In The Region

Zoo fires firm building exhibit for polar bears

The Baltimore Zoo said yesterday that it fired the company building the Polar Bear Watch exhibit for failing to meet deadlines and not getting the inspections needed to finish the job.

Zoo officials described the decision to fire ValleyCrest Landscape Development Inc. as a necessary but last resort. The firm's parent, ValleyCrest Companies of California, declined to comment, saying it is still in discussions with the zoo.

One of the zoo's polar bear yards opened in October. The polar bears spend their days in that yard and their nights in an open-air area that is not in the public's view.

The area in question includes a portion of the polar bear exhibit that will give zoo visitors an underwater view of the polar bears in their pool. The zoo has filed a complaint with the company that issued a performance bond for the work and is responsible for ensuring that the job gets done.


NASD suspends financial services firm over trading

For the first time the National Association of Securities Dealers has prohibited a regulated financial services firm from opening mutual-fund accounts for new clients for 30 days - for allegedly facilitating deceptive market-timing practices.

National Securities Corp. of Seattle also failed to have an adequate supervisory system to prevent deceptive market timing and late trading, the NASD said yesterday.

National also was fined $300,000 and ordered to pay almost $300,000 in restitution to the funds that were affected by the deceptive market timing. The company also was ordered to revise its systems to correct supervisory and e-mail retention deficiencies.

National President Michael A. Bresner was fined $25,000 and received a one-month suspension. David M. Williams, the firm's former chief operating officer, also was fined $25,000.

Ohio suit accuses Best Buy of deceptive practices

Ohio authorities sued Best Buy Co. Inc. yesterday, alleging that the electronics retailer engaged in unfair and deceptive business practices.

Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro said his office has received hundreds of complaints over several years, the most common allegations being that the retailer repackaged used goods and sold them as new, and failed to honor rebates, refund and exchange programs and extended service contracts.

The complaint, filed in state court in Columbus, asks a judge to order Best Buy to comply with Ohio's consumer protection laws, reimburse customers who lost money and pay a civil penalty of $25,000 for each violation of the state's Consumer Sales Practices Act.

Best Buy declined to comment on the lawsuit, pointing to a policy against discussing pending litigation.

Software firms are ruled not liable for file swapping

Grokster Ltd. and Stream- Cast Networks Inc. are not liable for the swapping of copyright content through their file-sharing software, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled yesterday in a blow to movie studios and record labels.

Among other things, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the suppliers of the free peer-to-peer software, unlike Napster, were not liable for illegally swapped music and movies online because they don't have central servers where computer users can access copyrighted material.

"In the context of this case, the software design is of great import," Judge Sidney R. Thomas wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel, which upheld a lower court ruling that dismissed the bulk of the lawsuit brought by movie studios and record labels.

The panel noted that the software firms simply provided software for individual users to share information over the Internet, regardless of whether that shared information was copyrighted.

Bank of America hires senior SEC official

Bank of America Corp., one of the first companies ensnared in recent mutual fund trading probes, hired the deputy chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission's mutual-fund division.

Cynthia Fornelli, 43, who oversees the $7.6 trillion mutual-fund industry, will become a senior vice president at the bank's headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. She will be in charge of risk assessment and ensuring the bank's compliance with securities laws. At the SEC, Fornelli helped lead the most extensive overhaul of mutual fund oversight since the 1940s.

Bank of America has come under SEC scrutiny for its mutual-fund trading, analyst research and for withholding documents during an insider-trading investigation. In September, the bank was accused by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer of permitting mutual-fund trading violations that harmed long-term investors.

Labor board to investigate union claim against airline

A labor relations board plans to investigate a Teamsters' claim that Frontier Airlines improperly interfered with a union representation vote involving a small group of stock clerks.

Mary L. Johnson, general counsel for the National Mediation Board, notified Frontier in a letter this week that she found the allegations and supporting evidence presented a prima facie case of election interference.

Johnson set a deadline of Tuesday for Frontier and the union to file supplemental information. If the board rules in favor of the Teamsters, it could result in a new election.

The Teamsters have accused the Denver discount carrier of giving raises to 20 stock clerks just before a voting period that began June 30. The election, which ended July 31, resulted in a 10-10 tie, one vote short of a union victory.

Port officials considering 300,000 job applications

Longshore union and Los Angeles port shipping officials yesterday sifted through 300,000 applications submitted as part of a special lottery for 3,000 lucrative temporary dockworker jobs at the nation's largest port complex.

The cattle call for workers - a rare occurrence in the shipping industry - drew an overwhelming response since the union began accepting cards last week. And it comes after a crush of cargo from the Far East, which has created a dire need for more dockworkers at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The drawing, expected to take most of the day, began under the supervision of five arbitrators shortly after 9 a.m. Postcards mailed in by job seekers filled nearly a third of a metal container the size of a small car.

Outside the port of Los Angeles building where the drawing was taking place, signs told applicants to look on the Internet for results of the drawing.

2 online travel Web sites to accommodate blind

In one of the first enforcement actions of the Americans with Disabilities Act on the Internet, two major travel services have agreed to make sites more accessible to the blind and visually impaired. and have agreed to changes that will allow users with "screen reader software" and other technology to navigate and listen to the text throughout their Web sites, according to New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

Although the software and other devices, including a vibrating mouse that lets the blind "feel" boxes and images on the computer screen, have been available for years, Web sites must have specific coding that allows the equipment to operate, Spitzer said.

Spitzer's settlement follows investigations over the past two years to determine if Web sites conform to the federal act and state law that require all "places of public accommodation" and all "goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations" be accessible to the disabled.

This column was compiled from reports by Sun staff writers, the Associated Press and Bloomberg News.

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