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web posted April 16, 2001

'Blow' promo mirrors causing controversy

Small mirrors distributed to promote the Johnny Depp film "Blow" have reflected badly on the drug-trafficker tale. Critics snort that the rectangular mirrors promote drug use because dealers stereotypically use the items as cutting boards for cocaine. The souvenir mirrors, contained in a rubber sleeve featuring the "Blow" title, were distributed with invitations to advance screenings of the film, which opened nationally recently.

They also were handed out in bars and outside sporting events, The Orange County Register reported.

Tracy Aaron, 35, of Cypress, Calif., said she was angry that her husband received one of the mirrors after an NCAA playoff game in Anaheim.

"I was disgusted," she said. "They're passing out drug paraphernalia, basically."

Debbie Lips, a director for The Hope Institute, a Costa Mesa drug rehabilitation center, said the film promoters are "sending out the wrong message" by giving away such items. New Line Cinema, which is distributing "Blow," said it gave away between 200 and 1,000 of the mirrors. The film is about the collapse of a real-life cocaine empire during the 1970s. The lead character, George Jung, played by Depp, is in a federal prison on various drug charges through 2014.

"Anyone who sees 'Blow' recognizes that this highly acclaimed film does not promote or glorify the use of drugs," said Steve Elzer, senior vice president of New Line's corporate communications.

Bush releases $1.96 trillion budget

President Bush sent Congress on April 9 the full details of his $1.96 trillion budget, promising to restrain what he considers the excessive growth of government spending by trimming a multitude of government programs, from energy conservation to putting police on the streets.

U.S. President George W. Bush holds a meeting of the president's cabinet in the Cabinet Room of the White House with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (L), U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (second-R) and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans (R), April 9, 2001. The president said his budget would
U.S. President George W. Bush holds a meeting of the president's cabinet in the Cabinet Room of the White House with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (L), U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (second-R) and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans (R), April 9, 2001. The president said his budget would "protect taxpayers."

The nearly 5-inch-thick stack of blue budget books, which fleshes out the broad budget outline the president released in February, seeks to put the new administration's stamp on the federal government by rolling back many initiatives promoted by former President Clinton's administration.

All of the cuts make room for Bush's signature proposal, a $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut, while also using a projected $5.6 trillion surplus over the next decade to pay down a record amount of the national debt. Democrats contended Bush was cutting programs too severely.

In his full budget, Bush re-estimated the cost of his campaign-promised tax cut at $1.49 trillion over 10 years, giving him room to add some new tax breaks to the package -- the biggest of which is a $52.9 billion program to provide up to $2,000 in tax credits to help low-income families pay for health insurance.

The administration is recommending a 17 percent cut in a key Clinton anti-crime program that aimed to put 100,000 new police officers on city streets. Part of the savings would be redirected to beefing up security at the nation's schools.

In an effort to attack corporate welfare, programs to support ship building, energy conservation at American companies and subsidies for American exports all would be trimmed.

There were spending increases in the Bush budget to meet campaign promises and to support favored initiatives. Bush has made reforming education a key priority and his budget would boost discretionary spending at the Education Department by 11.5 percent, the biggest increase for any Cabinet agency.

In all, the budget proposes outright cuts in 10 of the government's 25 major agencies. The biggest cuts would occur at the departments of agriculture and transportation.

In education, the administration approved significant increases in such areas as support for charter schools and helping states develop reading and math student assessment programs, fulfilling Bush campaign promises.

But many Clinton initiatives would be cut or scaled back.

These include programs to support doctor training at children's hospitals, efforts to combat nuclear proliferation by assisting Russian nuclear scientists and tax credits to boost economic development in poor neighborhoods.

Bush budget writers said that in many cases the savings would be devoted to the same problems but through different programs that the new administration believes will offer a greater payoff.

In all, the budget for the 2002 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 would spend $1.96 trillion, a 5.6 percent increase over this year. It would hold the growth in discretionary spending -- everything but spending on mandatory benefit programs -- to a 4 percent increase, far below the 8.7 percent increase in budget authority that Clinton got for the current fiscal year.

"This budget offers a new vision of governing for our nation," Bush said in a message accompanying his budget.

Hoping to build momentum for that vision, Bush held an early morning meeting with his Cabinet where he proclaimed that his budget "represents compassionate conservatism" while setting priorities and going after wasteful government spending.

"Washington is known for its pork. This budget funds our needs without the fat," Bush said.

Bush budget director Mitchell Daniels told reporters at the White House that the administration had achieved $8 billion in savings by eliminating half of more than 6,000 special projects Congress added on its own to last year's budget.

Democrats took issue with Bush's claim that his budget represented compassionate conservatism and that most of the savings came from eliminating wasteful spending.

"Cutting child care development money, cutting pediatrician training, cutting environmental programs in every part of the government. These are compassionate cuts?" asked Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

"We are now seeing the explicit trade-offs that have been made to provide a tax cut for the well-off at the expense of things like child care, inner-city investments and assistance for many of our least well-off," said Gene Sperling, formerly head of Clinton's National Economic Council and now at Brookings Institution.

And Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said that even in education, where Bush is claiming big increases, most of the gains were produced by "smoke and mirrors" rather that real spending growth.

However, GOP leaders, who have been fighting to protect Bush's program, said they were pleased with the details the full budget revealed. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, called Bush's budget "fair and responsible" and said it showed the country "can make important investments in education, defense and health care" and still provide at least $1.6 trillion in tax relief.

Bush suffered his first major congressional defeat last week when the Senate voted to trim his $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut by one-fourth to make room for $200 billion in increased debt reduction and billions of dollars of higher spending than Bush is seeking in his budget.

However, the administration is warning that Bush will not hesitate to veto congressional spending bills that he believes are excessive.

Bush's budget introduction pledges to restrain "recent explosive growth in discretionary spending" by cutting "unjustified programs, excessive programs, duplicative programs and programs that have completed their mission."

The House and Senate have already passed budget resolutions setting broad guidelines for spending and taxes, but the differing versions remain to be reconciled.

The House accepted the full $1.6 trillion Bush tax cut and his proposed spending caps, but the Senate reduced the tax cut to $1.2 trillion and increased Bush's 4 percent boost in discretionary spending authority to nearly 8 percent.

Post Office, Fed Ex deal scrutinized

A $6.3 billion no-bid Postal Service contract with Federal Express is under review by auditors skeptical of management assertions that it would save the agency more than $1 billion.

A spokesman for the Postal Service office of inspector general, which reports to the presidentially appointed Board of Governors, said April 9 it is looking into the contract in response to a complaint from air cargo carrier Emery Worldwide, which told the governors they were "materially misinformed" before approving the deal in January.

The FedEx contract will "cost USPS much more, both now and in the future, and will lead to reduced service levels" for the American public, said last month's the two-page letter from Emery.

The Postal Service recently notified Emery and another carrier that their postal contracts will be terminated, with FedEx replacing both. Emery challenged the FedEx contract in U.S. Claims Court but lost.

The Justice Department said on April 9 it is continuing to look at possible antitrust implications of the FedEx contract.

Postal Service spokesman Azeez Aly Jaffer said "it's unfortunate" that the companies are debating this in a court of public opinion.

"Trust me, it's a terrific deal," Postmaster General William Henderson told the House Government Reform Committee at a hearing last week.

Several secret discussions last year between Henderson and FedEx chief Fred Smith about a possible "strategic alliance" triggered extensive negotiations, resulting in the seven-year contract. Shortly after announcing the deal in January, Henderson said he is leaving the postal service in May. He has not announced his plans beyond that.

The claimed cost savings are based on contract details that are being withheld as confidential, proprietary information. The only person in Congress permitted to see all provisions of the contract is Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who chairs the reform committee.

University of Baltimore law professor Charles Tiefer, former deputy general counsel to the House of Representatives, said the public's money "is rarely given away with this kind of secrecy unless they're building the atomic bomb for the first time."

Tiefer, an expert in government contracts, said the contract puts FedEx in a "long-term semi-monopoly position." The contract includes a nonrefundable $100 million upfront "signing bonus" so FedEx can offset its start-up costs; Tiefer said "the government rarely bestows" such bonuses.

Postal Service manager Paul Vogel, who helped negotiate the FedEx contract, said, "There are always start-up costs."

"Any company is ... going to recoup them," Vogel said. "If you pay up front then it's a cost that's done with."

Emery is appealing an unsuccessful court challenge to the contract, under which FedEx will carry the postal service's two-day Priority and overnight Express mail.

In her decision upholding the FedEx contract, federal claims court Judge Christine Miller was nonetheless critical, saying the quasi-governmental agency's "objective" from the start of negotiations was "a sole-source award" to FedEx.

The postal service hired a consultant simply to justify the objective, Miller said, noting that in an internal plan drawn up last August, the postal service said the consultant should "assist the Postal Service in developing the business case for a contractual relationship with FedEx."

But eliminating Emery from consideration so early in the evaluation process was not "unlawful" or "irrational," the judge concluded.

FedEx spokesman Jess Bunn said on April 9 the company is confident the contract will be upheld on appeal.

Costner, Castro watch 'Thirteen Days'

President Fidel Castro sat next to actor-producer Kevin Costner as Cuban officials joined Hollywood heavyweights at a private screening of Thirteen Days, Costner's movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Kevin Costner"The president was quite animated throughout," Costner press agent Stephen Rivers said April 10 of the screening the night before. "He kept identifying scenes and people, especially the American officials, during the entire film."

The movie is told solely from the vantage point of President Kennedy and his staff, and focuses on the decision-making process that led to the removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuban soil in October 1962. Castro, who was in power at the time of the crisis, and other Cuban officials were not portrayed in the film.

Costner and Castro were joined in the screening at the Palace of the Revolution, where Castro keeps his offices, by Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, Vice President Carlos Lage and members of Castro's personal staff. They later held a dinner that went into the wee hours of the morning, said Rivers.

"Everywhere we have taken this film it has had a positive response," Rivers said. "Kevin was very appreciative of the time the president gave us and of the opportunity to show him the film." Costner reportedly was resting and unavailable for comment early Tuesday.

Costner arrived here the previous afternoon, accompanied by fellow producers Armyan Bernstein, Beacon Pictures chairman, and Peter Almond, along with several others. Also in the group were Costner's companion, Christine Baumgartner, and Chris Lawford, a member of the Kennedy family who also appeared in the movie.

On the morning of April 10, the group was screening the film to Cuban audiences and the New Latin Cinema Film Institute.

Thirteen Days opened in the United States in January and got its first high-profile screening the following month at the White House, where it was viewed by President Bush and members of the Kennedy family.

New Line Cinema then had the movie about the U.S.-Soviet nuclear showdown sent to the international space station for the enjoyment of its crew — two Russians and an American.

In the movie, Costner stars as Kenny O'Donnell, a White House aide to President Kennedy and his brother Robert.

The film is based on the book The Kennedy Tapes — Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Gun deaths drop more than 25 percent

Gun deaths in the United States fell to their lowest level since 1966 - a drop of more than 25 percent - during the mid-1990s, the government said on April 12.

Analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention credited stricter sentencing in some areas, new laws that make it more difficult for criminals to get guns, the waning crack trade and low unemployment because of the booming economy.

The CDC reported 30,708 gun-related deaths - 11.4 per 100,000 people - in 1998, the latest year for which statistics are available. The rate is down 26 percent from 1993, when there were 15.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

Gun-related injuries fell by nearly half during the same five-year period, dropping to 64,484 in 1998, or 23.9 per 100,000 people.

Guns remain the second leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States, trailing only auto accidents.

The drop during the 1990s coincides with a fall in homicides to levels not seen in three decades. The new figures, however, show that gun injuries declined across all three categories of intent - assault, accidental and intentional self-infliction.

The National Rifle Association said the lower death rates are evidence that gun-safety programs are reaching Americans and that gun laws are working.

"This is obviously good news," said Patricia Gregory, an NRA spokeswoman. "There are tens of thousands of firearms laws on the books. Strict enforcement of existing law could reduce these numbers even further."

Gun-control advocates called for tighter restrictions on firearm sales and more money for law enforcement.

"When we have 30,000 deaths a year, that's too many," said Soledad Roybal, a spokeswoman for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. "There need to be real, comprehensive laws, not just laws that are there as a show."

Of particular concern, the CDC said, is the striking rate of gun suicides among elderly men - an average of 27.7 per 100,000 people during the five-year period. The rate was just 1.8 per 100,000 for women over age 65.

The problem is likely to get worse as the population ages, analysts said.

"It was just something that kind of popped out," said J. Lee Annest, a CDC statistician. "There's a lot of action going on to prevent youth violence. This really is a problem that needs more attention."

Men were victims of five of every six gun deaths and seven of every eight gun-related injuries during the five-year period.

The CDC report excluded air-powered pellet guns. The numbers were collected from emergency rooms and death certificates in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. State-by-state numbers were not released.

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