News

2014: A look back at key stories

UC Davis students protest occupy Mrak Hall to protest tuition increases. (Photo:: Sacramento Bee, via Associated Press)

Californians started 2014 the way they ended the previous year – parched by drought, hoping for an improved economy, outraged at Capitol corruption scandals  and, finally, looking for relief at the fuel pump.

First and last, the year’s biggest story was California’s historic drought, which forced down reservoirs and ground water to unprecedented lows, turned off the taps to farms and businesses – and even at least one small town – and ultimately persuaded voters in November to approve a multibillion-dollar waterworks bond that included $2.7 billion in new storage.

Yee was arrested in an FBI undercover investigation and charged with corruption, wire fraud and – to the astonishment of even veteran Capitol watchers – with international gun-running.

The drought eased late in the year with torrential, slow-moving storms that struck the state, but as 2015 dawned the drought was still with us. Reversing earlier doom-and-gloom predictions, federal forecasters reported in December that the chances of wet weather during the next three months were good — and people crossed their fingers. One cliché was true: When it rains, it pours. Throughout the Bay Area and much of the coastal north state, the torrential rains brought flooding, and mudslides were reported north and south. In the Sierra Nevada, there was joy as skiers found snow, and Echo Summit and Boreal actually looked normal. The wine industry – California produces 90 percent of the nation’s domestic wine – also was hard hit.

Compared with the drought, the rest of the top stories of 2014 seemed almost trivial. Almost.

In March, state Sen. Leland Yee, the respected state senator and candidate for secretary of state who authored California’s online voter-registration law, was arrested in an FBI undercover investigation and charged with corruption, wire fraud and – to the astonishment of even veteran Capitol watchers – with international gun-running. The latter allegation stemmed from Yee’s purchase of weapons from a Philippine extremist group and his attempt to resell the guns to, it turned out, an FBI agent.

Yee was taken into custody, doing the “perp walk” for news cameras in San Francisco. By the end of the month, he had been expelled from the Senate.

The leaked affidavit served as the roadmap to the February charges. It was – and is — the most visible corruption scandal in Sacramento since the FBI’s August 1988 night raid on the Capitol.

But there was more: Yee allegedly was close to a Chinatown crime figure, Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who also was indicted as part of the FBI investigation that included numerous charges not linked to Yee. Yee, one of 28 people to be caught in the FBI net, also was accused of taking a $10,000 bribe from an undercover agent in return for using his influence to get a state contract. Four months later, another charge was added to the allegations against Yee, accusing him of trying to pry money out of an unnamed NFL team in return for his efforts involving legislation.

The trial of Yee, 65, who has pleaded innocent, is expected to begin by mid-2015 in San Francisco. But he wasn’t the only senator with big problems.

Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, was indicted Feb. 21 in Los Angeles on 24 on counts that included public corruption and taking bribes and kickbacks. His brother Tom, a former lawmaker-turned-consultant, was indicted on seven counts of money laundering. He later was expelled from the upper house. Both have pleaded innocent.

Details of the federal investigation were leaked to the Al Jazeera news network in 2013, and Al Jazeera’s story rocked the Capitol. The leaked affidavit served as the roadmap to the February charges. It was – and is — the most visible corruption scandal in Sacramento since the FBI’s August 1988 night raid on the Capitol that resulted in indictments and convictions of a number of lawmakers and their associates. Like Yee, the Calderons’ trial is expected in 2015.

A federal investigation found that welds in the PG&E pipeline were defective and inadequately maintained. PG&E, the state’s largest utility, also was hit with a $1.4 billion settlement with the state, but other issues arose as well.

The Senate’s image suffered still another black eye, when Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, was convicted Jan. 28 of eight counts of voter fraud and perjury. Wright, the influential chair of the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over gambling and alcohol policy, ultimately was sentenced to 90 days in jail and barred for life from holding public office. Wright resigned from the Senate in September.

He didn’t do time behind bars, however: Wright was allowed to serve his sentence at home under electronic monitor because of crowded conditions in the L.A. jail.

Meanwhile, 400 miles to the north, the state Public Utilities Commission, one of California’s most powerful regulatory agencies, was under fire for its handling of the PG&E pipeline explosion in September 2010 in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes. PG&E was indicted by a federal grand jury for safety violations that included inadequate record keeping and poor management.

A federal investigation found that welds in the PG&E pipeline were defective and inadequately maintained. PG&E, the state’s largest utility, also was hit with a $1.4 billion settlement with the state, but other issues arose as well.

Despite the drop, however, the state’s jobless rate was still higher than before the Great Recession, when it was 4.6 percent in late 2006.

Dozens of lawsuits – at least 70, by one estimate — stemming from the blast had been filed and were wending slowly through the court system. Investigative news reports based on company emails detailed what appeared to be a too-close relationship between PG&E and its PUC regulators. The president of the PUC, Michael Peevey, a former utility executive, left the commission under fire in December after a 12-year stint on the five-member panel, most of it as the PUC’s president.

Amid all the bad news were some positive developments.

California’s economic woes eased, with unemployment at 7.2 percent in November, down from 8.4 percent in November 2013. Despite the drop, however, the state’s jobless rate was still higher than before the Great Recession, when it was 4.6 percent in late 2006. During November 2014, California added some 90,000 new jobs.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the state’s top elections officer, said she has struggled with severe depression for years and had moved out of her two-story home to live in a mobile home in a trailer park in the industrial outskirts of Sacramento.

Perhaps the best news for everyday Californians – as opposed to Californians who have heavy investments in petroleum companies — was the drop in gasoline prices, which were down to $2.43 a gallon for unleaded regular in parts of the state, more than $1.50 less per gallon than in March, when most people in the state were paying more than $4 a gallon for regular unleaded. Gasoline prices rarely stay down for long, however, and drivers were waiting for the inevitable increase when the weather warms up.

In the statewide elections, there were surprises – but not many. Democrat Jerry Brown easily won reelection to his historic fourth term as governor of the state. Brown served from 1975 to 1983, stayed away from Sacramento for decades, then came back to serve as attorney general and win the governorship in the 2010 general election. Brown seems to be looking at his national image — he rarely does interviews with state-based reporters, but he keeps popping up in national publications, most recently in the N.Y. Times.

Also in November, two high-stakes, consumer-backed measures – one to allow the state insurance commissioner to regulate health insurers’ rates and the other to raise the cap on medical malpractice awards – went down before well-financed opposition from doctors, insurers and their allies.

The biggest surprise of the November election: the passage of Proposition 47, which allows resenting of some non-violent and drug-linked felonies to misdemeanors.

The above are some of the top stories of the year, but they weren’t the only hot news items. For example:

–The decision by the University of California’s board of regents to raise tuition by up to 28 percent over the next five years outraged students and parents, and drew a sharp rebuke from some lawmakers and Gov. Brown, who is a member of the board. The increase, pushed by new UC President Janet Napolitano, is still subject to negotiation and may ultimately result in a loss of some state funding to the university. The issue is all but certain emerge in January when the governor unveils his draft budget for 2015-16 and submits it to the Legislature.

–Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer system was hacked beginning Nov. 24 and thousands of emails and employees’ personally identifiable information was leaked and soon became fodder for social media mavens, “entertainment writers” and assorted journalists around the globe. There was lots of embarrassing info about the stars and the studio executives, insider gossip, pending releases, etc., but beyond that, the gruel was thin indeed. Just who did the hacking is unknown. At first, it looked like North Korea mounted a cyber attack on Sony in retaliation for Sony’s dark comedy movie, “The Interview,” in which the leader of North Korea is assassinated. Then the culprit was thought to be China. The latest is that it might have been an inside job. The hacking certainly had a financial impact on the studio, which restricted the release of the film amid fears of a terrorist attack. By the way, a quick Capitol Weekly movie review: The movie is mediocre, at best.

–Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the state’s top elections officer, said she has struggled with severe depression for years and had moved out of her two-story home to live in a mobile home in a trailer park in the industrial outskirts of Sacramento. In a remarkable, tearful interview with the L.A. Times in September, Bowen, 58,  said she had “suffered from depression since I was in college, and I am having a more difficult episode right now. It’s something we haven’t talked about because there is such a stigma.” Bowen, a former member of the Assembly and Senate, leaves office next month, succeeded by Sen. Alex Padilla, a Pacoima Democrat.

Two firefighters died in the crash of an aerial tanker that had been called in to fight the blaze.

–Demonstrators protesting police violence came out in force in California, especially the north, where they blocked freeways, roiled Berkeley and grabbed headlines. In late November, in one night alone, 130 demonstrators were arrested. Two weeks ago, there were protests from California to New York over police violence. The initial impetus for the demonstrations was the decision by a St. Louis grand jury to not issue an indictment in the shooting death of teen-ager Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer. But other examples of men who died at the hands of the police – such as Eric Garner in New York – fueled the demonstrations.

–In August, a California Superior Court ruled in a lawsuit filed by nine school districts that the state’s statutes dealing with hiring and retention of teachers violated the constitutional protections for students, a decision that was opposed by the teachers’ unions. Although the ruling, known as the Vergara decision, came from a lower court, the decision is viewed as a landmark ruling because it goes to the heart of the unions’ ability to protect its members through seniority and other factors. The lawsuit argued – and the court agreed – that retaining incompetent teachers and dismissing competent ones jeopardized the students’ rights to an education. The Brown Administration has appealed the ruling, and it is all but certain that the case ultimately will reach the state Supreme Court, and perhaps even the U.S. Supreme Court.

–It was a difficult wildfire year for both northern and southern California, with more than 600,000 acres burned and suppression costs put at $184 million. The Meadow Fire burned near Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, forcing the park visitors and residents to leave as firefighters struggled to get the upper hand. Two firefighters died in the crash of an aerial tanker that had been called in to fight the blaze, a tragedy that shook firefighters around the state who gathered for the memorial services. A spate of spring fires in San Diego County, causing some $60 million in damage, fueled in part by drought conditions. Through May, state fire officials said they had dealt with at least 1,400 fires, but by the fall that number had quadrupled, to nearly 5,600.

 


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