Days before Easter, Newsom announces dozens of pardons and commutations

SACRAMENTO —  Days before Easter, California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday moved to commute sentences for 18 people, issue pardons for 37 others and submit a pardon application for an award-winning San Quentin podcaster, Earlonne Woods.

(Courtesy of Ear Hustle)

The application is the first step in a lengthier process toward a pardon that requires final approval from the state Supreme Court, which is needed in cases involving those with more than one felony conviction.

Woods was sentenced to 31 years to life for his role in a 1997 armed robbery under the state’s tough-on-crime “three strikes” law, following two prior convictions when he was a teenager. Woods launched the “Ear Hustle” podcast from San Quentin State Prison in 2017. Morgan Freeman’s Revelations Entertainment is reportedly partnering with “Ear Hustle” for an upcoming docuseries, according to Deadline.

State law does not allow Newsom to pardon or commute the sentences of someone with more than one felony conviction without the high court’s approval. Instead, Newsom submitted Woods’ application to the Board of Parole Hearings, which would first have to recommend the pardon to the court.

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Former Gov. Jerry Brown commuted Woods’ sentence in 2018, making him eligible for parole. Brown noted that correctional staff and volunteers had praised Woods’ behavior and leadership among the other inmates. After his release, Woods interviewed Brown for the podcast at the governor’s mansion in Sacramento.

“I believe Earlonne will continue to educate, enlighten and enrich the lives of his peers at San Quentin and the many, many people who listen faithfully to ‘Ear Hustle,’” Brown wrote in 2018.

Newsom also commuted the sentence of Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, a former San Quentin inmate and “Ear Hustle” co-host, in January 2022. The parole board granted his parole in August and Thomas was released the following February.

His departure from San Quentin followed an investigation by The Times into dozens of people who remained in prison despite receiving mercy from the governor.

Newsom also granted a posthumous pardon to William Burwell, who helped organize protests as a student at San Fernando Valley State College, now Cal State Northridge, during the Civil Rights Movement. Burwell was arrested in 1969 and convicted of misdemeanor trespass and failure to disperse during a racial justice protest on campus in 1969, according to the governor’s office.

The students eventually negotiated for the creation of what would later become the Department of Africana Studies, which Burwell co-founded and later chaired. Burwell died in August 2022.

“Dr. Burwell’s decades of work and contributions advancing equity and justice benefited innumerable students, faculty, the CSUN community, and many others in California and beyond,” Newsom wrote in his pardon. “His visionary leadership will continue to serve as a legacy for future generations.”

Anyone convicted of a crime in California can apply for a pardon or commutation from the governor.

A pardon restores some rights to former felons, such as the ability to serve on a jury or to seek a professional license. In limited cases, pardons can restore gun rights to those convicted of crimes that did not involve a dangerous weapon or relieve a sex offender from being required to register.

Click here to read the full article in LA Times

Walters: Californians pay high gas prices and high gas taxes yet still drive on bad highways

To state the obvious, California motorists are experiencing one of the state’s periodic spikes in gasoline prices.

California’s average price for regular grade gas has again topped $5 a gallon, according to the most recent American Automobile Association report. It’s more than $6 in some areas. The average is up about 20 cents from a year ago and is about $1.50 higher than the national figure.

I can attest to the differential, having spent part of March driving some 3,000 miles through four western states, mostly to visit national parks, and buying about 200 gallons of fuel along the way. All of my fill-ups were under $3.50 a gallon, with the lowest price being $2.99 in Wyoming.

The difference between California prices and those in other states raises, for the umpteenth time, is the question of why it exists.

A couple of years ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom spent months vilifying oil companies as price-gouging enemies of the people and demanded that the Legislature punish them with taxes on excess profits. He couldn’t win approval the tax proposal, switched to seeking civil penalties, and ultimately had to settle for relatively toothless legislation directing the state Energy Commission to gather data, establish a reasonable profit level and assess penalties for exceeding it.

“Finally, we’re in a position to look our constituents in the eye and say we now have a better understanding of why you’re being taken advantage of,” Newsom said a year ago as he signed the bill. “There’s a new sheriff in town in California, where we brought Big Oil to their knees. And I’m proud of this state.”

We have heard virtually nothing from officialdom about gas prices since, and Newsom apparently didn’t bring Big Oil to its knees.

The vast majority of the differential in gas prices between California and other states can be attributed to differing policies.

Severin Borenstein, a UC Berkeley economist regarded as the state’s leading expert on the issue, parsed the differential in a 2023 paper, pointing out that California’s direct and indirect taxes on fuel amount to nearly $1 per gallon – 70 cents higher than the national average in such taxes – and the state’s unique fuel blend to battle smog adds another dime.

That left what he calls the “mystery gasoline surcharge,” or MGS, of about 43 cents a gallon that cannot be directly attributed to oil prices or California’s taxes and other official factors. It may be a mystery, but at least some of it can be logically attributed to the relatively high costs of doing any kind of business in California – rents, electricity and other utilities, wages and regulatory overhead, for example.

Even if the MGS could be eliminated from the equation, California’s gas prices would still be at least $1 higher than those in other states.

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

L.A. homeless deaths largely tied to fentanyl and other drugs

Nearly 900 unhoused people died in 2023, according to a preliminary report.

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Data released Thursday by City Controller Kenneth Mejia show at least 898 homeless people died last year on streets, in shelters, on freeways and elsewhere.

Mejia’s report, which analyzed Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner preliminary data, did not break down the number of deaths linked to drugs because toxicology reports may be pending in some cases.

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A Times analysis of the data found that about 65%, or 545, of last year’s deaths reported so far were linked to drugs, including fentanyl and methamphetamine — an indication of the deadly toll of the drug crisis on the streets of L.A. The number could increase as more toxicology reports come in.

Los Angeles is home to about 46,260 unhoused people — an 80% increase since 2015, according to figures released last year by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

In recent years, the city has spent billions of dollars to address homelessness and build more housing. The fentanyl and meth crisis has prompted city officials to fund treatment beds for homeless people suffering from addiction — a service that has typically been paid for by county government, not City Hall.

According to Mejia’s report, 75% of the homeless deaths reported so far last year were accidental — a category that includes drug-related deaths.

About 18% were due to natural causes, 4% were homicides and 2% suicides, the report said. In 1% of the deaths, the cause was undetermined.

At least 73% of the deaths occurred in streets or places such as tents, RVs and parking lots.

According to the report, 31% of the homeless people who died in 2023 were Black. Black people are 8% of the city’s population but 33% of the unhoused population.

The report found that the parts of the city with the highest numbers of homeless deaths were Council District 14, which includes Skid Row and Council District 1, which includes MacArthur Park near downtown.

Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez, who represents District 1, said the majority of homeless deaths in her district last year were due to opioids. She said she wants to bring more services to MacArthur Park, where many of those deaths occurred.

“We cannot look away from this crisis — the consequences of simply shuffling people from one neighborhood to the next and prioritizing criminalization over the delivery of services are at best ineffective, and at worst, deadly,” said Hernandez.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

An advocacy group for California cities supported Prop. 1. Now some members are leaving

Three Orange County cities voted this month to withdraw from the California League of Cities, with some leaders saying the advocacy organization isn’t representing their interests and has handed too much power over to the state.

The California League of Cities is a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Sacramento that communicates with cities about laws being discussed in the state legislature, conducts training for city officials and gives local governments an opportunity to influence statewide policies. Out of 482 cities in California, the league counts more than 470 as members.

But elected officials in Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Orange have opted to withdraw their cities’ membership over various issues, including the organization’s support of Proposition 1.

California voters this month narrowly passed the $6.4-billion bond measure that aims to reform California’s mental health system. The bond will support 10,000 treatment and housing beds and overhaul a 20-year-old tax for mental health services to also fund treatment for drug addiction.

A majority of Orange County voters — roughly 58% — cast a ballot against it with many voicing concerns that it could mean more sober living homes in neighborhoods, an issue that cities have attempted to regulate for decades.

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“I want to send a message that they shouldn’t have been on board with Prop. 1 in the first place,” Huntington Beach Councilman Tony Strickland said during a council meeting this month. “Their job is to represent us at the local government, not to represent Gavin Newsom.”

Orange County for years has been somewhat of a thorn in the side of Gov. Gavin Newsom and other progressive politicians in Sacramento. In the last few years, O.C. cities, including Huntington Beachpushed back on housing mandates handed down by the state. At the height of COVID-19, some cities fought Newsom’s decision to temporarily close beaches, and opposed other regulations adopted elsewhere in the state.

Cities outside of Orange County have also stepped away from Cal Cities in recent years, including Torrance and Redondo Beach.

League of California Cities Executive Director and chief executive Carolyn Coleman said in a statement that she respects the city’s decisions to leave and the organization will continue to advocate for the interests of all cities regardless of membership.

“While not everyone will agree on every position Cal Cities takes, Cal Cities’ advocacy positions are the result of a member-driven process that reflect a fundamental belief that cities in California are stronger when we stand united and advocate for the common interests of all cities,” she said.

Coleman added that the organization has taken seriously concerns they’ve heard about the impacts of an over-concentration of sober living homes and licensed recovery facilities in Orange County and elsewhere in California. Cal Cities has sponsored legislation that would create more oversight and regulation of the facilities.

On Tuesday, the city of Orange became the third municipality in the county this month to leave Cal Cities. Councilmember Kathy Tavoularis blamed the city’s financial outlook as one reason for recouping membership costs and a lack of power over policy decisions.

Membership fees are based on population, with a city the size of Orange paying slightly more than $34,000 a year.

“I don’t think we’ve had any influence,” she said. “We certainly didn’t with Prop. 1.”

“I want to send a message that they shouldn’t have been on board with Prop. 1 in the first place,” Huntington Beach Councilman Tony Strickland said during a council meeting this month. “Their job is to represent us at the local government, not to represent Gavin Newsom.”

Orange County for years has been somewhat of a thorn in the side of Gov. Gavin Newsom and other progressive politicians in Sacramento. In the last few years, O.C. cities, including Huntington Beachpushed back on housing mandates handed down by the state. At the height of COVID-19, some cities fought Newsom’s decision to temporarily close beaches, and opposed other regulations adopted elsewhere in the state.

Cities outside of Orange County have also stepped away from Cal Cities in recent years, including Torrance and Redondo Beach.

League of California Cities Executive Director and chief executive Carolyn Coleman said in a statement that she respects the city’s decisions to leave and the organization will continue to advocate for the interests of all cities regardless of membership.

“While not everyone will agree on every position Cal Cities takes, Cal Cities’ advocacy positions are the result of a member-driven process that reflect a fundamental belief that cities in California are stronger when we stand united and advocate for the common interests of all cities,” she said.

Coleman added that the organization has taken seriously concerns they’ve heard about the impacts of an over-concentration of sober living homes and licensed recovery facilities in Orange County and elsewhere in California. Cal Cities has sponsored legislation that would create more oversight and regulation of the facilities.

On Tuesday, the city of Orange became the third municipality in the county this month to leave Cal Cities. Councilmember Kathy Tavoularis blamed the city’s financial outlook as one reason for recouping membership costs and a lack of power over policy decisions.

Membership fees are based on population, with a city the size of Orange paying slightly more than $34,000 a year.

“I don’t think we’ve had any influence,” she said. “We certainly didn’t with Prop. 1.”

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Gov. Gavin Newsom: How to Destroy California in Less than 10 Years

The one thing Newsom is good at is destroying the Golden State

Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

If I was a “progressive” governor and wanted to destabilize and destroy my state, there are certain policies I would impose, and orders I’d make, while insulating myself from my own policies:

Create a housing shortage.

Cut water off to rural areas in the state; remove dams and hydroelectric plants.

Limit water deliveries to farmers and ranchers.

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Raise the minimum wage so high, restaurant owners are forced to lay off employees.

Pass policies killing manufacturing.

Pass policies bolstering a service economy.

Limit energy production to renewable energy only.

Limit gas and oil production creating a shortage, forcing people out of their cars and on to public transportation.

Order all internal combustion cars banned by 2035.

Mandate an all-electric state, including autos and trucks.

Install thousands of floating offshore wind turbines at a cost of $150 billion.

Legalize drugs.

Legalize sex with minors.

Legalize abortion up to baby’s birth.

Destroy the public education system by watering down actual disciplines of math and English, while sending your own children to private schools.

Promote affirmative action, racial preferences over merit.

Create fake crises – climate change, reparations.

Infringe on the people’s right to keep and bear arms by passing laws which nibble around the edges of the 2nd Amendment, creating defacto gun control.

Stop prosecuting crime.

Decriminalize certain crimes, resulting in emptying out state prisons.

Raise corporate taxes to discourage businesses from expanding.

Raise taxes and fees on public services and energy.

Raise income taxes on all income brackets.

Make it easier for local governments to raise taxes.

Impose a wealth tax.

Impose a death tax.

Force doctors to comply with state medical directives; punish those who refuse to comply.

Allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants into the state.

Provide free health care and welfare payments to illegal immigrants.

Allow illegal immigrants to vote in local elections.

Expand the size of government by hiring hundreds of thousands of state workers.

Create more labor unions jobs by expanding state government.

Encourage public schools to convince kids they are another gender; provide secret counseling to those kids; shelter kids from parents.

Limit media access in Capitol; reward compliant media.

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

Murrieta school board could rescind — or rework — transgender notification policy

Rule, opposed by LGBTQ advocates, requires parents to be told if a child identifies as transgender

Murrieta’s school board could revise — if not scuttle — a policy requiring parents to be told if their child identifies as transgender seven months after passing it.

File photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG

An item on the Thursday, March 28, Murrieta Valley Unified School District board agenda would rescind the policy, one of at least several passed by California school boards that have divided parents, spurred lawsuits and brought the culture wars to public education.

In an emailed statement, the district said Superintendent Ward Andrus placed the item on the agenda “for consideration recognizing the well-publicized actions and challenges related to this specific board policy in districts throughout California.”

As Andrus’ explanation in the agenda states, “‘the district regularly reviews and updates its policies to comply with current law or district circumstances.’ As such he has brought the item forward,” the district’s statement added.

But in a telephone interview, Murrieta school board President Paul Diffley said the item is meant to give the board time to revise the policy’s language to make it clearer and able to withstand a legal challenge. Diffley said he’ll propose tabling the item Thursday and taking it up again at the next board meeting.

“I think we need to go back and revisit it for one meeting,” he said. “I want to make sure we do the best that we can do.”

Between now and then, Diffley, who along with board member Nick Pardue proposed the policy, said board members will address the opening part of the policy, which outlines reasons why the district wants to notify parents about their child’s gender identity.

Diffley added that the district shares lawyers with Chino Valley Unified School District, which enacted a similar policy, and the changes the Murrieta board is considering come at the advice of attorneys, which warned that “going ahead (with the policy) in such an environment” could cost the district $500,000 in legal expenses.

“I can’t justify doing that at this point because that’s pencil and paper and crayon money,” he said.

Former Murrieta school board member Kris Thomasian, co-chair of One Temecula Valley PAC’s Murrieta Schools Team, supports rescinding the policy.

“We are hopeful that the MVUSD board will kill the destructive forced outing policy, a politically motivated sideshow, which is proving to be harmful to school districts up and down the state,” Thomasian said in a statement from the PAC, which opposes what it describes as political extremism in local government.

She added: “In the face of statewide budget cuts, (the school district) can’t afford to suffer heavy fines or financial penalties for a few irresponsible school board members to solve a problem that doesn’t exist for culture war and partisan political clout.”

The Murrieta school board voted 3-2 in August to approve the policy, which requires staff to notify parents or guardians within three days of learning that a student is “requesting to be identified or treated” as a gender other than the “biological sex or gender” listed on their birth certificate or other official records.

Students requesting to use names, pronouns, bathrooms or changing facilities that don’t align with their birth gender would trigger the policy, as would a student taking part in a sports team or sex-segregated program that doesn’t correspond to their birth gender.

The board’s August vote came after more than 60 public speakers supported or assailed the policy. Supporters, including Christian conservatives, said schools have no right to withhold information from parents about their children.

Critics, including LGBTQ advocates, countered that the policy infringes on student privacy and could endanger children whose parents aren’t accepting of their gender identity.

Murrieta schools’ policy mirrors one passed in July by Chino Valley’s board. Schools boards in TemeculaOrange and other California public school districts have passed virtually identical policies.

Click here to read the full article in the Press Enterprise

Former L.A. Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan found guilty in sprawling City Hall corruption case

A jury delivered a swift and decisive judgment in a federal corruption case targeting former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan, finding Wednesday that Chan secured bribes for himself and for former Councilmember Jose Huizar as part of a sprawling pay-to-play scheme.

Within a few hours, the jury found Chan guilty on 12 of 12 counts — racketeering conspiracy, bribery, honest services fraud and giving false statements to investigators — in a case focused on financial benefits provided by real estate developers with projects in Huizar’s district.

U.S. Atty. Martin Estrada said Chan, 67, used his leadership role at City Hall to “favor corrupt individuals and companies willing to play dirty” to win approval of downtown high-rises. Residents of Los Angeles, Estrada said, deserved “much better.”

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“With today’s verdict, we send a strong message that the public will not stand for corruption and that pay-to-play politics has no place in our community,” he said in a statement.

Chan worked for the city for more than three decades, much of it at the Department of Building and Safety, where he ascended to the top job. In 2016, he was hired by then-Mayor Eric Garcetti to serve as deputy mayor over economic development, supervising the Planning Department, Building and Safety, and other city agencies. He held that job for slightly more than a year.

Sentencing is scheduled for June 10.

Chan’s attorney, John Hanusz, said his client will be filing an appeal. Throughout the trial, he argued that Chan was not part of the criminal enterprise led by Huizar, who was recently sentenced to 13 years in prison on racketeering and tax evasion charges.

Huizar admitted last year that he received a wide array of bribes and other benefits from downtown developers, including gambling chips at casinos, flights on private jets, campaign contributions, luxury hotel stays, concert tickets and services from prostitutes.

“This case was, and always has been, about Jose Huizar,” Hanusz said.

During the two-week trial, prosecutors portrayed Chan as a crucial intermediary between Huizar, who wielded huge power over downtown development projects, and Chinese real estate developers.

In one particular scheme, prosecutors said, Chan helped Huizar secretly settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former aide. Billionaire Wei Huang, owner of the Chinese development company Shen Zhen New World I, provided Huizar with $600,000 in collateral that allowed Huizar to secure a bank loan and pay off the aide, they said.

Shen Zhen, owner of the L.A. Grand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, later proposed a 77-story skyscraper that drew support from Huizar. The settlement money arrived at a crucial moment for the Eastside council member, who was running for reelection and facing a potentially formidable challenge from veteran former L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

That settlement payment, FBI Special Agent Andrew Civetti testified earlier this week, “was at the heart of this investigation.”

At that time, Huizar feared the sexual harassment case would end his career, prosecution witnesses said. The source of the settlement money, kept secret during Huizar’s 2015 victorious reelection campaign, did not become public until five years later, after the first set of charges were filed in the Huizar investigation.

Wednesday’s guilty verdict also encompassed Chan’s dealings with another Chinese developer who sought to redevelop the Luxe Hotel, across from the L.A. Live entertainment complex. Prosecutors said Chan, while working for the city, helped set up a company that took the developer, Shenzhen Hazens, on as a client.

While working as deputy mayor, prosecutors said, Chan worked to line up support for the Luxe project. Former Planning Commission President David Ambroz testified last week that Chan pressured him to support the Luxe project during a one-on-one meeting away from City Hall — and sounded more like a “hired gun” for the project than a deputy mayor.

After leaving city employment, Chan received payment from the developer for his work moving the project through the city approval process, prosecutors said.

“He set himself up for a big payday … once he left the city,” said Asst. U.S. Atty. Cassie Palmer during closing arguments Tuesday.

The jury also found Chan guilty of helping secure a bribe from Shenzhen Hazens — a commitment of a $100,000 campaign contribution to support a bid for City Council by Huizar’s wife, Richelle Huizar. She later dropped out of the race.

Prosecutors said the push to elect Huizar’s wife was designed to help participants in the criminal enterprise, including Chan and Huizar, retain their power over downtown development.

Lawyers for Chan repeatedly sought to undermine the government’s case, saying that key prosecution witnesses had lied to FBI agents during the investigation and should not be deemed credible. Those witnesses later pleaded guilty and are hoping for leniency at their sentencings, the defense team said.

Yet another prosecution witness, businessman Andy Wang, has never been arrested or charged, even though he provided cash in envelopes to former Councilmember Mitchell Englander inside casino bathrooms, the defense team said.

Englander was sentenced in 2021 to 14 months in prison for lying to federal authorities about his dealings with Wang, who provided him $15,000 in secret payments, as well as an expensive night in Las Vegas.

Chan, while working closely with developers, was motivated not by greed but by a desire to make L.A. more business-friendly, Hanusz said. While Huizar and his associates accepted flights to Las Vegas, gambling chips, lavish hotel accommodations and escort services, Chan received none of those things, he said.

“There was no quid pro quo in this case with Ray Chan,” Hanusz told the jury. “With Jose Huizar, there absolutely was.”

Chan is the last defendant charged in the City Hall pay-to-play investigation — dubbed “Casino Loyale” by the federal government due to Huizar’s frequent Las Vegas trips — to go on trial.

George Esparza, Huizar’s onetime aide, pleaded guilty in 2020 to racketeering conspiracy but has not yet been sentenced. He testified against Chan, as did real estate consultant George Chiang, who worked with Chan and also pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy.

Shen Zhen New World I, the company that proposed the 77-story tower, was convicted in 2022 of providing Huizar a vast array of bribes. A judge later fined the company $4 million. Its owner, Wei Huang, fled the country and is now a fugitive, according to the Department of Justice.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Judge says ex-Trump attorney, Chapman Law dean John Eastman should be disbarred in California

Column: The lawyer who advised the former president in his fight to overturn the 2020 election cannot practice during his appeal

When he spread wild untruths about the 2020 election and tried to stretch the law like Silly Putty to keep Donald Trump in power, John Eastman betrayed the fundamental oaths he swore to uphold as a licensed attorney — and thus must lose that license, a State Bar judge ruled Wednesday, March 27.

“Despite the depth, breadth, and complexity of the case law and historical context cited by the parties, this disciplinary proceeding boils down to an analysis of whether or not Eastman, in his role as the attorney for then-President Donald Trump … and his re-election campaign, acted dishonestly,” State Bar Judge Yvette Roland said.

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He did, she said. “It is recommended that John Charles Eastman, State Bar Number 193726, be disbarred from the practice of law in California and that his name be stricken from the roll of attorneys.”

Eastman, the former dean of Chapman University’s law school who also was hit with $10,000 in sanctions and ordered to cover the Bar prosecution’s costs, called the decision “a travesty of justice.” He vowed to appeal and has characterized those seeking to discipline him as evil.

“Dr. Eastman maintains that his handling of the legal issues he was asked to assess after the November 2020 election was based on reliable legal precedent, prior presidential elections, research of constitutional text, and extensive scholarly material,” his attorney, Randall Miller, said in a statement.

“The process undertaken by Dr. Eastman in 2020 is the same process taken by lawyers every day and everywhere – indeed, that is the essence of what lawyers do. They are ethically bound to be zealous advocates for their clients – a duty Dr. Eastman holds inviolate. To the extent today’s decision curtails that principle, we are confident the Review Court will swiftly provide a remedy.”

The decision could be crippling to his livelihood – and potent fodder for fundraising. Eastman cannot practice law in California during the appeal, which strangles an income stream as he fights criminal charges in Georgia over 2020 election interference and potential disbarment in Washington D.C. It will cost more than $3 million to defend himself, he has said in fundraising pitches, but he has only raised shy of $640,000 in donations on the Christian fundraising site GiveSendGo.

“I feel a little like Julius Caesar,” Eastman said in a recent lecture to the Salt and Light Council, which promotes “Biblical citizenship.” “The folks we’re dealing with are evil. They don’t consider destroying our country as collateral damage for their overall mission. They consider that icing on the cake for their overall mission. I mean, we have to understand that we are dealing with pure evil, and … you got to arm yourselves in truth and light, salt and light.”

Overthrowing democracy?

In what has become known as the “coup memos,” Eastman argued that the Electoral Count Act was unconstitutional and the vice president had the authority to reject states’ official electoral votes and even declare Donald Trump, who lost the election, its winner. Trump seized on these ideas and did not let go.

On stage Jan. 6, Eastman alleged that dead people voted, that blank ballots were hidden in a “secret folder” inside voting machines and that the election had been stolen. As rioters stormed the Capitol, Vice President Mike Pence’s rattled attorney told Eastman that “the advice provided has, whether intended to or not, functioned as a serpent in the ear of the President of the United States, the most powerful office in the entire world…. Thanks to your (expletive), we are now under siege.”

Eastman was charged with 11 counts by the California State Bar prosecutor’s office, one of which was dismissed, the most colorful of which are “dishonesty and moral turpitude.” He’s accused of prodding state electors to send fake electoral votes for Trump to the Capitol, of filing false information with courts, of spreading incendiary lies that fed the rage that consumed the Capitol.

Eastman has wrapped himself in the First Amendment, saying his utterings are a matter of protected free speech.

Eastman’s defenders argue he was simply doing his job, zealously advocating for his client with the legal equivalent of “everything but the kitchen sink.” He has decried the charges as Orwellian “lawfare” waged by radical left-wingers seeking to destroy the fabric of America. “(T)he government has spoken, and if you disagree, then you must be lying. Two plus two equals five, after all, and if the government says so, you must not only repeat the lie, but you must come to believe it as well,” his lawyers told the judge in closing arguments.

The judge didn’t buy that. “While attorneys have a duty to advocate zealously for their clients, they must do so within the bounds of ethical and legal constraints,” she wrote. “Eastman’s actions transgressed those ethical limits by advocating, participating in and pursuing a strategy to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential election that lacked evidentiary or legal support. Vigorous advocacy does not absolve Eastman of his professional responsibilities around honesty and upholding the rule of law.”

In a recent post on GiveSendGo, Eastman described the Bar proceedings as shot through with “mendacity.” He blasted Bar prosecutors for assigning a court opinion to a circuit court rather than a district court. He quarreled with the accuracy of a legal quotation. “Perhaps they should file notice of disciplinary charges against themselves!” he wrote. “Alas, don’t hold your breath for such a just result…. win or lose, we anticipate more proceedings on appeal, adding to what one commentator has already called the longest and most expensive bar disciplinary proceeding in history.

“Thankfully, people are starting to wake up to the dangers of this ‘lawfare,’ not just to me personally but to our adversarial system of justice more broadly,” he wrote. “If you can, please consider making an additional contribution to my legal defense fund to help me keep fighting these travesties of justice. And as always, keep us, and our great country, in your prayers.”

Strong reaction

The state Bar was pleased with the outcome.

“Every California attorney has the duty to uphold the constitution and the rule of law,” Chief Trial Counsel George Cardona said in a prepared statement. “Mr. Eastman repeatedly violated that duty. Worse, he did so in a way that threatened the fundamental principles of our democracy.

“The substantial evidence presented over 35 days of trial showed, and the court has now held, that Mr. Eastman abandoned his ethical and legal duties as an attorney to conspire with then-President Donald Trump to develop and implement a strategy to obstruct the counting of electoral votes on January 6, 2021, and illegally disrupt the peaceful transfer of power to President-elect Joseph Biden, knowing that there was no good faith theory or argument to lawfully reject the electoral votes of any state or delay the January 6 electoral count. Mr. Eastman’s efforts failed only because our democratic institutions and those committed to upholding them held strong. The harm caused by Mr. Eastman’s abandonment of his duties as a lawyer, and the threat his actions posed to our democracy, more than warrant his disbarment.”

Laguna Niguel attorney James V. Lacy has known Eastman for years and followed the proceedings closely.

“This is a sad and wholly avoidable negative milestone in Eastman’s legal career,” Lacy said. “He could have avoided ‘being the snake in Trump’s ear’ by simply coming to the same, sane, legal conclusion as his own star witness John Yoo did during the trial, that the Vice President just does not have the power to overthrow an election.

“He also could have avoided this outcome and all the effort and expense, and building of a factual record that will now be used against him in his Georgia criminal trial, by simply resigning his bar membership in the very beginning, as this result of the process was predictable over a year ago.

“I do pity John and hope for his sake he fares better in the other upcoming actions against him.”

The States United Democracy Center filed an early ethics complaint against Eastman with the State Bar. “This is a crucial victory in the effort to hold accountable those who tried to overturn the 2020 election,” said Christine P. Sun, a senior vice president, in a prepared statement. “This decision sends an unmistakable message: No one is above the law—not presidents, and not their lawyers.”

Miller, Eastman’s attorney, disagrees. Eastman faces “serious and complex criminal charges in an unprecedented criminal RICO action in Fulton County, Georgia, where one of his co-defendants is the former President of the United States and presumptive Republican nominee for re-election to that office. He has not been convicted of any crime and in the eyes of the law he is presumed innocent.

“Dr. Eastman remains adamant that in his case, that presumption is absolutely correct,” Miller said. “Any reasonable person can see the inherent unfairness of prohibiting a presumed-innocent defendant from being able to earn the funds needed to pay for the enormous expenses required to defend himself, in the profession in which he has long been licensed. That is not justice and serves no legitimate purpose to protect the public.”

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

Embattled LA developer accuses its financial chief of looting millions intended for homeless housing

Embattled Los Angeles developer Shangri-La Industries, which has left a trail of unpaid debts, unfinished projects and foreclosure threats since it took $114 million from the state to convert motels into housing for the homeless, is now accusing its former chief financial officer of embezzling millions of dollars to fund an extravagant lifestyle.

Shangri-La, which is being sued by state housing authorities for breaching the terms of its agreement under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature Project Homekey program, alleges in a lawsuit that former CFO Cody Holmes, 29, engaged in bank fraud and check kiting in 2022 and 2023 with Shangri-La’s lenders, banks and brokers.

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The suit, filed last month in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks more than $40 million in damages and other costs.

Holmes, according to the lawsuit, allegedly transferred vast sums of company cash and property to bank accounts and shell companies he set up and controlled and to his suspected ex-girlfriend, Madeline Witt, 28, who is a defendant in the lawsuit.

He used the money to host extravagant parties, cover $46,000 a month in rent at a leased home in Beverly Hills, travel regularly on private jets, lease exotic cars — including a 2021 Bentley Bentayga and a Ferrari Portofino — and even $12,000 to cover a student loan payment, the lawsuit alleges.

Additionally, Holmes purchased high-dollar luxury items for himself and Witt, including two Birken handbags valued at nearly $128,000, Chanel and Louis Vuitton handbags valued at more than $14,000, a $127,000 Riviera diamond necklace, a $35,000 Audemars Piguet diamond watch, and 20 VIP passes for the 2023 Coachella Music and Arts Festival valued at more than $53,000, according to the suit.

Holmes and Witt did not respond to multiple emails, telephone calls and text messages requesting comment.

Legal maneuvering

Attorneys representing Shangri-La, its affiliate businesses and Chief Executive Officer Andrew Meyers Abdul Wahab, who professionally uses the surname “Meyers,” filed the suit seeking a temporary restraining order that would prevent Holmes from withdrawing money from nine bank accounts he controls.

Shangri-La fired Holmes in January following an internal investigation, according to court records.

“For the past two years, defendant Cody Holmes has looted Shangri-La and its subsidiaries of public funds earmarked for Shangri-La’s affordable housing projects,” attorney Brian A. Sun said in the motion filed March 6. “A (temporary restraining order) will prevent the public funds embezzled by Holmes from being hidden, withdrawn, or used to purchase extravagant expenses.”

Sun, according to his motion, said Holmes continued to make extravagant purchases after he was fired from Shangri-La, including leasing a 2024 Porsche Taycar and renting another luxury home in the Hollywood Hills.

A judge denied Sun’s request on March 7, but the lawyer said he plans to push the issue by refiling another motion.

In a telephone interview, Sun said Holmes is “dissipating assets as we speak. He’s selling off assets.”

Homekey program

Since 2020, the state Department of Housing and Community Development has provided Shangri-La Industries more than $114 million in Homekey funds to convert motels up and down the state into permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

Shangri-La has partnered with the Santa Monica-based nonprofit Step Up on Second, which provides support services to the homeless, in its efforts to purchase and upgrade motel properties and set up housing operations for the homeless.

Problems began surfacing when lenders and general contractors and subcontractors stopped being paid. Dozens of mechanic’s liens totaling millions of dollars have been filed over the past year at county recorder offices where the Homekey projects were located.

At the San Bernardino County Recorder’s Office alone, more than $2 million in liens were filed from March 7 to May 3, 2023, by contractors and suppliers not paid for work completed at the former Good Nite Inn in Redlands, now called Step Up in Redlands, and the former All Star Lodge in San Bernardino, now Step Up in San Bernardino.

Step Up in Redlands, which opened in January 2023, and Step Up in San Bernardino, which opened in March 2023, are the only two of Shangri-La’s seven Homekey-funded projects that were completed and are now operating.

Another of the developer’s Homekey projects, at the former Salinas Inn, has 44 units and is about 95% complete, Sun said.

State action

In January, the state Department of Housing and Community Development sued Shangri-La Industries and its partners in the Homekey projects, including the county of San Bernardino, the city of Redlands and Step Up on Second.

The state alleged Shangri-La and its co-defendants breached their obligations, granting and recording deeds of trust to secure loans from the third-party lenders without first obtaining the state’s written authorization, as required under the Homekey agreements.

Newsom launched Project Homekey in June 2020 to protect unhoused individuals from the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. The state has allocated more than $3 billion to cities and counties to purchase motels, hotels, vacant apartment buildings and other properties to provide permanent housing for the homeless.

The state alleges in its lawsuit that for each of its Homekey-funded projects, Shangri-La used the address of each motel to create undercapitalized shell companies to engage in misconduct. All the hotel properties face possible foreclosure, according to the lawsuit, which is set for a status conference on April 17.

Officials at the Department of Housing and Community Development did not respond to requests for comment. It could not be determined whether the state is conducting a criminal investigation.

Career trajectory

Holmes, according to the lawsuit, began working at Shangri-La as in intern in 2014 while still an undergraduate at USC. He earned his master’s degree in finance while working at the company as its director of finance.

When the company’s chief financial officer left in 2019, Meyers made Holmes its new CFO, according to the lawsuit.

“Meyers promoted Holmes to CFO because Meyers believed Holmes to be an intelligent problem solver and resourceful employee. Most importantly, Meyers trusted Holmes,” according to the lawsuit. “Holmes exploited that trust and intentionally deceived plaintiffs in order to enrich himself and his then girlfriend, defendant Witt.”

Alleged fraud

On March 22, 2023, the lawsuit alleges, Holmes recorded a fraudulent deed of trust on one of Shangri-La’s Homekey properties, the Salinas Inn at 1030 Fairview Ave. He falsely represented that the property owed money to one of Holmes’ alleged shell companies, Millenium Partners Inc., which was doing business as 310 REIT, according to the lawsuit.

In June 2023, Meyers and Shangri-La’s affiliates received notice from a lender that one of its Los Angeles properties, a vacant lot at 1228 Normandie Ave., was in default, even though Shangri-La and its affiliates paid cash for the property in September 2021 and it was completely debt free.

The lawsuit alleges Holmes, “without plaintiff’s knowledge or authorization, encumbered the property with loans and then allowed the loans to default.”

Holmes also used other people’s identifying information, including that of Meyers, to misappropriate funds from Shangri-La and its affiliated businesses, the suit alleges.

In April 2022, according to the lawsuit, Holmes forged Meyers’ signature on a lease for a 2021 Bentley Bentayga and created a fake email account to communicate with the lender. Two months later, Holmes allegedly forged Meyers’ signature again, this time on a lease agreement for the $46,000-a-month rental house in Beverly Hills.

Additionally, the lawsuit accuses Holmes of engaging in check kiting by drafting checks drawn on his alleged shell companies’ bank accounts and depositing them into the bank accounts of Shangri-La and/or those of its affiliates, knowing there were insufficient funds to cover the checks.

14 lawsuits over unpaid debts

Holmes’ conduct, the lawsuit alleges, is responsible for at least 14 lawsuits filed by lenders and general contractors up and down the state involved in Shangri-La-affiliated motel conversion projects who claim they were never paid. Half of the lawsuits were filed in San Bernardino County and involve the San Bernardino and Redlands projects.

The other Homekey projects include three in Salinas, one in Thousands Oaks and another in King City.

“Many of the projects remain incomplete due to the fiscal malfeasance and mismanagement of defendant Holmes,” according to the lawsuit.

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Tiny, endangered fish hinders California’s Colorado River conservation plan

Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which supplies water to farmers who grow most of the nation’s winter vegetables, planned to start a conservation program in April to scale back what it draws from the critical Colorado River.

But a tiny, tough fish got in the way.

Now, those plans won’t start until at least June so water and wildlife officials can devise a way to ensure the endangered desert pupfish and other species are protected, said Jamie Asbury, the irrigation district’s general manager. The proposal to pay farmers to temporarily stop watering feed crops such as alfalfa this summer has environmentalists concerned that irrigation drains could dry up, threatening the fish that measures the length of an ATM card.

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“Drains are created for farmers to be able to convey irrigation runoff, and the pupfish decided it was a good place to live,” Asbury said.

Protecting the desert pupfish, listed as endangered since 1986, has been one of many vexing problems facing the Colorado River and the people and species that rely on it.

The 1,450-mile (2,334-kilometer) river provides water to 40 million people in seven U.S. states, parts of Mexico and more than two dozen Native American tribes. It’s long been over-tapped, a problem aggravated by recent years of prolonged drought. The Western states are negotiating a new long-term use plan meant to stabilize the river.

Last year, Arizona, Nevada and California offered to cut back on their use of Colorado River water in exchange for money from the federal government to avoid forced cuts. California, which gets the most water of all the states based on a century-old water rights priority system, agreed to give up 1.6 million acre-feet of water through 2026, with more than half coming from the Imperial Irrigation District. An acre-foot serves about two to three U.S. households per year.

The Imperial district envisioned a summer idling program in which farmers could turn off water for 60 days for feed crops since yields already are down at that time of year and growing requires much more water. But environmental officials worried that limiting the flow of water through irrigation drains could harm the desert pupfish. They also raised concerns about the impact on migratory birds that frequent the Salton Sea, Asbury said.

Now the district, the biggest user of Colorado River water with more than 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) of canals and drains, is in talks with state and federal officials on how it can proceed while setting up a monitoring program to ensure the fish isn’t further threatened, Asbury said.

The curious fish — the males turn blue during breeding season while females are tan or olive — was once plentiful. But with the introduction of invasive species in the Colorado River, its numbers dwindled, according to California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. The fish feeds on invertebrates and snails and can handle an extreme range of water temperatures and both fresh and saltwater.

Today, it lives in a few areas in California, Arizona and Mexico, including the Imperial Irrigation District’s drains, which funnel water runoff from farms in California’s Imperial Valley into the saline Salton Sea, a drying lake with no outlet that’s a stopover point for migratory birds.

Often, the district’s drains have more fresh water than the Salton Sea, so the fish seek out those spaces, said Ileene Anderson, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. The fish has proven remarkably resilient and can survive in water with low oxygen levels, high salinity and temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius).

“A lot of them do live in these really bizarre drains, these agricultural drains,” she said. “These fish are incredibly tough — they basically just try to find a space where they can carry on their lives.”

The desert pupfish is a key part of the ecosystem in the Salton Sea, feeding on biting flies and serving as a food source for birds, said James Danoff-Burg, vice president of conservation at the Palm Desert-based Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, which works on desert conservation. In the summer, creeks that flow into the Salton Sea can dry out so much the fish risk getting stranded, so they are moved to special ponds as an insurance population, he said.

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife declined to discuss the water conservation plan. The department said in an emailed statement that officials support water use reductions on the Colorado River and will work with other agencies to “find solutions that proactively minimize and mitigate any potential impacts to the great work underway.”

The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates major dams in the Colorado River system, did not immediately comment.

Click here to read the full article in AP News