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    Australia's Qantas announced Thursday it will slash flights to Asia as the coronavirus crisis cuts into the airline and travel industries. The decision to reduce the carrier's overall capacity to Asia by 16% until at least the end of May is expected to cut between 100 million and 150 million Australian dollars ($67 million-$100 million) from Qantas' earnings this year, the airline said in a statement. The move will affect Qantas services to China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Qantas' secondary carrier Jetstar will cut back services by 14%. The airline said, however, the impact of the cuts would be offset by a reduction in fuel prices worldwide, also caused by the virus outbreak as other airlines reduce Asian services. Qantas flights between Sydney and Shanghai will remain suspended, while the Hong Kong-Sydney service will be cut from 14 to seven flights per week. 'Cononavirus resulted in the suspension of flights to mainland China and we're now seeing some secondary impacts and weaker demand on Hong Kong, Singapore and to a lesser extent Japan,' Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce said in a statement. Joyce said the decision would leave Qantas with a surplus of some 700 full time workers from its overall staff of 30,000. The company would consequently make adjustments, such as asking for workers to volunteer to take leave owed to them while the reductions take place. 'What's important is that we have flexibility in how we respond to coronavirus and how we maintain our strategic position more broadly,' Joyce said. “We can extend how long the cuts are in place, we can deepen them or we can add seats back in if the demand is there. “We know demand into Asia will rebound. And we’ll be ready to ramp back up when it does,' he said. As the global tourism industry continues to be battered by the outbreak, Qantas and Jetstar will also reduce their domestic capacity by 2.3% for the second half of the Australian financial year, which ends on June 30. “These past few months have been extraordinarily difficult for the tourism industry and we’ve tried to minimize the impact of our capacity reductions as much as possible,' Joyce said. He said about half of Qantas’ domestic cancellations are between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, but he said the airline was avoiding any route exits. The airline's capacity reductions came as it also announced a 3.9% fall in profits to AU$445 million ($296 million) in the first half of the financial year.
  • The redesigned “Sonic the Hedgehog” showed plenty of teeth at the box office, speeding to a $57 million debut, according to studio estimates Sunday, while “Parasite” saw one of the largest post-Oscars bumps in years following its best picture win. Paramount Pictures' “Sonic the Hedgehog” came in well above expectations, especially for a movie that just months ago was a laughing stock. After its first trailer was greeted with ridicule on social media last year, “Sonic” was postponed three months to give its title character a design overhaul — including fixing Sonic's eerily human teeth. The makeover worked and audiences responded by making “Sonic the Hedgehog' the weekend's top film and the highest-grossing opening for a video game adaptation, not accounting for inflation. For Paramount, it's a welcome success following misfires such as “Gemini Man” and “Terminator: Dark Fate.” The studio estimates “Sonic” will gross $68 million over the four-day Presidents Day holiday weekend. “If you don't listen to your customer, and this goes for any business, then you're going to fail,” said Chris Aronson, distribution chief for Paramount. “We retooled Sonic in a way that was obviously very satisfying for the fans and they were very forgiving. Now that they've seen the movie, they love the movie. It all worked out.” The Sega video game adaptation, directed by Jeff Fowler, drew decent reviews (63% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and an A CinemaScore from moviegoers. The $87 million production co-stars Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik with Ben Schwartz supplying Sonic's voice. Bong Joon Ho's “Parasite” had its biggest weekend in its 19th week of release. Neon put “Parasite” into its widest release yet (2,001 theaters) following its historic win at the Oscars. (“Parasite” was the first non-English-language film to win best picture in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards.) And despite the film already being available for weeks on digital platforms and on DVD, its $5.5 million weekend is the largest Oscars bump for a best-picture winner since “Gladiator” in 2001. Last week's opening of “Birds of Prey' followed up its limp debut by sliding to second with $17.1 million. Following its disappointing opening, some theaters retitled the movie “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey,' instead of “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).' It was a busy weekend in theaters, with a handful of other new releases — “The Photograph,' “Fantasy Island,” “Downhill” — seeking to capitalize on both Valentine's Day on Friday and Presidents Day on Monday. “Fantasy Island,” the Blumhouse horror remake of the ‘70s TV show, fared the best, collecting $12.4 million in ticket sales despite terrible reviews. Sony Pictures handled the release of the low-budget, PG-13 film, which earned just a 9% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. Universal Pictures “The Photograph,” a romance starring Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield and produced by Will Packer ('Girls Trip,' “Ride Along”), opened with $12.2 million. The film, written and directed by Stella Meghie, cost $15 million to make. “Downhill,” from Disney's Fox Searchlight Pictures, debuted with $4.7 million, a modest start for a film starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. A remake of the acclaimed Swedish film “Force Majeure” by Ruben Östlund, “Downhill” didn't do great with critics but fared even worse with audiences. They gave it a D CinemaScore. Neon followed up its “Parasite” Oscar win with the Valentine's Day release of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” one of 2019's most acclaimed films. Following a one-week qualifying run in December, Celine Sciamma's French period romance opened in 22 theaters with a strong per-theater average of about $20,000. Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Where available, the latest international numbers for Friday through Sunday are also included. 1. 'Sonic the Hedgehog,' $57 million ($44.3 million international). 2. “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey,” $17.1 million ($23 million international). 3. “Fantasy Island,” $12.4 million ($7.6 million international). 4. “The Photograph,” $12.3 million. 5. “Bad Boys for Life,” $11.3 million ($11.1 million international). 6. “1917,” $8.1 million ($6.4 million international). 7. “Jumanji: The Next Level,” $5.7 million ($1.9 million international). 8. “Parasite,” $5.5 million. 9. “Dolittle,” $5.1 million ($8.8 million international). 10. “Downhill,” $4.7 million. ___ Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
  • Airline travelers were a bit more likely to be delayed, and more often for longer spells, when flying around the U.S. last year, according to a government report issued Wednesday. Canceled flights were up, and so were the number of passengers bumped off overcrowded flights. But travelers apparently are learning to take it all in stride. The rate of complaints remained nearly unchanged from 2018. The Transportation Department said that 79% of domestic flights last year arrived within 15 minutes of the airline’s schedule — the government’s definition of being on time. That was down from 79.2% in 2018. Hawaiian Airlines took home the prize for being the nation’s most punctual airline for the 16th straight year. Blessed by good weather where it operates most of its flights, Hawaiian scored an 87.7% on-time mark, followed by Delta Air Lines at 83.5%. After that, in order from best to worst, it was Alaska Airlines, Southwest, Spirit, Allegiant, American, United, JetBlue and discount carrier Frontier Airlines, last at 73.1%. The Transportation Department said 302 domestic flights were stuck on the ground for three hours or longer, a 50% increase over 2018. Airlines reported another 26 international flights that were delayed on the ground by at least four hours, an improvement from 61 in 2018. Airlines can be fined for such long tarmac delays. Cancellations rose to 1.9%, up from 1.7% in 2018. Hawaiian had the lowest cancellation rate, while the highest rates belonged to American, Southwest and United. Those three big airlines are the only U.S. carriers that own Boeing 737 Max jets, and they were forced to scrub thousands of flights after the planes were grounded worldwide in March 2019 following two deadly crashes overseas. Airlines have reduced the number of people bumped off oversold flights in recent years, usually by offering travel vouchers to passengers who willingly give up their seats. The number of bumped passenger nearly doubled last year, however, to almost 21,000. Bumping was still rare — only one in every 41,000 passengers was forced off a flight. Complaints filed with the government remained rare and about the same as in 2018. Consumer advocates say many aggrieved travelers don’t bother filing a formal complaint with the Transportation Department. Southwest had the lowest complaint rate. Spirit Airlines had the highest, followed by Frontier, American, Allegiant and United.
  • A judge has given final approval to a $10 million settlement in a class-action discrimination lawsuit that alleged Motel 6 employees in Phoenix shared the whereabouts and private information of guests with immigration authorities who later arrested some of them. U.S. District Judge David Campbell on Tuesday also rejected arguments from Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office that the settlement should be renegotiated because the bulk of the money would go toward groups that advocate on behalf of immigrants, instead of Motel 6 guests whose privacy was violated. The judge said renegotiating would be warranted only if he can conclude the amounts given to claimants are insufficient. “The attorney general has provided no information from which the court can make that determination,” Campbell wrote. The lawsuit alleged Motel 6 had a corporate policy or practice of giving U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement information that guests provided at check-in. It also accused Motel 6 of providing such information without requiring authorities to get a warrant or without having a reasonable suspicion that crimes were being committed. Motel 6 has denied wrongdoing. The budget motel chain has previously said it told its more than 1,400 locations that they were prohibited from voluntarily providing guest lists to immigration authorities after the Phoenix New Times reported in 2017 that workers in Arizona were providing guests' names to agents. Motel 6 also settled a similar lawsuit in 2019 in Washington state for $12 million. The Arizona lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight unnamed Latinos who stayed at Motel 6 locations in Phoenix. It alleged guests were discriminated against because of their race or national origin. ICE agents visited some of the guests at their motel rooms a day after they showed passports, driver's licenses or identification cards issued by the Mexican government to Motel 6 employees, according to the lawsuit. The amount of settlement was publicly revealed last year, but an order written by Campbell provides an update on the claims being made so far. More than 2,000 people have submitted claims. Claims totaling $3.4 million have already been approved, while another $1.5 million are under consideration. Another $500,000 will go to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed the lawsuit, to cover legal costs. The remainder is to be divided in varying amounts among four other groups. The amount to be given to the groups hasn’t yet been determined, though it’s believed to be several million dollars. Three of the groups provide services to people who must defend their immigration status in the United States, while the fourth organization gives college scholarships to noncitizens. Under the settlement, a class member whose information was provided to immigration authorities could get $75; up to $10,000 if the person is put into deportation proceedings; and as much as $200,000 if the person incurred legal feeds to defend his or her presence in the United States.
  • Washington state lawmakersintroduced bills Wednesday,at The Boeing Co.’s request, to suspend the aerospace giant's preferential business and occupation tax rate unless the United States and European Union reach an agreement on their long-running international trade dispute that would allow the lower tax rate. Democratic Sen. Marko Liias and Democratic House Majority Leader Rep. Pat Sullivan are the sponsors of the companion bills in the Senate and House. Under the legislation, starting on April 1, the company will no longer receive the 40% tax break that the Legislature adopted for the aerospace industry in 2003, which was expanded in 2013. Last year, the World Trade Organization body ruled that Boeing received an illegal U.S. tax break from Washington state that damaged sales by European archrival Airbus. The decision by the WTO’s appellate body considered whether the United States had complied with a 2012 ruling that found that plane-maker and defense company Boeing received at least $5 billion in subsidies prohibited under international trade rules. But the ruling was limited and the decision found no grounds upon which the European bloc could seek damages from an arbitrator, except for the relatively small Washington state tax program — which the U.S. says was worth $100 million a year. In a statement, Boeing spokesman Bryan Watt said Wednesday that the company advocated for and supports the legislative action to “resolve the sole finding against the United States in the long-running trade disputes between Europe and the United States over government support for the production of large commercial airplanes.' 'This legislation demonstrates the commitment of Washington — and of the United States — to fair and rules-based trade, and to compliance with the WTO’s rulings,” he said. In December, a WTO panel ruled that the European Union has not complied with an order to end illegal subsidies for plane-maker Airbus, which prompted the Trump administration to impose tariffs on nearly $7.5 billion worth of EU goods in October. 'Now is the time for Airbus and the European Union to finally come into compliance by ending illegal launch aid subsidies once and for all and addressing the harm they have caused the United States aerospace industry and its workers,” Watt said. Liias said in a statement a legislative solution was a “critically important issue for our state’s economy.” “We share Boeing’s concern that retaliatory tariffs will hurt not only our state’s aircraft industry, but other Washington-based exporters and family-wage jobs here in Washington,” Liias wrote. Sullivan said that that goal of the legislation is to 'protect family-wage, good-paying jobs provided by the aerospace industry and other sectors that will be impacted by tariffs if the legislature does not act this session.” Gov. Jay Inslee said he would be working with lawmakers and Boeing officials to expedite the bill. “There is broad agreement in Olympia that we need to act this session to address the WTO issue in order to avoid retaliatory tariffs that would damage not just our commercial aircraft industry, but other important Washington exports,” he said in a written statement. The bills are not subject to normal legislative deadlines because they’re considered necessary to implement the budget. The 60-day legislative session ends March 12.
  • A U.S. judge ripped into Pacific Gas & Electric on Wednesday, saying its executives have put greed before safety and telling officials from the utility blamed for catastrophic California wildfires to plan to add at least 1,100 more tree trimmers to cut the risk of even more blazes. “I am going to do everything I can to protect this state from more death and destruction from this convicted felon,' U.S. District Judge William Alsup said of PG&E. He delivered the harsh rebuke of the nation's largest utility during a court hearing to review how well PG&E has complied with the terms of a five-year criminal probation imposed after its natural gas lines blew up a San Francisco Bay Area neighborhood and killed eight people in 2010. The utility was convicted of six felony counts of falsifying records and safety violations in 2016. Alsup blasted PG&E for its abysmal track record since its probation began in January 2017. In that time, PG&E's aging power lines have been blamed for igniting a series of wildfires that killed nearly 130 people and destroyed thousands of homes. The aftermath saddled PG&E with more than $50 billion in potential liabilities, driving the San Francisco company into bankruptcy 13 months ago. The judge told PG&E that he believes the fires could have been prevented had it upgraded and maintained its electrical system instead of funneling billions of dollars into shareholder dividends and executive bonuses. “PG&E poses a threat to the safety of the people of Northern California because you are so far behind,' Alsup said. PG&E lawyer Kevin Orsini assured the judge that the company has 'fundamentally changed' since hiring a new CEO, Bill Johnson, and overhauling its board of directors last April. After scolding the utility for its neglect, Alsup complimented its new management team for deliberately turning off power to as many as 2 million people last fall to prevent wildfires during hot, windy weather. Although the outages infuriated and inconvenienced people, the judge said he believes they may have prevented dozens more potentially deadly fires. “They deserve some credit (for the outages) and having the courage to do it in the face of all the criticism,” Alsup said. As another firefighting measure, Alsup said he plans to order PG&E to expand its tree-trimming force from roughly 5,400 contractors to 6,500 to help prevent vegetation from falling onto its power lines and igniting. Alsup did not set a timeline for adding tree trimmers, giving PG&E until March 2 to provide more information about logistical challenges in doing so. The judge's harsh words came a day after the head of the California Public Utilities Commission proposed a new enforcement process that could allow the regulatory agency to revoke PG&E's license if it failed to comply. “I am very concerned about PG&E’s pattern of safety-related failures,” commission President Marybel Batjer wrote Tuesday. Batjer's words largely echoed those of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who appointed her last year. Since December, Newsom has tried to pressure PG&E into taking more radical steps to change its culture and reduce its debt when it comes out of bankruptcy so it can afford to invest an estimated $40 billion into upgrading its decaying electrical grid during the next decade. Newsom and Batjer have unusual leverage over PG&E because the company needs California to approve its reorganization plan to emerge from bankruptcy by June 30 so it can qualify for coverage from a wildfire insurance fund created by the state last summer. Noting his ability to crack down on PG&E will end with its probation in 23 months, Alsup urged Newsom to take a hard look at whether the utility should remain part of a for-profit company that faces continual pressure from investors to boost its stock price by making more money. “We are in a critical chapter,” Alsup said. Newsom has threatened to lead an government-backed attempt to take over PG&E unless it bends to his demands, which include replacing the company's entire 14-member board, including Johnson. PG&E has promised to reshuffle at least part of its board and is in talks with Newsom's representatives about other possible concessions. But the company is committed to remaining a for-profit company, a point it punctuated this week when it released five-year projections that it would earn nearly $2.4 billion in 2024 — the most in its history. The company has lost $14.5 billion in the past two years as it deals with the devastation from wildfires.
  • If you earn six figures and haven't been filing your taxes, the IRS may come knocking. The agency said Wednesday that it is stepping up its efforts to visit high-income taxpayers who failed in prior years to file their tax returns on time. Revenue officers across the country will increase face-to-face visits with taxpayers who had income of more than $100,000 during a tax year and did not file a return in 2018 or prior years. “The IRS is committed to fairness in the tax system, and we want to remind people across all income categories that they need to file their taxes,” Paul Mamo, director of collection operations for the IRS small-business and self-employed division said in a statement. The IRS is increasing the face-to-face visits after hiring additional enforcement personnel. The agency said the visits are aimed at informing these taxpayers of their obligations and bringing them into compliance. The IRS reminds taxpayers that there options available to those who cannot pay their bill in full, such as payment plans, and reminds taxpayers it is important to file on time, even if they cannot pay. For those who refuse to pay, the IRS can pursue civil and criminal cases. However, the IRS said not confuse these efforts with a scam. The taxpayers being visited have typically received several letters from the IRS over an extended period of time, so they generally realize they have a tax issue. While IRS revenue officer visits are unannounced, they will always provide two forms of official credentials. A legitimate officer will help a taxpayer understand and meet their obligation. But they will not make threats nor demand an unusual form of payment. More information on how to identify a legitimate IRS representative and how to report scams can be found on the IRS website at IRS.gov.
  • The cheers of celebration have faded. The waving of roses has ceased. Having finally reached a friendly port in Cambodia willing to accept them after nearly two weeks of uncertainty at sea, hundreds of cruise ship passengers eyed warily over fears of a new virus are now simply trying to find a way home. “We’re in this sort of surreal world,” said Lydia Miller, 55, of Orcas Island, Washington, who is camped out at a hotel in the capital, Phnom Penh, waiting for word on how she and her husband might be able to return to the U.S. “It’s a weird feeling to travel and go on a trip and you don’t know when you can come home.” The MS Westerdam arrived Feb. 13 in Cambodia after repeatedly being denied entry to other ports. The thrill of the moment, complete with a visit from the country’s prime minister greeting passengers with hugs and flowers, has now evaporated for those still facing a logistical nightmare to get home. Travel options already limited by the number of airlines serving Cambodia have been narrowed by a growing list of countries denying entry to passengers who were aboard the Westerdam. A diplomat working with the passengers in Phnom Penh said getting people home remains complicated by individual countries’ travel restrictions and a dearth of available flights. That was echoed by Holland America Line, which operates the Westerdam and which has been coordinating passengers’ flights. “We showed up in a city unexpected and there’s only so many flights a night and we have a lot of people we’re trying to funnel through that system and we’re putting a lot of stress on that system,” Holland America’s president, Orlando Ashford, said by phone from Phnom Penh. “It’s a math problem: How many people do you have? How many seats do you have?” Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan are among those refusing to allow passengers in, making flying to Europe and the Americas difficult. Some airlines, such as Emirates, make a stop in Bangkok before proceeding to hubs such as Dubai, further limiting available flights. Still, Ashford expressed hope that remaining passengers would be on their way home “in a couple of days.” Miller and her husband changed their travel arrangements three times as Holland America repeatedly revised its itinerary when Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and the American territory of Guam refused to allow it to dock. They spent hours walking 10 miles around the ship each day, listening to podcasts, making their way through a stash of issues of The New Yorker that they toted along and perfecting their pingpong game. They have flights scheduled for Saturday via Seoul, but know they won’t be able to board them because the South Korean government would deny them entry. When they finally disembarked the ship in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Miller’s husband, John, was so grateful he sunk to his knees and pressed his hands together in gratitude and joy. Their fears of being stuck at sea were gone, and the couple decided to make the most of their time, meandering along the Mekong River, buying street food and otherwise relishing their time in the Cambodian capital. After one passenger from the ship was found to have contracted the illness known as COVID-19, though, they were directed to report to a hotel where other passengers were gathered and they knew getting home might not be so simple. “It was just this horrible gut feeling that everything changed in that moment,” she said. Tony Martin-Vegue, whose wife, Christina Kerby, remains in Phnom Penh, began immediately preparing for her return home to California’s Bay Area once she got off the ship. He cleaned the house and, with the couple’s 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, picked up flowers and a favorite local coffee and planned a party to welcome her home. Now he’s not sure when that might happen. “It’s kind of limbo right now,” he said. “I’m worried about how she’s going to get home.” Kerby has chronicled her time aboard the Westerdam, from a poolside yoga class to daily ice cream offerings to a towel-folding demonstration. She wrote of feeling “jubilation and relief” as the ship pulled into port and the “terrible and frightening” ordeal of “doctors in moon suits” poking a long swab up her nose to test her for the virus. The immediate joy of reaching land has given way to the realization she doesn’t know when she’ll return home. “As the days go on I just feel like the probability of getting her home soon seems to be shrinking as the disease spreads and governments are continuing to react to it,” Martin-Vegue said. “This doesn’t have an outcome that’s around the corner.” The Westerdam, with 2,257 passengers and crew aboard, began letting passengers off on Friday as they found flights home. But that was stopped once news broke that an 83-year-old American woman who had been on the ship and subsequently traveled to Malaysia was found to be carrying the virus. Some 255 passengers and 747 crew members were held on the ship while further testing was conducted. Cambodia’s Ministry of Health said Wednesday that all the tests came back negative and that all passengers were reported to be healthy and fever-free. After that, remaining passengers were allowed off the ship. They were taken to the same Phnom Penh hotel where others from the Westerdam milled around a sprawling lobby dotted with palm trees waiting for news on flights home. Two small American flags were set on a table with representatives from the U.S. Embassy; a big yellow kangaroo adorned a table for Australians. White boards announced news of flight arrangements and updates about new restrictions on which countries would allow passengers to pass through. “We’re going to any country that will safely accept and transit and allow our guests to transition,” Ashford said. Those who have already been on land for several days cautioned the newly disembarked guests to temper their expectations about reaching home soon. The Millers, who run an inn at home, had saved up frequent flier miles for years for their trip and purposely picked a cruise itinerary with lots of time in port and fewer days simply sailing at sea. They were drawn by the thrill and uncertainty of travel, but now are just looking for the normalcy of routine, to share morning coffee at home, tend to their farm animals and talk to arriving guests. “We love traveling and we love every day not knowing what’s going to happen and just being spontaneous,” Miller said. “But I’m longing for just the ordinary life right now of knowing what’s going to be the next day.” ___ Associated Press writers Grant Peck in Bangkok and Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.
  • French prosecutors are turning up the heat on disgraced car industry executive Carlos Ghosn, opening a judicial inquiry into alleged money laundering, fraud and misuse of company assets during his time at the helm of the Renault-Nissan alliance. The prosecutor's office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre announced the inquiry Wednesday in a statement. The statement does not name Ghosn directly, but the inquiry focuses on activities at Renault and Nissan under his watch, and stemmed from information provided by Japanese authorities and by Renault after Ghosn's 2018 arrest in Japan on charges of financial misconduct. Ghosn — who denies wrongdoing and says the Japanese case against him was politically driven by enemies at Nissan — escaped from Tokyo in December for Lebanon, where he grew up. The French inquiry aims to determine who is at fault for a string of alleged financial violations between 2009 and 2020. That includes “suspicious financial flows” between Renault and the SBA car dealership in Oman, the prosecutor's statement said. Ghosn's French lawyers have said the payments to SBA were “justified bonuses' for having boosted car sales in the Persian Gulf, and denied allegations that the funds benefited Ghosn or his family personally. The French inquiry is also targeting several million euros of travel and other costs paid by Netherlands-based Renault-Nissan holding RNBV but suspected to have been for Ghosn's personal use. Renault last year said an internal audit with Nissan found 11 million euros in questionable expenses at RNBV allegedly linked to Ghosn, including for air travel, personal spending and donations to nonprofit organizations. The Nanterre prosecutor said the new inquiry could allow French investigators to dig into activity in other countries as well. Ghosn's French lawyer, Jean-Yves Le Borgne, shrugged off the French inquiry as “not very significant” and said it will allow Ghosn's legal team to formally present its own case to French prosecutors for the first time. Nissan and Renault have seen sales slump since the loss of their star boss, credited with rescuing Nissan from near-bankruptcy.
  • Federal Reserve officials were mostly optimistic about the U.S. and global economies last month, though they noted the risk posed by China’s viral outbreak and said they were ready to keep their benchmark interest rate at its current low level in the coming months. Fed policymakers observed at their Jan. 28-29 meeting that risks to the U.S. economy had faded since their previous meeting in December, according to minutes released Wednesday. The Trump administration had reached a preliminary trade agreement with China, and Congress approved an updated trade pact with Canada and Mexico. Still, a “number of downside risks remained prominent,” officials said, including the coronavirus, which “had emerged as a new risk to the global growth outlook.” Many Fed watchers have interpreted that caution as a signal that the Fed’s next move, whenever it occurs, is more likely to be a cut, rather than hike. Traders are now betting that the odds of a cut by year’s end are at 85%. The minutes of the Fed’s meeting showed that officials were ready to keep short-term rates at a range of 1.5% to 1.75% for the foreseeable future. Rates at that level would help the U.S. economy withstand threats from slower growth overseas, policymakers said, and help lift annual inflation back to the Fed’s 2% objective. Persistently low inflation as measured by the Fed has a been hallmark of the economic expansion, now in its 11th year. The officials “viewed the current stance of policy as likely to remain appropriate for a time, provided that incoming information about the economy remained broadly consistent” with their positive outlook, the minutes showed. Stock prices, which had risen before the Fed minutes were released at 2 p.m. Eastern time, rose higher afterward. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up about 150 points in mid-afternoon trading. Chairman Jerome Powell said in testimony before Congress last week that U.S. growth looked durable and that the Fed would “carefully” monitor economic damage caused by the coronavirus. Economists at Goldman Sachs estimate that the virus and Boeing’s decision to suspend production of its troubled 737 MAX aircraft will cut growth by about three-quarters of a percentage point in the first three months of this year, as many companies’ supply chains and consumer markets are at least partly cut off. Much of that growth will likely be made up in following quarters, Goldman Sachs estimates. At last month’s policy meeting, several officials sought to highlight the Fed’s determination to raise inflation back to its 2% target level. These officials “stressed that the (Fed) should be more explicit about the need to achieve its inflation goal on a sustained basis.” Several officials also supported the idea of allowing inflation to temporarily overshoot the 2% target to offset the nearly seven-year period in which inflation has been below that level. Doing so “might underscore the symmetry of that objective,” the minutes said, meaning that the Fed will accept inflation modestly above 2% just as much as it has accepted price changes below the target. As part of an ongoing review of its strategy framework and tools, the Fed is considering making such an approach even more explicit. Powell and other Fed officials worry that allowing inflation to stay too low for too long also drags down interest rates, giving the Fed less room to cut rates during a recession.

The Latest Headlines You Need To Know

  • A court ruled that Florida cannot bar felons who served their time from voting, even if they haven’t paid their fines or court fees. Amendment 4, approved by voters in 2018, allowed nonviolent felons who served their time to regain the right to vote. Lawmakers passed a bill in 2019 that required some of those felons to pay off court fees, fines and restitution before they were able to vote. That law is now being argued in court. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the original ruling by a Tallahassee federal judge that requiring paying all fines and fees first is an unfair poll tax. Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state will immediately ask the entire 11th Circuit to reconsider the ruling. It was not immediately clear whether felons with unpaid fees would be able to vote by the upcoming primaries.
  • A Denver-based grassroots group called Good Business Colorado launched a statewide campaign to lure businesses away from Florida to Colorado. The group’s web site brags of more sunny days, legalized recreational marijuana and stronger protections for LGBTQ citizens as reasons people should consider relocating. They’re currently placing ads in newspapers and other publications in Florida including the Orlando Sentinel. The ad shows a rainbow stretched across the Rocky Mountain with the message: “Move to Colorado. In Colorado, more than just our grass is protected.  Your job is, too. We pride ourselves on our innovative businesses and ability to be ourselves at work.” Good Business Colorado’s website claims that Colorado has double the breweries of Florida, thousands of more miles of trails, and friendlier LGBTQ policies with statewide non-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.   Florida currently does not have any statewide laws protecting LGBTQ residents from discrimination, including the workplace.  Orlando and Orange County have their own policies in place, but the legislature continues rejecting the Florida Competitive Workforce Act which would give statewide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, housing and public places.  It was first introduced in 2009.
  • Orlando’s housing market marked a second consecutive month of double-digit year-over-year sales increases in January.  According to the latest report from the Orlando Regional Realtor Association, sales in Orlando increased by 16.4-percent over last January’s sales. Each individual county’s sales comparisons are as follows:   *Lake: 9.2% above January 2019;  *Orange: 9.9% above January 2019;  *Osceola: 25.3% above January 2019; and  *Seminole: 6.9% above January 2019. The median home price in Orlando also rose by 7.9-percent last month to $245,000.  That number marks a 1.6-percent decline from the median home price in December. Orlando’s inventory of available homes is still tight, with only about 7,000 homes available for sale last month.  That number represents a 14.7-percent decrease from the inventory in January of 2019. You can find a link to the complete report by clicking HERE.
  • Authorities in Missouri have arrested three relatives after an 11-year-old girl gave birth last week in a bathtub at a home in the St. Louis suburbs, according to multiple reports. An adult man and an adult woman have been charged with endangering the welfare of a child in connection to the case. A 17-year-old boy was also arrested on charges of incest, statutory rape and statutory sodomy of a child younger than 12 years old, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Associated Press. The birth was discovered after a man brought the newborn to a hospital, claiming the child had been left on his front porch, KSDK reported. Charging documents obtained by the news station showed the infant had a body temperature of 90 degrees and still had an umbilical cord and placenta attached after being brought to the hospital. The man later admitted that he was related to the baby and told authorities he was unaware the 11-year-old girl was pregnant until she gave birth to the child, according to the AP. The man was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a child, KSDK reported. A judge ordered him held in lieu of a $10,000 cash-only bond. Charging documents said he came to the country illegally and had previously been deported, according to the AP. In a probable cause statement obtained by the Post-Dispatch, authorities said a 17-year-old boy related to the 11-year-old girl admitted to having sexually assaulted the girl about 100 times. After his arrest last week, a judge ordered him held in lieu of a $25,000 bond, according to the newspaper. Authorities made a third arrest in the case Tuesday, charging an adult woman with failing to provide the 11-year-old with medical care as she was giving birth. She was ordered held in lieu of a $10,000 bond, according to the AP.
  • NASCAR driver Ryan Newman, who was involved in a horrific crash during the final lap of the Daytona 500, was hospitalized after Monday’s race. Update 2:03 p.m. EST Feb. 19: According to Roush Fenway Racing, NASCAR driver Ryan Newman was released from a Daytona Beach hospital Wednesday afternoon, two days after he was involved in a scary crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Roush tweeted a photograph of Newman leaving Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, holding the hands of his two daughters. “Ryan Newman has been treated and released from Halifax Medical Center,” the racing team tweeted. Update 12:25 p.m. EST Feb. 19: Ryan Newman continued to show “great improvement” as he recovered from injuries he suffered Monday night in a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500 race, his racing team said. Roush Fenway Racing tweeted a statement that said Newman was “fully alert” and walking around Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach. The racing team also tweeted a photo of a smiling Newman with his children. Update 4:47 p.m. EST Feb. 18: In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Roush Fenway Racing tweeted that Ryan Newman was “awake and speaking” with family members and doctors. Newman, who was seriously injured in a final-lap wreck during Monday’s Daytona 500 race, remains at the Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach. Update 10:13 p.m. EST Feb. 17: In a statement Monday night, NASCAR officials said Newman, 42, was in serious condition, “but doctors have indicated his injuries are not life-threatening.” Original report: Newman, 42, has 18 Cup wins, including the 2008 Daytona 500 and 2013 Brickyard 400. He was battling for the lead with Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin on the final lap of the 2.5-mile track at Daytona International Speedway when he crashed. Newman was in the lead coming into the final turn with Blaney and eventual winner Hamlin in close pursuit, NASCAR.com reported. Closing in on the finish line, Newman attempted to block Blaney, who was in second place. The impact of the cars touching sent Newman’s car airborne and into the wall. Newman’s car flipped several times and was hit head-on by Corey LaJoie, who sent Newman skidding across the track upside down Newman’s No. 6 Ford crossed the finish line engulfed in flames, ESPN reported. An ambulance departed Daytona International Speedway’s front stretch at 8:10 p.m. Newman was taken to an area hospital. His condition was unknown. 'I think we take for granted sometimes how safe the cars are, and No. 1, we are praying for Ryan,'' Hamlin said. “I hope he’s all right,” Blaney told reporters. “I was trying to push him to the win. I don’t like saying that things just happen because I feel really bad about it. It was a close one. I just hope Ryan is all right.” “I was hoping he would kind of bounce off the fence to the left, but he didn’t and I hit him,” Lajoie said. “I don’t know exactly where I hit him. I haven’t seen a replay. It was some scary stuff.” Newman, who led 15 laps, was credited with a ninth-place finish. “We ask that out of respect for privacy that you please do not speculate on Ryan Newman’s condition until an official statement has been issued,” Roush Yates Engines tweeted. Kelley Earnhardt, the daughter of Dale Earnhardt Sr., tweeted, “Please let @RyanJNewman be ok!” Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001. Newman, born Dec. 8, 1977, in South Bend, Indiana, was named Winston Cup rookie of the year in 2002, beating Jimmie Johnson, according to his NASCAR biography. Nicknamed “Rocket Man,” Newman graduated with honors from South Bend La-Salle High School in 1996. He studied engineering at Purdue University but at the same time, continued to race. Newman was a champion midget racer when he was 17, ran USAC sprint cars and won that division’s Silver Crown championship in 1999.

Washington Insider

  • Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's first appearance on the Democratic debate stage found him under attack from all sides in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, as the five other Democrats took turns trying to knock over the candidate who threatens them with a seemingly endless supply of campaign money and television commercials in the 2020 race for the White House. “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,' Elizabeth Warren said of Bloomberg and the race to replace President Donald Trump. In Bloomberg's first chance to speak to voters from the debate, he opted to go after Bernie Sanders on the issue of electability. 'If he is the candidate we will have Donald Trump for another four years,' Bloomberg said. Here is a look at what the six candidates on stage were able to do: + ELIZABETH WARREN. After a lackluster debate in New Hampshire, Warren left it all on the field in Vegas. She scorched Bloomberg over his taxes, and called him an 'arrogant billionaire.' She ripped Klobuchar for a 'Post-It Note' health plan, and called Buttigieg's health plan a 'Power Point' which took up only two paragraphs. But her night on stage in Vegas will be remembered mainly for her verbal broadsides against Bloomberg, especially when she demanded that he release women from non-disclosure agreements, so people could find out how they had been harassed or discriminated against. With the moderators taking a hands off approach, Warren at one point simply asked the questions of Bloomberg herself, making his first debate night a rough one. + PETE BUTTIGIEG. While the Indiana Mayor got in some shots at Sanders and Bloomberg along the way, he took several extended jabs at Klobuchar, which would seemingly tell us that he is worried about the Minnesota Senator grabbing away some of his moderate base. 'I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,' Klobuchar said at one point as the two tangled multiple times. Buttigieg really got under Klobuchar's skin by highlighting how she couldn't come up with the name of the Mexican leader earlier this week. 'Are you trying to say I'm dumb?' Klobuchar responded icily. Buttigieg also got his jabs in at Sanders and Bloomberg, reminding people they aren't in the party. 'Let's put forward someone who is actually a Democrat,' Buttigieg said. + JOE BIDEN. Unlike the debate in New Hampshire, Biden did not start his evening by conceding defeat, as the more aggressive version of the former Vice President was repeatedly on display. Biden dinged Bloomberg several times, he again threw elbows over the cost of programs put forward by Sanders, and repeatedly reminded others on stage that he was with President Obama on major issues like health care. But Biden reserved his biggest jabs for Bloomberg, on where he stood on the Obama health law, and how the Obama Administration sent in monitors to deal with the 'stop and frisk' policy of the Bloomberg Administration in New York. + BERNIE SANDERS. Normally, Sanders would have probably attracted the most attention in this debate, simply because he is seen in the polls as the front runner, something he reminded the NBC moderators about when they asked him about polls. But with Bloomberg on the debate stage for the first time, Sanders got a little less attention - though he still mixed it up with Bloomberg a number of times. 'You know what, Mr. Bloomberg, it wasn't you who made all that money. Maybe your workers played some role in that as well,' Sanders said. One of the few times that Sanders found himself playing defense was when a local Nevada issue came up, about the powerful Culinary workers union, and their opposition to his Medicare For All health plan - worried it will do away with the benefits they've gained in their labor efforts. + MICHAEL BLOOMBERG. While the attacks on Bloomberg will get the lion's share of attention out of this debate - as we have detailed here, the former mayor of New York also had his share of rejoinders, which were mainly deployed against Sanders. 'I don't think there's any of chance of Sanders beating President Trump,' Bloomberg said early in the debate. 'I'm a New Yorker. I know how to take on an arrogant con man,' Bloomberg said of the President. For the first 15-20 minutes, Bloomberg was doing fine in his first debate, even as the moderators tried to make him an issue. But then, Warren moved in, and Bloomberg struggled through the rest of the first segment. Bloomberg used most of his tougher lines against Sanders, clearly seeing him as his chief rival on Super Tuesday. + AMY KLOBUCHAR. Klobuchar used her last debate in New Hampshire to take a big jump forward in this campaign, but it wasn't clear she was able to repeat that on the Vegas Strip. Klobuchar started by rebuking Bloomberg's campaign for suggesting that she get out of the race. As mentioned above, the Minnesota Democrat spent a good deal of time squabbling with Buttigieg, as it seemed like Klobuchar might have grabbed Mayor Pete and broken him in two if no one else was in the room. After Bloomberg said he couldn't just 'go to Turbo Tax' to do his taxes and release them, Klobuchar called for transparency on tax issues, comparing it to President Trump. Klobuchar is probably in through Super Tuesday, but it's not an easy way forward. She will try to raise more money on Thursday in Denver.