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January 3-9, 2007

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Silicon Valley News Notes

Connecting the Dots

Outgoing District Attorney GEORGE KENNEDY is making sure new DA DOLORES CARR has a full plate when she shows up for work this month. The 11th hour filing of charges against two RON GONZALES cronies has cast the legal net wider and could make things tougher for the indicted, termed-out mayor. Officially, the indictments of TONY ARREOLA and SEAN KALI-RAI aren't part of the Norcal garbage scandal. The two former mayoral staffers are in trouble because prosecutors believe they violated the city's revolving door policy by concealing lobbying activity through a sham real estate transaction—along with grand theft, since city funds were involved in the alleged subterfuge. Their firm, which reportedly collected more than $2 million lobbying fees, counted California Waste Services among its clients. CWS is the recycler pressured by Norcal and Gonzales to dump its prior union for the Teamsters. In a smoking gun email produced before the Norcal Grand Jury, Arreola wrote, "confidentially, JOE GUERRA, the mayor's budget director, has committed to me to support a garbage rate increase to pay for the cost of employing Teamsters. I'm having dinner with the mayor tonight and will discuss the matter with him also to ensure success." Although Arreola testified he didn't remember if he actually kept his dinner date with the Gonzster, testimony suggests Arreola may have been a key facilitator of the $11 million Norcal transaction, helpfully dropping off spreadsheets at City Hall tallying up the union pay differential and communicating with the mayor's office, CWS and the Teamsters about backfilling the payroll gap. While there's not enough evidence to suggest that Arreola was a bagman for the mayor, Arreola did testify under oath that Gonzales' roommate, RYAN HUBRIS, provided the hookup to CWS, which paid some 350k in fees to Arreola and Kali-Rai's firm, Silicon Valley Strategies. Metro reported two years ago that Gonzales and Arreola golfed together every other week, and Gonzales later wrote checks to cover some of the free games he accepted at exclusive local courses. Arreola's association with Gonzales dates back to his days on the county board of supervisors and he served as Manny Diaz's chief of staff too. If Deputy District Attorney JAMES GIBBONS-SHAPIRO can turn up the heat on Gonzales' lobbyist buddies, San Jose citizens could find out how the mayor managed to buy a sweet engagement ring for his honey and finance a wedding at the region's top golf resort while paying a big chunk of his paltry government salary out as alimony. (As well as whether he has canceled checks to prove he was actually paying rent at CWS buddy Hubris' condo. Defense attorney for the two indicted lobbyists), MICHAEL BROWN, calls the felony charges politically motivated and says his clients are innocent.

Touched by a Robot

With all the hype around the XBOX 360, Playstation 3 and Wii game systems, it's nice to think that the overdeveloped thumb-on-joystick skills of our nation's youth might someday be put to tangible use—such as operating a bomb squad's radio-controlled robot. What the game systems won't teach them, with all their violent, blow-it-all-to-bits games, is a gentle touch. "Big moves are bad," says Sgt. Brian Washburn of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department's Bomb Squad as he demonstrates what their bomb squad robot, the Remotec Andros 6A, can do. As it turns out, it can do quite a lot. Riding at a top speed of 1.5 mph on four removable wheels and articulating tracks, the wirelessly controlled robot can climb up and down stairs. With its triple-jointed extendable arm, it can open refrigerator doors, yet its precision pincers can easily grasp and carry a bottle of beer back to its operator. And with an operating time of about an hour on a single charge, it won't let you down in the critical fourth quarter of the game. But Mr. Roboto is so much more than a $175,000 beer caddy. "It went out to assist SJPD with a bomb that was located under a car," says Washburn, "and when the robot grabbed the bomb, it detonated." Built almost entirely of milled aluminum, the 485-pound robot was scarred with only a couple of nicks. Since then, they've tricked it out with a bunch of innovative tools. Back in April of 2005, the SCCSD was one of many agencies targeted by the CBS exposÈ, "Handouts for the Homeland" about frivolous Homeland Security expenditures. Specifically, the report pointed to the four Segways purchased for bomb techs to use to get around in their gear. Washburn is unrepentant."When you're going down-range in the bomb suit, you're carrying an X-ray machine, a disruptor ... so you're upwards of about 200 plus pounds of equipment." Now, theoretically, you've got ol' Ironsides. But with 15 switches, nine knobs and a joystick on the control box, controlling this $175,000 piece of equipment can be quite a challenge—unless you're 5. When Washburn worked for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department, he and his partner used to go into work on weekends to play with the SCC Sheriff's robot. "I brought along my daughter, she was like 4 or 5 at the time," says Washburn, "and she could work the robot like magic; it was classic." Alas, it was Washburn, and not his magical daughter, who maneuvered the robotic arm—and the cutting blade attached to it—beneath the strap of the apparently suspicious-looking backpack that Fly was quite happily wearing. "I promise I won't cut you," he said. "Not too badly, anyway."

What's Next, Free Love in Union City?

Is the tiny enclave of Los Altos our own mini-Berkeley? Both, it turns out, are ideal breeding grounds for the alternative drugstore Elephant Pharm which just reached minichain status when it opened a new location in Los Altos last month. CEO Kathi Lentzsch said the company looks for cities filled with baby boomers, moms, and well-educated and well-traveled people. In Berkeley, where the first Elephant Pharm opened in 2002, nearly 70 percent of the population boasts a bachelor's degree or higher. Los Altans are just as smart and have household incomes well over the national average. So they can afford the organic cotton socks, aromatherapy cleaning supplies, bamboo brooms and chlorine-free diapers that are moving into the mainstream with the help of celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Madonna. "We primarily lean toward the alternative side, but we believe a lot of people today aren't prepared to go 100 percent natural and organic," said Lentzsch. The month-old Los Altos store faces serious competition with Longs and Rite Aid within walking distance, but Lentzsch said it's doing just as well as the other locations did when they first opened (including the year-old San Rafael store). "The peninsula was ready for this," she added.

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