LONDON – A senior minister in Britain's new coalition government resigned Saturday after admitting that he claimed tens of thousands of pounds (dollars) in taxpayers' money to pay rent to his long-term partner.
David Laws said he would step down immediately as Chief Treasury Secretary, a role he had occupied for less than a month. He will be replaced by fellow Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander.
It was the first major setback to Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government, which had promised to crack down on politicians' abuse of expense claims. Hundreds of lawmakers in the previous Parliament had used taxpayers' money to fund everything from swanky second homes to horse manure and a mole catcher. Five lawmakers have been charged with false accounting, and scores of others were either forced to resign or decided not to run for office again.
Laws — whose job was to implement the new government's deficit reduction plan — apologized and said he would immediately pay back the money, which the Daily Telegraph newspaper said totaled 40,000 pounds ($57,822).
The newspaper reported that Laws claimed up to 950 pounds a month in taxpayer money between 2004 and 2007 to rent a room in two properties owned by his partner, James Lundie.
Parliamentary rules have banned lawmakers from leasing accommodation from spouses, family members or a "partner" since 2006. Laws explained Friday that he did not intend to profit from the claims, and that his motivation throughout was to protect his and Lundie's privacy and keep his sexuality a secret.
Laws said Saturday he could not carry on in his role after the "distressing" revelations.
"I do not see how I can carry out my crucial work on the budget and spending review while I have to deal with the private and public implications of recent revelations," Laws said as he read out a statement at the Treasury.
"While my recent problems were caused by my desire to keep my sexuality secret ... I cannot now escape the conclusion that what I have done was in some way wrong, even though I did not gain any financial benefit," he said.
Cameron praised Laws as a "good and honorable man" and said he had made a real difference in his short time at the Treasury.
Laws, a relatively unknown Liberal Democrat just weeks ago, was catapulted into the limelight when he emerged as one of the key players in negotiating the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition deal.
DETROIT – A record number of Michigan property owners are appealing their property tax assessments as small-claim homeowners and high-stakes businesses seek relief in a difficult economy.
The wave of appeals to the Michigan Tax Tribunal could decimate the budgets of local governments. The deadline for larger appeals above $20,000 is Tuesday, the Detroit Free Press reported.
"Since Proposal A was adopted, this is the highest we've ever been," said Patti Halm, chairwoman of the Tax Tribunal. Proposal A, passed by voters in 1994, limited the annual increase of taxable values.
New case filings more than doubled between 2006 and 2009, and the current case load is 32,000 for claims of less than $20,000 and 11,100 for larger cases. The appeals also could cut funding for schools, parks and libraries.
More than 11,000 commercial and industrial property owners are waiting to have their cases heard. Appeals can take several years to be heard, but property owners who succeed are entitled to refunds of any excess taxes paid, plus interest.
Some legislators want to speed the appeals process so property owners get swifter word on decisions.
"These waits are unacceptable," said state Rep. Kevin Daley, R-Attica, sponsor of a bill to require a hearing within one year of an appeal.
Others, however, say arbitrary deadlines could trample due process rights.
For many commercial and industrial property owners, appealing tax assessments is almost required to control costs, said David Nykanen, a Birmingham real estate lawyer who specializes in tax appeals.
"If your neighbor does it and gets a reduction, he now has a competitive advantage over you," Nykanen said. "My case load intake the past two years has been at record levels."
Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com
BERLIN – It was only nine months ago that Forbes magazine named German Chancellor Angela Merkel the world's most powerful woman for the fourth year in a row.
She impressed Germans and foreigners alike with her ascent to power — an East German pastor's daughter who took control of the male-dominated conservative party and won elections in Europe's economic powerhouse, becoming Germany's first female chancellor in 2005.
She was lauded for hosting the world's top leaders at the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm in 2007 with ease and professionalism. She repaired relations with the United States that were strained over the Iraq war, and she positioned herself as a political heavyweight on the continent. It seemed that no major political and economic decision could be made in Europe without Merkel's approval.
But over the last few months, the German chancellor's handling of Europe's economic crisis has made her widely disliked at home and increasingly isolated and even reviled abroad.
On the international stage, Merkel, 55, has been criticized for dragging her feet for months over a bailout package for Greece and being too focused on German national interests.
"For months, Mrs. Merkel resisted all appeals — by other European leaders and Washington — to, well, be a European leader," The New York Times wrote in an editorial Wednesday.
On the same day, EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso criticized Germany for its role in the euro currency crisis and said it would be "naive" to believe that EU treaties could be changed according to German wishes without other nations wanting amendments as well. Barroso was referring to Germany's insistence that European Union treaties be changed to allow tougher sanctions for countries that have excessive government debt.
In an interview with the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Barroso said "our union needs Germany in a leading role" and added he wants to see Germany "speak up for Europe. Otherwise, we have a problem."
Concerned about German state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia in early May, Merkel had tried to postpone a decision on the Greek bailout until after the election. In the end, her European partners pushed her into supporting the rescue package just days before the election — which Merkel's party then lost.
"This (behavior) shows a fatal German inclination for isolationism that one had thought belonged to the past," German daily Tagesspiegel wrote in an editorial Saturday. "This does not only make our partners suspicious of us, but is also completely senseless in today's globally connected world."
Now, like her colleagues in Greece, Spain, Britain, Portugal and Italy, Merkel is struggling to prepare a worried populace for budget cuts. The chancellor has already scrapped plans for promised tax cuts, but still faces a huge federal budget deficit. Her government is going to decide on spending cuts and, possibly, even on tax hikes within the next 10 days.
"For weeks, you've tried to sit on the fence and not get involved," opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the left-leaning Social Democrats scolded Merkel during a parliament debate about the Greek rescue package. "You've let things slide and now that everything is ablaze, you're calling for the firefighters to solve the problem."
Domestic critics have noted repeatedly that her new coalition has accomplished little in the seven months since it took control. Her popularity among Germans has plummeted by 10 points to 48 percent — her worst showing since late 2006.
Opposition lawmakers accuse the chancellor of lacking any vision or leadership when it comes to essential issues like an aging population, integrating immigrants into German society or tackling the question of whether to continue using nuclear energy.
Merkel has not responded directly to the criticism and her office could not immediately be reached for comment Saturday.
The chancellor's unilateral ban earlier this month on naked short-selling of eurozone government debt and shares of major financial companies received praise — but also criticism, because she made the decision without consulting the 15 other nations that share the euro currency with Germany.
"Germany is still the most important economic power on the continent," Tagesspiegel wrote. "But while other powers used to look at Merkel for orientation ... today she seems to be confused and changing her position according to the influential powers around her."
Of 1,000 people surveyed by Infratest dimap this week, 58 percent said they thought Merkel's previous coalition government of her conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats was better than the new coalition Merkel formed in October with the business-oriented Free Democrats.
Only 34 percent said Merkel's government had made the right decisions to counter Europe's government debt crisis.
"Merkel, the crisis-managing chancellor, has turned into a chancellor in crisis herself," the daily Welt newspaper wrote on Friday.