Saturday, March 24, 2012

Port execs eat well, fly first class: Port execs eat well, fly first class

Port execs eat well, fly first class
Amid cuts, travel budget is $713,400, up from $416,100 a year ago
Jeff McDonald
March 24, 2012

Chairman Lou Smith flies first class when he travels on port business. Last March, at a top steakhouse in Washington, D.C., he ordered a $49 roast prime rib for dinner and the Port of San Diego picked up the tab.

Commissioners Dan Malcolm, Ann Moore and Robert “Dukie” Valderrama also took first-class flights last year - to Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Costa Rica, respectively. Valderrama visited Hawaii each of the past two years.

Commissioner Bob Nelson traveled first class from San Diego to San Francisco on his way to Europe in May and switched to business class on the ensuing flights to Frankfurt, Germany and Bilbao, Spain.

Nelson, a board member of the San Diego Middle Class Taxpayers Association, billed the port more than $18,400 for the two-week trade mission to Europe, including $308 for international phone calls and text messages and $126 for laundry...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Big Water Fight and a "Secret Society"

I suspect that the people in power at Metropolitan Water District aren't doing this simply because they want their personal water bills to be lower. There must be some benefit to them that is not readily apparent.

Five Takeaways from a Big Water Fight
March 21, 2012
By Rob Davis
Voice of San Diego

...If you're a public official and you're going to call your exclusive group something secret, you'd better not do it by email.

A group of 20 water agencies that are members of Metropolitan has been meeting and discussing the County Water Authority's lawsuit and even hired a former Metropolitan general manager, Ron Gastelum, as a consultant. Their meeting agendas and many emails the authority released blandly refer to the group as the "Member Agency Managers MWD Working Group."

But in one email the County Water Authority obtained, a public works official for the city of Beverly Hills, an agency participating in the effort, calls the group "The Secret Society."

"It's what I briefed you about from the last Secret Society Meeting," the official, Chris Theisen, says in the email. "Ron Gastelum is the former [Metropolitan] CEO that the Secret Society hired as an advisor."

Metropolitan has said the meetings aren't secret. But they're not open to the public or to the County Water Authority...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Study: Statehouses at High Risk for Corruption

Study: Statehouses at High Risk for Corruption
Associated Press
March 19, 2012 (AP)

State governments lack transparency and accountability to citizens, and remain at high risk for corruption, according to a new study of all 50 statehouses.

Not a single state received an A in the State Integrity Investigation ranking, a product of the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity.

"It's telling that no state received an overall grade of A," said Caitlin Ginley, a staff writer for the Center for Public Integrity and a project manager on the study. "In every state, there's room to improve the ethics laws, the level of transparency on government proceedings, the disclosure of information, and — most importantly — the oversight of these laws.

"One of the major findings was that even when ethics laws are passed, they are difficult to enforce and lack meaningful consequences for violators."

Only five states got rankings of B, led by a surprising recipient: New Jersey. It got a B-plus, with an overall score of 87 out of a possible 100.

Despite — or perhaps because of — recent corruption scandals, New Jersey got the top ranking because of steps it took to combat corruption, including tough ethics and anti-corruption laws it adopted in response.

New Jersey has a colorful tradition of corruption in government, including a U.S. congressman taking a bribe from an FBI agent posing as a wealthy Arab sheik, a Jersey shore councilman caught on tape bragging to an undercover officer that he would never get caught because "I could smell a cop a mile away," and a decade-long string of 150 state and local officials who were either convicted or pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. The cases ranged from Motor Vehicle Commission employees selling fraudulent licenses to politicians peddling their influence for kickbacks.

Cases stemming from the 2009 roundup of 44 people in what was dubbed by the feds as "Operation Bid-Rig" are still working their way through the courts.

But that history of corruption also led to strong reforms designed to prevent it in the future. Among them was a law prohibiting campaign contributions by most firms doing business with the state.

"It's nice to be recognized for being ahead of the curve," said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted many of the recent cases. "The governor is proud of the changes he's made and the resources he's made available to the public in terms of government transparency. Government operates and behaves better when it's open and transparent, and taxpayers feel informed and a part of the process when they can see how their money is spent, who is getting contracts and who's on the payroll and such."

The report found that states with well-known scandals or histories of corruption often have the toughest laws and enforcement that bring them to light. Conversely, the report found, so-called "quiet" states may be at higher risk for corruption, with fewer means to bring corrupt practices to light.

Reporters in each state researched 330 corruption risk indicators across 14 government categories, including access to information, campaign finance, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, budgeting, civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, pension fund management, ethics enforcement, insurance commissions, and redistricting.

Rounding out the top five states were: Connecticut (B, 86), Washington state (B-minus, 83), California (B-minus, 81) and Nebraska (B-minus, 80).

Nineteen states got grades of C, and 18 got a D. Eight states got an 'F,' with grades of 59 or lower: North Dakota, Michigan, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia.

Individual reports for all 50 states can be found at

Sunday, March 11, 2012

San Diego lawmakers received overseas trips

Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, went to the Fairmont Kea Lani resort in Maui for a week. The $2,415 junket was courtesy of the California Independent Voter Project, a San Diego nonprofit with funding from oil companies, utilities, pharmaceutical companies and a cigarette maker, according to the newspaper.

...Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, took a $10,735 Italy trip paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and Economy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit made up of oil companies, utilities and environmental groups. The trip included plant tours and meetings on energy issues, from solar power to smart meters.
Block also went on a $3,883 trip to Israel sponsored by Faith2Green, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit made up of faith-based organizations interested in environmental issues.

...Not all the trips had big budgets. Sen. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, reported accepting a $219 gift of lodging and meals from the California Independent Petroleum Association as part of a symposium.

Report: SD lawmakers received overseas trips
Associated Press
March 11, 2012

Several San Diego County legislators received all-expenses-paid trips last year to Hawaii, Mexico, Israel and Italy _ renewing calls from critics that state gift-giving rules should be tightened.

Disclosure reports show the treks, bundled with meetings and plant tours, were sponsored by nonprofits that receive contributions from influence peddlers with a stake in legislation and the budget, according to an investigation by UT San Diego ( published Sunday.

Representatives from the corporations, utilities, labor unions and environmental groups often joined the excursions, giving them access to lawmakers, the newspaper said.

State law limits the value of gifts. But travel, if funded by a nonprofit, can be accepted as long as lawmakers participate in a meaningful way _ by giving a speech or sitting on a panel, for example.

California Common Cause, a government accountability group, says it's a loophole that should be closed. The group has lobbied for tightening gift-giving rules and providing full disclosure of who is contributing how much to the nonprofit group listed as the trip's sponsor.

"This is another way to get money into politics," Phillip Ung, policy director of California Common Cause, told UT San Diego.

The newspaper cited 10 lawmakers who reported accepting trips in 2011. Among them was Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, who took a $5,866 trek to Israel to discuss homeland security and Iran. It was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles...

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Whistleblowers, Aguirre Sue Utility Watchdog

Whistleblowers, Aguirre Sue Utility Watchdog
Utility Watchdog Hounded by FBI, Whistleblowers
March 9, 2012
By Rob Davis

When the Utility Consumers' Action Network began the process of dissolving, its executive director described the effort as a ruse to elicit a lawsuit from former city attorney Mike Aguirre.

If so, it worked. Aguirre, who represents two UCAN whistleblowers, filed suit Friday, alleging that the organization's board and top leaders had breached their fiduciary duty by failing to take internal complaints about UCAN's financial management seriously. (Read the lawsuit here.)

We broke down the bulk of the complaints against UCAN when the organization filed to dissolve:

UCAN filed its intent to dissolve in San Diego Superior Court, saying in papers that it faced an "imminent threat to its ability to carry on," due in part to legal threats by members of its own staff. Still, it insisted the organization would remain viable, despite the major crisis it clearly faces.

The move comes a week after an FBI agent subpoenaed UCAN's internal records and nearly a year after two employees alleged that UCAN had embezzled money, awarded illegal bonuses, set up suspicious bank accounts and failed to properly audit its books. The organization says it has investigated those complaints and found them unsubstantiated.

What The Plaintiffs Seek: Audits of UCAN's books and all of executive director Michael Shames' payments and bonuses. Damages, restitution and attorneys fees. (No amounts were specified.) And they want declarations that UCAN's members can elect the organization's board and decide whether the group should dissolve.

Why They Sued: Aguirre explained it this way in a press release: "Every red flag for financial mismanagement and fraud has been raised as the result of internal inquiries by UCAN’s employees. But instead of investigating with a public audit as required by the organization’s charter, UCAN’s Board has met secretly with Michael Shames to conduct an orchestrated cover-up.”

What Shames Says: He said he hadn't seen the suit yet but believed it was likely rehashing allegations that UCAN had already investigated and found unsubstantiated. "I will be looking for tangible evidence, documents, something, to support their allegations and not a continuation of the insinuations we've seen thus far," he said.
One Substantiated Issue The Suit Alleges: That UCAN didn't properly audit its books in 2006 as required by state law. Shames acknowledged today that the organization should've conducted an audit that year by a certified public accountant. He said an accounting firm was in the process now of auditing its books for last year and 2006.