TODAY

– March 4, 2015

Scientists charged in seed-theft conspiracy

(AP) — Seeds may not look impressive, but in the world of agricultural research, they can mean big money.

This week, federal prosecutors unveiled charges in two cases involving defendants from China accused of conspiring to steal seeds for commercial espionage.

A detention hearing is set to get underway Friday in Little Rock for one of two agricultural scientists from China accused of conspiring to take seeds from a research facility in Kansas and pass them to a Chinese delegation visiting the United States.

Prosecutors said Wengui Yan and Weiqiang Zhang arranged for a Chinese delegation to visit the U.S. this year and that customs agents found stolen seeds in the delegation's luggage before the group flew back to China.

Yan, of Stuttgart, Ark., and Zhang, of Manhattan, Kan., are charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets. Zhang's hearing is set for Tuesday in Kansas. Attorneys for the men didn't immediately respond to emails seeking comment on Friday.

Also this week, prosecutors in Iowa said six men from China including the CEO of a seed corn subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate have been charged with conspiring to steal patented seed corn from two of America's leading seed developers.

It wasn't immediately clear if the cases in Kansas and Iowa are related. But seed developers spend millions of dollars a years to develop new varieties and carefully protect them against theft to maintain a competitive advantage.

Yan worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a research geneticist at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Arkansas, and Zhang worked as an agricultural seed breeder for a biopharmaceutical company that has a production facility in Junction City, Kan., according to a court document filed Thursday in Kansas.

Prosecutors only identified the business where Zhang worked as Company A, but said the business invested about $75 million in technology used to create seeds.

"If this technology was compromised or the seeds were stolen, Company A believes its entire research and development investment would be compromised," an FBI special agent wrote in a court document.

Zhang allegedly took seeds that his employer had grown and kept them at his home in Kansas. Someone at the crop research institute in China contacted Yan about plans for a delegation to visit the U.S., according to court documents.

Yan and Zhang arranged for the delegation to come this year, and when it was preparing to fly back to China, customs agents found a number of seeds in their luggage, according to court documents.

Some were in envelopes while others were lodged in makeshift containers, including a newspaper page that had been folded in the shape of an envelope, according to the documents.

If convicted, Zhang and Yan could face up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

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Written on 03/03/2015, 1:17 pm by Associated Press
(AP) — U.S. stock indexes are closing slightly lower, pulling the Nasdaq composite index back below 5,000.
Written on 03/03/2015, 12:20 pm by JOAN LOWY, Associated Press
(AP) — Two major U.S airlines say they will no longer accept rechargeable battery shipments as new government tests confirm that explosions and violent fires are likely to occur when large numbers of batteries enclosed in cargo containers overheat. Tests conducted last month by the Federal Aviation Administration show that rechargeable batteries, also called lithium-ion batteries, consistently emit explosive gases when they overheat or short-circuit, The Associated Press has learned. In the recent tests, as well as other FAA tests last year, the buildup of gases — primarily hydrogen — led to fierce explosions. An FAA video of one of the tests obtained by the AP shows an explosion knocking a cargo container door off its hinges and tossing boxes of batteries into the air. The container was engulfed in fire minutes later. In the test, a cartridge heater was used to simulate a single battery overheating. The heater caused nearby batteries to overheat and the short-circuiting spread to many of the nearly 5,000 batteries in the container. It's common for tens of thousands of batteries to be placed in a single container. Citing safety concerns, United Airlines on Monday informed its cargo customers it will no longer accept bulk shipments of the batteries, which are used to power everything from smartphones to laptops to power tools. Delta Air Lines quietly stopped accepting bulk shipments of the rechargeable batteries on Feb. 1. The airline said in a statement that it took the action in response to government testing and concerns raised by its pilots and flight attendants. A third major U.S. carrier, American Airlines, stopped accepting some types of lithium-ion battery shipments on Feb. 23. But the airline is continuing to accept small packages of batteries grouped together or "overpacked" into a single cargo container. Those are the kinds of shipments that the FAA has been testing and that are a greater safety concern. All three airlines said they will continue to accept bulk shipments of equipment containing batteries or in which batteries are placed in the same package as equipment. Placing batteries inside equipment like laptops or in the same package as power tools creates additional buffering and is believed to provide added protection, although safety experts say that theory hasn't been fully tested. The decisions by United and Delta airlines could put pressure on other international carriers to refuse battery shipments or appear indifferent to safety. "I think it will cause everybody to take a look at their policies and procedures as far as carrying that cargo, and many will elect not to," said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and aviation safety expert. Airline industry analyst Robert W. Mann said, "It's only a matter of time before a really serious event occurs." Airlines "are essentially just trying to avoid that occurrence," he said. Temperatures in some of the government testing reached nearly 1,100 degrees. An airliner might be able to withstand a fire generated by a small number of lithium-ion batteries, but a fire involving lots of them could destroy the plane, according to a slide presentation by Airbus engineer Paul Rohrbach. The presentation was an industry position reflecting the views of other aircraft manufacturers as well as Airbus, according to the company. U.S. and international officials have been slow to adopt safety restrictions that might affect the powerful industries that depend on the batteries. About 4.8 billion lithium-ion cells were manufactured in 2013, and production is forecast to reach 8 billion a year by 2025. A battery contains two or more cells. Lithium batteries dominate the global battery industry because they're cheap to make, lightweight and can hold a lot more energy than other types of batteries. Cargo airlines are continuing to transport the batteries even though they are believed to have either caused or contributed to fires that destroyed two Boeing 747 freighters in recent years, killing their pilots. The pilots of a third freighter managed to escape after landing in Philadelphia, but that plane was also destroyed. UPS recently completed a round of tests on a shipping container that was adjusted to allow gases to escape while continuing to contain a battery fire. The company was encouraged by the results of the tests, said UPS spokesman Mike Mangeot. U.S. regulators' hands are tied by a 2012 law that Congress enacted in response to industry lobbying. It prohibits the government from issuing regulations regarding battery shipments that are any more stringent than standards approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency, unless an international investigative agency can show the batteries ignited a fire that destroyed an aircraft. That's difficult, since in the three cases thus far in which batteries are suspected of causing fires, the planes were too damaged to determine the source of the blaze.
Written on 03/03/2015, 12:19 pm by MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press
(AP) — Insurance coverage for millions of people is riding on the latest politically charged Supreme Court clash over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. The case being argued Wednesday focuses on who's eligible for federal tax subsidies intended to make health coverage affordable. Three years after Chief Justice John Roberts saved Obama's health law in an epic, election-year fight over its constitutionality, the chief justice could again hold the pivotal vote. The current challenge devised by die-hard opponents of the law, also known as Obamacare, relies on four words — established by the state — in the more than 900-page law to argue that the vast majority of people who now get help paying for their insurance premiums are ineligible for their federal tax credits.
Written on 03/03/2015, 12:18 pm by 
TALI ARBEL, AP Business Writer
(AP) — The head of the Federal Communications Commission is taking the defense of new Internet regulations on the road. Speaking at the Mobile World Congress wireless show in Barcelona, Spain, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Tuesday that "there needs to be a referee" for the Internet. The FCC's vote last week approved "net neutrality" rules that prevent Internet providers such as Comcast and Verizon from slowing or blocking Web traffic or from creating Internet fast lanes that content providers such as Netflix must pay for. Broadband providers and Republicans have been critical of the new rules, and the FCC's decision is expected to trigger industry lawsuits that could take years to resolve. Verizon has criticized the FCC for basing the new rules on a 1934 law. Wheeler said that the agency "modernized" the old communications legislation, leaving out parts that don't apply to today's Internet. He said that approach has worked well for wireless carriers. The FCC approved the new rules by a 3-2 vote. One of the dissenting commissioners, Ajit Pai, said the new rules are unpredictable. That could make Internet providers less willing to come up with new services. Wheeler said the rules are not intended to block innovation. He said that the agency did not want to impose broad, restrictive rules on the industry but would look at business practices on a case-by-case basis. He said that there will be no rate regulation and that the rules won't hurt network operators' revenue streams from consumer services. AT&T has said the rules politicize the Internet. President Barack Obama and many Democrats approve the new regulatory approach. Although Republicans have said they support an open Internet, they want a different approach. Wheeler did not specifically address the political aspect of the decision, but said "the people against it spawned all kinds of imaginary horribles. This is no more regulating the Internet than the First Amendment regulates free speech in our country."
Written on 03/03/2015, 12:16 pm by SUDHIN THANAWALA, Associated Press
(AP) — A prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist who helped direct early investments in Google and Amazon testified Tuesday in a high-profile sex discrimination lawsuit that his firm is not run by men. John Doerr took the stand in San Francisco Superior Court in the lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — a case that has sparked debate over the treatment of women in the high-tech and venture capitalist fields. The plaintiff, Ellen Pao, claims she was denied a promotion in the male-dominated culture of the company because she is a woman and was fired in 2012 after she complained. Doerr — a billionaire and partner at the firm, which counts former Vice President Al Gore among its partners — testified that Kleiner Perkins has many female senior partners. Pao initially worked as Doerr's chief of staff before becoming a junior partner with full-time investment duties. During opening statements, her attorney, Alan Exelrod, said Pao wrote many of Doerr's letters and speeches, and had received a glowing review from him when she was contacted about another job opportunity. The attorney also said Doerr wanted to fire one of Pao's married male colleagues after learning he and Pao had had an affair and that Doerr was aware Pao had received a book of erotic poetry from a senior partner that she found inappropriate. Asked Tuesday about the book of poetry, Doerr said Pao did not tell him the nature of the book and did not seem upset by it. She was emphatic that her affair with the male colleague was in the past and not a problem, he said. The firm has denied wrongdoing and says Pao, 45, was a poor performer who didn't get along with her colleagues. Venture capital firms provide much of the startup funds for tech companies and have a reputation as being even more insular and male-dominated than the companies they help launch. Women hold 15 to 20 percent of the technology jobs at tech giants Google, Apple, Facebook and Yahoo, according to disclosures by the companies. Venture capital firms are even more slanted toward men. A study released last year by Babson College in Massachusetts found that women filled just 6 percent of the partner-level positions at 139 venture capital firms in 2013, down from 10 percent in 1999. Pao is seeking $16 million in damages. The firm is seeking to limit any possible damages by arguing that Pao is well-compensated in her current position as interim CEO of the popular social media company Reddit and hasn't suffered financially since leaving Kleiner after filing her lawsuit.
Written on 03/03/2015, 11:56 am by Business Journal staff
Acclaimed actor Viola Davis has canceled her announced appearance at September's Central California Women's Conference due to a scheduling conflict. Davis, star of ABC's How to Get Away with Murder, was scheduled to discuss the issue of hunger at the annual conference. She announced via Twitter she would be unable to deliver the talk due to a filming conflict. "I wish you all continued success in your fight against hunger," Davis wrote on Twitter. Davis recently announced winning the role of Amanda Waller in the upcoming DC Comics super-villain movie Suicide Squad. Shooting for the movie will take place in Toronto through September 2015, according to published reports. The women's conference wrote a note via Facebook confirming the cancellation. Organizers said they are working to quickly find a new celebrity keynote speaker for the Sept. 22 event in Fresno.
Written on 03/03/2015, 11:38 am by Business Journal Staff
Home prices in Fresno, including distressed sales, increased by 6.9 percent in January 2015 compared to January 2014, according to a report released today by CoreLogic. On a month-over-month basis, Fresno home prices, excluding distressed sales, increased by 0.9 percent in January compared with December 2014. In Madera, home prices, including distressed sales, rose by 9.5 percent in January 2015 compared to January 2014. Excluding distressed sales, the year-over-year increase in Madera was 10.6 percent according to the report. On a month-over-month basis, Madera home prices, including distressed sales, increased by 0.2 percent in January 2015. In the Visalia-Porterville area, home prices, including distressed sales, increased by 3.1 percent in January 2015 compared to January 2014. On a month-over-month basis, Tulare County home prices, including distressed sales, increased by 0.6 percent in January 2015. In the Hanford-Corcoran area, home prices, including distressed sales, increased by 6.8 percent in January 2015 compared to January 2014. On a month-over-month basis, Kings County home prices, including distressed sales, increased by 1.6 percent in January 2015. The report is the latest evidence that the Central Valley is outpacing many other parts of the county in terms of home sales price appreciation. According to the report, average U.S. home prices nationwide rose by 5.7 percent in January compared with January 2014. “House price appreciation has generally been stronger in the western half of the nation and weakest in the mid-Atlantic and northeast states,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist at CoreLogic. “In part, these trends reflect the strength of regional economies.” Anand Nallathambi, CoreLogic’s president and CEO, predicts home prices “will continue to rise throughout the year and into 2016. A dearth of supply in many parts of the country is a big factor driving up prices,” he added.
Written on 03/03/2015, 9:46 am by The Associated Press
(AP) — A 9-year-old Fresno girl has won the 14th annual National Elementary School Spelling Bee. Her winning words: "hydrofoil" and "paucity." Ananya Vinay outspelled 34 other students in grades three to five to take the top spot at the event in Long Beach. Last year she placed fifth. The Fresno Bee reported Monday (http://bit.ly/1DOJ0A4 ) that the fourth-grader at Fugman Elementary School took home a $1,000 prize. The event is modeled after the Scripps National Spelling Bee held annually in Washington, D.C., but is geared toward younger students. The second place winner was a 10-year-old from Riverside who misspelled "medallion."
Written on 03/03/2015, 9:41 am by TOM KRISHER, 
DEE-ANN DURBIN, AP Auto Writers
(AP) — Freezing temperatures and drifts of snow took a small bite out of U.S. auto sales in February, but most automakers still reported gains thanks to the strong economy. Toyota led major automakers with a 13.3 percent gain over last February. Others came in below analysts' predictions. Chrysler, General Motors, Honda and Nissan all saw gains of 6 percent or less. Ford's U.S. sales were down 1.9 percent, as dealers lacked the inventory to meet demand for the new F-150 pickup truck. Volkswagen's sales fell 5.2 percent. All automakers report U.S. sales on Tuesday. Analysts had predicted an 8 percent increase over a year ago to nearly 1.3 million vehicles, based on the strength of the U.S. economy. Falling unemployment, low interest rates and new versions of big sellers like the Jeep Cherokee — which saw sales jump 19 percent in February —drove buyers to dealerships in many cities. The forecasting firm LMC Automotive pushed up its 2015 forecast by 40,000 vehicles, based on strong demand. The firm is expecting U.S. sales to top 17 million this year for the first time since 2001. Still, LMC said it became apparent as the month went along that bad weather in the mid-South and on the East Coast was hurting sales. Colonial Volkswagen of Medford, Massachusetts, had almost no customers for a two-week period at the start of the month. Ken Cataldo, the dealership's general manager, said he and his staff spent much of the time clearing snow from cars and moving them around the lot just north of Boston in order to plow snow away. "It was the worst two weeks of my life in the car business," said Cataldo, who's been selling cars for 29 years. As temperatures warmed at the end of the month, some customers came out of hibernation. Colonial ended up selling 75 cars, still short of its goal of 115 and the normal monthly sales of 130, Cataldo said. He's hoping to make up for the lost sales this month. "We've already put February in the rear-view mirror," Cataldo said. There were also obstacles to overcome on the other side of the country. LMC said a dispute that halted some shipments of car parts into West Coast shipyards may also have impacted sales. The impasse was settled on Feb. 21. In California, gas prices soared to more than $3.30 per gallon after an explosion at a refinery; nationally, they rose around 30 cents per gallon. But the national average of $2.44 per gallon is still $1 less than a year ago, according to AAA. Consumers and businesses still shopped for trucks and SUVs despite the higher gas prices. GM said sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup jumped 24 percent last month to 45,395. And small SUVs continue to be one of the hottest segments in the market. Toyota sold nearly 22,000 RAV4 SUVs, up 33 percent from a year ago and a February record for the vehicle. Toyota, with total sales of 180,467, bucked the industry with double-digit sales increases for the Camry, Corolla and Avalon sedans as well as SUVs and trucks. Prius hybrid sales were down 6.6, the victim of lower gas prices. GM's sales rose 4.2 percent to 231,378. It got a boost from big SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade, which saw sales nearly double over last February. Ford's sales declined nearly 2 percent to 180,383. Every Ford and Lincoln brand car except for the Mustang was down, and key SUVs like the Escape and Edge also saw sales declines. Ford blamed lower sales to commercial and rental fleets for some of the losses. Pickup sales are also slow as the company ramps up production of the new F-150. Ford says it won't have normal levels of truck inventory on dealer lots until the end of June. Chrysler sold 163,586 vehicles for its best February in eight years. Sales of the Jeep brand rose 21 percent increase as Americans continued their shift away from cars toward small and large SUVs. Honda's sales were up 5.0 percent to 105,466. Sales of its Fit subcompact jumped 81 percent after a recent redesign, but sales of other cars like the Accord and Civic fell. Nissan's sales rose 2.7 percent to 118,436, a February record for the Japanese automaker. Nissan was led by the Rogue small SUV with a 24.6 percent sales increase. Volkswagen's sales fell 5.2 percent to 25,710. Big sales gains for the new Golf couldn't overcome lower sales elsewhere in the German automaker's lineup.
Written on 03/03/2015, 9:38 am by JONATHAN FAHEY, AP Energy Writer
(AP) — The U.S. has so much crude that it is running out of places to put it, and that could drive oil and gasoline prices even lower in the coming months. For the past seven weeks, the United States has been producing and importing an average of 1 million more barrels of oil every day than it is consuming. That extra crude is flowing into storage tanks, especially at the country's main trading hub in Cushing, Oklahoma, pushing U.S. supplies to their highest point in at least 80 years, the Energy Department reported last week. If this keeps up, storage tanks could approach their operational limits, known in the industry as "tank tops," by mid-April and send the price of crude — and probably gasoline, too — plummeting. "The fact of the matter is we are running out of storage capacity in the U.S.," Ed Morse, head of commodities research at Citibank, said at a recent symposium at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Morse has suggested oil could fall all the way to $20 a barrel from the current $50. At that rock-bottom price, oil companies, faced with mounting losses, would stop pumping oil until the glut eased. Gasoline prices would fall along with crude, though lower refinery production, because of seasonal factors and unexpected outages, could prevent a sharp decline. The national average price of gasoline is $2.44 a gallon. That's $1.02 cheaper than last year at this time, but up 37 cents over the past month. Other analysts agree that crude is poised to fall sharply — if not all the way to $20 — because it continues to flood into storage for a number of reasons: — U.S. oil production continues to rise. Companies are cutting back on new drilling, but that won't reduce supplies until later this year. — The new oil being produced is light, sweet crude, which is a type many U.S. refineries are not designed to process. Oil companies can't just get rid of it by sending it abroad, because crude exports are restricted by federal law. — Foreign oil continues to flow into the U.S., both because of economic weakness in other countries and to feed refineries designed to process heavy, sour crude. — This is the slowest time of year for gasoline demand, so refiners typically reduce or stop production to perform maintenance. As refiners process less crude, supplies build up. — Oil investors are making money buying and storing oil because of the difference between the current price of oil and the price for delivery in far-off months. An investor can buy oil at $50 today and enter into a contract to sell it for $59 in December, locking in a profit even after paying for storage during those months. The delivery point for most of the oil traded in the U.S. is Cushing, a city of about 8,000 people halfway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa at an intersection of several pipelines. The city is dotted with tanks that can, in theory, hold 85 million barrels of oil, according to the Energy Department, though some of those tanks are used for blending or feeding pipelines, not for storing oil. The market data provider Genscape, which flies helicopters equipped with infrared cameras and other technology over Cushing twice a week to measure storage levels, estimates Cushing is two-thirds full. Hillary Stevenson, who manages storage, pipeline and refinery monitoring for Genscape, says Cushing could be full by mid-April. Supplies are increasing at "the highest rate we have ever seen at Cushing," she says. Full tanks — or super-low prices — are not a sure thing. New storage is under construction at Cushing, and there are large storage terminals near Houston, in St. James, Louisiana, and elsewhere around the country that will probably begin to take in more oil as prices fall far enough to cover the cost of transporting the oil. Also, drillers are cutting back fast because oil prices have plummeted from $107 a barrel in June. And demand is showing signs of rising. While the Energy Department reported another enormous rise in crude stocks last week, up 8.4 million barrels from the week earlier, it also reported that diesel and gasoline supplies fell more than expected. That leads some to conclude that demand for crude will soon pick up, easing the glut somewhat. But many analysts believe oil prices will fall through the spring, before summer drivers start to relieve the glut.

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