Sometimes you read a line in a news story, and you just don't believe what you just read, it just seems so off-the-wall. I had that experience today. The news story was Congressman plans cruise disappearance hearings on MSNBC, apparently picked up from The Business Journal of Jacksonville. The context was the emerging problem of people disappearing from cruise ships.
At least 16 people have gone overboard or missing from cruise ships since 2000, according to research by The Business Journal. Three were rescued, two were confirmed dead and 11 remain missing.
OK. That's sort of odd. But then we come to the next line of the article:
Officials with Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. have said their companies do not track such incidents.
Cruise companies don't track reports of physical disappearance of passengers on cruise ships? Weird. Really weird. It would seem like something their insurers would require, even if no one else was interested.
But there have been several weird news reports about cruise lines lately. However did Carnival end up with a candidate for FEMA's most controversial contract following hurricane Katrina? From the Washington Post: $236 Million Cruise Ship Deal Criticized
But the Carnival deal has come under particular scrutiny. Not only are questions being raised over the contract's cost, but congressional investigators are examining the company's tax status. Carnival, which is headquartered in Miami but incorporated for tax purposes in Panama, paid just $3 million in income tax benefits on $1.9 billion in pretax income last year, according to company documents. "That's not even a tip," said Robert S. McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice. U.S. companies in general pay an effective income tax rate of about 25 percent, analysts say. That would have left Carnival with a $475 million tax bill.
Carnival's public records boast "that substantially all of our income in fiscal 2004, 2003 and 2002 . . . is exempt from U.S. federal income taxes," largely because it maintains that its operations are not in the United States but on the high seas.
Carnival does not want to see that tax status jeopardized just because three major ships are clearly operating in the United States. After it won the FEMA bid, Carnival appealed to Treasury Secretary John W. Snow for a waiver of U.S. taxes. "We do not want to jeopardize our tax exemption, nor do we want to interrupt our relief efforts for failure to secure this assurance from the Treasury Department," wrote Howard Frank, Carnival's chief operating officer.
(And who knew that they were headquartered in Panama to avoid taxes? And, yes, sure, their campaign contributions were munificent; but they also gave generously to the Democrats.)
And then there was the pirate adventure, on a ship owned by one of Carnival's subsidiaries. If those waters were so dangerous, why was the expert crew of the ship careless enough to let the ship wander off course off Somalia, of all places? Looking for adventure? Or, on the other hand, if cruise ship attacks are so rare, just what was the crew of the ship doing with their handy dandy military-grade LRAD sonic blaster? Communicating with whales?
And is that even legal? I mean, what if the pirates had gotten the LRAD rather than just an earful? And won't the public announcement that a cruiseship carried an LRAD attract upwardly-mobile pirates who'd really like one of their very own? And what other fine munitions might be available for the taking on post-9/11 cruise ships? Aren't there some really good reasons for passenger ships not to pack this kind of heat?
I breathlessly await the next installment of this amazing tale of adventure. (But, um, guys, it would be a really good idea to start keeping track of vanishing passengers.)