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How bizarre
by Thanos Kalamidas
2010-03-21 07:59:44
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His fortune polishes atheists' reputation

bizarre01_400When GlaxoSmithKline bought ToddStiefel's family business for $2.9 billion last April, he began to think about what to do with the rest of his life. A Duke University graduate, Stiefel wanted his windfall to better society. Like many modern philanthropists, such as Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffett, Stiefel is not motivated by religious zeal. In fact, Stiefel has become one of the country's biggest benefactors of atheist causes.

Last month, Stiefel gave $500,000 to the Secular Coalition for America, a Washington-based coalition that lobbies on behalf of 10 groups of atheists, humanists and agnostics. That's on top of two smaller gifts to two of the coalition's members: a $100,000 matching grant to American Atheists and a $50,000 matching grant to the Secular Student Alliance. "Not a lot of people are fortunate to have the opportunity to do what I'm doing," said Stiefel, 35. "I didn't want to let that slide."

The gifts from Stiefel, who moved to Raleigh in August, are the largest the Secular Coalition has had. They will allow the organization to step up its lobbying in Washington and to create grass-roots advocacy organizations in every state. "It's supercharged our ability to move forward," said Sean Faircloth, executive director of the coalition. Stiefel's generosity is not limited to atheists. Last week, he donated $20,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi so it could sponsor a high school prom after the Itawamba County School District cancelled the dance rather than allow a lesbian to bring her girlfriend as a date.


Erotic film viewers must pay full tax says Europe court

bizarre02_03A Belgian sex shop owner's attempt to cut his VAT bill under "cultural exclusions" has been rejected by the European Court of Justice. The Erotic Cinema in Ghent offers customers private cubicles in which to watch a selection of films.  Its owner claimed it should benefit from the reduced 6% rate of VAT paid by cinema owners, who get a discount under law to promote cultural activities. Belgium's standard VAT rate is well above that at 21%.

But the Court ruled that what was on offer at the Erotic Cinema was not the type of cultural activity that qualified for the lower VAT rate. It ruled that these had to be viewed collectively and be open to all, not something that is viewed in the privacy of a booth.

The Court ruled that "payment made by a customer so as to be able to watch on his own one or more films, or extracts from films, in private cubicles cannot benefit from the reduced rate of VAT applicable to cinema admissions and other such cultural events".  The case dates back to 2004, when the unnamed owner of the Erotic Cinema tried to claim VAT at the 6% reduced rate - a move that led to six years of court action culminating in the judgement at the European Court of Justice.


bizarre03_400_02Facebook traps Italian fugitive mafia suspect

Italian police have used social networking site Facebook to track down and capture one of the country's most-wanted fugitive mafia suspects. Pasquale Manfredi, accused of being one of the top figures in the 'Ndrangheta mafia, was found in Calabria. The 33-year-old, who faces charges of murder, mafia association and drugs trafficking, was traced via his network of Facebook contacts. Reports suggest he called himself Scarface, after the film character.

According to Italian newspaper La Repubblica, he was arrested as he tried to escape from the roof of the apartment complex near the southern city of Crotone. Believed to lead the 'Ndrangheta in the southern town, Pasquale Manfredi is also accused of possessing illegal armaments, including heavy weapons. Police say the man - one of the country's 100 most-wanted suspects - was responsible for the 2004 murder of a member of a rival clan, who was killed with a portable rocket launcher.


bizarre04_01Paramedic suspended for giving five drunk teenage girls a lift in his fast-response car

A paramedic who gave five drunk teenage girls a lift in his fast-response car was yesterday suspended. The man was caught on camera dropping the girls, still swigging from a bottle of wine, at a station. A witness who saw him said: "I was gobsmacked."

The medic works for private ambulance company MediForce and was contracted by the South Central Ambulance Service to provide cover in Reading on Wednesday. MediForce said it had launched an inquiry.

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