UPI

Here are several stories from my career as a reporter and copy editor with United Press International

Congress reacts to ‘under God’ ruling

Published: June 26, 2002 at 9:29 PM

By CHRIS H. SIEROTY

WASHINGTON, June 26 (UPI) — The Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved a resolution “expressing support for the Pledge of Allegiance” and asking Senate counsel to “seek to intervene in the case.”

By a vote of 99-0, the resolution passed shortly after a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that the Pledge of Allegiance was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion with the words, “under God” inserted after “one nation.”

In a speech on the Senate floor just before the vote, Sen. Robert Byrd said, “I wonder if that judge would hold the Declaration of Independence unconstitutional.”

Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, is the only remaining member of Congress who voted for the addition of “under God” on June 7 in 1954.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who in a previous political life was the 35th mayor of San Francisco, urged the U.S. Supreme Court to promptly overturn the decision.

“I find the 9th Circuit Court’s opinion embarrassing at best,” said Feinstein. “This nation from its foundation has had a belief in God, and has a long tradition of expressing that belief.”

House Speaker Dennis Hastert said the decision underscores the need for the Senate to “confirm some common sense jurists.”

“Obviously, the liberal court in San Francisco has gotten this one wrong,” said Hastert, R-Ill., in a statement. “Of course, we are one nation, under God. The Pledge of Allegiance is a patriotic salute that brings people of all faiths together to share in the American spirit.

“I strongly believe that parents, teachers and local schools should encourage children to recite the pledge to start the day, the same way those of us in Congress begin our daily business, not allow a liberal judge to take it away. It’s time for the Senate to move forward and confirm some common sense jurists,” Hastert said.

Also on Wednesday some 150 House members — mostly Republicans — gathered on the steps outside the Capitol to recite the pledge in a show of support.

According to the federal court ruling, Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, noted that U.S. currency; the presidential Oath of Office; the Supreme Court; and the House of Representatives might also be banned as unconstitutional.

“When the president says ‘God bless America’ should he be banned? I stand with the tradition that allows the president to put his hand on the Bible and uphold the constitution,” Delay said. “It is sad that at a time when our country is coming together this court is driving a wedge between us with their absurd ruling.”

——-

Feature: Virginia ends tight wine law

By CHRIS H. SIEROTY

Published: May 28, 2003 at 5:05 PM

WASHINGTON, May 28 (UPI) — Starting July 1, it will be possible to obtain a case of California Merlot or a rare French Bordeaux without ever leaving your home in Virginia.

Gov. Mark Warner recently signed a bill that makes direct shipments legal.

“This legislation I signed into law is a tremendous victory for Virginia’s wineries and Virginia wine lovers,” the governor said. “Virginia wineries and vineyards will benefit through the opening of markets in other states to showcase the great quality of Virginia wines to a wider audience.”

Warner, who produces his own wine, Rappahannock Bend, as a hobby, described the new law as beneficial to a growing industry

“The new wine shipment law, along with our increased efforts to promote tourism around Virginia’s wineries, will allow our wineries to continue to grow and prosper as they put Virginia wines up against wines from around the world,” he said.

In Maryland, however, direct sales remain a felony, making it difficult for wine lovers to buy wines directly from wineries or out-of-state merchants.

The old law kept Virginia wineries from selling their wines over the Internet, and Virginia residents from buying out-of-state wines.

“Consumers in many of states will now have access to the great wines of Virginia,” said David Sloane, president of the Washington-based trade group WineAmerica. “Similarly, Virginia consumers will know be allowed to have wines from other states shipped to their front doors.”

The law opens the markets in 13 states with reciprocity — including California, Washington and Oregon — to Virginia wines. The others are: Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, Hawaii and West Virginia.

“We have an opportunity to market and sell our wines to 13 new markets, which equals 30 percent of the American public,” Dean Triplett, owner of Willowcroft Farm Vineyard in Leesburg, Va., told United Press International.

The law will permit residents a maximum of two 12-bottle cases per month, but only from wineries that are licensed to sell direct to consumers and that purchase a $50 Virginia state license.

It also mandates that shippers report their sales to the state and pay all excises and sales taxes.

“Visitors to our vineyard, who in the past were unable to place an out-of-state order for Willowcroft wine, can now get our wines shipped directly to their homes,” Triplett said.

According to WineAmerica, the number of wineries in Virginia has grown 491 percent in the past two decades. In 1980, there were 11 wineries in the state compared with 65 in 2000, the trade group said.

As of 2003, Virginia ranks fifth in the nation in the production of vinifera grapes and is home to 75 wineries and more than 250 vineyards, Warner said.

In neighboring Maryland, there were four wineries in 1975 compared with 14 in 2000, a growth rate of 250 percent.

But despite its growth in recent years as a wine producing state, it remains a felony in Maryland for wineries to sell their wines over the Internet, and for residents to purchase out-of-state wines.

Triplett described Maryland’s strict shipment laws as an “insult to the residents of Maryland.”

“Virginia has set a good standard that we should take a look at,” Rob Deford, owner of Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Md., told UPI.

Deford said there was “de facto prohibition” in Maryland because the state’s inordinate amount of paperwork or fees does not make the effort worth it for the occasional sale. He added that for $10 fee, a bottle of wine could be sent from Virginia to a retail store in Hydes, but there would be a mark-up from a distributor, putting unnecessary costs on the transaction.

Under the law, Maryland also can impose a $35,000 fine on a business shipping wine into that state unlawfully.

It is a crime to ship wines into these states: Utah, Arizona, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine.

Eleven states allow limited or highly restricted shipping, according to WineAmerica. They are Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska, Louisiana, Georgia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Alaska and Connecticut.

———

Virginia woman confirmed as sniper target

By CHRIS H. SIEROTY

Published: Oct. 5, 2002 at 11:46 PM

WASHINGTON, Oct. 5 (UPI) — Montgomery County, Md. police Saturday confirmed that a sniper shooting in Virginia has been linked to a series of shootings in Maryland and Washington.

Midafternoon Friday, a 43-year old Spotsylvania, Va. woman was shot in a mall parking lot in Fredericksburg, Va., about 60 miles south of the other shootings and is listed in stable condition at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Saturday found that a bullet that hit the woman was the same type that killed four of six of the earlier victims, police said.

With every unexplained shooting getting the close attention of police, investigators were checking out a report late Saturday that a man was shot to death in a secluded area near Rocky Gorge Reservoir in Howard County, Md., not far from Montgomery County.

In Rockville, Md., Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose told reporters Saturday night, “Forensic evidence has shown us that their case, their shooting is linked to the Montgomery shootings, linked to the D.C. shootings.”

Earlier in the day Chief Moose said there had been no new shootings overnight, but that 100 investigators are following up on hundreds of tips telephoned to a special number, 240-777-2600.

A reward of up to $50,000 has been offered for the apprehension and indictment of the sniper.

The Montgomery County shootings and one in the District of Columbia occurred Wednesday night and Thursday within a few miles of each other. On Friday, the Spotsylvania, Va. woman was shot in the back under similar circumstances outside a Michael’s crafts store in Fredericksburg, Va..

Investigators examined the woman’s vehicle and found remnants of the bullet that struck her. Other victims, shot apparently at random, had been struck in the head and died instantly.

Authorities had confirmed late Friday that the same high-powered rifle was used to kill at least four of six shooting victims and now, also the Virginia woman. Investigators were still awaiting results in the two other shootings but the bullets were in pretty poor shape.

“We just may not be able to link them,” he said.

The sixth victim, Pascal Charlot, a 72-year-old Washington pedestrian, was killed by the same weapon used to kill at least three of the Maryland victims, police said.

Authorities said each of the victims was killed by a single .223-caliber bullet, a high velocity round typical of highly accurate military assault weapons, shot from some distance away.

Police talked to a man who had been missing in North Carolina described as affiliated with militia and white supremacist groups and said he was not a suspect in the sniper shootings.

Messages left Saturday by United Press International with the FBI in Charlotte, N.C., were not returned, and calls to the ATF were not answered.

———-

Published on December 18, 2001

Ex-Enron workers look to Congress

By CHRIS H. SIEROTY

WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 (UPI) — Several retirees told a Senate hearing Tuesday how they lost most of their life savings in the collapse of Enron, while the committee announced that the bankrupt energy trader’s chief executive officer would testify before it in February.

Janice Farmer, who retired last year with nearly $700,000 in Enron stock, said since the company barred her from selling Enron shares she now lives on a $63 monthly pension check from another company and is still a year away from receiving Social Security benefits.

“My life savings is gone,” Farmer told the Senate Commerce Committee. “I trusted the management of Enron with my life savings. They betrayed that trust.”

In the end, she said all that was left in her retirement account was $4,000.

Among the other witnesses was Charles Prestwood, of Conroe, Texas, who retired after 33 ½ years in the natural gas business, mostly with Enron, and lost nearly all of his $1.3 million in savings.

“There are people at Enron who made millions selling Enron stock while we, the rank and file, got burned. It’s that simple,” Prestwood said at the hearing held to investigate one of the largest company failures in U.S. history. “I am left with a tiny fraction of my $1.3 million, or about $8,000.”

The 63-year-old former pipeline worker told lawmakers that it was “too late in my life to start over to build up my funds.”

Kenneth Lay, Enron’s embattled chief executive officer, has committed to appear before the Senate Commerce Committee on Feb. 4, said Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who chaired Tuesday’s hearing.

Lay has declined to appear before two of four congressional committees probing Enron, both times citing creditors’ meetings as the reason. Besides Congress, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice and Labor departments are investigating the collapse of Enron.

Dorgan said his committee would try to get Enron’s former Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Skilling, and Andrew Fastow, its former chief financial officer, to the February hearing.

Enron on Dec. 2 filed for bankruptcy after its $8.4 billion merger with rival Dynegy Inc. collapsed amid concerns about the Houston-based company’s finances.

Enron’s stock closed Tuesday at 50 cents a share on the New York Stock Exchange, down from its August 2000, high of $90.56.

“There are Oregonians who lost retirement security because as Enron’s stock plunged like the Titanic, in effect the senior executives on the deck locked the workers in the boiler room, preventing them from selling off 401(k) shares while they dumped their own,” said Ron Wyden, R-Ore.

Robert Vigil, an electrical machinist foreman at Enron’s Portland General Electric unit, explained that employee retirement contributions were matched dollar-for-dollar by Enron in company stock, with limits on swapping to more diversified investments.

As the end came, many employees who had most or all of their savings in company stock, were locked out of their accounts entirely, he said.

“As the truth about Enron started to come to light — and as the officers at the top cashed out — we, the employees, had no choice but to ride the stock into the ground,” he said.

Vigil estimated that Enron’s collapse resulted in employee pension plan losses of up to $1 billion. “If my eight co-workers alone lost nearly $2.8 million that estimate is probably very low,” he said.

—-

Published on Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Bush Move on Ports Draws Mixed Reaction

By Chris H. Sieroty

WASHINGTON, Oct. 8 (UPI) — President Bush’s decision Tuesday to ask a federal court to reopen West Coast ports and impose a cooling-off period that would end a 10-day labor lockout was greeted with anger from labor unions, but was cheered by struggling retailers.

The National Retail Federation praised Bush’s decision, saying he had shown “political courage and leadership,” while the United Auto Workers called federal intervention in labor disputes a “bad idea.” The AFL-CIO described the decision as a “tragedy with historic ramifications.”

“It’s an especially bad idea when carried out by a president who has tried repeatedly to limit — and even eliminate — the right of workers to join unions and bargain collectively,” said Ron Gettelfinger, president of the UAW.

He added that the fact that a presidential panel was appointed Monday to investigate a complex labor dispute and released its findings Tuesday “does nothing to enhance the Bush administration’s credibility as a truly neutral arbitrator in the matter.”

“Dockworkers are legitimately concerned that the White House is preparing to team up with the Pacific Maritime Association to impose a settlement on the employers’ terms,” said Gettelfinger.

In a hastily arranged announcement outside the Oval Office, the president cited national economic health and safety as his reasons to impose the Taft-Hartley Act for the first time in a quarter-century. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter implemented the act in a coal miners’ strike, but the court declined to issue the order. A court injunction was later obtained instead.

The decision directs U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to seek a federal court order to put longshoremen back to work for 80 days while mediators try to resolve the dispute between the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union and the PMA.

The PMA locked out the union on Sept. 29 after employers claimed longshoremen were staging a “go-slow” labor action. The union denied the accusation. The contract between the ILWU and PMA expired in July, but both sides have been operating under short-term agreements.

In papers filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco Tuesday, the Justice Department said an injunction should be granted because “the president of the United States has determined that the labor standoff between the defendants has resulted in a lockout that affects a substantial part of the maritime industry.”

In a statement, the National Retail Federation said the dispute between the ILWU and the PMA had led to hundreds of ships carrying hundreds of thousands of containers of merchandise just sitting in 29 idled ports in California, Oregon and Washington.

“This is about more than labor unions and port operators,” said Tracy Mullin, NRF’s president and chief executive officer. “This is about whether American children will find presents under the tree on Christmas morning.”

A court-ordered cooling-off period would keep the ports open during the critical Christmas season, when U.S. retailers rely on imported goods to stock their shelves.

However, even if the dockworkers go back to work on Wednesday, both sides agree that it’s going to take four to six weeks to move the merchandise from the docks to the stores.

“If this shutdown is allowed to continue, we could face serious shortages of popular items,” Mullin said.

A wide variety of consumer products that are imported from Asia via the West Coast have been impacted by the shutdown, especially toys, consumer electronics, shoes, clothing and housewares. A University of California at Berkeley study has estimated the cost of the port shutdown to the U.S. economy at $1 billion a day.

“This is the first time in the history of the United States that a president has let an employer lock out workers in an extended quest to undermine the workers’ union — creating a phony crisis — and then reward that employer’s action with government intervention,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka. “It is a tragedy with historic ramifications.”

The Bush administration denied Tuesday that it had taken sides in the dispute.

—-

Published: Jan. 8, 2002 at 11:32 PM

Enron attended 6 energy policy meetings

By CHRIS H. SIEROTY

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 (UPI) — Representatives from Enron Corp. met six times last year to discuss energy policy with Vice President Dick Cheney or members of his energy task force, a White House attorney told a Democratic lawmaker.

Cheney met only once with Kenneth L. Lay, chairman and chief executive officer of the bankrupt energy trader, on April 17 to discuss energy policy matters, David Addington, counsel to the vice president, wrote in a letter dated Jan. 3. The vice president revealed the meeting last May in a television interview with the PBS program “Frontline.”

Rep. Harry Waxman, D-Calif., released the White House’s letter on Tuesday. He is seeking details of the meetings and information about any telephone calls or e-mails between Cheney’s office and Enron.

“Mr. Addington’s letter is a recognition that Congress and the public have legitimate interest in learning about the contacts between Enron executives and the White House,” Waxman said in his letter to Cheney.

He also urged the vice president “to provide a full accounting of the contacts between Enron and the White House energy task force and other White House officials.”

According to Addington, besides the one meeting with Cheney, Enron officials participated in meetings with members of the task force on five other occasions.

Based in Houston, Enron on Dec. 2 filed Chapter 11 in the largest bankruptcy court filing in U.S. history after its rival Dynegy Inc. (NYSE:DYN) terminated its $8.4 billion merger. Congressional Democrats and Republicans, as well as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Departments of Justice and Labor have opened investigations into the company’s collapse.

Democrats are also expected to look at the relationship between Enron and the White House when hearings on Capitol Hill begin later this month. Lay, a personal friend of President Bush, was a major Republican fundraiser during the 2000 election.

In his letter to Cheney, Waxman noted that the first meeting was held Feb. 22, with the last meeting on Oct. 10, six days before Enron announced the $1.2 billion reduction in shareholder equity that precipitated its collapse. It was the first in a series of admissions that sent to price of the company’s stock, which had been as high as $90.56, to less than a dollar a share.

Meanwhile, the vice president’s energy task force went out of existence Sept. 30.

“An employee on the vice president’s staff … met on Oct. 10, 2001 with Enron representatives and reports that they discussed energy policy matters and did not discuss information concerning the financial position of the Enron Corp.,” according to Addington’s letter.

Addington said Enron’s financial condition wasn’t discussed at any of the earlier five meetings.

Cheney met with lay for about a half-hour on April 17 to discuss “energy policy matters, including the energy crisis in California,” the letter said.

The day after meeting with Lay, Waxman noted that Cheney announced the Bush administration would not support price caps on wholesale energy sales in California.

“At the time, Enron had launched a high-profile campaign against the imposition of federal price caps on wholesale energy sales in California,” he wrote.

The White House letter said the other meetings between Cheney’s aides and Enron officials took place on March 7, April 9 and Aug. 7. In another meeting Cheney and Lay were on a panel June 24 at the American Enterprise Institute World Forum in Beaver Creek, Colo., where the topic was energy.

Addington wrote the April 9 meeting was with two dozen representatives of utilities, including Enron. The Aug. 7 meeting was with officials of an Enron German subsidiary. He said the Enron meetings weren’t out of the ordinary.

Waxman said Addington’s letter didn’t reveal enough information, including what was discussed at the meetings, requests for policy changes, copies of documents from the meetings and names of people attending the meetings.

He also repeated his request for information regarding other contacts between Enron officials and the White House.

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