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Cal State L.A. graduate students hone crime scene expertise

Written By kolimtiga on Minggu, 28 Juli 2013 | 12.57

Peering into her microscope at a tiny glass shard, Cal State L.A. graduate student Nancy Kedzierski tried to detect subtle shapes, textures and colors that might reveal its origin. Was it from the windshield of a car, a beer bottle, the window of a house?

The answer could be crucial if the glass was evidence in a criminal case; it could help establish how and where a murder was committed. The same could be true for all 40 or so hair strands, food particles, pieces of soil, seeds, pills and other materials — some vacuumed from the teacher's carpet for the class project.

More important than correctly identifying all those items, the forensic science students were learning the meticulous work that will be required in the jobs they are expected to pursue — lab criminalists and crime scene experts.

"They have to realize how meaningful these things may be in an investigation," said professor Katherine Roberts, director of the university's "criminalistics" program. "It's more about taking a scientific approach."

Kedzierski, 24, hopes to land a job next year at a law enforcement crime lab. "It's not so much about catching the bad guys," she said. "It's more about finding the truth. That's what we really work for."

Like many fellow students in the two-year master's program, Kedzierski is a fan of the decade-old "CSI" (Crime Scene Investigation) television series, which is credited with fueling big increases in the number of such programs nationwide. Some Cal State L.A. alumni even worked as script consultants on the show.

"I used to watch for fun when I was in high school," said Kedzierski, who graduated with a bachelor's in chemistry from Cal Poly Pomona. "Now I watch it and it's kind of a game to point out how many things are wrong."

The master's program in criminalistics — other schools call it forensic science — requires that students have a bachelor's degree in chemistry, biology or other sciences. Many of the courses are highly technical in labs filled with equipment to identify drugs, ballistics and DNA. Classes are in the same campus building, the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, that houses the crime labs of the Los Angeles Police Department and L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

In addition to many courses in chemistry and genetics, the 26 students enrolled in the program also learn to locate and protect evidence at crime scenes, testify in court and follow ethical standards.

Professor Donald Johnson, a former Sheriff's Department senior criminalist, reconstructs crime scenes based on real cases for his courses. He poses dummies as murder victims in a small room furnished to resemble a studio apartment, with a cot and rug. Students hunt for blood and saliva samples, clothing fragments, fingerprints, hair, and in one case, a crowbar hidden behind a door, as it was in a real bludgeoning. One mannequin is named "Kenny," after the character who regularly got killed off in the animated series "South Park."

Johnson provides students with details from cases, such as the gruesome 2002 knife murders of four members of a South Whittier family that was solved with forensic evidence. "At first, of course, they are overwhelmed. But slowly they come to analyze the cases as a scientific problem," he said.

Though students typically don't visit real crime scenes, teachers show them photos and videos of mutilated bodies and car accidents. Many students attended a recent conference of the California Assn. of Criminalists, where social historian Joan Renner lectured about the infamous and unsolved Black Dahlia murder of a young woman in Los Angeles in 1947. As attendees ate lunch, a photo of the victim's body cut in half at the waist showed on a screen.

It's important to get accustomed to such images, said student Dean Schafer. "When you get to the point where you are actually called to a crime scene, you are going to have to maintain your composure and be professional," he said.

Schafer, 26, earned a degree in molecular biology from Cal State Fullerton and later worked in a lab for a medical supply firm. Forensic science is more gratifying, he said, because "what you do helps benefit society."

Of the more than 140 undergraduate and graduate programs at universities across the country, 40 are accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. In California, only the programs at Cal State L.A. and UC Davis are accredited, which graduates hope gives them a leg up in their job searches.

The prospects for entry-level positions — which often pay more than $60,000 in big cities — are improving as local governments recover from the recession, officials say. And a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing police to take DNA samples from all suspects arrested in serious crimes is seen as a boon for job opportunities.

Students are warned to resist possible prosecution or defense pressures to tamper with evidence or bend interpretations, said Joseph Peterson, who teaches an ethics course. "The foremost quest of these new forensic scientists is to find out the scientific truth of the evidence," he said. They must be as ready to help convict the guilty as to clear the innocent, he said.

At her microscope, Kedzierski established that one of the glass pieces was cube-shaped, probably from a tempered car windshield. In investigating a fatal hit-and-run accident, such a fragment inside a car might help prove a previous accident even if the window had been replaced, she said later.

The time-consuming inspection emphasizes the difference between fast-paced television and reality, Roberts says. Crime shows leave "the impression that everything can be solved and everything can be solved in a very short time period. When in reality, there are some things you just don't know."


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L.A. town hall meeting exposes deep rift on immigration overhaul

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said Saturday that she is pessimistic about the prospects for a broad overhaul of the nation's immigration system in the House of Representatives.

"I am not optimistic that comprehensive immigration reform is going to be brought up in the House of Representatives any time soon," said Bass, a member of the Judiciary Committee, which is hearing most of the immigration bills. "The bills making their way through the House I would not want to see go anywhere — they are very onerous; there is no pathway to citizenship in the bills."

Immigration reform legislation, which has cleared the Senate but is being debated in the House, was highlighted in the news in recent days because of a controversial statement made by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who said most children who are in the country illegally are marijuana traffickers, not valedictorians. Politicians on both sides of the aisle denounced his statements, including top leaders of the Republican Party.

Bass said she thinks that the Republicans who denounced King's statements share many of his positions but express them differently.

"There is the crude and there is the sophisticated," she said. "At the end of the day, I think both opinions are pretty much the same in terms of the disrespectful viewpoint of immigrants."

Bass made the remarks shortly before she held a two-hour town hall on the issue at the California Science Center. The congresswoman outlined the legislation that passed the Senate earlier this year, which included a pathway to citizenship along with stricter border enforcement. She asked those who support the measure to urge House Speaker John Boehner to allow the matter to come up for a vote in the House, and to contact the 15 Republican Congress members from California, several of whom are believed to be open to considering supporting immigration reform.

About 300 people attended the meeting, and despite Los Angeles' deeply liberal bent, the crowd was sharply divided over what should be done with the millions of people who are living in this country illegally.

Diana Ramos, 20, said her parents came to the country illegally. She said her older sister and younger brother were born here, but she was born when the family returned to Mexico for a year. Crying, the community college student said she is terrified at the prospect of her family being torn apart.

"It is wrong to separate me from my sister, who has been my role model. It is wrong to separate me from my brother, who has been my motivation. It is wrong to separate me from my mother and father, the soul and the core of my family," she said. "Immigration reform is not about politics but rather a human rights issue. It is time for Congress to give us a vote on the bill with a pathway to citizenship that keeps our families together."

Several spoke out against a pathway to legalization, saying it would reward those who broke the law by entering the country illegally. Others pointed to the economy and unemployment and argued that the job prospects of Americans — particularly African Americans — would be harmed.

Keith Hardiner, 57, said he is the descendant of slaves.

"They were separated from their families, but we had to fight and struggle," said the Silver Lake resident. "And now I feel like we are being set back and the country is being kind of stolen from us."

One man said that Bass and other politicians could be arrested by any American for failing to uphold the Constitution.

"Are you going to do a citizens' arrest?" Bass asked, and her supporters in the crowd chuckled. "Do I get read my rights?"


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Immigrant parents' experiences helped shape lawmakers' views

By Patrick McGreevy

July 27, 2013, 9:20 p.m.

SACRAMENTO — Seventeen members of the California Legislature have parents who came to the U.S. from other countries. Many say their family histories inform their actions as lawmakers.

The parents of Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) were brought to New York as children by families escaping pogroms against Jews in Russia. One of her grandfathers had survived under a pile of dead bodies during a massacre near Minsk.

Lowenthal authored a law last year intended to protect immigrant warehouse workers by requiring their employers to provide pay stubs showing wages and hours worked, after many complained they were being shortchanged.

The mother of Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) came to the United States on a student visa from the Philippines, to escape civil unrest there, just months before martial law was declared.

Cynthia Bonta said she spent her early years in the United States working for a church, accepting poverty-level wages to care for the children of farmworkers, many of them undocumented.

"My mom came here for the opportunity," said her son — and it paid off. "I went to Yale Law School and Oxford."

After his election last November, Bonta co-authored a resolution supporting a path to citizenship for the 11 million people in the country without papers. Assemblyman K.H. "Katcho" Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo) broke from his party's line and supported the measure.

Achadjian lost grandparents in the Armenian genocide. His parents survived and moved to Lebanon. He came to the United States on a student visa; his mother emigrated later to escape the bloodshed of Lebanon's civil war.

The parents of state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) had little money when they emigrated from Taiwan with 2-year-old Ted. He recalls helping them sell trinkets at Ohio flea markets in the early days, to put food on the table. Eventually, the family business included a chain of six jewelry and gift stores.

Lieu said he spoke Mandarin before learning English as a child. He introduced a bill this year to make sure health insurers are accurately translating their conditions of coverage so non-English speakers are not misled. It has passed the Senate and is awaiting an Assembly vote.


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Jazz patrons see L.A.'s Central Avenue on the upswing

Slowly, steadily, in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles, change is coming to the history-rich but long beleaguered heart of Central Avenue.

Crime is down and optimism up. There's a new cafe, a new grocery store, new shops and apartment buildings. On 42nd Street there's the Dunbar Hotel — a showpiece during the area's heyday as a jazz mecca — which reopened this summer as senior housing after a painstaking restoration.

A sense that the neighborhood is on the mend could be felt Saturday on the streets surrounding the Dunbar, where an energetic crowd of about 2,500 convened for the 18th annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival.

"This is a celebration of black L.A. and L.A.'s jazz history," said Mark Wilson, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, organizer of the event, which culminates with Sunday night's show by Gilbert Castellanos and the New Latin Jazz Quintet. "But it's more than that. It's also a celebration of the entire city's cultural heritage and a sign that things are changing. People are willing to invest in Central Avenue again."

Wilson scanned the avenue and smiled. A colorful, multiethnic crowd milled around, eating tacos or barbecue or fried fish, meandering near homespun booths selling candles or baseball caps or pastel paintings of President Obama. A large canopy covered onlookers as they listened to a band ease through some of the same tunes that echoed through the district during its pre-civil rights era heyday, when such jazz greats as Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus were regulars at the Dunbar Hotel, partly because of the city's segregation.

For years the festival was a much smaller and less dynamic affair. "It only had 200 seats — pretty cramped," said Wilson, recalling a decade ago, when the event was held at a tiny park across from the Dunbar, which at the time was seedy and crime-strewn. He noted that as the neighborhood started improving, the festival improved as well: In front of the stage Saturday was seating for 1,500 people. On sidewalks, scores of onlookers took in the music, standing, or sitting in folding chairs.

"It's a real menagerie here," said one of the crowd, Ted Jones, 79, who began coming to the jazz district in the 1950s, about the time the neighborhood began to lose its luster. Jones noted his age with pride and pointed out that he was hardly alone, since an older crowd made up a large portion of the audience. "The older folks, they can remember what it was like here back in the day, so they come to remember, like a touchstone."

He looked at the stage and tugged his Dallas Cowboys baseball cap. A high school jazz group was swaying and swinging, fronted by a girl who sang with sass, her voice echoing down the block, recalling Ella Fitzgerald. "Wow," said Jones. "We look up and see the younger generation playing, young kids playing jazz, loving it, in this community, and there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that light is a bright light."


Twitter: @kurtstreeter

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Democratic Party officials ask San Diego Mayor Bob Filner to quit

Written By kolimtiga on Jumat, 26 Juli 2013 | 12.57

SAN DIEGO — The central committee of the San Diego County Democratic Party voted Thursday night to ask Mayor Bob Filner to resign due to the increasing number of allegations that he has sexually harassed women.

The vote, at a meeting closed to the media, came just two hours after four women appeared in a group interview on public television to accuse Filner of sexual misconduct. Seven women have now accused Filner of such misconduct; one of the seven has filed a lawsuit.

"There is no place in the Democratic Party for those who harass, intimidate or do not fully respect women," City Council President Todd Gloria, a Democrat, said after the central committee vote Thursday night.

Filner has refused all demands that he resign. Last week, the party's central committee declined to join those asking for his resignation until more was known about the allegations.

The latest women to accuse Filner of making unwanted sexual advances were a retired Navy admiral, a San Diego State University dean, a leader in the city's tourism industry and the head of a group of business owners who are tenants of the San Diego Port District.

The encounters with the 70-year-old Democrat were at public events, the women said.

Joyce Gattas, dean of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts, told KPBS that Filner held her tightly, kissed her and put his hands on her knee. She also said she had seen Filner make "sexual comments to others."

Veronica "Ronne" Froman, a retired Navy rear admiral who became the city's chief operating officer under Filner's mayoral predecessor, Jerry Sanders, said that during a meeting with Filner while he was in Congress, Filner "stopped me and he got very close to me. And he ran his finger up my cheek like this and he whispered to me, 'Do you have a man in your life?' "

Froman said she rebuffed Filner but was so rattled that she told two men who were at the same meeting to "never leave me alone in a room with Bob Filner again."

Also this week, a school psychologist and a political consultant accused Filner of inappropriate touching. The former said he tried to kiss her; the latter said he patted her buttocks.

On Monday, Filner's former director of communications, Irene McCormack Jackson, filed a lawsuit in San Diego County Superior Court seeking unspecified damages for Filner's treatment of her. The suit alleges that he frequently put her in a headlock, made sexual comments and, on one occasion, said she should work without her panties on.

All seven of his accusers have called for him to resign. Six of nine members of the City Council have done the same, as have several prominent San Diego Democrats.

Filner appeared at two public events Thursday, dodging reporters' questions. At one event, he joked that the Barrio Logan neighborhood had never seen so many reporters. Filner repeated to reporters that he deserves due process, a call that his supporters have also adopted.

Without a voluntary resignation, the only means for ousting a mayor are a recall election or conviction of a felony.

Although the Sheriff's Department has opened a hotline to field allegations against Filner, there is no indication that a criminal investigation is underway. Opponents have announced plans for a recall movement, although no formal declaration has been filed with the city clerk.

In another sign of turmoil in the mayor's office, Filner announced that the chief of staff named just 10 days ago to provide stability has departed. No explanation was offered for the departure of Tony Buckles, who had previously been Filner's chief of staff in the House of Representatives for 13 years.

Buckles has been replaced by Lee Burdick, who had been the deputy chief of staff and, before that, the mayor's director of legal affairs.

"I respect her and intend to rely heavily on her leadership in this new role," Filner said in a statement.


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Palmdale elections unfair to blacks and Latinos, judge rules

In a new critique of how minorities are treated in the Antelope Valley, a judge has ruled that Palmdale violated state voting laws by maintaining an election system that hampered the ability of Latinos and blacks to win office.

The judge's findings come a month after the U.S. Justice Department accused Palmdale, Lancaster and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department of a systematic effort to discriminate against minorities who received low-income subsidized housing. Federal officials said deputies conducted widespread unlawful searches of homes, performed improper detentions and used unreasonable force that specifically targeted blacks and Latinos.

The Palmdale voting rights case has been watched closely by minority activists in the Antelope Valley. V. Jesse Smith, president of the Antelope Valley Chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, lauded the judge's decision.

"A lot of us [minorities] have been locked out of the process," said Smith, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Palmdale City Council in 2009. "There's a great deal of the old boys' club there."

In an opinion released this week, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney concluded that Palmdale's at-large voting system violated state law because the city has "racially polarized voting" and minorities have less influence over the outcomes of elections.

Palmdale is 54.4% Latino and nearly 15% black, yet it has elected only one Latino City Council member and never a black council member in its history, said plaintiff Juan Jauregui's attorney, R. Rex Parris.

Parris and others argue that minorities would have a better shot at being elected if Palmdale were divided into council districts.

Parris is also the mayor of neighboring Lancaster, which also holds at-large, or citywide, elections. But voters in Lancaster have elected multiple black and Latino council members.

Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said the city plans to appeal the decision. He called the lawsuit a "money grab" by outsiders and trial lawyers trying to meddle in the community. The California Voting Rights Act, he said, is "poorly written" and unfairly holds cities responsible for the choices of their voters and the quality of their candidates.

"This is not a voter rights lawsuit. This is not about black or white, it's about green," Ledford said.

About 15 to 20 cities, school districts and other government entities have been sued under the California Voting Rights Act since the law was enacted in 2002, according to Robert Rubin, an attorney who helped write the act and is representing the American Civil Liberties Union in an ongoing lawsuit over Anaheim's election system. The act forbids the use of at-large elections to dilute the power of minority voters.

The Palmdale case is the first that has been decided at trial. All the previous cases have settled, some after protracted — and expensive — battles.

The city of Modesto appealed the constitutionality of California's voting rights law to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. In the end, the city settled a voting rights case against it for $3 million and switched to by-district elections.

The city of Compton fought a voting rights case filed in 2010 by a group of Latino residents for more than a year before agreeing to a settlement under which the city put a measure on the ballot asking voters whether they wanted to switch to by-district elections. Voters approved the measure, and the city's first Latino councilman was elected last month.

Rubin, who also represented the plaintiffs in the Modesto case, said Palmdale's loss at trial may send a signal to other agencies to voluntarily adopt by-district elections or risk facing expensive lawsuits.

Often, said Rod Pacheco, a former Riverside County district attorney who now specializes in voting rights cases, elected officials appeared to be trying to drag out the case despite knowing that they probably would lose and that taxpayers would be stuck with the bill.

"The City Council of Palmdale, which made the decision to fight this and expend those funds, didn't spend their own money," Pacheco said. Officials often seem primarily concerned about hanging on to their jobs, he said: "The tack that many of these cities take is to get to the next election."

Ledford said he has endorsed multiple black and Latino candidates for Palmdale's City Council over the years and "can't explain" why the council does not reflect the diversity of the population.

"We go for the best and the brightest," Ledford said. "I can't speak for the message of the candidates or their ability to raise the funds to run."

He also said Parris seems to have a personal vendetta against Palmdale — an accusation Parris denies.

Henry Hearns became the first black elected official in the Antelope Valley when he won a seat on Lancaster's City Council in 1990, and he recalls receiving death threats during the campaign. He said the city of Palmdale should do everything it can to give blacks and Latinos a fair opportunity to be elected.

"I would hope that that the citizenry in Palmdale would not just elect anyone based on race or culture," Hearns said. "I would hope that they would vote for the most qualified candidate."




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Water district sues company, accusing it of overbilling

The Central Basin Municipal Water District, which has emerged as a key player in the FBI investigation into a state senator, on Thursday sued a politically connected company for allegedly overbilling it by nearly $1 million.

The lawsuit marks the beginning of an effort by the new management of Central Basin to change the agency's political culture and investigate allegations of wrongdoing by the old leadership, officials said. Tony Perez, a former Metropolitan Water District engineer who was installed as the district's new general manager in May, said he is trying to understand how the district spent money and awarded contracts.

"The time has come and we're holding everyone accountable for their actions at Central Basin," board member Leticia Vasquez said in an interview. "I think is a huge and major step forward in helping restore some accountability."

The suit comes as Central Basin is enmeshed in a growing scandal tied to the FBI's investigation of state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello). Calderon's brother Tom, a former assemblyman, was a longtime consultant who received more than $750,000 from the public agency. Last month, federal prosecutors served a subpoena at Central Basin seeking documents and other records related to contracts, including those granted to Tom Calderon and connected to the hiring of Gil Cedillo Jr., the son of ex-state legislator and new Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo.

The company targeted in the lawsuit, Pacifica Services Inc., has received millions of dollars from the agency over the years. The firm provides consulting, engineering and other project management services. It also donated thousands to political campaigns of water district officials over the years. Pacifica did not return calls seeking comment.

The agency hired a law firm to look at previous expenditures, he said. Perez said that Pacifica billed the district $867,000 above what was contractually agreed upon and that invoices were vague and provided almost no verification for work done. Central Basin hired a forensic engineer earlier this month to go through the billings.

"This is our way of rebuilding trust, whatever trust we lost in the community," Perez said of the embattled agency.

Director Art Chacon said the district has to make sure that engineering and other contracts go out to bid, adding that he had long felt that Pacifica was too cozy with several of Central Basin's leaders.

Two years ago, The Times wrote a series of stories about Central Basin's awarding millions of dollars in contracts to politically connected individuals and organizations that had helped the district deflect critics and avoid outside scrutiny.

Pacifica has close ties to the agency, with four employees working out of the water district's office. The firm had donated thousands of dollars to directors over the years. But on July 16, an attorney for Pacifica sent a letter to Central Basin demanding payment for "all delinquent amounts, including interest" for a total of $268,504. The attorney declined to comment when reached Thursday. Calls to the company's offices and to its chief executive, Ernest Camacho, in Pasadena were not returned.

According to the lawsuit, a last amendment was proposed by district staff that would have extended the contract two years and increased the billable amount to $5.8 million. That motion was not approved by the five-member elected board of directors. But Central Basin alleges that Pacifica kept improperly billing the district, with more than $500,000 being mistakenly paid out by staff, Perez said.

Phil Hawkins, a former assemblyman and Central Basin director, said that an entrenched leadership in past years that included ex-general manager Art Aguilar and Tom Calderon had created a tight circle that led to contracts he said appeared to be political.

In an interview, Aguilar defended the work Pacifica did for the district, calling it "invaluable." He said the district used Pacifica for contract work such as a recycled water pipeline extension, and to provide day-to-day engineering services.

"They were fantastic," Aguilar said, arguing that Pacifica helped the district save money by taking the place of staff engineers.

Aguilar also weighed in on the firing of Gil Cedillo Jr., who was let go this month from his $112,000 job at Central Basin. He had been a staffer for both Ron and Tom Calderon before being hired at Central Basin as a business development manager — a position that could have paid him as much as $143,000, according to district records. The district also paid the younger Cedillo $22,000 to finish his college education. His work at Central Basin and ouster was first reported by Los Cerritos Community News.

"He was the best-qualified of the candidates we had, without a doubt," Aguilar said.

Last month, federal prosecutors served a subpoena at Central Basin headquarters in a search for records. Perez said the agency would fully cooperate with federal investigators.



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Mayor Eric Garcetti faces early test over proposed DWP deal

Less than a month after taking office, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is facing a major test of his power: A union leader who ran a brutal campaign against him in the May election is trying to line up City Council support for a new salary agreement for Department of Water and Power workers.

The high-stakes political drama has been building for weeks in private conversations and closed-door meetings at City Hall. It has prompted Garcetti to risk an early and potentially ugly public fight with a powerful critic, DWP union leader Brian D'Arcy.

The proposed labor agreement also raises the possibility of a struggle between Garcetti and Council President Herb Wesson, who has been pushing for a quick deal with the DWP union, Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The ultimate terms of the contract will affect future rates that Los Angeles businesses and nearly 4 million residents pay for water and power.

On Thursday evening, Garcetti spokesman Yusef Robb declined to confirm the deal's terms, but denounced it. "It's not good enough. Period," he said. "Mayor Garcetti was elected with a clear mandate to bring real reform to the DWP, and that includes pensions, healthcare and salaries."

Under the deal, outlined in a memo obtained by The Times, more than 8,200 DWP employees would forgo a scheduled raise of 2% to 4% that is supposed to take effect Oct. 1. They would also get no raises the following two years. In 2016, they would get a pay hike of up to 4%.

The proposed agreement also includes reduced retirement benefits for newly hired employees. They would be required to contribute 3% of their salary toward health coverage after they retire — up from zero for current employees. Talks on the deal began months ago, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was still in office. The memo, written by City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana and DWP General Manager Ron Nichols, says the deal would save the public $6 billion over 30 years. Wesson and D'Arcy both declined to comment Thursday.

The deal includes a settlement of a 2010 lawsuit filed against the city by union representatives on the DWP's pension board. The suit alleges that the city improperly forced the utility to absorb at least $183 million in retirement costs when it shifted hundreds of workers onto the DWP payroll to help balance the general government budget that pays for police and other basic services.

On Tuesday, Garcetti, Wesson and the rest of the city's labor negotiating committee held a private meeting at City Hall on both the lawsuit and the proposed DWP contract. Immediately afterward, union leader D'Arcy and Santana attended a closed-door, courthouse settlement conference on the lawsuit with a judge.

Garcetti's spokesman said late Thursday that the city should continue fighting the case. "The lawsuit is without merit and is not a factor in the mayor's decision-making," Robb said.

In his campaign, Garcetti vowed to stand up for ratepayers and be an independent check on the DWP union. The labor group and its affiliates spent $2 million portraying Garcetti as "living large" at taxpayer expense, and promoting his opponent, Wendy Greuel. A central thrust of Garcetti's campaign was that his rival would reward the DWP union by burdening ratepayers with rich labor contracts.

The union's current contract expires in the fall of 2014. On Friday, Garcetti, Wesson and the three other members on the city's Executive Employee Relations Committee are scheduled to meet privately to discuss the new contract proposal.

In remarks to reporters Wednesday, Garcetti stressed pay and benefit costs for the city workforce must be controlled.

"While we've backed away from the cliff, the cliff isn't out of sight," he said. "And it's going to be very important to me that we hold down those raises, pensions and healthcare costs that in the past have driven expenses in this city. I said that during the campaign. I will continue to do that at the negotiating table as mayor."

A close ally of the DWP union, who declined to be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the labor talks, said the proposal on the table serves the city's interests. "It's the best deal they've cut with any union so far," he said. "This is a good deal for the city."



Times staff writers Kate Linthicum and Maloy Moore contributed to this report.

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Big-bucks battle shaping up over bid to raise malpractice award limit

Written By kolimtiga on Kamis, 25 Juli 2013 | 12.56

SACRAMENTO — You don't need to be a Nobel economist to understand that dollars today aren't anything close to their worth four decades ago.

Gasoline, real estate, medical care—they've all skyrocketed in cost.

Everything's gone up, that is, except damage awards for pain and suffering caused by medical malpractice.

In 1975, the Legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill capping pain and suffering damages at $250,000. And that's what it still is today.

If that $250,000 had been indexed to keep up with inflation, it would be worth $1.1 million.

Put another way, today's $250,000 would have been worth $57,600 back in 1975.

There is no cap, however, on awards for economic losses—such as from potential income or for healthcare costs. If someone's death from medical negligence puts the family in a bad financial strait, or the person requires expensive caregiving, the sky's the limit.

But mere pain and suffering is worth only $250,000 tops, and frequently not even that.

So a ballot initiative proposed by consumer activists, trial lawyers and a wealthy, irate father whose two children died because of medical carelessness was submitted Wednesday to the state attorney general. After the AG writes a title and summary, the initiative will be circulated for signature-gathering to qualify it for the November 2014 ballot.

The measure would adjust the cap for inflation, raising it to $1.1 million. And it would require annual inflation adjustments.

"All we're really talking about is putting the law back in place where it began," says initiative strategist Chris Lehane, who once worked for Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

But the initiative also would do two other things: It would mandate drug and alcohol testing for physicians who work in hospitals. And it would require doctors to use a state database that tracks patients' prescription drug histories.

"We require pilots and bus drivers to go through mandatory testing," says technology entrepreneur Robert Pack, who's bankrolling the initiative, at least initially. "Patients have a right to know that doctors they've entrusted with their lives are not abusing drugs or alcohol."

Pack also is very concerned about over-prescribing addictive pain medicine. He has a personal reason to be.

Ten years ago, on a balmy Sunday evening in the San Francisco Bay Area, his two young children—Troy, 10, and Alana, 7—were walking with their pregnant mom to an ice cream store when a car jumped the curb and ran over them. The two kids were killed. Pack's injured wife survived, but lost the twins she was carrying.

Turns out the driver was stoned on prescription drugs chased with vodka. She was caught trying to flee the country and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Pack tried to sue the giant medical group where the driver had "doctor shopped" to obtain hundreds of painkillers. But he had a hard time finding an attorney willing to take the case because of the $250,000 cap.

"Attorneys will tell you it's going to cost more than $250,000 to navigate three years of court proceedings and hire experts," Pack told me. "It's a huge runaround. Victims are going to get shut out."

He finally found an attorney who settled out of court for less than the maximum.

"I personally feel that the loss of my two children is worth a lot more than $250,000," Pack says. "But the state says they're worth, at most, $250,000."

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Filipino man wins reprieve from deportation because he is gay

SAN FRANCISCO — A gay Filipino immigrant who had been ordered deported won a reprieve from a federal appeals court Wednesday on the grounds that he would be persecuted for his sexual orientation if sent back to the Philippines.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals to deport Dennis Vitug, 37, a Southern Californian who was ordered removed after being sentenced to prison for drug possession.

While in the Philippines, Vitug was beaten and robbed five times because he was perceived to be effeminate, harassed and threatened by police and denied work because of his sexual orientation, the court said.

"No reasonable fact finder could conclude that the harm Vitug suffered did not rise to the level of persecution," wrote Judge Harry Pregerson, who was appointed by former President Jimmy Carter. He was joined in the ruling by Judges William A. Fletcher, a Bill Clinton appointee, and Jacqueline H. Nguyen, an Obama appointee.

Vitug moved to the United States in 1999 and overstayed his tourist visa, the court said. He worked as an assistant designer for a Sherman Oaks hotel and as a shipping clerk and studied fashion design.

In 2001, he became addicted to crystal methamphetamine. Although he obtained drug counseling, he repeatedly relapsed and was arrested several times. After being diagnosed with HIV in 2005, Vitug relapsed again and was sentenced to a year in state prison, the court said.

The Department of Homeland Security tried to deport him, but an immigration judge said Vitug would probably be persecuted and tortured if returned to the Philippines. The department appealed that decision to the immigration board, which said Vitug had failed to prove that he would be in danger if returned to the Philippines or that the government there would be unwilling to protect him.

The 9th Circuit agreed that Vitug had not proved he would face torture, but said he had presented sufficient evidence to show he would suffer discrimination if returned to his homeland. The panel said there was established law that bars deportation of gay immigrants on the grounds that they would be persecuted for their sexual orientation.

The immigration appeals board failed to show "there is any less violence against gay men or that police have become more responsive to reports of antigay hate crimes" in the Philippines since Vitug relocated, the panel concluded.

Joanna McCallum, Vitug's lawyer, said her client may stay in the United States and work but still needs to find "a basis" for changing his immigration status. "This decision simply means that the initial order that he be removed from the U.S. is 'withheld,' " she said in an email.


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Meatball the bear to be star of Glendale's Rose Parade float

He has been feared. And loved. And worried over. And touted as a new-style ursine celebrity in the Twitter age.

Now Meatball the bear — or at least his happy-go-lucky, mechanical likeness — will be the centerpiece of a Rose Parade float sponsored by Glendale, the mountain-rimmed city he just couldn't keep his paws from throughout much of last year.

"It's going to be a head turner," said Glendale Mayor Dave Weaver, speaking of a 35-foot-long float featuring Meatball rising from a trash can, a concept approved by the Glendale City Council this week.

"People really came to care about that bear," Weaver added. "We've got to make sure the snout looks like Meatball's snout, because if not folks are going to say, 'Hey, that's not my bear!'"

At the New Year's Day parade, Meatball will be seen by roughly 700,000 attendees and 84 million television viewers worldwide — a warm-hearted, high-profile embrace by a municipality that once considered him a potentially dangerous nuisance.

The 400-pound black bear burst into the limelight in March 2012, when he broke into a refrigerator at a Glendale residence and treated himself to Costco meatballs. Also known as "Glen Bearian" or @TheGlendaleBear on Twitter, Meatball proved smarter and more persistent than your average bear. He managed to return again and again to the city's neighborhoods, foraging not just for meatballs but for tuna and oranges and other tossed-away food. He often appeared only on days when residents would put out their trash bins.

As residents were told to stay indoors for their safety, California Department of Fish and Game officials shot Meatball with sleep-inducing darts and trucked him off to a nearby forest. But somehow he found his way back to the Glendale area, forcing wardens to tranquilize him and send him packing again.

In August — his social-media-fueled popularity approaching Yogi Bear status — Meatball returned to the foothills once more, only this time he was caught in La Cañada Flintridge and shipped off to a wild animal preserve 45 miles east of San Diego.

Meatball no longer prowls Glendale, but his memory certainly lives on there. On Tuesday night the cash-strapped City Council unanimously approved spending $155,000 on the float, an increase in cost of about 50% over recent Glendale floats. City officials justified the expense because this will be the 100th Rose Parade float sponsored by the city. They also hope to raise at least half of the money from private sources.

So far, however, fundraising is far off that target: $10,000 has been pledged by a Glendale developer, but only $160 by residents.

Weaver said he was sure donations would pour in once news spread about the Meatball theme.

"The idea is already a huge success," he said. "We wanted something fun, whimsical and friendly, and that's Meatball. He's been adopted by Glendale."

Titled "Let's Be Neighbors" and standing about 18 feet tall, the float will showcase the notion that residents must live in harmony with wildlife. Surrounded by smaller animals, Meatball will take center stage, his massive head and torso rising in and out of a tall trash can.

With plans to ship him to Colorado having fallen through, Meatball currently lives in a small pen about the size of a master bedroom, said Bobbi Brink, director of the Lions, Tigers & Bears animal sanctuary near San Diego. Brink explained that the bear is kept in the cordoned-off area because of fears he might fight with another bear on the property.

Brink said construction should finish soon on a lush, 6-acre area in which Glendale's favorite bear will be able to roam freely.


Twitter: @kurtstreeter


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Raunchy, racist jokes were the entertainment at sheriff's gathering

A gathering attended by several hundred sheriff's deputies and staff members from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department went badly awry when a comedian unleashed a stand-up routine filled with racist and sexually explicit humor, people in attendance said.

Many in the crowd at the Sheriff's Day Luncheon on Wednesday, estimated to be between 600 and 700 people, were dressed in their uniforms, including Sheriff Lee Baca, who thanked comedian Edwin San Juan with a plaque after the off-color performance.

"He managed to insult every ethnic group," said one attendee, who requested that his name not be used. "There was a lot of cringing and nervous laughter.... I was sitting there thinking, 'Are you kidding me?'"

The event was hosted by a law enforcement association and was not an official Sheriff's Department event.

In a photograph posted on San Juan's Twitter and Facebook pages, Baca and William McSweeney, chief of the agency's detectives, are shown smiling with San Juan as they present him with a plaque.

Baca's spokesman, Steve Whitmore, said the performance "will be reviewed."

"If anyone was offended, that was not the intent and certainly apologies are extended," Whitmore said, adding that he wasn't at the event so he couldn't comment on the specifics of the routine.

Whitmore said he spoke to Baca, and the sheriff said he "became concerned that people would complain" but decided to give the comedian the plaque anyway "to thank him for volunteering to come to the luncheon."

Baca "wants to remind everyone this is a comedian," Whitmore said. "No one in the department would say this."

The inscription on the award is attributed to Baca and reads: "Your ability to combine wisdom, leadership and humor serves as an inspiration to us all."

The annual lunch event, Whitmore said, is "a way for the family of the Sheriff's Department to bond.... Everything is done with humor and there is never any disrespect intended."

The routine lasted at least 30 minutes. San Juan, who described himself on his Twitter feed as Filipino, made fun of the accents of Asians, Indians and other ethnic groups, the attendee said.

Among other things, San Juan made jokes evoking stereotypes about Koreans and used the N-word in a joke in which he mocked a thick Filipino accent.

"It is perplexing that, as much as we fight racism on the department, the sheriff would embrace and seemed to condone the completely racist monologue," said a Sheriff's Department official who attended the lunch. "The sheriff even presented him with a small trophy of appreciation afterward."

The event in Montebello was hosted by the Peace Officers Assn. of Los Angeles County, a nonprofit group that works "to advance the interests of public safety and professional law enforcement in Los Angeles County," according to its website.

The group's executive board includes high-ranking members of the Sheriff's Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies. They did not immediately have a comment on the event.

Another sheriff's official in attendance said that although "everyone was startled" by the jokes, given what was supposed to be a professional setting, the comedian was "evenhanded" and did not target a particular race.

San Juan could not be reached for comment.



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Jackson's mother appears contentious, forgetful on witness stand

Written By kolimtiga on Selasa, 23 Juli 2013 | 12.57

Brimming with emotion when she first took the witness stand last week, Michael Jackson's mother came across Monday as a contentious, forgetful 83-year-old who contradicted herself while trying to defend her son.

Katherine Jackson, who along with the singer's three children is suing concert promoter AEG Live for the superstar's wrongful death, said she was unfamiliar with some of the more sensational details in her son's life.

She said she didn't know that Michael's "Dangerous" tour had come to an early end in 1993 when Elizabeth Taylor flew to Mexico City to take the singer to a rehab hospital in London. The family matriarch said she didn't even realize the world tour had been cut short.

The singer made a public announcement that he was canceling the remainder of the tour to seek treatment for an addiction to painkillers, but apparently no one told his mother.

"I don't like to hear bad news," Katherine Jackson said.

AEG Live attorney Marvin Putnam asked her about an intervention she and her children staged at Michael's Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara County in 2002 over his abuse of painkillers. Katherine Jackson made it sound like a normal family gathering.

She said that neither she nor her children questioned the singer about his use of prescription medication.

"We just saw he was OK and was upset, and ... there was no deep discussion or anything," she said.

Katherine Jackson said that after a couple of her children had said Michael had a problem with prescription drugs, she questioned him about it when the singer was living in Las Vegas. She said she knew her son was taking painkillers for the burns he suffered to his scalp while filming a Pepsi commercial and for a back injury, but he denied he was abusing the medication. She said that was good enough for her.

She said she told her son that she didn't want him "to end up like the others," a reference to other celebrities who had died of drug overdoses.

Putnam showed a 2010 interview during which Katherine Jackson told Oprah Winfrey, "It was a long time before I knew he was addicted" to prescription drugs.

When Putnam asked her how she squared the comment with her testimony, Katherine Jackson answered: "I kind of believed him, and I didn't believe him."

In their lawsuit, Katherine Jackson and her son's three children claim that AEG Live, which was promoting and producing Michael's 50 comeback concerts in London, negligently hired and supervised Dr. Conrad Murray, who gave the singer the dose of the anesthetic propofol that killed him on June 25, 2009. AEG says that the singer hired Murray and that any money it was supposed to pay the doctor would have been an advance to Jackson.

Katherine Jackson has spent much of the 21/2-month trial sitting in the front row of the courtroom with her nephew Trent. She arrived in court Monday wearing a floral-patterned coat and a maroon blouse, with gold hoop earrings and a gold necklace.

At times her anger toward Putnam flared, and she refused to answer some questions. After a short portion of her deposition was shown to the jury, she asked Putnam: "Why are you doing this to me? You're asking me the same question 50 times, but you're just rephrasing them."

But the day was not without humor.

When Brian Panish, one of the attorneys for the Jacksons, objected to a question on the grounds of hearsay, Katherine Jackson chimed in, "I agree."

"Are you familiar with hearsay, ma'am?" Putnam asked.

"Are you talking to me?" Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos replied.


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U.S. investigates handling of alleged sex assaults at USC

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating USC over its handling of alleged sexual assault and rape cases after students filed a complaint with the federal government, officials said Monday.

Two current USC students — both of whom allege being raped — said at a news conference that their 110-page complaint contains accounts from more than 100 students detailing problems with the university when handling reports of sexual assault. The complaint was filed last spring.

Many of the students "were blamed for their victimization and were forced to watch impotently as their cases were routinely misreported, misconstrued, mishandled or discounted entirely," said Tucker Reed, one of the co-signers of the complaint who recently completed her junior year.

Reed said she was raped by her former boyfriend in 2010. When she took her accusations to university officials in December 2012, she said, USC employees did not thoroughly investigate them and eventually dismissed the case.

"The process made me feel raped a second time," said Reed, 23, who is a theater major.

Reed said that her ex-boyfriend graduated in the spring. She has written extensively about her case on her blog and has also named and posted pictures of her ex-boyfriend. She said she hopes that the investigation by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights would lead to USC improving its handling of cases. She would like the university to reopen her case.

It's unclear what action USC officials could take against the man.

Reed said she was interviewed by Los Angeles Police Department detectives. But the district attorney's office declined to bring a case, citing "insufficient evidence" against the man who Reed says raped her, according to law enforcement sources. Reed sued the man in civil court.

The USC case is the latest in a series of investigations by the civil rights division focusing on whether colleges are complying with guidelines in Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. In 2011, the Education Department sent a letter informing institutions that "sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX."

The department has opened investigations of Title IX offenses at UC Berkeley and Dartmouth, Swarthmore and Occidental colleges. A spokeswoman did not say how many similar cases the department was pursuing.

Two other current USC students also spoke at the news conference and said that the university's administration seemed reluctant to act.

Ariella Mostov, a student, said officials were "unwilling to make any accommodations at all" and declined to let her switch her schedule so she would not have to attend the same classes as the student she said assaulted her.

"I was outraged," she said.

In a written statement, Jody Shipper, USC's Title IX coordinator and executive director of the Office of Equity and Diversity, said the university looks forward to working with federal officials to address any concerns they may have.

"The university remains vigilant in addressing any issues promptly and fully as they arise," she said.

Linda Fairstein, who was a sex crimes prosecutor in New York and is now a senior advisor on college policies and sex crimes at K2 Intelligence, an investigative and consulting firm, said the problem isn't new but has been deliberately kept secret by colleges and universities for decades despite laws designed to deal with the issue.

"Students in college away from home for the first time are among the most vulnerable," she said.

Fairstein said an increase in reporting these allegations has been partially driven by social media and blogs.

"The events went viral. The victims I was seeing as prosecutor in the 1970s and 1980s were very isolated," she said. "But now they are empowered through the Web and it gives them the feeling they are not alone."

Fairstein said some schools are very proactive and are bringing in advisors to write new policies.

"Smart educators are actually reaching out for advice before they get a complaint like those at Occidental," she said.

Federal authorities began investigating Occidental College after a group of students, alumni and faculty filed a complaint in the spring against the school.

Afterward, Occidental President Jonathan Veitch announced several changes and said the college would have "a structured sexual-assault program at this fall's orientation that reflects revised policies and procedures."



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Hollywood skyscrapers too close to earthquake fault, opponents say

Los Angeles officials have asked the developer of a controversial Hollywood skyscraper project to conduct a new round of seismic tests to determine whether the project's towers could be at risk in an earthquake. At the same time, state officials are carrying out their own geological study of the area to find out whether a known fault line near the building site is active.

The questions surrounding the project's safety come at a critical time, with the City Council poised to take up a major vote on the proposal Wednesday. If the project is approved, New York-based Millennium Partners would be able to build more than 1 million square feet of apartment, office, hotel and retail space on about 4.5 acres of vacant parking lots surrounding the famed Capitol Records building.

The project's developers say extensive testing has shown that the complex would not be built on an active fault. But critics of the project have seized upon the safety issue.

Until recently, criticism of the project had focused on its large scale — initial architectural renderings showed two soaring towers, one 55 stories and one 45 stories, before the project was downsized — as well as its potential impact on traffic. Earlier this year, the California Department of Transportation added its concerns, saying the city hadn't factored in how the project would affect travel on the nearby 101 Freeway.

But in recent weeks, an attorney representing community groups that oppose the proposal has launched a campaign warning that the project site is dangerously close to what is known as the Hollywood fault.

At a news conference Monday, attorney Robert P. Silverstein accused Millennium Partners of using phony data to hide the building site's proximity to the fault in geological reports it filed with the city. Philip Arons, a cofounder of Millennium Partners, said Monday that those allegations are false. In a statement, Arons accused Silverstein of "bluster."

Silverstein also blamed engineers at the city's Department of Building and Safety for not doing their diligence in evaluating the risk.

His complaints to the California Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors and Geologists prompted the state licensing board to open an investigation into alleged misconduct by city engineers last month.

Luke Zamperini, a Department of Building and Safety spokesman, said he didn't believe actions of the engineers in his department were unethical and suggested Silverstein's complaint to the licensing board was strategic.

"When people are trying to stop a project, they will pull out any stops," Zamperini said.

But he added that city engineers recently asked the developer to conduct further tests because of growing concern over earthquake safety.

The state weighed in on the matter on Saturday, when the chief of the California Geological Survey sent a letter to Council President Herb Wesson, notifying him that the Millennium site "may fall within an earthquake fault zone."

In the letter, John Parrish said his agency launched a study of the Hollywood fault after several independent studies suggested it may be active. He said the study may not be completed until 2014, but noted that if the fault is found to be active, the city would be required by state law to withhold permits for new development projects until testing could prove that there is no risk.

Ed Johnson, a spokesman for Wesson, said the Council president plans to go ahead with Wednesday's hearing despite the letter from Parrish. Last month, the Council's Planning and Land Use Management committee signed off on the project after the developer agreed to lower the height of both towers, reducing one from 55 stories to 39 stories and the other from 45 to 35. Many neighbors who oppose the project say that's still too tall.

A spokesman for Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who represents much of Hollywood, said he has been meeting with stakeholders and will not comment on the project until it comes to the council on Wednesday. In the past, O'Farrell said that he supported new development around the Capitol Records building but believed the towers originally proposed by the developer were too tall.

Millennium Partners and its executives gave at least $11,400 to help get O'Farrell elected this year, according to city ethics records. The company gave $10,000 to an independent group supporting O'Farrell, who was locked in a contentious race with former Public Works Commissioner John Choi. Two of the firm's partner's contributed $700 each.

O'Farrell was not the only politician that benefited from the developer's help this year. Millennium contributed $10,000 to a committee to help elect Mayor Eric Garcetti. It also gave $7,500 to a group supporting Garcetti's opponent, then-city Controller Wendy Greuel, as well as $5,000 to a group supporting City Councilman Gil Cedillo.

Garcetti, who represented Hollywood on the Council for 12 years before becoming mayor earlier this month, also said he opposed the original height of the towers. Since the developer downsized the buildings last month, he has remained mum on whether he supports the current iteration of the project.

On Monday, Garcetti spokesman Yusef Robb noted that the developer had met Garcetti's demands for shorter towers and said the mayor "will continue to monitor public, city department and other input." Robb did not comment on the concerns over earthquake safety or the allegations that engineers in the Department of Building and Safety failed to properly evaluate the project's risk.

A yes vote on Wednesday would give the developer permission to build on the site, although the developer would still need to secure building permits with the city before beginning construction.


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Deputy director of state mental hospitals takes unexplained leave

SAN FRANCISCO — Seven days after being confirmed by the state Senate, the official responsible for day-to-day operations at California's mental hospitals and prison-based psychiatric programs has abruptly taken an extended — and unexplained — administrative leave with pay.

Kathy Gaither, confirmed as deputy director of the fledgling Department of State Hospitals on July 8, will be out of the office for an "extended period of time" because of "unforeseen circumstances," according to a brief email sent to staffers July 15 by the department's acting director, Cliff Allenby.

Reached Monday evening, Gaither said, "I don't think there's anything I need to say. I'm just on leave.... It's private."

Allenby also declined to discuss Gaither's leave, saying through a spokesman that personnel matters are confidential. Department activities "are continuing as planned" under Allenby's leadership, the spokesman said.

Allenby and Gaither were recruited in early 2011 to reform what was then the Department of Mental Health after years of costly U.S. Department of Justice oversight at four hospitals that saw a rise in patient violence and an erosion of treatment in key areas, a Times investigation found.

Both have a long history of state service, including at the Department of Finance, but Allenby has been largely a figurehead. In recent court testimony, Gaither described her duties as "all the day-to-day operations and policy decision-making for the entire department." The position was listed in 2012 as paying $147,660 annually.

Under her direction, a streamlined Department of State Hospitals was formed, made up of the state's five hospitals and two prison-based programs that care predominantly for mentally ill people accused or convicted of crimes.

To bridge its nearly $200-million budget gap, Gaither slashed positions, reduced clinical staffing per patient and abandoned a number of treatment reforms deemed cumbersome, ineffective or too costly. She did so as federal civil rights attorneys freed three of four hospitals from court oversight. (Napa State Hospital expects to be released this summer.)

In a separate case, the result of a long-standing class-action lawsuit by mentally ill prisoners, a federal judge earlier this month ordered a special master to investigate Department of State Hospitals programs at Salinas Valley and Vacaville state prisons after hearing days of testimony about psychiatrist shortages, delays in treatment and a dearth of soap and clean underwear for sick inmates.

Problems at Salinas Valley Psychiatric Program came to light in January, when nine psychiatrists wrote a letter to the facility's then-executive director — copied to Gaither's office — saying that high patient loads were "not safe or appropriate." Gaither denied the allegations but overhauled the program's leadership. Atascadero State Hospital psychiatrists also wrote a letter to that facility's executive director this spring, citing shortages among their ranks.

Attorney Michael Bien, who represents California's mentally ill prisoners in the class-action case overseen by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, said the department was "in crisis" even before Gaither's departure. "They don't seem to have strong clear leadership standing up for the healthcare interests [of patients] and standing up to finance and the governor's office," he said.


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On Navy's San Clemente Island, endangered species stage a comeback

Written By kolimtiga on Senin, 22 Juli 2013 | 12.56

SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND — The unique wildlife of San Clemente Island has survived the appetites and hooves of feral livestock, bombardments by Navy vessels and wave after wave of amphibious assault vehicles storming local beaches and grassy plateaus.

The operative word is "survived." Through it all, native species clung to life on the 57-square-mile volcanic isle about 75 miles northwest of San Diego that includes the only ship-to-shore bombardment training range in the United States.

The population of San Clemente loggerhead shrikes, a bird species, plunged to seven nesting pairs by 1990. A single San Clemente bush mallow, a species that once festooned the island with lavender flowers, clung to existence at the bottom of a steep canyon. Catalina grass was presumed extinct.

Now, however, thanks to a series of steps by the Navy, native plants and animals are showing signs of remarkable recovery.

With an annual budget of $3 million, a Navy captive-breeding program has boosted the number of shrikes here to 70 pairs. Across the island, signposts urge people to watch for the estimated 1,100 San Clemente Island foxes that call the island home, up from a few hundred a decade ago.

The Navy recently petitioned to have the San Clemente night lizard taken off the list of federally endangered species. An estimated 21.3 million night lizards occupy the 21-mile-long island, one of the highest densities of any lizard on earth. Dramatically bigger than its mainland cousins — up to 8 inches long compared with 2-inchers in the California desert — the lizard with bright stripes and mottled green scales spends its entire life within a few yards and bears its young live, as mammals do.

The Navy took the first big step toward restoring wildlife in 1992, when it removed feral goats and pigs — descendants of animals brought to the island by seamen as far back as 200 years ago. Equally important have been aggressive, hands-on restoration efforts including the replanting of native plants nurtured in greenhouses.

The military now takes wildlife into consideration even in areas reserved for military exercises. Sniper training has been reconfigured to avoid nesting areas; and bombing targets, including plywood replicas of enemy tanks and missiles, have been moved away from known populations of endangered species.

During a recent weekday tour of the island, owned by the Navy since 1934, Melissa Booker, the Navy's wildlife biologist for the area, said scientists "are seeing plants and animals slowly creeping out of caves and canyon bottoms and spreading out across the savannas. Some places that resembled cratered moonscapes are now covered with native shrubs so thick, it's hard to wade through them."

As she spoke, a submarine surfaced offshore near a Navy destroyer and several smaller vessels topped with rotating radar dishes. A few yards away, federally threatened sage sparrows flitted between clumps of federally endangered San Clemente Island Indian paintbrush.

Bombardment ranges remain on the southern end of the island. Beaches on the north will still be used for amphibious assault training. A heavily traveled road runs down the spine of the island.

Navy biologists may never know what San Clemente Island once looked like. But Navy botanist Bryan Munson said the return of native plant life "is changing the behavior of animals for the better."

For example, the expanding range of sage sparrows follows surges in vegetation that had been browsed into near oblivion by goats.

But the return of native vegetation could eventually pose a fire threat to San Clemente Island and Wilson Cove, its demographic center with a permanent population of several hundred military personnel.

"Eventually," Munson said, "we'll need more fire breaks, roads, controlled burns and other changes."

In the meantime, archaeologists have discovered 4,000 remnants of ancient Native American sites on the island.

Against vistas trimmed with cobalt blue that have changed little since Gabrielino tribe members roamed the island, archaeologists recently discovered a small boat hand-carved 500 to 1,000 years ago out of a chunk of igneous rock.

"The person who crafted this was an artist," Navy archaeologist Andrew Yatsko said, cradling the 11-inch-long object in his hands. "Whatever the intent was for creating it, it must have been done in very good times for this artist because these things take a lot of time and attention to make."


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For Jewish child, dreams of chocolate fueled escape from Nazis

His escape from the Nazis was more like "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" than "The Sound of Music," Leon Prochnik admits.

Prochnik was 6 when his family fled Poland as Hitler's army invaded the country. As they were smuggled out of the country, they left behind a luxurious life made possible by their Krakow chocolate-making business.

"There was this big, giant tub of chocolate in the factory" that was used in Milka candy bars, Prochnik said. "When nobody was looking, I'd stick my arm in up to my elbow and then lick off the chocolate."

Now 80 and a resident of the Park La Brea complex in the Fairfax district, Prochnik uses that vat of chocolate as a centerpiece during talks about the Holocaust that he gives to schoolchildren.

"Today's kids could care less about the Holocaust. It does not register with them," he said. "But kids love chocolate, and they pay attention when I tell them how that tub of chocolate helped me get through that dark chapter in human history."

His life was once as sweet as the chocolate the family produced, Prochnik tells his young audiences.

"It made us very well off. Life was very nice for me. We had a full-time nanny, a cook and rode in limousines. We had a four-story house and lots of toys," he tells them. "I was a very happy child."

His family was on vacation when the Nazis swept into Poland. He recalled that his father received a telegram advising him that Hitler's troops were rounding up Jews and that the family should not return to Krakow. The news hit the family hard.

"You have your favorite things at your home and you know you're never going back there," Prochnik tells youngsters.

The family stayed with relatives in Chelm, Poland, but the good life was clearly over. "We were sleeping on straw pallets. Getting used to that was very hard," he explains.

"I'd put myself to sleep at night by thinking about that chocolate tub at the factory. It became my sleeping pill."

When the Nazis began hunting down Jews in Chelm, family members used jewelry they had with them to pay smugglers to sneak them by horse-drawn hay cart and by boat into neighboring Lithuania. There they found themselves hiding in barns and squalid farm huts.

"We would stay in peasants' quarters with goats and pigs in the room," he said. "We'd been pampered in Krakow. It was like coming from Beverly Hills and finding yourself in a poor peasant's house in Mexico, sleeping on the floor."

One of Prochnik's older cousins obtained a travel visa to allow the family to leave Lithuania for Russia and then go on to Canada. But some of his Jewish school friends in Lithuania did not receive travel papers. Young Leon began having nightmares in which he was escaping the Nazis in a big vat of chocolate as his friends futilely tried to get in.

Another relative who had previously escaped to the West financed the family's Trans-Siberian Railway trip across Russia and a sea voyage from Vladivostok to Vancouver, Canada. After a short stay, the family moved to New York City and established a new chocolate business.

His family was never able to return to their Krakow home or the chocolate factory — which was the Swiss-based Suchard brand's Polish franchisee. German officials "claimed they had bought them from us" and even had fake bills of sale drawn up, Prochnik said.

Once in New York City, the then-7 1/2 -year-old was reassured by his parents that they were all safe. "I was no longer physically looking over my shoulder," he said. "But it took a couple of years in the United States before I stopped being afraid of the dark."

As an adult, Prochnik became a writer, film editor and director, as well as a leader of consciousness-raising workshops. He first talked about his childhood experience with the Holocaust when his wife, Mia, invited him to speak to a class she was teaching at a Los Angeles elementary school. After that, the Museum of Tolerance asked him to speak to visitors there. So far, about 1,000 children have heard about his escape from the Nazis.

Speaking one recent morning to a group of 67 Fillmore middle and high school students touring the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Prochnik explained that his wife, who is Catholic, persuaded him to return to Krakow for a visit in 2003. The family's chocolate factory was gone, but Prochnik was invited into the family's former mansion, he told the youngsters.

Jesus Mendoza, a 17-year-old senior at Fillmore High in Ventura County, said he could relate to Prochnik's past because his immigrant family gave up a life in Mexico to come to this country for educational opportunities. Jesus' father has a third-grade education; his mother finished second grade, he said.

"I've never heard anyone who actually went through what people like my parents have," Jesus said. "I think people were shocked by the reality. For him the chocolate tub symbolized safety and hope — it made him feel comfortable."

Ninth-grader Aiyanna Pillado, 13, concurred.

"The chocolate tub was his happy place," she said.

Fillmore summer school coordinator Norma Magana said she was struck by the number of youngsters who lingered after Prochnik's talk to ask him questions.

Teacher Doris Nichols said there were few Jewish people in the small community. She said she prepared youngsters for the museum trip by asking them what they would think if people of Mexican descent were persecuted as Jews had been by the Nazis.

Impressed by Prochnik's presentation, she intends to invite him to Fillmore "to talk to the whole school."

If asked, he'll come, Prochnik promised.


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More community colleges facing accreditation problems

A warning to Los Angeles Mission College to correct a number of academic and administrative deficiencies didn't come as a great surprise to Daniel Campos.

The former student body president had long been frustrated with campus infighting, perceptions of cultural insensitivity and inadequate counseling and other student services.

All of these issues and others were cited recently by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges when it put the Sylmar campus on notice that it must make improvements.

"Most students in general are not aware of the impact of accrediting decisions," said Campos, who also served as student trustee for the Los Angeles Community College District. "If the college loses accreditation, I'll lose transfer credits, so I'll need to find a way to line up everything in one year in case that happens."

The warning issued to Mission is the mildest of the possible penalties. The college will remain accredited pending a follow-up report due by March 2014.

But in a raft of actions earlier this month, the panel made the rare decision to revoke accreditation from City College of San Francisco in July 2014 (the college is appealing) and issued warnings to Los Angeles Valley, Orange Coast and six other campuses. Sanctions were removed from West Los Angeles and Harbor colleges and seven other campuses.

Of California's 112 community colleges, one, College of the Sequoias in the Central Valley town of Visalia, is operating under the most serious penalty — "show cause" — meaning the college is substantially out of compliance with requirements and must correct deficiencies to remain accredited. Five other colleges are on probationary status, and 13 have been given warnings.

The Novato, Calif.-based commission is one of seven private, nonprofit regional panels authorized by the federal government to award or terminate accreditation. Commissioners, who come from the ranks of college faculty, administrators and members of the public, visit campuses in teams and grade schools on governance, financial stability, instructional programs and how well students are learning.

Accreditation is voluntary. But non-accredited colleges lose eligibility for state funding and federal financial aid and imperil the ability of students to transfer credits.

Many educators and others are questioning why so many California community colleges are struggling to maintain standards. A 2012 Cal State Sacramento research paper found that 62 institutions were on some form of sanction over the last decade and that the percentage of sanctions is increasing.

The state's budget crisis, which led many public colleges to cut staff and slash programs, is one factor, said education experts. Others say colleges are under greater pressure from federal and state authorities to improve student retention and graduation rates.

California's community college system is the largest in the nation, with 2.4 million students attending annually, far more than Cal State or the University of California. As a result, the importance of these colleges in higher education is "outsized" compared with other states, said Hans Johnson, co-director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California.

"So it's a big deal as to how they function," he said.

A task force created by Community Colleges Chancellor Brice W. Harris will study ways to smooth procedures.

"The idea is to draft a set of recommendations for both the commission and colleges," said spokesman Paul Feist. "That would suggest both parties take steps that ultimately result in fewer colleges being on sanction, while maintaining standards and quality."

Monte E. Perez, president of Mission College, said the process is more rigorous now.

Perez told the commission in June that his college had already begun addressing its 14 recommendations. He believes that's why Mission received a warning rather than being placed on probation. The college now has a system to assess the effectiveness of courses, for example. And voter-approved Proposition 30, which increases some taxes to help fund education, will allow Mission to hire more counselors, he said.

"If we don't achieve the outcomes, it could go the other way," Perez said. "San Francisco was supposed to do certain things, and the commission felt they didn't, and they lost accreditation. We've got a lot of work to do, and we're committed to getting it done."

Before Los Angeles Southwest College was placed on probation last year, students complained that they had too little input in campus decisions and about cuts in services such as those to the library, which made it hard for some students to finish term papers during finals, said Jason Serrato, a student-government leader.

After a follow-up visit in April, Southwest was removed from probation but was issued a warning to continue improvement in several areas, such as ensuring that students taking online classes receive adequate tutoring, counseling and other services.

Serrato said the campus is making headway: There's a redesigned website in which each department has its own webpage, for example, and library hours were expanded. Many students were probably unaware of the college's status, but accreditation reports and other information are now more readily available.

"The commission made recommendations, and things are looking up and improving," said Serrato, a psychology major. "But they need to spread the word even more."



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Slain Orange County physician Ronald Gilbert remembered as a giver

About the time Ronald Gilbert became a parent 20 years ago, his Jewish faith deepened and slowly he became Orthodox.

The Orange County urologist and his family eventually moved from their home in Tustin to Huntington Harbour so they could more easily observe Shabbat, or the Sabbath, by walking to their synagogue, Chabad of West Orange County. Gilbert was known to freely dispense advice — medical and otherwise — and rabbis referred to him as a tzaddik, or righteous man.

"I think we should come up with a new term and put it in the Yiddish dictionary with his picture by it, and we should call it a 'super-mensch' or a 'Ronald Gilbert mensch' or something and distinguish it from all the other mensches," his brother Glenn Gilbert recalled, using the Yiddish word for a person of integrity and honor. "Because to lump him in the category with all the other mensches is not accurate.'"

So the community was stunned when the respected physician and father of two was fatally shot in an exam room Jan. 28. Stanwood Elkus, 75, of Lake Elsinore was arrested at the scene and later pleaded not guilty to charges of murder. He remains in jail, awaiting trial.

A source familiar with the investigation said Gilbert, 52, may have been a victim of mistaken identity — Elkus may have confused him with someone with a similar name who had treated him years earlier. An attorney representing the Gilbert family in civil court said the victim never treated Elkus.

Elkus' trial is probably months away. Meanwhile, Gilbert's family clings to the memory of a dedicated husband and father.

"As busy as he was, he still made time to be with us," Gilbert's widow, Elizabeth, said. "When he got home, after a long, hard day at work, he would shut the outside world out and all his problems off and invest fully into his relationship with the children as a dedicated father and to me as my husband and friend."

After Gilbert died, his wife came across a note Gilbert had written his sons shortly after 9/11. The letter was read at his funeral, attended by 1,000 mourners on the day that would have been his 53rd birthday.

"Try not to be bitter about the many unfortunate things that may happen to you in your life," he wrote. "Your response to difficult situations will in large part define you as a person."

When the couple's eldest son, Stephan, 21, got into sports, Gilbert took him golfing. After his youngest son, Jakey, 16, showed an interest in music, the living room was transformed into a makeshift studio, routinely hosting jam sessions.

Gilbert's brother Glenn now observes Shabbat with his youngest nephew and sister-in-law, wearing his brother's black-rimmed hat "like a crown," in order to spend time with and support his nephews and sisters-in-law. The synagogue has been more than welcoming.

"It's to help them, and it's to feel connected to my brother and to honor and show my respect for him," Glenn said. "People are very warm, and we've gone through the same loss."

While the Gilbert family was sitting shiva (observing a Jewish mourning period), visitors told stories that spoke of Gilbert's character: When neighbor Eli Benzaken was repairing his rabbi's dryer and cut his arm, he went straight to Gilbert. When Benzaken's wife, Carol Adams, was diagnosed with a large tumor, she too turned to Gilbert, who made sure she had a skillful oncologist, flowers and a daily visit from him after her release from the hospital.

"He didn't ever leave that role of being a physician or a healer," Adams said.

As a young man, Gilbert trained partly at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Long Beach, playing piano for patients on weekends.

"That's the kind of person he was," said Dr. Elliot Lander, who trained with him at the VA. "He just thought it was cool. He didn't leave to play piano, he played it there."

In his spare time, Gilbert developed a topical medical spray to help treat male sexual dysfunction and started a company, Absorption Pharmaceuticals. His partners said he focused more on patients and quality than on business.

The day before Gilbert was killed in his medical office, he and business partner Jeff Abraham celebrated. They had a $30-million offer to sell the company they'd built up from an earlier valuation of $1 million.

"I will never understand how cruel that is," Abraham said. "To have that moment followed 12 hours later, 14 hours later, by something like that. In a million years you couldn't script that."

Most difficult for his family to comprehend is the loss of a man who lived to serve others.

"You know, some people do good things to promote themselves and for their ego gratification, and that was not him," Glenn said of his brother. "He did it because he was a great person."


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Capture of Mexican mob boss began with a fed-up informant

Written By kolimtiga on Minggu, 21 Juli 2013 | 12.56

TIJUANA — The informant paid his own way to Mexico City and strode into a hotel room in an upscale neighborhood, willing to end the reign of one of Mexico's most brutal crime bosses.

He wanted money, he told four Drug Enforcement Administration agents, but that wasn't his primary motivation. The Tijuana drug cartel insider said he had grown disgusted by the savagery of Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental — the pudgy kingpin whose criminal mayhem was generating headlines around the world.

Baja California, once a popular destination for day-tripping Americans, had become one of Mexico's most violent regions. Army soldiers patrolled in convoys and manned bunkers flanking highways. Torture victims' bodies hung from overpasses, and once-crowded beaches became playgrounds for mob bosses and their entourages.

Sitting across from the agents in a double-locked hotel room that day in late 2009, the informant handed over his cellphone. It listed a number he said was Garcia's. An agent wrote it down.

"This is something I can do to clean up my country," the informant said, according to an agent, who added: "He wanted to do his obligation as a citizen."

That meeting, not previously disclosed, set off an investigation that quickly culminated with Garcia's arrest during a predawn raid on his hideout in La Paz, in southeastern Baja. In a drug war plagued by setbacks and mistrust between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, the capture was an example of binational cooperation that brought instant, lasting results.

The hunt for cartel chieftains yielded another major success Monday, when Mexican marines seized Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the notorious commander of the Zeta organization. Like Garcia, he was known for extreme brutality.

When Garcia was captured three years ago, the beheadings, massacres, high-speed chases and daytime shootings stopped in Baja. Restaurant tables in Tijuana started filling up again, cops were no longer targeted, and some of the thousands of people who had relocated to San Diego started moving back into the city.

In the years immediately before the raid, such a scenario was hard to imagine.

Garcia was a "Batman"-esque villain whose lieutenants included a man sporting skull tattoos for every murder he committed and a former bricklayer whose sole job was to dissolve enemies in barrels of lye.

The Tijuana organized crime group that spawned Garcia, better known as the Arellano Felix drug cartel, had long operated in Tijuana, largely tolerated under an unwritten code: Criminals were free to move their drugs to the U.S. as long as they kept their bloodletting among rivals.

Garcia broke all the rules.

A onetime enforcer, he assembled his own crew and started targeting the citizenry, kidnapping hundreds and holding them for ransom. Garcia extorted shoeshine vendors and human smugglers alike and roamed his east Tijuana stronghold in a convoy of 10 vehicles.

In April 2008, Garcia's clash with a cartel rival left 14 dead on a highway, triggering a drug war that introduced a style of terror that would become commonplace across Mexico. Garcia's rivals weren't just killed; they were mutilated and had their tongues cut out. They were rolled in carpet and set aflame. Many were beheaded and tossed onto busy streets.

U.S. authorities in San Diego watched the carnage with growing concern. They had demolished the cartel's upper ranks through arrests and prosecutions, only to watch the once-obscure Garcia ascend. In a 2008 intelligence report, the FBI expressed concern that drug war violence would spill over the border, noting that senior members of Garcia's gang lived in downtown San Diego.

Some federal agents and prosecutors wanted to indict Garcia and have him extradited to the U.S.; others said the situation was too urgent to wait for a case to be put together.

"We always wanted to press charges on Teo, but when you're listening to death and destruction every day and the kidnapping of people, you just can't allow it" to go on, said one high-ranking U.S. law enforcement official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Garcia expertly eluded capture. He constantly switched phones and rarely called twice from the same location. Police informants alerted him at the first sign of trouble, most memorably in 2009, when Garcia and his cronies escaped a raid at his rented oceanfront cottage by running down the beach.

U.S. authorities did have a tenacious ally: Tijuana's then-secretary of public safety, Julian Leyzaola. His 2,000-officer police force had once functioned as little more than an arm of organized crime, but Leyzaola had purged hundreds.

The remaining cops were caught between the professional demands of Leyzaola and the death threats and bribes of the shadowy crime boss. Forty-five officers eventually died at the hands of Garcia's gunmen.

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National healthcare reform sparks concern about scams

The national health reform law is expected to open the door for identity theft and insurance scams when millions of uninsured Americans begin enrolling in coverage this fall, officials and advocates warn.

The Federal Trade Commission said dozens of consumers have reported fraud since last summer's Supreme Court ruling upholding the law, and officials predict widespread abuse when enrollment begins in October.

One scam already making the rounds involves a caller promising to send a healthcare card if the person reveals personal and financial information. There are also false enrollment websites, and at least one company has used the health reform law to promise huge savings on medical costs and swindle consumers into buying fake insurance.

"Fraudsters read the paper too, and where there is confusion in the marketplace, they see opportunity to make money," said Lois Greisman, associate director of the commission. "This is unfortunately going to be an area where there is confusion."

Greisman said her staff was ramping up for the Affordable Care Act, which takes full effect in January. "We have lots of eyes on this," she said.

The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, a Washington-based nonprofit, has issued a national alert and has been working closely with the federal government and the media to get the word out, said spokesman James Quiggle.

"The sea change in how America provides health insurance has created a breeding ground for so-called Obamacare swindles," he said.

Under healthcare reform, millions of Americans who lack insurance will become eligible for Medicaid and subsidized coverage through state-based health exchanges. More than 2.6 million people may be eligible for subsidized coverage in California's exchange, known as Covered California, and an additional 1.4 million low-income residents will be eligible for an expanded Medi-Cal program.

Federal and state health officials are directing consumers to the official websites — http://www.healthcare.gov and http://www.coveredca.com. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is also warning consumers not to disclose private medical or financial information in response to unsolicited calls, e-mails or visits and to beware of offers that seem too good to be true.

Those especially at risk for fraud are seniors, people who speak limited English and those who have never had insurance before. In California, large numbers of those newly eligible for insurance are Spanish-speaking.

"Language can create a special vulnerability," said Maricela Rodriguez, program manager at the California Endowment, which has launched a Latino media campaign to help spread the word about how to enroll. "Addressing this with the Latino community is so important."

There is also concern about the potential for fraud among those being hired by states to tell consumers about their options and potential tax penalties. Covered California plans to hire more than 20,000 enrollment counselors, many of whom are part of community groups.

Covered California officials said the counselors would attend training, agree to a code of conduct and undergo background and fingerprint checks. Field monitors will supervise their work, and secret shoppers will ensure their compliance.

But fraud is inevitable, said spokesman Dana Howard.

"There are going to be schemes and individuals who will attempt to deceive the consumer at every corner," Howard said. "It is something we are analyzing on a daily basis — ways to minimize fraud and deception."

Covered California leaders are holding town hall information sessions around the state, and officials are planning a coordinated outreach and enrollment campaign to begin later this summer.

But the California Department of Insurance has warned that there still weren't enough protections for consumers. Insurance agents and brokers undergo a much more rigorous vetting process than will be required of the new staff.

"If someone is just careless with a consumer's identity, that could cause all kinds of problems," said Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for the insurance department.

Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has written to Covered California urging officials to add more protections to prevent "criminals from becoming enrollment counselors and enrollment counselors from becoming criminals." The department also has proposed that it be responsible for certifying and monitoring new workers.

Steve Young, senior vice president of Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of California, agreed that there needs to be more oversight because the Covered California workers and community groups will have access to confidential and sensitive information.

"There is so much money on the table, especially in the first year," he said. "It will bring people out of the woodwork to take advantage of the most vulnerable type of populations."

Others have expressed concern about possible fraud in the material insurance companies will send to potential customers. State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) has proposed legislation that would require the Department of Insurance to review insurance company mailers or solicitation brochures to ensure they are not misleading or deceptive.

"Many of these folks have never had insurance before," he said. "They have no baseline to judge what is being pitched to them."


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Program promoting U.S.-grown foods divides California Republicans

WASHINGTON — In this era of federal austerity, appetites are souring over spending taxpayer money on dinner parties in India featuring California prunes, cartoons in Spain touting homegrown walnuts and billboards in South Korea extolling American beef.

Yet an effort to end a $200-million-a-year federal program that promotes U.S. agricultural products abroad has run into bipartisan opposition in Congress and has created a rare rift among Republicans in California, which receives a large chunk of the money.

At issue is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that provided funds to about 65 groups last year, including nearly $7 million to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, about $4.2 million to the California Walnut Commission and $2.2 million to the California Dried Plum Board. Funds also went to promote U.S.-produced candy, catfish, pet food and popcorn, among other products.

Abroad, the money paid for activities such as a campaign to encourage Japanese diners to "tweet while you eat" to enthuse about U.S. beef. The United Tastes of America — Asian Chef Challenge featured U.S.-grown ingredients.

During a recent House debate, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) ridiculed the use of tax dollars for wine tastings, "an elaborate outdoor dinner party in New Delhi, India, so that food critics could discuss prunes" and "an animated series in Spain promoting walnuts that chronicles the adventures of a squirrel named Super Twiggy and his nemesis the Colesterator."

"Twiggy was a device that we used to get attention," responded Dennis A. Balint, chief executive of the California Walnut Commission, crediting the animated series for boosting consumer awareness of the health benefits of walnuts.

Although the amount is small compared with overall agriculture spending, the fight underscores the struggle on Capitol Hill to reduce Washington's red ink.

The decades-old program has long come under attack, with opponents calling it corporate welfare. "This is one of the most indefensible programs in the entire federal government," Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay) said during the recent debate.

But the program enjoys the support of politically important farm groups. The groups say it's important to the economy, especially in California, the nation's top agriculture-exporting state.

A GOP-led bid to end the program was soundly defeated in the House last month on a 322-98 vote. The vote split California Republicans: Five voted to kill the program, nine supported it, and one was absent. No California Democrat voted to kill the program.

Still, opponents of the program are expected to try again to end it.

"Too many members of Congress will do just about anything to look good on trade, including paying for advertising and marketing campaigns these companies and associations could easily pay for on their own," said Joshua Sewell, senior policy analyst of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The program's supporters say the promotional efforts have boosted farm exports.

"If you're going to cut … don't take the most effective program," added Dan Haley, a Washington lobbyist who represents California prune and walnut industry groups, among others.

Mike Long, a spokesman for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), one of the Republicans from California's agriculture-producing Central Valley who supports the program, said it "spurs economic growth and job creation across California."

Supporters also note that trade groups and other participants match or exceed the taxpayer contributions.

Donn Zea, executive director of the California Dried Plum Board, said the program helped boost prune sales in India by 89% from 2010 to 2011, calling it a "very good return" on less than $100,000 spent to promote prunes. He noted that the dinner cited during the congressional debate cost $1,200 but drew considerable attention for prunes.

As for congressional critics, he said: "It could be that they just need to consume a few more prunes."


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