Friday, July 27, 2012

Now That's A Creative Resume

He said he was the trash man for the shah of Iran.

It sounded exotic to city officials, sure, but he knew the city could never check his references.

It was 1980, and the shah -- Mohammad Reza Pahlavi -- had just been run off by the Iranian revolution a year before.

The applicant knew the city of Riverside, California wasn't about to pick up the phone and call Iran's new supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, for a job reference.

So, the city hired him as its superintendent of solid waste on the good faith of his resume.

Within a year, they were wishing they had called the ayatollah.

That's when Riverside officials learned, after he got tangled in a trash equipment fraud, that he was a former associate of a New Jersey mob and was a federally protected witness.

More than a decade earlier he had helped the Justice Department prosecute Campisi mobsters in cases involving murder, gambling and stolen securities. He served a little time, and was freed with a new identity.

After he entered the witness protection program in 1971, he bounced around from city to city and was hired as municipal garbage chief in Illinois, New York and Florida. When he tried to get a job in North Carolina, city officials got wind of who he really was, and the feds had to quickly move him. In some cities where he managed solid waste, he was praised for his work.

However, he left as Miami's sanitation director after several thousand dollars worth of copper and brass became missing from a city site. He was later found innocent of theft.

"I worked very hard and got him acquitted," his attorney told me at the time, "and he gave me a bad check for part of my fee."

Yes, it is hard to deny where you come from.

Interestingly, Miami officials had tried to check his past and complained they were "hoodwinked" by federal officials about his background.

About the time he was fired from the Riverside job, his colorful background was pieced together by a newspaper -- as much as possible in light of laws forbidding disclosure of information about protected witnesses.

The Riverside police chief at the time was asked whether cops were ever asked to check his resume claims.

"As much trouble as federal officials had in coming up with his background, we may not have come up with anything that would have been useful," he said.

His resume was imaginative -- I mean, really, trash man to the shah? That must have taken more than one meeting of bureaucrats to dream up.

When he applied for the Miami job, he said he had worked for a federal agency that managed solid waste projects. While there, he claimed he was lent to the Justice Department "to head a special task force to prosecute possible infiltration and influence of mob elements into funded federal projects."

Which only tends to show that every phony resume has scraps of truth in it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Good Deed Doesn't Go Unnoticed By Court

Courts -- appellate courts in particular -- are known for their heads and not their hearts. A California appeals court, however, showed it had a heart recently when it approved unemployment benefits for a man who was fired for trying to do a good deed.

The case involved Jose Robles, 64, a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Phillippines, who was fired from his $20.75-an-hour job of collecting grease at restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area in January 2010.

It seems a friend of his had an accident and needed steel-toed shoes. Robles's employer, Liquid Environmental Solutions of Hayward, allowed its employees to buy work shoes at a Red Wing Shoe Store using a $150 yearly allowance.

Robles went to the store and asked the clerk to measure his friend for the shoes because he was giving them to him. When the clerk refused, Robles didn't argue. But, when his employer found out what he had tried to do, they fired him.

"I asked the lady to have my friend's foot be measured for I had intended to give (the shoes) to him," Robles said in a statement in court papers. "He had a recent home accident and needed safety shoes. I honestly believed I can do the noble gesture and not jeopardize my own safety. I had a reserve pair of shoes at home and fully confident I would be wearing one in good condition for another year..."

When the store clerk refused to let him buy the shoes, Robles didn't argue. But, when his employer found out what he had tried to do, they fired him. "I deeply regret what I attempted to undertake, and firmly swear would not do it again," he said in the statement.

The state Employment Development Department denied him jobless benefits, saying that Mr. Robles "may have had good intentions toward a friend but in his actions he breached a serious obligation he had toward his employer." After a trial court judge upheld the EDD's decision, Robles appealed to the First District Court of Appeal. There, Justice Timothy A. Reardon ruled that Robles's actions did not amount to employee "misconduct," which is required to deny benefits.

His reasoning showed heart: "Robles did not try to hide anything when he went to the shoe store. Next, it is undisputed that he wanted to help his friend who had a recent home accident. Further, Robles had decent safety shoes and did not feel he would jeopardize the safety purpose of the allowance or otherwise injure his employer's interests. ... And, further Robles did not use the shoe allowance for his friend. At most, Robles was guilty of a good faith error in judgment" and not misconduct.

He ordered the state to "award Robles the unemployment insurance benefits withheld, plus interest."

On July 16, the opinion was approved as a legal precedent in California. The attorney for Mr. Robles, who has since moved back to the Phillippines to care for his 95-year-old father, said the case can now be cited by other unemployed people who are "fired for marginal conduct" and fighting for their benefits.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Put This City Out Of Its Misery

Well, this is the city where council members once signed a contract partly written in Japanese and -- you guessed it -- none of them read Japanese. The city even thought about banning tumbleweeds, raising the ire of Roy Rogers, whose "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" put the wind-blown Russian thistle on the map of Americana.

Was I surprised the other day to hear San Bernardino had become the third California city to pursue bankruptcy? I was surprised San Bernardino wasn't first. Go ahead, add up the budget deficits, toss in its public pension liability, and for good measure, calculate its home foreclosures. It still comes down to this simple fact: San Bernardino is a failed American city. The current billion-dollar expansion of the 215 freeway in the heart of the city means only that we will go faster through San Bernardino to Las Vegas.

San Bernardino is a demographic nightmare for city bugeteers. An unfavorable number of its 210,000 residents rely on public handouts, and to add insult, the city makes the list of top 100 cities with the "least educated" populations. The city is unlivable. Many people who do earn a living in San Bernardino choose not to live there. They take their families east to Redlands, a city affluent because of its larger neighbor's failures. To San Bernardino's north, Highland residents incorporated in self-defense, fearing the beast next door would devour them in the jaws of annexation.

For the area newspapers, San Bernardino has always been No.1 for crime news. The city once wore the dubious honor of having more murders than any U.S. city its size. It didn't have to be this way. The National Civic League named San Bernardino an "All-America City" in 1977, but the city has atrophied since, and really never recovered the loss of 10,000 jobs when Norton Air Force Base closed in 1994.

One thing that was suprising -- actually shocking -- was in announcing their decision to head for the cover of bankruptcy, city officials revealed that the city's financial figures haven't been accurate for years. Are they aware that manipulating municipal records is a crime in California? The city's mayor ought to know, he's a former county judge.

I was going to recommend as part of the Chapter 9 bankruptcy settlement, that the city be put out of its misery by de-incorporating. Then I realized it would make the rest of San Bernardino County's taxpayers responsible for this dysfunctional city's problems, and thought better of it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Hollywood Graffiti

So, Oliver Stone has a new movie, "Savages," about a drug war. The last time I wrote a story with the name Oliver Stone in it, his film crew had just painted the desert, literally.

In April 1990 the Academy Award-winning director was filming the life of 1960s rock nasty-boy Jim Morrison of The Doors at Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve in California's Mojave Desert.

For a scene in which a drugged-up Morrison played by Val Kilmer walks around the cave, mesmerized by the drawings because he believes he is spiritually connected to a medicine man, a crew member painted 100 phony Indian pictographs on the walls of a pristine and historially and geologically significant cave.

Mitchell Caverns, used for half a millennium by the desert Chemehuevi Indians for religious purposes, were forged millions of years ago. It was a state-protected site, with stalactites, stalagmites, limestone columns and some simple, authentic pictographs. "This whole cave site was part of the initiation process for the shamans," a Sierra Club official said at the time. "This is like taking a can of spray paint into a cathedral."

The filming was approved by the state film commission and parks service. But, the problem was, movie artists broke the rules by using water in the red, yellow, white and black poster paint instead of dry, powdered pigments that could have been more easily removed. A ranger described the fake pictographs as "kindergarten art," which included a Zuni sun shield, a three-foot-tall dancing pottery figure, a stick-like figure with a penis and Indians with spiked hair. (Photo credit, Nick Souza.)

"Someone broke the rules," said a spokesman for the film company at the time. "It was a terrible mistake." He noted the company was insured for the clean-up.

The worst was yet to come.

Sadly, Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve has since been closed by the state because of budget woes. Vandals have ruined the 80-year-old visitors center, smashing display cases, and even ripping the wiring out of the walls.

Looking back now, the Hollywood graffiti left by Stone's crew proved to be simply the writing on the wall.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Paranoia, Bugs and Courtroom Rituals

I have attended thousands of criminal proceedings, including a hanging, but let me tell you about the case of a man who was arrested for shoplifting and turned around and sued police for false arrest, and won.

The man had bought a skirt at one store in a mall and carried it into another shop, unbagged. When a clerk saw him she immediately called police to say he had stolen the garment. Unfortunately, police handcuffed and arrested him for shoplifting, without asking any questions.

Yes, he was later released. But, as he figured it, the damage had been done.

So, with a sharp lawyer of record and a valid receipt for the skirt firmly in hand, the man, who was mentally ill, sued. A jury agreed with him, awarding him $41,000 in damages.

After the verdict the jury foreman told me: "We believe if there would have been an investigation, there would not have been an arrest at all."

The man's case included his assertion that the arrest worsened his paranoia, and in testimony, a psychiatrist backed him up, saying that the arrest led to new delusions that police were out to get him.

After the verdict I asked the man why he had worn a bulletproof vest (the jury saw it) to court. "I don't feel safe with law enforcement in California. That is the reason I am leaving. I'll find some place nobody knows me . . . Hopefully no one will come to my back door."

I distinctly remember the headline on another story I will tell you about here: "Inmate's note fails to bug judge." (If you think writing headlines on a newspaper's tight deadline is easy, you're buggy.) Anyhow, the story reported that a county jail prisoner had sent the judge an envelope with three huge cockroaches inside, and the inmate was hauled into the judge's courtroom to explain why.

The judge had been hearing evidence about unsanitary jail conditions, and the inmate testified that "I decided to show the judge that these cockroaches do exist and are a nuisance."

For his part, the judge said he didn't open the letter because of "evidentiary" reasons, and turned it over to the county's attorneys. But, the judge couldn't help finding some humor in the incident, and jokingly questioned whether the "insects were properly booked."

In the end, the judge ruled that the county's jail was a hive of vermin, and within several years the county built a new detention facility.

Years ago a local bar association published a sampling of "rituals" that lawyers go through before or during trials. In it a county prosecutor revealed that "For final argument I always wore a particular suit that deflects bad luck. Unfortunately, in one case the defendant wore an identical suit at the preliminary hearing, and it didn't prove to be very lucky for him." Still, he explained, "I switched to a different lucky suit." I was there that day when the prosecutor and murder defendant both wore cream-colored suits. I always wondered whether the defendant's very skillful public defender had arranged it that way, knowing it would pique the prosecutor -- and obviously it did. Anyway, the defendant was Kevin Cooper, who was later convicted and sentenced to death for the hatchet-knife murders of a Southern California family, and is the subject of a new book by Pat O'Connor, "Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Maggie's Farm

There wasn't a happier or more pleasant friend to have around the house than "Maggie."

For the past 13 years she never barked in anger and always cuddled up to you, and all she required was the gentle pet of her black and white coat, maybe an additional scratch behind an ear for good measure, and to hear you say, "Maggie is a good girl." You'd live in her good graces forever if you slipped her a secret Milk Bone.

This natural lovingness showed itself early. We'd often stroll with Puppy Maggie on her pink leash along the harbor walk at Dana Point, and when a stranger approached, she'd drop like a penitent prostrated before the pope onto her stomach, her legs out sideways, and invite a little friend-making. Few could resist this fuzzy little Shih Tzu temptress, and there where always lots of "oohs and aahs" from the children and adults as they petted her or tickled her ears, her tongue wriggling about in a big thank-you smile.

Maggie had unusual eyes, one brown and the other blue. This likeness was captured perfectly in Maggie's portrait painted by Hollywood artist and filmmaker Eric Minh Swenson, who filmed our dogs and later painted their portraits as a Christmas gift. (I have included his portrait of Maggie.)

Maggie was our second family dog, following "Jake" the Yorkie, who thought he was a Doberman perhaps because he was similarly colored, and, who had won my eternal respect as a judge of character when he lifted his leg and peed all over the new and expsensive tennis shoes worn by a lawyer who visited our house. After Jake died and we had had Maggie for two years, we acquired another Shih Tzu, this one mostly white, so Maggie would have a friend while we were at work. From the beginning Maggie mothered Puppy "Chloe" by licking her eyes and ears clean, and by herding her around the yard, even keeping her away from the swimming pool. They grew to be great friends, and although Chloe turned into the "alpha" member of this two-dog pack, I always sensed that she appreciated the upbringing Maggie gave her -- perhaps not unlike a child who, as an adult, actually tells her friends how happy her childhood was. When I'd feed Chloe first, with the idea of feeding Maggie on the same plate afterwards, Chloe always ate only half of the food, leaving the rest on the plate for her motherly friend.

Maggie died Friday.

For several years she was being treated for hypothyroidism, which causes dementia symptoms. When we took her for a check up at the vet's a month ago, he as much as forewarned us that Maggie was at the upper age limit of her breed. In the end, Maggie succumbed to congestive heart failure. On her last night my wife put a little pillow under her front paws to elevate her, making it easier for her to breathe. She seemed to understand we were trying to help her. (Our attempt was to make her as comfortable as possible; certainly what we ourselves would hope for from our family.) She died a few hours later, painlessly it seemed because she never whimpered.

"Don't let Chloe near her," I told my wife, after Maggie passed.

I had done the same thing with my daughter when she was four. After her kitten had climbed into the engine compartment of my car -- unbeknowst to me -- and I had backed out of the driveway only to see in the rearview mirror the little critter writhing on the ground, I instructed a friend who was in the car with us not to let my daughter see the suffering kitten. Should I have let Chloe see her lifeless friend Maggie? That might be one for the "Dog Whisperer."

A call to county authorities confirmed that we could bury our pet on our property. We selected a spot near a peach tree that Maggie used to visit on her daily rounds of the back yard. As I put her in the deep grave, I felt a small knot in her tail, and remembered something. Years ago a coyote had gotten into our yard and was carting Maggie off by the tail when I heard her yelp and grabbed her from the clutches of the hungry coyote. She had a knot in her tail ever since.

Today in our garden area there is a patch of fresh earth where we planted Johnny-jump-ups, dainty flowers as gentle, kind and loving as Maggie herself. I'll just call it "Maggie's Farm," after the old Bob Dylan song.

We miss Maggie dearly.

And, we aren't alone.

At bedtime on the first night by herself, I saw Chloe walk to the spot near our bed where maggie slept. She looked for her friend, sniffing, and then backed slowly away from the empty space. I have since observed her searching rooms where Maggie used to lie. Maybe I should have allowed Chloe to say her good-byes that awful night. Maybe animals need "closure," too.

This morning after her walk -- unusual because her walkmate wasn't on a leash by her side -- I fed Chloe in the family room. I then sat down in the office to write this. A half hour later I returned to the family room, and it caught my eye right away. Chloe's dish. She left Maggie's share uneaten, waiting for her.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

An Unforgettable Picture

Thirty-seven years ago this month I was in Boston and bought a 20-cent copy of the Boston Herald Amerian -- Wednesday, July 23, 1975 -- from a vendor. The front page was nearly taken up by one picture, under the headline: "Safety So Near . . . Then A Death Fall."

While at the top of the front page national news was bannered: "House Keeps Oil Price Controls," at the bottom of the page there was a story by John McGinn and Arsene Davignon on the fire that led to the photo. The lede said: "A young woman fell to her death, a small girl was injured and a firefighter was saved by a chance hand-hold yesterday when a fire escape collapsed at the height of a suspicious blaze in the Back Bay."

Herald American Staff Photographer Stanley Forman took the photo showing the woman and child falling. As the story reported the woman was killed, but anyone who saw the front-page photo that day must have been shocked to learn the 2-year-old had survived.

Inside the newspaper, the Herald American published five more dramatic fire photos by Forman, whose front page picture won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for spot news -- he won another Pulitzer in 1977. Years later, I learned, the photo had prompted Boston to tighten its fire escape safety regulations.

Here is a link to this remarkable photo:

Along with the photo spread on page 3, the paper's editors ran a brief account of how he got the pictures, in Forman's own words. "I kept having to move around because of the light situation. The sky was bright and they were in deep shadow. I wouldn't have had any detail. I was making pictures with a motor drive and he, the fire-fighter was reaching up and then I don't know, everything started falling. I followed the girl down, taking pictures . . . I made three or four frames. I realized what was going on and I completely turned around, because I didn't want to see her hit."

He turned away. It reminds me of what I once told a young reporter: "First you're a human being. Then you're a journalist."