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Monday
May162011

LOCAL GOVERNMENT (L.A. City/County): L.A. Dept. of Bldg. & Safety, internal investigations unit to be revived; Compton's "racial divide" (Jim Newton op-ed); "turmoil" at L.A. County Probation Department; Rick Caruso, "frustrated", criticism of City Hall.... 

* Los Angeles Times:  "L.A. building department ordered to revive its internal investigations unit" - "Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa calls for the change as a corruption probe into the department grows. Last month, FBI agents arrested two inspectors on suspicion of accepting bribes." -

   Responding to a growing corruption probe, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has ordered the top executive at the Department of Building and Safety to resurrect an internal investigations unit that was dismantled a decade ago.

   ****

   Villaraigosa's order comes more than a month after two inspectors were arrested by FBI agents on suspicion of accepting bribes. In an affidavit filed in that case, the FBI said a confidential informant told of giving inspectors as many as 40 bribes — not just money but also labor and materials. That informant described such favors as "systemic" at the department....

* Daily News:  "L.A. County Probation Department in turmoil" - From the DN:

   After years of federal investigations, state oversight and consent decrees, the Los Angeles County Probation Department remains beset by turmoil. This month, the pressure is ratcheting up again as the department is looking at triggering a fight with unions by laying off 200 employees - even though the agency might be forced to hire some 400 to 600 people in only a few months. At the same time, it is closing three juvenile camps in Lancaster and is caught in the middle of a power struggle between the Board of Supervisors and county Chief Executive Officer William Bill Fujioka.

   "Right now, things are - for lack of a better term - crazy all over, including at the state level," said Chief Probation Officer Donald Blevins. "It's a challenging time but it could ultimately wind up in better opportunities for probation staff." Blevins is poised to go head-to-head with labor unions on Tuesday by recommending the layoffs of about 200 workers.

   If approved by the board, it would trigger the county government's first mass layoffs during the economic recession. Blevins said the cuts are needed to wipe out most of a projected $35.1 million budget deficit in the upcoming fiscal year.

   Also, it would help shrink a work force bloated by hiring sprees for detention officers that began after the Department of Justice identified several problems at juvenile halls, such as overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. Officials are now realizing that hiring spree went too far............................

* Daily News (Rick Orlov TIPOFF):  "'Frustrated' Caruso criticizes City Hall" - From the DN:

   For developer and wannabe mayor Rick Caruso, this is the best of times. Or maybe the worst. His speech last week to Town Hall Los Angeles could have been written in 1993 for his one-time booster Mayor Richard Riordan, or delivered by 2005 mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa with its emphasis on becoming business-friendly, shaking up City Hall and demanding reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

   Riordan, who is now backing former first deputy mayor Austin Beutner, found it difficult to make more than small steps on business reform. Villaraigosa has learned the hard way that pushing school reform is easier said than accomplished. But for now, Caruso is able to take shots at City Hall.

   And he has taken his shots. In a speech he billed as his vision for the city, Caruso described himself as "frustrated ... and pained" at what he sees happening in the city. "Our current political class often seems to be incapable of even recognizing the scope of the city's challenges - let alone challenging them," Caruso said................

* Los Angeles Times (Jim Newton op-ed):  "Compton's racial divide" - "In a city that is about two-thirds Latino, not one elected official is." - From the LAT:

   Imagine if today's Los Angeles were governed by a white mayor and an all-white City Council. And then imagine if that anomaly was protected by city election rules that virtually guaranteed no Latino candidate could land a spot in elected office. The civil rights community would be apoplectic and the public justifiably enraged.

   Now consider Compton, a city that's about two-thirds Latino but in which no Latino has ever held elected office. Instead, thanks in part to the kind of voting rules that were challenged and abandoned in many cities long ago, an all-black City Council and a black mayor maintain a firm hold on public office.

   ****

   Compton's commitment to at-large voting, which has been challenged in a lawsuit alleging violations of the California Voting Act, is the manifestation of a particularly noxious brand of racial politics that plays out in schools, elections and even civic events. The conflicts are neither new nor deniable. To take just one example: In 1994, when Californians voted on Proposition 187, exit polling found that 64% of Compton's non-Latino voters supported it; less than 1% of its Latino voters did so. One expert who analyzed Compton's voting patterns said the evidence of racial balloting was "clear and convincing."

   ****

   In court filings, the city attorney has maintained that the challenge to Compton's voting rules violates the city charter, which specifically calls for at-large elections and thus can be changed only by a vote. Moreover, he challenges the assumption that Latinos need districts to elect candidates, suggesting instead that boosting turnout would accomplish those ends. In our conversation, Cornwell elaborated: "We don't believe that it's our system that's the problem. We believe that Compton is plagued with low voter turnout of all ethnicities, including Latino voters."

   ****

 

Sunday
May152011

POLITICS: Rahm Emanuel mayoral inauguration tomorrow, various reports.....

* Daily News:  "Villaraigosa to fly to Chicago for mayoral inauguration"

* New York Times:  "Chicago Braces for the Unknown and a New Mayor"

* Chicago Tribune:  "Mayor-Elect:  'We all have a role to play'" - "He gardens before attending Grant Park concert, invite-only party"

* Daily News (AP):  "Emanuel brings his independent mindset to Chicago"

* New York Times:  "Inaugural Spenders Will Pay Rahm's Party Tab"

* Washington Post (AP):  "Biden to attend Rahm Emanuel's swearing-in as Chicago's newest mayor"

Sunday
May152011

POLITICS (State, National): HUD, "million-dollar wasteland", mismanagement of federal program for affordable housing; federal worker pensions, emergence as key target in debt-reduction talks; Jerry Brown, to "skip tax increase this year"; state budget, no ducking hard choices this time (editorial)........

* Washington Post:  "A trail of stalled or abandoned HUD projects" - From the WP:

   The federal government’s largest housing construction program for the poor has squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on stalled or abandoned projects and routinely failed to crack down on derelict developers or the local housing agencies that funded them.

   Nationwide, nearly 700 projects awarded $400 million have been idling for years, a Washington Post investigation found. Some have languished for a decade or longer even as much of the country struggles with record-high foreclosures and a dramatic loss of affordable housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the nation’s housing fund, has largely looked the other way: It does not track the pace of construction and often fails to spot defunct deals, instead trusting local agencies to police projects.

   The result is a trail of failed developments in every corner of the country. Fields where apartment complexes were promised are empty and neglected. Houses that were supposed to be renovated are boarded up and crumbling, eyesores in decaying neighborhoods.

   ****

   The Post examined every major project currently funded under the HUD program, analyzing a database of 5,100 projects worth $3.2 billion, studying more than 600 satellite images and collecting information from 165 housing agencies nationwide. The yearlong investigation uncovered a dysfunctional system that delivers billions of dollars to local housing agencies with few rules, safeguards or even a reliable way to track projects. The lapses have led to widespread misspending and delays in a two-decade-old program meant to deliver decent housing to the working poor.

  The Post found breakdowns at every level...................:

   • Local housing agencies have doled out millions to troubled developers, including novice builders, fledgling nonprofits and groups accused of fraud or delivering shoddy work.

   • Checks were cut even when projects were still on the drawing boards, without land, financing or permits to move forward. In at least 55 cases, developers drew HUD money but left behind only barren lots.

   • Overall, nearly one in seven projects shows signs of significant delay. Time and again, housing agencies failed to cancel bad deals or alert HUD when projects foundered.

   • HUD has known about the problems for years but still imposes few requirements on local housing agencies and relies on a data system that makes it difficult to determine which developments are stalled.

   • Even when HUD learns of a botched deal, federal law does not give the agency the authority to demand repayment. HUD can ask local authorities to voluntarily repay, but the agency was unable to say how much money has been returned...................................

* Washington Post:  "Federal worker pensions emerge as target in debt-reduction talks" - From the WP:

   The generous pension system enjoyed by millions of federal workers from clerks to senators and judges has emerged as a key target in negotiations between Vice President Biden and congressional leaders looking to restrain the growing national debt.

   Republicans have proposed saving more than $120 billion over the next decade by requiring the civilian workforce to contribute more toward retirement — a plan that would effectively impose an immediate 5 percent pay cut on more than 2 million federal employees. President Obama’s bipartisan fiscal commission has also endorsed the idea, calling the federal system “out of line” with the private sector.

   Now, administration officials have expressed interest in raising the amount that employees contribute to their pensions — though probably not as high as the GOP proposal, definitely not as fast and possibly not for all workers, according to people in both parties familiar with the discussions.

   If adopted as part of a compromise plan to control federal borrowing, the proposal promises to test the resolve of local lawmakers — particularly Democrats — by forcing them to choose between the lofty goal of debt reduction and the interests of public-sector workers, who have come under fire from Republicans in Washington and several state capitals......................

* Los Angeles Times:  "Gov. Brown to skip tax increase this year" - "The governor will scale back a plan for more taxes in his revised budget after a surge in revenue, officials say. But 70 California state parks are slated for closure." - From the LAT:

   A surge in revenue has prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to scale back his proposal for more taxes, even as his administration on Friday announced its intention to close 70 state parks. Officials familiar with Brown's plans said the revised budget he presents Monday will propose raising income tax rates on Californians for four years rather than the five he initially wanted. The higher rate would not take effect until 2012.

   The governor will continue to push for a five-year extension of increases in sales taxes and vehicle fees that are due to expire by July 1, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plan has not been made public. Brown wants lawmakers to put some levies in place before July 1, to be ratified later by voters, the officials said.

   The governor would use an unexpected multibillion-dollar influx of tax receipts to fill the gap left in his budget by the shorter period of income tax increases. He would also use the new money to keep in place "enterprise zone" tax credits for businesses that hire workers from blighted areas. Brown originally proposed eliminating those tax credits to save the state $924 million.

   But the revenue boost was not enough to save 70 parks that the administration said it was planning to close. . . . .

   ****

   Brown also announced Friday a proposal to scrap the state Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, which has long been a lucrative landing place for former lawmakers, with salaries in six figures. Six of the seven current board members are ex-legislators appointed by their former colleagues or past governors. The announcements about parks and the unemployment board appeared timed to show voters that Brown is doing all he can to tighten the state's belt while making difficult cuts before he asks them to agree to higher taxes.......................

* Sacramento Bee (editorial):  "This time, lawmakers can't duck hard choices on budget" - From the Bee:

   In some ways, word that California taxpayers are providing an extra few billion dollars to the state is not welcome. The risk is that legislators will assume that because revenue is up, the state budget crisis is ending, and they don't need to make hard choices. It's not, and they do.

   Gov. Jerry Brown's spending plan isn't perfect. He will offer a revised version on Monday that seeks to erase a $15.4 billion deficit, and he will need to bend in some areas before a final deal is struck. Surely, the added revenue will help. But the governor was elected on a promise that he would get California's fiscal house in order. He needs to keep to that fundamental pledge, and legislators ought to follow his lead. Brown may trim his proposal to raise and extend about $11 billion in taxes. But the state cannot cut and borrow its way to solvency.

   There have been a few encouraging developments in recent days. Assembly Republicans finally offered specific suggestions to close the budget gap. Late is better than not at all. Importantly, Republicans called for another $2 billion in spending for public schools. That's progress.

   Brown should stand fast on several points, among them:

   • Realignment:  . . . .

   • Redevelopment:  . . . .

   • Business tax breaks: . . . .

  ****

 

Friday
May132011

AFTERNOON MEMOS: Sacramento, announcement, closure of 70 state parks; government warning, dismal fiscal future for federal entitlement programs; lawsuits vs. Donald Trump, 300 home buyers now suing in connection with "deceptive" licensing agreements; Congress, tax debate, political dilemma, "rift among Democrats".... 

* Sacramento Bee:  "California officials announce closure of 70 state parks" - From the Bee:

   State parks officials today announced the closure of 70 parks because of the state budget deficit, including the governor's mansion and the Stanford mansion in Sacramento.

   Gov. Jerry Brown's January budget plan proposed reducing the state parks budget by $22 million. The Legislature in March approved $11 million in cuts to state parks and $10 million in cuts to off highway vehicle parks in the next fiscal year, with $22 million in cuts to state parks in future years. The California State Parks System was directed to identify which parks would close based on attendance rates and historical significance. The department operates more than 270 state park units covering more than 1.4 million acres.

   ****

    The department said service reductions will begin over the summer and closures will begin in September. All parks on the list are to be padlocked by July 1, 2012 under the current budget proposal. The cuts have not yet been signed by Gov. Jerry Brown,  so a final list could grow or shrink based on the actions the Legislature takes to close the budget deficit.

   ****

   Here's a full list of the closures from the parks department....................

* Los Angeles Times:  "Insolvency looms for federal entitlement programs, government warns" -

   Caught in the sluggish recovery from the last recession, Social Security and Medicare face an increasingly dismal fiscal future, the federal government reported Friday in its annual review of the two mammoth entitlement programs.

    Medicare, which now provides health insurance to some 47 million elderly and disabled Americans, could begin running a deficit in 2024, five years earlier than projected last year. And Social Security, which last year began paying out more in benefits than it collected in taxes, now faces insolvency in 2036, compared to 2037 in last year’s projections.

   Over the years, the Social Security and Medicare trustees have produced widely varying assessments of the financial health of the two programs, as the nation’s economy has moved through periods of growth and stagnation. But the latest estimates by the trustees are expected to intensify pressure on both parties in Washington to move forcefully to shore up the two programs..................

* Vanity Fair:  "Three Hundred People Currently Suing America's Next President, Donald Trump"

   The front page of today’s New York Times contains an exceptionally damaging exposé concerning self-described billionaire Donald Trump. The Times’s Michael Barbaro, the ace political reporter who last caught up with the hubristic heir in his Vegas hotel suite as his plane happened to be “hovering” outside the window, chronicles Trump’s most toxic licensing agreements. Trump “has entered into arrangements that home buyers describe as deliberately deceptive — designed, they said, to exploit the very thing that drew them to his buildings: their faith in him,” according to The Times.

   The same scenario has played out in different residential buildings across Southern Florida: customers, believing they’re purchasing a Trump-developed property and all the cachet and quality that comes with it, put downpayments on condominiums. These projects, besieged by various financial misfortunes, never come to fruition. The would-be homeowners then lose their downpayment and their misplaced trust in Trump. Three-hundred people are now suing the star of NBC’s The Apprentice. Trump—who, in the case of the misbegotten, half-finished Trump Tower Tampa, didn’t even return his $4 million licensing fee—concedes no wrongdoing.......................

* Washington Post:  "Tax debate causes rift among Democrats" - From the WP:

   While Republican tensions over tackling the national debt have been on public display for days, Democrats have also been squabbling with one another, though largely out of view. At issue for Democrats is whether the party risks going overboard in its embrace of tax increases — a perilous proposition for lawmakers from political battlegrounds. Those tensions erupted at a private meeting this week of a handful of key Democratic members.

   Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), facing reelection next year, spoke up to oppose a plan being drafted by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad that would impose a new surtax on millionaires of about three percent on top of the higher tax rates they would face when the George W. Bush tax cuts expire next year, according to several people familiar with the exchange. Nelson later explained through a spokesman that he was opposed to “double taxation,” even on the wealthy. Another centrist on the budget committee, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), has also opposed the idea.

   Several centrist Democrats have been voicing concern in private sessions that Conrad’s draft may be shifting too far to the left in order to placate liberals on the committee whose votes are needed to move the legislation, according to aides.

   Republicans have been rallying around a House spending plan authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), even as they’ve been sending mixed signals in recent days over a key provision calling for a deep overhaul of Medicare. The Democratic-run Senate, meantime, has been unable — or unwilling — to lay out its alternative agenda.

   The fracturing within the party illustrates the political dilemma facing Democrats as budget negotiations and the 2012 election cycle heat up simultaneously.......................

Friday
May132011

DODGERS/McCOURTS: Report, McCourt meeting with Selig; also, Tom Schieffer interview, Schieffer says "26 entities comprise Dodgers"....

* Washington Post (AP): "AP Interview: In following McCourt's money, Tom Schieffer says 26 entities comprise Dodgers" - From the WP:

   The man charged by Major League Baseball with sorting through the finances of the Los Angeles Dodgers is finding a complex jigsaw of companies. As Tom Schieffer traces the money from the baseball team to Frank McCourt, he has found the Dodgers are composed of 26 interlocking entities, just two fewer than all the properties on a Monopoly board.

   Trying to crystalize the Dodgers’ bottom line is like trying to capture the shifting borders of the strike zone. “The complexity of the situation is daunting,” he said Thursday during an interview with The Associated Press at Major League Baseball headquarters. “The way things are structured, sometimes they’re for tax purposes and sometimes they’re for liability purposes, but it does require you to try to follow the dollar through the process, and that takes a little bit of time. And some of the entities are shells that were set up maybe to do something else and that don’t really bear a great deal on it. What you’re trying to do is figure out what is pertinent ... and it just takes a little bit of time.”

   Time is what McCourt doesn’t appear to have. Baseball officials believe the Dodgers don’t have enough cash to make their end of May payroll, and baseball Commissioner Bud Selig refused to give a timetable for approving the team’s $3 billion television deal with Fox, which would include an up-front payment of about $300 million. McCourt has claimed Selig is treating him unfairly, and a lawsuit appears possible.

   ****

   “What we’re trying to figure out is what is the situation with the Dodger organization, and the California courts will tell us who owns the team. And they are really two separate things,” Schieffer said. “As far as Major League Baseball is concerned, I think that is a secondary issue. The primary issue is what is the condition of the franchise, because that is what impacts the team and impacts the 29 other teams that make up Major League Baseball.”

   Frank and Jamie McCourt received about $108 million in loans from Dodgers-related entities from 2004-09 to fund a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” existence. Baseball officials are worried that a front-loaded Fox deal would provide more money that could be removed from the Dodgers and used for non-baseball purposes.

   Schieffer, the brother of “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer, is circumspect. He doesn’t want to draw any conclusions, since his job is to gather information and allow Selig to make the decisions. “What we’re looking at is the overall financial health of the club and what is the cause of the serious problems that have obviously developed, and what can we do to prevent them from occurring again in the future,” he said........................

* Los Angeles Times:  "Bud Selig says league is 'moving as fast as we can' on Dodgers inquiry" - "Baseball commissioner says he is not stalling waiting for Frank McCourt to run out of money. McCourt presses urgency of timing on Fox TV deal, but may face another hurdle involving ex-wife." - From the LAT:

   On the day after Dodgers owner Frank McCourt made his long-awaited personal pitch to Bud Selig, baseball's commissioner said he has not stalled his investigation into the Dodgers' finances so McCourt would run out of money first. "We're moving as fast as we can," Selig said Thursday, before evoking a favorite college basketball metaphor. "Nobody is using the Dean Smith four-corner offense."

   McCourt said he had impressed upon Selig the urgency in approving the Dodgers' proposed long-term television contract with Fox, which would provide McCourt with the funding he now lacks to meet the team's May 31 payroll. "I just emphasized the importance of timing," McCourt said as he arrived for the final day of a quarterly meeting of Major League Baseball owners.

   Selig has said he would neither accept nor reject the Fox contract until after the investigation is complete. Even if Selig were to approve the deal by the end of the month, McCourt might have to overcome another significant hurdle. Fox does not plan to move forward with the contract until the company can be assured Jamie McCourt — Frank McCourt's ex-wife — would not challenge the deal, two people familiar with the matter said Thursday.

   Frank McCourt has said the contract is "completely negotiated, ready to be signed and ready to be closed." He also has said Jamie McCourt has not contested his right to operate the Dodgers on a day-to-day basis. However, Jamie McCourt owns half the team — at least until Frank McCourt could prove otherwise in court — and she could object to any deal she believes would minimize the value of a marital asset.

   ****

   Before business began Thursday, McCourt would not say whether his meeting with Selig had changed his position that the outcome of baseball's investigation was "predetermined" so as to steer the Dodgers toward new ownership.

   Selig declined to discuss his meeting with McCourt or to say whether there was a chance he would eventually approve the Fox contract and McCourt would remain as the Dodgers' owner. But he denied the inquiry was for show, citing the involvement of trustee Tom Schieffer in overseeing the Dodgers' day-to-day operations — "I talk to Tom Schieffer about four times a day," Selig said — and the retention of an outside law firm to lead the financial probe. "We wouldn't have to go through all this if it was predetermined," Selig said...................