Tuesday, March 6, 2018

[San Luis Obispo County] ‘Why are we here?’ local judge asks in John Wallace conflict-of-interest case

Blog note: this article references two grand jury reports on the alleged conflict-of-interest.
The felony conflict-of-interest cases against former South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District chief administrator John Wallace got off to a rocky start Monday with a Santa Maria judge questioning why he’s even hearing the case.
“This case is one that probably should have been a civil compromise a year ago,” Judge Timothy Staffel said Monday at Wallace’s hearing in Santa Maria. “There seems to be a lot of taxpayer money going into this case.”
Wallace, 73, who is accused of steering work to his engineering firm while serving as the head of two local special services districts, was in court for a preliminary hearing in which Staffell heard testimony from prosecution witnesses before ruling whether there’s enough probable cause for each charge to order Wallace to trial.
Wallace has pleaded not guilty to four felony charges of conflict of interest and four misdemeanor charges of public official interference with government policy for financial gain stemming from his time at the South County District and the Avila Beach Community Services District.
The former CEO of engineering firm the Wallace Group, Wallace retired from the sanitation district in 2013 after 27 years. He and his former company, Fluid Resource Management, had also worked for several other local districts that provide sewer, water, road maintenance and other services to unincorporated areas of the county.
He left his position with the South County district as calls for an investigation into perceived conflicts of interest grew. In January 2016, the District Attorney’s Office received a sanitation district-commissioned report from an investigator that concluded Wallace had mismanaged the district for nearly a decade.
It was during that investigation that San Luis Obispo prosecutors learned of Mr. Wallace’s work with the Avila Beach agency, which led to the filing of additional charges, the DA’s Office said in a news release at the time.
The case is being tried in the Santa Maria branch of Santa Barbara Superior Court after the case was transferred following the judicial appointment of Judge Matthew Guerrero, who served on the sanitation district board of directors during Wallace’s tenure and is expected to testify.
Wallace’s attorney, Los Angeles-based Kenneth White, indicated his client’s defense focuses on the statute of limitations and whether or not Wallace was acting in his official capacity with the districts when negotiating his firm’s contracts.
Staffel began Monday’s preliminary hearing — which was scheduled to last through Wednesday — by instructing Deputy District Attorney Michael Frye to “focus this” hearing, noting that many facts in the case are well-documented and not in dispute.
Frye first called Matthew Habber, former accountant for the sanitation district, who testified that the district was his first government job. Habber said he personally thought it seemed as though Wallace had a conflict in his dual roles, but that he didn’t raise the issue to the board.
“(With) me coming on board, that’s how I was told it was done,” he said. “It wasn’t really for me to question.”
Mike Seitz, who formerly worked as legal counsel for the sanitation district and Avila Beach CSD and has long defended Wallace’s work, testified Monday afternoon that a SLO County Grand Jury report from 1993 investigated Wallace’s similar roles with the San Simeon Community Services District and found no conflict.
Seitz — who said he once played on a softball team with Wallace called The Reasonable Doubts and whose wife briefly worked for the Wallace Group — testified that he never witnessed Wallace direct services to his company without approval from the board, and that he never saw what he considered a conflict of interest.
However, in 2011, a SLO County civil Grand Jury released a report saying the district was “exposed to a number of financial, legal and public trust issues” because of Wallace’s dual roles. Though Seitz said he disagreed with the report, he advised that the district split Wallace’s 15-year-old contract into two separate contracts, one for his role as district administrator and another for his role as district engineer.
Seitz said such an arrangement was “OK as long as the board and attorney were vigilant.”
“(The Grand Jury report) provided, perhaps, the appearance of a conflict, but we felt we had mitigated that,” Seitz said.
Staffel last heard from Peter Kelley, an Avila Beach CSD board member since 2001, who testified that as media scrutiny of Wallace grew in 2011, the Avila Beach board began discussing whether it should split Wallace’s contract as well.
“I voted no. I stated I’d be more comfortable if the positions were separated and filled by different people,” Kelley said. “I felt there was a conflict of interest.”
Frye said he expects to call Guerrero, DA Investigator Neil Clayton and a former employee of Fluid Resources Management to the stand Tuesday morning before Staffel issues a ruling.
Before adjourning for the day, a seemingly perplexed Staffel said that Wallace’s perceived conflict “wasn’t a big secret” when his contracts were approved with oversight from the district boards.
“Here you have a Grand Jury report — they seemed to figure it out,” Staffel said, adding that neither district is seeking restitution for money it paid to Wallace Group. He said, noting there are still witnesses to hear, that the cases appear to belong in civil court in some fashion.
“If the entities don’t want their money back, why are we here?” he said. “Let’s get this (case) back to reality where it belongs.”
March 5, 2018
The Tribune
By Matt Fountain

Monday, March 5, 2018

[San Diego County] Alpine and Grossmont agree to end litigation over high school

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report, "Fool Us Once, Fool Us Twice?”
March 2, 2018 (Alpine) – In a joint press release, the Grossmont Union High School District (GUHSD), Alpine Union High School District (AUSD) and Alpine Taxpayers for Bound Accountability (ATBA) announced a resolution to end the prolonged legal battle over the never-built Alpine High School.
The AUSD and ATBA have agreed not to appeal to the state Supreme Court, after an appeals court ruled on behalf of Grossmont that an enrollment requirement to build the school had not been met and that therefore, Grossmont is not obligated to build the school.  In exchange, the GUHSD has agreed not to seek recovery of its court costs from the Alpine district or the Alpine taxpayers group.
 “Dr. Glover and I strongly believe it is essential for our districts to work collaboratively to forge positive relationships dedicated to improving student outcomes and preparing all students to achieve their potential for success in life, career and as contributing members of society” said Dr. Newman, AUSD Superintendent.
Dr. Glover, Grossmont Superintendent stated, “This settlement is yet another sign of improved relations between our districts and another example of the two districts’ dedication and focus on serving our East County students, families and communities.”
ATBA member Sal Casamassima shared, “The ATBA recognizes the court has ruled and the parties involved have forged a settlement agreement. The new, collaborative efforts between the two districts is welcomed news.”
The press release states that the GUHSD “remains committed to building a new high school in Alpine when the conditions are appropriate for doing so,” and that all parties will “endeavor to work together in a positive spirit of cooperation focused on the best interests of the entire districts, tis students and their families, teachers and staff and all communities served.”
The Alpine groups, faced with hefty legal bills, had little choice but to cut their losses in the settlement, after both a trial and appellate court issued ruling in contrast to an earlier San Diego County Grand Jury report which excoriated the GUHSD for twice enticing voters to support bond measures Prop U and H in part to build the Alpine High School, then failing to do so. The Grand Jury report was titled “Fool Us Once, Fool Us Twice?” 
The Grand Jury admonished Grossmont to either set a clear time table to build the school, or turnover money to the Alpine district so that it could do so, an action that would have required unification to expand the AUSD to include high schools, not just elementary and middle schools. But the State recently turned down the AUSD’s unification proposal, which was backed by the County Board of Education, dashing seemingly all hopes of getting a high school built in Alpine, at least as long as the current board remains in power.
George Barnett, a plaintiff in the proceedings and final settlement, told ECM he is “personally pleased” that the districts and superintendents “pledge to work together in that Alpine is an important feeder to Grossmont, and the education of Alpine kids is also a priority of Grossmont.”
Some Alpine residents who have waged a decades-long battle  to bring a high school to Alpine have voiced disappointment at the outcome, however, and voice skepticism over the district’s motives.
After the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote an article on the settlement, Scott Alevy, a Blossom Valley resident and former East County Chamber of Commerce President, posted on SDUT reporter Karen Pearlman’s Facebook page, “I know that I am not the only disgruntled Blossom Valley and Alpine resident who feels we were `sold a bill of goods.’
He noted that residents voted for the bonds “with the understanding that the children in our neighborhood would benefit from a new and closer high school and that home values would rise and our neighborhood would be enhanced with a new high school,” then asked, “Will we realize any benefit for the money that we have paid into the bond funds without any benefit now or ever?”
Former GUHSD board member Priscilla Schreiber, the sole supporter of the Alpine High School through her years on the board before she was forced out through redistricting, replied, “The only benefit will be for the students from Alpine and Blossom Valley who will attend a newly modernized GUHSD high school down the hill. No increased property values or growth will be realized in those communities without the promised high school and because of their own conditions placed on the school and fought for in the courts, they can’t build the school for years, if ever.”
But she added, “Elections are just around the corner for the three who have denied you all a return on your investment,” she said of the three incumbent board members still in office (Jim Kelly, Gary Woods and Robert Shield.)
Deirdre Kline posted online, “I doubt if Alpine and Blssom Valley citizens will ever trust GUHSD again! Vote!”
It’s unclear yet who if anyone will run to challenge the incumbents and whether any challengers would support committing to build an Alpine High School.  But it’s clear that if  pro-Alpine high school candidates emerge, many Alpine residents will likely be behind them.
Jennifer Mowery Doucet made this observation on Facebook:  “Sadly the town of Alpine must feel like Charlie Brown when Lucy (the GUHSD board) continuously pulls the football out from him as he’s putting his `all’ into that big kick. We’ve worked so hard and just ended up flat on our backs with no points scored! Fool us once, fool us twice,” she concluded, adding, “Remember to vote.”
March 2, 2018
East County Magazine
By Seth Miriam Raftery

[San Diego County] Trash-can salvage 101

The drill-hole method, the plastic wrap, the zip-tie, duct tape, epoxy...

Last year, NBC 7 San Diego reported that “The San Diego City Council decided [June 27] that residents will still have to pay to replace damaged trash bins, despite a county Grand Jury recommendation that the city replace the trash bins free of charge. According to the March 22 Grand Jury report, complaints about damaged trash bins have increased 25 percent over the last two years.”
David, a retired engineer, drills holes in his bins to stop cracks from worsening.
“I think the city and its employees are at fault for the cracking and breaking [of the black trash bins],” says Damien Abrams. “They should have some kind of insurance policy or warranty with the manufacturer to replace them.”
Trash cans cost up to $95 apiece ($70, plus $25 delivery), so, many residents are repairing their damaged bins.
Abrams, a 39-year-old auto-customizer from Paradise Hills, says, “I see the trash-collecting trucks [and their drivers] slam the bins and constantly drop them when returning them to the curb, and that’s why most of them are broken. When I come home from work, my trash bin is almost always on its side or back side and residents are being fined for stuff their own city workers are doing, and it’s not right.”
He recently saw a photo of David’s somewhat-normal-looking trash bin. “I’ve seen people drill multiple holes along the crack and use zip-ties crossing over in an X pattern, kinda like a stitch to hold them together.”
Screws and scrap wood hold together this cracked bin.
David, a Kensington resident in his 60s, didn’t have zip-ties in his 3/8 drilled holes at each end of a crack. An engineer by trade, he said, “[The holes] will stop the crack from spreading, and drilling at the ends of the crack spreads that stress out.”
He is content with his trash collectors because his first bin lasted ten years and his second one is going on its seventh year — thanks to his “stop drilling” process.
David said someone in his neighborhood got creative with their recycle bin, painting it black because the city provides one additional blue recycling bin for free (if the applicant and his or her address is approved).
Last year, John S. from south San Diego tried to fix the middle section of his bin with duct tape and epoxy.
“We had a problem with our trash [bin] because the claws were too powerful,” he says. “We sent photo proof to [the Environmental Services Department of the City of San Diego] and they said they will not give us a free trash can.”
Instead of driving about 25 miles north to the city office at 8353 Miramar Place for a replacement, John went to the Home Depot off Palm Avenue.
“I got some of their plastic wrapping [stretch film wrap] and black spray-paint and came back home to fix my trash can,” he said.
He wrapped the bin tightly with the wrap and then spray-painted it. “The paint didn’t stick,” he said, “so that was a waste of money.”
The following Thursday, the truck driver picked up John’s bin and when the claw mechanism put it down, the fracture line spread even more, “almost breaking it in half.”
The next week, John tried his quick-fix again (without the paint) but the weight of the trash made the bin “look all lopsided.” At 6 a.m. he was up and heard the trash truck. He said he ran outside in his pajamas to watch how the driver would handle his bin. “[The trash collector] drove right past our driveway and trash bin, and he laughed at me.”
Later that morning, John called the 858-694-7000 Environmental Services phone number and spoke to the operator. “She responded with a ‘sorry’ and said that they would come the next day to pick up the trash,” he said.
“They picked it up, but my trash can freakin’ fell apart afterwards,” he said. “Anyways, I ended up coughing up the $90 or so after all that.”
John thinks he could’ve gotten a credit toward a new bin, but he didn't know how old his old one was. The city website states “Containers within the 10 year lifespan will cost a prorated fee based on $7 per year, plus delivery charge, if applicable.”
And if John’s lid was the only thing broken, he could’ve gone to their office and picked up a new lid for free of charge, as long as he had the container serial number and address that corresponds to the bin.
March 2, 2018
San Diego Reader
By Mike Madriaga

Thursday, March 1, 2018

[San Francisco City & County] SF DA wants auto break-in task force

Blog note: this article cites civil grand jury data.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón plans to ask the city's Board of Supervisors and mayor for about $1 million to establish a task force to address automobile break-ins.
The team would include prosecutors and analysts "solely dedicated to auto burglary investigations and prosecutions," Gascón said at a February 21 news conference.
More than 30,000 auto burglaries were reported in the city last year, "resulting in just 481 arrests, and 391 prosecutions," according to Gascón's office. Citing civil grand jury data, the DA's office said, "criminal street gangs are behind 70 to 80 percent of all auto burglary incidents in San Francisco."
Gascón's hoping the task force can identify and prosecute the people who are behind many of the cases.
"We know that a small percentage of individuals are responsible for the vast majority of auto burglaries in San Francisco," he said in a statement. "I created a Crime Strategies Unit within the District Attorney's office almost three years ago to go after the individuals who were responsible for an outsized portion of crime in our community, and it has successfully netted hundreds of major crime drivers in San Francisco and throughout the region. We're going to apply this same analytical and data intensive approach to identify the individuals that are responsible for the wave of auto burglaries."
The task force would focus on serial offenders involved in open cases, along with probation violations, reviews of jail calls, identifying suspect vehicles, and other areas.
In response to a Bay Area Reporter email, gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who chairs the supervisors' Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, said he doesn't support Gascón's proposal.
"If we need additional investigative resources, that funding should go to the police department," said Sheehy in an email. "If he can't work with SFPD, he should figure out how to do so. If the district attorney does not have enough legal staff to do the job and prosecute auto burglaries, he should demonstrate why current staffing is incapable of doing so. After 24,000 auto burglaries this year and 17,000 last year, it sure has taken him awhile to assess his own deficits in addressing this issue."
Mayor Mark Farrell said he has directed Police Chief William Scott to provide information on the issue.
"Residents and tourists are at a breaking point of frustration with car break-ins," Farrell said in a statement to the B.A.R. "Parking your car in San Francisco should not be a game of roulette, and that is exactly why I asked Chief Scott to provide a police department staffing analysis to fix the issue. At this point we need action, not another press conference asking for a $1 million task force."
Along with proposing the task force, Gascón also recently established an auto burglary tip line.
He said the resource "is not a replacement for a police report," and people should still use 911 to report emergencies, but the tip line is for people who witness break-ins to provide information.
The line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and people can make reports in multiple languages.
The phone number for the tip line is (415) 553-7337.
Tips may also be provided at http://sfdistrictattorney.org/auto-burglary-tip-line or emailed to SFDA.AutoBurgTips@sfgov.org.
Finally, Gascón's office is republishing its private camera registry ( http://sfdistrictattorney.org/register-your-camera) so people can register their security devices in order to aid in law enforcement investigations.
State proposal
Gascón is also involved in work to address auto break-ins at the state level.
In January, gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) announced Senate Bill 916, which Gascón is sponsoring. It's meant "to close a loophole that hampers prosecutions for automobile break-ins" by allowing prosecutors "to prove that a defendant committed an auto burglary by showing that he or she broke a car window to get into the car," according to Wiener's office. Currently, judges sometimes require prosecutors to show that car doors weren't locked in auto burglary cases.
Wiener's office said that, in December, the SFPD reported that larceny theft from vehicles had increased by 26 percent over the past year.
"The explosion in auto break-ins we're experiencing is unacceptable, and we need to ensure our police and district attorneys have all the tools they need to address it," said Wiener in a news release. "When residents or visitors park their cars on the streets, they should have confidence that the car and its contents will be there when they return. Damaged cars and stolen property can significantly harm people, and shattered glass all over the ground undermines safe neighborhoods. SB 916 closes a loophole in the Penal Code that can lead to cases being dropped or charges reduced even when the evidence of burglary are clear."
Gascón stated, "The community's skyrocketing number of auto break-ins are a stain on our quality of life. ... This legislation will close a loophole that has allowed some suspects to escape consequences, and there are additional efforts underway that will give San Franciscans needed relief from the frustration and broken glass that has defined the city's epidemic of auto break-ins."
SB 916 is co-authored by Assemblymen David Chiu and Phil Ting, both Democrats of San Francisco.
March 1, 2018
The Bay Area Reporter
By Seth Hemmelgarn

[Los Angeles County] Yes, some drivers do outrun police during high-speed pursuits — but often at great peril

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report on police pursuits.
For a few moments Tuesday night, it looked like a pickup driver had finally done what so many other car chase suspects could not: elude police during a high-speed pursuit.
With officers on his tail, the driver veered his truck off the roadway and into a Metro subway tunnel in Boyle Heights, disappearing from view of helicopters broadcasting the chase. Metro officials shut down the Gold Line as officers went into the tunnel and checked the subway station at Soto Street.
It turned out not to be a perfect getaway. The suspect was captured, but his passenger managed to get away, at least so far.
Televised car chases have long been a source of fascination in Southern California, even though the vast majority end the same way, with drivers eventually being stopped and arrested. Sometimes, they simply give up or run out of gas. Other times, police use spike strips or the "pit" maneuver to spin the vehicle and stop it.
Yet watching these chases involves a certain faith that maybe, just maybe, the driver will outrun the cops.
Against the odds, some do get away. A Los Angeles Times analysis found that the Los Angeles Police Department reported making arrests in 82% of chases from 2006 to 2014, well above the state average of 68%. More recent data were not immediately available.
"People are always going to try and get away, but it is pretty hard to escape," said Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles police captain and pursuit training expert.
In November, three suspects thought to be involved in an armed robbery of a Laguna Niguel wireless store managed to escape police after a lengthy pursuit from Orange County to Pasadena, where they jumped out of their vehicle at the Paseo Colorado mall. They have yet to be caught.
A Los Angeles County civil grand jury report studied 421 police pursuits in the county that were reported to the California Highway Patrol in a 12-month period beginning October 2015. The report found that suspects were immediately apprehended in 67% of the chases, leaving 139 pursuits that did not end in an arrest. Fifty-nine involved vehicles that escaped, and 47 ended because police abandoned the pursuit, usually for safety reasons.
The report concluded that some pursuits caused "unnecessary bystander injuries and deaths" and that law enforcement officers need better training to reduce the risk of crashes during high-speed pursuits.
The Times analysis showed that LAPD pursuits injure bystanders at more than twice the rate of police chases in the rest of California. From 2006 to 2014, 334 bystanders were injured — one for every 10 LAPD pursuits, according to the review of pursuit data reported to the CHP.
Both the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department have tightened their policies on pursuits, pushing away from chasing nonviolent offenders or suspects whose behavior at the wheel becomes so dangerous it is likely to lead to injury to pedestrians or other motorists.
Meyer predicted that police pursuit escapes will be more difficult in coming years.
"Some of the technology coming along will really make it much harder to escape. We are talking drones launched from police cars to track the getaway car," he said.
Over the years, pursuit suspects have tried to evade police by driving into parking garages or into Los Angeles International Airport, where there are flight restrictions for news choppers, or by simply bailing out of cars and running onto freeway medians.
Eighteen months ago, one particularly resourceful car thief, after an hourlong pursuit, headed into the hills above Whittier. With the stolen Honda Accord still moving, he climbed out of the driver's window and jumped while the car continued to coast down the tree-lined road.
But the action Tuesday night was something new.
It began when Ralph Lopez Jr., 26, of Los Angeles allegedly stole a truck in Huntington Park. Police from that city gave chase. At one point, Lopez slammed into a yellow cab, sending two passengers to the hospital. Later, he drove on a sidewalk before driving into a subway tunnel. At that moment, there was concern that the truck could hit a train inside the tunnel. But Metro quickly shut off service, and it turned out there were no trains in the short tunnel, which runs through a portion of Boyle Heights.
"The tunnel — it was a first for us in a pursuit," said Huntington Park Police Lt. Al Martinez. "We don't like firsts."
Police eventually arrested Lopez but are still looking for his passenger.
Videos of the truck's descent into the subway made the rounds on social media Wednesday. But Meyer worries it could have another effect.
"People are going to copycat what this guy did and end up getting hit by a train," he said.
February 22, 2018
Los Angles Times
By Richard Winton

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

[Contra Costa County] My Word: Sen. Glazer is ignoring 115,000 East County folks

Blog note: this opinion piece references grand jury reports on the subject.
East of Clayton and Antioch lies a broad swath of what used to be Contra Costa County farmland.  The California senator representing this area, Sen. Steve Glazer, seems to be ignoring the public safety needs of the people who now live there.
While East County used to contain just 8,000 residents and the largest irrigated orchard west of the Mississippi, the 249-square-mile area now contains the cities of Brentwood (2016 population: 60,532) and Oakley (population 40,622), along with the unincorporated communities of Bethel Island, Byron, Discovery Bay, Knightsen, and Morgan Territory.
All combined East County has a rapidly growing population of more than 115,000 Californians.
A 2016 report by the Contra Costa County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) stated that emergency medical and fire services provided by the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) were funded at a rate of $94 per person.  The report also said that these same services were funded at the rate of $449 and $370 per person in central parts of the county.
This low funding level has forced ECCFPD to close five of the eight fire stations operational in 2010, and drastically reduce staff.  Response times are at levels that far exceed any industry standards or goals.
Yet, in East Contra Costa, have steadily deteriorated and the population and development grew.  In 2016 ECCFPD recognized the funding crisis, called a “public safety emergency” by another elected official, and passed a resolution pleading for help from Senator Glazer and others in the legislature.  You can view Resolution No. 2016-21 on the ECCFPD website.
The crisis was also the subject of reports by the Contra Costa County Grand Jury and a government task force, and it was noted by industry consultants as well as the media.  Concerned residents have erected a billboard along Vasco Road, a major arterial route into East County, drawing attention to the crisis.
“The District lacks sufficient funds to provide fire and emergency response to the communities it was created to serve,” said a three- page letter the ECCFPD Board sent to Sen. Glazer in 2016, signed by then Board President Joel Bryant.
So far, Sen. Glazer has done little or nothing to address this issue.
A review of bills authored or co-authored by Sen. Glazer shows a wide range of subjects.  He’s sponsored ten “Awareness” month/week/day bills, several bills to ban smoking on public beaches and in parks, and one bill to change the names of California places because the names commemorate Civil War-era figures.
But he’s authored or co-authored no bills to improve the public safety of his ECCFPD constituents.
The Courage Campaign is a group of mostly online organizations that advocate for progressive causes in California. Representing an estimated 1.4 million members, the Courage Campaign uses digital tools with grassroots community organizers and targeted messaging.
The group focuses on the areas of Economic Justice, Human Rights and Corporate and Political Accountability.  It annually ranks California Senators and Assembly Members, and for 2017 Courage Campaign gives Senator Glazer a letter grade of “F,” along with a numeric score of 32 out of 100.
The “Courage Score” as it is called, grades California legislators on political courage, how well they stand up for their constituents.  While 16 percent of the all California Senators received an “A” grade, 40 percent received an “F” grade in 2017, including Sen. Glazer.
According to the California Senate website, each Senator represents 931,349 Californians.  So the residents of the ECCFPD service area represent only about one-eighth (12.35 percent ) of Sen. Glazer’s district.
It is clear that Sen. Glazer is not acting to address or improve the public safety emergency involving his constituents of the ECCFPD service area.
February 18, 2018
East Bay Times
By Bryan Scott, co-chair of East County Voters for Equal Protection

Sunday, February 18, 2018

[Riverside County] Did Riverside County deputies cheat? Scandal spills into sheriff’s election

A candidate for Riverside County sheriff is calling for a civil grand jury probe after a report that at least 25 sheriff’s employees trying to be promoted to investigator cheated on an exam.
In a news release issued Thursday, Feb. 15, Dave Brown said the District Attorney’s Office should review what effect any cheating might have had on criminal convictions in cases involving implicated employees. County counsel also should reaffirm whistleblower protections for deputies and other county employees, said Brown, a former Hemet police chief.
In an emailed response, Sniff called Brown’s news release “more grandstanding and political nonsense by a desperate candidate with a failing campaign trying to gain traction, that really needs to answer for his own scandals and mismanagement as alleged by the recently published claims by one of his former officers involving evidence destruction, rampant officer misconduct, and racism under his own watch as Hemet police chief.”
Sniff was referring to a complaint filed by a former Hemet police officer who alleges officers abused a prisoner, destroyed evidence and used slurs based on race, gender, sexual orientation and physical and mental disabilities. The officer alleged he was forced to resign because of the “illegal activities.”
Sniff continued that Brown’s statement “displays profound inexperience” for voicing “opinions about facts he knows absolutely nothing about.”
“Perhaps the grand jury should look into (Brown’s) prior police agency’s conduct as the grand jury has already reviewed this very issue,” he added.
Brown accused Sniff of trying to deflect from the cheating scandal “by making false claims and allegations,” and defended the Hemet Police Department and his reputation as chief.
“I have simply called for an independent review and protection for sheriff’s employees,” he said. “The public has a right to know if deputies cheated and then got promoted anyway. And if they did, does that compromise the integrity of criminal investigations and convictions? This is a big deal. If there’s nothing to hide, the sheriff should welcome an independent review.”
Sheriff’s Lt. Chad Bianco, the other candidate challenging Sniff in the June 5 election, declined to comment.
Widespread cheating alleged
Brown’s call for a grand jury probe followed revelations — first reported by the Desert Sun newspaper and not disputed by the Sheriff’s Department in a statement to The Press-Enterprise — that sheriff’s personnel cheated on a 2015 investigator exam.
Test questions and answers were widely shared via emails, phone calls, text messages and discreet conversations, according to the report; some deputies said the practice had been so common for years that they didn’t realize it wasn’t allowed.
An internal investigation found that 25 employees tried to cheat, the newspaper reported, citing audio recordings of interviews by internal affairs investigators and agency documents.
Though the test was voided and more than 200 employees had to re-take part of it, no one appears to have been fired as a result of the scandal, and four people who were accused of or admitted to cheating were still promoted to investigator following the 2017 exam, the Desert Sun reported.
“Beyond the scandal itself exist allegations of a cover-up and the eventual promotion of involved deputies with close ties to the Sniff administration,” Brown said. “Even potentially more (disturbing) is evidence of an ongoing culture of intimidation intended to keep the facts from reaching the public.”
Sheriff’s officials did not directly answer questions about how many people were disciplined, what steps the department has taken to prevent further cheating and at what point Sniff learned about the incident.
“This matter was fully investigated and closed back in 2015 with appropriate discipline imposed where supported by sufficient legal evidence,” Sgt. Chris Willison, a sheriff’s spokesman, wrote in an emailed statement. “No charges of dishonesty were sustained or supported by the evidence.”
He said the department “implemented appropriate safeguards” to prevent a recurrence, but declined to provide specifics to minimize the risk of them being breached again.
The department added it “remains confident that only the most qualified individuals will be placed in positions where the law enforcement needs of the residents of Riverside County will be met.”
DA reviewing the issue
The statement also did not address a question about whether the department was concerned that the scandal could cause investigators’ honesty and integrity to be questioned in court.
Regarding Brown’s request for the District Attorney’s Office to get involved, DA’s spokesman John Hall said: “As soon as we became aware of the report, we began to review this matter pursuant to our internal office protocol.
“The District Attorney’s Office takes its ethical obligations seriously and we will continue to monitor this. Since these types of matters are confidential, we are precluded from commenting on any specifics.”
The revelations come as Sniff, who has been sheriff since 2007, faces two well-financed challengers in his bid for another four-year term leading a department with more than 3,000 employees that’s responsible for jails, court security and law enforcement for most the county’s 2.3 million residents.
Brown has the backing of supervisors John Tavaglione and Chuck Washington. In recent Board of Supervisors meetings, Tavaglione has chastised Sniff for not doing more to help the county solve chronic budget shortfalls.
Bianco, who lost to Sniff in 2014, has the support of the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, the union representing deputies.
February 15, 2018
The Press-Enterprise
By Jeff Horseman

[Kern County] Kern's grand jury calls for improvements in Kern Transit, bicycle path systems

The Kern County grand jury thinks Kern Transit, the countywide bus and van service, needs to do a better job of selling itself to the public.
Kern Transit serves 27 communities in unincorporated Kern County with 16 fixed bus routes that link many of the most remote places in its 8,163 square miles to Bakersfield and the Metrolink in Los Angeles County.
The Kern County grand jury gathered biographical data on the service, which also runs the Dial-A-Ride call-in service.
The grand jury’s Administration, Audit and County Services Committee suggested in a report released Thursday that the public doesn’t know enough about the various routes available to link them to other parts of the county.
Committee members recommended a public service announcement campaign to help augment the service’s ridership.
The service provides transportation for special events as well.
Kern Transit’s Facebook page is currently touting its connections to the Kern River Valley for riders heading to the Whiskey Flats Days celebration along the upper Kern.
Grand jurors also recommended that Kern Transit develop an east county transportation hub in Mojave to facilitate transportation through the area.
As a sidebar to the grand Jury recommendations on Kern Transit, committee members also urged Kern County Public Works Director Craig Pope to continue to apply for grants to help expand the network of bicycle lanes and pathways in and around the Bakersfield.
Over the past 10 years, the grand jury wrote, the county has spent $46.4 million on pedestrian and bike paths in the county but more are needed.
February 15, 2018
The Bakersfield Californian

[Santa Clara County] Budget Cuts to Courts Now Affecting Criminal Cases; Creating Backlogs Similar to Civil Case Calendars

Blog note: this article references a 2017 Santa Clara County Grand Jury report.
An NBC Bay Area analysis of state court disposition data shows thousands of felony criminal cases have been delayed for years, and sometimes even decades, in jurisdictions around California.
The analysis shows Santa Clara County Superior Court and San Francisco County Superior Court have some of the largest criminal court backlogs and the lowest percentage of felony cases resolved within a year in the state.
The same data, sent by county Superior Court administrators to California’s Judicial Council, shows in both 2015 and 2016, Santa Clara County ranked last in the state in the percentage of cases disposed of within 12 months.
A memo released in late 2017 by the Santa Clara County Superior Court disputes that data, claiming the numbers were flawed and inaccurate.
The memo came in response to a civil grand jury report that cited the Judicial Council data and blamed the low resolution rate on “a culture of complacency that tolerates delay.”
The civil grand jury report, which was released in June 2017, looked at the Judicial Council’s 2015 report and showed nearly all of cases resolved that year— 47 percent — were settled without a trial, meaning there was a guilty or no contest plea or the charges were dropped. The data released by the Judicial Council a year later showed the processing time for criminal cases actually fell to 45 percent.
The Santa Clara County Superior Court memo says the felony resolution rate is actually closer to 85 percent for that same time frame.
The memo attributes the discrepancy to a miscalculation. It says the report relied on data that only includes “held to answer” cases or those cases where a defendant is kept in custody to answer charges. The court memo says the 85 percent figure includes all of the remaining felony cases in the county.
The memo shows the disposition rate for 2016-2017 dropped to 80 percent.
The adjusted rate still falls below the state average, which in both years, according to the state Judicial Council, is 88 percent. No matter how you calculate the Santa Clara County Superior Court rate, it still falls below similar processing time rates in other counties like San Mateo County, where the 2016 rate was 89 percent, and Sacramento County, where the rate that year was 98 percent.
Judge David De Alba, who is presiding judge at Sacramento County Superior Court, attributes his county’s high disposition rate to a culture of “cooperativeness” amongst the various justice stakeholders in the county. He also credits the county’s use of home courts.
“Many of the criminal filings both felony and misdemeanor cases are filed in what we call home courts, and they stay in those courts unless they can't be resolved and then they're sent to a trial court,” he said.
While courts across California are experiencing lengthy backlogs due to budget cuts, data shows Sacramento courts dispose of 97 percent of criminal cases within a year.
NBC Bay Area asked to talk to the judge overseeing Santa Clara County’s criminal docket about this issue. The presiding judge for Santa Clara County Superior Courts, Patricia M. Lucas, did sit down to speak about delays in the civil court, saying budget cuts dating back more than a decade were a major causes of delays in civil court.
“It’s not the way we want to run the courts,” Judge Lucas said. “The major backlogs are in family and civil (courts), and there we have wait times for people who have an emergency need for a custody order (or other needs).”
Short staff, short work hours and a lack of funding for administrative and clerical positions have created a crisis according to Lucas.
“I’d say it’s gotten worse (in the last 10 years),” Lucas said. “Because the cumulative effect of years of underfunding is really taking its toll, even in courts that were able to absorb some of (the underfunding) early on. The cumulative effects is really taking hold (now).”
NBC Bay Area also asked to speak to the judge in charge of criminal courts in Santa Clara County. However, court administrators suddenly canceled that interview and said there would be no one available to answer questions about delays specific to criminal court calendars.
The below-average disposition rate in Santa Clara County has a very real impact on the families of crime victims, many of whom wait years for their cases to be resolved, said Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen.
“Victims are outraged. (They) are entitled to be outraged. And their District Attorney is also outraged,” Rosen told NBC Bay Area.
“We have a case from 2007 where two men raped and murdered a woman, and that hasn’t been resolved yet. That’s not just unacceptable. It’s outrageous,” Rosen added.
Rosen pointed to other case examples, including the case against Jae Williams and Randy Thompson, two self-proclaimed Satanists who were accused of murdering their high school classmate, Michael Russell, in 2009. Williams was sentenced to 26 years to life in 2014 and Thompson was found guilty in 2016.
Another example: the case against Christopher Holland, who was convicted in 2015 of raping and murdering a teenager named Cynthia Munoz. The crime occurred in 1983, but it went unsolved until 2007 when DNA testing matched Holland to DNA left on the victim’s body. Holland wasn’t convicted until 2015.
While high profile crimes like these can often take a long time to wind through the courts, Rosen said he believes these specific instances involved proceedings that were delayed and prolonged unnecessarily.
Along with a “culture of complacency,” the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report placed blame on prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges who allow the delays to happen. The grand jury cited Rosen’s office in particular, saying one reason for these delays was “the District Attorney’s approach to charging.”
Rosen says he and his office are already working to fix some of the issues enumerated in the grand jury’s report.
“It's true that the courts are underfunded. They are, and they need more funding,” Rosen said. “But it's also true that everybody in government, my office included, has to be more efficient with the taxpayer dollars that we receive.”
Santa Clara County Public Defender Molly O’Neill took issue with the data and methodology used in the grand jury’s report, saying Santa Clara County was closer to average than the grand jury acknowledged. Even so, she admitted more could be done to become more efficient and reduce delays. She says her Public Defender’s office is already on it.
“There's always room for improvement, and we are looking at ways to do that because at the end of the day even though faster isn't better … it is not a good thing to have multiple delays and continuances,” O’Neill said. “So we're looking at it.”
The court calendar backlog problem dates back to 2008, when the economic downturn led to deep budget cuts to California’s courts. The lack of funding forced courts across the Bay Area to reduce office hours, wean staffing, and close entire courtrooms. But for years, those delays affected civil courts almost exclusively; it did not affect criminal court calendars, since the right to a speedy trial after a citizen is charged with a crime has always been a hallmark under both the federal and state Constitutions. Because of that constitutional principle, criminal court has always received priority during tight budget times.
Other counties besides Santa Clara County are feeling the impact too. In Contra Costa County, the felony disposition rate for 12 months or less is 74 percent, according to the Judicial Council of California’s latest 2016 report. In San Francisco, the rate is 68 percent.
“There is a tremendous problem” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.
Gascon says there simply are not enough judges, staff members and courtrooms to handle the caseload in San Francisco.
“We're often being pushed to settle a case in order to clear the docket to make room,” Gascon said. “So, that means that you may have cases that maybe have less import or are not the big homicide or sexual assault, but nevertheless there is a legitimate victim there.”
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi agrees that there is a “crisis in the courts” due to lack of funding, but he says the court has a responsibility to more responsibly use its limited resources.
“We don't have as many judges, and we have heavier dockets,” Adachi said. “And what we say to that is, well, then you can't prosecute as many cases.”
“And there needs to be a balance between wanting to efficiently handle cases and ensuring that the parties are doing what they need to do in a given case,” he added.
Wherever the blame falls, district attorneys paint a troubling picture of prosecutors routinely facing their own version of Sophie’s Choice, which cases live and which cases die.
“Surely the victim should have a right to have their case be attended to the fullest extent possible,” said Gascon. “And (right now) they're not (being given that attention) to the case. They (the lesser felony cases) are often being sold very cheaply for judicial economy. And this is something that drives us crazy.”
Because of this, he says his office has to prioritize.
“Am I going to spend a week trying a little residential burglary or a theft or fraud? Or am I going to clear the docket on this thing so that I can try the murder case or rape or a robbery or any armed robbery?” Gascon said. “That is a daily exercise for us.”
Even Lucas agreed that the backlog across the board in courts are delaying and thus denying justice.
“I think a delay of that nature (years) is a denial of justice,” Lucas said.
February 12, 2018
NBC Bay Area
By Stephen Stock, Rachel Witte, and Michael Horn

Saturday, February 10, 2018

[Kern County] Former general manager of community services district in Tehachapi charged with misappropriation of public funds

Blog note: this article references a 2016 Kern County Grand Jury report about the community services district.
Prosecutors filed felony charges Thursday against the former general manager of the Mountain Meadows Community Services District in Tehachapi who they say misappropriated more than $140,000 of public funds.
Richard E. Williford is charged with 18 felony counts of unlawful appropriation of public funds and six felony counts of entering into contracts with the district in which he had a personal financial interest, according to the District Attorney's office.
No arraignment date has been set. 
Williford said Thursday he was unaware of the charges. He denied any wrongdoing.
"It’s not true," he said. "Of course it’s not true. But they’ve got their goal, that's obvious."
Mountain Meadows was established in 1970 and consists of 697 parcels just south of Highline Road, between Dennison Road and Curry Street.
Each parcel owner pays a $200 annual assessment fee to help maintain the 27 miles of roads, along with maintenance issues. Residents complained in early 2015 that those things weren't being done, and most of the district's equipment was either missing or in disrepair.
Among the top findings of a 2016 grand jury report into the district were that from July 7, 2007 until Feb. 17, 2015, the former general manager — Williford was not identified by name in the report — committed the district to expenditures amounting to $302,693.51 with multiple businesses that were owned by himself or members of his family.
For the period between Jan. 7, 2009 and July 30, 2013, while he served on the Board of Directors, he was paid $29,182 by the district as a consultant and for engineering fees, another apparent violation of California Government Code pertaining to special districts, the grand jury wrote.
The grand jury report also stated that beginning in May 2014, the former general manager began signing district checks by his own authority without a second signature of a board member. All checks recovered after that date only had his signature.
The grand jury investigation began after Williford filed a complaint in March 2015 "to confront what he perceived was Kern County government overreach against his total control over Mountain Meadow(s) Community Service(s) District," the report stated.
February 8, 2018
The Bakersfield Californian