Wednesday, July 09, 2003

White House Admits Uranium Charge Based On Forged Documents
Washington, 9 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The White House yesterday admitted that "forged information" was unknowingly used to support a claim in January by U.S. President George W Bush that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium from an African country.

White House National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton made the admission following U.S. newspaper reports about the false information.

"The Washington Post" yesterday quoted an unnamed senior White House official saying that allegations of dealings between Iraq and Niger should not have been included in Bush's State of the Union address.

In the speech, which laid out the U.S. case for war in Iraq, Bush said the information came from British intelligence services.

Earlier today in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected charges that he misled Britain and exaggerated the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

"You would almost think that this question of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction was some invention of the CIA and British intelligence. There is no doubt whatever that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction," Blair said.

Yesterday, the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee exonerated Blair's communications chief of allegations that he exaggerated information in a dossier on Iraq's weapons in order to justify the invasion of Iraq.

But the committee also concluded that a government dossier gave undue prominence to claims that Baghdad could deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes. It also said Blair misrepresented the nature of information in another dossier which was largely copied from a graduate student's thesis.

Graduates get jump-start from consolidating loans

Jason Manning, who received a master's degree in education last month, has had a welcome reprieve in repaying his $35,000 student-loan debt: His monthly payments are being cut in half, to $150 from $300.

Like thousands of other students nationwide, he's consolidating his student loans, taking advantage of record-low interest rates that took effect last week. The consolidation allows borrowers to lower their payments and to make adjustments to their loan terms.

"Right now, with different bills, moving and rent payments, I just thought it was important to have the lowest payment possible coming out of college," said Manning, who graduated June 15 from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. He'll start working in the fall.

Students and graduates, who typically have one loan for each year of schooling, can consolidate only once under federal law, but doing so allows them to write just one check and to lower their monthly payments by several hundred dollars in some cases.

Loans can be consolidated at any time during the year.

As of July 1, the rates for what are known as Stafford loans dropped to 3.42 percent for borrowers who are repaying loans and to 2.82 percent for those in school, in a grace period or a period of deferment. The rate for Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students, or PLUS, fell to 4.22 percent.

Stafford loans are guaranteed student loans available to all students, regardless of financial status. PLUS Loans are made to parents whose dependent children are students.

The consolidated loan will be issued in the same principal amount as the original loan, but the interest rate changes and is based on the average rate of all the loans being consolidated, said Patricia Scherschel, consolidation product executive for Sallie Mae, the nation's largest provider of student loans.

Once the rates are locked in, borrowers don't have to worry about interest rates increasing again because their rates are set. Conversely, they would not benefit if rates fall in the future.

Manning, who took out five loans, four during his undergraduate years and another for graduate school, said his loan rate was dropping to 2.82 percent from 3.82 percent. He also arranged for direct payment of his loans from his checking account and an extra discount for making on-time payments.

Some lenders take the initiative and call graduates to see if they're interested in consolidating.

Collegiate Funding Service, a private lender in Fredericksburg, Va., called Manning, who said half the process was accomplished over the phone. By the time the paper application arrived in the mail, he had only to check a few options and send it back.

Grant Lee, a recent graduate of Santa Clara University, got a call from College Loan Corp. to consolidate his loans.

Lee, 22, who has a degree in management information systems, consolidated loans that had interest rates ranging from 3.5 percent to 5.5 percent. With the consolidated loan being repaid at 3.5 percent, Lee said, he'll save about $113 per month on his $23,000 debt.

The fact that borrowers have just one chance to consolidate means they must decide whether to do so now or wait another year to see where interest rates are then.

"You have to pick your shot and go for it," said Jordan E. Goodman, author of "Everyone's Money Book on College."

Judy Wilburn of Tulsa, Okla., took out $20,000 in PLUS loans in March 2002 for three sons during five years. At the time, she didn't think the rates could go any lower and found it difficult to keep up with multiple lenders and payments.

"It was a good move. I feel now we should be able to refinance and could lower our interest by three points," Wilburn said.

She consolidated at 6.785 percent for her PLUS loans and pays $162 a month, compared with the $300 before consolidation.

Some lenders sweeten the process by offering extra discounts after a graduate makes 48 monthly on-time payments.

Graduates who want to consolidate should keep in mind a few considerations, said Scherschel, of Sallie Mae:

If they have trouble making monthly payments or are at risk of late payments on credit payments and loans, they should consider consolidation to extend their payback periods and lower their monthly payments.

Those who have high debt but can make monthly loan payments might want to consider locking in the low rates and freeing more cash to pay the loan back faster

A borrower who just left school and is still in a grace period might want to consider consolidating to lock in the low rates.

A new plan takes root at Fitz's

After a 20-year career at Anheuser-Busch Cos., Bob Gunthner was ready to go solo.

About eight months ago, Gunthner, a former A-B brand marketing executive, hired Clayton Capital Partners Inc. to find a company that he could buy and run.

As it turned out, Clayton Capital found a company that suited Gunthner's expertise: Fitz's, a popular, if underachieving, local root-beer business that also operates a restaurant in the University City Loop district. Last month, Clayton Capital and Gunthner bought Fitz's from the Westgate Group for an undisclosed sum.

"I was attracted to Fitz's for a number of reasons," said Gunthner, who will oversee daily operations. "I liked the (history) of the brand and the quality of the product. It's a niche product, so it's does not have to go head-to-head with any major players. ... Fitz's also has a good distribution relationship with supermarkets."

Fitz's, however, is nowhere near as dominant as it should be, said Kevin Short, a managing director of Clayton Capital. While Fitz's commands great brand recognition among St. Louisans, the beverage needs to broaden its sales reach in the St. Louis area, he said.

"What we hear from customers is they go to restaurants and delis and ask for the brand, and they can't get it," Short said. "Every local restaurant and deli should be selling a local brand. ... Anheuser-Busch is available in every outlet. That's the opportunity for Fitz's - to be sold and available everywhere."

The problem isn't distribution, Short said. Fitz's makes and bottles its beverages from its restaurant at 6605 Delmar Boulevard. For now, Clayton Capital has no plans to expand the facility or to open a new manufacturing plant.

Fitz's has underperformed because the brand never has been marketed properly, Short said.

Enter Gunthner. To boost Fitz's profile, the company will rely on grass-roots marketing - sponsoring local festivals and other community events, he said.

Gunthner said he will focus on what are perhaps Fitz's two most significant assets: the brand's history and ties to the region and the quality of the product. Fitz's was invented in a Richmond Heights drive-through restaurant in 1947, and it contains high-end ingredients like pure cane sugar.

Fitz's has the right idea, said Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark LLC, a beverage-consulting firm in Santa Barbara, Calif. Over the years, there has been a resurgence of local, specialty beverages as consumers grow tired of mass-marketed products, he said.

A superpremium beverage with a strong heritage "has some real opportunity," Pirko said. "Consumers are primed and ready for it."

One thing Short is content to leave alone is the University City restaurant. Fitz's had attempted unsuccessfully to own restaurants in Chesterfield and Kansas City.

"Our intent is to stay with one location," Short said. "From day one, that restaurant has always done well."

What intrigues Fitz's new owners is the beverage's surprising success in New York and Los Angeles. Though Fitz's commands only a small presence in those markets, "Sales have been pretty good," Short said.

High-profile restaurateur Danny Meyer, a St. Louis native, offers Fitz's at Blue Smoke, his newest restaurant in Manhattan. Martha Stewart recently featured Fitz's on her television show. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles also sells Fitz's.

"We would be foolish not to take advantage of New York and Los Angeles," Gunthner said.

Still, first things first, he said. The company will concentrate on St. Louis first and then try to evolve Fitz's into a more regional brand, Gunthner said.

If anything, Fitz's success on both coasts should make St. Louis an even more pressing priority, said Brent Baxter, a managing partner with Clayton Capital.

"It seems St. Louis restaurants would be a natural, easy sell to customers," he said.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Who would have thought a movie inspired by a ride at Disneyland could be so much fun? And isn't it a good thing that Walt Disney Pictures chose "Pirates of the Caribbean" to bring to the screen, not "It's a Small World"?

The only thing wrong with this exhilarating, surprisingly witty pirate flick is that there is too much of it. There are, in particular, too many repetitive battle scenes shot in murky close-ups, making it difficult to tell - or to care - who is doing what to whom. And the movie keeps going long after the time has come for director Gore Verbinski ("The Ring") to strike the sails and send everyone home.

Still, with its terrific overall cast, a rousing story that combines adventure, romance, farce and comic horror, and marvelously hammy turns by Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush as dueling pirate captains, "Pirates of the Caribbean" is a winner.

Depp, with all manner of weird colorful gewgaws hanging from the undergrowth of his long, tangled hair, has a kind of lurching, eye-rolling way of moving that veers sharply between stoned clumsiness and beatific grace. The character may well look familiar to viewers who watched the recent Rolling Stones special on HBO: Depp has cheerfully confessed in interviews that he based his appearance as Captain Jack Sparrow in part on the idiosyncrasies of Stones guitarist Keith Richards.

Rush, as the zombified mutineer who stole Sparrow's pirate ship and now leads a disgustingly motley crew, at times seems to be channeling Hannibal Lecter. Depp and Rush, separately and particularly in their scenes together, owe nothing to modern naturalistic acting and everything to 19th-century melodrama. Usually, when actors appear to be having this much fun, it's bad news for the audience, but these two guys are a delight to watch.

There is a plot, at times too much of one. The bad pirates kidnap a fair maiden (Keira Knightley of "Bend It Like Beckham"). The handsome blacksmith who loves her (Orlando Bloom) hooks up with more-or-less-good pirate Depp to rescue her. There is a bunch of amusing nonsense about cursed Aztec gold and the lost heir to a dead pirate as Depp and Bloom pursue Rush and his demon ship across the Caribbean.

The script, by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, is droll and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, without being condescending to the material. Director Verbinski is, on the whole, quite skillful in knitting together scenes that fall neatly between suspense and slapstick.

Much of the movie is reminiscent of the work of horrormeister Sam Raimi - an eyeball keeps popping out of its socket, as in the "Evil Dead" movies, and the zombie pirates look rather like their landlocked cousins in "Army of Darkness." But the influence of Raimi is so overt that it has to be considered more homage than rip-off, and Verbinski sustains an almost irresistible level of high silliness through most of the film.

Despite its drawbacks, "Pirates of the Caribbean" is one of the most entertaining movies of the summer. If it were half an hour shorter, it might be in the theaters until Thanksgiving.

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