Friday, April 30, 2010

Microsoft Introduces Social Media Directory for State and Local Government

Microsoft Introduces Social Media Directory for State and Local Governmentw many states' motor vehicle departments have a Facebook page or a Twitter account? In order to find out, you might have to browse a search engine and visit the DMV websites one by one.

But someday soon, that answer could be only one click away on a new website launched by Microsoft State & Local Government (SLG) that aims to aggregate and make searchable the social media platforms and projects coming from state and local governments.

Announced and launched Tuesday, April 27, the Gov2Social website built on Windows Azure has a map where users can search state-by-state for the social media platforms of elected officials, state government agencies, cities, towns and counties.

Microsoft is counting on users to input their government's social media usage on the website in order to populate it. It's been seeded with as many as 500 pieces of information and is now open for visitors to add more or edit existing entries.

Kristin Bockius, social media marketing manager for Microsoft SLG, said the company believes the website will fill a niche for those who are seeking a directory of social media activity in the state and local government. "We really want to use this site to show how many SLG agencies as well as individuals are using social to reach out to citizens," she told Government Technology on Tuesday.

When the website is populated with enough data, it will be possible to analyze what the top 10 states and cities are for social media, and so forth, Bockius said, "so you can start to figure out what sort of agencies it does and doesn't work for as well as who's the best at it."

In future weeks, the website will add podcasts, analytics, examples of highlighted case studies and best practices, Bockius added. The company may also add data on social media usage to the website for the federal government and worldwide governments.

And to be included on the site, a government doesn't have to be a Microsoft customer. "It doesn't matter what tools they're using," she said. "We're just trying to get the word out and trying to get people to use the social media and highlight some of these cool ways they're doing it."

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

MinnPost - Is Minnesota suffering a 'Ponzi Plague'?

MinnPost - Is Minnesota suffering a 'Ponzi Plague'?

Is Minnesota suffering a 'Ponzi Plague'?

By Brad Allen Published Wed, Apr 28 2010 10:39 am

Is Minnesota home to an unusually high rate of financial fraud and, in particular, the variant known as a Ponzi scheme? Or are stepped-up enforcement efforts turning up more high-profile cases?

In the latest development, Charles "Chuck" E. Hays, 56, Rosemount was sentenced this week to nine years and nine months in prison for his role in running a Ponzi scheme involving commodity pools. Hays also was ordered to pay $21,825,090 in restitution and $7,850 in victim attorney fees, as well as to serve three years of supervised release following his prison term.

Hays pleaded guilty in April 2009 to mail fraud, wire fraud and structuring transactions to avoid financial reporting requirements. According to the plea agreement, Hays told potential investors he was a day trader in stock index futures and other futures contracts and solicited individuals to invest money with him and his company, Crossfire Trading LLC, from January 2001 through February 2009. Instead of investing the funds, he used the money for personal expenses, the plea agreement said.

Claiming that “Ponzi schemes have plagued Minnesota,” blogger Patrick Pretty, who follows financial fraud globally, has been busy tracking the recent spate of indictments, convictions, legal maneuvering, office raids and investigations across the Gopher State.

With the convictions of Bernie Madoff and Tom Petters for perpetrating separate multi-billion dollar investment scams, the term ‘Ponzi scheme’ has been brought into high relief both nationally and in Minnesota.

A Ponzi scheme, named after notorious scam artist Charles Ponzi, entices individuals to place money with the fraudster, who promises to invest the money. Instead of investing as promised, the perpetrator either uses the funds to pay off earlier investors or to fund an extravagant lifestyle.

“We have definitely seen an uptick in financial fraud cases over the last couple of years,” observed Jeanne Cooney, spokesperson for the office of Todd Jones, U.S. attorney in Minnesota.

“In part, it’s due to the economy; in part, it’s due to a re-emphasis on fighting financial fraud by the Justice Department under [U.S. Attorney General] Holder,” she explained. “Nationally, we’re seeing more of these cases [and] putting a lot of effort into investigating and vigorously prosecuting” those that warrant federal prosecution.

While prosecutors describe some cases as Ponzi schemes and others more broadly as financial fraud, she also said that “people could make an argument either way” in using the term Ponzi scheme. She also said the Justice Department does not track the number of such cases by state.

Cooney does not think Minnesota is unusual in the number of financial fraud cases it is seeing but says that “for the first quarter, we’ve seen about a 20 percent increase in cases” of financial fraud in Minnesota. Those cases range from straight theft to tax evasion, mortgage fraud and Ponzi schemes.

Judge for yourself. Here is a selective list of recent highly visible financial fraud convictions and pending trials or investigations in Minnesota that have been described by prosecutors as Ponzi schemes - with one exception (noted below).

Thomas Petters, 53, of Wayzata was convicted of wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering, in a Ponzi scheme that ran from 1994 until 2008 involving fictitious purchase of appliances for resale. Petters was sentenced to 50 years in prison for a $3.65 billion scheme. Five others have pleaded guilty and await sentencing.

Co-conspirators Neulan Midkiff, 66, a Forest Lake minister, as well as Georgia native Terrence Correll and Jerry Lynn Watkins 55, also of Forest Lake, were sentenced to 15-, 12- and two-year prison terms respectively, plus financial restitution, for their roles in running an investment Ponzi scheme that bilked 519 people of up to $30 million between April 2004 and December 2005.

Jonathan Helgason, a 46-year-old licensed real estate agent from Chisago City, and Thomas Balko, 38, of Rogers, pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud totaling $35 million. The two men were sentenced last year to eight- and seven-year terms respectively, plus requiring restitution to the defrauded lenders. The Ponzi scheme involved “flipping” 162 homes throughout the Twin Cities between 2005 and 2007. About 140 of the homes are in north Minneapolis, and almost two-thirds of those properties ended up in foreclosure.

Trevor G. Cook, 37, of Apple Valley, pleaded guilty earlier this month to mail fraud and tax a $190 million Ponzi scheme involving a foreign currency investment scheme. No sentencing date has been set. Charges also have been filed against one of Cook’s partners in the scheme, conservative radio talk show host Pat Kiley, who pushed the investment to his listeners.

Gerard Cellette, 44, a former print broker from Andover, pleaded guilty in Hennepin County in March to 36 counts of securities fraud in a $53 million Ponzi scheme that ran from 2006 through August 2009 backing phony printing contracts. Sentencing is scheduled for June.

Kalin Thanh Dao, 33, from Minneapolis pleaded guilty in May 2009 to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and to engaging in illegal monetary transactions. She allegedly ran a Ponzi scheme from April 2006 through September 2008 that bilked investors of more than $7 million. Dao was sentenced to 12 years in prison and was ordered to pay more than $7 million in restitution. Her parents, Nghia Trong Dao, unknown age, and his wife, Thu Nguyet Le, 52, also pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.

Investigations and legal action are still in progress in several other high-profile cases:

Denny Hecker, 57, of Medina, and former Hecker executive Steven Leach, 54, of Burnsville, were indicted in February on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and commiting wire fraud in obtaining $80 million in financing for the purchase of 5,000 vehicles from Hyundai Motor America. Hecker also was indicted on money-laundering charges. Hecker’s trial is scheduled for fall. While not described as a classic Ponzi-scheme, the federal indictment claims that the scheme was instituted in part “to fund Hecker’s extravagant lifestyle.”

Steven Renner, 54, a Minneapolis Internet marketer and blues guitarist, had his downtown Minneapolis office raided in February by Secret Service and Treasury Department agents investigating an alleged “auto-surf” Internet Ponzi scheme run through one of Renner’s companies, iNetGlobal. Renner is awaiting sentencing for an earlier tax evasion conviction for underreporting his income by nearly $1.5 million from 2002 to 2005.

Renee Marie Brown, 46, a Golden Valley business woman, has been accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of running a $1.1 million Ponzi scheme involving a bond fund named “Fund X” from July 2009 through March 2010, Earlier this month, the U.S. District Court for Minnesota issued a temporary restraining order and froze Brown’s assets.

Monday, April 12, 2010

MinnPost - Braublog: To aid St. Paul investigation, KSTP turns over unaired pothole probe footage

MinnPost - Braublog: To aid St. Paul investigation, KSTP turns over unaired pothole probe footage

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    To aid St. Paul investigation, KSTP turns over unaired pothole probe footage

    By David Brauer Published Wed, Apr 7 2010 10:19 am

    Usually, when governments try to get outtakes or notes from media outlets, there’s a fight. The journalists zealously protect their work product — at least the part the public hasn’t seen — so they won’t be seen as snitches. Sources, present and future, tend to notice these things.

    But for the first time in news director Lindsay Radford’s seven years at KSTP-TV, the station disgorged nearly eight hours of unaired video and minute-by-minute logs to the city of St. Paul in a March 22 probe of loafing pothole-fillers.

    KSTP's McNaney and a sheepish St. Paul worker

    There’s no denying reporter Bob McNaney’s investigation had impact: St. Paul public works director Bruce Beese resigned hours before the story aired, and the city officials proclaimed they would try to fire the pothole non-fillers.

    That civil-service process (which isn’t criminal), prompted the city’s quest for evidence.

    Typically, Radford says, KSTP makes lawyers get a subpoena if they want anything from the station, and then “we give them what aired. We don’t give them raw [footage], we don’t give that up.”

    The pothole case, she notes, “is the first time in my tenure we’ve willingly handed over material. Bluntly, it raises the hair on the back of my neck.”

    So why do it? Simply put, the station that shouted “Outrage!” found it hypocritical to sit out the clean-up.

    “The feeling, from [general manager] Rob Hubbard on down, is that we’ve documented some pretty egregious behavior in a city department,” Radford says. “The city can’t take a full course of action without the material. We felt strongly that this needed to be corrected, so we handed it over.

    As to the charge KSTP has become an investigative arm of the government, Radford says the station would also turn over the footage to the workers’ union or lawyers, should they ask.

    She notes an unusual circumstance with this particular information: nothing came from a source.

    “It’s strictly material we observed, it all happened in the public eye, and didn’t go above and beyond what any citizen could have seen,” Radford says.

    “You want to know how we came up with the story idea? Several years ago, I went to [an investigative reporters and editors conference] and saw a story done by a reporter in Houston. Part of what the workers were doing was sleeping, driving to the end of cul de sacs, dumping asphalt, and logging the potholes as filled.

    “So when the potholes got bad here, I asked if there was any kind of tracking system. Bob said he’d go find out, and it turns out [St. Paul] doesn’t do anything to track them. So he went and followed a crew. He came back and said, ‘You’re not going to believe what’s going on.’ So he went back another day, followed a second crew, and when he kept seeing the same thing, we said, ‘Really?’”

    Radford emphasizes KSTP preserves its right under shield laws, should the city or workers seek additional information or testimony from station personnel.

    “We did spend about an hour, meeting with [St. Paul’s] head of Human Resources. We were curious to know, by handing over the material, what their intentions were, who was viewing, and the path of the material. Would Bob McNaney or [producer] Mike Maybay become witnesses?

    “Frankly, we don’t make very good witnesses for the city. We saw what we saw, and the material stands for what it is.”

    But, she adds, talking with the city was “a way for us to document how the process works. It will take about another month before the disciplinary procedure and arbitration, from a news perspective, plays out.”

    Media lawyer John Borger of Minneapolis-based Faegre & Benson says voluntarily surrendering material shouldn’t create a precedent that will make it easier for the next bureaucrat, or prosecutor, to obtain station information. Borger, who does not represent KSTP, recalls media organizations giving over raw footage in the 1990s, when journalists were attacked on Minneapolis’ north side.

    Another unusual facet of KSTP’s decision is that city investigators are seeing footage viewers haven’t. Journalists’ first responsibility is to the public, and in cases where stations have been forced to give up footage, they first air it (sometimes in early morning hours) or put it on their website so everyone can see it.

    Radford says KSTP discussed uploading the full footage on, but that a redesign that was being unveiled around the same time complicated the video transfer. “It’s something we’re still debating.”

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