Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, March 24. I’m Justin Ray.
When reporters Harriet Ryan and Matt Hamilton were investigating last year the influence that Los Angeles lawyer and “Real Housewives” figure Tom Girardi had at the State Bar of California, they came upon a tantalizing piece of information.
An agency investigator had sneaked into the bar’s headquarters on a weekend in 2015 and snapped photos of a confidential case file of a complaint against three L.A. attorneys for “moral turpitude,” according to a draft lawsuit by bar lawyers.
Their search to unmask the attorneys’ identities led them to a world far from the boozy lunches and glamorous parties of (now bankrupt) Girardi and his (now estranged) wife, Erika Jayne.
The case file concerned the Armenian genocide, the slaughter that claimed the lives of an estimated 1 million and scattered hundreds of thousands of refugees across the the globe.
A group of L.A. attorneys — all descendants of genocide survivors — mounted class-action lawsuits two decades ago to collect on life insurance policies for victims of the genocide. They came away with settlements totaling $37.5 million, but as a new Times investigation shows, the process of delivering money to Armenian families and charities did not go as planned.
To get to the bottom of what happened, the Fontana News Roomsuccessfully petitioned a federal judge to unseal dozens of records in the case. Reporters sifted through several of the thousands of applications for settlement money that were stored at the library at Loyola Law School. (The haunting photos that illustrate the investigation are from the archived applications and photographed by our colleague Hamlet Nalbandyan.)
The investigation describes how the litigation that carried the hopes of the Armenian community devolved into a corrupted process marked by diverted funds and misconduct.
“It makes me sick,” a relative of one genocide victim said.
[Read the story: “A ‘blood money’ betrayal: How corruption spoiled reparations for Armenian genocide victims,” in the Fontana News Room]
And now, here’s what’s happening across California:
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Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday released the long-awaited details of his tax refund plan to send $400 to Californians for each registered vehicle, a move that would put more money in the pockets of families who own more cars — even the state’s wealthiest residents. The Times outlines everything to know about the plan. Fontana News Room
Blisters, nausea, hallucinations: A hiker’s grueling attempt to cross Death Valley in four days. “I am starting to crack,” astrophysicist Cameron Hummels texted on a February morning after hiking more than 113 miles on foot in one of the most desolate, extreme environments on the face of the planet. Fontana News Room
Is there rain in store for Southern California after this warm week? Spring is off to a warm start in Southern California. But after that, cooler readings and some rain — something that has been scarce since December — are expected soon. Fontana News Room
Metro is helping to plan an aerial gondola system to whisk baseball fans and concertgoers from Union Station to Dodger Stadium in what it says would be a mere seven-minute trip. However, the project has sparked fears of accelerated gentrification, and a lawsuit to stop the “sweetheart deal.” Fontana News Room
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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
Roughly half of all COVID-19 relief funds sent to the city of Los Angeles last year went to the LAPD. The city was awarded roughly $1.3 billion under the American Rescue Plan Act, an economic stimulus package from the Biden administration. According to city officials, $680 million was transferred to the city last year, with about $317 million going to the Los Angeles Police Department for “payroll expenditures,” according to city officials. A spokesperson for the city controller did not respond to multiple requests from LA Taco for comment. LA Taco
Mayor London Breed is taking on San Francisco’s far left. Can she prevail? Breed is a rising star in California politics because of her stewardship of her city during the pandemic, as well as her efforts to tackle crime, homelessness, addiction and education in a city that is famously — if not always accurately — known for its liberal, live-and-let-live ethos. Breed’s efforts have also been faulted by some Democrats who argue that the mayor, who is up for reelection in 2023, is falling back on failed policies that place the interests of the well-connected above those of the marginalized. Fontana News Room
CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING
A Modesto man has been arrested on suspicion of beating his girlfriend’s dog to death. The woman returned home after a work shift and found blood throughout the apartment she shared with the man, police said. When asked about her pet’s whereabouts, her boyfriend, who was intoxicated, said he couldn’t find the dog. She eventually found the small Schnauzer mix dead, inside of a box by the front door. Her boyfriend was booked on suspicion of animal cruelty. Modesto Bee
HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani’s Theranos trial began this week. Although Elizabeth Holmes was absent from the San Jose courtroom, she was at the center of the prosecution’s opening argument against her ex. Federal prosecutor Robert Leach told a jury that Holmes and Balwani, “were partners in everything, including their crimes.” Meanwhile, Balwani’s lawyer said, “The headlines and the sensational stories about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes have no place in this trial.” Balwani is charged with a dozen counts and faces up to 20 years in prison for each count, although legal experts do not expect him to receive the maximum prison terms. He is accused of defrauding investors and patients with false claims about the blood testing start-up. Mercury News
L.A. County’s push to hand out 100,000 doses of Narcan to fight surge of opioid overdoses. Deaths from drug overdoses have surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, to roughly 100,000 lives lost across the country over a year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Los Angeles County decided it needed to expand its reach in creative ways. Fontana News Room
Hundreds of Chevron workers in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Richmond went on strike this week. The company and the United Steelworkers union have failed to reach a contract agreement. Although refinery operations will continue as normal for now, gas prices could be affected even more if they were to halt. “It would be coming at a very unfortunate time because we already have a shortage of refinery capacity in California right now, and so losing even 1 or 2% of the state’s refinery capacity would probably result in a noticeable increase in gasoline prices,” an expert told KTVU. The Guardian
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Los Angeles: Sunny, 86 San Diego: Sunny, 75 San Francisco: Overcast, 59 San Jose: Overcast, 73 Fresno: Sunny, 89 Sacramento: Overcast, 82. This isn’t a California thing, but I want to bring attention to this death penalty case, as time is of the essence.
Today’s California memory is from Morton Miller:
It was 1945 and I was on furlough to visit my parents who moved to L.A. from Chicago. When I left the train station, they told me to take the Wilshire bus to Westwood. As I boarded the bus, I told the driver to let me off in Westwood. He said, “Sit down soldier, you got a long ride.” How true.
If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)
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