Nation & World Briefs 08-14-14 Lighter sentences being sought for some biz crimes

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WASHINGTON -- The federal panel that sets sentencing policy eased penalties this year for potentially tens of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. Now, defense lawyers and prisoner advocates are pushing for similar treatment for a different category of defendants: swindlers, embezzlers, insider traders and other white-collar criminals.

Lawyers who have long sought the changes say a window to act opened once the U.S. Sentencing Commission cleared a major priority from its agenda by cutting sentencing guideline ranges for drug crimes. The commission, which meets Thursday to vote on priorities for the coming year, already has expressed interest in examining punishments for white-collar crime. And the Justice Department, though not advocating wholesale changes, has said it welcomes a review.

It's unclear what action the commission will take, especially given the public outrage at fraudsters who stole their clients' life savings and lingering anger over the damage inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis.

But the discussion about tweaking sentences for economic crimes comes as some federal judges have chosen to ignore the existing guidelines as too stiff for some cases and as the Justice Department looks for ways to cut costs in an overpopulated federal prison system.

Sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, but judges still rely heavily on them for consistency's sake. Advocates arguing that white-collar sentencing guidelines are "mixed up and crazy" could weaken support for keeping them in place, said Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman, a sentencing law expert.

VA referrals to on rise: The Department of Veterans Affairs is significantly increasing its referrals of veterans to private doctors following a scandal over lengthy patient waiting times at many VA hospitals and clinics and falsified appointment records, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said Wednesday. McDonald spoke to a few hundred people at the American Veterans national convention. He is scheduled to visit the VA hospital in Memphis today.

Ex-doctor pleads guilty: William Valuck, a former Oklahoma doctor pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges on Wednesday in connection with the drug overdose deaths of several patients. Valuck, a former pain management doctor, pleaded guilty to eight counts of second-degree murder under a deal with Oklahoma County prosecutors, who agreed to drop dozens of drug charges. The deal calls for the 71-year-old Valuck to spend eight years in prison. Investigators have said Valuck prescribed more controlled narcotic drugs than any other physician in the state, sometimes as many as 600 pills at a time. Valuck had originally faced first-degree murder charges, which carry up to life in prison.

Winner claims $90M prize: A tow truck driver from the small western Colorado city of Rifle claimed his $90 million Powerball jackpot and told reporters he has been waking up and feeling like his win wasn't real. The Denver Post reported (http://goo.gl/QgJjl0) Wednesday that the winner, who identified himself only as Claude G. at a news conference, said he woke up Sunday as his wife screamed in joy.

Rare cordial exchange: Pope Francis' greeting to Chinese President Xi Jinping as he flew to South Korea early today marked a rare cordial exchange between the sides that have no diplomatic relations and are embroiled in a sometimes bitter contest for authority. Vatican protocol calls for Francis to send telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace. Usually they pass unnoticed, but today's telegram was unique because the last time a pope wanted to fly over China, in 1989, Beijing refused.

GM to build stamping facility: General Motors Co. has announced plans to build a $174 million stamping facility in Lansing. GM said the new facility will create or retain about 145 jobs at its Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant. The company says the stamping facility will save about $14 million in logistics costs related to material handling. Stamping components for several lines of Cadillacs will be produced at the new facility.

To phase out shift: Vera Bradley plans to phase out a shift that about 150 people work at its New Haven, Ind., plant in an effort to reduce manufacturing capacity and save on domestic costs. The producer of quilted accessories will cut about a quarter of the plant's manufacturing capacity by eliminating its second shift in the next couple of months.

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