Instead, Romero began dating fashion photographer Markus Klinko. The two lived together for several months, but after Romero called off the relationship, Klinko placed a phone call to officers with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who subsequently launched an investigation.

Last Friday, Romero appeared before a U.S. magistrate. She was released on a $50,000 signature bond, but not before surrendering her passport and being told not to leave southern California. Additionally, her activities will be monitored electronically.

Ross, 28, also appeared before a U.S. magistrate, and was released on $25,000 bond.

According to the prosecutor in the case, Assistant United States Attorney Jim Left, the Mexican actress could face between 15 and 21 months in prison if she is convicted on the charges, but he also indicated that many similar cases result in lower sentences. Marriage fraud charges are usually litigated by immigration agencies, not prosecuted as criminal cases.

Also named in the complaint is Michael Ball, the founder of the Rock & Republic jeans company, who allegedly helped arrange the marriage to Ross when Romero was modeling for his brand.

Ball was barred by the federal judge from helping Romero post bail.

Teenager Convicted of Hate-Crime Manslaughter, Gang Assault, Conspiracy

Friday, May 14th, 2010

A Long Island teenager has been convicted on several charges relating to the hate-crime stabbing of an Ecuadorean immigrant.

Jeffrey Conroy pleaded not guilty to murder and manslaughter as hate crimes, as well as additional charges. The trial was one of seven stemming from the November 2008 death of Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old whom prosecutors said was targeted because he was Hispanic. Conroy and the six other perpetrators attacked Lucero during a night of “beaner hopping” or “Mexican hopping” –their terms for seeking out Hispanics and engaging them in violent fights.

Although Conroy was found not guilty of murder as a hate crime, he was found guilty on several other counts, including manslaughter as a hate crime, gang assault, conspiracy and three charges of attempted assault in other cases. Prosecutors said that he was the only one out to face murder charges because he was the one who actually stabbled the victim.

Lucero was walking, along with his friend Angel Loja, near a train station in Patchogue in November 2008 when the two were assaulted by the teenagers, who began yelling slurs and punching them. Lucero and Loja fought back, swinging their belts; when Conroy was hit in the head with Lucero’s belt, he lost his temper and fatally stabbed the man in the chest.

The death of Lucero has prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into hate crimes on eastern Long Island, and authorities’ handling of those crimes. A report issued by the Southern Poverty Law Center found widespread, low-level harassment of Latinos in Suffolk County, including being taunted, spit on, run off the road, beaten with baseball bats, shot with BB guns or the target of thrown items such as fruit, soda cans and beer bottles.

Prosecutors in the Conroy trial said that when Hispanic immigrants are in the country illegally, they may be reluctant to report hate crimes to the police, fearing that authorities will learn their immigration status and deport them; the teenagers knew that immigrants would therefore be easy targets.

Four other teenager have pleaded guilty to hate crime-related charges, and two are still awaiting trial.

Conroy took the stand in his own defense, claiming under oath that although he was involved in the attack, he was taking the fall for one of the other young men, whom he had met just that evening. Some of the alternate jurors, who were released from duty before deliberations began, have gone on record saying that attempting to shift blame onto someone else may have damaged Conroy’s case.

Jurors had the option of convicting Conroy on murder or manslaughter as hate crimes, and of convicting him on either charge without the hate crime aspect.

Kennedy Cousin May See Early Release from Prison

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

According to officials, the Kennedy cousin who was convicted of fatally beating his 15-year-old neighbor with a golf club in 1975, could be eligible for parole in just a few years.

Michael Skakel, who is a cousin of Ethel Kennedy, has earned the right to a parole hearing based on a good-behavior policy that has since been eliminated. He earned points for staying out of trouble while in the Connecticut prison and for participating in programs, including an art program. However, the policy that allowed inmates to accrue points toward early release was discontinued in 1994.

Skakel was convicted in 2002 of the decades-old murder of Martha Moxley, his brother’s girlfriend, whom he beat to death with a golf club when both were just 15 years old. Two former students of a Maine prep school that Skakel later attended said that he confessed to the killing, and that he bragged about it, saying, “I’m going to get away with murder. I’m a Kennedy.”

In the years following Moxley’s death, Skakel was arrested for drunk driving and sent to the Elan School, receiving addiction treatment there. He competed on the national speeding skiing circuit and worked for several Kennedy relations, including Ted Kennedy and cousin Michael Kennedy.

Skakel, now 49, has mounted an elaborate appeal. In November 2003, he appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, saying that his case should have been heard in Juvenile Court rather than Superior Court, that there had been prosecutorial misconduct in the original trial, and that the statute of limitations had expired. The court rejected the appeal and affirmed his conviction. Skakel has since begun post-conviction proceedings, including a request for a new trial which was denied by a Superior Court judge and by a five-judge panel of the Connecticut Supreme Court, which ruled against the appeal in early April 2010.

Experts agree that the parole hearing will be highly publicized, and wonder if the Connecticut parole board will be overly cautious, due to a recent case in which two paroled prisoners broke into a home, killing three women.

The fact that almost four decades have passed since the Moxley murder, however, may work in Skakel’s favor.

Moxley’s brother, John, opposes the release.

“There’s been no remorse,” he said recently. “There’s been no taking accountability. There’s been nothing to suggest that imprisonment has changed his mindset or the mindset of the family.”

Navy SEAL Pleads Not Guilty, Witnesses Vary in Detainee Abuse Case

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

The prosecution rested last Wednesday in the case of a Navy SEAL accused of abusing a military detainee in Iraq.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe is accused of having punched Ahmed Hashim Abed in the stomach and the face, resulting in a his falling to the ground with a split lip. According to prosecutors, McCabe then walked away, leaving the detainee bleeding on the floor.

Abed was being held in United States custody after his November 2009 arrest in Iraq; he was accused of masterminding the 2004 killings of four Blackwater security guards in Falluja, Iraq. In that incident, a convoy guarded by the four Americans, who were employed as civilian contractors, was ambushed. The four were killed with hand grenades and rifles, after which their bodies were burned and paraded through the streets of Falluja before two of them were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates river.

McCabe is the last of three Navy SEALs to be tried for his role in the alleged abuse against prisoner Ahmed Hashim Abed. The others, Petty Officer Julio Heurtas and Petty Officer Jonathan Keefe, had been charged with dereliction of duty and impeding an investigation, not with actually abusing Abed. They were acquitted last month.

Witnesses in the court martial of McCabe gave conflicting testimony. Some, including the person whose job it was to receive and process the detainees, said that there was nothing remarkable about Abed’s injuries. Others, including Navy Petty Officer Kevin DeMartino, testified that they saw McCabe punch the prisoner in the abdomen.

DeMartino, who had been in charge of maintaining custody of the prisoner, testified that he stepped outside for a moment, and saw the alleged punch occur upon his return. DeMartino’s testimony, however, was called in question by the defense attorney, since he had previously lied to investigators who inquired as to reason blood was found on Abed’s clothing. DeMartino had also testified in the courts-martial of Heurtas and Keefe, testimony that was inconsistent with his most recent statements about McCabe.

“It was either be in the good graces of the SEALs or being in the good graces of God,” said DeMartino, when asked about his decision to come clean.

Another witness who supported DeMartino’s testimony was a medic, who had photographed Abed during his intake and noticed a cut or split at the top of the detainee’s lip.

Neither McCabe nor Abed are expected to take the stand in the court-martial proceeding. McCabe, who is charged with assault, dereliction of duty and lying to investigators, has pleaded not guilty. If he is convicted, he could be sentenced to a year in military prison, a cut in pay, demotion of rank, and a bad conduct discharge. If found innocent of the charges, however, he will be able to continue Navy SEAL service, with record of the case expunged from his personnel file.

SEC Charges Wall Street Behemoth Goldman Sachs With Fraud

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Investment giant Goldman Sachs and one of its vice presidents, Fabrice Tourre, have been charged with defrauding investors. The Securities and Exchange Commission brought the civil fraud complaint, which accuses the firm and Tourre of failing to disclose a conflict of interest during the 2007 sale of a “synthetic” collateralized debt obligation (CDO)–in this case, a portfolio consisting of mortgage-backed securities.

According to the complaint, Goldman let Paulson & Company, a hedge fund run by John Paulson, who made billions of dollars during the subprime mortgage collapse, choose the securities that would be included in the CDO. Yet Paulson, whose company paid Goldman Sachs approximately $15 million for structuring and marketing the deal, had cherry-picked the securities he thought most likely to fail—and fail they did. Within nine months of the deal’s closing, 99 percent of the residential mortgage-backed securities in the portfolio had been downgraded. Goldman and Paulson, who had bought credit default insurance on the mortgage bonds, cashed in, walking off with $1 billion in investor money.

Goldman is being charged because it did not disclose Paulson’s involvement to investors, despite having a legal obligation to do so. Paulson, however, had no obligation to disclose the conflict, and therefore was not charged by the SEC. Paulson & Co. issued a statement in which it emphasized that it “is not the subject of the complaint, made no misrepresentations and is not the subject of any charges.”

This marks the first case brought by a new division within the SEC, which is investigating abuses of structured products like CDOs during the credit crisis. CDOs are typically backed by actual assets, such as bonds or loans, and deals involving them have traditionally performed poorly, especially during the recent housing crisis. Yet the Paulson-Goldman CDO, known as Abacus 2007-AC1, had a particularly spectacular flame-out.

A former SEC enforcement attorney said that proving Goldman Sachs’ liability would depend on a number of factors, including the extent of information provided to the investors, the investors’ own sophistication about CDOs, and the fiduciary duties that Goldman owed them.

Shares of the investment firm fell 13 percent after the announcement, wiping out $12 billion of shareholder value. Other big banks and investment firms such as Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley also saw their stocks drop in the wake of the SEC’s actions.

The director of the Division of Enforcement for the agency, Robert Khuzami, said that the investigation is ongoing. “We continue to examine structured products that played a role in the financial crisis,” said Khuzami.

In a statement, Goldman Sachs claimed that “the SEC’s charges are completely unfounded in law and fact and we will vigorously contest them and defend the firm and its reputation.”

Settlement Reached in Suit Against Newark Archdiocese

Monday, May 10th, 2010

An out-of-court settlement has been reached between a woman assaulted by a priest and the church officials whom she accused of failing to protect her.

The woman, who was identified in court documents only as Jane Doe, alleged that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark (NJ) knew about the “dangerous sexual improprieties with women” of the Rev. Wladyslaw Gorak, a priest who was transferred from New Jersey to Florida. As part of the transfer process, Newark’s vicar general, Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli, signed a letter attesting to Father Gorak’s “good moral character” and lack of any criminal record or behavioral problems.

There had been complaints against Gorak in New Jersey, however. Two reports were filed with police in 2001, accusing the priest of stalking a woman whom he was counseling, although he was not charged. Another account told of a deacon who had once walked in on Father Gorak while he was “embracing and kissing” a woman who was pushing him away. The memo detailing this encounter also made mention of a woman who worked at the church, to whom Gorak had said “improper sexual things,” and of the church’s cook, who said that Gorak made her uncomfortable by standing too close to her while she was working.

The archdiocese claims that it never learned of these complaints until after the lawsuit had been filed in Florida, and that to Serratelli’s knowledge, his statements about Gorak’s moral character were true.

Father Gorak had requested a move to Florida in the spring of 2004, citing a skin condition that would be improved by living in a warm climate. In October 2004, he went to the unnamed woman’s residence in Lakeland, broke into her home and started to tear her clothing off of her. The woman then ran from her home in her underwear and bra to seek help. Gorak pleaded guilty to charges, including burglary, assault and aggravated stalking, in 2007. He was sentenced to four years’ worth of probation, and ordered to undergo counseling.

Jane Doe had also brought suit against the Diocese of Orlando. Neither side disclosed the nature or terms of the settlement.

Father Gorak goes by the name Walter Fisher and is still a priest, although he has not worked as one since the charges were filed in Florida. A spokesperson for the archdiocese said that the church is beginning the process of defrocking Father Gorek.

School-Issued Laptops Took Pics, Screenshots of Students While Admins Watched

Friday, May 7th, 2010

A motion filed in a lawsuit against the Lower Merion (PA) School District for privacy violations indicate that school administrators secretly watched their students’ activities, saw candid webcam snapshots of them, and could view which Web sites they visited—and that doing so was like “a little LMSD soap opera.”

The lawsuit, filed in February, accuses the school district of illegally monitoring students through webcams and software installed in school-issued laptop computers. The tracking software not only kept a record of Web sites and online activity, but also took a picture with its webcam every fifteen minutes while the computer was on.

Filed on Friday, the motion says that in two weeks, the tracking system captured over 400 screenshots and photos from the computer used by Blake Robbins—a 15-year-old whose parents, Michael and Holly, filed the lawsuit. Some of the pictures were of Robbins asleep and partially undressed, while others included his family members. The motion also said that Carol Cafiero, the administrator in charge of the program, responded to one staffer’s comparison of watching these images to watching a “soap opera” by writing in an email, “I know, I love it.”

Cafiero is being called a voyeur by the Robbins family, who maintains that she also viewed some of the pictures on her home computer, then refused to turn the computer over to authorities despite a court order.

The school district claims that the tracking software allows them to locate the computers if they are missing or stolen, and that Robbins was not authorized to take the Apple MacBook home since he had not paid the $55 insurance fee.

Robbins and his family first became aware that he was being photographed by the computer when a school official confronted him with one of the images. In it, Robbins had a handful of pink and white Mike and Ike brand candies, which the school mistook for illegal drugs.

A representative for the school district acknowledged that the tracking software had been activated a number of times during this school year and the previous one, but declined to say how many students may have been monitored. The motion filed by the Robbins family claims that “thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes,” but exact numbers remain unclear.

Federal and county authorities are investigating whether or not the laptop security problem violated privacy laws. Meanwhile, Senator Arlen Specter (D., PA) has called for legislation to prevent this sort of unauthorized surveillance, which he says occurred because of a loophole in federal wiretap laws.

Cafiero has been placed on paid leave, and the controversial tracking program has since been disabled.

Federal Judge Overturns National Day of Prayer Law

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

A federal judge has ruled that the statute allowing for a National Day of Prayer is fundamentally unconstitutional, since it violates a ban on government-supported religion.

The decision comes in response to a lawsuit brought against the Obama administration by the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, a secular group which aims to educate the public on matters relating to non-theism, and to protect and promote Americans’ constitutional right to separation between church and state.

Although Judge Barbara B. Crabb struck down the law, which dates back to 1952, the injunction against it will not take effect until the defendants—President Obama and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs—have exhausted their appeals. Conservative religious groups are urging President Obama to appeal the ruling, but neither the White House nor the Justice Department would comment on whether or not the administration would do so.

According to Douglas Laycock, a University of Michigan Law School professor who specializes in issues of religious liberties, the ruling probably would not stand on appeal.

The original statute establishing the National Day of Prayer asked the president to designate one day, other than a Sunday, each year, “on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups and as individuals.”

In 1988, an amendment was added to set aside the first Thursday in May each year as the National Day of Prayer.

President Obama has said, via his Twitter account, that he intends to celebrate the National Day of Prayer, which this year falls on May 6. He did not attend the White House celebrations last year, but did issue an official proclamation about the day.

“Throughout our nation’s history,” the proclamation read, “Americans have come together in moments of great challenge and uncertainty to humble themselves in prayer.”

Interfaith groups and groups supporting the separation of state and church have applauded the ruling. In it, Crabb wrote that the National Day of Prayer’s “sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.”

Florida Shuts Down So-Called Pill Mill As Part of Reforms

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

The Florida Department of Health has closed down one of South Florida’s many pain clinics, two weeks after suspending its main physician, Dr. Michael Lazzopina, for overprescribing prescription medications without sufficient medical examinations.

The Fort Lauderdale Pain Relief Center is the first clinic to be shut down under the new reforms, which were recently passed by lawmakers in order to curb a growing cottage industry of “pill mills”–storefront clinics that dispense narcotics such as the highly addictive oxycodone and Vicodin, as well as other prescription medications.

According to Department of Health officials, the suspension of Lazzopina has left that clinic without a “designated physician” who can ensure that minimum medical standards are met before prescriptions or pills are given to patients.

Broward County, Florida has become the nation’s oxycodone-sales capital, with millions of tablets of the dangerous painkiller sold per year. The number of walk-in clinics, which have opened in strip malls and office parks throughout the state, and which advertise their services to local residents and drug-seeking out-of-state patients alike, has exploded in recent months, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. There are now over 150 pain clinics in the area, some of them providing narcotics to 65 or more patients per day.

The clinics are blamed for an alarming rise in deaths due to prescription drug overdoses. In the past two years, Florida has seen a 107 percent jump in oxycodone deaths. Moreover, the state’s lax laws—it’s one of only 12 without a prescription monitoring system—have made it a destination for black-market pill shopping. Police in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and other state have seen a sharp increase in the number of drug suspects who have bought oxycodone or other narcotics in Florida.

The Legislature passed a reform law last year which grants oversight of pain clinics to the health department, as well as requiring clinics to register with the state and undergo inspections. The Department of Health has issued cease-and-desist orders to three additional pain clinics that were operating without having registered.

Some 1,000 clinics have registered since January of this year, according to records. Lawmakers are also considering whether to tighten the regulations even more, and up for debate is a law that would prevent convicted felons from owning or managing the clinics.

Lawyers for the Fort Lauderdale Pain Relief Center say that the center has been operating only as a chiropractic center since February.

Hooters Restaurant Facing Numerous Wage and Hour Class-Action Lawsuits

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

The restaurant chain that is famous for its chicken wings and infamous for its servers’ skimpy uniforms is now the target of a number of class-action lawsuits in California’s Bay Area—more than 6,000 employees of Hooters are being represented by an attorney who has filed three suits.

At issue is not discrimination or sexual harassment, however, but wage and overtime laws. The plaintiffs are alleging that, as Hooters employees, they were denied breaks during their shifts, not given the tips to which they were entitled, and either underpaid or not paid at all for working at special events such as bikini car washes, golf tournaments, car shows and promotional events.

The lawsuits also claim that the female servers, known as Hooter Girls, had to buy their own work clothes. All of the Hooter Girls have to wear the same uniform, which consists of orange short-shorts, a white tank top with the restaurant’s owl logo on it, footless pantyhose, white slouchy socks and high-top sneakers made by Skechers.

California law says that if an employee must wear a distinctive uniform, the company must provide it. An attorney for the Hooters franchises that are being sued said that his clients provided two uniforms for each server, but if a woman wants additional or replacement uniforms, she may choose to buy them for herself. The servers say that the shiny orange shorts get stained easily, and between them the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuits claim to have spent $1 million on uniforms in four years.

According to federal law, class-action wage and hour lawsuits can include only those employees who choose to join; in contrast, California’s wage and hour laws presume that all current and former employees are part of the lawsuit—which naturally results in more plaintiffs and larger settlements. The three class-action suits filed by one attorney, Burton F. Boltuch, mean that he has 6,000 Hooter Girls, busboys and dishwashers as clients.

California, which has stringent wage and hour laws that favor employees, leads the nation in this type of class-action suits. Employment-related class-action lawsuits increased more than 300 percent in the years between 2000 and 2005.

Hooters has been the target of other lawsuits; in 1997 the corporation paid $3.75 million to settle a class action lawsuit filed by men who had been denied employment.

The first Hooters opened in Clearwater, Florida, in 1983, and the chain has since expanded to 450 locations in 43 states and 26 countries.