The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

August 31, 2010
Call-forwarding scam targeting area residents

By Cathy Locke
clocke@sacbee.com

Sacramento resident Virginia Fremstad is warning of a telephone scam after learning that she may have been an unwitting victim.

Fremstad said she received a phone call Aug. 15 purporting to be from an inmate at Sacramento County's Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center. She was advised to press "1" if she was willing to accept the collect call and set up an account so the inmate could call her. If she didn't wish to accept it, she was told to press "7."

Fremstad said she pressed 7, but then noticed that the call came from a Houston, Texas, area code.

She had friends in Houston and called them. When she described the phone call, her friend said it sounded like a scam that had plagued the Houston area and pressing "7" could allow the caller to run up charges on her telephone account.

Sacramento Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Tim Curran said he hadn't received any reports of the scam. If an inmate calls from jail, the person receiving the call is given the option of accepting or declining the call but is not directed to press a number, Curran said.

An Internet search turned up reports of a prison inmate phone scam resembling the call Fremstad described. Typically, an inmate asks the individual to dial a sequence of numbers that begins • 72 to forward the call. This sets up a call-forwarding scam that turns the victim's phone line over to the inmate.

Anyone receiving such a call is advised to hang up and to notify their phone company if it appears they have been wrongly billed for long-distance calls or collect calls from jail.

August 31, 2010
Western Placer math texts finally get passing grades

By Diana Lambert
dlambert@sacbee.com

Western Placer Unified to the list of California school districts weary of error-filled textbooks.

Fourth- and fifth-grade math teachers in the district, which serves Lincoln and surrounding areas, started school for a second year with mistake-prone teachers editions. They had spent all of last year waiting for corrected student texts from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt School Publishers.

The California HSP Math student texts were replaced over the summer, but the teachers editions were delivered just Monday, said Mary Boyle, deputy superintendent of education services for the district.

Fifth-grade math teacher Dan Burbage-Macaluso said he received four sets of teachers editions over the past 12 months. Some had errors. One was the wrong book.

Replacement of the student books was just as chaotic. The first delivery of texts exceeded the state's limit for errors, Boyle said. The next two were more of the same. The district finally hit pay dirt on delivery No. 4.

There were different kinds of mistakes in the texts, said Burbage-Macaluso, who teaches at Foskett Ranch Elementary. One problem confused length and width. Another asked students to estimate the price of buying a number of bushes without including the price of the bushes, he said.

Western Placer paid the publisher $213,509 for math books for elementary grades.

August 26, 2010
Commemorate the 19th Amendment with these voter stats

womenvoter.jpgNinety years ago today, women gained the right to vote with passage of the 19th Amendment. Despite gains made in the political arena, there remains a gender gap in the election of women to highest public office, including the U.S. Congress where women occupy only 17 percent of the seats.

In general, women register and vote at a great rate than men. According to Census statistics of the voting age citizen population from the Nov. 2000 election, 72.8 percent of American women were registered to vote, compared to 69.1 percent of men. In California, the registration gap was 70.5 to 65.8 percent in favor of women. As for actually casting a vote, nationally registered female voters cast ballots at a rate of 65.7 percent, males 61.5 percent. In California, registered women outvoted men, 65.7 to 60.9 percent. See the attached spreadheet with additional voter data broken out by gender and race.

A 2009 Gallup report reveals a considerable gender gap in terms of party affiliation. Regardless of age, race, ethnicity and marital status women more often identify themselves as Democrats than men of similar demographics. In a poll conducted between January and May of 2009, 41 percent of women identifed as Democrats, compared to 32 percent of men who identified as Democrats. On the GOP side, the spread was 28 percent for men and 25 percent for women of voters who identified as Republicans.

PHOTO CREDIT: Voters cast their ballots early on electronic voting terminals at a polling place inside the Westfield Main Place mall in Santa Ana, Oct. 2006. (AP Photo/ Damian Dovarganes)

August 25, 2010
Household health care spending leveling off?

It's a little counterintuitive. Although the portion of an average family's budget devoted to medical expenses rose from 1998 to 2003 (6.2 to 6.8 percent), the share fell slightly in 2008 (to 6.7 percent). That factoid comes from a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Focus on Prices and Spending report analyzing consumer health care spending during years 1998, 2003 and 2008.

Between 1998 and 2008 the proportion of household health care dollars going to medical services versus medical insurance flipflopped. Medical services, as a percentage of total household health spending, fell from 31.1 to 25.9 percent, whereas insurance costs rose 51.5 to 57.9 percent of the total.

Not suprisingly, older people tend to spend much more of their money on health care. Households, whose "reference person" (head of household) was older than 65, spent on average 12.9 percent of their budgets on health expenses in 2008. Compare that to households with a reference person aged 35-44 that spent only 4.7 percent on average.

August 24, 2010
CSU responds to audits of foundations, auxiliaries

California State University officials are concerned that they have erroneously mixed public and private funds in accounting for the foundations that support the system's 23 campuses, according to a report the California Faculty Association is releasing Wednesday.

The report is based on minutes from a series of closed-door meetings of CSU executives that a political researcher for the professors' union said she discovered online.

Minutes from a May 2010 meeting of the university's top business officials say they were trying to "clean up any mess before it gets to be bigger."

"There continue to be findings from the internal auditors that some campuses have monies held inappropriately by auxiliary organizations. The finding is that funds should be moved to the state side," the minutes say.

The faculty union has been fighting to bring more public scrutiny to CSU foundations and other auxiliary organizations that are considered private entities but closely affiliated with the public colleges. Such organizations hold about 20 percent of CSU's budget and are typically in charge of commercial practices on the campuses, from real estate deals to fund-raising events. But many have been caught spending money inappropriately - including an audit this year that said Sacramento State's auxiliary should not have paid for remodeling the university president's kitchen.

Last year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill the union sponsored that would have subjected the auxiliary organizations to the California Public Records Act. A second version of the bill, SB 330, has passed both houses and is now on the governor's desk.

Today's report marks the second time in recent months that proponents of the bill have trotted out internal university documents to demonstrate what they say is the need for greater accountability. The last time was in April, when the bill's author, Sen. Leland Yee, held a press conference for Cal State Stanislaus students who said they found copies of Sarah Palin's contract to speak at their school in a campus Dumpster. Because the contract was with the foundation at Cal State Stanislaus, university officials had refused to release it to the public.

"Publicly, the CSU administration insists that the funds held in these organizations are privately raised and are not taxpayer dollars. However, as these documents detail, there is actually a commingling of state and private dollars in the funds controlled by the auxiliaries," says the faculty association's report.

Cal State officials responded by saying they were aware that some funds had been mixed and are working on fixing the problem.

The university's internal auditor had raised the issue and Benjamin Quillian, chief financial officer for the CSU, said he brought it to the attention of campus leaders.

"The campuses are already in the process of moving monies that need to be moved," Quillian said.

It's not uncommon for private and public money to get mixed when auxiliaries run campus functions, such as football games or conferences, he said. On some CSU campuses, an auxiliary organizes the game and takes the money from ticket sales, but has to pay the university for use of campus police.

"There have been some auxiliaries that have not been reimbursing the state in a timely fashion," Quillian said. "The internal auditor pointed this out and recommended the money be moved in a more timely fashion."

-- Laurel Rosenhall

August 24, 2010
Study suggests UC Davis administration is bloated

Between 1993 and 2007, UC Davis quadrupled the number of administrators on its payroll while reducing its share of instructors and researchers, according to a study of personnel patterns at nearly 200 universities across the nation.

UC Davis officials disputed the findings, saying it mistakenly classified some teachers as administrators.

The Goldwater Institute, which advocates for small government, analyzed the number of employees per 100 students at the top public and private universities.

Overall, it found that even though student enrollment grew, universities did not become more efficient. Instead, most increased the number of employees they had per 100 students, particularly in managerial ranks.

The trend was especially true at UC Davis, says the report, "Administrative Bloat at American Universities: The Real Reason for High Costs in Higher Education."

Among the universities studied, UC Davis had the third-highest growth rate in its number of administrators. Administrator ranks grew by 318 percent during the period studied, while the number of instructors and researchers per 100 students shrank by 4.5 percent and the number of clerical workers went down by 38.8 percent, the study shows.

Across all the universities studied, tuition during the period analyzed grew by 66.7 percent, when adjusted for inflation. "The most striking point here is that university spending per student is increasing in real terms, most rapidly in the area of administration," wrote authors Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisida and Jonathan Mills.

"It is not clear why it has cost nearly two-thirds more to administer each student over this 15-year period. We know that universities are hiring many more administrators per student and that they must also be paying those administrators higher salaries."

UC Davis officials responded by saying the university is working on streamlining its bureaucracy. Chancellor Linda Katehi has directed five administrative units to consolidate operations into three shared service centers, Assistant Executive Vice Chancellor Robert Loessberg-Zahl said in a statement. Those changes will save UC Davis between $9 million and $16 million over the next two to four years, he said.

University officials took issue with the Goldwater Institute's definition of "administrator." Loessberg-Zahl said the report wrongly counts computer programmers, engineers, veterinarians, librarians, physicians, nurses and coaches as "administrators."

"Many of the employees that the report classifies and counts as 'administrators' actually are staffers in direct service to UC Davis' core academic mission of teaching, research and public service, and who work in academic departments," said Loessberg-Zahl's statement.

The salaries of many of those employees are paid by research grants from outside funding sources, he said.

"That means that neither the state nor student fees support these employees, who in fact are central to the service and research missions of the university," Loessberg-Zahl said.

- Laurel Rosenhall

August 24, 2010
High school exit exam scores improve locally, statewide

More than four of every five California 10th-graders passed the high school exit exam on their first try last year, according to results released Tuesday.

Locally, performance on the test was a mixed bag. Placer County students boasted the highest math and English passage rates among 10th-graders in the state; Yuba County students were among the worst performers.

At the district level, Rocklin Unified was among the top performers in the state; Twin Rivers Unified was among the worst.

Students must pass the exit exam to get a high school diploma. All students take the exam in the 10th grade -- and most pass. Those who fail can take the test again multiple times during the 11th and 12th grade.

The map below shows the percentage of local 10th-graders failing the exit exam last year by district.

August 24, 2010
Data on the unemployed by race, ethnicity

Just as California and Sacramento regional jobless rates (12.3 and 12.7 percent, respectively) were released last week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published a new study that fleshes out the demographics of the unemployed. Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity, 2009 describes the continuing decline of employment in all major racial and ethnic groups.

In general Blacks and Hispanics suffered higher joblessness than Whites and Asians last year (14.8 and 12.1 percent compared to 8.5 and 7.3 percent). Of course, unemployment also varies with such factors as education, age, gender, family status. occupation and industry. The BLS report also considers these. Here are some highlights:

Between 2008 and 2009 the overall employment rate dropped 0.6 percentage points to 65.4 percent. Black employment fell 1.3 points to 62.4 percent. Asian employment declined 1.0 to 66.0 percent. Hispanic and White employment both fell 0.5 to 68.0 and 65.8 percent, respectively.

Between 2008 and 2009 employment rates fell faster for men than women across all racial/ethnic groups. The drop was biggest for Black men, 59.1 to 53.7 percent.

Generally speaking, workers with more education were more likely to be employed in 2009. But at every educational level, Blacks and Hispanics were less likely to be employed as compared to Whites and Hispanics.

Unemployed African Americans tended to be out of work for longer periods than the other demographic groups. In 2009, the median length of joblessness was 19.7 weeks for Blacks, compared to 16.6 weeks for Asians, 14.2 weeks for Whites and 13.5 weeks for Hispanics.

August 23, 2010
Interactive: California's uninsured by county

Almost one in four Californians went without health insurance at some point during 2009, according to new figures from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

The map below shows the percentage of residents without health insurance for at least part of 2009. Some sparsely populated counties are merged to create a reliable sample size.

August 23, 2010
CA unemployed outnumber population of Phoenix, Philly

When talking about California's current, historic unemployment rate, some huge numbers get thrown around. To make the numbers more meaningful, we decided to put one key figure -- the 2,251,000 Californians unemployed in July -- in context.

If California's unemployed residents banded together and formed a city, it would be the fifth-largest place in America, just behind Houston but ahead of Phoenix.

Largest US cities, with CA unemployed



And if California's unemployed came together to form a state, it would be the 36th largest in America, with almost as many people as the entire state of Nevada.

US states, 32nd- to 40th-largest, with CA unemployed




August 21, 2010
Wall Street Journal tracks the web trackers

Thursday's NPR Fresh Air interview with Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin should be of interest to anyone concerned about their privacy on the Internet. Angwin is the lead writer of a disturbing investigation into the high tech ways advertisers and marketers monitor activities of people browsing the web. The Journal looked especially at tracking software -- "cookies" and "beacons" -- that records consumer activity across the Net. Companies compile that data to build up profiles (dossiers) based on people's online interests and purchases. These dossiers are then used to customize advertising and other content a person sees on particular web sites.

Angwin and her team set up a dummy PC to track the tracking files typically installed on people's computers by the top 50 most visited web sites. They found as many as 234 distinct "trackers" on one site, Dictionary.com. Other prominent web destinations also hosted many such files:  Merriam-Wester.com (131); Comcast.net (151); Careerbuilder.com (118); Photobucket.com (127); and MSN.com (207). Even the Wall Street Journal plops 60 trackers on users' computers.

Tracking technology has grown in number and sophistication, but consumers can fight back. There are ways to block commercial tracking and "opt out" of so-called behaviorial advertising.

August 20, 2010
Interactive: California's biggest tax dodgers

The state is contacting more than 40,000 California businesses that have not filed their 2008 state income tax returns with the Franchise Tax Board.

The notices inform the businesses that they have 30 days to file a return or show why there is no tax filing requirement. Businesses that disregard these notices could face tax assessments that may include penalties, interest, and fees.

But who owes the most overall? The state publishes an annual list. We've mapped everyone who owes roughly $300,000 or more in state taxes.

The map below shows the businesses and people with the most outstanding state taxes:

August 19, 2010
Settling for less, fewer marry at Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe has long been a hot spot for weddings -- the romance of exchanging vows near the lake's deep blue waters and surrounding mountaintops is undeniable.

But, like many other destination wedding hubs, Lake Tahoe is seeing far fewer nuptials these days.

About 1,100 fewer people tied the knot in El Dorado County last year than during 2006 -- a nearly 30 percent decline.

Put another way, almost 100 couples were married in El Dorado county every week, on average, during 2006; three years later, that figure had fallen to about 75 nuptials per week.

The economy is the likely culprit. Relatively few of those married in El Dorado County live there -- most are coming from elsewhere. And it's often cheaper to get married closer to home, even if the backdrop is less memorable.

El Dorado County Marriage Licenses Issued, 2006-2009

Source: California Department of Public Health

August 18, 2010
California per pupil spending is 32nd in nation

New school finance data from the National Center for Education Statistics ranks states and the District of Columbia in terms of per pupil spending (median current expenditures) for the school year 2007-08 (fiscal year 2008). Alaska is far ahead of the pack with $21,730. New York is second with $16,183. California ranks 32nd with $9,015. That's slightly below the national median of $9,509.

The NCES report includes finanical data for the largest 100 public elementary and secondary school districts in the United States. Boston City Schools tops the list with current expenditures per pupil of $20,324. New York City School District follows with $17,923. Three local districts are included: Sacramento City Unified ($10,051, rank 29); San Juan Unified ($9,141, rank 44); and Elk Grove Unified ($8,554, rank 64). 

August 17, 2010
ESPN investigates health violations at sport venues

VLADE.JPGESPN reporters recently examined 2009 health inspection reports for food concessions and restaurants at all 107 major league sports stadiums and arenas in North America. They found that at 30 venues, more than half of vendors had been cited for at least one "major" violation. The problem, say experts, is the sheer quantity of food and drink sold to fans at such places where conditions are less than ideal.

The ESPN report What's Lurking in Your Stadium Food? includes an interactive map that ranks each stadium/arena in terms of the percentage of vendors found with serious violations. The most troubled venue is the Verizon Center (home of the Washington Wizards) with a score of 100 percent. All of the other 75-100 percent venues are located in Florida.

California ranks relatively well in the statistics with scores ranging from 4 percent (AT&T Park in San Francisco) to 34 percent (McAfee Coliseum in Oakland). Our own Arco Arena comes in at 25 percent of vendors with "critical" violations. You can read health inspection reports of individual Arco vendors with the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department's online database. (Just enter "Arco Arena" in the Facility Name search box.)

PHOTO CREDIT: Vlade Divac, of the Sacramento Kings, helps sell water at one of the concession stands in Arco Arena during the Kings Fandemonium in October 2001. Hector Amezcua / Sacramento Bee

August 17, 2010
What's on the freeway: Everything, including the kitchen sink

The problem: Hazards on roadways involve plenty of items that don't belong in traffic lanes, including a kitchen sink. The sink was reported recently on the eastbound Highway 50 off-ramp at Zinfandel Drive in Rancho Cordova, officials said.

The California Highway Patrol said objects left by motorists who fail to properly secure a load of household items or construction equipment can do plenty of damage to a vehicle, or cause collisions.

The solution: CHP's Valley Division spokeswoman, Officer Jeanie Hoatson, said the Vehicle Code requires that vehicles be constructed, covered or loaded so that the contents don't drop, sift, leak, blow, or spill. If something falls out, she said the driver is required to either remove it from the roadway or immediately report it to the CHP or other agency that can handle the removal.

"For safety purposes, I couldn't recommend that someone run out in the middle of the freeway to get it," Hoatson said, "but they are required to at least call."

The CHP can arrange for a traffic break to move items to the side of the road for pickup by Caltrans or local road crews.

People hauling items can be ticketed for failing to properly secure a load. And motorists who come upon a stationary object in the road are deemed at fault if they hit it. Hoatson said drivers should be traveling at speeds that allow them to stop or change lanes in time to avoid the object.

- Cathy Locke

August 17, 2010
Audit of EdFund finds questionable spending

A recent audit found that EdFund, the student loan guaranty agency that federal authorities want to close, inappropriately spent nearly $8,000 on coffee, gift cards and lunches and $71,000 on prohibited political lobbying.

"These types of expenditures do not benefit students, and thus are inappropriate uses of state funds," wrote the state Finance Department's Fred Klass of in a July 16 letter to the head of EdFund's board.

Finance audited EdFund's expenditures from November 2008 through October 2009. It found EdFund billed the California Student Aid Commission for unallowable expenses. Among them:

• $70,891.60 to a lobbying firm to urge Congress to maintain the role of guaranty agencies in legislation meant to change the student loan industry.

• $4,334.25 for Starbucks coffee service in the office, including coffee, tea, hot chocolate and condiments.

• $1,598.19 in employee appreciation lunches.

• $1,475 in gift cards for employee recognition.

• $562.02 for condolence flowers, pre-paid parking for an employee event, an ice machine repair and unallowed travel expenses.

EdFund, a quasi-public agency in Rancho Cordova, insures a $38 billion portfolio of federal student loans made by private banks. When students default, EdFund repays the banks, then gets reimbursed by the federal government. Last month, citing EdFund's problems, the U.S. Department of Education said it wants to close it this fall.

- Laurel Rosenhall

August 16, 2010
If you report a water sprinkler violation, the city says it will fix it

The problem: Earlier this month, the city of Sacramento's sprinklers on Addison Way near Meadowview Road in south Sacramento were stuck on for a reported five days, pooling in a nearby retention basin. A resident of the area contacted the office of Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell on the fourth day, a Sunday.

The solution: Pannell's district director notified the city Department of Utilities, which shut off the water by 11:30 a.m., the next day. The city conducted tests and discovered broken irrigation and a broken valve.

By 3 p.m., the valve was replaced, said Jessica Hess, spokeswoman for the Utilities Department. She said the problem was unusual in that no one called to complain before the weekend. A Bee reader, however, reported mid-afternoon watering at the site.

The city encourages Sacramento residents to report any water problem, no matter the source. Residents may do so anonymously by calling 311 or by e-mail at 311@cityofsacramento.org, Hess said.

By city ordinance, summer watering hours are limited to before 10 a.m. or after 7 p.m. Addresses with odd numbers may be watered only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Residents and business owners with even-numbered addresses may water on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

No watering is allowed on Mondays.

-Loretta Kalb

August 13, 2010
Study: Sacramento residents smoke pot often, see no great risk

About one of every 11 residents in the Sacramento region smoked pot during the last month, a usage rate roughly 30 percent higher than the statewide average, according to a new federal study.

Local residents were more likely than the rest of the state to have a casual attitude toward pot usage. Just 29 percent of the region's residents saw "great risk" in smoking marijuana once a month, well below the statewide average of 37 percent.

By contrast, about three quarters of local residents saw "great risk" in regularly smoking tobacco.

The study found the highest pot usage rate in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, and the lowest rate in Los Angeles County. The Fresno area was the most likely to be worried about the health effects of pot usage; Sacramento residents were the least concerned.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released the study Friday. It's based on interviews with about 200,000 people age 12 or older throughout the United States conducted between 2006 and 2008.

Updated to replace area with most marijuana usage as Santa Barbara and Ventura.

Marijuana use in past month, by region, 2006-2008
marjuse.JPG

August 13, 2010
Mortgage loan delinquency rates continue to rise

Foresight Analytics, an Oakland-based research firm, recently reported that national delinquency rates for residential and commercial mortgages continue to rise in the second quarter of this year, despite modest growth in the national economy. bank delinq.JPG However, the group projected slower increases in problem mortgages than in recent periods. Problem construction, commercial and industrial loans are expected to hold steady or see a slight improvement compared to first quarter figures.

Foresight's projections over the last several quarters have been highly accurate - in some case just slightly understating the bad news.

-Charles Piller

August 12, 2010
Studies reveal minority graduation gap at nation's colleges

The Education Trust just published two reports examining graduation rates of white, black and Hispanics students at U.S. colleges and universities. Overall an average of 57 percent of all students enrolled in a 4-year program earn a degree within six years. But only 40 percent of African Americans and 49 percent of Hispanics graduate -- compared to 60 percent of whites. This "graduation gap" varies widely from institution to institution. Some do well at keeping the gap small between white and blacks, whites and Latinos. Others not so much.

California universities are represented in lists of both the biggest and smallest white/minority gap schools. UC Riverside, for example, graduates 66.9 percent of black students compared to 62.4 percent white (a gap of -4.5). Similarly, UCR awards degrees to 63.4 percent of Hispanic students compared to 62.4 percent of whites (a gap of -1.0). CSU Chico, on the other hand, shows a large black-white gap of 26.7 (30.8 to 57.5 percent) and a Hispanic-white gap of 16.0 (41.5 to 57.5 percent).

Here's the breakdown for the two local universities. The figures are six-year graduation rates for 2008, the latest year available.

UCD CSUS
White Grad Rate 82.5 45.7
Black Grad Rate 73.1 29.5
Hispanic Grad Rate 73.5 36.2
All Students 81.4 41.5
Source: College Results Online
August 11, 2010
School group fears it may lose members

California School Boards Association President Frank Pugh wrote to school board members Wednesday that he is worried about membership renewals and pledged that the nonprofit will be more transparent in the future.

Pugh's letter is in response to criticism the organization received over Executive Director Scott Plotkin's annual pay. Plotkin announced last month he would retire Sept. 1 after admitting he used his company credit card to withdraw cash from area casinos while receiving a half-million-dollar salary in the 2007-2008 fiscal year.

According to two tax filings, which CSBA made available to its members, it appeared Plotkin had received two $175,000 bonuses that tipped his salary well over $500,000 in 2007 and 2008.

CSBA spokeswoman Brittany McKannay said that bonus was awarded once but was duplicated on tax filings after the organization stopped filing for the fiscal year and moved to a calendar year. McKannay said the $175,000 bonus was awarded in June 2008 and "therefore was required to be reported in both."

The tax filings show Plotkin's salary in 2007-2008 was $540,395, including the bonus.

The 2008-2009 filing showed Plotkin's total compensation was $563,333, which also included a $175,000 bonus.

"Scott Plotkin was not rewarded the $175,000 bonus twice," McKannay said. His actual compensation for the two years, therefore, was $175,00 less than reported in tax filings, McKannay said.

The 2008 tax return showed Plotkin also received a $10,200 car allowance, a $9,000 administrative allowance, a companion travel allowance of up to $3,000 and a tax deferred annuity of up to 10 percent of his annual gross salary.

McKannay said the 2009 tax filing is not due until November. That filing will reflect a 4 percent bonus that Plotkin received, but McKannay had no other details of his pay for that year.

CSBA will meet Aug. 17 to discuss "a number of critical issues," including ways to ensure transparency on compensation issues, Pugh wrote.

McKannay said CSBA's directors will also determine whether they will comply with The Bee's Public Records Request, which asked, in part, for Plotkin's most current pay.

- Melody Gutierrez

August 11, 2010
Drug traffickers used illicit animal fights to recruit dealers

cockfight pic.JPGA key player in a major cocaine and marijuana trafficking organization recently was sentenced to 12 and one-half years in prison following an extraordinary combination of reprehensible crimes. Pedro Mendez Ramos, 41, of Church Point, La., was sentenced in federal court after revelations that his drug operations were built, in part, by his use of illegal cock fights and pit-bull fights to recruit dealers and drivers to move the drugs.

Pit-bull fights are illegal in all states, and cockfights (AP photo by Paul Fraughton) are illegal in nearly all states, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

The Drug Enforcement Administration investigation, dubbed "Operation Fowl Play" and "Rio Gallo," rolled up a network that spanned several southern states. Along with other law enforcement agencies, it seized 118 kilograms of cocaine.

"The organization utilized various methods to conceal their cocaine, to include tractor trailers and trucks with hidden compartments and gamecock cages with false bottoms," according to a DEA statement. "At one point, the Ramos organization had amassed so much cash from the sale of cocaine that Pedro Ramos attempted to purchase Canal Oil Refinery, an oil refinery located in Church Point, La. in order to launder the organization's drug trafficking proceeds."

-Charles Piller

August 11, 2010
Inspector: State slow to spend $25 million in stimulus funds

Only 1 percent of federal stimulus dollars earmarked for "greening" state buildings in California has been spent, the state's stimulus watchdog said Wednesday.

"These projects improve the environment, position the State to appropriately serve as a role model, and most importantly, create desperately needed jobs in the private sector," wrote California Inspector General Laura Chick in a letter to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

So far, Chick said, the Department of General Services has spent $121,788 in stimulus funds to make state buildings more environment-friendly. It's been almost a year since the funds were allocated.

The Department of General Services told Chick it has hit myriad roadblocks, including the possibility of contractor liens, while trying to spend the $25 million in stimulus funds.

"While DGS has offered up a myriad of unacceptable excuses for their slow pace and assured me they will meet the ARRA deadline of June 2012 for expenditures, I am writing you to say that this is not good enough," Chick said in her letter to the governor.

Update: In an email to The Bee, DGS Acting Deputy Director Eric Lamoureux says, "In less than a year since DGS got authority to spend these ARRA funds, DGS has made considerable progress laying the groundwork for this project. We have begun work to retrofit four large state office buildings in Sacramento. We have brought a contractor on board that since March has conducted 80 energy audits in state buildings; the first step toward permanent retrofit work.

"We now have pending agreements for future work in other state buildings; agreements that cannot be executed without a state budget. Additionally, we have state departments that want to participate in the loan program to retrofit their buildings, but those departments won't act without a budget.

"DGS is committed to this project and fully intends to spend these ARRA funds by next year's deadline. Unfortunately, we cannot move forward now on future retrofit work until the legislature approves a budget."

August 11, 2010
Dueling polls disagree on who's ahead in the congressional elections

Recent polling for the November congressional races shows a very close contest between Republicans and Democrats. In fact two major pollsters, Pew and Gallup, disagree on who's ahead right now.

The Pew Research Center says "45% support the Democratic candidate or lean Democratic, while 44% favor the Republican or lean Republican" in the mid-term elections. (Compare that to the Pew survey conducted in August 2006 when Democrats had an 11-point lead of 50 to 39 percent.)

Gallup, on the other hand, reports a six-point advantage for the GOP this month, 49 to 43 percent. The parties have been see-sawing the lead since Gallup began polling on congressional races in March. Republicans also lead now in "voter enthusiasm," 44 to 28 percent. They've maintained this lead consistently since March.

August 10, 2010
Conservation consultant may get $1 million school district contract

The Rocklin Unified School District may spend $1 million to hire a company to show it how to save money on energy - a step another district has taken for free.

The 16-school district in Placer County may sign on with Energy Education, which specializes in energy conservation at school sites.

The cost of the contract - $24,700 a month for four years - does not include the salary of an "energy specialist" and the cost of computer software. The software will cost $13,950 the first year and $2,000 each year after that.

The energy specialist is likely to be a teacher earning additional hours for the work, said Larry Stark, assistant superintendent.

The district hopes to reap $800,000 a year in energy savings with the consultant's help. The contract comes with a money-back guarantee that the program will save money.

Rocklin Unified has to cut $18 million from its budget over three years. The cuts have meant furloughs, layoffs and the elimination of programs, Stark said.

The consultant's price tag seems steep to some. "It seems like a lot of money to come up with," said Kathy O'Keefe, a district employee and parent. "I've had teachers tell me they can't buy books this year."

Elk Grove Unified recently reported saving $1 million in an energy conservation program at its 63 schools last year. District staff designed the program with the free help of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and a committee of staff and parents.

Stark acknowledges that the Rocklin district's energy provider - Pacific Gas & Electric - has a similar program but said the district can realize greater savings with the help of Energy Education.

He said districts that go it alone generally save 7 percent to 10 percent in energy costs. He said that Energy Education can cut energy costs by 20 percent to 30 percent. "They are professionals at doing this," Stark said, noting that the company works with 1,200 districts nationwide.

The contract likely will be on the Aug. 18 board agenda, said Wendy Lang, school board president.

The Sacramento City Unified School District signed a 4.5-year contract with Energy Education in 2009, said Gabe Ross, district spokesman. The district paid $26,500 a month the first year. Ross said that amount doubled when the district started paying incentives as it began to realize savings. He said the program reduced energy costs by $1 million the first year.

The San Juan Unified School District recently negotiated a slightly different contract with the company, paying nothing up front but paying it 50 percent of the energy savings on the back end. And unlike most districts, which hire an energy specialist on their own dime, San Juan has two employees paid by Energy Education.

The projections call for $1.7 million in savings during the first year, said Trent Allen, district spokesman.

- Diana Lambert

August 10, 2010
Family economic insecurity balloons

It's no secret that many Americans are feeling insecure about their finances. But so far there hasn't been an objective measure of actual economic crisis in families. Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies has developed the Economic Security Index to track the percentage of people experiencing a major financial loss -- at least a 25 percent drop in available family income caused by a drop in pay, large medical bills or a combination of both.

The ESI lets users compare economic security over time and across different demographic groups. Data is available back to 1985 and projected to 2009. With some hills and valleys, the ESI has grown in the past 24 years from 12.2 percent to a high of 20.4 percent in 2009. Not surprisingly, economic risk affects groups disproportionately. Low-income, less educated, African American and Hispanic people are more likely to face major economic loss.

CHART CREDIT: Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

August 9, 2010
Interactive: Pot legalization initiative not drawing big bucks

The effort to legalize marijuana, Prop. 19, has garnered more attention than any of the other nine propositions on the November ballot. But it has not drawn a lot of money.

Through June 30, total Prop.19 contributions -- both for and against -- have lagged behind total contributions for each other proposition.

Its not that people aren't giving to Prop. 19 campaigns. More than 500 donations have poured in. But those donations have tended to be relatively minuscule. Big corporate and special interest donors haven't weighed in.

That makes some sense. The proposition is largely a question of morality and public safety, not money. No large entity stands to make or lose billions depending on the fate of the measure. But Prop. 8 wasn't about money either. The anti-gay-marriage initiative garnered far more money than Prop. 19.

Campaign contributions to Nov. 2010 propositions, through June 30



Below is a chart showing all reportable contributions in support of Prop. 19. Only a few law enforcement associations have contributed to efforts against the measure -- their contributions have been dwarfed by proponents of the measure.

August 5, 2010
CBO: foreign-born a growing part of the U.S. workforce

The proportion of U.S. workers who are foreign-born has grown from 1 in 10 in 1994 to 1 in 7 in 2009. That statistic comes from the recent update of The Role of Immigrants in the U.S. Labor Market, a report by the Congressional Budget Office. CBO analyzes the immigrant workforce in terms of birthplace, age, gender, educational attainment, occupation, industry and residence.

In 2009, 40.2 percent of foreign-born workers came from Mexico and Central American; 26.3 percent came from Asian countries. Immigrant workers completed an average of 12.5 years of education -- compared to 13.9 years for the native born. The foreign-born labor force resides disporportionately in a handful of states: 6 million in California and another 9 million distributed between New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey. About 34 percent of all California workers in 2009 were born outside the United States.

August 5, 2010
Some for-profit colleges encourage fraud

Recent undercover testing by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, found that some for-profit colleges encourage fraudulent practices. And all the tested colleges made "deceptive or otherwise questionable" statements to applicants, such as misrepresenting the benefits of their degree or certificate programs, according to the agency's report.
gao graphic.JPGNearly 1.8 million students attend for-profit institutions of higher learning, according to the report, and they received more than $24 billion in Pell grants or federal loans. The agency's investigators posed as prospective students to 15 such colleges, and in four cases were encouraged by officials to "to falsify their financial aid forms to qualify for federal aid." In some cases, college admissions staff also pressured applicants to enroll before they received advice about costs and financial aid.

In one case, an undercover tester was falsely told that unlike consumer loans, if students loans are not repaid, "no one would 'come after' the applicant."

-Charles Piller

August 4, 2010
State agencies paid overtime to managers during furloughs

California Watch (the state offshoot of the The Center for Investigative Reporting) reviewed Controller's Office records and found that "rather than receiving a 15-percent pay cut as intended, hundreds of state managers and other high-level workers brought home more money than usual during some furlough weeks thanks to an obscure federal labor law." CW estimates that up to $1.6 million in overtime payments went to salaried state employees who typically aren't eligible for them. At least 14 people received more than $10,000 each.

The reason this happened is that federal rules require most salaried workers to be reclassified as hourly workers during the furlough period. Such a change allows these exempt workers to receive overtime pay. Thirty-six state agencies and departments paid out the extra cash between Feb. 2009 and April 2010. They were lead by the Employment Development Department, which coughed up $488,007. It's followed by the Office of the State Chief Information Officer ($327,686) and the Public Employees Retirement System ($186,895).

August 4, 2010
Covert tests: fraudulent passports easy to obtain

Recent covert testing by the Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, showed that the State Department's procedures for issuing passports are open to fraud. The agency tried to obtain seven passports, in each case using applications riddled with stolen identities and other fraudulent information. In five cases, the State Department sent the new passports out -- although in two of those five cases, the department belatedly recognized the error and retrieved the passports from the mail before they reached the recipient.passport photo.jpg

Among the glaring errors that the passport authorities failed to catch, according to the report:

Passport photos of the same investigator on multiple applications; a 62 year-old applicant using a Social Security number issued in 2009; passport and driver's license photos showing about a 10-year age difference; and the use of a California mailing address, a West Virginia permanent address and driver's license address, and a Washington, D.C., phone number in the same application." (AP photo by Damien Dovarganes.)

-Charles Piller

August 3, 2010
Corrections officials say budget woes affect weapons training

The state Office of the Inspector General has found that some state prisons are refusing to implement weapons training recommendations - leading to alarming safety concerns.

At Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad and the California Institution for Men in Chino, prison officials "allow custody officers who have not fulfilled quarterly weapons proficiency requirements to work in armed posts," including regular employees, guards providing vacation or sick relief, or those swapping assignments.

Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate responded in a letter that budget shortages have made such training infeasible.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation "opens itself to potentially costly lawsuits in the event of a questionable shooting," says the report, "and creates a situation that may lead to tragedy." The agency found 23 percent of Salinas Valley officers it reviewed hadn't met weapons requirements.

Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, said officers without sufficient training in armed stations could be "potentially a serious problem."

The Inspector General's Office, which provides some oversight on corrections operations, prepared the report (available at www.oig.ca.gov) to follow up on audits that took place between 2000 and 2008.

About two-thirds of problems identified in the audits were fixed. Folsom State Prison implemented all applicable recommendations. In contrast, Salinas Valley complied with just eight of 21 recommendations, neglecting educational opportunities for inmates, conducting improper cell searches and failing to document use-of-force incidents in a timely manner, the report says.

- Charles Piller

August 3, 2010
If food is tainted, notify your doctor, health officials say

The latest E. coli scare last month prompted Bee readers to express disbelief that state public health officials had not received any reports that anyone had gotten sick from potentially tainted bags of pre-packaged salad mix.

One Sacramento woman said she and her son were hospitalized after eating the salad, which was the subject of a recall. Several other callers also said that, without a doubt, they had eaten from a bag of bad product.

But none of those who contacted The Bee said they had taken the time to call local health officials.

If consumers suspect that tainted food has made them ill, they should contact their doctor, said state Public Health Department spokesman Ralph Montaño. A doctor can help determine whether tainted food was potentially the cause and if necessary contact the county public health department.

"The county is the first line of defense in these cases," Montaño said.

Robert Schlag, chief of the state agency's Food, Drug and Radiation Safety Division, said local departments need the reports "so that officials are alerted to a potential problem that may exist in the food supply or with practices at a retail food facility."

--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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