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    Monday, March 31, 2008

    Heli round two

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    USA TODAY - Singer Sean Levert dies at 39

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    By Thomas J. Sheeran, Associated Press

    Singer Sean Levert, a third of the 1980s R&B trio LeVert and son of lead O'Jays singer Eddie Levert, has died after falling ill while serving a jail term. He was 39.

    Levert's family released a statement:

    "There are no words that can express what we are feeling today. There is no song that can capture the loss that we have in our hearts. But we are humbly overwhelmed by the generous outpouring of love, condolences and support from the many friends, fans and admirers of our son Sean. At this very difficult time, we thank you for your prayers and hope you will understand our need for privacy."

    No funeral arrangements have been made.

    Levert was sent to the Cuyahoga County jail last week for failing to pay child support. He died at Lutheran Hospital in Cleveland late Sunday, less than an hour after he was taken there from the jail, said coroner Frank Miller. An autopsy was planned, he said.

    His brother Gerald Levert, who had success as a solo artist after leaving their trio died in 2006 at age 40 of an accidental mix of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

    The brothers had formed LeVert in the 1980s with childhood friend Marc Gordon. Their hits included and Baby I'm Ready,(Pop, Pop, Pop, Pop) Goes My Mind and Casanova.

    Casanova was nominated for a Grammy in 1988 for best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocal. It was also nominated for best R&B song.

    At Gerald Levert's funeral service in November 2006, Sean Levert and his father performed Dance With My Father and personalized the words for Gerald. The elder Levert's group, the O'Jays, was known for such smash hits as Back Stabbers and Love Train.

    Sean Levert found a new third partner last year and was trying to revive LeVert.

    Warden Kevin McDonough said Levert had been sick and guards were watching him at the jail's regular cellblock because he had been acting strangely. He declined to be more specific about Levert's medical condition.

    Levert suffered from high blood pressure and had been hallucinating in jail, Caesar said. Toxicology reports could take four to six weeks, he said.

    Sean Levert had pleaded guilty last week to six counts of non-support involving children ages 11, 15 and 17.

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    USA TODAY - Absolut sale: Vodka-maker sold for about $9B

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    By Karl Ritter, Associated Press Writer

    French liquor group Pernod Ricard outbid three other companies to buy Sweden's state-owned Vin & Sprit, the maker of Absolut vodka, for $8.89 billion, the company said Monday.

    The deal ends months of speculation over who would take over one of the world's biggest vodka brands, which was put on the auction bloc as part of a sell-off of state-owned companies.

    Absolut is the world's fourth best-selling international spirit brand behind Diageo's Smirnoff vodka, Bacardi rum and Diageo's Johnnie Walker scotch.

    Managing Director Pierre Pringuet said the acquisition will fill a strategy gap for Pernod Ricard, which didn't previously have any premium vodka brands in its portfolio.

    "We wanted to bolster our presence in the U.S. and Absolut, with its 5 million cases will definitely do that," Pringuet told reporters in Stockholm, referring to Absolut's yearly sales of 9-litre cases of vodka in the U.S.

    "We intend to develop the brand and if possible accelerate its strengths," he said.

    The world's second-largest wine and spirits company beat the favorite, Jim Beam bourbon maker Fortune Brands (FO), to win control of one of the biggest and fastest-growing spirits brands half of which is sold in the United States.

    It also beat Bacardi and an investment group controlled by Sweden's Wallenberg family.

    Analysts at HSBC hailed it as a "master stroke", but said the high cost of the deal proved there were no cheap opportunities left in the fast-consolidating drinks sector.

    The French company said it will buy Vin & Sprit for $6.05 billion plus 1.45 billion euros and assume outstanding debt of 346 million euros, giving the deal an enterprise value of $8.89 billion, using Friday's exchange rate.

    The Swedish government, using an average exchange rate over the past 30 days, said the deal was worth 55 million kronor or $9.24 billion.

    "Pernod Ricard submitted an offer that on an overall assessment is the most attractive," the government said. "Pernod Ricard will be an excellent home for V&S. The board of V&S has expressed that they see significant industrial logic in the transaction."

    The government said the French company owner of brands such as Chivas Regal whisky, Mumm champagne and Beefeater gin intends to keep Vin & Sprit and Absolut vodka based in Sweden.

    "There is no written contract about that but the value of the brand is because it is Swedish," Pernod Ricard Chairman Patrick Ricard said. "A Swedish brand must be produced in Sweden."

    The government said the deal includes the whole company, except for Vin & Sprit's 10% share in U.S. spirits company Beam Global Spirits & Wine, which would be sold under a previous agreement with Beam shareholders.

    The deal will be completed during the summer.

    With its range of flavors from peach to blackcurrant, Absolut is the premium brand in Vin & Sprit's product range. Its other brands include Cruzan rum, Plymouth gin, a handful of Scandinavian aquavits and bitters and hundreds of wines.

    Absolut is believed to represent roughly half of the company's sales of $1.48 billion in 2006.

    Pernod Ricard said the deal would generate synergies estimated at $197 million to $237 million annually before taxes, partly by integrating distribution networks.

    "These synergies should be put into place in between two-four years after the finalization of this acquisition, depending on the timeline of distribution accords," the company said.

    As a result of the deal, Pernod Ricard said it would end its distribution agreement with vodka brand Stolichnaya, or Stoli.

    Contributing: Reuters

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    USA TODAY - NFL rethinking playoff seeding

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    PALM BEACH, Fla.
    By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY

    Part of the New York Giants' mojo in streaking to an unexpected Super Bowl XLII title in February was wrapped in their identity as road warriors.

    DARK DAYS AHEAD? Analyzing the NFL owners meetings

    First stop, Tampa. Then Dallas. Then Green Bay.

    The Giants never had a home playoff game, but it didn't stop them from getting an opportunity to upset the undefeated New England Patriots.

    At the NFL meetings beginning Monday, owners will consider a proposed rule change that could have allowed the Giants to open the postseason at home. The proposal to re-seed the playoffs could have afforded the Jacksonville Jaguars, who also won a road playoff opener against a division champion (Pittsburgh) with a worse record, the same opportunity.

    DISCUSS: Would you re-seed the playoffs?

    The league's competition committee seeks to shuffle the third through sixth seeds in each conference, basing the order on regular-season record rather than reserving the third and fourth seeds and a home game the first week of the playoffs for division champions.

    "This is something we've talked about for five or six years," said Rich McKay, the Atlanta Falcons' president and co-chair of the competition committee. "It goes back to when we went to eight divisions (in 2002) we were extremely nervous about the fact that you could have a situation where there's a division or two that's extremely weak one year or another, and create an imbalance as to who should qualify for the playoffs."

    The proposal on the table wouldn't include preventing a division champ from making the playoffs. And the division winners from each conference with the best two records would still earn a bye. Yet as illustrated with the Giants (10-6 during the last regular season) and Jaguars (11-5) both finishing a game better than their first-round opponents, wild-card teams would compete for home playoff games.

    Since the league realigned in 2002, four playoff settings might have been re-bracketed with a new formula.

    With first-round home games at stake, the final weekend of the regular season that is typically distinguished by random cases of non-competitiveness could become a lot more interesting.

    The Buccaneers, for example, lost their final two regular-season games in 2007 after wrapping up the NFC South title in Week 15. Quarterback Jeff Garcia was rested, with little incentive to win.

    A re-seeding could reduce the number of cases where a team's competitiveness is questioned because players are held out.

    Opponents of the proposal, however, might argue that the value of winning a division title will be diminished; that it is their right to rest players for the playoffs.

    Said McKay: "I think to make as many games as competitive as we can late in the year would be a good step for the league."

    Owners will also consider several other proposals, including one that would allow a defensive player to wear a helmet equipped with a radio transmitter that would receive instructions from a coach on the sideline. There are also measures that would prevent players from covering their names and numbers on their jerseys by long hair; eliminate the "force-out" rule; and allow for instant replay to be used for field goals.

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    USA TODAY - Housing Secretary resigns under pressure

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    From staff and wire reports

    Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson announced Monday he was resigning after seven years on the job.

    Jackson, 62, is under criminal investigation and has been fending off allegations of cronyism and favoritism involving HUD contractors for the past two years.

    ON DEADLINE: More on Jackson's resignation

    He also was under intense pressure from Democrats to resign.

    He did not mention the probe in his statement Monday to the media.

    The FBI has been examining the ties between Jackson and a friend who was paid $392,000 by Jackson's department as a construction manager in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

    "I am eternally grateful for the opportunity that you reposed the confidence in me to serve our country in this capacity and for the special friendship we share," Jackson said, thanking President Bush for the "privilege" of serving his country. "We have helped families keep their homes, we have transformed public housing, we have reduced chronic homelessness" and preserved affordable housing, he said.

    Bush, in a statement Monday, said "I have known Alphonso Jackson for many years, and I have known him to be a strong leader and a good man. I have accepted his resignation with regret."

    Jackson said he needs time to attend to personal and family matters.

    He did not take questions or elaborate on the family reasons he cited for the decision.

    Jackson resigns at a time when nation's housing industry is in a crisis so serious that it has imperiled the nation's credit markets and led to a major economic slowdown.

    His resignation takes effect on April 18.

    Jackson has a friendship with President Bush that dates to the late 1980s, when they lived in the same Dallas neighborhood.

    He was the first black leader of the housing authority in Dallas and president of American Electric Power-TEXAS in Austin.

    U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington, and chairman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the HUD's budget, said in a statement she called on Jackson to resign 10 days ago "because it was clear that the ethical allegations against him meant that the Bush Administration's ineffective housing policies were being burdened by an even more ineffective HUD Secretary."

    She said Bush should nominate a Housing Secretary with experience and credibility."Hopefully with new leadership at HUD, we can negotiate a bipartisan plan with the Bush administration to spare the maximum number of families the devastating consequences of losing their home," she said.

    Contributing: Associated Press

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    Henry Paulson

    We're trying our best

    Reuters - Treasury pitches regulatory overhaul

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    Treasury pitches regulatory overhaul

    Monday, Mar 31, 2008 3:59PM UTC

    By David Lawder and Mark Felsenthal

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson revealed sweeping plans on Monday for streamlining a hodgepodge of regulations that are blamed for allowing the U.S. mortgage crisis to balloon into a full-blown economic threat.

    The proposals, in the form of a 218-page "blueprint" that was started before markets unraveled last August, offer no quick fix for the credit contraction that threatens to tip the U.S. economy into recession.

    Paulson acknowledged that most of the proposals would not be enacted until after the current troubles had passed, perhaps long after President George W. Bush leaves office next January. The plan is expected to meet stiff resistance from Capitol Hill, within the financial sector and from competing corners of the government bureaucracy.

    The regulatory blueprint proposes eventually vesting new powers in the Federal Reserve as a "market stability regulator" -- effectively formalizing a role the central bank already has started to perform recently by expanding the list of financial firms who can borrow directly.

    It would give the Fed authority to demand that all financial system participants supply it with full information on their activities and grant the Fed a right to collaborate with other regulators in setting rules for their behavior.

    The Bush administration has faced political pressure from critics who blame lax regulatory oversight for the mortgage mess. Paulson, a 30-year Wall Street veteran, stressed that regulation must be light enough to keep markets innovative, and said those who tried to label the blueprint as advocating more or less regulation were "oversimplifying."

    The administration's proposal drew a quick reaction from Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate, who told a campaign rally that Bush was "not making the regulations any tougher. He's not preventing the predatory lending that is responsible for a lot of these problems."

    However, Paulson downplayed the need for more regulation, saying: "I am not suggesting that more regulation is the answer, or even that more effective regulation can prevent the periods of financial market stress that seem to occur every five to 10 years."

    "I am suggesting that we should and can have a structure that is ... more flexible, one that can better adapt to change, one that will allow us to more effectively deal with inevitable market disruptions, one that will better protect investors and consumers, and one that will enable U.S. capital markets to remain the most competitive in the world," he said.


    Since problems surfaced last August with rising failure rates on subprime mortgage loans to less credit-worthy borrowers, credit markets have come near seizure several times. Public anger has mounted at what was perceived as slack enforcement of existing rules.

    Many mortgage loans were made without basic fact-checking. Some did not even verify whether borrowers actually earned the incomes they claimed or whether they were steered into inappropriate loans with low initial "teaser" rates that soon reset at higher rates requiring much larger monthly payments.

    Among changes, the Treasury wants to merge the Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. markets watchdog, with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is charged with overseeing the activities of the nation's futures market.

    It also recommends getting rid of a Depression-era charter for thrifts, which was intended to make it easier to obtain mortgage loans, saying it is no longer necessary. That would mean closing the Office of Thrift Supervision and transferring its duties to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees national banks.

    In one important change to try to clamp down on mortgage brokers, the Treasury is urging the establishment of a "Mortgage Origination Commission" made up of regulatory agency representatives that would be able to set licensing standards for mortgage brokers.

    That would boost consumer protection by increasing scrutiny of the personal conduct, disciplinary history and educational qualifications of the brokers, who are frequently the first contact for borrowers.

    (Writing by Emily Kaiser and Glenn Somerville; Editing by Frank McGurty)

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