TIME justice

Data Company Mislabels Job Applicants as Sex Offenders, Gets Fined

The Federal Trade Commission building is seen in Washington
The Federal Trade Commission building in Washington D.C. The agency slammed a data broker for labeling job applicants as sex offenders this week. Gary Cameron—Reuters

A government agency hit a data broker with fines for providing inaccurate information to prospective employers. InfoTrack, it said, violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by labeling some applicants as registered sex offenders

As if the job market wasn’t tough enough. On Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission hit data broker InfoTrack with fines for providing prospective employers with grossly inaccurate information about applicants.

According to the FTC, the data broker violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) on numerous instances by providing false and misleading information that in some cases labeled job applicants as registered sex offenders, when in fact they weren’t.

The failure to provide credible data due to an inability to conduct “reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of consumer report information obtained from sex offender registry records” likely resulted in people not being hired, according to the government agency.

“Data brokers that operate as consumer reporting agencies have a responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the information they sell for decisions about whether to hire someone, extend them credit, rent them an apartment, or insure them,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a press release.

The FTC imposed a fine of $1 million against InfoTrack and its owner; however, only $60,000 of the penalty will be imposed because of the firm’s inability to pay.

TIME Environment

The Sriracha Factory Is a Public Nuisance, Says California City

A machine boxes Sriracha for shipping.
A machine boxes Sriracha bottles that will end up in restaurants and on grocery store shelves. Peter Bohler for TIME

Council representatives in Irwindale have demanded a hot sauce factory do a better job within 90 days to contain its stinging fumes that residents say causes asthma, heartburn, headaches, teary eyes and nosebleeds—or they'll go in and make the changes themselves

A city in California has declared a Sriracha plant located close to town a public nuisance for emanating spicy fumes that have prompted a ton of complaints, the Associated Press reports.

The declaration was made by the Irwindale City Council on Wednesday night. Council representatives will now enter the hot sauce factory and make changes if the factory doesn’t find a way to contain the pollution within 90 days.

Last fall, residents complained that stinging fumes emanating from the factory caused asthma problems, heartburn, headaches, streaming eyes and nosebleeds. The complaints resulted in the factory being partly shut-down, but the problems persisted.

The Sriracha maker, Huy Fong Foods, is working with the air-quality experts South Coast Air Management District on improving its filtration system and is making progress, air-quality experts said.

The hot sauce Sriracha is Thai in origin but has become a popular condiment in many kinds of restaurants in the U.S.

[Associated Press]

TIME justice

The Tennessee Senate Has Backed a Bill to Reinstate the Electric Chair

Aaron Dickson, President of the Board of Directors of the Texas Prison Museum stands on November 19,..
A file photo from November 19, 2002 of "Old Sparky," the Texas electric chair in which 361 killers were executed. Senators in Tennessee voted to reinstate the electric chair this week. STR New / Reuters

Lawmakers in the Volunteer State say the electric chair could be used to kill inmates on death row—there are currently 81—if their prisons are unable to secure the proper pharmaceuticals to perform lethal injections

Tennessee Senators overwhelming voted on Wednesday to reinstate the electric chair to execute capital inmates in the event that the state is unable to procure the necessary chemicals to perform lethal injections.

In a 23-3 vote, the Senate approved the Capital Punishment Enforcement Act, tabled by Sen. Ken Yager, which would provide the state’s Department of Corrections with the legal backing to kill inmates with the electric chair as an alternative, according to The Tennessean.

A similar piece of legislation has reportedly been tabled in Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

The senatorial vote follows the Volunteer State’s decision last year to use the sedative pentobarbital as the lethal pharmaceutical agent to execute. States that rely on pentobarbital are increasingly having a difficult time procuring a steady source of the drug, as European pharmaceutical firms object to supplying their products to execute inmates.

Despite the passage of the bill, activists remained hopeful that the chair will not see active duty again in Tennessee.

Executive director for the Death Penalty Information Center Richard Dieter told Reuters that execution by electrocution is “painful and torturous,” which means the use of the chair would likely be challenged in court on the grounds that such a method violates the Constitution’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Tennessee currently has 81 inmates on death row.

[Reuters, The Tennessean]

TIME Disaster

A Survivor of the Washington Mudslide Shares Her Story

Washington mudslide survivor Amanda Skorjanc, 25, talks to the media while sitting in her hospital bed on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, in Seattle. Dan Bates—The Herald / Pool / AP

Amanda Skorjanc, who was watching videos at home with her infant son when the land began to move, breaks her silence on how they were injured but rescued from the disaster that has claimed 36 lives so far

Few who witnessed the terrifying mudslide that ravaged the small Washington community of Oso on March 22 lived to tell the story, but on Wednesday, Amanda Skorjanc shared her terrifying experience, which she lived through with her infant son.

“I held onto that baby like it was the only purpose that I had,” she told the AP from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where she is hospitalized.

Skorjanc was watching videos at home with her son when the lights started to flicker and shake. Looking outside, she saw an enormous sludge wall pummeling through the community, launching a neighbor’s chimney in her direction.

When the horrifying deluge finally ended, Skorjanc and her baby found themselves injured but alive in a pocket formed by a damaged couch and pieces of roof.

“I started to hear sirens — the most amazing sound I ever heard,” she said, adding that she kept her eyes closed as she and her son were rescued. “I was scared and in so much pain.”

Skorjanc’s husband was out on an errand when the mudslide hit, and was unscathed.

Skorjanc, however, suffered multiple fractures, crushed ankles and injuries to an eye socket, while her son fractured his skull. While he is recovering, doctors say she will need to be off her feet for another 10 weeks — and the emotional healing will take a lot longer.

The latest death toll in the disaster is 36.

[AP]

TIME Crime

Orlando Police Launch Manhunt to Arrest Suspect Behind Daycare Tragedy

Parents and onlookers stand behind police tape after a vehicle crashed into a child care center in Winter Park
Parents and onlookers stand behind police tape after a vehicle crashed into a child care center in Winter Park, Florida April 9, 2014. Stephen M. Dowell—Orlando Sentinel/Reuters

Authorities are looking for Robert Corchado, 28, identified by police as the suspected driver in a hit-and-run at a daycare center that sent another vehicle barreling into a KinderCare on Wednesday, killing one child and injuring 14 others

Updated at 1:25 a.m. ET

Orlando police launched a manhunt on Wednesday evening to track down a man authorities claim instigated the car crash that sent another automobile barreling into a daycare facility full of children, leaving one four-year-old girl dead and 14 others injured.

Police identified Robert Corchado, 28, as the suspected driver of the Dodge Durango that slammed into another car that was sent careening into a KinderCare center on Wednesday afternoon.

While Corchado later ditched the Durango, authorities confirmed that the suspect then rented a small, black Mazda SUV from an Enterprise in Winter Park and is believed to be attempting to flee Orlando.

Local broadcaster WFTV reported that Corchado was cited for carless driving just last week and has served two stints in prison in the past.

Little news has surfaced about the condition of those hurt during the incident; however, authorities insisted that several people were severely injured.

A law enforcement spokesperson said some of the injured were in “very, very serious condition,” the Associated Press reports. The agency reported that 13 were hospitalized and two others were treated at the scene.

TIME Military

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Twig

Magnitude 8.9 Strong Earthquake Jolts Northern Japan
This is the extent of military aid the U.S. has dispatched to Ukraine in its showdown with Russia. U.S. Navy / Getty Images

Why the U.S. military is doing so little to defend Ukraine

Archimedes had geopolitics about right when he declared “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth.” The U.S. military has little place to stand when it comes to Russia’s threats against neighboring Ukraine, giving it little leverage when it comes to changing what’s happening on the ground there. That fact has led to outrage among congressional Republicans, who want President Obama to do more to thwart Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist goals.

It also has triggered shrugging shoulders among U.S. military officials who concede there is little they could do militarily to stop Putin—even if Washington wanted to try. Pentagon officials say the Russian forces now staged just outside Ukraine could invade and seize the eastern half of the country in as little as three days.

Instead of threatening a military response, Obama and his troops have unleashed volleys of rhetoric threatening tougher sanctions as a way of trying to deter Putin, as well as sending “signals” designed to make him think twice.

In recent days, the U.S. military has:

  • Sent Ukraine 300,000 Meals-Ready-to-Eat.
  • Suspended all military-to-military relations with Moscow.
  • Dispatched the destroyer USS Donald Cook to the Black Sea “to reassure NATO allies and Black Sea partners of America’s commitment to strengthen and improve interoperability while working towards mutual goals in the region,” Army Colonel Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday.
  • Extended the stay of the destroyer USS Truxtun in the Black Sea to reassure one-time Warsaw Pact-turned-NATO members Bulgaria and Romania, whose navies trained with the warship.
  • Boosted its number of F-15 fighters patrolling over the once-Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from four to 10 to reassure those three NATO allies.
  • Dispatched 12 F-16s to Poland to reassure that one-time Warsaw Pact-turned-NATO member.

The U.S. has drawn a red line: it will defend its NATO allies, as required by treaty, but Ukraine is on its own.

“The United States and our allies will not hesitate to use 21st century tools to hold Russia accountable for 19th century behavior,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday. “We’re using 21st century tools, which are the tools of diplomacy, to bring people together in other countries to put sanctions in place.”

Such threats didn’t sway Senator John McCain. “What you’re doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick—in fact, a twig,” the Arizona Republican told him. “Here we are with Ukraine being destabilized, part of it dismembered, and we won’t give them defensive weapons.”

“Sending MREs is basically,” Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said at a second hearing, “expanding our school lunch program.”

“Their forces have been in the field for a very long time, and need those supplies,” countered Derek Chollet, the assistant defense secretary for international security affairs. He added that the Pentagon is trying to help Ukraine “without taking actions that would escalate this crisis militarily.”

That’s a bracing change for the U.S., which for the past generation has seen itself as the world’s lone super power, able to flex its military muscles when and where it wanted. It concedes the inevitable: if Putin, despite world opprobrium, orders the up to 80,000 troops he has positioned on the border to roll into Ukraine, neither the U.S. nor its European allies appear willing to do anything to stop him.

It’s what the military calls the “tyranny of time and distance” that makes any U.S. military intervention in Ukraine challenging. Not only are the U.S. assets needed thousands of miles away, Russian troops and weapons are close at hand. The U.S. has done little militarily with Ukraine; this year the Pentagon is providing about $4 million in military aid—$11,000 a day. A significant slice of the Ukrainian population is pro-Russian. And the U.S. public opposes U.S. military action in Ukraine (an interesting poll reveals that the less Americans know about Ukraine, the more they support U.S. military action there).

“I don’t think anybody on this committee wants to go to war with Russia over the Ukraine,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said. “But we do want to find a way to stop them from further aggression.” That quiver of options is largely limited to stepped-up economic sanctions and international ostracism. (“Mr. Putin very much enjoys the international spotlight,” Chollet said. “Russia is finding itself more and more alone in the world, and that will have an effect as well”).

Yet even as the U.S. refrains from military action in Ukraine and objects to Putin’s takeover of Crimea last month, it agreed to cut its nuclear arsenal as part of a 2011 arms pact with Russia. “Both sides have agreed this is important,” a senior defense official told the Wall Street Journal.

Nearly 20 years ago, the U.S., Britain and Russia signed a deal in Budapest that guaranteed “the existing borders of Ukraine” in exchange for Kiev giving up the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union. A senior U.S. official told reporters in December 1994 that this so-called Budapest Memorandum was also important, confirming the security assurances reached earlier that year among the three nations. “You might remember the crisis in April with regard to the Black Sea fleet and Crimean questions,” the U.S. official said. “They were an important sign at that time, that both Russia and the United States were committed to the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

But unlike Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which obligates all 27 other members of the alliance to come to the aid of one that is attacked, the Budapest Memorandum is merely a memo. “I say this to our Western partners: if you do not provide guarantees, which were signed in the Budapest Memorandum,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk has said, “then explain how you will persuade Iran or North Korea to give up their status as nuclear states.”

 

TIME Companies

Bank of America Inks $772 Million Settlement For Credit Card Practices

A man walks past a Bank of America ATM in Charlotte, N.C., May 8, 2013.
A man walks past a Bank of America ATM in Charlotte, N.C., May 8, 2013. Davis Turner—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Bank of America is paying $772 million in refunds and fines to settle accusations that it illegally deceived 2.9 million customers into purchasing additional credit card services between 2000 and 2012

Bank of America is paying $772 million in refunds and fines to settle accusations by the government that it illegally deceived 2.9 million customers into purchasing additional credit card services, regulators said Wednesday.

The deal, announced by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, is the largest refund ever ordered by the three-year-old CFPB, as well as the largest settlement over credit-card add-ons won by the federal government, the Associated Press reports.

“Bank of America both deceived consumers and unfairly billed consumers for services not performed,” CFPB director Richard Cordray said. “We will not tolerate such practices and will continue to be vigilant in our pursuit of companies who wrong consumers in this market.”

Bank of America has not admitted to or denied the accusations, but a statement from the bank said it had already ceased offering the products in question and refunded “the majority” of affected customers.

The feds claim that from 2000 to 2011, the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank billed 1.5 million customers a total of $459 million for various identity-protection products without the proper authorization. From 2010 to 2012, the bureau says Bank of America also exaggerated or misstated the benefits of two credit-protection programs that allowed some customers to cancel credit-card debt in instances of unemployment or other hardships, allegedly misleading another 1.4 million customers into paying $268 million.

In addition to those refunds, Bank of America will pay $20 million and $25 million in civil penalties to the CFPB and the office of the Comptroller of the Currency, respectively.

TIME Environment

Banning GMO Labeling Is a Bad Idea—For GMOs

GMO labeling laws in California
A new bill in Congress would nullify state efforts to mandate labeling of GMO foods Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

A bill introduced in Congress would nullify any state effort to require labeling of genetically modified organisms. But that will make GMO acceptance even less likely, as public support for GMO labels is on the rise

Americans in two states have voted on ballot initiatives that would have required the labeling of any foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs, for short). And twice, voters rejected those initiative in close ballots—thanks in part to tens of millions of dollars spent by GMO crop developers like Monsanto and industry groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). You’d think then that GMO supporters in the food industry would be feeling pretty confident that they could win on genetically-modified food legislation.

Apparently you’d be wrong. Republican Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas introduced on Wednesday new legislation that would nullify any attempt by states to require GMO labeling. More than two dozen states so far are considering bills that would mandate some form of labeling, with Maine and Connecticut having so far passed labeling measures into law. According to Pompeo, that’s enough to mandate a federal response:

We’ve got a number of states that are attempting to put together a patchwork quilt of food labeling requirements with respect to genetic modification of foods. That makes it enormously difficult to operate a food system. Some of the campaigns in some of these states aren’t really to inform consumers but rather aimed at scaring them. What this bill attempts to do is set a standard.

The bill—the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act”—would prohibit any mandatory labeling of foods made with bioengineering. The bill would also make it virtually impossible for states to block any efforts by food companies to put a “natural” label on any product that does contain GMO ingredients, requiring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create regulations that specify the maximum level of accidental GMO presence allowed in foods that come with a non-GMO label.

Translation: it’s almost as if the bill’s drafters were trying to hit on every fear that GMO-phobes have. It’s not surprising that the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—an environmental non-profit that has been deeply skeptical of GMOs—has called the bill the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act.” As Marni Karlin, the director of legislative and legal affairs at the Organic Trade Association, said in a statement:

Consumers, particularly the eight out of ten American families who buy organic products, want to know what is in their food. Rep. Pompeo’s bill ignores this consumer demand for information. Instead, it ties the hands of state governments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration concerning GMO labeling. It is fatally flawed.

It’s worth noting that even though ballot initiatives to require GMO labeling have twice failed, polls indicate strong support for labeling nationally. A New York Times survey last July found that 93% of Americans believe that foods containing GMO ingredients should be labeled. But we’re still a long way from that happening. While both Connecticut and Maine have passed laws mandating labeling, the measures don’t actually kick in until other nearby states approve similar laws. It seems a little early to pass a federal law to nullify state laws that aren’t actually in power yet.

In reality, though, arguments about GMO labeling tend to be arguments about GMOs—their usefulness and their safety. Confusion is rampant over GMOs, and if you want smart, straight reporting on the subject, check out Nathanael Johnson’s great series at Grist, which is summarized here. Like Johnson, I think the hazards posed by GMOs are “negligible to non-existent.” While they have yet to really fulfill their promise, GMOs can be a useful tool as the world tries to figure out how to feed billions more people without significantly increasing farmland, something that would be far worse for the environment than any genetically modified crop.

But the fact that I think properly regulated GMOs can be an important part of global farming is also why I think this bill is a mistake. Would a patchwork of laws mandating GMO labeling in some states and not others be an enormous and costly headache? Yes. But the same surveys that show support for GMO labeling also show deep distrust of bioengineering in food. And a lot of that distrust stems from the sense that GMOs are somehow being foisted on consumers without their knowledge or their consent. As Johnson notes, that increases the sense of risk around GMOs:

In a famous paper on risk perception, published in Science in 1987, Paul Slovic pointed out that people judge voluntary, controllable actions as much less risky than those that are involuntary and out of their control. Similarly, people see the unknown as much more risky than the known. Genetically engineered foods are, for most people, both unknown and uncontrollable.

By passing a law that would preemptively ban any attempt to require labeling, GMO defenders are playing into the hands of their opponents, making bioengineering feel far more risky than it really is. GMO advocates are losing this battle—see a company as mainstream as General Mills announce that a flagship product like Cheerios would now be made without genetically modified ingredients. If the food industry was smart, it would take a leading role in establishing a national standard for GMO labels. But given the bloody way this endless debate has played out, I wouldn’t expect a truce any time soon.

 

TIME Congress

Watch Sen. Lindsey Graham Use Comcast Hearing To Discuss Cable Options

At a Senate Judiciary hearing this Wednesday on the Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham seemed most interested in how combining the two largest U.S. cable companies would affect one particular resident of South Carolina. That is, himself.

“Somebody can sell me a product at this hearing, because I really don’t know,” said the South Carolina senator, before asking if any representatives from DirecTV were present at the hearing. “I’m thinking about changing because I’ve had the satellite signal knocked out twice, I’ve had to move the satellite twice. But before that, the cable went out right in the fourth quarter of a ball game.”

Graham said he had problems with his DirecTV when the weather is bad.

“In two seconds, tell me why I should switch back to cable,” Graham said to conclude his line of questioning.

 

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