Investigation reveals cheating, altered tests at state’s fire academy

Nov 30, 2015

An in-depth investigation into the scandal-plagued California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has revealed a disturbing picture of widespread cheating at California’s firefighting academy. The Bee’s Jon Ortiz reviewed leaked documents and recordings and detailed many of the lapses.


“[Shannon] Browne, who writes test materials for academy cadets and records the scores, said that until earlier that year instructors routinely threw out results for questions that some cadets couldn’t answer. She said they repeatedly told her and other staff to add points to the scores of cadets to compensate. Browne estimated the changes probably affected scores on half the tests in recent years.


“The orders, she told CHP Sgt. Daniel Webb and Lt. Ezery Beauchamp, made her uncomfortable because she believed they were wrong.


“’Instead of saying, “Hey, we’re not teaching this correctly,” and keeping (the questions) ... they were just passing students,’ Browne said during a 70-minute interview recorded by the investigators. ‘They were going to pass everyone … and I know that this is a safety issue. This is someone’s safety and life, and other people are depending on them. … They (the cadets) should not be passed if they don’t know the material. I mean, these are critical basic skills.’”


A Superior Court Judge is calling for California Public Utilities Commission to release emails relating to the 2012 closure of the San Onofre power plant, including messages sent or received by Governor BrownJaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle:


“Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith acknowledged that he may not have the legal authority to order the state to turn over the e-mails, which the commission says were communications involving Brown and the president of the regulatory agency’s governing board, Michael Picker, about the closure of the San Onofre nuclear plant in San Diego County. The commission is legally justified in refusing to release the e-mails, its attorneys say.


“But it’s in the public’s interest for the commission to “do the right thing” and reveal as much documentation as possible about what went into a deal that would cost Southern California utility customers more than $3.3 billion, the judge said.


“The experience of another major California utility — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — after the San Bruno disaster shows that “when something is big enough, it’s just got to come out,’ Goldsmith said.”


California’s State Board of Equalization – the only elected tax board in the nation – wields tremendous power, taking in over $60 billion in sales, property and use taxes each year. The board also makes decisions in tax disputes, and favorable rulings can save companies millions of dollars.  Despite strict contribution limits, donors find ways to skirt the spirit of the law while staying just within its limits.  Patrick McGreevy at the Los Angeles Times:


“On May 19 last year, shortly before California's statewide primary election, 25 executives, attorneys and other employees of the tax consulting firm Ryan LLC each gave $249 to the campaign of board Vice President George Runner, a Republican from Lancaster.


“Because the donations were a dollar short of the limit, Runner was free to vote the following year in any matter involving the company or its employees.


“The firm's workers contributed similarly to [Jerome] Horton, a Democrat who received 45 campaign contributions of $249 each from them for last year's election. Other board members also received some small contributions but not large batches from employees of one business.”


Speaking of taxes, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Morain profiles Joseph Sanberg, a multi-millionaire former Wall Streeter who believes that the humble Earned Income Tax Credit may be the key to ending poverty in California.


“Poverty is, we’re told, intractable. Sanberg doesn’t buy it. Having been thinking – no, obsessing – about it, he believes there are solutions. One is the earned income tax credit. The name is wooden, perhaps because it dates to a time before everything was focus-grouped…


“The more you earn, within the limit, the larger the check. If you’re part of a family of four, and earn $13,380 or less, you could get a California credit worth upward of $1,000. About 600,000 Californians will qualify for a state check.


“The federal income requirements aren’t as strict; 3.1 million California workers receive the federal credit, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. All they have to do is file a tax return. All Sanberg has to do is get the word out that they must file a return.”


And speaking of more taxes, LA Times columnist George Skelton questions the wisdom of proposing an extension of Prop 30’s tax hikes when California’s tax collection coffers are overflowing.


“A proposed ballot measure to continue the so-called temporary tax hike 12 years beyond its scheduled Dec. 31, 2018, cutoff was cleared by the secretary of state for signature collection. The initiative's sponsors are the California Teachers Assn. and the state Services Employees International Union.


“That's right: The treasury is spilling over, but some unions want to keep collecting income taxes at the highest rate in state history.


“Gale Kaufman, political strategist for the teachers union, asks, ‘Why take a chance on who's right and who's wrong’ about whether the economic recovery will continue?”


Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones announced in October that he was running for Attorney General in the 2018.  The election may be three years away, but Jones isn’t wasting any timeJim Miller, Sacramento Bee:


“Since the Sacramento Democrat’s Oct. 1 announcement that he seeks to be California’s next top cop, Jones has reported raising $67,000. (He also has more than $2.6 million left over from his 2014 re-election campaign) Last week, he announced the backing of Democratic activists across the state, including statewide officers, regional chairs, and county central committee leaders.”


Not answered: what happens if Kamala Harris is elected to the Senate in 2016 and Governor Brown has to appoint a replacement…


And you thought you weren’t happy about the thought of Donald Trump taking the GOP nomination for president.  Imagine if you were a longtime GOP establishment donor…  From Jonathan Swan at the Hill:


“The subject of Trump came up at a recent Beverly Hills lunch hosted by former U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Rockwell Schnabel


“Seated around the table in the private dining room of the Hotel Bel-Air were several of the West Coast's most powerful Republican donors, including Ronald Spogli, the venture capitalist and former ambassador to Italy under President George W. Bush; his business partner Bradford Freeman; and [Richard] Riordan


“A story that circulated after the lunch was that the donors engaged in a hypothetical question: ‘If it was Donald Trump running against Hillary Clinton, who would you vote for?’ 


“One version has it that most of the Republicans at the table put their hands up for Clinton.”