Mendocino County Today: Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017

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OPAQUE ADMINISTRATION

by Malcolm Macdonald

Some of you may have used your internet search engine to look for the site called “Transparent California,” where you can find out what the wages and pensions are for public employees. Usually the information is up to date within a year of the time one is searching. For instance, currently Transparent California should have salaries, benefits, and or pensions in dollar value for public employees from the year 2016.

Fairly recently a resident of the Mendocino Coast went to the Transparent California website in search of just this sort of data for Mendocino Coast District Hospital (MCDH). The searcher couldn't find any information for MCDH after entries for the year 2013.

The following is an email sent to Transparent California by that internet searcher,

“Hello. I am a resident in Mendocino Coast Hospital District. I note that your website does not list any information after 2013. The current Mendocino Coast District Hospital [Chief Executive Officer] CEO Bob Edwards states that our hospital has been supplying payroll information to Transparent California each year for 2014, 2015, and 2016. He says he does not know why it is not posted. Is it possible for you to confirm receipt of this information from MCDH? Will it be posted soon?”

Robert Fellner, research director for Transparent California, shared an email he had sent in August 2016 to MCDH's controller:

“I am requesting a copy of Mendocino Coast Hospital District's Employee Compensation Report for the 2015 year under the provisions of California Govt. Code 6250 - 6270, the California Public Records Act.

“Most California agencies find it easiest to respond to this request by producing a copy of the State Controller's Office (SCO) report that includes employee names. Please provide a copy of the working report, or any other combination of records, that contains the compensation data found on the SCO report alongside employee names.

“Alternatively, please provide copies of any other reports or records that contain information responsive to the purpose of this request: employee name in conjunction with their compensation data.

Please provide the requested materials or, per 6253(c), a timeline along which they will be made available by, no later than ten days from the date of this request.”

The bold points of emphasis are apparently that of Mr. Fellner.

This appears to be a clear and detailed request by Mr. Fellner. It prompted the following brief reply from MCDH's controller in 2016:

“I am currently working on the compensation report for the state. I am hoping to be completed at the end of next week.”

That response came five days after Mr. Fellner's original August, 2016 request. However, in response to the citizen's request in December, 2017, nearly a year and a half later, Mr. Fellner stated via email,

“We have never received the 2014, 2015, and 2016 data, despite multiple requests and promises that it would be forthcoming. If there is someone you would recommend we contact, we are happy to try again.”

In other words, according to the citizen attempting to gather the wages and benefits information from Transparent California, the hospital's CEO Bob Edwards claims this information has been sent out for the last three years, but Transparent California, the entity on the receiving end of that information says they have not only not received it, but they have not received it after repeated requests for the payroll info.

Yes, readers, you could chalk this up as just another falsehood springing from Mr. Edwards. There's a more serious caveat here, however. That little thing called the Public Records Act, alluded to by Mr. Fellner in his communication with MCDH, just happens to be part of the law. If we are to take Mr. Fellner at his word, MCDH has violated the Public Records Act not just once but three times over for the years 2014-2016. On top of that, if we take these emails to be true then MCDH's CEO, Bob Edwards, has lied about a failure to comply with the Public Records Act. If you lie to Bob Mueller you may end up with big federal problems. Lie about your failure to comply with the Public Records Act in California and you just might find yourself facing state charges.

At this point readers might wonder why a majority of MCDH's Board of Directors have defended Edwards for so long. For full disclosure on the local end of things, the citizen who delved into the Transparent California matter and contacted Mr. Fellner is the “life partner” of Dr. Peter Glusker, the only current MCDH Board member who has questioned CEO Edwards for some time. Regardless of the identity of the citizen who contacted Transparent California, the refusal to comply with the Public Records Act, withholding three year's worth of payroll information from the public, and lying about it is a potentially damning collection of evidence against CEO Edwards.

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OCCASIONAL LIGHT RAIN will affect areas mainly north of Cape Mendocino during the next week. Otherwise, temperatures will generally be seasonable with warmer than normal daytime highs over the interior. Low cloudiness continues to impact portions of the Northern California area, mainly over some interior valleys and over portions of Mendocino County. More cloudiness can been seen over the coastal waters associated with a week frontal system. Light rain will spread into the area mainly north of Cape Mendocino on Wednesday, but rainfall amounts are expected to be light. The forecast models continue to have problems with the forecast later in the week and over the weekend. The GFS is once again bringing light rain into the area late on Friday into Saturday, with heavier amounts than previously indicated. The ECMWF continues to be fairly dry with rains staying well to the north until late Sunday into Monday. However, during that time period, the GFS is dry again. High levels of uncertainty.

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FORT BRAGG NOTES

The Principle Of Parks

by Rex Gressett

For the last six months in a series of quiet resolutions, and provisional determinations intended to keep public discussion at a minimum, the Fort Bragg Planning Commission and the City Council have been moving the LCP (Local Coastal Plan) forward with relentless persistence. The obscure amendment is little discussed and surprisingly non-controversial but monumental in its significance for the city. In this amendment the great vision of the immense oceanfront millsite as public space has been largely abandoned. Piecemeal division of the property and light industrialization are proposed. About half the land will probably be left open space. Best of all careful Fort Bragg Development Department planning has crafted the proposed LCP so that it will conveniently allow the most toxic areas to be sequestered from general use. GP has recently declared the toxic cleanup to be completed. They are all working together so nicely.

In the rush of LCP approvals by both the City Council and the Planning Commission perhaps a moment of reflection would be useful.

America is a nation wealthy in spirit and in treasure beyond the remotest dreams of our forebears. Because our wealth is immeasurable, Americans have made it an axiom of our culture to always set apart and preserve the most majestic lands. Irreplaceable places are routinely treasured, set aside and preserved. I would like to think almost inevitably. Great Parks preserving the most beautiful lands are our pride as a nation. Preservation of unique land and spectacular places is basic a cultural value. It does not impair our national wealth to make exceptions for natural beauty. We know in our hearts the irreplaceable value and importance of great forests, wilderness areas, and pounding surf. Our national parks and monuments can be preserved because Americans are fiercely and efficiently productive and because the natural reverence for the most beautiful spaces is simply right.

After the closure of the old mill there was community wide almost instinctive acknowledgement of the importance of the mill site to the city and to the world. The sheer size of the property and and its incomparable intrusion into the crashing aqua blue surf of the northern Pacific ocean instantly recalls the spirit of the national parks. In many packed meetings conducted intermittently for decades, Fort Bragg regional people lined up for hours to advocate for many ideas and concepts but always for public access and open space. The city has never listened or cared and now intends to put an official end of all that.

As the AVA recently reported, in unmistakable dead blunt declarations to the Mayor, Georgia Pacific corporation a subsidiary of the Koch brothers, aka Koch International, America’s second largest private holding company with some $800 billion in assets, has made it clear that they are done cleaning up the the Fort Bragg mill site. When the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) came to Fort Bragg in the last of their periodic appearances they told us politely what the odds were of dying from the carcinogens in the mill pond on repeated casual contact and what we could do in the way of erecting signs and fences to keep people safe. Tom Lambert is the DTSC chief public relations person for the blue ribbon agency formed to address the Brown Fields of California as contaminated areas are called in the language of legislation. Tom has spent almost twenty years overseeing the project to remove the toxins in a responsible way. I imagine it has been a hard, long, tough negotiation. GP claims to have spent $38 million doing it, but alas that figure includes ludicrous bungling and profound inefficiencies throughout the long enterprise. Nobody is seriously contending that the cleanup is completed per se. Its breadth and depth have always been a negotiation between the state (DTSC) and GP. When Mr. Lambert of DTSC spoke to the packed town hall, he found it useful not to mention GP had already formally withdrawn from any further involvement with the mill pond cleanup. Perhaps he was so confident of his agency’s power to compel GP to do a responsible job, that he thought their hardball declarations to the Mayor were off-hand. Or perhaps he was covering for them.

Mr. Lambert, spokesman for DTSC, has now been outed as at least disingenuous and very possibly in actual collusion with GP to deceive the citizens of the city and if possible mollify the victims of the death sentence that they are about to pass on us. Since we are now very much in the end game, wily GP has dropped the coy stuff and boldly informed Fort Bragg that they intend to leave the property as stigmatized and dangerous as ever it was.

GP has announced that the dioxins everybody is worrying about, do not exist at all, but if they do, they came from the city. In any case they deny all further responsibility. Lambert told us that everybody was honestly trying to do the best thing and that we should rely on his agency to stand up firmly to the Kochs and their $800 billion and make sure the job is done right. He held out the remote possibility that something else would be done but he did not insist on it. Of course that shocked everybody. Perhaps folks were worrying that the end of cleanup is also the golden rainbow at the end of $38 million hole in the dirt for GP. In retrospect Lampurt did not have any ideas about any possible action for the future. What he clearly did not say is that the state toxic watchdogs had already come to an agreement with GP. GP disagrees. They seem to think DTSC is not an issue. GP is saying they are way past all that and have now moved on to threatening the city of Fort Bragg with the provisions of a secret agreement that would require the city to split the multimillion dollar cost of cleaning up the mill pond.

The City Council assured the people of the city in utmost sincerity, that the people’s representatives have reacted with all the strength of influence they could muster to oppose the GP walkout. They have signed George Reinhardt’s brave resolution protesting toxic abandonment. I am sure that no one on the City Council wants a dioxin contaminated town any more than anyone else. However, people should note that the very same night they approved Reinhardt’s resolution the City Council also bought into the LCP amendment. There was a minimum of discussion for a change of course so dramatic. We had twenty years of public meetings telling the City Council that the people wanted free access and public space. The council did the exact the opposite of all that without one public meeting.

Fort Bragg insiders know GP wants the LCP amendment badly. That in itself is no joke. Apparently it is decisive. The public in Fort Bragg now knows because the AVA has put it out there that GP is not a benign giant. I was told a few months ago by concerned parties that GP had pretty much forgotten about tiny Fort Bragg. Right. Now we discover that GP has aggressively threatened the Mayor and pushed hard on the City Council.

But the intimidation did not begin yesterday. In 2012 GP bluffed the city out of any possible future claim for damages for toxic exposure on behalf of mill workers or people living in our town. Most people in Fort Bragg know mill related cancers are very real. GP talked a terrified former City Council into singing off on a deal that gave nobody anything but did not involve legal expense. That was supposed to be great news. It was celebrated for years as crafty city hall management since we have as a city but one temp lawyer against $800 billion which will buy you quite a few.

As the mill site contamination endgame controversy heats up people will be looking again at the DTSC data on dioxins in the mill pond. They will necessarily be looking again at the fly-ash contamination in the city itself. Fly ash, the bi product of power generation at the mill, is the cause of the dioxins in the mill ponds. For generations they also dumped fly-ash for free on gardens and playing fields. GP shrewdly threatened the Mayor with the information that their industrial waste in fact poisoned the actual city worse than the mill ponds. Rumor had it, that the data was uncovered during the discovery process in the negotiations leading up to the signing of the famous Stipulation. The Stipulation Agreement was sold to the people of the city as the epitome of former City Manager Linda Ruffing’s super managerial cleverness. In it, GP was absolved forever of any responsibility or liability pertaining to mill site cancers.

Another consequence of the GP letter to the Mayor is that at least the Mayor and probably the City Council were shown to have been egregiously dishonest with the people of the city. They knew but did not say that that the mega corporation flatly intends to back out of any further obligation on the cleanup. Instead they stressed their personal abhorrence of a future for the city and for the reputation of the city that included a permanent toxic waste land unsafe for humans but open to animals, windstorm and earthquake. Then the letter from GP to the mayor made the Georgia Pacific position offensively and clearly. GP was done. For Fort Bragg, it was toxic armageddon. Mayor Lindy Peters thought it better not to mention this letter and pushed bravely forward toward hoping, I guess, for niceness. Upon inquiry, several councilmen also admitted to "communication" with a "not happy" GP. Maybe it is not so inexplicable after that the council approved the LCP — these guys from Atlanta do not like to lose, and they were threatening to bring out the big guns.

The LCP amendment gives Georgia Pacific the right of subdivision and a fat buildout. To intelligibly recoup their $38 million in clean-up costs GP needs most of all to subdivide, and they need a zoning map that permits the sequestration of the most toxic zones. Linda Ruffing gave them the LCP and Marie Jones provided an appropriate zoning map. The Fort Bragg city council gave all that the thumbs up.

One more shoe has to fall. DTSC is going to give Fort Bragg a “no further action letter.” That’s the end of the cleanup and you can bet it is coming soon. Now that GP has announced with pugnacious belligerence that they are done with the cleanup, you know they must be leaning heavily on DTSC. At least the mayor knows for sure that GP is on the way out. When the DTSC letter comes, no doubt we will see appropriate wailing and lamentation on the part of the City Council. But if the fate of the Town is to embrace long term toxicity and that deal is negotiated under any terms with the City Council panting along behind, in the 2018 election one year away: Katy bar the door.

In the vacuum of capitulation to Georgia Pacific the City Manager leaves us her last legacy. As the door shuts on the Linda Ruffing era I wonder if the same forces of hot debate, political initiative, and community creativity that have made little Fort Bragg by far the most transparent, contentious, argumentative, fast learning and politically involved city in the county, might find the will to look again at our options on the mill site. Maybe we won’t take the sleazy slide into mediocrity that they are proposing for us. The behind the scenes deals and general cave-in to the terror of an unlimited legal budget, might yet find opposition in the hearts of ordinary people. It is a fair bet that the Koch brothers are not going to be moved with the spirt of preservation. I am not so sure about Fort Bragg. Whoever you support for the city council this issue of open space, public access, no toxins, unites us all.

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(Ed note: From a 2004 Washington State Department of Ecology Report entitled “Hog Fuel Boiler/Wood Ash Action Plan” — “Wood-fired boilers (also called hog fuel boilers because the wide variety of wood and wood wastes used to feed the boilers is called "hogged fuel") generate over 200,000 tons of wood ash each year in Washington State. Its high pH makes wood ash useful as a soil conditioner or liming agent, however, most wood ash is currently disposed in landfills. Recent tests have shown that some wood ash contains variable levels of dioxins (Someshwar, 1996). Additionally, other fuels used by wood-fired boilers may include chlorine containing sludges from pulp and paper processes, tires, plastic debris and organic compounds from recycling wood wastes, cardboard, and heavy fuel oils which themselves may contain chlorinated compounds that can form dioxins when burned.”)

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MSP'S 'EYE ON THE NAVARRO'

Hwy 128 Open, River Level 3.74'

The Navarro River level Tuesday @ 12:15 pm was 3.74' - after briefly rising to 3.75' Monday after having been "stuck" at 3.73' for the prior three days according to the USGS river gauge located upstream from the flooding.

Thanks to the backup of waters from the sandbar at the mouth that refuses to breach, Highway 128 is still flooded - but OPEN.

Also according to the gauge, the river "discharge" (the amount of water headed past the gauge towards the mouth) was 46.4 cubic feet per second - or put in understandable terms, 343 gallons of water per second, 20,580 gallons per minute and 1,234,800 gallons per hour.

We'll continue to keep an eye on the situation.

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UKIAH CITY AND VALLEY SEWER RATEPAYERS may finally have some long sought hope of ending years of expensive litigation filed by the Ukiah Valley Sanitation District against the City of Ukiah beginning in 2013, which saw the Sanitation District demand between $15 and $30 million (depending on which of several versions of the demands are cited) and which the District says has gained them almost $9 million from Ukiah so far (although the whole tangled administrative/bureaucrat mess makes it look more like millions were moved from one pile to the other minus a bunch of attorney fees).

The District has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with Duncan James' Ukiah law firm, which, of course, will be factored into any possible resolution. James, incidentally, is a former DA of Mendo County. Present DA, David Eyster, worked for James prior to his election.

The finances of the Ukiah Valley sewer system are as impenetrable as anything we’ve seen out of the City of Ukiah.

(Click to enlarge)

The City’s Sanitation apparatus manages both the operation and the billing for the city’s ratepayers, with the Sanitation District apparatus handling the finances (but not the operations) for ratepayers outside the city limits. It's an extremely complicated arrangement, the upshot of which has meant a lot of added expense for ratepayers.

As best we can tell ratepayers currently pay about $60 a month for basic residential service on top of hookup fees that start at about $13,000, then go up from there depending on the size and nature of the hookup, such as residential, commercial or industrial.

The City of Ukiah recently proposed a settlement agreement, as yet undisclosed, which was offered to the new District Board a couple of weeks ago. The new District Board, made up of three new members who ran on a platform of ending the long drawn out dispute, seem amenable to the City’s proposal, but negotiations have been hindered by petty arguments about Brown Act compliance, closed sessions, “pending litigation,” lawyers, etc.

In a nutshell, it appears that the proposed settlement will use borrowed money to paper over the problem and leave future ratepayers with the tab. Apparently, Ukiah wants to bundle the disputed amounts demanded by the District into a bond issue that would finance the next expansion and upgrade of the sewer system. By finagling the interest rates on the bond, Ukiah seems to believe that if they can get a bond issued soon (i.e., borrown many, many millions), they can get favorable interest rates that would help to compensate for the cost of the litigation and disputed amounts.

But that’s all subject to processes and procedures that have taken years to get to this point, then rushing into a bond on the grounds that delay will cost more interest money (which will leave everyone out a bunch more money and dissatisfied with the result).

The last time the District helped finance a sewer upgrade in Ukiah back in 2006 they included the following ominous paragraph in the subsequent budget:

“An interest surcharge of $541.00 shall be added to the base connection fee for each ESSU of allocation to offset the interest expense for monies borrowed by the District at a rate of 4% from the existing ratepayers as a result of the expected shortage in revenues needed to make the annual debt service payment associated with the expansion component of the 2005 Wastewater Treatment Plant Rehabilitation and Expansion Project. Should an ESSU allocation be a fractional unit of one ESSU, the interest surcharge shall be the same fractional unit of the interest surcharge of $541.00 as the ESSU allocation carried to the one hundredth decimal point. The District Board of Directors may amend the interest surcharge, as set forth herein by resolution without further amendment of the District ordinances.”

And if negotiations proceed to some kind of settlement behind closed doors, another such paragraph will be issued with ratepayers not having any say in the matter other than discovering what their new higher rates will be after the fact.

Watching the latest on-line videos of the District Board meetings it appears that at least one of the new directors, Ms. Julie Bawcom, has the smarts and desire to stand up to the otherwise petty and grasping players in both the Sanitation District and at the City of Ukiah which, like almost everything else in local government these days, is made up of grasping and ill-informed officials whose primary objective is lining their own pockets for the long-term, going along with the crowd, and not doing the necessary work of local government.

Prediction: Sometime early next year the City and the District will proudly announce that they’ve settled their differences while entering into a low interest bond to finance a big sewer system upgrade.

Conspicuously missing from that big announcement will be how much more the ratepayers will have to pay for the new debt service. Then in 2019 they will quietly slip out a new rate structure that will stink to high heaven. (— ms)

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LITTLE DOG SAYS, “I got Christmas off, but today right back to the old grind, on alert 24/7. Nobody gets past me, nobody!”

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RAISING SUPERVISOR SALARIES NOT NECESSARY

We first want to use this space today to thank all the wonderful Ukiah Valley individuals and organizations that have helped make this a Merry Christmas for those in need, especially the children and young people affected by the Mendocino Lake Complex fire this year. The Christmas Effort, the Toy Run, Toys for Tots and many others have gone above and beyond this year and we can’t thank you enough. The generosity of this community is truly a blessing and one that we can count on year in and year out.

We could not let the week go by without taking issue with the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors over the raise they gave themselves last Monday. They voted – with the sole exception of 4th District Supervisor Dan Gjerde – to give themselves a $24,000 raise, from $61,200 to $85,500.

County CEO Carmel Angelo had her staff roll out all the usual nonsense about how underpaid our supervisors are compared to other counties. Not true.

The executive office came up with a chart showing that if you take the supervisor salaries from Nevada, Yolo, Humboldt, Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties, the average is $85,500. Of course Napa and Sonoma, among the richest of the state’s counties, were included. It’s the only way to get the result they want. Sonoma has a population of 500,000 people, no where near comparable to our 88,000. And Napa, the heart of some of the richest wine country property and incomes, is also not comparable.

If you take Sonoma and Napa out of the average, the remaining counties’ average pay for supervisors is $67,327.

Now let’s look at our own county. At $61,200, a Mendocino County supervisor’s salary was already $20,000 above the county’s average household income of $43,510 and almost $40,000 more than the median individual income of $25,275.

Years ago when the supervisors last gave themselves a big raise like this the argument was: If you don’t pay them decent salaries, you won’t get quality candidates to run for office. We see no evidence of this and still less evidence that paying them more gives county residents better outcomes on the things they care about.

The only good decision made on the subject Monday was the supervisors opting out of tying their salaries to the $200,000 salary of judges (also outrageous). And don’t forget that with this raise also comes a hike in the retirement the supervisors will get.

Perhaps it is time for the voters of this county to decide that these salaries need to be set at the ballot box. We could tie the supervisors salary to whatever salary increase percentage the county employees get. Or we could simply tie the supervisors salaries to the annual inflation rate. Either way it would still have to go on the ballot for a straight up or down vote with each supervisor election cycle.

(K.C. Meadows, Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal)

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A Mendocino County history photo:

(Click to enlarge)

Main Street Willits, circa 1937, showing determined motorists making their way through heavy snow. This photo was taken from the corner of Commercial Street and Highway 101, looking south. Signs for many early businesses can be read if you study the photo; that partial sign at the far right is for the Van Hotel. Across the street, next to the bank on the corner, is Kay Dee Reynolds Photo Shop, which local business historian Ed Bold said opened at this location in 1935. If you continue down that block, after passing Betty Beauty Shop and several other businesses, you’ll come to The Willits News office. (Photo courtesy of the Robert J. Lee Collection)

(Ukiah Daily Journal)

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CANDOR!

To: Jeffrey Parker, KZYX General Manager

Re: Personnel

Hola, Mr. Parker: Trying to get up to speed as a candidate for your board of directors. Want to know the number of paid station people, including contract workers, and also if John Coate and Stuart Campbell are compensated employees of one sort or another.

Thank you, Bruce Anderson

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Dear AVA,

Warmest holiday greetings. KZYX currently employs five full-time staff, two part-time staff and two part-time contractors. John Coate has not been a paid staff since leaving the station in mid-2015. John is a member and occasional volunteer, generally during pledge drives. Stuart Campbell has not been a paid staff since briefly serving as interim GM in late 2015, after John’s departure and before Lorraine’s recruitment. Stuart is a member and dedicated volunteer programmer, though he’s announced on air that he’ll stop producing "Consider This" from February. We expect he’ll continue as an active volunteer in other roles. I’ve copied this response to Ed Keller, who is coordinating this election.

All the best,

Jeff (Jeffrey Parker)

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PS. And while I have you… A friend of mine, retired banker, has the following questions, which I hope you can pass on to the station's money person for a reply. Thanks.

I have a lot of questions on this loan – Is a term liquidating loan or a revolving line of credit. Was this loan made without approval or knowledge of the Board. What bank holds this loan – local or a branch of a bank located out the county. Are there sections in the by-laws regarding the borrowing of money. Were they adhered to. Is the loan secured. Is the security equipment and or A/Rs and has a security agreement been filed with the county recorder. If so, the filing is public and you review the filing.

On some other matters, the proposal budget should have also included a monthly projection. In the month after the quarter (Jan, April, July and October there should be a report by management on the budget, cash flow, and statement of condition and cash flow condition, there also should be the same reports for the year to date.

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ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, a reel short movie review. It's half-good, I'd say, thus sparing you the rest of this opinion if you wisely choose that option. Based on the 1973 kidnapping of a 16-year-old Getty heir, the movie makes the skinflint founding father look pretty reasonable. He makes all the money only to see it squandered by his degenerate descendants. In his position I'd have put a pay phone in my castle, too. I was compelled to pay my $7.50 (geezer rate) to see it when I read somewhere that egregious perv Kevin Spacey, who was supposed to play old man Getty, was brought down by the neo-Blue Nose Movement and had to be replaced by Brit actor, Christopher Plummer. I'd say Plummer for Spacey was a very good trade, although the goofy script saddles the actor with a stock Lear-like scene that detracts from his wonderful performance overall. The kid who plays the kidnapped vic is also very good, Mom is ok, Mark Wahlberg was apparently stuck into the film to attract people who think he's interesting to watch. Maybe a good actor would have made sense as the tough guy assigned by the tycoon to get his grandson back, but we get Wahlberg who seems to barely know what movie he's in. The Italian gangsters are cartoon-like, the media are depicted as they are — pack-hunting hyenas. As an added but unintended bonus for my $7.50 I had to sit through preview clips of "The Post," the latest Spielberg epic that falsely portrays Katherine Graham as a giant of journalism. If you write in to tell me both these things were good watching, we will cancel your subscription.

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POT BUST IN MENDOCINO COUNTY PITS LEGIT INDUSTRY AGAINST LAW ENFORCEMENT

After being pulled over Friday outside Ukiah in a truck hauling 1,875 pounds of cannabis, employees with a Mendocino County marijuana distribution company showed a CHP officer a county-issued business license and documents for their medical marijuana collective.

pressdemocrat.com/news/7806080-181/pot-bust-in-mendocino-county

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BETSY CAWN WRITES:

Post-mortem dissection of who did what, and when, during the 2015 “Valley Fire” in Lake County, is still unreleased by CalFIRE and CalOES. (Two reports published by CalFIRE are available on their website — the first includes a list of all affected parcels, the second investigated the fire’s alleged point of origin.)

State and federal post-disaster services require their scrutiny of all kinds of spending, capacities, and results for years to come. The same process will require an order of magnitude more analysis and reflection for 2017’s massive catastrophes (and we thought 2015 was bad . . .). A critical issue for everyone, of course, is communications — ALERTS, WARNINGS, and EVACUATION ORDERS.

Monday morning quarterbacks will always question the decisions made by officials, such as Sheriff Honea’s February 12 evacuation order for “thousands of people downstream of the Oroville Dam” (http://www.chicoer.com/article/NA/20170907/NEWS/170909798). More importantly, the reliance on human knowledge and decisive action — in the midst of chaos — is always the key, no matter what technology there is.

In the pogrom to come (shedding the 21st Century population of poor/old/demanding-but-useless “baby boomers”), those whose lives have been built on local self-sufficiency and community interdependence will find themselves “out of the loop” when information is available only to those with expensive portable “devices.” We will be lost without shared open sources of real-time information (including sirens — which appear to have been jettisoned by “forward-thinking” chambers of commerce anxious to assure the outside world that Mendocino and Lake Counties are just as up-to-date as Kansas City).

Don’t worry, be happy:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/the-only-california-county-that-sent-a-warning-to-residents-cellphones-has-no-reported-fatalities/2017/10/13/b28b5af4-b01f-11e7-a908-a3470754bbb9_story.html?utm_term=.346798558bb1

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CATCH OF THE DAY, December 26, 2017

Powell, Sergy, Smith, Sullivan

WILLIAM POWELL, Ukiah. Controlled substance, protectiver order violation, probation revocation.

STEPHANIE SERGY, Willits. DUI-drugs, misdemeanor hit&run.

MICHAEL SMITH, Willits. Fugitive from justice.

JOHN SULLIVAN, Ukiah. Protective order violation, probation revocation.

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ED LEE, OCCUPY SF AND THE TRIUMPH OF THE FRISCO 5

by Michael Steinberg, Black Rain Press

Who was Ed Lee (who died 12-11-17)?

Initially appointed mayor of San Francisco? My first impression was that he wasn't the arrogant obnoxious faux alcoholic wife cheating Gavin Newsom, and didn't really want to be mayor of the former Baghdad by the Bay, more currently Silixon Valley North.

But then capitalism failed once again, but the billionaires proclaimed it too big to fail, simultaneously stealing millions of ordinary joes and jills jobs and homes and hopes yet again. Into this void the rebelling voters dropped Obama, and then the man who didn't really want to be mayor of the Golden Gated version of abject failure.

Ed Lee, a first generation Chinese American, began his career of public service as an attorney and political progressive community organizer who supported a rent strike in Chinatown public housing and fought for the civil rights of his people.

Unfortunately, in a city created by gold speculation, racism and exploitation of indigenous people and immigrants, and subsequently crash prone startups, organized crime masquerading as real estate speculators, and resultant homeless criminalization, ruling elites weren't about to let anyone entering the mayor's office through the back door deviate from their elitist agenda.

Occupy San Francisco

We are a leaderless movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are the 99%. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution.

We are working long hours for little pay and no rights. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.

September 2011

Lee's role became clear when the Occupy Movement arose in the Fall of 2011. In retrospect, Ed Lee's handling of Occupy San Francisco marked his transition from a devoted civil servant to a corporate hit man. Or was he just following orders?

Occupy San Francisco first appeared in front of a Bank of America office in the financial district on 9-7-11 when about 10 activists camped out in front of it. The site shifted to Union Square, then to the Federal Reserve Bank on Market St on September 29. But the SFPD declared the free speech action a public safety threat seized the protesters tents, sleeping bags and cooking gear the next day, arresting one person.

The Occupy SF site shifted to Justin Herman (desroyer of the Fillmore District in the 60s) Plaza on October 13. The same heavy handed police actions tore it down the next day, and 5 were arrested.

On October 13 thousands marched from Justin Herman Plaza to City Hall in protest. On October 18, the San Francisco Examiner reported, an Occupy activist "heckled Mayor Lee as he defended his decision to have police upturn the encampment." According to the Examiner, Lee said he "supports the spirit of of the demonstrators,' but "one woman yelled, "Then don't send in the police to destroy it."

As Occupy SF continued, its popular support increased. On November 1, KQED reported, "The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted by an 8-3 margin to pass a resolution" supporting Occupy SF.

Unfortunately hostility towards the protests continued. On November 23, NBC, bayarea reported, "Ed Lee wants to hide Occupy SF in a vacant lot behind a fence on Mission Street, far away from from the current site downtown."

The next day the cops again raided OSF, dismantling 15 tents while arresting 7. Then, on December 7, at 1 a.m., the SPFD attacked the main camp at Justin Herman Plaza, busting 70 for "illegal lodging in a public park." Ed Lee's comment, "We're going to draw the line with overnight camping."

The occupation moved back to the Federal Reserve Bank the following day and continued there until December 11, when the police again brutalized the occupiers and destroyed the encampment, arresting 55 more.

Homeless In the Crosshairs Too

All this was happening just as Ed Lee was assuming his first elected term as mayor. The gentrifying tech sector shoved him deep in its hip pocket, resulting in San Francisco becoming the most expensive place to live in the nation. In return Lee offered Twitter and its ilk free passes to occupy SF, while Google buses occupied public transit spaces with impunity. Digitalized zombies whose only problem was what to do with their ill gotten disposable income displaced what was left of the city's working class, while increasing police pressure to clear the streets, doorways, parks and freeway underpasses of those humans without any other place to go, or apparently, any human rights, the homeless.

When Superbowl 50 came to SF in 2015 (or actually San Jose), Ed Lee and his SFPD--or was the way around--turned Justin Herman Plaza into a no go area for all officially designated undesirables, but especially homeless folks. Cop attacks on them speeded up as did raids on their encampments during the rainiest winter in years. Ed Lee blatantly told the media "The homeless will have to leave" SF during SB 50.

Which ultimately brought Ed Lee down. After he sat idly by while his out of control cops shot dead people of color in Bayview and Hunters Point, the Mission and Bernal Heights, grass roots protests began and grew until Ed Lee couldn't appear in public without being confronted with their anger, outrage and boos over the death squad cops he continued to let run amok.

Finally, in the spring of 2016, the Frisco Five arose, and began a hunger strike, putting their own lives on the line, and brought the issue to the fore.

And then one more African American went down in a hail of police bullets in the Bayview in May of 2016, and Lee was forced to fire Police Chief Suhr, his partner in crime all along.

And that, as it turned out, was the beginning of the end.

* * *

(Click to enlarge)

* * *

A LITTLE HOPE FOR A HOMELESS SOLUTION:

Tiny housing units sprout in the Bay Area

by Kevin Fagan

Nearly two years after a smattering of tiny homes popped up in the Bay Area as a peculiar new way of housing homeless people, the technique is exploding from one end of the region to the other.

Nearly 1,000 tiny homes or their close cousins — stackable modular housing units, typically with less than 200 square feet of living space — are being planned in San Francisco, San Jose, Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland and Santa Rosa.

Planners say that’s just the beginning. “We’re very excited about micro-homes,” said Lavonna Martin, director of Contra Costa County’s homeless programs. “They could be a big help. They have a lot of promise, and our county is happy to be on the cutting edge of this one. We’re ready.”

Tiny units can be built in a fraction of the time it takes to construct typical affordable housing, at a sliver of the cost, and that means a lot of homeless people can be housed quickly. In one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation, with tent-camp problems everywhere, that prospect sounds like a game-changer to officials.

Contra Costa has a $750,000 federal homelessness grant to pay for 50 stackable micro-units of supportive housing, and Richmond Mayor Tom Butt would like to see them in his city. Developer Patrick Kennedy brought a prototype of his MicroPad unit to Richmond in November, and county and city leaders say they are leaning toward choosing it.

“They’re very fine, and they make a nice-looking building,” Butt said. “They’d be good for anybody looking for housing.”

Supportive housing is the gold standard of residences for hard-core homeless people — the term refers to rooms or apartments in buildings with counselors on-site to shepherd them through the addictions or other afflictions that ruined their lives. It’s the most commonly used technique for housing chronically homeless people who have been on the street more than a year and who consume far more in police, hospital and other costs than less-troubled indigents.

The trouble is that it is expensive, costing upward of $500,000 per unit to build over about five years. Modular stackable units, often called “Lego houses” because they bolt together easily, generally cost about half that and can be assembled in less than a year.

Contra Costa tallied 331 chronically homeless people in the last point-in-time count, taken in January. Martin hopes the county and Richmond can settle on a site for the homes and sign a contract by March, and have them assembled within a year.

“These micro-homes may seem small at 160 to 180 square feet, but they’re actually pretty spacious when you’re in them,” she said. “And they go up very fast.”

Kennedy’s MicroPads have showers, beds and kitchens. Individually they resemble shipping containers, but once they’re bolted together with siding and utilities, they look like a regular building.

Kennedy offered to build hundreds of units for San Francisco, but the idea didn’t gain traction. City planners said land was hard to find, and unions didn’t like the fact that some of Kennedy’s units are built in China.

(SF Chronicle)

* * *

BOYSEN PEAK, just before sunset

(Click to enlarge)

(Photo by Harvey Reading)

* * *

ON LINE COMMENT OF THE DAY

Germany has 82M people living in an area slightly larger than NM, i.e., 137K sq miles for Germany vs 121K sq miles for NM. Land use there is tightly controlled, as you’re seeing, as they have to have agricultural land to feed themselves. There are compact towns and across the street it’s farmland, no sprawling suburbs.

Rail transit works superbly with that density and compactness, as it sort of does in our own NE Corridor. After WW-2 Germany got to rebuild much of its rail network.

I enjoyed visiting there in the early 1980s but don’t think I could live in such tiny quarters as do most Europeans; I like my large SFH in wide open AZ.

Many Germans buy a basic Mercedes with a ten year note and drive it little around town as public transit is good there. Gasoline runs in the range of $8/gallon or more due to taxes.

I recall riding buses there and if a woman with a baby stroller needed to embark the driver would stop the bus, exit his seat, and help lift the stroller into the bus for the woman. If that happened here it would get sensational reporting as a rare good samaritan act. Over there it was just basic courtesy to your fellow citizen.

* * *

WHY TRAINS DON'T HAVE POSITIVE TRAIN CONTROL

The railroads have two very good reasons for not enthusiastically installing positive train control as Congress has demanded. First, the cost is high: the Federal Railroad Administration estimates it will cost as much as $24 billion, which is probably more than the annual capital budgets of all the private railroads in the country.

The second reason the railroads are delaying is that the benefits of positive train control–--or at least the version that the railroads are implementing–--are trivial. Take a look at this record of transportation fatalities. While about 35,000 people died on highways in 2015, only about 750 were killed in railroad accidents. Of those 750 deaths, positive train control will significantly reduce only those in the first-line “train accidents,” as opposed to “grade crossings” or “trespassing.” Over the past ten years, the average of the train accidents line is just 10.

Compare positive train control with driverless cars. All of the hardware for driverless cars will be built into the cars themselves, adding perhaps $1,000 to the cost of a new car. By comparison, positive train control will require both modification of locomotives and considerable new infrastructure on the railroads. So the costs are much higher.

Driverless vehicle technology may reduce auto fatalities by as much as 90 percent–--say, 30,000 a year. But even if it only reduces them by 50 percent, driverless technology will produce lots of other benefits: less congestion; increased productivity as people can spend travel time doing more productive things; fuel savings; and so forth.

Positive train control, however, won’t eliminate the need for someone to drive each train. The only practical benefit is that some fraction of 10 lives would be saved each year.

Randall O’Toole

* * *

26TH ANNUAL PROFESSIONAL PIANIST CONCERT 10 DAYS AWAY

In less than two weeks on January 5 - 7, the 26th Annual Professional Pianist Concert at Mendocino College Center Theatre in Ukiah will commence once again. This annual sellout will feature 10 different pianists over three performances. The pianists this year are Spencer Brewer, Elena Casanova, Wendy deWitt, Frankie J, Tom Ganoung, Chris James, Elizabeth MacDougall, Ed Reinhart, Charlie Seltzer and Sam Ocampo. The music ranges from classical to jazz, boogie-woogie to Cuban, Broadway to ragtime.....each performance will be different!

The series features seven pianists on stage each evening in a living room environment throughout the event trading stories and songs with two pianos on stage to accommodate impromptu collaborations. This popular event is an annual sellout because of the diversity, quality of a multitude of styles of music and humor that takes place throughout the evening. A special art show benefitting Redwood Complex fire survivors by Spencer Brewer and Esther Siegel will also be on display at the Mendocino College Art Gallery throughout the weekend…not to be missed!

Friday, January 5th at 7:00pm will feature Spencer Brewer, Elena Casanova, Wendy DeWitt, Chris James, Elizabeth MacDougall, Ed Reinhart and Charlie Seltzer. Saturday, January 6th’s 7:00pm performance will feature Spencer Brewer, Elena Casanova, Wendy DeWitt, Tom Ganoung, Chris James, Elizabeth MacDougall and Sam Ocampo. Sunday afternoon’s 2:00pm performance will feature Spencer Brewer, Elena Casanova, Tom Ganoung, Frankie J, Elizabeth MacDougall, Ed Reinhart and Charlie Seltzer. No two concerts will be the same, so if you love piano and piano music, enjoy more than one performance.

Tickets are on sale at www.ukiahconcerts.org, Mendocino Book Co. and dig Music! in Ukiah, Mazahar in Willits and Watershed Books in Lakeport. Tickets are $15 general admission and $25 "I ‘Wanna’ See the Hands" limited seating. For more information call 707-472-7640.

The concert benefits the Mendocino College Recording Arts & Technology Program, Allegro Scholarship Program, Mendocino County Youth Project and Ukiah Community Concerts. Sponsors are Sparetime Supply, Ken Fowler Auto, Savings Bank of Mendocino, Mendocino College Recording Arts, Willits Furniture Center, Waterman Plants, K-WINE/MAX, KOZT-The Coast and KZYX/Z. There will be autographed CD's by the artists for sale in lobby. Refreshments will be provided by Ukiah Community Concert Association.

* * *

I WAS AN AMAZON DELIVERY DRIVER:

What it’s like to work in the tech giant’s citizen package brigade

by Taylor Soper

I felt like Santa Claus earlier this month — the Amazon.com version, at least.

I’ve spent the past few weekends trying my hand as a driver for Amazon Flex, the company’s Uber-esque platform that lets everyday people like you and me deliver packages with our own cars.

The program, which debuted in 2015 and is now active in 50 cities, helps Amazon complete the “last mile” for customer orders — the final stretch of a delivery that is short in distance, yet often the most expensive part of the e-commerce supply chain. It’s becoming increasingly important as Amazon’s shipping costs could balloon to $7 billion this holiday quarter while the tech giant meets growing customer expectations — in particular from its Prime members, who pay $99 per year to receive free 2-day shipping on millions of items, among other benefits.

Amazon Flex covers not only Amazon.com orders, but also items from Prime Now, the company’s two-hour delivery service; AmazonFresh, its grocery delivery service; and Amazon Restaurants.

My experience thus far has been fascinating and actually sort of fun during the holidays, when many are relying on Amazon for their gift shopping. It’s not a glamorous high-paying job by any means — you’re a contractor, not an employee, using your own car and paying for your own gas without any direct benefits from Amazon. But it’s also relatively simple, thanks to Amazon’s impressive technology and demand for more people to deliver packages.

The slick Amazon Flex app powers everything, from scanning your packages at a pickup center, to figuring out what routes to take, to ultimately confirming that an order has been delivered — which includes taking photos of packages left at a doorstep.

I’ve done two shifts for Amazon.com orders and made $118.50 total, not counting gas expenses and overall wear and tear on my car. They were quite different — one evening I only had to deliver three packages and made $60, while a week later I spent nearly three hours on a Saturday afternoon stopping at more than 35 different houses within a half-mile of each other. (Note: I’m donating my earnings to GeekWire’s Geeks Give Back campaign to support the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship)

It’s funny watching customer reactions when a guy in a beanie, hoodie, and sweatpants — not a uniformed UPS or USPS driver, for example — shows up on their doorstep, package in hand.

“Are they doing private deliveries now?” asked one nice elderly woman as she did a double-take.

(Side note: Amazon says “you are free to choose your attire while delivering for Amazon Flex.”)

To become a Flex driver for Amazon.com deliveries, you need to meet some basic requirements; a smartphone and a 4-door vehicle for starters. Amazon also runs a background check and asks you to watch a series of instructional videos that are always accessible on the app. Other than that, it’s pretty easy to join the program.

Once activated on Flex, you find work by checking on available “blocks” that Amazon offers, which frequently change and vary on time, pay, and pickup location.

First day on the job

For my first attempt, I chose a $60 three-hour shift from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on a Sunday evening, starting from the pickup center in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. The app pushed a notification one hour prior, providing me directions to the center.

I rolled up and waited in a long line of cars also working the same shift. I had a nervous excitement, kind of like arriving on the first day of a job. After driving into the warehouse and parking, I found an Amazon rep who had a QR code I scanned with the app that checked me in. He noted that there weren’t a ton of packages to be delivered on this particular night.

The evening shift seemed to consist partly of packages that couldn’t be delivered by other drivers during the day. I was only given three orders, all of which were to customers in the Bellevue area, east of Seattle.

I scanned each package with the app and put them in my car. One was extremely heavy and large; I wondered how I was going to actually get this to someone’s doorstep by myself.

When I was ready to leave, the app automatically directed me to the first stop, as decided by Amazon’s algorithms. You can also choose your own route and order of delivery, but I followed what Amazon provided. The maps software is based on HERE, originally developed by Nokia. Amazon may be avoiding Google Maps or Apple Maps because it wants to keep its delivery data close to the vest.

After arriving at the first house, the app automatically knew where I was and prompted me to scan the package. It noted that there was “no recipient needed,” meaning I did not have to hand the package to a person. I rang the doorbell — Amazon recommends this for deliveries before 8 p.m. — and handed off the box to my first customer. Amazon asked me where I left the package — the recipient; a receptionist; front door; back door; secure mailroom; etc. — and I checked off the appropriate box.

Next up was an apartment, which proved to be much more complicated. The recipient did provide an access code, but it was difficult finding the specific complex, especially in the dark. I spent an extra ten minutes trying to locate the actual apartment.

Finally, I arrived at the door and knocked. No one responded. This was another “no recipient needed,” but when I selected the “front door,” the app asked me to take a photo of where I left the package. This was one of several times during my Amazon Flex work when I thought about the increasing number of package thefts and what companies are doing to prevent them.

The app does provide a way to call the customer or Amazon support, which is helpful. If you’re unable to deliver a package, you drive back to the pickup center when your shift is complete and drop it off.

On the way to my third delivery, I had some time left in my block, so I stopped for a quick bite at Burgermaster — a classic joint around Seattle, and a favorite of Bill Gates.

Speaking of Gates, my third and final package was addressed to a home in his Medina neighborhood. It wasn’t for the Microsoft co-founder, but the home seemed like a mansion at the end of a windy road. The package itself was massive, and I barely could lift it up the stairs to the doorstep. It seemed a little unreasonable for Amazon to expect a Flex driver to deliver this box, particularly to this specific home, without any help from a trolley or cart.

The customer greeted me at the door and had a lot of questions: why was I driving a regular car? Does Amazon deliver on Sunday?

My job was done after 71 minutes and 20 miles of driving, with a burger break in between — not bad for $60. Amazon asked a few survey questions at the end of the shift as a way for me to provide feedback.

My next Flex experience was much, much different.

41 packages, 3 hours, $58.50

I nabbed a 3-hour shift on a Saturday afternoon, set to start at a facility in North Seattle. This one was much different — not a big warehouse, but a small dedicated Amazon Flex office with a parking lot.

I parked, walked into the office, and checked in by scanning a QR code. Shortly after that, a friendly attendant lifted a blue cover off of this:

The attendant told me that 15 packages per hour was the average workload, so I prepared myself for a full 3-hour shift.

I had watched some how-to Amazon Flex videos on YouTube uploaded by other couriers and learned that some people strategically organized packages in their vehicle depending on address and drop-off order, to speed up the delivery process.

After scanning each package with my smartphone, I wasn’t quite sure how to position each box in my car to optimize for efficiency. I wish Amazon made this process more systemic, because I ended up spending a lot of time searching for the right package during my drive.

This shift took much longer than my first — two hours and 25 minutes — but I drove less than 10 miles. Some quick observations from this particular shift:

All 41 packages were within a one-mile radius. At some points there were deliveries for three consecutive houses — it was another reminder of how dominant Amazon has become.

I saw several Ring doorbells, which seem like a good way to prevent package theft or at least have a way to see what’s going on your doorstep.

When I had an issue, the app seemed to have an answer. For example, sometimes my GPS wouldn’t detect that I was at a particular address and the app wouldn’t allow me to continue with a delivery. However there was an option in the app — “I’m at the address but my GPS isn’t working” — that let you continue, which was clutch.

I felt a little nervous leaving my car running while I made a delivery — I had 41-plus packages in the back of my car that were clearly visible.

I also wondered if people thought I was a porch pirate, given my attire and how I was walking around carrying Amazon boxes. This article notes Amazon drivers being confused for thieves.

Sometimes it was tough finding a safe place to park, especially on busy streets.

The work was somewhat labor intensive — getting in and out of your car each time, carrying heavy packages, etc.

I forgot to scan one package at the outset, so I had to bring it back to the Amazon Flex pickup facility when my shift was over.

* * *

Amazon Flex, like other gig economy services such as Uber or Postmates, provides people with an easy way to make some cash. Signing up is simple; the work isn’t too demanding; and you get paid within a few days.

Amazon says you can make up to $18-to-$25 per hour. After subtracting costs of gas; parking/tolls; smartphone data usage; and wear and tear of your car, the pay seems to be a little more than minimum wage. The job can also get stressful when you deal with apartment buildings, app errors, or other problems.

But being able to pick from plenty of shifts and make a quick buck is pretty nice, especially if you’re trying to pay a bill or supplement your primary income. To that point, it would be difficult to justify doing Amazon Flex for a full-time gig.

“Amazon Flex provides a flexible opportunity for Delivery Partners looking to turn free time into supplemental or part-time income,” Amazon’s FAQ page reads. “The available delivery blocks may fluctuate week to week and are not guaranteed.”

My experience so far has been pretty smooth, but a quick look on Glassdoor and Indeed reveals some complaints. Other Flex drivers are also suing Amazon, claiming that they should be treated as employees, not contractors.

This Gizmodo story also described Amazon Flex as “a network of supposedly self-employed, utterly expendable couriers enrolled in an app-based program which some believe may violate labor laws.” It noted that “government agencies and customers alike are nearly oblivious to the program’s existence.”

Does Amazon Flex make sense economically for the company? Amazon paid me $60 to deliver three packages — not so sustainable — but it also paid me $58.50 to deliver 41 packages, which comes out to about $1.50 per order.

It’s unclear how that stacks up to a paying a company like UPS, or a third-party delivery provider like OnTrac. One thing is certain: Amazon’s drones, if they ever make it, would be much more cost-effective.

So why did Amazon launch Amazon Flex? Put simply, the company needs help. Long ago, Amazon relied on USPS and UPS to get its packages delivered. Fast forward to today, though, and the company is not only selling more products on its site, but also guaranteeing speedy delivery to customers, in particular its valuable Prime members.

Amazon Flex is just one part of the company’s expansive logistics network. As it continues to make more first- and third-party products available on its site, many of which are eligible for 2-day shipping, Amazon is looking at new ways to manage and deliver the inventory.

The tech giant still relies on USPS and UPS, but it also now uses its own trailer trucksand jumbo jets to deliver packages.

For third party sellers, Amazon is reportedly testing a service called “Seller Flex” in the U.S. that consists of the company picking up packages sold on its site directly from the third-party warehouses. It’s an expansion of Fulfillment by Amazon.

“Handling more deliveries itself would give Amazon greater flexibility and control over the last mile to shoppers’ doorsteps, let it save money through volume discounts, and help avoid congestion in its own warehouses by keeping merchandise in the outside sellers’ own facilities,” Bloomberg reported in October.

The company also recently expanded its Lockers concept with a Amazon Hub, a new delivery locker for apartment lobbies that accepts packages from any sender, shipped via any carrier. It’s the latest move by Amazon to expand its physical retail and delivery infrastructure, ranging from its Whole Foods acquisition to its rollout of the Treasure Truck into new markets across the country.

As Amazon invests more into its delivery infrastructure, the company’s traditional retail rivals, including Walmart, Best Buy and Target, are also spending big on their own e-commerce and shipping initiatives in an effort to keep up with the e-commerce juggernaut.

Amazon has an advantage over those competitors, in that it can leverage growing profits from its Amazon Web Services cloud computing division to allow its e-commerce operations to run on razor-thin profits margins, and even at a loss.

Amazon’s rising shipping costs and related initiatives to manage delivery logistics also demonstrate the larger shift toward online shopping. For the first time this year, shoppers surveyed by Deloitte say they are planning to spend a majority of their holiday budgets online — 51 percent — compared with 42 percent in store, and 7 percent through catalogs and direct mail. Adobe reported that a record $6.59 billion was spent online in the U.S. on Cyber Monday, an increase of 16.8 percent year-over-year — the largest online shopping day in history.

So all that being said, would I recommend driving for Amazon Flex? I found the job to be straight-forward and relatively stress free. A few 3-hour shifts here and there provide nice little boost to your wallet. It’s nice knowing what work you’ll be doing, at what time, and how much you’ll be paid upfront, versus driving around for a platform like Uber where it’s a bit more spontaneous.

Amazon Flex isn’t the right fit if you’re looking for full-time work, but if you have some free time and don’t mind driving your own car for the job and using your own smartphone, it’s worth a look.

Taylor Soper is a GeekWire staff reporter who covers a wide variety of tech assignments, including emerging startups in Seattle and Portland, the sharing economy and the intersection of technology and sports. Follow him @taylor_soper and email taylor@geekwire.com.

(Courtesy, geekwire.com)

* * *

THE CURIOUS CASE OF ‘ALICE DONOVAN’

A Russian troll writing under the pseudonym “Alice Donovan” managed to convince a number of American editors to publish their work for the past two years, a new Washington Post report detailed on Monday. In February 2016, the individual reportedly wrote an email to the left-leaning publication CounterPunch with a simple message: “Hello, my name is Alice Donovan and I’m a beginner freelance journalist.” Initially, the troll’s articles published in CounterPunch and some 10 or more other online publications didn’t have much to do with domestic politics. But as the 2016 election intensified, Donovan began to target Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, the FBI tracked Donovan’s work—part of a bureau counterintelligence operation with the codename “NorthernNight.” More than a year after the FBI identified the troll, her work was still being published in CounterPunch, often critical of American policy in the Middle East. Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch’s editor, later tried to get more information out of the troll to verify their identify but received no such substantive information.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR & JOSHUA FRANK RESPOND:

Like most back alleys of RussiaGate, the tracks of this story are murky. Murky in a Kafkaesque kind of way. Nothing is entirely clear. Nothing seems quite definitive. Conjecture builds on conjecture and still doesn’t add up to something entirely whole.

A young writer sends off some of her first stories to a variety of online news sites. She tries a few times and then gets a bite. Her byline appears on several outlets. But one of her very first submissions is somehow snagged by an intelligence agency, perhaps the NSA, and kicked over to the FBI. Someone is monitoring her email traffic. She is suspected of posing behind a false identity, operating as a troll for Russia, at a time when Russia is politically toxic. She isn’t informed of this surveillance or the suspicions about her. Neither are any of the writers or editors that she may be communicating with. None of her stories focus specifically on Russia. When they do mention Russia, it’s largely in the context of the Syrian war. Some are critical of Hillary Clinton. Others are critical of Donald Trump. Mostly the stories are about policy, not politics. None are especially earth-shaking. They are read, but not widely disseminated.

Let’s say the writer had a “pro-Russian” bias. Does this matter? Every writer carries some kind of bias. Some big-time columnists and policy wonks have written with a bias toward torture and preemptive nuclear strikes. This writer’s pieces don’t advocate hostilities with the US. Indeed, quite the opposite. If anything the stories show a bias against war and for peace, a bias which may be enough to raise suspicions in this attenuated environment.

But what about the question of identity? Is the writer really who she says she is? Does she have a hidden agenda? If so, what is she hiding? Does it invalidate what she says? Why?

Have we entered a time when to be published, writers must prove their identity to their publishers and readers as if they were passing through the TSA checkpoint in an airport? Recall that in penning the Federalist Papers, so crucial to the shaping of the US Constitution, Hamilton, Jay and Madison all cloaked themselves behind the pseudonym of “Publius.” How much does identity really matter? What happens if the news is true, but the writer is a fake?

And, finally, what happens when everything you thought you knew about a writer and her work on closer inspection melts away like a desert mirage?

These are the questions that we’ve been grappling with during the search for one of our own occasional contributors, a writer who went by the name of Alice Donovan.

***

We received a call on Thursday morning, November 30, from Adam Entous, a national security reporter at the Washington Post. Entous said that he had a weird question to ask about one of our contributors. What did we know about Alice Donovan? It was indeed an odd question. The name was only faintly familiar. Entous said that he was asking because he’d been leaked an FBI document alleging that “Alice Donovan” was a fictitious identity with some relationship to Russia. He described the FBI document as stating that “Donovan” began pitching stories to websites in early 2016. The document cites an article titled “Cyberwarfare: Challenge of Tomorrow.”

The first question we asked ourselves was: “Who the hell is Alice Donovan?” And the next: “Why is the FBI spying on American journalists?” We spent the next three weeks hunting for answers. With each answer we found, new questions arose.

We quickly searched the CounterPunch archives and found that we had indeed published the cyberwarfare piece on April 29, 2016. Other than the striking allegations about the author, there’s nothing especially noteworthy about the cyberwarfare story, which focuses on the ransomware hacking of medical databases. The article even extensively quotes a Washington Post interview with an FBI cybercrime investigator named Chris Stangl. We later learned that the cyberwarfare article had been published originally by Veterans Today. A few months later the same piece appeared in truncated form on MintPressNews.

In total, we published five articles by Donovan over a period of 18 months. Only the cyberwarfare piece ran in 2016. After that, we didn’t run another Donovan piece for nearly a year. We published “Escalation in Syria,” a fairly straightforward commentary on the implications of Trump’s cruise missile raid on the Shayrat airbase, on April 10, 2017, three days after the attacks. The 340-word story briefly describes the defensive measures the Russian military were taking as an immediate response to the attacks.

On May 19, we ran another slightly more provocative (and, ultimately, problematic) commentary from Donovan titled “US-led Coalition Airstrike on Assad’s Forces in Syria was Not Accidental.” This 435-word piece reported on the coalition’s airstrikes against pro-government militias near the border town of At-Tanf and described the Syria government’s view that the raids were meant to slow the Syrian regime’s recapture of territory held by US-supported rebel forces.

Five days later, we ran a brief commentary titled “US Coalition Airstrikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria,” which summarized an Agence-France Press story detailing civilian casualties in the Syrian war. It wasn’t until October 16 that we ran our next and last piece from Donovan titled “Civil War in Venezuela: US Joint Operation With Colombia?”, a story about efforts to topple the Maduro government which had already appeared on several other websites.

None of these submissions were commissioned and she wasn’t compensated for any of the stories. (In the end, there would have been no address to mail the check to if we had paid her.) They all arrived by email from one of Donovan’s two email accounts. All of the subject lines read simply: “Submission.” Each contained a short note asking if we might be interested in publishing it. There was nothing irregular about the articles or the emails themselves. They pretty much followed the standard submission guidelines posted on the CounterPunch website. Over the course of 2016, Donovan sent us a total of seven or eight submissions, coming at a pace of about one per month. We declined to publish all but the Cyberwarfare article in 2016. In 2017, we received another four or five more submissions.

Donovan’s first email submission to CounterPunch arrived in our inbox on February 28, 2016 at 3:26 in the morning. She introduced herself as “a beginner freelance journalist.” The story she pitched, titled “Does America Need Such Friends,” was a caustic critique of Turkey under Erdogan that would not have pleased his lobbyist Michael Flynn. We passed on the story. What we didn’t know at the time was that this article, like the Cyberwarfare story, had been already published at the cranky conspiracy site Veterans Today, which once denounced Wikileaks and Julian Assange as shills for … Israel’s Mossad.

In sum, we published five stories by Donovan. One was apolitical. Four could be considered critiques of US foreign policy during the Trump administration. None mentioned Hillary Clinton (or Vladimir Putin for that matter).

Based solely on what we’d just reviewed was there any reason at the time to suspect that Alice Donovan was anything other than what she appeared to be: an occasional contributor of topical stories? Not as far as we could tell. The stories weren’t pro-Russian polemics and they didn’t read like awkward Google-translations of the Russian language. The most controversial thing that could be said about them was that some stories attempted to present a particular Syrian view of the war, a perspective rarely heard in the US media.

Surely we could get the answer from Donovan herself. We wanted to talk to her, hear her voice, ask her questions, get her reaction to the allegations made in the FBI document. Anything to prove that one of our contributors wasn’t a phantom. Or worse. So we emailed Donovan a couple of hours after speaking with Entous and urged her to contact us as soon as possible. We told her that questions had been raised about her stories and her identity by the FBI and the Post. A day passed with no reply. We sent a similar message to her Twitter account. Still, we heard nothing from her.

If Donovan wasn’t going to help us prove she was a corporeal being, we were going to try to do it for her. The FBI has been wildly wrong many times before, after all. For the next week, we followed her online tracks. Our search for the internet origins of the Donovan persona took us into some of the web’s darker subdivisions, regions haunted by conspiracists, hackers, identity thieves, trolls, pranksters and government operatives. Thus, there’s some sour irony in the fact that the first story we ran by Alice Donovan, the one the FBI had picked up on, was a piece on cyberwarfare.

In digging deeper into Donovan’s online presence, we found that she had been published on many other sites, across a political spectrum that runs from right to left: The Duran, Ground Report, GlobalResearch, MintPress News, the ActivistPost, Veterans Today, Op-Ed News, Popular Resistance, Restoring Liberty and, most prolifically, on WeAreChange, where her pieces began appearing regularly in June 2016. In total, we identified 28 unique stories under Donovan’s byline on more than a dozen websites. (See below: “Alice Donovan: a Chronological Bibliography.”)

To our knowledge, none of these media outlets had the slightest idea that Donovan may have been a façade. Only the FBI and NSA suspected that. They seemed to have been tracking Donovan’s emails from the beginning when Donovan first started pitching her stories. But they chose not to tell anyone.

We scoured the web for radio, YouTube and podcast interviews, now almost compulsory activities for cyber-age journalists. Nothing. We searched for images of her and were only able to dredge up the rather spooky photo of a woman lying down looking at a cellphone used as her Twitter profile. The obscured voyeuristic image has a Helmut Newton-quality to it. It’s not a photo likely to land you many gigs as an up-and-coming political reporter. It didn’t entice many followers, either. Donovan joined Twitter in May 2016. Twenty months later, despite the enticing photo, she had racked up only 49 followers (when this was written, more since this story and the Post’s were published, ironically), with bots making up a significant portion.

Donovan’s lightly trafficked Twitter page describes her as a “freelance writer and online journalist currently collaborating with We Are Change NYC,” who lives in New York City. She issued her first tweet on May 12: “Hello Twitter! #myfirstTweet.” Assuming this actually was Donovan’s first Twitter account, she was a pretty late arrival to the social media platform, especially for a young freelancer who doesn’t seem to be a Luddite.

None of her tweets (and there are only 28 of them) reveal anything about her life or personality. She never tweeted out links to any of her CounterPunch stories, although she did use Twitter to promote three stories she published at WeAreChange and a few crudely-made and not very funny memes attacking Hillary Clinton. In fact, she retweeted more stories by the well-known subversive NYT columnist Paul Krugman (1) than CounterPunch (0). She did send us one message via Twitter asking if we’d received her submission on Venezuela. The page cites her date of birth as November 23. The year is not noted.

We sent someone to a protest at Ground Zero in New York, staged by We Are Change, a group Donovan had publicly claimed to be affiliated with. Nothing to see. There are at least 27 Alice Donovans in the greater NYC area. We started calling them, before quickly conceding the futility of that plan. Our mission began to feel like the world’s most absurd snipe hunt.

(Click to enlarge)

Since we couldn’t seem to prove that Donovan existed in the physical world, we flipped the matter on its head. Could we prove that Alice Donovan wasn’t real? Could we prove that she was a fiction? Could we, in essence, prove a negative? That answer came more quickly: No. Donovan had a distinctive online footprint, which is one of the Washington Post’s own criteria for verifying submissions from freelancers and op-ed writers. Donovan had at least two email accounts in her name. She had that Twitter account, used a Pinterest page and had interacted in some form with at least a dozen media outlets. Her writing had been translated into French and Portuguese. At the virtual level, Alice Donovan existed as a distinct persona, although it’s one which seems to have emerged fully formed on February 25, 2016 with the publication of her first piece on Veterans Today. We couldn’t locate any traces of her before that date.

Just how maddening had our search for this ghost-like creature become? We even began to wonder about the name. Was “Donovan” a sly allusion to that old spymaster, Wild Bill? What about the time-stamps on her submissions? Was there a pattern? Could we use the timing and IP addresses of the submissions as a means to pinpoint the location of the sender? No dice. Most of the Donovan emails to us–and there were thirteen in all from February 2016 to October 2017–arrived in the morning. The earliest landed in our email server at 2:40 am PST, the latest at 1:37 pm. Most arrived between 4 and 8 am (or 7 and 11 am in New York and 3 and 7 pm in St. Petersburg). Oddly, none came at night here on the Pacific Coast. Meaning what, exactly? That writers keep strange hours? We certainly did during our quest for Alice Donovan.

As our hunt ended in a cul-de-sac, we began to ask ourselves: Did it really matter that much if we couldn’t prove “Alice Donovan” was actually Alice Donovan? We’d run anonymous writers before. Was this situation really much different? The five Donovan stories that we published weren’t very controversial. They didn’t disclose any inside information or make outlandish charges. They didn’t libel anyone. Instead, they gave our readers a broader understanding of what was going on inside Syria and Venezuela in times of war and turmoil, conflicts in which the US was deeply enmeshed.

There’s no question that Donovan’s writings gave weight to the idea that US interference in both Syria and Ukraine might spark a new and dangerous Cold War. But there’s nothing remarkable about those sentiments. It’s a perspective that is at least partially shared by many US foreign policy analysts, from Stephen Cohen to Henry Kissinger. And it’s a perspective that readers are entitled, though rarely given the opportunity, to hear. There was no reason to suspect that she was a covert mouthpiece for the Kremlin.

But, yes, the byline does matter. Writers should be who they say they are or at least let their publishers and readers know that they are notwho they purport to be. They have to be accountable for the stories they write. And media organizations have to be accountable for the writers they publish. When it comes to the use of pseudonyms, we’ve gone by the Patrick Cockburn Rule. If Patrick can write under his own name as an unembedded journalist from the world’s most fraught war zones, then political commentators should be able to do the same from their desks in New York and Portland.

Not all of us have Patrick’s guts. In fact, few of us do. Which is why we’ve made some exceptions down the years. Most notably, for an extraordinary series of articles written during the Iraq war by a writer who called himself Werther. Werther was a defense budget analyst with deep knowledge of the Pentagon and the Congress and we identified him as such. Readers knew he was writing under a pen name and could evaluate his explosive pieces with that in mind.

For decades, publishers have struggled, and frequently failed, to verify the identity of their writers, especially for submissions from freelancers and op-ed writers, but occasionally even for reporters on staff. Here’s an example from the recent history of the Washington Post itself. In 2014, the Post’s op-ed page published a piece disparaging the capital’s public transportation system. The column, which was titled “DC, You’re Depressing,” included some far-fetched anecdotes and a few gratuitous slaps at the city’s Metro riders. The piece struck a sour note with Jason Barr, a writer at the Poynter Institute, who questioned the veracity of the story and the identity of its writer, Jason Huntmann. The Post’s editors responded to the criticism by asking Huntmann to provide proof of his identity. He didn’t reply and the Post scrubbed the piece from its website. The Posthad been taken for a ride. It happens, especially in the age of online journalism. Of course, the newspaper had previously been deceived by its Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Janet Cooke, who invented quotes, scenarios and fictitious characters in her riveting series “Jimmy’s World,” about an eight-year-old heroin addict living in Southeast DC. During the Bush administration, the Post swallowed fictitious reports about Iraq’s WMDs from shadowy sources, who were lusting for invasion. The Post retracted both Cooke and Huntmann’s stories, but they’ve never taken down the fictive pieces on Iraq which helped destroy a nation, killed hundreds of thousands of people and sparked the rise of ISIS and a new round of war.

* * *

Our view of Donovan changed rather abruptly when one of our searches turned up a September 7, 2017 New York Times article by Scott Shane titled “The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election.” This long story focused on dozens of phony Facebook accounts which the Times claims pushed pro-Russian messages during the election. Buried in the 28th paragraph of the story was the name “Alice Donovan.” Donovan’s Facebook page, the Times said, “pointed to documents from Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations that she said showed its pro-American tilt and — in rather formal language for Facebook — describe eventual means and plans of supporting opposition movements, groups or individuals in various countries.’” According to the Times, Facebook had deactivated the Donovan account after it failed a verification protocol.

Not a good sign, admittedly. But was there any evidence that this was our “Alice Donovan”? There are still dozens of other Alice Donovans happily posting on Facebook and our contributor had never submitted any anti-Soros stories. Our Donovan hadn’t written much about the election, as far as we knew. And we’d only published a single article by her during the election season, which was the apolitical piece on cyberwarfare. One of her pieces posted at We Are Change (“Busted: Hillary Clinton and Obama Administration Supply Weapons to ISIS”) did explore rather gleefully the implications of the Wikileaks email disclosures, but hundreds of other journalists were writing about them at the same time and often with the same excited tone.

Her Twitter account, as we’ve noted, did not show a frenzy of activity around the time of the election or at any other time, frankly. There wasn’t evidence of a social media boost for any of Donovan’s stories by the legendary Russian bot farms or anyone else. Similarly, none of her pieces were pumped up for mass consumption on Sputnik or RT. They were digested by a fairly limited audience on a few disparate websites and that was all. Still, it began to feel more and more like we had an intruder in our midst. But what kind and to what end? Had we really been catfished by a Russian troll? Had we fallen for a fake artist?

If Donovan was sowing confusion, it was mainly in the minds of her editors.

Whatever was going on here, it was nothing to rival the CIA’s own grand manipulations of the press in the 1950s and 1960s, where it once had as many as 200 journalists and editors doing the Agency’s bidding. They called it Operation Mockingbird, an idea conceived in the early 1950s by the CIA’s Frank Wisner and his best friend, Phil Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. The Operation Mockingbird writers were two-way players. These journalists wrote CIA-approved stories and they also spied for the Agency while on assignment overseas, sharing their notes, impressions and photographs with their CIA handlers back in Langley. Some of the news organizations actually allowed CIA operatives to work as reporters in the field. The New York Times, Carl Bernstein reported in 1977, “provided cover for about 10 CIA operatives between 1950 and 1966.” Similarly, the CIA also recruited journalists to actively work for the Agency as operatives. In 1973, CIA director William Colby admitted that the agency had “some three dozen” reporters on the “agency’s payroll.” Most of these operations were conducted with the consent of the publications’ publishers and top editors, including Bill Paley at CBS, Arthur Sulzberger at the New York Times and Henry Luce at TIME.

This joint operation of espionage and propaganda extended until at least the mid-1970s and probably much longer. Under intense pressure from Langley, the final report of the Senate Church Hearings into CIA domestic spying buried their own explosive findings about the true nature of the Agency’s cozy relationship with the press. And the papers and magazines, who well knew the truth, never told their millions of readers that many of their stories through the Cold War had been secretly approved, if not written, by the CIA.

* * *

Where could we go from here? The only places left to search for Donovan were in the texts themselves. We wanted to take a closer look at the style of the writing to see if there were inconsistencies. We wanted to track back the names, places and quotations. We picked up a few quirks of usage, particularly the odd insertions of indefinite articles in some of the stories that wouldn’t come naturally for most native English speakers. There was also her repeated use of “USD” to stand for US dollars in one article: “The tomahawk missiles that struck Syria in the first wave of airstrikes reportedly cost $60 million USD in total as one tomahawk missile is valued at approximately $1 million USD.”

Nothing dramatic or revealing, but just enough stylistic kinks for us to start thinking that all of Donovan’s writing hadn’t been written by the same person. The prose style of the Cyberwarfare piece, for example, is very far removed from the clunkier sentences of “Escalation in Syria.”

So we began to run Google searches of titles, quotes and text sequences from Donovan’s stories. It didn’t take long to discover that the biggest problem with Alice Donovan wasn’t the authenticity of her byline, but the source of her writing itself.

On May 19, Donovan submitted a story titled “US-led Coalition Airstrike On Assad’s Forces Was Not Accidental”. After a bit of digging we discovered that on the same day the piece was emailed to us, the story appeared verbatim on two other websites, including Inside Syria Media Center and The International Reporter. So what’s the big deal? Well, the article published at the other two sites before Donovan’s piece went up on CounterPunch was authored by a writer named Sophie Mangal, whose bio states that she is an “investigative correspondent” and “co-editor” at Inside Syria Media Center.

Mangal isn’t completely unknown to us here at CounterPunch. She’s submitted dozens of articles over the last year, none of which we ran, largely because of the awkwardness of the prose. By all accounts, Mangal is a prolific journalist, churning out three or four (sometimes more) thinly-sourced stories per week. Her reporting generally lacks much nuance or pretense to objectivity. The roughly written stories are valuable mainly for their insights into the Syrian government’s view of the war. (Some of the Twitter posts from Inside Syria Media Center include the endearing hashtag: “We Love You Bashar.”) Nearly all of Mangal’s articles also appear on Globalresearch.ca. Since many CounterPunch readers regularly consult Global Research, Donovan’s brazen plagiarism of Mangal’s work ran a considerable risk of being noticed.

We emailed Mangal to confirm that the Syria piece we published under Donovan’s byline was actually hers and asked whether she knew Alice Donovan. “For sure, it’s my article,” Mangal promptly wrote back. “It was originally published on the website of Inside Syria Media Center. Actually, I don’t know Alice Donovan and who this person is.”

If Mangal didn’t know Donovan, Donovan certainly knew of Mangal’s work. Donovan’s April 10 story “Escalation in Syria” contains two strikingly similar paragraphs to a piece Mangal had published one day earlier on Inside Syria Media Center and Quemado Institute. This time Donovan even helpfully inserted a link to the Mangal story, even though she didn’t cite Mangal as the source or use quotation marks around borrowed words, phrases and sentences.

Here’s Mangal’s version:

According to trusted military sources of Inside Syria Media Center source [sic] in Syria, after the U.S. Tomahawk strikes on the Shayrat air base on April 7, Russia has taken measures to guarantee more security for its military in case the attack is repeated.

Sources also claimed that two Russian all-purpose jets capable of spotting and intercepting cruise missiles are barraging in the Eastern Mediterranean.

If any attacks on the objects, where the Russian military are located (including the Hmeimim and Tartus bases), take place, the Russians are likely to carry out retaliatory strikes on the ships that launch cruise missiles.

As our source states, Russian military advisors have been stationed at the positions of all of the Syrian antiaircraft defense systems to assist in intercepting cruise missiles.

And here is Donovan writing a day later:

According to Syrian media sources, the Russian government has taken measures to guarantee more security for its forces in case of possible attack regarding the recent U.S. Tomahawk air strikes on the Shayrat air base on April 7.

At this moment, two Russian all-purpose jets capable of spotting and intercepting cruise missiles are barraging in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, the Russian forces are ready to carry out retaliatory strikes on the U.S. ships that launch cruise missiles if they attack the Russian military objects (including Khmeimim and Tartus bases).

Meanwhile, the Russian military advisors have arrived at the Syrian bases equipped with the anti-aircraft defense systems to assist Assad’s forces to counter cruise missiles strikes.

Donovan and Mangal intersected in at least one other, perhaps tangential, way. Mangal uses “MAIL.com” for her email client. So did Alice Donovan until mid-2016, when she switched to GMAIL. While millions use MAIL.com as an email service, very few of our writers do. In fact, out of the last 3,000 submissions or so, only 4 authors have submitted via MAIL.com, that includes Donovan and Mangal. What does it mean, if anything? We don’t know, but we will be following up on this aspect of the story in a future piece.

* * *

So just how audacious of a journalistic pickpocket is Alice Donovan? Well, here’s some insight. On December 6, 2016 The Guardian ran a report by Shaun Walker titled “It’s a pretty disturbing time for Ukraine’: Trump’s Russia ties unnerve Kiev”. Walker’s story opens like this:

Kiev was far from the only capital city in which the ruling elite reacted with alarm to the election of Donald Trump, but the Ukrainian government has more reason than most to fear the new US administration.

The US president-elect made a number of positive commentsabout the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, during the campaign, and even suggested he might consider recognising Crimea, the territory annexed by Russia from Ukraine two years ago, as part of Russia. There has been talk of a “big deal” between Trump and Putin over Syria, which some have suggested could see Ukraine thrown under the bus.

“Everybody was tearing their hair and running around like crazies,” said Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, of the first days after Trump’s election victory.

Eight days later a piece by Donovan appeared in the now-defunct Ground Report,Will Trump Change America’s Policy in Ukraine?. The first three paragraphs under Donovan’s byline were lifted verbatim from Walker’s Guardian article. Then Donovan veers off for a few graphs before embedding her piece with another three unaltered paragraphs clipped from Walker’s story:

While the current US administration has stopped short of supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons, it has been a strong supporter of Ukraine with financial aid, and has slapped sanctions on Russia in protest at its actions. With Trump in the White House many in Kiev fear they could be abandoned.

“It’s what everyone is talking about,” said a European diplomat based in Kiev. “It’s a pretty disturbing time for Ukraine.” Michael McFaul, formerly the US ambassador to Russia, declared when Trump was confirmed the winner of the election that Ukraine was “the biggest loser in the world tonight”.

The US has been a strong supporter of the Ukrainian government since the 2014 revolution that ousted Yanukovych, but critics say Poroshenko is pursuing the same kind of corrupt, oligarchic politics with a democratic facade.

In another instance, Donovan stole sentences verbatim from a piece on Montenegro written by Dragan Plavsic for the British website CounterFire. Here’s Plavsic’s lede graph:

In December last year, Nato officially invited Montenegro to become the 29th member state of the most powerful military organisation of our times, if not, in fact, of all time. That the invitation will have flattered the already over-inflated ego of the country’s Prime Minister, Milo Djukanović, and his ruling clique, there is, of course, little doubt. Nevertheless, this was flattery to deceive, for as everybody knows, Montenegro’s voice in Nato will be like a whistle in a whirlwind.

And here’s Donovan’s lede for a very “inside baseball” story, in Joan Didion’s phrase, about Montenegro’s entry into NATO written 9 months later:

In December last year, NATO officially invited Montenegro to become the 29th member state of the most powerful military organisation of our times, if not, in fact, of all time. The country’s Prime Minister, Milo Đukanović, assured the NATO secretary-general that “you can count on us at any time.” It is always nice to hear that someone has your back. But in Montenegro’s case, it means that they have our back with an entire active-duty military force of only two thousand personnel. It is not quite clear how the tiny nation of less than 700,000 people enhances U.S. security in the slightest. In fact, one might argue that adding Montenegro to NATO actually detracts from U.S. security.

That the invitation will have flattered the already over-inflated ego of the country’s Prime Minister, Milo Đukanović, and his ruling clique, there is, of course, little doubt. Nevertheless, this was flattery to deceive, for as everybody knows, Montenegro’s voice in NATO will be like a whistle in a whirlwind.

Plavsic’s piece, titled “NATO’s Dangerous Game in the Balkans,” was published on February 6, 2016. Donovan’s story appeared at the Canadian site Global Research under the title “U.S. Geopolitical Games In Montenegro And Proven Winning Approach by Đukanović” on October 26, 2016. Apparently, Donovan just couldn’t resist stealing a good lede.

But it gets even stranger. The final two graphs of the story were also plagiarized. This time from an article by Zachary Yost titled “NATO Doesn’t Need Montenegro’s Teeny-Tiny Military” and published by The National Interest website on June 28, 2016. Here’s Yost:

Frankly, adding Montenegro to NATO is ridiculous. New York City would be a more useful NATO member. After all, according to Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Police Department “is the seventh largest army in the world.” With just under 35,000 officers, the NYPD is over seventeen times larger than the Montenegrin armed forces. In fact, the NYPD budget, clocking in last year at $4.8 billion, amounts to just under half of Montenegro’s GDP. Adding New York City to NATO also has the additional benefit of not worsening tensions with Russia.

Facetiousness aside, NATO expansion is no laughing matter. It is nothing personal against Montenegro, but its addition to NATO is simply irresponsible. It will not contribute to U.S. security and will serve as another point of contention with Russia. The U.S. senate should exercise its veto power over Montenegro’s invitation into the alliance when it is introduced, and in the future should put the kibosh on any more attempts at NATO expansion that don’t contribute to U.S. security.

And here is Donovan writing (well, cut-and-pasting) three months later:

Frankly, adding Montenegro to NATO is ridiculous. New York City would be a more useful NATO member. After all, according to Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Police Department “is the seventh largest army in the world.” With just under 35,000 officers, the NYPD is over seventeen times larger than the Montenegrin armed forces. In fact the NYPD budget, clocking in last year at $4.8 billion, amounts to just under half of Montenegro’s GDP. Adding New York City to NATO also has the additional benefit of not worsening tensions with Russia.

Facetiousness aside, NATO expansion is no laughing matter. It is nothing personal against Montenegro, but its addition to NATO is simply irresponsible. It will not contribute to U.S. security and will serve as another point of contention with Russia. The U.S. senate should exercise its veto power over Montenegro’s invitation into the alliance when it is introduced, and in the future should put the kibosh on any more attempts at NATO expansion that don’t contribute to U.S. security.

So, Donovan stole the opening and the closing of her piece on Montenegro. What about the rest? We located the remainder of the story (minus the appropriated opening and closing graphs) on a site called Politics Forum under the heading “A Proven Winning Approach by Dukanovic.” The story does not carry a byline and the source is cited as a page at Cgna.info. The entire site now seems to be off-line. Undoubtedly, the rest of the Donovan oeuvre is replete with similar acts of prose piracy, but these instances were more than enough for us to render our judgment.

* * *

Then, just when we thought things couldn’t possibly get any more convoluted, we heard from … Alice Donovan.

Six days after we first wrote to her, she replied in a brief email, in which she made a revealing admission. She said that she was indeed the Alice Donovan referred to in the New York Times story on false identities. In other words, she was confirming her existence by citing an article that claimed she didn’t exist. She said that after the NYT’s story broke, she “deleted my FB page ’cause I had received a lot of offensive messages.” (The valley girl colloquialism is a nice touch.) She also said she didn’t “want to talk to anyone for security reasons.”

Now that’s certainly understandable. No one wants to be harangued by a mob of irate Facebookers. But was it accurate? Two things undermine her assertion. Facebook executives say they are the ones who deleted Donovan’s Facebook account, which happened before the Times story appeared. And Donovan didn’t delete her Twitter page at the same time, where she could easily have been targeted by enraged defenders of George Soros. In fact, she continued posting to it after the Times story appeared. It remains an active account as of this writing.

We immediately wrote back to Donovan. We told her we simply wanted to confirm her identity. We asked her to call us or send us a photo of a utility bill. It can’t be that hard to prove you exist. We also asked her if she had any possible explanation for why her piece on Syria was identical to the one written and published earlier that same day by Sophie Mangal. We never heard from her again.

* * *

On December 21, we finally talked to Luke Rudkowski, journalist and founder of WeAreChange, which published more than 20 of Donovan’s pieces from June 2016 to May 2017. Rudkowski told CounterPunch he was blindsided by the news that Alice Donavan was likely a fake persona and only learned of it after being contacted by the Washington Post via email.

“Looks like we were totally played,” said Rudowski, who said that at one point his organization attempted to pay Donovan for a few of her pieces but she would always dodge the issue. What aspiring young journalist wouldn’t like to be paid, especially by a site that’s already publishing her work?

“We’ve scrubbed our pages of any signs of her,” added Rudowski. “The whole thing is totally embarrassing.”

* * *

After weeks of probing, we learned much about Alice Donovan, but ended up knowing almost nothing about her. As an individual, she remained a cypher, an exemplar of what Keats called “negative capability.” Does she exist? Well, there was someone at the other end of the email address and it was a person, not a bot (bots would have used better grammar.) Other than that we still don’t know much for certain. Is “Alice Donovan” actually Alice Donovan? We couldn’t verify that she is or prove that she wasn’t and she chose to do neither. Is the freelance writer “Alice Donovan” a single individual? Probably not. Certainly not, if you consider the numerous instances of plagiarism. Is she a Russian troll? We still don’t know.

If Donovan proves to be a cyber troll of some kind, then the current crop of impersonators are not nearly as skilled as the polished moles in LeCarré’s novels. These people are flawed beings. They make mistakes. Which makes them more interesting in a way. They’re not quite sympathetic characters, but just imagine having to live as an online imposter pounding out innocuous stories once every few weeks, sending them out and hoping they get picked up, tweeted and retweeted, getting bored and lazy and ripping off the prose of other reporters as your deadline approaches, and then occasionally sending out the wrong file under the wrong email address to the wrong publishers. These trolls fuck up.

The one thing we know for sure is that Alice Donovan had recklessly stolen other writers’ work and pawned it off as her own, for whatever purpose. To that extent, at least, she is a fraud and that deception brought all her other writing into doubt, which is why we removed it from the CounterPunch website. But it must be admitted that her repeated screw-ups are terrible tradecraft for a troll, which may undermine the case against her as some kind of deep cover operative. If Donovan’s intent was to destroy “our democratic values” by committing crimes against journalism, she’ll need to swing a lot harder to surpass the damage done by Judith Miller.

None of this, however, is an exculpation for our own blunders. Somewhere along the line we blew it. We let a plagiarist and a possible troll onto CounterPunch. Were there warning signs that we missed? Sure. Should we have been alert to the awkward phrases in some of the articles on Syria that didn’t read like the original Donovan piece? No doubt. But recall that we had published more than 5,000 articles between the first and second Donovan stories. We should have picked up on the lifted passages in the “Escalation in Syria” story because there was a link that took us directly to the piece that was plagiarized. We should have become suspicious about Donovan after the New York Times story ran in September. Those are on us.

So why did we run five pieces by Alice Donovan? First, because they were interesting and timely. The short pieces on Syria, in particular, came at a moment when Trump was engaged in his first big military action and we were eager, perhaps too eager, to publish as many different perspectives as possible on his new, more aggressive policy. Second, we’ve always made a point of encouraging and publishing young writers from different backgrounds: activists, union organizers, students, veterans, prisoners, the homeless, even lawyers. The fact that Donovan professed to being a “beginner” wasn’t a deterrent. We were glad to add a young, female voice to our mix of contributors. Then we got burned. Our challenge going forward will be to keep CounterPunch as open as possible to a global network of writers from a wide range of political viewpoints without leaving the site vulnerable to trolls, pranksters, propagandists or government operatives, no matter what country they may be tied to.

If the FBI was so worried about the risks posed by Alice Donovan’s false persona, they could have tipped off some of the media outlets she was corresponding with. But in this case they refrained for nearly two years. Perhaps they concluded that Donovan was the hapless and ineffectual persona she appears to be. More likely, they wanted to continue tracking her. But they couldn’t do that without also snooping on American journalists and that represents an icy intrusion on the First Amendment. For a free press to function, journalists need to be free to communicate with whomever they want, without fear that their exchanges are being monitored by federal agencies. A free press needs to be free to make mistakes and learn from them. We did.

Alice Donovan, a Chronological Bibliography

Here is a catalogue of all “Alice Donovan” stories that we’ve been able to locate online. Many of the links are now dead.

Feb 25, 2016

Does America Need Such Friends?

Veterans Today

March 31, 2016

Pentagon [SIC] Secret Game in Syria

Veterans Today

April 26, 2016

Cyberwarfare: Challenge of Tomorrow

Veterans Today

April 29, 2016

Cyberwarfare: Challenge of Tomorrow

CounterPunch

June 9, 2016

#Blacks Against Hillary Initiative Joined by Hundreds of Black People Across America

We are Change

July 20, 2016

Syrian Nightmare

We Are Change

Veterans Today

July 20, 2016

Is Dallas Shooting the First Spark of Potential Powder Keg?

We Are Change

Veterans Today

August 8, 2016

Busted: HRC and Obama Sell Arms to ISIS

We Are Change

August 15, 2016

Russia to Destroy Terrorists in Aleppo During Navy Drills

We are Change

August 17, 2016

Cyberwarfare: Challenge of Tomorrow

MintPressNews

Sept. 14, 2016

Hacked: Former Sec. of State Colin Powell Slammed Hillary and Trump

We are Change

Sept. 15, 2016

Washington’s Terrorists Keep Violating Ceasefire

We are Change

Oct. 12, 2016

Bogus Assault on Mosul

Veterans Today

Oct. 14, 2016

Bogus Assault on Mosul

We are Change

Oct. 25, 2016

US Political Games in Montenegro And Proven Winning Approach by Đukanović *

Veterans Today

Oct. 26, 2016

US Political Games in Montenegro And Proven Winning Approach by Đukanović *

Global Research

Oct. 27, 2016

US Political Games in Montenegro And Proven Winning Approach by Đukanović *

Global Politics

Nov. 5, 2016

US Special Forces Join Fight for Mosul

We are Change

Nov. 9, 2016

US Special Forces Join Fight for Mosul

Ground Report

Nov. 18, 2016

Hezbollah Terrorists Spotted Using US Military Vehicles **

Nov. 18, 2016

Obama Urges Anti-Trump Protesters Not to be Silent

We are Change

Nov. 21, 2016

Federal Judge: “Go to Another Country If You Don’t Like Trump”

We are Change

Dec. 14, 2016

Will Trump Change America’s Policy in Ukraine? ***

Ground Report

Jan. 5, 2017

US Airstrikes Killed Civilians in Syria’s Idlib

We are Change

Jan. 5, 2017

7 Insane Government Conspiracies That Actually Happened

We are Change

Jan. 6, 2017

Video: US Airstrikes Killed Civilians in Syria’s Idlib

Ground Report

Jan. 7, 2017

US Airstrikes Killed Civilians in Syria’s Idlib

Op-Ed News

Jan. 25, 2017

Trump to Ban Travel from 7 Countries, Including Iraq and Syria

We are Change

Jan 26, 2017

After Meeting with Assad, Tulsi Gabbard Calls on US to End Support for Terrorism

We are Change

March 15, 2017

Turkish Hacker Groups Hack Twitter and Provoke Feud with The Netherlands

We are Change

March 20, 2017

Trump Blames Dems for Creating “Fake News” in Fiery New Tweets

We are Change

April 7, 2017

Syrian Media: US Air Strike on Syria Kills Four Children

We are Change

April 9, 2017

Dramatic Escalation in Syria

We are Change

Restoring Liberty

April 10, 2017 ****

Escalation in Syria

CounterPunch

Activist Post

May 20, 2017

US-led Coalition Airstrike on Assad’s Troops Not Accidental *****

CounterPunch

May 24, 2017

US-Led Airstrikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria

We are Change

Veterans Today

Activist Post

May 25, 2017

US-Led Airstrikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria

CounterPunch

May 26, 2017

US-Led Airstrikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria

The Duran

May 29, 2017

US-Led Airstrikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria

Popular Resistance

October 13, 2017

Civil War in Venezuela: US Joint Operation with Colombia

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October 14, 2017

Civil War in Venezuela? US Joint Operation With Colombia

Global Research

Oct. 15, 2017

The US Works with Columbia [Sic] to Undermine Venezuela

The Duran

October 16, 2017

Civil War in Venezuela? US Joint Operation With Colombia

CounterPunch

Guerre civile au Venezuela : opération conjointe des États-Unis avec la Colombie [French]

Reseau International

Guerra Civil na Venezuela? Operação conjunta dos EUA com a Colômbia [Portuguese]

Naval Brasil

* Partially plagiarized from NATO’s Dangerous Game in the Balkansby Dragan Plavsic, Counterfire, February 6, 2016 and NATO Doesn’t Need Montenegro’s Teeny-Tiny Military by Zachary Yost, The National Interest, June 28, 2016.

** Partially plagiarized from an RT story titled: Images of Hezbollah “Parading US Armored Vehicles” Emerge Online, Sparking Controversy, Nov. 16, 2016.

*** Partially plagiarized from It’s a pretty disturbing time for Ukraine: Trump’s Russia ties unnerve Kiev by Shaun Walker, The Guardian, Dec. 6, 2016.

**** Partially plagiarized from “Dramatic Escalation in Syria” by Sophia Mangal, Inside Syria Media Center.

***** Plagiarized verbatim from by Sophia Mangal, International Reporter, Inside Syria Media Center.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter@brickburner.

(Courtesy, CounterPunch.org)

 

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