Nazi salute, antisemitic lessons and conspiracy theories embraced by the likes of Kanye West taught at a Hayward high school

A 10th grade teacher has been placed on leave after teaching antisemitism — two months after it was initially reported to the school.

A Hayward high school teacher accused of spreading antisemitic conspiracies and making the Heil Hitler salute during classes has been placed on administrative leave this week after students complained to the district about the lessons late last year.

Though students alerted both school and district staff about English teacher Henry Bens’ curriculum in December, the teacher continued to instruct his 10th graders until this week, according to teachers and students at Mt. Eden High School. The school is now on break, but according to the Hayward Unified School District, Bens will not be returning to the classroom on Monday.

The controversy comes amid an alarming rise in antisemitism fueled recently, in part, by celebrities such as Kanye West and NBA star Kyrie Irving. Last year, Irving promoted an extremist documentary film that the Hayward teacher later featured on social media.

“He told us: You’re willfully blind,” said one of his students, 16-year-old Myldret Vazquez. “He said he was going to help us uncover the other side of the story.”

As first reported by the Jewish News of Northern California, Bens taught Elie Weisel’s Holocaust memoir, Night, alongside photocopies of The Hidden Tyranny, an antisemitic text by Holocaust-denier Benjamin Freedman. According to Vazquez, Bens told students to alternate reading portions of the material out loud and guided them to highlight specific sections.

At first, Vazquez was confused: She was being told that a secret organization of Jewish people was controlling the mass media, blackmailing American presidents and instigating war. Vazquez left class determined not to read on — but, worried that there would be a test on the topic, she finished the assignment when she got home.

“I continued to read through it, and I began to understand it a little bit more,” Vazquez said. “And then I was like, ‘Is that possible?’ ”

Ultimately, Vazquez decided it was not. She let Carmelita — her dachshund puppy — rip up her copy of The Hidden Tyranny. But Ruchita Verma, a senior at Mt. Eden who tutors 10th graders at the school, said she’s heard multiple stories of students believing Bens’ instruction.

“Students were saying, ‘Well you know, the Holocaust wasn’t even real,’ ” said Verma, referring to a story she’d been told by another classmate. “(They said) ‘What my teacher (Bens) is telling us is what we should all look into.’ ”

Bens did not respond to repeated requests for comment via phone call or email. The school district is now conducting an investigation into his instruction. Lauren McDermott, who leads communications for the Hayward Unified School District, said she did not know if or when Bens will return to Mt. Eden.

“We take these allegations very seriously, and the teacher alleged to have made such statements and used inappropriate materials is currently on a leave of absence,” said the district.

But according to Heather Eastwood, another English teacher at Mt. Eden, the administration repeatedly said they couldn’t do anything about Bens’ curriculum because of “academic freedom” — the idea that teachers have a right to express ideas without interference or professional disadvantage.

“They’ve also been saying they can’t do anything to discipline him because the union will protect him,” Eastwood said. “I said to an administrator: That’s the same thing as saying you’re not going to prosecute someone for a crime because they are going to have a defense attorney. That’s not how it works.”

Some students also feel something should have been done sooner. Two 10th graders who had complained about Bens were moved to another classroom, but those who remained also began to speak up. They recorded his lectures, took photos of their assignments and spoke out at school board meetings, urging the district to take action on not just The Hidden Tyranny assignment but other things the teacher said in class. And they created a Google Form to poll their classmates about their experiences in Bens’ lessons.

“Multiple students have come forward to share that they are in a learning space in which their teacher performs the Hitler salute,” Verma told the school board last week. “We are asking for you to help make our school a better place by ensuring our students are in safe classrooms.”

Vazquez said Bens made that salute multiple times in the classroom and — referring to alleged Israeli war crimes during a lecture on Palestine — asked students to consider what they would do if Bens broke into a house, killed all the men and raped all the women.

“If I was alive during Hitler’s time, I would have an interview with him,” said Bens in an audio file that was recorded by his students. “I would let him share his views.”

She also said the teacher told his students he was worried that everyone on Earth would become gay and that, ultimately, the population of the world would die out. Multiple LGBTQ+ students were in the classroom for that conversation, Vazquez said.

Bens’ social media profiles highlight materials — including Hebrews to Negroes, a film largely accepted as antisemitic — that are connected to the Black Hebrew Israelite religious sect. Black Hebrew Israelites do not align themselves with Judaism but claim that African Americans are the descendants of an ancient tribe in Israel. And though not all Black Hebrew Israelites are antisemitic, extremists within the movement “believe white Jews are perpetuating identity theft,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Bens, who is Black, is a pastor at Congregation Rehoboth in Alameda, a synagogue that celebrates shabbat and uses Hebrew characters in its religious readings, as documented by its Facebook live streams. In the “About” section, the synagogue states they are followers of Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus.

The Black Hebrew Israelite movement has grown in America since West and Irving latched onto some of its more extreme ideologies. After Irving shared the film Hebrews to Negroes on social media last year, he was suspended by the Brooklyn Nets for eight basketball games. He returned to the court in November, and outside the stadium, a group of Black Hebrew Israelites marched in celebration.

“We are the real Jews, and that’s some good news,” the crowd chanted.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, West’s influence has led to at least 30 antisemitic incidents since October of 2022, building on a spike nationwide. During 2021, antisemitic assaults, harassment and vandalism hit an all-time high in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The organization recorded a total of 2,717 incidents throughout that year — a 34% increase from 2020.

“We hear on a weekly basis about really disturbing antisemitic incidents that take place here, even in the Bay Area,” said Teresa Drenick, the ADL’s deputy regional director. “But to see a teacher in one of our public schools assigning and teaching from a text of this nature, that shocked all of us.”

Click here to read the full article in the Mercury News

The 2024 California U.S. Senate Race: Where It Currently Stands Post-Feinstein

The 2024 Senate race has shifted massively in only the last few weeks

Since the last report by the Globe earlier this month, the 2024 California U.S. Senate Race For Senator Dianne Feinstein’s seat has taken numerous turns, with more potential candidates inching towards running, and others saying they won’t. With the lines currently blurred for many, the Globe decided to take another look where the race currently stands in late February.

Who is in?

With Congresswoman Barbara Lee now officially in the race, it is currently a three-way race amongst Democrats along with Congresswoman Katie Porter (D-CA) and Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA).

For Republicans, a major office-holding candidate has yet to jump in, with only Educator Denice Gary-Pandol coming in early as an official candidate. Two others have also filed to run: 2016 Oakland Mayoral candidate Peter Liu and lawyer Barack Mandela. No major third-party candidates have come in yet, although Green and Libertarian candidates are expected to file in the near future.

Who may be in?

The number of speculatory candidates has shrunk in the past several weeks, with many giving clarifying statements on their candidacy status. Last time, the Globe noted that the list included San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Congressman Lou Correa (D-CA), Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, former Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA), LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, and Governor Gavin Newsom.

Khanna remains the last likely candidate to join in the race, as he has continued to express interest in running, but has still yet to file any paperwork to do so. Conversely, both Breed and Schaaf declined to run following Lee’s entrance into the race, instead deciding to endorse her candidacy instead. Mitchell also refused a run for the Senate, although her reasoning was that she instead wanted to run again for LA County Supervisor. The other four potential candidates have still not said what they will do one way or the other.

As for Republicans, no others have expressed any interest in the meantime, although a run by a prominent Republican still isn’t out of the question. A run by a known celebrity or other prominent lawmaker who hasn’t been considered yet is also possible.

Who is out?

Besides Feinstein, California Attorney General Rob Bonta, Breed, Schaaf, and Mitchell, not many other have voluntarily said that they wouldn’t be running next year out of the pool of possible candidates. However, it should also be noted that decisions are expected next month.

Who is backing who?

With it so early in the process along with Feinstein’s lingering decision, few endorsements have come out this month. Previously, we noted that Katie Porter received the endorsement of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), while Adam Schiff got the majority of the California Democratic House delegation, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Since then, Schiff has gotten dozens of State Senators and Assemblymembers to support him, as well as Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. Lee entering the race also triggered many endorsements coming her way, including Breed, Schaaf, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a few out of state lawmakers, and United Farm Workers (UFW) co-founder Dolores Huerta. Porter has not received any more since early February.

What is coming up next?

Final decisions by remaining potential candidates are likely to be coming in through March and April, including the anticipated decision by Khanna. The lack of a Latino or Central Californian candidate could influence others to come into the race, as could resultant issues from the current declared candidates. Should several Democratic candidates falter in the coming months, others, including Republicans, may come in to fill the gap and take advantage of the situation.

Endorsements will also likely only trickle in as they have been doing as many are waiting and seeing how things go since it is still early on in the race.

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

Time to Talk Details on California Oil Profit Penalty

Today, four months after Gov. Gavin Newsom called upon the Legislature to tax the excess profits of oil producers in California, we may finally get some details about the proposal.

Or we might not. 

A Senate committee is slated to hold its first hearing on the “windfall profits penalty” proposed by the governor and introduced by Oakland Democratic Sen. Nancy Skinner. The hearing is only meant to be “informational” — an opportunity for lawmakers to hear from experts about what drives the state’s gas prices and what the Legislature can do about it. But the back-and-forth could give us a hint about how much appetite there is for this still very hypothetical tax.

The bill was introduced in early December with vague placeholder language that refers to imposing a “penalty” on an unspecified “maximum gross gasoline refining” profit. Proceeds from the penalty would be refunded to Californians.

  • What’s in a word? Not labeling the tax a “tax” is no accident; California law requires two thirds of the Legislature to pass a tax, but only a majority to impose some fees. 

The language of the bill hasn’t changed since Dec. 5, and some Capitol watchers are growing impatient. Newsom’s promises of sticking it to Big Oil is “just talk,” scolded L.A. columnist George Skelton earlier this month. “It’s past decision time,” columnist Tom Elias wrote two weeks ago. 

What’s the hold-up? Newsom said it’s no surprise it’s taken time to work out the details when asked last week by my colleague Alexei Koseff, blaming the delay on the oil producers themselves and on the sheer magnitude of the task.

  • Newsom: “The fact that oil companies aren’t even showing up to hearings…the fact that this is novel, no other state in history has done it.”

Whatever the proposal turns out to be, California’s big business interests are already against it. Last week, the California Chamber of Commerce blacklisted the bill by branding it as its first “job killer” of the 2023 session. 

California Republicans are worried about the price of gas, too. In a Tuesday letter signed by all 26 GOP legislators, they urged Newsom to act now ahead of higher prices at the pump as the summer holiday travel season approaches. But in contrast to Newsom’s profit penalty, they put forward a very different prescription

Newsom wasn’t having it: “Republicans are avoiding the core problem: an industry that operates with zero accountability and too much power over prices of a commodity essential to most California families.”

According to AAA, the average price in California on Tuesday for regular unleaded was $4.74 a gallon, $1.07 more than the national average.

As UC Berkeley energy economist Severin Borenstein has written, a number of factors explain that difference: 

  • About 70 cents can be explained by higher taxes and the state’s cap-and-trade program, which funds transportation infrastructure and many of the state’s climate-oriented programs
  • Another 10 cents comes from the rule that only certain smog-cutting blends of gasoline can be sold in the state
  • The remaining difference, which soared to as much as $1 last year, is explained by neither taxes nor regulations.

What’s the cause of that “mystery” surcharge? Expect to hear plenty of theories at today’s hearing.

Electric vehicles: CalMatters is writing a series of stories on California’s road to more electric cars and trucks. Starting in 2035, no gas-powered vehicles will be sold in the state. Do you have questions about this transformation? Submit them here.  

Also, if you live in one of these zip codes (94022, 94027, 94301, 94028, 94024, 90402, 92657) and would be willing to talk to a CalMatters reporter about your experience, email nadia@calmatters.org.   

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters

Handyman Confesses to Killing L.A. Bishop David G. O’Connell, District Attorney Says

A 61-year-old man who prosecutors said has admitted that he killed Bishop David G. O’Connell was charged Wednesday with one count of murder in the shooting death of the much lauded religious leader.

Carlos Medina, a handyman whose wife worked as a housekeeper for the bishop , also faces a special allegation of using a firearm during the crime, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón announced during a news conference Wednesday. If convicted, he could face 35 years to life in prison.

In detailing the charges, Gascón said Medina admitted to the killing to investigators.

“I know this has been a shock for our community,” Gascón said. “This was a brutal act of violence against a person who dedicated his life to making our neighborhoods safer, healthier and always served with love.”

Medina is accused of killing the 69-year-old priest Saturday in his Hacienda Heights home, where he lived alone.

“His loss is one that I really feel will be felt for years to come,” Gascón said. “Charging Mr. Medina will never repair the tremendous harm that was caused by this callous act.”

O’Connell was found dead Saturday in his bedroom with multiple gunshot wounds, Gascón said.

In an interview, Gascón said O’Connell was likely asleep when the shooting occurred.

“By all counts, Bishop O’Connell was a saint for Los Angeles,” he said.

Law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation said the firearm involved was a small-caliber weapon and that O’Connell’s wounds weren’t clearly visible to the deacon who first discovered the bishop’s body.

According to the sources, the bishop was shot five times.

Neighbors said they heard no gunshots or unusual noise coming from the home until deputies and paramedics descended on the quiet neighborhood just before 1 p.m. Saturday.

Medina was taken into custody at his Torrance home Monday, after he barricaded himself for some time. Inside, investigators recovered two firearms, including a .38 caliber handgun that detectives suspect he used to kill O’Connell, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Investigators were led there two days after the slaying, aided by a tipster who told officials that Medina had been acting strangely since the killing, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said Monday after announcing the arrest.

Surveillance video also showed a “dark, compact SUV” — believed to belong to Medina — at O’Connell’s home at about the same time the killing took place, Luna said.

Medina appeared briefly in court Wednesday afternoon, where Judge Armenui Amy Ashvanian set bail at $2.3 million.

A Spanish language interpreter relayed the court proceedings to Medina, but he did not speak during the short court appearance.

His arraignment was scheduled for March 22.

Officials have yet to disclose what may have motivated the killing. After announcing Medina’s arrest, Luna said the tipster who pointed law enforcement to the suspect said Medina had claimed that the bishop owed him money related to his work as a handyman.

Sheriff’s Lt. Michael Modica said that when Medina was interviewed, he provided several reasons for the killing, but “none of them made sense to the investigators.”

“We don’t believe there’s any validity to the owing of money,” he said, referring to the motive suggested by the tipster.

Los Angeles County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia said in a statement to The Times that Medina “is presumed innocent and entitled to a vigorous defense.”

“We are sensitive to the impact this case has had on our community but at the same time caution against any rush to judgment, either by the public or the media, until all the facts are established in court,” the statement said.

Deputy Public Defender Pedro Cortes, who was assigned to represent Medina in court, did not respond to a request for comment.

Medina has a lengthy history of personal drug use arrests and convictions from 2005 to 2017, and detectives are investigating whether he had been using narcotics at the time of the killing, according to law enforcement sources.

Medina has narcotics arrests in 2005, 2007, 2011 and 2017, according to law enforcement officials not authorized to discuss his criminal history. At least two of the convictions were for drug possession, but the handyman did not have a history of violent arrests.

In the unincorporated Torrance neighborhood where Medina and his wife rented a two-bedroom yellow stucco home, neighbors said the couple led quiet, ordinary lives and were friendly with their neighbors.

“He never said anything offensive,” said Francisco Medina Lopez, 74, a neighbor who said he was friendly with Medina. “It’s so strange.”

Medina, who walked with a limp, was often seen tinkering on his cars or working on his yard, neighbors said. His wife was a fixture in the neighborhood who was frequently observed walking a large white dog that residents said belonged to the bishop.

The two neighbors would occasionally drink beers or share meals together, making small talk while listening to ranchera music.

Although Medina’s wife worked for the bishop, Medina Lopez said the couple didn’t seem particularly religious and didn’t bring it up in conversations or decorate their home with Catholic objects and images.

But Medina Lopez said he always thought well of his neighbor, who would sometimes give him a ride to the swap meet or nearby stores.

“He was your average older man, always talkative and in a good mood,” said Luis Lopez, who lived in a home behind the Medinas’ home. “He was a regular common man.”

After news of the bishop’s death spread, about a dozen people stood with candles and prayed the rosary Saturday beside police tape near his home.

O’Connell, who earned the title of bishop in 2015, was a “peacemaker with a heart for the poor and the immigrant,” Archbishop José H. Gómez of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles said in a statement Sunday.

“He had a passion for building community where the sanctity and dignity of every human life was honored and protected,” the statement by Gómez read. “He was also a good friend, and I will miss him greatly. I know we all will.”

Born in County Cork, Ireland, O’Connell studied for the priesthood at All Hallows College in Dublin and was ordained in 1979, according to the archdiocese.

He served as associate pastor at several parishes in Los Angeles, including at St. Frances X. Cabrini in South Los Angeles for 14 years. He then became pastor of Ascension, where he oversaw a congregation of about 4,000 families and two schools with about 500 students.

In the neighborhoods he served, he was known as a calming intermediary, especially after the 1992 riots. The Catholic News Agency reported at the time that O’Connell, not yet a bishop, worked at trying to rebuild trust between police and the South L.A. community.

He also served as founder and chairman of the interdiocesan SoCal Immigration Task Force, which helped children who had entered the United States without adult companions.

“He was the help of the helpless and the hope of the hopeless,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn Monday during an emotional news conference.

Gómez fought back tears and his voice cracked Monday as he called O’Connell “a good friend of Los Angeles.” He recalled the bishop’s fluent Spanish, tinted with a Irish accent.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Get Ready For Car Insurance Rates To Go Up In California

Regulators OKd some big increases after a long COVID break, and more are pending.

Some California drivers will be getting a nasty surprise when they open their car insurance bills this year.

That’s because California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara approved some big rate hikes in the last six months, ending a long COVID break after insurance companies complained they were losing money and cutting back in the nation’s largest vehicle market.Higher rates for Geico, Mercury and others are just now showing up in insurance renewal letters that customers receive.

And more increases are in the pipeline, consumer advocates say, even as some insurers have yet to refund customers for premium overcharges during the early months of the pandemic when people were driving less and getting into fewer accidents.

“These insurance companies still owe consumers from the COVID era,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, the Santa Monica nonprofit that sponsored Proposition 103, the 1988 voter initiative that limited how much insurers can charge for auto, home and casualty insurance. “The commissioner should not be granting rate hikes when he still hasn’t been able to compel them to give rebates for the times when we weren’t driving,” Court said.

Californians are paying an average of $2,291 in car insurance premiums this year, up $101 from 2022, according to a Bankrate analysis that found premiums rising nationwide as people drive more miles, drive less safely and wreck increasingly expensive cars.

Rate increase approvals, which gathered steam in December and January, have been granted to insurers representing more than 20% of the market, according to Consumer Watchdog’s tally. Geico, Mercury and Allstate received 6.9% increases, while some smaller insurers got larger hikes.

An additional 97 premium rate increases have been requested, the consumer group said, ranging from a 4.5% hike to nearly 20%. The most common request is 6.9%because anything larger than that can trigger a public hearing. Some of the biggest names on the pending list include State Farm, Progressive, Farmers and the American Automobile Assn.

Geico, the state’s second-largest auto insurer, after State Farm, got a 6.9% rate increase in December, which will mean a premium boost averaging $125 a year for the company’s 2.1 million policyholders.

Some drivers will be hit harder than others, said Consumer Watchdog attorney Daniel L. Sternberg, particularly those insured by companies that are using a driver’s job and educational background in determining that person’s rate.

Consumer Watchdog in recent years has challenged rate increase filings by Geico, Mercury, AAA and Allstate for charging higher base rates for lower-income workers than for professionals with a college degree.

Using Mercury as an example, Sternberg said the January approval of a 6.9% increase allows “unfairly discriminatory rates using five separate education- and occupation-based rating tiers which working-class Californians without a professional occupation and advanced degree will pay up to 18% higher premiums.”

The insurance industry says rate increases are overdue.

Insurers in September said California’s auto insurance market was on the brink of a crisis because they were paying out more in claims than they were collecting through premiums in 2022. Geico last year closed California sales storefronts in favor of online sales, and others have talked about slowing growth in the state.

California waited longer than any other state to raise auto premiums after the pandemic eased, said Denni Ritter, a vice president at the American Property Casualty Insurance Assn.

In their return to the roads, California drivers have been driving faster and, increasingly, while intoxicated, Ritter said, leading to accident injuries that are more severe, and they’re wrecking cars that have higher repair costs than in the past.

“So unfortunately, those are causing costs to really skyrocket in the auto insurance realm,” Ritter said, causing a 25% increase in insurance costs in 2022 while premiums grew 4.5%.

As for those refunds, Californians are still waiting for about $3.5 billion of the $5.5 billion that Consumer Watchdog estimates policyholders are owed for pandemic-era overcharges.

The matter still hasn’t been fully resolved, say the state’s insurance officials, who argue that rate hike decisions aren’t interfering with unfulfilled rebates.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Ex-Deputy Mayor Accused of Taking Bribes as L.A. City Hall Graft Trial Opens

A federal prosecutor told a jury Tuesday that former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan was a central player in a sprawling extortion racket that corrupted downtown development projects for years.

In an opening statement at Chan’s criminal trial, Assistant U.S. Atty. Susan Har accused him of playing multiple roles in a shakedown scheme led by Jose Huizar when Huizar served on the City Council.

Chan accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes, Har said, while also serving as a go-between who facilitated payoffs by Chinese developers to the councilman.

“They needed one another for the pay-to-play scheme to work,” the prosecutor told the jury.

Huizar used Chan, a Chinese immigrant, to extort the developers, Har said, while Chan got the powerful councilman to shepherd their projects through the city’s byzantine approval process.

Chan’s attorney, Harland Braun, told jurors his client was innocent and urged them to keep an open mind until Chan takes the stand and testifies after prosecutors rest their case.

“You’ll find out that the story the government just gave you is not true,” Braun said.

Defying an order by U.S. District Judge John F. Walter, Braun cast the prosecution as motivated by anti-Chinese bias, an allegation the government denies and Walter has ruled off limits.

“Chinese this, Chinese that,” Braun said, adding a moment later, “Stop using race.”

Walter sustained Har’s objection to Braun’s line of attack. Braun persisted. “It’s not a crime to speak a foreign language,” he told jurors.

Chan, who had been general manager of the city’s buildings department for three years when Mayor Eric Garcetti promoted him to deputy mayor in 2016, is charged with racketeering, bribery, wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI. Chan left his city job in July 2017 and became a consultant to developers.

A challenge for Chan will be to refute the testimony of three witnesses who have pleaded guilty to felonies and admitted their roles in bribe schemes: Chan’s former business partner George Chiang, real estate consultant Morrie Goldman and Huizar’s former aide George Esparza.

Huizar, who has admitted taking more than $1.5 million in bribes, implicated Chan when he pleaded guilty last month to racketeering and tax evasion, but the former councilman is not expected to testify.

Prosecutors plan to play recordings of wiretapped phone calls and other covertly taped conversations between Chan and witnesses who were working with the FBI.

Braun tried to undermine their credibility, telling jurors they “can’t rely on a witness who’s a convicted felon.” Braun singled out Chiang, an admitted bagman, as especially untrustworthy. Chiang says he passed along more than $100,000 in developer bribes to Chan.

“If he’d been a little more with it,” Braun said of his client, “he’d have seen that George Chiang was a crook.”

Braun tried to distinguish Chan from others ensnared in the case, noting that unlike Huizar and Esparza, Chan never accepted casino gambling chips, private jet flights, luxury hotel stays and other favors on more than a dozen lavish Las Vegas holidays funded by a Chinese skyscraper developer.

Braun questioned the strength of prosecution evidence that Chan helped arrange that developer’s $600,000 loan to Huizar to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit that threatened his 2015 run for reelection. When the developer, Shen Zhen New World I, was convicted of bribery and wire fraud in November, the jury found the loan was an illegal payoff.

Har told the jury the case against Chan boils down to a conspiracy “to get money, keep power and avoid the feds.” Chan, she said, took advantage of an influx in Chinese developers pursuing projects during a downtown L.A. real estate boom.

“The defendant saw an opportunity to make himself the indispensable person in the middle,” Har said.

As deputy mayor, Chan became a secret business partner with Chiang, who was hired by an arm of Chinese developer Shenzhen Hazens as a consultant on its proposed Luxe City Center Hotel project near what was then called Staples Center, according to Har.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

School District Audit Deals Another Blow to Stockton’s Civic Reputation

Stockton has long had a reputation for crime, poverty and civic malfeasance and suffered another blow last week when a searing audit of the city’s school district was unveiled.

Auditors portrayed a system consumed with internal discord that ignored basic rules of financial management and squandered millions of dollars on questionable no-bid contracts – money that should have been used to improve the education of 34,000 overwhelmingly poor students.

The audit was conducted by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), an agency that monitors the financial health of California’s public school systems and helps stabilize those in trouble. It found dozens of instances in which money was paid to outside contractors without competitive bidding and/or in violation of the district’s own policies.

The centerpiece of FCMAT’s report was a $6.6 million contract given to a company, Alliance Building Solutions, in 2021 for a system to disinfect the district’s schools through the use of ultraviolet rays. One of the district’s trustees, Scot McBrian, arranged a meeting of district officials with the company at a private party hosted by Stockton’s former mayor, Anthony Silva, and advocated the adoption of its system.

From that initial contact, FCMAT says, the district – without ever determining a need for disinfection – went through several irregular processes, culminating in the contract with IAQ Distribution, an Allied subsidiary that at the time had not registered as a business with the state. Although the company was paid – using federal funds meant to overcome the educational ravages of COVID-19 – only small pieces of the contracted work were ever completed.

FCMAT found similar irregularities in contracts the district awarded to nine different law firms.

“Based on the findings in this report, there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that fraud, misappropriation of funds and/or assets, or other illegal fiscal practices may have occurred in the specific areas reviewed,” FCMAT concluded. “Deficiencies and exceptions noted during FCMAT’s review of (Stockton Unified’s) financial records and internal control environment increase the probability of fraud, mismanagement and/or misappropriation of the…assets.

“These findings should be of great concern to the Stockton Unified School District and the San Joaquin County Office of Education and require immediate intervention to limit the risk of fraud, mismanagement and/or misappropriation of assets, or other illegal fiscal practices in the future.”

This, as noted earlier, is not Stockton’s first civic disgrace. In 2012, the city declared bankruptcy after borrowing heavily to build a marina, a basketball and hockey arena and a baseball stadium of dubious utility. The city also took on more debt to make contributions to the pension system for city employees.

Routinely, Stockton is ranked near the top in crime among California cities and several local officials have been caught up in criminal investigations.

Silva, the former mayor who apparently instigated the school system’s disinfection contract by hosting a party at his home to bring school officials and company representatives together, is one of those officials.

Silva, who ran an organization called Stockton Kids Club, was elected mayor in 2012, the same year the city declared bankruptcy. In 2016, he was arrested for providing alcohol to underage boys and recording them playing strip poker. A year later, he was charged with grand theft, embezzlement, profiteering, misappropriation of public funds and money laundering, and in 2019 pleaded guilty to one charge in a plea deal.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

COVID-19 States of Emergency Are Ending. What Does That Mean For You?

Answers about expiring emergency declarations

California is poised to record its 100,000th COVID-19 death. But at the end of this month, the Golden State — the first in the nation to lock down because of the virus — will end its pandemic state of emergency.

A few months later, on May 11, the federal government will halt its COVID public health emergency.

In many ways, it’s a symbolic victory over a virus whose threat has eased after more than two years of successive waves of infections, hospitalizations and 1.1 million U.S. deaths.

But the declaration also has implications for detection and treatment of a disease that continues to kill more than 400 Americans a day and to mutate in ways that could potentially lead to more virulent outbreaks. Here’s what we know about the ending of the states of emergency.

Q: Why is California’s COVID-19 State of Emergency ending Feb. 28?

A: Gov. Gavin Newsom, criticized for extending the state of emergency he declared March 4, 2020, even after lifting mask and social distancing requirements last year, announced in October that the declaration would be lifted this month. He said the extra time would allow for “flexibility to handle any potential surge” in cases over the winter and give local governments and health care providers time to plan for the coming changes.

Q: What did California’s state of emergency do?

A: Since first declaring the state of emergency, Newsom has issued 74 executive orders with 596 operative provisions. Of those, just 27 provisions remain in effect until Feb. 28. The provisions loosen state rules to streamline health care delivery and response, like allowing pharmacists and pharmacist technicians to conduct COVID-19 tests.

Q: Might we still need some of those rules?

A: Newsom has asked lawmakers for two statutory changes that would continue some provisions. One would continue to allow nurses to dispense COVID-19 treatments, and another would maintain the ability of laboratory workers to solely process COVID-19 tests.

Q: What does the federal Public Health Emergency do and what will change when it ends May 11?

A: Much like California’s state of emergency, the declaration in effect since January 2020 waived regulations to allow more flexibility in the health care system. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, many of those provisions have since been made permanent or extended, while others are no longer needed with reported cases down 92% and hospitalizations and deaths down 80% since the peak of the omicron variant surge at the end of January 2022.

There will be some changes. The requirement for private insurance companies to cover COVID-19 tests without cost-sharing will end. State Medicaid programs won’t have to provide test coverage after Sept. 30, 2024. Medicare Part B enrollees will continue to get free laboratory-conducted COVID-19 tests when ordered by a provider, but will no longer get free over-the-counter tests.

But federally purchased vaccines and treatments like Paxlovid must be provided at no cost as long as those supplies last, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Q: How will ending both states of emergency affect access to COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments in the state?

A: The California Department of Public Health said health insurers here must provide enrollees free vaccines, testing and therapeutics from any licensed provider, including those outside the health plan network until Nov. 11. After that, enrollees may face cost-sharing or coinsurance payments for vaccines, testing or therapeutics from an out-of-network provider.

Q: What about the uninsured?

A:  Dr. Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, said in a recent Twitter thread that “for nearly all Americans, vaccines will remain free.” For the uninsured, he said that “we are committed to ensuring that vaccines and treatments are accessible and not prohibitively expensive for uninsured Americans.” How that will happen he left unclear, adding only: “more details to follow.”

Q: Will I still be able to get boosters or tests at the local mass vaccination and testing sites?

A: Those are being wound down. Local mass testing and vaccine sites are closing by the end of the month, but county health departments say they will continue to provide vaccination, testing and medical services to their patients.

Q: What about access to COVID-19 information, vaccines and tests at schools?

A: Oakland Unified said it will continue asking students to report COVID-19 illness and to advise them of isolation and return-to-school policies, and that it will continue to make high-quality masks and rapid at-home tests available at all schools. But the district will no longer notify classrooms of a positive case in the classroom. There will be one regional testing site a day at different schools with rapid tests. A vaccine requirement for volunteers is being dropped.

Click here to read the full article in the Mercury News

California AG’s wife recuses herself from state DOJ budget

California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s wife has recused herself from matters related to the state Department of Justice as part of her duties leading a legislative subcommittee that oversees his budget.

Assemblymember Mia Bonta, a Democrat, announced the recusal in a statement posted online Sunday. She heads Assembly Budget Subcommittee 5, which oversees public safety spending — including that of the state’s justice department, which is led by Rob Bonta.

Mia Bonta’s statement emphasized that while she believes there is no legal or ethical conflict in her role, she has recused herself so Californians “have absolute confidence in the legislative process.”

KCRA had first reported the possible conflict of interest and repeatedly pressed Mia Bonta on the issue.

The budget subcommittee is scheduled to discuss the Department of Justice’s budget on March 27.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon had appointed Mia Bonta to the subcommittee position and noted that the Assembly and Senate must agree on a budget, which then must be either signed or vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

Ontario-Montclair Superintendent Lost $100,000 From a Single Sentence Change in His Contract

James Hammond still made $646,744 last year, partly due to pay raises totaling more than 15%

Ontario-Montclair School District’s superintendent made roughly $100,000 less in 2022 after the school board removed a single sentence from his contract, according to a review of district records.

The amendment eliminated a longstanding provision that allowed Superintendent James Hammond to accrue and then immediately cash out up to 85 sick days annually. In 2021, Hammond was the highest paid superintendent in the state, with a total compensation package, including pay and benefits, just below $750,000.

Of that total, $129,506 came solely from trading in that year’s accrual of sick leave.

Newly obtained records show Hammond’s compensation dropped to $646,744 last year as a result of the amendment unanimously approved by the school board in June. The revision not only removed a sentence allowing him to cash-out sick time, but also capped Hammond’s accrual of sick time at 85 days per year. His contract originally gave him 30 days of sick leave, plus five days for each year of service since his hiring in 2010.

He is still permitted to trade in up to 25 days of vacation, according to his contract.

The district is required to pay Hammond for 444 days of banked sick leave and any amount of unused vacation days upon his exit from the district. He had 556 days of sick time and six vacation days banked as of October 2022. The California State Teachers Retirement System also converts any remaining unused sick leave above 12 days per year into additional service credits upon retirement.

Even with the reduction, Hammond would have still been the highest paid K-12 administrator in California compared to his peers from 2021, according to data compiled by Transparent California.

Compensation breakdown

Hammond’s annual compensation in 2022 included:

  • $447,641 in direct pay, including $39,903 from cashing out his entire vacation accrual for the year.
  • $62,202 in contributions to the California State Teachers Retirement System.
  • $75,150 in deferred compensation.
  • $27,500 for a whole-life insurance policy.
  • $34,251 toward health and wellness.

A Southern California News Group investigation in 2021 first detailed how Hammond used his carefully crafted contract and ever increasing amount of leave to raise his compensation to the top of the charts.

Records show the reduction in the superintendent’s pay last year is almost entirely attributable to the elimination of his sick leave cash-outs. Two salary increases allowed him to offset some of the loss, however.

Hammond’s contract lets him waive an annual cost-of-living increase to instead take any raise provided to the district’s bargaining units. He accepted a 4.76% raise given to California School Employees Association members in April, and then in October received an additional 10.25% raise as a result of the newly approved contracts with CSEA and the Ontario-Montclair Teachers Association, records showed.

15.5% raise in 2022

His salary jumped nearly 15.5% total in the calendar year, going from $26,591 per month in January 2022 to $30,712 a month in October.

The two unions have been generally supportive of the superintendent and endorsed his supporters on the board in the last election. Emails obtained in a public records request indicated the leaders of CSEA and OMTA warned Hammond that a reporter had contacted them to ask about his high pay in 2021.

Hammond is seemingly well-liked in Ontario-Montclair, and the school board has credited him with many of the district’s successes over the past decade, including the passage of a facilities bond in 2016 and reductions in suspensions and expulsions. The district’s academic performance is consistent with state averages in most cases, according to GreatSchools, a nonprofit that rates schools and districts to assist parents. Though OMSD is expected to have a deficit this school year, it has ended the past two years with surpluses, according to a recent annual audit report.

The district, like others in the state, is suffering from declining enrollment. It has lost 1,596 students since 2019, the audit found.

Voters reelected board members

Though some parents criticized Hammond’s high pay at board meetings in response to the Southern California News Group’s investigation, voters were less concerned and overwhelmingly supported all three incumbents in the 2022 election.

Board member Elvia Rivas, while serving as president in 2021, previously defended Hammond’s generous compensation and the sick-leave cash-outs specifically. She explained in an email at the time that Hammond’s pay was structured to provide “financial incentives for him to stay in OMSD and prevent the frequent turnover in the superintendent’s position that occurs in many urban school districts.”

“Dr. Hammond’s continuity of effective leadership has made a huge positive difference in the lives of students and the families we serve,” Rivas wrote.

Minutes of the June 16 meeting, when the board revoked the sick leave cash-outs, did not indicate any discussion by the board. The minutes show Hammond verbally outlined the changes, as required by law, and stated it would decrease the district’s fiscal obligations.

Rivas has not responded to past requests to explain the reasoning for the change. Neither Hammond, nor new board President Sonia Alvarado, a real estate agent who once helped Hammond sell a home the district bought for him, responded to requests for comment.

Click here to read the full article in the SB Sun