Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Smörgåsbord of scandal



One.Vice President Darth Cheney evidently had elsewhere to be Tuesday morning, but the House Resources Committee nevertheless plunged ahead with its hearings on if and how and why he engineered the deaths of around 70,000 salmon on the banks of the Klamath River in August 2002. The hea...ring was called “Crisis of Confidence: The Political Influence of the Bush Administration on Agency Science and Decision-Making.” It was prompted by last month’s Washington Postseries that fingered the Dark Lord for the Klamath fish kill, and for associated acts of political bullying directed at government scientists.

Among those testifying in Washington Tuesday morning: McKinleyville’s Mike Kelly, aka “The Klamath Whistleblower.” (See the Journal cover story of that name — Nov. 13, 2003.) Kelly was a fisheries biologist employed by the National Marine Fisheries Service charged with developing an opinion about how much water would be required to sustain the Klamath salmon in the dry year of 2002. He foresaw the fish kill. And his report was scuttled, and his name impugned, apparently because it had been politically determined that the water had to be used for other purposes.

“My immediate supervisor advised me, early on, that she had been informed that Vice President Cheney had been briefed on our consultation,” Kelly told the committee. “That is the only time the vice president was mentioned to me during the process. I was also aware that President Bush had declared that he would do everything he could to get the water to the farmers. I was keenly aware of all the controversy.

“I realized that political pressure might be applied to my superiors, but I naively believed that I was shielded from such pressure. ... As it turned out, I was essentially asked to support a conclusion that made as much sense as one plus one equals three.”

Two.Ruh-roh, Shaggy. The California Secretary of State recently assembled a team of computer hackers and set them loose on an assortment of computer systems used to tabulate the results of our elections. Among the systems tested: The Diebold optical scanning machines used in Humboldt County and its associated software. The results came in last week — the hackers basically made mincemeat of the machines, demonstrating a variety of ways to skew the vote. The hackers (code-named “The Red Team”) created backdoor routes into the central tabulating software used by Diebold machines, altering vote totals at will or corrupting the entire elections database. The Red Team also verified that the optical scanning machines found at our precincts could be easily jimmied and rendered inoperative.

Troubling, but Humboldt County Clerk-Recorder Carolyn Crnich wasn’t altogether surprised. These vulnerabilities have long been known, she said, and the studies didn’t take account of strategies that have been developed to address them. “There are a lot of things in place now that weren’t five years ago, but none of those things were taken into consideration in the Red Team testing,” she said. Mostly, the fixes she listed had to do with extra human security, a greater numbers of checks and balances on Election Day.

Nevertheless, Dave Berman of Humboldt County’s Voter Confidence Committee, a tireless and perhaps somewhat obsessive advocate for transparent elections, welcomed the Red Team study. “I don’t know if ‘vindication’ is a word I would consider,” he said. “I would say I’m not at all surprised. The question now is what the secretary of state will do, now that she has her own studies.”

Berman’s suggestion: Ditch the machines and go to a pure hand-count of all votes cast. Initial twiddling with the numbers suggests that it wouldn’t be all that time-consuming or costly — and wouldn’t you rather wait a few days and spend a little more for a trustworthy count?

Crnich ripostes that she’s got a better plan. The county’s up for a small grant that would allow it to undertake an innovative “transparency project.” Under the terms of Crnich’s plan, after an election the elections office would release a CD containing a scanned copy of every ballot cast. Anyone will be able to do his or her own recount, in the comfort of his or her own home. Berman re-ripostes that the CD probably won’t be released until after the election is already certified.

Three.As predicted, the Humboldt County Association of Governments (HCAOG) last week voted to pursue the far more expensive and unrealistic plan to build the Eureka-Arcata Bay Trail. (See “The Squeeze,” July 5). In other words, it lent its imprimatur to the notion that the trail must come second to the dead railroad tracks around Humboldt Bay. The plan, as adopted by HCAOG, actually calls for the trail project to accept the responsibility and expense of rebuilding the deteriorated railroad infrastructure around the bay, in preparation for that glorious day when the trains come steaming back into the county.

Good deal for the railroad people! Assuming, of course, that trail people can find $31 million in grant funds to rebuild a rail line whose future is, ah, dubious at best. Good luck with that, folks!

We note that the report received by HCAOG, undertaken by a consulting firm called Alta Planning, again repeats the notion that North Coast Railroad Authority freight service to Humboldt County will be restored by 2011, a figure believed by no one of sound mind. But the endless repetition of that date, up here at the north end of the line, continues to make those at the south end of the line a little bit nervous. Why? Because if the railroad authority continues to repeat that date, there is a danger that someone might someday take it seriously. And that could have profound side effects on a mass transit project in Sonoma County. (See “The Town Dandy,” July 19).

Two weeks ago, Assemblymember Jared Huffman summoned the railroad authority brass to his office to try to extract some solid facts and figures from the railroad authority. He failed, but his staff remains hopeful. “What numbers are we really talking about?” said Josh Townsend, Huffman’s district director, last week. “That’s something they didn’t have at the meeting, but they’re going to be working at it.”

Four.Scandal? We could only listen for a moment, so there’s bound to be plenty wrinkles to Tuesday morning’s Pacific Lumber bankruptcy hearing. We missed most of them.

But the first and most apparent piece of business conducted down in Corpus Christi, Tex., would seem to be non-scandalous, or even anti-scandalous. Executives at Maxxam, Palco’s Houston-based corporate parent, dropped their request to award big, big bonuses to management personnel Pacific Lumber and its sister company, Scotia Pacific, dependent on said personnel’s ability to further slash expenses. The bonus plan would have required court approval; instead, Palco lawyers notified Judge Richard S. Schmidt that they were abandoning it. At the same time, the company said that it would continue its motion to grant bonuses to rank-and-file workers in the event that company costs are cut.

Why did the company decide to unilaterally abandon the eyebrow-raising plan, which could have resulted in a $450,000 bonus to Palco president George O’Brien? Maxxam has never before displayed any sort of shame, so we’d be disinclined to think that CEO Charles Hurwitz, the last of the great robber barons, had a sudden pang of conscience on behalf of the company and the community he has bankrupted. But you never know, we suppose.

There was one other spicy bit of news to emerge from the first few minutes of Tuesday morning’s hearing. That is, that the Maxxam family of companies has reached an agreement with Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos. Their agreement concerns the great issue that has defined Gallegos’ career as a prosecutor — the massive fraud suit he filed against the company shortly after taking office, which led to the dirty Maxxam-financed recall attempt against him, which led to his enshrinement as the untouchable figurehead and heartthrob of all good, right-thinking people. Then the suit itself was thrown out of court, after an out-of-town judge ruled that it had no basis in law.

Gallegos appealed, but the appeal was automatically stalled when Pacific Lumber went belly-up. Well, at Tuesday’s bankruptcy hearing, it was announced that Maxxam had magnanimously consented to allow the Gallegos appeal to proceed.

This move can be read in two ways. Perhaps the company wishes to atone for its past sins against Gallegos — and, by extension, the people of Humboldt County — by allowing itself to be eviscerated by the DA’s righteous pursuit of justice. Or perhaps it believes that Gallegos doesn’t have the slightest chance in Hell of prevailing. You be the judge.

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