Tuesday, April 30, 2013

(Napa) Grand jury chides loose-lipped witnesses

by KERANA TODOROV, Napa Valley Register -

Without naming names, Napa County’s grand jury, the group of citizens charged with investigating public agencies, is not happy with a number of public officials who have spoken about ongoing investigations.

The watchdog group issued an eight-page report late last week recommending every jurisdiction in Napa County remind their employees of the rules regarding the grand jury. Simply put — keep your lips sealed.

The reports did not reveal the investigation or the individuals accused of allegedly skirting the secrecy rules.

The report, released to the public Tuesday, alleges “certain witnesses” interviewed by the grand jury repeatedly violated the grand jury’s secrecy admonition, creating an atmosphere of apprehension and intimidation which impeded the grand jury’s investigation.

“While violations of the secrecy admonition were not endemic throughout the various public agencies, they happened enough times to seriously impede the grand jury’s investigations,” the report states. “It is clear that if a grand jury is to fulfill its statutory mandate to investigate local agencies of government, it must be able to do so in an environment where witnesses interviewed in its quest for truth are free to speak without fear, restraint or intimidation. It is only in this way that the full truth can be ascertained and the public assured of the efficacy of its government. County and citywide of training of employees regarding grand jury confidentiality rules would be an important step in remedying this problem.”

No citation have been issued. Instead, the grand jury issued a report in an effort to educate public officials and employees so they might better understand their “ethical responsibilities” toward the grand jury’s watchdog capacities and the general public.

The report was forwarded to a dozen agencies, including the Napa County Board of Supervisors, every city and the Town of Yountville.

Napa City Manager Mike Parness said he does not know what the grand jury is referring to. “I don’t really understand what they’re talking about,” he said.

The city will contact other agencies to make sure everyone is on the same page on what the standards, responsibilities and the requirements of the law are and will put together a response, Parness said.

Napa City Attorney Michael Barrett said the report does not allege any violation by “any city of Napa official, and the city is not aware of any such violation.”

“In any case, the city will prepare a response to the presiding judge of the grand jury within 90 days, as required by Penal Code Section 933,” Barrett said in an email.

Calistoga City Manager Richard Spitler said “I have no idea what they are talking about.”

“It wasn't specific, although I informed my department heads of their concern,” he said.

Steven Rogers, manager for the Town of Yountville, said he has not received the report. “As such, it is difficult to comment on this without a better understanding as to the specific allegations the grand jury is making,” he said in an email Tuesday.

American Canyon City Manager Dana Shigley said she has no comment until she receives any additional information.

“I have no idea what the problem might have been, but assume that since I never heard about it before today, it doesn't involve American Canyon,” Shigley said in an email.

Elizabeth Emmett, spokeswoman for Napa County, said “The county Board of Supervisors prepares a public response to each grand jury report, within the legal time frame and as directed by the grand jury. It is always approved for release at a public meeting. That moment is our first opportunity to comment publicly on any report.”

Victor Connell, foreperson for the 2012-2013 Napa County grand jury, said the April 25 document is the first of a “series” of reports for this term.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

(Orange) Hospital Group Denies VP Resigning Because of Grand Jury Accusation

By TRACY WOOD, Voice of OC -

James Lott, vice president of the Hospital Association of Southern California, said Friday he is leaving the trade association at the end of May.

Lott didn’t give a reason for his departure, writing in a post on his HASC blog that his “health is fine, work is great, just moving on to the next chapter of my life, which will be in health care. … What else would I do?”

Jim Barber, HASC president and CEO, said in a telephone interview that “there’s no connection” between Lott’s May 31 departure and conclusions by an Orange County grand jury this year that tied HASC to an anonymous letter sent in 2012 that members of the Board of Supervisors used to try discrediting former CalOptima board Chairman Ed Kacic.

Lott, HASC executive vice president for policy development and communications, is one of the trade association’s lobbyists and worked with another HASC lobbyist in 2012 on an ordinance to give hospitals stronger voting power on the CalOptima board.

Lott didn’t return a telephone call Friday seeking comment on his reason for leaving. But in an email to Voice of OC he wrote, “For the record: Any report from any source about my reason for making a career change is creative conjecture.”

In January, the grand jury issued a report titled “CalOptima Burns While Majority of Supervisors Fiddle.” The report recounted problems at CalOptima, the county’s health plan for about 430,000 low-income, disabled and elderly residents.

As part of its report, it implicated HASC in distribution of the anonymous letter.

HASC has never publicly replied to the allegation. Asked Friday whether he would discuss it, Barber said, “I have no comment on that.”
The grand jury asserted that copies of the letter were faxed from HASC’s Orange County office. The report stated that the anonymous letter “contained unique markings created in the scanning process.” Those marks matched “identical markings” on a different fax sent from the same office.

The ordinance change was sponsored by Supervisor Janet Nguyen, who sits on the CalOptima board.

Asked Friday whether Lott’s leaving HASC had any connection to the anonymous letter, Nguyen said she didn’t know. “I only met him [Lott] once. Why don’t you ask them [HASC]?”

Friday, April 26, 2013

(Ventura) Grand jury calls on Thousand Oaks to document oak tree removal

By Wendy Leung, Ventura County Star -

Though Thousand Oaks requires property owners to replace oak trees when they are removed, the city has no such policy for its public projects, according to a Ventura County grand jury report.

Since 1989, the city has removed 128 oak trees — the majority of them hundreds of years old — but did not document the removal process, the report says.

The report is a result of grand jury interviews with City Hall staff members and research of city documents and newspaper articles.

Grand jury foreman Jay Whitney said he was surprised when he learned the city didn’t document its tree removal process.

“It’s such a part of the community, and it’s so well-known. Oak trees are protected,” said Whitney, a Thousand Oaks resident. “Seems funny that was not codified in law.”

The city has 60 days to respond to the grand jury report.

Asked whether the report contained inaccuracies, Community Development Director John Prescott said, “We’ll be taking a look at that.”

The city requires property owners to plant one or three trees in place of each oak tree removed. The requirement differs depending on whether the owner has private or commercial property and whether the tree is near an existing home.

Because oaks are not protected under state and federal law, Prescott considers the report unusual.

“It seems sort of unusual to weigh in on what local development policy should be. I’m assuming it’s within their purview,” Prescott said. “We are taking it seriously.”

Whitney said oak trees are an integral part of the community and a factor for someone wishing to buy a home in Thousand Oaks. The trees’ protected nature makes the situation suitable for a grand jury investigation.

“We shine a light on something that we think is wrong,” Whitney said.

In its report, the grand jury recommends the city follow tree removal guidelines like those required of property owners and publish or post online a list of tree removal and replacement permits. It also recommends replacement trees be planted in an “oak forestlike habitat.” The city does not have to follow the recommendations.

The report is one of two the grand jury has published this year. The other report is on college readiness in the Ventura County Community College District.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Marin grand jury: transit for seniors inadequate

By Nels Johnson, Marin Independent Journal -

Transportation services fail to make the grade for Marin's elderly residents, the civil grand jury concludes in a new report.

The panel — citing a jumble of transit services it says seniors are unaware of or find hard to navigate, as well as dissatisfaction with those they know about — called for a host of improvements, ranging from more fixed route and shuttle bus, van and "catch-a-ride" programs to a host of scheduling, publicity and other improvements.

More frequent service is needed for seniors living on hillsides far from bus stops, and for other seniors seeking to go the the mall, hospital or elsewhere, jurors said.

The jury provided no estimate of the cost of the improvements it recommended, although it outlined state, federal and local tax funds as well as foundation and related grant money as potential sources.

"Existing conventional transportation options for existing seniors are inadequate," the jury said, urging better bus stops and more convenient scheduling, along with an information campaign. On the other hand, "paratransit needs of physically challenged older citizens have been adequately met" with the exception of schedule delays and lack of service in West Marin and portions of East San Rafael.

Is Marin ready to accommodate the growing number of elders who do not drive or have limited their driving?, the jury wondered. "The answer is a resounding 'maybe.'"

"County transportation officials should enrich alternatives not only for those elderly with special needs but also for those healthy nondriving seniors who lack access to transportation," the jury said.

The jury said it drew information from sessions across Marin with nine focus groups totaling 108 seniors; it indicated it interviewed transit providers, citizens and merchants; and it researched websites and made other inquiries. However, the county's top transit official was not contacted, though a staffer was.

"I didn't get any request," said a bewildered David Rzepinski, head of the Marin County Transit District. "I didn't get the opportunity to talk to the jury."

"I don't think they fully understand all our programs," services and financial hurdles, he added. He noted the panel got some details wrong, such as asserting a taxi "catch a ride" program required downloading an application, and that Northgate mall needed a special senior shuttle, when it is already served by a bus from the city transit hub every 15 minutes.

At the same time, "I understand the need for improvement," Rzepinski said, adding that jury service improvement proposals "could be expensive."

The jury report also surprised Terry Scussel, manager of transportation services at Whistlestop Wheels, which provides 500 trips a day to seniors under a county contract. He said that despite criticism of scheduling, Whistlestop posts extremely high performance satisfaction marks from customers. "Granted, it is a ride-share program, so rides can take some time ... but we have people who are very pleased to get a ride," he said.

Among the jury's observations:

• "The older adults for whom Whistlestop was the primary transportation provider repeatedly cited the undue length of time spent in transit and the waiting time to be picked up."

• "There was a widespread unfamiliarity with and misconceptions about other transportation services" and those who did know about alternatives "did not know whom to contact or how to apply."

• "There is an over-reliance on a patchwork quilt of volunteer driver programs."

• Seniors in Marin City, Loch Lomond, Peacock Gap, Bel Marin Keys, Bahia and Black Point as well as West Marin, and those living in hillside areas, need better service.

The jury recommended that the county transit district join with the Transportation Authority of Marin to provide weekend van service, neighborhood, mall and hospital shuttles, and fixed-route or on-call vans benefiting hillside neighborhoods, Marin City and West Marin residents.

Among a host of other proposals, the panel also recommended Whistlestop improve scheduling to reduce waiting time, paratransit and medical appointment shuttle service be increased, taxi voucher service be augmented and improved and expanded, and that publicity programs be overhauled, with efforts translated in a variety of languages.

Barbara Duffy, director of operations for the county transit district, noted the agency provides about 11,000 weekday rides and 5,000 weekend rides each month. In addition, through Whistlestop, it provides about 525 weekday and 150 weekend paratransit rides. Other special services for seniors include two volunteer driver programs that provided 1,100 rides in February, as well as the "catch-a-ride" discount cab program for which 600 seniors are signed up.

County supervisors on Tuesday routinely approved an annual update of the county's "area plan for aging," a document required by the state that details the status of the region's elderly and programs supporting them. The update includes a 10-sentence report on "mobility and transportation," indicating all is well as agencies collaborate on senior transit needs — with an "affordability gap" filled by the "catch-a-ride" program.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Grand jury dings San Mateo County for failing to rein in soaring pension costs

By Bonnie Eslinger, Daily News Staff Writer -

San Mateo County doesn't have enough money to cover promised retirement costs that could total $2 billion, not the $1 billion estimated by the agency managing employees' pension fund, a civil grand jury concluded in a report released Monday.

The county's unfunded pension liability is the "elephant in the room," San Mateo Civil Grand Jury Foreman Timothy Johnson Jr. told The Daily News on Monday.

"This problem is so huge. A billion or two billion," Johnson said. "All the numbers are appalling."

The San Mateo County Employees' Retirement Association (SamCERA), which handles the county's retirement program, told the grand jury that as of June 30, 2012, the unfunded liability figure was about $1.08 billion. But that assumes the association's assets will perform at a level which hasn't been reached in recent years, according to the civil grand jury.

However, when taking into account actual investment performance and current economic conditions, the grand jury projected a shortfall closer to $2 billion.

"Nobody can accurately predict what's going to happen with the investments, but these pensions are guaranteed obligations. They have to be paid," Johnson said.

If the investments come up short, taxpayers will bear the burden by making up the difference through a reduction of county services, higher taxes or both, the report states.

Although the retirement association's board approved an assumed rate of return of 7.5 percent in May 2012, the actual rate as of June 30, 2012 -- minus a deduction of investment management costs -- was just 5.54 percent calculated over a 10-year period and only 0.12 percent over five years, according to the report.

In an email, association CEO David Bailey said the investments are well-managed and currently earning strong returns. As of March 31, the fund earned 7.7 percent over a 10-year period, he said. He also challenged the grand jury's $2 billion estimate, saying the association's number is more realistic because it's based on projected earnings on the county's existing investments.

In addition to questioning SamCERA's management of the employees' retirement fund, the grand jury blamed the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors for not monitoring the investment portfolio and demanding larger contributions to reduce the financial liability.

Some of the $60 million in annual revenue from the Measure A sales tax increase that voters approved in November should be used to pay down the pension debt, the grand jury suggested.

Board of Supervisors Vice President Dave Pine, who has lobbied his colleagues in the past to allocate more money toward reducing the county's pension debt, said he is glad the grand jury chose to "shine a light" on the problem.

"I think the board overall is interested in taking a look at this," Pine said.

The grand jury said it also believes the county needs to take bigger steps to reduce employee retirement costs, while acknowledging that in recent years the county has trimmed its work force, held back raises and adopted reduced pension programs for new workers.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

(Orange) County Grand Jury Calls for Ethics Probe into OC Government

By TRACY WOOD (AP), Voice of OC -

The Orange County Grand Jury, citing the county’s 40-year history of political corruption, Monday recommended creation of an independent ethics commission to advise elected officials of ethical pitfalls and increase public confidence in government.

“Trust in government is dependent upon officials that place the public interest ahead of their own,” according to the 32-page report titled, A Call for Ethical Standards: Corruption in Orange County.

The report aims to establish a high standard for local government, saying the appearance of impropriety is “equally [as] damaging” as actual wrongdoing.

The panel recommends the Board of Supervisors create an a blue ribbon commission to study government ethics programs within California and around the nation and, within a year, propose an Orange County ethics reform program that includes oversight.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson took immediate issue with the grand jury, saying the ethics of any oversight body or blue ribbon commission would be no better that than the ethics of the elected officials who appointed them.

It’s up to the news media and the voters to hold government officials accountable, he said in a telephone interview.

“A truly informed public that votes is the ethics commission,” said Nelson.

Yet in its report, the grand jury notes that while Orange County is the sixth largest county in the nation, Los Angeles-based commercial television and radio stations don’t generally cover Orange County or city government and many community newspapers that acted as watchdogs have shut own over the years.

The grand jury report said key provisions of the blue ribbon commission recommendations would include the ability of the ethics body to offer formal and informal ethics advice to both public officials and government employees.

It also would include a hotline for government employees and members of the public to report suspected unethical conduct.

The ethics oversights body should “be free to act without political interference have jurisdiction over each County department, agency,

commission, and board and joint powers authority regardless of whether the head of such a body is elected or appointed[and] have ethics-related jurisdiction over the elected leadership of the County,” according to the grand jury report.

In addition, it said, “the oversight body must have the authority to enforce compliance through the use of warning letters, administrative settlements and the issuance of annual public reports.”

Decade after decade, since the early 1970s, Orange County has been rocked by one political scandal after another that sent members of the Board of Supervisors, the sheriff, a member of congress, some of the state’s biggest political donors and dozens of others to prison.

In addition, there was the 1994 county bankruptcy, at the time the largest in the nation by a government body.

Monday, April 15, 2013

(Colusa) Supervisors take input on hiring county administrator

By Monica Vaughan/Colusa County Sun-Herald -

Representatives for Colusa County employees told the Board of Supervisors this week it needs to prove that a new county administrator is needed.

They wanted to know if a county administrator would improve internal operations, and that the expense would be justified.

Tuesday's meeting was a round-table discussion with supervisors, department heads and employee representatives about the pros and cons of creating a county administrative officer position, which has not existed since 2003.

The cost of the position is unknown because the position could range from a secretary to the board to an executive with an office and a staff.

While no decisions have been made, the department heads and some supervisors said they would like to start "on the lighter side."

Treasurer Dan Charter raised concerns about the cost and said the county is doing fine without the position.

"I'd like to see the board tough it out and save the $300,000," Charter said.

Of the counties that do have a CAO, their 2009 salaries ranged from $120,000 to $454,000, according to the County Administrative Officers Association of California.

More current information was not available.

Colusa County grand jury reports in 2007 and 2008 recommended the addition of a CAO to improve efficiency and communication in county government. The board generally agreed with the need, but cited budget limitations at that time.

Supervisors are now considering adding the position, which could act as the county's top staff member responsible for day-to-day functions and would typically coordinate department heads to help manage their workloads and to address problems.

The supervisors have had to take on some of those issues in the recent past.

"We had some contentious issues come up in employment and HR (human resources). Absent a CAO, supervisors had to deal with those. Maybe we had to step over the line into micromanagers. ... We're supposed to be policymakers," Supervisor Mark Marshall said.

"I land on the light CAO side, because I like our relationship. But, man, I need relief," Supervisor Gary Evans added.

All the supervisors reflected similar concerns about their workload.

"More and more is getting piled on our lap everyday, and I want some help," Supervisor Tom Indrieri said.

All five supervisors have some kind of business interest outside their board duties, and several run their own companies.

Supervisors and departments heads alike said the meeting was productive and achieved the goal of sharing concerns and ideas.

Tim Moss of the Agriculture Department suggested that, since the county recently wrapped up the collective bargaining process, the supervisors may want to create the position at a later date.

Tim Tolbot, a lawyer who represents the employee association, said county workers will see this as "a piece of pie that will never be available to our employees."

Supervisor Kim Dolbow Vann said the board is not on a fast track to creating the new position.

Department heads said they cared about personality traits and leadership qualities of the individual hired, and would like to keep the liaison structure with the supervisors.

Additionally, they would like hiring and firing authority to stay with board, and they don't want to be micromanaged by an administrator.

Some brought up concerns about past experience with a CAO.

Davis Shoemaker held the position in the county from November 2001 to October 2003, but the position was eliminated.

Marshall said the main issue was power. "A lot of times these people consider themselves like a sixth vote on a board," Marshall said.

Colusa, Glenn and Sierra counties are the only counties of 58 in California that do not have an administrator.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

(Solano) Grand jury: Fraud 'pervasive' in county in-home care program

By Tony Burchyns, Times-Herald staff writer -

Following an investigation, the Solano County Grand Jury recommends that the county do more to prevent "pervasive" fraud within its in-home supportive services program.

The state-sponsored, county-run program allows people to remain at home who might otherwise require assisted-living. In Solano County, the program serves about 3,000 low-income residents who are 65 or older, legally blind, disabled or unable to care for themselves safely in their homes.

In a report released Wednesday, the grand jury notes "suspected fraud," "training of investigative staff" and "time sheet deficiencies" among several areas of concern. The concerns echo previous grand jury findings.

Also, the grand jury encouraged the county to establish licensing and background checks for private in-home care providers not associated with the county's program.

The program authorizes assistance with daily living activities, such as grocery shopping, house cleaning, cooking, laundry, personal care and transportation. Registered caretakers are paid $11.50 per hour through the county health and services department and are eligible for health benefits. All caretakers in the program must undergo a criminal background check.

The grand jury asserted that fraud within the program is "pervasive." For example, the state recently provided a list of 500 in-home care recipients over a three-year period within Solano County who were in the hospital while their caregiver was receiving compensation.

Also, the grand jury learned that there is no internal process to annotate or monitor care providers who falsify time sheets.
The health and social services department's Program Integrity Unit does not pursue fraud cases under $1,000, the grand jury found. During fiscal year 2011-2012, three fraud cases over $1,000 were referred to the state for possible prosecution. However, none were forwarded to the Solano County District Attorney's Office for prosecution during that time period.

However, District Attorney Don du Bain said his office received one case on March 13, which is under review, involving alleged fraud by an in-home care worker. Two such cases have been prosecuted over the past 10 years in Solano County, du Bain said.

Patrick Duterte, the county's director of health and social services, defended the department's efforts to investigate fraudulent activity. He said that robust fraud prevention measures detected nine cases that were referred to the state in January, February and March.

"We take that stuff very seriously," Duterte said, describing the department's fraud prevention program as one of the strongest in the state. He said the unit was established by the Board of Supervisors in recent years to investigate fraud and ensure quality assurance.

Duterte conceded that the department needs to do a better job reviewing the care and needs of recipients. The state requires that social workers review at least 90 percent of all recipients annually to ensure that adequate authorized services are being provided. As of November, the county's compliance rate was 82 percent.

Due to staffing shortages, not all recipients are seen annually. Duterte said he hopes to reverse the trend by filling vacant positions this year. The grand jury also recommended that the department restart its intern program, which has been dormant due to lack of staff resources.

Noting an increase in seniors needing in-home care, the grand jury also recommended that the Board of Supervisors investigate possible benefits of requiring private caretakers to have a permit.

Napa County, in collaboration with its cities, recently enacted a measure requiring private care providers to pay a fee for an application and a background check. The stated purpose of the policy is to prevent fraud, abuse and neglect of seniors requiring basic personal care.

Asked for her thoughts on the issue, Solano County Supervisor Linda Seifert said she would be interested in a closer review of Napa's ordinance before offering a position.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Fate of New Millennium charter school rests with Fresno Unified

By Barbara Anderson, The Fresno Bee -

Will board be swayed by grand jury report that blasts New Millennium?

The future of a southwest Fresno charter school that the county grand jury says has "failed miserably" to educate students now rests with Fresno Unified officials who have been criticized for inadequate oversight of the school.

The Fresno County Grand Jury said in a report released last month that New Millennium Institute of Education "has shown no indication that it is capable of providing a competent education" to at-risk students.

The school's charter should not be renewed at the end of this school year, the grand jury said.

But New Millennium says the school has taken steps to improve its educational program and expects the charter will be recommended for renewal.

The decision to grant a five-year charter renewal lies with Fresno Unified trustees. That decision is expected at the board's meeting on May 8, which also is their deadline to respond to the grand jury report. The grand jury questioned the district's ability to monitor charter programs and made recommendations for improvement.

New Millennium is scheduled to present its petition for charter renewal to the school board on Wednesday and its case for renewal on April 24.

Earl Brown, New Millennium board chairman, said the school has developed an educational/career program in the past two years that "provides service to a segment of students that may otherwise pursue a path of crime, gangs and/or welfare." New Millennium accepts students who have dropped out or been expelled from other schools, including in Fresno Unified, he said.

"We believe the FUSD trustee board should approve our charter renewal petition because we have complied with every requirement that FUSD and (the California Department of Education) established for the operation of a charter school," Brown said.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson would not say what his recommendation will be on the charter renewal and on a response to the grand jury. District staff is preparing reports on both board items for his review, he said.

Board President Valerie Davis said trustees will have to wait for staff reports on the New Millennium charter before reaching a decision. "It depends on what our staff finds and we'll probably follow that recommendation," she said.

New Millennium's charter previously faced a recommendation of revocation from the Fresno Unified charter review team.

In 2008, the team recommended trustees renew the New Millennium charter for five years -- but attached stipulations. It gave the school a year to address problems, including curriculum management and attendance discrepancies.

A year later, problems persisted and an audit had showed the school owed money to the state for attendance discrepancies for students in independent study. The district review team recommended the charter be revoked.

Hanson, however, did not present a revocation recommendation to trustees, and questions have swirled since as to why, including whether trustee Cal Johnson's employment as a crisis counselor at New Millennium played a role.

Hanson vehemently denied any influence from Johnson. He said he was waiting for the state Department of Education to agree to a repayment plan on money owed from the attendance discrepancies and then believed the charter was turning itself around. On Wednesday, the superintendent said he doesn't regret his decision but would not comment further.

Johnson has said he excuses himself from any board discussions or decisions about the school. He reiterated that Wednesday when asked about the upcoming charter renewal request.

Monday, April 8, 2013

(Orange) CalOptima Board Responds to Grand Jury Report

By TRACY WOOD, Voice of OC -

The CalOptima board of directors last week, with no discussion, voted unanimously to respond to a critical county grand jury report by sending a two-page letter that largely dismissed the grand jury’s findings.

"[W]e wish to note that the basis for some of the findings and recommendations is not substantiated in the Report, which makes it difficult for the CalOptima Board of Directors to respond,” the CalOptima board voted April 4 to write in a letter to Superior Court Presiding Judge Thomas J. Borris, who oversees the civil grand jury.

The 15-page grand jury report, titled “CalOptima Burns While Majority of Supervisors Fiddle,” was highly critical of the way CalOptima has been governed since Supervisor Janet Nguyen, in what was widely seen as a political power play, reorganized its board of directors in 2011 to give the hospital industry a stronger voice on the board.

“Political turmoil threatens the organization, jeopardizing its membership’s access to quality healthcare and potentially putting the entire entity at risk,” concluded the grand jury report.

Nguyen, who is the only member of the Board of Supervisors on the CalOptima board, abstained from voting on the agency's reply, because she was already a part of an earlier response to the report by the supervisors.

CalOptima is the county’s $1.5 billion state and federally financed health plan for 427,000 disabled, low-income and elderly residents.
Peter Agarwal, the CalOptima board member who chaired the board committee that wrote the grand jury response, said Friday the committee considered all issues raised by the grand jury but only responded to items the grand jury specifically said required a reply.

One issue the CalOptima response didn’t address, because it wasn’t required, was a determination by the grand jury that last year “an unidentified CalOptima board member privately stopped staff from hiring an outside law firm to investigate allegations against four board members, even though the board had voted unanimously to hire the firm.”

Nguyen is the only remaining CalOptima board member from a year ago when those allegations were raised.

It is unclear what, if anything, the grand jury will do with the CalOptima response. Both the Board of Supervisors and the CalOptima board were required to officially reply by April 25.

The CalOptima response said: “While there is always room for improvement in any organization, we believe the (grand jury) Report has painted a much more negative picture of the current state of the organization than is warranted, and certainly does not reflect actual performance and recent accomplishments.”

At least 16 top or key executives, including the CEO, the chief operating officer and the chief medical officer have left CalOptima since Nguyen began her effort at the end of 2011 to remake the board.

The grand jury recommended adding more supervisors and when the report was released in January, three of the five supervisors immediately agreed. A Board of Supervisors ad hoc committee is developing recommendations as part of its response to the grand jury.

In its findings, the grand jury reported a “CalOptima board member (Nguyen) and two CalOptima (staff) lawyers have been disruptive and created an atmosphere that according to current and former CalOptima employees is ‘unsafe for senior executives.’”

In its response, the CalOptima board said it "wholly disagrees with the finding,"

“The Report does not contain adequate documentation or any substantiated basis for this finding," the response read. "The new CEO has indicated that the executive team has not been reluctant to express their views or recommendations on any issues.”

But the CalOptima response doesn’t say whether board members talked to former staff about why they left for jobs in private industry or other government agencies. And it doesn’t say whether the board members who drafted the CalOptima response spoke directly to existing staff about their experiences.

Another issue the CalOptima response doesn’t address, because it is included in the grand jury report but not as a specific “finding,” was the decision by the current CalOptima board to seek a total of $90,321 from two former board chairmen, Ed Kacic and Michael Stephens for reportedly using office space or staff for a project that ultimately brought CalOptima $12 million.

The CalOptima board action to go after Kacic and Stephens “had all the earmarks of retribution by the retooled Board of Directors against the Chairmen for fervently opposing the ordinance change,” the grand jury reported.

The CalOptima response did say it has acted on other recommendations. Among them, it is studying the pay of its executives to make sure it can hire well-qualified healthcare professionals.

And it will educate its new board of directors on “why it operated effectively as a hybrid between private industry and County agency; its relevance to the County’s less fortunate’s well-being and healthcare needs and why CalOptima should be free from lobbyists and those who want to use it for political gain.”

Thursday, April 4, 2013

San Bernardino International Airport corruption - The Saga Continues

S. E. Williams, Staff Writer, The ALPENHORN News -

On Friday, disgraced San Bernardino International Airport developer Scot Spencer appeared in San Bernardino County Superior Court and entered a plea of "not guilty.” Spencer’s arraignment followed the Monday, March 25 announcement of his arrest by San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos. At the same time, Ramos named Felice Luciano, Spencer’s business associate and investor, as a co-conspirator in the criminal allegations.

Spencer, an official resident of Florida, was charged with two counts of criminal conspiracy, one count of preparing false documents and two counts of perjury. According to reports, Spencer and Luciano allegedly drafted a fraudulent charter, jet lease agreement and presented it to the San Bernardino County Grand Jury in 2010. The lease agreement was presented as a partial response to the jury’s inquiry into alleged corruption activities at the airport.

In 2008, Spencer filed a claim against the San Bernardino International Airport Authority (SBIAA), which has oversight authority for the airport facility. In the claim, Spencer alleged that a hanger space at the airport already under lease to him was re-leased to another client in error by an airport official. At the time, Spencer claimed that the error had cost him and his partner, Luciano, a lease agreement they had negotiated with the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

According to Spencer, the DNC lease secured a chartered jet for a period of three months at a rate of a quarter of a million dollars per month. It is alleged that Luciano’s company, Unique Aviation, was supposed to provide the jet that would be housed at the airport and used by the DNC. For some inexplicable reason, when Spencer raised the lease concern with the SBIAA, rather than taking the issue to court, the agency quickly settled with Spencer for over one million dollars—SBIAA officials never saw or even questioned the lease agreement.

A subsequent investigation of the settlement began with the 2010 Grand Jury Final Report and subsequently involved the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the District Attorney—the combined effort ultimately exposed the alleged deceit. During its investigation, the District Attorney’s Office learned from the Democratic National Committee that the contract with Spencer and Luciano never existed. It was this discovery that led to the arrest and charges against them.

As Ramos announced the arrest of Spencer last Monday, Luciano remained at large and was considered a fugitive. However, he voluntarily surrendered to authorities late Thursday afternoon. Luciano’s residence is listed in Tempe, Arizona, although he reportedly owns a home in New Jersey, a business in New York City and may travel regularly between the two.

Subsequent to his surrender, Luciano was arraigned on two charges of conspiracy; entered a plea of "not guilty”; and was released on $500,000 bail. He is scheduled to appear for a pre-trial hearing on April 17.

In the meantime, Spencer is being held at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga in lieu of one million dollars’ bail. His next court appearance is scheduled for April 9.

During his tenure as developer for the San Bernardino International Airport, Spencer controlled millions of dollars in contracts. It is also alleged that he assigned a number of "no-bid” sub-contracts to companies that he actually owned.

The SBIAA initially awarded Spencer a $45 million dollar "no-bid” contract that grew to nearly $200 million by the time he was arrested last week. The Alpenhorn News will continue to follow this story.

(Tulare) County grand jury calls for medical pot ordinances


In Tulare County, the city of Lindsay has an ordinance regulating the growing of medical marijuana, but it is one of only five cities with such an ordinance, the Tulare County civil grand jury states in an interim report released Wednesday.

The report also found the city of Porterville does not have an ordinance for marijuana cultivation, nor a permit process.

The growing of marijuana has become a problem in Tulare County, but more so in the rural areas of the county and not in cities. Porterville has had only one large illegal marijuana growing bust in the past couple of years.

However, the grand jury’s investigation found at least 75 residences cultivating marijuana within the city limits, with most of those between 10 and 20 plants, but a few up to the limit of 99 plants.

Police spokesman Dominic Barteau said the department does a good job of keeping track of marijuana gardens in the city, but an ordinance would be helpful.

“I think it would and would make some sort of a difference,” he said, adding the growing of marijuana has built-in danger with it.

“They’re (growers) opening up themselves and their neighbors to all sorts of crime,” he said, adding the city recently had a home invasion robbery in the city involving marijuana.

Right now, police rely on citizens to report those growing marijuana.

“We track them. Contact grower. Check their letter. Make sure they are in compliance,” said Barteau.

He explained that outdoor gardens are especially dangerous because the plants can be seen and become attractive to thieves or robbers.

“We run into problems. We still consider it a problem,” Barteau said. “Neighbors don’t like it, don’t like the smell or the type of people they attract,” he added.

Lindsay reported only one marijuana growing operation in the city and it was in compliance with the recommended issue.

In the county, deputies with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department are scrambling from grow site to grow site. Last year a huge commercial growing operation was taken down in East Porterville and just last month a large operation was busted outside of Dinuba. More than 200,000 plants were destroyed last year alone.

At issue is the California Compassionate Use Act passed in 1996 that makes it legal by state law to possess and even grow a certain amount of marijuana if a person has a letter of recommend from a doctor.

Officials with the county said that law has been abused, with many people fraudulently obtaining the letters of recommend and then growing far more than the letters allow. A man was killed in Woodlake last month over marijuana.

The grand jury explained it did its report because of the issues surrounding the medical marijuana law. The report looked at every city and how each is dealing with the growing of medical marijuana.

The Porterville city council has discussed developing an ordinance regulating the growing of marijuana, but has never followed through. Only Woodlake and Farmersville have ordinances and a permit process for the growing of marijuana. Lindsay is joined by Dinuba and Visalia as having ordinances, but not a permit process.

“Without a MM permit requirement and an MM cultivation ordinance, it is impossible for the cities to keep track of legal MM cultivations,” noted the jury’s report. “All of the incorporated cities within the county need a permit requirement and an ordinance covering MM cultivation,” the jury further stated, recommending the cities establish a “uniform” MM cultivation ordinance.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury report was meant to influence (Glendale) voters

by Brittany Levine, Glendale News-Press -

Glendale officials tried to prevent an interim report by the Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury on a controversial utility money transfer from being released last week because they believed it could negatively influence the outcome of a related ballot measure on Tuesday.

In a motion filed with the civil grand jury’s presiding judge, Senior Asst. City Atty. Christine Godinez argued that the “tone, tenor and timing of the interim report demonstrate that its publication has one purpose: to affect the voters’ views of Measure B.”

Measure B aims to streamline how the city transfers tens of millions of dollars in electricity revenues each year to pay for police, parks and other public services. Several City Council members have said that without the transfer from Glendale Water & Power, the city could not afford to maintain current public services.

Critics say the revenue transfer acts like a backdoor tax because city officials backfill by raising rates on consumers.

In denying Glendale’s request for a temporary restraining order for the report, Judge Charlaine Olmedo said the civil grand jury serves as a public watchdog and can release a report at any time.

“The Superior Court may prevent the filing of a report only when the report is illegal,” Olmedo wrote in her order on March 25, referring to reports that include no independent investigation or cover a topic outside the jury’s purview.

A few hours later, the report was released.

While critics say Measure B would fundamentally change how the transfer is carried out, City Atty. Mike Garcia said that if a court determines the measure to be a substantive change, it becomes null and void.

Officials have said they plan to continue the revenue transfer no matter how the electorate votes this week.

The civil grand jury warned the transfer may be in violation of state propositions that limit taxes. But city officials have said the propositions do not apply.

The city has 90 days to respond to the civil grand jury’s report. At least one council member wants to continue to fight the civil grand jury’s interim findings and has called on others to defend Glendale.

At a City Hall meeting last week, Councilman Ara Najarian called on state legislators and the state attorney general to punish the civil grand jury for what he considered election tampering.

“I don’t think we should stand for it,” Najarian said. “We need to put our foot down.”