News Archive

Hilton revenue jumps as occupancy, room rates rise

(Reuters) – Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc, the world’s largest hotel operator, reported a 13 percent rise in quarterly revenue as increasing business and leisure travel pushed up occupancy and room rates.

Net income attributable to stockholders fell to $26 million, or 3 cents per share, in the fourth quarter ended December 31 from $61 million, or 7 cents per share, a year earlier.

Expenses soared 23 percent to $2.55 billion.

The hotel and travel industry in the United States, from where Hilton gets most of its revenue, has benefited from returning confidence in the economy.

PricewaterhouseCoopers said in December it expected room rates and occupancy to rise further in 2014.

Hilton reported a 4.7 percent rise in total revenue per available room (RevPAR) at hotels open at least one year.

RevPAR is calculated by multiplying a hotel’s average daily room rate by its occupancy rate.

Hilton’s revenue rose to $2.64 billion from $2.34 billion.

Hilton, founded in 1919 by Conrad Hilton, went public in December and raised more than $2.3 billion in 2013’s second-biggest IPO.

The company, whose brands include such high-end names as Conrad and Waldorf Astoria, operates in 90 countries and has more than 4,000 hotels and 670,000 rooms under its umbrella.

Hilton’s shares closed at $22.54 on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday. They have gained 2 percent since their debut on December 13.

(Reporting by Sagarika Jaisinghani in Bangalore; Editing by Joyjeet Das)

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U.S. attorney subpoenaed Mt Gox, other bitcoin businesses: source

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has sent subpoenas to Mt. Gox, other bitcoin exchanges, and businesses that deal in bitcoin to seek information on how they handled recent cyber attacks, a source familiar with the probe said on Wednesday.

In the attacks – known as distributed denial of service attacks – hackers overwhelmed bitcoin exchanges by sending thousands of phantom transactions. At least three exchanges were forced to halt withdrawals of bitcoins on February 7, including Mt. Gox, which was the largest at the time.

Mt. Gox never resumed service before going dormant on Tuesday, leaving customers unable to recover their funds. [ID:nL3N0LU1OX] The Tokyo-based company’s chief executive, Mark Karpeles, said earlier on Wednesday that he is working with others to solve the problems.

“As there is a lot of speculation regarding Mt Gox and its future, I would like to use this opportunity to reassure everyone that I am still in Japan, and working very hard with the support of different parties to find a solution to our recent issues,” Karpeles said in a statement posted on the Mt. Gox website.

A spokesman for Bharara declined to comment.

Bitcoin, a form of electronic money independent of traditional banking, relies on a network of computers that solve complex mathematical problems as part of a process that verifies and permanently records the details of every bitcoin transaction that is made. At current prices, the bitcoin market is worth about $7 billion.

Investors deposit their bitcoins in digital wallets at specific exchanges, so the Mt. Gox shutdown is similar to a bank closing its doors – people cannot retrieve their funds.

While proponents of bitcoin hail its anonymity and lack of ties to traditional banking, regulators have become increasingly interested in the digital currency due to its usage by criminal elements and its volatile nature.

It has been a rough month for bitcoin investors, with cyber attacks on several exchanges, a sharp fall in bitcoin’s value, and rising pressure from regulators. Bitcoin’s price varies by exchange, but the losses were most dramatic on Mt. Gox, where it fell to about $135 from $828.99 before February 7.

“Mt Gox has been broken and it was obvious there was something really bad going on there for nearly a year. They were processing withdrawals very slowly and generally being very opaque about what was going on there,” said Mike Hearn, a bitcoin developer in Zurich, Switzerland.

A second source familiar with the case said U.S. federal law enforcement is investigating Mt. Gox. A third source said the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation was monitoring the situation.

Japan’s Finance Ministry and police are also looking into the abrupt closure of Mt. Gox, according to the Japanese government’s top spokesman.


Bitcoin has gained increasing acceptance as a method of payment and has attracted a number of prominent venture capital investors, including Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures.

The digital currency has also caught the eye of hackers. The recent cyber attacks exploited a process used by some bitcoin exchanges that introduced “malleability” into the code governing transactions, experts said.

Simply put, this allowed hackers to slightly alter the details of codes to create thousands of copies of transactions. These copies slowed the exchanges to a crawl, forcing them to independently verify each transaction to determine what was real and what was fake.

A document circulating on the Internet purporting to be a crisis plan for Mt. Gox, said more than 744,000 bitcoins were “missing due to malleability-related theft,” and noted Mt. Gox had $174 million in liabilities against $32.75 million in assets. It was not possible to verify the document.

If accurate, that would mean approximately 6 percent of the 12.4 million bitcoins minted would be considered missing.

According to a Bloomberg report, the federal probe was spurred by information provided by the Bitcoin Foundation, an advocacy group for the digital currency.

The Bitcoin Foundation could not be reached immediately for comment. Mt. Gox’s CEO Karpeles, one of the founding members of the foundation, resigned from the foundation’s board on February 24.

Developers are working on fixes to bitcoin’s software to guard against cyber attacks, though many larger service providers have already implemented such changes, according to Gregory Maxwell, one of the bitcoin software’s core developers.

He said some malleability in the software protocol was necessary – for example, in transactions where multiple people can put in money, but the transaction is not valid until enough funds are contributed.

“None of these fixes are especially complicated, but because the correctness of the software is important we use a conservative release process that avoids rushing anything out,” Maxwell said, adding that the bulk of the recent work on the software is being done by four people.


Jacob Dienelt, who trades bitcoins and sells paper bitcoin wallets, said people he knows in the bitcoin community in New York stopped using Mt. Gox when the exchange halted dollar withdrawals several months ago and said all withdrawals had to be in bitcoin. Dienelt said has not been subpoenaed.

With Mt. Gox’s shutdown, Bitstamp has handled the most volume in the last two days, with more than 165,000 U.S. dollar transactions, according to Bitcoincharts.

Bitstamp had temporarily halted customer withdrawals earlier this month, citing “inconsistent results” and blaming a denial-of-service attack.

The price of bitcoin was lately at $588 on Bitstamp, up about 7 percent on the day.

“Right now is a sweet buying opportunity. I don’t think you’re going to see bitcoin go this low for awhile – if ever again,” said Jordan Kelley, chief executive of Robocoin, which launched the world’s first Bitcoin ATM in Vancouver, Canada, in the fall. “The more that bitcoin is on the front pages, the more that people are discussing it and educating one another, the better for the currency.”

Kelley said Robocoin has not been subpoenaed in the U.S. regulatory probe; nor has New York-based exchange Coinsetter, according to a spokesperson.

Bitstamp did not respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Emily Flitter in New York and Jim Finkle in Boston; Additional reporting by Chris Francescani in New York, Julie Gordon in Toronto, and Chris Peters in Bangalore; Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

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Boeing Black: This smartphone will self-destruct..

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Boeing Co (BA.N) on Wednesday unveiled a smartphone that appears to come straight from a James Bond spy movie.

In addition to encrypting calls, any attempt to open the casing of the Boeing Black Smartphone deletes all data and renders the device inoperable.

The secure phone marks an extension of the communications arm of the Chicago-based aerospace and defense contractor, which is best known for jetliners and fighter planes.

Such a phone might have prevented damage to Washington’s diplomacy in Ukraine from a leaked telephone call. A senior U.S. State Department officer and the ambassador to Ukraine apparently used unencrypted cellphones for a call about political developments in Ukraine that became public.

Boeing’s tamper-proof phone is aimed at government agencies and contractors who need to keep communication and data secure, according to Boeing and filings with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

Made in the United States, the phone runs on Google Inc’s (GOOG.O) Android operating system. The 5.2-by-2.7-inch handset, slightly larger than an iPhone, uses dual SIM cards to enable it to access multiple cell networks instead of a single network like a normal cellphone.

Due to the phone’s security features, Boeing is releasing few details about the wireless network operators or manufacturer it is working with, and has not provided a price or date by which the phone might be widely available, but said it has begun offering the phone to potential customers.

Boeing’s website says the phone can be configured to connect with biometric sensors or satellites. Other attachments can extend battery life or use solar power.

The phone can operate on the WCDMA, GSM and LTE frequency bands and offers WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity.

The company has been developing the phone for 36 months, said Boeing spokeswoman Rebecca Yeamans.

“We saw a need for our customers in a certain market space” that Boeing could meet with its technology expertise, she said.

A sample purchase contract submitted to the FCC says the phone would be sold directly by Boeing or its agents.

Yeamans said Boeing combined its own engineers with the talent of people who joined Boeing recently through acquisitions that included Argon ST Inc, Digital Receiver Technology Inc, Kestrel Enterprises Inc, Ravenwing Inc, and Solutions Made Simple Inc.

(Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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Asian shares soft as Ukraine dampens risk sentiment

TOKYO (Reuters) – Asian shares struggled to find a solid footing on Thursday as escalating tensions in Ukraine sent investors scurrying to the safety of the dollar and U.S. Treasuries.

Japanese stocks skidded, with the Nikkei .N225 slipping 0.1 percent while MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan .MIAPJ0000PUS were almost flat after initial losses.

Wall Street’s failure to extend its rally above historical highs on Wednesday did not help soothe the anxiety that a wider conflagration in Ukraine could lead to more risk aversion and damage vulnerable emerging markets.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered drills by his armed forces to test combat readiness in western Russia, near the border with Ukraine, prompting Washington to warn a military intervention would be a “grave mistake.

The Russian rouble tumbled to a five-year low against the dollar and all time-lows against the euro.

The Ukrainian hryvnia hit record lows on Wednesday after Ukraine’s central bank said it was abandoning a managed exchange rate policy.

Safe-haven U.S. Treasuries benefited from the somber mood in markets, with the 10-year U.S. debt yield falling to a three-week low of 2.662 percent, despite surprise strength in U.S. new home sales data.

Investors are now looking to comments from Fed chief Janet Yellen’s testimony at a U.S. Senate committee on Thursday on her views on a recent run of soft U.S. data, which investors chalk up to bad weather, rather than weakening in the fundamentals.

The dollar also strengthened broadly, with the dollar index .DXY hitting its highest level in about two weeks.

“Given U.S. debt yield fell and that U.S. shares were steady to softer, the dollar’s strength should be regarded as a reflection of risk aversion rather than rising confidence in the U.S. economy,” said Masafumi Yamamoto, chief strategist at Praevidentia Strategy.

The euro traded at $1.3681, after having fallen 0.4 percent to two-week lows on Wednesday. Against the yen, which also tends to rise when markets are under stress, the dollar was little changed at 102.37 yen.

The tense backdrop could put renewed pressure on many emerging market currencies and shares, which were battered earlier this year on concerns about slower global growth and the tapering of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s monetary stimulus.

One of the hardest hit countries, Turkey saw its lira slipping to three-week lows, dented also by a corruption scandal embroiling Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

Brazil’s central bank raised its benchmark interest rate on Wednesday to 10.75 percent from 10.50 percent as expected, slowing the pace of monetary tightening to avoid hurting an economy that is flirting with recession.

The Chinese yuan rebounded from a seven-month low hit on Wednesday, though it traded below the daily fixing set by Beijing for a third consecutive day.

The renminbi stood at 6.1231 per dollar, off Wednesday’s low of 6.1351 but below the fixing at 6.1224.

Traders suspect the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) is possibly aiming to inject more two-way volatility into the market and prepare it for more reforms.

“It’s possible that the Chinese authorities think they need a weaker yuan now to bolster the economy,” said Hirokazu Yuihama, senior strategist at Daiwa Securities.

The CSI300 .CSI300 of the biggest Shanghai and Shenzhen A-share listings rebounded slightly on Thursday after having slipped to eight-month low on Wednesday on concerns over slowdown as well as fear of lending curbs.

Copper dropped to a three-month low of $7,002.50 a metric ton, extending its losses over the past week on concerns about slower growth in China.

Gold also stepped back after hitting a four-month high on Wednesday as the dollar strengthened broadly. It last stood at $1,325.90 an ounce, off Wednesday’s high of $1,345.35.

(Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Eric Meijer)

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Bank of America disputes $2.1 billion claim in U.S. fraud suit

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Bank of America Corp (BAC.N) said it does not owe the U.S. government the $2.1 billion it is seeking in penalties after a jury found the bank liable for fraud over defective mortgages sold by its Countrywide unit, according to a court filing made on Wednesday.

Lawyers for the bank said the government’s request “contradicts every pertinent legal principle” and called it a “dramatic departure from reality,” the filing stated. Bank of America said in the filing that it should only have to pay the amount it made in profit from selling the loans, which it contended was zero.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan declined to comment. A spokesperson for Bank of America could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

A federal jury in New York in October found Bank of America and Rebecca Mairone, a former mid-level executive at Countrywide, each liable for fraud in the civil lawsuit.

The case focused on a mortgage lending process at Countrywide, which Bank of America acquired in July 2008, called the “High Speed Swim Lane,” or alternatively “HSSL” or “Hustle.”

The government contended that Countrywide’s program emphasized and rewarded employees for the quantity rather than the quality of loans produced and eliminated checklists designed to ensure that loans were sound.

Bank of America and Mairone denied wrongdoing. Bank of America has said it was evaluating options for an appeal.

Any penalty would be assessed by U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff.

Prosecutors initially asked for $863.6 million, but later raised the amount to $2.1 billion.

In its response on Wednesday, Bank of America said that the U.S. government erred by basing the proposed penalty on its gross “gain” from the loans. Instead, the law requires the penalty amount to be calculated by measuring the bank’s “pecuniary gain,” or amount of profit that it made from selling the materially defective HSSL loans, the bank said. It estimated that amount to be zero, according to the filing.

Oral arguments have been set for March 13.

(Editing by Matt Driskill)

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BP loses bid to block seafood fund payments

(Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge on Wednesday denied BP Plc’s (BP.L) request to halt payments from the $2.3 billion fund it has created to compensate commercial fishermen for financial losses claimed after the British company’s 2010 offshore oil spill, according to court records.

BP had sought to block the payments after alleging that some individuals supposedly injured by the spill, clients of attorney Mikal Watts, did not exist. The company said it has already paid out more than $1 billion from the so-called Seafood Compensation Fund.

District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans, who is overseeing litigation stemming from the spill, denied the motion on Wednesday, according to an entry on the court docket. The judge also granted Watts’s motion to stay BP’s civil action against him over the alleged fraud pending a related federal criminal investigation.

In a statement, lawyers for BP plaintiffs, Steve Herman and Jim Roy, said they were “pleased the court will not let BP hold the entire seafood program hostage as part of its continuing effort to rewrite history and the settlement agreement.”

BP and Watts did not immediately return requests for comment Wednesday evening.

The ruling followed a hearing in the New Orleans federal court, where litigation related to the Gulf of Mexico spill has been consolidated. Also on Wednesday, a federal judge in a related case indefinitely postponed a criminal trial set to begin March 10 for David Rainey, a former vice-president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico.

Rainey was charged with obstructing an investigation by Congress into the Gulf spill, and another count of lying to law-enforcement officials. The judge overseeing his case, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, dismissed the obstruction count, which federal prosecutors have appealed. Prosecutors later re-filed the obstruction of Congress charge in a superseding indictment.

In an order made public Wednesday, Engelhardt said that Rainey’s trial will be delayed pending the appeals court’s resolution of the appeal, which “will likely provide critical parameters for further proceedings in this matter.”

(Reporting by Jessica Dye in New York; Editing by Ken Wills)

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Australia’s Qantas cuts 5,000 jobs, sheds aircraft after hefty loss

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian carrier Qantas Airways Ltd (QAN.AX) plans to cut 15 percent of its workforce, sell older jets and reduce capital spending after reporting a first-half loss amid growing competition in both international and domestic operations.

The deep cuts are part of Qantas’ plans to slash costs by A$2 billion ($1.8 billion) over the next three years – a bid by the airline to convince the federal government and investors it is worthy of the state assistance it says it needs.

Qantas, known as the ‘Flying Kangaroo’, is seeking a government debt guarantee to give it access to cheaper capital. Battered by high fuel costs and a strong Australian dollar, its credit rating was relegated to junk status last year amid a price war with arch-rival Virgin Australia Holdings (VAH.AX).

Shares in Qantas, down a quarter over the past year, fell 7 percent after the Sydney stock market opened. “For us the composition is worse than expected, the leakage out of the international business is really surprising and we think that Qantas will find it very hard to articulate how it plans to stop this,” said Peter Esho, chief market analyst at Invast Financial Services.

The underlying loss before tax of A$252 million ($226 million) was in line with the A$250 million to A$300 million loss the airline warned last month it would report for the six months ended December 31. In the same period a year earlier, Qantas made a profit of A$220 million profit.

“It’s clear that the market Qantas operates in has changed, with structural economic shifts exacerbated by an uneven playing field in Australian aviation policy,” Chief Executive Alan Joyce said in a statement.

Qantas claims Virgin’s access to foreign funding, via its major shareholders Gulf carrier Etihad, Singapore Airlines (SIAL.SI) and Air New Zealand (AIR.NZ), has put Virgin at an advantage.

Of the 5,000 jobs to go, 1,500 were management and non-operational roles, the airline said.

Joyce said Qantas would defer receipt of the final three Boeing (BA.N) 787 Dreamliner jets it ordered for budget arm Jetstar, as well as the eight remaining Airbus (AIR.PA) A380s it has on order. The moves are part of a plan to either defer or sell a total of 50 aircraft.

The airline also said it has agreed to sell a lease it owns at Brisbane airport, raising A$112 million in cash.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said earlier this week it was in Australia’s interests for Qantas to “survive and to flourish” as a major employer for the country.

“This government will do what it can to give it a level playing field,” Abbott said in parliament, adding that the airline needed “to put its own house in order”.

The government is drafting changes to the Qantas Sale Act to lift the current 49 percent foreign ownership limit as well as alter restrictions on smaller shareholdings for foreign airlines. ($1 = 1.1159 Australian dollars)

(This version of the story adds the dropped word “said” in paragraph 4 and changes Sales Act to Sale Act in paragraph 13.)

(Reporting by Jane Wardell and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

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J.C. Penney expects higher sales, gross profit this year

(Reuters) – After two years of massive losses, J.C. Penney Co Inc (JCP.N) appears to be turning a corner.

It reported improved sales and profit margins for the holiday season quarter, and the department store chain expects to make further strides this year.

Penney forecast that comparable sales, which include e-commerce and revenue at stores open at least a year, will be up by a “mid-single digit” percentage for this fiscal year, and it expects “significant” gains in its gross profit margin.

Shares were up 16.1 percent to 6.92 in afterhours trading, on top of a 5.7 percent increase the regular session.

The stock, still well below its $21.70 price of a year ago, has been under pressure for months on Wall Street speculation that slow sales growth would force the debt-laden company to try to raise more money after doing so three times in 2013.

But the retailer quelled those concerns when it said it expected to have $2 billion in cash and lending capacity at year-end, the same level as at the start.

“The 2014 liquidity guidance implies that the business can self-fund,” said William Frohnhoefer, an analyst with BTIG.

Penney is trying to win back more shoppers after it tried unsuccessfully in 2012 to go upmarket and alienated many long-time customers, leading to a 30 percent sales decline over two years.

To do so, in the last few months, the retailer has ditched brands that were part of the failed re-invention but didn’t catch on, such as Bodum and JoeFresh Kids, and gave more floor space to popular in-house brands such as St. John’s Bay.

In the fourth quarter, the retailer reported its first quarter of comparable sales gains, a rise of 2 percent, in almost two years.

Clearing out the jettisoned brands took a big toll on Penney’s gross margin, a gauge of merchandise profit that came in at 28.4 percent of sales during the fourth quarter, less than Wall Street expected. Penney said it had to offer bigger-than-expected bargains during a particularly competitive holiday season.

But Penney said it has gotten that clearance merchandise out of its system and does not expect any lingering impact on gross margin this year. The company projected gross margin will improve “significantly” this year on its way back to historical levels of 39 percent.

“The most challenging and expensive parts of the turnaround are behind us and the work we did in 2013 has laid the foundation for continued progress in 2014,” Penney Chief Executive Myron Ullman told analysts on a conference call.


Penney’s online sales also rebounded, helped by Ullman re-integrating planning and buying teams for its digital and stores divisions.

For the fourth quarter ended Feb 1, Penney reported net income of $35 million, or 11 cents per share, compared with a loss of $552 million, or $2.51 per share, a year earlier.

Excluding certain items but including a pension cost, Penney had an adjusted loss of 68 cents per share during the quarter, while Wall Street was expecting a loss of 82 cents.

Shares have fallen 75 percent in the last year. Its stock is particularly volatile: Some 39.4 percent of shares are held short by investors betting on shares falling.

(Reporting by Phil Wahba in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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Tesla to raise $1.6 billion to build battery factory

(Reuters) – Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA.O) said on Wednesday it plans to raise $1.6 billion from investors to finance a new battery factory that will help the upstart U.S. automaker reach its goal of producing a lower-priced, mass-market electric car by 2017.

Tesla said the new plant, nicknamed the “Gigafactory,” would be built in one of four states: Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico or Texas. By 2020, Tesla said, the plant would be able to make more lithium-ion batteries in a year than were produced worldwide in 2013.

The company said the plant will open in 2017 and ship batteries to the company’s assembly plant near San Francisco.

The Palo Alto, California-based maker of high-priced electric cars plans to raise the money by selling convertible senior notes, half of them due in 2019 and the other half in 2021, it said in an 8-K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission,

Analysts believe the factory may ultimately cost $5 billion to $6 billion to build and will be funded with the help of some of Tesla’s Japanese suppliers, including Panasonic Corp (6752.T).

The plant, which will handle everything from processing raw materials to final assembly, will produce small, lightweight batteries for Tesla and may also supply other automakers.

Battery costs have been a major stumbling block to widespread electric car adoption in the United States, according to analysts. Tesla’s new factory will lower costs by shifting material, cell, module and pack production to one spot.

In Tesla’s earnings conference call last week, Chief Executive Elon Musk said the electric car maker expects to build the factory with more than one partner, but a “default assumption” was that Panasonic, as a current battery cell partner, “would continue to partner with us in the gigafactory.”

“The factory is really there to support the volume of the third generation car,” Musk, a billionaire entrepreneur, said on the call.

“We want to have the vehicle engineering and tooling come to fruition the same time as the “Gigafactory.” It is already part of one strategy, one combined effort.”

Tesla, which Musk founded in 2003, posted better-than-expected fourth-quarter results last week and said deliveries of its luxury Model S electric sedan would surge more than 55 percent this year to more than 35,000 vehicles.

By comparison, the best-selling car in the United States last year, the Toyota Camry, sold about 408,000 in 2013.

In after-hours trading, Tesla shares were up about 2 percent at $258.60, adding to a 2 percent gain in regular trading.

Earlier this week, Consumer Reports named the Model S car its overall top car pick for 2014. The magazine cited the Model S’s “exceptional performance and its many impressive technological innovations,” though the magazine called it “pricey” at $89,650.

(Reporting by James B. Kelleher and Bernie Woodall in Detroit; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and David Gregorio)

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