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Friday Morning News Roundup

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The California Public Utilities Commission at a meeting in San Francisco Thursday imposed a $1.05 million fine as well as an additional potentially multimillion penalty on PG&E Co. for illegal judge-shopping in a rate case.

The decision, authored by Commissioner Carla Peterman, said PG&E "severely harmed the integrity of the regulatory process" by sending private emails to two commissioners and a top staff member that sought to influence the selection of an administrative law judge.

In addition to the fine, the decision requires PG&E shareholders to absorb the cost of rate impacts to customers of a five-month delay caused by investigation of the judge-shopping in a case concerning the rates to cover the costs of natural gas transmission and storage.

CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said that amount could be up to $400 million. The amount will be determined by the commission in a later decision after the rate-setting case is concluded next year.

PG&E spokesman Keith Stephens said the utility will appeal the decision.

"It imposes sanctions that aren't warranted and that may go beyond the CPUC's legal authority," Stephens said.

Stephens said PG&E acknowledges that some of the emails violated the commission's rules, but said the company has taken corrective actions, including firing three executives and creating a new position of a chief regulatory compliance officer.

"In our view, the CPUC's decision doesn't appropriately take account of these corrective actions," Stephens said.





Students and activists protesting tuition hikes remained camped out at Wheeler Hall at the University of California at Berkeley Thursday after taking over the lobby last night, according the university's police department.

UC Berkeley police Lt. Marc DeColoude said one to two officers have been monitoring the group, which he said varies from 50-60 people to 150 people as students come and go.

"They're very peaceful and they're just meeting in there basically," DeColoude said. "We haven't had any issues. The classes are going on as usual."

Students began the occupation after a University of California Board of Regents committee voted 7-2 on Thursday in favor of a tuition hike that would increase tuitions by as much as 5 percent annually over the next five years despite opposition from figures including Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Brown has argued that the university system needs to find ways to control its expenses rather than raise tuition.

Newsom and UC student regent Sadia Saifuddin cast the two dissenting votes on Thursday. Saifuddin said students feel the priorities of the state are not representing their interests or that of Californians.

Thursday, the full Board of Regents voted 14-7 in favor of the tuition hike, drawing further protests from students attending the meeting.

Under the proposal, a 5 percent hike would raise tuition for in-state students by $612 to $12,804 in the 2015-16 school year, according to UC President Janet Napolitano's office. Tuition for out-of-state students would increase by more than $1,700 to about $36,820.

Napolitano has said the university's budget shortfall was a result of public disinvestments, not university budget allocations. Unless the state increases funding for the universities, Napolitano said the tuition hike was the only foreseeable option.





The city attorney for San Francisco is suing an Oakland-based tax-preparation company over allegations it systematically swindled low-income residents out of their tax refunds.

Instant Tax Service franchisee Kebron Daniel is suspected of engaging in tax preparation and loan-making schemes that routinely skimmed money from victims' tax refunds and gouged them with exorbitant fees, according to the San Francisco City Attorney's office.

Daniel does business as a franchisee of Instant Tax Service. That company's parent company, ITS Financial LLC, was permanently shut down by a federal court in Ohio last year for fraudulent practices, according to a 16-page civil complaint filed Thursday in San Francisco County Superior Court.

For at least the past few years, Daniel ran a seasonal Instant Tax business out of check-cashing outlets, where he preyed on low-income residents who needed a quick return on their tax refunds, city attorney's office officials said.

Not confined to Oakland, Instant Tax had locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Antioch, Carmichael, Compton, Hayward, Inglewood and Martinez.

The tax preparation and loan-making scheme appears to target working families who are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Taxpayers would hire Daniel's company to complete and file their tax returns electronically, officials said.

Daniel's company would then withhold large, undisclosed portions of the refund before giving customers the balance, if any.

Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the San Francisco City Attorney's office, said they do not yet know how many people were victimized in the scheme.

If the lawsuit is successful, it could secure a court order requiring Daniel and his company to fully restore the funds stolen from his customers, pay $2,500 in civil penalties for each unlawful act, pay the cost of the city's lawsuit, and be permanently prohibited from engaging in further unlawful acts.





AT&T has agreed to a $23.8 million settlement with state and local prosecutors over allegations that the company improperly disposed of hazardous waste at facilities throughout California over a nine-year period, state Attorney General Kamela Harris and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced Thursday.

The hazardous waste -- which includes electronics, batteries, aerosols, liquids, gels and chemicals used by AT&T service technicians -- was improperly disposed of at 235 warehouse and dispatch facilities statewide, according to O'Malley and Harris's offices.

In addition to the $23.8 million settlement, AT&T will be required to update its facilities to implement new environmental compliance measures over the next five years.

The Alameda County District Attorney's Office Environmental Protection Division investigators first uncovered the violations while inspecting dumpsters at AT&T warehouse and dispatch facilities in 2011. They discovered that the company was routinely sending the waste to local landfills that were not permitted to receive it.

Of 13 AT&T facilities in Alameda County, all 13 were found to be unlawfully disposing hazardous waste. Investigators then determined that 235 facilities statewide had similar practices, including many in the Bay Area.

"This settlement holds AT&T accountable for unlawfully dumping electronic waste," Harris said in a statement. "The illegal disposal of hazardous waste can lead to serious environmental and health risks for California communities."

When notified of the investigation, AT&T agreed to cooperate and took immediate measures to stop trash removal from its facilities to check it for hazardous waste before sending it to landfills.

Among the steps the company has already taken is implementing "staging bins" for its trash so that their contents can be inspected before being sent to the trash, and has made hundreds of unannounced inspections, according to O'Malley and Harris's offices.





A federal grand jury in San Francisco has indicted 11 real estate investors on multiple charges of bid-rigging and fraud schemes at foreclosure auctions in Northern California, U.S. Department of Justice officials said Thursday.

The three indictments, filed late Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Oakland, charge investors Michael Marr, Javier Sanchez, Gregory Casorso, Victor Marr, John Shiells, Miguel De Sanz, Alvin Florida Jr., Robert Rasheed, John Berry, Refugio Diaz, and Stephan Florida with participating in conspiracies to rig bids and defraud mortgage holders and others.

"Collusion at the foreclosure auctions created an unfair playing field where conspirators pocketed illegal payoffs at the expense of lenders and distressed homeowners," said Deputy Assistant Attorney Brent Snyder. "The division will continue to investigate and prosecute local cartels that harm the competitive process."

In one indictment, Michael Marr, Sanchez, Casorso, and Victor Marr are accused of colluding to suppress public auction prices for foreclosed homes beginning as early as June 2008 and continuing until January 2011 in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, according to the complaint.

Representatives from the office did not say whether Michael Marr and Victor Marr are related.

According to the complaint, the men agreed not to compete to purchase selected properties at public auctions, designated who among them would win selected properties and then refrained from bidding on those properties.

Those who refrained from bidding received a payoff, and then the men held second, private auctions, known as "rounds," to determine the payoff amounts and who would walk away with the selected properties, according to the complaint.

Another indictment charged Alvin Florida Jr., Rasheed, Berry, Diaz and Stephan Florida in a similar bid-rigging scheme, which allegedly took place beginning in May 2008 and continued through December 2010 in Alameda County.

The third indictment charged Shiells and De Sanz in the same scheme beginning in June 2007 and continuing until January 2011 in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties.





A San Mateo man was arrested Thursday on suspicion of swerving on to the sidewalk while driving under the influence and hitting three special needs students and a teacher, police said.

After an investigation into the Sept. 10 crash in the 300 block of West Hillsdale Boulevard, police obtained a $350,000 arrest warrant for the 53-year-old driver and he was arrested, police said.

The three teen boys and the student teacher, a 28-year-old woman from Belmont, were walking near Hillsdale High School as part of a school field trip at 11:17 a.m. that day.

They were part of a special education class of about 15 students and five teachers taking a walking field trip to teach the students about life skills.

The driver, a San Mateo resident, was headed west on West Hillsdale and veered onto the sidewalk, striking the three students and the teacher.

The teacher suffered head trauma and broken bones and the three students, ages 15, 16 and 18, suffered minor injuries including abrasions and lacerations.

They were all hospitalized with injuries not considered life threatening. The driver remained at the crash scene and was also taken to a hospital with minor injuries.





Police are asking the public for help in locating a 12-year-old girl who left her home in San Francisco last week and has been reportedly sighted in both Oakland and San Francisco this past week.

Imani Howell left her San Francisco home and headed to school on the morning of Nov. 10, but did not attend class that day and has still not returned home, San Francisco police Officer Albie Esparza said.

Imani was reportedly spotted Monday on International Boulevard in Oakland, a street long associated with sex trafficking and prostitution.

Esparza said on Wednesday that there have been reported sightings of Imani in San Francisco and Oakland "over the last few days."

Oakland police spokeswoman Johnna Watson said Thursday that police in Oakland are out looking for Imani and that her disappearance, and the possibility that she may have become a victim of human sex trafficking, is being taken very seriously by law enforcement.

Watson said that San Francisco police, not Oakland police, received the initial report that Imani was seen on International Boulevard on Monday.

Watson said that while the Oakland Police Department has not received any tips regarding Imani's disappearance, she is asking anyone who sees Imani to call police immediately.

Imani is described as about 5 feet 4 inches tall and 161 pounds with brown eyes and black hair, police said.

She was last seen wearing black yoga pants, a cut-off shirt and high heels, according to police.





A New Mexico man was arrested on suspicion of DUI after he was found sleeping in his car that straddled the two left lanes of U.S. Highway 101 in San Rafael early Thursday morning, according to the California Highway Patrol.

The engine of the 2014 Ford Focus was running, the automatic transmission was in drive and Michael Morgan, 29, of Crownpoint, New Mexico, had his foot on the brake when a U.S. Park police officer came upon the scene on northbound Highway 101 north of Manuel T. Freitas Parkway around 3:10 a.m., CHP Officer Andrew Barclay said.

Four CHP officers arrived to find Morgan asleep at the wheel and a right front passenger also sound asleep. The men were traveling from San Rafael to Sacramento, Barclay said.

When the CHP officers tried to wake Morgan up, he took his foot off of the brake and began driving forward. After he was told several times to stop, Morgan stopped the Ford and put it in park, Barclay said. He was then put in a patrol car and taken off of the freeway.

The officers tried to rouse the extremely intoxicated passenger with verbal commands and a sternum rub, but they could not awaken him. An officer then drove the Ford off of the freeway and called paramedics, Barclay said.

The passenger finally woke up and was taken by ambulance to a hospital because of his high level of intoxication, Barclay said.

Morgan was arrested on suspicion of DUI after he was questioned by the officers. He was booked into Marin County Jail on suspicion of misdemeanor counts of DUI and DUI with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or greater.

Barclay said the CHP encounters drivers who fall asleep at stop signs but rarely on traffic lanes of freeways.

"It's remarkable no one hit them," he said.

Barclay also said the bizarre incident is a reminder to drivers to be alert for drunken drivers during the holiday season.





A woman who suffered critical burns in Pleasant Hill on Wednesday evening has died from her injuries, a Contra Costa County Fire Protection District official said Thursday.

Fire and medical crews responded around 5 p.m. Wednesday to a report of a burn injury off of Cleaveland Road near Gregory Lane and found a victim suffering from critical burns, according to Fire Marshal Robert Marshall.

The woman was taken to UC Davis Medical Center, where she later succumbed to her injuries, Marshall said. Her name is not yet being released by the Sacramento County coroner's office.

The burns the woman suffered were not related to a structure fire, according to the fire marshal.

Marshall said he could not comment on the nature of the case but said both fire and police investigators are looking into whether the woman's injuries were self-inflicted or accidental.

No foul play is suspected.





Three Alamo middle school students were taken to the hospital Thursday afternoon after a hazardous materials scare in a science class, according to school district officials.

Hazardous materials crews were called to Stone Valley Middle School at 3001 Miranda Ave. around 11 a.m. after several students in a forensic science class reported not feeling well, San Ramon Valley Unified School District spokeswoman Elizabeth Graswich said.

The class was evacuated and three students were sent to hospitals "as a precaution," Graswich said.

"Whenever it's a science class, the fire district treats it as a hazmat incident," Graswich said.

Fire and hazardous materials crews did not find any hazardous materials in the classroom and all of the students involved were wearing protective gloves and goggles, the spokeswoman said.





A San Francisco man suspected of fatally stabbing another man in the city's Hayes Valley neighborhood last week has been arrested, police said Thursday.

San Francisco police announced that they have arrested 24-year-old Johnathan Dean on suspicion of killing 20-year-old Malcolm Armstrong.

At about 4 a.m. last Thursday, officers responded to the 200 block of Haight Street, where they found Armstrong suffering from multiple stab wounds, police said.

Armstrong, a San Francisco resident, was stabbed in the chest and slashed in the throat during the attack.

He was transported to San Francisco General Hospital, where he died from his injuries the following day, police said.

San Francisco police arrested Dean on Friday in connection with the homicide.

Dean was booked into San Francisco County Jail on suspicion of homicide and an unrelated warrant, police said.

The motive for the killing remains under investigation.





U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials arrested a man while serving a search warrant at an Oakland marijuana grow Thursday morning, a DEA spokeswoman said.

The warrant was served in the 500 block of East 10th Street near Laney College between 11 a.m. and noon, DEA Special Agent Casey Rettig said.

Rettig said agents found about 500 marijuana plants at the location and arrested Kristopher Johanson, 45, of Oakland there.

As agents were serving the warrant, there was a vehicle crash in the area that injured a person also believed to be involved with the marijuana grow, Rettig said.

Oakland fire officials said that crash was reported at 11:41 a.m. and one person was taken to a hospital, but could not disclose the extent of their injuries.

The details of the investigation remain under seal and Rettig could not provide further details.





A Santa Cruz County Superior Court jury convicted a man of first-degree murder Wednesday in the 2012 drive-by shooting death of man walking with a friend in the Aptos area, a prosecutor said.

The jury found Christopher Bermudez Herrera, 23, guilty of slaying 21-year-old Fernando Mendoza-Avila, a crime for which two of Herrera's accomplices have also been convicted, Deputy District Attorney Jason Gill said.

Jurors deliberated for five hours before rendering the guilty verdict on the murder charge and special allegations that Herrera carried out the murder for the benefit of a criminal street gang and personally fired the gun that killed Mendoza-Avila, Gill said.

Herrera, whose trial started on Oct. 20, now faces up to 50 years to life in state prison at a sentencing hearing set for January 16, according to Gill.

After the verdict was read, members of the jury remained outside the courtroom and offered emotional support to Mendoza-Avila's mother and younger sister, who expressed gratitude to them and to prosecutors, Gill said.

On May 30, 2012 at about 6 p.m., Mendoza-Avila was walking to his home in Aptos on the Freedom Boulevard overcrossing over state Highway 1 with a friend following a visit with relatives, according to the sheriff's office.

A four-door Honda with three suspects inside then drove by the two men and Herrera, a member of the Norteno street gang, fired a .22 caliber semi-automatic handgun at Mendoza-Avila. He died at the scene, prosecutors said.

Herrera apparently mistook the victim for a member of a rival gang, Gill said.

"They murdered him because of the clothing he wore," Gill said.





Leaders of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations on Thursday decried vandalism that targeted a Santa Cruz mosque Thursday.

Zahra Billoo, the chapter's executive director, said vandals spray-painted a Star of David and the number 26 on a door at the Islamic Center of Santa Cruz.

She said she had no idea what the number signifies, but speculated that the Star of David might be a reference to the ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza.

"It's so hard to say what it means even when symbols are left behind," Billoo said. "They're not necessarily symbolic of what you might think."

Billoo said she was "surprised" and "horrified" by the act.

"So often, Islamophobia is something that many Bay Area Muslims think of as happening in other places," Billoo said. "It's not as common to have these things happen in California and especially not in the Bay Area."

With the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, often known as ISIS, Billoo said she has noticed an increase in complaints of derogatory comments targeting individual Muslims in the area.

"We're really hoping the investigation can help them figure out who did this and send a speedy message that this is not something that's accepted or welcome in Santa Cruz or the Bay Area," Billoo said.

Local police are investigating, she said.
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