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August 5, 2004

The Weekly Wrap

Ex-Fortuna man charged with running Afghan prison

State budget 'not too bad,' locals say

District Attorney alleges
personal relationship biases judge
in PALCO case


 T H E  W E E K L Y  W R A P

ARKLEY BUYS WATERFRONT PROPERTY: Eureka businessman Rob Arkley and his company, Security National, closed a long-running deal to buy a big chunk of the Eureka waterfront Monday. Arkley said that he has no specific plans for the approximately 30-acre parcel, which lies between the foot of T and X streets behind the Blue Ox, but imagined that it would eventually contain a mix of office and residential uses, with space for a hiking trail along the shore of the bay. "Well developed, it's going to be spectacular," Arkley said. "We plan on leaving as much open space here as we can." The parcel has sweeping vistas of much of the bay, including Woodley Island and the city of Arcata.

AUGUST HEAT: Sparks flew in the courtroom of Judge J. Michael Brown on Friday as the matter of accused Fortuna City Councilperson Debi August returned to court. August and her attorneys were there to see if the judge would reverse his decision to drop three of the most serious charges against August, whom the Humboldt County Grand Jury has accused of improper lobbying on behalf of a developer. (The charges were dropped after the judge determined a motion by Assistant District Attorney Tim Stoen had not been filed on time; in fact, it had.) Stoen had previously argued that the judge had made a "major error" by not searching the file for a legal motion Stoen had filed a few days earlier. The judge took umbrage, and when the parties met in court Friday he promptly removed himself from the case. "Because of Mr. Stoen's accusation against me, I must disqualify myself from any future motions in this case," Brown said. "I have doubts about my ability to be impartial as long as Mr. Stoen is the attorney." Stoen asked to speak: "Are you willing to hear me after making that comment?" he asked the judge. "Nope," Brown replied simply. The case moved over to the courtroom of Judge John Feeney, who promptly reinstated the dropped charges, which all now agree came about because of a paperwork error, and set the next court date for the case: Aug. 13 at 8:30 a.m. Stoen gave copies of the written statement he had hoped to present to Brown to members of the press -- in it, he offered to "immediately and cheerfully" apologize to Brown if he had in fact searched the file.

FRIENDS OF EEL SUIT: The Friends of the Eel River filed a lawsuit in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Monday, charging that the commission should consider shutting down the Potter Valley Project. The project, located in eastern Mendocino County, diverts water away from the Eel River and into the Russian River; critics say that the diversions harm the Eel River fishery. On July 14, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance filed a related lawsuit against the FERC, asking the court to require the commission to install fish ladders on one of the Potter Valley Project dams.

BBC SIGNING OFF: Humboldt County radio fans will be losing the BBC World Service any day now -- Monica Olsen, owner of KZPN radio, said that the only thing holding up the transfer of the station to Oregon-based NPR affiliate Jefferson Public Radio is the phone company. JPR needs a fiber-optic line to Olsen's remote Kneeland transmitter installed so that it may feed its programming to the station; SBC Communications has been dragging its heels, Olsen said.

HSU NAMES NEW TRACK COACH: The Humboldt State track team, which was crippled this year by budget cuts, has hired a new coach. Sandy Moran will take over as head coach for the cross country and track program, whose supporters had charged that unfair cuts were brought upon the program to spare more popular sports, like football. Moran was chosen from a pool of 50 applicants and left her post as assistant coach at Portland State University to come to HSU. The search began after Dave Wells, the former HSU track and cross country coach, did not have his contract renewed in May, after 24 years coaching at HSU. In response to the cuts and Wells' layoff, Tim Miller, a former HSU All-American track runner, wrote to the university asking that his medals be removed from the gymnasium wall. "I don't want my name being used as a promotional tool for something I believe is unethical," Miller said. Wells' yearly salary was $82,000; Moran will receive $40,766 as head coach, which is now a part-time position, the HSU faculty services department said. Wells has since been offered an instructor's position in the health and physical education department at HSU. The position, he said Tuesday, is "very part-time" and he will not take the school up on the offer.

HSU RECYCLING SALVAGED: Humboldt State University announced this week that its recycling program will continue. In April, school officials announced that budget cuts would result in the layoffs of 22 Plant Operations Department employees, meaning that among other custodial duties, there would not be enough staff to attend to the recycling. Bob Schulz, HSU director of physical services, said that to keep the recycling program operating, funding has been reassigned within the facilities management department, a $45,000 cash infusion was received, and that Associated Students provided $10,000. Sixteen employees within Plant Operations were reinstated, and several workers were reassigned to other university departments, and only three lost their jobs, said Tim Moxon, head of Plant Operations.

LEAK LEADS TO POT GROW: Arcata police responding to a report of a water leak at a house in the 1700 block of Charles Avenue in Sunny Brae found evidence of a sophisticated indoor marijuana grow in the house, including 241 plants with a street value of over $200,000, police said. Officers arrested Andrew Souto, 24, and Ashleigh Meek, 21, both of Arcata. The suspects were booked at the Humboldt County Jail on suspicion of cultivating marijuana for sale and for keeping or maintaining a drug house.

ALGAE ALERT: A Jack Russell terrier died July 25 after swimming through some blue-green algae in the South Fork of the Eel River near Piercy, the Environmental Division of the Humboldt Department of Health and Human Services reported. Like three other dogs who died in the river in 2002, the terrier vomited some green material, had a seizure and died within 10 to 15 minutes of exiting the water. No cases of human illness caused by algae contact have been reported, but signs have been posted warning swimmers to avoid the algae and to pay particular attention to children and dogs, who are more likely to gulp water when swimming. The health department recommends keeping animals well-hydrated and to rinse animals and humans with tap water after swimming as animals may ingest algae from licking their fur and humans can get skin rashes.

SIMS FIRE FIZZLES: A wildfire that began on July 27 near Sims Mountain, 17 miles south of Willow Creek, was fully contained by fire fighters on Monday night, the Six Rivers National Forest Service said. More than 4,000 acres have burned, as did one cabin and three outbuildings. There were no fatalities but some firefighters received minor injuries. Trails in the Six Rivers National Forest are closed to the public and fire restrictions are in place in both the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and Six Rivers National Forest. The cause of the fire is under investigation. Firefighters working on the Sims fire got no rest before a lightning strike caused eight new small fires on Monday in the Mad River district of Six Rivers National Forest.

CRUISING TO HUMBOLDT: The cruise ship "Silver Shadow" as well as two Coast Guard cutters will be docked on Humboldt Bay this weekend. The 300-passenger cruise ship is expected to tie up at the Redwood Dock below the Samoa Cookhouse at 8 a.m. Saturday, and the cutters will be open to the public for the Coast Guard celebration near the Adorni Center that day, the Humboldt County Convention & Visitors Bureau said.

TIME TO IMMUNIZE: Public health officials remind residents that all children entering kindergarten are required to get shots to protect them from serious diseases like polio, whooping cough and tetanus. Eleven- to 12-year-old children also need shots. For more information, call your health provider or the Public Health Branch at 268-2108.

FIGHT POSTPONED: Hundreds of fans were disappointed by the California Athletic Commission's last-minute decision last Friday to suspend the Meanest Man sports boxing competition, scheduled to take place at the Eureka Municipal Auditorium. The cancellation appears to be the result of a bureaucratic snafu, according to fight promoter Gary LaFranchi. LaFranchi said that he hoped people who bought their tickets in advance would hold on to them for the time being -- he hoped to have a new date set for the fight in the next few days.

Ex-Fortuna man charged with running Afghan prison


Bridgeville resident Ellen Judd was watching CNN a few weeks ago when she learned her grandson, Brent Bennett, was on trial in Afghanistan charged with helping to run a private prison and torture chamber as part of a vigilante antiterrorism campaign. She immediately called his mother, Debra Bennett, at work.

"He didn't give his home town as Fortuna," Judd said. "That's why we hadn't heard anything."

Bennett was arrested July 5 along with the alleged group leader, Jonathan Keith Idema, and freelance photojournalist Edward Caraballo. The trio were shown in a brief televised court appearance July 21. The trial was postponed for two weeks while the defense attorneys prepare their case.

"He last called in March or April and said he was going to Egypt," Judd said Tuesday. Then about a month ago he e-mailed her from Afghanistan.

"He said he was going to be working for the United States and he wanted us to know we would be very, very proud of him," Judd said. He had told his mom he would be doing some kind of anti-terrorism work, she added.

Bennett, a 1994 graduate of Fortuna High School, had joined the Army and became a paratrooper. He reenlisted several times but left the military about two years ago when he was passed over for promotion, Judd said. He was last stationed in North Carolina where he continued to work the past two years before traveling overseas.

Knight Ridder news reports said Idema, a 48-year-old former Green Beret, may have been after the $50 million U.S. reward for capturing al-Quaida leader Osama bin Laden. After his arrest by Afghan authorities he claimed to be part of an anti-terrorism squad working under deep cover for the U.S. Defense Department.

A July 22 report from the U.S. Central Command in Florida said records indicate that Coalition forces on May 2 received one detainee from Idema, who claimed the detainee was associated wit the Taliban. The detainee was later cleared and released. The Command denies Idema is employed by the U.S. government.

Friends of photojournalist Caraballo claimed he was working on a documentary and there is no way he would be involved in undercover operations directly.

Judd said her daughter has been trying to get more information on the condition of her son and to let him know they are aware of his situation now.

"We just want him back on American soil. If he's going to be tried for anything, let it be here," Judd said.

State budget 'not too bad,' locals say


Local leaders are cautiously expressing their approval of the new $105 billion California state budget, which was signed into law over the weekend.

State Sen. Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata), chair of the senate's Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, said last week that this year's negotiations -- which occasioned public disputes between the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and threatened to shut down whole branches of state government -- produced an acceptable compromise budget for the upcoming year.

"Overall, I think it's the best budget we could hope for under the continued difficult economic situation we find ourselves in," Chesbro told the Journal.

On Monday, Humboldt County Chief Administrative Officer Loretta Nickolaus called the budget "not too bad."

In particular, Nickolaus noted that the Legislature pledged to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot which, if passed, would give local governments some protection against future state raids on property tax revenues -- a major sticking point in the budget negotiations.

However, state government will take a portion of county property taxes over the next two years. According to Nickolaus, that means that the county is still in fiscal crisis and must continue to hope for passage of a 1 percent increase in local sales taxes, also slated for the November ballot.

"There wasn't enough relief to let us reconsider the tax measure, unfortunately," she said.

The budget included the restoration of a state grant program designed to aid rural law enforcement agencies. The program, which was suspended last year, will mean that the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office will receive a grant of approximately $500,000 this year.

Sheriff Gary Philp said Tuesday that his office would be studying where the unexpected funds would be best put to use, and he thanked Chesbro and Assemblymember Patty Berg (D-Eureka) for fighting on behalf of departments like his.

"[Berg] really took up the fight for us, and had been working very closely with me and other sheriffs in getting that funding restored," Philp said.

Philp noted that even with the grant, his department was still operating on a budget $3.5 million lower than it was two years ago.

Paul Mann, spokesman for Humboldt State University, said that university administrators were still studying the new budget and could not yet be certain what effect it would have on university operations. However, he noted that it appeared the university had been spared from about $1.5 million of the cuts proposed by the governor in his January draft budget.

Mann noted that under the new budget tuition fees at HSU and other institutions belonging to the California State University system will be hiked significantly. Undergraduate tuition for the 2004-05 school year will be 14 percent greater than last year; fee hikes for graduate students and those in the teacher-training program will be even steeper.

"We always point out that a CSU education is still among the most economical in the country," he said. "It still remains a bargain education."

Dr. Jeffrey Bobbitt, vice-president for academic affairs at College of the Redwoods, said last week that he was cautious, given that "in the California budget game, it's never over until it's over," meaning that certain details have yet to be finalized, but that it appeared that the college's funding would not be harmed significantly. Bobbitt said that CR is in relatively good shape for the upcoming school year -- enrollment is still open, though the college could offer only a limited number of certain popular courses.

"We are not turning away students who are coming to us," he said. "I wish we could promise them the classes they want when they want them, but we are not turning them away."

Chesbro said that the large loans state government required to balance the budget were the only politically feasible option to keep core services in place, given the governor's aversion to tax increases. But with greater deficits projected for the upcoming years, Chesbro expressed some doubt about whether borrowing was the best way to get the state out of the hole.

"It's banking on a significant economic recovery in this state, which may or may not happen," he said. "If the economy falters, future budgets are going to look grim."

District Attorney alleges personal relationship
biases judge in PALCO case


Citing concerns about impartiality, the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office has filed a motion asking Judge Christopher Wilson to withdraw from hearing the county's fraud lawsuit against the Pacific Lumber Co.

In the July 26 motion, DA Paul Gallegos charges that the judge may harbor a personal bias against Assistant DA Tim Stoen and that he has a "personal relationship" with a relative of Supervisor Bonnie Neely and her husband, former DA Terry Farmer.

"This motion seeks to disqualify the Honorable Christopher G. Wilson on the grounds that a person aware of the facts would reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be able to be impartial," the motion reads.

The bulk of Gallegos' argument is given over to the claim that Wilson demonstrated an appearance of bias against Stoen last September, when he twice told the assistant DA that Stoen was "trying to get me to lose my job." Though the remarks were made in court during an unrelated case, the DA argues that they referred to the politically contentious case against PALCO and the attempt to recall Gallegos. At the time, Wilson was up for re-election.

"These statements clearly demonstrate that Judge Wilson had a deep-seated fear about losing his job, and that he attributed his fear to [Stoen]," Gallegos writes.

The motion also claims that it is "common knowledge" that Wilson has an unspecified "personal relationship" with Neely's and Farmer's niece, an employee of the court who is not named in the motion. Gallegos argues that the relationship amounts to a political conflict of interest, as Rick Brazeau, Farmer's political manager in his 2002 campaign against Gallegos, later headed the recall movement. The motion also states that Neely is rumored to have hosted an early meeting of recall advocates in the couple's home.

The DA's motion marks the second time that an attorney has sought to have Wilson removed from a case because of the alleged relationship. In April, an out-of-town judge ruled against a motion brought by attorney Bill Bertain to disqualify Wilson from hearing a lawsuit against Eel River Sawmills; the judge said there was not enough evidence to back up Bertain's claim that Wilson's alleged relationship with Neely's niece, combined with the charge that the supervisor is close to PALCO, meant that he could not be impartial in a case involving Bertain, who has represented plaintiffs in several legal actions against the company.

Wilson initially said he would withdraw from the case last October, but delayed handing the case over to a Lake County judge until he could rule on PALCO's request to have it thrown out of court. In April, Wilson issued a ruling that let most of the case proceed. PALCO attorney Edward Washburn wrote two letters to the court in June, asking that Wilson be allowed to remain on the case to hear another motion by the company to have the case thrown out.

According to a declaration written by Stoen, the DA's office was told in July that Wilson would hear the new PALCO motion despite Stoen's objections. According to Gallegos' request to disqualify the judge, this reversal, "when put in the context of the political reality that gripped this county" during the recall, made a motion to disqualify Wilson necessary.

Today (Aug. 5) is the deadline for Wilson to respond to the charges. If he does not voluntarily decide to withdraw from the case, a judge appointed by the California Judicial Council will decide whether Wilson is able to hear the case.

Some of the research that went into writing the DA's motion was done by Dr. Ken Miller, a member of the Humboldt Watershed Council. On the weekend before the motion to disqualify Wilson, Miller called the home of a Journal reporter to ask for help finding a story that had mentioned Neely's alleged involvement in the recall campaign. The story was cited in the DA's motion the following Monday.

Miller, whom the DA lists as a consultant in the PALCO case, later told the Journal that he had sent several people an e-mail mentioning the article after hearing that Wilson would remain on the case. He later received a message from the DA's office asking him to track it down.

"From time to time I'll get calls saying -- you know -- do this or that," Miller said. "I will be a consultant when the case gets into the factual stuff. That's what my role will be, and I'll help out if I can. I'm pretty minor and will be throughout."

In February, internal documents leaked from the District Attorney's office showed that Miller had played a key role in formulating the multi-million dollar suit, which alleges that Pacific Lumber defrauded the public by submitting false data to regulatory agencies during negotiations over Headwaters Forest.




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