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Foreclosure Rescue Scheme Brought To End

   DENVER – 3/26/2012 - U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado John F. Walsh and Colorado Attorney General John W. Suthers announced today the end of a national foreclosure rescue scheme. The perpetrators, operating through Bella Homes LLC, had promised hundreds of distressed homeowners that Bella Homes would help homeowners avoid foreclosure. Instead of helping homeowners, the perpetrators helped themselves to a lavish lifestyle replete with fancy cars, vacations and even gold coins.
   “Today (3/26) brings an end to a scheme that harmed distressed homeowners across the country,” Walsh said. “With false promises, the perpetrators of this scheme convinced hundreds of homeowners to hand over the last of their life savings and turn over the deed to their homes. Together with our partners in the state Attorney General’s Office, we stopped this fraud from harming additional victims within our state and across the nation.”
   “This agreement not only will help Bella Homes’ victims, but it also will bar the defendants from engaging in any kind of mortgage or foreclosure activity ever again,” Suthers said. “Foreclosure rescue scams prey on distressed homeowners’ desire to save their homes and to find any means to help fix their dire financial situations. Our work in cooperation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office quickly shut down this scam and should send a message that we and our partners in law enforcement will vigorously pursue any foreclosure or mortgage scam preying on Colorado homeowners.”
   The civil action, brought jointly by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado and the state attorney general of Colorado, put an end to a scheme that started in March 2010, in the basement of a convicted felon in Georgia, and went national, affecting homeowners in Colorado and other states across the country. The civil action that put an end to the scheme was filed in the U.s. District Court for the District of Colorado on Feb. 14, 2012, and resulted in a consent judgment, in which Bella Homes “admits the allegations in the complaint and acknowledges its role in defrauding homeowners who signed over title to their homes to Bella Homes.” Bella Homes further admitted that all deed transactions in which it entered should be deemed.
   As alleged in the complaint, the defendants, through Bella Homes, engaged in a fraudulent scheme in which they solicited homeowners to convey title to their homes to Bella Homes for no consideration and to enter into purported lease agreements under which the homeowners, instead of making their mortgage payments, paid Bella Homes monthly “rent.”
   To entice homeowners into this arrangement, defendants made or caused to be made numerous material misrepresentations to homeowners to convey the false and fraudulent impression that:
  • Bella Homes would stop any foreclosure on the home;
  • Bella Homes would purchase or otherwise settle the existing mortgage on the home from the lender;
  • Federal law provided the homeowner the right to remain in the home for the duration of the lease with Bella Homes; and
  • The homeowner would have an option to repurchase the home in three years from Bella Homes for significantly less than the amount currently owed on the mortgage.
   Defendants made these false representations on a website and in solicitations and documents sent to interested homeowners across the country. Contrary to Bella Homes’ representations and promises, Bella Homes admitted in response to a subpoena that it had not purchased any mortgages as of October 2011, and that it lacked the financial capacity to purchase mortgages. In all, more than 560 homeowners were victimized by Bella Homes. Throughout the life of the scheme, the company only acquired one mortgage just before the complaint was filed. As part of the consent judgment, the single mortgage may be sold and the proceeds returned to victims.
   The complaint alleged that Mark Stephen Diamond, Daniel David Delpiano, David Delpiano and Michael Terrell were involved in running Bella Homes. Through the consent judgment, these individual defendants confess liability to counts six and seven of the complaint, which allege violations of the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule (MARS Rule). Specifically, the individual defendants confess liability to: violating Section 322.3(c) of the MARS Rule by making a representation, expressly or by implication, about the benefits, performance, or efficacy of any mortgage assistance relief service without competent and reliable evidence that substantiates that the representation is true. violating Section 322.5(a) of the MARS Rule, which makes it a violation of the MARS Rule to: request or receive payment of any fee or other consideration until the consumer has executed a written agreement between the consumer and the consumer's dwelling loan holder or servicer incorporating the offer of mortgage assistance relief the provider obtained from the consumer's dwelling loan holder or servicer. 
   As part of the consent judgment, the defendants have permanent restrictions on their ability to work in the mortgage industry and residential real estate related businesses. In addition, the defendants must return any vehicles in their possession that were leased by Bella Homes, Mark Diamond, Diamond and Associates or Diamond Corporation. Finally, money previously frozen in defendants’ bank accounts, as well as cash in a safe deposit box, and the proceeds of gold coins obtained by Bella Homes, will all be made available to the Department of Law at the state of Colorado to be returned to homeowner victims. To this amount, defendant Mark Stephen Diamond will add an additional $300,000 within the next 90 days. After that time, the defendants will make additional payments of approximately $200,000 over the next five years, for a total anticipated recovery of approximately $1.2 million.
   If you are a victim of Bella Homes, visit the website set up by the Colorado Department of Law at: www.coloradoattorneygeneral.gov/departments/consumer_protection/consumer_protection_cases/bella_homes.

EPA Issues 2011 Fuel Economy Trends Report

   WASHINGTON (EPA) - 3/15/2012 - The average fuel efficiency for new cars and light duty trucks has increased while the average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions continue to decrease for the seventh consecutive year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s annual report, “Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2011.”
    “Today’s report shows that we are making significant strides toward saving families money at the pump, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cleaning up the air we breathe,” said Gina McCarthy, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. “The historic steps taken by the Obama administration to improve fuel economy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil is accelerating this progress, will spur economic growth and create high-quality domestic jobs in cutting edge industries across America.”
    For 2010, the last year for which EPA has final data from automakers, the average real world CO2 emissions from new vehicles were 394 grams per mile and the average fuel economy value was 22.6 miles per gallon (mpg). EPA projects an improvement in 2011, based on pre-model year sales estimates provided to EPA by automakers, to 391 grams of CO2 per mile and 22.8 mpg.
    Fuel economy will continue to improve significantly as part of the Obama administration’s historic standards that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The U.S. Department of Transportation and EPA are implementing the first phase of these standards which already improved fuel economy in 2010 and will raise fuel efficiency to 35.5 mpg by 2016. These standards will save American families $1.7 trillion dollars in fuel costs, and by 2025 result in an average fuel savings of over $8,000 per vehicle. Additionally, these programs will dramatically cut the oil we consume, saving a total of 12 billion barrels of oil, and by 2025 reduce oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels a day – as much as half of the oil we import from OPEC every day.
    The report also details the growth of more efficient technologies, such as six-speed transmissions, advanced fuel injection, and turbochargers that are making significant inroads into the mainstream market. EPA expects these and other new technologies to become even more popular in the next few years as automakers prepare to meet and fuel economy standards that will further drive up fuel efficiency and reduce emissions.
    The CO2 emissions and fuel economy values above reflect EPA’s best estimates of real world CO2 emissions and fuel economy performance. They are consistent with the fuel economy estimates that EPA provides on new vehicle window stickers and in the Fuel Economy Guide. These real world fuel economy values are about 20 percent lower, on average, than those used for compliance with the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) program.
    The new report can be found at: http://www.epa.gov/otaq/fetrends.htm

Decision on BPA Food Packaging Expected Soon

   Washington, D.C. - (EWG) - 3/11/2012 - The federal Food and Drug Administration, faced with a series of legal actions from environmental groups, is poised to decide whether to move toward barring the toxic chemical bisphenol-A from food packaging.
   The agency’s decision is expected by March 31.
   Five years have passed since Environmental Working Group’s groundbreaking 2007 study showed that BPA leached from epoxy linings of cans into surrounding food and drink. EWG’s tests showed the highest concentrations of the chemical, a synthetic estrogen, in canned soup, pasta and infant formula.
   “FDA is the only agency with the power to protect consumers from being exposed to BPA from the food they eat,” said Sonya Lunder, Senior Research Analyst for Environmental Working Group. “Let’s hope the agency’s upcoming decision will keep the public’s health at the forefront.”
   A second EWG study in 2007 showed that 1 in 16 formula-fed infants were being exposed to levels of BPA toxic to animals in research studies.
   Because BPA has been shown to disrupt the hormone system, EWG has repeatedly called on FDA to order it removed from food and beverage packaging, starting with infant formula.
   FDA decision comes as Campbell’s Soup has announced its intention to seek a safer substitute for BPA-laden epoxy in the linings of its cans.
   “If one of the world’s largest food suppliers and users of BPA in its packaging feels it should move away from using it, maybe the federal health agency charged with protecting people from contaminated food will follow suit,” Lunder said.
   The prevalence of BPA in the environment and in people was underscored by 2009 tests commissioned by EWG and Rachel's Network that detected BPA for the first time in the umbilical cord blood of 9 of 10 American newborns.
   Source: EWG release of 3/9/2012

Illinois Ranks High in Government Transparency

   By Andrew Thomason (Illinois Statehouse News) 3/8/2012 - Usually when Illinois gets ranked in a list that compares states, it’s about ailing pension systems or the number of governors sent to jail.
   That wasn’t the case on March 8.
   The Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency, on Thursday awarded Illinois with 19 Sunny Awards for websites that provide windows into government activity. Illinois had the third most 2012 Sunny Awards, trailing only Florida and Texas.
    Kristin McMurray, managing editor for the Sunshine Review, said the state did so well because of several cities and counties in the state that provide online data such as budgets, audits and vendor contracts.
    “I’ve been very impressed by it and a little surprised. Illinois has a reputation,” McMurray said.
    McMurray said her organization started the awards as a way to reward states that provide people with information online, and push those that don’t.
    McHenry County in northern Illinois was one of the state's winners. This was the second Sunny Award in as many years for the county.
    “It’s very consistent with the direction the board has tried to take the county” in terms of open government, McHenry County Administrator Peter Austin said.
    Josh Sharp is the director of government relations for the Illinois Press Association, which lobbies for the news industry in the state as well as open government. Sharp said anytime a governmental body is more transparent is good, but he said he isn’t satisfied with their overall openness efforts.
    “They’ve got great websites, but the culture of secrecy in … much of Illinois still looms very large. They’ve still got a long way, to go,” Sharp said.
    Illinois Sunny Award Winners 2012
  • City of Carbondale
  • Champaign County
  • City of Chicago
  • Community Consolidated School District 54
  • DuPage County
  • Illinois' state website
  • City of Evanston
  • Kane County
  • Lake County
  • Madison County
  • McHenry County
  • New Trier High School
  • Rockford School District 205
  • Springfield School District 186
  • Township High School District 211
  • Township High School District 214
  • Wheaton Warrenville Unit School District 200
  • Will County
  • City of Wilmette 
Published courtesy of Illinois Statehouse News

Survey Points to Changes in Consumer Spending

   NEW YORK - (BUSINESS WIRE) - 3/4/2012 - A shocking 52 percent of Americans are struggling to afford the necessities, and for many even that is a stretch, according to WSL/Strategic Retail, the leading authority on shopper behavior and retail trends. The finding was revealed today as part of the Company’s How America Shops® MegaTrends report, Moving On 2012.
   Youth market no longer retail’s golden ticket. The youth market, 18-34 year olds, has the highest percent of those who do not have enough money to cover their basic needs, with close to a quarter (24  percent ) in financial turmoil. Compared with people over 35, who were able to launch their careers 10 years ago, when times were good, this group is a long way from recovery, compelling retailers targeting this group to seriously rethink their strategies.
   Branded products under threat. Shoppers in general are placing a greater focus on price, with two thirds (67  percent ) of women agreeing that trusted brand names are not worth paying more for. More than a quarter (26  percent ) of women admit that while they used to buy brand names they could not afford, they are no longer giving in to this indulgence. This figure is up 7 percentage points from 2010.
   Six-figure incomes struggle. It takes a significantly higher income to feel financially secure in this economy, with nearly 30 percent of Americans in the $100-150K income bracket claiming they can only afford the basics. Once considered affluent, six-figure income shoppers are now identifying themselves as middle-income.
   “There is a huge fundamental issue when more than half of Americans can only afford basic necessities and people who earn up to $150,000 think they are poor,” said Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail. “Look, American shoppers are moving on and coming back to shopping, but at their own pace. As a result, retail sales are precarious and likely to fluctuate up one month, down the next. That’s not going to change any time soon. Brands and retailers cannot ignore this. They will need to re-think the way they do business over the next three to five years - or longer.”
   “The youth market, which has traditionally been known for its enthusiastic spending of discretionary income, has virtually dried up. As today’s young adults struggle to find employment and pay down student loan debt, this demographic now represents the largest percentage of Americans who are challenged to afford even basic necessities,” WSL Stragegic Retail President Candace Corlett said.
   Key additional findings:
  • A stunning 75  percent  of women now say it’s important get the lowest price on everything they buy, up 12 percentage points. from 2008 and up 22 percentage points from 2004. Some old and new methods of ensuring they get the lowest price include:
  • 68  percent  regularly use coupons to reduce costs -- up 7 percentage points. vs. 2010.
  • 45  percent  claim they only buy items that are on sale -- also up 7 percentage points
  • 43  percent  make a point to search online for store discounts before they shop -- up 10 percentage points
  • 14  percent  of women say they use their mobile phones while in store to see if they can find a lower price, before they buy.
  • The “cautious pause” before buying to ask, “Is this a smart use of my money?” (Total: 66  percent , HHI $150K: 47  percent )
  • Managing their aspirations by sticking to brands and stores they can afford (Total: 58  percent , HHI $150K: 36  percent )
  • Staying out of stores where they might be tempted to overspend (Total: 48  percent , HHI $150K: 28  percent )
  • Buying less when they go shopping (Total: 43  percent , HHI $150K: 26  percent )
   WSL/Strategic Retail draws several conclusions from the study to enable retailers to define and prepare the right retail strategy as consumers return to shopping, but with new rules and restrictions that influence what they buy and where they buy it. Notes on survey methodology and analysis: WSL/Strategic Retail conducted an internet survey from December 1-12, 2012. The survey included 1,950 respondents drawn from a nationally representative online sample.

EPA Proposes $16.4 Million Plan to Clean Up Site

  (EPA) - New York, N.Y. - 3/2/2012 - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a plan to clean up contaminated sediment, soil and debris in streams and in an area near lagoons in which industrial wastewater was stored at the Universal Oil Products Superfund site in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The proposed cleanup plan will eliminate the threat of contaminants spreading off the site through the streams that carry water into Berry’s Creek, located on the eastern border of the site. The EPA is simultaneously overseeing a comprehensive study of the site to determine what other measures may be necessary to address the contamination.
   The EPA is encouraging the public to comment on the plan through March 30, 2012 and will hold a public meeting on March 6, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. at the East Rutherford Memorial Library, 143 Boiling Springs Avenue, East Rutherford, New Jersey. The plan is available at the library and on line at http://www.epa.gov/region2/superfund/npl/universaloil/.
   "This is a heavily contaminated site which includes mercury, PCBs and other pollutants that could potentially spread off the site by streams. EPA is taking action to protect public health and, the environment and wildlife. This is a complex, toxic site. I urge the public to become informed and involved in this important issue," EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck said.
   Volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls and metals from the former chemical laboratory and recovery facility have contaminated soil, ground water, sediment and surface water. Mercury, PCBs and other chemicals impact Berry’s Creek as they move to and from the site through the tidal action of the creek. Fish and crabs in Berry's Creek and adjacent water bodies are contaminated with chemicals at levels that exceed U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines for human consumption.
   PCBs can cause cancer in humans, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems. Mercury exposure at high levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system of people of all ages. Birds and mammals that eat fish are also affected by mercury and PCBs in contaminated water and sediment, and can be harmful to the health of people who eat them.
   Beginning in 1932, Trubeck Laboratories operated an aroma chemicals laboratory and later a solvent recovery operation at the site. Universal Oil Products acquired the property and facilities in 1960. Operations at the facility ended in 1979 and the buildings were demolished in 1980. In 1999, Honeywell acquired the site through a merger.
   The Universal Oil Products site is approximately 74 acres, which are divided into uplands and stream areas. The uplands, located in the northwest corner of the site, are man-made lands and municipal trash placed there years ago on top of native soils and peat. Cleanup work there has been completed, including the excavation of contaminated soil. Honeywell is currently conducting a long-term study of the nature and extent of contamination in and around streams under a legal agreement with the EPA. Sampling has shown that contamination in the vicinity of lagoons where wastewater was once stored is substantially higher than the rest of the site and that contamination has the potential to move into other areas.
   Under the proposed cleanup plan about 27,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, soil and debris from the area in and around the previous wastewater lagoon and adjacent stream channels will be excavated, dewatered and taken off site for disposal. A tide gate will be installed at Murray Hill Parkway and water will be taken out of the lagoon and channels to allow for dry excavation down to the natural clay layer that is present throughout most of the site. Soil will be added to provide cover and allow vegetation to grow to provide habitat for wildlife. The estimated cost of this proposed cleanup is $16.4 million. Honeywell has agreed to pay for and perform the cleanup work.
   A document, called an Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis, which evaluates the various cleanup options considered in developing the proposed cleanup plan is available at the East Rutherford Memorial Library and on the websitehttp://www.epa.gov/region2/superfund/npl/universaloil/. The EPA encourages the public to submit comments to the EPA. The EPA is accepting public comment on the proposed cleanup until March 30, 2012. Written comments may be mailed or emailed to: Doug Tomchuk, Remedial Project Manager, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 290 Broadway, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10007-1866; Email: tomchuk.doug@epa.gov

Photo by Steve Rensberry (c) 2014