Former Riggs Manager Refuses

To Testify on W. Africa Accounts

A former Riggs Bank manager invoked his Fifth Amendment rights Thursday and refused to answer questions from a Senate panel investigating his handling of hundreds of millions of dollars in suspicious transactions for a West African dictator, including why he personally lugged a 60-pound suitcase stuffed with $3 million in plastic-wrapped cash to Riggs's Dupont Circle branch.

The Senate probe is the latest in a series of investigations into Riggs's once-prestigious embassy banking division, now tarnished by reports that it helped former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet hide millions and that it appears to have allowed its biggest customer, Equatorial Guinea, and that country's president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, to siphon oil revenue into his personal accounts.

The Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations called four current and former Riggs executives to testify Thursday, after releasing the results of its year-long probe into the bank. Simon P. Kareri, who managed Riggs's West African business until he was fired in January, was the only executive to assert his rights against self-incrimination.

In addition to the subcommittee's inquiry into Riggs's dealings with Pinochet and Obiang, the full Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is conducting a separate review of the bank's dealings with the Embassy of Saudi Arabia.

-- Terence O'Hara

and Kathleen Day

New Medicare Policy on Obesity

Could Allow Some Treatments

The federal Medicare program abandoned a long-standing policy Thursday that obesity is not a disease, removing what has been a major roadblock for many people trying to get treatment for the burgeoning health problem.

After years of review, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which runs the health program for the elderly and disabled, announced it is dropping language that had led the agency to routinely deny coverage for weight-loss therapies.

The decision does not automatically mean any specific treatment will be covered, but it opens the door to what is expected to be a flood of applications for Medicare to begin paying for therapies. These include stomach surgery, diet programs, and behavioral and psychological counseling.

The decision was denounced by critics who contend that the health consequences of being overweight have been exaggerated and any real problem is one of individual responsibility.

In Thursday's decision, the agency stopped short of declaring obesity a disease, but instead dropped the original language.

-- Rob Stein and Ceci Connolly

Rules Against Forest Roads

Expected to Be Reversed

The Bush administration said Monday it plans to overturn a Clinton-era rule that made nearly 60 million acres of national forest off-limits to road-building and logging, setting aside one of the most sweeping land preservation measures in decades.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman proposed replacing the Clinton rule with a policy that would allow governors to petition the federal government if they wished to keep certain areas roadless. She said this approach would encourage cooperation between state and federal officials and end the litigation that has dogged the "roadless" rule since its inception.

Western states and timber companies challenged the roadless rule in six courts after President Bill Clinton put it in place before leaving office in January 2001. The regulation prohibited development in areas spanning more than 5,000 acres, accounting for nearly a third of the national forests.

Environmentalists were quick to decry the proposal, which will be subject to public comment for the next 60 days.

"It's another case of the Bush administration having happy talk on the environment, but it's basically rape and pillage," said Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold, who has defended the rule in Idaho, Wyoming and D.C. courts.

-- Juliet Eilperin

Tougher Cholesterol Guidelines

Part of Healthy-Heart Campaign

Millions of Americans should consider trying to drive their cholesterol levels lower than had been previously recommended, the government said Monday, endorsing a more aggressive strategy for fighting heart disease, the nation's leading killer.

People at high risk for heart attack or stroke should explore with their doctors the option of taking higher doses of cholesterol-lowering drugs to cut their level of "bad" cholesterol below current targets, according to the National Cholesterol Education Program of the National Institutes of Health, which sets federal standards for preventing cardiovascular disease.

"The lower, the better, for high-risk people," said Scott M. Grundy of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, who chaired the panel that produced the guidelines. "That's the message."

Evidence has been mounting that the lower cholesterol levels drop, the greater the benefit, and some doctors have begun treating cholesterol more aggressively. But this is the first time the government has validated the approach.

In a paper published in Tuesday's issue of the journal Circulation, the panel created a new category of patients who should be considered at very high risk and recommended they consider lowering their levels of bad, or LDL (low-density lipoprotein), cholesterol to below 70. Previous guidelines said they should cut LDL levels to 100 or less.

-- Rob Stein

Scientific Panel Tells NASA

Not to Rule Out Hubble Trip

A NASA-ordered report by the nation's top scientists Tuesday urged the space agency not to rule out a potentially risky space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, which it described as "arguably the most important telescope in history."

The interim report from a committee of the National Research Council buoyed shuttle mission advocates and could reopen debate on NASA's unpopular decision to let the telescope wear out and tumble into the ocean -- unless the agency can figure out a way to service it with a robotic spacecraft.

The report challenged statements made by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe over the past six months, in which he repeatedly ruled out a shuttle-servicing mission for safety reasons.

Instead, the committee said a shuttle mission "is not inconsistent" with recommendations made after last year's Columbia disaster. The committee added that the proposed robotic alternative would present daunting levels of "complexity, sophistication and technological maturity."

Although NASA should "vigorously" pursue the robotic option, it "should take no actions that preclude a space shuttle servicing mission," the report said.

In a statement, O'Keefe was equally noncommittal and did not address the possibility of a shuttle-servicing mission. Under President Bush's new space initiative, the shuttles are to serve exclusively as cargo carriers for the international space station when they resume flying and would be retired in 2010, when NASA says the station will be completed.

-- Guy Gugliotta