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Say It Ain't So, Joe

No doubt Supervisor Joe Simitian, with his degrees in planning and law, is among the smartest elected officials around. No doubt it would take someone as smart as Simitian to mastermind the scam--albeit a perfectly legal one--he pulled to circumvent the county's contribution limits in order to pump $12,000 into his county "friends" account, a fund used by elected politicians to pay for office-related perks and expenses. Here's how he did it: Prior to being sworn in as a supervisor in January, Clever Joe hit up the usual suspects--developers, venture capitalists--for contributions of up to $1,000. The checks were made payable to his old city campaign account in Palo Alto, where Simitian served on the council and where there are no contribution limits. Between jobs, Simitian transferred $12,000 of the Christmas-time cash he raised from his Palo Alto campaign fund over to a hastily established "friends" account for his new county job. (In total, Simitian raised $18,475, but he also sprung for prepaid plane tickets and lodging to attend President Clinton's inauguration, and spent another $336 went to reserve seats to a future Oakland A's game for his cronies.) Normally, the county imposes a $250 cap on donations to supervisors' "friends" funds. But nothing in the county ethics law prevented Simitian from transferring the $12,000 into his "friends" account. Further, the law only regulates incumbent supervisors' accounts; when he raised the money and made the transfer, Simitian was merely a supervisor-elect. Considering there were no restrictions, Simitian argues that he could have raised even more money, but applied a modest $1,000-per-donor cap "because it's what I felt comfortable with."

Lightning Rod

Ex-Supervisor Rod Diridon plans to ask Congress to increase federal funding to his local transportation think tank at San Jose State University from about $250,000 to $1 million a year. Savvy readers may recall that while he was a supervisor, Diridon persuaded then-Congressman Norm Mineta to establish the International Institute for Surface Transportation Policy Studies. When term limits forced Diridon out of his county office in 1994, he signed on to become the full-time executive director at the institute he helped create. A high-ranking Republican official wants Congress to yank Diridon's funding, whining that the transportation institute is really a political vehicle for Diridon, a prominent South Bay Democrat. "Republicans don't want a political person being paid with federal dollars," the grim Reeper sniffs. "Those funds aren't being used for independent research as long as that institute is being run by Rod Diridon." The official claims to have tried to prevail on Congressman Tom Campbell (R-San Jose) to "cut the pork" without success. Meanwhile, Campbell's office pleads ignorance to any complaints from Reep Party members about Diridon and says no one has pressured Campbell to cut the institute's federal funding. Diridon was on vacation and unavailable for comment. Eye, however, was able to ascertain one of Diridon's accomplishments in the last couple years: a $12,500 pay raise. He now makes a more respectable $92,000 a year. That, of course, doesn't cover his occasional out-of-country excursions such as his reported trip to Oslo, Norway, last year. It is an international institute, after all.

Corporate Journalism

Here's a story Eye-watchers won't find in the pages of the San Jose Mercury News: "Daily newspaper pushes for local and state tax breaks at the cost of education funding." Earlier this year, the Merc told South Bay property owners to find it in their hearts and wallets to approve several school bond measures. At the same time, our corporate neighbors--the Merc is owned by the Florida-based Knight-Ridder chain--were applying to the county assessor for a cumulative $112 million reduction in the newspaper's property assessment--or an estimated $1.2 million a year in taxes, a portion of which goes to schools. An appeals hearing is scheduled for August. But that's nothing compared to failing legislative efforts by the Merc and other dailies at the state level to repeal the newspaper sales tax. At the moment, the bill that would repeal the tax is stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Legislators are leery of the estimated $79 million revenue loss--millions of which go toward education--and want the dailies to find a way to offset that loss. The dailies are begging Gov. Pete Wilson to slip the tax repeal in this year while state coffers are fat, though it's unlikely that Wilson will acquiesce. When the Legislature imposed the tax in 1991, dailies responded by upping their newsstand price by 10 to 25 cents and blaming the increase on legislators. When asked if the dailies would reduce their prices if the repeal goes through, one industry watcher told Eye: "I doubt it."

Viva Esperanto

Eye is heartened to see that the Web site for next year's hot-button ballot initiative proposing to eliminate bilingual education is, yes, bilingual. Netizens, even immigrant and foreign ones, can read the language of the so-called "English for the Children" initiative in either English or Spanish. "It's partly symbolic to show that we're not hostile to other languages," explains Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz, a conservative Republican leading the effort to put the measure on the ballot. Unz, who ran to the right of Gov. Pete Wilson in the '94 primary, adds that many of the immigrant parents whom initiative-backers hope to woo don't speak English themselves, but want their kids to learn to be able to read Stephen King novels in the author's native tongue. (So much is lost in the translation!) "Our initiative will end bilingual education by ensuring that all California schoolchildren are taught English, unless there are special circumstances and their parents object," the Web page reads. "If it passes, today's immigrant children will be given the same opportunity to become educated, productive members of society that our immigrant ancestors enjoyed." Technically, "English for the Children" has yet to qualify for the ballot, though the wealthy Unz's vast business vocabulary should help immeasurably.

Virtually Unnoticed

It was billed as the first-ever "virtual political announcement." Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Santa Barbara) was going to announce his candidacy for lieutenant governor over the Internet. Not only that, Firestone was going to hold a "virtual press conference," whereby reporters would ask questions from the computer keyboard and Brooksie would respond via cyberspace. Boy-faced San Jose assemblyman Jim Cunneen got into the act, serving as co-host of the festivities. Firestone fielded online questions from reporters for an hour. His handlers explained that because of Prop. 208, the state's tough campaign-finance law approved by voters in November, online campaigning is a way to avoid the traditional but costly announcement "fly-around" of past statewide races. And how did the computer revolutionaries in the Firestone campaign announce the "first virtual political announcement?" With a five-page fax, of course.

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From the July 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro

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