Democratic Assemblywoman Cleared of Harassment is Still Not Out of the Woods

Cristina GarciaThe “Me Too” anti-sexual harassment campaign that quickly yielded several resignations by state lawmakers last fall appears to have hit a lull in Sacramento with Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, now seemingly on track for re-election this November despite scandalous allegations. But new twists may loom.

Garcia, 40, appeared doomed to a primary defeat two months ago. She took a voluntary leave of absence after she was accused of groping a then-legislative staffer four years ago; making inappropriate comments to a lobbyist; playing “spin the bottle” with staffers; and of using racist and homophobic language. The perception that she was a weakened candidate led the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California – which supported her in 2014 and 2016 – to oppose her primary bid.

But between a preliminary probe finding no evidence for the most serious allegation against Garcia – that she groped a staffer – and the strong support of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, Garcia finished first in her June 5 primary. She got 29 percent of the votes to 27 percent for Republican activist Mike Simpfenderfer, a mortgage banker. The other five candidates in the race, all Democrats, split the remaining 44 percent of the vote.

Last week, however, saw two developments that suggested Garcia wasn’t out of the woods yet. The first came when the Assembly agreed to consider an appeal of its finding clearing Garcia of groping former legislative aide Daniel Fierro, who now works as a Los Angeles County political consultant. Fierro sought the appeal last month amid grumbling that the initial investigation of Garcia was released even though it was incomplete.

This concern may have been a factor in the second development: the call from two Democratic lawmakers for a much more transparent and responsive approach to allegations of misconduct involving state lawmakers and staffers.

Anti-gay, anti-Asian remarks could haunt Garcia

State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, said existing efforts to respond to sexual harassment don’t go nearly far enough to take on a “toxic” culture in the Capitol. They proposeestablishing a new investigative unit that would focus only on discrimination and harassment complaints; would handle probes for both the Assembly and the Senate; and would rely on an independent committee of experts to recommend punishment for those found guilty of wrongdoing. Legislators, however, still would have the final say on what if any penalties were assessed.

But the Mitchell-Friedman proposal targets not just the behavior that Garcia has so far been cleared of but behavior of the sort the Assembly probe found she had engaged in: using homophobic slurs to describe fellow Los Angeles County Democrat John Perez, the Assembly’s first openly gay speaker, and of threatening violence against Asian-Americans after some Asian-American lawmakers balked at affirmative-action proposals that they thought would help some minority groups but not their own.

“The proposed policy … aims to spur a shift in how people in the Capitol community speak and act toward each other,” the Associated Press reported. “It encourages people to report minor incidents such as insensitive comments all the way through more aggressive acts of misconduct.”

Rendon’s decision to defend Garcia while still appearing strongly sympathetic to the Me Too movement has been complicated by comments that suggest he thinks Garcia’s larger record of legislative priorities and accomplishments should matter in judging her behavior. Similar suggestions made in defense of former President Bill Clinton and now-former Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, triggered a furious backlash.

Rendon entered this territory in April when he denounced the building trades unions for seeking to replace Garcia with other Democrats whom Rendon said would be more willing to challenge aggressive environmental policies touted by Gov. Jerry Brown and all the party’s legislative leaders. A spokesperson for the unions said their opposition to Garcia was prompted not by her strong environmentalism but by sympathy for her alleged victim and a belief another candidate would better reflect the values of the 58th Assembly District.

But Rendon rejected the claims in a blistering statement posted by the Sacramento Bee in which he called the unions’ maneuvering “a thinly veiled attempt by Big Oil and polluters to intimidate me and my members,” “ an affront to my speakership” and an “ill-advised political attack.”

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California Democrats Seek to Ban High-Interest Consumer Loans

money bagCalifornia Democrats have filed a bill that would cap annual interest rates at 19 percent and wipe out about $2.7 billion in loans to California residents.

Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) introduced AB-2500, which would set a 19 percent interest rates cap for consumer loans with balances of between $2,500 and $10,000. The legislation in the last three weeks has picked up eight additional Democrat co-sponsors.

The California Legislature ended interest rate limitations for small loans above $2,500 in the 1980s. As a result, there was an estimated $1.5 billion in un-bankable intermediate-term loans issued to state residents, with over half the lending is at annual interest rates over 100 percent or more.

The new bill does not target very short-term pay-day loans, which can charge interest rates of up to 400 percent annualized to borrow up to $500 to bridge the gap between paychecks. But it would raise the cap from $2,500 to $10,000, for loans subject to a 19 percent interest rate limit.

The forecast impact on the $2.7 billion California industry would be to eliminate 98 percent of the $2,500 to $5,000 loans, and 95 percent of the $5,000 to $10,000 loans.

Kalra and other Democrats tried last year to ban the high interest rate practices, but the effort ran into industry lobbying and consumers desperate for emergency cash.

But as Chair of the Assembly Aging and Long Term Care Committee, Assemblyman Kalra has been able to host a number of large meetings for his “Safe Consumer Lending Act”over the last four months, including his latest in Sacramento on February 15.

Kalra highlights residents like JoAnn Hesson, who suffered from diabetes for many years. She is living on Social Security, and required twin surgeries to amputate a leg and provide a kidney transplant. Although she only borrowed $5,000, Hesson was eventually required to repay $42,000.

According to Assemblyman Kalra: “California has no shortage of predatory lenders. We see them pop-up around the state, especially in low-income neighborhoods. These types of loans, those with exorbitantly high interest rates, hurt hard working families the most,”

Principal co-author Sen. Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) added: “Compound irresponsible behavior by unscrupulous lending institutions with a recent federal proposal to end key consumer-protection measures for payday loans, and it is clear California must do more to protect families.”

AB 2500 is also co-sponsored by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) – 5th Episcopal District; Asian Law Alliance; Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles; Unidos US (formerly the National Council of La Raza); and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

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New Laws Would Soften Penalties for California Juvenile Criminals

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr

In a fresh bid to reform California’s criminal justice system, Sacramento lawmakers have begun to advance several bills, many aimed at softening juvenile punishment. “Democratic state senators Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles and Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens are proposing four bills intended to keep more youthful offenders out of the criminal justice system,” as the Associated Press noted.

“State senators in California on Monday introduced an eight-bill justice reform package focused on juveniles that would create a minimum age incarceration standard, a ban on sentencing minors to life without parole and Miranda rights protections,” according to Courthouse News. “Senate Bill 190 would extend financial relief to families with children in the justice system by nixing court administrative fees, and Senate Bill 395 would require minors to consult with an attorney before waiving their rights during interrogations.” Senate Bill 439, another piece of legislation, would tweak jurisdictional rules to ensure minors under the age of 12 do not wind up in juvenile court.

String of changes

At a recent hearing around the bills, lines of support and opposition took familiar shape. “Witnesses urged lawmakers to support legislation they said would ensure the fair treatment of children under the law,” the Los Angeles Times recalled. “But law enforcement groups and prosecutors said it could keep authorities from holding offenders accountable and hinder officers from carrying out investigations.”

At a recent appearance at a Sacramento elementary school, the bills’ two sponsors worked to portray their changes in rational and moral terms. “Mitchell, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, acknowledged some minors are involved in serious crime,” Capital Public Radio reported. “But she spoke out against incarcerating children under 12 years old as if they were ‘pint-sized’ adults.”

Activists pushing to further liberalize California’s incarceration laws have seen statewide success focusing on the fraught relationship between crime and child punishment. “In recent years, state legislation and propositions have attempted to create greater court protections for young offenders and to lower the population of incarcerated youth, as research on brain development has found that children learn differently from adults and should be afforded a criminal justice approach centered on rehabilitation,” the Times noted separately. “The latest victory for criminal justice advocates was Proposition 57, which will now require a judge’s approval before most juvenile defendants can be tried in an adult court.”

Curbing prison culture

But adult justice also received some attention, with proposed amendments “weakening drug enhancement sentencing procedures, nixing public defender reimbursement fees for individuals found innocent by the court and sealing arrest records of those not convicted of a crime,” according to Courthouse News. “The lawmakers hope the reforms will reduce county costs related to minor drug sentences and remove employment barriers for people accused but not convicted of a felony or misdemeanor.”

Other recent criminal justice reforms have advanced quickly in Sacramento. One, targeting abuses in prison snitch rewards, passed its first legislative test with flying colors. “Assembly Bill 359 on Tuesday sailed unanimously through the state Assembly Public Safety Committee,” as the Orange County Register noted. “Under the bill, snitches like Mexican Mafia members Raymond “Puppet” Cuevas and Jose “Bouncer” Paredes would no longer be able to live like kings behind bars, raking in as much as $3,000 a case as well as cartons of Marlboro cigarettes, fast food, Xbox machines and other perks.”

“The bill caps all monetary and nonmonetary payments to informants at $100 per case, including any investigatory work. Currently, the cap is $50 per case for testimony and no limit in compensation for investigation,” the paper observed. “Additionally, the bill requires prosecutors to keep databases that track informant work and locations, and to turn detailed informant histories over to defense attorneys no later than 30 days before the preliminary hearing.”

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CA lawmakers advance bill to decriminalize prostitution for minors

As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

A controversial bill that would decriminalize prostitution for minors squeezed out of the California Assembly on Thursday and is now headed back to the Senate for a final vote.

SB 1322, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), would make the crimes of solicitation and loitering with intent to commit prostitution misdemeanors inapplicable to children younger than 18. It also would allow law enforcement to take sexually exploited children into temporary custody if leaving them unattended would pose an immediate threat to their health or safety.

The measure passed Thursday with a 42-29 vote. It was one of two bills heard Thursday seeking to decriminalize prostitution.

SB 1129, authored by Bill Monning (D-Carmel), would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for specified prostitution offenses. It moved out of Assembly with a 42-26 vote and is also headed back to the Senate for a final vote.  …

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Tightening the Law on Civil Asset Seizures

Asset forfeitureFew nightmares can be more frightening to conservatives than the image of government agents running amok and seizing citizens’ property without due process. We like to think it can’t happen here.

But it can happen. And it is happening – on a regular basis.

Civil asset seizure without due process is taking place today across America, to the tune of  $2.5 billion in assets taken by the government over the past 15 years.

The reason why Republicans haven’t made this legalized smash and grab an election issue is simple – government agents claim they are grabbing the assets of drug dealers. It’s the perfect cover. 

Nobody wants to support drug dealers. The problem is, under federal law, government agents get to define who fits under the drug-dealer label. Agents can take first and ask questions later.

Under current rules of asset seizure, federal agents are asked to produce “clear and convincing” evidence that the assets are tied to drugs. But the evidence isn’t necessarily subject to a jury’s verdict. No judicial finding of guilt is required for federal agents to take your house, car and bank accounts.

Due process is short-circuited. Rule of law is deployed at a minimum threshold.

In other words, citizens can only hope the government gets it right when it comes to civil asset seizure. How comforting is that?

A national movement has begun to tighten the rules and bring due process into the practice. Many conservative organizations, including the Institute for Justice, Heritage Foundation and the Koch Institute, support legislation to bring stronger legal protocols to asset seizure.

In California, the State Legislature can introduce some accountability to the free hand created by federal rules on asset seizure.

Senate Bill 443, introduced by State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), would require California law enforcement agencies to bring or obtain a criminal conviction before they seize someone’s assets. The proposed legislation has bipartisan support but needs all the help it can get.

The bill would keep asset forfeiture cases in California courts, rather than handing them over to federal jurisdiction. This is important, and it’s why SB 443 is opposed by many local law enforcement agencies.

Under current rules, local agencies can circumvent California law and send seized assets to the feds for “adoption” under loose federal rules. The feds typically take a 20 percent cut for “adopting” the case. SB 443 would end the dubious practice of “adoption.”

And SB 443 would help prevent guiltless spouses from suffering financially when allegations are made against their partners. Under federal law, if you made the mistake of marrying the wrong person, too bad. SB 443 gives protection to innocent spouses.

No doubt, SB 443 raises difficult questions for conservatives. It exposes Republicans to the charge of being soft on crime, to not exerting maximum leverage on drug dealers.

But the bill speaks to larger questions – the rule of law and the reach of the federal government. If we lose sight of those concerns in rhetoric about drug dealers, another chunk of our democracy will be gone.

Obviously, convicted drug dealers should not be allowed to protect their assets. But before the government grabs someone’s property, we should at least make sure the accused person has committed the crime.

The rule of law requires a trial and conviction. Coincidentally, a trial and conviction is the minimum threshold established by SB 443.

artner at GrassrootsLab, and a nationally recognized expert on Latino voting trends. In 2001, named one of America’s “Most Influential Hispanics” by Hispanic Business Magazine.

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Attack on Prop 13 Faces Long Odds

The original Proposition 13 was four paragraphs long fitting on one side of a piece of paper. SCA 5, the measure to change Proposition 13 introduced by Senators Loni Hancock and Holly Mitchell yesterday intended to increase taxes on business property is 30 pages long. Without going into the details of the proposed changes, suffice it to say the groups behind the proposal, liberal organizations and public employee unions, want more tax dollars to spend. That is despite the fact that the state treasury is enjoying a big boost in revenue.

The rhetoric of “fairness” spoken by supporters at the press conference announcing the bill does not match the impact of what the proposed law intends to do. Sen. Mitchell said at the press conference, “What we are looking to do is to take those few that are benefitting from under-assessment and bring them in line with everyone else.” 

The measure would not raise taxes on a “few” but re-assess all business property annually so that they can pay the highest property tax possible.

Most of the news reports following the press conference that announced the filing of the bill spoke of “long odds” and “high hurdles” to get the bill through the legislature. Since the proposal is a constitutional amendment, it requires a two thirds vote to be placed on the ballot. Many news articles noted that there are no Republican votes for the measure.

A more interesting question is how many Democratic legislators will vote for SCA 5? I can imagine right now there are a number of political consultants drawing up campaign mailers that say: Candidate X voted to change Proposition 13.

While there seems little expectation that this proposal will get through the legislature, it is anticipated that a split roll could become an initiative measure.

The recent PPIC poll question on a split roll found only 50-percent of the voters support the idea. That mark was recorded against a simple question asking if commercial property should pay taxes based on full market value. There were no arguments offered to the respondents about possible consequences such as thousands of lost jobs, a stifling of economic growth, and devaluation of commercial property when new property taxes are capitalized into the value of the property.

A multi-million dollar campaign pointing out the negative consequences of a split roll is sure to take shape if the split roll makes the ballot.

Curiously, there is one good feature about the bill — but it was added as a form of bait to draw off criticism about the effects a split roll would have on small businesses.

In an effort to placate small businesses, a feature written into the law offers all businesses a $500,000 exemption on tangible personal property used by businesses. Frankly, personal property taxes should be done away with for businesses just as property taxes for residential personal property was eliminated years ago.

However, in SCA 5 the authors would substitute for the personal property exemption an increased subjective property assessment on structures and land with all the uncertainties of annual re-assessments that drove taxpayers to pass Proposition 13 in the first place.

Could there be another reason for the pursuit of the split roll beside the tax revenue increase to pay for services, salaries and pensions?

The push for the split roll comes at a time when there are serious discussions in certain circles about how to keep the revenue flowing from the Proposition 30 tax increase that is due to expire over the next few years.

Some might see a split roll tax increase as a substitute for the Prop 30 taxes. Pushing a split roll measure might also be a move to get all the public unions to agree on a single tax measure in which they all benefit.

It is generally perceived that Prop 30 money has been good for the schools and the teachers unions. The Service Employees International Union clearly has its fingerprints all over the split roll movement. Will this measure force the teachers unions to deal with the non-education folks on a Prop 30 extension so that two tax measures are not on the same ballot?

Or are the unions in agreement — desiring to push two major tax increases and making everyone in their camps happy?

While making the taxpayers furious.

Interesting times ahead.

Follow Joel Fox on Twitter @1JoelFox1

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

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