Jumat, 16 Desember 2011

A Boggle of BlackBerrys

OTTAWA — Research in Motion’s chief executives, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, frightened its investors Thursday when they said the company would not have new BlackBerry phones until late in 2012. Until then, they said, RIM would heavily promote the existing lineup.

Some analysts argue that developing multiple BlackBerry models is spreading RIM too thin.

The reaction was swift and sharp. The stock fell to an eight-year low Friday. One reason for the worry, analysts say, is that no amount of advertising will help increase the sales of BlackBerrys in the United States because the current line is a jumble of models. There are BlackBerrys that flip, BlackBerrys that slide, BlackBerrys with touch screens, BlackBerrys with touch screens and keyboards, BlackBerrys with full keyboards, BlackBerrys with compact keyboards, high-end BlackBerrys and low-priced models.

Features have proliferated on BlackBerrys as part of RIM’s move to the broader consumer market, and so have the number of models. Since 2007, RIM has introduced 37 models. The company, in a statement, said it did not know how many models were on the market.

Adding to the shopping confusion are RIM’s product names, which generally rely on four-digit model numbers and sometimes have different products sharing a name. The BlackBerry Torch 9850 and 9860 are touch-screen phones that are on some shelves next to the BlackBerry Torch 9800 and 9810, touch-screen phones with slide-out keyboards. (The model number differences reflect models adapted for different cellphone systems.)

By contrast, Apple has introduced only four iPhones since 2008 and all were basically the same phone with differences in the amount of storage, or upgrades from older models.

Shaw Wu, an analyst with Sterne Agee in San Francisco, said that even though he closely followed the company as part of his job, he was unable to keep the various BlackBerry models straight at times. “The company may not see this, but its product line is still too complicated,” Mr. Wu said. “They have all these different models, all these different model numbers and nobody knows what anything is. Apple’s a much bigger company, but they’ve made it simple for people.”

Model proliferation and fragmentation is nothing new in the wireless business. Nokia offered a wide range of cellphones tailored to appeal to specific, sometimes comparatively small, groups of buyers. And several companies, notably Samsung, also offer an array of phones.

But in the era of more sophisticated smartphones when many shoppers are already baffled by choices between operating systems and software features, some analysts and marketing experts say that RIM is only confusing consumers, rather than increasing sales, with its array of handsets.

The extensive product line has not reversed RIM’s declining market share in North America. Canalys, a market research firm based in London, estimates that BlackBerrys accounted for only 9 percent of the United States market in the third quarter of this year. At the end of 2009, it held almost half the market.

RIM’s variety of BlackBerry models present it with an additional problem that could also make a comeback less likely. The different keyboards, screen sizes and screen types used by RIM make it more time-consuming and difficult to create and test BlackBerry apps. Without a lot of apps, consumers see the phones as less useful than an Apple or Android phone.

“It can be hard,” said Al Hilwa, the director of the applications development software program at IDC, a technology research firm. On top of the current fragmentation, he added, apps developers often struggle to accommodate older BlackBerry models that lack features, like a GPS receiver, that are now common on other devices.

Some analysts also argue that developing and supporting a smorgasbord of models is spreading RIM too thin. Its entry into the tablet computer market, the PlayBook, arrived in April without key features like e-mail, and the release of software to fix those problems is not expected until February. As a result, considerable concern has risen about RIM’s ability to successfully introduce phones next year. Those phones would be based on a new operating system that the company hopes will rekindle interest in BlackBerrys.

It is not just some financial and technology analysts who find the BlackBerry lineup overwhelming. Even some enthusiasts would like to see the company consolidate its models. On Crackberry.com, a Web site that reports even the smallest BlackBerry product and software developments, Kevin Michaluk, the editor in chief, wrote last month that the most common requests he receives are about which BlackBerry model to choose.

“Sometimes less is more,” he wrote. “In comparison over the years, RIM has taken the opposite strategy, giving customers almost too many options.”

Simona Botti, a professor of marketing at the London Business School who studies consumer decision-making, said that while people would always say that more choice was better, they were often mistaken.

“Too many options can be frightening, can be overwhelming,” she said. Her research found that people who buy complex products like smartphones in those circumstances are less satisfied than shoppers who lack choice.

Much of RIM’s decline in the United States is the result of consumers choosing Android phones. While some Android makers, notably Samsung Electronics, also make a wide array of models, Adnaan Ahmad, an analyst with Berenberg Bank in London, said that it was a mistake for RIM to emulate them. He noted that Samsung produces many of the key components for its phones in-house which, when combined with its high-volume production, gives it an insurmountable cost advantage over the Canadian company, even on niche products.

RIM’s success with low-end phones in developing countries, Mr. Ahmad said, has more to do with the popularity of BlackBerry Messenger service than its phones. All multiple models do for RIM, he said, is give it more shelf space in some stores. “But if you go to a big retailer virtually anywhere in the world, Apple’s there,” he said.

RIM declined to make anyone available for an interview about its product strategy.

In an e-mailed statement, the company said that it “continuously assesses its mix of handsets with our carrier partners to determine the best approach to serve various market segments.” The statement continued: “The smartphone market is not a ‘one size fits all’ market and RIM’s strategy of ranging its products to address high, mid and entry-levels has been important, particularly in parts of the world where smartphones are not subsidized.”

While announcing more bad financial news on Thursday, Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis, the co-chief executives of RIM, indirectly acknowledged that the company might have too many models. They announced a major review of the company’s operations, which will include assessing its product lines.

SEC Tackles 'Rudy' in Fraud Case

WASHINGTON—The inspirational 1993 movie "Rudy" celebrates Daniel Ruettiger as a plucky underdog who overcomes long odds and his diminutive stature to earn a walk-on role on Notre Dame's legendary college-football team.

Daniel 'Rudy' Ruettiger, pictured in 2005, whose experience as a Notre Dame football walk-on inspired the movie, settled SEC allegations that he took part in a pump-and-dump stock scheme.

But in a settlement announced on Friday, the Securities and Exchange Commission casts Mr. Ruettiger in a far less heroic light—as a key participant in a so-called pump-and-dump stock scheme that generated more than $11 million in allegedly illicit profits for a now-defunct beverage company, Rudy Nutrition.

"Investors were lured into the scheme by Mr. Ruettiger's well-known, feel-good story but found themselves in a situation that did not have a happy ending," said Scott Friestad, associate director of the SEC's division of enforcement.

The company made and sold a sports drink called "Rudy" with the tagline "Dream Big! Never Quit!" But the SEC charged that Mr. Ruettiger and 12 others made false and misleading statements about their company in news releases, SEC filings and promotional materials during 2008 in a scheme to lure investors, inflate the stock price and then sell their shares at a profit.

For instance, a letter to potential investors falsely claimed that in "a major southwest test, Rudy outsold Gatorade 2 to 1!" the SEC said in its complaint.

"The tall tales in this elaborate scheme included phony taste tests and other false information that was used to convince investors they were investing in something special," Mr. Friestad said.

The pitch worked. In less than a month, the stock went from trading 720 shares a day to more than three million shares, and within two weeks its price climbed from 25 cents to $1.05 a share.

Mr. Ruettiger, who lives in Las Vegas, agreed to pay $382,866 to settle the SEC's charges without admitting or denying them—giving up his profits of $185,750 and paying a fine of $185,750 and interest. Ten other individuals also agreed to pay penalties to settle the SEC charges.

A scene from the 1993 film 'Rudy.'

Mr. Ruettiger and a college friend founded the original company, called Rudy Beverage Inc., in South Bend, Ind. In Oct. 2007, the company moved to Las Vegas, where it struggled financially with a small number of customers, few assets and no profits, the complaint said.

In late 2007, Mr. Ruettiger and the company's president hired an experienced penny-stock promoter to orchestrate a public distribution of company stock. With the help of a disbarred California attorney, they orchestrated a so-called reverse merger with a dormant public company and turned Rudy Beverage into the publicly traded Rudy Nutrition by Feb. 2008, the complaint said.

In addition to false and misleading promotions, the SEC said the scheme's participants manipulated the trading of the company's stock using brokerage accounts in the name of offshore entities to make investor interest appear stronger than it actually was. The SEC says the group used the accounts of a series of Panamanian entities to manipulate the stock.

The agency is still pursuing litigation against stock promoters Pawel Dynkowski of Poland and Chad Smanjak of South Africa, who allegedly made about $4.2 million off the scheme that they deposited into Panamanian accounts the SEC couldn't trace. The two promoters couldn't immediately be reached for comment and the SEC said there are no known attorneys for them. Agency officials believe they aren't in the U.S.

Zynga goes public - investors eye CEO, growth potential with doubts

Online games developer Zynga Inc scored badly as it went public on Friday, dashing hopes for the year's hottest tech IPO, as investors frowned on its over-reliance on Facebook, dimming growth prospects, and outsized control by CEO Mark Pincus.

Zynga's stock fell 5 percent below its $10 initial public offering price to close at $9.50 on Nasdaq on Friday, dealing losses to IPO buyers used to racking up gains on a stock's first day of trading.

Investors had eagerly awaited the IPO as a way to get a slice of Facebook's growth before the leading social networking website goes public, possibly in 2012. Zynga makes money on Facebook by selling virtual items such as jewelry and poker chips in its games such as "FarmVille" and "CityVille."

At least one analyst said on Friday that some investors may have been turned off by Chief Executive Mark Pincus' large voting stake and control over the company. He has a special class of shares that grants him 37 percent voting power even though his equity stake is much lower, and public shareholders will have less than 2 percent of votes.

"We believe that having a CEO/owner-controlled board is particularly dangerous for investors in young companies," said Cowen and Co analyst Doug Creutz.

Creutz, who has a neutral rating on the stock, added that history is full of examples of CEOs who have built young companies but cannot manage them when they mature.

Asked about his voting shares, Pincus told Reuters he decided to retain such huge control over Zynga because he believed from the start that he was the best person to lead the company.

"Investors who want to see the company deliver long-term value are going to be better served by the fact that I can continue to ensure the company keeps its focus on the long term and we don't let short-term swings and opportunities reduce that," he said in an interview.

Based on Friday's closing share price, the value of Pincus' holdings fell to $1.05 billion from $1.1 billion at the IPO price.

Friday's flop stunned investors who had expected a strong showing because the company is profitable, unlike other recent high profile Internet IPOs such as Groupon and Pandora .

"I was stunned when I saw this. This is a disaster for them. The way you're supposed to price deals is to give investors a 15 percent IPO discount to compensate them for the risk of backing a relatively new company," said Dan Niles, chief investment officer of AlphaOne Capital Partners, who did not buy shares.

"It makes me wonder about the underlying health of the market. IPOs like this can change the whole tenor of the market," he added.

Investors said Zynga's stock performance could hurt other private companies in the pipeline such as Yelp and even Facebook. Some investors regard Zynga's IPO as a proxy for Facebook, because 95 percent of its $828 million in revenue in the past nine months comes from Mark Zuckerberg's social network.

"Now we have an exciting IPO and people don't want it and that's a big concern for when Facebook comes out," said Jeff Sica, president and chief investment officer of SICA Wealth Management.

The cooling off in the IPO markets could hurt Facebook's estimated $100 billion valuation, BGC analyst Colin Gillis said.

Zynga's reliance on the platform was supposed to attract investors looking to bet on Facebook's growth. With Facebook's IPO expected to be at least several months away, Zynga is one of the few indirect ways to bet on the website's future.

Facebook takes a 30 percent cut of the revenue Zynga derives from the social network, which features more than 222 million monthly active Zynga users.

Zynga CEO Pincus said he was looking beyond the share price drop and said the company went public at the right time.

"We're going to focus on the products and business results we deliver in the next four to eight quarters and hope the stock market values and appreciates that as they see us deliver it," he said.

In San Francisco, hundreds of employees got to work early to watch Pincus ring the bell to open Nasdaq trading and wore T-shirts saying "I love play" featuring the ZNGA trading symbol printed on the sleeves. Cinnamon buns and hot cocoa were served before the ceremony.


The company, which competes with Electronic Arts, sold 100 million shares of Class A common stock at $10 per share in the IPO, roughly 11 percent of its shares on a diluted basis, at the top end of the $8.50 to $10 indicative range.

The IPO values Zynga at $8.9 billion. In November, the company had been valued at roughly $14 billion, according to an internal estimate in a regulatory filing.

But that lowered valuation may still have been too rich for some, said Sterne Agee analyst Arvind Bhatia.

Zynga's near $9 billion valuation is less than videogame maker Activision Blizzard Inc's $13.6 billion and higher than Electronic Arts Inc's $6.7 billion. In the last four quarters, Activision and Electronic Arts generated more revenue than Zynga.

Analysts and investors have also expressed concern over how it profits from less than 3 percent of its players who buy items in its free games.

Plus, its reliance on Facebook appears unhealthy to investors who want to see Zynga diversify its revenue sources. Pincus on Friday said the company's 13 million daily users of its mobile games is a good start, and doesn't trail its daily users on Facebook as much as people assume. Zynga had 50.5 million daily users on Facebook on Friday, according to AppData, a website which tracks Facebook applications.

Yet Zynga's growth rate of bookings - the money it makes up front when users buy items, is slowing - which most analysts said is a red flag and could hurt Zynga's future revenue.

Zynga is the second online games company selling virtual items to slip in its trading debut this week. On Wednesday, Nexon Co shares fell following its $1.2 billion IPO, which was Japan's biggest offering this year.

At $1 billion in proceeds, Zynga's IPO is still the largest from a U.S. Internet company since Google Inc raised $1.9 billion in 2004.

Accused WikiLeaks source has first court appearance

Appearing in a military courtroom Friday for the first time, accused WikiLeaks source Army Pfc. Bradley Manning said he understood the charges against him in a criminal case that involves one of the largest leaks of classified material in U.S. history.
The pretrial proceeding got bogged down in legal maneuvering when Manning's civilian lawyer, David Coombs, argued that the presiding military officer could not be impartial because he is also a federal prosecutor.
Coombs said Army Reserve Lt. Col. Paul Almanza should step aside because he is the deputy chief prosecutor of the child exploitation and obscenity section of the criminal division of the Department of Justice.
"A reasonable person looking from the outside would say clearly the investigating officer is biased," Coombs said.
Almanza acknowledged sending emails about the case from his Justice Department account earlier this week. He said he had no contact, however, with federal prosecutors who are conducting a separate grand jury investigation of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
After calling a recess to consider the defense request, Almanza declined to recuse himself. He also denied a defense motion to suspend the hearing until an appeals court could review his decision.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Assange played a role when Manning allegedly downloaded more than half a million classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents to his personal computer. Many of the documents were later posted on the WikiLeaks website.
The hearing comes as Britain's Supreme Court agreed to hear an unrelated appeal from Assange, who is seeking to block extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges. The London court scheduled a two-day hearing starting Feb. 1.
Assange, an Australian, has denied the charges and says the case is politically motivated. He has been under house arrest since December 2010.
In a statement released by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, Assange said that if Manning was indeed the source of classified materials on WikiLeaks, he contributed "to the ending of dictatorships and exposing torture and wrongdoing all over the world."
Manning was a low-level Army intelligence officer in Iraq when he was arrested in May 2010. He is charged with aiding the enemy, transmitting national defense information in violation of the Espionage Act, and other charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
On Friday, when Manning entered the court at Ft. Meade, he kept his eyes down and did not acknowledge the roughly 50 people on oak benches behind him. He wore camouflage fatigues, dark-rimmed glasses and a patch from his unit, the 10th Mountain Division.
Sitting by his lawyers, he fidgeted with his pen and took notes. He was attentive and polite when Almanza asked if he was aware of the charges against him, answering, "Yes, sir."
Manning has an international following of fans who view him as a whistle-blower who exposed U.S. misdeeds. Moments after the hearing ended, a man in the courtroom gallery yelled, "Bradley Manning, you're a hero!"
About 35 other supporters rallied outside the gates of the military base to denounce the hearing and what they say was abusive treatment of Manning in prison. Some held signs saying "Free Bradley Manning" and "Expose the lies."
In the military justice system, a pretrial Article 32 hearing allows defense lawyers to challenge the government's evidence. At its conclusion, the presiding officer makes a recommendation on whether sufficient evidence exists to convene a full court-martial.

U.N. unfreezes assets of 2 Libyan banks

UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. Security Council on Friday ordered assets of two Libyan banks that had been under the control of Muammar Qaddafi to be unfrozen, clearing the way for the return of more than $40 billion to help the new government rebuild the country.

The transitional government had asked the council's committee monitoring sanctions against Libya to lift the asset freeze on the Central Bank of Libya and its subsidiary, the Libyan Foreign Bank. There were no objections from any of the 15 council nations who comprise the committee by the deadline Friday evening so the sanctions were immediately lifted.

Soon after, the U.S. government announced that it has rolled back most sanctions against Libya's banks, unblocking more than $30 billion in assets. And British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government is seeking swift European Union action to pass the regulation required to release about 6.5 billion pounds ($10 billion) in assets frozen in Britain.

Billions of dollars more in Libyan assets frozen elsewhere are also expected to be released.

EU to unfreeze Libya assets once UN approves

The Security Council froze the assets of five key Libyan financial institutions in March following the uprising against Qaddafi's 42-year rule and his deadly crackdown on protesters.

After Qaddafi's death and the end of the eight-month civil war in October, the Security Council eased some financial restrictions to allow a resumption of trading. But the freeze on assets that the Central Bank and Foreign Bank held before March remained in place until Friday's delisting.

Britain's Hague welcomed the sanctions committee's decision, saying "Libya's government will now have full access to the significant funds needed to help rebuild the country, to underpin stability and to ensure that Libyans can make the transactions that are essential to everyday life."

"The transitional government must now redouble its efforts to build a transparent and accountable financial system which will underpin a newly prosperous Libya," Hague said.

The White House said unfreezing the assets will give the Libyan government access to most of its worldwide holdings "and will help the new government oversee the country's transition and reconstruction in a responsible manner." The United States is helping Libya with the technical steps to make the assets available as soon as possible, it said.

Libya is still subject to U.N. sanctions, including an arms embargo, and assets of the Qaddafi family and members of his regime remain frozen along with assets of several other financial institutions.

Hague said Britain will continue working with the Libyan government and other countries "to agree the steps required to remove remaining sanctions, so that Libya's assets can be used for the benefit of its people."

The sanctions committee previously ordered the unfreezing of $18 billion of assets, but U.N. officials and diplomats said only about $3 billion had gotten through to Libyan authorities because of a number of problems.

These include concerns over who the money should be released to in Libya and whether it will be used for humanitarian purposes as required in some cases, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions were private.

Egypt's Military Clashes With Protesters; 7 Dead

Soldiers stormed an anti-military protest camp outside Egypt's Cabinet building Friday, beating women with sticks and hurling chunks of concrete and glass onto protesters from the roof of the parliament in a resurgence of turmoil only a day after millions voted in parliamentary elections.

At least seven protesters were shot to death in the clashes, including a prominent Muslim cleric, activists said. The heavy-handed assault was apparently an attempt to clear out protesters who have been camped out in front of the building for three weeks demanding the ruling military leave power.

But the mayhem — which came despite promises from the army-appointed prime minister that the protesters would not be cleared by force — threatened to spark a new round of violence after deadly clashes between youth revolutionaries and security forces in November that lasted for days and left more than 40 dead.

Several women protesters cowered on the pavement as military police beat them with truncheons and long sticks. Another woman was seen bring dragged away by her hair by soldiers.

Plainclothes and uniformed security officers threw slabs of concrete and stones on protesters from atop the parliament building, according to state TV footage and videos and photos posted by protesters on social networking sites. Protesters threw fire bombs and rocks at the security officers, lighting a part of parliament on fire and chanting "Down with the military."

"It's pretty ironic that the military is throwing rocks at protesters from the parliament building, where a sign is hanging that says democracy is the power of the people," protester Mostafa Sheshtawy said.

A human rights activist said gunshot wounds killed at least seven protesters in the clashes.

Ramy Raoof of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said bodies arrived overnight at a nearby hospital. Raoof said it was difficult to tell what kind of bullets killed the protesters and that full autopsies were expected.

Hours after sunset, the crowds of protesters had grown to hundreds and clashes continued, with youths hiding behind a makeshift barrier of metal sheets and an overturned car, throwing volleys of stones at military police lined up in the broad avenue in front of the parliament and Cabinet headquarters.

There were reports of live gunfire from the rooftops. One protester, Islam Mohammed, said a fellow protester pushed him aside and was hit by a bullet in the stomach. "He took a bullet instead of me and fell to the ground. I have his blood on my shirt and hands," Mohammed said. The condition of the wounded man was not known.

Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, a youth activist, said she saw the bodies of two slain protesters brought to a Cairo hospital, both with gunshot wounds. "The blood is still dripping from the head of one of them," a 22-year-old man, she told The Associated Press. The other was shot in the chest, she said. A Health Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of he was not authorized to talk to the press, confirmed the two deaths.

Bonds avoids jail after conviction

Nearly nine years, thousands of attorneys' hours and reportedly more than $50 million of taxpayer money later, Barry Bonds has finally received his punishment for distorting the truth (he was found guilty of one count of obstruction of justice).

Considering the sizable investment of prosecutors' time and Americans' tax dollars, the punishment may seem a little light: U.S. District Judge Susan Illston sentenced Bonds, who in April was convicted on one count of obstruction of justice but escaped conviction on perjury, to 30 days of home confinement, two years of probation and 250 hours of community service. Bonds resides in a six-bedroom, 10-bathroom Beverly Hills estate that he purchased in 2002 for $8.7 million. The home, which is in the prestigious zip code 90210, was recently assessed for $10.6 million. Safe to say the accommodations are better than the prison cell prosecutors originally thought he would call home.

Once the jury's verdict came back mostly in Bonds' favor, the likelihood of him receiving a prison sentence was low. That is true even though non-binding sentencing guidelines recommended that Illston sentence him to 15 to 21 months in prison and even though prosecutors thought he deserved 15 months.

Two reasons weighed against Bonds going to prison.

First, the U.S. Probation Office, which authors an influential pre-sentencing report for defendants set to be sentenced, recommended that Bonds only receive home confinement. The report highlighted that Bonds lacked any prior criminal record and that he has made numerous charitable contributions over the years.

Second, Illston's sentence is consistent with her sentences in the two other BALCO-related perjury trials. Illston sentenced track coach Trevor Graham (convicted of perjury) and cyclist Tammy Thomas (convicted of both perjury and obstruction of justice) to home confinement. While Illston could have regarded Bonds are more deserving of prison time than either Graham or Thomas, she evidently did not. Just the opposite, actually -- the 30 days of home confinement pales in comparison to the one-year and six months home confinement given to Graham and Thomas, respectively.

Bonds has 14 days to appeal his conviction, but an appeal is unlikely to be successful. Bonds would have to show that Illston made an error during the trial or in related hearings, and that the error was so influential that it led to the guilty verdict. Bonds's attorneys have asserted that Illston erred in her instructions to the jury on how they should evaluate the obstruction of justice charge. A "flawed jury instructions" argument, however, is common whenever a defendant is convicted and typically such an argument fails to persuade an appellate court. Illston, moreover, is highly regarded for her competence and fairness and she is unlikely to attract skepticism from appellate judges.

Nevertheless, and even though confinement in a plush Beverly Hills mansion for 30 days may sound more like a reward than a sanction, Bonds still has reasons to fight the conviction. First, home confinement would require Bonds to wear a GPS tracking device at all times and he would be subject to unscheduled visits by his supervising officer. He would also need permission from his supervising officer to leave his home and would face restrictions on visits by friends and family -- typically only immediate family members can visit without prior approval from a supervising officer. While Bonds would likely be able to watch television and use the Internet without restriction, his phone conversations could be monitored. He would also be subject to imprisonment should he violate any of the terms of his home confinement.

If he accepts the conviction, Bonds would also be subject to two years of supervised probation once his home confinement ends. During this time he would perform required community service and would be subject to travel and lifestyle restrictions, including the obligation that he avoid contact with known criminals and that he report frequently to a probation officer. As with the terms of his confinement, Bonds would risk incarceration should he violate the terms of his supervised probation.

Absent a successful appeal, Bonds would also endure the status of a convicted felon for the rest of his life. This undesirable status would limit his ability to own firearms and travel abroad. In some states, though not California, it would also restrict his ability to vote. None of that may matter to Bonds, however.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for Bonds to appeal the conviction would be to increase his chances of being voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Bonds will appear on the Hall of Fame ballot in December 2012; if he remains a convicted felon on charges related to steroids, his prospects for admission would likely be lower than if he can get the conviction overturned. The appeals process, however, could take years. And regardless of how the court of law views him, Bonds -- MLB's all time home run leader but also its most celebrated alleged user of illegal performance-enhancers -- may never obtain the requisite 75 percent support of Hall of Fame voters.

Going forward, Bonds still has an unresolved collusion claim against Major League Baseball. One might also wonder whether and how Bonds thanks Greg Anderson, his former trainer, for his willingness to sit in a jail cell for months instead of testifying against his most celebrated client. We may never know why Anderson was so loyal, but it was a loyalty that played a major role in Bonds never spending time behind bars.

Senate leaders reach agreement to extend payroll tax cut for 2 months

Senate leaders reached an agreement Friday to extend the payroll tax cut for two months, averting a New Year’s tax increase for millions of workers. The agreement also will require the administration to decide quickly whether to allow construction of a controversial transcontinental oil pipeline.

President Obama had demanded that Congress extend the tax holiday, but Republicans had refused to go along unless the White House agreed to an accelerated decision on the pipeline.

“We’ll be back discussing the same issues in a couple months,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) vowed late Friday that Democrats would spend the next two months pushing for a full-year extension.

White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer called the deal a “significant victory,” extending a tax cut that many analysts say will help the economy.

“The president said that Congress cannot go home without preventing a tax increase on 160 million hardworking Americans, and the deal announced tonight meets that test,” Pfeiffer said.

The Senate will vote on the deal Saturday, and the House will take it up next week. The inclusion of the controversial pipeline was intended to satisfy House Republicans who had been objecting to a short-term tax fix. McConnell said he was optimistic the deal would find favor with the House.

Meanwhile, the House approved a massive spending measure Friday that would stave off the threat of a government shutdown through September. The Senate prepared to sign off on the measure as early as Saturday.

Under the separate Senate agreement on the payroll tax, the rate paid by 160 million workers would remain at 4.2 percent through February, rather than reverting to 6.2 percent on Jan. 1.

In addition, benefits for the long-term unemployed would be extended for two months, and scheduled cuts to Medicare re­imbursement rates for doctors would be postponed.

Senators had spent the day discussing a broader deal that would last 11 months, through November’s election. But they were unable to get past a stumbling block: cuts that would make the roughly $190 billion package deficit-neutral.

Democratic and Republican aides said that the two sides agreed to about $120 billion in cuts to spending programs.

But that left a gap of $50 billion to $70 billion, aides said.

Democrats blamed Republicans for blocking savings that could come from closing loopholes such as tax breaks for corporate jets, while Republicans blamed Democrats for refusing to agree to GOP requests to extend a pay freeze for federal workers.

“The fundamental issue is how you get pay-fors that everybody can agree to, and it’s extremely difficult,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told reporters Friday evening.

A two-month package would cost $40 billion. Senators would pay for it with items identified by both sides during this year’s deficit-reduction talks, including higher fees on lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Under the agreement, Congress would approve language requiring that a construction permit be issued for the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days unless the president determined the pipeline was not in the national interest.

FAMU students protest governor's call for president to resign

Florida Gov. Rick Scott met late Thursday with a group of several hundred Florida A&M students upset over his recommendation that trustees suspend the school's president in the wake of alleged hazing and "financial irregularities."

Chanting "We've got questions. You've got answers," the students marched to the governor's mansion, promising to stay until Scott changed his mind.

"We are not going to leave," said Breyon Love, the FAMU student body president. "Mr. Governor, with all due respect, we will be here all night, all day tomorrow until you apologize or rescind that recommendation."

Appearing in a gray sweatshirt, Scott addressed the crowd through a megaphone outside the mansion, thanking them for caring and coming out.

"I want the best thing for FAMU. I want the best thing for the FAMU family. I want the best thing for the great state of Florida," the governor told students, although not conceding to their wishes.

Earlier, Scott had told the chairman of FAMU's board of trustees, Solomon L. Badger III, that he felt the board should take further action against university President James Ammons when it meets Monday, the statement said. The governor also "placed a call" to Ammons to notify him of these conversations.

"I think it's in his best interests (to) make sure that there is no question that this university is doing the right thing and cooperating," Scott said Thursday.

The discussions came after Scott returned Thursday from a trade mission to Israel and was briefed by staffers on recent developments out of the Tallahassee university, according to the governor's office.

Ammons responded Thursday that he was "sure that this investigation will determine that, under my leadership, the administration acted appropriately."

At the same time, he said he was prepared to accept his fate.

"I serve at the pleasure of the FAMU board of trustees, and I will abide by whatever decision the board reaches," he said.

Badger also released a statement in which he acknowledged "a communication with the governor." He said he hadn't talked with other trustees, promising that "we will make a decision about how we move forward Monday."

"This is a very difficult decision that we are facing," Badger said.

The band's director, Julian White, has been placed on administrative leave. One trustee, Rufus Montgomery, advocated a week ago that the university president should likewise be suspended -- but, instead, the board voted then to reprimand him.

"If you can place ... Julian White on administrative leave pending an investigation outcome, then we as a board can place James Ammons on administrative leave, procedure-wise," Montgomery said December 8.

The school president had pledged Wednesday to "root out this culture of hazing," though he declined to offer details about what specifically might change.

Band drum major Robert Champion Jr., 26, died after a November 19 football game following a suspected hazing incident.

He "reportedly threw up in the parking lot and started complaining of not being able to breathe," authorities said in a statement. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. No cause of death has been released.

Some band members said he may have died after a rite of passage called "crossing Bus C." One member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that members "walk from the front of the bus to the back of the bus back backward while the bus is full of other band members, and you get beaten until you get to the back."

About three weeks before Champion's death, freshman band member Bria Hunter suffered a cracked femur, deep bone bruising and blood clots after being beaten repeatedly on the thighs, according to arrest affidavits from Tallahassee police.

Three men -- Sean Hobson, 23, Aaron Golson, 19, and James Harris, 22 -- were charged with hazing, a crime under Florida law, this week in her case. Hobson and Golson additionally are charged with felony battery.

"We're sending all these kids off to school. ... We expect them to come back with an education and alive," Scott said Thursday.

The university's troubles go beyond the hazing reports.

Jerry Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said Wednesday that authorities looking into Champion's death had found evidence of "financial irregularities having to do with the band and several other components of the university."

The suspected fraud is not directly related to Champion's death, Bailey said.

"It became apparent (from) some of the people that we interviewed (that) the financial irregularities had to do with the band travels and other sports and administrative components of the university," he said.

The state commissioner said it is premature to conclude that the irregularities are "systemic," adding that it is too soon to tell how much money may be involved. But, he added, "it's not just isolated" to the band program.

In a statement Wednesday, Badger -- chairman of FAMU's trustees -- said the university could not comment, "but we are cooperating fully with this and all investigations."

The governor said Thursday that he isn't advocating that Ammons resign but rather "step aside" until the investigation is complete. Ideally, this inquiry will show that whatever problems are "isolated," he added.

"My goal is to have a thorough investigation that everybody feels very comfortable that everybody cooperated with," Scott said. "Hopefully, there was nothing more (Ammons) could do."

Champions' parents did not reference Ammons specifically during an interview, which was conducted with HLN's Dr. Drew Pinsky before Scott made his recommendation. Yet the young man's father did state that it was important that there's accountability -- for both Champion's death and hazing in general.

"I think the school should be held accountable, I think that each organization should be held accountable," Robert Champion Sr. said Thursday. "We have to get down to the root of the problem, so that everyone can be responsible."

His wife, Pam Champion, said their family will champion anti-hazing education efforts and look into setting up a hotline through which people can anonymously call in reports of hazing.

She said that everyone at FAMU -- from administrators, to students, to alumni -- and other schools need to work together to stop hazing, which she called endemic to a larger cultural issue.

"If you're not going to be part of the solution, then you are part of the problem," Pam Champion said. "The idea is to (get) rid of the whole culture, the whole mind-set of it."

Last US base handed to Iraq ahead of pullout

NASIRIYAH, Libya — Iraq took control of the last American military base in the country on Friday, a day after US forces marked the end of their mission, bringing a divisive war to a low-key conclusion.

The transfer of the sprawling installation on the outskirts of the southern city of Nasiriyah is a final step ahead of a complete US withdrawal from Iraq in the coming days.

The Imam Ali Base, known to the US military as Camp Adder, housed 15,000 American troops at its peak and was officially signed over at a ceremony attended by US Colonel Richard Kaiser and Hussein al-Assadi, the Iraqi in charge of base transfers.

"We proudly announce to the Iraqi people today the handover of the last American military base," Assadi said after the signing. "Today we are turning the last page on the occupation."

The base, which will now be used by Iraq's fledgling air force, lies on the edge of the ancient city of Ur, the Biblical birthplace of Abraham.

"It's an honour to have been the commander of this base, and to be the one to sign over the last large base in Iraq," Kaiser told AFP.

"It's truly an honour... I feel very proud of all the work we've done together" with Iraq.

Friday's handover comes after US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and US commanders took part in a subdued "casing of the colours" ceremony on Thursday near Baghdad airport, the first site US forces occupied in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion.

All that remains of the American military in Iraq are around 4,000 soldiers, down from a peak of nearly 170,000 troops and 505 bases across the country.

After the end of the year, the US embassy will retain just 157 US soldiers, for training of Iraqi forces, and a group of marines to secure the diplomatic mission.

The withdrawal ends a war that left tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,500 American soldiers dead, many more wounded, and 1.75 million Iraqis displaced, after the US-led invasion unleashed brutal sectarian fighting.

It brings to a close nearly nine years of US military involvement in Iraq that began with a "shock and awe" campaign in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein, which many in Washington believed would see US forces conclude their mission in Iraq within months

But key decisions taken at the time have since been widely criticised as fuelling what became a bloody Sunni Arab insurgency, in particular dissolving the Iraqi army and purging the civil service of all members of Saddam's Baath Party, including lower-ranking members.

The insurgency eventually sparked brutal communal bloodshed, particularly after the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in the predominantly Sunni city of Samarra by Al-Qaeda.

More than 100,000 Iraqis have been reported killed since the invasion, according to British NGO Iraq Body Count.

The bloodshed was only quelled when then-president George W. Bush ordered a "surge" of American troops to Iraq, and Sunni tribal militias sided with US forces against Al-Qaeda.

Attacks remain common, but violence in Iraq has declined significantly since its peak.

"After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern itself has become real," Panetta said at Thursday's symbolic flag-lowering ceremony, describing the pullout as "nothing short of miraculous".

"Iraq will be tested in the days ahead -- by terrorism and by those who would seek to divide it, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself," he added.

Iraq has a 900,000-strong security force that many believe, while capable of maintaining internal security, lacks the means to defend its borders, air space and territorial waters.

Some observers also fear a return to bloody sectarianism, doubt the strength of Iraq's political structures, and feel that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who hails from the Shiite majority, has entrenched his power base to the detriment of the country's minorities.

President Barack Obama honoured America's "bleeding and building" in Iraq on Wednesday, hailing the "extraordinary achievement" of a war he once branded "dumb."

Putin's approval falls to year's low: Russian poll

MOSCOW - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's approval rating has dropped to its lowest level of the year in the first opinion poll published since his ruling party suffered an election setback and he faced the biggest protests of his 12-year rule.

A poll conducted on December 10-11 and released Friday showed 51 percent of Russians approved of how he has done his job, down from 61 percent in a November 28-29 survey and 68 percent in January, state pollster VTsIOM said.

The poll highlighted discontent and fatigue with the 59-year-old leader as he prepares for a presidential election in March which he is widely expected to win, but not as easily as seemed likely a month ago and perhaps not in the first round.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, suggested the decline was the result of "emotional overload" among Russians following the election and said his approval rating would swiftly recover.

"On the whole Vladimir Putin's rating remains on quite a high level, while there are fluctuations," Interfax news agency quoted Peskov as saying.

"These days are characterized by an emotional overload linked to the post-election period. But the real state of affairs indicates there are grounds to expect an increase in the premier's rating in the very near future."

Tens of thousands of people protested last Saturday to call for the rerun of the December 4 parliamentary election which opponents say was rigged to benefit the ruling United Russia party. Many protesters also said they were fed up with Putin.

Political analysts say Putin angered many Russians when he revealed a plan to switch jobs next year with President Dmitry Medvedev, the protege he steered into the Kremlin when he was barred from seeking a third term after his 2000-2008 presidency.

The decision, revealed at a September congress of United Russia, deepened feelings of disenfranchisement among Russians who believe they have no influence in a political system dominated by Putin and his party.


Voters sharply reduced United Russia's parliamentary majority on December 4 but opponents say that even the party's return of 49.3 percent was inflated by fraud. International monitors also said the vote was slanted to favor United Russia.

In a marathon question-and-answer session televised live nationwide Thursday, Putin said he believed the results were in line with public opinion and made clear he would not bow to protesters' demands for a new election.

Speaking to reporters after Thursday's call-in show, Putin said the plan to make Medvedev prime minister after the presidential vote remained in place, and call United Russia's result a clear victory despite the diminished majority.

Putin had charged Medvedev with leading United Russia into the election and hinted a poor performance might make him turn to someone else to head the government if he is elected president.

The VTsIOM poll put Putin far ahead of the pack in the presidential election, with 42 percent of respondents saying they would vote for Putin. Next was Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, will 11 percent.

The poll provided no clear answer to what is shaping up as the main question about the presidential vote: Can Putin win more than 50 percent of the votes, securing victory in the first round and avoiding a run-off against the closest competitor.

While fewer than half the Russians surveyed said they would vote for Putin, some of the politicians offered as choices are not running for president, 11 percent said they would not vote and 15 percent were undecided.

Medvedev's approval rating also fell sharply in the VTsIOM poll, to 51 percent on December 10-11 from 60 percent on November 28-29 and 66 percent in January.

VTsIOM, which surveyed 1,600 people in 138 locations nationwide, and said the poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

U.S. formally ends 9-year war in Iraq

BEIJING,Dec. 16 – The war in Iraq is now officially over. The US Forces-Iraq flag has been lowered in a ceremony in Baghdad attended by US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta. He told troops they leave Iraq with lasting pride.

After the death of 4,500 Americans, the injury of 32-thousand others, and at a cost of at least 800 billion US dollar, the flag of the US Forces-Iraq in Baghdad is lowered and put away for good.

US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta said the nearly 9-year war in Iraq was worth the price in blood and money, as it set the country on a path to democracy.

The last 4-thousand American troops will withdraw by the end of the year, leaving Iraq still tackling a weakened but stubborn insurgency, sectarian tensions and political uncertainty.

Only around 150 US soldiers will remain in Iraq after the withdrawal, attached to the US Embassy. Civilian contractors will take on the task of training Iraqi forces on US military hardware.

Iraq’s leadership presents the withdrawal as a new start for the country’s sovereignty, but many still question its ability to protect its own people.