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State oversight avalanche bears down on ABAG

State officials are rushing to put new oversights in place following the embezzlement of almost $1.3 million by an Association of Bay Area Governments official from a bond-funded San Francisco development account.

State Treasurer John Chiang on Thursday announced a partnership with Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, to conduct legislative oversight hearings to make sure money raised through government bond sales is safe from fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. Chiang also said he has created a special task force to develop best-practices guidelines on the care of bond proceeds that will be issued to all state and local governments.

California and its local governments over the past decade have issued more than $700 billion in public debt, Chiang noted in a news release.

“We rely on these borrowed moneys to build and maintain the critical infrastructure upon which our communities and economy depend – from schools and roads to levees and libraries,” Chiang said. “The ease in which one of ABAG’s leaders allegedly fleeced more than a million dollars in bond funds raises concerns regarding whether there are sufficient safeguards at the thousands of State and local agencies which are responsible for nearly three-quarters of a trillion bond dollars.”

And state Controller Betty Yee announced Thursday her staff will audit ABAG’s internal administrative and accounting controls.

“As California’s chief fiscal officer, I am charged with protecting state resources,” Yee said. “When public money goes missing, I need to determine how it happened and whether effective controls are in place.”

Yee’s audit will initially focus on FY 2012-13 and 2013-2014, but that might expand if investigators discover accounting weaknesses that may have affected earlier years. The Controller’s Office sent a letter today to ABAG asking that the association make available documents that will be used in the audit including ledgers, contracts, invoices, personnel records, meeting minutes, policies and procedures. The audit work will begin Feb. 20 and is expected to take a few weeks.

More, after the jump…
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Lawmakers to probe state prison conditions

The Bay Area lawmakers who chair the Legislature’s public safety committees announced Friday that they’ll hold public hearings on state prison conditions that have lead to a months-long inmate hunger strike.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said the hearings might begin this fall and continue into 2014, focused upon confinement conditions in maximum-security prisons and long-term solitary confinement as both a prison-management strategy and a human-rights issue.

Tom Ammiano“The Courts have made clear that the hunger strikers have legitimate issues of policy and practice that must be reviewed,” Ammiano said in a joint news release. “The Legislature has a critical role in considering and acting on their concerns. We cannot sit by and watch our state pour money into a system that the US. Supreme Court has declared does not provide constitutionally acceptable conditions of confinement and that statistics show has failed to increase public safety.

“California continues to be an outlier in its use of solitary confinement, which has been recognized internationally and by other states to be an extreme form of punishment that leads to mental illness if used for prolonged periods of time,” Hancock said in the release. “Since many of these inmates will eventually have served their sentences and will be released, it is in all our best interest to offer hope of rehabilitation while they are incarcerated – not further deterioration.”

Hancock and Ammiano urged an immediate end to the hunger strike so that energy and attention can be focused on the issues that have been raised. The inmates have succeeded in bringing the issues to the public eye, they said, and there’s no need for further sacrifice or risk.

Dolores Canales, a member of the inmate strikers’ mediation team and mother of a convicted murderer in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State, said the prison activists appreciate the lawmakers’ action.

“Ultimately it is up to the hunger strikers’ themselves as to when and how they will end their protest,” she said. “But as their advocates on the outside, we feel positive about today’s developments.”

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Eric Swalwell offers ‘mobile Congress’ legislation

Making good on a campaign promise, the East Bay’s freshman congressman has co-authored bipartisan legislation to let House members take part in hearings and cast some votes remotely, using teleconferencing and other technologies.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Pleasanton, and Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., on Friday introduced H. Res. 287, the Members Operating to Be Innovative and Link Everyone (MOBILE) Resolution. (Ah, they do love their acronyms in Washington, don’t they?)

Eric Swalwell“Companies and families across the country are using technology to communicate remotely and conduct business. There is no reason that the legislative branch of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy cannot do the same,” Swalwell said in his news release. “Our bill will allow Members of Congress to work more efficiently and stay better connected to our constituents. Northern Silicon Valley, where I represent, is leading a technological revolution and Congress shouldn’t be left behind. I pledged during the campaign that I would bring Congress into the 21st century and this is a first upgrade.”

Pearce asks voters to imagine the opportunity to discuss key legislation with their representatives just minutes before they vote. “Modern technology could make this kind of accountability a reality — allowing members of Congress to debate, vote, and carry out their constitutional duties without having to leave the personal contact of their congressional districts,” he said. “Keeping legislators closer to the people we represent would pull back Washington’s curtain and allow constituents to see and feel, first-hand, their government at work.”

The resolution would require that House members and invited witnesses be allowed to take part in committee hearings remotely, with such participation counting toward quorum rules. It also would mandate the development of a secure remote voting system which lawmakers could use to vote remotely on suspension bills, generally non-controversial bills that require a two-thirds vote to pass.

Swalwell had talked about this while on the campaign trail to unseat Rep. Pete Stark last year and since taking office has been using other technology to connect with constituents, including a Skype visit with Fremont City Council in March and – perhaps less momentous – using Twitter and Vine to post video of his vote on a controversial bill last month.