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Wednesday
Jun222011

Planes Narrowly Avoid Collision at New York's JFK Airport

Goodshot/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Federal aviation officials are investigating after two planes nearly collided on the runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Monday.

A Lufthansa jumbo jet carrying 286 passengers was speeding for takeoff, approaching 180 miles per hour, when an EgyptAir plane -- capable of carrying 346 people -- took a wrong turn onto its runway.

The Luftansa pilots had to slam on the breaks -- stopping so hard, they worried the aircraft's brakes had become dangerously overheated.

The Lufthansa flight eventually took off and arrived safely in Munich.

Sources tell the New York Post it appears the EgyptAir crew simply took a wrong turn.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Jun222011

International Billboard Research Trip 'Ridiculous,' Watchdog Says

The White House/Lawrence Jackson(WASHINGTON) -- The Obama administration has ordered a halt to a decade-long, multi-million dollar program that sent bureaucrats around the world to study foreign highways, but not before one group of officials completes an on-going taxpayer-funded foreign jaunt.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said late Tuesday he was suspending the program "while [he] personally reviews the way taxpayer dollars have been spent."

"The president has been clear: We must get rid of stupid spending and pointless waste," LaHood said in an emailed statement to ABC News. "Each taxpayer dollar is precious, and there is no excuse for wasting a single one.  That's why...I have suspended this program."

But LaHood's order came while a group of transportation officials was already abroad and that group plans to continue their itinerary -- studying pavement -- while LaHood studies the value of the program.  The group will return June 26, as scheduled, officials said.

"Taxpayers certainly should be outraged that their money is being spent on this type of activity when our roads are falling part, gas taxes and prices are at an all-time high," Tom Schatz, President of Citizens Against Government Waste, said on ABC's Good Morning America. "It really is a ridiculous use of our money."

The initiative, known as the International Scan Program, has been sending federal and state transportation employees to popular foreign tourist destinations for the past decade with the goal of studying how other countries handle the challenges of running major highway networks.  Other trips have been planned to study such issues as motorcycle safety, managing pavement, precast concrete, and adapting to climate change.

But the program began prompting questions in recent weeks, as members of Congress learned that a group of transportation officials traveled around the globe -- a nine city tour that took them to Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Great Britain -- in order to prepare a 76-page report about policies for dealing with billboard advertising.

Photos from the trip obtained by ABC News show some of the 12-member delegation toasting with wine glasses in Australia and driving the tulip-lined highways of Holland.  Travel records show the group secured luxury accommodations and ate in only the best eateries.  In Melbourne, that meant dining along the waterfront at the pricey Scusami Italian Restaurant, in Brisbane, the LAB Restaurant, in Stockholm, the five-star Fem Sma House.

The cost of the 17-day trip for bureaucrats to study billboards? Roughly $300,000, according to estimates the administration provided to Congress.  (Transportation officials said roughly $40,000 of that covered the expenses of the three federal workers on the trip.)

The program has been sending groups of federal and state workers on similar trips as often as four times a year for the past decade, at a total cost of nearly $12 million.

A transportation official said Tuesday night that the decision had been made weeks ago to include it in future cuts, and was not in response to ABC News questions.

Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, was also surprised by the extent of travel the Federal Highway Administration had engaged in, especially in an age when a great deal can be accomplished by teleconference and the Internet.

"I certainly think there's a waste of money here that this program needs to be tightened up, needs to be investigated," he said Tuesday.  "I think this is the type of foreign travel that should be grounded."

ABC News first contacted the Federal Highway Administration on Monday evening after obtaining a copy of a letter that House Republicans sent to the department late last week.

"We recognize that our transportation system can benefit from understanding best practices abroad," the June 17 letter to LaHood says.  "But we are unable to justify to the voters in our districts such spending in the face of rising gasoline prices and federal deficits."

The letter is signed by Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), John Carter (R-Texas), Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), Steve Southerland (R-Fl.) and Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.).

U.S. Transportation officials said the program has been co-financed with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials, and that it has produced some victories for taxpayers in the past.  For instance, one trip to study prefabricated bridge technologies contributed to accelerated bridge replacement in a number of locations, with some jurisdictions reporting savings as a result.

LaHood sent his statement to ABC News Tuesday evening, saying he did not believe it met the strict test the administration is using to evaluate spending programs.

"From the outset of this administration, I have urged agency personnel to be judicious and cost-conscious in the use of official travel and we will not tolerate any abuse of the public trust," he said.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Jun222011

Gunman Updated Facebook Page During Standoff

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images(OGDEN, Utah) -- Jason Valdez allegedly held a woman hostage and police at bay during a 16-hour standoff in Ogden, Utah, until they finally burst into the motel room where he was holed up and he shot himself in the chest.

Valdez is under guard at a nearby hospital, and it would all be another ugly crime story, except for this: Police say Valdez, 36, updated his Facebook status all through the confrontation -- and friends replied with encouragement and, in at least one case, help.

"I'm currently in a stand off wit these shady [expletives] from old, kinda ugly but ready for whatever," Valdez wrote in his first post at 11:23 p.m. Friday. "I love u guyz and if I don't make it out of here alive that I'm in a better place and u were all great friends..."

Another person replied, "jason be strong , you have family here for you. We love u!"

Police were trying to serve Valdez with a felony drug warrant Friday, when he barricaded himself in a room at the Western Colony Inn in Ogden, blocking the door and windows with furniture. He said on Facebook there was a woman with him named Veronica. At 2:04 a.m. he posted two pictures of himself with a young woman, apparently taken in the motel room.

"He had a smartphone with him and he was making updates," said Ogden Police Lt. Danielle Croyle, the watch commander. "The officers on the scene were aware of it and they changed tactics accordingly."

There was at least one post to Valdez from someone else, saying there was a SWAT team member hiding close to the room.

"Gun ner in the bushes stay low," said the post.

"Thank you homie," Valdez replied. "Good looking out."

Police said they tried to negotiate with the gunman, but he missed several deadlines they set. At 3:30 a.m., he sent this post: "They shut down all power and our phones are dying but I'm keep letting u all know I'm okay til these foolz make some dumb [expletive] move! Told em ill come out WHEN IM READY!!!!"

Valdez's last post was at 7:25 a.m. Saturday: "Well i was lettin this girl go but these dumb bastards made an attempt to come in after i told them not to, so i popped off a couple more shots and now were startin all over again it seems..."

An hour later, police said, they broke through the wall to arrest Valdez, but he shot himself before they could get to him. They said he is recovering from the gunshot wound, though they have not been given a prognosis. Police said officers on the scene never fired their weapons.

Charges are pending; Croyle said they could include kidnapping and attempted homicide. She said his Facebook friends could also face charges for trying to help him.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Jun222011

Afghanistan War Costs Loom Over Obama Troops Announcement

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- President Obama's planned drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan next month fulfills a promise he made more than a year ago, but also underscores the overwhelming costs of America's longest war.

While the United States grapples with debt and deficit crises, taxpayers are expected to spend more than $118 billion this year in Afghanistan for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans' health care.

That's more than double the amount the Department of Homeland Security spends per year to secure the nation's borders, screen air travelers, and help Americans recover from natural disasters, among other services. Afghanistan war spending is roughly six times the annual budget of NASA.

All told, the war that began in October 2001 has cost taxpayers more than an estimated $443 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service, and the lives of more than 1,523 U.S. military personnel.

Polls show the U.S. public has become increasingly war weary, leading members of both parties -- including some Republican candidates for president -- to pressure Obama to expedite his Afghanistan plan and reprioritize the war funds.

The pace of U.S. withdrawal proposed by Obama "sounds a little slow and a little cautious, when you look at one out of every six Defense Department dollars going in support of what we're doing in Afghanistan," former Utah governor and GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman said Wednesday on Good Morning America.

"Nine years and 50 days into this conflict, the money that has been spent on both conflicts, well over $1 trillion, I think we have to say, 'What have we accomplished in Afghanistan?'" he said.

Huntsman is not alone. While 57 percent of Americans in the latest ABC News poll say the war has contributed to long-term national security, far fewer, 25 percent, say it has contributed "a great deal," which is the kind of payback many want to see, given the war's steep price tag.

The Pentagon says all of its war-related costs since Sept. 11, 2001, including in Iraq, have topped $1 trillion. Add diplomatic expenses and care for veterans and total government spending reaches an estimated $1.3 trillion.

In a Senate speech Tuesday, freshman Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia said it was time to "rebuild America, not Afghanistan," and that Obama should pursue significant troop reduction immediately.

Earlier in the week, members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors also urged Congress to end both the Afghan and Iraq wars and invest the money instead on jobs at home.

Still, while Obama is expected to announce a reduction of 5,000 to 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, and as many as 30,000 "surge" troops next year, the shift won't dramatically reduce the burden of war on America's budget, statistics show.

The Pentagon estimates show that taxpayers could save $30 billion in the first year of a drawdown.

But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects war costs in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the next decade could still top $496 billion -- even if troop levels fall to 45,000 from 102,000 -- by 2015.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Jun222011

Casey Anthony's Defense Mirrors Story of Jailhouse Neighbor

Orange County Government, Florida(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- A Florida woman has come forward to say that she was a jailhouse neighbor of Casey Anthony at a time when the women talked about how her child drowned in the family pool and that the child's grandfather called 911 to report the death.

The woman's story is similar to the surprise defense offered by Casey Anthony's lawyers on the first day of her murder trial.

Prosecutor Linda Drane Burdick told the trial judge on Tuesday that the woman's story came to their attention last Thursday or Friday and her claim is being investigated.  She identified the woman as April Whalen.

Whalen's father, the man who reported his grandson's death in 2007, told ABC News that detectives came by his house last week to ask about his daughter.  He said that his daughter told him that she once slept next to Anthony's cell in 2009.

"I think she did talk to her [Casey Anthony]," Lynn Whalen said.

It's unclear if April Whalen told Anthony about her child's death.  April Whalen's 15-month-old son, Isaiah, accidentally drowned in the family's pool during a Christmas celebration in 2007.

Lynn Whalen did not know whether his daughter was the one who called the Orange County Sheriff's office, launching the investigation.  April Whalen, 30, has been booked into the Orange County jail at least 10 times on charges including petit theft, driving with a suspended license and drug possession.

Anthony, 25, is accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee and could face the death penalty if convicted.

Anthony and her defense team claimed in their opening statement that Caylee accidentally drowned in the family pool on June 16, 2008, 31 days before she was reported missing.  They also contend that George Anthony, Casey Anthony's father, helped dispose of the child's body.

Lynn Whalen wouldn't comment on how he felt about the possibility that Casey Anthony was using his family's tragedy as a defense in her trial.

Prosecutors said that for now they do not plan to call April Whalen as a witness, but that may change as the investigation continues.

Earlier on Tuesday, a defense witness in the Casey Anthony trial claimed that Caylee's skeletal remains could have been in a wooded area for as little time as two weeks.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Jun222011

Activist Criticizes McCain for Blaming Wildfires on Immigrants

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Sen. John McCain came under fire recently for stoking Arizona’s heated immigration debate by blaming undocumented immigrants for the state’s recent wildfires.

Activist Randy Parraz criticized McCain’s comments on ABC’s Top Line Tuesday, saying there was little proof of the senator’s claim.

“He could have said that Boy Scouts of America started this fire,” Parraz said.  “When you claim that there's substantial evidence you need to be able to produce that and he did not do that.”

Parraz, a Democrat, said Arizona’s climate is politically charged and sensitive, and McCain’s comments served to “fan the flames of fear and intolerance.”

McCain made his comments at a press conference on Saturday.

"There is substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally," McCain, R-Arizona, said in an interview aired on Phoenix’s KTVK.  The senator further suggested that immigrants are setting fires to “signal others,” “keep warm,” or to “divert law enforcement.”

McCain defended his comments on ABC’s Good Morning America Tuesday, saying, “Congressman Flake and I were briefed right just before that press conference by the forest service official that this same situation exits, so frankly, I’m not so sure what all this controversy is about.”

Parraz maintains that the senator made a “serious overstatement,” and capitalized on the state’s tragedy for political gains.

“John McCain had a national stage and he chose to play politics,” said Parraz.  “Not only did he say that there was substantial evidence that documented folks, he then made a request for more money for border security.  So now the fires are about border security.”

The Arizona activist also said McCain has gone through a political makeover over the last two years, edging further and further right in his policies and agendas.

Parraz is a labor activist and has been leading the effort to oust Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce.  Pearce sponsored Arizona’s immigration law and is known for his staunchly conservative policies.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Jun222011

President Obama to Announce Plans for Afghanistan Troop Reduction

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) -- In an address to the nation Wednesday night, President Obama is expected to announce a slow drain on American troop strength in Afghanistan.

The president will order a drawdown of 10,000 U.S. troops before the end of 2011, ABC News has learned, with the first troops returning next month. By next summer, in 2012, all of the remaining forces in the 33,000 troop surge would be withdrawn.

The president's address is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Jun212011

'Stupid Spending'?: ABC Inquires, Feds Stop Travel Program

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- A $1.2 million federal highway program that sent employees on a 17-day globe-trotting journey to photograph different billboards was suspended Tuesday after ABC News alerted the U.S. Department of Transportation that it planned to air a report on the program.

"The President has been clear: We must get rid of stupid spending and pointless waste," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an emailed statement to ABC News. "Each taxpayer dollar is precious, and there is no excuse for wasting a single one. That's why…I have suspended this program."

LaHood said he directed the Federal Highway Administration to shut down this program until further notice "while I personally review the way taxpayer dollars have been spent."

The initiative, known as the International Scan Program, has been sending federal and state transportation employees to popular foreign tourist destinations for the past decade with the goal of studying how other countries handle the challenges of running major highway networks. Other trips have been planned to study such issues as motorcycle safety, managing pavement, precast concrete, and adapting to climate change. But the program began prompting questions in recent weeks, as members of Congress learned that a group of transportation officials traveled around the globe -- a nine-city tour that took them to Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Great Britain -- in order to prepare a 76-page report about policies for dealing with billboard advertising.

Photos from the trip obtained by ABC News show some of the 12-member delegation toasting with wine glasses in Australia and driving the tulip-lined highways of Holland. Travel records show the group secured luxury accommodations and ate well. In Melbourne, that meant dining along the waterfront at the pricey Scusami Italian Restaurant; in Brisbane, the LAB Restaurant; in Stockholm, the five-star Fem Sma House.

The cost of the 17-day trip for bureaucrats to study billboards? Roughly $300,000, according to estimates the administration provided to Congress.

And this was not a one-time occurrence. The program has been sending groups of federal and state workers on similar trips as often as four times a year for the past decade, at a total cost of nearly $12 million.

ABC News first contacted the Federal Highway Administration on Monday evening after obtaining a copy of a letter that House Republicans sent to the department late last week.

"We recognize that our transportation system can benefit from understanding best practices abroad," the June 17 letter to LaHood says. "But we are unable to justify to the voters in our districts such spending in the face of rising gasoline prices and federal deficits."

The letter is signed by Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), John Carter (R-Texas), Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), Steve Southerland (R-Fl.) and Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.).

LaHood sent his statement to ABC News Tuesday evening, saying he did not believe it met the strict test the administration is using to evaluate spending programs.

"From the outset of this administration, I have urged agency personnel to be judicious and cost-conscious in the use of official travel and we will not tolerate any abuse of the public trust," he said.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Jun212011

Obama Finalizes Decision on Afghan Troop Withdrawal

The White House(WASHINGTON) -- The president has made a final decision on the pace and scope of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the White House announced Tuesday, while refusing to comment on any of the specifics.

In an address to the nation Wednesday night, Obama will announce his blueprint to begin withdrawing troops in July, a promise he made when he ordered the 30,000 troop “surge.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that the president’s decision process was “all about the mission that was laid out in December of 2009.”

“The parameters of the decision involve the beginning of the drawdown of U.S. forces.  As you know, we ramped up in a surge the number of forces in Afghanistan and we are at that peak point.  And the president...made the commitment that forces would begin to draw down in July of 2011.  He is keeping that commitment.  And that's what he will announce tomorrow evening,” Carney said.

The president met with members of his national security team Tuesday and informed them of his decision, but it has not been widely disseminated throughout the administration.

“He's met with members of his national security team principals, as well as others in his national security team a number of times.  And those meetings continued up through today,” Carney said. “Again, this is not something that he was starting from scratch on, so he has been working through his decision over the course of the last several weeks and finalized that decision today.”

While speculation abounds as to the number of troops that will be withdrawn, Carney said that the reports are just that -- speculation. “I think it's testament to the fact that every story has a different answer on what he's going to announce that the stories you're reading are speculation, and that the president's decision will be known when he announces it,” he said. “In fact, a lot of the stories came out before he had even finalized his decision.”

There are currently over 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 30,000 of whom were part of the surge designed to stabilize the war-torn country while it boosts its own forces. When Obama announced the surge, he also vowed to “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.”

Obama will likely make the argument Wednesday night that the U.S. has made significant progress toward achieving his goals: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, break the momentum of the Taliban, and stabilize the situation so that Afghan security forces can begin the process of taking over security.

“This president made the decision that this was a strategy that was right for national security interests of this country.  It is a strategy that we believe has led to our successes in taking the fight to al Qaeda, including in the successful mission against Osama bin Laden.  It has led to our successes in stopping the momentum of the Taliban and to our successes in training up Afghan security forces and preparing them to take the security lead,” Carney said Tuesday.

Asked how much consideration the president gave to waning public support for the war, Carney said, “I think we're all aware of what the public generally thinks. I think the public is interested in the right policy and a policy that is succeeding in achieving its very clearly specified goals.

"That's why the president wants to speak to the nation tomorrow.  And he's not doing it during the day, and he wants to do it at night, so he can reach the American people and explain this decision, make clear that he is keeping the commitment that he made in December of 2009 to begin this drawdown, and explain again why this is important,” he added.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Jun212011

NASA Astronaut Mark Kelly, Rep. Giffords' Husband, to Retire 

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Mark Kelly, the astronaut husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, announced Tuesday he is retiring from NASA to spend time with his wife and write a memoir with her.

"This was not an easy decision," he wrote on his Facebook page. Public service has been more than a job for me and my family." Rep. Giffords was shot in January in Tucson at an event she was hosting for residents of her Congressional district. Six others died and 13 were injured.

Kelly's retirement from NASA and the Navy, where he has served for 25 years, is effective Oct. 1. He has flown in space four times. He announced this morning that he and his wife have a deal with Scribner's publishers for a joint memoir. They said they will collaborate with Jeffrey Zaslow, best known for his work on Randy Pausch's best-selling "The Last Lecture."

Kelly wrote, "Gabrielle is working hard every day on her mission of recovery. I want to be by her side. Stepping aside from my work in the Navy and at NASA will allow me to be with her and with my two daughters. I love them all very much and there is no doubt that we will move forward together."

After the shooting Kelly faced an awful decision. He was assigned to command the space shuttle Endeavour on its final flight into space, but was unsure he could prepare for the mission while tending to his injured wife. He was finally persuaded she was recovering and was in good hands, and was at the controls when Endeavour lifted off May 16 on a two-week flight to the International Space Station.

The shooting, and the public attention that followed, brought Kelly a measure of fame that few modern astronauts have experienced, and which he never sought. He said he thought the focus should be on the mission, the upcoming end of the space shuttle program, and the $2 billion Alpha-Magnetic Spectrometer Endeavour carried to the space station to explore the makeup of the universe.

"It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore," said Kelly by radio to mission control in the moments before launch. "We must not stop. To all the millions watching today including our spouses, children, family and friends, we thank you for your support."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio







ABC News Radio