Sunday, July 31, 2011

Six months into chairmanship, Issa isn’t what either side expected

Six months into chairmanship, Issa isn’t what either side expected
By Ben Pershing
July 11, 2011

When Rep. Darrell Issa assumed the role of chief watchdog of the Obama administration, both sides of the ideological spectrum had big expectations.

Liberals thought the Republican from California would be a media-hungry inquisitor who would stop at nothing to embarrass President Obama. And some conservatives believed he would quickly uncover high-level corruption that must be lurking just behind the White House gates.

Six months into Issa’s tenure as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, neither side’s predictions have proved quite right — although they still disagree about whether he’s doing a good job. And the congressman has been surprised by the experience.

“There’s more job than I expected,” Issa said in an interview last week. “With the limited resources that we have . . . we’ve done about 80 hearings and forums [but] what you find is it’s not even half of what we should have looked into or what we should do. We have a huge backlog.”

Issa helped set the bar high, saying in early January that Obama’s was “one of the most corrupt administrations” of modern times. If that were true, it seemed to follow, scandals should be easy to find.

That has not been the case, though Issa is particularly proud of the work his committee has done on Operation Fast and Furious, a controversial venture by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that targeted Mexican gun traffickers but has been linked to the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

Issa has also proposed a broad overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service that would eliminate Saturday mail delivery. And he has pushed to cut hundreds of billions of dollars in workforce costs across the federal government.

“Issa’s style is much more focused than the media perceived it would be. And the White House wanted to make him into something he isn’t,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who chairs an oversight subcommittee.

Although the committee has produced few major investigative breakthroughs, McHenry said it has been hitting “the singles and doubles” that could eventually build into something larger.

“Expectations that you would have an immediate ‘aha’ moment are removed from reality,” he said.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), another subcommittee head, said “there’s a learning curve” for a new chairman but predicted that many of the investigations the committee has underway would bear real fruit by next year.

Democrats paint a different picture.

“Frankly, I think the jury is still out on what kind of chairman he wants to be,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), a member of the oversight panel. “At times we see the statesman Darrell Issa and other times he has reverted to the very petty, partisan Darrell Issa.”...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

$1.8 Billion Loss Spooks Pension Board

Some board members were miffed that they weren't told about the loss. The U-T paraphrases a pension consultant as saying it "conducts extensive reviews of the investment managers it recommends but routinely excludes some details from their reports to clients."

$1.8 Billion Loss Spooks Pension Board

The board that oversees the county employee pension system declined to invest $100 million with a fund run by a trader [Boaz Weinstein] who lost $1.8 billion in controversial investments three years ago, the U-T reports. According to HFMWeek, a magazine for hedge fund managers, the firm targets net returns of approximately 15%.

Some board members were miffed that they weren't told about the loss. The U-T paraphrases a pension consultant as saying it "conducts extensive reviews of the investment managers it recommends but routinely excludes some details from their reports to clients."

Media stories about the trader and his epic 2008 problems are among the first hits on a Google search of his name.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Allegation in lawsuit: Mayor Jerry Sanders or one of his deputies fired a high-level San Diego whistle-blower

Salacious City Lawsuit Nears Trial
Jul 17, 2011
by Liam Dillon
Voice of San Diego

The two-year-old allegations are as salacious as they come: Mayor Jerry Sanders or one of his deputies fired a high-level city of San Diego employee because he was helping investigate contracting involving one of the mayor's supporters.

And the lawsuit that makes those allegations doesn't show signs of going away.

Last month, the City Council approved an additional $250,000 to defend the case on top of the $200,000 the city has already spent on outside attorneys. The $450,000 cost doesn't include more than a year of work by the City Attorney's Office before it bowed out of the case. A trial date in San Diego Superior Court has been set for Oct. 7.

The city's outside lawyer, Janice Brown, said the money for her bills is well spent. The former employee's current settlement offer is at least three to four times the entire bill, she told the City Council.

The gulf between the two sides is as wide as the allegations' seriousness.

Former city deputy economic development director Scott Kessler filed suit in July 2009, alleging the Mayor's Office directed him to bend contracting rules to favor Marco Li Mandri, a well-known civic leader in the city's Little Italy neighborhood and a Sanders supporter. Kessler says he refused. Kessler also argues the Mayor's Office ultimately fired him after he gave a copy of a joint FBI and San Diego Police Department investigation he obtained about Li Mandri's involvement in a North Bay parking and business improvement district to the city's Ethics Commission. (That criminal case never came to anything. San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis' office didn't pursue charges in that case, and Li Mandri has denied any wrongdoing.)

Sanders' office says it never told Kessler to improperly favor Li Mandri. It maintains Kessler wasn't laid off for his cooperation with any investigation. Instead, it argues it laid off Kessler, along with numerous other high-level managers, as part of mid-year budget cuts in 2008.

The lawsuit has been contentious and included a rare deposition of Sanders. The mayor has denied repeatedly all of the allegations including as recently as in an interview last week. Brown, the city's outside attorney, said the same to City Council last month.

"We believe that we'll have an opportunity in front of a jury to show that they're not true," she said. "That's why we're opposing it."

But for the last eight months, the case hasn't focused on these scandalous claims. Instead, both sides have fought primarily over an administrative issue: whether Kessler needed to complain formally to the city's Ethics Commission about his firing before filing suit.

This legal defense, Brown said, not only protects the city in this case, but also sets a precedent for any future employment lawsuits against the city. If successful, she said, it could save the city time and money going forward. Brown, who is a former federal Justice Department attorney and former board member of the city's downtown redevelopment agency, added she has cut her hourly rate almost in half to $260 for her work on the case. Through the end of May, lawyers at her firm had spent more than 700 hours on the lawsuit, invoices show.

Settling the case hasn't been an option because Kessler is asking for too much money, Brown added. His most recent settlement offer is for $1.5 million. The city hasn't bothered countering.

"Do you respond to that in real numbers or do we say, 'You're out of the stratosphere?'" Brown said in an interview.

Kessler's attorney, Joshua Gruenberg, said the city should bother with a counter offer. It's typical for plaintiffs to take less than their initial demand, he said. Gruenberg added that he made his first settlement offer in November 2009 for less than $1 million. The cost has increased because of all the hours he's worked since.

"I don't know if I've ever spent more time on a case than this one," Gruenberg said. He added he believed Kessler would prevail in court.

Regardless, both Gruenberg and Brown said they were open to settlement talks before the Oct. 7 trial. A lot of legal issues remain. Gruenberg is trying to depose the mayor for a second time and Brown is fighting it. The question about Kessler needing to make a formal complaint about his firing to the Ethics Commission before filing a lawsuit is unresolved. Then, of course, there's Kessler's actual wrongful termination claims to decide.

Asked if the cost of defending the lawsuit was justifiable, Sanders replied, "I would imagine you would want an attorney defending you if you were sued also."

[Maura Larkins comment: Of course we would, Jerry. But we'd have to pay for it. The problem here is, the taxpayers are paying for your expensive lawyers. You should have settled long ago.]

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A bribery scandal is being investigated at the state's Community Care Licensing office in San Diego,

News 8 Exclusive: State licensing employees accused of taking bribes
Jun 28, 2011
By David Gotfredson

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (CBS 8) -- A bribery scandal is being investigated at the state's Community Care Licensing office in San Diego, a division of the California Department of Social Services.

Officials confirm the employment of three state inspectors has been terminated after they were accused of taking thousands of dollars in bribes from operators of local residential care facilities for the elderly.

The state licensing inspectors worked at the offices of Community Care Licensing in Mission Valley. They are identified in court documents as Conchita Valero, Lydia Williams and Christina Nepomuceno.

The employees held the job title Licensing Program Analyst (LPA) and, as such, they inspected and licensed assisted living homes for the elderly in San Diego County.

According to a search warrant dated June 2 obtained by News 8, investigators are now seeking bank records to try to prove that the state inspectors were taking bribes from the owners or operators of several assisted living facilities.

Iris Ramirez, 49, runs four senior care homes in Mira Mesa under the name Ambassador Senior Retreat.

The search warrant alleges Ramirez bought airline tickets to fly LPA Valero and LPA Williams to the Philippines for a vacation, and also gave Valero $2,800 in cash.

In exchange, Ramirez's licenses were fast tracked and "completed in two months or less" instead of the average "five to six months," according to the warrant.

When interviewed by investigators, Ramirez "stated that the airline tickets were a ‘gift'; a ‘thank you' for licensing her facility so quickly," the warrant alleges. Each airline ticket cost $1,044, the warrant reads.

"Ramirez admitted to paying LPA Valero $2,800 cash and that LPA Valero was ‘probably' not documenting deficiencies at the facilities in exchange for the money," according to the warrant.

Contacted at her home in Murrieta, Ramirez told News 8 the airline tickets and the $2,800 in cash were gifts and she refused to answer questions.

"I don't want to say anything more. Sorry," said Ramirez.

Also named in the search warrant is the Eternal Sunshine Care assisted living facility on Quince Street in San Diego's Oak Park neighborhood, owned by Selma Teer, 36.

The search warrant claims Teer had purchased a home in Mira Mesa that she hoped to license as a Community Care facility; and gave LPA Nepomuceno $3,000 in cash.

When Nepomuceno left on medical leave from work, the search warrant claims Teer left the following voice mail message on Nepomuceno's state-issued cell phone:

"(You are) not returning my call. You are not paying my money back. You want a bribe for my application for my license. You lied. You are such a liar. You want a bribe, do your job. You don't do your job; you give me my money back."

In an interview at her Oak Park facility, Teer denied using the word "bribe" in the voicemail message, and said she did not bribe anybody.

"I don't even know what a bribe is. I don't know the meaning of it," Teer said.

Teer told News 8 she believed the $3,000 in cash she paid to LPA Nepomuceno was a loan, and that the payment was set up by her former business partner, Iris Ramirez.

"Iris Ramirez is the one that put me in this position," Teer said. "I'm 100% helping people. So you help people and this is what you get."

The search warrant also names Happy World residential care facility in Poway, once run by 56-year-old Maria Blume; and the Golden Touch III facility in Mira Mesa, formerly operated by Blume's nephew, who gave LPA Williams $5,000 in 2009, according to the records.

Blume initially told News 8 she would answer questions about the bribery allegations, but then did not return a message left on her cell phone seeking comment.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Social Services declined to comment on the ongoing investigation but did confirm the employees in question are no longer on the payroll.

"Each employee has a right to privacy and I'm not going to discuss personnel matters," spokesperson Michael Weston said. "I can just tell you that these three individuals no longer work for the Department of Social Services."

The bribery allegations remain under investigation by the Department of Social Services and no criminal charges have been filed against any of the state employees or the facility operators.

On Monday, News 8 requested access to the public inspection files for all seven assisted living facilities in question. Weston said the records will be made available in the coming days after confidential information is removed.