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California Legislature sends drought relief package to Gov. Brown

Written By kolimtiga on Jumat, 28 Februari 2014 | 12.56

SACRAMENTO — A $687.4-million emergency drought relief package is on its way to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk after easily clearing the Legislature on Thursday.

Brown and legislative leaders unveiled the proposal last week to free up the state's water supplies and aid residents who face hardship due to the drought.

"Today we provide significant relief," state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said in a floor speech. "This is a lot of money and will help thousands of California families dealing with the drought."

Although recent storms have offered slight relief, the state has been suffering from dramatically parched conditions. Last year was the driest calendar year on record in California.

The proposal would direct $15 million to address water scarcity. The state Department of Public Health last week identified 10 rural areas at risk of acute drinking water shortages due to the drought.

The two-bill package also would provide $25.3 million in food aid and $21 million in housing assistance for those affected by the lengthy dry spell. It would expedite funding for projects to improve conservation, clean up contaminated ground water, and make irrigation more efficient.

The plan also would stiffen penalties for those who illegally divert water.

The bulk of the package, $549 million, would be funded through borrowing already approved by voters. Forty million would come from fees the state collects on polluters and the remainder from the state's general fund.

The relief package follows $160 million in federal aid for farmers, cattle ranchers and others harmed by the drought that President Obama promised while touring the San Joaquin Valley this month.

Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, commended the package, saying it reflected "the desire of Californians to invest in measures to squeeze the most water out of the supplies we have on hand."

But Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said there's more to be done.

"Any assistance is appreciated, but it doesn't solve the long-term water supply challenges California faces," he said. "We just don't want the public to get the idea that this is fixing California's water situation."

Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R-O'Neals), who supported the plan, voiced similar concerns on the Assembly floor.

"We are proposing to spend a lot of money for a public relations campaign and some relief effort for those hit hardest," Bigelow said. "But we haven't produced any water."

Republican Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) also voted for the bill but likened it to "a Band-Aid on a shark bite."

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) vowed that more action was coming.

"The package today is the first step," Skinner said. "It is not the only, and it is not the last. It is the first step to deal with an urgent crisis."

The legislation, SB 103 and SB 104, passed both houses by wide bipartisan margins. But other water battles, typically fought along geographical rather than partisan lines, loom.

Lawmakers have been trying to rework an $11-billion bond measure to address water infrastructure that is set to go before voters in November, for example. Some fear it carries too high a price tag and have introduced alternative measures.

Steinberg told reporters Thursday that he wanted to pare the measure to $7 billion to $9 billion, so it has a better chance of passing.

"Certainly the drought and water issues have the people's attention," he said. "We need the bond, and we ought to do everything we can reasonably do to amend the current bond and put it before the voters and pass it."

melanie.mason@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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New Orleans police seeking former NFL player Darren Sharper

New Orleans police have obtained an arrest warrant for former NFL football player Darren Sharper, who is accused of drugging and sexually assaulting two women in Los Angeles and raping two others in New Orleans.

In addition to Sharper, detectives and investigators with the Orleans Parish district attorney's office obtained an arrest warrant for 26-year-old Eric Nunez, described as an acquaintance of the former football player.

Sharper, who has been suspended as an NFL Network analyst, is now accused of raping at least eight woman in four states and committing a sexual battery in Miami.

New Orleans police had previously said they were investigating a rape allegation against Sharper. Now, police say two woman were assaulted by Sharper, both on the night of Sept. 23.

"New information uncovered also indicates that Nunez allegedly raped both women at the same location," department spokesman Remi Braden said in a statement.

Aggravated rape carries a potential prison sentence of hard labor for life in Louisiana, authorities said.

Los Angeles County prosecutors charged Sharper with two counts of rape and five other drug charges in connection with two incidents in October and January. He also is being investigated in cases in Las Vegas; Tempe, Ariz.; and another in New Orleans.

Sharper, 38, who has pleaded not guilty, was ordered last week to surrender his passport, stay in Los Angeles, avoid bars and nightclubs that sell alcohol, and not be alone with any woman he met after Oct. 30. He is free on $1-million bail.

"We look forward to the true facts being revealed in this case and we are hopeful that Mr. Sharper will be fully exonerated before this case is concluded," Blair Berk, one of Sharper's attorneys, previously said.

Court documents show a pattern in the incidents, which occurred between Sept. 22 and Jan. 15.

Victims reported meeting the five-time Pro Bowl player — usually at a nightclub — then going back to his hotel room or home.

Sharper offered the women shots to drink, after which they reported immediately blacking out, according to the records. Many of the women woke up with little or no memory of what happened after the drinks, but believed they had been sexually assaulted, authorities said.

kate.mather@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com


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San Gabriel Mountain dams could get major fill-up from storm system

The reservoirs behind 14 major dams that line the front range of the San Gabriel Mountains — nearly empty after two years of drought — could rise significantly from the forecasted deluge over the next three days, public works officials said.

The storm system could drop up to 6 inches of rain, which would dramatically reverse the current conditions, in which water levels are 70 feet below the maximum in some cases, officials said.

Although there is no danger the dams will be breached, officials on Thursday still guarded against the possibility of mudslides in fire-ravaged areas.

In response to the possibility of debris flows from areas burned in January's Colby fire, Azusa and Glendora issued a mandatory evacuation order for residents whose homes are nestled along the foothills.

In Glendora, 1,000 homes were in the path of possible mudslides. City officials want to avoid a repeat of a 1969 mudslide disaster that killed 34 people and destroyed 200 homes.

A relatively small storm Thursday deposited about 1,000 acre-feet of water — worth $1 million on the wholesale market — in the aquifers under Los Angeles.

The system over the next three days will probably deposit a windfall behind the dams that typically hold a third of Los Angeles County's water supply, said Adam Walden, senior civil engineer at the public works department.

"Right now, we have a lot of room in our system and the goal is not to let anything escape to the ocean," he said.

Because of the vast drainage from the mountains surrounding the L.A. Basin, the dams could fill at a stunning rate.

It's happened before.

In 2005, Morris Dam — the 1930s-era Art Deco structure that holds back the San Gabriel River — was full to the top, with water blasting through its penstocks and pouring uncontrolled down its concrete spillway.

The lower San Gabriel River was carrying 24,000 cubic feet of water per second, more than the average unconstrained flow of the Colorado River.

A little farther to the east, a rain gauge in San Antonio Canyon recorded rainfall of 90 inches that year, vastly more than any major U.S. city gets in an average year. In Devore Canyon, a debris flow sent refrigerator-size boulders down residential streets. People were skiing on Mt. Baldy until July 4.

And that was far from the heaviest potential downpour.

Someday, Southern California is expected to experience a "maximum probable flood." An atmospheric river would drop up to 20 inches of rain in 24 hours, filling every reservoir to capacity and sending so much water down the major rivers that they would overtop levees and leave large parts of the low-lying basin underwater, according to official projections.

"There is no system that can handle that," said Cuong Ly, chief hydrologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "It hasn't happened, but that doesn't mean it won't happen."

The dams' capacity has been limited by the tons of sand, rock and other debris that washed down after the 2009 Station fire.

At Devil's Gate Dam in Pasadena, so much debris is clogging the reservoir that it could fill the Rose Bowl about four times over. Hauling the stuff out would require about one truck per minute over a 12-hour day for the next five years, according to a draft plan by the county.

And that's just one dam. By 2032 the county will have to find a way to get rid of debris that could fill the Rose Bowl 170 times over.

"The system is unsustainable," said Tim Brick, managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group.


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Cemetery accused of damaging burial vaults settles suit for $35 million

A $35-million settlement was approved Thursday in a class action suit that could affect 25,000 families who have loved ones buried at a Mission Hills cemetery where employees were accused of damaging burial containers and discarding human remains.

The nine plaintiffs who represented the class alleged that over a period of 25 years, groundskeepers at Eden Memorial Park routinely broke burial vaults to make room for new graves and were instructed to throw the bones and human remains that fell out into a dump on the property.

According to the complaint, the cemetery attempted to maximize its profits by squeezing in as many graves as possible, leaving at most 3 inches of space in between them. Groundskeepers were thus unable to dig new graves without disturbing adjacent protective burial vaults. The complaint also cited an incident in which a human skull was allegedly thrown away.

Much of the case rested on an internal memo drawn up during a meeting with four Eden Memorial groundskeepers during an October 2007 interment verification training run by the cemetery's owner and operator, Service Corporation International. A behemoth in the funeral industry, the Houston-based SCI has a network of funeral, cremation and cemetery services across the country.

During the training, groundskeepers mentioned how they did things at Eden Memorial and were pulled into an office by administrators. An assistant took notes and later drafted the memo.

"They are told to make vaults/caskets fit regardless of the size of the grave. 'Making it fit' included breaking the vaults or caskets to allow room for the new interment," the memo read. "All four groundsmen agreed when they said they fear if the public were to find out about this that the park would be closed and they would all lose their jobs."

The employees also said that some remains were thrown out after vaults were broken and that they were told "the only thing that matters is closing the deal/sale even if it means breaking vaults and caskets to make the new one fit," according to the memo, which was presented as evidence in the case.

The defense denied the allegations and argued that numerous inspections did not find proof of damaged vaults.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed in 2009, state officials said they had found no evidence of mass grave disturbances at Eden Memorial.

SCI has faced similar allegations at two Florida cemeteries. In 2003, the Florida attorney general filed criminal charges against the company, a vice president and a superintendent. The attorney general charged that vaults and caskets were destroyed by backhoes because the same plot had been sold twice and that remains were scattered in adjacent fields. The company paid more than $100 million in settlements with families.

Steven Gurnee, who represented SCI in the Eden Memorial case, said the company was confident in its defense but decided to settle because the trial was dragging on. Three people had been called to the witness stand since testimony began two weeks ago in Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Marc Marmaro's courtroom.

"It made economic sense to dispose of the case," Gurnee said. "Had it proceeded to a verdict, we would have prevailed."

Michael Avenatti, who represents the plaintiffs, said settlement negotiations had been off and on for a number of months before the parties reached an agreement.

"This is no coupon settlement," he said. "It has been a very long and difficult case but the most rewarding of my career. It was humbling to represent these families because of what they've been through and the amount of faith they've put in our firm."

The settlement of $35,250,000 will grant refunds to plaintiffs who wish to disinter their loved ones as well as those who have pre-purchased unused burial plots. Others who decide to keep their grave at Eden Memorial are also eligible to submit a claim. Plaintiffs will be allowed to conduct a re-sanctification ceremony. The figure also includes attorney fees, and a $20,000 payment to each of the class representatives.

SCI is also required take measures that will prevent the alleged problems from occurring in the future, such as using metal rods to probe the grave and determine where it is safe to dig. It must also provide notice and conduct repairs if a damaged burial container is discovered. SCI must disclose to future customers the risk of damage when making interments. Avenatti estimates those measures will cost the company an additional $45 million or more.

The settlement is scheduled to be finalized May 15.

corina.knoll@latimes.com


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31 women accuse UC Berkeley of botching sexual assault investigations

Written By kolimtiga on Kamis, 27 Februari 2014 | 12.56

Thirty-one current and former UC Berkeley students filed two federal complaints against the university Wednesday alleging a decades-long pattern of mishandling sexual assault investigations by campus administrators.

The complaints allege that officials for years have discouraged victims from reporting assaults, failed to inform them of their rights and led a biased judicial process that favored assailants' rights over those of their victims.

The reports were filed with the U.S. Department of Education, which investigates violations of Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law, and the Clery Act, a federal law that requires campuses to accurately report incidents of serious crimes, including sexual assault. Under Title IX, campuses that receive federal funding are required to impartially investigate allegations of sexual assault, which is considered a form of gender discrimination.

Last May, nine students filed a complaint citing Clery violations. Students said because the Education Department has not responded, they filed another report, updating the original and adding 22 people.

The Education Department did not comment on the Clery or Title IX complaints Wednesday.

"Neither the Department of Education nor UC Berkeley have made the efforts necessary to address the pervasive culture of sexual violence on our campus," said Sofie Karasek, a third-year student who is among those named in the complaints. "This is not only disappointing; it is also dangerous for the students who attend college here, and is representative of a larger problem: the federal government is not adequately enforcing its own laws."

Berkeley administrators had not seen the complaints, they said, but the women who filed it have raised awareness.

"Their stories are heart-wrenching," said Claire Holmes, a campus spokeswoman. "It's unimaginable, the kind of trauma they've been through."

Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks issued a statement Tuesday announcing new hires to help investigate these crimes and to help victims navigate the reporting system. He also said victims will be allowed to appeal decisions in internal sexual misconduct cases.

Berkeley joins a growing group of universities and colleges nationwide targeted for Title IX complaints by student activists, including at USC and Occidental College. That network of former and current students, End Rape on Campus, is seeking changes in a culture that it says treats rape and sexual assault as a routine part of college life. President Obama last month created a task force to try to combat sexual assaults on campus.

State auditors have included UC Berkeley in a review of how four California campuses handled assault allegations.

The Times reviewed portions of the Title IX complaint and interviewed several of the plaintiffs. In some cases, they asked to be identified by name.

Among them:

Diva Kass, a 2009 graduate, said she was raped at a fraternity party her junior year. A sorority sister told Kass she had been raped by the same man.

After Kass filed a complaint with Berkeley administrators, they convened a three-member panel that found her assailant was not responsible for the rape. Her assailant and his fraternity later settled a civil lawsuit she had filed.

"I felt betrayed by the system," Kass said in an interview from Indiana, where she is a law student. "The fact that the university I loved seemed to not care about me and was willing to find in his favor so they wouldn't have to report a rape on campus … it was incredibly heartbreaking." 

Aryle Butler, a junior, said she was assaulted twice in 2012 while attending a summer program affiliated with Berkeley. She said she told staff about the incidents. That fall, one of Butler's friends alleged that she had been assaulted on campus, which also was reported to administrators. Shortly afterward, Butler said, a Berkeley Police Department officer came to their dorm to interview her and her friend at 2 a.m. on a Sunday.

Butler was among the students who filed the initial Clery complaint against Berkeley.

Four women in both complaints say they were assaulted in 2012 by the same man, a senior who led a college-sponsored club. Eight months after filing their complaint, the women learned that Berkeley had put the senior on probation, required him to attend counseling and allowed him to graduate.

Karasek was a freshman when she joined that student group at a February 2012 meeting in San Diego. Karasek said a leader of the group, a Berkeley junior, groped her repeatedly in the middle of the night.


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Google ordered to take anti-Muslim video off its platforms

SAN FRANCISCO — In a ruling that a dissenting judge called "unprecedented," a federal appeals court ordered Google Inc. on Wednesday to take down an anti-Muslim video that an actress said forced her to leave her home because of death threats.

Google said it would appeal the ruling, but removed the video, "Innocence of Muslims," from YouTube and other platforms. The video has incited violent Muslim protests and has been banned by several Muslim countries.

The 2 to 1 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the actress who appeared in the film never consented to being in it and her performance may be protected by copyright law.

"While answering a casting call for a low-budget amateur film doesn't often lead to stardom, it also rarely turns an aspiring actress into the subject of a fatwa," Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the majority. "But that's exactly what happened to Cindy Lee Garcia when she agreed to act in a film with the working title 'Desert Warrior.' "

"Desert Warrior," which was supposed to be an adventure film, never materialized. But the performance Garcia gave for it was included in "Innocence of Muslims." Garcia said her voice was dubbed over to make an anti-Muslim remark, and she has had to hide because of continuing threats on her life.

"Here, the problem isn't that 'Innocence of Muslims' is not an Arabian adventure movie: It's that the film isn't intended to entertain at all," Kozinski wrote. "The film differs so radically from anything Garcia could have imagined when she was cast that it can't possibly be authorized by any implied license she granted."

The video was released a year and a half ago and has been widely disseminated on the Internet. Even with Google's action, it is likely to be easily accessible on the web, analysts said.

Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman said the ruling could empower anyone who appears in a video without their signed consent to demand it be taken down.

"The 1st Amendment implications of this ruling are horrible," said Goldman, an expert on Internet law.

In a dissent, Judge N. Randy Smith called the decision "unprecedented" and argued the public has a strong interest in constitutional guarantees of free speech.

"An actress's performance in a film is more like the personal act of singing a song" than a set of works copyrighted by an author, he said. "As a result, it does not seem copyrightable."

The court said that Mark Basseley Youssef — who also uses the names Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and Sam Bacile — wrote and produced the film and paid Garcia $500 for 31/2 days of work.

"A clear sign that Youssef exceeded the bounds of any license is that he lied to Garcia in order to secure her participation, and she agreed to perform in reliance on that lie," Kozinski wrote. "Youssef's fraud alone is likely enough to void any agreement he had with Garcia."

A trial judge had refused Garcia's request for a preliminary injunction against Google's dissemination of the video. Google argued such an order would be a prior restraint in violation of the 1st Amendment. But the appeals court noted that the 1st Amendment does not protect against copyright infringement.

The majority stressed it was not holding that every actor has a copyright protection to his or her performance. Situations like Garcia's will be "extraordinarily rare," the court said.

A spokesman for Google said the company will appeal the ruling to a larger panel of the 9th Circuit. The spokesman said the video on YouTube was a 14-minute trailer in which Garcia appeared for only five seconds.

"We strongly disagree with this ruling and will fight it," the spokesman said.

Foreign courts have forced Google to remove the video from platforms accessible in their regions, including the Middle East and Indonesia, citing the laws of their countries. But a Google spokeswoman said no court has previously cited a copyright claim.

The 9th Circuit issued its order against Google last week but did not allow it to be made public until Wednesday's ruling. Google asked the panel to put the order on hold pending appeal, and the panel refused.

M. Cris Armenta, who represented Garcia, said she had made eight requests to YouTube to remove the program.

"The propaganda film differs so radically from anything that Ms. Garcia could have imagined when the director told her that she was being cast in the innocent adventure film 'Desert Warrior,' " Armenta said. "Had she known the true nature of the film, she never would have agreed to participate."

Garcia, in a statement released by her lawyer, said she was grateful for the decision.

She said she has fought "to assure every part of the Muslim community that as a fellow believer in one God, there is no hate in my heart for either the religion of Islam or the people who follow it."

maura.dolan@latimes.com


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Monitor on Wilmington home's roof to provide air-quality answers

Japheth Peleti has no shortage of unpleasant stories from decades of living across a fence from a sprawling oil refinery.

He and his family have contended with rumbling noises that rattle their windows, coped with skunk-like odors, plumes of vapor and smoke and seen their whole block lighted up at night from the orange glow of refinery flares. "We're so used to it that it's become a normal part of life," Peleti said.

For nearly as long, the 48-year old has suspected air pollution from the Phillips 66 refinery is one reason most of his family suffers from asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Now, they will be getting some answers from a shoe-box-sized air quality monitor mounted on their roof.

The low-cost, solar-powered device will gather real-time data on air pollution in this working-class neighborhood near the Port of Los Angeles, measuring concentrations of nitrogen oxides, fine particles and other pollutants as well as noise, temperature and humidity. The data will be posted online for public viewing.

The monitoring is part of a government-funded project launched Wednesday by Wilmington environmental group Coalition For a Safe Environment.

The initiative includes a website and mobile application for residents to lodge complaints of bad air, illegal dumping, chemical spills and other environmental problems. A task force of community and government representatives will meet monthly to review complaints and outcomes.

A related, 18-month study by cancer researchers at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health will assess the neighborhood's levels of benzene, a carcinogenic compound released into the air by oil refineries.

The project, called the Los Angeles Community Environmental Enforcement Network is the latest to focus on environmental hazards facing Wilmington, a neighborhood of more than 50,000 residents boxed in by the port complex, rail lines, industrial operations and three of Southern California's six major oil refineries.

The 87% Latino neighborhood has long been a battleground for environmental activists. Jesse Marquez, executive director of Coalition for a Safe Environment, said the new emphasis on collecting data from fence-line residents in Wilmington differs from past campaigns, which have relied on community meetings, door-to-door visits and fliers.

The monitors and online reporting system are being paid for with $30,000 in state and federal grant money. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control said it has assigned a staff scientist to help route complaints to the appropriate agencies.

The project is the fifth community-based reporting system launched in California in recent years, after similar efforts in the Coachella and Imperial valleys and Fresno and Kern counties. Wilmington will be the first to incorporate a home air pollution monitor. The group hopes to install more in neighborhoods adjacent to rail yards, port operations, refineries and other major polluters.

Wilmington ranks among the top 5% of communities with the highest pollution exposure in the state, according to a recent analysis by California environmental agencies. The main polluters are trucks and ships at the port and refineries that air quality regulators say are among the top five sources of smog-forming emissions in the Los Angeles Basin.

Under rules from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, refineries must monitor emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, submit annual reports and undergo inspections at least every week. Restrictions on flaring — when refineries burn off gases to relieve pressure during a shutdown, start-up or maintenance — have cut the facilities' sulfur oxide emissions by 96% since 2000, air quality officials said.

"Our refinery regulations are the toughest in the country and, perhaps, the world," said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the air district.

Atwood said the district expects results this year from a separate study it commissioned into the possible use of remote sensors similar to the one on the Peleti family's roof to monitor pollution levels near refineries.

In a statement, Phillips 66 said that while it is in compliance with its permit limits set by the air district, "we continuously strive to reduce emissions. Since 2008, we have lowered diesel usage in equipment by 75%, thus decreasing particulate matter released."

The Peleti family said they welcomed any new information on those emissions.

"I know the air is polluted," said Sarah Meafua, Peleti's 39-year-old sister. "I'd just like to see the results."

tony.barboza@latimes.com


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Ex-Northridge skating rink employee held in foot fetish incident

An employee of a Northridge roller rink with a self-described "foot fetish" told police he repeatedly took young boys into a maintenance room and had them remove their socks and rub their feet on his hands or face to sexually arouse himself, court documents say.

Julian Christopher Flores, 19, said he engaged in that behavior at Northridge Skateland with about 200 boys over the course of a year, court records show. Flores' statement to police came a day after one boy told his grandmother about an encounter in the maintenance room, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Following the interview at LAPD's Devonshire Station, police seized Flores' cellphone and laptop and found videos in which he instructed several unknown minors to remove their socks, the court documents allege. In one video, a boy asks, "Why would you let a 9-year-old who you hardly know, put their feet on your face."

Flores, who no longer works at Skateland, has been charged with one count of false imprisonment and one count of an attempted lewd act on a child, court records state. He has pleaded not guilty.

Los Angeles police served a search warrant on Northridge Skateland in January and are attempting to identify victims who were patrons from May 1 through Dec. 21 of last year.

Skateland general manager Courtney Bourdas Henn said she had not notified customers on her own because LAPD officials asked that she not do so while their investigation is ongoing.

Henn said Skateland "deeply regrets" the incident and "we are fully cooperating with the LAPD."

The incident that led to Flores' arrest occurred on Dec. 21. He approached a young boy who was skating at the rink on several occasions, attempting to befriend him, according to court records.

He told the boy, "I bet you can't take your socks off without using your hands," according to court records.

Flores then told the boy to meet him by the men's room. Once there, Flores unlocked an adjacent maintenance room and ushered the boy inside, the affidavit states. He placed the boy atop a washing machine and removed his roller skates.

Flores then heard the victim's name being called from outside the maintenance room door. He became alarmed, turned off the lights and told the boy to be quiet, the affidavit states. Flores left the room; the boy emerged later.

The boy's grandmother said she allowed him to go the restroom but became concerned when he seemed to be taking too long, according to court records. She began shouting his name and went into the men's room to look for him, but couldn't find him.

Shortly thereafter she saw Flores appear in a walkway, according to the documents. Her grandson appeared about a minute later and wasn't wearing his skates. The boy, whose name was redacted in court documents, then told her about the incident.

Flores admitted his role in the incident and told police that, had they not been interrupted, he would have had the victim "rub his feet on his hands and that he was going to play with" the victim's feet, the affidavit states.

Flores, who faces a maximum of eight years and four months in prison if convicted, is free on $150,000 bail, a district attorney's spokesperson said. He has been ordered to stay away from the boy and his family. His next court date is set for March 27.

Flores' defense attorney, Valerie Lopez, declined comment.

The prosecutor, Deputy. Dist. Atty. Elena Abramson, declined comment through a spokesman.

Police have asked that anyone with information contact LAPD Det. Daniel Aguirre at 213-486-0580 or, after hours, 1-877-LAPD-24-7.

scott.glover@latimes.com

Times staff writer Scott Glover contributed to this report.


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Civilian oversight of L.A. County Sheriff's Department is floated

Written By kolimtiga on Rabu, 26 Februari 2014 | 12.56

Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to ask the newly appointed inspector general of the Sheriff's Department to work with interim Sheriff John L. Scott to study setting up a civilian commission that would oversee the department.

The officials will look into how such a body could be structured and weigh in on whether they advise creating it at all. They will report back to the board by the end of June.

The supervisors also asked the county's attorneys to look into what steps would be required to create a commission with legal authority rather than a purely advisory body. That would probably require legislative action at the state level.

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina proposed setting up a civilian commission in September, after the U.S. Department of Justice announced that its civil rights division would investigate treatment of mentally ill inmates. But a vote on the plan has been postponed repeatedly.

The other supervisors said they preferred to focus on setting up an inspector general's office for the department, as recommended by a blue ribbon commission that studied the issue of jail violence. That body did not make any recommendation on a citizen oversight panel.

The supervisors have hired former prosecutor Max Huntsman as inspector general and are in the process of staffing his office.

Tuesday's action will delay to at least July any final vote on whether to create a civilian commission, but proponents said they saw the move as a step in the right direction.

"I am encouraged that the board is comprehending how reform can and should take place," Ridley-Thomas said in an interview. "Legal authority is accountability with a capital A. That which we are limited to is accountability with a small A, but it is accountability nonetheless, and it beats a blank."

Patrisse Cullors, founder of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails, called the vote a "great step in the direction of ensuring our loved ones' human rights are upheld," although she added that advocates would have to "make sure that the county does not get swept up in its own bureaucracy."

Since the supervisors initially considered the proposal, federal authorities have indicted 20 current and former sheriff's officials, and Sheriff Lee Baca has stepped down, leaving an open race to replace him in June's election.

Shortly before announcing his retirement last month, Baca voiced support for civilian oversight. Interim Sheriff Scott said in a recent interview that he would want to know more about how the body would be structured, but said he is "OK with the concept."

Several of the candidates running to replace Baca have also expressed support for the commission concept. So have the leading candidates running to replace termed-out Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Yaroslavsky, who asked for the county's attorneys to look into the steps required to set up a commission with "teeth," has not supported creating a purely advisory commission.

abby.sewell@latimes.com


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Federal judge in L.A. sentences weapons smuggler to 7 years in prison

A 27-year-old Filipino national was sentenced Tuesday to seven years in prison for smuggling military-grade weapons into the U.S., in a case that offered a rare, unflattering look inside an undercover FBI operation.

During the two-year case, one FBI agent was forced to answer questions about thousands in taxpayer dollars spent at brothels, and another was accused of paying for sex with a prostitute while on the job in the Philippines.

On Tuesday, it was Sergio Santiago Syjuco who was in the hot seat. U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner handed down the sentence for his conviction last March on illegally importing weapons including machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade and mortar launchers, and ballistic vests, along with two other defendants. The weapons arrived in a container marked "furniture and household" items at the Long Beach port in 2011.

"You screwed up, no question about it, this is very serious," the judge told Syjuco, adding that the defendant committed a "very dangerous offense" with potential for great harm.

Klausner did not address arguments by Syjuco's attorney, Deputy Federal Public Defender John Littrell, who contended that the case had been "created by the government from beginning to end." Littrell argued that a charismatic undercover FBI agent had "induced" a naive, susceptible Syjuco into procuring weapons, plying him with alcohol and prostitutes.

"He tried to puff himself into, or appear to be, the type of weapons trafficker Chuck Ro was looking for," he argued, referring to Special Agent Charles Ro. "This offense never would have happened were it not for inducement by the government."

Assistant U.S. Atty. Kim Dammers dismissed Littrell's allegations, saying that Syjuco was fully aware of where the weapons were going and that they were intended for nefarious purposes. The agent, posing as an international arms broker, told Syjuco and the other defendants that he worked for the Mexican drug cartels and the Mexican Mafia.

"This is not a case of these poor guys, they were entrapped," she told the judge, noting that Syjuco and the others flew to the U.S. believing that they were to take part in another weapons deal. "Mr. Syjuco engaged in this weapons trafficking solely for the purpose of monetary gain."

In the audience at Syjuco's sentencing was one of the jurors who voted to convict him, Bryan Croft. In a sworn declaration submitted by defense attorneys, Croft wrote that he was "disappointed" and "shocked" by the FBI's tactics.

"I don't think they ever would have been shipping weapons to the United States if it hadn't been for the agents throwing money, women and booze at them," Croft wrote.

Klausner said he would not take into consideration one juror's opinion and said the law leaves sentencing up to the judge, not the jury.

Ro, the agent, took the stand in early 2013 to testify about the operation in the Philippines in a lengthy hearing in which defense attorneys alleged "outrageous government misconduct." District Judge Robert Timlin ruled at the conclusion of the hearing that though the venues where the agent met with the defendants were "unsavory," their acts were not "shocking enough to warrant dismissal."

Special Agent Marc Napolitano testified that he had sex with a karaoke club employee and gave her about $80, but he said the money was for her ailing father.

victoria.kim@latimes.com


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Heavy rains are expected to end L.A.'s long dry spell

It's poor form to complain about rain, even a whole lot of it, when you really need it.

So Southern Californians will just have to grin and bear it beginning Wednesday night when the first of two major storms is forecast to move into the region.

The storms are expected to deliver the most rainfall since spring 2011. They come as Southern California and most of the state struggles through a historically dry stretch. Last year was the driest calendar year in L.A.'s recorded history. Since the beginning of the rain year in July, only 1.2 inches of rain has fallen in downtown L.A. Now it's going to rain — a lot — with more than four inches possible in some valley and foothill areas from the second storm.

"It's been almost three years since we've had rain like this," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La CaƱada Flintridge. "This is not a February or March miracle, but any rain is sweet because everything is so dry."

The possibility of so much rain in such a short period of time has firefighters, public works and law enforcement officials girding for the inevitable problems: traffic congestion, accidents and possible mudslides. "We haven't had weather in a while," said L.A. County Fire Department Inspector Tony Akins.

Although the rain is badly needed, it would take several seasons of above-normal rainfall to bust the drought gripping California.

The state has seen below-normal rainfall 11 of the last 15 years, making dry weather the norm over an extraordinarily long period, he said. Even if L.A. got two inches of rain from the coming storms, the city would still be only about 30% to 40% of normal for this time of the year.

Stuart Seto, a weather specialist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said the storm that hits the region Friday could linger through Monday, with the heaviest rain likely to fall Friday morning and afternoon.

The rain should help replenish some groundwater storage basins, bring temporary relief to desiccated foothill areas that are prone to wildfires and add snow to mountain areas. It'll also bring complications.

Law enforcement and fire officials expect an uptick in traffic accidents as the long-awaited rain mixes with accumulated oil on roadways to create extra-slick surfaces. The risk of vehicles hydroplaning and crashing increases under these conditions.

Like many agencies, the L.A. County Fire Department is keeping close tabs with the National Weather Service to determine staffing and strategy, Akins said.

"We're in constant communication with the National Weather Service as part of our routine operations," he said.

Akins said inmate crews at fire camps are prepared to respond to a variety of potential issues, such as mudslides, debris flows and flooding. Areas that have been razed by wildfires, such as the hills above Glendora, are especially vulnerable because fire renders the ground moisture averse, causing rainfall to rush downhill, rather than soak into the soil. Akins said fire stations will pass out sandbags to residents who need them.

Glendora City Manager Chris Jeffers said the city has a system to alert residents when they need to evacuate or take other actions. He said the city is in contact with weather and county fire officials, the L.A. County Flood Control District, the U.S. Forest Service, police and other agencies.

Jeffers said the Colby fire, which scorched nearly 2,000 acres last month, had "severely damaged" the hills above Glendora.

"The fire and severity are very reminiscent of the 1968 fires, which led to the horrific debris and mudflows in 1969," he said. "More damage was incurred to property as a result of the 1969 mudflows than the fire itself."

Jeffers said the forecasts don't suggest "substantial negative impact on the burn areas" from the first storm. But he said the city is more wary of the second round, which is expected to include thunderstorms.

"This is the storm that has us concerned at this point," Jeffers said.

He said that county flood control officials have helped the city survey residents in the burn area, visiting about 150 homes to offer advice on how to mitigate risks to their property. They have also visited about 60 residents who might need assistance in case of an evacuation order, Jeffers said.

Patzert of JPL said one of the problems that occur during heavy rains after prolonged dry spells is that storm sewers which haven't been flushed out can get overwhelmed. Some flooding is possible even in urban areas, he said.

With the rains coming, law enforcement officials are warning motorists to slow down on streets and freeways and to clean gutters. And county Supervisor Don Knabe reminded people that they also need to shut off their sprinkler systems.

"Your yard won't need to be watered until later next week," he said. "At the very least."

hector.becerra@latimes.com

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com


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Asiana Airlines fined $500,000 for response to San Francisco crash

Imposing the first penalty of its type, the federal government has fined Asiana Airlines $500,000 for failing to promptly help passengers and their families after last year's crash in San Francisco.

A U.S. Department of Transportation investigation found that the South Korean airline violated the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act by taking up to five days to notify family members and failing to provide other basic assistance.

In a statement issued Tuesday, federal officials said Asiana did not "adhere to the assurances in its family assistance plan," a federally mandated set of procedures foreign airlines must follow to promptly assist passengers and their families after major aircraft incidents.

The agency said it took Asiana days to do such things as contacting family members, sending trained personnel and translators to San Francisco, and providing a phone number with information on the crash.

Three people were killed and more than 180 passengers and crew members injured when Asiana's Boeing 777 clipped a sea wall on July 6 and slammed into a runway at San Francisco International Airport. An investigation into the cause of the crash is ongoing.

According to the Department of Transportation investigation, the airline took two days to successfully contact three-quarters of passengers' families and up to five days to contact several others.

Transportation officials said the airline took a day just to provide family members a telephone number for information. Before that, the only number generally available was a toll-free reservation line.

Federal officials said it also took two days after the crash for the airline to send enough trained staff and translators to San Francisco. Flight 214 originated in Seoul, and many of the 307 passengers and crew members aboard were from China or South Korea.

Overall, investigators said, five days passed before Asiana could get the necessary resources to carry out its response plan.

"The last thing families and passengers should have to worry about at such a stressful time is how to get information from their carrier," Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in the statement

Asiana Airlines said in a statement that it provided "extensive support to the passengers and their families following the accident and will continue to do so."

The fine was imposed under a consent order, which is a legal settlement with the federal government that describes the facts uncovered by the investigation and the reason for penalizing Asiana.

Without conceding any violation and to avoid litigation, airline officials signed the order, which requires Asiana to avoid any future violations of the family support act.

Under the agreement, Asiana will pay $400,000 within 30 days and be credited $100,000 for its costs to sponsor industrywide conferences about the lessons the airline learned from the crash.

The order states that Asiana takes its family assistance responsibilities seriously and acknowledges the difficulties fulfilling its legal obligations. Company officials said they tried to provide assistance immediately after the crash, but because of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, only 12 airline employees were on duty in San Francisco.

According to the order, Asiana officials believe the presence of the airline's chief executive on the scene a few days after the crash ensured that passengers and families received the help required by law and expected of a premier airline and a good corporate citizen.

Asiana officials also told investigators that it had few people in the United States trained to handle post-accident responsibilities and had to rely on its domestic airline partner for assistance. It took two days to get fully trained people to the airport and five days for Asiana to assume full responsibility for assisting the relatives of passengers.

Dozens of passengers who were aboard the flight have taken steps toward lawsuits against the airline and Boeing Co., the plane's manufacturer. The families of the three teenagers who were killed also have retained attorneys.

kate.mather@latimes.com

dan.weikel@latimes.com


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University High wins crown at JPL Regional Science Bowl

Written By kolimtiga on Minggu, 02 Februari 2014 | 12.56

In the end, it came down to a rematch: Arcadia and University high schools, two teams made up of the brightest young science minds in Southern California who one year ago faced off just like this, armed with nothing more than a small pad of paper and a pencil against a 16-minute rat-a-tat-tat of questions like this:

"According to VSEPR bonding theory, if two of the bonded atoms in an octahedral molecule are replaced by two electron pairs, the molecule will assume what geometric shape, such as in XeF4?"

(Answer: Square Planar)

Twenty-four teams of five students each competed Saturday in the 22nd annual JPL Regional Science Bowl, a "Jeopardy"-style competition. The match was organized by and held at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory — so even volunteers keeping score and reading questions had PhDs.

But the focus was on the young men and women from schools in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as well as L.A. County (though not L.A. Unified School District, which has its own competition). Winners will compete at the National Science Bowl in Washington, D.C., in April.

Whereas Arcadia and University High, in Irvine, are local powerhouses whose teams have won the regional competition multiple times, others like Xavier College Preparatory High School in Palm Desert were relative newcomers.

Its members wore white lab coats and seemed to be having fun after spending the morning answering questions about chemistry, earth science, biology, energy, physics and math.

"There's some teams who will dominate," said senior Carl Maggio. "For us, it's more about the experience."

The team's five members have known one another for years, three of them since kindergarten, they said. And although they took the event seriously, practicing two to three hours per week, they knew their effort wasn't quite comparable to that of some of the more experienced teams.

"For a lot of teams this is like a sports event. They practice every day," Carl said.

The team from Huntington Beach High School skipped the lab coats and the school T-shirts worn by other teams and came in suits.

Theirs is a young team — made up mostly of sophomores, all of whom were in awe of team member Marlon Trifunovic, 15, who answered the question "What is the fraction for the repeating decimal .13131313…" before the answers had even been read. (Answer: 13/99)

"He did it in his head, he didn't even write it down," said Coach Ken Ostrowski.

Then there was Arcadia High School, whose team has won the regional title multiple times.

Team members gave up Friday evenings and Sundays to prepare for this, they said. They practiced not just the science but also skills like using buzzers, improving reaction times.

Each team member was assigned a specialization: for senior Bryan Clement Tiu it was math, for captain Jerry Li, chemistry and physics, for junior Kevin Wang, earth science and physics.

By the afternoon they were undefeated, and during later rounds, they were dominant, beating one team 102 to 22.

Each round lasted 16 minutes, with a two-minute break.

Jerry's parents, James and Joceline Li, sat on the sidelines, watching the competition.

"My heart is beating, boom boom boom," said Joceline Li, who held her breath and clutched her husband when the score was close, though both Lis acknowledged being a bit lost by the level of competition.

"I can understand the questions," said James Li. "But the answers? Forget it."

In the final round, Arcadia started off strong, racking up 32 points before University could even get on the board. But just as a year ago, the day belonged to University, whose team won, 114-68.

"They were really excited to come back because they won last year," said University Coach David Knight. "They knew other teams were going to be kind of gunning for them."

After the loss, team Arcadia gathered together and spent the next few minutes going over the questions they got wrong.

"I'm very proud of them," said Coach Cherryl Mynster. "They knew their stuff but the other team just outperformed them a little bit…. We'll be back next year."

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com


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Competitive California congressional races attract millions

Highly competitive congressional races in California, attracting interest across the nation, were already drawing many millions of dollars in donations even before the election year began, according to new campaign reports.

From the Bay Area to San Diego, at least nine candidates for the House of Representatives reported raising more than $1 million in 2013, reflecting the tight nature of the races.

That's in stark contrast to statewide contests, where many incumbents face token opposition. Still, underscoring the Democratic Party's dominance in California, those officials — not a Republican among them — made huge hauls.

The reports, filed for a midnight deadline Friday, also highlight a potential initiative on medical malpractice payouts that promises a costly battle if it qualifies for the ballot. Pitting trial-lawyer proponents against healthcare providers and insurers, it would raise the limit on pain and suffering awards from $250,000 to $1 million.

The opponents have amassed $31.3 million in a financial show of force. But the money is almost entirely in loans, and the contributors can retract the money if the proposal does not make the ballot.

Supporters have in the bank about one-tenth of what their rivals have, but their money is all cash.

Chris Lehane, a political strategist working with proponents, said raising loans is "one of the oldest tricks in the book," and it remains to be seen whether the opposition follows through with big money.

"At the end of the day, if you're going to talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk," he said.

Jim DeBoo, campaign manager for the opposition, said the loans show how seriously healthcare providers and their allies are taking the issue.

"It's not a scare tactic," he said. "It's reality."

The congressional fray shows close competition in nearly every corner of the state. The national political parties are targeting several of the races, making more cash and other support likely in coming months, ahead of the June primary.

Republicans hope to capitalize on a year when Democratic voter turnout will not be as high as it was when President Obama was at the top of the ticket. Democrats hope demographic changes in longtime Republican corridors will help them flip traditionally red seats to blue.

Democrats at risk include Rep. Raul Ruiz in Palm Springs, Rep. Scott Peters in San Diego and Rep. Ami Bera in Sacramento. Each raised well over $1 million, as did Peters' main Republican opponent, Carl DeMaio.

Among the seats Republicans are trying to hold on to are the Central Valley seat held by Rep. Jeff Denham, who has nearly $1.3 million in the bank, and the Inland Empire seat of Rep. Gary Miller, who reported $910,450 on hand.

In Silicon Valley, where Democrat Ro Khanna is trying to knock off veteran Democrat Mike Honda, both sides raised more than $1 million.

Incumbents in leadership positions who face no serious opposition — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), and Republican Reps. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority whip, Darrell Issa and Ed Royce — also reported raising more than $1 million, money they could use to help colleagues in tight races.

Among statewide officials, Gov. Jerry Brown reported the biggest bank account — $17 million for his anticipated bid for a fourth term. Brown's report illustrated the unique advantages he has after a political career that has spanned six decades.

His incumbency, high name recognition and deep political connections mean he can avoid spending large sums on consultants and fundraisers. He reported just $208,000 in reelection-related expenses last year.

One of Brown's GOP challengers, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks), reported just $54,000 cash on hand as he entered the new year. The tea party favorite has been trying to compensate for his lack of financial resources by trying to build grass-roots support through bus tours across the state, one of which began Saturday, and through unusual online ads.

The other main Republican hoping to take Brown on in November, former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, did not have to file a financial disclosure because he did not officially enter the race until Jan. 21.


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'Her,' 'Captain Phillips' win top Writers Guild film awards

The Writers Guild of America honored Spike Jonze for his future-set love story "Her" with its award for original screenplay and Billy Ray for "Captain Phillips," the true story of a hijacking at sea, for adapted screenplay on Saturday night. The awards were announced during simultaneous ceremonies in Los Angeles and New York.

The original screenplay category matched up five-for-five in nominations with the Academy Awards, perhaps tipping the hand of what awards-watchers may expect to see at the Oscars in a few weeks.

Those other nominees were "American Hustle," written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell; "Blue Jasmine," written by Woody Allen; "Dallas Buyers Club," written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack; and "Nebraska," written by Bob Nelson.

MORE: Complete list of WGA winners and nominees

Jonze, in his acceptance speech, called the honor "an award for pain," noting that writers endure a very specific kind of torture.

"I owe quite a debt to Capt. Richard Phillips, who survived something I know would have killed me," Ray said in accepting his award. "It was Captain Phillips who wrote this movie; I just wrote it down."

In the adapted category, the other nominees were "August: Osage County," written by Tracy Letts; "Before Midnight," written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke; "Lone Survivor," written by Peter Berg; and "The Wolf of Wall Street," written by Terence Winter.

Neither "August: Osage County" nor "Lone Survivor" was nominated in the adapted category at the Oscars, replaced by "12 Years a Slave" from John Ridley and "Philomena," from Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Neither of those films was eligible for consideration with the WGA.

Sarah Polley won in the documentary category for "Stories We Tell," a personal look at memory and perception.

OSCARS 2014: Complete list of nominees

Though many eyes are on the WGA's film categories in search of clues to how the upcoming Oscars might go, the group also recognized television writing Saturday night. "Breaking Bad" won in the drama category, and "Veep" won for comedy.

The other nominees in the category of television drama series were "The Good Wife," "Homeland," "House of Cards" and "Mad Men." For comedy, the field included "30 Rock," "Modern Family," "Orange Is the New Black" and "Parks and Recreation."

In the episodic television categories, Gennifer Hutchinson won for the "Breaking Bad" episode titled "Confessions." Jack Burditt and Robert Carlock won in the comedy episodic category for the "Hogcock!" episode of "30 Rock."

The new-series winner marked another awards-season victory for Netflix for its original political drama "House of Cards." The other nominees in the category were "The Americans," "Masters of Sex," "Orange Is the New Black" and "Ray Donovan."

Paul Mazursky was given a Screen Laurel Award, honoring lifetime achievement in writing for motion pictures. A two-time Writers Guild Award winner and five-time Academy Award nominee, Mazursky, taking the stage in a wheelchair, received a standing ovation before delivering a delightfully bawdy, rather rambling and entirely heartfelt speech.

Mel Brooks, walking onstage to present the award to Mazursky, received the first standing ovation of the evening. "Sit down," Brooks said, "I'm still alive!"

In Los Angeles, the event was hosted by actor Brad Garrett and streamed live for the first time on latimes.com.

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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Students compete in L.A. County Academic Decathlon Super Quiz

Hundreds of students paraded into a gymnasium on Saturday afternoon at USC's Galen Center, their friends and families cheering from the bleachers as ragtime music played.

The Super Quiz, the final event in the Los Angeles County Academic Decathlon, was about to start.

The game show-style competition requires teams of nine high school students to answer three dozen multiple-choice questions on subjects including art, economics and science. Questions were read by Fox 11 news reporter Gigi Graciette, and students had just seven seconds to punch in their answers on hand-held electronic devices. The results were displayed instantly on two large screens in front of the players.

In sessions held over two Saturdays, students delivered speeches, performed interviews, wrote essays and took multiple-choice tests. The theme of this year's competition: World War I.

Each decathlon team includes students with A, B and C grade-point averages.

The Super Quiz counts for only about 5% of a team's score, but it's the most high-pressure event and the only portion of the 10-subject scholastic competition that is open to the public. It's also an indicator of which squads have a shot at advancing to the state competition in Sacramento next month or the national competition in Honolulu in April.

At Galen Center, about 500 decathletes from 42 public high schools around Los Angeles County answered questions about early gramophones, the Ernest Hemingway novel "The Sun Also Rises," polygenic inheritance and the Treaty of Versailles.

"That seven seconds is a lot of pressure," said Hiral Ashani, a 13-year-old freshman at Burbank High School. "Your team is counting on you, and there's no one to help you out, so it's really nerve-wracking."

Ashani and his teammates dressed in World War I aviator outfits, complete with leather helmets and goggles. Others squads wore personalized cardigans, T-shirts or Army fatigues.

Patricia Campos was in the bleachers cheering on her son Nicholas, a senior at Edgewood High School in West Covina. She said her son's team held 24-hour study sessions on weekends and added more hours on weekdays in addition to doing their regular homework. "They stay until 10 or 11 o'clock at night just to prepare for this," she said.

It paid off, at least with the Super Quiz. Edgewood High tied with Redondo Union High School for first place at Saturday's showdown, according to preliminary results. Results for the full competition, administered by the county Office of Education, will be announced on Feb. 12.

Another 500 or so students from 59 teams in the Los Angeles Unified School District capped off their Academic Decathlon with the Super Quiz at Roybal Learning Center, near downtown. Some of the top-scoring teams were El Camino Real Charter High School and John Marshall High School, according to unofficial results.

L.A. Unified's Academic Decathlon program boasts some of the best teams in the country. Granada Hills Charter High School has won the national championship the last three years.

Full results for Los Angeles Unified teams will be released Friday.

tony.barboza@latimes.com


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California flu deaths for those under 65 running far ahead of last year

Written By kolimtiga on Sabtu, 01 Februari 2014 | 12.56

Influenza-related illness has killed 147 Californians under age 65 this season, including 17 people in Los Angeles County and one in Long Beach, state health officials have confirmed.

The toll is unusually high: At the same point last year, only 14 people in that age group had died of the flu, Dr. James Watt of the California Department of Public Health told reporters Friday.

Throughout the entire 2012-2013 flu season, the state logged just 106 confirmed deaths.

The new fatalities are a sign that this year's flu season continues to be especially severe, even as some indicators of influenza activity, such as hospitalizations for flu-related illness, seem to be plateauing in L.A. County, California and elsewhere across the U.S.

"Unfortunately, one of the things we always say about influenza is that it's unpredictable," said Watt, chief of the public health department's Division of Communicable Disease Control. "It's too early to say if this decline will be sustained."

The state confirmed 52 new deaths last week. Public health workers were investigating an additional 44 reported influenza deaths, most of which are likely to be confirmed in coming days.

"We expect the number to climb," Watt said.

L.A. County also released flu statistics Friday.

The county Department of Public Health's latest Influenza Watch update indicated that activity was "still up, but leveling off," with slight decreases in the number of flu-related visits to emergency departments and positive flu tests in recent weeks.

But even with those reductions, the number of flu illnesses remained high, said department Director Dr. Jonathan Fielding, who urged everyone — especially members of high-risk groups such as the elderly, pregnant women and people with underlying medical conditions — to get a flu vaccine.

"Anyone who hasn't been immunized, there's still time," Fielding said. "There's going to be a lot of flu, and the flu will hang around for months."

The county reported that 33 people, including two children, had died of the illness as of Jan. 25.

Several factors could account for the disparity between the state and county tallies, Watt said.

Counties report flu deaths before the state confirms fatalities, so sometimes state numbers lag behind. Additionally, some counties — including Los Angeles — include deaths among people above the age of 65.

The state Department of Public Health focuses on deaths among younger people because that metric provides a useful gauge of the severity of the flu season's illnesses, Watt said.

Typically, influenza strikes very old people or very young children more intensely than it affects young adults. But this year's predominant strain, H1N1 or swine flu, has behaved differently from past seasons — sickening otherwise healthy, younger adults.

Watt said Friday that it was not yet clear that H1N1 would result in a disproportionate number of deaths among younger, healthy people this season. The "great majority" of fatalities so far in California had occurred in people with underlying medical conditions that could put them at higher risk, he said.

"We're still tracking how this virus will behave this year," he said, adding that national data seem to show that H1N1 was behaving "more like a typical virus" than it did during the 2009 pandemic, when swine flu contributed to thousands of deaths around the world.

"It certainly is impacting young adults, but it's less pronounced" than in the past, he said.

The public health department does not yet have data detailing how many Californians have received a flu vaccine this season.

Doses of the flu shot and nasal spray are "widely available," Watt said.

In 2012-2013, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated, 44.2% of Californians age 6 months or older received a flu immunization.

eryn.brown@latimes.com


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Ridley-Thomas obtains building permit to renovate garage

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas obtained a building permit Friday to renovate what appears to be an improperly converted garage at his Leimert Park home by adding a carport and removing a section of the detached building.

The request to approve the work comes after The Times reported that county-paid crews installing a security system last year replaced his garage's interior walls, installed electrical wiring and equipment, and put in appliances — without city permits.

The newspaper reported that the detached garage had been converted into an office with a restroom before the work was done, apparently without permits.

Online records show that city building officials issued a permit Friday to add a two-vehicle carport and convert the garage into a recreation room with a half-bathroom. In addition, the permit calls for the removal of a five-by-19-foot section of the building.

Bob Steinbach, a spokesman for the city's Department of Building and Safety, said inspectors have visited the home as part of an investigation into whether Ridley-Thomas' garage had been converted without permits. The probe was launched in response to a complaint after the Times report about the county work performed at the supervisor's home.

Steinbach said city officials still have to perform further inspections of the garage. As part of the permit sought Friday, he said, inspectors would conduct a thorough review of any work previously done without approval. He said inspectors, for example, usually punch holes in drywall to examine unpermitted electrical and plumbing work.

"That will all be part of the permit," he said. "There are a lot of inspections that have to happen."

Lisa Richardson, a spokeswoman for Ridley-Thomas, said the work proposed under Friday's permit "is a private matter and no public employees are involved." The permit lists the contractor as Yor Construction and Investments Inc., a Valley Village-based firm.

Ridley-Thomas has declined repeated requests from The Times to answer questions about last year's work by county-paid crews on his garage.

In an interview last week with radio station KCRW-FM (89.9), he said the garage had been converted before he bought the home more than 20 years ago. A Times check of city building records turned up no permits for the conversion or for last year's work by the county.

The supervisor has long called for aggressive code enforcement to prevent deadly fires in buildings —including garages — that were not permitted.

In 1997, when he was a Los Angeles city councilman, Ridley-Thomas called on the city's Department of Building and Safety to address "potentially fatal conditions which are too often present in illegally converted garages." In his motion, which followed the deaths of eight people in garage apartments, Ridley-Thomas suggested several possible solutions, such as requiring homeowners to obtain permits and inspections or fining or jailing property owners for renting out converted garages as places to live.

Last year, Ridley-Thomas sent out announcements from his official county Twitter feed while visiting a burned-out auto mechanics shop in East Rancho Dominguez where a mother and child had been killed in a fire. "No family should be in danger bc of unsafe bldg conditions," one tweet said. That was soon followed up with another: "Just not acceptable. Enforce the code. Protect life and property — in that order."

His spokeswoman said the "supervisor never has rented out his garage and nor has anyone ever lived in it while he has owned the property."

A county project manager who oversaw the work by county crews at Ridley-Thomas' home told The Times that the project lasted seven days in September. John Thompson said workers replaced the garage's interior wood-paneling with drywall and dug a 60-foot-long trench across the property to bury conduit and make more electrical power available to the structure. They also installed a wall-mounted heat-and-air unit, a flat-screen television and a refrigerator in the garage.

Several electrical and security systems experts told The Times that much of the work appeared to go beyond what would be required for even a high-end security system.

Generally, permits must be obtained for the installation of restrooms, air conditioners, electrical wiring and drywall, according to the Department of Building and Safety. Violators of the city's permit rules could be ordered to pay penalties and correct any improper work, the department website says.

Thompson said he believed the county crews did not need permits because they conduct their own inspections. But a spokesman for the city Building and Safety Department said permits were required because the work was done on a private home.

Ridley-Thomas told KCRW that he repaid the county nearly $4,000 for the cost of appliances that were installed during the project and extra labor performed by county crews in September. He did not offer a breakdown of the reimbursements or say when he made them.

The county has provided to The Times heavily redacted records that list the cost of the security work at $10,038. It was unclear whether that amount accounted for any reimbursements.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

paul.pringle@latimes.com


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Wright introduces bill to downgrade nonviolent felony convictions

SACRAMENTO —Two days after a jury found him guilty on eight felony counts of voter fraud and perjury, state Sen. Roderick Wright introduced a bill that would allow some nonviolent felony convictions to be converted to misdemeanors.

The Democrat, who represents an Inglewood-area district, was convicted Tuesday of lying about where he lived when he ran for his Senate seat and voted in several elections.

On Thursday, he introduced the bill. On Friday, a spokesman for Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said the legislation would not be put to a vote.

"Regardless of any merits of the bill, wrong author, wrong time," said Rhys Williams, a spokesman for Steinberg.

Wright was stripped of a committee chairmanship but remains a member in good standing. His bill would have applied to felons who were not sent to state prison, whose crimes were not "serious or violent," who were not required to register as sex offenders and who presented "clear and convincing evidence" of rehabilitation.

Those facing a criminal charge at the time of the conversion request would have been ineligible, as would those convicted of an offense in the preceding five years — a provision that could have applied to Wright.

A spokeswoman for Wright said the bill, SB 929, was not intended to benefit him.

"Sen. Wright has worked for many years on issues of fairness in sentencing and 'second-chance legislation' with various community groups … and was only continuing those ongoing efforts," said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Hanson.

"However," she added, Wright "recognizes that public perception under present circumstances casts a different light on his involvement with this issue, and he will not be moving the bill."

Wright reported to the state in a required filing Friday that he raised $89,200 last year for his legal defense fund, bringing the total to $248,000 since 2011. Donations have come from Steinberg, Sempra Energy, PG&E and California Grand Casino.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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California drought could force key water system to cut deliveries

Officials Friday said that for the first time ever, the State Water Project that helps supply a majority of Californians may be unable to make any deliveries except to maintain public health and safety.

The prospect of no deliveries from one of the state's key water systems underscores the depth of a drought that threatens to be the worst in California's modern history.

But the practical effect is less stark because most water districts have other sources, such as local storage and groundwater, to turn to. Officials stressed that the cut did not mean faucets would run dry.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the state project's largest customer, has said it has enough supplies in reserve to get the Southland through this year without mandatory rationing.

Even so, the announcement Friday is a milestone. "This is the first time in the 54-year history of the State Water Project that projected water supplies for both urban and agricultural uses have been reduced to zero," said state Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin.

"This is not a coming crisis … This is a current crisis," Cowin said during a Sacramento news conference in which state officials announced a variety of actions they were taking to cope with the growing water shortage.

The State Water Project supplies mostly urban agencies centered in the Bay Area and Southern California, along with about 1,000 square miles of irrigated farmland, primarily in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

The State Water Resources Control Board is issuing temporary orders relaxing environmental standards that would have triggered increased releases from large reservoirs in Northern California. It is limiting exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to what is necessary to meet health and safety needs, in effect eliminating delta irrigation deliveries to San Joaquin agriculture.

The board is also telling about 5,800 junior rights holders, most of them agricultural, that they will have to curtail surface water diversions in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins.

"Today's actions mean that everyone — farmers, fish, people in our cities and towns — will get less water," Cowin said. "But these actions will protect us all better in the long run. Simply put, there's not enough water to go around."

Last year was California's driest calendar year in more than a century of records. This year could be just as bad. Storage in major reservoirs has dropped well below average. The mountain snowpack, which acts as a natural reservoir, is at record lows for this time of year.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency and urged all Californians to cut water use by 20%. The state has identified 17 communities in Central and Northern California that could run out of water in the next couple of months.

Growers who get supplies from the federal Central Valley Project will hear in a few weeks if they can count on any deliveries from that system.

About 75% of Californians' water use is by agriculture, meaning the state's fertile middle takes the biggest hit in times of drought. San Joaquin Valley farmers will pump groundwater and use any reserves they have to keep profitable orchards and vines alive, while leaving hundreds of thousands of acres unplanted this year.

Jim Beck, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency, the State Water Project's second largest customer, said his growers would be able to make up for a large part of lost deliveries with groundwater and supplies left over from last year.

Still, he called the prospect of a zero allocation a "huge disaster that will dramatically affect our growers economically" and said it "should be viewed with the same urgency and response as an earthquake and wildfire."

In 1991, during California's last major drought, the State Water Project didn't deliver any irrigation water but sent some supplies to urban agencies. The project makes monthly assessments and, if February and March bring rain and snow, the allocation could change.

In 2010, the state project initially said it would only be able to deliver 5% of contractor requests. When winter storms boosted reservoir levels, the allocation jumped to 50%.

Officials aren't counting on that this year. By reducing dam releases now, they say they can hold onto supplies to use later for urban deliveries, to prevent delta water supplies from getting too salty and to maintain cool river temperatures for migrating salmon.

"We're trying to make sure there's enough water for fish and public health going into the future," said Tom Howard, executive director of the state water board.

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

Twitter: @boxall


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