Monthly Archives: December 2008

Comment: No Right to Secret Campaign Gifts

FREE SPEECH — A post on the Lincoln News Messenger blog attacks the argument that disclosing financial contributions to state ballot measures like Proposition 8 improperly invades the donors' privacy and speech rights. The argument is as pernicious as it is disingenuous.    It holds that mandatory campaign finance disclosure laws limit freedom of speech and of political action and that anonymous donations have traditionally protected groups, like the NAACP (they from government harassment, not from public accountability, which the columnists neatly ignore), and that public pressure to disclose donors who choose to not remain anonymous will accomplish what regulations already provide (yeah, right).    This is not just another wingnut attempt to protect wealthy corporate milch-cows. It's a full-tilt attempt to undermine California's campaign finance disclosure laws.

Nail Salons Frequently Cited for Health Hazards

PUBLIC RECORDS REVEAL . . . that while San Diego County is home to about 3,640 salons—five times the number of local gas stations.—from exclusive spas to discount shops, many are putting customers at risk, according to a San Diego Union-Tribune analysis. Between July 2003 and June 2008, inspectors cited more than half the local salons for at least one health violation and fined them a total of $1.35 million. The most common problems were failing to throw away dirty items and not storing disinfected tools in clean, covered and labeled containers.    There is nothing that says how often salons must be inspected, and many go without scrutiny for years.    The state's Board of Barbering and Cosmetology currently employs 22 inspectors, who are responsible for scrutinizing 44,921 establishments statewide. That's about one inspector for every 2,000 establishments.

Lab-Tainted DNA May Incriminate Innocents

PUBLIC RECORDS REVEAL . . . That DNA testing in criminal labs is not foolproof and may incriminiate the innocent, reports the Los Angeles Times. Through the California Public Records Act, the (Los Angeles) Times obtained documents from five state-run and three county forensic labs reporting scores of laboratory errors or "unexpected" results over a five-year period ending in 2007. Labs must track these outcomes and keep them on file under state and federal rules.    (An expert) who reviewed the records for The Times, said that "on a regular basis, laboratory personnel make mistakes that could lead to false identifications" of suspects.    The records show, for instance, that between 2003 and 2007, the Santa Clara County district attorney's crime laboratory caught 14 instances in which evidence samples were contaminated with staff members' DNA, three in which samples were contaminated by an unknown person and six in which DNA from one case contaminated samples from another.

Column Access a Reportable Campaign Gift?

FREE PRESS — You're a local newspaper columnist who runs for city council and wins.  Was your free access to the press during the campaign a reportable campaign contribution? According to a report in the Vacaville Reporter, somebody thinks so. Although the election is over for the Dixon City Council, some allegedly questionable campaign practices have risen to the surface in a recent complaint to the state Fair Political Practices Commission.Former Councilman Mike Smith filed the complaint Dec. 17 against newly elected-Councilman Michael Ceremello, former Councilman Steve Alexander and former mayoral candidate Dave Scholl.    The Reporter has not received official documentation of the complaint, but Smith explained that the complaint has a lot do with writing and campaign ads that ran in the Independent Voice, a local newspaper owned by Scholl.    Ceremello is also a regular contributor to the articles and columns published in the newspaper.    "It makes it very hard to run a fair campaign when a paper, that is distributed to everyone, is biased," Smith said.

A.G. Appeals Sought on Cable Access Sunset

FREE PRESS — Jayne Lyn Stahl writes in Huffington Post that, with respect to a plan by Time Warner Cable to shut fourteen public access cable TV studios in Los Angeles two days from now, The response from those who abhor monopolies, and the ability of media conglomerates to strongarm the community must be swift, and decisive. Whether you live in Santa Monica, New York City, Boston, or Des Moines, Iowa, should Time Warner prevail on December 31st, what happens in Los Angeles will affect you.    Those who share this concern for protecting the integrity of the First Amendment, independent programming, and preventing a media shark from swallowing all the little fish, must act quickly by contacting California Attorney General Brown at: agpressoffice@doj.ca.gov, and urging him to seek injunctive relief under the California Business and Professions Code 17200, Section 3, Unfair Business Practices. See previous post.  Leslie Dutton, whose Full Disclosure program would be ended with the shutdown, comments: It is important to note that the DIVCA legislation enacted in 2007 provides for the Cable Franichise Fees to continue to flow to the Cities. In Los Angeles that is estimated at $25 million. With DIVCA now shifting the responsibilities for providing the public access studio/channel system to the Cities, there is an additional 2% or $5 million to be made available for such a purpose. The City of Los Angeles has approved an option that does not provide for even a single designated channel for public access. With the loss of 14 public access studios and channels this December 31st, the City's intent becomes clear, the fees paid by the cable subscribers in their monthly bills will go to the general fund and not for […]

OPEN MEETINGS — Two remarkable things about this story in Plumas County News: the protracted discussion by the county board of supervisors, entirely in open session, of how much the contract county counsel was being paid as a retainer, and the services that retainer did not cover and thus were being billed separately; and the fact that part of the story could have appeared as a music review. As if on cue, just as tension was rising in the boardroom, Johnny McDonald’s High Sierra Youth Orchestra broke into a stirring rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Double Violin Concerto” downstairs in the courthouse foyer. The orchestra performs an annual concert in the courthouse during the holiday season.    Cota was beginning to explain a matter involving the Moonlight Fire that Meacher felt didn’t fit into the “complex litigation” category. He said the firm had to work through the weekend on short notice to prepare for the Monday court appearance.    “Then I beg you tell me what is covered under the retainer,” Meacher exclaimed as the music began to seep up the courthouse stairs and waft softly into the boardroom.

'Organic' Fertilizer Fakery Kept under Wraps

PUBLIC RECORDS REVEAL . . that, according to the Sacramento Bee, the California Department of Food and Agriculture took three years to act after first being tipped that the best selling "organic" fertilizer was actually spiked with ammonium sulfate. State officials knew some of California's largest organic farms had been using the fertilizer, the documents show, but they kept their findings confidential until nearly a year and a half after it was removed from the market. No farms lost their organic certification.    The nonprofit California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies about 80 percent of the state's organic acreage, decided not to penalize farms that had used the product on the grounds that farmers did not know they were using an unapproved chemical.

Official Secrecy Now Has an Anthology of Views

OPEN GOVERNMENT — Steven Aftergood's Secrecy News blog reports that a new anthology published this week and co-edited by Dr. Susan L. Maret of San Jose State University aims to present “the best that has been thought and written” on the subject of the principles and practices of government secrecy policy as it has developed over the years. “Government Secrecy: Classic and Contemporary Readings” presents an impressive cross-section of views, from many competing and complementary perspectives.  They include the theoretical (Georg Simmel), the sociological (Max Weber, Edward Shils), the adversarial (Howard Morland), and a lot more (from William Colby, Morton Halperin, Harold Relyea, Howard Zinn, James X. Dempsey, Thomas Blanton, William Weaver, Joseph Stiglitz, Lee Strickland, Herbert Foerstel, myself and others). It is the distillation of an entire library’s worth of material that should be of interest to students of government and political science, as well as concerned citizens who find themselves confronting official secrecy. Those interested may wish to order this typically overpriced ($65) scholarly paperback by interlibrary loan.

Obama Team Gives Answers, Gets Criticism

OPEN GOVERNMENT — Sam Stein, writing in the Huffington Post, reports that the Obama transition rolled out a new version of one of its transparency tools today: an updated website that allows interested observers to more easily read and submit questions to the staff. A few weeks ago, the President-elect's new media team put together an "Open For Questions" feature that provided a platform for citizens to query the team on relevant topics. The move was hailed by good-government groups as a nod towards inclusiveness and accountability. There were some complaints, however, as questions surrounding Obama's involvement (or lack thereof) in the Rod Blagojevich controversy were flagged by users and pushed to the bottom of popularity rankings. (Link added) But Lynn Sweet, another Huffington contributor, faults the transition for not living up to an earlier pledge. The Obama team, pledging the ''most open and transparent transition in history,'' gets and ''A'' for disclosing donors to the Jan. 20 inauguration and a ''F'' when it comes to revealing transition meetings with groups. Contrary to its own ''seat at the table transparency policy,'' meetings are not posted on a Web site.

Army Gagged WW II GIs Enslaved by Nazis

FREE SPEECH – CNN reports that the U.S. Army says it will honor the "heroism and sacrifice" of 350 U.S. soldiers who were held as slaves by Nazi Germany during World War II because they were, or were thought to be, Jews—and upon liberation were sworn to secrecy about the experience. The decision by the Army effectively reverses decades of silence about what the soldiers endured in the final months of the war in 1945 at Berga an der Elster, a subcamp of Buchenwald where soldiers were beaten, starved, killed and forced to work in tunnels to hide German equipment.    More than 100 U.S. soldiers died in the camp or on a forced death march. Before they were sent back to the United States, survivors signed a secrecy document with the U.S. government to never speak about their captivity.    "The interests of American prisoners of war in the event of future wars, moreover, demand that the secrets of this war be vigorously safeguarded," the document says. The Army's decision came after CNN originally broke the soldiers' story last month and two Congressmen—one of them Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino)—wrote U.S. Army Secretary Peter Geren and asked him to recognize the 350 soldiers. The original story states: The U.S. Army Center of Military History provided CNN a copy of the document signed by soldiers at the camp before they were sent back home. "You must be particularly on your guard with persons representing the press," it says. "You must give no account of your experience in books, newspapers, periodicals, or in broadcasts or in lectures." The document ends with: "I understand that disclosure to anyone else will make me liable to disciplinary action."  The information was kept […]