Year in Review - 2014

by JOHN HOWARD
Posted 12.30.2014

Californians started 2014 the way they ended the previous year – parched by drought, hoping for an improved economy, outraged at Capitol corruption scandals and, finally, looking for relief at the fuel pump.

First and last, the year’s biggest story was California’s historic drought, which forced down reservoirs and ground water to unprecedented lows, turned off the taps to farms and businesses – and even at least one small town – and ultimately persuaded voters in November to approve a multibillion-dollar waterworks bond that included $2.7 billion in new storage.

Yee was arrested in an FBI undercover investigation and charged with corruption, wire fraud and – to the astonishment of even veteran Capitol watchers – with international gun-running.

The drought eased late in the year with torrential, slow-moving storms that struck the state, but as 2015 dawned the drought was still with us. Reversing earlier doom-and-gloom predictions, federal forecasters reported in December that the chances of wet weather during the next three months were good — and people crossed their fingers. One cliché was true: When it rains, it pours. Throughout the Bay Area and much of the coastal north state, the torrential rains brought flooding, and mudslides were reported north and south. In the Sierra Nevada, there was joy as skiers found snow, and Echo Summit and Boreal actually looked normal. The wine industry – California produces 90 percent of the nation’s domestic wine – also was hard hit.

Compared with the drought, the rest of the top stories of 2014 seemed almost trivial. Almost.

In March, state Sen. Leland Yee, the respected state senator and candidate for secretary of state who authored California’s online voter-registration law, was arrested in an FBI undercover investigation and charged with corruption, wire fraud and – to the astonishment of even veteran Capitol watchers – with international gun-running. The latter allegation stemmed from Yee’s purchase of weapons from a Philippine extremist group and his attempt to resell the guns to, it turned out, an FBI agent.

Yee was taken into custody, doing the “perp walk” for news cameras in San Francisco. By the end of the month, he had been expelled from the Senate.

The leaked affidavit served as the roadmap to the February charges. It was – and is — the most visible corruption scandal in Sacramento since the FBI’s August 1988 night raid on the Capitol.

But there was more: Yee allegedly was close to a Chinatown crime figure, Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who also was indicted as part of the FBI investigation that included numerous charges not linked to Yee. Yee, one of 28 people to be caught in the FBI net, also was accused of taking a $10,000 bribe from an undercover agent in return for using his influence to get a state contract. Four months later, another charge was added to the allegations against Yee, accusing him of trying to pry money out of an unnamed NFL team in return for his efforts involving legislation.

The trial of Yee, 65, who has pleaded innocent, is expected to begin by mid-2015 in San Francisco. But he wasn’t the only senator with big problems.

Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, was indicted Feb. 21 in Los Angeles on 24 on counts that included public corruption and taking bribes and kickbacks. His brother Tom, a former lawmaker-turned-consultant, was indicted on seven counts of money laundering. He later was expelled from the upper house. Both have pleaded innocent.

Details of the federal investigation were leaked to the Al Jazeera news network in 2013, and Al Jazeera’s story rocked the Capitol. The leaked affidavit served as the roadmap to the February charges. It was – and is — the most visible corruption scandal in Sacramento since the FBI’s August 1988 night raid on the Capitol that resulted in indictments and convictions of a number of lawmakers and their associates. Like Yee, the Calderons’ trial is expected in 2015.

A federal investigation found that welds in the PG&E pipeline were defective and inadequately maintained. PG&E, the state’s largest utility, also was hit with a $1.4 billion settlement with the state, but other issues arose as well.

The Senate’s image suffered still another black eye, when Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, was convicted Jan. 28 of eight counts of voter fraud and perjury. Wright, the influential chair of the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over gambling and alcohol policy, ultimately was sentenced to 90 days in jail and barred for life from holding public office. Wright resigned from the Senate in September.

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