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Roundtable: More Darrell Issa, More Funds For County Supervisors, No Shelter In Escondido

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Roundtable: More Darrell Issa, More Funds For County Supervisors, No Shelter In Escondido
Darrell Issa's Crusade; Escondido Says No; Supervisors Say Yes. HOST: Mark SauerGUESTS: Chris Jennewein, Times of San Diego.com Jill Replogle, KPBS News Alison St. John, KPBS News

MARK SAUER: I am Mark Sauer, and KPBS Roundtable starts now. Joining me today are Chris Jennewein Editor of Times of San Diego, KPBS News Reporter Jill Replogle, KPBS North County Editor Alison St. John. Congressman Darrell Issa of Vista has made a national name for himself by launching numerous investigations of the Obama administration. Benghazi, the Affordable Care Act, immigration, just name a few. Some say Issa is a hero, others call him a bully in his stewardship of the House oversight committee. I guess that this depends on what side of the political aisle reside. CHRIS JENNEWEIN: He is a Republican of course, and he is certainly playing to the Republican base. In North coastal San Diego and Southport County. He has generated tremendous publicity on a national level in the chairmanship of the house and Government Reform committee, but the committee's job is to investigate. Its mission is quite broad and its mission is ìto hold the government accountable to taxpayers,î that can cover almost anything that happens in Washington. MARK SAUER: It certainly has, and we have got basically five Congressman in this County, some overlap in other counties. It is safe to say that people nationally have heard mostly of Darrell Issa and not many others. How has he made this national name for himself? CHRIS JENNEWEIN: He had used his chairmanship as a bully pulpit. In San Diego County he and Susan Davis are the two longest-serving Congress members from San Diego, both started in 2001. He has used his position to enormous advantage, I think. Almost every day there is a headline in the national political journals about what he and his committee are doing. In fact just this morning the headline is that he has subpoenaed twenty-eight years of records in connection with the IRS investigation of Lois Lerner, who was head of the tax exempt organization in the IRS. MARK SAUER: In fact he goes all the way back to 1986 when there was not even email, we're going to get emails all the way back since before there were emails, maybe they're going back to Western Union telegrams. We do have a couple of clips with Darrell Issa himself explaining briefly why he has holding these hearings and also putting his views in a historical context on his role. DARRELL ISSA: The committee meets today as we continue our effort to get the truth and the full truth on the obstruction by the IRS and the targeting of Americans, because of their conservative political beliefs. This event in history, like Watergate, like Teapot Dome and many other historic events will be studied by future generations without the benefit of many of the thoughts and actions of Lois Lerner and others at the IRS, as a result of your organization's failure. I subpoenaed you here tonight because frankly, I am sick and tired of your gameplaying in response to congressional oversight. MARK SAUER: All right, Watergate, Teapot Dome, a little hyperbole there, perhaps? CHRIS JENNEWEIN: I don't think it is any of those, I think it is much closer in impact to the Whitewater controversy with the Clinton administration in the 1990s. This is about the land Hillary Clinton's real estate investments in the 1980s in Arkansas. If you remember it was very complicated, got a lot of press, but in the end it morphed into an investigation of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and nothing to do with Arkansas real estate. MARK SAUER: Absolutely, and nothing really came of it. Alison? ALISON ST. JOHN: Exactly, so much political theater here. Full disclosure, Darrell Issa is my Congressman. From the voters perspective you do see he has a national profile, but I also wonder has he actually worked to get any meaningful legislation through? I guess I would be interested to know whether he has actually sponsored any legislation, or if it is mostly this political theater. MARK SAUER: I went to his website the other day and he does, he lists a number of bills and you can actually go into them, and it was interesting to me more than half of them at a glance appear to have no cosponsors, I don't know if that is common throughout Congress or not. There was a bunch of stuff their cup but the titles of the bills and amendments are kind of what you would expect, a lot of political stuff and a lot of pestering the Obama administration. CHRIS JENNEWEIN: There is one very important one, the Data Act, which he was the lead sponsor on. The Data Act was enacted to bring record-keeping and access to records for the public into the internet age. Darrell I set is a very tech savvy Congressman. His company, in Vista, made auto alarms and electronic after market products for cars. I think that was a victory for whether you were Republican or Democrat, the data act was a victory for all Americans want to know more about what is going on. In full disclosure he is my Congressman as well, but only by a few blocks as well. Looking at the map recently. ALISON ST. JOHN: Do we know what his political aspirations are? It seems that could be explaining some of this. CHRIS JENNEWEIN: He is actually signaled that he is not going to continue in this chairmanship role of the oversight committee. He will be losing that pulpit in the new Congress. I think there is a lot of speculation out there, that it is hard to say what his next move is going to be. To follow on the idea of impact, the IRS question is a significant one that has to do with how the IRS rules are interpreted regarding tax-exempt organizations. MARK SAUER: It is interesting in that report and in the clip, Issa and the conservatives focus on conservative groups that were targeted. It is important to note that there were progressive groups targeted too. These are tax-exempt groups getting a handout, basically, from taxpayers. They are supposed to be doing community service and they are allowed to do some politics, but if you're doing too much politicking, you lose that exempt status. As I understand it, in Cincinnati and in the south, the IRS started doing some looking at keywords and things like tea party, conservative, and on the other side, progressive and liberal here. Is that an illogical way to ferret out whether there are a lot of groups getting the status who are really more political groups than anything else? CHRIS JENNEWEIN: It goes back to 2011 to the Citizens United case, decided by the Supreme Court. It said that there can't be a limit on campaign contributions, because it is a First Amendment free-speech issue. The IRS has long allowed organizations under a rule called 501(c) four, a very important part of the IRS code. It has allowed organizations who are advocacy groups to tax-exempt, remain provided no more than 50% of their money goes towards political purposes. In the aftermath of Citizens United, a lot of these groups appeared, and the IRS began scrutinizing them. There were calls from both sides to scrutinize these groups. It was clear that even though conservative groups were scrutinized by the IRS, so were liberal groups. The various occupy movements. MARK SAUER: The underlining question that I hope is not get lost here, are you abusing this? Should you not be getting a handout from the taxpayers? Should you lose this status? It is kind of all lost. The IRS went after those conservative groups. JILL REPLOGLE: One could argue that Issa's committee is supposed to do exactly that kind of thing, make sure that taxpayer money is being spent appropriately, and we're not getting a free ride to groups that are really politicians. MARK SAUER: We read a lot about this preparing for the segment. I don't see that focus, you see the focus on emails that were lost, the computer that crashed, targeting those groups and how outrageous that is. It is a case to a degree, even President Obama agrees with that, however, what about the fact that we might be using those exemptions? ALISON ST. JOHN: I guess I would be more interested in this political witchhunt if in fact there were some victims I could sympathize with, but it seems on both sides these are people who might be trying to get out of paying taxes, so one does not have a lot of sympathy for them. MARK SAUER: One other point that Issa and his committee have made is the issue of immigration, and the spike of immigration with unaccompanied children coming in, another broad mandate that they had, they can look at anything, not just the one IRS question. CHRIS JENNEWEIN: One example of this IRS question is True the Vote, a Houston-based organization that seeks to eliminate voter fraud by enlisting volunteers at elections. The interesting thing there is that they are not a 501(c)(4) organization, they are a 501(c)(3) organization, which means that not only are they tax-exempt, but they cannot make any political contributions except in a very narrow sense. There is an example where Issa has pushed extreme the hard on this particular case, and you could argue maybe they in fact should not be doing anything political. MARK SAUER: Well, we will shift gears now. Our Congressman Darrell Issa is also concerned that President Obama's policies are responsible for the deaths of immigrant children. This could be debated, certainly. But the administration does have a humanitarian and political challenge on its hands, with an influx of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children, most of them from Central America. Jill, that national story became a local story this week, you covered the hearing in Escondido this week, tell us about that. JILL REPLOGLE: The backup first to remind people, we are on the border and some people might be asking why they are not coming across this border as well? They are, most of them are coming from South Texas. There has been a huge increase year on the border as well, about 60% from last year. But there has been something around 700 unaccompanied minors coming to the San Diego sector, whereas in South Texas is upwards of 13,000 more. So anyway, this week, Southwest Key, one of the organizations that contracts with the federal government to house these children when they are waiting for their day in immigration court, apply to open a shelter in Escondido, with ninety-six beds, in a former nursing home. The planning commission took this up earlier this week, had a public hearing, and about 500 people showed up, pouring out the doors, filling up the hallways. They spoke for about three hours, most people very vehemently against putting the shelter in. It got nasty at times, a few people spoke in favor, but ultimately they voted unanimously against giving them the permit. MARK SAUER: What were the arguments against the permit? JILL REPLOGLE: It was arranged, there are certainly a lot of neighbors who spoke up worried about noise, traffic, parking, typical things. But then it got into are these kids carrying diseases, are they going to escape, and cause problems in the neighborhood, some people were worried that there might be gang members, and a lot of people got into the larger political debates of all of the things that we have heard from people like Darrell Issa. The Obama administration policies are bringing these kids in, is this our problem? Shouldn't we just step back work MARK SAUER: What is behind this surge as far as far folks can tell? What is the spike in numbers? JILL REPLOGLE: Because the media has caught on to it. There has been a slow increase in the number of children, not slow, a rapid increase, that it has been happening for years. MARK SAUER: We should characterize it, these are unaccompanied children mostly from Central America. JILL REPLOGLE: Mostly from Central America, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. A lot of kids from Mexico, but those number some action gone down, about one quarter of the kid direction from Mexico, the difference being that they are more easily set back. There is a range of reasons why these kids are coming. The UN did a report earlier this year, and they interviewed more than 400 kits. More than half of them said violence in their communities and homes were the major reason they were leaving. A lot of these kids have family members in the United States who have come legally or illegally before now, and they are trying to reunite with families. There does seem to be, this is where it has gotten a little messy, people like Darrell Issa say that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program allowed kids whose parents brought them here illegally as children to possibly get driver's licenses, work permits, and stay here illegally for a few years. Some people say this is what is driving kids, they had this false notion that they qualify for that. MARK SAUER: And they don't. JILL REPLOGLE: They don't qualify. MARK SAUER: And Issa has overstated that they qualify for that. JILL REPLOGLE: Right. But what does seem to be true is that many of these kids and families, women with children also coming over, and a lot of Central Americans and adults, that especially women and children have got the notion that maybe they can come to the United States for some period of time, which often times is true, because they had to go through the process of going before in immigration judge and having cases heard. And so, they have got this word that I will actually get across the border, that seems to be driving a lot of misinformation. MARK SAUER: And be there for it an indeterminate time. You were mentioning that point earlier, were you not? It does take some time. CHRIS JENNEWEIN: It does take some time, and it is important, Jill mentioned earlier, it is one thing to deport and unaccompanied minor from Mexico right across the border. But it is another thing for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, are all a long way away. You can't just put a child on a plane and say goodbye, there has to be a process. Something at the other end to take that person. In that sense, there's a lot of politics involved in this. The Obama administration is increasing deportation, but it takes time. It is easy to criticize and say the menstruation is not doing enough to stop the flow, and is not doing enough to deport. MARK SAUER: We got some calls this weekend, militarizing the borders, sending the National Guard down. JILL REPLOGLE: That is a big debate among some of the people that spoke at this planning commission meeting. These kids are refugees, we cannot just send them back. That is another debate, are they refugees or immigrants? We don't know, until they go before an immigration judge and they have a chance to tell them why they are fleeing. They may be being for legitimate reasons, while we as a country have to give them a chance to apply for asylum or some kind of attention, that is our law. You cannot just turn everyone back on the border without asking questions, and going through that process. ALISON ST. JOHN: They are refugees it is interesting to look at all of the countries in the Middle East being flooded with refugees, there may be some judgments that they should be more welcoming. This is a situation where the United States which is not sharing a border with countries that are more problematic like in the Middle East. Maybe now we are being faced with this question, do we have compassion for people living in the countries who are really suffering? MARK SAUER: We just have a few seconds left on this topic, in Escondido, is this so politically tone deaf by the Obama administration? So much controversy up there over immigration, aren't facilities in San Diego County without going into the hornets nest in Escondido? JILL REPLOGLE: That is a good question. The Southwest Key, the organization that would have run the shelter that the federal government contractor, answer this a little bit at the hearing, basically they said that the city was advertising properties available that would have been good for us, there are a couple of hotels they were looking at and another site. Should they have thought about Escondido's history, with checkpoints and ordinances against undocumented immigrants? Probably. MARK SAUER: Politically they maybe should have given it a second look. We will shift gears now. Don't call them slush funds! County supervisors bristle at that characterization. The proper name is discretionary funds. Right now, each of the five supervisors has $1 million a year to give way to whatever nonprofit they please. That is because four years ago supervisors cut that discretionary fund, along with budget cuts from $10 million down to $5 million. They reversed themselves and they are ready to pump it back up to $2 million for each supervisor, back up to $10 million. ALISON ST. JOHN: The interesting thing is, the person who proposed this is supervisor Dave Roberts. He was most recently elected and the only Democrat on the board, and the only one who's supporters said they tried to get him to commit to discontinue this whole program, and instead now he is the one advocating for it to expanded into $2 million. The reason it was cut was apparently not because of all of the public questions about the ethical nature, it was about the budget. Now the budget is improving again, the proposal is on the table to increase it again to $2 million. The reason there has been quite a bit of discretion about it is because of the way that supervisors have chosen to spend it. And the underlying structural implications of giving each supervisor a couple of million dollars just to give whomever they like, because automatically that builds a political base and one of the reasons we have seen supervisors sitting for 18 to 20 years without being challenged, because their base is so strong. MARK SAUER: Right, the power of the incumbency is strong to begin with, but when you have this kind of money to be a lot of people's friends as you start writing checks, it really cements that. CHRIS JENNEWEIN: Some of the organizations that get this money are nonprofit, that are actually doing good in various communities. I know in North County, the San Diego North Economic Development Council for a long time that money in connection with Bill Horn's discretionary fund. Is there any good that comes out of this? ALISON ST. JOHN: Absolutely. Most of them, at least, are organizations that everyone would look at and say this is a worthy cause, Boys and Girls Club's, golf clubs, the San Diego Opera. Each supervisor felt like they wanted to contribute. They are all worthy causes couple one of the suggestions of the grand jury, which raised questions about this, even the grand jury report three or four years ago said that these are valuable organizations, but the question is how are they given it and what kind of transparency is there around it? Most important one is, we need to know whether people in these organizations are culture getting to the campaigns of the supervisors given that grant. We have seen evidence of a certain amount of quid pro quo going on. I've been in Ron Roberts office, and his office is full of wonderful bases from China and the Middle East. He went on six trips funded by the World Trade Center, one of the organizations he had contribute to. That kind of thing has been put a stop to, but there are still implications for quid pro quo for these grants. MARK SAUER: And recommendations from the grand jury? Have they put any of those into place? ALISON ST. JOHN: Some of them have been put into place and some of them haven't. I think the one that I just mentioned, the most important, in which the ACLU is also calling for, it has not been put into place. Ron Roberts has said, to his credit, that this grant can have value, but it does need more transparency. His office has told me that they are investigating ways to make this more transparent. I think that is something we should keep a close eye on. MARK SAUER: Dianne Jacob has noted with the fire helicopter that they are looking at here, it is $5 million, a coincidental sum of the $5 million they want to restore to this. Has anybody mentioned that this money could go other, better places? ALISON ST. JOHN: Almost all of the money that is discretionary for the supervisors, the $5 million budget is actually earmarked by the state. But the amount that they can spend, all five of them have to agree on. There was a process by which the public can give input. This was the only money, $2 million is not an insignificant amount to give at your discretion to whoever you may like in the district. There is a good side to it, there are obviously good organizations benefiting, but what are the local implications? JILL REPLOGLE: This may be a separate issue, but are there any requirements for those organizations to report what they spend the money on? ALISON ST. JOHN: Yes, I often see items coming up before the supervisors saying the organization has not finished spending the money, so we will put back. There is always some accounting of it. If they have not spent it like any budget, they lose it. There have been a lot of questions over time it to the appropriateness of the people at his been granted to. Bill Horn has given it to organizations that have religious connections, breaking the separation of church and state, that had to be put a stop to. There are definitely some improvements that have happened over the years, but we still do not know how significant it is, in terms of building up a political patronage. MARK SAUER: I want to shift to another topic in a few minutes we have left, that is the sunset of the Forest Conservation Initiative here in Cleveland National Forest. Explain what that issue is and what has happened this week. ALISON ST. JOHN: This is something that galvanized the San Diego community twenty years ago, and 70% of the population voted overwhelmingly to pass this initiative that would protect the Cleveland National Forest, all of that wonderful open country east of San Diego, all the way from Palomar down to the border. Back then they voted to preserve this by saying the minimum lot size would be 40 acres, which has effectively completely stopped any development. We're talking about private property within the borders of the National Forest, it is of course, public land. There are about 50,000 acres of that land. The supervisors have said that this initiative has sunsetted, now it is time to develop a new plan for this area. MARK SAUER: Develop is a keyword, environmentalists are quite concerned, are they not? ALISON ST. JOHN: Yes. Even though some of the changes would be increasing the minimum lot size to eighty, some of them would reduce it quite dramatically, to maybe five houses per acre in some areas around Alpine, for example. This I think the gentleman who is the hero of the hour twenty years ago and got the initiative passed is saying that this is the beginning of the end, the going diming the national forest. It will be just eat away little by little as individual parcels get sold and developed, and the integrity of this wonderful resource we have in the backcountry. On the other hand, you know, there are private property owners that have been waiting for this moment, and would really like to see it change. JILL REPLOGLE: Wildfires? Isn't that a significant concern? ALISON ST. JOHN: That came up at the hearing, very much so. Twenty years ago is all about conservation. Now, climate change has really changed the whole equation. Wildfires and water tables are the two big issues everybody is worried about. If you develop more outside of the County Water Authority line, the water tables will drop and everybody who already lives there may run out. And of course, are there enough resources to fight wildfires? CHRIS JENNEWEIN: San Diego is growing very rapidly. Where are we at now, 3.4 million people? It seems like we will have more and more examples of this kind of pressure in areas that hereto for where pristine development was not allowed. Where do people go? MARK SAUER: That is an interesting question, urban wildland interface, that we always talk about. That wraps up another week of stories at the KPBS Roundtable. I would like to thank my guests, and a reminder, all of the stories we discussed today are available on our website are available at KPBS.org. I am Mark Sauer, thank you for joining us today on the Roundtable.

Darrell Issa: Champion Or Bully?

San Diego has five congressional representatives, but only Darrell Issa of Vista consistently is in the national news.

Issa, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is a huge thorn in the side of the Obama administration, which he has been investigating non-stop on a variety of issues, including Obamacare, Benghazi, a huge increase in the illegal immigration of children, the ATF "Fast and Furious" scandal and even the fine levied against a tree trimmer in northern California.

Issa currently is investigating scrutiny of the tax-exempt status of tea party groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the loss or destruction of e-mails and a lap-top computer belonging to Lois Lerner, former head of the IRS Exempt Organizations Unit.

Issa's hearings have shown that the IRS is almost as bad at record-keeping as the Veterans Administration and that it lacks the capacity to store anything electronically beyond six months.

It has also been evident to many that the congressman can be his own worst enemy, at times seeming to be a petty tyrant, cutting off the microphone of Democratic committee member Elijah Cummins or objecting to the way the IRS commissioner raised his hand during the swearing-in, even as he investigates important issues and genuine problems.

No Shelter In Escondido

The Obama administration has been struggling to deal with a tsunami of unaccompanied children crossing into the United States for the last three years or so.

The government is looking for places to shelter the 50,000-plus kids until they can arrange immigration hearings — and probably deport most of them.

One area under consideration for housing them was Escondido, for some reason. But in a packed hearing Wednesday evening, the Escondido Planning Commission unanimously voted against housing any children in a vacant, 96-bed nursing home, citing parking and safety issues.

The children have made their way over an extremely dangerous route to the U.S. mainly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They or their parents seem to have been told that they will be allowed to stay under President Obama's executive Dream initiative. The administration is working to correct the mis-impression. , which, the administration says, is not true.

Why the government tried to house the children in such a conservative city with a history of anti-immigrant policies is anybody’s guess.

Slush Fund — Or Neighborhood Reinvestment Grants?

The San Diego County Supervisors reversed itself this week and is on the way to restoring $5 million to its discretionary fund.

The board halved the $10 million fund ($2 million for each supervisor) when budgets were tight and four years ago under heavy criticism about favoritism, self-interest and lack of transparency in the awarding of grants to community non-profits.

Supervisor Dave Roberts made the motion, which was approved unanimously. The motion and the entire budget must be approved later in the summer.

The supervisors' busy week also included addressing the Forest Conservation Initiative. It was passed by voters in 1993 to limit development on private lands in the Cleveland National Forest through zoning regulations. The sun, however, has set on the law, and it has expired.

The supervisors are considering a proposal to allow more development amid worries about lack of water and very real fire danger.

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