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
By Matt Fountain
Monday, March 5, 2018
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
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
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.
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