Friday, July 20, 2007
By The Hill.
As the phone records of the “D.C. Madam,” Deborah Jeane Palfrey, became public last week, curious Washingtonians started searching a mysterious database at dcphonelist.com that had organized mountains of her documents.
In their first on-the-record phone interview, the men behind the website spoke to the Hill about who they are, how they created the database and why they put it online.
Kevin, Igor and Yoni described their experiences in a conference call. The crew’s fourth member, Danny, was not present.
All asked that their last names not be printed.
Kevin said they were concerned for their respective employers.
“It also prevents people from calling us up and harassing us, or worse,” he said. “The irony is not entirely lost on us.”
The website’s registration remains private and its purveyors are shy with the press, e-mailing an Associated Press reporter for an article on Palfrey last week.
Many have plugged individuals’ phone numbers into the database in attempts to determine who utilized Palfrey’s services.
Some big fish have come under fire following their outing as possible clients, such as Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and a former Bush administration official, Randall Tobias.
The proprietor of a Washington, D.C. escort service, Palfrey has been charged by federal authorities with running a prostitution ring. She has maintained her innocence and released her phone records to find witnesses for her potential trial.
All in their mid-20s, the “D.C. Phone Listers” — as they identified themselves in their first e-mail to The Hill — are computer programmers and IT specialists who live and work in the Boston area. All have informed their employers of their work for the website.
Fast friends since 2001, the Brandeis University alumni studied computer science, political science and philosophy and worked on the college newspaper.
The website’s e-mail address includes the name “Dembitz” — the middle name of former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis — in a nod to the group’s alma mater, which was named for the judge.
The four aim to empower local reporters and citizen journalists, who may not have the resources of national media organizations, by posting the searchable database online.
“What this does is let someone in Kansas who has the right phone numbers search the data and see for himself,” Yoni said.
Feedback so far has been “all positive,” according to the group, with a few corrections made and several individuals saying their phone numbers were misdials.
Palfrey is a fan of the group’s work. “God bless them,” said Palfrey, who called the website’s founders “the Brandeis Boys” during an interview.
“I think what they are doing is a great, patriotic service to this country,” Palfrey said. “These fellows are democracy in action.”
Palfrey’s lawyer, Montgomery Blair Sibley, said that since Palfrey’s assets have been seized, she could not post a similar database.
“We got quotes from five or six people that said [it] would cost between $15,000 and $30,000 to do this very thing they have done now,” Sibley said. The attorney said the website has helped find about a dozen witnesses.
Not hired by Palfrey, the website team has had little contact with her or her attorney beyond a few e-mails and linking to one another’s websites. Kevin and others have asked Sibley to rescan some of the phone records so they can be used for the website.
The project’s only monetary expenditure so far was buying the domain for $10. The group said it has neither earned nor lost any money. “We joke about selling T-shirts,” Igor said.
“It would be throwing another layer of complication on it by putting ads up,” Kevin said, adding that that “might raise questions about our integrity.”
But the site has cost everyone involved plenty of time, about 100 man-hours between the four. On Monday, July 9, when Palfrey’s phone records were released, the group stayed up until 5 in the morning to complete the site.
After downloading the phone records, Igor used software to turn scanned images into text files, a process known as “optical character recognition,” or OCR. Kevin then took the lead on writing the computer program to parse the phone numbers from the data, while Danny designed the website.
So far, there have been more than 100,000 visits to the site and close to 50,000 searches, according to the team.
Yet the data is not perfect. OCR cannot catch everything, they said, and many of the scanned images could not be translated into useable text files. Plus, “even if the data is accurate, it is a list of numbers, not a list of clients,” Kevin said — hence a prominent disclaimer on the site.
More records are planned for release next week, according to Palfrey. Of the estimated 75,000 outgoing calls, no calls from 1997 have been made public.
“I understand there are more to come,” said Palfrey, talking about potentially other big names in her phone records. “I think the real meat is the lobbyists here because they’re all connected to a member of Congress.”
– By Kevin Bogardus
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Potentially Risky Trickle
Of Bad Nuclear News
July 19, 2007 7:05 a.m.
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For the fourth straight day, authorities revealed fresh news of a radioactive leak at a Japanese nuclear power plant following Monday's earthquake, potentially exacerbating a development that could set back a nascent revival of atomic-energy projects.
Inspectors from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency found that radioactive iodine had leaked from an exhaust pipe at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Japan's northwest, the Associated Press reports, citing the Kyodo news agency. This followed yesterday's revision of the number of upended barrels of radioactive waste to "several hundred" from the 100 reported earlier in the week -- including "a few dozen" with lids that opened -- and revised judgment about the 317 gallons of water that leaked into the Sea of Japan, which was 50% more radioactive than first announced, as the New York Times reports. The inspectors concluded the leak revealed today was too small to harm public health or the environment. But officials from another agency, the Nuclear Safety Commission, today slammed Tepco's response as they were touring the plant and especially the lack of equipment for dealing with a chemical fire that broke out. Yasuhisa Shiozaki, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, urged operators of the country's other 54 reactors to accelerate assessment of their facilities' earthquake resistance.
It was only this week that officials made public findings that show the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant could lie directly on top of the fault line responsible for Monday's 6.8-magnitude temblor, as The Wall Street Journal reports. That was a much stronger quake than the reactor was built to withstand, and nuclear experts elsewhere in the world are watching to see how it performed, the Journal adds. This daily release of bad news comes at a time when concerns about fossil fuels' contribution to global warming has diminished resistance to the construction of new atomic-power plants. But it doesn't bode well for a source of power that became frightful in the public imagination following a series of high-profile accidents in the late 1970s and early '80s, or in a country that suffered the only two atomic-weapon attacks in history.
Regardless of whether the radioactive leaks caused any damage, recurrent updates that paint a bleaker picture can undermine a company or government's credibility during a potential health crisis, as the Japanese learned in recent decades with Mad Cow disease, an outbreak of life-threatening milk contamination and even misreported safety violations at Tepco reactors.
* * *
Delphi Gets Cash Infusion
The troubled auto-parts giant Delphi seemed closer to emerging from bankruptcy protection after a group of hedge funds and other investors led by Appaloosa Management agreed to provide $2.55 billion in new funding. The latest plan, unlike a previous arrangement, won support from a committee of Delphi's current shareholders, the Financial Times reports. That plan had also been scrapped after Cerberus Capital Management pulled out of the Delphi investment following its successful bid for Chrysler Group, The Wall Street Journal adds. On another automotive front, Ford Motor today is expected to receive the initial bids from companies and private-equity firms interested in buying Jaguar and Land Rover, people familiar with the situation tell the New York Times. And Cerberus Capital Management is expected to be among them.
* * *
A Great Food-Brand Merger That Might Have Been
All talks on the matter are now over, but U.S. and European packaged-food-and-beverage giants PepsiCo and Nestle this spring were exploring a merger, people familiar with the matter tell The Wall Street Journal. Several issues disrupted negotiations on how to wed the $150 billion Nestle with the $108 billion maker of Doritos, Lipton Ice Tea and of course Pepsi, the Journal says. But one that stands out was Nestle's anxiety about how to integrate Pepsi's focus on snacking with the Crunch bar and Nesquik maker's growing emphasis on health-and-wellness products.
* * *
Also of Note…
BBC: A volcanic-like explosion created skyscraper-high mountains of steam and rained debris across Lexington Avenue near Grand Central Station, killing one person, injuring at least 20 and frightening the city at a time of heightened terrorism fears. Authorities blamed trouble at an 83-year-old underground pipe, ruling out terrorism but warning asbestos may have been released into the air as well.
Washington Post: Senate Democrats halted their quest to change President Bush's war strategy yesterday after Republicans blocked a proposal to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. Rather than hold votes on several compromise measures aimed at forcing Mr. Bush to revisit his war plans, Democratic leaders are holding firm in their bid to persuade GOP critics of Bush's Iraq policy to embrace more aggressive measures to begin withdrawing troops.
Bloomberg: China's economy grew at the fastest pace in 12 years in the second quarter and inflation there surged, prompting speculation the government will allow quicker currency appreciation and raise interest rates. Growth was powered by investment in factories and real estate, funded by record exports, that the government has been unable to cool with two rate increases this year and restrictions on bank lending.
Telegraph: U.S. supermarket retailer Wal-Mart is examining a deal to invest in Beijing Hualian, a hypermarket operator with scores of stores in the capital and other cities across China, in a move that would boost its presence in the world's most populous country.
International Herald Tribune: The European Central Bank flatly rejected as "unacceptable" new French attempts to secure greater political influence over monetary policy, but France didn't give ground and suggested that other countries suffering from the strong euro would come around to its view.
Financial Times: German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe should adopt a common approach for vetting corporate acquisitions by foreign state-controlled investors, adding that she favored a U.S. model for joint European action.
Times of London: The murder of a second Russian dissident on British soil was averted last month when police and intelligence agencies intercepted a suspected killer in London. In a move likely to damage already strained relations between Britain and Russia, Scotland Yard said that officers last month arrested a man on suspicion of conspiracy to murder billionaire Russian exile Boris Berezovsky and held him for two days before deporting the man back to Russia.
Associated Press: President Bush reiterated his threat to veto Senate legislation that would substantially increase funds for children's health insurance by levying a 61-cent-a-pack increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes. Renewal of the State Children's Health Insurance Program has been considered by many to be the most important health legislation that Congress is taking up this year.
Reuters: IBM, the world's largest technology-services company, posted a 12% jump in second-quarter profit and raised its 2007 earnings forecast as revenue surged on software company acquisitions.
Wall Street Journal: The Securities and Exchange Commission intends to file civil charges against a Dow Jones board member -- David Li, chairman and chief executive of Bank of East Asia -- in connection with an unfolding insider-trading case, according to people familiar with the matter.
Nature: The island that is now England, Scotland and Wales was severed from continental Europe by a cataclysmic flood during the last ice age, according to new research on the Dover Strait from a group based in Britain.
* * *
Quote of the Day
"With the level of resource utilization relatively high and with a sustained moderation in inflation pressures yet to be convincingly demonstrated, the FOMC has consistently stated that upside risks to inflation are its predominant policy concern," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress yesterday, suggesting Fed policy makers' concern about prices makes any imminent cut in interest rates extremely unlikely. Despite an ailing housing market's consequences for the economy, the Fed is worried that a tight labor market might boost inflation, because persistent demand for new workers could mean U.S. productivity is slowing, Mr. Bernanke said.
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