Sarah Phelan

Ross for boss (of the sheriff’s department)


City Hall’s steps were awash in multi-lingual black and yellow “Ross Mirkarimi for Sherrif” signs at noon today, as Mirkarimi supporters watched Sheriff Mike Hennessey, who is stepping down after 31 years of service and eight elections, endorse Sup. Mirkarimi as the next sheriff.  “New Leadership for a Safe San Francisco” was printed on the English version of the signs that Mirkarimi’s supporters carried. They included former Mayor Art Agnos, Sups. David Campos and Eric Mar, Tim Paulson of the Labor Council, Debra Walker, Linda Richardson, Sharen Hewitt, Terry Anders, and Mirkarimi’s partner Eliana Lopez and their almost two-year old son Theo. And everyone had plenty of great things to say about outgoing sheriff Hennessey and sheriff candidate Mirkarimi. And Hennessey even pinned a shiny toy sheriff’s badge onto the T-shirt of Mirkarimi’s son Theo, making him the happiest kid in town. At least for the day.

Campos kicked off the event by honoring Hennessey as the “most progressive and most effective sheriff in the country.”
“Mike Hennessey is also my neighbor in District 9. I see him taking out the trash so I know he’s a good neighbor,” Campos joked, as he listed the many achievements in Hennessey’s long career as an elected official in San Francisco. These achievements included Hennessey’s pioneering innovations in criminal justice and culminated in his decision to blow the whistle in 2010 on the federal government’s plan to activate its controversial Secure Communities program in San Francisco—without telling the public.
“He’s not afraid to stand up for what’s right,” Campos said.

‘This is the time for me to move on,” Hennessey announced, as he laid out his reasons for endorsing Mirkarimi as Sheriff, over other candidates in the field.
Hennessey described the Sheriff’s Department as a “large enterprise” that has over 1,000 employees, a $150 million budget and whose jail houses an average population of 2,000 folks in custody, on a daily basis.
“It’s not something that can be handled lightly,” Hennessey said. “That’s why I’m here to endorse Ross Mirkarimi as the next sheriff.”

Hennessey listed the many endeavors that he and Mirkarimi have worked closely on, including a number of criminal justice issues, and he cited Mirkarimi’s extensive law enforcement background, his significant legislative accomplishments in the areas of criminal justice and public safety, and his ability to find innovative solutions and overcome obstacles to progress, as reasons to support Mirkarimi.

Hennessey observed that criminal justice is “one of the thornier issues” that members of the Board of Supervisors are often asked to get involved in, but often duck.”But Ross has not shied away from working on them,” Hennessey said, citing Mirkarimi’s involvement in shaping the “No Violence Alliance Project” and his leadership in creating the Safe Communities Re-entry Council.

Hennessey also noted that in face of AB 109, the Governor’s plan to transfer state inmates to county jails, “it’s vitally important to have person in charge of sheriff’s office that understands these alliances and can make them work more effectively.”

Hennessey concluded by observing that the Sherrif’s Department has to deal with a lot of bureaucracy, so it’s important to understand how the Board, the budget process and other city departments, including the District Attorney’s office and the police, work.
‘And that’s why I’m endorsing Ross as Sheriff,” Hennessey said

Then it was the turn of Mirkarimi, who graduated from the San Francisco Police Academy, did Naval Reserve training and worked for more than 8 years as an investigator for the District Attorney’s office, to speak.

“I have never been at a loss for words,” Mirkarimi acknowledged, as he launched into a speech that began by thanking everyone for showing up at short notice “for one of the most important occasions of my political career.”

Mirkarimi did a great job of giving Hennessey the praise he deserves.
“He is a living legend,” Mirkarimi said. “It’s completely impossible to fill his shoes.”
Citing Hennessey’s integrity and his ability to innovate, Mirkarimi warned that, “Maybe it’s come to the point where we have taken him for granted. He’s the longest serving elected official in the history of San Francisco, and he’s probably the most understated.”

“And the most important endorsement in this race is that of Mike Hennessey,” Mirkarimi added, as he gave Hennessey his commitment “to build upon your legacy as effectively as possible.”

Mirkarimi cited some of the most immediate and serious challenges that face the next sheriff. These include AB 109, which Gov. Jerry Brown just signed, which. Mirkarimi said, threatens to increase the reentry prisoner level by 30 percent in California. “It will take creative ingenuity and resources to make sure we are effective in taking care of this population,” he said.

Mirkarimi also touched on the rising number of veterans that are ending up in the prison system, talked more about the No Violence Alliance Project, and suggested that certified deputy sheriffs could help serve warrants, transfer prisoners, and patrol Muni, “when the police department finds itself understaffed” so as to ensure that San Francisco is safe.

“For every four people arrested and jailed in San Francisco, three out of four are repeat offenders in a three-year period,” Mirkarimi warned, by way of explaining why he wants to advance a more collaborative spirit between SPPD and the Sheriff’s department.

Mirkarimi also noted that one out of every 15 African American males are in jail, at any time in the year, compared to I out of 300 males who are not black or brown. “So, we must step up our game in dealing with poverty,” he said, as he recommended increased access to job training and good jobs, “so work doesn’t become a seasonal hope but a permanent job.” He also made the connections between a lack of good housing, childcare, and schools and a rise in poverty, crime and recidivism.

Mirkarimi concluded by crediting Hennessey for “walking that fine pirouette” between upholding the principles of public safety and understanding the power of redemption at the same time.

I asked Sheriff Mike Hennessey what he considers to be the biggest challenges of running for sheriff/
“Letting people know what you are going to do, and what your issues are,” Hennessey said, noting that San Francisco has an intelligent, issues-driven electorate.

And Mirkarimi’s supporters weren’t shy about letting folks know the issues that the current D5 Supervisor has helped them with, over the years.

“Ross, as a supervisor and me, as someone who comes from a community of color, we know the habits that ex-offenders can bring with them, if there are no safety nets,” said Terry Anders who sits with Mirkarimi on the Safe Communities Reentry Council. “And I believe in what Ross stands for and the integrity of his person. He’s one of the first people to show up when there are crimes and victims, and he attends basketball games and boxing matches.”

Paulette Brown, whose son Aubrey Abraska Jr, was murdered in August 2006, but whose killers have still not been brought to justice.
“We shouldn’t have to run and leave our families, we should be protected,” Brown said. “Ross is my district supervisor and if he can get in, and do something about crime and solve unsolved homicides, then I’m for him. Maybe if he gets in, he’ll have more pull to do something about these unresolved cases.”

And then it was back to work, which for Mirkarimi now includes the somewhat daunting task of trying to raise money in an election year that also includes a mayor’s race, but does not include the help of public financing, at least not for the sherrif’s race….

The case against consolidation


With officials predicting that San Francisco will spend $500 million annually on health care costs for city employees and retirees, the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee held an April 28 hearing to analyze why hospitals costs are higher in Northern California than Southern California, and why costs have escalated in the last decade.

A panel of experts outlined a list of cost drivers and identified hospital consolidation as the major culprit — a finding that fueled concerns that costs will skyrocket once Sutter Health, which operates the California Pacific Medical Center that took over St Luke’s in 2005, builds a 555-bed hospital on Cathedral Hill. The board will consider approving the project as soon as this summer.

Ellen Shaffer, codirector of the Center for Policy Analysis, said that the city’s recently approved Health Care Services Master Plan (“Critical Care,” 11/23/10) provides San Francisco with leverage to collect and analyze data and make informed health choices.

Shaffer noted that since 1960, when there were 26 hospitals in San Francisco, facilities consolidated so frequently that by 1990, only 12 hospitals remained. And by 1998, the three largest hospital networks controlled 43 percent of hospital beds — compared to 18 percent just four years earlier.

“Today in San Francisco, the most expensive of the northern counties hospitals get $7,349 per patient per day on average,” she said. “In Los Angeles County, the figure is $4,389.”

David Hopkins, a senior advisor at the Pacific Business Group on Health, said that Sutter Health, which reported a 30 percent increase in net income in 2010, already controls 44 percent of hospital beds in San Francisco. Catholic Healthcare West controls 28 percent, and UCSF controls 26 percent. “Insurance companies say Sutter’s size and dominant position give it an upper hand in contract negotiations,” Hopkins observed.

Healthcare planning and policy consultant Lucy Johns said technology is another key cost driver. “It’s a medical arms race,” Johns said. “Every hospital wants the latest everything.”

Jane Sandoval, a registered nurse at St Luke’s, said that what residents and workers need is access to affordable healthcare, not luxury care at overpriced rates.

“We’d rather have enough staff and the ability to care for all patients than work in a facility that’s likened to a five-star hotel,” Sandoval said. She noted that State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones filed suit April 13 to intervene on behalf of the plaintiff in a whistleblower suit against Sutter Health, which has been accused of fraudulently charging insurers millions of dollars for anesthesia services that either weren’t provided or were billed higher than typical rates.

Anne McLeod, senior vice president of health policy for the California Hospital Association, an industry trade group, claimed that Northern California’s higher hospital prices are primarily due to higher labor and living costs in the Bay Area. “Wages are a huge component of hospital costs, and they represent the fastest growing component of costs,” she said.

But Glenn Melnick, a professor of health care finance at the University of Southern California, said that even if a hospital was airlifted from Los Angeles to San Francisco, its costs would still be 38 percent higher after adjusting for local differences. “When hospitals consolidate into large systems that dominate a specific region, that hospital system has the power to demand contracts from health plans that include high reimbursement rates for their services and limit the ability of health plans to offer low-cost products and share the data consumers need to compare costs across providers,” Melnick said

Sup. David Campos, who called for the hospital costs hearing, observed that the cost of creating jobs includes health care benefits. “So to the extent that things like hospital consolidation are increasing costs, the hospitals themselves are implicated,” he said.

But CPMC media relations manager Kevin McCormack noted that CPMC/Sutter has invested more than $7 billion since 2000 on technology, facility construction, and improvements to address medical needs and state seismic safety requirements.

“Sutter Health appreciates its role in ensuring that health care is affordable. And we realize that holding the line on prices without compromising quality will require additional cost reductions,” McCormack said. “To this end, doctors and nurses and support staff throughout our Sutter Health network are working aggressively to substantially reduce expenses.”

He denied that Sutter had engaged in inappropriate anesthesia billing practices. “The lawsuit paints a false and inaccurate picture,” McCormack said.

He also said that plenty of competition remains in Northern California. “The decision by the California Public Employees Retirement System in 2004 to shift a significant number of members away from Sutter-affiliated hospitals to other providers demonstrates there’s plenty of healthy competition,” McCormack said.

But Campos said the hearing clarified that, while there are different factors why costs are going up, one of the most important is hospital consolidation. “We need to ensure that we understand that, even in face of higher labor and cost of living costs, hospital costs in Northern California are still 30 percent higher than Southern California,” Campos said.

Noting that CalPERS excluded Sutter from its network, Campos added: “We need to follow suit in terms of saying that we’re only going to do business with hospitals that are responsive to our concerns and follow best practices.”


Japan’s “unconscionable” radiation levels for schools


Japan Times is reporting that Physicians for Social Responsibility, a U.S.-based nonprofit, is challenging Tokyo’s position that it is safe for school kids to use playgrounds in the nuclear-stricken Fukushima Prefecture as long as the dose they are exposed to does not exceed 20 millisieverts (20 millirems) a year.

PSR has condemned those safety standards as “unconscionable”, Japan Times reported.

“Any exposure, including exposure to naturally occurring background radiation, creates an increased risk of cancer,” PSR said in a statement. “Children are much more vulnerable than adults to the effects of radiation, and fetuses are even more vulnerable. “

PSR claimed that a twenty millisieverts standard for children exposes them to a 1 in 200 risk of getting cancer. “And if they are exposed to this dose for two years, the risk is 1 in 100,” PSR’s statement said. “There is no way that this level of exposure can be considered ‘safe’ for children.”

Here in San Francisco, the Bay Citizen has an interesting piece about the difficulties of evaluating the real dangers from Japan’s unfolding crisis.

Homeowner defense groups to target Wells Fargo shareholders


“Foreclosures are the new F-Word.” So said Regina Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation, at an April 29 seminar at SFHDC’s office on Third Street that explored ways to prevent more foreclosures in San Francisco, California and beyond.

Since the economic meltdown in 2008, there have been 2,000 foreclosures in San Francisco. And the majority have impacted low-income folks and communities of color, who were sold more predatory loans than other groups, Davis and a panel of foreclosure experts warned
And as the recession drags on, another 2,000 foreclosures could be in the works, further destabilizing communities and draining more resources from the city, in terms of lost property values and related tax revenues.

And while deep-pocketed lobbyists have been making it hard to pass laws that would offer at-risk homeowners more protections, homeowner defender groups have decided to target, and now protest against, the group they believe stand directly in the way of equitable reforms: the banks.
 “Wells-Fargo CEO John Stumpf took home $21 million in 2009 while his bank received $25 billion in TARP funds,” stated a flier that ACCE (formerly ACORN) and the Home Defenders League are distributing to urge folks to meet at Justin Herman Plaza at 11: 30 a.m., May 3 and march to the Wells Fargo shareholder meeting where protesters plan to personally deliver a list of their demands to WF CEO Stumpf.

“He and his cronies fought tooth and nail to kill consumer protection bills in California and around the country and are currently trying to gut a 50-state Attorneys General settlement with homeowners that have been defrauded,” the flier concluded.
It noted that ACCE and the Home Defenders League sponsored this event, in partnership with the California State Labor Federation, the California Nurses Association, Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organizing, Causa Justa: Just Cause, ENLACE, Jobs for Justice, National Education Association, Oakland Education Association PICO California, PICO National Network, SEIU United Service Workers West and Local 1021 and Tenants Together.

“We are also part of The New Bottom Line, a national campaign focused on creating an economy that works for the many, and not the few,” the flier stated.

And the next chief is…yes, Suhr!


Mayor Ed Lee appointed a deeply emotional Captain Greg Suhr as Chief of the San Francisco Police Department during a swearing-in ceremony where the majority of folks were either elected officials, running for election, running each other’s electoral campaigns—or wearing SFPD uniforms.

And in the end it seemed that the choice may have been influenced by pressure from the powerful San Francisco Police Officers Association, judging from the comment Lee jokingly directed at SFPOA leader Gary Delagnes, saying, “Gary, it’s time to get quiet and go to work.”

Lee told a standing-room only crowd that when he returned from Hong Kong to San Francisco four months ago finding a new police chief was his top priority. And that initially it was suggested (Lee did not say by whom) that he leave the SFPD situation alone and allow an elected mayor to appoint the next Chief.

‘While I am an interim mayor, this is not an interim decision,” Lee told the crowd, signaling that while he may be out of office in January, Suhr may be here to stay as the city’s top cop.

“Today, I’ve chosen the best candidate,” Lee continued, thanking Acting Chief Jeff Godown for his work leading the SFPD since former Mayor Gavin Newsom made the shocking decision to appoint former Chief George Gascón as District Attorney.

But while Newsom’s move may have upset the apple cart in the D.A.’s race, it sure seems to be working out well for Suhr.

Describing Suhr as “a police and people’s Chief: and “a reformer from the inside out,” Lee ran through a long list of the new Chief’s contributions to the SFPD. These included Suhr’s 30 years of service, his climb through the ranks to become Captain of the Mission station, his gig as Captain of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in a Homeland Security capacity, and, since 2009, as Captain of the Bayview station.

Suhr began by saying he was “speechless.” Donning glasses to read a speech that he had prepared the night before, Suhr choked up when he talked of being “fourth-generation, born and raised in San Francisco.” Recovering his composure, Suhr smoothly changed gears, as he joked how his appointment therefore makes him “a local hire,”—an insider reference to Sup. John Avalos’ recently approved local hire legislation that Mayor Lee is helping enact citywide.

Suhr recalled how he started out as a rookie on the midnight shift in the Tenderloin in 1981. He thanked his family, his friends and his girlfriend Wendy. And then he asked for a moment of silence “ to honor the memory of all the brave officers who have given their lives in the line of duty.”

Lee reclaimed the podium long enough to jokingly ask Suhr  “to investigate the whereabouts of my birth certificate” as his first assignment as the new chief.

Then it was Board President David Chiu’s turn. Chiu described Suhr as someone, ”who knows our streets, walked the walk, and knows the beats, someone who we all feel confident will be able to bring the SFPD the reform that former Chief Godown, Chief Gascón and Chief Heather Fong initiated. “

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein, who is the daughter of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the presiding judge of the Superior Court, recalled how she has known Suhr since the mid 1980s. “I have watched him as each of our careers have moved forward,” Feinstein said, noting how there were some “steps forward and some steps backward” and how, “there were those who thought this day would never come.” (Feinstein’s words were the only reference to some of the less sunny moments in Suhr’s long and distinguished career. These included his 2003 indictment as part of Fajitagate, an incident that involved off-duty officers, a bag of take-out food, a beer bottle and injuries sustained by two local residents. Suhr was cleared of wrongdoing the next year, but was reassigned by then Chief Heather Fong to the PUC position after an incident in 2005, in which a police officer was seriously injured at an anarchist protest, and videographer Josh Wolf was held in federal prison for 226 days after he refused to release unedited footage of the protest.)

Next up was D.A Gascón and his rooster-like shock of silver hair. Gascón noted that when he first came to San Francisco, in the summer of 2009, he had no allegiances to, and no prior knowledge of, people inside the SFPD.

“I looked at Greg Suhr and one of the things that impressed me is how he worked with and related to people,” Gascón said, explaining why he appointed Suhr as Bayview Captain “Not only has he exceeded all expectations he did an incredible job,” he said.

 Police Commission President Thomas Mazzucco said that in the 100 days since the Commission announced it was looking for a new chief, it became clear that Suhr has the support of SFPD’s rank-and-file.

Mazzuco noted that he met Suhr in high school. “I knew he could hold a ball,” Mazzuco added, noting that he subsequently became Suhr’s football coach, even though he is younger than Suhr. “What the Police Commission has brought to us is not only a native son but also a cop’s cop. It’s an honor to have him as his chief.”

And after the swearing-in, the sentiment among officers in blue appeared to be strongly in Suhr’s favor. Lt. Ken Lee of Central Station recalled how he and Suhr went through the police academy together about 30 years ago.

“We went to different assignments but we’ve maintained a friendship,” Lee said. “The moment I met him I liked him. He was a very stand-up person, and as a native San Franciscan like myself, you could tell he had strong ties to the city. He’s a hard worker, he’s very dedicated to what he does.”

Lt. Mario Delgadillo, also of Central Station, said Suhr hasn’t lost his connection to the street. “That also means a lot, when you have a boss who’s walking with you,” Delgadillo said.

Suhr takes over the SFPD as it’s grappling with the fallout from a recent spate of scandals, including videos that Public Defender Jeff Adachi released that appear to show police misconduct at residential hotels and that forced DA Gascón to hand over his investigation of this alleged police misconduct to the FBI. Asked during a media roundtable what his appointment means for Acting Chief Godown, Suhr said Godown has returned to being Assistant Chief of Operations, which was the post he held before Gascón, who recruited Godown from LAPD, was appointed DA.

In response to a question about his top priorities as police chief, Suhr noted, “When I sit down with the mayor this afternoon, the mayor’s going to tell me what his priorities are. My first priority will be blocking the door open on the 5th floor so that if you wanna come see me you can, like it used to be. Then I have to meet with the command staff and captains and get their take on where they think we are, where they think we’re moving forward best, and match that up against how I’ve seen from a position of Bayview, how that matches up. And then see if I can’t meet with different community groups, the different police employee groups and the command staff.”

He didn’t mince words when it came to indicating that SFPD officers are going to be asked to give back during upcoming budget negotiations
“I’m sure that there’s going to have to be adjustments and I look forward to working with a collaborative effort with the mayor and the board and the unions and the rank and file,” Suhr said. “When the economy’s been good we’ve benefited by it, and now that the economy has … gone the other way, to some extent I think that the officers are willing to give back to do whatever needs to be done to keep the city safe.”

So, how does Suhr think he differs from former Chief Gascón? 

”He has a gorgeous head of hair,” Suhr joked. “To put it in a sports analogy, he’s a quarterback shortstop guy, and I’m more of a catcher, lineman, linebacker kind of guy. But I admire him, I think he moved a lot of issues forward for the police department, and I look forward to continuing those initiatives and giving a few of them a shot in the arm that I think were beginning to wane a bit.”

Suhr also talked about how he has always wanted to become a police officer (a comment that suggests he’s not planning to use the Chief’s post as a stepping stone to the District Attorney’s Office).

”When I went into the police department. on Silver Avenue which is now Willie Brown Academy — that was the police academy back in 1991 when I came in — man, we looked at just the regular uniformed police officers with just stars in our eyes, because they were just the sharpest, classiest folks that we were aspiring to be,” Suhr said.

And he indicated that as Chief, he won’t tolerate dishonesty in the face of ongoing investigations into alleged police misconduct. ”The character of a police officer must be above reproach,” Suhr said. “And I think that the investigation will show what it ends up showing, but I don’t think that there’s a police officer in San Francisco that would want to have a dishonest cop and I’d be at the top of that list. So I want all my officers to be of character that is above reproach.

Asked if he welcome clarification around the duties of SFPD officers assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Taskforce, Suhr said he believed an examination of the wording of the FBI’s most recent memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the department was already under way.

“I believe that the MOU is being revisited,” Suhr said. “I have not been a part of that, but again I think we have a real good policy with regard to our intelligence gathering and that does supercede any ask of any other agency. The officers are bound by policies and procedures. And that policy was well thought out with tremendous community and group input years and years ago, from situations that have not since repeated themselves. I think a lot of people back then couldn’t believe they happened in the first place, but I think measures were well thought out and put in place to make sure we don’t have a problem again.”

And at the end of the day, Suhr expressed the hope that his tenure as Chief would endure long after the interim mayor is replaced by an elected mayor.

”I’m a native San Franciscan, and this is a dream come true,” he said. “It’s my first day. However this story ends, with a little bit of luck (raps on the wood tabletop) it’s not going to end today.”

Spies in blue


San Francisco cops assigned to the FBI’s terrorism task force can ignore local police orders and California privacy laws to spy on people without any evidence of a crime.

That’s what a recently released memo appears to say — and it has sent shockwaves through the civil liberties community.

It also has members of the S.F. Police Commission asking why a carefully crafted set of rules on intelligence gathering, approved in the wake of police spy scandals in the 1990s, were bypassed without the knowledge or consent of the commission.

“It’s a bombshell,” said John Crew, a long-time police practices expert with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

The ACLU obtained the document April 4 under the California Public Records Act after a long battle. It’s a 2007 memorandum of understanding outlining the terms of an agreement between the city and the FBI for San Francisco’s participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

And, according to Crew, it effectively puts local officers under the control of the FBI. “That means Police Commission policies do not apply,” Crew said. “It allows San Francisco police to circumvent local intelligence-gathering policies and follow more permissive federal rules.”

Veena Dubal, a staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, agreed: “This MOU confirms our worst fears,” she said.

Dubal noted that in the waning months of the Bush administration, the FBI changed its policies to allow federal authorities to collect intelligence on a person even if the subject is not suspected of a crime. The FBI is now allowed to spy on Americans who have done nothing wrong — and who may be engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment.

FBI activity under this new “assessment” category has since come under fire, and a recent report in The New York Times showed that the FBI has conducted thousands of assessments each month, and that these guidelines continue under Obama.

And if the feds do control San Francisco police policy, then the San Francisco cops could be spying on innocent people — a dramatic change from longstanding city policy. “The MOU is disturbing,” Police Commission member Petra DeJesus told the Guardian. “The department is assuring us that local policies are not being violated — but it looks as if it’s subject to interpretation.”

It’s the latest sign of a dangerous trend: San Francisco cops are working closely with the feds, often in ways that run counter to city policy.

And it raises a far-reaching question: With a district attorney who used to be police chief, a civilian commission that isn’t getting a straight story from the cops, and a climate of secrecy over San Francisco’s intimate relations with outside agencies, who is watching the cops?



San Francisco has a long — and ugly — history of police surveillance on political groups. SFPD officers spied on law-abiding organizations during the 1984 Democratic National Convention; kept files in the 1980s on 100 Bay Area civil, labor, and special interest groups; and carried out undercover surveillance of political groups focused on El Salvador and Central America.

Those abuses led the Police Commission to develop a departmental general order in 1990 known as DGO 8.10. The local intelligence guidelines require “articulable and reasonable suspicion” before SFPD officers are allowed to collect information on anyone.

Even those rules weren’t enough to halt the spies in blue. In 1993, police inspector Tom Gerard was caught spying on political groups — particularly Arab American and anti-apartheid organizations and groups Gerard described as “pinko” — and selling that information to agents for the Anti-Defamation League.

As the ACLU and Asian Law Caucus noted in a December 2010 letter to Cdr. Daniel Mahoney: “That scandal was not just about the fact that peaceful organizations and individuals were being unlawfully spied upon and their private information sold to foreign governments, but that the guidelines adopted in 1990 had never been fully implemented by SFPD. No officers had been trained on the new guidelines and no meaningful audit had ever been implemented.”

Over the years, the commission has tried to keep tabs on police intelligence and prevent more spy scandals. The general order mandates that local police officials have to request general authority from a commanding officer and the chief to investigate any activity that comes under First Amendment protections — and must specify in the request what the facts are that give rise to this suspicion of criminal activity. The order also states that the chief can’t approve any request that doesn’t include evidence of possible criminal activity.

Those requests are reviewed monthly by the Police Commission and there are annual audits of the SFPD files to monitor compliance — so the notion that the local cops are joining the FBI spy squad without commission oversight is more than a little disturbing.

Officials with the FBI and SFPD are doing their best to reassure the local community that there’s nothing to worry about. But so far their replies seem to duck questions about whether FBI guidelines trump local policies. For example, the MOU states that “when there is a conflict, [task force members] are held to the standard that provides the greatest organizational benefit.”

We asked Mahoney to clarify: does that mean the local cops could be held to the FBI’s standards?

“The San Francisco Police Officer(s) who are assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force always have and continue to be required to follow all SFPD’s policies and procedures,” Mahoney replied in a statement.

That’s confusing; do they follow SFPD policies, or obey the MOU?

We asked FBI special agent-in-charge Stephanie Douglas whether SFPD officers are involved in surveillance and “assessments” (that FBI code word for creating spy files on individuals and groups) and whether they are identifying as SFPD or FBI officers.

“The FBI only initiates investigations on allegations of criminal wrongdoing or threats to our national security,” Douglas replied April 21. “Our investigations are conducted in compliance with the Constitution, the laws of the United States, the Attorney General Guidelines, the Domestic Investigation and Operations Guide, and all other FBI policies.”

Okay, that’s typical FBI-speak. Here’s more: “The JTTF is a task force comprised of FBI special agents, agents from other federal agencies, and local police officers who have been officially deputized as federal task force officers (TFOs) who have the power and authority of a federal agent. Because all JTTF TFOs are actually de facto federal agents, they are required to operate under federal laws and policies when involved in a JTTF case.”

So the cops are actually feds. But wait: “Our standard JTTF MOU recognizes, however, that the JTTF TFOs do wear two hats, as it were, and directs JTTF TFOs to follow his or her own agency’s policy when it is stricter than the FBI policy under certain circumstances,” Douglas concluded.

Again: not exactly clear, and not exactly reassuring.

“At some point they need to say whether SFPD officers are engaged in assessments,” Crew said.

These questions have spurred the Police Commission and Human Rights Commission to schedule a joint hearing in May to discuss what the document means, why SFPD never alerted the civilian oversight authorities, and whether a clarifying addendum can be tacked onto the agreement.



The concerns are likely to be intensified by recent developments in Portland, Ore.

Portland dropped out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in 2005 over concerns that local cops would be violating privacy laws. But in November 2010, the FBI thwarted a bomb plot allegedly linked to terrorists, and city officials came under pressure to rejoin the JTTF.

But Mayor Sam Adams has insisted on language that would bar local cops from doing surveillance and assessments, which, apparently, won’t fly with the feds.

On April 20, Willamette Week, the Portland alternative paper, wrote that Adams “effectively scuttled” Portland’s reentry into its local JTTF because of his anti-spying language.

In an April 19 letter to Adams, U.S. Attorney for Oregon Dwight Holton stated that Adams’ proposal of only allowing officers with the Portland Police Bureau to be involved in investigations and not in FBI assessments was a deal-breaker.

“Unfortunately, as currently drafted, the proposed resolution does not provide a way in which the PPB can rejoin the team,” Holton wrote. “There is a single provision that stands as a roadblock to participation — specifically the provision that seeks to have the City Council delineate only certain investigative steps a task force officer can take part in. Specifically, the resolution seeks to dictate for the JTTF which stages of an investigation task force officers from the [Portland police] can work on.”

“Investigation and prevention of complex crimes and terrorism are typically fluid and fast-moving,” he added. “It makes no sense to ask [Portland police] officers to be in for one part of a conversation, but out for another part of the same conversation as investigators discuss findings from assessments, investigations, etc. in evaluating and addressing terrorist threats in Portland and beyond.”

The message isn’t lost on San Francisco civil liberties activists. If you don’t let your cops join the spy squad, they can’t be a part of the task force.

“It was one thing to join the JTTF 10 years ago when they were operating under guidelines that, while not to the ALCU’s taste, were at least tied to some level of suspicion,” Adams said. “But they have taken their procedures and guidelines and moved them to the far right. It’s one thing to say that it’s necessary for the FBI to do that, and quite another to say that local agencies have to forfeit their own policies — and with no public debate or decision-making.”



Further complicating the question of police oversight is the fact that George Gascón, who was police chief when civil liberties groups started asking for a copy of the MOU last fall, refused to turn over the document without asking the feds first.

In a Jan. 4 letter to the ACLU and ALC, Gascón and Mahoney stated that the SFPD could not speak to information about the duties, functions, and numbers of officers assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force “without conferring with our partners in the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

“I am sure you can appreciate the delicate balance we hold in crafting policy that not only supports our mission in the ultimate protection of life, but also in advancing democratic values through collaboration with the communities we serve,” Gascón and Mahoney wrote.

And Gascón is now district attorney.

“It raises the question of accountability,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi “We want to make sure that police officers working in the city, regardless of whether it be for the feds or the SFPD, are complying with general orders and policies established by the department. But when officers go on an assignment with the feds, we don’t know if they are operating under parameters set by local law.”

Unearthing the FBI’s hitherto clandestine MOU with the SFPD appears to be yet another sign that local police are increasingly being subjected to federal policies not in keeping with local procedures.

As the Guardian previously reported, the 2008 decimation of San Francisco’s sanctuary city legislation and the 2010 activation of the federal government’s controversial Secure Communities program, which both happened during former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s tenure, means that the city of St. Francis now ranks among the top 38 counties nationwide that are deporting “noncriminal aliens.”

Dubal also noted that the FBI came to the SFPD in 1996 asking for help with the task force, but also sought a waiver from the Police Commission so officers could participate without having to follow local rules. “And within two weeks, then Mayor Willie Brown said, not in our town,” Dubal said. “So in 1997, the SFPD said we are not going to join unless we can follow our own rules. And in 2001, when the SFPD joined, it was under an MOU that required them to comply with SFPD rules and was signed in 2002 by then-SFPD Chief [Earl] Saunders.”

Dubal said that after local law enforcement agencies sign an MOU with the FBI, they designate and assign officers to work from FBI headquarters. “In the past, two SFPD officers, paid with San Francisco tax dollars, physically worked in the FBI’s office in a secure room where you can only go if you have security clearance. But they still can’t spy without reasonable suspicion, and they also need audits.”

Crew and Dubal said that in a recent meeting, SFPD officials assured them that local police were following General Order 8.10, but that they are open to creating an MOU addendum to clarify this.

Crew and Dubal remain unsure if the FBI would be agreeable to signing off on that. They note that the FBI has previously stated that its JTTF has sensitive investigations going on so it can’t give the public all the information. “Fine, but the issue is, Are these investigations based on suspicion, or are they based on religious background, associations, ethnicity, and travel patterns?” Dubal said.

They also doubt that the MOU would even have surfaced if not for comments that then SFPD Chief Gascón made, first in October 2009, then in March 2010, that triggered an uproar in the local Muslim, Arab, and Pakistani and Afghani communities.

At the time, Gascón, who has a law degree and graduated from the FBI Academy, had just landed in San Francisco fresh from a stint as police chief for Meza, Ariz., where he drew praise for speaking out against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants Given this seemingly progressive stance, Gascón shocked civil libertarians in San Francisco when he said he wanted to unearth SFPD’s intelligence unit, which was disbanded amid scandal in the early 1990s.

“We have to realize that in the post-9/11 world, San Francisco is an iconic city, like New York, Washington. and Los Angeles,” Gascón said. “If somebody wanted to make a big statement about something they disliked about America, doing it here would definitely get attention. We need to know what is going on under the surface of the city.”

But Gascón did not say how a revived police spy unit, which had been shut down in large part due to Crew’s work, would operate. And six months later, he upset Bay Area Muslims during a March 2010 breakfast by reportedly saying that the Hall of Justice building was not just susceptible to earthquakes, but also to an attack by members of the city’s Middle Eastern community who could park a van in front of it and blow it up.

Gascón subsequently claimed that he “never referred to Middle Easterners or Arab Americans,” but that he had instead singled out the Afghanistan and Yemen communities because they pose “potential terrorism risks”

“In light of Gascón’s comments and his desire to resurrect the intelligence unit, people were asking, ‘Is it possible that the SFPD is also doing the same thing?'” Dubal asked, noting that she started getting complaints in 2009 and throughout 2010 about the FBI.

“Folks were saying that the FBI was asking about their religious identity, their family situation, and their political activities,” she recalled. “I certainly saw an upswing in innocent people being contacted. People were saying, ‘What the hell? — the FBI knocked on my door at 5 a.m.'”



A 2011 Human Rights Commission report documents frequent complaints from Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities facing racial and religious profiling while traveling and unwaraanted interrogation, surveillance, and infiltration by local and federal law enforcement personnel at their homes, places of worship, and workplaces.

The report recommended asking the supervisors and the Police Commission to “ensure that all SFPD officers, including those deputized to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, follow and comply with local and state privacy laws, including DGO 8.10.”

On April 5, the Board of Supervisors voted 10-0 to approve a resolution, sponsored by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi and cosponsored by Sups David Chiu, Eric Mar, David Campos, and John Avalos, to endorse the HRC report.

All this is happening against the backdrop of FBI guidelines that have been loosened twice since September 2011, first by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then by Attorney General Michael Mukasey in the dying days of the Bush administration, and now by the Obama administration.

And as The New York Times reported in March, records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that between Dec. 2008 and March 2009, the FBI began 11,667 assessments of people and groups for criminal/terror links, completed 8,605 assessments, and launched more than 400 intensive investigations based on the assessments. The FBI also told the Times that agents continue to open assessments at about the same pace

Crew noted that Mukasey’s guidelines marked the first time since 1976 that the FBI has been allowed to do assessments and collect files without a suspicion that a crime has occurred.

Dubal observed that the most relevant documents to emerge from a recent FOIA request to determine if the FBI has engaged in disturbing intelligence gathering activities are those related to “geomapping.”

“The materials are not particular to Northern California, but they show how FBI maps communities based in ethnic concentrations,” Dubal said.

Dubal also pointed to the case of Yasir Afifi, an Egyptian American student from Santa Clara, who found an FBI tracking device on his car when he took it in for an oil change. In March 2011, CAIR filed suit in Washington, D.C., alleging that the FBI violated Afifi’s First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment rights by failing to obtain a warrant.

DeJesus recently told the Guardian that the Police Commission was never made aware of the MOU’s existence. “The chief should have checked in with the commission president, at the very least,” she said. “The idea that they were not reporting this to anyone is disconcerting.”

“The SFPD does not have the authority to enter into a secret agreement with the FBI whereby some of its officers are allowed to conduct intelligence operations in violation of the Police Commission’s General Order 8.10,” Crew added.

In a Jan. 25 letter to Mahoney, representatives from the ACLU and the ALC noted that “in the past, the SFPD had not previously deferred to the FBI on whether or how to openly address how San Francisco police officers will be supervised and held to well-established and painstakingly and collaboratively crafted San Francisco general orders.”

“These are low-level investigations that require no criminal predicate, meaning that when initiating an assessment, FBI agents can conduct intrusive forms of investigation without any criminal suspicion,” Dubal said. “These include interviewing innocent Americans, infiltrating organizations, using open source data to spy and surveil, going into religious centers such as mosques to spy and surveil, and recruiting and using informants.”










































Deadlock over Ma’s trash bill


A State Assembly committee deadlocked Monday over Assemblymember Fiona Ma’s AB 1178, which opponents say would make it easier for Recology to send San Francisco trash by train to Yuba County.

The bill seeks to ban local governments from restricting or limiting importation of garbage from outside the area, apart from enacting special fees.
“I don’t believe this is a special-interest bill,” Ma reportedly said before the vote. “I have 11 different counties in front of me that export waste to other areas.”

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who voted against the bill, indicated that he was open to changing his vote, even as he said he didn’t like the idea of not allowing local governments to ban garbage from elsewhere.
“I’m a ‘no’ vote who’s open to becoming a ‘yes’ vote if the language is better,” Huffman said.

Yuba County Supervisor Roger Abe said Ma’s bill fails to protect current processes surrounding the use and oversight of landfills.
“AB 1178 makes me unsure whether planning notions will stand up in future with court actions,” Abe said.

Richard Paskowitz, who leads YUGAG (Yuba Group Against Gargage) went further. “It defines environmental injustice,” Paskowitz said, as he argued that Ma’s bill would makes it easier for wealthier areas to send trash to poorer areas.

Challenging the “rogue cell” theory of cancer


The GuardianUK has an interesting piece about a new theory on cancer:
”Rather than cancers being rogue cells degenerating randomly into genetic chaos, they are better regarded as organized footsoldiers marching to the beat of an ancient drum, recapitulating a billion-year-old lifestyle,” writes Paul Davies, who runs the cancer research center at Arizona State University. “As cancer progresses in the body, so more and more of the ancestral core within the genetic toolkit is activated, replaying evolution’s story in reverse sequence. And each step confers a more malignant trait, making the oncologist’s job harder.”

Follow the pension reform money to Wisconsin


For those tracking pension reform, here’s a handy way to follow the money in Wisconsin, which arguably birthed a heated nationwide discussion about public workers’ collective bargaining rights:, a nonpartisan organization that tracks the influence of money in politics, has launched a new website that provides what it calls “transparency tools that show a simple dashboard view of money’s role in the Wisconsin State Legislature.”

“The goal of our Wisconsin site is to provide quick and easy access to information about campaign contributions, the interests of the groups that make them, and how the lawmakers that receive them vote, drawing back the curtain on how money influences legislation around the issues that people care most about,” said Daniel Newman,’s executive director.

This isn’t the first time that MapLight has tracked the money in key issues, but it is the first occasion that its engineers have combined three crucial databases—campaign contributions, legislative votes, and interest group support and opposition—to reveal the intersection between money and votes in the Wisconsin State Legislature.

“By centralizing data on contributions and votes, and combining that information with research on interest group bill support and opposition, will provide Wisconsin’s watchdogs with insights critical to the functioning of our democracy, in a fraction of the time it would take to otherwise assemble these facts from disparate sources,” said Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Under an agreement with, the Wisconsin Center For Investigative Journalism will investigate money and politics issues and serve as a resource to news organizations in Wisconsin, supported with a grant from the Open Society Institute, which philanthropist George Soros founded in 1984.’s data partner for campaign contributions is the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Mike McCabe, WDC’s executive director, said “This collaboration creates new opportunities for investigative journalism and citizen exploration of the impact of special interest money in Wisconsin politics”

One of the new website’s legislative data tools shows detailed records of bills, votes, legislators and interest group support and opposition. And the first example it provides is an analysis of, you guessed it,  JR1AB 11—“an act relating to state finances, collective bargaining for public employees, compensation and fringe benefits of public employees, the state civil service system, the medical assistance program, etc.
And so far, the analysis reveals that opponents of the bill, which include major unions, have spent $280,000, or 6.7 times as much as supporters, who spent $42,000 and include residential construction, general business advocates, Conservative/Republican groups and Chambers of Commerce.

Covering the royal wedding


The New York Times has a revealing article about how US networks have been adding Britons to their coverage of the royal wedding this coming weekend.

“As long as you have an English accent, you’ll work,” joked Rob Silverstein, executive producer of “Access Hollywood,” which is moving to London for a week.

Actually, if Silverstein really wanted to impress, he should have said, “As long as one has an English accent.”

But then who in the US gives a flying fig about the royal wedding?

Apparently, a disturbing number of people who otherwise like to brag about how the US gave the Brits a royal boot up the ass around the Boston Tea Party.

Now, I get the fascination in the U.K. itself,  where the royal family is the Brits’ version of Hollywood. Just without the sunny locations and with the good looks supplied by aristocratic outsiders, like Diana, or non-royals, like Kate, who the royals, I kid you not, call “commoners.”

But as a commoner who left rain-soaked Britain shortly before Charles and Diana tied their ill-fated knot, I’m relieved to be escaping royal wedding fever for the second time in my life.

And while I do so hope the latest royal pair have a happier and more honest relationship than Charles and Di, I don’t plan to spend time cooing over the details of their carriages and tiaras. In fact, the latest episode in the never-ending royal saga reminds me that Queen Elizabeth only agreed to pay income taxes, give up the royal yacht, and limit the number of royals receiving government money in my own lifetime…

Besides, isn’t covering politics in California, where folks seem to like to elect celebrities as their governors and mayors, enough royal-watching for anyone?

Photo: 1,000 bottles of Royal Virility beer — containing herbal viagra, chocolate, goat weed and “a healthy dose of sarcasm” — is now available at

Busy week for immigration reform advocates


On Tuesday, April 26, the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee holds a hearing on AB 1081, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools (TRUST) Act. The TRUST Act seeks to allow local governments to opt out of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE’s) controversial “Secure Communities” program and to set standards for jurisdictions that chose to participate in S-Comm.

Also on Tuesday, Congressmember Luis Gutierrez kicks off his “Change Takes Courage” immigrant rights tour in seven California cities. Gutierrez lands in San Francisco Wednesday, April 27, and the Bay Area immigrant community and LGBT leaders will host him on the steps of City Hall, as Gutierrez asks President Obama to stop the record number of deportations of immigrant families and students that have already occurred under the Obama administration.

Joining Ammiano in Sacramento on Tuesday as co-sponsors of the TRUST Act are Assemblymembers Gil Cedillo (D-LA) and Bill Monning (D- Carmel) and Sen. Leland Yee (D-SF). Endorsers include 80 organizations, local governments and elected officials, including the Santa Clara and Santa Cruz County Boards, San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey and retired Sacramento Police Chief Arturo Venegas, and civil rights and faith groups, including the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, the California Labor Federation, the San Bernardino Catholic Diocese and Equality California.

SF Sheriff Michael Hennessey blew the whistle on S-Comm last May, but was unable to stop the feds from activating the program in San Francisco last June. And the most recent batch of S-Comm statistics show that San Francisco, once famed as a sanctuary city, now ranks in the top 38 counties nationwide that deport “non-criminal aliens,” which is ICE-speak for immigrants whose primary misstep is that they are in the country without the requisite paperwork.

Ammiano’s Trust Act hearing comes just days after Congressmember Zoe Lofgren (D- San Jose) called for an investigation into the conduct of ICE officials around advising local municipalities whether they are required to participate in ICE’s S-Comm program.

“You can’t have a government department essentially lying to local government and to members of Congress. This is not OK,” Lofgren said April 22, following the disclosure of hundreds of ICE documents that allegedly show that the agency has been giving intentionally contradictory and misleading information about S-Comm to local officials.

“From then-Attorney General Brown on down, it’s painfully clear ICE deceived Californians about S-Comm,” said Angela Chan, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus. “That’s unacceptable behavior for a government agency in a democracy.”

Advocates hope that Ammiano’s TRUST Act will restore balance and accountability to the nation’s otherwise broken immigration system. They charge that S-Comm’s misleading focus, over-broad reach and lack of transparency have eroded trust between police and immigrant communities, making victims and witnesses to crimes reluctant to come forward.

The TRUST Act would make S-Comm an “opt-in” program so local governments can tailor their participation based on local needs.

The bill would also set safeguards for municipalities that do elect to participate in S-Comm to guard against racial profiling and would ensure that children and domestic violence survivors are not swept up by S-Comm.

The TRUST act also upholds the right to a day in court by only reporting for deportation individuals convicted – not merely accused – of crimes.

Tuesday’s hearing will be followed by Congressman Luis Gutierrez’s Wednesday appearance in San Francisco, which the African Advocacy Network, Asian Law Caucus, Central American Resource Center, Chinese for Affirmative Action, People Organized to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights, Out4Immigration, San Francisco Interfaith Coalition on Immigration, and Dolores Street Community Services sponsored.

Sups David Campos, John Avalos, and David Chiu will join Gutierrez and their message to President Obama is laid out in the following press statement:

“We need administrative relief to uphold the values of opportunity, justice, and human rights for all to move our country forward. With the stroke of a pen, President Obama could put a halt to the rapidly increasing deportations that are taking place. We need to stop deporting parents and ripping apart all families, including same-sex partners. We need to stop deporting students who would have been eligible for the DREAM ACT. Last year, the U.S. deported an estimated 400,000 immigrants, the highest number of deportations per year in the history of our nation. We must allow our counties to opt out of  “S-Comm” (Secure Communities), which is making our communities less secure, and we support Congressman Gutierrez in these courageous requests. Immigrants are part of the fabric of our communities, and we need to fix our immigration system so everyone who lives here can continue to live as a full member of society without constant fear of safety, security, and livelihood being jeopardized at any moment.”


Ma’s bill would make it harder to resist big city trash


Assemblymember Fiona Ma has thrown another curve ball at San Francisco’s already hotly contested plan to dispose trash in Yuba County: Ma recently introduced AB 1178 which would authorize a local agency to assess special fees, rather than local cities and counties. Currently, local cities and counties hold the authority to “assess special fees of a reasonable amount on the importation of waste from outside of the county to publicly owned or privately owned facilities.” And that’s exactly what Yuba County has been discussing in face of having San Francisco’s trash buried in its backyard, starting 2015.
Equally importantly, Ma’s bill seeks to prohibit a city, county, or local agency from otherwise restricting or limiting in any way the importation of solid waste into that city or county based on place of origin. And that’s another topic that’s been hotly debated in Yuba County as residents there have come to realize that their local dump will quickly get filled by San Francisco’s big city trash–ultimately forcing Yuba County to export its own trash elsewhere in coming years.The rationale given in Ma’s bill for trying to amend the law to stop local municipalities from being able to restrict waste importation?

“Because ensuring adequate and appropriate capacity for disposal of solid waste is a matter of state and regional concern,” AB 1178 states.

So far there have been no votes on this bill, which was introduced in mid-February, and was referred to the Committee on Natural Resources on March 17, read and amended, then re-referred to the Committee on Natural Resources at the beginning of April.

But lest anyone doubts who is supporting or opposing this bill, an analysis of contributions undertaken by show that
a) supporters outspent the opposition by a ratio of 5:1. ($243,347 v $46, 165).
b) California Refuse Recycling Council, Recology Inc and Waste Connections, which would benefit from the legislation support the bill, and
c) the Sierra Club Solano County, Yuba Group Against Garbage, and Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund.

Maplight’s analysis also reveals that Ma received $5,000 from “interest groups that support” this bill.

And the Sacramento Bee has a detailed account of other municipalities, including Solano County, that stand to be impacted if Ma’s bill, which argues that decisions about how much trash goes where are better made at the state and regional level rather than by individual counties, endures. And the Sac Bee article includes a revealing quote from Ma spokesperson Nick Hardeman: “If every county decides to adopt ordinances that discriminate based on the waste’s (origin), then the system breaks down,” Hardeman said.

All this is coming to a head as the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) is preparing to hold a hearing on its recently commissioned report examining how other municipalities handle their trash collection, consolidation and disposal process compared to San Francisco…The LAFCO hearing will be held at City Hall at 10 a.m. on Monday April 18.

Bloggers sue over $315 m HuffPo deal


The Guardian UK has some great quotes in its story about how Arianna Huffington, her website and AOL have been slapped with a $105 million class action suit. The suit was brought by a bunch of bloggers who are majorly pissed that she sold the Huffington Post for $315 without sparing them a dime. And the story shines more light on the growing dilemma facing members of the “new media,” a world in which a “full-time employee” is as rare as a 100-page issue of a print newspaper.

“Huffington bloggers have essentially been turned into modern day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation” complained Jonathan Tasini, who humself wrote hundreds of unpaid posts for HuffPo until the website was sold to AOL this year.

“People who create content … have to be compensated,” Tasini argued. He and his attorneys contend that some 9,000 people also wrote for the site on an unpaid basis – and their work helped contribute a third of HuffPo’s eventual sale price.

Tasini reportedly led a successful suit on behalf of freelancers against the New York Times a decade ago, winning a 2001 supreme court ruling that copyright for print and online versions of an article are separate. And now he’s taking on Huffington and Ken Lerer, who founded HuffPo in 2005, featured some well-known writers, but relied heavily on unpaid bloggers, too.

In a press release, HuffPo said the lawsuit was “completely baseless”.
“Our bloggers utilise our platform to connect and ensure that their ideas and views are seen by as many people as possible,” the website claimed. “It’s the same reason hundreds of people go on TV shows – to broadcast their views to as wide an audience as possible.”

But Tasini vows to “picket” Huffington’s home.

Ammiano says support is growing for TRUST Act


Assemblymember Tom Ammiano says that statewide support is building for AB 1081 (the TRUST Act), which would give local governments the right to opt-out of the controversial Secure Communities program.

As the Guardian previously reported, ten months after ICE’s controversial S-Comm program was activated in San Francisco, our “sanctuary city” ranks among the top 38 counties nationwide deporting “non-criminal aliens.”

“Unlikely allies are lining up behind this bill because ICE misled the public about S-Comm, whose real focus is more spin than safety,” Ammiano said in a press release today. “In fact, seven in ten Californians deported under S-Comm had committed no crime or were picked up for minor offenses like traffic violations. The program is ruining trust between immigrant communities and the police. But here in California, we can do better. This bill is a practical solution that lets local governments have a say and restores some balance to this dysfunctional system.”

Joining Ammiano as co-sponsors of the TRUST (Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools) Act are Assemblymembers Gil Cedillo and Bill Monning and Sen. Leland Yee. And the act, which is billed as a pro-safety and pro-transparency proposal, already has the support of over 50 organizations and a slew of elected local officials.

These officials include San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey who blew the whistle on the program last May, when federal authorities privately told local law enforcement agencies that S-Comm was going live in San Francisco in June 2010. At the time, there had been no public hearings on the proposed program, which links fingerprints taken when folks are booked at county jails with federal and international databases—in other words, before folks charged with crimes have had their day in court.

A press release from Ammiano’ s office states that S-Comm’s “misleading focus, over-broad reach and lack of transparency” has eroded trust between police and immigrant communities and sparked considerable open government concerns —problems the TRUST Act aims to fix.

In addition to allowing municipalities to opt-out, the TRUST Act would also sets basic safeguards for local governments that participate in the program to guard against racial profiling, protect the rights of children and domestic violence survivors. And it would uphold the right to a day in court by only reporting for deportation individuals convicted, not merely accused, of crimes. 

“Under S-Comm, a desperate call for help can quickly turn into a nightmare situation for victims of domestic violence,” said Tara Shabazz, Executive Director of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. “We’ve seen victims of abuse reported for deportation from San Francisco to Lodi, California. This bill will protect abuse victims and remove an important barrier to reaching out for help, and we are proud to support it.”

Ammiano’s office says that these serious public safety and civil liberties concerns have pushed local governments to seek a way out of the program, imposed on communities with no transparency or opportunity for local oversight. They note that the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors unanimously requested to opt out of S-Comm program in September 2010, but after months of confusion, ICE refused to honor the county’s request.

“The Federal Government forced this program on my jail without my consent,” SF Sheriff Michael Hennessey said. “By allowing local governments to opt out of this flawed program, AB 1081 will help law enforcement win back some trust with immigrant communities. That, in turn, will help improve public safety for everyone.” 

 “The TRUST Act raises this unregulated and inaccurate program to California’s standards and ensures transparency and accountability through clear data reporting requirements for local jurisdictions opting to participate in S-Comm,” said Chris Newman, National Day Laborer Organizing Network’s legal director.
 AB 1081 will be heard in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety on Tuesday, April 26 at 9 a.m. in State Capitol Room 126.

Fishing for plastic


GREEN ISSUE For the past two summers, scientists and environmentalists with Project Kaisei, a Sausalito nonprofit focused on increasing public awareness of marine debris, have sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge to survey trash in the North Pacific gyre.

A gyre is a naturally occurring system of rotating currents in the ocean that is normally avoided by sailors because of its light winds. The North Pacific Gyre is the largest of the five major oceanic gyres in the world, and the one with the biggest known accumulation of trash, most of which is plastic. Some folks call this vortex the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But Project Kaisei founder Mary Crowley calls the vortex “the eighth continent” to convey its size and impact.

Now, as Project Kaisei prepares for its 2011 expedition, which will likely take place in June — depending on funding, marine conditions, and equipment collection — team members are taking the next steps in the project’s mission to capture the plastic in the gyre. These steps include testing for efficient ways to clean up trash mid-ocean and exploring if some captured plastic can be turned into liquid fuel to power future clean-ups.

“We’ll be focusing on testing marine debris collection equipment, doing some clean-up, further recording what’s out there, and working with ocean current experts. But we need good sponsorship,” Crowley said. “Down the line, we’re looking to have a recycling plant on deck with smaller vessels feeding it so we can do clean-ups mid-ocean. And we’re going to recycle. It’s not going to end up in a dump with plastic blowing back into the ocean.”

Crowley believes unemployed fishermen should be paid to clean up the gyres. “And we should start in our own towns and states and countries,” she said. “We need to produce a solution locally to take effect globally. Part of the response has to come from multinational corporations that are selling stuff throughout world. It’s shocking to me that 90 percent of our pelagic fish are gone and we’ve killed 50 percent of the corral reefs.”

Project Kaisei’s preparations are taking place in the wake of a tsunami that devastated Japan in March, sucking a big pulse of debris into the ocean and crippling four nuclear reactors that continue to leak radiation into the water, raising fears of damage to sea life.

Experts predict that some of the debris from the tsunami will eventually wash up on beaches in Hawaii and California, but Crowley doubts the state will be affected radiologically. “The majority [of the debris] got whooshed out by the tsunami before the leaks began,” she explained.

She says that at a marine debris conference in Honolulu shortly after the tsunami, attendees expressed concern about “land-sourced” debris — trash that flows into the ocean by way of rivers and streams or is dumped directly into the ocean from ships.

“People said that in recent years there’s also been all this debris from natural disasters, including tsunamis,” Crowley noted. “Well, I see debris from natural disasters as all the more reason to develop effective ways to get trash out of the ocean.”

But Captain Charles Moore, who founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in 1994 to restore disappearing kelp forests and wetlands along the California coast, thinks a moratorium on plastic production would make the most sense.

Moore’s focus shifted in 1997, when he encountered trash, mostly plastic, scattered across the North Pacific Gyre, and subsequent studies by his foundation claim that trash outweighs zooplankton in the gyre by a factor of six to one.

“Mary Crowley really wants to go out there with big boats and get big pieces of plastic out,” Moore said. “I’m not really opposed to that, but it’s a lot of time and money that could be spent trying to stop the waste getting there in the first place. It’s like having a leaking faucet and bailing out the sink rather than calling the plumber. The time has come for society to draw a line in the sand and say no more plastic. Our plastic footprint is causing more problems than our carbon footprint.”

Moore believes it’s time to withdraw from globalized production and support locavore and slow-food movements instead. “We send stuff to be produced in the cheapest locations possible, package it in plastic, then send it back here. It’s nuts,” he said.

But Crowley says not all plastic use is bad, even as she advocates for getting larger pieces of plastic out of the water, and supporting companies that use less on no packaging.

“Plastic is an amazing material for construction and railroad ties, decking, and some medical uses,” she said. “It’s just not right material for throw-away items because it lasts for centuries. I subscribe to oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s view that a plastic bottle can last for 500 to 600 years. That’s why it’s important to get out these bigger pieces of plastic. We don’t want them broken down in the belly of a whale or the stomach of an albatross.”

Studies suggest that 100,000 marine mammals — possibly more — along with thousands of sea birds die each year from debris entanglement, and that thousands more marine mammals, sea birds, fish and sea turtles die from ingesting marine debris, including plastic bags, which bear an unfortunate resemblance to jellyfish, once in water.

Crowley recalls how in 2009, when Project Kaisei had 25 people on board, including scientists, sailors, filmmakers, graduate students, and engineers, the team was surprised to find plastic in sampling taken 400 miles off the West Coast.

“We were anticipating clean water,” Crowley said. In the end, the project’s research vessel, the Kaisei, whose name means “ocean star” in Japanese, and the New Horizon, a Scripps Institute vessel that participated in the project’s first mission, found some plastic in every single trawl.

“A lot was smaller microparticulates of plastics and preproduction plastic pellets,” Crowley said, noting that she also saw Clorox bottles, plastic bags, ghost nets, toothbrushes, children’s toys, and plastic chairs floating on, or lurking up to nine feet below the surface of the ocean.

“If you’re in still water, you sometimes see confetti-like pieces of plastic. And if you’re up on the crow’s nest and going two to three knots, you see bigger pieces,” she said.

No one knows exactly how many bits of debris are already floating in the ocean or have been ground up into tiny particles on our beaches. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes that, to date, there has not been a comprehensive marine debris abundance assessment for the worlds oceans, or even for a single ocean.

Moores foundation says 80 percent of marine debris comes from land and only 20 percent from marine-related activities like fishing. To Crowleys mind, the main problem is that only 5 percent to 7 percent of plastics are recycled.

“Plastic was invented in the 1880s to replace ivory for pool balls and didn’t proliferate until the last 60 years,” she said. “But even when plastic is dumped into a landfill, it has this insidious way of blowing about and ending up in drains, rivers, and oceans because plastic is a very light, easy material to move around.”

Crowley grew up sailing on Lake Michigan, ran away to sea at age 19, and ended up sailing around the world and founding an international boat chartering business. Somewhere along the line, she says, she started describing the vast, continuous expanse of water that covers 71 percent of the planet and creates most of our air as “the global ocean.”

“It really is all connected,” she said. “The health of the oceanic ecosystem is very important to the health of the planet. There’s a terrible misconception that the oceans are so vast they can be used as a garbage pail.”

When she began to see trash underwater, Crowley realized that future generations wouldn’t be able to enjoy the oceans the way she has. She decided to take action four years ago when she began to see an increase in the garbage covering the North Pacific Gyre.

“I kept seeing the message that there’s a terrible problem, but there’s nothing we can do,” Crowley said, recalling how that messaging and her own sense of urgency prompted her to found Project Kaisei to increase public understanding of what’s in the gyre.

“If you’re in the area for a couple of weeks, you have days when you feel you’re voyaging through a field of scattered garbage,” she said. “And when you look out, you see garbage on the horizon.”


How to move 200,000 people around America’s Cup


I’ve been wondering how the city plans to move the thousands of spectators expected to show up for a series of regattas in 2012 and 2013, leading up to and including the 34th America’s Cup Final.

And today I had a chance to start perusing the city’s draft People Plan which aims to move up to 200,000 residents and visitors daily to the city’s waterfront and is promising to be “the most transit, bicycle and pedestrian-friendly major sporting event in history.”

(Note to compulsive printers of online government documents: thanks to some nifty maps in this document, your printer may experience replication difficulties. For instance, I had to print everything but the maps on pages 13 and 14 of the document.)

Anyways, my preliminary review revealed that there is a special section in the draft dedicated to the “special transportation needs” of America’s Cup “participants” and that these participants include teams, event staff and, ta da!, accredited media.

“Special transportation needs for the ‘participant” group include but are not limited to staff access to race-related areas and other constricted waterfront areas,” states the plan. “These activities may require unique and frequent vehicle access to various sites.”

[Note to self: Remember to check out what is required to qualify as “accredited media” for a seat in one of the vehicles frequently accessing the area.]

Just kidding, and now, back to the needs of regular people who want to see the event.

“Part of the appeal that brought the Events to San Francisco Bay was the opportunity to create a new kind of viewing experience for the highest level of competitive sailing, with races held in close proximity to urban areas and accessible shoreline instead of open seas,” states the plan’s “Strategic Adaptability” section.

“The novelty of this concept creates excitement but it also creates uncertainty, in that there are few instructive examples of how spectators will choose to attend an America’s Cup Final-level sailing event in the middle of a weekend day, or how a large event in San Francisco Bay during a weekday will affect the ability of Bay Area residents to commute to work or their other daytime destinations,” the section notes.

{This sounds like the city is trying to figure out how many of us will choose to be anywhere but San Francisco on the weekends in question, how many of us who work in San Francisco are planning to play hookey to attend week day events, and how many will show up even if the Bay is swathed in fog.]

Un its draft plan,  the city promises  “to seed the strategies set forth in the People Plan with a measure of adaptability to allow for the strategic deployment of a finite amount of transportation resources across the spectrum of transportation demands associated with the Events in accordance with the expected demands of each day.”

Beyond that, the document is divided into three main parts. One itemizes likely destinations, the next describes transportation strategies to serve these key destinations, and the final section describes “additional considerations and strategies.”

To learn a) which race facilities, waterfront locations, and race viewing locations will be accessible to the public, b) which bus, rail, cable car, bike, automobile and ferry routes will be modified, and c) which parking and special locations will be added, be sure to check out the plan. And then eave your comments at the city’s feedback site here.

For, as the city’s website warns, “The early draft of the People Plan is the product of analysis by city and SFMTA staff, with early input from stakeholder groups. The draft People Plan announced today will also undergo significant and further revisions, following input from members of the public, advocates, city and agency staff, the environmental community and other stakeholders in the coming months. Final approval and consideration will occur following the completion of environmental review.”

In other words, review the documents now and speak your piece soon, otherwise your ideas won’t have any chance of making it into the final plan.

Or at Mayor Ed Lee put it in a press release, “We are moving rapidly to meet our commitments to host a spectacular 34th America’s Cup in 2013 and set a new standard for sustainable event-planning. The America’s Cup is a unique opportunity to leverage our region’s transportation resources and our enthusiasm to deliver the most transit, bicycle and pedestrian-friendly international major sporting event in history for residents and visitors alike.”

And here’s hoping that we will all be “moving rapidly” when the regatta finally rolls into town…

SF in top 38 counties nationwide that deport “non-criminal aliens”


So much for San Francisco being a sanctuary city. The National Day Laborer Organization (NDLON) and two other organizations have unearthed statistics that show San Francisco in the nation’s “top 38” counties, when it comes to deporting immigrants who had not been convicted of crimes.

The statistics, which the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department provided as part of a public records request,  also show that California is the top state in the nation, when it comes to deporting “non-criminal aliens,” which is how federal authorities categorize immigrants who lack visas and green cards, since both are simply violation of civil administrative law, and not criminal acts.

These revelations come as internal documents, procured by the New York Times, suggest that federal immigration officers, facing resistance from Chicago and Cook County to join ICE’s controversial Secure-Communities program, pushed local officials to secure the participation of reluctant police departments.

Immigrant advocates say these newly released documents are fueling concerns that S-Comm is being used to circumvent due process for immigrants, and futher illustrate the need for reform, at the statewide level, to avoid abuse.

But ICE refutes charges that it is circumventing due process and primarily deporting immigrants who have not committed serious crimes.
“Secure Communities is a comprehensive initiative to modernize the criminal alien enforcement process,” an ICE spokesperson told the Guardian. “While ICE prioritizes the removal of convicted criminal aliens, the agency still enforces the law with regard to other aliens who are subject to removal. In addition to criminal aliens, ICE’s priorities include other individuals who pose a potential threat to public safety – such as those with known gang affiliations and prior drunk driving arrests – as well as immigration fugitives and individuals who have tried to game the immigration system.”

ICE officials also said that their review of the latest S-Comm statistics for San Francisco County show that “more than 60 percent of the aliens who’ve come into ICE custody since Secure Communities’ local activation are convicted criminals. What’s more, nearly one third of those cases involve individuals who’ve been convicted of Level 1 offenses [felony crimes].

But NDLON spokesperson B. Loewe said the newest data show that, several years into the S-Comm program, problems that immigrant advocates have been raising since S-Comm began, are continuing.
“There is no protection for the innocent, or even victims of crime, and the program appears to lend itself to circumventing due process,” Loewe said. “The latest numbers should raise concerns for anyone who cares not just fro civil rights but also for public safety for all.”

The S-Comm statistics emerged as part of a Freedom of Information Act request that NDLON, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law filed pertaining to ICE’s controversial Secure -Communities program.

Launched in Texas in March 2008, S-Comm involves state and local entities in the enforcement of federal immigration law by turning on a mechanism to run fingerprints through various databases when individuals are arrested, even if those individuals are brought in on minor charges or if their charges are subsequently dismissed.

“What’s most significant is that San Francisco is among the top 38 counties nationwide, and among the top 13 California counties,” said Jon Rodney, communications project coordinator at the California Immigrant Policy Center.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Angela Chan, a San Francisco Police Commissioner and Asian Law Caucus staff attorney. Chan noted that between October 2008, when California began implementing S-Comm, and February 2011, California has deported 35,643 local residents.
“That’s 10,000 more than Texas, which deported 24,152 residents,” Chan observed. She also noted that California is the state that deports the highest numbers of residents nationwide.
The top 13 counties in California deporting the highest percentage of non-criminal?  Merced, Fresno, Tulare, Solano, Monterey, Kern, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco San Joaquin, Contra Costa, Riverside, Sonoma, and Alameda, in that order.

This latest round of charges comes ten months after S-Comm was first activated in San Francisco, and fresh on the heels of Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s announcement of AB 1081, a bill that would honor the right of local governments to opt out of the federal S-Comm and set basic safeguards for those municipalities that do decide to participate.

Chan notes that the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee will hold a hearing on AB 1081 on April 26.

“Ammiano’s bill is timely and crucial,” Chan said, noting  that California signed an S-Comm agreement without public input, notice or negotiations.

“That [process] raised concerns that California signed a boilerplate agreement that was dictated by ICE” Chan said. “And it’s part of the reason why we have such high numbers of deportations,” she continued, noting that Ammiano’s bill “connects to an existing clause,” in the memorandum of understanding  that the California Attorney General’s Office signed with ICE, back when Gov. Jerry Brown was still California Attorney General.

Ammiano’s bill would require the California Bureau of Criminal Identification and Information to modify the agreement it entered into with the US Department of Homeland Security in May 2009, regarding S-Communities. 

Meanwhile, in a March 7 memo (a copy was procured through NDLON’s public records request) ICE noted that its Secure-Comm program produced over 133,000 matches in the first five months of 2011, compared to 248,000 matches in 2010.

ICE also noted that since the program was first activated in Harris County, Texas, on Oct. 27, 2008, the agency has removed over 94,000 aliens and over 24,600 criminal aliens convicted of Level 1 (felony offenses) that were identified through the program.

“Deployment continues to be the primary driver for increased identifications,” ICE stated, observing that in the first five months of 2011, ICE will deploy S-Comm in 409 new jurisdictions. This means that by the end of May, 1,067 jurisdictions will be activated in 39 states, “covering 70 percent of the foreign non-citizen population.”

ICE’s goal is to deploy the program to an additional 488 jurisdictions by the end of 2011, bringing the total jurisdictions deployed by year’s end to 897.

But as Chan notes, Ammiano’s AB 1081 has implications for how and whether S-Comm gets activated in any more California counties,
“AB 1081 requires needed modifications to California’s S-Comm agreement, which was signed in April 2009 by California,” Chan said. “ It was one of the first, if not the first, agreement signed by a state to enter into S-Comm.  AB 1081 taps into this contract term, which allows modification and termination of the agreement, to allow counties to opt in or out of the deeply flawed program.”

Scumlords settle


Five years after the Guardian’s award-winning, three-part series about how representatives for the Lembi family allegedly engaged in illegal and unethical tactics intended to force protected renters from their homes (“The Scumlords,” March 2006), City Attorney Dennis Herrera has concluded contentious negotiations to reach a multimillion dollar settlement with CitiApartments and other Lembi-controlled corporations.

The two sides have agreed on a settlement worth anywhere between $1 million and $10 million to the city, depending on the crumbling real estate empire’s future worth and whether the Lembi family decides to “forever cease property management operations within the City and County of San Francisco — permanently and irrevocably,” as the City Attorney’s Office put it.

That agreement and an injunction barring the landlords from future harassment of tenants was scheduled for submission to San Francisco Superior Court on March 29 and still must be approved by a judge, although that is usually pro forma in cases like this in which both sides have agreed to the terms.

In its lawsuit, the city alleged that the defendants “employed a business model that systematically and unlawfully dispossessed long-term residential tenants of their rent-controlled apartments, leaving defendants free to make significant unpermitted renovations and to re-rent those newly renovated units at dramatically increased market rates.

“Ostensibly, this illegal business model enabled Lembi family interests to aggressively outbid competing investors for perhaps hundreds of residential properties throughout San Francisco,” the complaint continued, further alleging that the defendants’ business entities were organized and operated in such a way that they were “the alter egos of defendants Frank Lembi, Walter Lembi, and David Raynal.”

The defendants disputed those claims, the injunction notes, “by reaching a settlement and agreeing to injunctive terms and payment of civil penalties, defendants are not admitting any wrongdoing or making any admission of liability.”

But the City Attorney’s Office said that this is “the most exhaustively detailed settlement in memory, and the strongest possible agreement to protect the public interest.” And Herrera told us that the settlement reflects “the pervasiveness of the conduct” the city looked at, regarding tenant treatment and the litigation process.

“So, it was necessary to get as tough and detailed an injunction as possible to ensure that tenants will be protected going forward, and in terms of trying to extract a maximum dollar settlement,” Herrera told us. “For us, their conduct is the most important thing, but the financial penalties are not insignificant. This ensures they do business under strict circumstances, play by the rules, and do not present a threat to tenants. But if they want to leave, obviously, there’s a dollar amount connected to that.”

The lowest possible settlement, $1 million, requires the Lembi companies to quickly get out of the rental business in San Francisco. The settlement comes almost five years after Herrera first filed suit against CitiApartments — and 18 months after former CitiApartments’ tenants sued the Lembi empire (see “SF vs. Frank Lembi,” 10/6/2009), following a financial crash that involved banks foreclosing on dozens of the group’s properties (see “Triumph of tenacity,” 6/1/2010).

The City Attorney’s litigation included evidence from tenants and other witnesses identified by former Guardian reporter G.W. Schultz, and Herrera credited the Guardian with originating the case. CitiStop, a coalition of labor and tenants groups, also referred tenants and helped the case, and almost 300 tenants and witnesses came forward after the city’s 2006 filing.

The City Attorney’s Office noted that Herrera amended his original complaint three times to fully capture the Lembi family’s “byzantine array of business entities, trusts, and partnerships within the scope of the lawsuit,” fighting through corporate stall tactics that were the subject of fines issued by the courts.

Even after their unscrupulous tactics were exposed, the Lembis continued to be celebrated by business groups such as the San Francisco Apartment Association, although city officials told us “real estate observers had long speculated that the Lembi family’s unlawful business model was ultimately unsustainable. And the severe economic downturn that began in late 2008 appears to have been cataclysmic for the aspiring real estate empire.”

When kitties attack


PETS Our cat Spartacus has a reputation for being a bit of a badass. But we never thought he’d end up under house arrest with a rap sheet from the police.

It’s true that he still has the tightly muscled body of a tomcat who came in from the cold a couple of winters ago and stayed after we gave him food and a safe place to sleep. But he’s settled down a lot since we got him fixed. He’ll still bounce other cats from our yard and growls if you tip him out of his favorite chair. But he doesn’t bite people. Or so I thought, until I scooped him out of the path of an unleashed dog one February night and he sunk his teeth into my wrist so fast I didn’t even realize I’d been bitten.

But my wrist began to feel like it had been stung, and soon I noticed a swelling the size of a marble with four tiny tooth marks adorning my wrist. Since it happened at midnight, and since my tetanus shots and Spartacus’ rabies vaccinations were up to date, I simply washed and disinfected the wound, planning to see my doctor the following morning.

“They’re like snake bites,” veterinarian Marie-Anne Wooley told me when I sought solace for Spartacus’ sins. “A cat’s teeth are long and sharp and when they pull out, the holes seal over, trapping the bacteria. Dogs mash things around so their bites are more open, making them easier to clean.”

The doc immediately put me on antibiotics and said to come back if my wrist — already stiff and swollen — got worse. When a rash began spreading up my arm the following night, I headed for the emergency room, where they gave me an intravenous infusion of antibiotics.

“You have an infection of the skin called cellulitis,” the ER doctor said, drawing ink lines on my skin to show how the infection had spread to my elbow and fingers.

She ordered me keep my arm elevated above my heart to prevent the infection from reaching my heart. And before I left the hospital, a police officer took an animal bite report. Animal Control told me to keep Spartacus inside for 10 days.

Even though I spent the next day bedridden, the bite tingled, hurt, and itched every time I lowered my hand. It took three visits to the ER, four days off from work, and two weeks of heavy-duty antibiotics before I was fully healed.

Judy Kivowitz, a nurse at Noe Valley Pediatrics, has seen squirrel, rat, snake, chipmunk, spider, even possible bat bites in the course of her work, and says treating animal bites varies widely.

“It depends on the animal — whether they are a pet and have had their rabies shots.” If you have been bitten by someone’s pet, you should wash, disinfect, apply Neosporin to the area, and inquire about the animal’s vaccine status. Kivowitz notes that even if the animal is known, it should be quarantined for 10 days after biting someone.

Maybe we could all learn from Kivowitz’s three basic steps in animal interaction, which she teaches in an animal-handling class she holds for toddlers. “Ask permission from the animal’s mom and dad to touch it. Do one-finger petting. And don’t look an animal in the eye — even if you know them.”

Or perhaps more to the point, you can do what my doctor told me to do if it happens again with Spartacus. “Next time, try dousing the cat and dog with water instead of putting your arm in the way.” Duh.

Understanding radiation


The Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico contains a bunch of exhibits about the history of Los Alamos National Laboratory and its science and research work. And with alarm bells continuing to sound around the world in light of Japan’s troubled efforts to contain a nuclear contamination crisis at its Fukushima Daiichi plant, (and folks on the West Coast and beyond stockpiling potassium iodide for fear of exposure to drift) I found myself drawn to the “Understanding Radiation” display during a recent visit to the museum, which includes a chart to help folks calculate their annual radiation dose (scroll down to the end of this post to figure out your own personal annual dose.)

The display notes that the three main sources of radiation for folks in the United States are from outer space, fallout from past nuclear testing and nuclear power plants.

“Exposure doesn’t make you radioactive but can cause biological harm measured in units called rems,” the display stated, noting that our exposure to ionizing radiation is measured by a unit called a rem.
“On average, each of us receives a total dose of about one-third of a rem (362 millirem) per year, from all sources,” the display notes.

The average American receives about 360 millirems in one year, according to the Bradbury Science Museum, and the display includes a pie chart that shows that the biggest slice of our annual dose comes from natural sources, starting with radon gas, which is present in most rocks and soil and building materials, is produced in small amounts in buildings, and can build up indoors, especially in basements and tightly sealed buildings.

The second highest source is a combination of natural cosmic radiation (the dose you receive from the sun and outer space) and terrestrial radiation (the dose you receive from the ground).

The third largest dose comes from medical and dental procedures, including X-rays.

That’s followed by internal radiation (what comes from our bodies), consumer products, other sources, and lastly, an average annual but very small dose from Los Alamos National laboratory activities.

UPDATE: A spokesperson for the Los Alamos National Laboratory clarified that the small dose from the lab’s activities opnly applies to folks living in the immediate area. “Our exhibit notes that Laboratory activities contribute about 1/10 millirem to the public – to a person who lives in Los Alamos year-round,” they clarified. “ It doesn’t apply to someone living in say, the Bay Area, let alone a person who lives in the Bay Area and doesn’t visit Los Alamos (or the nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for that matter).” [So, my apologies for my misinterpretation, and thanks for the clarification!]

Now, maybe, like me, you did not pay attention/or did not retain the information from your chemistry classes on nuclear fission, fusion and fallout. If so, what follows could be of interest to you.

And if you did pay attention, rest assured that I’m trying to figure out if folks will need to start factoring in a new annual dose level related to leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. (Today’s news is all about how marine life faces a threat from the runoff: high levels of radioactive cesium have been detected in seawater near the damaged nuclear reactors, and this is raising the disturbing prospect that radiation could enter the food chain. Cesium 137 levels have been detected at 20 times the normal level at 1,000 ft from the effluent at the plant. These levels are far less than the iodine 131, which has been found spilling from the plant at concentrations of more than 1,150 times the maximum allowable levels. But the problem is that unlike iodine 131 which degrades relatively quickly, (it becomes half as potent every 8 days), cesium 137 has a half life of 30 years and is absorbed by marine plants, which are eaten by fish, and tends to bioaccumulate (become more concentrated) as it moves up the food chain (as big fish eat smaller fish).

Anyways, I’ll update this post, when we get more information about the size and nature of the leaks, which are thought to have occurred when seawater was dumped on the overheating reactors. (The idea is that the seawater picked up the radiation before it washed back out to sea, but other sources are also thought to be possible).

In the meantime, read on if you want to brush up your understanding of radiation/or better understand the sources of your annual personal radiation dose:

“Radiation is energy in the form of waves or particles,” the BSM display observes. “Radiation is energy traveling at the speed of light. It makes up familiar parts of our world, such as visible light, ultraviolet light and infrared light, radio and television waves, X-rays and microwaves.”

That said, the display goes on to explain that the problem is with ionizing radiation.

“Is radiation harmful?” the display asks. “Most radiation is not, but some radiation carries enough energy to separate molecules or remove electrons from atoms and this can damage living tissue. This type of radiation is called ionizing radiation. It includes particles and energy emitted from radioactive elements and the X-rays used in medicine or at airports. A less energetic form of radiation, ultraviolet rays from the sun, can burn our skin.”

So, how can we protect ourselves from ionizing radiation?
“We can protect ourselves from the effect of ionizing radiation by applying three principles: time, distance and shielding,” the display states.

“We use time to allow a radioactive material to decay and thus decrease its radioactivity. Or we limit the amount of time we are exposed to the source of radiation.”

“We use distance between us and the source to decrease the likelihood it will reach us.”

“We use shielding between us and the source of radiation to absorb or stop radiation before it reaches us.”

“We can protect ourselves from the effects of ionizing radiation from internal hazards (inhaling or ingesting radioactive material) through the use of engineered controls (like containment and ventilation) and personal protective equipment (like anti-contamination clothing and respirators).

Ionizing radiation comes in two forms: a) Waves or rays and b) particles.

One type is similar to visible light and occurs as waves or rays, e.g. gamma rays, X-rays. And, as the museum explains, gamma radiation and X-rays can easily penetrate our bodies and so are external hazards. They can be stopped by dense material such as lead, concrete and steel. Examples of gamma-emitting radionuclides are cesium-137 and cobalt-60, uranium-235 and plutonium-239, in addition to being alpha-emitters, also emit gamma radiation.

The other type of ionizing radiation is known as alpha, beta and neutron radiation and is produced by energetically charged particles.

Alpha radiation
Alpha particles (two protons and two neutrons) can be stopped by a single sheet of paper and cannot penetrate clothing or the outer layer of skin. So externally, alpha radiation is not a hazard. But if alpha particles enter your body by breathing and eating, then they can be an internal hazard. [Examples of alpha-emitting radionuclides are Uranium-235 and plutonium-239. And as recent reports from Japan have explained, plutonium has been found at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. While the source is currently not clear, the reactors could be a source, as could tests of tests of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, because even though these ended in 1980, they left trace amounts of plutonium around the world. This is worrying because Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years and can cause healthy tissue to turn cancerous if it gets deep inside the body.)

Beta radiation:
Most beta particles are negatively charged and have a short range in air and cannot penetrate other substances very deeply. But if beta radiation has enough energy, it can penetrate your skin, so it’s considered an external hazard. It can be stopped by plastic, aluminum, wood, and clothing. Examples are phosphorous-32 and hydrogen-3 (tritium) which is deemed to be a very low hazard.

Neutron radiation
Neutrons are neutrally charged, subatomic particles emitted during a nuclear reaction in radiation-generating devices like accelerators and nuclear power plants.
They are also emitted by special radionuclides like californium-252 or by ionization of materials like plutonium plus berrylium. Highly penetrating, water, concrete and hydrogen-rich materials make effective shields.”

How to measure your exposure
Our exposure to ionizing radiation is measured by a unit called a rem.
“On average, each of us receives a total dose of about one-third of a rem (362 millirem) per year, from all sources,” the museum display notes.

How to calculate your personal annual radiation dose.

1.    Calculate your Cosmic radiation level
The level of cosmic radiation depends on your altitude:
If you live at sea level, you receive 26 millirem, a year.
If you live at 0-1,000 ft above sea level, it’s 28 millirem.
If you live at 1,001-2,000 ft, it’s 31 millirem.
If you live at 2,001-3000 ft,  it’s 35 millirem.
If you live at 3,001-4,000 ft, it’s 41 millirem.
If you live at 4,001-5,000 ft, it’s 47 millirem.
If you live at 5,001-6,000 ft, it’s 52 millirem.
If you live at 6,001-7,000 ft, it’s 66 millirem.
If you live at 7,001-8.000 ft, it’s 79 millirem.
If you live at 8,001 ft and plus, it’s 96 millirem.

2.    Now add the terrestrial radiation, the dose you receive from the ground:
If you live closest to the Atlantic Coast, add 23 mrem.
If you live closest to the Gulf of Mexico, add 23 mrem.
If you live closest to Colorado Plateau (AZ, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico) add 90 mrem.
If you live closest to the MidWest, add 46 mrem.
If you live closest to the Pacific Coast, add 46 mrem.
If you live closest to Alaska, add 46 mrem.
If you live closest to Hawaii, add 46 mrem.

3.    Add your radon gas dose
Add 200 mrem (the U.S. Average) for radon gas we breathe.

4.    Add natural radiation dose for food and water
Add 40 mrem for average natural radiation from food we eat and water we drink.

5.    Fallout from past atmospheric testing of nuclear devices
Add 0.5 mrem for fallout from past atmospheric testing of nuclear devices.

6.    Occupational exposure
Add 44 mrem if you work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory as a radiation worker, or your occupational dose from your job.

7.    Radiation from different medical treatments
If you have X-rays of the arm, hand, foot, or leg, add 1 mrem.
If you have Xrays of the chest, add 6 mrem.
If you have X-rays of the pelvis/hip, add 65 mrem.
If you have X-rays of the skull/neck, add 20 mrem.
If you have barium enemas, add 405 mrem.
If you have upper gastrointestinal tract radiography,    add 245 mrem.
If you have dental X-rays, add 2 mrem.
If you have CT (computed tomography) scans, add 110 mrem.
If you have a plutonium-powered pacemaker, add 100 mrem.
If you have a thyroid scan, add 14 mrem.
If you have porcelain crowns or false teeth, add 0.07 mrem.

8.    Depending on your lifestyle, place of residence, here are more factors to add:

If you travel by air plane, add 0.5 mrem per hour in air.
If your luggage is inspected, add 0.002 mrem.
If you live within 50 miles of a coal-fired electric utility plant, add 0.03 mrem.
If you live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor, add 0.01 mrem (not counting Japan).
If you smoke 1/2 pack of cigarettes per day, add 500 mrem.
If you smoke 1 pack of cigarettes per day, add 1,000 mrem.
If you smoke 11/2 packs per day, add 1,500 mrem.
If you smoke 2 packs per day, add 2,000 mrem.
If you have a smoke detector, add 0.008 mrem.
If you live in a stone, adobe, brick, or concrete building, add 7 mrem.
If you wear a luminous wristwatch, add 0.06 mrem.
If you use a gas compression lantern, add 6.2 mrem.

9.    Average annual dose from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, add O.1 mrem.
The museum notes that this dose is, “a small fraction of the amount the public receives from some consumer products and our natural environment.” And it clarifies that a mrem, or millirem, is one thousandth of a rem.

So, you’ve added up your annual dose, but what does this mean in terms of health?

“Radioactive materials give off ionizing radiation that can alter the chemical makeup of human tissue,” the museum display notes. ‘The amount of damage depends  on the amount of radioactivity.” (And the time, distance and shielding involved, see above).

‘It’s clear that very high exposures such as those experienced at Chernobyl can be fatal,” the display continues, noting that 31 people died within the first few weeks at Chernobyl after receiving radiation doses in excess of 1,000 rems, and that many others, who were exposed to doses of 100 rems, have a 1 in 100 chance of developing cancer.

“It’s very difficult to determine at exactly what level exposure to radioactivity becomes dangerous,” the display states, noting that worldwide the number of fatalities over the next 50 years were estimated to be as high as 17,000. (Again, this was before the March 2011 triple disaster in Japan.)

The display observes that a 1991 study by the International Atomic Energy Agency measured no increase in any radiation-related illnesses in villages near the site.
“But the study did not look at the highest-risk populations closest to the site,” the display added, noting that there were no fatalities in 1979 at Three Mile Island, when reactor failure allowed “small amounts of radioactive water and steam to be released from the containment structure.”

“Exposure levels to folks nearby were less than 100 millirem per year, which is about one third of the normal background yearly dose,” the display observed.

It also noted that strontium and radium are biologically active, which means they can migrate to bone tissue and stay there a long time. And that radioactive iodine can replace the stable iodine which is very important to human health. “Radioactive iodine is taken up by the thyroid and can pose a significant health risk.” (Hence the rush on potassium iodine, even though radioactive iodine degrades fairly fast, and the radioactive risk can be combated by banning fishing and the consumption of seafood for a period of time as Japan is already doing.)

The display clarifies that exposure doesn’t make you radioactive, but it can cause biological harm, and that medical X-rays are by far the largest artificial source of radiation for the average American.

For more information, you can also check this chart from the Public Domain here

US EPA, SF Health Department and Lennar accused of asbestos collusion


The  SLAM Coalition of Bayview Hunters Point Community Organizations and the New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights held a press conference outside US EPA Region 9’s San Francisco office today to protest the contents of a string of emails they obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request that they claim “show conspiracy by the US Environmental Protection Agency Region 9 and the San Francisco Health Department officials to cover-up dangers of the Lennar Corp.’s development project at the Hunters Point Shipyard.”

“Since 2006 when heavy grading and excavation began by the Lennar Corporation at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, residents of the Bayview Hunters Point Community, a majority African-American, Samoan and Latino low-income community, suffered from health problems including nose bleeds, rashes and headaches that they believed were caused by asbestos and heavy metals being unearthed from these actions,” the SLAM/E.H.R.’s press release states. “However, little did residents know that officials in the Environmental Protection Agency Region 9 and the San Francisco Department of Public Health were conspiring with the Lennar Corporation to conceal the health threats of asbestos laden dust.”

E.H.R’s Wilma Subra said she first saw the emails Thursday March 17.
“As I started to go through them, I could clearly see where EPA and DPH are wrestling with how to downgrade, or make less important, the information on asbestos on Parcel A of the shipyard,” Subra said,

Parcel A is the plot of shipyard land where military housing used to stand before the land was transferred to the city in 2004. Lennar began grading and excavating operations on the site in 2006, which led to health complaints and a $500 million fine by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District  when it turned out that Lennar’s asbestos dust monitors had not been properly functioning and that regular dust mitigation measures had not been enforced.

“So, the community has been asking tough questions, because people have been sick,” Subra continued. “And this clearly shows that the agencies are trying to figure out how to message to the community and downplay the impact, and that Lennar was at the table.”

SLAM member and Bayview Organizing Project Organizer Jaron Browne concurred with Subra’s assessment of the email string.

‘This establishes a consistent pattern of communication right from the beginning,” Browne said. “It shows pressure in the agency to communicate in ways that are less negative.”

“The ones we have included are just examples of many, many more, “ Subra added, noting that the community-based agencies did not receive any attachments in their FOIA request, nor did they get copies of responses from Lennar to US EPA’s emails.

“You see this type of collusion fairly frequently but it’s usually limited to a person or two,” Subra continued. She notes that these emails relate to Parcel A, but two more shipyard parcels are scheduled for early release, and that the city’s Redevelopment Agency and Lennar would then take the parcels over.

“If this is how it’s going to go, but public health is being impacted, then it’s totally unacceptable,” Subra said.

Browne predicts that US EPA will issue a statement standing by its original statements around asbestos exposure at the site. “But we’ve asked a number of agencies and will be ccing our findings to US senators,” Browne said.

The emails obtained through SLAM and E.H.S.’s  email request number in the thousands and can be viewed here, which is also the site where POWER has posted its concerns with the city’s environmental draft environmental impact report for Lennar’s shipyard development –concerns that led POWER to file a suit that will be heard in San Francisco’s Superior Court at 400 McAllister Street at 10 a.m. on Thursday March 24.

“The emails are a separate issue from the lawsuit, but what unites then is that the Bayview community is really organizing,” Browne said. “The EPA recognizes that the Bayview is an environmental justice community, and what cuts across all these issues, whether they are at Parcel A or over the EIR [for Lennar’s massive shipyard-Candlestick development] is that we see the same pattern of behavior in which they dismiss the community’s concerns.”

Browne says POWER’s issue with the EIR was that it did not address toxic contamination at the shipyard.
‘The city says that’s the Navy’s concern, but CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act] requires you to explain what’s there and, if there’s a negative impact on health, how to address it. But the Navy can’t answer that question yet, and therefore it’s premature to approve the EIR.”

Calls to US EPA were not returned today, but we’ll be sure to post their reply here, so stay tuned…

Enjoy Saturday’s extreme Super Worm moon


The Internet is buzzing with rumors that this month’s extreme SuperMoon might have caused last week’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the Pacific Ocean. But folks at the Farmer’s Alamanac note that, ”Most astronomers dismiss this line of thinking, though, arguing that the 2,000-mile difference is minimal in the grand scheme of things – less than 1 percent of the Moon’s total distance from the Earth – and unlikely to cause much disruption on Earth, beyond the usual proxigean spring tide.”
They note that proxigean spring tides are usually stronger when the Moon is new. “So the conventional wisdom is that the upcoming event will result only in slightly higher than normal spring tides.”

This month’s full moon, which rises on the eve of the first day of Spring, is historically known as the Full Worm Moon.

“As the temperature begins to warm and the ground begins to thaw, earthworm casts appear, heralding the return of the robins,” the Farmer’s Almanac notes. “The more northern tribes knew this Moon as the Full Crow Moon, when the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter; or the Full Crust Moon, because the snow cover becomes crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night. The Full Sap Moon, marking the time of tapping maple trees, is another variation. To the settlers, it was also known as the Lenten Moon, and was considered to be the last full Moon of winter.”

Whatever you call it, the moon that rises this Saturday will be the largest full moon in nearly 20 years, and could appear 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than usual.
This is because of the shape of the Moon’s orbit, which is oval in shape: as the moon orbits the Earth each month, it reaches a point furthest from the Earth, called apogee, and a point closest to the Earth, called perigee. An extreme SuperMoon occurs when the Moon is close to 100 percent perigee.

Or, as the Almanac notes, “When the Moon is full, it sits exactly on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun. When it’s new, it sits between the Earth and the Sun. In both cases, the gravitational pull from the Moon and the Sun combine to create larger than normal tides, called “spring tides.” And when the Moon is also at perigee, the effect is magnified into what is called a “proxigean spring tide.”

This week’s extreme SuperMoon is the fourth since 2005, and the largest and brightest since 1992. The Moon will be 221,567 miles away, just a tiny bit closer than its average closest distance of about 223,500 (the Moon’s average distance from the Earth is 235,000, and its average furthest distance is 248,000 miles).
“Even though this particular full Moon is larger than normal and at its closest point to the Earth, it is unlikely to cause much disruption on Earth, beyond the usual proxigean spring tide. These tides are usually stronger when the Moon is new than when it’s full, so the conventional wisdom is that the upcoming event will result only in slightly higher than normal spring tides.”

Now, whether we’ll be able to see in between all the rain is another matter entirely.

Simulation of dispersal routes of radioactive pollution cloud


The Belgium Institute for Space Aeronomy has posted simulations of the dispersion routes of clouds of radioactive pollution emitted by the explosion in Daiichi Building-3 nuclear power plant in Fukushima in Japan.
“This simulation is one of the first to take into account the leaching by rain as the cloud on the route,” their website notes. “This results in a much faster decrease of the concentration of particulate pollutants. Based on these projections (which extend up to this Saturday), the cloud will disappear before they reach U.S. shores.  This simulation is based on the hypothetical initial cloud between 0 and 1500 m altitude. We tested the sensitivity to this assumption with another simulation where the initial cloud rises up to 3000 m. Thanks to leaching by rainfall, the result is almost the same: the cloud of radioactive pollution disappears over the Pacific Ocean.”

You can watch more cloud dispersal simulations by clicking here. And you can read updates on the nuclear power plants in Japan by checking out the International Atomic Energy Agency’s website.