Two ghosts in the room

Submitted: May 27, 2017
By: 
Badlands Journal editorial board

 

Two major law-enforcement stories recently rocked Merced. Public security is universally the fundamental job of political authorities, and these two stories were certainly full of politics.

In the first, Operation Scrapbook, top law enforcement officials in the county, starting with DA Larry Morse II, performed a sweep of Mexican gang members, primarily Sureños. A state program called VIPER procured by local legislators provided surveillance information vital to the effort according to all involved, especially  Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced. When the credit was passed out, state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, seemed to have been forgotten.

\But there was someone else forgotten in this story also, perhaps because he wasn't a high school Hispanic gangbanger but a student of UC Merced. Last year, apparently influenced by ISIS material the FBI found on his computer, stabbed four of his fellow students before he was shot dead by a campus police officer.

The second story was about the Merced County Board of Supervisors awarding a contract for defending indigent criminal clients about whom the Public Defender's Office has a legal conflict. Despite nearly half the people in the audience speaking on behalf of the local, incumbent law firm, the supervisors thought otherwise. In fact the crowd didn't have very powerful arguments and one, former NAACP Merced Chapter President Rev. Dr. Napoleon Washington falsely compared the local firm to a "local" ambulance service that had argued two years ago for continuation of its contract at the moment is was selling out to a regional corporation (non-profit). The crowd was just in love with everything local that morning, but it forgot or never knew of another local story about the local firm of Pfeiff and Morse. Cindy Morse, wife of the DA, works in family law, not criminal law. But Tom Pfeiff was in a criminal law practice with former Merced Superior Court Judge Marc A. Garcia, before Garcia was appointed to the court.

After the appointment, Pfeiff bought out Garcia, making monthly payments from 2008 to 2012 totaling $250,000, according to findings presented by the Commission on Judicial Performance.

In 2009, Garcia was assigned to the Merced County court’s criminal department, while he continued to receive the undisclosed payments, the State Bar Court said.

“MDA attorneys, including Pfeiff, appeared regularly in (Garcia’s) courtroom,” the bar court said, adding that Pfeiff appeared before Garcia “at least monthly.”

Those payments were made with county money.

Given the Faisal Mohammed story, it is fair to ask if the VIPER program is focused strictly on the town and not at all on the gown. And given the embarrassment to the county over the Marc Garcia affair, it is easier to understand why the out-of-town carpetbaggers got the new contract to defend some of the county's indigent criminal defendants.

-- blj

 

 

 

5-17-17

Merced Sun-Star

VIPER money played key role in massive gang sweep in Merced, officials say

Brianna Calix

http://www.mercedsunstar.com/news/article150305492.html

 

Last week’s Operation Scrapbook went off without a hitch, but county officials say it wouldn’t have been possible without VIPER, a program signed into California’s budget by the governor.

Two major law-enforcement stories recently rocked Merced. Public security is universally the fundamental job of political authorities, and these two stories were certainly full of politics.

In the first, Operation Scrapbook, top law enforcement officials in the county, starting with DA Larry Morse II, performed a sweep of Mexican gang members, primarily Sureños. A state program called VIPER procured by local legislators provided surveillance information vital to the effort according to all involved, especially  Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced. When the credit was passed out, state Sen. Anthony Cannella,, R-Ceres, seemed to have been forgotten.

\But there was someone else forgotten in this story also, perhaps because he wasn't a high school Hispanic gangbanger but a student of UC Merced. Last year, apparently influenced by ISIS material the FBI found on his computer, stabbed four of his fellow students before he was shot dead by a campus police officer.

The Violence Interruption/Prevention Emergency Response program recruited, hired and trained analysts, set up a facility and acquired equipment to begin its operation. The program became fully operational in mid-February and played a key role in putting dozens of Sureño gang members behind bars, officials say.

Operation Scrapbook targeted Sureño gang members operating under the umbrella of the Mexican Mafia. Raids throughout Merced and Stanislaus counties on May 10 netted more than 50 arrests, at least 70 guns, $225,000 cash, 21,000 rounds of ammunition and 6.5 pounds of methamphetamine, authorities reported.

VIPER analysts worked to vet information, distribute it to law enforcement agencies, analyze it and put it in a format so that agents and detectives could use it, said Bill Olson, supervising investigator with VIPER.

“The end result was 500 law enforcement officers were able to come to Merced County as a result of the case and dismantle a group of individuals in a way that’s going to have an impact on public safety,” Olson said.

District Attorney Larry Morse II said VIPER also was instrumental in the “safe and successful” outcome of Operation Scrapbook. Law enforcement officers knew last week who lived and frequented the homes where warrants were served as well as the homes’ basic layout. They also were familiar with the characteristics of the neighborhood.

“All of those things diminished the likelihood that there’s going to be an accident,” Morse said.

Officials touted that although dozens of warrants were served and more than 50 arrests were made, officers did not fire a single shot during the early morning operation.

Olson said Merced County, prior to VIPER, didn’t have much analytical data on crime. VIPER was able to gather data from all law enforcement agencies and make it compatible and easy to use and share among agencies.

After Operation Red Right Hand in 2015 stifled Norteño gang activity, Morse said. Sureño gangs ramped up activity under the Mexican Mafia. VIPER provided key, consistent intelligence that hopefully will provide consistent suppression in gang activity.

“Operation Red Right Hand –we know that when we’ve done these kinds of combined operations, we have been very successful in reducing the violence,” Morse said. “What we have not been able to do is maintain the surveillance. So what we agreed was necessary was an intelligence unit that we could create in Merced County that would avoid the peaks and valleys in dealing with the gang problem and maintain a constant presence.”

That’s where Assemblymember Adam Gray came in. Gray, D-Merced, said Merced County law enforcement agencies made his job easy by getting together and identifying the problem and a solution.

But, typically, getting $4.5 million out of the state budget for one county is “near impossible.” Gray said he received key support from other assembly members to persuade the governor to support the funding.

“There was a lot of steps in the Sacramento world to secure this,” Gray said. “This is just such a great example of when you give folks resources and watch them execute something that keeps kids safe, keeps families safe and gets violent people off the street,” Gray said. “It’s going to have a huge downward impact, from what I understand. That’s the whole concept here.”

VIPER’s funding will last three years, and the program will develop in phases. The first phase included developing the information management unit. The second phase will consist of developing cases and prosecuting them, and the third phase will incorporate community involvement by hiring community-based counselors.

 

5-10-17

Merced County District Attorney's Office

“Massive” Sweep In Merced County Nets More Than 50 Sureno Gang Members

Amanda McCoy

http://www.co.merced.ca.us/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/539

Nearly 500 federal, state and local law enforcement personnel hit the streets at dawn in Merced County on Wednesday executing search warrants and completing arrests of the more than 50 Sureno criminal street gang members targeted as part of a massive multi-agency gang interdiction effort dubbed “Operation Scrapbook,” according to Merced County District Attorney Larry D. Morse II.

At a press conference at the Merced County Emergency Operations Center, law enforcement leaders displayed some of the more than 100 firearms, including assault weapons, and cash seized during the sweep.

 “Today was a tremendous day for public safety in Merced County. Some of the most violent criminals in our communities have been taken off our streets along with many of the weapons and substantial cash they use to commit murder and mayhem,” Morse said. “Sheriff Warnke, Atwater Police Chief Sammy Joseph and the rest of Merced’s law enforcement leaders are beyond grateful for the assistance we received today and over the last several months from our colleagues at the federal and state agencies that made today’s incredible success possible,” he added.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said, “Merced County residents should sleep a little easier tonight after today’s arrest of gang members and seizure of firearms and drugs. Keeping our communities safe must be our number one priority. Today’s bust is a prime example of law enforcement working together at all levels to put criminals behind bars.”

Wednesday’s action was the culmination of an extensive investigation into the activities of Sureno criminal street gang subsets like A Town Locos, Winton Vario Park and South Side Locs, operating in Merced County communities under the direction of members of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, La Ema, Morse said.

In recent years the Merced Area Gang and Narcotic Enforcement Team (MAGNET), working with agents from the California Department of Justice/California Highway Patrol, Special Operations Unit (CA DOJ/CHP SOU), has successfully targeted Norteno gang activity in Merced in several large scale multi-agency operations. Hundreds of Norteno gang members were taken off the streets and convicted of a wide range of serious crimes as a result of those previous operations, Morse said.

However, while the successful Norteno gang sweeps dramatically reduced violence over the last two years in Merced County, law enforcement began noticing increasing Sureno gang activity filling the void left by decimated Norteno gangs, particularly in the Atwater and Winton areas.

Nortenos (Northerners) and Surenos (Southerners) are mortal enemies who compete, often violently, to sell narcotics, weapons and other contraband in communities across California, Morse noted, adding that Norteno gangs have historically had a much greater presence in Merced County than Surenos.

MAGNET task force members and intelligence analysts from the District Attorney’s VIPER program began to gather information that La Ema prison gang leadership had infiltrated Sureno street gangs in Merced County through extortion and fear and began imposing “taxes” on some of the nearly one dozen Sureno subset gangs operating in the county. A power struggle within the Mexican Mafia for control of Merced County Sureno gangs led to an increase in Sureno on Sureno assaults, both at the street level and in the Merced County jail, according to Merced County Sheriff’s Department officials. As violent crime by Sureno gang members began to surge, local, state and federal resources were pooled to create “Operation Scrapbook.”

Based on intelligence gleaned from this investigation agents were able to provide local detectives with information regarding at least eight homicides and violent assaults and prevented at least 16 additional violent crimes, Morse said.

Some of those arrested Wednesday will face prosecution by the United States Attorney’s office in Fresno. Others will be prosecuted by the Merced County District Attorney’s office. Charges to be filed include assault with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to traffic firearms and drugs, possession of firearms and ammunition by prohibited persons, all of which will include specific gang enhancements which increase prison sentences, Morse said. Several of those arrested Wednesday committed their crimes while already in custody on other charges, he added.

“The people of Merced County owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those dedicated and courageous officers and intelligence analysts who toiled long, long hours in recent months to painstakingly develop the evidence necessary to bring Operation Scrapbook to its successful conclusion,” Morse said. “Lives literally have been saved as a result of their efforts,” he added.

Special Agent in Charge Monica M. Miller of the FBI’s Sacramento field office noted that “Operation Scrapbook” demonstrated “the strength of strong federal, state and local law enforcement collaboration when combating significant violent crime and gangs in our communities. The FBI is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to remove violent criminals from our neighborhoods, ensuring a brighter future for our families.” -

 

5-10-17

Office of California Attorney General

Attorney General Xavier Becerra Announces Massive Gang Takedown in Merced County

https://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/attorney-general-xavier-becerra-announces-massive-gang-takedown-merced-county

SACRAMENTO – Attorney General Xavier Becerra today announced the arrest of 49 individuals; seizure of 120 firearms, including assault rifles and automatic weapons; $170,261 in currency; and cocaine, marijuana and 6.5 pounds of methamphetamine with a total street value of $1.7 million, as part of a takedown of gang members operating in Merced County.

Today’s operation targeted Sureño criminal street gang subsets and their criminal enterprise directed by the Mexican Mafia prison gang. It involved more than 500 law enforcement officers. The operation was the product of a joint investigation by the California Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation, Special Operations Unit (SOU), Central California team, the Merced Area Gang and Narcotic Enforcement Team (MAGNET), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE).

“Merced County residents should sleep a little easier tonight after today's arrest of gang members and seizure of firearms and drugs,” said Attorney General Becerra. “Keeping our communities safe must be our number one priority. Today’s bust is a prime example of law enforcement working together at all levels to put criminals behind bars.”

In addition to today’s arrests and seizures, the overall investigation resulted in the arrest of 66 individuals; seizure of 120 firearms; $265,961 in currency; and cocaine, marijuana and more than 6.5 pounds of methamphetamine. Pursuant to the collaboration with the Merced County District Attorney's Office and the US Attorney’s Office, charges against those arrested include assault with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to traffic firearms and drugs, and possession of firearms and ammunition by prohibited persons in the benefit of the Merced County Sureños criminal enterprise.

The year-long investigation chronicles a rise in violent crime involving Sureño gang members and its leadership. So far, at least eight homicides and violent assaults have been solved, and 16 additional violent crimes in the planning stages were prevented.

“Today was a tremendous day for public safety in Merced County,” said Merced County DA Larry D. Morse II. “Some of the most violent criminals in our community have been taken off our streets along with many of the weapons they use to commit murder and mayhem. Sheriff Vern Warnke, Atwater Police Chief Sammy Joseph and the rest of Merced’s law enforcement leaders are beyond grateful for the assistance we received today and over the last several months from our colleagues at the federal and state agencies who made today’s stunning success possible.”

3-18-16

CNN

Attacker who stabbed students at UC Merced had ISIS flag, FBI says

By Michael Pearson, CNN

http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/18/us/university-of-california-merced-stabbings-terror-inspired-fbi/

 

 What at first looked like act of a disgruntled student was terror-inspired, FBI says

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·         <!--[endif]-->Faisal Mohammad stabbed four at the University of California, Merced, in November

(CNN)A student at the University of California, Merced, who stabbed four people on campus in November before police killed him, attacked after viewing terrorist propaganda, the FBI said.

Police initially characterized the November 4 stabbings as the misguided acts of a disgruntled student. The FBI now says Faisal Mohammad, 18, had visited websites for ISIS and other terrorist organizations before the attack.

The agency said Thursday that Mohammad had pro-ISIS propaganda on his laptop and the image of an ISIS flag in his backpack. Investigators said "he may have self-radicalized and drawn inspiration from terrorist propaganda."

The determination brings to five the number of attacks in the United States inspired by ISIS.

"Every indication is that Mohammad acted on his own; however, it may never be possible to definitively determine why he chose to attack people on the UC Merced campus," the FBI said.

Investigators found no evidence Mohammad had worked with anyone or had ties to any foreign terrorist organizations, the FBI said.

No one died in the attack, which happened about 130 miles southeast of San Francisco.

According to authorities, Mohammad carried a hunting knife with an 8- to 10-inch blade into a room where a class he was enrolled was assembling and stabbed one of the students.

He also attacked a contract employee of the school who happened on the scene and then two others -- a staff member and a student -- as he left the classroom and moved across campus.

A campus police officer shot him to death, authorities said.

At the time, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said it appeared that Mohammad had carried out the attack as retribution for being kicked out of a study group. Nothing suggested terror, he said at the time.

On Thursday, though, the FBI said that among the myriad items found in his backpack -- zip ties, glass breaker and a knife -- they located a photocopy of an ISIS flag.

Investigators also found "a two-page, hand-written plan detailing his intentions to include taking hostages and killing students and police officers," the FBI said.

Including Mohammad's case, there have been five ISIS-inspired attacks in the United States since October 2014. Two attacks in Canada also are believed to have been inspired by ISIS...

 


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5-23-17

Merced Sun-Star

Divided board hires new criminal law firm. How will it affect cases in Merced?

Brianna Calix

http://www.mercedsunstar.com/news/article152261592.html

A divided Merced County Board of Supervisors awarded a $9.4 million legal services contract to a Madera law firm on Tuesday, over the protests of numerous Merced-area attorneys who warned that changing defense firms could throw dozens of cases into limbo.

The 3-2 vote ended a 14-year relationship with a long-time Merced County defense attorney and possibly opened the door for lengthy delays in dozens of high-profile and felony cases currently pending in court. Several Merced-area attorneys warned the supervisors of the possibility of a chain reaction of consequences.

Supervisors Lee Lor, Lloyd Pareira and Jerry O’Banion approved the $9.4 million contract with Madera-based Ciummo & Associates. Supervisors Rodrigo Espinoza and Daron McDaniel voted against the contract.

Merced Defense Associates, led by veteran attorney Tom Pfeiff, held the contract for 14 years. Tuesday’s vote extended MDA’s contract for three months past its planned June expiration to allow for a transition period in Merced’s criminal justice system.

While the Public Defender’s Office represents suspects who cannot afford to hire private attorneys, cases are referred to MDA when the county public defenders have a potential conflict of interest, such as representing a co-defendant in a case.

Local prosecutors and defense attorneys have expressed concern about switching vendors for defense services while coming off of a period where 90 people were murdered in three years. Many of those cases are pending in Merced Superior Court. MDA-contracted attorneys are handling more than 30 homicide cases, including 17 cases where their clients are facing a potential lifetime prison sentence.

The board vote came after more than two hours of public comment and supervisor discussion. Local attorneys, including contractors with MDA and attorneys with both the Merced County Public Defender’s Office and District Attorney’s Office, urged the board to extend MDA’s contract.

Chris Loethen, a deputy public defender, said about 10 years ago he turned down a job offer from Ciummo because he was going to be assigned felony cases with no prior experience. He urged the board to renew MDA’s contract. “They fight cases,” he said. “They don’t run from them.”

Rob Carroll, chief deputy district attorney, also spoke in favor of MDA. “Our big concern is we want to make sure homicide cases continue to get handled professionally,” he said. “MDA has done an excellent job. They’ve done a really fantastic job.”

Many members of the local NAACP also spoke in favor of MDA, including the group’s president Darryl Davis, who said their mission is to fight for equality and justice for the poor people of Merced County.

Richard Ciummo, his partner and the future supervising attorney for the Merced office also spoke, answering questions about the firm and describing their work.

“I am Mr. Ciummo, and I don’t have horns and a tail,” he said. “We have some history and experience in doing this. I stand by the quality of our attorneys – all of them.”

Michael Fitzgerald, CEO of Ciummo & Associates, said any rumors about high turnover at the firm are not true. “It’s not a situation where we hire attorneys fresh out of law school and cycle them out,” he said. “That’s just not the case.”

County staff requested bids for the service in August after O’Banion put the suggestion to a vote by the board. Two law firms responded – MDA and Ciummo & Associates.

The approved five-year contract includes seven staff attorneys, two staff investigators, six contract attorneys and additional contract investigators. Ciummo’s attorneys will handle all homicide cases and up to two death penalty cases a year, but not more than three death penalty cases at a time.

Both Loethen and Public Defender Dave Elgin said Doug Foster, who will be the supervising attorney at Ciummo’s Merced office, has an outstanding reputation in the legal community. “I’m excited about Doug Foster coming in and running that office,” Elgin said. “I think that can only be a positive thing for indigent defendants in this county.”

Ciummo said he Pfeiff met recently to begin discussing a transition. Ciummo also reassured the supervisors that the firm intends to hire local attorneys, even attorneys who have contracted with MDA.

“We’ve been expecting this,” Pfeiff said. “Now it’s time to make the transition as smooth as possible. That’s what I’m going to try to do.”

“The court is confident that there will be a smooth transition with the parties responsible for handling all pending cases,” Presiding Judge Donald Proietti said in a statement to the Sun-Star.

Before the vote, McDaniel said he believes the competition and accountability presented through the contract renewal was healthy for the county.

“A lot of you folks elected me to not rubber stamp things,” he said. “Because we’re having this discussion – this is fantastic. This is government. This is what we’re supposed to do.”

The supervisors didn’t elaborate on the reasons behind their votes, but previously McDaniel and O’Banion said they wondered about a conflict of interest for MDA since Pfeiff works with Cindy Morse, whose husband, Larry Morse II, is the county’s district attorney. However, the Fair Political Practices Commission said in a letter to the county the relationship was not a conflict.

Pareira reminded MDA’s contract attorneys that the board’s decision isn’t personal. “If it’s your livelihood at stake, this is crucial and vital to you,” he said. “The board is not being asked to employ you or to manage people’s defenses. Don’t think of this as a slight on you. It’s not.”

Espinoza, who voted against the contract, said he thought the board should explore an in-house conflict program, which would be much cheaper. “I think we should ask more questions,” he said.

O’Banion said before the county contracted with MDA, conflict services were dealt with through the public defender’s office. But at this time, he was “not interested” in going through the public defender’s office for that service. He said he’d consider it in the future.

Lor said the county should welcome new the new lawyers. “Should we choose the outside firm, let’s give them a Merced County welcome,” she said. “The quality service we provide to the community is what matters.”

 

9-16-16

Merced Sun-Star

State Bar urges suspension of former Merced County judge

Rob Parsons

http://www.mercedsunstar.com/news/local/central-valley/article102368457.html

 

A former Merced County Superior Court judge who stepped down last year amid allegations of ethical violations may have his law license suspended for two years for failing to disclose financial payments he received while on the bench.

The State Bar Court of California recommended a two-year suspension for Marc A. Garcia. The suspension won’t become official until it’s ratified by the California Supreme Court.

Garcia, 48, could appeal the recommendation – but, in an interview Friday, he said he had “no interest” in seeking an appeal, adding that he fully expects the Supreme Court will sign off on the suspension.

“The fact is I forced someone else to try and determine what my intentions were. I put myself in a position that I never should have put myself in,” Garcia said.

Garcia has been working in an administrative role as a chief operating officer of an agribusiness in Merced County. He did not identify his employer.

Garcia made history in 2007 as the youngest person and first Latino appointed to the Merced County bench. He stepped down in April 2015 after reaching an agreement with the California Commission on Judicial Performance.

The former judge admitted failing to disclose payments he received from his former law partners at Merced Defense Associates after he was appointed to the Merced County bench. He also acknowledged failing to disqualify himself or disclose the payments, which totaled $250,000, when MDA attorneys appeared in his courtroom between 2009 and 2012.

The State Bar Court determined that Garcia “willfully failed to disclose” the income he received from attorney Tom Pfeiff on six Statement of Economic Interest forms and that he “knew or was grossly negligent in not knowing” those statements were false.

The veteran attorney was formerly a partner in a law firm with Pfeiff and attorney Cindy Morse, who is the wife of District Attorney Larry Morse II. Together, Pfeiff and Garcia handled criminal defense cases for indigent defendants in Merced County whenever a conflict of interest prevented the county Public Defender’s Office from representing someone. Cindy Morse works in family law and does not handle criminal cases.

Garcia in 2004 left the firm and opened his own practice, but he and Pfeiff continued to operate the indigent defense program as a joint business venture until 2007, when Garcia was named to the bench.

After the appointment, Pfeiff bought out Garcia, making monthly payments from 2008 to 2012 totaling $250,000, according to findings presented by the Commission on Judicial Performance.

In 2009, Garcia was assigned to the Merced County court’s criminal department, while he continued to receive the undisclosed payments, the State Bar Court said.

“MDA attorneys, including Pfeiff, appeared regularly in (Garcia’s) courtroom,” the bar court said, adding that Pfeiff appeared before Garcia “at least monthly.”

The State Bar Court said Garcia “never disclosed to anyone that he was receiving these monthly checks from Morse and Pfeiff” and said Garcia “mistakenly formed the belief that he did not have to disclose the monthly payments received from Pfeiff or disqualify himself if Pfeiff ever appeared before him.”

The State Bar Court also noted that, in August 2011, after a judicial secretary opened an envelope addressed to Garcia containing one of the payment checks, Garcia spoke with Judge Donald Proietti.

“Judge Proietti and (Garcia) also discussed the issue of disqualification and financial entanglements with former law firms,” the State Bar Court said, adding they found Proietti’s testimony to be “highly credible,” while also finding Garcia’s testimony regarding the payments “lacked credibility.”

“At a minimum, this conversation with Judge Proietti should have prompted (Garcia) to further research this issue. Instead, (Garcia) took no action,” the State Bar Court said.

Garcia consistently has argued that failing to disclose those payments was simply a mistake and that he continuously operated in good faith. Garcia has said he never intended to conceal the money, saying that while he didn’t disclose the payments on Fair Political Practices forms, he did report the income to the IRS.

The State Bar Court noted IRS forms are not public records and said the argument was not credible.

Garcia, the bar court said, “received the money in sealed envelopes delivered to the court with only (his) name on them. (He) strictly forbade anyone else from opening his mail. And despite frequent appearances before him, (Garcia) never disclosed in open court that he was receiving payments from Pfeiff and MDA.”

Pfeiff declined to comment on the matter Friday and referred questions to a statement he released last year to the Sun-Star. “Whatever issue has arisen with regard to the money received by Judge Garcia pursuant to the dissolution of our joint venture has nothing to do with MDA and is entirely between Judge Garcia and the Commission on Judicial Performance,” Pfeiff said in the statement.

Garcia, for his part, said he was at peace with the matter and looking forward to putting it behind him.

He said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll maintain his law license after the suspension or ever practice law again.

“I’m very fortunate to have a choice and I’m very happy where I’m at now, fortunate to be in a place that I love,” Garcia said.


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9-9-14

Riggs Ambulance awarded Merced County contract

Ramona Giwargis

http://www.mercedsunstar.com/news/local/article3294767.html

Most companies on the losing end of a competitive bidding process don’t get another shot, but Riggs Ambulance Service did, and now it has Merced County’s estimated $12 million ambulance contract.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a five-year contract with Riggs, which will be purchased by Sierra Medical Services Alliance, the company’s Nevada-based nonprofit partner. President Kraig Riggs said he merged with SEMSA to keep his company financially viable.

“This merger took place because the nonprofit model is the best option for this community,” Riggs told the Merced Sun-Star on Tuesday. “When you’re a nonprofit, you’re not subject to state or federal taxes.”

The contract awarded to SEMSA was the subject of a bitter dispute after competitor American Medical Response won the initial bid last year. Riggs officials claimed the process was unfair and flawed, and pleaded with county supervisors to cancel the award to its competitor and start over.

The emotional appeals worked, and county supervisors voted to rebid the contract in January 2013. The county hired a new consultant, Fitch & Associates, after questions surfaced about the previous consultant’s involvement with Riggs.

The county’s former emergency medical service administrator, Chuck Baucom, worked for a consulting firm drafting the bidding documents and obtained confidential documents after his retirement, a Sun-Star investigation revealed. It appeared Baucom attempted to sway the process in favor of Riggs, according to emails.

But this time around, county officials say the integrity of the bidding process was maintained.

“I didn’t see any evidence that it wasn’t handled with the highest degree of integrity,” said Merced County Public Health Director Kathleen Grassi. “We put it in the hands of a highly regarded consulting firm, and that’s really all you can do. You have to trust the process from there.”

Riggs, which has provided service to Merced County for more than 65 years, also stepped up its game. The company added more ambulances and equipment, no longer relying as heavily on mutual aid from neighboring counties.

“Mutual aid requests have gone down dramatically,” Grassi said. “We’ve been tracking the response time percentages over the last year, and it’s been a marked improvement.”

The takeover by SEMSA will have little effect on the ambulance provider’s service, officials said. The company will still participate in community service events, including providing free standby ambulances to high school sports activities and other events.

Community involvement is one area SEMSA outshone AMR, according to company officials. The proposals of the two companies, including their scores from a panel of confidential evaluators, have not been publicly released.

“There was a very good spread between the two competitors to show Riggs was the clear winner,” said Mike Williams, SEMSA vice president and chief operating officer. “Some of those areas, we were head and shoulders ahead of the competition.”

The scoring guidelines did not include additional points for “local” providers, which was a highly contested part of the original process. Williams shot down the idea that Riggs is no longer a local company because SEMSA is based in Nevada.

“Out of 150 (Riggs) employees, they are all residents of this area,” Williams said. “If that’s not a local company, I don’t know what is.”

 

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