Good morning, California. Ben Christopher is sitting in for Dan Morain, who has been on assignment.

“I had” — she paused and corrected herself — “have an acre. It’s my family’s property and I’ve lived on it for 48 years of my life. I had a house and a garage and a hot tub and a stand-up tanning machine.”—Camp Fire survivor Kimberly Omiela, who has been camping on the remains of her Paradise property since last year, when the historic fire destroyed it. Buzzfeed reports that FEMA has approved only a fraction of the nearly 27,000 valid registrations for aid from 2018 wildfire victims.  

First fire, now a FEMA breach

Aerial view of the 2017 Tubbs Fire.

Look for California’s data privacy push to gain fresh traction with news that the Federal Emergency Management Agency shared the “sensitive personally identifiable information” of 2.3 million survivors of natural disasters, including the 2017 California wildfires.

  • As if the devastating losses in the wine country weren’t enough, the Office of Inspector General report, quietly released late Friday, revealed the federal disaster agency shared 20 types of private information, including precise addresses and banking information, with a contractor tasked with helping disaster survivors find temporary homes.

Sen. Bill Dodd, whose district was hard hit by the 2017 fires: “It’s very frustrating and disappointing that disaster victims now have to worry about identity theft from this breach. The government should be the gold standard where it comes to data security, and clearly FEMA failed that duty here.”

Hurricane Harvey, Irma and Maria survivors were also compromised. The identity of the contractor was redacted. There is so far no evidence that any of the data has been misused.

Fortune: FEMA is now “taking steps to remove the excess personal information from the contractor’s records and ensure the contractor meets security standards.”

California passed the toughest data privacy law in the country last year—but delayed implementation until 2020, as CALmatters has reported. Consumer privacy advocates and tech companies have kicked their lobbying into overdrive to try to make changes before then.

Speaking of breaches

As Americans absorb—or demand to absorb—the report by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Russian influence in the 2016 election, an item out of Contra Costa County reminds that the fear of foreign meddling hasn’t ended just because Mueller’s findings on the question of Trump campaign collusion have been turned in.

  • The county’s elections chief reported in an email to staff Friday that someone recently tried to hack the county’s election internet system, according to The Mercury News.

Clerk-Recorder and Registrar of Voters Joe Canciamilla: Though it’s unclear where it came from, the unsuccessful attempt “fits a pattern of other attempts/attacks that trace back to foreign interests … Our security protocols captured and isolated the threat almost immediately.”

The elections office notified the California Secretary of State as well as the Department of Homeland Security.

Mercury News: “California officials have worked to help local elections offices defend themselves against cyberattacks since the 2016 election, which U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russian-linked agents attempted to influence. That has included investments to upgrade aging voting systems and a new state office dedicated to election cybersecurity.”

Speaking of fire

Fire crews clear brush in the Tahoe National Forest.

California National Guard troops this week will say adios to the Mexican border, redeploying instead to the state’s fire-prone forests and shrub fields to clear brush.

  • Last year, at President Donald Trump’s request, Gov. Jerry Brown sent several hundred troops to the state’s southern border, saying they couldn’t be used for immigration enforcement, as Trump wanted, but could help combat smuggling.
  • After Trump, failing to get congressional funding for a border wall, declared an emergency, Gov. Gavin Newsom said California’s troops wouldn’t enable “political theater” and redeployed them to “refocus on … real threats.”

So now 110 troops will be trained and dispatched to pitch in on some 30 state fuel reduction projects. Cal Fire often works with the Guard to fight fires, but deploying them for fire prevention is a first.

Again, the mission involves a controversial emergency declaration—this one by Newsom. His order lets the state suspend environmental review rules for brush clearing and prescribed burn projects. Most wildfire experts support brush clearance, but Newsom has gotten a mixed reaction.

  • Jay Ziegler, The Nature Conservancy: “We need to thin dense thickets of small trees and brush in key areas to reduce the fuels that lead to megafires, and expand use of controlled burns where safe and appropriate.”
  • Shaye Wolf, Center for Biological Diversity: “The governor should reject this doomed, destructive approach and direct funding toward proven fire-safety strategies like retrofitting homes and improving defensible space around them.”
  • Douglas Bevington, Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, noting that Newsom’s plan means more logging and fewer environmental protections: “Unfortunately, it’s a very Trumpian approach.”

A new aerial survey estimates 147 million trees have died from drought, beetles and other environmental stressors since 2010.


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Carcinogen bounty hunters

Expansion of Prop. 65 rules has created a new cottage industry.

From booze to electrical cords to lampshades, have you ever noticed how just about everything in California seems to cause cancer?

  • Thank Prop. 65, which requires businesses to post those ubiquitous warnings on products containing dangerous compounds—even in negligibly small doses.

Now the state has expanded those rules, passed in 1986, to cover online sales of potentially carcinogenic products. That’s good news for California’s Prop. 65 “bounty hunters,” who aim to profit from businesses that are non-compliant, writes CALmatters’ contributor Glen Martin.

Martin: “It turns out there’s money in them thar toxics. The proposition allows private citizens to sue manufacturers, distributors or retailers of non-compliant products and keep a portion of any settlements or fines.”

By the numbers: In 2002, the state attorney general’s office recorded Prop. 65 settlements totaling roughly $8 million. In 2017, the total was nearly $26 million.

Checking in on the charter fight

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond

A bunch of bills to curb charter schools are due to be heard in the Legislature next month, and state education officials are drafting a report on the impact that charters—privately operated, publicly funded, and typically non-union—have had on the finances of traditional public schools. 

  • Meantime, districts are also feeling the impact of organized labor: The Sacramento City Unified School District has announced that it will slash its pre-school program in half to help make up a $35 million budget shortfall. One cost driver for the district: retirement costs negotiated over the years by teachers’ unions.
  • And a new analysis of state data from EdSource finds that district spending on the retirement benefits of former employees doubled between 2013 and 2018. At Sacramento City, the increase was 105 percent. Find out how your local district is doing in EdSource’s database.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond acknowledged the labor tensions afflicting big city public schools in California in a Commonwealth Club conversation with CALmatters’ Ricardo Cano last week. But Thurmond made it clear he doesn’t view charter schools as the answer.  

  • On mistrust between teachers and school boards: “There is a history in the state, and maybe in the country, of times when school boards would sort of hide the revenue that was available…as a way of avoiding having to negotiate salaries.”
  • On charters: “Competition is OK in some environments, but when it comes to education we’ve got a responsibility to make sure that every single student gets an education.”

Speaking of Mueller

Robert S. Mueller III and that hat.

“Anyone else notice Mueller’s Sea Ranch hat?” a sharp-eyed news junkie asked on Reddit as the special counsel left work last week after filing his historic report.

  • Emblazoned with the double-spiral logo of The Sea Ranch in Northern California—the breathtakingly beautiful coastal retreat whose development fueled the environmental movement and gave rise to the California Coastal Commission—the hat reminded of Mueller’s lesser-known history as a West Coast lawman amid California’s once-conservative establishment.

Remind me: Mueller has done several stints in California, starting in the early 1970s. He began his career as a litigator for Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro in San Francisco, and then moved to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Northern California, where he worked until the early 1980s.

  • In 1998, Mueller returned as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, a job he held until 2001, when President George W. Bush made him FBI director. Then in 2013, he came back again as a consulting professor at Stanford, focusing on cyber security.

Bonus California angle: Former FBI director Jim Comey, whose firing helped prompt Mueller’s investigation, was in Cupertino for his book tour last week as Mueller’s work ended. Over the weekend, tweeted a photo of himself looking out over, apparently, the Pacific. “Geologic time offers useful perspective,” the caption said.

Commentary at CALmatters

Mike MalesCenter on Juvenile and Criminal Justice: Violent offenses such as murder, robbery, rape, and assault are declining. Lower-level offenses, especially petty theft, minor vandalism, and minor status offenses like truancy, show the biggest increases in court dispositions per arrest. Yet lesser offenders are exactly the ones most successfully diverted to community-based and restitution programs.

Gregory Favre, CALmatters: Anyone who has witnessed an execution never forgets it. The memory of August (Boogie Woogie) LaFontaine’s death by lethal gas, pushed far back into the darkest shadows of my mind, came to light again with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of his moratorium on the state’s death penalty, an action taken in four states in recent years.

Dan Walters, CALmatters: Gavin Newsom’s election as governor and the expanded Democratic Party majorities in the Legislature have raised hopes in some quarters and fears in others that big tax increases may be on the horizon.

 

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See you tomorrow.