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More Amtrak Service to Knowledge Corridor


WASHINGTON — The Amtrak Vermonter service to the Knowledge Corridor will begin after Christmas day.

Beginning Dec. 29, Amtrak will also make stops in Greenfield and Northampton, Mass.  Tickets are now available for purchase.

The Vermonter operates daily between Washington and St. Albans, Vt., with service to Philadelphia, New York, Hartford, Conn., Springfield, Mass. and Essex Junction, Vt., and other intermediate stops.  In Fiscal Year 2014.

Officials said that ridership on this route increased 6.6 percent, providing service to more than 89,000 passengers.

The Vermonter will also add a stop in Holyoke, Mass. later in 2015 when station work is complete. The added stops due to the reroute will replace service provided to the Amherst station, which will end on Dec. 28.

The restoration of train service to the Knowledge Corridor has been a goal of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Governor Patrick’s Administration, who have been leading the effort to improve the Pan Am Southern tracks and shorten trip times within the Commonwealth., officials said.

Funding for the project was provided through the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Passengers may book travel via Amtrak.com, mobile apps, or by calling 800-USA-RAIL for any station along the route between Washington and St. Albans, Vt.

–Ann-Marie Adams

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Local Farms to Benefit from USDA Project


HARTFORD — Connecticut is one of eight states selected by the United States Department of Agriculture to participate in the pilot project to buy fruits and vegetables for school meals.

The program is provided for under the federal Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the Farm Bill. Under the program, Connecticut will be able to increase its purchases of locally-grown fruits and vegetables for its state-assisted school meal program.

Officials said this is great news for local farmers and the economy because the state is home to a large farming community.

Nationally, USDA Foods – provided by the USDA to schools – make up about 20 percent of the foods served in schools. States use their USDA Foods allocation to select items from a list of 180 products including fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, poultry, rice, low fat cheese, beans, pasta, flour and other whole grain products.

This pilot program will allow the selected states to use some of their USDA Foods allocation to purchase unprocessed fruits and vegetables directly, instead of going through the USDA Foods program.

 

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Tickets on Sale for Governor’s Inauguration Event


HARTFORD — Tickets are now available for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov.  Nancy Wyman’s gubernatorial inauguration ceremony on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015.

The ceremony will be held at the William A. O’Neill State Armory on 360 Broad Street in Hartford and is free and open to the public.

Tickets are not necessary and seats are first come, first served.  Doors will open at 11:30 a.m. and the ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m.

The state’s constitutional officers – Attorney General George Jepsen, State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, State Treasurer Denise L. Nappier, and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill – will also be sworn into office during the ceremony.

The traditional inauguration parade will step off at 11:30 a.m. that morning, commencing near the intersection of Jewell Street and Trinity Street in downtown Hartford, proceeding under the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, turning right onto Capitol Avenue past the State Capitol building, then turning right onto Broad Street and ending at the State Armory.

Guests attending the inauguration ceremony should plan for road closures in the areas surrounding the State Capitol and the State Armory during the parade.

As was previously announced, the 2015 Connecticut Inaugural Ball will be hosted by the First Company Governor’s Food Guard and held later that evening at the Connecticut Convention Center.

Tickets to that event are on sale now and can be purchased online at www.ctinauguralball.com or via telephone by calling 860-246-7772.

 

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President Obama Lifts Bans on Cuba


By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a move that has been hailed as historic, President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed an executive order to “re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba.”

The move to thaw the relationship with this communist country comes after months of secret talks between the Obama administration and Cuban officials in Canada and the Vatican. Talks culminated with a 45-minute conversation on Tuesday between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, which detailed ways the United States would end 53 years of enmity that has caused disagreement in the Caribbean basin. Fidel Castro was not involved in these discussions, officials said.

Obama had to forgo Congress. Only Congress, which imposed sanctions on Cuba in 1961, can dismantle them completely. So the president’s move was mostly a symbolic but powerful one, according to a White House official on background call before Obama’s live speech. This move represents the most significant changes to America’s Cuba policy in more than 50 years, a White House official said.

“These are the steps that I can take to change these policies,” Obama said in his televised speech from the East Room, emphasizing the limits of his unilateral move to help the U.S. “normalize relations” with Cuba.

Unresolved disputes remain, however. Cubans urged for an end of the U.S. pro-democracy programs in Cuba, which they see as a subversive attempt to overthrow Castro. The White House stood firm on those demands, refusing to disrupt that policy.

Obama’s executive order bodes well for Cuba’s economy because Cuba agreed to release political prisoners, including “a very frail” Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who U.S. officials said was wrongfully imprisoned. The order now allows travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.

Former Florida Governor and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, challenged Obama’s move toward Cuba, saying to USA Today: “I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship.”

Bush has  favorable ratings in  large Cuban-American constituencies in Florida.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, said he would do all he can as the incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block Obama’s plan.

While politicos plan to make moves in Congress, most Americans will now be able to travel to Cuba. Previously, there was a ban on all travel to Cuba. Now, government officials and academicians can travel there.

“With the changes I’m announcing today, it will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, and Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island,”  Obama said.

Other benefits to Americans in this move also allows Cuban Americans to travel and send remittances to their family, US embassies will now be in Cuba, and easier trade relations.

Travel for tourist activities are still banned.

Photo Credit: President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Cuba and the release of American Alan Gross, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

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Mortgage Officer Sentenced for Fraud


NEW HAVEN —  A former loan officer at GMAC Mortgage and Countrywide Home Loans is expected to serve five years in prison for his role in a mortgage fraud scheme arising from the purchases of more than 40 properties in New Haven, New Jersey, according to state officials.

U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced that Andrew Constantinou, 58, of Unionville, Connecticut, was previously convicted on April 18, 2014, of all counts charged in the indictment following a three-week trial before Chief U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall.

The jury found him guilty of conspiracy to commit mail, wire, and bank fraud. Judge Hall imposed the sentence today in New Haven federal court.

According to documents filed in this case and the evidence at trial:

From 2006 to 2008, Constantinou and others conspired to defraud mortgage lenders of millions of dollars of mortgage proceeds by inflating the contract price that the sellers of the properties had actually agreed to accept. The scheme involved multi-family properties in New Haven.

The lower sale price, which ranged from approximately $30,000 to $145,000 less than the contract price, was not disclosed to the lenders from which the buyers obtained financing to purchase the properties. In most of the fraudulent transactions, the buyers did not make any deposits or down payments. Constantinou and his conspirators used some of the fraudulently obtained mortgage proceeds to cover the down payments and deposits. At or shortly after a closing, the borrowers would often receive thousands to tens of thousands of dollars in cash back, although these payments were not disclosed to the lender.

Constantinou and his conspirators submitted to mortgage lenders false HUD-1 forms that often did not match another, undisclosed HUD-1 form that was actually used to disburse the fraudulently obtained proceeds at the closing. As a result of the submission of the false HUD-1 forms and other false documentation in support of the loan, including fictitious leases and false information about the borrower’s assets and liabilities, the mortgage lenders would issue mortgages based on the inflated sales price.

Constantinou was a loan officer at GMAC Mortgage from 2006 to 2007 and at Countrywide Home Loans from 2007 to 2008.  He submitted and received commissions from fraudulent loans as part of the scheme without disclosing the existence of inflated contract prices, secret contract addenda that contained large repair credits, false leases, and other false documentation.

Constantinou worked with an unindicted conspirator, who was a licensed mortgage broker, to originate additional loans as part of the conspiracy. Constantinou and the mortgage broker were former partners at C&S Mortgage and had agreed, by the terms of a 2004 settlement agreement with the Connecticut Department of State Banking, to receive no commissions or money from each other. Notwithstanding that settlement agreement, Constantinou engaged in this mortgage fraud scheme by referring fraudulent transactions to the mortgage broker who, in some instances, paid kickbacks to Constantinou through a shell company and the account of Constantinou’s daughter.

Nearly all of the properties purchased as part of this conspiracy went into default and have been foreclosed upon, causing losses of more than $7 million to lenders.

In addition to the prison term, Judge Hall sentenced Constantinou to serve five years of supervised release and pay restitution of $2.1 million.

Ten defendants have been charged and convicted for their participation in this mortgage fraud conspiracy, including two loan officers, four attorneys, and a real estate agent.  Genevieve Salvatore, Bradford Rieger, Lawrence Dressler, Kwame Nkrumah, and Jacques Kelly have each been sentenced. Menachem Yosef Levitin, Ronald Hutchison Jr., Charles Lesser, and Jeffrey Weisman each await sentencing.

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UConn Begins New Stem Cell Research


STORRS — The University of Connecticut recently announced a new stem cell research collaboration in the field of rare disease with Cheshire, CT-based Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

The collaboration will expand on the work of Dr. David J. Goldhamer, Professor, Molecular & Cell Biology and Associate Director of the UConn Stem Cell Institute.

Dr. Goldhamer has identified the offending progenitor cell type that drives the pathology of a group of diseases and has developed physiologically relevant disease models. These models will be used to further understand the pathophysiology of these disorders and to test potential therapeutics.

“This collaboration targets unmet medical needs for patients while demonstrating the vitality of the life science community in Connecticut,” said Dr. Jeff Seemann, UConn’s Vice President for Research. “As part of Connecticut’s flagship public university and a top 20 public research institution, UConn’s faculty routinely offers tools and expertise to fuel the innovative needs of industry, and that are critically necessary to industry’s ability to succeed in today’s highly competitive global marketplace.”

The research collaboration is expected to focus on the discovery and testing of therapeutic candidates to treat rare and disabling disorders for which there are currently no effective treatments.

Connecticut was one of the first states to fund stem cell research.

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Deadline to Enroll in ObamaCare Today


Updated Monday, December 15, 2014 @ 5:34 p.m.

HARTFORD — In order to begin health coverage under the Affordable Health Care Act by January, residents must enroll by this Monday, state officials said.

Consumers who elect not to enroll before the Dec. 15  deadline will still have until Feb. 15 to enroll and avoid a tax penalty.

Connecticut residents, who are enrolled  in health insurance after Feb. 15, 2015, will be fined either 2 percent of household income over the federal income tax filing threshold, or $325 per individual, $162.50 per child, or $975 for families– whichever is greater.

This is an increase from last year’s tax penalties, which were 1 percent of household income over the federal income tax filing threshold, or $95 per person and $47.50/child, whichever was greater.

After the Feb. 15, 2015 deadline, only people with special circumstances like a change of address, change in employment, or birth may enroll for coverage.

Residents can compare plans and shop for coverage online, over the phone, or with the help of an in-person assister. Call center representatives are available  at 1‐855‐805-HEALTH (4325).

In-person assistance is available at the AHCT enrollment centers in New Britain and New Haven, at 12 Community Enrollment Partner sites, and via licensed insurance brokers. For more information, visit www.accesshealthct.com.

In advance of tonight’s midnight deadline for coverage beginning Jan. 1, Access Health CT Acting CEO Jim Wadleigh has released the following statement:

“The deadline to sign up for quality, affordable health care coverage that begins on Jan. 1, 2015 is tonight at midnight.  If customers have an application started and select a plan before midnight tonight, they can still get coverage beginning Jan. 1, as long as they complete the application and get us all the relevant information by midnight this Friday, Dec. 19.

We hope that this grace period will allow ample time for customers to complete their applications and have any remaining questions answered. We urge costumers to use Access Health CT’s customer resources to get the assistance they need to get coverage beginning on Jan. 1, 2015.

 

 

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Gov. Malloy Discusses Transportation Overhaul, Costs


By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

HARTFORD — In an effort to compete in the 21st century and beyond, state officials and residents are poised to engage in a robust discussion about transportation needs and what it will cost, said Gov. Dannel Malloy at a transportation forum in Hartford on Wednesday.

“People need to know the true size and cost of what needs to be done if Connecticut is to be able to compete in the next 50 years,” Malloy said a forum entitled “Getting to Work: Transportation and Job Access for the 21st Century” held at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

Malloy said the state is ready to look at the expense and the scope of a complete overhaul of the rail and bus system in the state. The projects would include widening I-84 from the New York border through Waterbury or 95 from Branford to the Rhode Island border, broader rails and upgrades to the Metro North.

The overhaul would also include replacing the I-84 viaduct in Hartford and Route 8 in Waterbury, repairing deteriorated bridges and modernizing Metro-North rails.

The job is expected to cost billions, state officials said.

The forum, which included a panel discussion about the importance of transportation to job access, also highlighted the difficulty residents who work face when relying on public transportation.

Anne Hayes, who works at Travelers, detailed steps taken by Traveler’s employees to ensure that they get to work by car, carpooling or taking advantage of parking arrangements by the company.

Robert Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said there is hope for CT transit riders

The state, Malloy said, “has under-invested” in transportation for two generations. It’s time, he said, to pay a price for that.

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Coalition Calls on Congress to Reduce Poverty Rate


Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — America needs to drastically cut its poverty rate.

That’s according to a recent report released  by the Half in Ten campaign, which is calling on Congress to “get serious” about passing legislation to reduce poverty. They said that now that the congressional midterm elections are over, Congress should make this a national priority.

The report, which includes a foreward from New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), noted that there’s a significant decrease in the poverty rate since 2006. But the actual number of Americans living in poverty remains statistically unchanged at 45.3 million in 2013.

Connecticut ranks fourth in the nation with the number of people living in poverty. The overall poverty rate is calculated as the number of people in the state who had incomes below the poverty line, which in 2013 is $23,834 for a family of four.

Additionally, Connecticut’s child poverty rate is 14.3 percent and is ranked 8th in the nation.

And the poverty rate for African Americans or Blacks is 24 percent; for Latino, it’s 27.6 percent; for Asian, it’s 18.8 percent; and for Native Americans, it’s 5.6 percent.

Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, women, communities of color, and people with disabilities continue to face far too many barriers to economic prosperity,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a partner of Half in Ten. “We can and must do better to lift families out of poverty and reverse the destructive trend of economic inequity. It’s time for Congress to heed the calls for action from across the nation and get to work for all Americans.”

Half in Ten was launched in 2008 to urge local, state, and national leaders to set a national goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years.”

State and local officials said the report highlights what they have seen: stagnant wages, the rich growing richer and the economy is “seriously failing communities of color.”

Despite that, Congress has cut funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, reduced unemployment insurance and stalled legislation that would create jobs.

The report also added policy recommends to attack poverty. For more information, visit

Read the report: Building Local Momentum for National Change

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College Search Selects Three Finalists


HARTFORD — Three finalists were selected after a long search for a new president at Housatonic Community College, one of the 17 institutions of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System.

State officials said a nationwide, months-long search has been narrowed to include Dr. Athos K. Brewer, Vice President for Student Affairs, Bronx Community College of the City of New York; Dr. Paul Brodie II, Vice President for Student Services, Orange County Community College, a member of the State University of New York; and Dr. Matthew Reed, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Holyoke Community College.

“We are extremely pleased with the caliber of the candidates who applied for the position, and especially with that of the three finalists,” Chairman of the Board of Regents Nick Donofrio said. “These finalists represent the very best in higher education at this time, as evidenced by the experience and accomplishments that comprise their impressive careers to date.”

All three candidates will be visiting the Housatonic campus beginning in early December.  Reed will visit Dec. 1; Broadie will visit Dec. 2, and Brewer will visit Dec. 3.

During their visits to Bridgeport, the candidates will participate in various meetings and events with faculty, students, staff, and community stakeholders.

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