The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

October 29, 2010
Folsom drivers turning right run red light, worry cyclists

By Loretta Kalb
lkalb@sacbee.com

The problem: When crossing Blue Ravine Road, cyclist Paul Sayegh says he has to dodge motorists who cruise through the red light while turning right from Folsom Boulevard.

We checked during a homebound commute: About half the right-turning motorists didn't stop at the red light, and some actually sped up.

The solution: Sayegh says an electronic sign that alerts traffic to an approaching light-rail train could be employed to signal motorists that pedestrians are in the crosswalk.

Actually, seven intersections along Folsom Boulevard face the traffic issue.

Each has light-rail tracks running parallel to Folsom Boulevard and a pedestrian crossing.

Folsom senior engineer Mark Rackovan said the city is evaluating signage, roadway striping and signal options.

At the Iron Point Road crossing at Folsom Boulevard, the city is testing flashing signs that say "pedestrian crossing" when a pedestrian gets the signal to cross the road.

A consultant "is doing evaluations of motorist behavior at the two locations," he said.

Meanwhile, when staffing permits, said Folsom Police Sgt. Jason Browning, officers will issue traffic citations to violators.

And what does Sayegh say?

"I am hopeful for any changes the city does that work," he said.

October 29, 2010
Wise up, make sure your smart phone is protected

By Claudia Buck
cbuck@sacbee.com

With so many of us accessing the Internet or storing sensitive data on our iPhones, Droids or BlackBerrys, our mobile phones are increasingly vulnerable to cyberthieves.

The state Office of Privacy Protection is warning consumers to protect their smart phones against the same types of dangers - hackers, viruses - that can lurk within a big, bulky computer or laptop.

"We treat them like it's only a phone, but it's really a little computer that has the same kind of vulnerability as your PC," said privacy office chief Joanne McNabb.

McNabb said consumers download apps that may not contain enough security coding to thwart hackers.

Or smart phone users may be unaware they need the same type of anti-virus and anti-malware protections used on their home or work computers.

In one case earlier this year, a mobile game, "3D Anti-terrorist Action," inadvertently allowed hackers to rack up expensive, international phone bills on users' phones.

McNabb's tips:

- Install the same type of software and security programs you'd want on your computer. There are mobile versions of security software from the same companies that offer products for your desktop. Or contact your phone service provider for guidance.

- Check out apps before downloading them. Look on review sites, such as www.whatapp.org which rates some apps for privacy and security.

- Be aware. Although it's a challenge on a small screen, read the app's privacy policy to be sure your data aren't being shared. Try to avoid or limit such sharing.

October 29, 2010
See TV ads produced by outside election groups

 

Outside political groups (i.e. organizations not directly affiliated with candidates) have come under a lot of scrutiny during this mid-term election cycle. That's because they are spending millions fo dollars to sway voters in state and federal races. The watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics says outside groups spent nearly $463 million so far. And a good deal of money is flowing into California. More than $45 million has been spent in the state by political committees formed by special interest groups.

Much of this funding pays for television advertising that expressly call for the election or defeat of specific candidates. In addition to posting data on campaign spending (broken out by type of group, ideology, race, candidate and other factors), the CRP web site now features video recordings of ads created by outside groups -- both liberal and conservative. Browsing these commercials provides a quick education into the aims and strategies of such organizations this year.

The majority of TV commercials posted by CRP are directed against candidates and generally play on the fears and outrage of average people. Typical are the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees -- the top two groups making outside expenditures. Also high on that list are the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads (the Karl Rove group) and the liberal Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

To get a taste of how outside advertising plays in California, check out the ads directed against Senate candidates Carly Fiorina and Barbara Boxer produced by Emily's List and the U.S. Chamber respectively.

October 28, 2010
BJS releases prison/jail/arrest mortality stats

The Bee today reported the death of a man shot by Sacramento police after he charged them with a knife. By coincidence, the Bureau of Justice Statistics just updated its "deaths in custody" statistics. These cover "mortality in state prisons, local jails, and during the process of arrest by state and local law enforcement officers". The data is sliced by such factors as gender, race, age, offense and cause of death.

Nationally, there have been 2,686 arrest-related deaths between the years 2003 and 2006. Of these, 1,540 (57.3 percent) were killings by law enforcement officers and 289 (10.8 percent) were suicides. California lead the states in the overall number of arrest-related deaths (465).

Mortality in U.S. state prisons totalled 21,936 deaths between 2001 and 2007 (all causes). Illness accounted for 18,193 of the fatalities, homicide caused only 365. California trailed Texas in the overall number of prison deaths (2,491 to 2,811).

Local jail deaths totalled 8,097 in the United States between 2000 and 2007. Of these, illness caused 3,871 fatalities, suicide 2,361. According to the BLS, there were 2,851 deaths in the 50 largest jail jurisdictions. Los Angeles lead all counties with 273 deaths (178 per 1000,000 inmates). Sacramento County had 50 (170 per 100,000 inmates).

October 26, 2010
Early voting option depresses turnout?

A study of voting patterns in the 2008 presidential election has a counterintuitive finding. The early voting option -- intended to increase turnout by reformers -- actually decreases it. University of Wisconsin researchers who looked at the data and who factored in things like education, race, geography and political leanings, discovered "the availability of early voting reduced turnout in the typical county by three percentage points."

The paper's authors speculate that early voting doesn't address the larger problem of election laws which require citizens to register well in advance of the election. Many people simply miss the registration deadline. In addition, absentee voters aren't susceptible to the enthusiam, social pressure -- and party get-out-the vote efforts -- that stimulate voting on Election Day. So they tend to procrastinate until it's too late.

The Bee's Rob Lewis today reported that more and more Sacramento County voters are choosing to vote by mail. Half of the county's 680,000 registered voters have requested absentee ballots for the November election. About 79,000 of these have returned ballots so far. In California 44 percent of the state's 17.1 million voters have requested absentee ballots. So far, 1.4 million of these have been returned.

October 24, 2010
Penalties against inmates at North Kern rescinded

Following a Bee report that described evidence of violations of due process rights in California prisons, North Kern acting Warden Maurice Junious recently rescinded all 77 guilty findings and penalties imposed on prisoners convicted in April of obstructing officers. Instead, the inmates were counseled.

The Bee reported in August that a North Kern State Prison official had prejudged inmates as guilty and assigned penalties before required disciplinary hearings meant to determine culpability.

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton called the reversal of guilty findings "unusual." Junious declined to comment.

Administrative hearings allow inmates to defend themselves and present mitigating evidence. North Kern's acting Associate Warden Steven Ojeda had sent an e-mail to Junious laying out guilty findings and penalties ahead of the hearings.

In late July, Scott Kernan, corrections undersecretary for operations, called Ojeda's e-mail "improper" but defended the department's due process system.

The Bee report described a pattern of failures in procedures designed to let prisoners dispute charges or press claims of mistreatment. Daniel Johnson, a retired research analyst for the department, reviewed 10,000 appeals involving allegations of misconduct by officers. Virtually none, he said, were ruled in favor of inmates.

On Aug. 1, the day The Bee story appeared, Lt. John McClellan of High Desert State Prison in Susanville sent a memo to inmates of the "Z Unit" - a prison within the prison to segregate recalcitrant inmates, such as alleged gang members. The memo laid out the consequences if an officer would have to forcibly take an inmate from his cell: loss of time off for good behavior, prison canteen privileges and exercise breaks - all before any rule violations took place.

"From now on if you participate in a cell extraction the consequence for that will be at a minimum; 90 days loss of credit, 90 loss of canteen and 10 days loss of yard," he wrote.

Nine days later, Associate Warden David Davey rescinded the order.

- Charles Piller

October 24, 2010
Many doctors shun e-mail

Before shooting off an e-mail to your doc, think again.

A new study shows that only 6.7 percent of office-based physicians routinely e-mail patients. "While patients appear ready to embrace e-mail, physicians are markedly less ready," says the Center for Studying Health System Change. About two-thirds of the doctors it surveyed said they did not have access to e-mail systems at their practices.

Billions of dollars are being invested on electronic medical records as part of a national drive to improve safety and efficiency. The doctor-patient relationship was supposed to be enhanced by electronic communication: no need to visit the doctor's office, and no more phone tagging when you can e-mail.

Doctors who have access to electronic medical records and those who work for HMOs are more likely to use e-mail, the center says. About half said they regularly used e-mail with their patients.

Impediments are: cost of acquiring office e-mail systems, heavy e-mail concerns, privacy, data security and medical liability.

- Bobby Caina Calvan

October 19, 2010
Proposition 23 opponents far outspend backers

Opponents of Proposition 23, which would stop implementation of climate change bill AB 32 until California's unemployment drops precipitously, have long argued that it is driven by oil companies and refineries. Looking at donations so far, they're right. But big business is also driving the anti-Proposition 23 effort; in fact, thanks to hedge funds and others interested in making money off clean technology, Prop. 23 opponents have raised more than twice as much as those supporting the measure. Here's a list of all the donors who've given more than $100,000.

Biggest donations in opposition of Prop. 23

Biggest donations in support of Prop. 23

Source: California Secretary of State

October 15, 2010
Election polls skewed by landline bias?

Political polling is ubiquitous this election season, but such polls may be skewed because of how respondents are contacted. With 25 percent of American households only using using cell phones for telephone service (according to the CDC), surveys directed only at Americans using wired service may be subject to what experts call "landline bias".

Just how big is landline bias and how does it affect current election polling? The Pew Research Center attempted to find out. In a recent report, Pew estimated the bias this year is as large, or larger, than in 2008. The researchers compared 2010 Congressional polls aimed at both landline and cell phone users versus those targeting only landline users. The difference is striking. For polls conducted between Aug. 25-Sept. 6 among likely voters, the spread is: Republican preference 50 percent, Democrat preference 43 percent (landline and cell sample) and Republican 53, Democrat 41 percent (landline-only sample).

You can get a sense of the demographics of the cell-only crowd in this CDC report on the "wireless substitution," published in May. In general, younger adults are more likely to live in homes with no landline service. In addition, those more likely to go wireless are renters, the poor, and those living alone or in households comprised of unrelated people.

UPDATE: Field Research -- whose California Polls are often cited in The Bee -- samples both landline and cell populations in its surveys. That's because it takes random names from voter registration records where people are increasingly listing their cell phone numbers. Mark DiCamillo of Field Research says the percentage of cell numbers his group finds in voter records has risen from eight percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2010.

October 15, 2010
Natomas road near airport is dumping ground

The Problem: North Natomas resident Terry Palmer said he and neighbors repeatedly complained to the city over the past two months about illegal dumping at Airport Road and Natomas Crossing Drive.

Everything from abandoned vehicles to furniture and TV sets were dropped off at the dead-end street, creating an eyesore and a fire hazard.

He called the city's 311 service line, as well as his City Council representative and the Police Department.

The Solution: After Public Eye called, the site was cleaned up this week.

Jessica Hess, spokeswoman for the Department of Utilities, said the city received 14 calls about the Airport Road-Natomas Crossing Drive since July 1.

The city has one crew to respond to an average of 400 calls per month regarding illegal dumping. She said the crew typically cleans up about 40 sites a day and responds to illegal dumping reports within two to three weeks.

"While we are sympathetic to Mr. Palmer's concerns, illegal dumping is a chronic problem in Sacramento and illegal dumping is a crime," Hess said in an e-mail.

The community can help by reporting incidents in progress, she said. The city offers a $500 reward for those caught and convicted of illegally dumping.

Residents hiring someone to haul waste from their property also can help by using licensed and bonded haulers, who are more likely to take material to the dump or transfer station instead of depositing it in a vacant lot.

People who observe someone illegally dumping material in the city are asked to call the Sacramento Police Department at (916) 264-5471, and to jot down the vehicle's license number and a description of the suspects in case they leave before police arrive.

- Cathy Locke

October 15, 2010
Undeliverable ballots cost the county money

The Sacramento County election's office recently began sending out vote-by-mail ballots, and hundreds are already returned - as undeliverable mail.

The rising count of returned ballots - expected to reach about 15,000 for the Nov. 2 election - is adding to the county's red ink.

Each ballot costs about $1.50 to produce and mail. If you do the arithmetic, you see how costs add up: $22,500, perhaps more.

It doesn't seem like a lot of money, but every penny counts as government agencies look to find savings.

"That's less money needed from the county's general fund," said Brad Buyse, local elections spokesman. The general fund is the pool of money the county uses to pay for county services.

Most of the returned mail stems from voters failing to notify the agency of a change of address.

"People need to keep their registration information up to date, " said Alice Jarboe, assistant registrar.

As of Thursday, about 1,800 ballots had been sent back to the county's election headquarters on 65th Street in south Sacramento.

To see if your registration is current, call (916) 875-6451 or see: http://www.elections.saccounty.net

The deadline to register to vote or change your address is Monday.

- Bobby Caina Calvan

October 14, 2010
VoteEasy matches your political outlook to November candidates

The good folks at Project Vote Smart have developed an interactive feature that quickly matches your opinions on critical issues to congressional candidates you'll be choosing in the November election. Think of VoteEasy as the eHarmony of political web sites.

First you enter the ZIP where you live. (You may have to enter your address to determine your U.S. House district.) Then you answer a set of 12 yes/no questions covering the important national issues of the day -- abortion, Afghanistan, immigration, gun control, etc. -- as well as how important each issue is to you. At each step the system updates the results, assigning each House and Senate candidate a matching score, (i.e. some percentage similar to you). When finished the system flags the politician that best matches your outlook. Click on the candidate's picture to see a profile comprised of biographical details, interest group ratings, campaign donations and voting record (if available).

Cool as VoteEasy is, you'll also want to consult The Bee's online Voter Guide. It contains biographical profiles of federal, state and local candidates running this November, plus their answers to specific issue questions posed by Bee reporters and editors.

October 13, 2010
Region's loan modifications not keeping pace with foreclosures

It's been more than a year since the federal government's Making Home Affordable Program (HAMP) started facilitating loan modifications for troubled homeowners.

Since then, about 7,700 local homeowners have obtained permanent loan modifications under the program. That's obviously a big number, but it's clearly only a portion of the demand, as evidenced by 30,000 people showing up at a Cal Expo event this weekend hoping to get new loan terms.

Also, since September of last year, banks have foreclosed about two homes in the Sacramento region for every one loan modification, as the chart below shows.

loangoodfinalag.png

Sources: Foreclosures.com; FinancialStability.gov

October 8, 2010
The most politically generous ZIP codes

Out of the 44,000 ZIP codes in the United States, which one gave the most money to congressional candidates and PACS in 2010? (Drum roll.) According to a new analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, it's 10021 (the Upper East Side of New York City), whose donors gave a total of $6.6 million.

Using federal campaign finance data, CRP built a donation database showing aggregate giving by state and ZIP and breaking out the figures by top recipients and contributors. It also calculated the relative proportion of money going to the two major parties. 10021, for example, gave 77 percent to Democratic candidates and groups identified with the Democrats. Twenty-three percent went to Republican ones.

On the state level, Beverly Hills 90210 lead California with total contributions of $3.13 million (76 percent Dem, 24 percent GOP).

On the regional level, the top ZIP turns out to be tiny Brooks 95606 giving a total of $467,050 (55 percent Dem, 45 percent GOP). (Not surprising, considering it includes the Cache Creek Casino.) Second in the Sacramento region is 95864 (home to a number of very politically-active business people). It gave $421,687 (60 percent Dem, 40 percent GOP). Coming in third is 95814 (center of state government and lobbying), which gave $308,225 (80 percent Dem, 20 percent GOP).

October 8, 2010
Chief cites crimes stats, but what do they show?

In a recent Washington Post article on the recession's effect on crime, Police Chief Rick Braziel said after years of declining crime rates in Sacramento, "The trend line is starting to go back up." He cited service cuts imposed by government belt-tightening.

But his agency's crime statistics are less clear-cut, showing year-to-year decreases in most major crime categories. Rape, robbery, motor vehicle theft, larceny and burglary are all down through August compared with 2009, the data show.

Property crimes such as auto break-ins that residents are most likely to encounter are down about 3.4 percent.

Aggravated assaults are up about 5 percent. Murders are up 43 percent in Sacramento from last year, rising from 16 to 23 through August. But last year marked a near-historic low for murders in the city.

The increase in murders so far this year is almost identical to the decrease in murders the city saw from 2008 to 2009.

Update: Sacramento Police Department spokesman Norm Leong says that while many types of crime are still down for the year, shorter-term trends are indicating a shift. "What we show is a current loss of ground on violent crime and some increases in property crimes. It is true that we have still decreases in some crime categories but the numbers show we are losing some gains we have made."

-- Phillip Reese

October 8, 2010
Reader says sample voter ballot's type is too small

The Problem: A Citrus Heights reader objects to the tiny print on Sacramento County's sample ballots, and to the note in the margin advising anyone wishing to view the ballot in larger text to visit the county Elections Office website. What about people without computers or Internet access? she asked.

The Answer: Brad Buyse, county elections spokesman, said the county has 177 different ballots, based on the different races and measures in different parts of the county.

To avoid the costs of reformatting the sample ballot booklet for each type of ballot, elections officials opted to shrink the image of the 19-inch ballot to fit the 10.5-inch sample ballot page, for a savings of about $100,000, he said. For voting, the actual two-sided, 19-inch ballot will be much easier to read, Buyse said.

- Cathy Locke

October 8, 2010
State pays recycling firm 8 percent of its claim

SIMS Recycling Solutions has settled a dispute with the state of California over public funds it had sought for recycling electronic wastes.

According to an agreement reached quietly in August, SIMS will receive 8 percent, or $265,000, of $3.3 million it claimed for recycling 8.3 million pounds of monitors and televisions under California's pioneering 2005 e-waste legislation.

In order to qualify for payment, recyclers must prove e-waste is from California by documenting where it was collected. But 79 percent of the collection addresses SIMS provided to the state were invalid, records show.

Jeff Hunts, manager of the e-waste payment program for CalRecycle, called the agreement a "profound win" for the state.

"It is a recognition of the importance of source documentation to demonstrate the eligibility of the material," Hunts said.

In appeal documents, SIMS maintained the e-waste was, in fact, from California and blamed the problem, in part, on sloppy and fabricated documentation from e-waste suppliers.

"It is now clear ... that there is a likelihood that (e-waste) handlers may, in some cases, have provided deliberate false data," SIMS manager Andrew Mason wrote in a June letter to the state.

SIMS Recycling Solutions, which calls itself the world's largest electronics recovery and recycling company, has facilities in northern and southern California. Its state headquarters is in Roseville.

--Tom Knudson

October 7, 2010
Map: Problem underground storage tanks cover region

State and local regulators are tracking more than 550 underground storage tanks in the Sacramento region that at one point leaked petroleum based products from diesel to gasoline or waste oil. This map shows every active case under the domain of water regulators as of Oct. 7.

October 7, 2010
In midst of boss' campaign, AG Brown's office steps up activity

Meg Whitman may have a personal fortune, but Attorney General Jerry Brown has something almost as politically valuable: A job that gives him lots of free media coverage.

And he seems to be taking advantage.

Since July 1, the Attorney General's office has issued 44 press releases announcing various lawsuits, prosecutions and other actions. That's almost a 50 percent increase over the average from the same period during the previous three years.

The number of press releases the A.G.'s office has issued has grown each year so its employees could simply be increasingly productive, though this year's rise is by far the largest.

Nearly all the releases have Brown's name in their headline -- not too strange given that he is the boss.

a_g_press_releases_july_1-oct_7.png

October 6, 2010
Projected doctor shortage bigger than previously reported

The Association of American Medical Colleges has revised its physician shortage predictions, and the figures are pretty grim. Instead of a shortfall of 39,600 doctors in 2015 as previously thought, the AAMC now estimates a deficit of 63,000 physicians in five years. In addition, the nation will face a shortage of 33,100 specialists in cardiology, oncology and other non-primary care fields. The AAMC reports that one-third of today's physicians will retire within 10 years.

The situation is made worse by the aging of the American population which will see a 36 percent increase in people over 65. The expanding elderly cohort will greatly increase the demand for medical care, especially specialist care. Demand will also rise as an estimated 32 million more people get insured as a result of federal health care reform.

The doctor shortage will be felt by everyone, but especially underserved groups in rural and inner-city settings.

Hat tip: Los Angeles Times Booster Shots blog.

October 5, 2010
A quarter of high school students, young adults binge drink

According to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control, 25 percent of high schoolers and young adults, 18-34, indulge in binge drinking (as defined as consuming multiple alcoholic drinks -- four or more for women, five or more for men -- in space of a few hours). Further, some 60 percent of those youths who drink alcohol have engaged in binge drinking at some time in the 30 days prior to the survey.

Among adults, men binge drink more than women do, 21 versus 10 percent. Such behavior, says the CDC, increases the risk of accidents, violence, drug overdose and sexually-transmitted disease. Binge drinking causes more than half of the 79,000 deaths attributed to excessive alcohol use during the period 2001-2005. 

The prevelance of binge drinking among adults varies among the states. It ranges form 6.8 percent in Tennessee to 23.9 percent in Wisconsin. California is in the middle at 15.8 percent.

October 1, 2010
A child well-being scorecard for California counties

kids.JPGThe Children Now advocacy group released its new 2010 California County Scorecard of Children's Well-Being, a collection of 26 data indicators reflecting the well-being of youngsters in California's 58 counties. The scorecard covers specific measures of health, safety, crime, abuse and education.

County rankings can be easily browsed using CN's color-coded table. The counties are grouped by their rural/urban and low/middle/high income status. Performance in each of the 26 indicators is illustrated by color: red for bottom third of county rankings; yellow for middle third; and green for top third.

You can also view the specific data for individual counties. Sacramento County, for example, falls in the middle tier for most indicators, but ranks in the bottom third in seven measures, including road safety, truancy and 8th-grade Algebra enrollment.

PHOTO CREDIT: Students and their parents arrive for the first day of school at the newly-built Cosumnes River Elementary School in Sloughhouse, August 2010. Jose Luis Villegas / Sacramento Bee



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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