Politics

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

‘Bad Optics’ Hang Over Auditor-Controller Contract

Posted By on Wed, May 18, 2022 at 8:49 AM

Karen Paz Dominguez. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • Karen Paz Dominguez.
Within weeks of the Humboldt County Auditor-Controller’s Office issuing almost $12,000 in payments to a local consulting firm earlier this year, the firm’s owner, who up until December served as chair of the Humboldt County Central Democratic Committee, voted in favor of the committee’s endorsement of Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez’s re-election bid and made a non-monetary contribution to her campaign reportedly valued at $1,144.

While none of this seems to run afoul of state campaign finance or conflict of interest laws, according to a pair of government ethics experts interviewed by the Journal, an elected official granting a contract to someone with whom she has a “friendship” who then works to advance her political career does raise questions.

“It certainly has bad optics, whether it complies with the law or not,” said Michael Shires, an associate dean for the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. “The question is whether the auditor-controller followed the procedures in place for such a contract.”

Shires clarified that while there is no conflict of interest, as Paz Dominguez did not stand to personally benefit financially from the contract in any way. But, he said, the part that “looks bad is whether there’s a quid pro quo going on? Did they award the contract so they would get the endorsement and support?”

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Friday, May 6, 2022

California Democrats Lean into Abortion Rights as ‘Defining Issue’

Posted By on Fri, May 6, 2022 at 9:19 AM

Erin Sullivan, wearing a pink glove and waving a coat hanger was one of dozens who turned out to support reproductive health at the courthouse on Tuesday. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Erin Sullivan, wearing a pink glove and waving a coat hanger was one of dozens who turned out to support reproductive health at the courthouse on Tuesday.
When a draft Supreme Court ruling that would overturn the constitutional right to abortion leaked Monday night, Democratic leaders in California reacted swiftly with shock, grief and fury.

It didn’t take long for the personal devastation to turn political.

By Wednesday morning, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for re-election this year, had already cut a new campaign ad about “reproductive freedom under attack.” In a tweet unveiling the ad, he framed defeating “anti-choice Republicans” as the “defining issue of the 2022 election.”

As the stark reality has sunk in that the landmark Roe v. Wade decision is unlikely to make it to its 50th birthday, many Democrats are leaning forcefully into abortion rights as a key election issue. With decades of public polling indicating that a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, it could be the party’s most potent counterweight in a campaign cycle in which Republicans seem poised to capitalize on voter frustration over inflation and crime.

“Don’t think for a second this is where they stop,” Newsom said Wednesday outside Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, where he raised the alarm that conservatives would also seek to roll back other rights such as same-sex marriage. “Pay attention, America. They’re coming after you next.”

In his remarks, Newsom called for a stronger Democratic counteroffensive on protecting abortion. He slammed Republicans for claiming to be pro-life while opposing policies to provide more support to women and families after a baby is born, previewing a political attack that could soon be coming to swing districts across the country.

“That’s how extreme the Republican Party is in the United States of America. You want extremism? Rape and incest, they don’t even make an exception,” Newsom said. “Wake up, America. Wake up to who you’re electing.”

Democrats, weighed down by sagging approval ratings for President Joe Biden and in danger of losing control of Congress in the November midterm election, have been struggling to find a message that might motivate liberal voters to show up to the polls and persuade moderates to stick with their governance.

Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, said the reality of a Supreme Court ruling against abortion rights could provide a significant boost. Though warnings about that potential outcome have not historically driven turnout for Democrats while the Roe decision withstood decades of attacks, Pitney said voters are much more alert to loss.

“The issue has moved from the realm of the hypothetical to the realm of the real,” he said.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Local Candidate Forums Set

Posted By on Tue, May 3, 2022 at 8:48 AM

Election Day is just five weeks away, with much at stake on the local ballot, with countywide races for district attorney, superior court judge, auditor-controller and clerk/recorder, as well as two supervisorial seats to be decided.

It’s a lot. Fortunately, there are a host of opportunities in the coming weeks to get to know the candidates a bit better. Chief among those are three series of candidate forums to be put on by KEET-TV and the League of Women Voters of Humboldt County (LWVHC), the Humboldt County Association of Realtors and 15 local community groups.

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Sunday, May 1, 2022

Geopolitics Undermine Energy Authority’s Solar Project

Posted By on Sun, May 1, 2022 at 9:04 AM

When projecting its path to decarbonization by 2030, Redwood Coast Energy Authority's plans depended heavily on Sandrini Solar, a project now derailed by geopolitical forces. - RCEA
  • RCEA
  • When projecting its path to decarbonization by 2030, Redwood Coast Energy Authority's plans depended heavily on Sandrini Solar, a project now derailed by geopolitical forces.
When local politics nixed Terra-Gen’s wind farm energy project near Rio Dell in 2019, regional electricity aggregator Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) turned to a solar project hundreds of miles away to meet its renewable energy goals. Now, world politics have botched up that second choice, according to Jaclyn Harr, client specialist manager with an outside energy procurement consultant, The Energy Authority. If RCEA loses this solar project, it would set the electricity provider back 50 percent of what it projected for its renewable energy supplies toward its goal of full decarbonization by 2030.

Harr told the RCEA board April 28 that a federal Commerce Department investigation into potentially illegal Chinese solar panel imports, as well as supply chain issues, nullified its contract for the Sandrini Sol 1 plant. RCEA had a deal to buy 100 MW for 15 years from the renewable energy development for more than $100 million. The contract is no longer valid because the project is delayed for more than six months. There are no allegations that Sandrini’s developers are involved in illicit imports. Instead, its delay and resultant contract delay appear to be victims of political forces. Sandrini, near Bakersfield, was supposed to begin supplying energy to PG&E’s transmission grid this year. While the Sandrini solar farm still might proceed, Harr told the board that its power wouldn’t be connected until late next year.

While Humboldt may be an island, electricity-wise, it’s not isolated from world economics. Both Chinese solar exports and global demand for Russian natural gas have effects behind the Redwood Curtain.

The U.S. Department of Commerce imposed extra taxes on Chinese solar panels eight years ago to prevent the dumping of too many cheap panels into the domestic market, fearing it would undermine U.S. solar panel production. But domestic solar manufacturers insist the Chinese panels are still getting though via other South Asian countries to circumvent the tariffs. The department kicked off an investigation April 25 into potential solar panel sales through these new, allegedly illicit, routes. The U.S. manufacturers want the Commerce Department to determine whether another round of tariffs — up to 240 percent, according to the solar industry — are warranted to prevent illegal imports.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2022

One Seat, Six Candidates: Arcata City Council Race Makes a Special June Ballot Appearance

Posted By on Tue, Mar 22, 2022 at 12:28 PM

FILE
  • File
A former mayor, a consultant, three previous candidates and a Cal Poly Humboldt student are all seeking a single open seat on the Arcata City Council, making for a crowded field on the June ballot.

The top vote-getter of the six candidates — Chase Marcum, Humnath Panta, Dana Quillman, Edith Rosen, Alexandra Stillman and Kimberley White — will serve out the term of former Vice Mayor Emily Goldstein, which runs through November of 2024. Goldstein stepped down March 1 for family reasons.

The four current councilmembers had three choices for filling Goldstein’s seat: call a June special election, appoint a replacement to serve until the November election or simply wait until the November election to have the seat filled as a two-year position with two other four-year terms also up for a vote.

In unanimously selecting the first option at a Feb. 9 special meeting, several cited a sense of urgency to have a full council with major projects in the pipeline, including the controversial Gateway Area Plan, coupled with perception concerns about having two out of five seats appointed rather than elected.


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Tuesday, March 8, 2022

State of the State: Will Gov. Newsom do More to Reduce California Inequality?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 8, 2022 at 10:01 AM

Gov. Gavin Newsom is an unlikely champion of California’s down and out. Yet the wine entrepreneur, who built his political career and fortune with help from the state’s wealthy elite, campaigned on a promise to address California’s disparities – and do so boldly.

From his first day in office in January 2019, Newsom called the manifestations of California’s inequality – homelessness, poverty and rising costs – “moral imperatives,” not just policy priorities. “So long as they persist, each and every one of us is diminished,” he declared.

Those inequalities persisted and were laid bare by two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, a tumultuous time that saw the governor overcome a Republican-led effort to recall him from office last September.

Now with the pandemic receding, the economy rebounding and no major political opposition standing in his way to reelection this year, Newsom has the opportunity to return to his original priority of reducing the stain of poverty on the state.

He is expected to address the issue today in the final State of the State speech of his first term. ​​”There is going to be an explicit call out on inequality, and the stakes,” said an aide, who spoke only if not named because they were not authorized to give a preview of the speech. “One of the themes of the speech is going to be democracy, and tying that to how unchecked inequality undermines democracy.” 

Some experts and advocates say Newsom’s efforts to close the economic divide may determine his legacy – and help set him apart from his predecessor and fellow Democrat, Jerry Brown, who insisted state government could only go so far in closing the divide between rich and poor

“If the comparison is past governors in California, he’s trying to do a lot,” said Chris Hoene, director of the California Budget & Policy Center, a nonprofit that researches policy affecting low-income Californians. “If the comparison is where we were when he took over as governor, and where we are today, he’s facing a ton of headwinds. And the urgency and the need drives expectations about him doing more.”

Nationally, the jobs recovery is in full swing, and though California has lagged other states, it could at last see improvements as mask mandates loosen and the economy returns more to normal. The pandemic – and record state budget surpluses – have given Newsom the opportunity to address the state’s inequalities. The Democratic leaders of the state Assembly and Senate leaders also say they want to use the budget to create a more inclusive recovery and more equitable economy

But Assembly GOP leader James Gallagher of Yuba City said it’s the policies of Democrats that are driving inequality.

“We have a huge surplus because the wealthiest are doing so well,” he said. “That doesn’t tell the story of the middle- and low- income earners in this state.”

For instance, he said, families are getting hammered by the rapid increase in gas prices, which according to AAA has now topped an average of $5 a gallon – an increase accelerated by the Ukraine war. Gallagher and other Republicans also blame the state’s gas tax, which Democrats raised in 2017 under Brown to repair roads and bridges and expand mass transit. Newsom has proposed putting off a scheduled July increase, but the governor has met resistance from his own party in the Legislature. The climate change agenda of California Democrats has also driven up the cost of utilities, further deepening inequality, Gallagher said.

“I think he genuinely cares about this issue, but I think that his policies – the policies of either he, or Democrats in the Legislature – have made the problem worse,” Gallagher said. “The other problem is that the governor has a lack of follow-through. He’s big on pronouncements and announcing new programs, but pretty short on implementation and results.”

What’s Newsom’s record?

In his State of the State speech last year, Newsom returned to the theme of inequality, indicating his belief the pandemic was “widening gaps between the haves and the have-nots.” “California’s most acute preexisting condition remains income inequality,” he said. 

In his three years in office, he has pushed through several significant initiatives: 

  • Newsom has steadily expanded Medi-Cal coverage to include undocumented people until they turn 26 and once they turn 50, and in his January budget proposed covering those previously excluded. But the expansion would still leave several hundred thousand undocumented immigrants unable to qualify because they earn above the program’s annual income thresholds.
  • In 2019, Newsom expanded the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and the Young Child Tax Credit to help boost the wages of low-paid workers and families. In 2020, he signed a law allowing anyone with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number to qualify for the expanded earned income tax credit. That made undocumented workers eligible to receive hundreds, or thousands of, dollars each year. Last year, he signed a measure giving $600 one-time payments to those who receive the state’s earned income tax credit, along with an extra $600 for certain undocumented taxpayers not eligible for some federal aid.
  • During the pandemic, California expanded eligibility for several safety net programs, including food assistance, allowing for more people to participate. In particular, the state paused the recertification process in the state’s CalFresh program, which provides food benefits to some 2.6 million low-income households. And the state last year created a universal free school meals program, doing away with a previous income requirement.
  • When taking office, Newsom announced plans to assist working parents with a six-month, paid family leave program. He has so far extended the program to eight weeks per parent. In 2020, he signed a bill expanding unpaid family leave to include smaller employers, but in 2021 vetoed a bill intended to extend the program to low-income workers. The governor has also made progress on his goals to expand preschool, with a plan to provide universal transitional kindergarten for four-year-olds by 2025.
  • Experts and activists say making higher education more affordable is important to reducing inequality in the state. Last year, the administration eliminated age and time-out-of-high-school requirements for Cal Grant scholarships to community colleges. But the governor vetoed a bill that would have made Cal Grants more broadly available. Lawmakers last year also signaled the intent to expand a scholarship for middle-class students in the state, as well as more slots in public universities for California students, though lawmakers must agree this year to fund those promises.
  • The governor’s efforts with economic recovery, trying to target funds regionally could help the Central Valley and other parts of the state that are struggling. Such work might not be easy; a legislative effort to retrain oil workers has already sparked a political fight among some of the state’s labor unions.

Still, advocates say the state could be doing more to shrink the economic divide.

“It does seem like Newsom is treating a commitment to reducing poverty as one of his key legacy commitments.”

David Grusky, director of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality

What do the numbers show?

While recessions tend to widen income disparities between rich and poor, earnings have increased for low-income workers while unprecedented government relief kept millions from falling into poverty. That’s despite the sharp downturn in 2020, and the disproportionate number of pandemic-related job losses hitting low-wage sectors. During the recovery, some of the biggest gains are in the leisure and hospitality sectors, according to Sarah Bohn, a vice president and policy research chairperson with the Public Policy Institute of California.

“Wages are picking up the most at the low-end of the spectrum, even though we’re still in a recovery period with elevated unemployment,” Bohn said. “It might be that inequality is actually decreasing during the pandemic – which is kind of crazy, and we’ll know more soon – but when you just look at the wage statistics, the sectors that are lowest paid have the highest increase in wages.”

Nationally, data from the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank shows typical wages for the bottom 25 percent of earners growing faster than other income groups. Meanwhile the Biden administration has highlighted research from two influential U.C. Berkeley economists underscoring that economic growth has been broadly shared since he took office in January 2021. 

In California, income inequality statistics for 2020 are not yet available, but the trend has been one of dramatic widening over the long run, with the modern economy placing a premium on highly educated workers. Analyzing pretax income and including cash from some safety net programs, the PPIC found income growth for the bottom 10 percent of families in California lagging significantly behind the top 10 percent from 1980 to 2019.

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Monday, February 28, 2022

California Senate to Introduce Bill Divesting Funds from Russia

Posted By on Mon, Feb 28, 2022 at 2:24 PM

A broad, bipartisan coalition of California senators and assemblymembers, including Senate Majority Leader and North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire and North Coast Assemblymember Jim Wood, is introducing a bill that will divest public funds from Russia and Russian-state entities following the country's attack against Ukraine.

“The world is watching the atrocities taking place in Ukraine. It’s sickening,” Mike McGuire said. “We must stand strong for the people of Ukraine. That’s why we all must mobilize to stop Russia in its tracks. California has unique and remarkable economic power in this circumstance. As the fifth-largest economy in the world, we must use this power for good. We can help stop this autocratic thug, Putin, by advancing this critical legislation and enacting our own financial divestments.”

The legislation would call on all state agencies, including California’s massive pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, to divest from any and all Russian assets immediately, following in the federal government's tracks as President Joe Biden imposed and expanded sanctions on Russia. The legislation would also block the approval of state contracts to any company conducting business with Russia.

According to the release, it’s believed that California has Russian investments exceeding $1 billion, primarily in its pension funds.


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Friday, February 25, 2022

State Threatens Auditor-Controller with $5K Fine for Delinquent Fiscal Report

Posted By on Fri, Feb 25, 2022 at 5:15 PM

Karen Paz Dominguez. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • Karen Paz Dominguez.
Facing a threat from the State Controller’s Office sent through the California Department of Justice that it intends to exercise all of its authority under the law — including pursuing a $5,000 against her personally — if Humboldt County fails to turn over a statutorily mandated financial statement that’s more than a year overdue, embattled Humboldt County Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez issued a letter to county taxpayers today indicating she intends to “take direct action,” beginning at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

Paz Dominguez’s letter comes a day after she was sent a “final demand letter” from Deputy Attorney General Julianne Mossler on behalf of the State Controller’s Office (SCO), which had launched an investigation late last year into Humboldt County’s still delinquent 2019-2020 Financial Transactions Report. The state government code mandates these annual financial reports be filed with the state and on Feb. 26, 2021, the SCO sent Humboldt County a letter advising its report was delinquent and giving it 20 days to come into compliance. The letter reportedly received no response, so on June 1, 2021, the SCO followed up.

According to Mossler, Paz Dominguez responded to this second notice on June 14, 2021, stating the delinquent audit was in the works and offering to complete it using “unaudited information” within two weeks. The SCO agreed to the offer and on June 21, according to the letter, Paz Dominguez advised the needed data was being collected and processed and the matter was an “urgent priority.”

“You have never submitted the report,” Mossler states in her Feb. 24, 2022 letter to Paz Dominguez, adding that the report is now more than a year overdue and, according to the SCO, Paz Dominguez’ office has also failed to comply with a deadline for the county’s 2020-2021 report, as well.

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Monday, February 21, 2022

Meth, a Mother, and a Stillbirth: Imprisoned Mom Wants her ‘Manslaughter’ Case Reopened

Posted By on Mon, Feb 21, 2022 at 10:51 AM

ILLUSTRATION BY MIGUEL GUTIERREZ JR., CALMATTERS; ISTOCK
  • Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
The 29-year-old woman was rushed to a Central Valley hospital on Dec. 30, 2017. Seven of her nine children had been born high on methamphetamine. This one, her 10th, was coming two weeks early.

Doctors detected no fetal heartbeat at 9:30 p.m. At 10:14 p.m., she tested positive for methamphetamine. Eight minutes later, Adora Perez of Hanford delivered a stillborn boy she named Hades, according to medical records shared with CalMatters by a member of Perez’s legal team.

“Affect appropriate for situation,” her medical chart noted.  “Teary off and on.” 

And then — on the morning of Jan. 1, 2018 — Perez was released from Adventist Medical Center in Hanford and arrested. Charged with murder, she eventually pleaded guilty to “manslaughter of a fetus” and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Perez has served nearly four years of her sentence, but this week, she returns to court. On Tuesday, a Kings County judge will weigh whether to reopen the case. Perez’s attorneys argue that she didn’t understand the crime to which she was pleading and received ineffective counsel from her trial and appellate attorneys. 

Since her guilty plea, Perez’s story has drawn national attention for her rare plea to manslaughter of a fetus – a charge that doesn’t exist in California law. Abortion rights advocates believe her case has broad implications for abortion access in California, potentially opening the door to criminal prosecutions of people seeking to terminate pregnancies.

“With the possibility that Roe (v. Wade) might fall this year, ​​letting this stand could increase these types of prosecutions,” said Samantha Lee, staff attorney at National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “Those cases happen everywhere in the country.

“I would just emphasize that I felt that shock when I heard these cases happened in California.” 

A booking photo of Adora Perez from the Kings County Sheriff's Office.
A booking photo of Adora Perez from the Kings County Sheriff’s Office.

The four-year-old case also has pitted California’s attorney general against a long-time rural prosecutor.

In January, with Perez’s new court date looming in Kings County, Attorney General Rob Bonta issued an admonition to prosecutors statewide: Don’t file charges against mothers who miscarry or deliver a stillbirth. 

“In California, we do not criminalize pregnancy loss, we do not criminalize miscarriages, we do not criminalize stillbirths,” Bonta, appointed last March, said in a press conference. 

Bonta described his guidance as a “legal alert” to every county prosecutor.

Across the entire state in the last three decades, only one prosecutor has charged women who miscarry with murder: Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes.

Twenty-two months after he charged Perez, Fagundes filed a murder charge against 26-year-old Chelsea Becker of Hanford, who also tested positive for methamphetamine and delivered a stillbirth at the same hospital.

Becker was released in March after 16 months in jail. A Kings County judge dismissed the murder charge against her in May. 

A booking of Rachel Becker from the Kings County Sheriff's Office.
A booking photo of Chelsea Becker from the Kings County Sheriff’s Office.

Perez’s legal team takes that as a good sign — even knowing that they have challenged the conduct of the local prosecutors, defense attorneys, trial court and law enforcement system that closed quickly around Perez on the night of her delivery.

They say they’re also encouraged by a June 2021 decision by a state appellate court, which ruled that a trial court cannot accept a defendant’s plea that isn’t based in fact – exactly what Perez’s pro bono attorney, Mary McNamara, argues is happening in Kings County. 

“You can’t just plead to something you couldn’t have done,” McNamara said.

The New Year’s arrest

In the hospital, according to her nursing chart, Perez and the father of her baby were distraught. 

Perez “was emotional, tearful and mixed emotions,” a nurse wrote. “(Father of the baby) appeared to have been crying and was solemn.” 

Perez was given numbers to call for substance abuse and counseling for postpartum depression. Both parents were handed a brochure about grief and loss called Angel Babies. 

“Pt anticipates d/c home,” a nurse wrote in hospital shorthand: Patient anticipates discharge to home. 

In his discharge summary, Dr. Thomas Enloe recommended that Perez be put on one to two weeks of “pelvic rest,” and recommended a follow-up appointment. 

But the hospital had already put Perez’s legal case into motion. At 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 30, 2017, a nurse at the hospital called Child Protective Services. Police were at Perez’s bedside within three hours and 10 minutes of her delivery. 

“Adventist (Medical Center) was taking a very proactive role in contacting law enforcement,” McNamara said.  

A doctor told a detective that the baby died of a placental abruption “due to extensive drug use by the mother,” according to Perez’s medical records, a statement which formed the foundation of the case against her. 

“I would just emphasize that I felt that shock when I heard these cases happened in California.”

Samantha Lee, National Advocates for Pregnant Women

After she was charged, Perez was assigned an attorney who worked on a contract basis – Kings County, population 153,000, doesn’t have a public defender’s office. Perez argues now that the attorney failed to provide her with effective assistance, and led her to plead to a charge she didn’t understand. 

She attempted to withdraw the plea, and argued her first attorney didn’t investigate the possibility that something other than methamphetamine might have led to the stillbirth. The judge denied her motion to withdraw the plea and, on June 15, 2018, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison. 

Perez appealed, but her appellate attorney filed what’s called a Wende brief, which tells the appeals court that the attorney found no issue upon which to appeal the case. 

“It was basically putting up the white flag,” McNamara said.  

The appellate court upheld the lower court’s ruling. The California Supreme Court declined to hear her petition for review.

Perez is now asking the Kings County Superior Court to reopen her case. 

District attorney defiant

The tallest building in Hanford is the courthouse, four stories of neo-classical revival in the seat of Kings County. It’s nearly as old as the county itself, built just three years after the county’s incorporation in 1893. 

The history of the state is inscribed in this rural county’s history: Bloodied by 1880s gun battles between railroad bulls and squatters, it was briefly made rich by a 1928 oil strike and  provided the backdrop for the 1933 cotton pickers’ protest.

But there, Kings County’s history begins to diverge from California’s more recent prosperity. 

The ​​oil strike uncovered the Kettleman North Dome Oil Field, but the site is nearly exhausted. More people are leaving here than arriving – the county has lost more than 2,800 residents to out-migration in the last five years, according to the California Department of Finance. An estimated 2,000 births each year is the only thing keeping the county’s total population from shrinking. 

A significant number of the adult population has voted for Fagundes. 

In the last decade, Fagundes, the district attorney, has enjoyed a healthy mandate. After a 12-year career as a deputy district attorney in Tulare and Kings counties, he won the race for Kings County District Attorney in 2014 and 2018 with more than 68% of the vote, and he’s running for reelection this year.

When Bonta held his Jan. 6 press conference on the Becker and Perez cases, joined by abortion rights groups, a representative of Planned Parenthood decried “rogue district attorneys.” 

Fagundes was listening. 

“The AG of the state has no business being asked by political groups to give such statements,” Fagundes said.

“He took an oath to uphold the law and enforce the law, not interpret it for his own political ways.”

“The AG of the state has no business being asked by political groups to give such statements.”

Keith Fagundes, Kings County district attorney

Fagundes’ neatly combed hair and ready smile belie a puncher’s mentality. Raised in a working class Catholic family of seven, Fagundes said abortion was never a topic his family discussed. His father, Richard Fagundes, has been on the Kings County Board of Supervisors since 2008.

“Through the college years and I still maintain today, I don’t have a uterus. I’m not going to make decisions for women in that regard,” Fagundes said. “I’m not going to tell them what’s best for their baby or themselves.”

A Democrat for much of his life, Fagundes switched to the Republican Party in 2014 as he prepared to run for office in this heavily Republican county, where 64% of registered  voters wanted to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom in September. 

But the decisions to charge the mothers, he said, came not from his own political leanings but from the opinions of the doctors who treated them and the pathologists who examined the fetuses.

“It’s like, look, under what circumstances can we do something?” Fagundes said. “These women are coming in and they are high on drugs. 

“If they had come in beaten up and their fetuses were suffering from being beaten up, we would be charging the fathers. Why aren’t we charging folks for this?”

The staredown with state AGs

In nearly every instance, the California attorney general’s office supports the work of county district attorneys.

The Perez and Becker cases have reversed that dynamic. 

Bonta and his predecessor, Xavier Becerra, now the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, have consistently called for the women to be freed. 

“I think our position is very clear,” Bonta told CalMatters. Trial courts and attorneys “should know there’s no legal standing for such a charge,” he said.

Becerra said in a 2020 friend of the court brief that Fagundes misinterpreted the law and that a Kings County Superior Court judge was incorrect in deciding not to dismiss the charge against her.

More recently, Bonta filed a petition to the state Supreme Court, asking the justices to review Perez’s case. His office has also joined coalitions of state attorneys general opposing restrictions to abortion access in Texas, Mississippi, Arizona and Indiana. 

Assemblymember Rob Bonta. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Attorney General Rob Bonta, seen here on Jan. 6, 2020, as an assemblymember from Alameda. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

California law regarding deaths of a fetus dates back to 1970. A man was convicted of murder for severely beating his estranged pregnant wife, who lost her baby. His conviction was overturned by the California Supreme Court, which ruled that a fetus is not a human being under the law.

In response, the Legislature added language to California’s murder statute: The killing of a fetus was punishable. But they added a condition: The murder statute didn’t apply if the act was “solicited, aided, abetted, or consented to by the mother of the fetus.”

Perez’s attorneys argue that her charges are therefore invalid because, under California law, a fetus cannot be the victim of a criminal act if the act is committed by the mother, or with her consent. They say the prosecutor erred in charging Perez, and the judge wrongfully allowed Perez to plead to something legally impossible. They contend the original attorney assigned to Perez failed her by allowing her to plead to a lesser charge, manslaughter of a fetus, that doesn’t exist in California law.

“Ms. Perez pled guilty (to manslaughter) because she had been led to believe that she could be convicted of murder, which was not true,” her attorneys wrote in a brief asking the state Supreme Court to review the case. 

“In California, we do not criminalize pregnancy loss, we do not criminalize miscarriages, we do not criminalize stillbirths.”

Rob Bonta, California attorney general

Medical experts introduced by Perez’s new legal team also have testified that there is no science supporting the idea that methamphetamine causes stillbirths. 

Tuesday’s hearing will take up the question of whether Perez was denied her constitutional rights to due process by the actions and inaction of her original attorneys. If a judge agrees with Perez, her manslaughter plea will be vacated, and she could be released on bail. She would still face the original charge of murder.  

Fagundes believes he’s done the best thing possible for the residents of his county, including Becker and Perez. 

“This may be way out of line to say, but I credit our practice to (Becker’s) recovery if she stays recovered,” Fagundes said. 

He argues that jail for Becker – and prison for Perez – provided them their longest periods of sobriety. 

“How do you disagree that our practice worked for her in this moment? You can’t. No other practice helped her.”

The mothers today

Today, Perez is inmate number WG0595 at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Since she’s in prison for killing her infant, McNamara said she’s been assaulted. 

“When you go into a prison with the moniker ‘baby killer,’ it’s similar to a man going to prison for pedophilia,” McNamara said. “You’re marked. She’s been beaten up, she’s been ostracized, she’s been in and out of the mental health ward.”

Drugs are readily available in the women’s prison, McNamara said, though she declined to say whether Perez, now 34, has maintained her sobriety during her incarceration. 

“Prisons are filled with drugs, and to be able to survive in a situation like that as a sober individual is extraordinarily difficult,” McNamara said. 

Becker, the other woman charged with manslaughter of a fetus, declined to comment through her attorney, Dan Arshack. 

“(Becker) is a brilliant young woman with a troubled past and a bright future,” Arshack said. “Even though she didn’t know what the law was, in her heart she knew she shouldn’t have been criminalized.”

Arshack said Becker, now 27, is working full time and taking college courses. When she graduates, he said, she plans to apply to law school.

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Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Is This Another Way to End California’s Death Penalty?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 9, 2022 at 10:54 AM

San Quentin State Prison. - WIKIMEDIA CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Creative Commons
  • San Quentin State Prison.
Instead of outright abolition, opponents of the California death penalty are pushing legislation to limit death sentences. But the blowback to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to dismantle Death Row at San Quentin demonstrates the political risk.

Unable to persuade California voters to do away with capital punishment altogether, the movement to abolish the death penalty is quietly shifting its strategy to shrinking the nation’s largest Death Row.

With the possibility of executions off the table for the foreseeable future under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2019 moratorium, advocates are focusing instead on narrowing the scope of when death sentences can be sought by prosecutors, plus other policies to make them a less normal part of the criminal justice system. The changes, advocates hope, will lay the groundwork to ultimately convince a majority of Californians that the death penalty is no longer necessary.

“The less it is used, the more likely it is that voters and elected leaders will be ready to get rid of it forever,” said Natasha Minsker, a longtime political consultant with the abolition movement.

But recent backlash to an unrelated plan by the Newsom administration to dismantle the historic Death Row facility at San Quentin State Prison underscores how elusive that goal remains and why the Democrats who control state government may be reluctant to embrace even modest proposals.

Though the San Quentin move has no practical effect on executions, Republicans quickly seized on it as another example of Democrats watering down punishments and favoring criminals over victims, a key message in the 2022 election as polling shows rising anxiety among Californians about public safety.

Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham, a San Luis Obispo Republican and former prosecutor, said Newsom and other lawmakers pushing to end the death penalty are disrespecting the will of California voters, who upheld capital punishment three times in the past decade. He predicted the “giant political disconnect” would eventually backfire.

“It just seems so out of touch to me,” Cunningham said. “It’s insulting to the memories of the victims and the families of those victims.”

Executions paused, but death sentences continue

Capital punishment exists in a strange limbo in California, the result of decades of pitched political battles.

The California Supreme Court, for example, was the first court in the country to declare the death penalty unconstitutional. Its decision, issued Feb. 18, 1972, was overturned by voters just nine months later through a constitutional amendment sponsored by then-state Sen. George Deukmejian.

Local district attorneys continue to seek death sentences and, each year, California juries send another handful of people to Death Row. There are nearly 700 condemned inmates in the state — 673 men and 21 women.

Prosecutors argue that it’s important to maintain death as a punishment for the most heinous crimes and as a tool to help secure plea bargains in other serious cases. Voters narrowly rejected an initiative to abolish the death penalty in 2012 and again in 2016. That year, they also passed a competing measure intended to expedite executions, which contains a provision about rehousing inmates that Newsom cited as the basis for his plan to repurpose the Death Row facility.

No one in California has been executed since 2006, however, after a federal court ruled the state’s lethal injection procedure unconstitutional. In addition to suspending capital punishment, Newsom in March 2019, just two months after he became governor, closed the death chamber at San Quentin and withdrew from a regulatory process to develop execution protocols that could pass legal muster.

“The steps he took right when he entered office were so significant and so dramatic,” Minsker said. “He is the most effective spokesperson in educating people about the flaws of the death penalty.”

The conflict, driven by deeply divided public sentiment, is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

A poll conducted last May by the Los Angeles Times and the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found declining support for capital punishment among California voters. But while more respondents favored repealing the death penalty than allowing executions, it was still fewer than half.

Death penalty supporters have already written another initiative to get the system back on track — by limiting the governor’s ability to grant a blanket reprieve for executions and move appeals from the California Supreme Court, where they are bottlenecked, to state appellate courts — but are withholding it from the ballot until they sense a more favorable political environment.

Opponents of capital punishment do not currently have plans to put the abolition back on the ballot, an increasingly expensive undertaking.

A November report by the state Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, which unanimously recommended repealing the death penalty, laid out another path: While working toward that “difficult goal,” officials could take other steps to reduce the size of Death Row, such as granting clemency, recalling capital sentences and removing people who are permanently mentally incompetent.

Legislation to chip away at capital punishment

Three of the report’s recommendations are already in a pair of bills moving through the legislative process.

Assembly Bill 256 by Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a San Jose Democrat, would extend a 2020 law that makes it easier to challenge convictions and sentences as racially biased. The measure would apply retroactively, potentially opening a door for inmates seeking to overturn their death sentences by pointing out that people of color disproportionately receive capital punishment in California. AB 256 passed the Assembly last year, but was held in a Senate committee, where it could be revived this session.

Senate Bill 300 by Sen. Dave Cortese, a Campbell Democrat, would limit punishment for people who are convicted as an accomplice in a homicide. Under current law, someone who commits a felony that results in a death can be charged with murder, even if they are not the actual killer, and receive the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole, if a prosecutor determines they were a “major participant” in the underlying crime and acted with “reckless indifference to human life.”

The measure would also give judges discretion to dismiss the special circumstances that qualify cases for capital punishment and instead hand down a sentence of 25 years to life, which would make the defendant eligible for parole.

“It’s important for the Legislature to make a declaration like other governing bodies have done that this is just not something we’re going to do,” Cortese said. “Moratoriums can be reversed.”

Tough votes for vulnerable lawmakers

Though it would affect only a handful of people on Death Row — Minsker called it “a modest reform to address a very extreme injustice” — SB 300 could be a major test of the appetite at the Capitol to take on the death penalty.

Because it would amend an initiative approved by voters in 1990, the bill requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the Assembly and Senate to pass. That likely means the measure would need support from nearly every member of the Legislature’s Democratic supermajority.

While it squeaked through the Senate last session, SB 300 has not yet come up in the Assembly, where bills to reduce criminal sentences typically face greater resistance and where five Democratic seats are vacant until a series of special elections that could last until June. Groups representing district attorneys, police chiefs and law enforcement officers are opposed.

This year’s election has further raised the stakes for members. All 80 seats in the Assembly and half of the 40 seats in the Senate are up for grabs in newly redrawn districts as the national political mood appears to be turning against Democrats. Cortese said many of his colleagues worry about being seen as too soft on crime by voters.

“Their world view, on even the case of the death penalty, ultimately come down to 100 feet in front of and to both sides of their front door,” Cortese said. “Tomorrow morning, something could go down in any one of these neighborhoods that becomes a punching bag for the opposition.”

In recent elections, California voters have supported a series of ballot initiatives to roll back the state’s legacy of harsh criminal sentencing policy, but Republicans are betting this will be the year when the pendulum swings back in the other direction. They plan to make it a central part of their messaging as they seek to flip enough legislative and congressional seats to deny Democrats another supermajority in Sacramento and help the GOP regain control of Congress.

“People are fed up,” said Cunningham, the Republican Assemblymember.

He said a bill such as SB 300 could easily become a liability in a competitive race, fodder for a mailer slamming a legislator for voting to water down sentences for murderers. He predicted that Democrats would try to prevent it and other potentially controversial measures from coming up at all this year.

“Even if you think those are the right policies, those are tough votes to take,” he said.

The end of California’s Death Row?

Those dynamics were previewed last week when the Associated Press reported that Newsom wants to clear out Death Row at San Quentin and transform it into a space for rehabilitation programs. The news drew massive public attention and some expected ridicule from Republicans, though experts on both sides agree that the significance of the proposal was overblown.

Prison officials plan to transfer California’s condemned inmates into the general population over the next two years, making it easier for them to work and pay restitution as required by Proposition 66, the pro-death penalty initiative approved by voters in 2016. The men could move from San Quentin to other maximum-security prisons, while female inmates, who are housed at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, would live in less restrictive units in the same prison. None will be resentenced.

“We preach justice. But as a nation, we don’t practice it on Death Row.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom

The program, which has not yet been finalized, would extend a two-year experiment that ended in January and rehoused more than 120 people. A $1.5 million funding request to pay for a consultant to repurpose Death Row was a blip in Newsom’s nearly $300 billion budget proposal last month.

“It’s not a dramatic moment in the history of the death penalty,” Minsker said.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director and general counsel for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and one of the authors of Prop. 66, said the governor was following through on the initiative’s intent. Because of the small cells at San Quentin, inmates must be held in single units on Death Row, he said, driving up the cost of supervising them and providing opponents a frequent argument against capital punishment.

“Governor Newsom has removed one of the arrows from the quiver of the people arguing for repeal,” Scheidegger said in an email. “That is the only thing he has done right in criminal justice since taking office.”

The change, like any involving the death penalty, nevertheless carries symbolic weight for many Californians.

Advocates for capital punishment said his actions were another slap in the face of the families of murder victims who have been denied closure for decades.

Matthew Rushford, president and CEO of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which has also defended California’s death penalty procedures in court, said he regretted the transfer and restitution provisions in Prop. 66.

Though they were included to make the initiative more appealing to voters, they were largely ignored during the campaign. Rushford said he does not believe they were ultimately necessary and lamented that they are now being used to move inmates to better living conditions with more access to benefits, such as rehabilitative programming.

“We’ve learned from this governor that you leave any wiggle room and he’ll use it,” Rushford said.

During an appearance in Los Angeles last week, Newsom defended the plan as a natural outcome of the requirements in Prop. 66, before engaging in his usual long-view philosophizing. The governor said he looked forward to “advancing more leadership on reforming the death penalty,” a practice he has long opposed and referred to as “government-sponsored premeditated murder.”

“We talk about justice. We preach justice,” Newsom said. “But as a nation, we don’t practice it on Death Row.”

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