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Law bans gag clauses in settlements with licensed professionals

December 10, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

DNY59/istockphoto.com

Californians who sue licensed professionals, such as contractors or nurses, will no longer be subjected to legal settlements that ban them from talking to state officials investigating misconduct when a new law takes effect in January.

The law prohibits civil legal settlements that bar consumers from cooperating with authorities who probe negligence and other misconduct by state licensees, including accountants, veterinarians, pharmacists, behavioral therapists and physician assistants. Laws banning such gag clauses in settlements with physicians and lawyers already are on the books in California.

“They’re immoral,” said Julie D’Angelo Fellmeth, administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law. Gag clauses "allow an unscrupulous person who is licensed by the state of California to hurt people, settle with them and then gag them so they are controlling the information that’s going to their own regulator.”

D’Angelo Fellmeth, who supported the bill, said court precedents already prohibit the gag clauses for a handful of professions. But the new law applies to thousands of licensees regulated under the state Department of Consumer Affairs.

Then-Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, introduced the bill in February; he was elected to the state Senate last month. Two prior versions of the bill failed, including a 2004 bill vetoed by...

San Jose to keep strict rules on disclosing lobbyists' texts, emails

December 10, 2012, 12:05 AM | Jennifer Gollan, The Bay Citizen

Jhaymesisviphotography/Flickr

Secret electronic communications between San Jose's elected officials and lobbyists during public meetings are now permanently banned.

In a nod to the ubiquity of handheld devices at public meetings, City Council members have imposed strict rules on themselves requiring that they disclose communications from lobbyists who email or text them during council meetings.

The policy, which the council approved unanimously Tuesday, cements San Jose’s role as a leader in requiring its elected officials to disclose their communication with lobbyists. The rules are effective immediately and make permanent the temporary requirements approved by the council in March 2010.

“There were some instances where lobbyists were communicating with council members on the dais,” Mayor Chuck Reed said in a phone interview. “We want to have sunshine so people are made aware of lobbyists’ interactions with elected officials.”

 

If a lobbyist contacts a council member by text, email or handwritten note during a public meeting, the member is required to announce the identity of the lobbyist and the subject of the communication before it comes to a vote...

State considers shorter service for under-prepared teachers

December 7, 2012, 12:05 AM | Joanna Lin, California Watch

Matt Kowal/Flickr

Under proposals the state's teacher credentialing agency is set to consider today, school districts would need to show on a case-by-case basis that no fully credentialed teachers are available before they resort to less-qualified educators, and under-prepared teachers could serve a maximum of three years instead of five.

The Commission on Teacher Credentialing is weighing the changes after expressing concern that under-prepared teachers disproportionately serve students who are living in poverty and learning English.

"Until that changes, we need to tighten up our process a little bit," Commissioner Kathleen Harris said at a September commission meeting, where possible regulatory changes for under-prepared teachers were first discussed.

California grants emergency permits to credentialed teachers so they may instruct English language learners, deliver a bilingual curriculum, or serve as resource specialists or teacher librarians before they have the required authorization to do so. In order to hire teachers on emergency permits each year, school districts must preemptively declare with the state the number of under-prepared teachers they might need and certify that they will first try to recruit fully credentialed teachers...

Calif. courts face federal scrutiny over interpreter access

December 6, 2012, 12:05 AM | Bernice Yeung, California Watch

spxChrome/istockphoto.com

U.S. Department of Justice representatives will visit California this month as part of an ongoing investigation into whether the state's courts are violating federal laws for failing to provide interpreters in many civil and family law cases.

The investigation stems from a December 2010 complaint filed by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles on behalf of two litigants who were not provided with Korean interpreters for their court hearings. The complaint alleges that in failing to provide the interpreters, the courts violated Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits national origin discrimination.

These cases “are just two examples of many LAFLA (Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles) clients who have been denied access to the courts based on their limited-English proficiency,” according to the complaint. 

One of the Southern California litigants described in the complaint is a then-72-year-old woman on a fixed income who filed for a restraining order against an apartment maintenance worker she said groped her and exposed himself to her. 

 

In October 2010, she went to the Los Angeles County Superior Court and filed a written request asking it to waive the fees for an interpreter but was denied because there "is no right to an interpreter provided at...

Caltrans slow to boost pedestrian safety on hairy Millbrae road

December 6, 2012, 12:05 AM | Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen

Zusha Elinson/The Bay Citizen Three people have been struck walking in this crosswalk at Santa Helena Avenue and El Camino Real in the past two months. 

A perilous stretch of El Camino Real in Millbrae where the state was found liable in 2010 for endangering pedestrians continues to claim victims as people try to cross the busy six-lane thoroughfare.

Caltrans was ordered to pay $8 million to the family of Emily Liou, who was struck by a Toyota in 2006 while crossing the highway in a crosswalk. Age 17 at the time, she was left in a coma. The jury found that Caltrans had known for years that the crosswalks without traffic signals were dangerous but had taken no action to prevent the accident.

Despite the jury’s verdict, Caltrans has done little since then to improve the crossing at Ludeman Lane where Liou was hit or three similar crosswalks within a six-block stretch of El Camino Real. Since the accident, 11 more pedestrians have been hit in these crosswalks. In the past six weeks alone, three people have been injured...

PetSmart selling unregistered pesticide products despite state order

December 5, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

markyeg/Flickr

About two months after the state’s environmental agency ordered a major pet products retailer to immediately cease selling unregistered pesticide products, many of those products remain on the retailer’s shelves and website.

“It’s illegal to sell a product that makes pesticidal claims in California unless it has been registered by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Pesticide Regulation,” said Lea Brooks, a spokeswoman for California’s Environmental Protection Agency and its Department of Pesticide Regulation.

In September, the pesticide department fined Phoenix-based PetSmart nearly $400,000 for selling 33 unregistered pesticide products [PDF] to California consumers. The products ranged from dog and cat shampoos to reptile cage liners. Once a product is registered, the state can evaluate it for toxins, which could be transferred from animals to humans.

The state's requirement applies to retailers, not product manufacturers. According to Brooks, the retailer...

Calls grow for local police to take cases at developmental centers

December 3, 2012, 12:05 AM | Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch

Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle The Sonoma Developmental Center in Eldridge is one of five state-run institutions for the developmentally disabled.

Sonoma County’s top prosecutor has joined with advocates for the developmentally disabled in calling for local police to take charge of criminal investigations of patient abuse at California’s board-and-care institutions.

Cases involving reported assault and negligence have long been left to the Office of Protective Services, the police force at the five state-run developmental centers. The force's detectives and patrol officers have routinely failed to do basic police work even when patients die under suspicious circumstances.

The force has performed especially poorly in sexual abuse cases, California Watch reported in a story published Thursday.

Patients have accused caretakers of molestation and rape 36 times since 2009, but the Office of Protective Services did not order a single hospital-supervised rape examination for any of the alleged victims. “Rape kit” exams are routinely used to collect evidence at most police departments.

Eleven of the sex abuse cases were...

College of the Desert inflated enrollment, overbilled state

November 30, 2012, 12:35 AM | Erica Perez, California Watch

pogonici/Shutterstock

The College of the Desert in Palm Desert will have to pay back $5.2 million because the district knowingly overstated its enrollment and overbilled the state for seven years, a pattern that the state Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team characterized as potential fraud.

The state chancellor’s office forwarded the matter to the Riverside County district attorney’s office in a letter Thursday. Without naming any individuals, the report says the president at that time, Jerry Patton, unnamed members of the "senior management team" and a consultant knew the college was submitting false reports.

The penalty is significant, representing about 15 percent of the district’s $34 million annual budget. But the chancellor’s office has ensured district officials they will be able to pay back the money on a schedule that allows the district to remain fiscally sound, a college spokeswoman said...

State steps up enforcement of digital privacy protections

November 30, 2012, 12:05 AM | Matt Drange, The Bay Citizen

rangizzz/Shutterstock

A handful of mobile app makers that defied an order from state Attorney General Kamala Harris to post a written privacy policy can expect enforcement actions to be filed against them as early as next week.

Several companies might face sanctions after Harris sent warning letters in late October to 100 app makers that had not posted a written policy. The vast majority agreed to comply, said Travis LeBlanc, who oversees the attorney general’s new Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit.

The companies that rejected her order maintain they aren’t required to have a policy because the personal data they collect is not subject to the California Online Privacy Protection Act, LeBlanc said. He declined to name the companies or say how many were violating the law.

The prevalence of mobile app downloads has exploded in recent years, while enforcement of privacy protections has struggled to keep up. Privacy advocates say having a policy in place is the minimum requirement for app makers and a necessary first step in educating consumers who increasingly rely on mobile devices to share and store sensitive information...

Health plans air concerns amid changes to kids' coverage

November 29, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

Ilike/Shutterstock

Under a budget-paring plan crafted by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by lawmakers, 870,000 children who were covered by the Healthy Families program will be moved to Medi-Cal in phases starting Jan. 1. But it remains unclear whether a health plan serving Sacramento, Fresno, San Diego and Los Angeles counties will have enough doctors to accept the children.

Health Net, which covers about 86,000 children, notified the state that it can’t say how many of its doctors will continue to see children after they are moved from the better-paying Healthy Families program to Medi-Cal, a Medicaid program that pays some of the nation’s lowest reimbursement rates.

CalViva, a plan that contracts with Health Net to provide care to nearly 15,000 clients in Fresno, Kings and Madera counties, also reported similar concerns.

“That’s a lot of children who would be affected if there are problems in the health plans,” said Michele Stillwell-Parvensky, a policy and communications...

Prime hospital fined $95,000 for confidentiality breach

November 28, 2012, 12:35 PM | Lance Williams, California Watch

Monica Lam/California Watch Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding 

A Prime Healthcare Services hospital in Redding has been fined $95,000 for publicizing a patient’s confidential medical files in an effort to discredit a California Watch news report.

The state Department of Public Health imposed the financial penalties on Prime’s Shasta Regional Medical Center on Nov. 9 for five offenses that occurred last year.

At the time, officials of the Ontario-based hospital chain were trying to undercut a California Watch story about aggressive Medicare billing practices at the Redding hospital.

In an attempt to rebut the story, the hospital's CEO sent an email to 785 people – virtually everyone who worked at the hospital – disclosing details from a 64-year-old diabetes patient’s confidential files, state investigators wrote in their report. The patient had been interviewed by California Watch for its story.

Earlier, the hospital CEO, Randall Hempling, took the woman’s medical files to the editor of the local newspaper, the Redding Record Searchlight, to dissuade him from reprinting California Watch's story...

More couches contain chemicals tied to cancer risk

November 28, 2012, 6:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

LizMarie_AK/Flickr

Eight out of 10 couches contain flame retardant chemicals that are linked to heightened cancer risk, developmental delays in children or are lacking adequate health information, according to a study released today by UC Berkeley and Duke University researchers.

The study also shows an increase in the number of couches bought throughout the U.S. that contain flame retardants. That number went up even though California is the only state that has a flame retardant regulation. While 75 percent of couches bought before 2005 contained a flame retardant chemical, the rate rose to 93 percent in couches bought since 2005, the study found.

“I didn’t expect to find such a high percentage of furniture bought outside of California to meet the standard,” said Arlene Blum, an author and founder of the Berkeley-based Green Science Policy Institute. “It’s led to the use of more toxic chemicals.”

The study is coming out as California authorities, at the direction of Gov. Jerry Brown, are revising the state’s Technical Bulletin 117, which requires furniture foam to resist combustion when exposed to a flame for 12 seconds...

Lawsuit targets nursing home management, state regulators

November 28, 2012, 12:05 AM | Will Evans, California Watch

Borya/Flickr

State regulators allow nursing home companies to siphon money away from patient care to pad corporate profits, alleges a lawsuit filed by a longtime foe of the industry.

Glendale attorney Russ Balisok, who has made a career of suing nursing homes, brought the suit seeking to invalidate parts of state law that allow nursing facilities to contract out their own management. The suit, filed last month, targets Country Villa Health Services, which runs a chain of 50 skilled nursing and assisted-living facilities throughout California.

Balisok's strategy is to attack the industry's business model. At issue are state-approved agreements in which Country Villa homes contract out their operations to another Country Villa entity. The management company gets a percentage of revenues from the homes it operates. Balisok contends that the management company doesn't actually run the facilities and instead consumes money needed to care adequately for patients...

Ex-worker accuses VA of 'callous indifference' to veterans

November 27, 2012, 6:38 PM | Aaron Glantz, California Watch

Paul Chin/San Francisco Chronicle Jamie Fox (center) stands with veteran Hosea Roundtree and former VA worker Ann Williams. 

A former Department of Veterans Affairs employee accused the agency today of “cover-up after cover-up” and a “callous indifference” to the plight of veterans it is supposed to serve.

Jamie Fox, who lost her job at the VA’s Oakland office after arguing that a veteran’s benefits were being erroneously denied, appeared in federal court in San Francisco as part of a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the agency.

She was joined in court by Hosea Roundtree, the Navy veteran whose application for benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder was denied on the grounds that he had never seen combat even though he had witnessed the 1983 shelling of Beirut.

“We are being cheated out of our benefits,” Roundtree said after the hearing. “I want to stand with someone who was standing up for us vets.”...

Churches find revenue leasing steeples to cell companies

November 27, 2012, 12:05 AM | Kendall Taggart, California Watch

Kendall Taggart/California Watch The Church of St. Leo the Great in Oakland recently installed a cell antenna in its bell tower.

Inside the bell tower of the Church of St. Leo the Great, constructed in 1926 on a corner of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, isn't the obvious spot for a cell antenna, but that's where AT&T installed one.

Across the state, wireless companies are installing an increasing number of cell sites inside church steeples and bell towers. With the growing use of tablets, smartphones and other wireless devices, the wireless industry has approached churches because of their height and residential locations, where putting new towers would be difficult.

The practice has created additional work for property tax assessors, who are responsible for determining how much of the church's property is no longer tax-exempt. Churches and other nonprofits often are exempt from property taxes, but only if the property is used for religious or charitable purposes. If property is used for commercial purposes, such as leasing space for a cell tower, tax assessors must charge the organizations...

SFO to return $2.1 million in misspent stimulus funds

November 27, 2012, 12:05 AM | Zusha Elinson, California Watch

UPDATE, Nov. 27, 2012: This story updates the inspector general's estimate of improper payments made by the Department of Transportation.

kla4067/Flickr San Francisco International Airport 

The Federal Aviation Administration will take back $2.1 million in stimulus funds that it gave to San Francisco International Airport because the money was used improperly, according to the Department of Transportation’s inspector general.

The airport received $14.5 million in stimulus funds to improve runways and taxiways, which was completed in 2010. But the inspector general said in a report earlier this month that $2.1 million was used for unauthorized construction. It is unclear what specifically the money was spent on.

It is the second time in two years that the San Francisco airport has been found to be misusing federal stimulus money.

The airport disclosed to bondholders in January that it was conducting an internal review of how it spends grant funds and is “working to improve its internal controls and procedures to ensure compliance with its Federal grant agreements.”

SFO spokesman Doug Yakel said the airport is still awaiting the completion of a final audit of the federal grants. But he said the “$2.1 million recovery described in...

Solano College to recruit higher-paying international students

November 21, 2012, 6:27 AM | Erica Perez, California Watch

Columbia_Admissions/Flickr

Solano College will pay a consultant more than $100,000 over two years to recruit international students from Asia – at a time when the community colleges have undergone severe budget cuts and many in-state students are struggling to get the classes they need.

Solano College Superintendent-President Jowel Laguerre says the move will bring in additional revenues that will eventually help support the college’s bottom line. International students pay about $197 more per unit than local students at Solano.

But the academic senate has weighed in against the plan, saying it could have a negative effect on local students, was approved without adequate faculty input and might not pencil out financially.

The move comes as the University of California and California State University systems have increased the number of international and out-of-state students in an effort to increase tuition revenues.

The CSU system stoked controversy this year when officials announced they were closing spring enrollment for graduate programs for California residents but...

State lawmaker brothers accused of money laundering

November 21, 2012, 12:05 AM | Lance Williams, California Watch

Tom Berryhill photo State Sen. Tom Berryhill 

Two San Joaquin Valley lawmakers have been accused of laundering $40,000 in a scheme to dodge California’s tough limits on political contributions.

In an accusation filed Oct. 22, the state Fair Political Practices Commission said state Sen. Tom Berryhill, a Modesto Republican, and Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, a Stockton Republican, repeatedly had violated campaign finance laws during the 2008 election.

The lawmakers deny wrongdoing and are contesting the charges, said Charles Bell, a lawyer for Tom Berryhill.

The Berryhills are brothers, and in 2008, they were running for the Assembly in adjacent districts.

The commission said that less than a week before the election, Tom Berryhill gave his brother’s campaign $40,000 – more than 11 times the $3,600 donation limit set by state law – to pay for television advertising.

To mask the true source of the funds, the commission contended that Tom Berryhill steered the money through Republican central committees in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, which by law could accept as much as $30,200 per donor...

Pastors challenge IRS rule with partisan talk

November 21, 2012, 12:05 AM | Amy Julia Harris, California Watch

J. Helgason/Shutterstock

Larry Ihrig, the longtime pastor of Celebration Christian Center in Livermore, began a recent Sunday sermon with the issue on everyone’s mind: the outcome of the presidential election.

“Now, some of you may glory in the result, but I know some of you are disappointed,” Ihrig told the 100 members of his evangelical Bay Area church after Election Day.

In the lead-up to the Nov. 6 presidential election, he was one of about 1,600 religious leaders around the country who talked politics from the pulpit, challenging a 1954 law that bans churches from supporting candidates during worship services. 

The movement, called Pulpit Freedom Sunday and organized by the Arizona-based Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, encourages pastors to “preach a biblically based sermon regarding candidates and the election without fearing that the IRS will investigate or punish the church,” according to the group’s website.

Pastors across the country have posted videos on the Internet of their direct or thinly veiled political endorsements and sent letters to the...

Study questions success of border enforcement

November 20, 2012, 12:05 AM | G.W. Schulz, California Watch

Brian Auer/Flickr

When the Department of Homeland Security trudged up to Capitol Hill this year and asked lawmakers for another 365 days worth of funding, as every federal agency does each year, officials ticked off a list of accomplishments they presented as evidence of the agency’s ongoing success.

The department pointed to a marked decrease in the number of immigration apprehensions by the Border Patrol. Apprehensions, they said, are “a key indicator of illegal immigration,” according to its annual budget request totaling $39.5 billion for the 2013 fiscal year.

Such apprehensions are down more than 50 percent since 2008, and total just one-fifth of what they were in 2000, the request claims.

But a downward trend in total apprehensions may not prove the department’s border enforcement strategies are working, because they don’t reflect the number of people who elude capture or who are discouraged from attempting to cross again after being caught once...

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