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California’s Role In Impeachment Probe, Controversial SDPD Neck Hold, Congress Weighs In On Dangerous Liver Study, Fair Pay To Play Law And Why Are Birds Disappearing?

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California is set to play a pivotal role in the impeachment probe and not just because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is from San Francisco. San Diego Police Department recently released guidelines on the use of neck holds. Community members, however, want to ban the practice. Plus, an inewsource story on a dangerous liver study that was conducted on veterans has triggered a congressional hearing into the Department of Veteran Affairs. Also, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday signed a law that allows student athletes to earn money on endorsement deals. But it could upend amateur sports and trigger a legal challenge from the NCAA. And, North America’s bird population fell by nearly one-third since the 1970s. Scientists say climate change is to blame.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 Some members of the house intelligence committee are working through the congressional recess. Depositions are scheduled this week of key figures in the impeachment investigation. But while all this activity is underway in Washington, one glaring feature of the investigation has not been widely reported. And that is the number of Californians who are a leading figures on both sides of the impeachment drama. Joining me is Los Angeles times congressional reporter is Sara wire with a focus on the California legislators in the impeachment spotlight. And Sarah, welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. Can you start out by telling us about the California Democrats who are taking a high profile role in this impeachment? California always plays such an interesting [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 00:45 on any issue in Washington. Uh, part of it's because it is such a mammoth delegation, uh, but specifically when it comes to impeachment, this is going to be particularly important. You've got, uh, not only the, the house speaker Nancy Pelosi, but you've got intelligence committee chairman, Adam Schiff of Burbank, who are really going to be the, the lead public faces of the impeachment inquiry.

Speaker 1: 01:11 And you have a couple of Californians on that intelligence committee as well.

Speaker 2: 01:16 You're correct that Adam Schiff's can be backed up by a, um, Eric Swalwell of Dublin and Jackie spear of Hillsboro. They're both attorneys, both lawyers, uh, who have a long background on the intelligence committee. And so it really kind of represents the, the well of support that, uh, blowsy and shift both are going to be able to pull from when it comes to the investigation.

Speaker 1: 01:42 Does the fact that high profile Democrats from California are becoming the face of the impeachment inquiry help or hurt the push for impeachment as they try to make that case to the American people?

Speaker 2: 01:54 I think it's already pretty well known how the president feels about California members of Congress. So I'm not sure that it's going to be a detriment or a help to be honest. I think California has long represented this idea of a resistance to the actions of the Trump administration. I believe the attorney general just followed his, filed his 62nd lawsuit against the administration. Um, and the president's relationship with Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff has is a well known, well documented and often very public. He's been sticking with the nickname little Adam Schiff now for a little while on Twitter.

Speaker 1: 02:33 And you talk about this very large California congressional delegation. And in your report there's a statistic about how much of the entire Congress is actually made up of Californians. It is

Speaker 2: 02:46 one in five Democrats in Congress are from California. I don't think a lot of Californians fully grasp how influential their delegation here is in Washington.

Speaker 1: 02:57 Now as you write in your story, there are Republicans on the other side of the political aisle who are from California who are siding with the president and pushing back. Tell us about them.

Speaker 2: 03:07 Well, not only is there Devin Nunez of delay from a, who is the ranking Republican on the committee and is going to be facing off daily with Adam chef. You have Kevin McCarthy, the house minority leader, and he's really been the face of a Republican support for the president so far. He's come out and done interviews in support of him. He's, you're likely gonna see him sticking up for president Trump very publicly in response to Nancy Pelosi.

Speaker 1: 03:36 And in your report you expect some real tension and maybe even high drama from Californians, Adam Schiff and Devin Nunez, both on the intelligence committee.

Speaker 2: 03:45 It's interesting. The two of them have had a long relationship and uh, before the president was sworn in, it was a very cordial relationship. They like to watch the Oakland Raiders talk about the Oakland Raiders together. But, uh, that relationship has really gone downhill in the last three years. And while they've, they've managed to not have some of the fireworks that we've seen on other congressional committees, there is only the chance that it's such a high stakes issue. Could finally push that over the limit or over the line.

Speaker 1: 04:20 Well, as we said, Adam Schiff is the head of the house intelligence committee. He will be, in essence, the face of this impeachment inquiry. How much of an impact will, the way these hearings are conducted have on public opinion do you think?

Speaker 2: 04:34 I think there is a real chance that these hearings could be seen as partisan because, and inherently impeachment always comes across as partisan. If they are conducted in a way that is steady and doesn't seem to be overly partisan. It doesn't seem to be too fractious. I think it goes a long way to letting lending credibility to the impeachment effort.

Speaker 1: 04:59 You know, we keep hearing that California because it is so reliably democratic, won't have a kind of pivotal impact on the 2020 presidential election. So when I was reading your report, it's kind of ironic, isn't it, that California lawmakers are having such an impact on impeachment?

Speaker 2: 05:18 Yes. It really, and that's, that goes back to the fact that the California delegation is so large and they're also placed in so many positions of power and you have the speaker and the minority leader. She also have the chairs or ranking members of handful of committees. You've got more than a dozen subcommittee chairman. You really can't do much in Congress without touching on a California. As you continue to follow the impeachment inquiry in the house, what will you continue to watch? For Sarah, I'm going to be watching for specifically what we see out of Adam Schiff. Um, and some of the other key in the California delegation. People like, uh, Los Angeles representative Ted loom on the judiciary committee or Karen Bass. I'm gonna know where they're going to all play important roles when it comes to deciding whether to pursue articles of impeachment. I'm also going to be watching the seven Republican members of the California delegation to see if any of them distance themselves in any way from the president. We haven't seen that so far, and I'm not necessarily expecting it to happen, but I think in general watching to see if any Republicans start to make those, that space. I'd been speaking with Los Angeles times, congressional reporter, Sarah wire, and Sarah, thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Speaker 3: 06:46 [inaudible].

Speaker 1: 00:00 Our partner. I knew source has spent months reporting on dangerous research done on San Diego veterans. Now Congress plans to hold a hearing into why a powerful veteran's affairs healthcare office did such a poor job investigating what went wrong with the study. I knew source reporter GL Castillano has more,

Speaker 2: 00:20 I can't imagine what they were thinking.

Speaker 3: 00:22 Martina buck has spent seven years trying to stop a dangerous research study at the San Diego VA and hold the wrongdoers accountable

Speaker 2: 00:30 and what some of these people went through. No one should have to go through that.

Speaker 3: 00:34 When this all started in 2013 buck was a liver researcher at the medical center. She became concerned that a colleague wanted to perform medically unnecessary liver biopsies on veterans', putting the patients at risk of internal bleeding and even death. Buck contacted our supervisors warning them not to approve the study. It was approved anyway.

Speaker 2: 00:55 I was hopeful for like, I guess 15 minutes, but when I started talking to the people that could have stopped this, they just kept patting me on the head pretty much and telling me, it's okay. You convinced us we're not gonna do it that way. Now,

Speaker 3: 01:13 in 2017 the department of veterans affairs finally investigated Buck's concerns. They sent a team to San Diego from the VA office of the medical inspector. The office is supposed to protect the 9 million patients in the VA healthcare system. The medical inspectors investigation concluded that the research did not pose a substantial danger to public health, but the report failed to address many of Buck's concerns.

Speaker 2: 01:37 It wasn't professional. It wasn't what the veterans deserve. It wasn't what the whistleblowers deserve. It wasn't what the country deserves.

Speaker 3: 01:46 This wasn't the only federal agency to get involved. The office of special counsel, which reports directly to the president about wrongdoing in the government, reviewed the medical inspectors investigation and declared it unreasonable.

Speaker 2: 01:59 If their mission statement is to protect the veterans and to make sure that first do no harm is actually served. They failed.

Speaker 3: 02:09 I knew source has collected hundreds of reports that show the medical inspector's office has a pattern of conducting poor investigations of the VA healthcare system. In fact, the medical inspector's investigations have been labeled unreasonable in about 16% of the reports sent to the special counsel's office. That's a higher percentage of unreasonable investigations than in other federal agencies. The VA would not comment on these findings. Hi Jill. Nick swell and buck used to be the communications director for the special counsel's office. He said our findings show that the office of the medical inspector or Oh M I isn't doing enough to protect veterans.

Speaker 1: 02:49 Oh am I is doing a far worse job in terms of connecting the dots and coming up with reasonable conclusions. That to me suggests a bit of a disregard

Speaker 4: 03:00 for the whistle blowers concern even when it confirms the underlying facts

Speaker 3: 03:06 swell and Bach isn't the only one who feels this way. Since I knew Sora started reporting late last year on the dangerous liver research representative, Scott Peters has been pushing Congress to hold a hearing on the issue. We know this is not the first time that LMI has investigated wrongdoing and has come up short on the answers. That was the San Diego Democrats speaking last month to the house committee on veterans affairs. I asked you to work with me to get answers regarding this instance and also that is a committee that we examine the office of medical inspector veterans have served our nation, deserves the best care opportunities and support and proud to advocate for San Diego's veterans. I new source confirmed that the veterans affairs committee will hold a hearing on the medical inspector though no date has been set. Buck says the hearing is an interesting idea in theory, but she doubts it would lead to change.

Speaker 2: 03:53 How are they going to go about investigating the OMI and can they not really already see what's everybody's been talking about? I mean, a lot of people have come out in public. He said the OMI doesn't find things because it doesn't want to. You can't hear anything if you don't want to listen.

Speaker 3: 04:11 Joining me is I news source reporter Jill Castellano and Jill, welcome. Thank you. Can you remind us a bit more about the original research that sparked this complaint against the VA? Why were dangerous biopsies performed on these veterans? Yeah. The starts with a man named dr Samuel ho, who was a liver researcher at the San Diego VA back in 2013 he wanted the San Diego VA to join a really big international research project looking at alcoholic liver disease and he said, we can examine the liver tissue of patients with this disease and understand their problem a lot better. It's a very under-researched area. The problem was always how was he going to get these samples? These patients are extremely ill and a lot of them are close to their own death, so they are not good candidates to participate in a research study. It doesn't make sense to put them at risk to go in, perform a biopsy, potentially remove pieces of their liver if it could complicate their disease even further.

Speaker 3: 05:13 What we ended up learning over time is that that's precisely what was done. Internal reports show that some of these liver biopsies were performed even though they were not medically necessary and the patients weren't told that and were not told about the risks that that could pose. So it came out to be quite an unethical research study that we've all been grappling with for awhile now. So how did the VA respond when these concerns were first raised by Martina buck? Did they change anything about the research? Unfortunately, the VA has never granted us an interview so we don't know what their perspective is, but buck has always maintained that they've never really done anything since she stepped forward and told her at the San Diego VA this is not right, that they've basically come back to her and said, okay, we'll take a closer look. But they never stopped the study and they didn't increase oversight over dr hoe. That seems pretty clear by the fact that he was able to do this kind of research for many years before people came back and finally looked at it and said, yeah, something went wrong here

Speaker 1: 06:18 and I, it apparently took four years for VA medical investigators to look into the concerns originally raised by buck. Did she keep pressing them all the time to do some investigation?

Speaker 3: 06:30 Absolutely. She is extremely persistent. She and her husband, they are the two whistleblowers in this case. He's a doctor at the San Diego VA, so they have access to quite a bit of uh, information and internal reports. And when they hit the wall at the San Diego VA and felt like they weren't being taken seriously, they went through different channels. One thing they did is they filed a whistleblower complaint with a separate government agency called the office of special counsel, which triggered a different kind of investigation. The office of special counsel could go to the VA in Washington, D C this national headquarters and say you have to go into San Diego and figure out what went wrong. That's when the office of the medical inspector came into San Diego and performed their own investigation of what happened.

Speaker 1: 07:18 So the office of special council wound up by finding the VA's investigation to be unreasonable. What exactly does that mean?

Speaker 3: 07:27 It's a really good question and there's not a real clear answer here. The office of special counsel has broad discretion to describe a report they receive as reasonable or unreasonable, but it's a case by case basis. One of the people I spoke to for this story who is, I'm an independent legal expert named Tom divine. He said that with this broad discretion, most of the time these cases are found to be reasonable even when things go wrong in these investigations and in fact case has to be really bad. Almost an insult to the intelligence or the words that he used. If the office of special counsel is going to find it unreasonable.

Speaker 1: 08:06 Now the veteran's affairs committee in Congress is going to hold a hearing into the VA's office of medical inspector, but the woman you spoke with, Martina Bach doesn't hold out much hope for that. Why not?

Speaker 3: 08:19 She doesn't. I think if you think about it from her perspective, she's been fighting this since 2013 and in her eyes she's made pretty small progress. She's had a few concessions people saying, yeah, things didn't go right, but no one has been held accountable at all. And she's reported this unethical San Diego research through many different channels of the government. So she's not holding her breath. She's wants to see something change and that's why she keeps fighting. But you know, I understand why she feels like it might not happen. In the meantime, do we know what happened to the veterans who got these dangerous liver biopsies? Well, buck has said one of her concerns is that the people who participated in this research did have some complications that some of them had bleeding and needed to get transfusions. In one case that one of the patients came out of the procedure oozing with blood from the neck is the way that it was described because something went wrong in the procedure when the needle was inserted into the neck for the biopsies.

Speaker 3: 09:26 That was many years ago. Now we don't know if there were longterm complications, but it hasn't been thoroughly investigated and there is still a lot of questions. We do know that some of these patients, in fact most of them are actually now deceased because of how serious their diseases were at the time that they joined this research study back in 2013 we don't know whether they were told what went wrong in this research study and we don't know if they were compensated for it. I've been speaking with our new source reporter, Jill Castellano. Thank you very much. Thank you.

Speaker 5: 10:04 [inaudible].

Speaker 1: 00:00 Last week. We told you that the fair pay to play act was awaiting governor Newsome's signature. Well, now it's official. California is the first state to pass a law that allows student athletes to make money in connection to their sport. It breaks with the NCAA as longstanding precedent of prohibiting students from profiting while playing in a schools program. Starting in 2023 athletes at all California colleges will be able to make money from the use of their name, image and likeness Capitol public radios. Scott rod has this report.

Speaker 2: 00:34 The athletics complex at Sacramento state is bustling. The university softball team takes infield drills as nearby tennis players, volley shots back and forth. Hector Gretta is the goalie for the men's soccer team and just finished a workout lick. All college athletes, he doesn't earn a dime for his hard work on the field. He's also had to turn down opportunities that could have raised his profile as an athlete. There's been agents that have wanted to represent me, but because there are certain NCAA rules I've, I've said no. You know, I go to come with like free items, free gear and whatnot. But fancy AA rules are so strict. The new law in California could change that for future students. Athletes at California colleges will be able to earn money from advertisements and endorsements the low. We'll also let them take coaching gigs on the side and monetize their online following on platforms like YouTube, the NCAA opposed the legislation, they declined an interview request, but set in a statement, the level create confusion about the rules at college programs. Gretta says the change is overdue. They're making millions off of these players and these players aren't getting anything. You know, you've heard of stories of players starving, you know, I think it's great that they're finally going to get paid. You know, I think they deserve it. California governor Gavin Newsome signed the law. Special episode of HPS, the shop surrounded by star athletes including LeBron James and Diana Taurasi speaking with host Maverick Carter Newsome said, the law is about addressing the power and balance between student athletes and the schools that profit off their skills.

Speaker 3: 01:58 When you put pen to paper right now, what's this going to change and what's it going to do? It's going to initiate dozens of other States introduced similar legislation, and it's going to change college sports for the better. By having now the interest finally of the athletes on par with the interests of the institutions.

Speaker 2: 02:18 States such as Florida, South Carolina in New York, are considering similar proposals. Some critics say the new law will mainly help elite athletes at top universities land big endorsement deals, but former UC Berkeley rower in two time Olympic gold medalist, Aaron Cafaro says it could benefit many college players who aren't in the limelight, especially female athletes

Speaker 4: 02:38 for a lot of women's sports. This is the end of the line, right? This is the peak of their athletic competition. We're doing it for the love of the sport, but if there is an opportunity for us to have some sort of, you know, financial support, then I'm all for that.

Speaker 2: 02:55 The NCAA previously said California schools could be banned from championships if the law passed, but nuisance said the association can't afford that in Sacramento. I'm Scott. Rod

Speaker 5: 03:06 [inaudible].

Speaker 1: 00:00 In the last 50 years, the number of birds in North America has declined by an estimated 3 billion. That's a 29% decrease. Researchers say this is a direct result of humans altering the natural world. Phillip unit is author of the San Diego County bird Atlas and a curator and specialist in California, birds at the San Diego natural history museum. As part of coverage from the KPBS climate change desk, Philip units spoke with Mark Sauer, host of the KPBS round table.

Speaker 2: 00:32 We'll start with this study and the scope of the problem. How badly have bird populations declined in North America over the past half century? So the study that was just published by Cornell university suggests that a loss of on the order of 3 billion individuals covering something on the order of 75 to 80% of North America's species. Uh, so not all species are covered, but certainly by far most are indeed most especially VCs of grassland and forests, and they were hit the hardest, right? Right. The grassland species especially. What types of birds are we talking about? Meadowlarks Savanna, sparrows Redwing blackbirds. Now this study addresses the entire continent. If we were talking about California or San Diego, our emphasis would certainly shift, but we see that same theme play out in Southern California as well. Right. Well that was one of the questions I had for you to start with. San Diego County and of course folks who go to get out in a lot of the, the birders here, the amateur birders are, are very, uh, an intensely involved in this and in, in involved in the counseling.

Speaker 2: 01:42 We'll get into that in a minute. But, uh, this is happening throughout the, the San Diego County region as well. Certainly many VCs have declined a severely in my lifetime. I look at the tri-colored Blackbird when I was a little kid in the 1960s. Huge flocks of them flying over my parents' house in city Heights. Now, uh, there's just a few scattered colonies. It's listed by the state of California. It's threatened, uh, just in the last year or so. And, uh, some other birds in California as well as you've seen the client statewide. Uh, certainly the burrowing owl, uh, the yellow billed cuckoo grass operas, Sparrow, California, Gnatcatcher. The list goes on and on. Of course, there's species that have increased as well. Everyone knows about the proliferation of the American Crow. Uh, we've also seen the Western Bluebird, uh, Allen's hummingbird Nadal's woodpecker, uh, increase. But the theme of this article was that the decrease is much outweigh the increases over the scope of the entire continent.

Speaker 2: 02:55 And what are some of the key factors behind this massive decline in bird populations? Habitat loss to development to agriculture here in Southern California. Drought plays a significant role. Just in the last several years, uh, the fires have had a big effect and we studied the effect of those in some species, like the pygmy not ads and a mountain ticket. The California Thrasher that were very common became rare overnight and have recovered poorly in those burned areas. A habitat fragmentation. The Sage Sparrow horned Lark lesser Nighthawk are species that don't do well in small patches of habitat, even if that habitat would be suitable if it were within a large area of similar habitat parasitism from the Brown headed cowbird, which is a species that invaded over a hundred years ago. But we're still feeling the effects of the decline of the birds whose nests that cow bird lays its eggs in a disease, uh, may be playing an important part in pesticides as well have been approved.

Speaker 2: 04:09 Definitely pesticides are a, an important part. And one, uh, important point that was actually not brought out in the article, uh, just published in science was the linkage between bird decline and insect decline because, uh, another study, uh, just published recently suggesting that the biomass of insects decreased 75%. Well, if you've decreased the food supply 75%, it's no surprise that the population of the birds that prey upon the insects, the next step up in the food chain will have decreased by some similar amount. And burrs are critical to overall ecosystems or many people may not realize how critical they are. They serve many important roles from scavengers to pollinators, uh, as, uh, in the hummingbirds, a seed eaters, many environmental roles and uh, how we're researchers able to make this determination to actually put a number on this decline. So it was a very interesting convergence of two methods.

Speaker 2: 05:16 One was simply looking at the trends of counts and there's a program called the breeding bird survey where birders a adopt a route where they drive stop every half mile, do account for three minutes while with those spread all over the country. After a while you build up to some significant data. But really I thought the more interesting facet was looking at radar. So if weather, uh, surveying radar is polarized in two directions, they can distinguish between birds and raindrops or snowflakes or other things that's a marketable and distinguished from even. So anyway, they obviously can distinguish between species of bird, but just taking birds in mass. Then that suggested large decline that paralleled that from the actual counts. Now what is the disappearance of 3 billion birds? In North America. Tell us about where we're heading or regarding all the species on the planet. Is this the literal Canary in the coal mine?

Speaker 2: 06:22 And that's an awfully good metaphor. You know, the planet needs to sustain a broad spectrum of life if it's going to sustain human life and we still have a very fuzzy idea of all the ecological connections that are out there. And to cast aside the pieces that constitute that network when we still don't understand how it works is really shortsighted. Now that we know the scope of this problem, is there much that can be done to reverse this overall decline in birds? Yes, there's definite possibilities for hope and for reversal. And the article points out that when major group of birds that has actually increased over this time are the waterfowl, the ducks, geese, that inference to manage those, to create habitat for them have paid off. So parallel could be done with other species, with other groups. Now the Cornell university and it's media blitz associated with this press release is recommending seven specific steps.

Speaker 2: 07:39 Keep your windows unreflective so birds don't fly into them. Keep your cats and doors. Eliminate lawn, reduce or eliminate pesticides, drink shade, grown coffee. Because many of our migratory birds winter in places where coffee is grown and coffee that's grown under Sade trees offers burdens, habitat, coffee, that's just a monoculture out in the sun, doesn't offer very much. Who would have known. That's amazing. It's quite a big thing now, Sade gung coffee, so check it out. Reduce and eliminate plastic. The plastic pollution in the ocean as well as on land is a serious problem and inform yourself and participate in the kinds of counts that can contribute to this kind of information. Now those seven steps are great, but they're not nearly enough and humanity needs to look seriously at reducing its footprint on the planet with greenhouse gases and just the amount of space and resources each of us consumes to leave enough room for the rest of the functioning ecosystem. I've been speaking with Phillip, unit, bird specialist at the San Diego natural history museum and author of the San Diego County bird Atlas. Thanks very much. Thanks very much for having me.

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KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.