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Big earthquakes can trigger temblors across globe, USGS says

September 28, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

USGS The incidence of magnitude 5.5-or-greater earthquakes increased across the globe after a magnitude 8.6 temblor an April. 

A large earthquake in one part of the globe can trigger earthquakes elsewhere, according to new research by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and UC Berkeley.

The global aftershocks are fairly immediate, taking place within a week of the original large quake, the researchers said. And the observation might require seismologists to change their definition of an aftershock, from one that stresses quakes caused in the immediate region of an earthquake to one that can occur anywhere.

“Earthquakes are immense forces of nature, involving complex rock physics and failure mechanisms occurring over time and space scales that cannot be re-created in a laboratory environment,” USGS Director Marcia McNutt said in a press statement.

“A large, unusual event such as the East Indian earthquake last April is a once-in-a-century opportunity to uncover first order responses of the planet to sudden changes in state of stress that bring us a little closer to understanding the mystery of earthquake generation,” she said...

State reported inflated rate of teachers lacking credentials

September 28, 2012, 12:05 AM | Joanna Lin, California Watch

U.S. Census Bureau

The rate was startling: Nearly six in 10 teachers at California's lowest-performing schools were not properly credentialed for the classes they led. It's a rate California has worked to shrink for the past six years. It's also a rate that was wrong.

The percentage of teachers and other certificated staff lacking proper credentials was actually 29 percent, not the 58 percent the state reported for the 2005-06 school year. The revelation, sparked by errors in state data identified by California Watch, means the state has been using an incorrect baseline as it measures progress at its lowest-performing schools.

Misassignments, as they're known, have decreased dramatically since the state agreed to give the problem greater attention at low-performing schools. Unlike higher-performing schools, which are monitored every four years, the lowest-performing schools are monitored annually. The action was one of many stemming from the settlement of Williams v. California, a landmark class-action lawsuit that sought to ensure all students were taught by qualified, credentialed teachers...

LA man tied to series of fraud cases sentenced in Medicare scheme

September 27, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

Brian Turner/Flickr

A Los Angeles man was sentenced to six years in prison last week for his role in a power wheelchair scam, topping what prosecutors say has been a series of Medicare fraud cases.

David James Garrison, 50, a former physician assistant, was found guilty by a federal jury for his role in submitting $18.9 million in fraudulent Medicare claims for power wheelchairs and other equipment.

The wheelchair case is the third time Garrison has been accused of Medicare fraud.

In 2009, Garrison pleaded no contest to tax evasion for his role in what prosecutors described as a fraudulent medical clinic. He pleaded not guilty in October to charges that he forged prescriptions as part of an OxyContin ring that sold 1 million pills on the streets. That case is ongoing.

Garrison's attorney did not return a call for comment about the cases.

 

Garrison's physician assistant license lapsed in 2009, said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees many state licensing boards. He said the board examined the tax evasion case and did not see it as grounds for discipline.

According to court documents, Garrison's cases involved the use of “cappers” or “marketers” who recruited Medicare beneficiaries to submit to unneeded care or hand over their personal information. That information was used to bill the...

Biofuel startups turn to cosmetics, health supplements for profits

September 27, 2012, 12:05 AM | Tia Ghose, California Watch

Oleksii Sagitov/Shutterstock

Once a promising source of green energy, high-tech biofuel is being eclipsed by skin cream and food products as manufacturers shift to more lucrative products.

After Congress enacted a renewable fuel standard in 2005, more than a dozen Bay Area companies joined the race to design new biofuels. The idea was to use genetically engineered microorganisms or other novel techniques to convert renewable crops into fuel with half the carbon emissions of gasoline.

So far, however, the push to use new technology to make advanced biofuel has fallen short. None of the Bay Area startups have produced commercially significant amounts of the high-tech fuels, industry members say, and some have begun focusing on other products, such as cosmetics and health supplements.

“All the biofuels share one set of fundamental problems, which is you’ve got to use resources to grow those biofuels,” said Dave Jones, chief operating officer of LiveFuels, a San Carlos company that extracts oils from algae. “The cost is quite high. You are spending $5 to make a $3 gallon of gas.”...

Vocational students get more protections

September 27, 2012, 12:05 AM | Jennifer Gollan, The Bay Citizen

urbancow/istockphoto.com

California’s private vocational schools must disclose critical details about the quality of their programs, including their accreditation status and graduation rates, under a bill signed yesterday by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, will require vocational schools offering associate, bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees to indicate in their course catalogs whether they are accredited. Schools that are not accredited must inform students of any drawbacks to their degrees, such as whether certifying agencies would prohibit them from taking licensing exams.

In addition, schools will have to post job placement and graduation rates, and how much graduates earn, among other data. The law also requires vocational schools to post annual reports, student brochures and course catalogues on their websites.

 

The legislation was sponsored by Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, in response to a series of stories by The Bay Citizen, which revealed California regulators’ lax oversight of for-profit vocational schools and diploma mills...

Riverside County Democrats claim fraud in voter outreach project

September 26, 2012, 12:05 AM | Lance Williams, California Watch

CarlKeyes/istockphoto.com

UPDATE, Sept. 26, 2012: The Golden State Voter Participation Project gave additional perspective.

Republican voter registration in California is in a long downward spiral. Still, in 31 of the state’s 58 counties, the GOP still holds sway.

Then there’s Riverside County, where Democratic activists claim that a Republican voter outreach project has employed an unusual fraud scheme to build a 51,000-voter registration advantage.

In a complaint filed last week with the county registrar of voters, the Democrats presented affidavits from 133 Democratic voters who said they had been re-registered as Republicans without their consent after they encountered petition circulators outside welfare offices and stores.

One voter complained that his registration was changed to Republican after he signed what he thought was a petition to legalize marijuana. Another said he was told he was signing a petition to lower the price of gasoline, according to the affidavits.

 

Others said they were offered free cigarettes or a “job at the polls” if they signed some paperwork.

Also among the Democrats who said they were involuntarily re-registered as Republicans: two aides to retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Roth, a Democrat locked in a tight race with Republican...

Officials seize less Calif. marijuana, see more on private land

September 26, 2012, 12:05 AM | Andrew Becker, California Watch

Yellowj/Shutterstock

As California's outdoor marijuana growing season nears its end for 2012, drug officials are reporting a sharp decline in crop seizures for the second year in a row.

The latest figures show that local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are on track to eradicate an estimated 1.5 million plants from outdoor gardens – mostly on public land – down from a decade high of about 7.3 million plants in 2009. This year's seizures would be the lowest since 2004, when a little more than 1.1 million plants were eradicated, according to Drug Enforcement Administration statistics.

Some attribute the drop to a federal crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries and illegal grows on public land and political losses in California, such as voters’ defeat in 2010 of the pro-legalization Proposition 19. At the same time, fewer counter-narcotics teams hunted for California pot this year due to the elimination of a three-decades-old state eradication program...

SF police list arrested Asians as 'Chinese'

September 26, 2012, 12:05 AM | Shoshana Walter, The Bay Citizen

Scott Davidson/Flickr

The San Francisco Police Department, relying on antiquated computer technology, routinely recorded nearly all Asians who were arrested in the city as “Chinese” until this month, department officials said.

Arrest data that included the “Chinese” numbers was released to the public and sent to law enforcement agencies for at least 10 years, contributing to a skewed understanding of who was being arrested by San Francisco police.

The Chinese classifications baffled Asian community leaders who said the lack of statistics about Asian arrests have made it difficult to know where to focus scarce resources and have contributed to a stereotype of most Asian groups as “model minorities” who never commit crimes.

“It’s crazy,” said Eddy Zheng, who does gang outreach for the Community Youth Center, a San Francisco-based organization focused on Asian youth. “It is an injustice.”

Police Chief Greg Suhr told the San Francisco Police Commission on Sept. 12 that the department would start collecting accurate data for the 18 ethnic categories accepted by the California Department of Justice based on how people who are arrested identify themselves.

 

“If someone asks somebody, ‘Hey, what ethnicity are you?’ We’ll report that,” Suhr told the commission...

Avian malaria marches north as climate warms

September 25, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

Courtesy of Ravinder Sehgal Researchers say avian malaria is pushing northward as the climate warms. 

Super-hot summers, explosive storms and melting ice caps are the usual images that spring up when discussing climate change.

But researchers at San Francisco State University are bringing the conversation to the birds.

These scientists have found that as the climate changes and the northern latitudes heat up, avian malaria – a devastating bird disease – is steadily creeping toward the North Pole.

And when it gets there, it could prove to be devastating to arctic birds that have no immunity to the virus.

"Right now, there's no avian malaria above latitude 64 degrees,” said Ravinder Sehgal, an SFSU associate professor of biology. “But in the future, with global warming, that will certainly change.”

Sehgal and his team took blood samples from birds in three Alaskan cities: Anchorage, Fairbanks and Coldfoot.

They found that of the 676 birds they sampled, slightly more than 7 percent were infected. These included Boreal chickadees, black-capped chickadees and fox sparrows. 

Claire Loiseau, lead author on the study and an SFSU postdoctoral student, could not be reached for comment; she is in French Guiana...

Tenderloin playground named SF's worst

September 25, 2012, 12:05 AM | Katharine Mieszkowski, The Bay Citizen

Katharine Mieszkowski/The Bay Citizen Welcome sign at Boeddeker Park 

It was recess in the Tenderloin, and students from San Francisco City Academy swarmed the playground at Father Alfred E. Boeddeker Park. 

They slid down the rusting slide and hung from monkey bars held aloft by old beams that shed slivers of wood and green paint chips. After recess, bits of paint sometimes dot their clothes, said Vanessa Brakey, administrator for the private Christian school.

“A lot of kids get a lot of splinters from the wood around here,” said Brakey, who was supervising recess last week.

The playground at Boeddeker Park was ranked the worst in San Francisco this month in a survey by the San Francisco Parks Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. 

The neglected acre of green space at the corner of Jones and Eddy streets was one of 16 that scored a “D” or “F” on this year’s Playground Report Card. Others on the list include Stern Grove, Lafayette Park and Golden Gate Heights.

 

For the children from San Francisco City Academy, the only thing worse than playing on the...

Calif. doctor at center of fat-reduction device controversy

September 24, 2012, 12:05 AM | Bernice Yeung, California Watch

kilo kontrol1/Flickr

In a complaint filed with the Medical Board of California, a consumer advocacy group is claiming that a physician's use of a massage machine for weight loss is endangering patients.

Public Citizen has alleged that Dr. Gail Altschuler, a California physician who runs a Novato weight loss center, and other doctors who use and promote a medical device called the LipoTron for fat reduction are demonstrating a “reckless disregard for the health and welfare of patients."

The device manufacturer, Fullerton-based RevecoMED, is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make the low-risk therapeutic massager known as the LipoTron. But it has not been approved or cleared by the FDA for weight loss-related uses, according to a search for RevecoMED and the device on FDA databases. The FDA declined to respond to questions about the LipoTron, including whether the device is undergoing a pre-market review or whether RevecoMED is seeking clearance from the agency.

Public Citizen’s complaint letter [PDF] to the state medical board, filed Aug. 3, is part of an effort by consumer advocates to prevent the use of the LipoTron for weight loss until it undergoes additional regulatory scrutiny...

$245M program under way for new airport body scanners

September 24, 2012, 12:05 AM | G.W. Schulz, California Watch

Carolina K. Smith, M.D./Shutterstock.com

Airports in California could soon see the second generation of full-body scanners used to detect nonmetallic weapons and improvised explosive devices after earlier machines raised privacy and health concerns.

Following a solicitation process that began in February, the Transportation Security Administration last week selected two contractors as part of a $245 million program for body scanners that first must be tested at a Transportation Security Administration laboratory and systems integration facility before being operationally tested at airports.

TSA spokesman David Castelveter said a list of those airports was not yet available, but for the next generation of scanners, the agency was looking for “enhanced detection capabilities, faster passenger throughput and a smaller footprint.” All newly purchased machines will rely on a generic outline of the traveler rather than a more revealing image of the person...

Google's self-driving vehicles zoom toward legal status

September 24, 2012, 12:05 AM | Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen

Mark Doliner/Flickr A Google self-driving car 

When veteran legislative staffer Howard Posner began working on a bill that would allow driverless, computer-controlled cars to roam California’s highways, he figured lawmakers would find the idea alarming.

They didn’t.

“Eventually, you might be on the freeway, and someone might not be behind the wheel,” said Posner, a consultant to the Assembly Transportation Committee, in an unusual moment of candor for a legislative staff member. “By the time this thing rolls out, people will probably be more comfortable. But today they’re not, and I assumed the legislators would have the same feeling.”

The legislation pushed by Google, which makes the autonomous car technology, passed 37-0 in the Senate and 74-2 in the Assembly. It is now awaiting action by Gov. Jerry Brown.

 

In voting for the legislation, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they believed the technology would make the roads safer and keep California at the forefront of innovation.

The easy passage of the bill, which was sponsored by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys, also showed the growing clout of the Mountain View company, said Rob Stutzman, who was...

Feds urged to crack down on donations to bond measures

September 21, 2012, 12:05 AM | Will Evans, California Watch

Kativ/istockphoto.com

Critics of political donations to school bond campaigns from companies that profit from the bonds are urging federal regulators to take bolder steps against what they call a “pay to play” practice.

The California Association of County Treasurers and Tax Collectors, as well as some financial firms, called on the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board this month to consider banning donations from bond underwriters to bond campaigns.

The federal board had solicited feedback, much of which came in just before the Monday deadline, on a more cautious proposal to expand public disclosure of such donations. The board stated that enhanced transparency would help it decide whether more regulations – including a ban on the donations – would be necessary.

A financial industry trade association pushed back on some of the proposed regulations, and a conservative legal organization, the Center for Competitive Politics, argued that a ban would be unconstitutional.

An earlier California Watch story found that leading bond underwriters gave $1.8 million over the last five years to successful school bond measures in California, and in almost every case, school...

More community clinics switching to electronic health records

September 21, 2012, 12:05 AM | Callie Shanafelt, HealthyCal.org

Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock

Community clinics are turning technologically savvy. Spurred on by federal funds, they are adopting electronic health records at rates exceeded only by HMOs.

Community health centers once had the lowest rate of electronic health record use. Only 8 percent had them in place in 2006. Today, community health centers have the second-highest rate of use. Seventy-four percent have made the switch from paper to electronic records, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The money that helped them do it came largely from stimulus funds through the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, also known as HITECH.

Clinics expect to save money and improve care through the switch, but the change can be painful. Installing a system is expensive, and there is a learning curve for staff.

Glide Health Services, a nurse-managed community health center in San Francisco that serves the homeless and poor, was one of the first clinics in California to change to electronic records five years ago.

 

“We were early adopters – we have the scars,” said Patricia Dennehy, director of Glide Health Services...

Oakland mayor falls short on promise of transparency

September 21, 2012, 12:05 AM | Jennifer Gollan, The Bay Citizen

Zennie Abraham/Flickr Oakland Mayor Jean Quan 

One of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan’s first promises on taking office in January 2011 was to post her schedule online, giving residents a peek at how she manages the public’s business.  

It is a commitment she has had trouble keeping.

During the past eight months, Quan has not posted a single calendar entry. Before that, her posts were intermittent. All told, the calendar she has made available to the public covers less than 30 percent of the time she has been in office.

An aide attributed the lapse to understaffing in the mayor’s office.

“It is being done, it just doesn’t get done right away, obviously,” said Jay Allen, the mayor’s interim communications manager. “The mayor wants to be transparent, but she also wants to be frugal. This is one of those areas where good intentions come to cross-purposes.”

 

The mayor did not return calls requesting comment...

Treasure Island residents voice radiation concerns

September 20, 2012, 12:05 AM | Matt Smith, The Bay Citizen

Kerri Connolly/California Watch Ray LeClerc, deputy director of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, speaks to concerned Treasure Island residents at a meeting Tuesday night.

As Treasure Island residents express alarm about a radioactive waste investigation that’s expanded into their yards, and even living rooms, San Francisco health officials and a local nonprofit are stepping in to separate fact from speculation.

Since 2003, Navy contractors have searched for and removed low-level radioactive waste at the former Treasure Island Naval Station – the underground legacy of an atomic warfare school and a warship repair facility.

But recently, the Navy has had to broaden its cleanup efforts after state health officials alleged Navy contractors misidentified and mishandled potential radioactive waste sites...

Release of uncensored developmental center citations ordered

September 19, 2012, 6:46 PM | Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch

In June 2011, California’s Department of Public Health released 169 pages of documents but blacked out nearly every word.

A state court today ordered the California Department of Public Health to disclose uncensored copies of dozens of patient abuse cases at institutions for the developmentally disabled.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sacramento County Superior Court in January, seeking citations issued to developmental centers in Los Angeles, Orange, Sonoma, Riverside, Tulare and Santa Clara counties.

Nearly 1,700 patients with cerebral palsy and profound intellectual disabilities live at the state’s board-and-care institutions. For decades, the public has been denied access to records detailing violations within the centers.

CIR, parent organization of California Watch, filed its request in May 2011, and the department responded by releasing 55 citations, totaling 169 pages. But the department blacked out almost every word. Thirty-five of the reports appear to involve abuse of patients, and the rest outline...

Aging, polluting school buses remain on California roads

September 19, 2012, 12:05 AM | Kendall Taggart, California Watch

John Clements/Kings Canyon Unified A retired school bus gets crushed.

Tens of thousands of California schoolchildren ride aging school buses that emit harmful pollutants, an analysis of state data shows.

Unlike many states, California does not require bus owners to take buses off the road after a set number of years. As a result, California has some of the oldest buses in the nation.

The emissions from older school buses are harmful to both children and air quality for the broader community.

Children riding in conventional diesel school buses are exposed to more air pollution than those riding in cleaner natural gas or low emission diesel buses, according to a 2003 study conducted by the California Air Resources Board.

 

Buses manufactured before 1990 can pollute as much as six times more than new buses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. There are about 3,000 buses in the state built in the 1980s and earlier, according to a California Watch analysis of data maintained by the...

Exploited boys in SF disappear from view

September 19, 2012, 12:05 AM | Trey Bundy, The Bay Citizen

Trey Bundy/The Bay Citizen Young men sleep on a sidewalk near Polk Street. Social service workers worry some homeless youth are trading sex to survive. 

From the 1970s through the 1990s, police say, young male hustlers worked street corners and bars in San Francisco’s Castro District and along Polk Street, blocks away from City Hall.

But in recent years, that population has largely faded from view – along with the whereabouts of the city’s sexually exploited boys.

“When I was first out there, I would see boys standing on the corner, possibly engaged in prostitution,” said Sgt. Arlin Vanderbilt, who heads human trafficking investigations for the San Francisco Police Department and used to patrol the Polk Street corridor. “In the last 10 years I haven’t seen anything like that.”

 

The San Francisco Police Department, the district attorney’s office and the Department of Juvenile Probation say they have not handled cases involving boys trading sex for money or other compensation in years. Social service providers who work with street kids say they rarely identify boys who are victims of sexual exploitation...

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