October 5, 2006
by HANK SIMS
You may think it out of character,but we praise our brethren at rival media outlets sparingly, and in only cases of genuine merit. Develop a reputation as a glad-hander, a back-slapper or a scarlet-faced guffawer, and your colleagues in the trade will rightly shun you. They will think you a dolt, and they'll probably be correct. But when a piece comes along that absolutely astounds -- think of the McKinleyville Press story, a few months back, on the sisters that gave birth simultaneously in adjacent hospital rooms -- there's nothing for it but to send along an e-mail thanking the author for making us stop and marvel, for dissolving the confines of the cruel quotidian. We are readers, first and foremost, and also autonomous citizens of a democracy.
As it happens, we had occasion to send two notes of applause across the bay last week -- one to Heather Muller of the Eureka Reporter and one to Kimberly Wear of the Times-Standard, who we hope shared it with her deskmate Chris Durant. In these cases, the awe was not inspired by the subject matter of the stories -- each of them "hard news" pieces -- but from the reporters' immense enterprise in ferreting out some obscure data and presenting it well, in service of the county. Their stories centered on political donations to District Attorney Paul Gallegos, and how they affected or didn't affect a criminal case prosecuted by his office.
On Tuesday, the Reporter published the outcome of several criminal cases, including nine felony counts, against Derek Bowman, son of Leonard and Ellie Bowman of Loleta. The younger Bowman had been charged with check fraud, burglary, domestic battery, drug possession and unlawful intercourse with a 14-year-old girl, among other things. All of the charges were either dropped, or Bowman plead guilty to them in exchange for a suspended sentence. Then he was given 180 days in prison for violation of probation. The Reporter wondered whether the seemingly lenient sentence might have anything to do with the fact that the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, which Leonard Bowman chairs, had donated $10,000 to Gallegos' last political campaign, or the fact that Ellie Bowman had protested outside the courthouse against the candidacy of Deputy DA Worth Dikeman, who had challenged Gallegos. (Earlier, Dikeman had successfully prosecuted another Bowman son for murder.) Gallegos did not respond to the paper's questions about the case, despite apparently having been given ample opportunity to do so.
The next day, the Times-Standard came out with a story in response. In it, Deputy DA Max Cardoza, who had tried the Bowman case and a 25-year veteran of the office, strongly denied that political considerations had played any role in the case's outcome. It quoted from an internal memo written by Gallegos that requested that both he and Dikeman be "screened" from the case. (Strangely, the memo was written after the case had already been settled).
The appearance of the Times-Standard story set off a great hue and cry, with letters from Gallegos' campaign manager, Alison Sterling Nichols, demanding that the Reporter retract its "factually incorrect" story. She didn't point out any actual incorrect facts, because there weren't any. There were holes in the story, but they should be lain squarely at the feat of Gallegos, who chose to respond to the paper's many questions with a non-responsive, fatuous one-liner. ("This office operates without fear or favor.") The Reporter ran the story it had, and if we lived in a real city rather than a small town, few people would have had any serious objection. But Sterling Nichols and others chose to use the occasion to demonstrate, once again, that they simply have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that Gallegos is part of the government. You want the media to ask hard questions of the government, right?
If this turns out to be a growing trend, this business of public officials turning up their nose at one or another of the daily papers, we're going to need both of them to report any story. If you haven't already sold your soul to one of the various political factions in town, you might want to step back a bit and take the long view. Though it looks like competition on the surface, and while their publishers no doubt wouldn't mind stealing a great big helping of advertising cash off each others' plates, the two newspapers function in cooperation, not competition. They're both getting to the bottom of things, together. Good cop, bad cop. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
Hey, you're a confirmed paranoid, right? You're certain that The Man is messing with your head, aren't you? If you're reading this in Humboldt County, chances are you fit one or both of these descriptions. So try this out for size -- a candidate in the upcoming election has planted an operative inside the Humboldt County Elections Office. It has possibilities, doesn't it? You can work with it, can't you?
We're sure you can. So, check it: Kelly Sanders is an administrative analyst who has worked with the office for about a year, according to Elections chief Lindsey McWilliams. She's the former director of the Redwood Coast Dixieland Jazz Festival. She also happens to be the sister of Bonnie Neely, the 4th District supervisor who is currently seeking reelection.
It's not like she just answers phones, either. (Though if she did answer a phone, what would she say?) In fact, this time around she's going to be in charge of the county's super-scary new voting booths aimed at helping disabled citizens cast their ballot. What's so scary about that, you ask? Not the technology itself -- though it is freaking terrifying -- but the fact that the county's existing electronic vote-counting apparatuses can't process its votes. That means that elections staffers will have to hand-copy every vote cast at the disabled-access machines to one of the county's AccuVote ballots. This leaves the inescapable conclusion that Sanders, and possibly other of her colleagues, have the means, the will and the secret Illuminati brainwash training to throw the election!
Please, please, please take a deep breath, Lindsey McWilliams begs. In fact, the re-voting system will have checks, counter-checks and built-in redundancies that will make any vote-rigging virtually impossible. There'll be two sets of eyes on it at all times, and there'll be a paper trail of the original votes cast at the disabled-access machines (which aren't manufactured by Diebold, if that's what you're worried about).
That's leaving aside the fact that Sanders is a human being, one who probably has at least as much honor as you or me. "Rumors to the contrary, Kelly Sanders is not an android and has no moving electronic parts that I know of," the ever-quotable McWilliams confirmed. (Likely story!) And she's sensible, too -- so sensible that she declined to speak with us when we asked.
In fact, we don't expect any great outburst of elections freak-out over this one. Because why? Because the demographics are such that most of the elections critics around here are Neely voters anyway. No harm, no foul. But just imagine what you'd get if there were a Flemming or a Bass in the office.
We finally got a chance to talk with Dennis Cunningham last week. Cunningham's a San Francisco attorney who has developed a reputation as something of a superlawyer in claims cases against government agencies, usually on the behalf of activists and others. He's had a couple of Humboldt County-related cases in the past, and they were both big ones: the Pepper Spray lawsuit against two Humboldt County police agencies, which resulted in a win for the activists whose eyeballs police had swabbed with the noxious substance, and the similarly victorious Judi Bari-Darryl Cherney civil rights lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The word we had was that Cunningham was considering filing a wrongful death suit against the Eureka Police Department over the Cheri Lyn Moore incident (see "Cause of Death," Sept. 21).
Is he going to sue? The answer appears to be maybe. The six-month anniversary of the incident is next Saturday, and that's the deadline to file a wrongful death claim. Cunningham said that his partner, Gordon Kaupp, has been looking into the case, but that as far as he knew, no one in his office has been able to contact Moore's son -- the only relative with standing to file a claim. Cunningham said that he was unaware that the deadline was approaching so soon -- he thought that the shooting had happened in July. "We'll have to make our move," he said.
If a suit is filed, it will further buttress local doctor Ken Miller's second career -- third career? -- as a midwife of politically charged litigation. Miller was the one who brought the now-dormant Headwaters lawsuit to the office of District Attorney Paul Gallegos. Cunningham said that Miller had been working with Kaupp on the potential Moore lawsuit.