The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

June 30, 2010
Stimulus funds flow freely - info on spending, not so much

The government is pumping out nearly a trillion dollars in economic recovery funds, but according to the US Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, most of the projects don't score well on following through with requirements to make their details known to the public. (A tally of some of the region's projects funded last year are noted in this graphic previously published in The Sacramento Bee.)stimulus graphic1.JPG

"An estimated three-quarters of the recipient-reported information did not fully meet GAO's transparency criteria -- thus potentially hampering understanding of what is being achieved with Recovery Act funding," the agency found. Overall, out of more than 14,000 projects, just 25 percent fully met the transparency criteria.

But the agency said that in some cases, federal and state websites provided supplementary information.

-Charles Piller


June 30, 2010
$120 million in federal transit earmarks went unspent

Almost $120 million in federal funding approved by Congress for mass transportation projects has gone unspent. The money sat in Federal Transit Administration accounts for years, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency group which obtained and analyzed over 150 earmarks from 2006 and 2007 that have all lapsed.

The largest earmarks include $19.6 million for a light rail system North Carolina's triangle region, almost $10 million to help build a bus terminal-performing arts complex in Rochester, N.Y. and $4.9 million for a proposed commuter train between Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich. 

The Sunlight web site provides details of other transit "disappearmarks" in a handy searchable spreadsheet. There is one local item among the 23 California projects listed. That is $190,357 to "improve entrance to the [Davis, Calif.] Amtrak Depot and parking lot, provide additional parking and improve service." The Davis earmark was approved for fiscal year 2006. One wonders what became of the project.

June 29, 2010
President Gonzalez's brother plays CSUS gig

By Laurel Rosenhall
lrosenhall@sacbee.com

The family of Sacramento State President Alexander Gonzalez has been in the news before.

In 2005, the university hired Gonzalez's son, Alex Jr., for a $72,000-a-year fundraising job. By last year, he was earning more than $81,000 a year and had moved to a position in the public affairs office.

Now, a family member has been compensated by the university's nonprofit foundation, whose board of directors is headed by Gonzalez.

The University Foundation at Sacramento State paid the president's brother $4,500 to perform a Mexican harp concert, hold a student workshop and buy 100 of his CDs, according to foundation documents.

Francisco Gonzalez is a Tucson musician. Last year, he was touring California to promote a CD and stopped in Sacramento in October to play at the university's alumni center.

No taxpayer money was used to pay him. Funding came from the university foundation, a nonprofit that raises money to support the school, said Carole Hayashino, who heads university fundraising. The performance was an event to thank donors, and attendees received Francisco Gonzalez's CD, "The Gift."

The foundation paid him $3,000 for the concert and $1,500 for the CDs. It covered his two-night hotel stay for $190.78. Hayashino said Francisco Gonzalez and an accompanist shared the concert fee.

A sampling of contracts in the last year shows many musicians who played at Sac State earned $1,500 to $2,000. Because Francisco Gonzalez's pay was comparable, his contract did not violate the foundation's conflict of interest policy, Hayashino said.

Still, the performance was a sore point for some professors who have a history of strained relations with the president.

"I see this in a string of scenarios or situations that sound a lot like nepotism," said Kevin Wehr, a sociology professor active in the California Faculty Association.

President Gonzalez said he played no role in his son's hiring and wasn't involved in planning his brother's show. The president said his brother told him he would be touring and offered to stop at Sac State. The president said he mentioned the offer to the ethnic studies department and to Hayashino, who took the lead in planning the concert.

"In my view there's nothing unethical," Alexander Gonzalez said. "I'm not the one who paid him. I'm not the one who engaged him."

Hayashino said the foundation has to spend money to raise money and that the concert was one of many events it does to that end. The foundation has raised $18 for every dollar it's spent on fundraising activities, she said.

See video of Gonzalez's performance here.

June 29, 2010
Wikileaks - "whistleblower" or "information vandal"?

Wikileaks, a website that has gotten substantial attention by posting classified material, official records and a wide range of other information - from the vitally important to simple oddities - has taken a broadside from what one might consider a natural ally: the Federation of American Scientists "Secrecy News" blog.

Many "who are engaged in open government, anti-corruption and whistleblower protection activities are wary of WikiLeaks or disdainful of it," wrote Steven Aftergood, the blogger and an outspoken advocate of reducing government secrecy. Aftergood criticized Wikileaks for sometimes engaging in "unethical behavior," such as publishing online a pirated version of the full text of a book about Kenyan corruption.

"WikiLeaks has published a considerable number of valuable official records that had been kept unnecessarily secret and were otherwise unavailable," Aftergood wrote. "Its most spectacular disclosure was the formerly classified videotape  (still image of carnage, from Wikileaks, below) copter strike.JPG showing an attack by a U.S. Army helicopter crew in Baghdad in 2007 which led to the deaths of several non-combatants...it also published numerous documents that have no particular policy significance or that were already placed in the public domain by others (including a few that were taken from the FAS web site)."

Aftergood went to far as to count WikiLeaks "among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals. Last year, for example, WikiLeaks published the "secret ritual" of a college women's sorority called Alpha Sigma Tau. Now Alpha Sigma Tau (like several other sororities "exposed" by WikiLeaks) is not known to have engaged in any form of misconduct, and WikiLeaks does not allege that it has. Rather, WikiLeaks chose to publish the group's confidential ritual just because it could. This is not whistleblowing and it is not journalism. It is a kind of information vandalism."

-Charles Piller

June 28, 2010
How effective are self-funded campaigns?

Meg Whitman contributing some $91 million of her own money in her bid for California governor prompts the question: just how successful have self-funded candidates been in the past? The National Institute on Money in State Politics examined the data for the past decade and concluded that candidates who bankroll their own campaigns win elections at a lower rate than candidates who do not. The Institute tracked 6,171 candidates between 2000 and 2009 who financed the bulk of their races (collectively contributing some $700 million of the total $850 million spent). Only 668 of these self-funded candidates (11 percent) were successful. Compare that to candidates who did not contribute much of their own money to campaigns (but who enjoyed a fundraising advantage). They won 87 percent of the time.

June 28, 2010
"Bias" in CPS case revealed in court transcripts

Two years before the death of a 4 1/2-year-old Sacramento foster child, the girl's biological mother tried to tell the Juvenile Court that her fears for her daughter were going unheeded.

The 2006 court records are even more poignant, given this week's admission by Sacramento County Child Protective Services that the agency did, in fact, have a bias in the case.

The county's top child welfare leaders acknowledged Thursday that CPS had a bias in favor of foster provider Tracy Dossman, who was caring for Amariana when she died in a January 2008 house fire. Before her death, Amariana's biological parents had complained frequently to CPS that their daughter was being injured in the foster home.

After the child's death in the still-unsolved homicide, a Bee investigation revealed that the little girl had suffered numerous injuries in Dossman's home.

An internal CPS review into its own conduct indicated that the concerns of Amariana's biological mom, Anisha Hill, had been largely discounted because she had been feuding with Dossman.

Hill had been unable to get the attention of the court, either.

A transcript from a May 5, 2006, hearing shows that Hill told Referee Scott P. Harman that "every time I complained about something, they always took her (Dossman's) side..."

Later, Hill asked the referee: "How come everybody always believes her over me...?"

In another passage from court transcripts, the child's biological father pleaded with the referee in September 2006 for more time to get his daughter back.

"I want to continue to get all the information that's needed," Curtis Crenshaw said. "That's what I want. My daughter's life is at stake."

June 28, 2010
California city, county employment drops to four-year low

California's local governments are feeling the crunch of hard economic times, with many contracting to levels not seen since 2006.

Cities and counties employ almost 30,000 fewer workers -- everyone from park attendants to police officers -- today than they did this time two years ago. The charts below have the details ...

Source: Employment Development Department; figures represent employment for May of each year shown.

June 25, 2010
How does your time use compare to the rest of America?

Another weekend coming up. What do you have planned? Chores, gardening, watching TV, sleeping late? Every wonder how the average person spends her time during the week? The federal government wonders, too. Conducting the annual American Time Use Survey, BLS demographers attempt to quantify time devoted to just about every activity you can think of: personal care, sleeping, eating, job, housework, child care, shopping, education, entertainment, outside organizations, etc.

Of course, the mix of activities varies with factors like gender, age, educational attainment and employment status. But there are overall trends. Here are average weekday/weekend breakdowns for select activities taken from the recently released 2009 report:

Average time (hours per day)
     Activity  Weekdays  Weekends/holidays
sleeping 8.40 9.34
eating 1.22 1.39
housework 1.55 1.87
lawn-garden care 2.02 2.30
shopping 0.84 1.15
child care 1.94 2.10
job 7.88 5.00
television 3.21 4.00

 

June 24, 2010
CDC releases new stats on health risks and health care

fitness.JPGEarly Release of Selected Estimates Based on Data From the 2009 National Health Interview Survey is a large compendium of new data on American health and health care posted last week by the Centers for Disease Control. The report presents 2009 updates of 15 health measures along with prior data from 1997 through 2008 for comparison. Categories cover medical insurance, chronic disease, health risks like smoking and lack of exercise, vaccination and other factors affecting individual health. Some highlights:

Between 2008 and 2009, the percentage of uninsured Americans of all ages rose 14.7 to 15.4 percent. Hispanics in 2009 led non-Hispanic whites and blacks in the the percentage of uninsured (30.7 percent versus 11.1 and 17.0 percent, respectively).

Percentage of people who failed to obtain needed medical care due to cost rose from 4.5 percent in 1997 to 6.9 percent in 2009.

Smoking among U.S. adults generally declined from 1997 to 2009 (24.7 to 20.6 percent).

Percentage of adults who engage in regular leisure-time physical activity ranged from 29.8 percent in 1998 to 34.7 percent in 2009.

Prevalence of diagnosed diabetes among adults rose from 1997 to 2009 (5.1 to 9.0 percent).

PHOTO CREDIT: John Goddard of Sacramento trains at 24 Hour Fitness in this 2008 photo by Renee C. Byer.

June 23, 2010
Sacramento flood agency approves stealth pay raises

For two weeks, the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency has rebuffed efforts by The Bee to learn if salary increases were planned or completed. Finally, we learned yesterday that the agency's board granted or cleared the way for raises ranging from 2 percent to 17.7 percent for five employees.

This information came from Board members; agency executive Stein Buer has never responded to Bee queries -- even though one of his own board members says he publicly disapproved of the silent treatment. Public agencies, such as SAFCA, are obligated by law to make salary data available on request.

Board chair and Sacramento City Councilman Ray Tretheway justified the raises -- including 4 percent to one of SAFCA's executives, and 17.7 percent to a technical expert -- as needed to address pay equity concerns and because of how hard the employees work.

The problems with public disclosure at SAFCA continue: As of this morning, six days after the board meeting at which the salaries were approved, the video of the meeting had not yet been posted on the agency's website. SAFCA normally releases such video records within 48 hours.

Last year Buer himself got a 27 percent raise, to $195,000 annually.

-Charles Piller

June 23, 2010
California's budget deficit compares poorly to other states

Nearly every state in the nation faces a budget deficit this year. California's $19.1 billion budget deficit is equivalent to roughly 1 percent of its annual gross state product, a higher rate than all but two of the 15 largest states in America. Gross State Product is the total value of all goods and services produced within the state in a year.

State 2011 budget deficits as a percentage of annual gross state product:



Notes: Gross state product taken from 2008 estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Since the economy has deteriorated in most places since then, the above chart likely underestimates debt-to-GSP by a small amount. Texas has a two-year budget deficit of $18 billion; this chart splits that in half. Ohio has a projected $8 billion deficit in 2012; Arizona has a projected $2.6 billion deficit that year. Source for budget figures are news reports and State Budget Solutions.

June 22, 2010
Cherry Island bottleneck finds itself still bottled up

The Problem: Back in 2005, Mike Pundyk of Elverta contacted us about traffic issues on Elverta Road near Cherry Island Golf Course.

Pundyk cited a big bottleneck around the antiquated, two-lane Dry Creek Bridge and a traffic signal he called "the dumbest light in Sacramento County."

Improvements were due to get under way in 2007, but by 2008 - when Pundyk moved to Oregon to get away from the traffic, crime and crowding in his old neighborhood - nothing had changed. He contacted us to find out whether anything had been done yet.

The answer? Nope.

The Solution: The discovery of American Indian artifacts was the initial holdup, said Stephen White, with the county transportation department.

That was resolved a few months ago. "Now our problem is no money," White said.

Developer fees were supposed to pay for the fix, but development pretty much stopped. Of course, that means traffic "hasn't gotten any worse," he said.

The county wants federal transportation money to widen the bridge to two lanes in each direction and the bridge to be raised out of the 100-year floodplain.

No start dates are planned, however.

- Carlos Alcalá

June 22, 2010
Grant works wonders until teachers get pink-slipped

A $400,000 grant from the California Department of Education meant fourth- and fifth-grade kids at three Elk Grove Unified elementary schools could learn to use technology to improve their language art skills.

It paid for projectors and 20 laptops for each grade level at Prairie, David Reese and Mary Tsukamoto elementary schools, said UC Davis' Carl Whithaus, the project evaluator.

A quarter of the money had to be used for teacher training, officials said.

The teachers started video blogs, taught how to put together digital videos and hooked students up with cyber pen pals to talk about books.

Tight budgets, however, resulted in many of the teachers being laid off or being sent to other campuses as the district reshuffles its staff, Whithaus said.

Six of the 18 teachers remain on the layoff list, said Elizabeth Graswich, district spokeswoman. She could not say how many of the remaining 12 would be moved to other schools from reorganization.

"Just because the teacher moves to another school doesn't meant they can't assist at another school," Graswich said.

"It's definitely tough," Whithaus said. "If you have a sixth-grade teacher reassigned to fourth grade, you have had none of the professional development related to writing or the technology to be really effective."

Before the personnel reshuffling, the program was actually working. Whithaus said that two of the three schools had higher test scores and the third met other goals.

"It's almost like hitting the ball out of the park," Whithaus said. "They hit the top of the wall."

- Diana Lambert

June 21, 2010
HUD releases fresh national, local data on the homeless

Nationally, the total number of homeless individuals dropped five percent between 2008 and 2009, though the number of homeless families rose. That's according to the 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, released last week by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The data -- based on single-night and 12-month counts of the homeless -- covers both sheltered and unsheltered people. The report found the number of families staying in shelters increased seven percent from 2008 to 2009, and the length of stay rose from 30 to 36 days. Of the individuals using shelters: 78 percent were adults; 61 percent were male; 62 percent were members of a minority; 31 percent were aged 31-50; and 38 percent had a disability.

The HUD report also provides statistics for some localities including Sacramento City/County, Roseville/Placer County; Davis/Woodland/Yolo County and El Dorado County. Between 2008 and 2009 the total (sheltered and non-sheltered) "point-in-time" homeless count rose in Sacramento County (2,615 to 2,800), in Placer County (587 to 616) and in Yolo County (414 to 491). It fell in El Dorado County (150 to 146).

June 19, 2010
Visualize U.S. county-to-county migration with Forbes map

Sacmigrate.JPGEvery year the Internal Revenue Service releases data on the migration of families to and from every county in the United States. The statistics are voluminous and costly. (The IRS charges $200 per year for nationwide data.) Even if you get the database, it's difficult to get a good mental picture of the migration pattern for a given county. Fortunately, Forbes Magazine has developed a slick online map which easily visualizes the flow of people in and out of a specific area during 2008 (the latest year available).

Here's how it works: zoom in and click on a county. A set of lines appears connecting that county with every other country where at least 10 people have moved in or out. Black lines represent net inward migration, red lines net outward migration. Click on the destination county to see the raw numbers.

Sacramento County, for example, shows much movement to and from the urban centers of the East and West Coasts. A few 2008 highlights;

Boston (Sufflok County, Mass.) -- 40 people inbound to and 24 people outbound from Sacramento County.
Manhattan (New York County, N.Y.) -- 74 inbound, 62 outbound.
Washington, D.C. -- 56 inbound, 40 outbound.
Seattle (Kings County, Wash.) -- 495 inbound, 299 outbound.
San Francisco County -- 808 inbound, 796 outbound.
Los Angeles County -- 1,559 inbound, 1,854 outbound.

June 18, 2010
Update: Flood agency mum about raise rumors

This blog previously reported our efforts to find out if the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency was about to give large compensation increases for its staff members. The agency is governed by representatives from several local government bodies and is mainly funded by the state. Government employees are suffering from furloughs and layoffs in the continuing economic malaise (as Sacramento County's grim numbers below show.)

As of Friday afternoon, the agency's executive director, Stein Buer, and its external press representative, Barbara Gualco of Gualco Consulting, still declined to respond to direct questions about possible compensation changes that may have been approved at the $279 million agency's Thursday board meeting although they were nowhere to be seen on the agenda. layoffs graphic.JPG

Also on Friday, The Bee attempted to contact all of the agency's board members, so far without success, except in one case: Virginia Moose of the American River Flood Control District declined to comment.

"If [Buer and Gualco] are refusing to speak to you about it, I'm not going to either. It's not my place to do that," she said. "You'll have to try to try to convince them to talk to you about it."

SAFCA's silence is unusual for a public agency, which is legally obligated to make its policies and salary data available on request. The recent approach follows an episode last spring, when Buer had proposed raises of up to 51 percent for nine employees despite the economic crisis. His board turned him down after The Bee reported the plan. But it gave Buer a 27 percent boost, to $195,000 annually.

The agency was created in 1989 to help prevent flooding from the Sacramento and American rivers. Here are its other board members, who could not be reached as of Friday afternoon:

Ray Tretheway, SAFCA Chair and member, Sacramento City Council
John Shiels, SAFCA Vice Chairman, Reclamation District 1000
Roger Dickinson, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors
Jimmie Yee, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors
Susan Peters, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors
Don Nottoli, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors
Roberta MacGlashan, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors
Brian Holloway, American River Flood Control District
James Gallagher, Sutter County Board of Supervisors
Jeff Smith, Reclamation District 1000
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson
Bonnie Pannell, Sacramento City Council

- Charles Piller



June 18, 2010
The Budget Clock of Shame

The legislature has again failed to pass a budget by the June 15 constitutional deadline.

Only once in the past two decades has the deadline been met -- last year in fact -- but that spending plan quickly was unraveled by the economy and needed more than $20 billion in fixes.

This year, California finds itself facing a projected $19.1 billion deficit, and no compromise is in sight between Democrats intent on raising billions in revenue and Republicans adamantly opposed. It looks like another long summer.

So we've created a clock counting up the days, minutes and seconds since the budget deadline passed. It'll run until the Legislature passes a budget. You can see it below, and anytime at The Bee's state budget page.


June 18, 2010
Arizona boycott: Will council turn down campaign contributions?

Members of the Sacramento city council, which voted for economic sanctions against Arizona earlier this week, have taken more than $11,000 in campaign contributions from individuals and businesses based in Arizona during the last 18 months, campaign records show.

The contributions all came before Arizona passed a controversial immigration law that drew council members' ire, but they beg the question: Will council members still accept donations from Arizona? Will they be returning those checks?800px-Flag_of_Arizona.svg.jpg

Mayor Kevin Johnson would be in the biggest bind if he instituted a personal Arizona boycott, given his status as a former star for the Phoenix Suns NBA team. He took about $5,000 in donations from individuals with Arizona addresses last year -- and that was after he had already won his election for mayor.

But those were donations from individuals, while  the council vote boycotts Arizona businesses.

By far, the largest Arizona business donating to city council members is Republic Services, a waste management company headquartered in Phoenix that operates in the Sacramento region.

Republic Services gave a total of $3,000 to five current council members during the last 18 months -- Steve Cohn; Lauren Hammond; Robbie Waters; Ray Tretheway and Kevin McCarty.

June 17, 2010
Washington Post investigates lawmaker investments and committee work

On Monday the Washington Post published its study of the personal finances of Congressional members in relation to their commitee assigments. The newspaper relied heavily on financial disclosure information amassed by the government watchdog group OpenSecrets.org. Reporters found that U.S. lawmakers are often invested in the industries they oversee in their Senate and House committees.

Take, for example, Rep. Ron Paul. For 20 years the Texas Republican has advocated a return to the gold standard. He is also ranking member of the Financial Services subcommittee concerned with monetary policy, mints and gold medals. In 2008 Paul declared $1.7 million in personal investments in gold and silver companies. Or consider Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security. In 2008 she disclosed $935,000 in investments in electronics and communications firms.

The Post has a nifty interactive graphic showing investments of other key committee leaders, as well as total amounts of personal assets invested in various industry sectors by members of related committees.

Incidentally, the Bee has collected 2008 financial disclosure forms (Statements of Economic Interests) submitted by California legislators and constitutional officers. You can browse these here. 2009 filings are available on the California Fair Political Practices Commission web site.

June 17, 2010
Inmate alleges retaliation for talking to The Bee

Are correctional officers retaliating against state prison inmates for speaking up about prison conditions? He says yes. They say no.

Rufus Gray, currently an inmate at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, told The Bee in a May story about alleged racism and cruelty he suffered while imprisoned at High Desert State Prison in Susanville.

"It was a strip-search, buck-naked in the snow," Gray said. He was among many inmates who told The Bee about hours-long searches in freezing conditions.RB Corcoran BMU 1.JPG

Now he says in a letter that guards at his current prison refer to him as "the infamous Gray" for his comments to The Bee. Gray said he had been restricted from adequate use of the prison law library, and has been placed in administrative segregation -- a prison within the prison -- after having been caught up in what he called a "staged racial riot" at Calipatria State Prison, east of San Diego, where he previously was housed. He blamed his treatment on retaliation for talking to The Bee.

Cassandra Hockenson, a spokesperson for the corrections department, said that Gray was transferred out of Calipatria due to his participation in the riot. Regarding his charge of retaliation, she said, "as far as we know, there's no such thing happening."

Several other inmates have written to say that editions of The Bee that contained the prison series were withheld from distribution in some prisons. Corrections officials said in some cases, mail backlogs may have delayed distribution, but that the prisons work to correct any such problems when they occur.

-Charles Piller



June 16, 2010
Is Sacramento flood agency secretly raising employee pay?

On June 8, The Bee received a tip that the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency might be planning a new round of significant compensation increases for its employees. If true, the agency -- which is governed by representatives from several local government bodies and receives most of its funding from the state -- would differ sharply from most state-funded agencies, which are freezing and cutting salaries in the face of severe budget shortfalls.

I've tried to get a straight answer about possible plans to boost salary and benefit packages at SAFCA. But the agency's executive director, Stein Buer (pictured at right), did not respond to several inquires on Wednesday. Stein Buer.JPGIts external press representative, Barbara Gualco of Gualco Consulting, did not respond to repeated direct questions about whether compensation changes are planned.

Last spring, The Bee reported that Buer had proposed raises of up to 51 percent for nine employees. SAFCA's board then rejected the plan as inappropriate during the economic crisis. But the board approved a 27 percent boost for Buer himself, who now earns $195,000 annually.

The agency was created in 1989 to respond to the threat of serious flooding from the Sacramento and American rivers after large winter storms. It contracts with other agencies and companies to build and improve levees and provide other flood protections. SAFCA's budget for the current fiscal year is $279 million.

The agency's next board meeting, which is open to the public, will be held tomorrow, Thursday, June 17, at 3 p.m., in the City of Sacramento Council Chambers, 915 I St.

- Charles Piller

June 16, 2010
Government secrecy forum seeks public input

President Obama has pledged to increase government openness by declassifying records more efficiently. His efforts have been given mixed reviews by secrecy experts. But a plan to declassify hundreds of millions of pages of government records before 2014 is underway.Rex secrecy3.JPG

The Secrecy News blog, a project of the Federation of American Scientists, pointed out some flaws in the draft government declassification plan:

"The review of the backlog will be conducted on a Pass/Fail basis...That means that if a document contains any classified information at all, even a single word or number, the entire document will be withheld from release...Second, the documents that do pass the review and are declassified will be subjected to two quality control audits to ensure that no classified information has inadvertently passed through. One audit will be performed by the Archives and a second audit will be done by the Department of Energy. On the other hand, however, there will be no audit of withheld records to ensure that no unclassified record has been unnecessarily kept secret. In effect, the process is tilted towards minimizing disclosures of classified information rather than maximizing disclosures of unclassified information."

The National Archives will hold a public meeting on June 23 to get input on its priorities for declassification. To comment remotely, send email to ndc@nara.gov.


June 15, 2010
Be careful with your oil-spill cleanup donations

Images of oil-covered birds from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill have many looking for ways to help. The Better Business Bureau urges donors to be cautious, noting the constraints in the cleanup effort limit what charities can do.

Beware of well-intentioned but inexperienced groups that may lack the resources and management to be effective. Look for established organizations with environmental expertise or experience aiding gulf communities.

Ask whether the organization will restrict your donation for use in its gulf-related efforts or intends to use it to support all its programs. If a charity is raising money for other groups, consider avoiding the middleman and give directly to those performing the work.

Cathy Locke

June 14, 2010
Follow up-to-the-minute local crime with Twitter

twitter_logo_header.pngLast week's hostage drama reminds us that important crime developments can break at any time. Twitter, the microblogging service, is one convenient way to track the latest local crime and fire news. Top among regional sites is Sacbee_news, the Bee's main account spotlighting important breaking news in the region. There are also Twitter streams from police reporters Chelsea Phua and Kim Minugh, who give you the behind-the-scenes look at ongoing news coverage.

But what Twitter feeds do Bee journalists use to keep up with public safety news? Here's a list of non-Bee accounts compiled by Bill Enfield, crime and courts editor.

SacPolice - Official Twitter page for the Sacramento Police Department maintained by the Police News Media Team.
SacFirePIO - Official site of the Sacramento Fire Department's public information officer Capt. Jim Doucette.
News10_ca - Links to top stories being reported by the KXTV news team.
Fox40 - Breaking news alerts and video updates from the KTXL news team.
CBS13rightnow - Breaking local and national news from the KOVR news team.
Scannerboy02 - Tweets from a freelance videographer who tracks the local police scanner.
TwinRiversPD - Official site of the Twin Rivers Police Department.
CalFirePIO - Official site of the California Fire Department's PIO Daniel Berlant.

-- Pete Basofin

June 14, 2010
Voter turnout better than it seemed

LS YOLO ELECTION 1.JPGOn election day, the Field Poll published a widely-cited prediction that voter turnout would fall to a record low.

It was a safe bet since voter turnout has been trending downward for years. And it may well prove true -- it won't be clear until all provisional and late mail-in ballots are counted over the next few weeks.

But turnout is calculated based on registered voters, and the percentage of eligible Californians who are registered to vote has increased, largely because of excitement over the last presidential election

In all, about 24.1 percent of eligible voters were expected to vote in this election, up from 23.4 percent the last gubernatorial primary, according to a table in the Field Poll report.

Look at it this way: Say you have a city with 100 eligible voters and two elections. In the first election, 50 people register to vote, and 25 actually cast ballots. In the second election, 60 register to vote, and 27 cast ballots. The first election has a higher turnout rate; the second election has more people who actually voted. Despite its glum tone, the Field Poll study, in the fine print, says the above example is analogous to Tuesday's election: Lower registered voter turnout, but more Californians actually voting.

In Sacramento County, 164,465 votes had been tallied by Thursday, and around 80,000 provisional and late ballots were left to be counted. If 60,000 or more of those votes are valid -- some will not be accepted by the registrar -- Sacramento County actually will have experiences an increase over the last gubernatorial election in the proportion of eligible residents who cast ballots.

Finally, a bit of context. My home state of North Carolina just posted 14 percent turnout for its statewide primary; Texas just hosted a statewide primary with 11 percent turnout; Illinois just had a statewide primary election with 21 percent turnout.

June 14, 2010
Glitch in state court computer system opens confidential documents

The Sacramento Superior Court had to temporarily shut down access to Probate Court records earlier this month when a system malfunction allowed pubic access to confidential documents, according to a statement from Presiding Judge Steve White's office.

The court still is trying to determine if any confidential information was accessed before the shut down.

This latest hiccup comes after months of judges' complaints about problems with the new computer system.

The bigger issue relates to the California Court Case Management System, a massive project to link all state courts on one computer system. The price tag for the project could reach $2 billion, according to a Bee analysis from October.

The project has been a major front in the civil war raging in the state's judicial branch. The project is part of a broader effort by Ronald George, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California, to centralize control of the state courts, instead of allowing counties to control them. Some judges are bristling at spending decisions by the Judicial Council and its staff agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts, including a decision to close courts one day a month for budget reasons.

Sacramento judges have been particularly vocal in their displeasure with the CCMS system. Sacramento is one of a half dozen courts statewide running early versions of the system, which Deloitte Consulting still is developing.

Administrative Office of the Courts' officials have in the past deflected blame from the system to the Sacramento court's installation of that system. AOC officials have suggested the Sacramento court did not follow proper protocol in installing the system, which has led to ongoing issues.

The blame game spilled into the legal press this week with a June 7 article in the Daily Recorder in which AOC officials are quoted as suggesting locally developed scanning software wasn't compatible with a recent update of the system. That article led to a scathing letter from Judge White to the head of the AOC demanding a retraction. In the letter from White to William Vickrey dated June 8, the judge wrote:

"This latest incident continues the pattern: The release of confidential information was entirely the result of actions by the AOC contractor, Deloitte, which did not even inform our court of the changes it made or the resulting problem. We were left to make that discovery on our own. Yet anyone reading the AOC's press is told the problem lies with our court. This is false. It is unfair and it is wrong. Judges and staff on this court find that most offensive."

In response to The Bee's inquiries, AOC spokesman Philip Carrizosa provided this response: 

"We respectfully disagree that the problem was caused solely by our software update to CCMS. If our update had been the only cause, then the same problem would have occurred with other courts that use the same version of CCMS as Sacramento. But this problem was unique to Sacramento."

Some in the state Legislature are paying attention to the ongoing computer system drama. Previously, the Legislature asked the state's Chief Information Officer to review the project and the state auditor also is planning a review.

With the budget looming, both sides are continuing to make sure the senators and assembly members who make funding decisions are aware of the issue and lobbying for support.

June 12, 2010
Bing, Google launch dueling health data maps

Last week rival search engines Bing and Google debuted two different map mashups of health data. (Hat tip to Search Engine Land.)

Google's offering, called Hospital Finder, displays important consumer information about individual hospitals across the country. The data includes "heart healthy" and "people friendly" evaluations. The former covering things like "aspirin on heart attack arrival" and "beta-blockers on heart attack discharge". The latter showing patient judgments about doctor/nurse communication, pain control, noise, etc. Among the local hospitals feature on the map are: Sutter General, Mercy General, UCD Med Center and the main suburban facilities.

Bing Health Maps shows county-level statistics on essential community health factors: birth measures (premature births, low birth weight, older mother, etc.); death measures (infant mortality, fatal accidents, diseases, etc.); health risk measures (hypertension, obesity, smoking, etc.). The interactive map is color-coded so you can easily see how your county compares to others in each category.

--Pete Basofin

June 11, 2010
Buyer Beware: No need for costly public records service

Sacramento County officials are warning residents that there's no need to pay a Los Angeles-area company to obtain public records that are easily available from the County Clerk-Recorder's offices.

Some area residents have been receiving an offer in the mail from a company calling itself the State Record Retrieval Board. The company claims that for the low, low cost of $87 a homeowner can get a copy of his or her deed and a property profile. The company, which has an Agoura Hills address, is not a government entity or in any way affiliated with the county, state or other government agencies.

County officials say residents can get the same information for an average cost of $15 directly from the Clerk-Recorder's offices.

For more information on the Clerk-Recorder's office visit their website at www.ccr.saccounty.net or give them a call at (916) 874-6334. For information on the assessed value of your property, you can visit the assessor's website at www.assessor.saccounty.net or give them a call at (916) 875-0700.

June 11, 2010
When children die... personal anguish vs. public access

Autopsy reports can be devastating for grieving families, especially those who lose children to violent crime. But should their personal anguish keep autopsy findings private, concealed from public inspection?

A bill backed by the San Diego District Attorney's Office would allow family members of child crime victims to request that autopsy reports be sealed -- a proposal vigorously opposed by First Amendment advocates.

The bill by Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, was drafted after family members of a murdered Southern California teen argued this year that some details of the criminal investigation, including the girl's autopsy, should be withheld. In April, a San Diego judge denied the request by the family of Chelsea King, 17, of Poway who was killed this year by a man who admitted to murdering Chelsea as well as a 14-year-old Escondido girl a year earlier.

Opponents of the measure, SB 982, are citing The Bee's coverage of a 4 1/2-year-old foster child's death as an example of why such records must remain open.

The Bee's investigation into the unsolved death of Amariana Crenshaw raised new questions about how the girl died and the quality of care she received in her foster home. After reviewing the child's autopsy at The Bee's request, several well-known forensic experts challenged the Sacramento County coroner's findings and raised the possibility the girl was already dead when the house fire broke out in January 2008.

Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which opposes the bill, said he has researched media coverage of Chelsea's murder and found no offensive or "extremely graphic" reporting based on the autopsy. Newton said he believed the bill is "an emotional reaction to a tragic death" that would have unintended consequences for both the public and for law enforcement, which often relies on citizen input to solve crimes.

June 10, 2010
Sacramento's school nurse supply dwindles

A Sacramento-based appeals court on Thursday struck down a California education regulation that allowed trained school staff members other than nurses to give insulin shots to students.

State school officials argued that a nursing shortage necessitated the regulation. Nurses sued, claiming the rule put students at risk.

Whoever is right, the ruling will strain a system where the number of nurses is falling due to lack of supply and budget cuts.

The chart below shows the number of nurses per 10,000 students in Sacramento County over the last several years. Each local school nurse is now responsible, on average, for about 2,350 students -- about 600 more than they oversaw in 2003.

June 10, 2010
Carbon, climate and conflict

Carbon offsets are controversial, with some challenging their effectiveness at mitigating global warming.

Last year, The Bee explored the subject by examining widespread confusion in state government over whether or not top officials should buy carbon off-sets when they travel abroad on environmental business. Some do. And some don't. Some think it's a problem, others don't.

One official told The Bee in its story: "Do we need a policy for how this stuff works? Absolutely, yes - because one does not exist."

Now Frontline explores this issue in an intriguing program, which is viewable on the Web.

How did Chevron and General Motors end up owning valuable carbon offsets in the rain-forests of Brazil? And why did the purchase of those off-sets, which are billed as an important tool in the battle against climate change, anger local people in the region?

June 9, 2010
Nearly 1,500 former federal officials now lobbying for Wall Street

Public Citizen and the Center for Responsive Politics teamed up to study the "revolving door" of former federal employees who became lobbyists for the financial services industry. The two government watchdog groups determined that since Jan. 2009, at least 1,447 former government officials -- including former Congressional members, Congressional staffers and related federal agency employees -- have gone to work for Wall Street.

Prominent among the 73 former Congress members identified in the study are: "former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.); former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.); former House Majority Leaders Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.); former Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas); and former Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.)." One former California politican appearing on the list: Vic Fazio, a Democrat who represented the Sacramento area in Congress from 1979-1999.

The full CRP/PC study has a complete list of the lobbyists who served in Congress as members or staffers. You'll also find a list of people with the most number of financial services clients. And there's a list of companies employing the most "revolving door" lobbyists. (Citigroup, Inc. is number one with 60.)

-- Pete Basofin

June 9, 2010
Drip, drip - here's how BP can pay for the oil cleanup
Energy inflation.JPG

If the American public is going to be the victim of a disastrous deep-water oil leak, it's lucky the responsible party is a deep-pocketed oil company. In case you were wondering where BP managed to find $5.9 billion in profits during the last quarter, look inside your own pocket. This graph shows the most recent energy inflation figures for urban consumers. After a steep drop during the middle of the recession, prices have crept back up.

- Charles Piller

June 8, 2010
Cyber-espionage in the Bay?

If you're bored by the election perhaps a good tale of international espionage will brighten your day.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported today that a major consulting/communications firm asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into possible computer hacking that led to the theft of documents related to a high profile client -- a deposed Middle East shiekh.

The head of the company, Jason Kinney, "became alarmed after the German newspaper Der Spiegel contacted his office last month with questions based on confidential documents concerning his firm's client," the Chronicle reported:

The German paper asked about details of the California group's reported $3.7 million in compensation from the sheikh as well as details of its contract to "develop a comprehensive public affairs and diplomacy campaign" for the prince. Der Spiegel has declined to say where it obtained the information.
Similar inquiries came in the last two weeks from the British newspaper the Guardian, Kinney said.
In his letter to federal law enforcement officials, Kinney warned that the incidents "could include the possible compromising of electronic communications with high-placed U.S. government offices and the offices of federal elected officials.

June 8, 2010
Doublecheck vacation rentals before paying

Whether it's a beach house offering panoramic ocean views, a rustic mountain cabin or a downtown condo, vacation rentals are popular with travelers looking to save money.

But travelers should be forewarned. What you think you are getting may not be so.

The Better Business Bureau accredits businesses that meet its standard of best practices. The agency advises travelers to research rentals carefully because the properties are not always as advertised. Here are tips:

If you go through a third-party website or professional service, check them out at bbb.org.

Some companies guarantee the property meets your level of cleanliness and other expectations. If not, consider travel insurance.

Pictures and descriptions posted online can be deceiving, so use Google map's "Street View" to check out the surrounding area. Ask plenty of questions about the property.

Check the rental contract to ensure that all verbal agreements including details such as deposits, refunds, utility costs and rules on pets are in writing.

Do not send money until you've signed the agreement. Also never pay by money wire. When possible, use a credit card.

-- Chelsea Phua

June 8, 2010
Ratings agency cites local banks with weaknesses

Several Sacramento-area banks, hit hard by the financial crisis, continue to struggle. A new report by an independent rating agency shows a handful with severe weaknesses placing them at greater risk of failure because of ongoing problems in the residential and commercial mortgage markets.

Granite Community Bank in Granite Bay, cited in a recent Bee investigation as severely stressed, was among local banks cited by Weiss Ratings, a Florida-based financial analysis firm, in its recent list of the nation's weakest lenders.

At the end of May, Granite became the first area bank seized by federal regulators in the current economic crisis. Its operations were assumed by Tri Counties Bank in Chico. Depositors will have full access to their funds.

Weiss described Granite, among other local banks, as "'vulnerable' to future financial difficulties or even failure, based on our analysis of their capital, asset quality, earnings, liquidity and other factors."

Granite Bancshares Inc., parent company of Granite, reported a $345,000 loss for the first quarter of this year, compared to a loss of $196,000 in the quarter a year before. Loans and deposits plummeted in the same period.

Also among the region's weakest banks, Weiss said, is Community Banks of Northern California. The Tracy-based lender has a Sacramento branch. It's owned by Community Bankshares Inc. in Colorado.

It recently was merged into Community Banks of Colorado to respond to some of the problems cited by rating agencies, said Donald Woods, chief executive of Community Bankshares.

But the Colorado bank faces similar problems: Rating agencies gave it low marks and Bankrate.com ranked it lower than 97 percent of similarly sized banks nationwide.

Gold Country Bank in Marysville - cited in a Bee investigation last year as deeply troubled, and poorly rated by Weiss and other experts - recently was acquired by Sacramento-based Golden Pacific Bancorp, Inc.

-- Charles Piller

June 7, 2010
Supervisors mull airport contract, giant corporation opens wallet

The multinational corporation in danger of losing its stranglehold on the lucrative concessions at Sacramento International Airport has increased its political contributions to county supervisors' coffers, records show.

HMSHost, the Maryland-based company owned by multinational corporation Autogrill, is trying to keep a large chunk of the airport's multimillion dollar food and beverage concession business. In the past several months the company has made several notable donations:

  • $1,000 to Supervisor Jimmie Yee on March 29
  • $1,000 to supervisorial-candidate Phil Serna on March 30
  • $3,900 to Supervisor Roger Dickinson's Assembly campaign on March 26.

In addition, a local consultant representing the company, Ted Sheedy, has given $750 to Dickinson's Assembly campaign.

 

RP AIRPORT FOOD FAMILY.JPGIn the relative scheme of campaign finance, the contributions are small. They do, however, represent a marked increase from previous years when supervisors reported no donations from the company.

The company also increased its gifts to Airport Director Hardy Acree. Most years the company gives Acree a Christmas gift basket valued at about $75, according to disclosure forms the airport director is required to file annually. In 2009, however, the company gave Acree a $100 gift basket, a $50 holiday gift and a $100 dinner. Sheedy popped for $65 worth of wine that same year, which must have been a slightly nicer vintage than the $40 worth of wine Acree received from SSP, one of the companies competing against HMSHost for the concessions contracts.

As The Bee reported Monday, HMSHost has had a monopoly on the Sacramento Airport concessions for decades. Airport officials, however, want to increase competition in the new terminal -- currently under construction -- and possibly bring in some local businesses.

HMSHost's piece of the pie seemed to be in serious jeopardy last week when Acree and other airport officials proposed as many as six separate contracts including direct contracts with small local restaurants. Supervisors, however, led by Roberta MacGlashan and Roger Dickinson, want officials to come back to the board with a plan to contract with two large concessionaires who would then partner with the local businesses. This is potentially good news for HMSHost and SSP, two major companies in the running for the contracts.

The supervisors will discuss airport concessions at the June 15 board meeting.

 

-- Robert Lewis
June 7, 2010
Money Trail: Campaign contribution records hard to find

Want to know who funded the hit piece on Sacramento County Sheriff candidate Scott Jones? Curious to learn how much Sacramento County Supervisor Jimmie Yee raised in campaign contributions since mid-March? Hoping to find out about late contributions to Jim Cooper's campaign?

Good luck.

Sacramento County's archaic contribution database was on the fritz last week and candidate filings have been piling up. This means a visitor to the county elections office -- say, a wanna-be-informed voter -- hoping to see the latest filings on the public computer terminal will be out of luck.

County staff are trying to get back on top of the paperwork and scan the documents into the system. So, for example, while you couldn't find contributions to Supervisor Don Nottoli for March 18 through May 17 on the public terminal as of Monday morning, you could scrutinize District 1 candidate Phil Serna's contributions.

Sacramento County is one of the largest counties in the state without electronic campaign contribution filing. The City of Sacramento has such a system, which means voters who want to know who is funding prospective city council candidates can find out quickly and easily from the convenience of their home computer.

In the county, however, supervisors and sheriff's candidates file paper forms that a county worker then scans into a database, which is then only accessible through a special computer terminal at the elections office.

As The Bee wrote in March, county elections officials have continuously asked for an electronic filing system they say would cost $50,000 to install and another $7,500 a year to maintain.

-- Robert Lewis

June 7, 2010
California Republican party continues to lose members

California's Republican gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidates have spent the last few weeks arguing about who is a Republican, and who is a RINO -- Republican In Name Only.

The answer is irrelevant to a growing number of Californians.repphoto.jpg

About 30.8 percent of California's registered voters identify themselves as Republicans, according to new statistics from the Secretary of State's Office. That's down from 34.4 percent who were registered as Republicans just before the last gubernatorial primary election during 2006.

Democrats have seen their ranks increase slightly during that period, going from 42.7 percent of registered voters to 44.5 percent.

These trends are partially remnants of the 2008 election, which saw many new voters backing Barack Obama. But, even since then, Republicans have seen their proportion of the electorate decrease relative to Democrats.

Decline-to-state voters also are on the rise -- they make up 20.2 percent of registered voters in California today, compared to 18.5 percent in 2006.

June 7, 2010
New CPI series: Who bankrolls Congress?

Reid.jpgThe investigative journalism group Center for Public Integrity today launched a 4-day series that delves deeply into the biggest sources financing the campaigns of Congressional leaders.

The first installment profiles Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid has raised more than $42 million in 30 years. $14 million came from political action committees, of which almost $1 million came from just 10 donor groups. The list is topped by AT&T ($133,650), Laborers' International ($110,450), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($104,000) and the American Banking Association ($102,896). CPI does a nice job of explaining the background, agenda and political influence of each of Reid's top individual and PAC contributors.

Subsequent installments of the series will profile House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner.

-- Pete Basofin

June 4, 2010
Unemployment data shows worst conditions since 1940s
As the economy begins its ascent, historic federal data suggests that we are in a period of misery for the jobless last seen during the great depression. The Federal Reserve System's update for the most recent period shows how the nation is faring compared to past decades.  The stunning depth of the jobless recovery is clear in average duration of unemployment -- nearly 60 percent higher than any time since the 1940s.

Thumbnail image for UEMPMEAN_Max_630_378.png


-Charles Piller
June 4, 2010
Overtime pay falls in Sacramento County

The salary savings from layoffs and job cuts couldn't make up for the cost of negotiated pay raises in Sacramento County last year. So despite a more than 6 percent drop in personnel from 2008 to 2009, the base salary for all employees combined rose a fraction of a percent.

The county was, however, able to lower gross payroll -- base salary, termination payouts, overtime, etc. combined -- by about 1.4 percent. This appears to have been possible largely by controlling overtime. In 2008, the county paid $28.2 million in overtime pay to workers. That dropped to $15.8 million in 2009. The Sheriff's Department, the source of much of the overtime cost in the county, saw a significant drop. In 2008, the department paid almost $11 million for overtime. That fell to $5.3 million in 2009.

-- Robert Lewis

June 3, 2010
Gulf Coast population is booming

On the eve of hurricane season (and in the middle of the BP oil spill crisis) the U.S. Census Bureau issued a report documenting the phenomenal rise in population along the Gulf of Mexico coastline. Currently home to 14 million people, Gulf counties have ballooned 150 percent between 1960 and 2008, according to Census data. That growth rate is more than twice that of the country as a whole, and it beats the Pacific Coast increase of 110 percent over the same period.

There are twenty-three states with coastal counties. Of these, eleven saw an increase in the proportion of residents living along the coast and nine saw a drop. Califonia's share of coastline population fell from 78 percent in 1960 to 69 percent in 2008. In 2008, 28.8 percent of the nation's coastal population lived in California.

-- Pete Basofin

June 3, 2010
Plastic bags: The truth, the whole truth...

Who knew that a little shopping bag could generate such controversy, along with contradictory data?

But it does and it has -- and California could well be the next ground zero in the plastic and paper bag wars.

The Golden State may become the first in the nation to ban stores from dispensing free "single-use" bags with their purchases, according to a bill passed by the Assembly Wednesday. Shoppers who forget to bring their reusable totes would have to pay for a recycled paper bag, or purchase another reusable tote.

The bill's author, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, managed to win support from businesses -- but not from the plastics industry, which believes the measure could cost California numerous manufacturing jobs.

In making her case, Brownley argued that California taxpayers spend some $25 million annually to collect and bury the 19 billion bags used every year. And, she said, marine debris -- most of it plastic -- has injured or killed at least 267 species worldwide.

As the bill heads for a Senate vote, the industry is fighting back. Hilex Poly, a South Carolina-based company that bills itself as a leading manufacturer of plastic bag and film products, has created a Web site taking aim at the media and the "myths about plastic bags."

HA_marine_debris.JPGTitled "The Truth about Plastic Bags," the Web site purports to set the record straight about its product. It says plastic bags "account for only about 8 percent of ocean litter." And, the company states, discarded fishing line -- not plastic bags -- is "the single most dangerous debris item" for ocean wildlife.

The company, which tracks anti-plastic bag legislation nationally, complains that the "media is littered with false facts about plastic bags."

A spokeswoman for Brownley said the assemblywoman is confident of her data, which is attributed on a fact sheet to such entities as the California Integrated Waste Management Board and scientific research. "We're pretty careful about what data we use," said her spokeswoman. "If there's anything we feel iffy about, we don't go with it."

June 2, 2010
The who, what, where, when of school crime

Thumbnail image for schoolcrime.JPGThe National Center for Education Statistics last week released its report on crime that occurs at school. The data-heavy study (derived from the 2003-05 National Crime Victimization Survey) breaks down incidents by such factors as time of day, location in the school, whether police were involved and characteristics of offenders.

Some highlights:

* 4.8 million criminal incidents (including 2.9 million thefts and 1.8 million violent crimes) occurred on school campuses during the period 2003-05.

* Most violent incidents (54 percent) happened inside school buildings. 35 percent happened outside buildings on school grounds. 11 percent on the route to and from schools. Most violent crimes (85 percent) did not involve a weapon. In 73 percent of such incidents, the victim suffered no injury.

* The vast majority of incidents (82 percent) were not reported to police.

* Most thefts and violence occurred between noon and 3 p.m. (36 percent and 41 percent respectively) than at other times of the day.

-- Pete Basofin

June 2, 2010
Thieves at work in Death Valley National Park

bighorn s.jpg

At 3.3 million acres, Death Valley National Park is America's largest national park outside Alaska.

But is this desert sanctuary in eastern California too big to protect the treasures within its boundaries?

Hike the back-country in Death Valley and you may be surprised -- as I have been -- to find signs of illegal plundering, and attempted plundering, of archeological artifacts, such as this Native American petroglyph that someone clearly has tried to remove with a chisel.

Last winter, not far from where this photo was taken in May, I came across more evidence of illegal activity near a circle of stones that appears to be a Native American medical wheel, or sacred hoop, where indigenous people once gathered for ceremonies. Here, in an isolated corner of a national park set aside for the benefit of all Americans, someone had apparently been digging for arrowheads and other artifacts, for their private benefit.

dig site s.jpg

Obviously, patrolling a national park larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined is an enormous challenge. But just as obviously, more effective law enforcement is in order; otherwise, the archaeological treasures that make Death Valley and other national parks special will continue to disappear, not unlike pieces of art work from a museum wall.

ring s.jpg

June 2, 2010
What the BP spill would look like in Central California
It's hard to get a handle on the size of the BP oil spill by looking at maps showing it in a distant ocean. To rectify that, some crafty environmentalists have created a simple app that superimposes the outline of the spill -- as tracked by the federal government -- on the city or region most familiar to you.

Here's what the spill would look like if it were centered on Sacramento instead of out in the Gulf.


oilspill.JPG


June 1, 2010
Griping online about a company can get you SLAPPed

The New York Times yesterday described the dilemma of a Kalamazoo college student who created a Facebook page to complain about a towing company that hauled away his car from his apartment lot despite his having a permit to park there. The firm responded with a $750,000 defamation suit. Such lawsuits, says the Times, are becoming more common as consumers turn to blogs and social media to vent their feelings about products and services. Some first amendment advocates see this type of legal retaliation as a way for businesses and government to intimidate potential critics into silence. They refer to these seemingly meritless suits as SLAPPS (strategic lawsuit against public participation).

The public radio program On the Media recently reported on SLAPPs. The segment pointed out that federal anti-SLAPP legislation has been introduced in Congress. It's based on similar laws enacted by 27 states, including California, which is said to have the strongest statute. There's an advocacy group, the California Anti-SLAPP Project, whose mission is "protecting the right to participate in government and civic affairs and to speak freely about public issues." CASP has a useful chronology of the development of the California anti-SLAPP law.

-- Pete Basofin

June 1, 2010
Copper thieves make the lights go out

Lights are going out on neighborhood streets and baseball fields from Dixon to Davis to Folsom.

Davis officials report that five to six miles of copper wiring have been stolen from electrical boxes for streetlights and lights in the city's network of parks, trails and greenbelts. Now thieves are targeting wiring for sprinkler systems as well.

Grant Olson, senior electrician with Davis' Public Works Department, said the cost of replacing the wiring and repairing the systems is estimated at $50,000, and dark streets and trails are a safety hazard.

Olson said copper wire theft is along the Interstate 80 and Highway 50 corridors. "We believe it's organized," he said.

In Dixon, thieves have targeted lights along a city pathway, a Little League field and a portion of the business district. The damage totals about $11,000.

Folsom officials say such thefts have occurred on almost a weekly basis for the the past year.

Area recyclers have been alerted, but officials say wiring is difficult to trace.

Davis Police Sgt. Paul Doroshov advises residents to call police if they see someone who appears to be working on wiring, even if they think it might be a city electrician or contractor.

-- Cathy Locke

June 1, 2010
Scam warning for seniors seeking Medicare rebates

The federal government next week will begin issuing rebate checks to help seniors recoup money spent to bridge a Medicare drug coverage gap.

Eligible seniors will receive the money automatically, Medicare officials said, and they advised seniors to be wary of anyone offering services - for a fee - to help Medicare beneficiaries claim the rebate.

"Our message is: You don't have to do anything. We have the data. We will mail out the checks," said David W. Sayen, administrator for Medicare's San Francisco regional office.

"Anytime there is a new program, people will see it as an opportunity" to take advantage of the potentially vulnerable, he said.

Several million Medicare beneficiaries qualify for the one-time rebates. The checks are part of the massive health care legislation signed into law earlier this year.

The $250 rebate is intended to begin to plug the Part D doughnut hole - the drug coverage gap that requires seniors to pay the entire cost of prescriptions until they hit the catastrophic coverage level.

With public confusion over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Medicare beneficiaries will soon be receiving mailers about what they can expect.

Marilyn Tavenner, the acting national administrator for the federal insurance program for seniors, warned of "scam artists" who could try to defraud seniors.

He urged seniors to call the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general to report possible scams: (800) 447-8477.

For more information, visit www.medicare.gov.

-- Bobby Caina Calvan



About The Public Eye

Welcome to The Bee's newest blog: Public Eye. In the coming months, you will see us breaking news here as well as following up on investigations we have published with tidbits, news breaks and behind-the-scenes descriptions of our news-gathering process. Know of a wrong we could right? Send our fraud squad your tips at: fraudsquad@sacbee.com.

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