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Wal-Mart, despite profit gain, says payroll tax hurt sales

For Wal-Mart Stores, the tax code gave and the tax code took away.

The company reported higher-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings Thursday of $5.6 billion, or $1.67 a share, up from $1.51 a share a year ago. The improvement was largely because of tax credits that lowered Wal-Mart’s corporate tax rate.

But the recent payroll tax increase slowed purchases toward the end of the holiday season, and an Internal Revenue Service delay in processing tax returns hurt sales this month.

Wal-Mart said it expected U.S. sales at stores open at least a year to change little in the current quarter from the same period in 2012. Same-store sales rose 1 percent in the fourth quarter, below analysts’ expectations of a 1.7 percent increase.

—Stephanie Clifford, The New York Times

Case ends against five ex-Bl

WASHINGTON — The federal government’s three-year prosecution of five former officials of Blackwater Worldwide virtually collapsed on Thursday after charges against three of the officials were dismissed and the other two agreed to plead guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges with no jail time.

Judge Louise W. Flanagan of U.S. District Court in North Carolina dismissed all charges against two of the officials, Andrew Howell, Blackwater’s former general counsel, and Ana Bundy, a former vice president; prosecutors agreed to drop charges against a third, Ronald Slezak, a former weapons manager. The two other officials, Gary Jackson, a former president of Blackwater, and William Matthews, a former executive vice president, agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge related to records keeping. They will each receive three years of probation and four months of home confinement, and pay fines of $5,000.

In 2010, the Justice Department charged the five officials with weapons violations and making false statements. The case was just one of several criminal prosecutions, civil lawsuits and congressional investigations in recent years involving a company that earned billions of dollars in government contracts after the Sept. 11, 2001

—James Risen and Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times

Success of five star movement shows Italy’s anger

ROME — For months, he has been shouting his way from piazza to piazza, drawing tens of thousands as he rails against tax collectors, corrupt politicians and financial speculation. And when he arrives in Rome on Friday for the final campaign rally of his “Tsunami tour,” Beppe Grillo, the Internet-savvy comedian turned populist rabble-rouser, might lead the third most popular party in Italy.

In the final weeks of a campaign marked by widespread voter disillusionment and growing economic distress, and after Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down Feb. 28 upended once-solid assumptions, Grillo’s Five Star Movement has surged ahead, surprising the experts almost as much as Benedict did. Ahead of national elections Feb. 24 and 25, the party’s “anti-system” message has drawn strong support from both right and left, buoyed by corruption scandals that have undermined voters’ faith in government.

With his fiery language, grass-roots campaigning and calls for a referendum on Italy’s staying in the eurozone, Grillo, 64, has helped blunt the gains made by Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister. Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party is now in second place in opinion polls but lacks potential coalition partners, making it all but impossible that Berlusconi, the ultimate campaigner, will ever govern Italy again, political experts say.

—Rachel Donadio, The New York Times