Hurricane Irene Hits Bahamas; U.S. Braces For Storm

MIAMI, Aug. 24 (UPI) — Hurricane Irene, pumped up to a Category 3 storm, pounded the Bahamas Wednesday and gathered strength as it headed toward the U.S. East Coast, forecasters said.

The U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami said in its 2 p.m. EDT advisory Irene’s eye was passing over Crooked Island, and was about 65 miles southeast of Long Island, Bahamas, and about 250 miles southeast of Nassau. Irene was producing maximum sustained winds of 120 mph with higher gusts as it headed to the northwest at about 12 mph, the forecasters said.

Irene, which has hurricane-force winds extending 50 miles from its center and tropical storm gales 205 miles out, could reach Category 4 status Thursday, forecasters said.

A hurricane warning was posted for the southeastern, central and northwestern Bahamas while the government of the Bahamas has downgraded a warning for the Turks and Caicos Islands to a tropical storm warning, the hurricane center said.

United Nations officials in New York said Irene’s heavy rains were causing flooding and agricultural damage in Haiti, a Caribbean island nation always vulnerable to storms because it lacks a tree canopy. U.N. officials said more than 160 evacuation sites had been opened and aid supplies have been mobilized in anticipation that Haitians will be displaced. However, no major losses or damage had been reported.

Haiti is still recovering from a 2010 earthquake and last November’s Hurricane Tomas.

Forecasters said Irene was expected to shift gradually toward the northwest through Wednesday night and then veer northward Thursday.

Irene could produce 6-12 inches of rain in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, the center said. The storm also could produce 1-3 inches of additional rain across Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, with isolated storm amounts of 15 inches possible, the center said. The rains could produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides in areas of steep terrain.

Hurricane- or tropical storm-force winds and storm surges also were forecast in the warning area.

In the Bahamas, the storm surge could hit 11 feet, posing a more deadly threat than hurricane-force winds and drenching rain, The Miami Herald reported.

“It’s always a big concern,” said Geoffrey Greene, senior meteorologist with the Bahamas Department of Meteorology. “We are a flat island nation. We know we’re going to get some flooding.”

Whether Irene would make landfall in the United States was uncertain, forecasters said. The hurricane center reported “high confidence” in a scenario in which Irene’s core would be about 200 miles off the Florida coast for the next few days, the Herald said. After that, the track was uncertain, with computer models indicating an eastward path that stretched from South Carolina to New England.

In a joint conference, hurricane center chief Bill Read and Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the storm could hit anywhere in the target zone or hit the mid-Atlantic coast, or possibly trigger severe flooding in New England.

“The impact could be widespread, depending on exactly where the storm goes,” Read said. “We see no reason for it not to be a major hurricane.”

Fugate said Irene’s projected path was so close to the coast that communities must “be on a hair-trigger” when it comes to evacuations.

Irene has so far left some damage in its wake but no reported deaths.

U.S. President Barack Obama, at the Puerto Rican governor’s request, issued a disaster declaration for the island, which sustained power outages affecting nearly 1 million people and widespread flooding.

In the Dominican Republic, officials reported flooding, downed trees and snapped power lines. It also hit oceanfront communities in the west and north, damaging homes and forcing 12,500 people to evacuate. An estimated 200,000 were without power.

3 Plead Guilty To Tax Lien Bid Rigging

WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 (UPI) — Three New Jersey investors pleaded guilty Wednesday to bid rigging at municipal tax lien auctions, the Department of Justice said.

Charges were filed in U.S. District Court in Newark against Isadore H. May of Margate, Richard J. Pisciotta Jr. of Long Beach Township and William A. Collins of Medford, the department said in a release.

The felony charges indicate from 2003 to 2009 the investors conspired to rig bids at auctions for the sale of municipal tax liens by agreeing to allocate among bidders which liens each would bid on.

“The investors proceeded to submit bids in accordance with their agreements and purchased tax liens at collusive and non-competitive interest rates,” the release said.

“The collusion taking place at these auctions is artificially raising the interest rates that financially distressed home and property owners must pay, and is lining the pockets of the colluding investors,” said Sharis Pozen, acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. “The Antitrust Division will vigorously pursue these kinds of collusive schemes that eliminate competition from the marketplace.”

Google Forfeits $500M In Drug Ads Case

PROVIDENCE, R.I., Aug. 24 (UPI) — Google agreed to forfeit $500 million generated from Canadian pharmaceutical advertising directed at U.S. consumers, the U.S. Justice Department said Wednesday.

Google’s AdWords program resulted in the “unlawful importation of controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs into the United States,” Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said in a release. The $500 million represents Google’s gross revenue through advertising plus gross revenue made by Canadian pharmacies for sales to U.S. consumers, the release said.

International shipments of prescription drugs to U.S. consumers “typically” violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Controlled Substances Act, the department said, adding Google had been aware such shipments were illegal since 2003.

“The Department of Justice will continue to hold accountable companies who in their bid for profits violate federal law and put at risk the health and safety of American consumers,” Cole said. “This settlement ensures that Google will reform its improper advertising practices with regard to these pharmacies while paying one of the largest financial forfeiture penalties in history.”

Philly Restaurant Owner Joey Vento Dies

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 24 (UPI) — Joey Vento, who became nationally famous for telling customers of his Philadelphia steak shop to order in English, died suddenly.

Vento, 71, had a fatal heart attack Tuesday at his home in South Jersey, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. He had been at work at Geno’s Steaks in South Philly earlier in the day and called in a bread order only an hour before his wife found his body, a friend said.

In 2006, Vento was already known around Philadelphia for producing a quality sandwich. His sign — “This is America. When ordering, please speak English” — made him a hero to some and villain to others outside the city.

The city human rights commission eventually decided Vento was not refusing to serve customers, and he always said the sign was advisory, not an order.

“It’s a good victory,” Vento said. “The bottom line is that I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Vento started the restaurant in 1966 with a $2,000 loan, calling it “Geno’s” because the city already had a “Joe’s Steaks.” He later named a son Geno.

While he became a millionaire and moved to a large property in Shamong, Vento continued to come to the restaurant every morning. He was also known for large charitable donations,

Mayor Michael Nutter called him a “colorful, larger-than-life Philadelphian.”

“Mr. Vento had strongly held views that were matched by a commendable desire to give back to his community,” the mayor said.

Burkina Faso Sentencing Upsets Students

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, Aug. 24 (UPI) — A student protest leader in Burkina Faso said the sentencing of three policemen accused of brutality in the death of a detainee wasn’t enough.

Two policemen were sentenced to 10 years in prison and third was sentenced to eight years in connection to assault case for Justin Zongo, who died while in police custody. All three were found guilty of assault in his death, which the government initially blamed on meningitis.

Francis Nikiema, the president of the National Students Association, was quoted by Radio Netherlands as saying the sentencing fell short of his expectations.

“The verdict was delivered but our demands were not limited to this case alone,” he was quoted as saying. “And even in this case, our expectations were not met, because we also demanded that those guilty of perjury be arrested and punished.”

Zongo’s death sparked a series of demonstrations that plunged the West African nation into months of unrest as much of the region was in the grips of the so-called Arab Spring.

The official residence of President Blaise Compaore was attacked during demonstrations that erupted in March.

Compaore, in office since the 1980s, took control of the country’s Defense Ministry following an apparent mutiny by members of the military. He sacked most of the military leadership and dissolved his government last month in an effort to calm the violence.

London Calls Gadhafi ‘delusional’

LONDON, Aug. 24 (UPI) — While there’s much left to do in Libya, it’s clear Moammar Gadhafi is “delusional” in thinking he has any chance of remaining in power, London said.

Rebel forces are in control of much of Libya, bringing nearly six months of conflict closer to an end. NATO officials following major military gains by rebel forces on the ground Tuesday said Gadhafi was “history.”

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, saying that Gadhafi’s regime needed to recognize that “their time is up.”

Gadhafi in an audio message broadcast late Tuesday called on his supporters to clear Tripoli of “rats,” adding it was their “duty” to go house-to-house to “take them out,” CNN reports.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Gadhafi’s reign in Libya, however, was coming to an end.

“I think it is time now for Col. Gadhafi to stop issuing delusional statements and to recognize that that has happened, that control of the country is not going to return,” he said in a statement. “He should be telling his dwindling and remaining forces now to stand down.”

Though military and diplomatic gains are moving in the rebel’s favor, Hague and other members of the Western-backed coalition involved in Libya said there’s much work yet to be done in Libya.

“This will remain a difficult situation for some time and Britain will show the same patient strength in helping the people of Libya that we have shown over the last five months,” said Hague.

Clinton Has Grim Assessment Of Syria

WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 (UPI) — There are credible reports of “gross human rights violations” in Syria, the U.S. secretary of state said as the UN. Security Council considers taking action.

The Security Council issued a statement condemning Syrian President Bashar Assad for his government’s brutal crackdown on opposition protests. With international criticism growing, Washington said it would press for tougher action at the Security Council.

The U.N. Human Rights Council launched in independent commission of inquiry to investigate the claims in Syria. More than 2,000 civilians were reportedly killed in Syria at the hands of Assad’s regime.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the international community has joined together to condemn the “horrific violence” taking place in Syria.

“There are credible reports that government forces in Syria have committed numerous gross human rights violations, including torture and summary executions in their crackdown against opposition members,” she said in a statement.

Damascus said the international community is making a political issue of the conflict, accusing some U.N. member states of having a double standard. Opponents of a Security Council resolution had expressed reluctance of further action against Syria out of fear of sparking another conflict like the one unfolding in Libya.

Russian Spacecraft Crashes In Siberia

MOSCOW, Aug. 24 (UPI) — The wreckage of a Russian space freighter that malfunctioned while separating from a launch rocket crashed in South Siberia’s Altai Republic, authorities said.

“At 5:25 p.m. Moscow time [5:25 a.m. EDT Wednesday] we received information about falling wreckage from the M-12M space freighter,” a police source in the region told RIA Novosti.

In the republic’s Choya District a powerful explosion was heard within a 60-mile radius, RIA Novosti reported.

The Soyuz-U rocket carrying the Progress M-12M space freighter blasted off from the Baikonur Space Center in Kazakhstan.

“The flight sequence, confirmed by Roscosmos, shows that the space freighter failed to separate from the third stage of the Soyuz-U carrier rocket on the 325th second of the flight,” a space industry source told RIA Novosti.

It was the the second Russian space failure within a week. The Express AM-4 telecommunications satellite failed last Thursday to separate from the Proton-M carrier rocket and could not reach its designated orbit.

Class Action Suit In Ind. Stage Collapse

INDIANAPOLIS, Aug. 24 (UPI) — An Indiana law firm says it has filed a class-action lawsuit against multiple parties in the Aug. 13 fatal stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair.

The Indianapolis firm of Cohen and Malad said it has filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Indiana, the Indiana State Fair Commission and companies that installed and manufactured the stage that collapsed in high winds, killing seven people and injuring dozens, The Indianapolis Star reported Wednesday.

The firm filed the suit on behalf of Angela Fischer, who was not injured in the stage collapse but suffered “severe emotional trauma” from witnessing the carnage, the suit says.

Attorney Jeff Hammond said the firm filed for class-action status because it wanted to include all victims dealing with injuries and emotional stress.

Some legal experts say the class action has little chance of success.

“As it currently stands, I would say it has zero chance,” Jeff Cooper, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law, said.

The range of injuries that victims suffered is too broad to lump the people into one class, he said.

“I suspect the desire for publicity plays a role in the filing of this lawsuit,” Cooper said.

Kenneth Allen, an attorney who has already been retained by some victims, called the class action suit “clearly frivolous” and accused Cohen and Malad of trying to “fish” for clients.

Hammond said the firm would stand by its suit.

“We researched this issue,” he said. “We’ve filed a claim that we believe has merit and will help a lot of people.”

U.S. Denies It Was Asked To Leave Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 24 (UPI) — Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad denied suggestions it received a letter from the government asking its staff to leave the country.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy were quoted by the Associated Press of Pakistan as saying reports of receiving a letter from the Pakistani government were “untrue.”

U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, however, was reportedly cutting a vacation short to deal with an apparent breakdown in bilateral affairs.

Relations between the United States and Pakistan have been strained since May 2 when U.S. forces killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in a raid on his compound deep inside Pakistan. The U.S. government has suspended $800 million in military assistance after Pakistan sent back U.S. military trainers.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was quoted by Dawn newspaper as saying any cuts in U.S. assistance to his country would send “a negative signal” to the Pakistani people about Washington’s commitment to Pakistan.

Washington has said it would consider linking future security assistance to Pakistan meeting counter-terrorism objectives.

Terrorist activity, as well as severe restrictions on official movement in Pakistan, is behind a travel warning issued by the U.S. State Department in early August.