Monday, July 25, 2016




          At about 5 a.m. last Dec. 15, just about eight months ago, the 83-year-old then-superintendent of America’s second-largest school district was awoken with the news that Los Angeles public schools were threatened with an attack by as many as 33 terrorists who would hit schools at random. They would also secrete bomb-laden backpacks in a variety of places, the threat said.

          With many parents preparing to send or escort their kids to school for early-morning programs (some high school athletic teams and music departments start pre-school-hours practice at about 6 a.m.), Ramon Cortines acted almost immediately. He ordered the huge district of more than 640,000 students closed for the day.

          The question for the future, as schools get set to reopen in the next few weeks: In a similar situation, should that district and others again shut down?

          It’s an active issue because when New York’s school system – also once headed by Cortines and the only district in America larger than L.A. – later received a similar threat, district officials increased police presence but did not close any schools.

          Both threats turned out to be hoaxes.

          They were, however, not quite identical. In New York, the threat claimed to involve 138 terrorists. Authorities there, before even consulting the school district chief, concluded it was highly unlikely 138 persons could work together in an organized manner without federal authorities being aware of something. There was no raising of the area’s threat level in either city prior to the threats.

          The New York threat also called the New York City Schools by a different name.

          It’s a lot easier to organize 33 persons quietly than four times that number, which almost automatically made the Los Angeles threat seem more credible.

          So Cortines, who had to act far more quickly than New York officials, shut his system down, ordering texts and phone calls to all parents and teachers. Some were annoyed because they didn’t get the messages in time and showed up needlessly at schools.

          It’s still not clear why Cortines wasn’t called earlier, when district officials had notified police and the FBI shortly after getting the threat at about 10 p.m. the night before. He said he should have been given more notice. Meanwhile, New York officials, led by Mayor Bill de Blasio, quickly concluded their threat was “so generic, so outlandish” it should not be taken seriously.

          California mayors, unlike de Blasio, have no control over schools, so Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had no voice in the closure decision. Later, he said he supported it.

          Cortines and other Los Angeles officials said they get threats daily to individual schools around the district, but the last previous time all schools were closed came in January 1994, after the early-morning Northridge Earthquake.

          “I’m not taking the chance of bringing children any place, into any part of a building, until I know it is safe,” Cortines said. The consensus has been that he did the right thing, especially since this came less than two weeks after the terrorist killings in nearby San Bernardino.

          Said school board president Steve Zimmer, “We did what we had to do to make sure we were absolutely certain that children and their teachers and all of our employees were safe.”

          That’s pretty much the first instinct of all educators, whether their schools are public or private. But there were lessons to learn.

          For one thing, the ultimate decision-maker in any district (Cortines in Los Angeles, de Blasio in New York) needs to be notified immediately to max[T1] imize time for decision-making. Had Cortines been awakened earlier, many people who were inconvenienced could have had an easier time.

          For other districts in other cities, the lesson is that the more time their leaders get to analyze a potential threat, the faster they might discern whether it is genuine. For example, the Los Angeles message from the start bore hints it was phony: A lower case “a” in Allah, unheard-of for Muslims; lack of any Koranic quotes, usually employed in genuine terror threats, and a claim that the writer of the threat had nerve gas, also not credible.

          Time, then, is vital for those who must decide if a threat is real. The more school officials realize this, the more responsibly they will be able to act.

     Email Thomas Elias at Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. For more Elias columns, go to




          For years, Gov. Jerry Brown could hide behind the fig leaf of a federal court order in turning tens of thousands of convicts loose in a program he called “prison realignment.”

          Prisons lost almost one-third of their occupants to county jails and streets all around the state. Most of those released or paroled were so-called “minor” criminals; very few rapists, murderers or armed robbers have won early releases.

          This satisfied the courts, which all the way up to the level of the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld an order to reduce prison populations.

          Then came the 2014 Proposition 47, which reclassified many previous felonies as misdemeanors carrying far smaller penalties and no “three-strikes” implications. Felony arrests fell to levels unseen in 50 years. One reason: Thefts below the value of $950 are no longer felonies. Because realignment has caused overcrowding in county jails, most thievery at that level goes unpunished; often perpetrators are not even pursued because of police frustration with the changed rules.

          One apparent result – and no, the link has not been proven beyond statistical doubt – is more property crime in many places, while violent crime has remained relatively stable over the last five years. The increase is official; what’s unproven is the direct cause-and-effect link to Proposition 47.

          All this is not enough for Brown, who has a new initiative before voters, on the November ballot as Proposition 57. This one allows early paroles for legally defined non-violent prisoners in exchange for certain achievements and good behavior. The governor spent millions of dollars this spring to qualify his measure, mostly from funds he raised but largely did not spend while winning reelection in 2014.

          Brown calls his new measure “straightforward,” saying it will let only judges, and no longer prosecutors, decide which juveniles aged 14 and over to try in adult court. He says it will speed paroles for some nonviolent offenders, while setting up a system of credits allowing inmates earlier releases if they get high school and college degrees while imprisoned, and “take charge of their lives.”

          This measure figures to let loose thousands more inmates atop those already released.

          What Brown has never said, but a spokesman admitted to a reporter while the initiative petitions were still circulating (at about $5 per valid voter signature) is that some persons convicted of crimes like assault with a deadly weapon, soliciting murder, elder or child abuse, arson and human trafficking might get speedier paroles.

          The disingenuous hype Brown applies to his proposal by saying it would affect only “non-violent prisoners who can change their criminal thinking…” might be similar to the outright lie told for years by the state prison department, which denied for years allowing serious violent criminals into inmate firefighting camps, where there is limited supervision. Of course, when that oft-repeated claim was disproven, Brown said nothing and disciplined no one.

          No one knows how state parole panels will ever be sure that any prisoner has “changed their criminal thinking,” or whether crime rates might increase under this new Brown plan.

          A close Brown aide said almost all those covered under the new initiative also could be affected by realignment. “This has a chance of providing a carrot of early release for them,” the aide said. “It won’t work for everyone. But the alternative is a system offering no incentives for people to straighten themselves out.”

          Former seminarian Brown couches his measure in moral terms and maintains California “still does not have a durable plan to deal with prison overcrowding.” His initiative could also save many millions in prison costs.

          But at what price? Burglaries are up. Car thefts, too. So is shoplifting. Would other crimes rise with a new flow of inmates leaving prisons? No one knows.

          For sure, prosecutors say they’re worried, and not only because this proposition would decrease their authority a bit.

          In one blog published by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, prosecutors called the measure a “full-fledged assault on public safety,” claiming it would allow parole boards to ignore sentencing enhancements for prior offenses including rape, torture and murder.

          The initiative is billed as a humanitarian measure, just like Proposition 47 was when it passed by almost a 3-2 margin. No one knows whether voters this fall will heed some of that measure’s apparent results.

    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

Monday, July 18, 2016




          For more than a generation, opportunistic California politicians have barraged voters with woeful tales about how the most productive, inventive, wealthy and enterprising Californians are leaving this state in droves to avoid high taxes and excessive government regulation.

These stories, used successfully by the likes of Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger while running for governor, and unsuccessfully by failed candidates from Bill Simon to Meg Whitman and Neel Kashkari, tell of rich Californians seeking greener pastures in more laissez faire states like Texas and Idaho.

          There’s only one problem with those stories: They don’t match the facts, even though they are often purveyed by folks with a financial stake in the fables, some of them business relocation experts.

          It’s not just that California has outpaced the rest of America economically for most of the last 20 years. It’s not merely that innovative businesses and venture capital investments here are the largest and most successful in the world.

          It’s not only that coastal California real estate, property in the state’s most populous areas, brings more cash than comparable real estate anywhere else in America except Manhattan, but also that there are plenty of buyers around with the cash to pay seemingly outrageous prices.

          It’s also that truth matters little anymore, with one of the principles peddled by master Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels in the 1930s and ‘40s proving at least somewhat correct: The more often you repeat and broadcast an untruth, the more people will come to believe it.

          That especially holds when some numbers appear to back up the untruth. In terms of people leaving California, there is such a number: California had a net population outflow to other states of 625,000 residents between 2007 and 2014. Newborn children and immigrants more than made up for that loss, so don’t expect the state to lose congressional or Electoral College clout after the next Census in 2020.

          But the majority of those departing are not the extremely prosperous residents about whom we so often hear from folks described by Gov. Jerry Brown as California “declinists.”

          Rather, of those who left during the latest years for which statistics exist, the vast majority earned less than $30,000 per year. A net total of  469,000 of those leaving possessed no college degree. Given the prevailing levels of rents and home prices in California, it’s easy to see their financial motive in leaving for far lower-priced states like Texas, Nevada, Oregon and Arizona.

          But as lower-income residents left there was a net increase of 52,700 residents from other states making more than $50,000 per year who do have at least a bachelor’s degree. The figures come from a Beacon Economics study released this spring (

          The upshot is that while it’s true that a few big businesses have shifted their national headquarters out of California primarily because it’s far cheaper for them to expand their facilities in states with lower land prices, most of this state has not suffered much. New businesses arise and succeed here faster and in larger quantities than anywhere except perhaps Israel, also a center of high tech innovation.

          Land values remain the primary reason for businesses shifting headquarters or expansion outside California. It’s difficult to attract and retain workers here with salaries under $50,000, because of housing prices.

          Said one executive, “I pay some of my people with master’s degrees $70,000 and $80,000 a year and they still have no hope of buying a house anywhere near Silicon Valley.”

          That reality explains a lot of the corporate expansion to cheaper states.

          So does the price of raw land for expansion in places like Las Vegas, Boise or Tucson, where empty desert abuts directly on city limits. That situation is rare in California, but it makes large tracts of land elsewhere available at very low prices.

          The bottom line: Yes, this state has lost some population to other states, but for the most part it has not been the most creative, wealthiest and entrepreneurial Californians who left. Which means that doomsaying politicians and urban “experts” who say the out-migration numbers spell impending disaster are mostly blowing self-serving smoke.

     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, go to




          You’ve seen fire sales. They happen when goods or real estate are discounted sharply after fire damages a store or a building. But the term has new meaning in rural Calaveras County, where the devastating Butte Fire swept through thousands of acres last year, the seventh-worst wildfire in recorded California history.

          It’s just possible that what’s happening near towns like Mountain Ranch, Murphys and San Andreas could foretell at least one aspect of life in fertile parts of California if Proposition 64 passes this fall and legalizes recreational use of marijuana.

          Here’s one example of what’s going on, as told via email by a Calaveras County property owner (not personally involved in this story): “An 80-year-old widower whose property burned near Mountain Ranch decided to sell and move to 'town (San Andreas – population 2,783).' He listed his scorched 37 acres at about $350,000 with a broker in town. Next day, he gets a call to come in; there’s an offer on the table. He goes to the broker and receives $500,000 in stacks of bills.”

          It’s a fire sale in reverse, in part because marijuana entrepreneurs figure pot will be completely legal in California after the fall vote and in part because growers find burned-over properties far easier to farm than wooded ones that need clearing.

          This transaction was fairly typical for the last year in a boom real estate market spurred by burned-off land, the presumption Proposition 64 will pass easily and the fact that surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountain foothill counties have tighter restrictions on growing the weed.

          One real estate broker in the hamlet of Valley Springs reported selling 36 vacant properties in the month of March. Another in San Andreas reportedly sold 16 parcels in three weeks.

          But there’s more than a real estate boom under way in the county. Residents report that longstanding deed restrictions against driving heavy trucks on privately-maintained dirt roads leading to remote properties are routinely ignored as start-up growers haul in heavy loads of fertilizer and machinery.

          There’s also the possibility of violence in what is shaping up as a Wild West atmosphere. The same property owner who reported the quick 37-acre cash sale at more than 40 percent above the asking price also gave this report: “A resident near our land walked across his property to the fence that divided his place from the grower’s next door. Two men with rifles came toward him and warned him to stay away from the fence. He’s decided to sell and leave the area.”

          County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio did not deny that this episode and others like it have occurred.

          A non-grower who lived through the land boom in Mendocino County in the state’s so-called “Emerald Triangle” after medical marijuana was legalized in California via the 1996 Proposition 215 said the scene there was similar until county regulations took hold and settled things down.

          Hoping to accomplish the same, Calaveras County supervisors in May adopted local rules allowing pot grows of up to a quarter-acre on properties of at least two acres and grows of a half-acre on properties of four acres or more. These plots would be larger than any permitted in California outside Humboldt County, another Emerald Triangle area where legal cannabis fields can reach a full acre.

          None of this includes illicit pot farms long common in rural California, often operated by drug cartels. These frequently poach state or federal lands and water.

          “We definitely have some cartel growers here,” said Sheriff DiBasilio. “But we eradicate those grows whenever we find them. It’s hard to know who’s behind them, though, because once they hear our helicopters, the workers disappear very quickly.” When such workers have been caught, they’ve often been undocumented immigrants, many from South and Central America.

          “California has been a bit wild compared to other states that have legal marijuana,” said Steve Gormley, founder of Seventh Point LLC, a private equity fund that invests in marijuana growing. “Law enforcement officials need to have a clear understanding of regulations and enforce them in a careful manner.”

          No one knows for sure whether the atmosphere reported in Calaveras County will be duplicated elsewhere if pot is legalized. But the scene’s similarity to previous pot booms indicates that’s a good bet, and no one can be sure exactly where this might occur.

     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, go to

Monday, July 11, 2016




          Less than a week had passed after Gov. Jerry Brown and several state legislators giddily announced their package of reforms for the scandal-ridden California Public Utilities Commission before an official audit revealed why that plan is simply not good enough.

          The audit by the state’s Department of General Services marked the first time in 20 years that the PUC’s practices had been officially examined, and the commission was found severely wanting.

          But there have been and likely will be no consequences for anyone involved.

          Also, no one has explained why 20 years passed between audits, when General Services reviews are supposed to come every three years. Perhaps it was because California’s last three governors – Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis – were all sympathetic to the commission’s steadfast favoritism of the huge companies it regulates over their customers.

          The audit found the commission did not maintain proper paperwork on contracts and other matters. It said PUC employees most likely misused gasoline credit cards. But the most egregious offense noted came when the commission lawyered up in early 2015, just as federal and state agents began investigating some of its members for possible criminal wrongdoing.

          Panic and fear ran rampant in the PUC’s San Francisco headquarters at the time, just after authorities searched the La Canada-Flintridge home of the recently-departed former commission President Michael Peevey. That raid founded evidence Peevey and executives of the Southern California Edison Co. secretly agreed to dun customers $3.3 billion, or about 70 percent of the costs to close the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, shuttered because of an Edison blunder. An almost identical agreement soon became official.

          Commissioners voted to hire an outside criminal law firm to help them through the investigation, awarding a contract that so far has amounted to about $12 million for the law firm SheppardMullin.

          The General Services audit did not question the commission’s authority to do anything it has done, including awarding that contract. But it said the contract was “not…signed by a party who had been delegated signature authority in writing…”

          In short, there was never proper legal authority for the firm – which has so far been most visible in helping the commission stonewall requests for documents and other information – to get all that money.

          There are other questions about the propriety of commissioners under criminal investigation using state money to hire defense attorneys. The only PUC response to those questions was to cite government code section 995.8, which says a public entity can only hire criminal lawyers to defend present or former officials if “The public entity determines that such defense would be in the best interest of the public entity…” The PUC would have to hold hearings to make such a circular determination, but it never even did that.

          The audit, then, makes it clear the commission lawyered up illegally in two ways, both by failing to hold hearings on whether it should hire SheppardMullin and by letting an unauthorized person sign the contract.

          Yet there are no consequences. Brown has said nothing about any of this. PUC President Michael Picker, who repeatedly says his agency’s “culture” needs big changes, steadfastly refused to answer questions about the dicey contract.

          That means the PUC, whose members cannot be fired during their six-year terms, is almost completely unaccountable for its actions. It acts illegally with impunity and no one touches its top officials.

          That won’t change under the reform package, which includes several positives including provisions calling for a new ethics ombudsman and a deputy director in charge of the safety of natural gas and electricity transmission lines.

          Those are positive changes, negotiated largely between Brown and Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Los Angeles, whose bill to break up the PUC and divide its tasks among several other state agencies easily passed the Assembly before Brown paid it any heed. But their deal, if passed by the Legislature as expected, leaves commissioners as unaccountable as ever.

          And that makes the reforms too little and far too late to help consumers very much.  

    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




          Go back in time six years to 2010, when the “Top Two” primary election system awaited a decision from California voters. Up until then, Republicans could only cast ballots for fellow Republicans in primary elections, while Democrats allowed votes from people who declined to choose a party.

          But in fall general elections, the many lopsided races in congressional or legislative districts where voter registration is dominated by one party or the other were essentially done deals before any ballots were counted. In Democratic-dominated districts, Republicans had no voice, even if their party put a name on the ballot. The same for Democrats in Republican districts.

          The result was extremism in both major parties, with extreme liberal Democrats and extreme conservative Republicans virtually guaranteed election, often leaving moderates in both parties essentially unrepresented.

          The Top Two system ended that. It has often allowed Republicans in Democratic districts to decide which Democrat they prefer in either Sacramento or Washington, D.C., and vice versa. It has forced the majority party in one-sided districts to heed voters in the other party, for the first time in generations. It has basically taken minor parties from the ultra-liberal Greens to the usually conservative-leaning Libertarians off almost all general election ballots.

          That, in turn, eliminates the possibility of those parties being used to manipulate voters and distort elections, a la what the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Alan Cranson did in 1986. Faced with a close race against tough GOP opponent Ed Zschau, Cranston backers advertised heavily for the previously unknown, extreme conservative American Independent Party candidate Ed Vallen, who took 1.5 percent of the vote in an election Cranston eventually won by just 1.3 percent.

          Top Two also produced a new reality in California politics, creating a quasi-party within the Democratic spectrum, loosely called “business Democrats,” who vote with their more liberal colleagues on social issues, but often seem a bit like Republicans on money-related items.

          All this caused little furor for the last six years, even though dozens of races for the Legislator and Congress were all-Democrat or all-Republican affairs.

          But this summer is different, mostly because Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of Orange County snagged the second spot in the November runoff for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara Boxer since 1992. Without the Top Two system, Sanchez would have finished a distant second to state Attorney General Kamala Harris in a Democratic primary. This would have left Harris with only token November opposition, as no Republican managed more than a fraction of her primary election vote.

          Minor party officials have griped for years that Top Two deprives their voters of a November election voice. But they will have a general election presence any time their candidates earn it. Similarly, Republicans are whining this summer about the Senate race, where they can either stay home or vote for a Democrat, either Harris or Sanchez.

          That’s happening because those same Republicans were unable to coalesce around a single candidate last spring, instead fracturing their votes among 11 Republicans in a field of 34 Senate candidates. Had Ron Unz or Tom del Beccaro or Phil Wyman or George (Duf) Sundheim drawn support from even one of every five voters, a Republican would be running now.

          But in a state where Democrats hold a voter registration edge of more than 17 percent, any such Republican would have little chance in the fall against Harris, the leading Democratic vote-getter. Like all other statewide GOP candidates of the last 20 years other than muscleman actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the GOP survivor would have been autumn mincemeat.

          Not so Sanchez, who now is free to expand her mostly Latino voting base by going after Republican voters dismayed by the likelihood that Harris, part of the San Francisco political establishment that has held almost all major offices in this state for the last six years, might get at least six years in the Senate.

          It’s up to Sanchez to make those GOP adherents comfortable with her, because they cast well over 25 percent of the primary election votes, enough to make her a credible challenger for Harris if she can attract most of them.

          That’s what Top Two was designed to do, and it performed this year exactly as advertised.

    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