Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Aging in place," March 31, 2001

Not Riady to rumble
Indonesian businessman James Riady, sometime churchgoer and Democratic Party campaign contributor, pled guilty on March 19 to campaign-finance violations beginning with Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential race. Under the Riady plea deal that day, a federal district judge in Washington slapped him with fines of $8.6 million for using foreign corporate funds to back the former president. Those contributions are illegal under U.S. law, and the fine is the largest in U.S. history, according to the Justice Department. Mr. Riady was also sentenced to two years of probation and 400 hours of community service, all as part of a plea agreement. Mr. Riady was the subject of a lengthy congressional investigation along with his associate, John Huang. Mr. Huang, who worked inside the Democratic National Committee, already has been sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to conspiring to violate federal campaign-finance laws. Mr. Riady returned voluntarily to the United States from Indonesia, where he heads the Lippo Group, a conglomerate founded by his father, in order to face 87 counts of illegal contributions. In his statement to Judge Consuelo Marshall, Mr. Riady opted for the passive construction: "Your honor, mistakes have been made, which I regret." He also noted he did not have to return to the United States, "but I wanted to own up to what I did and put this all behind me." The high-profile plea does not put every question to rest, however. Court papers show that Mr. Riady, in interviews with federal prosecutors, denied pledging $1 million directly to Mr. Clinton in a limousine ride during the 1992 campaign. He did admit to a conversation in the limousine and to pledging to support Mr. Clinton. Mr. Huang insists that Mr. Riady named a specific dollar amount. Mr. Clinton maintains he does not remember the limo ride or the conversation. According to the government documents, the Lippo Group hoped to influence U.S. foreign policy for its own advantage. Among its goals was to gain Most Favored Nation trade status for China, normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam, and open-trade policies with Indonesia. During Mr. Clinton's two terms as president, those dramatic policy changes took place, although public records may never reflect just how much overseas agents paid Mr. Clinton and the Democratic Party for the favors. Not content with the settlement, the watchdog group Judicial Watch on March 19 filed a motion to block the Riady plea agreement. It said Mr. Riady was a "Chinese agent" and argued for a stiffer penalty because his White House connections gained him access to over 150 national security briefings. POWELL: OUTLINES A MORE 'DO-IT-YOURSELF' POLICY FOR MIDDLE EAST
To assist, not insist
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell drew a pointed distinction between the Clinton administration's strategy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the emerging policy of President George W. Bush. "The United States stands ready to assist, not insist," Mr. Powell said during the first day of a visit to the United States by Ariel Sharon, Israel's new prime minister. Mr. Powell said he wants Palestinians and Israelis to restart the peace process themselves, and he called for violence in the West Bank and Gaza to stop. But the State Department is critical of an announcement by the Sharon government to expand Jewish settlements in largely Palestinian East Jerusalem. SPIELBERG, PEROT, WINFREY, TURNER, AND MORE TARGETED IN IDENTITY-THEFT SCHEME
Ripping off the rich
Abraham Abdallah allegedly took to the Internet to rip off America's richest people. The high-school dropout and restaurant busboy stands charged with targeting people including Steven Spielberg, Martha Stewart, Warren Buffett, Ross Perot, Oprah Winfrey, and Ted Turner in one of history's most thorough identity-theft schemes. The crime sounds like a Hollywood suspense story. "He's the best I ever faced," NYPD Detective Michael Fabozzi told the New York Post. Court papers say Mr. Abdallah had a dog-eared copy of last fall's Forbes "400 Richest People in America" issue, with his own notations of Social Security numbers, home addresses and birth dates of 200 chief executives, celebrities, and tycoons. The suspect was charged with criminal impersonation, forgery, and fraud. Through an attorney, Mr. Abdallah maintains his innocence, but authorities say he used library computers, Web-enabled cell phones, and even couriers for the six-month scam. He allegedly duped major credit-reporting companies into providing him data and accessed accounts at brokerage houses such as Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch. Executives at the latter firm became suspicious about an e-mail request to transfer $10 million from an account belonging to software magnate Thomas Siebel. When the founder of Siebel Systems said he never made the request, Merrill Lynch contacted authorities. Authorities say Mr. Abdallah was arrested after they found a package meant for him that contained $25,000 worth of equipment used to manufacture credit cards. What will come from this? Representatives of intended victims didn't immediately comment on the case, but such a caper is sure to make some people nervous. If the elite can be violated, so can the average Joe. Thus we can expect calls for increased security, including digital signatures, smart cards, and other efforts. MOST-FAVORED NATION: CHINA DETAINS FAMILY, INCLUDING U.S. CITIZEN
The right to remain silent
Communist officials in Beijing were still imprisoning (as of March 22) a Chinese-born faculty member at American University. Her Chinese-born husband, and their 5-year-old son, an American citizen, were also detained for almost a month. China's Foreign Ministry accuses Gao Zhan, 40, of "engaging in activities damaging state security." The charges ostensibly stem from Mrs. Gao's work as a political scientist at the Washington, D.C., university, where she is an unpaid faculty fellow doing research on women's issues and mainland/Taiwan relations. Officials detained the family at the Beijing airport on Feb. 11 as they prepared to return to Washington. Mrs. Gao's husband, Xue Donghua, and their child, Andrew, were released 26 days later. Mr. Xue said they had been held in separate locations, and officers refused to let him, his wife, or other relatives see Andrew the entire time, even though both parents requested that he be turned over to his grandparents. Mr. Xue told the Washington Post that security officers blindfolded him and drove him to a house about two hours from the airport. He was confined to a room and not allowed to contact relatives or a lawyer. Both parents are Chinese citizens who immigrated to the United States in 1989, but their son is a U.S. citizen. China failed to inform the American Embassy of the boy's detention as required by treaty. Mr. Xue said he and his wife were planning to return to China, and had been looking for jobs teaching in Chinese universities after spending the Chinese New Year with relatives. "We wanted to go back and do something for the country," he told the Post. Mr. Xue said he is worried about his wife because she has heart and other health problems. He said Chinese authorities warned him not to turn to the U.S. embassy or the media for help, but he has done both since his return because "waiting hasn't worked." GOVERNMENT ULTIMATUM AVERTS NEW BALKAN WAR
On the brink
Ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Macedonia offered an unlimited, unilateral cease-fire Mar. 21 in answer to an ultimatum by Macedonian forces. The government warned the rebels it would launch a full-scale bombardment-a threat raising fears of another Balkan war-if rebels continued to use violence to press for ethnic Albanian rights. The cease-fire will permit talks on a peaceful solution to the crisis threatening civil war in the former Yugoslav republic. MAN KNOWS NOT HIS TIME: REMEMBERING MADALYN MURRAY O'HAIR
A Madalyn moment
Citing forensic evidence, federal authorities on March 15 confirmed that bones dug up from a remote Texas ranch were those of professional atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, 76, her son Jon Garth Murray, 40, and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O'Hair, 30. The three had disappeared five years earlier, the victims of kidnapping, theft, and murder. WORLD's religion reporter Edward E. Plowman remembers the first time he met the colorful activist: It was November 1974 and Mrs. O'Hair had come to Washington to promote her new book, Freedom Under Siege. She set up shop in the Capital Hilton, a few doors down the hall from where the nation's Catholic bishops were holding their semi-annual meeting. She spoke with me during an afternoon break. We sank into blue overstuffed chairs in the hotel lobby. A female aide hovered nearby. The matriarch of American atheism was her usual gruff, bombastic self; she dropped some crude one-liners about what the Catholics might be up to, and laughed. Pushing my chair around to face her, I told her I wanted to learn more about her early life. She'd been born on Palm Sunday in 1919 to John and Lena Mays, devout members of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, a conservative citadel of faith. She was baptized there, and attended Sunday school regularly. She sat under the preaching of Clarence Edward McCartney, one of the strongest evangelical voices of the century. What had gone wrong? She acknowledged she had been opinionated and strong-willed from childhood. Along about age 13, she said, she decided that "I didn't believe that stuff anymore" and announced to her parents she wasn't going back to Sunday school. Nevertheless, she was in and out of church through her teen years; she said she paid little heed to the preaching, but she loved the music. It was the music that kept her coming back. In a mellow moment-or was it peer pressure-in her senior year at high school, she wrote that her goal upon graduation was "to serve God for the betterment of mankind." It was a pledge she abandoned early on. The years that followed were hellish: marriage marred by unfaithfulness on her part, two sons born out of wedlock, infatuation with leftist causes (she tried unsuccessfully in the late 1950s to become a Soviet citizen), her 1963 Supreme Court case that purged mandatory prayer and Bible reading from public schools and made her the most hated woman in America (she relished the title), financial intrigue that attracted the IRS and divided her American Atheists movement, and much more. She wouldn't identify the turning point in her teens or early adulthood when she chucked God and the church out of her life and mind, or why. Surely, I suggested, she hadn't really jettisoned everything from those early years and experiences; there must be some positive influence that survived. For a moment, the arrogance and bitterness disappeared, and she smiled. "The music," she said. She leaned over and confided: "Almost every Christmas and Easter, I slip into the back of a church to listen to the music. That's the part I can't resist." Then the scowl returned to her face. "If you print that, I'll deny it," she said, laughing again. Standing up to end the interview, Mrs. O'Hair summoned the aide and asked her to fetch a book from her briefcase. She wrote inside it: "To Edward Plowman. Keep the faith, but keep it to yourself. Madalyn O'Hair, 22nd Nov. 1974." If she had embraced and kept the faith herself, count on it: she wouldn't have kept it to herself. COHEN SAYS DOW TO HIT 13,000
Go-go gurus
Where have all the gurus gone? As the stock markets skyrocketed in the late 1990s, analysts, hypesters, and prognosticators eagerly filled the air. Obviously, the backlash is on, but three New Economy superstars-Abby Joseph Cohen, Henry Blodget, and Mary Meeker-are still making predictions. These three remain at their respective desks, representing Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley, respectively, and they still can be found on TV. "Making money is hard again," Mr. Blodget told the New York Post. Tell us about it. Mr. Blodget made his career when he went bullish on Amazon.com and talked up various dot-coms-including the likes of Pets.com, which imploded. In 1996, Ms. Cohen predicted that stocks were going higher, becoming a star of the wild bull market that followed. One year ago, as the Nasdaq was bouncing around 5,000, she blinked. She said that some tech stocks were "no longer undervalued" and advised clients to move some of their portfolios into cash. By November, however, she advised clients to start buying again. Ms. Cohen is now a contrarian. Earlier this month, with the Dow headed below the 10,000 mark, she predicted that the Dow Jones industrials would hit 13,000 by year's end. "Opportunities are often the best when uncertainty is rampant," she wrote in a research note. Gurus rise with every major market, only to fade away later: Gerald Tsai in the 1960s, Harvey Kaufman in the 1970s, and Elaine Garzarelli in the 1980s. Those who can call one trend never seem able to spot the next. -Chris Stamper AMERICAN AIRLINES SWALLOWS UP A STRUGGLING TWA
Out of gas
Up, up, and goodbye. TWA, the once-dominant airline whose history goes back to Charles Lindbergh, will likely be absorbed into American Airlines. A merger approved by the Justice Department last week would save most of TWA's 20,000 jobs, but retire a great name. Trans World Airlines spent 12 straight years in the red. Last year was the airline's biggest year, serving a record 26.4 million passengers, but a spike in fuel prices drove a nail in the coffin. A resource-saving fleet modernization program would have been finished by 2003, but the St. Louis-based airline simply ran out of time. TWA traces its roots to the 1925 founding of Western Air Express; for 20 years, the acronym was Transcontinental and Western Air. It pioneered U.S. coast-to-coast service, the nonsmoking section, and the in-flight movie. TWA also passed through the hands of two major moguls-Howard Hughes and Carl Ichan-and survived two trips through bankruptcy. Under the proposed deal, American would pay $742 million for most of TWA's assets and turn its St. Louis home base into a third hub. American made no announcement concerning when TWA will disappear-or what will happen to travelers' Aviators Club miles. PBS APPRAISERS FACE CHARGES
Antiques roadshill
The Antiques Roadshow has hit a nasty pothole with charges of fraud against two antique dealers who allegedly staged phony appraisals for the PBS show. The popular program lets people drag out their heirlooms, goodies, and kitsch for appraisal at a TV taping. Antiques Roadshow gives out free tickets for viewers to bring goods, then selects certain appraisals for broadcast. The show doesn't pay appraisers, but they do receive national publicity. Now cheating has put a cloud over the fun. Last year, Boston's WGBH-TV, the show's producer, severed ties with appraisers Russell Pritchard III and George Juno, claiming they staged a 1997 segment. In it, they told a man who they allegedly knew beforehand that a Civil War sword he found in his attic was worth $35,000. Mr. Pritchard and Mr. Juno could see decades of jail time and millions in fines. The men allegedly concocted the scheme to promote their Philadelphia military artifacts business. Prosecutors also accuse them of defrauding two owners of Civil War artifacts by buying the items for far less than their fair value and reselling them for large profits. Last year Antiques Roadshow boasted 14 million viewers, making it the top-rated PBS show on the air.

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