FBI: Violent Crime Up During First Half of 2012

   WASHINGTON, D.C., - 1/27/2013 - Statistics released this month in the FBI’s Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report indicate that the number of violent crimes reported in the first six months of 2012 increased 1.9 percent when compared with figures from the first six months of 2011. The number of property crimes increased 1.5 percent for the same time frame. The report is based on information from more than 13,300 law enforcement agencies that submitted three to six comparable months of data to the FBI in the first six months of 2011 and 2012.
   Violent Crime: Two of the four offenses in the violent crime category—murder and non-negligent manslaughter and forcible rape—show decreases when data from the first six months of 2012 are compared with data from the first six months of 2011. The number of murders declined 1.7 percent, and the number of rapes decreased 1.4 percent. However, robbery offenses increased 2.0 percent, and aggravated assault increased 2.3 percent.
   Law enforcement agencies in all but one of the six city population groups reported increases in violent crime. Cities with populations of 250,000 to 499,999 showed an increase of 4.7 percent, the largest increase among the city population groups. Cities with less than 10,000 inhabitants experienced the only decline (0.7 percent) in violent crime offenses.
   Violent crime increased 0.7 percent in metropolitan counties and 0.6 percent in non-metropolitan counties.
Violent crime increased in each of the nation’s four regions. The largest increase, 3.1 percent, was in the West, followed by 2.5 percent in the Midwest, 1.1 percent in the South, and 1.1 percent in the Northeast.
   Property Crime: All three categories of property crime—burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft—showed increases in the number of offenses from January to June 2012 when compared with data for the same months of 2011. Larceny-theft offenses increased 1.9 percent. There was a 1.7 percent increase in the number of motor vehicle thefts and a 0.1 percent increase in burglary offenses.
   Each of the six city population groups had increases in the number of property crimes. Law enforcement agencies in cities with populations of 10,000 to 24,999 inhabitants reported the largest increase, 2.9 percent. Property crime in non-metropolitan counties decreased 0.4 percent; property crime in metropolitan counties remained virtually unchanged.
   Three of the four regions reported increases in the number of property crime: 4.7 percent in the West, 4.0 percent in the Northeast, and 1.3 percent in the Midwest. Property crime declined 1.4 percent in the South.
   Arson: In the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, arson offenses are collected separately from other property crimes. The number of arson offenses increased 3.2 percent in the first six months of 2012 when compared with figures from the first six months of 2011. Three of the four regions reported increases in the number of arsons—11.0 percent in the Midwest; 6.4 percent in the West; and 5.7 percent in the Northeast. There was a 5.6 decrease in arson offenses in the South.
   Arson offenses increased 19.1 percent in cities with populations of 25,000 to 49,999, the largest increase within the city groupings. Arson offenses decreased 6.0 percent in metropolitan counties and 4.3 percent in non-metropolitan counties.
   Caution against ranking: When the FBI publishes crime data via its UCR program, some entities use the information to compile rankings of cities and counties. However, according to the FBI, such rankings do not provide insight into the numerous variables that shape crime in a given town, city, county, state, tribal area, or region. "These rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that can create misleading perceptions that adversely affect communities and their residents. Only through careful study and analyses into the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction can data users create valid assessments of crime," bureau sources stated. "The data user is, therefore, cautioned against comparing statistical data of individual reporting units from cities, metropolitan areas, states, or colleges or universities solely on the basis of their population or student enrollment."

Uncertainty Remains Factor in Healthcare Reform

   ORANGE, Calif. - (BUSINESS WIRE) - 1-24-2013 - Uncertainty surrounding the impact of healthcare reform is the No. 1 issue health insurance consumers will face in 2013, an expert in the field said recently
   “Individuals and small groups have a lot of questions regarding what reform really means, what insurance rates will look like, and how public and private exchanges are going to work,” said Gregg Ratkovic, senior vice president of Word & Brown’s individual division. “They are hopeful that reform will lead to easier access, more choice and greater affordability; but in reality there are more questions than there are answers.”
   Ratkovic says that among the questions consumers are asking most often are what kind of coverage will be sold through health insurance exchanges, how to obtain insurance if you have a pre-existing condition, and who should consider a high-deductible plan. Other commonly asked questions include how will access to the physicians and hospitals be impacted, will rates be going up or down, and how easy will it be to buy insurance under healthcare reform?
   Surrounded by this uncertainty, Ratkovic says that consumers and small business owners should turn to independent health insurance brokers who can provide the unbiased information needed to make intelligent health insurance decisions. “Brokers can also ease individuals through the enrollment process and can work with their clients to take advantage of the incredible online tools and technology that can help with an informed insurance selection.”
   Among the tools Ratkovic says are most effective are HealthCompare (www.healthcompare.com), which provides consumers with easy access to hundreds of plans online and leads shoppers through the process to help find the right health insurance plan at the right price. For those on Medicare Joppel (www.joppel.com) is a CMS-approved quoting engine designed to help brokers and seniors easily evaluate, compare and enroll in Medicare Advantage (Medicare Part C) health plans, Medigap (Medicare Supplement) plans and Prescription Drug (Part D) coverage. Through Joppel individuals on Medicare can view all of their options side by side and go through a simple needs assessment that narrows down hundreds of plans through criteria that are specific to them – such as what medications are covered, cost of co-payment and plan premiums.
   “There’s a lot of noise in the marketplace, and consumers are looking for help in making sense of it all,” Ratkovic said. “By working with brokers and leveraging the right tools, consumers can take the guesswork out of their insurance selection and lessen the uncertainty that’s inherent in these times of change.”
   Operating nationally, The Word & Brown Companies include the Word & Brown General Agency, with divisions focused on group, Medicare, individual and family insurance coverage; CONEXIS, the nation’s first outsourcing provider to offer benefits administration on a single, Web-based, fully integrated system; CHOICE Administrators, the nation’s leading developer and distributor of health insurance exchange programs; Quotit Corporation, the foremost national provider of Internet sales and marketing solutions for the health insurance and employee benefits industry; and HealthCompare and Joppel by HealthCompare, which help individuals, families and seniors easily research, compare, buy and enroll in the right health insurance or Medicare Advantage, Medigap or Prescription Drug plan at the right price. The Word & Brown Companies have built strong relationships with partners across the country – including more than 50,000 brokers and hundreds of health plans through which they provide benefits and service to approximately 60,000 employers with nearly 6.5 million eligible employees and hundreds of thousands of consumers nationwide. For more information about the firm, visit www.wordandbrowncompanies.com.

Study: Some Children Lose Autism Diagnosis

   (NIH) - 1/17/2013 - Some children who are accurately diagnosed in early childhood with autism lose the symptoms and the diagnosis as they grow older, a study supported by the National Institutes of Health has confirmed. The research team made the finding by carefully documenting a prior diagnosis of autism in a small group of school-age children and young adults with no current symptoms of the disorder.
   The report is the first of a series that will probe more deeply into the nature of the change in these children’s status. Having been diagnosed at one time with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), these young people now appear to be on par with typically developing peers. The study team is continuing to analyze data on changes in brain function in these children and whether they have subtle residual social deficits. The team is also reviewing records on the types of interventions the children received, and to what extent they may have played a role in the transition.
   "Although the diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time, the findings suggest that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes," NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel said. "For an individual child, the outcome may be knowable only with time and after some years of intervention. Subsequent reports from this study should tell us more about the nature of autism and the role of therapy and other factors in the long term outcome for these children."
   The study, led by Deborah Fein, Ph.D., at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, recruited 34 optimal outcome children, who had received a diagnosis of autism in early life and were now reportedly functioning no differently than their mainstream peers. For comparison, the 34 children were matched by age, sex, and nonverbal IQ with 44 children with high-functioning autism, and 34 typically developing peers. Participants ranged in age from 8 to 21 years old.
   Prior studies had examined the possibility of a loss of diagnosis, but questions remained regarding the accuracy of the initial diagnosis, and whether children who ultimately appeared similar to their mainstream peers initially had a relatively mild form of autism. In this study, early diagnostic reports by clinicians with expertise in autism diagnosis were reviewed by the investigators. As a second step to ensure accuracy, a diagnostic expert, without knowledge of the child’s current status, reviewed reports in which the earlier diagnosis had been deleted. The results suggested that children in the optimal outcome group had milder social deficits than the high functioning autism group in early childhood, but had other symptoms, related to communication and repetitive behavior, that were as severe as in the latter group.
   The investigators evaluated the current status of the children using standard cognitive and observational tests and parent questionnaires. The optimal outcome children had to be in regular education classrooms with no special education services aimed at autism. They now showed no signs of problems with language, face recognition, communication, and social interaction.
   This study cannot provide information on what percentage of children diagnosed with ASD might eventually lose the symptoms. Study investigators have collected a variety of information on the children, including structural and functional brain imaging data, psychiatric outcomes, and information on the therapies that the children received. Analysis of those data, which will be reported in subsequent papers, may shed light on questions such as whether the changes in diagnosis resulted from a normalizing of brain function, or if these children's brains were able to compensate for autism-related difficulties. The verbal IQs of the optimal outcome children were slightly higher than those with high functioning autism. Additional study may reveal whether IQ may have been a factor in the transition they made.
   "All children with ASD are capable of making progress with intensive therapy, but with our current state of knowledge most do not achieve the kind of optimal outcome that we are studying," Fein said. "Our hope is that further research will help us better understand the mechanisms of change so that each child can have the best possible life."
   The mission of the NIMH is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery and cure. For more information, visit http://www.nimh.nih.gov.
   Source: National Institutes of Health

U.S. Farm and Food Policy Called Unbalanced

   WASHINGTON – (EWG) - 1/13/2013 - Buried in the 150-page “fiscal cliff” tax bill passed New Year's Day is a last-minute farm bill extension that buys time for Congress to craft and debate an improved measure to establish food and farm policy for the long haul.
  But it comes at a cost. The extension perpetuates the widely discredited direct payment farm subsidies that will send $5 billion this year alone to large farming operations that already reap record profits.
   “While a deeply flawed nine-month extension is marginally better than a deeply flawed five-year farm bill, this short-term band-aid is not good public policy,” said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group. “A responsible measure would have cut direct payments and insurance subsidies and fully funded important conservation programs. It is critical that Congress craft a farm bill this year that supports family farmers and protects the environment.”
   Instead of eliminating the wasteful direct payments program, the bill passed by Congress shortly before midnight New Year’s Day cuts funding for organic agriculture, clean water, and beginning farmer initiatives.
  “This extension reflects the skewed priorities that continue to produce a totally unbalanced farm and food policy,” Cox said. “Soil erosion, land conversion, and water pollution from farm chemicals are enormous challenges. Yet this extension will hobble a major conservation program, while channeling billions in cash payments to already highly profitable farm businesses. It makes little sense to cut support for organics, the fastest growing sector of the agriculture economy, and to curtail a long list of other initiatives designed to increase access to healthy food and create new economic opportunities for family farms.”
   Congressional efforts to pass legislation authorizing food and farm programs for the next five years have been hampered by attempts by supporters of big agriculture to create new lavish insurance subsidies.
   “This latest deal underscores for the good food movement why organizations like Food Policy Action are so important to the task of expanding federal government support for innovative food and agriculture policies,” Cox said. “Without significant pressure on Congress and the White House, we can be sure that efforts to improve access to healthy food and reduce dangerous chemicals in the environment will fail.”
   Source: Environmental Working Group

Electric Rates May Rise As Consumers Use Less

   NEW YORK - () - 1/6/2013 - The credit rating firm Fitch believes the expected small increases in U.S. electricity usage will add to the financial pressure on some power entities. The Energy Information Administration projects a 0.6 percent increase in consumption for industry and 0.7 percent for residences through 2040. Consumption fell in 2008, 2009, and 2011 with a small increase in 2010.     For competitive generation companies (gencos), the dampening effect on electricity sales from energy efficiency has exacerbated the already depressed spot and forward wholesale power prices. Coal-fired generators are most vulnerable as evidenced by the recent writedown by Ameren of its merchant genco business and Dominion's retirement of its Kewaunee nuclear power plant.
    "Over the next three-to-five years, we expect increasing challenges to the monopolistic utility business model as federal lighting standards will be fully effective in 2015 and competition is introduced from energy efficiency and demand-response businesses, the economics of which compare favorably to utility supplied power and such lost sales will hurt the utility credit profile. The avoidance of electricity consumption, measured as 'negawatts', is already reflected in market pricing at PJM capacity auctions and competes with traditionally supplied power. Higher unit costs and stranded costs in less productive capital investments are the largest potential impact from slower electricity sales," the firm said.
    In Fitch's view, the impact on most public power entities is not likely to be as material, given their cost-of-service business model and lower reliance on industrial sector sales. Slower growth in usage could even delay investment in expensive new power supply resources for many public power utilities, thereby moderating production costs and necessary rate increases.
    However, public power entities that rely heavily on the sale of excess power to subsidize retail revenue are likely to face continued pressure to raise rates in 2013. In addition to the reduction in usage, the firm expects pressure on these entities to rise as wholesale market prices increase only modestly through 2015, natural gas prices remain low and most regions of the U.S. maintain excess capacity.
    For more information, see: www.fitchratings.com.

Brokerage Firm Owner Pleads Guilty to Fraud

   NEW YORK – 1/1/2013 - Mitchell Cohen, the owner of the now defunct Buy-A-Home real estate brokerage business, pleaded guilty on December 27, 2012, to one count of conspiracy to commit wire, bank and mail fraud in connection with a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud scheme, announced U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara.
   Cohen also pleaded guilty to one count of perjury in connection with statements he made in a contempt proceeding related to the December 2010 civil fraud lawsuit filed against him by this office. Cohen pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald L. Ellis and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 26, 2013 by U.S. District Judge Denise L. Cote.
   The charge of conspiracy to commit wire, bank and mail fraud, carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison. The perjury charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Charges against Cohen’s co-defendant, Erin Davis, remain pending.
   “Mitchell Cohen was a tornado of mortgage fraud, and he left a trail of destruction in his wake – borrowers who could ill-afford the homes he pushed them to buy, banks that were saddled with the bad loans, and taxpayers whose tax dollars paid the insurance claims that had to be paid when borrowers defaulted. Cohen also thumbed his nose at the legal process by defying a judge’s order and then lying about it under oath. With his plea today, Cohen is owning up to his crimes,” Bharara said.
   According to the Indictment and statements made in public proceedings in Manhattan federal court: During the period charged in the Indictment, 2007-2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Federal Housing Administration (HUD-FHA) provided mortgage insurance to borrowers seeking residential mortgages. Unlike conventional loans, FHA-insured loans required little cash investment from borrowers and were more flexible in income and payment ratio requirements. To qualify for FHA mortgage insurance, a potential borrower had to meet HUD’s requirements regarding creditworthiness and ability to make mortgage payments. No undisclosed payments could be made or promised by third parties on behalf of the borrower in connection with a residential mortgage transaction. At all relevant times, certain private lenders were authorized to make commitments on behalf of HUD for the provision of FHA mortgage insurance. They did so through the execution and ultimate submission to HUD of various mortgage documents, forms, and supporting documentation. Because FHA-backed mortgages were valuable commodities, lenders typically sold them to banks that pooled them and then resold them to institutional investors.
   From April 2007 through October 2010, Cohen operated a real estate brokerage business in Queens, N.Y. known, at various times, as Buy-a-Home, LLC and First Home Brokerage, LLC (Buy-a-Home). Buy-a-Home employed several sales managers, as well as a number of sales agents who recruited clients who were usually first-time buyers to purchase homes. Cohen and Buy-a-Home employees facilitated the sales of the homes by preparing documentation to secure FHA-insured loans to fund the borrowers’ purchases.
   During that time period, Cohen engaged in a widespread conspiracy to defraud HUD into issuing FHA mortgage insurance and to defraud banks into purchasing the FHA-backed mortgages issued to Buy-a-Home’s clients in order to earn substantial profits. Through entities he controlled, Cohen bought, or promised sellers he would buy, homes at one price, and then he and others at Buy-a-Home recruited unsophisticated buyers of modest means and induced them into purchasing the same homes at inflated prices, which were typically $100,000 higher than the original sale price. To insure that the deals for these properties would go through, Cohen and others schemed to make the Buy-a-Home clients – who did not and could not qualify to receive FHA mortgage insurance – seem more creditworthy. In furtherance of this scheme:
   • Cohen directed Buy-a-Home employees to pay off borrowers’ debts, often with cash funneled through bank accounts belonging to the borrowers’ relatives, in order to make them appear more creditworthy and to make it seem that their debts had been paid by an appropriate source;
   • Cohen directed Buy-a-Home employees to provide cash to borrowers so that they could obtain certified checks falsely showing that they had sufficient funds to close;
   • Cohen directed borrowers’ relatives to sign false gift affidavits to make it seem that the borrowers’ debts had lawfully been paid, or that the borrowers’ funds for closing had been appropriately provided by relatives, when in fact they had unlawfully paid off the debts themselves or through Buy-a-Home; and
   • Cohen advised borrowers to make other false statements on loan applications submitted to HUD.
   In so doing, Cohen concealed the borrowers’ true financial condition from HUD and the banks that subsequently bought the FHA-backed mortgages, all in an effort to insure that Cohen and Buy-a-Home could profit from the deals. Cohen also made mortgage payments on behalf of certain borrowers to further conceal their financial condition and to prevent banks from enforcing their right to sell loans back to the lenders that first provided the borrowers with mortgages.
   Through this scheme, Cohen defrauded HUD into issuing, and banks into purchasing, millions of dollars in fraudulent loans. Furthermore, because the FHA insurance was based on false statements made to HUD, and the borrowers could not really afford their mortgages, many of the homes went into foreclosure proceedings forcing HUD to pay out at least $1 million in insurance payments.
   In December 2010, the Civil Frauds Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York filed a complaint against Cohen and others alleging fraud at Buy-a-Home. On Dec. 29, 2010, the District Judge presiding over the civil action entered a preliminary injunction barring Cohen from participating in real estate sales involving HUD-insured mortgages and any advertising, marketing, or solicitation of business involving the same. Subsequently, in October 2011, the government moved for a finding of civil contempt against Cohen, alleging that he willfully violated the preliminary injunction by re-establishing Buy-a-Home under a new name – Y-Rent New York, LLC – which was nominally owned by Cohen’s wife and another individual, but was in fact operated by Cohen. In connection with his opposition to the contempt motion, Cohen filed a declaration on Nov. 11, 2011, in which he stated, under penalty of perjury, that he was not involved with Y Rent, did not train Y Rent’s salespeople, did not take certain types of business calls, and did not speak to prospective borrowers. As Cohen admitted during the plea, those statements were false.