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UC Irvine students try 'speedfaithing'

Written By kolimtiga on Kamis, 31 Oktober 2013 | 12.57

You have 10 minutes to sell someone on Catholicism, no more than that to distill the teachings of the Koran or the foundations of Mormonism.

It's speed-dating for religion, and in a burst of faith-driven curiosity, dozens of students at UC Irvine raced from room to room Wednesday to listen to religious students (and two atheists) break down the core tenets of their belief system while on the clock.

"Is it required to wear wraps on your head?"

"What exactly do you do on a mission?"

"Do you go to an atheist church?"

Before students began faith shopping, organizers offered a little advice: Don't see it as an opportunity for debate. Just listen. And keep it short.

"You obviously can't learn everything about a religion in 10 minutes and that's not the point," said Karina Hamilton, director of the Dalai Lama Scholars Program at UC Irvine.

Speedfaithing was developed by Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes religious tolerance, as a way to help young people interact with members of diverse faiths. Since it began in 2005, similar events have been held at colleges across the country.

In Irvine, organizers planned the midday event in advance of a visit next week by Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, a member of President Obama's inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

"In Orange County we have tremendous diversity," said Raid Faraj, diversity educator for the school's Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity. "We have members of almost every major religious faith you can think of.... This is an opportunity to create a safe environment for people to come together and ask questions."

During the first session, a handful of students gathered around Chase Davis, a fourth-year biology major, who was responsible for explaining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He covered the basics — the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and the importance of family. And he told his own story, of finding faith a couple of years ago.

"I didn't have a perfect family," he said. "I was a second-year biology major at UCI and I was just stressed beyond belief."

Religion, he said, "really has brought me an amazing amount of peace."

The students in his group asked about missions and prohibitions against alcohol and coffee.

Sami Kabbara, who graduated last year, wanted to know whether it was OK to drink energy drinks.

In an adjacent room, one of the largest crowds gathered around two young atheists.

Albert, a second-year math major, said he was raised Catholic but started to doubt when he was in ninth or 10th grade.

"If I can't really logically deduce that there's a God, it's going to be really hard for me to believe," he told the group.

One student wanted to know whether his family accepted his atheism. Adam Milbes, a third-year economics major, asked, "Do you guys believe in any kind of accountability for your actions?"

"I personally just enjoy being a good person," Albert responded.

The event was the first time Albert had spoken publicly about his atheism, he said later. He asked that his last name not be used because people he is close to don't yet know that he is no longer a Catholic.

"Even going into this, I had a couple of doubts as to whether or not I was an atheist," he said.

But as he prepared to explain his thinking to a group of strangers in 10 minutes, he said, "I settled my feet down and said, 'I'm a good person and I don't necessarily need religion to show I'm a good person.' "


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SEIU breaks off contract talks with L.A. County

The possibility of a walkout affecting a wide array of public services loomed larger Wednesday after the union representing most Los Angeles County government employees broke off negotiations, charging that county officials have been unresponsive to their demands.

"We, the members, we're so ready to strike," said Jessi Gonzalez, a social worker who is bargaining committee member for SEIU 721, which represents 55,000 county workers. "We're in a situation where we don't see any respect from Los Angeles County listening to what we are asking in negotiations…. They won't read our proposals, they show up late to bargaining."

Labor and county officials say several steps would need to take place before a strike, but if one occurs, residents would see reductions in such services as processing requests for birth certificates and permits, medical care and maintenance of parks and libraries.

County officials say they are offering the SEIU, the largest county employee union, the same 6% raise agreed to by other labor groups, including those that represent deputy sheriffs, firefighters and engineers. Emerging from the recession and facing fiscal uncertainties of the federal healthcare overhaul, the county cannot offer more, Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka said Wednesday in an interview.

"We think this raise — a 6% raise over an 18-month period is ... reasonable and responsible," he said, adding that he has offered to have labor leaders sit down with county finance officials to examine the books and see there is no hidden pot of money. "The worst thing the county could do, what this county won't do is act fiscally irresponsible…. We're not going to put something out that we don't think we could afford."

Relations between the county and the union are tense. The last time SEIU held a strike authorization vote, in 2000, workers walked picket lines for 11 days. The action ended when then-Cardinal Roger Mahony intervened and urged both sides to come back to the table.

Relations were generally amicable for several years, with the union forgoing raises to help the county weather the economic downturn. That move allowed the county, unlike the city of Los Angeles, to avoid layoffs, furloughs and major cuts to services.

The SEIU local and the county have been negotiating for months to renew a contract that expired Sept. 30. The next day, county labor leaders walked out and thousands of workers rallied in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Intense bargaining talks have been held since then, with a total of 400 negotiators broken into teams discussing issues affecting different groups of workers. Between Monday morning the suspension of talks Tuesday night, the teams met in windowless rooms in Pasadena for 21 hours.

A major stumbling block has been county contributions to health premiums, which are set to increase 7.2% to 8.2% on Jan. 1. Even with a 6% pay increase, lower-wage workers will effectively see a reduction in take-home pay because of higher healthcare costs, according to the SEIU.

County officials said they verbally offered to cover the 7.2% increase in health costs if labor leaders would agree to discuss changes to retiree healthcare benefits for future workers.

"To say that we are not offering [to offset medical insurance increases] is not true, not accurate," Fujioka said. "They know that's in the budget."

Lowell Goodman, a spokesman for the SEIU, provided a document outlining the county's final offer, as of 10:33 a.m. on Tuesday. A section on healthcare costs says, "No increase in employer contribution."

The union is also seeking reductions in social worker caseloads, property tax changes to close a loophole for corporations, a living-wage increase for contract workers (who are not represented by the SEIU) and an enhanced ride-share program.

Some SEIU members are frustrated by the union's demands on matters that are unrelated to employee salary and benefits.

"If they want to pursue a political agenda, that's fine, do it in Sacramento. Don't do it at the bargaining table," said Topanga Bird, a shop steward at the county's child-abuse hotline. "… I am expected to raise my SEIU flag, wave it and lead 200-plus people out of my office on the streets, and people are asking me, 'for what?' "

Gonzalez and other social workers involved in the negotiations said the issue of reducing social worker caseloads was critical, given a series of high-profile deaths of foster children in recent years.

She noted that social workers have caseloads of 38 to 40 children, when their contract calls for 31. Experts have recommended caseloads be held to 15 children to ensure that they are properly served and protected, union officials note.

The county's Board of Supervisors are a "bunch of hypocrites," she said. "They fired social workers and made the public think the problem is resolved. I'm sorry, there's going to be another death next year, and the year after that."

Fujioka noted that the county is in the process of hiring an additional 250 social workers, and a blue-ribbon committee is studying ways to improve county supervision of foster children.

Balloting on a possible strike was initially supposed to be completed Wednesday, but has been extended into next week because of "overwhelming demand," Goodman said.

"Our members are deciding what kind of action they want to take to signal to the Board of Supervisors," he said.


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Man gets 47 years to life for killing woman, pushing her from car

Selene Mayoral thought she had "met such a good man." At least, that's what she told her mother.

She had recently completed a stint in rehab and found a steady job at an electronics manufacturer, where she met Juan Diego Valencia.

But Mayoral's mother said in a statement Wednesday that her daughter was duped by her co-worker.

"This man, whom my daughter thought was so good ... destroyed our family," she told a judge.

Valencia, 31, was convicted earlier this month of shooting Mayoral in the head and then pushing her body from a car during a police chase. In the statement, read prior to Valencia's sentencing, Graciela Mayoral said her daughter's killer often grinned in court "as if he were laughing at our suffering."

Valencia was sentenced to 47 years to life in prison.

The callousness Valencia showed that September night last year led Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kelvin Filer to "max out" the sentence, Deputy Dist. Atty. Tony Aguilar said.

Throughout the evening she was killed, Mayoral had called and texted her mother, Aguilar said during the trial. She asked her mother to pick her up. The 24-year-old said she didn't want to hang out with Valencia anymore. She told her mother he wouldn't let her leave, Aguilar said.

Hours later, Mayoral called her mother to say she didn't want to be picked up after all. Her mother testified she heard her daughter go quiet and then scream before the call ended.

The statement, which was also signed by Mayoral's father, described the anxiety Graciela Mayoral felt as she tried in vain to find her daughter after that phone call.

"It is difficult to live knowing that she was so afraid," the mother wrote. "I also ask myself everyday: What dehumanized this man?"

Aguilar said that on the day Mayoral was killed she and Valencia had been using meth. He said Valencia held Mayoral captive that afternoon, beating her.

Later, Aguilar said, a routine traffic stop turned violent when Valencia — still high on meth — shot Mayoral, then sped off. He paused at an intersection long enough to push her body from the green Mercury Cougar he was driving, authorities said.

Jurors in the Compton courtroom watched a graphic video shot by a bystander of Mayoral's limp body tumbling from the car. A trail of lights and sirens follows the vehicle.

Valencia led authorities to his apartment in Hawthorne, where he was arrested.

Valencia's attorney, Francine Logan, argued that Mayoral's death was an accident — that when her client was pulled over, he had fumbled with a gun in his waistband, and it had gone off.

"What really happened in that car — that's what's at issue," she said during closing statements.


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Sheriff's Dept. inquiries about inmate abuse found to be shoddy

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department failed to thoroughly investigate allegations from inmates who said they were physically abused by deputies, according to an analysis of 31 cases by the department's internal watchdog.

In a 145-page report, the Office of Independent Review said the department's shoddy initial investigations made it difficult to determine whether the inmates' allegations were valid. The watchdog launched its review of the handling of the cases after the American Civil Liberties Union in 2011 released sworn declarations from 78 inmates who alleged they were abused.

After the ACLU made the declarations public, Sheriff Lee Baca promised to reinvestigate the complaints. That review has led to three deputies being criminally charged: one on suspicion of assault and two others suspected of making false reports. Five deputies have been disciplined for violating policy in other cases. Some of the allegations remain under review.

The Office of Independent Review, which is headed by former federal prosecutor Michael Gennaco, said the department's effort to reevaluate the allegations was undermined by the inadequate investigations that occurred when the inmates initially complained to authorities. Most of their allegations were dismissed at the time.

The watchdog's report, which was released this week, comes as federal authorities continue to investigate alleged deputy abuse of inmates. Currently, criminal and civil rights investigations of the county jails are being conducted.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department will analyze the watchdog's report to see whether improvements can be made. But he defended the department's initial investigations into the allegations, saying they were thorough.

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said the watchdog's report highlighting problems with Sheriff's Department investigations was consistent with what his organization has been saying for years. He also questioned why the sheriff's watchdog hadn't identified problems with those investigations earlier.

"What does that say about the oversight of the OIR?" Eliasberg asked.

Gennaco said the allegations of abuse — with "mid-level injuries" — didn't rise to the level that his office typically reviewed. He said his office now does review such cases.

In other reforms, Gennaco said, the department has changed the way it handles use of force investigations in the lockups. A team of sergeants and lieutenants now oversees cases involving force and presents its findings to a commander's panel that convenes to discuss the case. Supervisors have also started receiving daily reports on incidents involving force to help monitor how force is used in the jails.

Another reform, the report said, has been the installation of 1,500 cameras in the downtown jails. Ninety percent of force used in those jails is now caught on camera, according to the report.


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Bell adds online financial data in bid for transparency

Written By kolimtiga on Rabu, 30 Oktober 2013 | 12.57

Amid allegations that Bell has reverted to the financial trickery that made the small, working-class city a symbol for municipal corruption, Bell city administrators will launch an online tool Tuesday that gives the public deeper access to its finances.

The software program converts and organizes financial data into user-friendly formats so that taxpayers can track how their money is collected, transferred and how much is used for police, sanitation and other municipal services.

Bell joins a growing number of cities such as New York, Chicago and other towns in California that have embraced the "open data" movement. Las week, Los Angeles launched its own website with similar features.

"I think a large amount of citizens want to know more about their government and how it works, and this will be a useful tool," Bell City Manager Doug Willmore said.

More than two dozen cities in the state have joined OpenGov Inc., a Silicon Valley company that created the software. Other cities include Beverly Hills, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, according to the company's website.

Through annual subscriptions, public agencies and districts can send their financial data to the company, which uploads it into their system for city and public use. Taxpayers can peruse the data by funds, departments or account types with icons and drop-down menus. It puts the data into charts designed to help citizens understand the information more easily.

OpenGov Chief Executive Officer Zachary Bookman says the program can be accessed anytime, even during council meetings.

"What the tool does and what it's doing — not just for Bell but other major cities — is that it turns conversations to fact, it focuses on numbers," Bookman said.

In Bell, reformers have been calling for financial transparency since the town was engulfed in scandal three years ago, when eight municipal leaders were accused of drawing huge salaries, collecting generous benefits and even lending city money. In some cases, contracts for ranking administrators were designed so the public could not determine what they were actually earning.

The former city administrator, Robert Rizzo, has pleaded no contest to 69 corruption-related charges, five of six former council members were convicted of misappropriating city funds and the former second in command is standing trial on 13 felony counts.

The city revamped its website earlier this year, publishing vendor contracts, city checks and other public records that, in the past, were only accessible through public records requests. Council meetings are now streamed live on the city's website.

"We think it's important for good financial oversight, which of course prevents the kinds of things that were occurring in Bell prior to the change in leadership," said JoAnne Speers, executive director of the Institute for Local Government.

She said the new feature will enable residents to participate in the decision-making process in a more informed manner, which makes their input more effective.

But the launch comes amid renewed controversy in the city of Bell.

Early this month, Vice Mayor Ana Maria Quintana publicly accused city administrators of hiding legal fees from residents.

Quintana claimed that in the last fiscal cycle, the council approved $300,000 in legal expenses, but that the city exceeded the amount by $1.5 million. She said the council was never told about the matter.

But her council colleagues and city administrators say that her allegations are false and misleading and that the council did approve the spending.

Councilman Ali Saleh said he hopes the new tool will reinforce public trust in government in Bell.

"This is really something all cities should be doing in order to cut through the political spin and allow the public and electorate to focus on the issues and business of governance in an informed and substantial manner," Saleh said.


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Garcetti calls for approval of L.A. River project during D.C. trip

WASHINGTON — Mayor Eric Garcetti, on his first trip to the nation's capital as Los Angeles' chief executive, isn't letting Washington's preoccupation with budget deficits get in the way of his push for federal approval of a $1-billion project to restore the Los Angeles River.

In meetings on Capitol Hill and at the White House, Garcetti lobbied officials to support a project that is more than double the cost of the one recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers. He even got about 15 minutes in the Oval Office with President Obama, who brought up the river project.

But winning congressional support for such an ambitious project in an era of federal austerity could be like the recent kayak ride Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who backs the restoration, and his 11-year-old son took on a stretch of the river: "A lot of rocks. A lot of hazards. And a lot of spills."

Garcetti's lobbying comes as the Republican-controlled House has pushed to cut federal spending and as the Army Corps faces a $60-billion-plus backlog of projects awaiting funding.

"You can potentially risk not getting anything if you reach too high," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Still, this could be one of those projects that benefits from California lawmakers' rise in seniority.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, which authorizes water projects; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, another Democrat, chairs the appropriations subcommittee, which helps decide what water projects are funded and how much they receive.

"Of course I'm going to fight hard for what the people in L.A. want," Boxer said in an interview Tuesday.

Feinstein, however, said Los Angeles officials may need to find a middle ground with the Army Corps.

"It may well be that a compromise is the way to go," she said. "But the pressures here are enormous for that money."

Garcetti said he still planned to push for the $1-billion project, even if it takes longer to complete.

"I feel very optimistic about our chances," he said Tuesday.

Garcetti was meeting with Democratic and Republican lawmakers in an attempt to build bipartisan support for the project, including inviting House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) to Los Angeles for a tour of the river.

Los Angeles officials are seeking to transform a stretch of the river between downtown and Griffith Park into a civic attraction offering recreational opportunities and restored habitat. With their congressional allies — Democratic Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard of Downey, Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles and Schiff — they are working to persuade the Army Corps to go with a $1.08-billion restoration project, with federal taxpayers and the city sharing equally in the costs.

The corps, in a preliminary staff recommendation, has called for a $453-million project, with the federal government picking up about 30% of the tab.

A final recommendation is expected to be submitted in late spring to Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, the Army Corps' commanding general and chief of engineers. The recommendation then will go to Congress, where it would be difficult to change the recommendation.

Garcetti said he was aware of Washington's fiscal constraints but noted that funding for the project would be stretched out over a number of years.

"We don't want to look back a generation from now and say, 'Oh, another incomplete project in L.A. again,' " he said.


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Murder conviction voided over Miranda rights violation

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court on Tuesday unanimously overturned a Norwalk man's first-degree murder convictions for killing his estranged wife and an off-duty Los Angeles sheriff's deputy, ruling that detectives failed to properly advise him of his legal rights before he confessed.

Reuben Kenneth Lujan was sentenced to life without parole for killing his estranged wife, Monica, 26, and her friend, Deputy Gilbert Madrigal, 45, by smashing their heads with a concrete block. Lujan had previously been arrested for stalking and threatening Monica, who had left him four months before the 1998 killings. Madrigal was her neighbor, and Lujan suspected that she was dating him.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding a lower court decision, agreed that detectives failed to administer a complete Miranda warning before questioning Lujan. Specifically, they did not tell Lujan that he had a right to an attorney before and during the interrogation and did not end the questioning once he asked for a lawyer, the court said.

Lujan also confessed to the killings during his trial, but that confession cannot be used against him because he only testified to explain his earlier admissions, the 9th Circuit said.

"The problem here is that the words used by law enforcement did not reasonably convey to [Lujan] that he had the right to speak with an attorney present at all times — before and during his custodial interrogations," wrote Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo, a Southern California district judge assigned to the panel. "Speaking with an attorney present was not an option" detectives gave Lujan.

A spokesman for Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, whose office unsuccessfully sought to maintain the convictions, declined to say whether an appeal was likely. If Tuesday's ruling stands, Lujan would either have to be retried or a Superior Court judge might be asked to modify the conviction and sentence to a lesser crime, such as second-degree murder.

Lujan was arrested on the morning of the fatal assault and questioned in three separate sessions by detectives at the Norwalk sheriff's station. During the first interview, a detective told Lujan that he had the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer appointed free of charge. During a third interview, in which Lujan confessed, he asked for a lawyer.

"You feel you need one?" a detective asked.

"Yes, I do," Lujan said.

"OK," the detective replied. "All right. If that's what you want to do, we'll do that."

"Can I get one in here today?" Lujan asked.

"I really doubt it," the detective said. "I mean, I'm going to be honest with you. It's Sunday evening. When you go to court in a couple of days there will be one appointed for you. That's the way the system is set up …

"If you want to call and hire an attorney, that's fine. If you want to make a statement without an attorney, that's up to you. I doubt that if you hire an attorney they'll let you make a statement; they usually don't. That's the way it goes. So, that's your prerogative; that's your choice. Now, if you do want to talk to me without an attorney, that's your choice. You can just tell the jailer, 'Hey, I'd like to talk to the detectives without an attorney present.' OK? That's your choice."

Unbeknownst to Lujan, an attorney was at the station trying to speak to him at the time, said Tracy J. Dressner, his appellate lawyer. She said there was no forensic evidence or eyewitness tying him to the killings. The weapon, a concrete block, was a lid to a water main near the crime scene.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge refused to suppress the confession. A state appeals court said the confession to the detectives should not have been admitted, but upheld the conviction on the grounds that Lujan confirmed his guilt when he testified at the trial. The 9th Circuit said that ruling conflicted with settled law.

Testimony induced by an erroneous admission of an out-of-court confession cannot be used in a subsequent prosecution or to support the initial conviction, wrote Bencivengo, an Obama appointee, who was joined by 9th Circuit Judges A. Wallace Tashima, a Jimmy Carter appointee, and Jay S. Bybee, a George W. Bush appointee.


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Los Angeles County halts plan to export some jail inmates to Taft

Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to halt a controversial plan to send county jail inmates to a facility in Kern County after a board member who had originally supported the contract changed her mind.

The supervisors voted last month to approve a $75-million, five-year plan to send about 500 county inmates serving lengthy sentences to the correctional facility run by the city of Taft. The plan was touted as a cost-effective way to free up local jail beds and increase time served by the most serious offenders.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, one of the three who initially voted in favor of the contract, said last week that she had changed her mind after learning that there is ongoing litigation between Taft and the state's Department of Corrections.

The Taft facility housed state prison inmates until the corrections department terminated its lease in 2011. Taft sued last year, saying the state should reimburse the city for unemployment benefits paid to former employees after the facility closed. The city also sought to bar the state from exercising a contract clause that would have given it the right to lease the facility for $1 a year after 2017.

Molina said in an interview that she did not want the county to get dragged into the dispute and was concerned that the state might have sought to stop the county from leasing the beds or try to take the facility over in 2017. She said she felt the supervisors had been "misled and misinformed" by sheriff's officials and county attorneys that the contract was ready to go.

"I really wish that Taft would have come to us clear," she said. "We need to find some permanent solutions" to jail overcrowding that has caused many inmates to be released early.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Mark McCorkle said the department had not learned of the potential legal issues until after the board voted to approve the deal and Taft had signed the contract. At that point, he said Taft officials notified the Sheriff's Department that, in addition to the ongoing lawsuit, there had been correspondence between the city and state about Taft's plans to lease the beds to Los Angeles County. Sheriff's officials then notified the county's attorneys, he said.

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, declined to comment on how the dispute between Taft and the state could affect L.A. County, but said the department — which is facing a federal court order to further reduce prison crowding — is again looking at leasing space in the Taft facility.

The state agency "is interested in the beds and is looking forward to the opportunity to discuss this with Taft officials," she said in an email.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who — along with Supervisor Don Knabe — voted against halting the county's deal with Taft, said lawyers had found that the county was on "strong legal grounds" to lease the beds at least through 2017.

In the meantime, Antonovich said, it would help relieve overcrowding in the county's jails and increase time served by serious and violent offenders.

Antonovich blames the state for local jail crowding because a law passed two years ago shifted responsibility for thousands of lower-level felons from state prisons to county jails.

Advocates of alternatives to incarceration applauded the decision not to send inmates to Taft because the distance would have made it harder for their families to visit.

Diana Zuniga, an organizer with Californians United for a Responsible Government and LA No More Jails, said she hoped the money that had been slated for the Taft jail beds could instead go to alternatives to incarceration, like a pilot program the county launched earlier this year to house female inmates with substance abuse issues in community facilities instead of jail.


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Proposal would list bistate sage grouse as threatened

Written By kolimtiga on Senin, 28 Oktober 2013 | 12.56

Sage grouse

Male sage grouse compete for attention of females. (Jerret Raffety, Rawlins (Wyo.) Daily Times / May 9, 2008)

By Julie Cart

October 27, 2013, 6:16 p.m.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced a proposal to list the bistate sage grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, affording special protections to about 5,000 birds along the California-Nevada border.

The bird is a genetically distinct subpopulation of the Mono Basin sage grouse, and officials were petitioned to list it for protection in 2005. In California, the birds are found in Inyo, Alpine and Mono counties.

Federal biologists estimate that about six groups of birds are occupying about half of their historical range. Four of the six populations are at risk for loss, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

Sage grouse are legally hunted in California and Nevada.

The greater sage grouse is a larger animal found in sagebrush communities in the upper Rockies. The bird, also called the "prairie chicken," depends on sagebrush and is in peril because of habitat loss. Much of the grouse's suitable habitat is found in energy-rich regions where sagebrush is dwindling.

In California and Nevada, the bistate sage grouse's habitat also is being disturbed by livestock grazing, roads and invasive species. The proposed listing announced Friday would designate more than 1.8 million acres as critical habitat to support the bird's recovery.

Sage grouse are charismatic Western birds known for elaborate courtship dances performed by male birds. Each spring, males gather in large groups of "leks" and dance and strut to impress females.


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Initiative reform needed in California

Willie Brown, the legendary Assembly speaker and former San Francisco mayor, says he has never voted for a ballot initiative.

"Not one," he asserts emphatically without hesitation.

"I've always, without question, been opposed to the initiative process. Period," he told an initiative reform conference in Sacramento last week.

Public policy should not be decided by the public in the voting booth, he said. It should be the province of elected officials in the state Capitol. "Democracy," he continued, "requires reasonable debate among people who have been designated as representatives" and are "usually well informed."

Devious initiative campaigns, he asserted, too often result in voter decisions that are "inconsistent with good and quality judgment."

He added: "I clearly understand that I am in a distinct minority. People in this state are out to lunch" in their love of the initiative system.

Brown, an assemblyman for 30 years, including a record 14-plus as speaker, always has been outspoken. And you can see why one initiative he particularly detests — imposing term limits in 1990 — was largely, in voters' minds, about booting him out of the Capitol.

"The voters screwed themselves royally when they did term limits," Brown said, citing the subsequent loss of policy expertise and legislating experience.

No argument about that here. Fortunately, voters in the last election approved an initiative that softened term limits for new lawmakers.

But another panelist at the conference was an ex-politician with even greater reason than Brown to be bitter about this state's 102-year-old system of direct democracy. Former Gov. Gray Davis was recalled by voters 10 years ago.

Davis, nevertheless, is a fan of California's initiative, referendum and recall — or at least graciously professes to be.

"If you don't like the people's ability to make laws, to change laws and to kick you out of office, then you should find another line of work," he said, prompting laughter.

A third panelist clearly has given a lot of thought to the initiative system and is critical. He's former California Chief Justice Ronald M. George.

California's bloated Constitution, George noted, has been amended more than 500 times since its adoption in 1879. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution — adopted roughly 90 years earlier — has been amended only 17 times since the Bill of Rights.

"So something is wrong" in California, George said.

Mark Baldassare, president and pollster of the Public Policy Institute of California, convened the conference because recent voter surveys, he reported, have found a "strong consensus" for changing the initiative system. But there's also "broad support," he added, for the notion of retaining direct democracy.

Voters in recent years have been on a reform kick, he observed. They've ended the Legislature's self-serving gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts, adopted an open primary system, reduced the legislative vote requirement for passing a budget from two-thirds to a simple majority, and eased the term limits.

Note: The open primary did not result from a citizen initiative. It was placed on the ballot by the Democratic Legislature in exchange for vital support from then-Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) for a tax increase. Most lawmakers opposed the open primary, but miscalculated that it would lose at the ballot box.

Gov. Jerry Brown, speaking to a liberal think tank in Washington last week, said that in California "the people themselves, through the initiative, actually broke a decade of dysfunction and laid the foundation for a government that works."

In that mood, voters may be ripe now for initiative reforms, Baldassare said.

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At Harvard-Westlake School, some wonder whether standards are too high

When he arrived at one of Los Angeles' preeminent private high schools seven years ago, baseball coach Matt LaCour knew how to win. He had a CIF championship under his belt.

But the self-described "public school kid" was now at Harvard-Westlake School, the destination for many children of L.A.'s business and entertainment elite.

In the past, the baseball team didn't win much and routinely let players skip half a double-header. LaCour sought to impose a new ethos: His players' non-class time should be centered on baseball.

That prompted a backlash from some parents, a minor rebellion on the team and suggestions that LaCour should back off. The coach said he eventually "changed a lot of my steadfast, hard rules. It was partly because I had to. And partly because I changed my perspective."

Last spring, Harvard-Westlake, the perennial also-ran from Studio City, won the Southern Section Division 1 championship. Baseball America magazine declared the team the best in the nation. And LaCour collected a pile of coach-of-the-year honors.

The struggle to balance academics and extracurricular activities exemplifies the challenges confronting a high school that is counted among the nation's most acclaimed.

The $32,000-a-year private academy boasts a national debate champion, more National Merit Scholarship semifinalists per capita than all but one school in California, 16 state sports championships for individuals and teams and as many Yale-enrollees over a four-year period as the 236-year-old Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

But at a school that appears to have every possible advantage, officials have recognized that going all out all the time can raise collateral issues.

Fourteen students dropped out two years ago citing depression — a cluster of departures that worried some faculty members. This fall, half the students surveyed by the high school newspaper, the Chronicle, cited the "stressful atmosphere" as a needed focus for change. One current instructor privately bemoaned the "many outcome-driven families" who view anything short of an Ivy League admission as failure.

Harvard-Westlake isn't alone in worrying about the burden on students.

"It's a plain fact that high school kids today are in an environment where the competition and stress is much more dramatic than a generation ago," said John Chubb, president of the National Assn. of Independent Schools.

Born in 1991 by the merger of a boys and a girls school, Harvard-Westlake is at watershed moment. Founding President Thomas C. Hudnut retired last spring to valedictories and fireworks and was replaced by Rick Commons, who came from the old-line Groton School of Massachusetts.

Commons' imperative is to maintain Harvard-Westlake's ambition while addressing concerns that the unremitting push for top honors can be suffocating. "The great challenge … in schools where excellence is a value is to simultaneously have balance as a value," said Commons, 47.

But he takes over a school where advantages are much more apparent than deficiencies.

Harvard-Westlake is home to a university-quality science center, a gift of Berkshire Hathaway magnate Charles Munger; an annual student film festival that draws judges such as television producer Norman Lear; and a staff so content that the school this year topped a ranking as "the best place to work in the Southland."

In the years since the merger, Harvard-Westlake has counted actors Jason Segel and Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, NBA players Jason and Jarron Collins and Spencer Rascoff, chief executive of the online real estate firm Zillow, among its graduates.

Regulating who gets in is central to the school's success. Most of those admitted have scored at the high end of the Independent School Entrance Exam. "We bring in a group that we already know is good at test taking," more than one administrator said.

Once on campus, students are engaged by teachers such as Antonio Nassar, who has a doctorate in physics and has been known to leap on a desktop to emphasize a point or play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to introduce a talk on Descartes and refracted light. Nontraditional courses such as Statistics and Sports and Ethics: Philosophical Traditions and Everyday Morality press students to think critically.

Nine deans track the progress of about 30 seniors each while also carrying about 70 underclassmen on their caseloads — a contrast to even the highest-ranked public schools, where counselors often juggle hundreds of students. More than a quarter of Harvard-Westlake's class of 2013 entered Stanford and Ivy League colleges.

"A lot of people here are driven. They want to work really hard," said Noa Yadidi, co-editor in chief of the Chronicle. "It only makes you want to work harder and reach higher."

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Healthcare workers gather for prayer, blessings at White Mass in L.A.

Whenever she has bad news for a family at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center emergency room, Gabriela Perez says a little prayer to herself before stepping through the door.

A devout Roman Catholic nicknamed "Mother Teresa" by her co-workers, Perez became a nurse practitioner 27 years ago to serve her community and those in need. It's more than a job, she said. Serving the needy is deeply intertwined with her faith.

Perez attended the White Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Sunday afternoon to pray for her patients and for others in the healthcare profession. An annual tradition since 2009, the event has outgrown several local churches that once hosted the mass. Sunday was the first time it was held at the cathedral.

"People think healthcare and God go together automatically, but work isn't always a God-filled place," said Kathleen Grelich, a physical therapist who attended the mass for the first time. "It's nice to merge that here."

Named for the white lab coats worn by many in the medical profession, the service is held around the Feast of St. Luke, the patron saint of healers. Archbishop José Gomez urged attendees to bring "God's love and care to every person and patient" they meet to heal the body and spirit. He called healthcare professionals "apostles of love."

He has a special appreciation for their work, he said, because his father practiced medicine.

"He always wanted me to be a doctor, but God had other plans," Gomez said.

Worshipers, some wearing white coats, stood with their hands cupped in front of them while the Archbishop performed the "blessing of the hands" to pray for their strength, skill, sensitivity and steadiness.

Healthcare workers need to be blessed, said Cecilia Torres, a registered nurse who works for the County Department of Public Health and attended the mass with Perez. Working with patients requires skill, knowledge and love, she said. The field is a challenge, but "God asks us to be servants," she said.

Torres said she prays before each of her home visits; many of her patients are preparing to enter hospice.

In the emergency room, Perez said, patients with gunshot wounds sometimes die in front of her. Comforting the families requires strength, said Perez, director of operations of emergency room services at County-USC.

The archdiocese distributed special pins for the professionals who attended, and several doctors and educators were honored for their work at the end of the service.

Dr. Eli Ayoub, who practices at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, was named the national Catholic doctor of the year by the Mission Doctors Assn. Also recognized by the archdiocese was Servants of Mary, Ministers to the Sick, which celebrated its 85th anniversary in Los Angeles, and Sister Kathleen An Du Ross, a cardiac clinical nurse and educator.

"I don't know whether I deserve it, but I will cherish it for the rest of my life," Ayoub said of the award.

The first local recipient of the mission organization's honor, Ayoub said he often works with patients who don't have insurance. He has brought a mobile clinic to his native Lebanon every year for three decades, and his five children now travel with him abroad to bring healthcare to people in need.

"There's nothing like working with a lady who is gasping for breath in the ER and seeing a smile on her face the next day," he said. "It's a pleasure to take care of those patients."


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Jerry Brown OKs freedom for woman imprisoned at 16 for killing pimp

Written By kolimtiga on Minggu, 27 Oktober 2013 | 12.56

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown has decided to allow freedom for a woman whose punishment for killing her pimp became a call to arms against the practice of locking up juveniles for life.

Sara Kruzan, 35, was incarcerated at 16 after she killed the man she contended had groomed her since age 11 to work for him as a child prostitute. She was sentenced to life without parole for her crime, and her case became a high-profile example used by lawmakers and advocates for juvenile offenders seeking to soften such harsh sentences.

"It is justice long overdue," said Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat who began championing Kruzan's case a decade ago.

Yee called Kruzan's case the "perfect example of adults who failed her, of society failing her. You had a predator who stalked her, raped her, forced her into prostitution, and there was no one around."

In a video on Yee's website, Kruzan said, "I definitely know I deserve punishment. You don't just take somebody's life and think that it's OK. How much [punishment], I don't know."

After years of debate among state lawmakers, Yee's legislation to allow new sentencing hearings for juveniles sent to prison for life without parole became law in January. In September, Brown signed a second bill requiring parole boards to give special consideration to juveniles tried as adults who have served at least 15 years of lengthy sentences. Advocates estimate there are more than 1,000 prisoners already eligible for parole hearings under that new law.

Even before passage of those bills, advocates convinced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2011 to change Kruzan's sentence to allow for parole. A Riverside judge in January further reduced her first-degree murder conviction to second degree, making her immediately eligible for release.

The state Board of Parole Hearings in June forwarded to Brown's office its recommendation that she be released. A spokesman for the governor's office said Brown has decided to allow the order to go into effect without his signature, almost two weeks before the deadline for his action.

Kruzan is housed at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.


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Chinese students a new funding source for U.S. high schools

Yosemite High School once offered six wood shop classes. Now there are three.

Things got worse when a new high school opened in a neighboring district and many students transferred. Campus enrollment is down from 1,100 five years ago to about 700 today.

School officials are now looking to a faraway place for salvation. As soon as next fall, Yosemite High could welcome 25 students from China who would pay $10,000 or more in tuition to enjoy an American public education amid mountain scenery. They would boost revenue and inject an international flavor into a school with few immigrant families.

Two tuition-paying Chinese students are at Yosemite High this year. Xiao "Travis" Ma of Inner Mongolia plays clarinet in the marching band, and Chengyu "Johnny" Zhang of Shanghai runs on the cross-country team. Though the local Chinese cuisine is not to their satisfaction, they appreciate the clean air and the elbow room.

"Having students who pay tuition helps keep some of our programs more full," said Stephanie Samuels, a guidance counselor and international coordinator at Yosemite High. "We don't have a lot of exposure to other cultures. Our students benefit not only from the academic challenge but from meeting people from other parts of the world."

In looking abroad to fill seats, Yosemite is following the lead of underpopulated high schools in Maine and upstate New York, among other places. The number of tuition-paying foreign students in American public high schools has jumped from a few hundred nationwide in 2007 to nearly 3,000 last year, according to federal statistics obtained by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel.

With newly prosperous families eager to educate their children in the West, China has become the latest frontier in public school financing.

Minarets High, the new school near Yosemite, will soon cash in too, with 20 Chinese students set to enroll in January for $10,000 each. The Chico Unified School District has 25 foreign students this year, mostly from China, each paying $14,500 in tuition. Chino Valley, Hacienda La Puente, Murrieta Valley and Walnut Valley are among the Southern California districts hosting 20 or so foreign students this school year.

"When the state budget crisis was building toward its peak, it was seen as a possible revenue-generating way of increasing our enrollment, with the added benefit of exposing our own students to different cultures as well," said Julie Gobin, Chino Valley's communications director.

The rapid, largely unregulated growth in high school students studying on F-1 visas has raised concerns about the role of private recruiting companies and the safety of teenagers in the country without their parents. The companies, which typically collect thousands of dollars in fees from each student, are knocking on school districts' doors, looking to form partnerships.

Federal law requires public schools to charge F-1 students the full cost of their educations but does not specify how that cost should be calculated. Schools usually take their per-pupil state allotment and add supplemental grants to come up with the tuition figure.

"Because there's so much money that can be made, and because there's a lack of regulation, you're just going to see a lot of people rushing into this field driven by profit rather than the desire to provide students and schools with a quality experience," said Jay Chen, president of the Hacienda La Puente Unified school board.

The vast majority of tuition-paying international students still study at private high schools — 62,000 last year, up from about 6,000 five years ago. Most are from China or South Korea and plan to stay in the United States for college, bypassing a brutally competitive educational system back home.

Because foreign students are limited to one year of study at U.S. public schools, some then transfer to private schools, where there is no time limit, and where they are often charged steeper tuition than their American classmates.

A bill in the House of Representatives would lift the one-year restriction for public schools. Gloria Negrete-McLeod (D-Montclair), whose district includes Chino Valley, is among the sponsors.

"In many of our communities, the enrollment is down, and the facility and the staff could accommodate more students," said Reggie Felton, assistant executive director for congressional relations at the National School Boards Assn., which supports the bill.

Some experts say more oversight is needed to manage the boom.

Traditional exchange students, who use J-1 visas and must be sponsored by a State Department-approved nonprofit, do not pay tuition and return to their home countries within a year. In the past, F-1 visas were used primarily for college and graduate study. Now, they appeal to Chinese high school students whose primary aim is not cultural exchange but admission to an Ivy League university.

The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel offers a voluntary certification process, which includes background checks for host families and middlemen. So far, few F-1 companies have signed up, said Christopher Page, CSIET's executive director.

In addition to recruiting students, the companies serve as a liaison between parents and schools and set up the students' living arrangements. In California, the companies must register with the state attorney general.

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State watchdog who probed secret political money takes U.S. post

SACRAMENTO — Ann Ravel will start her new job in Washington on Monday with the kind of celebrity status rare for a career government lawyer.

As California's top political watchdog, she launched a landmark investigation into secretive nonprofit groups that spent millions on state campaigns last year, and she announced $16 million in penalties against those groups this week.

Ravel's supporters, who view anonymous political donations as a growing scourge on the American election system, want her to be as aggressive in her new post as a member of the Federal Election Commission, where she was sworn in on Friday.

But transparency advocates hoping for a repeat performance in Washington may be disappointed. The commission Ravel is joining has been deadlocked for years, split evenly between Democrats who want stricter rules and California-style enforcement and Republicans who have opposed such efforts.

"She probably knows what she's getting into, but it's going to be a very, very different culture," said Larry Noble, president of Americans for Campaign Reform. "We're not even enforcing the laws that are on the books."

Campaigns around the country have been flooded with secret political money since the U.S. Supreme Court eased campaign finance laws in the Citizens United decision in 2010.

Nonprofit advocacy groups and trade associations, which are not bound by law to reveal who their donors are, spent more than $300 million in last year's election, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

Meanwhile, calls for stronger disclosure laws and better enforcement have gone nowhere in Washington. The partisan warfare there is so intense that President Obama has not even been able to place any new appointees on the Federal Election Commission until now, almost five years after taking office.

Ravel, a Democrat, is joining the commission alongside Republican election attorney Lee Goodman. He was selected by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), an avowed opponent of forcing more disclosure.

In an essay in the Washington Post in May, McConnell called such measures "a backdoor effort to discourage those who disagree with the Obama administration from participating in the political process."

With Washington as polarized as California used to be, it appears much more likely that stricter disclosure laws will come from Sacramento, where Democrats now dominate both houses of the Legislature.

The California campaign finance case that Ravel pursued involved $15 million that was shuttled through a series of nonprofits in Virginia, Arizona and Iowa. The money was then spent in California to oppose Gov. Jerry Brown's tax-hike plan and support a ballot measure to weaken unions' political fundraising.

Ravel said California law was broken when some of the transfers were not properly reported. Her Fair Political Practices Commission issued a combined $1-million fine on two Arizona nonprofits, Americans for Responsible Leadership and the Center to Protect Patient Rights.

California campaign committees that received the donations are also being ordered to pay the state a total of $15 million, the sum officials said was improperly reported.

However, officials were unable to force any of the nonprofits to publicly name their donors, a central goal of the investigation. Only the uncovering of a partly redacted list of contributors shed some light on the people who wrote the original checks, including San Francisco investor Charles Schwab, casino owner Sheldon Adelson and Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad.

Gov. Jerry Brown said Thursday that he would push stronger disclosure laws next year, and several bills are pending in the Legislature.

"Secrecy and money don't mix well in a democracy," Brown said in a statement. "We still have big loopholes to close."

One measure would expedite state audits of election groups. Another would require greater disclosure of individual contributors to nonprofits that spend money on California campaigns.

"California is drawing a line in the sand for the rest of the country," said Edwin Bender, executive director of the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics.

A bipartisan effort to strengthen disclosure laws in Montana stalled in the state Legislature this year, but advocates are hoping to place a measure on the ballot in 2014.

In addition, the state's top campaign finance watchdog, Jonathan Motl, said he'd like to emulate California's approach to tracking money.

"The success of one state," Motl said, "is something other states will look to."



Megerian reported from Sacramento and Halper from Washington. Times staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report.

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County presents options for Devil's Gate Dam sediment removal

Devi'ls Gate Dam

Runoff from the Devil's Gate reservoir in Pasadena in 2005. Officials say sediment and debris behind the dam have compromised its capacity to prevent flooding downstream in major storms. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / January 9, 2005)

By Abby Sewell

October 26, 2013, 8:22 p.m.

Los Angeles County flood control officials presented several options for removing built-up debris and mud from a basin above Devil's Gate Dam in northern Pasadena in a draft environmental impact report released Thursday.

The basin became choked by mud and debris after the 2009 Station fire and storms that followed. Flood control officials have warned for years that the buildup compromises the dam's ability to contain debris and floodwater in another major storm.

Officials say locations downstream from the dam along the Arroyo Seco that could be in danger of flooding include the Rose Bowl, 110 Freeway, neighborhoods in Pasadena and South Pasadena, and the northeastern Los Angeles communities of Highland Park, Hermon, Montecito Heights, Mount Washington and Cypress Park.

The county Board of Supervisors in 2011 ordered an environmental study before any significant work could begin. Neighbors had expressed concerns about the destruction of wildlife habitat that has grown in the basin, as well as disruptions to use of the area by hikers, horseback riders and joggers.

Kerjon Lee, spokesman for the county Department of Public Works, said officials in the meantime have taken smaller mitigation measures. They include removing sediment from the face of the dam to allow operation of valves and control of stormwater as it flows through.

The draft report on proposed long-term solutions looks at five alternatives that would remove 2.4 million to 4 million cubic yards of sediment. The report is available for public review through Jan. 6 online at LASedimentManagement.com/DevilsGate.


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L.A. moves to boost limits on gifts to lawmakers

Written By kolimtiga on Sabtu, 26 Oktober 2013 | 12.56

Two months ago, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission called for new and stringent limits on gifts to the city's politicians, saying such niceties can undermine the public's confidence in government when they come from people doing business at City Hall.

The five-member panel sent the City Council its recommendation, part of a much larger package of rule changes, after 15 months of deliberations. But when lawmakers took up the proposal this week, they went the other direction — by seeking an increase, not a decrease, in the size of allowable gifts.

The council instructed the city's lawyers to draft an ordinance boosting the limit to $150 for each gift provided by bidders, contractors and others with a financial stake in a city decision, up from the current maximum of $100. Council President Herb Wesson, who played a pivotal role in changing the proposal, called his approach more realistic.

"Times have changed and I think the $150 [limit] is appropriate," Wesson said. "There's nothing magical about it. It's just in this day and age I can't imagine any of our members would sell their souls for $150."

Wesson said the council will have another chance to review the gift rules when City Atty. Mike Feuer presents a final ordinance in coming weeks. Still, the proposal drew complaints from George Rheault, a frequent critic of the city's handling of ethics rules. Rheault said "nothing good" can come from allowing special interests to give more expensive presents at City Hall.

"The nicer the gift someone gives, the worse it is for the public," he said.

Gifts were a major political issue for former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other elected officials in recent years. Two agencies issued $42,000 in fines to Villaraigosa after he repeatedly attended a series of concerts, athletic events, and other cultural activities without paying.

The city's laws already bar gifts to lawmakers and other high-level officials from registered lobbyists and their firms. In August, the Ethics Commission decided to go further, endorsing an outright ban on gifts from those with a financial stake in city business. That move, said Ethics Commission President Paul Turner, was designed to "promote confidence in city decisions."

"If city officials cannot accept gifts from lobbyists, then they should not be able to accept gifts from other people who are attempting to influence the city," he said in an emailed statement to The Times.

The proposal sent to the council also offered an exception for "office courtesies," such as the distribution of free coffee or bottled water at meetings between elected officials and special interests.

When the proposal reached the council on Wednesday, Councilman Paul Koretz quickly voiced concern that he would be hit with a $5,000 ethics fine if he failed to report that he had received a free coffee from a friend at Philippe's, the iconic Chinatown restaurant. Although he voted to seek the higher limit, Koretz said he is not necessarily committed to a $150 maximum.

"That wasn't my suggestion," Koretz said, adding: "I just said, 'Make it more than zero.'"

In 2012, Koretz reported to the Ethics Commission that he received two $44 tickets to attend a holiday dinner thrown by a group that represents landlords. He also received $100 worth of free tickets to a Los Angeles Kings victory celebration from Anschutz Entertainment Group, a company that recently won a contract to run the city's convention center.

With nine new elected officials taking office in July, many of the city's politicians have not yet had the opportunity to report any gifts at the local level.

In 2012, Councilman Joe Buscaino reported receiving $100 in tickets from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The year before that, Councilman Jose Huizar reported receiving tickets worth $100 to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The council voted this week on an issue of great interest to that company — a ban on the use of bullhooks to train elephants — but Huizar was absent from that meeting.

Councilman Mike Bonin, who voted for the higher limits, said he did not know the reasoning behind the $150 limit. He said the gift rules are not an issue for him since he does not accept gifts.

Councilman Bob Blumenfield offered the same message, saying the changes are not a major focus since he does not accept gifts "of real value." "If it's $100, $150, or even zero dollars, it doesn't really change my world," he said.


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Beloved pot-bellied pig in Sierra Madre avoids eviction

"Hogwash!" was the cry when Neil, Sierra Madre's beloved pot-bellied pig, was cited for being overweight.

Specifically, an animal control officer labeled him a hog, which is illegal to possess in the town northeast of Pasadena.

The officer had actually been sent to the Montecito Avenue neighborhood to investigate reports of a noisy rooster, which is also illegal in Sierra Madre.

But when she looked over the picket fence into the yard next door, past the mailbox painted with a fanciful pig's head, she noticed Neil rooting around in the dirt.

Deciding she couldn't very well cite the rooster without citing the hog, she wrote warnings for both, advising their owners that city law required them to get rid of the animals.

That's when social media took over. Neil quickly found himself with his own Facebook page and Twitter account and became the subject of discussion on local blogs.

"Neil is being evicted from Sierra Madre for being overweight," one person commented. "What if that were the case for homosapiens? Half the town would have to be evicted."

Another pot-bellied pig fan described Neil as "the real treasure of Sierra Madre" and noted that he had been named Mr. November in a local realty company's calendar and was considered a "local landmark."

Others suggested that the ouster of Neil would be a public relations disaster for Sierra Madre and that maybe the city should reverse course and name him grand marshal of the town's next Fourth of July parade.

"Everybody in Sierra Madre knows about Neil the pig. He has his own yard and his own house. It's adorable. They bring kids on field trips to visit Neil," said Lisa Bowman, a radio show host who helped organize a save-Neil-the-pig rally.

Neil's owner, Katherine Emerson, said she inherited him when her mother, Diane Emerson, died from cancer six years ago. "She referred to him as her son. I promised I would continue to watch him for her."

Emerson, a lecturer in the School of Social Work at Cal State L.A., acknowledged complaining to the city about the neighbor's rooster. The crowing, she said, interrupted her sleep for more than two months, she said.

Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs normally live 12 to 14 years. But Neil will be 18 before long. "In May he's going to have to sign up for the draft," she joked.

Emerson doesn't know how much Neil weighs, but noted that hogs are generally over 120 pounds and are raised to be slaughtered, not domesticated as a pet.

As it turned out, Neil got a pardon from the city before the protest rally could even take place. Instead, the 30 or so people who gathered at the city's Memorial Park turned it into a celebration.

Police Chief Larry Giannone said officials spent hours studying the municipal code and the distinctions between pigs and hogs before Neil's eviction papers were rescinded.

"He's a pig. Our code specifically refers to hogs," the chief said. "He gets to stay the iconic symbol of Sierra Madre."

And Neil is just that, the police chief admitted.

"Kids feed and pet him on the way to school. The rooster was cut and dried: It's not allowed. Its owner voluntarily gave it up to the humane society."

So community outrage helped save Neil's bacon. In Sierra Madre, that's something to crow about.


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Bell's Rizzo and aide made even more than suspected, witness testifies

Through a secret arrangement to double his generous vacation and sick day allotments, former Bell administrator Robert Rizzo was actually making at least $1.18 million, much more than has previously been reported, a trial witness said Friday.

Rizzo and his top aide, Angela Spaccia, drew up a document awarding themselves 33 hours of vacation time every two weeks and each actually drew two paychecks, one for the salaries and the second for the vacation and sick time payouts, Lourdes Garcia, the city's former finance officer, testified.

She said the arrangement essentially gave each of them a 50% pay boost.

Before they were forced from their jobs in the money scandal that enveloped the small, working-class town, Rizzo and Spaccia were among the top paid municipal officials in California. Rizzo is now facing a probable 10- to 12-year prison term after pleading no contest to dozens of corruption-related charges early this month, and Spaccia is standing trial on 13 felony counts.

In testimony Friday, Garcia said Rizzo called her into his office in 2007 and said he was considering a special formula to increase vacation and sick day accrual for himself and Spaccia.

Garcia said that when she brought him a draft, Rizzo told her he didn't want their titles or names on the document. She revised it so that Rizzo was identified only as 1.1 and Spaccia as 1.3.

The City Council later approved the arrangement as part of a larger resolution about benefits for nonunion employees.

Less than six months later, Garcia testified, Rizzo brought the council another resolution, this time bumping paid time off even higher, giving each of them nearly a week of vacation for every two weeks worked.

Later that year, Garcia testified, Rizzo and Spaccia began collecting two paychecks. No other city employees were allowed to cash out their sick and vacation time as they were accumulating it, she said. With the vacation and sick time payouts, Spaccia was earning $564,000 annually.

Garcia, who was being compensated more than $400,000 a year, testified under a grant of immunity from the district attorney. She previously testified in the trial of six former Bell council members also charged in the corruption case. All but one were convicted on some charges.

According to their contracts, Rizzo's final base salary was $787,637 a year and Spaccia's $376,288, numbers that stunned government experts when The Times published them. But with the regular vacation payouts, they actually earned far more, Garcia said.

Garcia said she assumed the city attorney had reviewed the council resolution that contained the vacation increases and that Rizzo told staff members that he would discuss changes with council members.

"Did you assume the City Council was voting on things they never read?" Garcia was asked by Spaccia's attorney, Harland Braun.

"Probably," she said.

When the full force of the recession hit in 2008 and it appeared that Rizzo and his top assistants might be forced to take a pay cut to keep the city out of the red, Garcia said, Rizzo told them that he would find a way to improve city finances.

Several weeks later, on Christmas Eve, he laid off 40 part-time employees, she said.

Rizzo's attorney has said that he expects his client and Spaccia to face federal charges of conspiracy to commit tax fraud.

Garcia also testified that after the scandal broke in July 2010 and Rizzo was put on leave, he called her from home and told her to put $500,000 into the city's special retirement plan that had been established for him and Spaccia. The plan, which had never been funded, was set up in addition to their existing retirement plans with the state pension system.

She said she consulted the city attorney, who told her not to take any more orders from Rizzo.

Spaccia, who is charged with misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and hiding and falsifying government records, has been portrayed by her attorney as a victim of an administrator who ran the city like a dictator.

Rizzo, through his attorney, said Spaccia was the mastermind of the wrongdoing in Bell, and he said he would be willing to testify against her.


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Jury deadlocks in trial involving fatal stabbing of Job Corps advisor

No one disputed that Freddy Leyva stabbed his Job Corps advisor to death.

The question was why.

Prosecutors said the March 2012 slaying of Dwayne Alexander, a respected former entertainment industry executive described as a gentle soul, was first-degree murder — the act of a racist, homophobic deviant capable of slashing a man almost 30 times.

But Leyva's attorney, Tomas Requejo, contended that his client was a troubled young man who had suffered sexual abuse by Alexander, 49. The crime, Requejo said, was voluntary manslaughter, not murder.

After deliberating for almost four days, the jury couldn't decide which side was right.

On Friday, jurors returned to the downtown Los Angeles courtroom where they had heard about two weeks of testimony and declared they couldn't reach a unanimous verdict. Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell thanked them for their service and declared a mistrial.

In the end, 10 jurors believed the crime was murder, while two were swayed by the defense's argument that Leyva had instead committed manslaughter.

One juror, who did not want to be identified, described the deliberation process as "really intense."

"I'm still kind of shaky," she said.

She said that a particular sticking point seemed to be the disconnect "between what [Leyva] believed happened and what actually happened," in regard to his allegation of sexual abuse.

Members of Leyva's family who were in court Friday declined to speak with a reporter, though his mother, smiling, said she was "happy."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Britton said that "based on the evidence, my office believes it's a first-degree murder case." He said his office will seek to retry Leyva.

Britton contended that the abuse allegations were a last-ditch attempt by the defense to obscure a clear-cut case. In closing arguments Monday, he said Leyva had told his roommate that he disliked African Americans and people who were gay, which he believed Alexander was.

On the afternoon of March 14 last year, Leyva took a drywall knife into Alexander's office at the Hollywood Job Corps dorm where Leyva lived and slashed the 6-foot-3 program advisor 29 times, prosecutors said.

When police arrived on scene, they found three fellow students holding Leyva down, as Alexander bled on the office floor, according to reports from the time. Alexander had been sitting at his desk when he was attacked, Britton said.

As Leyva went through the booking process, Britton said the defendant told an officer that the blood on his hands made him aroused.

"I'm a man now," the officer testified hearing Leyva say.

Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Requejo said he was surprised by the trial's outcome.

"This is a case that should've been resolved from the very get-go," he said. But investigators and the district attorney's office "wanted to have shutters over their eyes about the abuse of Freddy."

During his closing arguments, Requejo said his client had been doing well in Job Corps — a U.S. Department of Labor program that gives low-income youths career training — and had hoped to become an electrician.

"Issues didn't arise," Requejo said, until Leyva moved into the Hollywood dorm. Over the course of the months before Alexander's death, he said, the advisor had made unwanted sexual advances on Leyva with increasing aggressiveness.

In stabbing Alexander, Requejo said, Leyva had acted in "imperfect self-defense," meaning he honestly, but unreasonably believed that he was in danger of great injury or death, and needed to defend himself.

"It was him or me," Leyva told a detective investigating the stabbing, according to Requejo. When the detective asked if Leyva truly believed Alexander intended to hurt him, Requejo said, Leyva responded: "He's been hurting me."

Requejo criticized the detective for never following up on that claim.

Leyva and his brother testified that they had been abused as children, which Requejo said made Leyva's fear that Alexander would rape him reasonable, even if that logic was confined to Leyva's own thinking.

"Was he really fearful?" Requejo said. "If you take into consideration his history, it makes sense."

Britton had dismissed the defense's position, calling it "as ridiculous as it is offensive."

Alexander's mother, Everlean Wilson of Tulsa, Okla., agreed, saying it was clear to her that the defense didn't "have a leg to stand on." Nonetheless, she said, Leyva's testimony about her son was "real difficult" to sit through.


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Sheriff Baca accused of retaliating against department officials

Written By kolimtiga on Jumat, 25 Oktober 2013 | 12.56

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials who have backed a rival of Sheriff Lee Baca in next year's election claim they are being retaliated against with reassignments to distant locales or less desirable duties, according to interviews and documents.

One, Capt. Louis Duran, has filed a complaint against Baca with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a precursor to a possible lawsuit. Of the nine captains who have publicly backed former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in his bid to replace Baca, four were transferred to other jobs earlier this month, according to documents obtained by the Times.

Attorney Brad Gage, who represents Duran and other members of the department claiming to be victims of retaliation, said he expected to sue the Sheriff's Department next month.

"There are a number of individuals who have been well-known Tanaka supporters over the years. The ones that are most loyal to Tanaka have been the subject of improper internal affairs complaints, sometimes criminal allegations without merit, transfers from favorable assignments to those assignments known to be dead ends … and 'freeway therapy,' which is being transferred a long distance from home," he said.

A representative of Baca said any transfers were driven by the department's needs and the employees' performance.

"There is absolutely no retaliation. This is politics at its lowest form, and the facts will bear that out," said spokesman Steve Whitmore. "The Sheriff's Department must be managed, and Sheriff Baca is going to do that regardless of an election or no election. He's going to do what's right. People are moved all the time in the Sheriff's Department and regrettably, people have been moved because they haven't been doing their jobs."

Baca has previously been accused of retaliating against political adversaries. In 2010, the Sheriff's Department agreed to pay almost $1 million to Patrick Gomez, who claimed that he was passed up for promotions and targeted for an internal inquiry after he ran against Baca in 2002. The settlement was reached shortly after a federal jury found the department liable for retaliation in a lawsuit brought by Gomez, who is a retired lieutenant who is also running against Baca next year.

Tanaka said the recent transfers show why the county needs a new sheriff and said Baca should be "ashamed of himself."

"It is completely outrageous that decorated senior commanders would be reprimanded for using his or her First Amendment right to support a political candidate," he said.

The early tussling points to what is likely to be a bitter contest in the runup to voting next June. Baca has been sheriff for 15 years and is seeking a fifth four-year term. But in recent years he has been buffeted by a series of scandals. The FBI is investigating allegations of abuse and other deputy misconduct in his jails. In a separate investigation, federal authorities found that Baca's deputies in the Antelope Valley harassed and intimidated blacks and Latinos.

In addition to the federal investigations, Baca has had to explain questionable hires, giving allegedly special treatment to friends and supporters and the existence of aggressive, unsanctioned cliques of deputies in the agency's ranks.

Tanaka, a one-time Baca ally and mayor of Gardena, also has been controversial. Amid the scandal involving alleged inmate abuse, Tanaka was accused of fostering a climate in which aggression was prized, loyalty was placed above merit, and discipline was discouraged. Tanaka has said he was scapegoated by sheriff's officials upset by his efforts to hold lazy supervisors more accountable.

Also campaigning for sheriff are Bob Olmsted, a retired sheriff's commander who played a role in exposing abuses inside the agency's jails; Lou Vince, an LAPD detective; and Gomez.

Duran said in a phone interview that he was a long-time supporter of Baca's who decided to back Tanaka because of his work righting the budgets of both Gardena, where Duran grew up, and the Sheriff's Department.

The 33-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department said his career has suffered since summer, when he publicly backed Tanaka. He said he first was removed from his post of five years, as a captain of the Aero Bureau, and assigned to the vehicle theft program, which he said resulted in a "considerable" loss of salary. Earlier this month, he said he was transferred again, to the office of the assistant sheriff, where he has no assignment, no staff, no office, no desk and no chair.

"There is no job for me there. There's nothing. Lately I've been so disheartened, I've been burning time, I just haven't been going in," he said. "It's basically purgatory."

Duran was in the public eye in 2012 after The Times reported allegations that officials in the aviation unit were abusing aircraft privileges, purposely delaying emergency calls to make the case for more overtime pay and possibly manipulating time sheets. A county audit found that managers improperly used department aircraft but found no evidence to support other accusations. Duran publicly alleged misconduct by an Aero Bureau supervisor during a Board of Supervisors meeting, prompting an investigation to determine if Duran improperly disclosed officer disciplinary records.

Whitmore said he could not comment on the results of the investigation because it is a personnel matter.


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L.A. controller unveils website to make city finances more transparent

Los Angeles' new controller moved Wednesday to open city finances to quick and easy public scrutiny online, unveiling a website with extensive detail on how City Hall collects and spends billions of dollars.

The website, Control Panel L.A., gives users access to a huge volume of data on taxpayer expenditures for police, sanitation, street repairs and other services — information that previously would have taken weeks or months to get through formal requests for records.

With user-friendly icons and drop-down menus, the site enables visitors to download, sort and analyze data on city employee salaries and more than 100,000 payments to contractors. The project's launch is an initial step in the city's struggle to catch up with New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities that have embraced the movement to make government more transparent.

"Knowledge is power, and this initiative is providing both to the people of Los Angeles," said Controller Ron Galperin, the project's architect.

The system has significant gaps, including a lack of names attached to salaries. It shows a clerk typist with an annual salary of less than $53,000 receiving more than $300,000 in pay last year; the website gives no name or explanation.

The site also gives no details on more than $100 million in liability claims paid by the city as it struggled to recover from a fiscal crisis that yielded deep service cuts. Also absent from the site are spending breakdowns on construction projects of independent agencies that run the city's water and power systems, the Port of Los Angeles, and airports.

At a news conference, Galperin said he would fix those shortcomings and others. The project was hurried along and made public to minimize resistance from city officials, he said.

"We have an historic opportunity to make our government faster, more efficient, transparent to the public, in truly unprecedented ways," Galperin said.

Initial reaction was positive. "This is great, and the way things ought to work," said Clay Johnson, a leading advocate for data transparency in government. "Raw data is available, it's accessible to the public, and open and ready in many different formats for programmers and ordinary people alike."

The website's unveiling drew considerable media coverage for Galperin, a newcomer to city politics who took office in July. It also eclipsed, at least temporarily, Mayor Eric Garcetti's high-profile effort to bring more transparency to City Hall.

Two weeks ago, Garcetti unveiled an early "beta" version of his own open-government website featuring a relatively limited set of charts and graphs measuring city performance. A significant expansion is coming, he promised.

Garcetti, who attended Galperin's news conference, said the availability of more detailed spending data would give Los Angeles residents more influence over the city budget.

"This year will be a new step not just in Los Angeles city government, but we hope it will be the example for the country in what open, transparent government looks like and what data can do to improve people's lives," he said.

The consumer organization California Public Interest Research Group Education Fund released a report in January that ranked the nation's 30 largest cities on transparency in city spending. With a score of C-, Los Angeles finished 17th.

"With the launch of Control Panel L.A., Los Angeles' city spending will be much more transparent," said Garo Manjikian, the group's legislative advocate in Sacramento.

Galperin urged computer programmers to use the website's raw data to develop smartphone apps that would be useful to city residents.

Nationwide, nonprofits and foundations are pushing to expand a network of programmers who put civic data to good use.

Ari Hoffnung, who heads New York City's open-data budget website, said he believes that publishing raw spending data online will lead to less government waste.

"It's human psychology," he said. "We know that when people know they are being watched, their decisions will become better over time."



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Death of man in LAPD custody probed

A man who complained he was struggling to breathe died in Los Angeles police custody last month after officers ignored his repeated pleas for help, according to multiple law enforcement sources who reviewed a videotape of the incident.

Two officers taking 26-year-old Jorge Azucena to an LAPD station were dismissive of his "numerous, numerous statements about trouble breathing and [needing] help," said one source. At one point, an officer responded to Azucena with a quip along the lines of, "If you can talk, you can breathe," the source recalled.

The Times confirmed the contents of the recording with multiple sources, all of whom requested anonymity because the incident is under investigation. The recording came from a video camera installed in the patrol car.

Azucena had been detained late at night on Sept. 6 after a car and foot pursuit in South L.A. The officers drove him to the Southwest Division station, where he was placed in a cell. Sometime later, according to an LAPD news release, authorities noticed that Azucena was in distress. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead shortly after 3:30 a.m. the next day, coroner records show.

Los Angeles County coroner officials said an autopsy did not reveal the cause of death. As is the customary procedure, officials are now awaiting the results of toxicology tests.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck declined to discuss the specifics of Azucena's death, including the names of the officers involved, citing an internal investigation now underway. Cmdr. Andrew Smith, a spokesman for Beck, said the chief has removed two officers and three supervisors from the field pending the findings of the inquiry.

The investigation comes less than a year after another patrol car camera captured LAPD officers disregarding signs that a female suspect was having difficulty breathing. The 35-year-old woman, Alesia Thomas, died last year shortly after LAPD officers forced her into the back of a patrol car.

Video from that incident led prosecutors to file a felony assault charge against Officer Mary O'Callaghan. She was allegedly caught on tape shouting profanities at Thomas and using her foot to shove or kick the woman in the groin during the struggle to put her in the car. O'Callaghan has pleaded not guilty.

In Azucena's case, several people who had seen the video or been briefed on the incident expressed dismay that the officers in the car would act as they did knowing that a camera was recording them — a strong indication that the officers didn't believe they were behaving inappropriately, they said.

"If our officers are not trained to make an assessment when someone needs medical attention, then they have the obligation, not only professionally, but morally, to err on the side of caution and make that call for help," said one person who reviewed the video.

Several days after Azucena died, the LAPD posted on its website a brief account of the incident. The statement made no mention of Azucena's requests for help or the existence of a video.

According to the LAPD's version of events, officers assigned to an anti-gang unit in the Southwest Division attempted to pull over the driver of a late model SUV, who they suspected was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A pursuit ensued and several more police vehicles joined the chase. Near Jim Gilliam Park in Baldwin Hills, Azucena and two other men jumped out of the SUV and fled on foot, the LAPD said. It is not known if Azucena was driving.

A police helicopter tracked Azucena and a second man until officers on the ground could apprehend them. Azucena, police say, was "taken into custody without incident" and brought to the Southwest Division station.

In interviews with The Times, family members said Azucena was out with friends on the night of Sept. 6 and never returned home. When Azucena failed to show up, his mother and girlfriend, with whom he had a young child, said they searched for days at area hospitals and filed a missing-person report with the LAPD. When they asked at the Southwest Division station and two other stations in the area, they said they were told there was no record of Azucena having been taken into custody. More than three days after Azucena's apprehension, the women went back to the Southwest station and were finally told by detectives of the young man's death, they said.

Whenever someone is taken into custody and brought to a station, LAPD rules require that the station's supervisor asks the person a series of questions before being placed in a detention cell. One of the questions that must be asked and documented on a form is whether the person is ill or has any medical conditions needing attention.

Citing the ongoing investigation, Beck refused to say whether Azucena was asked those questions and, if so, what his responses were. He also declined to say how long Azucena was in the holding cell before paramedics were called. Through Smith, Beck confirmed that video cameras inside the Southwest station were operating normally the night Azucena was brought in, but Beck declined to comment on what the cameras recorded.

LAPD rules also require officers to call for paramedics when somebody in their custody requests medical treatment.

A few weeks after Azucena died, Beck recorded a video message that all officers were required to view. In it, he referred to "a couple recent incidents where officers did not request an [ambulance] when they should have." Beck recited for officers the department's "straightforward" policy on summoning medical help.

"I don't expect you to be medical experts," he said, "but I do expect you to use your good judgment."


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University of Chicago physicist to lead Caltech

Thomas F. Rosenbaum, an expert in condensed matter physics and second in command at the University of Chicago, will become the new president of Caltech, officials announced Thursday.

Rosenbaum, 58, currently is provost at the University of Chicago, where he also holds the position of John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of Physics. On July 1, he will succeed Jean-Lou Chameau, who left Caltech earlier this year to head King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

Before becoming Chicago's provost in 2007, Rosenbaum studied the behavior of closely packed atoms in solids and liquids at the university's Rosenbaum Lab. By experimenting on materials in extreme cold — temperatures that approached absolute zero — Rosenbaum and his colleagues were better able to examine the quantum behavior of substances.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, described Rosenbaum's appointment as "a superb choice" for Caltech.

"This is someone who has the intellectual and academic administrative experience to be a first-class new president," Hartle said.

Jacqueline K. Barton, chairwoman of Caltech's chemistry and chemical engineering department, said she believes Rosenbaum's experience at the University of Chicago prepared him well for the Caltech presidency.

"Caltech is a very special place and we need someone who can recognize that, preserve that and continue to help us excel," said Barton, who received a 2010 National Medal of Science from President Obama.

Like others, Barton said the risk of decreased federal funding for research is the greatest threat and that Caltech leaders may have to pursue private funding more vigorously than in the past.

"The model may be changing," she said. "We have to think about the best ways to continue to preserve this jewel of a place. And so we need smart, creative people to focus on that. I think [Rosenbaum] offers that opportunity."

Hartle agreed, saying that research funding will be one of Rosenbaum's biggest challenges.

"The federal budget uncertainty creates massive problems for all major research universities and Caltech is not alone in this regard," Hartle said. Because Caltech's undergraduate program is relatively small, the importance of high-level research looms larger there than at other high-profile institutions, he said.

Caltech Provost Edward Stolper, a geologist, has been interim president since Chameau left at the end of the last school year and will continue in that role through the end of the school year until Rosenbaum takes over, a campus spokesperson said.

As Chicago's senior academic administrator, Rosenbaum helped establish the Institute for Molecular Engineering, an effort that also involved the Argonne National Laboratory. Caltech officials said his scientific and administrative experience would help him "in furthering" the relationship between Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

While the federal government owns JPL's facilities, its 5,000 workers are Caltech employees, who work under government contract.

"The combination of deep management experience and visionary leadership Tom brings will serve Caltech extremely well in the coming years," said David Lee, chairman of the Caltech Board of Trustees. "The board is excited about collaborating closely with Tom to propel the institute to new levels of scientific leadership."

In addition to having five Nobel laureates on its faculty, Caltech was recently ranked as the top research university in the world by the Times Higher Education magazine of Britain.

Harvard University was tied for second with Britain's University of Oxford, followed by Stanford, MIT, Princeton, the University of Cambridge, UC Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Imperial College London, Yale and UCLA.

Rosenbaum's spouse, Katherine Faber, will also join the Caltech faculty. She is currently the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University.

Rosenbaum received his bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard University in 1977 and a master's and a doctorate in physics from Princeton University in 1979 and 1982, respectively.

His honors include an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, a Presidential Young Investigator Award and the William McMillan Award for "outstanding contributions to condensed matter physics."

Caltech enrolls 978 undergraduate students and 1,253 graduate students; it has about 300 faculty members and more than 600 research scholars.



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Angela Spaccia's trial launches final look at Bell scandal

Written By kolimtiga on Kamis, 24 Oktober 2013 | 12.56

The final chapter in the long-running Bell corruption scandal opened Wednesday with former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia taking center stage in a downtown L.A. courtroom where jurors must weigh whether she helped orchestrate the widespread graft or was simply a victim of her boss, Robert Rizzo.

The trial is expected to lay bare details of how Bell leaders gave themselves exorbitant salaries while looting the working-class city in what became a national symbol of government greed.

Spaccia and Rizzo, Bell's former city manager, have each accused the other of masterminding the corruption scheme after Rizzo avoided a trial this month by abruptly pleading no contest to dozens of felony charges. The plea left Spaccia alone to face the most serious charges in the sweeping corruption case, which already has resulted in guilty verdicts against five former council members.

During opening statements in the trial Wednesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman told the seven-woman, five-man jury that Spaccia played a key role in the scandal. Before she was hired in 2002, Rizzo was earning about $200,000 a year, he said.

"Right after that, Ms. Spaccia arrived and changed everything in Bell," Huntsman said.

The salaries of both administrators soared to unheard-of levels as Spaccia and Rizzo wrote their own contracts that included generous annual raises and were hidden from the public, the prosecutor said. The pair had a "special formula" that boosted their pay, including 26 weeks of vacation and sick leave that could be cashed in, Huntsman said. By 2010, Rizzo was earning $1.18 million a year and Spaccia $564,000.

The pair "never, ever took a day of sick time," Huntsman said. "They got paid for every single day."

But Spaccia's attorney, Harland Braun, described the case against his client as politically motivated. He noted that the charges were filed in 2010 by then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who trumpeted the prosecution during his unsuccessful campaign that year for attorney general before he retired last year.

"Despite all the smears and politics, Angela, like a lot of other people, was a victim of Robert Rizzo," Braun said.

Spaccia, 55, faces 13 felony counts, including conspiracy, misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and hiding and falsifying government records. Dressed in black slacks, a dark gray coat and dangling earrings, she showed little emotion in the downtown courtroom during the day's opening statements.

Behind her in the audience sat former Bell council members George Mirabal and Teresa Jacobo, both of whom were among the former city officials convicted of misappropriating public funds during a separate trial earlier this year.

Jurors in that case deadlocked on several charges that prosecutors say they intend to retry.

But it is Spaccia's trial that city residents expect will reveal additional details about how top administrators enriched themselves and who was ultimately responsible.

"I hope that this hearing will help bring full disclosure of the extent of the corruption," said Councilman Ali Saleh, who joined the council in a recall election after The Times reported how much Rizzo, Spaccia and other city officials were making.

Rizzo's exorbitant salary and lavish lifestyle made him the public face of the Bell scandal. He ran Bell for 17 years and owned a ranch near Seattle as well as racehorses, including a gelding named Depenserdel'argent — French for "spend money."

He faced 69 felony charges — far more than any other Bell official. A judge said she would sentence him to 10 to 12 years in state prison, though he is likely to serve half that.

Rizzo's attorney has accused Spaccia of being the "mastermind" of the scheme to fleece the city. Rizzo has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and could be called as a witness at her trial.

Despite Rizzo's central role, Huntsman noted for jurors that it was Spaccia who wrote a notorious email that symbolized the greed while she was negotiating a contract with incoming Police Chief Randy Adams.

In an email to Spaccia, Adams wrote: "I am looking forward to seeing you and taking all of Bell's money?! Okay ... just a share of it!!"

She responded: "LOL ... well you can take your share of the pie ... just like us!!! We will all get fat together ... [Robert Rizzo] has an expression he likes to use on occasion. Pigs get Fat ... Hogs get slaughtered!!!! So as long as we're not Hogs ... All is well!"

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