Tuesday, December 25, 2007

It appears SDG&E is largely to blame for fires

Click here to see the original article.

Probe of Calif. Fires Lays Most Blame on Power Lines
Downing of Poles by Santa Ana Winds Renews Debate Over Costly Option of Burying Electrical Cables

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 24, 2007

LOS ANGELES -- When the firestorms of October were finally extinguished and hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians returned to their homes, officials set out to understand how 21 fires erupted in the span of just three days.

Searching high and low, they found the easiest explanations at ground level: A 10-year-old boy confessed to starting one fire while playing with matches. That blaze blackened 38,000 acres north of Los Angeles, though authorities opted not to press charges against the youth, who has been described as distraught.

Two other fires were attributed to arson, something officials said happens routinely when fires erupt elsewhere. "The arsonists jump in because they have cover; there's other fires already," said Bill Peters, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In an odd twist, a convicted arsonist was discovered among the volunteers fighting fires in San Diego County. Paroled after setting seven blazes 10 years ago, the man was not implicated in the October fires.

The leading cause of ignition appeared to be power lines.

As many as eight fires were blamed on sparks from lines blown down by the high, hot Santa Ana winds that sweep across Southern California each autumn. The Witch fire, which burned 200,000 acres and killed two people, was ignited by a power line, as was the smaller Guejito blaze with which it merged.

The findings have renewed calls for improving the safety of the power lines, either by reinforcing poles and line fasteners or, in some cases, placing cables underground in rural areas that experience the worst winds.

"We're certainly all looking at undergrounding in fire-prone rural areas -- even though that hasn't been the norm -- given the number of fires that have broken out over the last several years," said Christy Heiser, a spokeswoman for San Diego Gas & Electric. She noted that 60 percent of the utility's lines are already underground, twice the national average.

The problem is expense. Burying power lines can cost $1 million a mile. It also makes any repair a matter of digging.

"People don't understand the consequences of it," said James A. Kelly, vice president for engineering and technical services at Southern California Edison, which is less eager to bury the lines. "It's like using a 20-pound sledgehammer to kill an ant."

Edison is experimenting with less costly options, including poles made from composite materials designed to withstand winds that "are sufficient in some instances to snap wooden poles," Kelly said.

Indeed, the Santa Ana winds remain the primary reason for October's fires. The gusty, dry gales exceeded 100 mph, and blew steadily for so long that they drove fires over terrain that had been thoroughly burned four years earlier.

"As a general rule, the younger the stand, the less fuel there is," said Jon Keeley, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "But if you overlay what burned in October 2007 against earlier fire histories, what you can see is a huge portion of what burned in 2003 got re-burned. If you include the 2002 fires, it's like 100,000 acres."

Keeley said that suggests that controlled burns are relatively ineffective on Southern California's scrubby landscape. In testimony to a Senate panel last month, he urged restricting new residential development in fire-prone areas, tightening building codes on the houses that are built, and exploring the burial of power lines in the corridors that Santa Ana winds sweep through.

"Power companies aren't eager to do it because it's expensive," he said. "But given the cost of these fires, I can't believe it's not cost-effective."

And after all that, Keeley said, the public must understand that fires in Southern California are like earthquakes: inevitable.

"The thing is, everything is going to re-burn: Southern California is a fire-based ecology," said Peters. "The intangible here is, as long as people want to live on that interface between nature and man, we have to deal with that. And so that's why -- well, this happens all the time. Because that's where we live!"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Whistleblowers out of luck in San Diego

The following article is from Voice of San Diego:

Despite Advice, Mayor Still Controls Whistleblower Hotline
By EVAN McLAUGHLIN Voice Staff Writer

Dec. 17, 2007 | Employees at the city of San Diego still do not have an outlet for anonymously reporting financial misconduct to the City Council's Audit Committee, even though a rule requiring the panel to field the concerns of whistleblowers was put in place seven months ago.

Instead, officials for Mayor Jerry Sanders are still in charge of the hotline. It keeps in place an arrangement in which City Hall's boss oversees the very forum where potentially embarrassing complaints about his administration are registered, while also having the power to fire the thousands of city employees prone to use the hotline.

Dailing Out

The Issue: The whistleblower hotline is overseen by the Mayor’s Office even though city law says a City Council committee should field the complaints.
What It Means: That puts the mayor in the position of supervising the very hotline that could field embarrassing complaints about his administration.
The Bigger Picture: Along with the auditor and appointments to the Audit Committee, it’s recommended the hotline is also made independent of the mayor.

It's a dynamic that concerns some officials who want to ensure the whistleblower process is an effective fix for a city that has suffered the scrutiny federal investigators and the loss of the its credit rating because of past breakdowns in financial controls.

"Any employees that might want to blow the whistle on something and it's a particularly sensitive issue to the mayor's administration, that might cause them to pause," said Jeff Kawar, a fiscal and policy analyst at the council's Office of the Independent Budget Analyst.

The hotline is among the several remedies recommended by outside consultants at Kroll Inc. and Vinson & Elkins. Together, the city paid more than $25 million to for the firms' expert opinions.

The two firms were hired after the discovery of errors and omission in the city's financial statements, in which the magnitude of the city's looming multibillion-dollar pension and retiree health care liabilities were downplayed.

Related Links

Both Mayor and Council Seek Majority Power for Committee (Aug. 9, 2007)

Hired to Reform, Former Auditor Left Unhappy with Mayor's Control (Feb. 26, 2007)

The inaccurate financial statements attracted the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has since sanctioned the city for securities fraud and fined its former auditor. Audit firms the city hired subsequent to the 2002 and 2003 disclosure problems have withheld their blessings of the city's financial statements, which has in turn barred the city from Wall Street.

Vinson & Elkins and Kroll concluded that weak internal controls -- the checks and balances of ensuring financial statements accurately reflect the city's financial health -- contributed to the city's reporting errors in 2002 and 2003.

Objections to the city's disclosures were first aired by pension trustee Diann Shipione, who didn't have the luxury of a confidential hotline. Instead, when Shipione sounded the alarms on the reporting errors and the controversial deal forged between the city and its retirement board, she was derided as crazy and vindictive. Pension officials tried to embarrass her by taking out an advertisement in a local newspaper that compared her to Chicken Little and sought to have police arrest her at a meeting.

Kroll and Vinson & Elkins recommended setting up an employee hotline, where employees could report concerns of misconduct anonymously and confidentially. Both firms saw it as a way to bring to light the city's financial reporting problems before they reach the desks of potential bond investors.

Each consultant advised the city to have a panel independent of the Mayor's Office handle calls. In May, the council followed the path laid out by Kroll, who recommended that the Audit Committee review the complaints that were cataloged on the hotline.

However, establishing the hotline has become one of several growing pains for the new committee, which was created in January. Many of Kroll's recommendations for the committee depend on the decisions of voters, who will need to change the city's bylaws in order to remove many auditing powers from the mayor's supervision as the firm recommended.

The Audit Committee expects to hear a presentation next month from outside consultants at Jefferson Wells about the best way to handle the hotline, said Councilman Kevin Faulconer, the panel's chairman. Faulconer said he wants to know how other cities arrange their hotlines so that the city can follow the best practices of government.

One city where the mayor is not involved in overseeing the hotline is Los Angeles. Employee complaints are routed either through the controller, who is elected, or the Ethics Commission, which is appointed by various city officials.

Lee Ann Pelham, the executive director of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, said employees would be more reluctant to complain about misconduct at work if they knew their calls were being handled by someone who worked for their boss.

"The hallmark of a workable ethics system is the ability to refer something to an office independently and confidentially," Pelham said.

Jo Anne SawyerKnoll, who heads Sanders' Office of Ethics & Integrity, said concerns that the mayor is too close to the hotline are unfounded. Sanders and his staff don't meddle in the complaints and because safeguards are in place, such as how the calls are fielded by a company outside the city.

"In theory, there is nothing wrong with the whistleblower line and program to be under the mayor as long as you have certain things in place that allow it to be confidential and anonymous," SawyerKnoll said.

SawyerKnoll said that an overwhelming number of complaints don't deal with misconduct. Her office doesn't investigate the alleged malfeasance. Rather, it refers complaints to the city auditor, who also reports to the mayor. She said she welcomes the council committee's involvement when it gets a process for reviewing complaints in place.

Until the Audit Committee takes over, the hotline rests with Sanders, who has gained more and more control of the complaint forum -- both by his designs and others' -- since he took office.

Former City Auditor John Torell created the hotline in 2005 before the city switched to the voter-approved strong-mayor form of government, when his office was removed from the city manager's administration and was instead controlled by the mayor and eight City Council members.

But once Sanders was put in charge of the entire city workforce, including the city auditor, in 2006, the hotline became the purview of the mayor. Torell bristled at the idea of reporting to Sanders, saying he didn't have enough independence from the administration he was tasked with inspecting. The hotline became one of the many new internal controls that would be compromised if it remained in the custody of mayoral officials, he said.

Several months into the strong-mayor structure, Sanders plucked the hotline from Torell and handed it to the Office of Ethics & Integrity. Torell then became one of four officials to serve on a committee that heard the complaints that were left on the hotline before he departed City Hall in a huff because of his diminished independence nearly one year ago.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The SEC says the pension deal included fraud

City's Former Auditor Charged With Fraud
December 11, 2007

SAN DIEGO -- The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged San Diego's former auditor with fraud for making false and misleading statements on city bond offerings.

The agency said Thomas Saiz and his former firm -- Calderon, James & Osborn -- signed off on incorrect statements about the health of the city's pension fund. The statements came in five city bond offerings in 2002 and 2003. Those bond sales raised $260 million.

Saiz agreed to pay a $15,000 fine as part of a settlement in the case filed Monday. Neither he nor the firm admitted wrongdoing.

The city's failure to disclose its pension woes became known in 2004, leading to the mayor's resignation and severely hampering San Diego's ability to borrow money.

Last year, the SEC charged the city of San Diego with securities fraud in connection with the bond sales in 2002 and 2003. It ordered the city to hire an independent financial consultant for three years but stopped short of levying fines for failing to disclose bad news about the pension fund.

The city employee's pension put San Diego $1.4 billion in debt, according to officials.

The Commission's investigation is ongoing, according to its Web site, "as to other individuals and entities that may have violated federal securities laws."

NBCSandiego.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What is the real purpose of the Lincoln Club? It doesn't seem to be education.

The Mayor’s Backroom Buddies: Who is Cox Really Looking Out For?
By Jen Badgley

Anyone who’s been following the bayfront development knows that Mayor Cox has been on Gaylord’s side since day one. Even when Gaylord got caught lying to the Port Commission , she was quick to jump to the company’s defense. Why has the Mayor been such a devoted cheerleader for a disreputable, out-of-state developer whose shaky finances earned it an “F” grade from one financial rating service?

Mayor Cox claims that she supports Gaylord because its plan is the best for Chula Vista, but if you take a look at the facts—especially the money trail—it’s obvious whom she’s really looking out for.

Most Chula Vistans probably aren’t familiar with the Lincoln Club, an elite group of corporate executives and real estate moguls who fund campaigns for business-friendly politicians, but this group pumped almost $80,000 into Cox’s mayoral bid. The director of the Lincoln Club, Gordon Carrier, is also a principle at the architectural firm Carrier Johnson, which was retained by the City to work on the bayfront redevelopment, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Another Lincoln Club contributor is Phelps Development, which formed the Gaylord Phelps Development LLC partnership last year for the “sole purpose” of winning a contract to oversee the bayfront development, according to Gaylord spokesman Brain Abrahamson. The port district was about to hire Phelps to oversee the budget, development and environmental guidelines on the bayfront project until the Voice of San Diego exposed this classic “wolf guarding the henhouse” set-up.

This embarrassing stunt hasn’t stopped Cox and her real estate cronies from stacking the deck in Gaylord’s favor. How do you think Gaylord’s local representative got a seat on Chula Vista’s Real Estate Advisory Committee? And as long as we’re asking questions, here are a few more questions that the Mayor won’t answer:

After years of public meetings, why is she ignoring the Citizens' Advisory Committee and giving free reign to Gaylord to build a development considered an eyesore and environmental disaster by many Chula Vistans?

Considering Chula Vista’s burgeoning debt, why is she giving away $300 million to Gaylord, a company that is already carrying a debt load of more than half a billion dollars? And what about the hidden infrastructure expenses that will cost Chula Vista even more?

Besides Gaylord’s convention center, what else do the Mayor and her Lincoln Club buddies have planned for the bayfront area? Why won’t she talk about the big picture for the future of Chula Vista?

Mayor Cox is supposed to represent the interests of all Chula Vistans, not just the wealthy developers who bankrolled her political career. But it’s clear whom she’s working for in City Hall. The Lincoln Club got its money’s worth when they helped elect Cheryl Cox.

Posted by LJF Team on September 26, 2007

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Was Vencent Donlan pushed into crime?

UPDATE (link): Email from Vencent Donlan?

Robin Donlan deposition
Robin Donlan's $7.7 million fraud

Did someone push Vence Donlan into committing stock options fraud?

How did so many people who were close to Robin Donlan become involved in criminal activities?

These individuals include Donlan's brother, Michael Carlson; her PTA friend, Kimberlee Simmons; her fellow teachers at Castle Park Elementary School; her union, California Teachers Association; her school district, Chula Vista Elementary School District; her brother's boss, Commander Sam Gross of Santa Barbara Sheriff's department; her lawyers; and finally, and most distressingly,
her husband, a former navy pilot and school teacher who is now serving an almost-4-year federal prison sentence.

Robin's husband Vence Donlan was never in trouble before he married Robin.

What caused him to begin to commit stock option theft a few months after he married Robin?

Could it have been pressure from his wife?

That was certainly the reason that CTA, CVESD, teachers at Robin's school, and law enforcement and lawyers became involved in criminal activities. Robin Donlan put them in a position where they had to violate the law or push back against pressure. Sadly, they all decided to break the law.

I suspect that Robin was fearful in March 2002, when she learned that her school district and her fellow teachers had been sued, that her involvement in the wrongdoing would eventually be exposed.

Robin Doig Colls married Vence Donlan in early 2002, perhaps in part because she feared that her role in the wrongdoing would be exposed, and she wanted the support of a husband. Possibly she expressed fear to her husband that she would have to pay a lot of money in a lawsuit, and he felt the need to provide her with a lot of money.

One thing is for certain: Robin committed crimes, encouraged crimes, and covered up crimes. And a lot of people suffered the consequences.

It's time for Robin to come forward and tell the truth, and try to repair some of the damage she's done. The same is true of Chula Vista Elementary School District, California Teachers Association, and the San Diego County Office of Education-Joint Powers Authority.

How about a return to the rule of law, Robin and friends?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

It's so sweet of Kaiser Permanente to give charity to Keenan and Associates

Keenan & Associates Presents Fourth Annual Summit

Torrance, Calif.

Keenan & Associates, the largest privately held brokerage and consulting firm in California, presented their fourth annual Keenan Summit, featuring notable California thought leaders addressing topics critical to employers such as health care reform legislation and public employer liabilities for retiree health care costs...

The Keenan Summit was made possible by the generous contributions of these sponsors: Blue Shield of California, Health Net, Valley Oak Systems, MuniFinancial, United Healthcare PacificCare, Blue Cross of California, Express Scripts, Bay Actuarial Consultants, Aetna, Unum, Delta Dental,
Kaiser Permanente,
Wachovia Securities, Vision Service Plan, Maximus, and Johnson Rooney Welch.

About Keenan & Associates

Keenan & Associates, headquartered in Torrance, CA, was founded in 1972. Keenan has grown to the 17th largest insurance brokerage and consulting firm in the United States. With a network of offices located throughout California and a staff of more than 650 insurance specialists, Keenan is a full service Broker and consultant, dedicated to providing superior insurance products and services for public agencies and health care organizations. The company?s exceptional growth is directly related to its concentration on meeting the risk management, employee benefits, workers' compensation and property & liability consulting and brokerage objectives of public entities, health care systems and high-tech firms.