Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Federal government posts $603M deficit in October

Economy 'is weakening significantly,' Flaherty says

The federal government posted a $603-million deficit in October as tax revenues fell, according to figures released by the Finance Department on Tuesday.

Ottawa's October shortfall was $87 million higher than the deficit for the same month last year and almost totally eliminated the government's surplus for the April-to-October period.

For those seven first months of fiscal 2008, the government posted a surplus of $200 million, down from an excess of revenue over expenses for the same period last year of $6.1 billion.

The figures indicate that the amount Ottawa accumulates in tax revenue is falling faster as the year — and the global recession — progresses.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty acknowledged Tuesday that the economy "is weakening significantly."

The Canadian government will run a deficit as it strives to fend off a looming recession, Flaherty said, but it will offer detailed measures in the January budget on how it plans to balance the books once the ongoing economic crisis settles.

"We will ensure that spending that puts us into deficit is temporary, is for finite purposes, so that we will not be into a permanent deficit," Flaherty said Tuesday before meeting with his newly assembled economic advisory panel in Toronto.

The finance minister said no decisions had yet been made about what exactly will be included in the 2009-2010 budget, to be presented Jan. 27, except that it will contain some sort of stimulus measures.

Nevertheless, he said it will show "how we'll come out of deficit, so that it'll be clear to Canadians that as the economy recovers the deficit will disappear and we'll be in surplus again."

Canada's expanding pool of red ink in October was mostly attributable to falling tax revenues.

The government pulled in $18.76 billion in total revenue for the month, an increase of 3.7 per cent compared with October 2007.

Tax intake down
Considering only tax monies, however, the federal government actually gathered 1.6 per cent less for the public treasury this October compared with a year earlier. Ottawa posted tax revenue of $15.59 billion in those 31 days.

In this case, the goods and services intake was down a hefty 17 per cent, to $2.3 billion, in the month. The federal cut to the GST was the reason for lower revenues in this category throughout 2008, the Finance Department said.

"GST revenues were down $2 billion, or 11 per cent (for April to October), reflecting the one-percentage-point reduction in the GST rate effective January 1, 2008," the department noted.

For the April-to-October period, Ottawa's overall tax take stood at $111.6 billion, down 0.3 per cent compared with the same seven months a year earlier.

Of the $15.59 billion the government levied from Canadians in October, only 12.8 per cent, or $1.99 billion, came from corporate income taxes, down from 14.4 per cent for the same period one year earlier.

Corporate income taxes were off 23 per cent in the month and 12.6 per cent in the April-to-October period, compared with one year earlier.

Corporate taxes can be volatile in a single month. But shrinking corporate tax figures over a longer period can indicate a slowing economy.

Costs up
What Ottawa gives back to Canadians in the form of transfer payments to provinces and individuals rose in October.

The federal government had program expenses of $16.77 billion in the month, up 5.9 per cent versus October 2007. For the April-to-October period of 2008, Ottawa spent an additional 7.2 per cent compared with the same period one year earlier.

Welfare payments and higher medical transfers to provincial governments were the categories exhibiting the biggest increases in October.

In addition, employment insurance payments rose by 4.2 per cent in the April-to-October span, reaching $8.1 billion. For October, however, EI costs fell to $1.05 billion.

Still, the number of Canadians without work increased by slightly less than 110,000 in November compared with January. As a result, fiscal experts believe Ottawa might need to fork out more in terms of unemployment benefits in the coming months.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Insurance fraudsters? We shall sight them from the bushes

The world's most exciting insurance job is also a booming area of business. Under cover of foliage, Paul Kendall joins the intrepid claim investigators.

By Paul Kendall
Last Updated: 12:53AM GMT 14 Dec 2008

It is just after six on a bitter December morning and I am lying in the mud on a strip of scrubland next to a bush. All is quiet, save for a handful of reeds whistling in the breeze. Suddenly, out of the gloom, the bush speaks. "Sierra, this is Hotel," it says. "We are in position."

A video camera appears from within the vegetation and points towards a handsome, whitewashed house 200 yards away. "Dwelling is in darkness," says the bush. "No sign of subject."

Then, silence again. "Hotel" – not actually a bush, but a burly former member of the Special Forces – squats next to me, dressed head to foot in camouflage gear, not moving. The minutes tick by. It starts to rain. As the early-morning sky turns slowly from dark blue to a pale, frosty white, we continue to scan the house for any signs of life.

"You know," my companion whispers eventually, "people don't realise the lengths you have to go to in this job. No one sees that."

Hotel is an insurance fraud investigator, a specialist in "static control", which means he spends his working life hiding in trees, undergrowth and ditches, spying on people who claim to be injured and unable to work.

In his time, he has caught out hundreds of fraudsters: men who had said they couldn't walk playing a round of golf; enthusiastic ramblers who had claimed they were confined to a wheelchair; even workers blinded in an accident who could miraculously drive a car. He investigates an average of two or three cases a week, and thanks to the current recession, he has never been busier.

For, while other employers are laying off staff, the fraud investigation business is booming as companies look to cut down on the vast amounts they pay out in personal injury claims. Local authorities that are sued by people who have tripped over broken pavements or potholes are also good customers.

Business is so buoyant, in fact, that Hotel's employer, the surveillance firm CIA Excel, is advertising for recruits for the first time in its 19-year history. More than 300 people have applied for the two available posts, 15 of whom will attend a series of intense military-style boot camps, where they will be assessed in nine areas, including observation, driving skills and their ability to react under pressure. Anyone who thinks insurance is a dull, desk-bound job needs to think again.

"This is one of the most challenging civilian jobs you could do," says Alan D'Ambrosio, CIA Excel's managing director, when I speak to him on the phone from his home in Scotland. "Operators have to be prepared to work long and irregular hours in unfamiliar and often dangerous environments. It is an extremely tough job, and those applicants who are successful will need to be both extraordinarily patient and, at the same time, very quick-witted."

Investigators also need to look "grey" – in other words, they must have the kind of face that blends into a crowd. Both Hotel and his partner, Sierra, a former policeman and one of the most unprepossessing men I have ever met, score perfectly on all fronts.

At 7.48am, after a display of stillness that puts me in mind of a Buddhist monk, Hotel snaps into action. A light has come on in the "target" property. The subject, a businessman in his late 40s who is suing a motor insurance company after sustaining back and neck injuries in a motorbike accident, has appeared in his dressing gown in the kitchen. The fact that Hotel has spotted the subject at all impresses me. I'm also dressed in camouflage, but can't see anything through all the foliage.

"Sierra, this is Hotel. Light on in property. Repeat, light on in property," he says, talking into a two-way radio.

"Is there?" I whisper, "Where?" Too late, I realise I'm talking to a mound of grass. Hotel has moved to some higher ground 30 yards to my right to gain a better view. I curse and desperately rearrange my headpiece.

Ten minutes later, foliage out of the way, I glimpse our man outside his house. He has told doctors he can hardly walk, but despite this, he pushes a wheelie bin up the drive, through a gate and out on to the street.

Hotel whips out his camcorder again. "Subject is pushing a wheelie bin and showing no signs of discomfort," he says into the microphone. Then, turning to me: "OK, move out."

Together – in the sort of manoeuvre that would convince Macbeth that Birnam Wood had moved to Dunsinane – we scurry across the scrubland towards the shelter of some trees. Once there, we remove our bush suits, place them in rucksacks and, when the coast is clear, jump over a fence and walk along the road back to Hotel's car. This, I am told, marks the second phase of the operation.

The man we are watching has said he cannot drive, but 'local intelligence' has assured Hotel and Sierra, who is parked down the road in a surveillance van, that he can. Sure enough, before long he pulls out of his driveway in a silver 4 x 4.

"Stand by, stand by, stand by," says Hotel. "That's the subject's vehicle in your direction. We're in pursuit."

Weaving in and out of traffic, the two investigators take it in turns to tail the man. In the event, he drives only as far as the local petrol station before returning home. It's not enough to prove he is faking.

But 20 minutes later, he is off again. And this time he drives much farther, first to the local school, where he drops off his daughter, then to a café, where he has a coffee and reads the paper, and then to a secondary school in a neighbouring village.

While we wait outside the school for the man to reappear, Hotel tells me about a recent case. It is obvious that he takes great pride in what he does. "Last year, we investigated a man who was claiming a quarter of a million pounds a year for care," he says. "He had lost half a leg in an industrial accident, which entitled him to some compensation, obviously, but he was claiming for four carers and grossly exaggerating his disability."

Hotel watched him 12 hours a day for seven days, mostly from an observation point in a canal, using a pair of high-powered binoculars. "It was one of the most difficult surveillance jobs I've ever done. But we established that the subject was more or less independent. He could walk on his own, cook on his own, and go to the lavatory on his own – all things he'd said were impossible."

The evidence collected by the investigators is expected to reduce the subject's claim by at least £200,000 a year.

And that was just one of more than 1,000 cases that CIA Excel investigated last year. Altogether, D'Ambrosio says he saves his clients tens of millions of pounds. I wonder, however, whether Hotel ever feels uncomfortable about snooping on people.

"Why should I?" he says. "I mean, it's you and me who pay for these people through higher premiums. We are staying within the law and trying to do a difficult job, while these people break the law and try to get money by deception. We are here to make sure that everyone pays a fair price for insurance."

As he says this, the man we have been following reappears in his silver 4 x 4, with his older daughter in the passenger seat. This time he sets off on a 35-mile journey to a dental surgery. He parks and gets
out the car. It is about 100 yards to the door of the surgery, over frosty ground, but he covers the distance with consummate ease.

"There he is! There he is!" exclaims Hotel, as we watch from a safe distance. "He's walking!" Everything is recorded on video. "OK, job done," says Hotel. "Let's get breakfast." There is an unmistakable note of glee in his voice.

Monday, December 8, 2008

'Misfits' add diversity to singles branch

By Beth Palmer
Monday, Dec. 08, 2008

One of the most reassuring aspects of the gospel is the fact that the church is fundamentally the same everywhere you go. What's perhaps even more beautiful, though, is the reality that no two LDS wards have the same fundamental character. Some are marked by a vigorous missionary spirit, some by intellectualism, some by service.

Then there's mine, which happens to be distinguished most by our striking resemblance to a population that exists only in a beloved Christmas special.

We stumbled upon this realization when a group of friends from the singles branch I attend gathered for dinner one Sunday after church. One astute member jokingly compared us to the Island of Misfit Toys, which prompted one of those moments usually only seen in sitcoms: Everyone stopped mid-bite, looked up at one other and glanced around furtively. Then, simultaneously, half the group laughed, and the other half groaned.

Yes, as unglamorous as it is to admit, the Chicago 8th Branch is the living embodiment of that arctic outpost from the stop-motion "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Only instead of a Jack-in-the-Box named Charlie and a train with square wheels, we've got an eclectic mix of characters you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else, all of whom have somehow managed to land on Chicago's Island of Misfits together.

Why this happy confluence in Hyde Park? Well, our stake draws from the entire South Side of Chicago, but our congregation meets just a mile away from the University of Chicago, a school so devoted to its lofty ideals of academia that its students wear T-shirts sporting slogans like "If I'd wanted an 'A' I would have gone to Harvard" and "That's great in practice, but how does it work in theory?"

Throw those students in with the Chicago natives in the branch, plus the random smattering of students at other schools and working professionals, and you've got one of the most intellectually, economically and racially diverse congregations I've ever witnessed.

And then there are the characters.

One branch member spent weeks slowly moving his possessions out of his apartment on his bike, often hauling two backpacks at a time, with extra cargo balanced across the handlebars. He then squirreled them away in various locations around the neighborhood, including an unused office in our church building, just to avoid what he saw as the injustice of his building's move-out fee.

Another is a student at one of the top-ranked medical schools in the country, yet spends his spare time responding to e-mails from international fraudsters for the express purpose of toying with them.

Rudolph's Island of Misfits had a cowboy who rode an ostrich. We've got a South Side native who drives a truck and works odd jobs in construction, but is just as likely to be found attending the opera with his mom, at home baking a fantastic loaf of bread or dressing up as a wizard to teach chess lessons. Another Chicago misfit used Excel to determine the critical mass of Branch Boringness -- measured in "borons" -– necessary to field a pickup football game after his fellow branch members failed to turn out in droves for a Thanksgiving-weekend game.

Remember the misfit bird that didn't fly, it swam? Well, we've got a graduate student in marriage and family therapy who has no qualms about filing his nails while watching college football and who possesses that specific brand of chivalry that involves telling female friends that if their cars break down, they should call him so he can call AAA.

We've got a Sunday School teacher who's considered to be having a tame day when all he does is launch into a lengthy tirade on the ridiculously long time it's been since an American won the gold medal in the 100-yard dash. There are farm girls from Canada who talk about their family's hail insurance in the context of Sunday lessons, and a Relief Society president who, confused by the story gaps created while watching a movie on a ClearPlay DVD player, was heard to cry out for "more smut!"

We're the type of people who make a wish on a Thanksgiving wishbone and pull, only to see the top inexplicably pop off and shoot across the room, leaving both with a "no-wish-for-you" bone left in their hands. If that's not the quintessential misfit moment, I don't know what is.

We meet in one of the few Mormon meetinghouses in America where it's not unusual to find an "Obama '08" hat in the lost and found, among people who aren't surprised to learn that a fellow branch member, a graduate student in his late 20s, also owns an NGO based in India. This same student is also infamous for adopting the role of "Dad" at branch FHEs, insisting that every one of his grumbling "children" tell everyone the best thing that happened to them that day.

It was in the midst of this very ordeal that a relatively new branch member remarked, "It's like we really are a family -- we're all awkward, but we're all awkward together." Exactly. We've found our fellow misfits, and we're sticking with them.

Of course, our comparison isn't a perfect one; the original Island of Misfit Toys had a boat that couldn't float, and that's where the analogy breaks down. You see, every misfit in Chicago will do whatever it takes to keep the rest of the misfits afloat. This is a congregation sincerely devoted to one other, in which virtually every member is willing to reach outside the busyness of his or her life to help out a fellow misfit in need.

Ultimately, that's probably the real beauty of the gospel's social organization; however off-center we may be, we all have somebody to care for, and somebody to care for us. So what if my crew happens to be a bit more off-center than most? Like Rudolph and his wannabe-dentist elf friend proclaimed, "What's the matter with misfits? That's where we fit in."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Clintons' Neighbor to Be Sentenced for Murder

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) -- A man who lived down the street from Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton in a New York City suburb when he shot and killed his wife could get life in prison.

Carlos Perez-Olivo is due in Westchester County Court for sentencing Tuesday, two months after his second-degree murder conviction. The maximum sentence is 25 years to life.

The 59-year-old disbarred lawyer was found guilty of shooting his wife, Peggy, in the back of the head as they drove home to Chappaqua in November 2006. Prosecutors say he wanted his wife's life insurance.

Perez-Olivo blamed the attack on a carjacker. But a witness testified he saw Perez-Olivo handling a gun just like the murder weapon, which was fished from a lake near the scene of the killing.