Thursday, October 27, 2011




For the first time since voters okayed more than $9 billion worth of bonds to pay for a high speed rail system linking all California’s major metropolitan areas, it appears the commission charged with building that system is getting realistic.

In fact, you could say the entire idea of a bullet train in California is now on a new track – call it a backtrack or a slow track.

That’s the upshot of a new report to the Legislature from the High Speed Rail Authority (HSR), which has been widely lambasted for its plan to build the first segment of its system in the San Joaquin Valley, roughly between Bakersfield and Merced.

The report, required by a new state law, puts the bullet train authority on record for the first time saying there are plausible, acceptable alternatives to 220 mph trains for spending the bond money and the billions of dollars already committed to this project by the federal government.

One possibility, the report says, would “reduce the scope or delay the next phase of system development until the performance of the existing system can generate sufficient revenues to support future expansion.” In short, wait and see what the ridership will be before spending piles more money. But you can't know that unless you've built the whole system.

Later, the report adds that the new tracks it plans to build in the Central Valley could link with existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad tracks at its northern and southern ends, with Amtrak running its current San Joaquin train on the new tracks. “This will reduce travel times on the San Joaquin service between Northern and Southern California – already one of Amtrak’s five busiest corridors in the nation – by approximately 45 minutes,” the HSR said.

Rather than 220 mph, this change would see trains running at speeds up to only 125 mph – which still meets the federal definition of high speed rail.

If the HSR system hooks up with the older BNSF tracks, the links would be paid for entirely with federal dollars and not state bond money, which is reserved for truly high speed projects only. Some federal dollars could also be used to make safety and smoothness upgrades on the BNSF system, thus allowing trains to go much faster than they do now.

It is, of course, remarkable that the until-now hidebound HSR authority so much as acknowledges there’s a possibility of building something other than what its 2008 ballot proposition called for. Yes, this does amount to a bait-and-switch on voters who were told they could get a real bullet train for about $36 billion, with the bulk of the money to come from private investors and national government.

The precise words chosen by the HSR authority are even more interesting. It did not say “…this could reduce travel times…,” meaning it’s just one possibility among many. Rather, the report said, “…this will reduce…,” meaning the HSR now apparently expects to build the cheaper, slower version.

It remains to be seen whether the twice-delayed business plan now due to come from the authority in early November will be as definite, but the rest of the HSR report to the Legislature explains the pullback very well.

It amounts to this: As things now stand, there is no interest in the project from private investors without federal investment guarantees or proven high ridership. Those things do not now exist, nor are they likely to be forthcoming as long as anti-high speed rail Republicans hold a majority or even a significant minority in either house of Congress.

The report contains multiple optimistic references to the possibility that an upgraded system will become self-sustaining by attracting significantly more passengers than today's trains. Only after that happens, the HSR authority concedes, are private investors likely to dive in. But will a 45-minute improvement in the one-way Los Angeles-San Francisco riding time really entice many new customers away from airplanes or their own cars?

All of which means two things: The new members of the HSR authority appointed last summer by Gov. Jerry Brown are taking a far more practical and hard-nosed attitude toward the entire development than the people they replaced, who were named by ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And also that protesters who feared the effects of viaducts reaching as high as 40 feet while traversing suburbs of Los Angeles and San Francisco can rest a little easier now than just a month ago. For it no longer seems like anyone is dead-set any more on building a train to nowhere.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit





One of the few accurate statements ever made by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came just moments after he announced for office in 2003, pledging never to accept campaign donations from special interests.

Never mind that everyone’s definition of a special interest is different – my good cause might be your special interest. Schwarzenegger’s explanation for his promise was simple: “Whenever anyone makes a big campaign donation, they expect something in return.”

The expectation is often a simple quid pro quo. I give you money; you perform favors for me.

This might come in the form of a policy decision – and often did during Schwarzenegger’s seven years in the Capitol. It might take the form of access, the freedom to bend the ear of an officeholder and persuade him or her to take an action you like. But there’s always something expected, at levels from local city councils and boards to the President of the United States.

Schwarzenegger, of course, promptly reneged on his first promise, just as he did with most other commitments he made while in politics. But his point about donors wanting something is perhaps more significant today than ever.

That’s because a major item on the agenda of the California Fair Political Practices Commission when it meets Nov. 10 in Sacramento will be whether it can or should allow a chance at a redo for the many victims of a rogue campaign treasurer accused of taking millions of dollars from Democratic politicians.

The answer should be an unequivocal, resounding no to the politicians who allowed the apparent embezzling to proceed.

The accused campaign treasurer, Kindee Durkee, who operated from offices in Burbank, handled campaign money for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and scores of other Democrats. There were also funds raised by myriad charities, including one run by conservative Republican Mike Antonovich, a longtime Los Angeles County supervisor.

All these people and organizations placed their trust in Durkee, who controlled some of their bank accounts. The accounts are now frozen, leaving candidates who can’t write their own checks in a tough spot. Feinstein is one candidate still doing just fine despite the estimated loss or freezing (no one is quite sure how much of the money is actually gone and how much frozen) of $4.7 million of her money. She quickly wrote her campaign a check for $5 million, keeping it thoroughly solvent.

But the likes of Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio of Santa Ana and state Sen. Ted Lieu of Torrance, who have seen hundreds of thousands of their diligently-raised dollars go missing or frozen, are not so wealthy they can simply replace money that’s at least temporarily lost to them.

So pressure is building to suspend campaign donation limits and let Durkee’s victims go back to their donors for more money. Yes, it would be up to the donors whether to respond. But how many would say no to a significant officeholder asking for a do-over?

Not many, especially when some will no doubt figure that donating double the ordinary legal limit might give them twice the clout or access they got in exchange for their initial donations.

The FPPC is not sure whether it even has the authority to allow this. “It’s being looked at. We’re trying to figure out whether we could do this or would need legislation,” said a commission spokeswoman.

For sure, the commission cannot give candidates for federal office a redo. Embezzlement victims running for the House and Senate would have to seek a dispensation from the Federal Election Commission, which is not likely to come.

But where legislative candidates are concerned, it’s important for the FPPC not to allow donors any chance of doubling their already considerable influence. Especially when candidates had full ability to check on accounts jointly controlled by them and Durkee prior to the money being frozen after her arrest in early September.

In a sense, then, any losses are the candidates’ own fault. They willingly placed their cash and their trust with someone who paid more than $180,000 in fines for campaign finance violations over the last 10 years. They could have asked for accountings of their funds anytime they wanted.

The bottom line is that neither the candidates nor their donors deserve a do-over. If candidates were victimized, it was at last partly due to their misplaced confidence in Durkee, which some might call negligence.

If the FPPC were to allow candidates a redo, it would become a major enabler of the very kind of influence-peddling, pay-to-play politics it was created to combat.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Friday, October 21, 2011





The muscular young man with greasy hair, tattered clothing and a menacing demeanor sauntered into a Los Angeles fast food emporium the other day, his breath reeking of liquor and his demands very frank.

“Give me some money,” he demanded of a customer waiting for a breakfast burrito.

“Not on your life, smelling the way you do,” replied his intended mark. “No way am I paying for you to buy more booze.”

“That’s not what I want,” the young man scoffed. “I need my medical marijuana."

“You expect me to buy your weed?” the fast food customer replied, incredulous at the young man’s frankness.

“Look,” the younger man sneered in an aside to a woman standing one cash register over. “This guy don’t smoke no pot. Can you believe that?”

There, in a nutshell, was the reason for the federal prosecutions of alleged medical marijuana profiteers announced the other day by four United States attorneys in California.

At first glance, the prosecutions of large-scale medipot growers, some dispensary owners and a few of their landlords appeared to flout the pledge President Obama made early in his term not to target medical marijuana users and caregivers who are following state laws, like the 1996 Proposition 215 which legalized medipot use in California for persons with a written doctor’s recommendation.

Doctors’ recommendations, however, have become easier and easier to obtain; they’re now sometimes available inside the very dispensaries that sell the pot which fulfills the alleged recommendation. The ease of obtaining a recommendation is not at all comparable to the process of getting a prescription for any legal, regulated drug. That's one reason the California Medical Assn. has just called for legalizing and regulating all pot, either in the manner of alcohol or ordinary prescription drugs.

Some cities try to limit both the amounts of pot that users can legally own and sellers can legally stock. Others try regulating dispensary locations, while many cities and counties won’t allow them at all, noting that federal law still doesn’t permit medical use of marijuana, despite several academic studies and reams of anecdotal information about its benefits in coping with things like the side effects of cancer chemotherapy and other ailments like migraine headaches.

The result has been constant confusion about what is legal or illegal where medipot is concerned.

Into this morass stepped the four U.S. attorneys, the top federal prosecutors stationed in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego, with jurisdictions that cover virtually the entire state.

“The California Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215) was intended to help seriously ill people,” said San Francisco prosecutor Melinda Haag. “But the law has been hijacked by profiteers motivated not by compassion but by money. We want to put to rest the notion that large marijuana businesses can shelter themselves under state law.”

Added Andre Birotte Jr., the Los Angeles U.S. attorney, “This is not what the California voters intended or authorized and it is illegal under federal law.” Federal laws always take precedence over conflicting state measures.

But there is no real conflict between state law and what Obama's prosecutors have done. Said the official ballot argument in favor of Proposition 215, signed by two doctors and a registered nurse: “(this) will allow seriously ill and terminally ill patients to use marijuana if, and only if, they have the approval of a licensed physician.”

There was no mention there, nor is there any indication anywhere else, that most voters who accepted this argument had any intention of allowing legal use of marijuana by persons like the young man who demanded cash in that fast food place.

In fact, unlike prosecutors appointed by both ex-Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, the Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys are not targeting legitimate patients or relatively small growers who provide their medical marijuana.

And local officials who have tried with only limited success to regulate medipot dispensaries and get them to carry out the humanitarian spirit of the campaign for Proposition 215 applaud the new prosecutions.

“We’re gratified that (federal authorities) see what we see, which is what began as an opportunity to help seriously ill patients has evolved into storefront drug sales and trafficking,” Jane Usher, a special assistant Los Angeles city attorney, told a reporter.

The bottom line: Medical marijuana has indeed been hijacked, and if the new push against for-profit dispensaries and their operators can somehow clarify the status of medipot while still allowing access for the genuinely ill and cutting the confusion that’s reigned here for 15 years, it will make a positive contribution to California life.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




Back in the early 2000s, with the debate already heating up over how much of the unemployment problem in California and the nation was caused by illegal immigrant workers and their willingness to be exploited by skinflint employers, Dianne Feinstein tried an experiment.

The veteran Democratic U.S. senator arranged for every office of the state Employment Development Department to list menial, farm-related jobs like strawberry picking that were actually available at the time.

Absolutely none of the many thousands of U.S. citizens then drawing unemployment benefits in California bit on those jobs, even though everyone on unemployment must report job-seeking efforts in order to get a check.

The reasonable conclusion from this experiment was that unemployed U.S. citizens eligible for benefits like weekly checks were not interested in the kind of low-paid, seasonal, menial and physically demanding jobs that often attract illegal immigrants to California and much of the nation.

Now Alabama has conducted what amounts to a similar experiment, but on a far larger scale.

America’s toughest immigration law ever was in full effect there for more than two weeks before a federal appeals court suspended two of its key provisions. That law still requires police to check the immigration status of suspects and turn any illegals over to federal authorities. For awhile, school officials had to demand birth certificates from new students. And illegal immigrants still cannot conduct business of any kind with state or local government – other than paying state taxes on sales, gasoline and other items.

No official numbers are in yet, as the law is still quite new.

But thousands of children were pulled out of public schools. No one knows if they will come back now that schools are no longer demanding documents. Water companies still refusing to provide new hookups to people who can’t prove they are legal residents. And hundreds of employers report losing droves of workers.

Many illegal immigrants – most of them Latinos, in keeping with federal statistics indicating about 83 percent of illegals hail from Mexico or other points south – have already left Alabama for other places like Texas, Louisiana and California, all places where there is at least some agricultural activity at this time of year.

Thousands of jobs once taken by illegals opened up and virtually everyone in Alabama – unemployed or not – quickly knew about it. That’s why all this amounts to the Feinstein experiment done over again, but on a huge scale.

Even though it’s too soon to have definite numbers, the results seem similar. Many tomato farms where pickers perform hard stoop labor report less than half their employees are now showing up regularly. Chicken farmers report many of their workers have also flown the coop. The Associated Press reports that many hundreds of legal immigrant workers employed in construction, plant nurseries and other industries left Alabama, too, at a time when the state desperately needs them to help rebuild tornado ravaged cities like Tuscaloosa.

There is no flood of U.S. citizens trying to get any of those jobs, despite Alabama’s 10 percent unemployment, well above the national average. Some farmers say they fear the labor shortage will put them out of business permanently.

Alabama contributes less than 2 percent of America’s agricultural output, but already supermarkets in Eastern and Midwestern states have upped the price of tomato and potato products, eggs and broiler chickens because production may falter in the labor shortage.

Imagine what might happen to prices nationwide if a similar law ever passes federally or in California, by far the country’s agricultural leader.

The Alabama experiment quickly had some strongly anti-illegal immigrant politicians scrambling. It’s no accident that Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the House Judiciary Committee chairman who has pushed a bill requiring all employers to use the federal E-Verify program to check the status of new hires, now proposes a large new guest worker program, too. Smith, then, has gone from trying to deport immigrant workers to trying to bring in more.

That’s because the government estimates 1.1 million illegal immigrants now work in agriculture, about one-third of them in California. Lose that work force and fruits would regularly rot on trees, berries and tomatoes would go unharvested and prices would rise exponentially in supermarkets everywhere.

The force of that reality, placed in bas relief by Alabama’s “experiment,” terrifies the owners of American agriculture, who often contribute heavily to Republican campaigns. So even Smith, who well knows that millions of participants in the old Bracero guest worker program stayed on illegally for decades after it ended, has turned around.

All of which makes Alabama a forceful lesson in the actual, but almost always ignored, contributions of illegal immigrant workers.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit