October 29, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 4:16:10 pm
Much has been made of LeadsOnline, the Dallas-based company that bills itself as the “nation’s largest online investigation system used to solve crimes.” An article in the current issue of the ABA Journal praises the service, calling it “a tool that about 1,500 municipal police departments in the U.S. are using to help solve property and violent crimes.”
The LeadsOnline database tracks sales from pawn shops and eBay, helping police discover stolen merchandise. The company also monitors scrap metal sales, as well as people buying cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, a key component in meth production. Coast to coast, the media is taking notice of the service. Recent articles in the Houston Chronicle, Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune all discuss how LeadsOnline is helping local law enforcement.
While tracking stolen merchandise and other evidence of potential crime is helpful, it does bring rise to a potential slippery slope, says Houston attorney Kinan Romman of Ahmad, Zavitsanos & Anaipakos. Romman, a former software engineer and technology consultant, is quick to point out that new technologies often raise significant privacy concerns.
“This can clearly be an effective crime solving tool, but one has to be concerned about privacy as well,” Romman says. “This private business is selling law enforcement information about cold medicine and eBay purchases in addition to who pawns what. Some great techno ideas can lead to troubles down the road. Just ask Facebook.”
October 29, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 3:37:49 pm
Dallas voters may be ho-hum about the local races on Tuesday’s mid-term ballot, particularly the down-ballot races that have received little news coverage. But there’s no shortage of opinions on two ballot proposals related to wide swaths of the city that for generations have outlawed the sale of beer, wine and alcohol in retail stores and restaurants and bars.
The Advocate describes it as “not only the biggest wet-dry election in U.S. history since the end of Prohibition, but it's also a landmark moment in Dallas. Since before Prohibition—for almost 100 years—most of Dallas has been dry in one form or another. It has been as much a part of Dallas as 100-degree days and the Cowboys....
Jerome Prager, a Dallas real estate lawyer who also counsels businesses on the alcohol licensing process, expects large grocery stores in traditionally dry areas will move quickly to begin selling beer and wine, and that could put pressure on wholesalers. “Wholesalers will have increased delivery expenses, and as a result I see prices inching up as those costs are passed along,” he says. Meanwhile, businesses in areas that have traditionally served alcoholic beverages through the cumbersome private club process will be poised to end the complicated paperwork process.
Should either alcohol-related election be successful on Nov. 2, the clock will start ticking almost immediately for businesses interested in taking advantage of new regulations, according to Dewey Brackin of Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP in Austin, who has worked extensively with enforcement, licensing and compliance-related matters within the alcoholic beverage industry. “Businesses will need to apply for and obtain TABC licenses, and that process can take months,” he says. “If an area as large as the city of Dallas becomes ‘wet’ overnight, that delay might be even more significant. Applications will be processed on a first-come basis, so anyone interested in taking advantage in the change in alcohol laws needs to be prepared to file as quickly as possible.”
October 22, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 4:45:49 pm
Slate’s “Explainer” today tackles NPR’s controversial firing of Juan Williams with the provocative headline, “Can NPR Fire Its Commentators Whenever it Wants?” The Slate piece answers the question on everyone’s mind with a resounding “of course.” With the exception of those working union jobs, employers in at-will states can fire workers for any reason other than for protected areas of race, age, gender and religion.
Houston executive employment attorney Joe Ahmad agrees and takes it a step further, explaining that many people have the mistaken idea that the First Amendment applies to the workplace and even off-site situations like the office holiday party. “Even smart people think they have First Amendment rights in the workplace,” Ahmad says. “That’s not true, and what you say can get you in trouble.”
Today’s armchair quarterbacking of NPR’s firing extends to the method apparenty used by NPR to inform Williams that his services were no longer required. According to news reports, Williams was fired during a cell phone conversation and was denied a request for a face-to-face meeting. Ahmad, a shareholder in the law firm of Ahmad Zavitsanos & Anaipakos, says there’s plenty of reasons why this is a bad idea from an employer standpoint, but there’s no legal problem with it. That such a technique was used is also an indication that emotions were likely running high.
“Obviously somebody was incensed,” he says. “But there’s no law saying that you can’t be fired by cell phone or fax.”
October 22, 2010 by Dave Moore at 1:26:18 pm
Just as consumers use their desktop computers and PDAs as windows, to expand their knowledge of tthe world, hackers, corporations and investigators are increasingly peering back at them, monitoring where they’re traveling on the Internet. The latest version of the language that helps create Web pages (called HTML 5) will allow for even better tracking, allowing the curious to follow consumers’ every click, says Kinan Romman of Houston’s Ahmad Zavitsanos & Anaipakos.
“From a legal perspective, the new HTML5 will create more evidence,” says Romman, whose practice includes technology-centered cases. “There will be more to look at in civil lawsuits over something like workplace harassment. In criminal cases, prosecutors will have more to comb through on corporate computers looking for proof of fraud.”
The new coding will allow for very advanced tracking, he says. “It won’t be just e-mails they can track, but there could be a lot more stored about what you do on your computer.”
A recent New York Times story described some of the data security intricacies that come with HTML5: Most Web users are familiar with so-called cookies, which make it possible, for example, to log on to Web sites without having to retype user names and passwords, or to keep track of items placed in virtual shopping carts before they are bought.
The new Web language and its additional features present more tracking opportunities because the technology uses a process in which large amounts of data can be collected and stored on the user’s hard drive while online. Because of that process, advertisers and others could, experts say, see weeks or even months of personal data. That could include a user’s location, time zone, photographs, text from blogs, shopping cart contents, e-mails and a history of the Web pages visited.
The new Web language “gives trackers one more bucket to put tracking information into,” said Hakon Wium Lie, the chief technology officer at Opera, a browser company.
While Web page developers are heralding the advent of HTML5 for standardizing Web page construction, the advance comes with a reminder that with nearly all new breakthroughs come intended and unintended consequences.
October 20, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 2:25:26 pm
When it comes to quick fixes to complicated problems, sometimes the cure can be worse than the condition. Such is the case with Meridia (known generically as Sibutramine), a weight-loss drug that Abbott Laboratories pulled off the shelves earlier this month after acknowledging the drug’s potential complications.
In September, the Los Angeles Times quoted the editor for the New England Journal of Medicine demanding that the drug be taken off the market because it increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes in some individuals. “Sibutramine doesn’t help people,” journal editor Gregory D. Curfman told the Times. “It doesn’t result in very much weight loss, and it doesn’t improve their clinical condition. On the other side, it carries these risks.”
While the risk Meridia poses to consumers is serious, the product recall underscores a much larger problem, according to Richard D. Meadow, managing attorney of The Lanier law Firm’s New York office, and the leader of the firm’s Pharmaceutical Litigation practice area. Meadow maintains the U.S. system of vetting drugs before they’re released to consumers is flawed. That assessment was reflected by a report that the Institute of Medicine gave to Congress four years ago, the Washington Post reported:
The Institute of Medicine shined an unsparing spotlight on the erosion of public confidence in the Food and Drug Administration, an agency that holds sway over a quarter of the U.S. economy. It represents a watershed moment after two years of controversy related to the safety of some pain relievers and antidepressants. The Institute of Medicine is part of the National Academies, chartered by Congress to advise the government on science and health policy. Its recommendations traditionally carry great weight.The 15 experts from academic and professional organizations were unanimous in endorsing the recommendations, which called for several major policy changes that have long been urged by drug safety advocates but have been resisted by the industry, Congress and the FDA. A number of them would require congressional action.
"The FDA is supposed to protect the public from faulty drugs and medical devices, so any influx of money and manpower is welcome,” says Meadow. “It will be a great day when the FDA can keep all dangerous drugs off store shelves."The government has budgeted $25 million to improve regulatory science, and is partnering with researchers and industry groups to help spot problems in drugs such as Meridia before they occur, Meadow says.
October 20, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 1:37:32 pm
Long stymied by anemic protections and disinterested investigators, the corporate whistleblower is poised for a major return to the regulatory stage thanks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act.
As described by Houston white-collar defense attorney Philip Hilder in a Houston Chronicle op-ed, Dodd-Frank creates some very real financial incentives and a streamlined process for whistleblowers to come forward. Hilder has represented several whistleblowers. A former federal prosecutor and founder of Hilder & Associates, he was the lawyer for Sherron Watkins, who nearly got fired from Enron when she reported accounting irregularities to folks above her on the corporate ladder.
Writes Hilder: The Dodd-Frank Act should create a friendlier landscape for corporate whistleblowers since it beefs up the payment to those who reveal real crimes, allows more people to blow the whistle, strengthens the protections against retaliation and doubles the amount someone can recover in a successful retaliation lawsuit.
Among other things, Dodd-Frank broadens the range of financial crimes covered and makes whistleblowers eligible for a 10 to 30 percent bounty for recoveries of more than $1 million. The result, writes Hilder: emboldened employees, lawyers looking to represent them, and employers being more careful.
The promise of a big payout will likely cause a spike in false claims, and Hilder warns that would-be whistleblowers may choose to rush to the SEC with complaints rather than try to address problems internally.
October 7, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 11:42:26 am
For Texas lawyer Bob Hilliard the goal of the typical trial is big-dollar verdict for clients wronged by defective products, negligent manufacturers and trucking companies and a wide assortment of people unwilling to accept responsibility for their negligent actions.
But tonight the Corpus Christi trial attorney will be honored for work of a different sort -- his pro bono defense of the Minnesota man wrongly convicted for his part in a fatal 2006 crash involving his runaway Toyota Camry.
Hilliard and his co-counsel in the case, Brent Schafer, will receive the “Never Forgotten Award” at the Innocence Project’s “Benefit for Innocence” gala tonight in Minneapolis. The award recognizes the countless volunteer time and money the attorneys spent to defend Koua Fong Lee, who was freed from prison by a Minnesota judge this past August.
In June 2006, Lee was driving his Toyota Camry when it accelerated unexpectedly and crashed into another car, killing three people. Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide in October 2007 and sentenced to eight years in prison. As publicity grew around Toyota’s acceleration problems, Lee’s accident was reevaluated. Hilliard and Schafer argued that an inspection of the car found a mechanical defect that would have caused the car to accelerate uncontrollably. Eleven owners of similar Toyota models testified at trial that they experienced the same unintentional acceleration. On August 5, 2010, the judge ordered he be let out of prison.
Erika Applebaum, executive director of the Innocence Project, said in a recent Minneapolis Star-Tribune article that Hilliard and Schafer "came forward to provide…the best face of our justice system, and for that they deserve this award." And in a recent St. Paul Pioneer-Press article, Applebaum said “What Brent and Bob did in this case was nothing short of sensational, and the Innocence Project of Minnesota was gratified to be a part of the defense team."
The editorial board at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times perhaps put it best: “Hilliard served charity and justice by intervening. His actions reflect positively on his profession and its capacity for defending and protecting the innocent.”
October 6, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 1:38:59 pm
Senate Bill 1733 – the so-called Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act – proposes a series of carrots and sticks to accomplish the goal of reducing this country’s carbon footprint. One of the sticks -- a proposed $80 billion annual tax hike on the U.S. energy industry – threatens to deliver a real wallop to U.S. oil, gas and energy companies, says Thompson & Knight’s Roger Aksamit.
As Harry C. Alford, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, writes in a recent Houston Chronicle oped: The Senate's new energy reform bill will include provisions to hold BP accountable for its carelessness, improve offshore safety standards and strengthen energy efficiency. These are all good things. However, as Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has stated — and for which the president's budget next year calls — a massive tax hike of up to $80 billion on the entire oil and gas industry is in the works. Several of these new energy taxes are of serious concern to the health of our economy and the future of America's energy security.
Aksamit, who counsels energy industry and other business clients in various financial matters, says the proposed law hefty tax increase could shrink the U.S. share in the global energy market share.
“We continue to rely on a system with a complicated set of rules that places domestic companies and production at a competitive disadvantage compared to the multinationals and state-owned energy producers,” Aksamit says. “Limiting or eliminating the foreign tax credit essentially results in dual taxation of U.S.-based companies. With the elimination of other oil and gas tax incentives, this may meet some short-term revenue goals but the long-term consequences would likely be less investment, production and tax revenues, as well as job losses and higher prices for the U.S. economy.”
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