Coroner rules Michel Berniquez death accidental

MONTREAL – Nine years after the fact, a coroner’s report has finally been issued concerning the death of Michel Berniquez, 45, who died June 28, 2003.

His death has been ruled accidental and multi-factored.

Berniquez died after being arrested and restrained by six Montreal police. The victim was highly intoxicated at the time.

The coroner, Andrée Kronström, identified the different factors that led to the death: coronary disease, intoxication and a state of agitated delirium, a new syndrome only formally recognized since 2009. The intense emotional stress of the police action was also cited in the findings.

Berniquez was known to become violent and agitated when he took drugs.

On the day of his arrest, police were called to a dépanneur in Montreal North with a report of a man behaving in a very erratic manner and refusing to pay his bill. Berniquez left the convenience store and outside, in a parking lot, he started a fight and hit another man.

He was high on cocaine and methamphetamines at the time.

Police caught up with him on the run at the corner of Henri Bourassa Blvd., where Berniquez punched one officer in the face and tried to grab hold of a night stick.

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It took six police officers to restrain him and force him to the ground. Berniquez went into cardiac arrest and was taken to hospital by paramedics, but could not be revived and was pronounced dead.

Initially, his mother sued the city of Montreal for Berniquez’s death. The chief coroner at the time wanted a public investigation into the death but a court decision ruled in favour of the Montreal Police Brotherhood. The Quebec Court of Appeal overturned that decision in 2010.

Agitated delirium has now been shown to cause extreme aggression and combativeness, as well as heart palpitations.

In 2003, ambulance technicians were not allowed to administer sedatives, something that was adjusted in 2006. The police officers used restraining techniques taught at the National Police School of Quebec. Those techniques have been adjusted since 2009 to take into consideration anyone in a state of agitated delirium.

The coroner’s report suggests that all Montreal police officers be offered these new guidelines and training procedures.
 

Mohamed bin Hammam resigns from all soccer-related positions, banned for life

LONDON – Mohamed bin Hammam resigned from all soccer-related posts and received a new lifetime ban from FIFA on Monday, perhaps closing one of the most damaging corruption scandals to hit the sport’s world governing body.

Bin Hammam, a FIFA executive committee member from Qatar who challenged incumbent Sepp Blatter for the presidency last year, gave up his long-running dispute with the organization after being found guilty by FIFA of “repeated violations” of its code of ethics while head of the Asian Football Confederation.

FIFA said the 63-year-old bin Hammam sent a resignation letter to both FIFA and the AFC on Saturday.

“Mr. Mohamed bin Hammam … has resigned from all his positions in football with immediate effect and will never be active in organized football again,” a FIFA statement said.

Bin Hammam, who has always denied wrongdoing, had no immediate comment on FIFA’s announcement.

Controversy has swirled around bin Hammam in recent years – he had also been fighting a separate life ban imposed by FIFA following allegations he offered bribes to voters when running against Blatter.

FIFA said the second life ban is a result of the final report from the chairman of its ethics committee, Michael J. Garcia.

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“That report showed repeated violations of Article 19 (Conflict of Interest) of the FIFA Code of Ethics of Mohamed bin Hammam during his terms as AFC President and as member of the FIFA executive committee in the years 2008 to 2011, which justified a life-long ban from all football-related activity,” the statement said.

According to the Malaysia-based AFC, a yearlong audit revealed “infringements” regarding the “execution of certain contracts” and tampering with the organization’s bank accounts while president. As a result, Garcia and the AFC ordered probes into how bin Hammam managed the accounts.

The reputation of bin Hammam, who was elected AFC president in 2002, has been in tatters since a bribery scandal erupted in May 2011 – a week before the FIFA presidential election.

The Qatari withdrew his bid just hours before FIFA provisionally suspended him, allowing Blatter to be re-elected unopposed.

FIFA used evidence from whistleblowers that pointed to bin Hammam handing out $40,000 in cash bribes to officials in each of 24 Caribbean soccer nations during his campaign visit to Trinidad. He was banned for life in July 2011, but that was lifted a years later by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. He denied any wrongdoing, claiming the FIFA investigations were politically motivated to protect Blatter.

Jack Warner, FIFA vice-president and a veteran power broker in the north and central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) region, was also implicated in the scandal that cost bin Hammam his position. Warner walked away from world soccer before FIFA concluded its probe into allegations of wrongdoing.

Movement seen infiscal fight talks as House leaderoffers revenue boost

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and the Republican leader of the U.S. House met at the White House on Monday in hopes of continuing to make progress on a plan to deal with the “fiscal cliff” crisis that threatens the U.S. economy.

The two negotiators are running out of time if they hope to make an agreement and get it passed by Congress before an economically toxic mix of huge tax increases and slashing cuts to the Pentagon and other federal agencies begins to take effect at the beginning of January. Experts warn the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts – the result of past failures to reach a deal on cutting the burgeoning deficit – could send the economy over a “fiscal cliff” and into another recession.

The meeting came after House Speaker John Boehner on Friday offered $1 trillion in higher tax revenue over 10 years and an increase in the top tax rate on people making more than $1 million a year, his first move in Obama’s direction on rates. Boehner is also offering a large enough extension in the government’s borrowing cap to fund the government for one year before the issue must be revisited – conditioned on Obama’s agreeing to $1 trillion in spending cuts.

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“The president and the speaker are meeting at the White House to continue their discussions about the fiscal cliff and balanced deficit reduction,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. The two met for about 45 minutes, officials said.

Given the pressing timetable, president and speaker are hoping to set the broad parameters of an agreement while taking care of urgent business like extending tax cuts for most earners. Other steps, like overhauling the tax code and additional cuts to popular programs like health care for the elderly, would be left to be fleshed out next year.

Obama is also pushing extending jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed and wants some kind of extension of a payroll tax cut.

Boehner’s latest offer broke a long impasse. It calls for about $450 billion in revenue raised in part from increasing the top rate on million-dollar-plus income from 35 per cent to 39.6 per cent, the rate that stood in the 1990s during the government of President Bill Clinton.

The additional revenue required to meet the $1 trillion target would be collected through a rewrite of the tax code next year and by slowing the inflation adjustments made to tax brackets.

In return, Boehner is asking for $1 trillion in spending cuts from government benefit programs like health care for the elderly. Those cuts would defer most of a painful set of across-the-board spending cuts set to slash many domestic programs and the military budget by 8-9 per cent, starting in January.

Boehner’s proposal was described Sunday by officials familiar with it. They required anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

Boehner also continues to press for a less generous inflation adjustment for government pension benefits, a move endorsed by many budget hawks. Obama and Democrats on last year’s deficit “supercommittee” endorsed the idea in offers made last year, but they’re more reluctant now.

The new inflation adjustment would also raise about $70 billion over a decade in new revenues because tax brackets would rise more slowly for inflation, driving people more quickly into higher tax brackets.

The increased optimism come as time is running out before the adjournment of Congress. Tax rates on all workers go up in January, and $109 billion worth of across-the-board spending cuts begin to take effect then as well. Taken together with the expiration of extended jobless benefits and a 2-percentage-point break in payroll taxes, the combination of austerity steps threatens to send the economy back into recession.

The burst of optimism is tempered by the caution that the remaining steps to reaching a deal – particularly how much to cut health care for the elderly and whether to impose the new, less generous inflation adjustment to government pension payments – are difficult. Then comes the job of selling it to a polarized Congress, where Republican conservatives have been railing against higher tax rates for months as sure to cost jobs and hurt small business, and Democrats have taken a harder line against cost curbs to health care for the elderly.

But it appears clear there is momentum as White House and congressional aides worked through the weekend.

The movement comes as an increasing number of Republicans have called for a tactical retreat that would hand Obama a victory on his longstanding campaign promise to raise taxes on households making more than $250,000 a year. That increase, combined with an increase in the tax rate on investment income from 15 per cent to 20 per cent, would raise about $800 billion in tax revenue over a decade.

In that context, Boehner’s move could be seen as an attempt to get spending cuts linked to the rate increase rather than giving them up and getting nothing in return. Judging from the numbers, Boehner is also willing to allow tax rates on investment income to increase for high-end income and allow the reinstatement of curbs on the personal exemption and the value itemized deductions for high-income earners.

Obama has offered $600 billion in spending cuts over a decade, including $350 billion from federal health care programs and $250 billion from other cuts to domestic programs.

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Associated press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Andrew Taylor contributed to this story.

MUHC projects $53 million deficit next year

MONTREAL – The McGill University Health Centre has plunged into an unprecedented financial crisis as it projects a deficit next year of at least $53 million, prompting the Quebec government to set up a committee to probe the MUHC’s finances, The Gazette has learned.

The MUHC is also planning to “divest” itself of a number of primary- and secondary-care services to slash costs. The organization has not announced precisely what services are on the chopping block, but The Gazette has already reported cuts in dialysis, gynecology as well as asthma care at the Montreal Children’s Hospital.

The MUHC’s financial troubles are much worse than what was publicly disclosed at the health network’s annual general meeting on Dec. 3, when René Carignan, associate director of finance, reported an operating deficit this year of $29.3 million. The Montreal Health and Social Services Agency had granted the MUHC a deficit of $12.3 million, but it exceeded that approved shortfall by $17 million. The MUHC, which comprises six hospitals, has a total budget this year of just over $1 billion.

In an email to staff, Norman Rinfret, executive director of the MUHC, warned of tough cuts to come. He also announced the creation an “internal audit function” to scrutinize finances.

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“The status quo is no longer acceptable,” Rinfret said in the internal email. “The situation is calling for a thorough review of budget parameters by each department with a focus on improving our efficiency, effectiveness and performance – and ultimately aligning our overall operating costs with our funding.”

The internal audit will probe expenses by managers as well as MUHC purchases of materials, equipment and services.

“Internal audits in hospitals are seldom seen,” Richard Fahey, MUHC director of public affairs, told The Gazette. “We want to see if there is a proper use of funds internally.”

Rinfret has ordered every department head to come up with a list of cuts, or “necessary measures,” by March 15, 2013. Although Rinfret pledged that quality of health care would not be compromised, he suggested “areas of divestiture to be transferred to our partners in the health-care network.”

Rinfret’s email – as well as the announcement of an internal audit function – is a pre-emptive move as a government committee prepares a report this week on the MUHC’s finances. The government appointed Dr. Michel Baron, the former director-general of the Health and Social Services Agency of the Eastern Townships, to examine the MUHC’s books. His mandate is also to determine whether the MUHC has been defrauded.

The Baron committee, which started its work in September, has also been examining a real-estate transaction by the MUHC involving a property at 1750 Cedar Ave., next to the Montreal General Hospital, for a complex of outpatient clinics. A Gazette investigation in 2011 reported a number of anomalies about the deal, including a property transfer that was carried out without any deed of sale.

Both the provincial government and city of Montreal later objected to the project, and MUHC is now seeking to sell the property.

Fahey said the MUHC is not concerned about the possibility it will be placed under trusteeship.

“I have no indication of that,” Fahey said. “That’s the only thing I can say. That’s a question for the health minister (Réjean Hébert) more than for us. We are taking action. We are being proactive. We know of the challenging situation.”

Ariane Lareau, Hébert’s press attaché, could not be reached to comment on Rinfret’s email.

The MUHC has fallen under sharp scrutiny after the province’s anticorruption squad raided its offices on Sept. 18 and left with documents related to the awarding of the $1.3-billion superhospital contract. The police raid led to the arrest on Nov. 28 of Pierre Duhaime, former CEO of SNC-Lavalin, the design-build contractor for the superhospital. Duhaime has been charged with defrauding the MUHC.

The 12,000-employee MUHC is also a co-defendant in a lawsuit by a former director of planning, Yanai Elbaz, who is seeking to recover $192,000 for what he says are unspecified consulting services. Elbaz claims that Arthur Porter, the former executive director of the MUHC, committed the MUHC to honouring his contract with a private medical company that has commercial links with the health network.

In a separate file, Quebec Superior Court documents show a former director of human resources at the MUHC is being investigated by provincial police on allegations of defrauding the organization over a 10-year period.

Stances softening in search of US deal in ‘fiscal cliff’ talks; 2 weeks left

WASHINGTON – Both President Barack Obama and Congress’ most powerful Republican are making significant concessions just two weeks before the economy-threatening “fiscal cliff” is due to kick in, backing off once-ironclad positions on how to avoid the huge austerity measures of automatic spending cuts and tax increases.

But House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday made a move to give Republicans political cover if Washington fails to reach a deal in time. He said he was preparing a bill that would allow taxes to go up on everyone earning more than $1 million a year – a proposal that the White House and Democrats in Congress quickly said wouldn’t go anywhere.

“I continue to have hope that we can reach a broader agreement with the White House,” Boehner told reporters. But he said when it comes to offering a package that balances tax increases with spending cuts, “The president is not there yet.”

Boehner’s aides said his backup proposal did not mean that he was cutting off negotiations with Obama. The White House has previously rejected his attempts to extend tax cuts for families making up to $1 million.

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Even Boehner’s fellow Republicans reacted coolly to any plan that includes an increase in the tax rate. Conservatives and small-government tea partierssignalled that Boehner lacked the votes for passage.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Rep. Raul Labrador. “For a lot of reasons.”

Overall talks picked up steam Monday with Obama’s offer to drop his long-held insistence that taxes rise on individuals earning more than $200,000 and families making more than $250,000. He is now offering a new threshold of $400,000 and lowering his 10-year tax revenue goals from the $1.6 trillion he had argued for a few weeks ago.

The negotiations seek to avoid tax hikes for nearly all working Americans, as well as deep spending cuts at the Pentagon and in domestic programs, that are set to kick in Jan. 1 if a deal isn’t reached on addressing the country’s stubborn deficit spending.

The U.S. is on a path to its fifth straight $1 trillion-plus deficit.

Economists inside and outside the government have warned that the combination – the “fiscal cliff” – could stall a weak recovery and threaten a new recession.

For weeks, the talks had limped along. But the recent surge in negotiations comes after Boehner took a plunge in a call to Obama on Friday – while the nation was focused on the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut – and agreed to accept an increase in tax rates for taxpayers who earn more than $1 million. Boehner’s plan would raise about $1 trillion in taxes over 10 years.

That was a barrier-breaking moment, changing the negotiations from a fundamental debate over whether tax rates should rise at all to negotiating over who should pay them.

In his new proposal, Obama abandoned his demand for permanent borrowing authority. Instead, he is now asking for a new debt limit that would last two years, putting its renewal beyond the politics of a 2014 midterm election.

As public posturing has given way to pragmatism, both sides seem willing to lock in on a substantial agreement rather than put off a fiscal day of reckoning.

People familiar with Obama’s proposal were careful not to describe it as his final offer.

The Obama plan seeks $1.2 trillion in revenue over 10 years and $1.2 trillion in 10-year spending reductions. Boehner aides say the revenue is closer to $1.3 trillion if revenue triggered by the new inflation index is counted, and they say the spending reductions are closer to $930 billion if one discounts about $290 billion in lower estimated debt interest.

“Any movement away from the unrealistic offers the President has made previously is a step in the right direction,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. “But a proposal that includes $1.3 trillion in revenue for only $930 billion in spending cuts cannot be considered balanced.”

Obama’s plan, like Boehner’s, would also raise taxes on dividends and capital gains from 15 per cent to 20 per cent. Both would also reduce the number of deductions and exemptions that wealthy taxpayers can claim. Obama’s proposal also would let estate taxes revert to 55 per cent on estates after allowance for a $1 million exemption.

In making his offer, Obama stiff-armed Republican demands to increase the eligibility age for the Medicare health program for the aging from 65 to 67, a goal Democrats strongly reject. He also sought to contain cuts in Medicare and other health care programs to about $400 billion over 10 years, less than what Republicans want. And he is continuing to seek spending on unemployment assistance and on public works projects.

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Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed.