This Week

Issue: "Parable of the perjurer," Jan. 9, 1999

Take it to the bank

A proposed set of banking regulations called "Know Your Customer" will order banks to watch their customers' deposits and withdrawals, and then report "suspicious" transactions back to the federal government. "Big Bank is watching," remarked Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). He plans to introduce legislation this month repealing these laws. "With complex laws and unimaginably obscure regulations, the cards are stacked against everyone, ensuring that at any moment, the IRS or other agency can nail anyone for something," the congressman said. Proponents say this plan will help hold back drug traffickers and other criminals who launder money. Opponents-ranging from the Free Congress Foundation on the right to the ACLU on the left-say this brings the government's eyes onto the bank books of innocent Americans. They say it violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure. The California Bankers Association opposes the measures. Executive director Larry Kurmel says it will force banks to "cast a wide net that covers virtually all bank customers in the hope of identifying a small number of illicit transactions." That includes first time homebuyers, widows collecting life insurance, small businessmen, attorneys, and accountants. Mr. Kurmel predicts Know Your Customer will be misused by federal agencies and distract investigators from the ever enormous task of tracking fraud cases. He also says he wants the laws at least delayed to let banks focus on their Y2K preparations.

The name game

Kirsti Larsen was thrown in a Norwegian jail because she gave her son a first name that was not on the government's list of acceptable choices. She named him Gesher, which means "bridge" in Hebrew. This violates Norway's strict laws regulating names, which include lists of acceptable first and last names. When Mrs. Larsen tried to register her son's name as Gesher at her local county office back in 1995, it was rejected as illegal. She appealed repeatedly but was ordered to change the name, pay a $210 fine, or spend two days in jail. Mrs. Larsen refused to change the name of her boy, who is now four. So she went to prison for two days, leaving her husband and 10 children at home. But since little Gesher is still named Gesher, no one knows how this dispute will be settled. "Many probably would have bowed to 'Big Brother' and paid the fine. On principle, I couldn't go along with such absurdity," Mrs. Larsen told the Verdens Gang newspaper. "Maybe the authorities thought I would come running with the money when they ordered me to serve my sentence just before Christmas, but I didn't let them scare me."

The money pit

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Russia failed to make a $362 million payment on debt that it owes to commercial banks around the world. But government and commercial lenders stopped short of calling the non-gesture a default, even though economists conceded it looked like one. When Russia's economic crisis began last August, conservatives in Congress conceded demands for greater scrutiny of International Monetary Fund policies, which led to a bailout agreement for the country's ravaged financial system. Now, in addition to defaulting on loans from foreign governments, Moscow for the first time failed on its obligation to private banks. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev says he is hurting much like the man in the street in the wake of Russia's financial decline. Mr. Gorbachev told a German magazine he lost his life's savings-about $80,000-when the ruble was devalued last summer and the Moscow bank where he had his account went bankrupt.

Betty Crocker dies at 93

Adelaide Hawley Cumming, the woman General Mills hired in 1949 to play Betty Crocker on TV, has died at age 93. The character continues as a corporate logo on over 250 products. She was once "the second most recognizable woman, next to Eleanor Roosevelt," said General Mills spokesman Jack Sheehan. "I am the current incarnation of a corporate image," Ms. Cumming said of herself. After General Mills dropped her in 1964, Betty Crocker's look kept mutating. This icon of American womanhood was radically overhauled into multiculturalism in 1996. Her eye color changed from blue to brown and her skin became noticeably tanner. General Mills says her look changes to reflect cultural shifts in fashion.

Ready for more punishment

If Washington is looking for a diversion, Saddam Hussein looks ready for war. His forces pummeled by four days of Gulf War-reprise bombing and missile strikes ordered by President Clinton, Mr. Hussein just comes up swinging. An Iraqi missile battery opened fire on U.S. aircraft in northern Iraq on Dec. 28. U.S. forces destroyed the missile site, but Iraqi officials remain defiant in the face of mounting losses. Since Mr. Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox on Dec. 16, the Iraqis have denied the legitimacy of no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq; declared the work of UN arms inspectors null and void; refused permission for UN relief workers to fly through Iraqi airspace; and threatened to halt a program permitting the sale of Iraqi oil in exchange for food and medicine. Military experts said the attack on U.S. forces was serious because Iraq made a "meaningful" attempt to bring down U.S. patrols, using a surface-to-air missile launch technique similar to the one that shot down Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady over Bosnia in June 1995.

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