Smoke and mirrors

May 7, 2012

The doctor in a tobacco-industry financed TV spot opposing the tobacco tax proposal on the June ballot is drawing fire from anti-smoking groups who say she's just in it for the money.


From Steve Harmon at the Mercury News: "But now Dr. La Donna Porter is coming under fire from tobacco-control groups and other doctors who are convinced the tobacco doctor -- a registered Republican who once campaigned on behalf of a toxic chemical -- is in it for the money and is being paid by tobacco companies. Public records show that she's struggling to save her home from foreclosure and lift herself financially from two personal bankruptcies."


"But in an exclusive interview with this newspaper, Porter's husband defiantly defended her, denying that his wife has been paid for her work against Proposition 29."


"We don't know anybody in the tobacco industry," said John Porter from the couple's home in Wilton, 25 miles from Sacramento. "They haven't offered any money. And I've been with her every step of the way."


If she were in it for the money, she picked the right place: Tobacco interests dumped $15.9 million into the anti-tax campaign in a single day.


From John Myers at Sacramento's Channel 10: "If there was ever any doubt about Big Tobacco's intent to absolutely clobber the June 5 ballot initiative to increase California's tax on cigarettes, it went up in smoke at week's end as the campaign to defeat Proposition 29 added $15.9 million to its war chest in a single day."


"That brings the total contributions to the No on 29 campaign to a whopping $39.7 million, with the election now one month away."


"The lion's share of Friday's one-day bonanza came from tobacco giant Philip Morris, which wrote checks totaling more than $10.1 million through its various subsidiaries and remains the drivingfinancial force behind the opposition effort. Tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds chipped in almost $5.5 million on Friday, which included $1.5 million through its subsidiary the American Snuff Company."


Financial firms donated $1.8 million over the past five years to successful local school bond measure campaigns, and in almost every case local school authorities hired those same underwriters to sell the bonds for a profit.


From California Watch's Will Evans: "The practice is especially pronounced in California, where underwriters gave 155 political contributions since 2007 to successful bond campaigns for school construction and repairs. One major underwriter, Piper Jaffray, has said it gets more requests for campaign contributions in California than in any other state where it does business."


"The success rate of these underwriters is extremely high. In only five cases since 2007 has a campaign donor failed to receive a bond-selling contract from the school district."


"School districts say they choose bond underwriters for their expertise and competitive rates and because they've served them well in the past. Underwriting firms say their practice is to contribute only after they've been hired to sell the bonds, avoiding any undue influence."


"But critics say that no matter when the agreement is made, the campaign donations influence school districts' business decisions. They argue that prearranged underwriting contracts bypass a truly competitive sale, leaving in doubt whether districts got the best possible deal."


Voters in San Diego and San Jose, two towns that have been hit hard by public pensions costs, are poised to decide whether to cut the cost of pensions earned by current workers in the future.


From CalPensions' Ed Mendel: "The San Jose measure would give current workers the option of switching to a lower pension or staying in the current plan and paying off pension debt with annual contribution increases of 4 percent of pay, capped at 16 percent or half the debt cost."


"The San Diego proposition could impose a six-year freeze on the amount of pay used to calculate pensions and would switch all new hires, except police, to the 401(k)-style individual investment plans now common in the private sector."


"A widely held view is that the courts have ruled pensions promised current workers cannot be cut, even by requiring workers to pay more toward their pensions, without providing an offsetting benefit of equal value."


"But the nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission and others argue that cutting current worker pension costs is needed to prevent soaring pension costs from eating up government budgets, diverting money from other programs."


Speeaking of cities and dough, some communities have worked to guard assets from the state, which decreed last year that redevelopment agencies must be abolished.

San Jose is one; there are others. But the state controller may have been too fast for them.


From the Mercury News' Tracy Seipel: "Other cities around the Bay Area made similar maneuvers to keep threatened projects alive, and they all may find those redevelopment-related deals in the state's cross hairs as officials argue over the effective date of the law passed last year that ultimately killed the agencies."


"Oakland city officials could be on the hook, although they insist they aren't worried by their decision in March to sign a $3.5 million redevelopment-funded contract for planning work and an environmental impact review on a new coliseum project."


"And in Santa Clara, officials say they are confident their contracts for the $1.2 billion 49ers stadium project that recently broke ground -- and depended initially on up to $40 million in redevelopment agency funding -- made it under an allowable time frame."


UC needs another administrative pay scandal like a hole in the head, but here's one, anyway: A former vice chancellor has been fired for doubling the salary of an underling, a man with whom she had a 15-month affair.


From the Chronicle's Matier & Ross: "Diane Leite, 47, who had already been bumped from her assistant vice chancellor's job, was dismissed from the six-figure-salary adviser's job where she had landed, UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof confirmed Friday."


"Leite's relationship with purchasng manager Jonathan Caniezo, who is 17 years her junior, was detailed in a whistle-blower letter to her boss back in August. Records show that Caniezo's pay grew from $57,864 in late 2008 to $120,000 in 2010."


"When the scandal went public in March, the university came under sharp attack, both on campus and in the state capital, for its decision not to fire the administrator. An investigation concluded that Leite, who oversaw Caniezo's campus research department, had broken the school's sexual harassment policies. She was subsequently reassigned from her $188,000-a-year job as head of the research office to an adviser's role that paid $175,000."


The push for transparency in California's campaign finance systems would seem to be a worthy and obvious goal, as is the need to keep cash and official action totally separate. But  apparently not in Santa Ana, where the repeal of a 15-year-old financial disclosure law is on the agenda.


From the Voice of OC: "The Santa Ana City Council is scheduled to vote May 7 on striking down one of the strictest campaign finance laws in Orange County, apparently to help Councilwoman Michele Martinez in her race for the state Assembly."


"The rule, which was passed in 1996, bars council members from taking contributions over $250 within three months after a council vote from anyone with a financial interest in the vote. It was most notably broken in recent years by Martinez in 2010, when she voted on the Station District residential development project."


"The repeal would remove “a restriction not required under state law that unfairly affects Santa Ana Council candidates running for state or other elected office,” a city staff report reads. The rule prohibits contributions to any campaign committee controlled by the council member."

"Martinez is running for the 69th Assembly District seat against labor leader Julio Perez and Orange County Clerk-Recorder Tom Daly."


Meanwhile, 250 miles to the north, the city of Fresno is having something of a boom -- in the sale of firearms.


From the Fresno Bee's Jim Guy: "Blame it on the upcoming election, fear of crime or even the Mayan calendar, but Fresno gun dealers say business is booming.

"It's no joke," said Barry Bauer of Herb Bauer Sporting Goods. "We've got 500 guns on order that we can't get."


'It's the same at Fresno Firearms. Owner Marylyn Panek said that last month she brokered 60 sales at a local gun show, about double the business she usually has. Over at PRK Arms, general manager Eli Smedley said every type of firearm is in demand, from handguns to sporting and semi-automatic rifles."


"The majority of customers are looking for something for home defense," Smedley said."

And from our "It's a Dog's Life" file comes word that people are using Skype to keep track of their pets while they -- the owners -- are at work or just out of the house. 


"The idea is taking off in the US where dog owners are setting up a Skype account in their pet’s name. A small setting change means the machine at home picks up automatically when they dial in."

"Property agent Tom Roszkowski regularly checks up on his three-month-old puppy Pizza from the office. The New Yorker, who lives with girlfriend Agatha Budys in Brooklyn, bought the Norwich terrier-dachshund mix two months ago."


"Curious to know what Pizza did all day in their apartment, he changed his Skype settings and set up an account for the puppy. Mr Roszkowski said: ‘It started as us being curious and wanting to check she was OK."

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