[ {"id":"7b623ebe-5c71-5bef-aa33-62102efed4bd","type":"article","starttime":"1484708400","starttime_iso8601":"2017-01-17T20:00:00-07:00","lastupdated":"1484767982","priority":40,"sections":[{"crime":"news/local/crime"}],"application":"editorial","title":"Tucson woman sentenced to jail, probation in adoption fraud case","url":"http://tucson.com/news/local/crime/article_7b623ebe-5c71-5bef-aa33-62102efed4bd.html","permalink":"http://tucson.com/news/local/crime/tucson-woman-sentenced-to-jail-probation-in-adoption-fraud-case/article_7b623ebe-5c71-5bef-aa33-62102efed4bd.html","canonical":"http://tucson.com/news/local/crime/tucson-woman-sentenced-to-jail-probation-in-adoption-fraud-case/article_7b623ebe-5c71-5bef-aa33-62102efed4bd.html","relatedAssetCounts":{"article":0,"audio":0,"image":1,"link":0,"vmix":0,"youtube":0,"gallery":0},"byline":"By Patty Machelor\nArizona Daily Star","prologue":"Boston victims say they asked for prison time, but are satisfied Karla Vargas has been held accountable.","supportsComments":true,"commentCount":0,"keywords":[],"internalKeywords":["#latest","#watchdog"],"customProperties":{"arm_id":"72697"},"presentation":"","images":[{"id":"139e30a1-bbde-5a4a-b4cf-25c4a802b3a6","description":"Karla Vargas, left, who pleaded guilty to one count of attempted fraud, with Cindy Cantrell and Vargas\u2019 sister Lucianna Lopez.","byline":"Courtesy of Cindy Cantrell","hireswidth":1874,"hiresheight":1105,"hiresurl":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/1/39/139e30a1-bbde-5a4a-b4cf-25c4a802b3a6/587958b5baa2a.hires.jpg","presentation":"","versions":{"full":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"620","height":"366","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/1/39/139e30a1-bbde-5a4a-b4cf-25c4a802b3a6/587958b5b8ce1.image.jpg?resize=620%2C366"},"100": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"100","height":"56","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/1/39/139e30a1-bbde-5a4a-b4cf-25c4a802b3a6/587958b5b8ce1.image.jpg?crop=1874%2C1054%2C0%2C50&resize=100%2C56&order=crop%2Cresize"},"300": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"300","height":"169","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/1/39/139e30a1-bbde-5a4a-b4cf-25c4a802b3a6/587958b5b8ce1.image.jpg?crop=1874%2C1054%2C0%2C50&resize=300%2C169&order=crop%2Cresize"},"1024":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"1024","height":"576","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/1/39/139e30a1-bbde-5a4a-b4cf-25c4a802b3a6/587958b5b8ce1.image.jpg?crop=1874%2C1054%2C0%2C50&resize=1024%2C576&order=crop%2Cresize"}}}],"revision":10,"commentID":"7b623ebe-5c71-5bef-aa33-62102efed4bd","body":"

A Tucson woman accused of defrauding a Boston couple in an adoption plan was given a stern warning Tuesday before being sentenced to 100 days in jail and four years of probation.

Pima County Superior Court Judge Casey McGinley had considered sentencing Karla Vargas to prison, he said, for a financial crime he called both unusual and deeply hurtful. McGinley said he changed his mind after reflecting on Vargas\u2019 difficult life, and also because the victims asked that she be spared prison.

McGinley then warned Vargas to stop making poor decisions and \u201cusing other people\u2019s good will against them.\u201d

The judge did not provide details about what had happened in Vargas\u2019 life.

Victim Cindy Cantrell, a Boston journalist, said after Tuesday\u2019s hearing that she had requested prison time for Vargas and so did her husband, Jack McHugh. She was confused how this message was not clearly conveyed to the judge, but also said she is just grateful Vargas was prosecuted.

\u201cWhat\u2019s done is done,\u201d she wrote in an email exchange with the Arizona Daily Star.

Vargas, 35, who has had 12 children and a long history of child-welfare issues, kept the November 2015 births of her twins a secret and then tried to get money after the babies were born while pretending to still be pregnant, Tucson police said. A Tucson police detective said Vargas admitted that she didn\u2019t want to give up the twins she was carrying and kept it quiet to get money from Cantrell and McHugh.

Vargas, the judge said, used her pregnancy to string along the couple and got them to \u201cinvest time and money and emotion\u201d toward adopting children he said Vargas \u201cknew they would not be getting.\u201d

\u201cYou are not before this court because you decided to change your mind,\u201d he said, adding she had the right to do that at any time if she had simply told the people involved.

Vargas pleaded guilty in December to one count of attempted fraud and artifice, in return for other charges being dropped. She was indicted on five counts including two of forgery, two of fraud scheme and artifice and one of theft.

McGinley said if she violates her probation and ends up back in his courtroom, he will send her to prison.

\u201cYou will have used up all of everyone\u2019s good graces,\u201d he said.

Vargas and her sister, Lucianna Lopez, set the couple up from the beginning, Tucson Police Detective Jennifer Burns said during an interview last week, by telling them Lopez was Vargas\u2019 landlord and exaggerating by $100 per month the amount of rent due. Lopez, who was indicted on the same charges as her sister, still has her case pending.

The total in rent and other living expenses paid by the couple to Vargas over four to five months amounted to $6,014. That amount was reimbursed by the California-based Adoption Network Law Center.

The twins were removed from Vargas\u2019 care in May by Arizona\u2019s Department of Child Safety. Their status is not a matter of public record.

Neither Benjamin Mendola, a deputy Pima County attorney, nor Vargas\u2019 defense attorney, Michelle Bowan, would comment on the sentencing.

Mendola did not make a specific request for sentencing, other than pointing out Vargas had a prior conviction for theft and that she carried out the current crime for financial gain. He said there wasn\u2019t much he could add that went beyond Cantrell\u2019s letter to the court, which was not read aloud, but which Cantrell provided to the Star Tuesday.

\u201cOur final message to you, Karla, is simple. Get it together. Stop lying. Stop stealing. Stop hurting people,\u201d Cantrell wrote in her victim impact statement because she couldn\u2019t be present for the hearing.

\u201cYou are fortunate to have so many children, and even if none of them lives with you, you still can and should become a mother and productive citizen of which they can feel proud.\u201d

When the judge asked Vargas if she had anything to say before her sentencing, she answered, \u201cI\u2019m sorry.\u201d

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A Boston couple longing to be parents were thrilled when a Tucson woman, pregnant with twins, saw their adoption request online and chose them.

\u201cIt seemed like a fairy tale to us that she was due at Christmas,\u201d Cindy Cantrell said.

Cantrell, a journalist, and her husband, Jack McHugh, a contractor, first connected with Karla Vargas in July 2015 through California-based Adoption Network Law Center.

The idea of raising twins made them pause only a moment before they became enamored with the idea. They\u2019d been through disappointments and had their hopes for adoption dashed before.

\u201cI thanked her again and again and again for choosing us,\u201d Cantrell said. \u201cWe felt so fortunate.\u201d

They signed the contract that month and agreed to provide monthly support to Vargas through the law center. They also paid Tucson-based Oasis Adoption Services Inc. for its services for the birth mother.

In addition to rent, the couple also paid her monthly food bills, bought her maternity clothing, set aside money for counseling she might want, and paid for her phone and bus passes.


Looking back, Cantrell sees the warning signs.

The first: Vargas did not contact the couple as promised after she learned the babies\u2019 genders.

She also told them her cellphone was going to be turned off, which was perplexing because Cantrell and her husband were paying the bill. And a couple of times she asked them to pay rent early because her landlord was \u201cgoing on vacation.\u201d

\u201cIt was always something,\u201d Cantrell said. \u201cI knew she\u2019d had a tough life and it made me uncomfortable and sad, but I kept giving her the benefit of the doubt.\u201d

Vargas also didn\u2019t seem interested in meeting the couple \u2014 which Cantrell said they respected as her choice \u2014 but then suddenly changed her mind and had them come the weekend there was a pro football game in Phoenix.

Vargas and her sister, both Dallas fans, kept suggesting they all go see the game and were so focused on getting there that, to Cantrell, it seemed that was the reason they\u2019d invited the couple out.

But there was also a tender moment that September weekend, when Vargas invited Cantrell along to an ultrasound appointment. Cantrell said when she saw the twins, she felt overcome with love and excitement.

\u201cI thought, \u2018This is real. This is happening,\u2019\u201d she said.


Communication after the Tucson visit became increasingly sporadic.

On Nov. 10, Cantrell\u2019s mother-in-law died unexpectedly, leaving the couple grieving and busy handling details.

Vargas was out of touch, too, so on Nov. 29, Cantrell sent a text to her. \u201cIs everything OK between us?\u201d she asked.

Vargas responded, \u201cYes. Why?\u201d

McHugh, Cantrell\u2019s husband, exchanged text messages the next day with Vargas\u2019 twin sister, whom they knew as Lucy, explaining they\u2019d been unable to get much feedback from Vargas and wondered when they should fly out to Tucson. The text exchange shows Lucy told them her sister\u2019s doctors thought the twins would arrive Dec. 14.

Meanwhile, Oasis Adoption was trying to contact Vargas, who was so evasive the owner made some calls trying to figure out why, Cantrell said.

Soon, the couple received a conference call from the agency and the California law center: Vargas, they were told, had secretly given birth on Nov. 15, two weeks before the reassuring texts.

The twins were in a local hospital\u2019s neonatal intensive-care unit for a couple of weeks before Vargas took them home Nov. 30. Only she and her sister knew that, records show.

Then, on Dec. 1, a text from Vargas\u2019 phone came through to the law center, which had withheld payment when Vargas couldn\u2019t be reached: Rent was due and funds were needed for the supposedly expectant mother.


A month later, in January 2016, Cantrell contacted the Tucson Police Department. She said she hoped an investigation would prevent other couples from being victimized.

Vargas, a 35-year-old who has had 12 children and a long history of child-welfare issues, had gone through with at least one adoption before. \u201cThat\u2019s where we gained our hope from, and that\u2019s where she learned the system,\u201d Cantrell said.

Detective Jennifer Burns said it was the first time she\u2019d heard of adoption fraud allegations in her 16 years with Tucson police, including a decade working financial crimes.

\u201cThe case started up quite a discussion,\u201d Burns said of her unit. \u201cWe were not familiar with the laws of adoption.\u201d

Burns and her supervisor were motivated to try to build a case by two things Cantrell reported: Vargas kept the births a secret and then tried to get money after the babies were born while pretending to still be pregnant.

Burns said that during her investigation, Vargas admitted she didn\u2019t want to give up the twins she was carrying and kept it quiet to get money.

Vargas and her sister, Lucianna Lopez, set them up from the beginning, Burns said, by telling them Lopez was Vargas\u2019 landlord and exaggerating by $100 per month the amount of the rent due. The couple did not know the sister \u201cLucy\u201d they would later meet was the same person posing as Vargas\u2019 landlord, police records show.

The total in rent and other living expenses paid by the couple to Vargas over the four to five months amounted to $6,014.

Vargas admitted in a December plea hearing only that she lied about the amount of rent due, said her attorney, Michelle Bowen. Vargas turned down an interview request by the Arizona Daily Star.

Vargas pleaded guilty to a Class 3 felony for attempted fraud scheme and artifice, said Benjamin Mendola, a deputy Pima County attorney. She is being held at the Pima County jail; bond is set at $11,000.

She could be ordered to spend up to 8.7 years in prison or up to five years on probation at her sentencing Tuesday before Pima County Superior Court Judge Casey McGinley.

Lopez also was indicted on charges of fraud and forgery, and her case is still pending. Her attorney, Richard Kingston, would not talk to the Star.


Catherine Braman, executive director of Oasis Adoption Services, would not comment on Vargas\u2019 case specifically but said she has heard of only one other Arizona case in which a birth mother was prosecuted for fraud.

\u201cThere\u2019s a lot of safeguards in place,\u201d said Braman, who has operated her agency since 2000 and worked in adoption since 1996. \u201cWe work really hard to not let that happen.\u201d

Kristin Yellin, chief legal counsel with the Adoption Network Law Center, said her organization provides legal oversight in adoption cases and financial protection if a birth mother changes her mind.

Yellin\u2019s organization has reimbursed the Boston couple for the money they spent supporting Vargas.

\u201cWe have to let our clients know we may never know the whole truth about any particular individual,\u201d Yellin said. They do records checks on any birth mother seeking adoption for her child. \u201cIf there are things like fraud or bad checks or drug issues in the past, yes, we will let them know.\u201d


The twins \u2014 a boy and a girl \u2014 are now 14 months old, their well-being and current caregivers not a matter of public record.

Cantrell and McHugh started training to be foster parents last fall, a final attempt to adopt the twins, who were removed from Vargas\u2019 care by Arizona\u2019s Department of Child Safety in May.

But a short time after completing the initial steps, the couple realized how complicated and prolonged that process would be and have since entered into an adoption agreement for another baby.

While they are overjoyed to have another chance to become parents, Cantrell said it has taken a long time to recover from an experience she describes as \u201cpsychologically violent.\u201d

Cantrell said having Detective Burns invest so much time in investigating their case \u201chas gone a long way toward helping me heal from trauma that is still difficult to describe.\u201d

\u201cShe listened to me, she asked how I was doing,\u201d Cantrell said. \u201cI expected our interactions to be very businesslike, but she reached out from a place of compassion and empathy.\u201d

Usually, Burns said, the crimes she investigates are property crimes related to businesses or banks, situations where people are disappointed but not brokenhearted. But this case resonated with her, from one mother to another.

When she learned Cantrell and her husband were advancing toward adopting another child, she sent them gifts, all things her own children had enjoyed when they were young: a rattle, a special blanket and a Baby Einstein music player.

\u201cIt felt like a victory for them,\u201d Burns said. \u201cI wanted a happy ending for her. I didn\u2019t want her to give up.\u201d

The gifts from the detective were among the first presents they received for the adoption that\u2019s now underway.

\u201cWe looked at her note,\u201d Cantrell said, \u201cand we both cried.\u201d

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The proposed Rosemont Mine would \u201ccause or contribute to\u201d violations of Arizona water quality standards and trigger \u201csignificant degradation\u201d of federally regulated washes, said a lower-level Army Corps of Engineers office in recommending against granting it a key federal permit.

In a recent letter to the mine company\u2019s general manager, a top Corps official for the first time revealed these and other reasons underlying that office\u2019s recommendation last year to deny a federal Clean Water Act permit for the $1.5 billion, Tucson-area project.

The letter said the Corps\u2019 Los Angeles District concluded:

The Dec. 28 letter went to Hudbay Minerals Inc. Arizona General Manager Patrick Merrin from Col. Pete Helmlinger, commander of the Corps\u2019 San Francisco-based South Pacific Division.

Helmlinger, who oversees the Corps\u2019 L.A. office, will make the agency\u2019s decision on the mine, which Hudbay can appeal to Corps\u2019 higher-ups if it\u2019s negative.

The Star obtained that and other recent letters between the Corps and Hudbay through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

Hudbay\u2019s Arizona subsidiary Rosemont Copper responded to the Corps letter only with a statement saying, \u201cRosemont continues to work on the permitting process with a goal of satisfying the requirements of the agencies. We have always said we support the permitting process and the time required by the agencies to complete it successfully.\u201d


The Corps has been tight-lipped about Rosemont since September 2014, when it received the company\u2019s final mitigation plan for preserving and enhancing the 4,800 acres.

Helmlinger\u2019s letter responded to requests from Hudbay for more transparency about the agency\u2019s deliberations.

The Corps\u2019 has declined to release a copy of the L.A. office\u2019s July 2016 recommendation against the mine permit, a document the Star has requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

But it recently released a July 25, 2016 memo to Helmlinger from Corps official Kirk Gibbs, head of the Los Angeles office, saying that \u201cto assure your review process is impartial and independent, I will not share my reasoning\u201d or the recommendation itself with Hudbay, the Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Forest Service, which must make a separate decision on the mine.

In a Sept. 7 letter to Helmlinger, Hudbay\u2019s Merrin noted the company has consistently said permitting agencies should get the time they need to finish their work using the best information.

\u201cAll we have asked is for the process to be applied fairly and transparently,\u201d Merrin wrote. \u201cIf an agency has had questions or concerns, or needed additional information, we have always done our best to respond quickly.

\u201cTo our regret, we found the L.A. District of the Corps essentially unwilling to communicate with us,\u201d since September 2014, Merrin wrote.

He sought from Helmlinger \u201ca direct and clear understanding of the reason the district engineer recommended a denial of our permit. As of this moment, we have received virtually no explanation of this action or opportunity to respond to the district\u2019s underlying concerns.\u201d

In November, Merrin wrote Helmlinger a second time, saying he had personally made eight written and numerous oral requests to the Corps seeking to understand its concerns and indicating a desire to remedy them.

\u201cThese requests have been ignored,\u201d he wrote.

Based on records Hudbay has received through Freedom of Information Act requests, \u201cwe are concerned that the district\u2019s recommendation was not based upon a comprehensive record, did not properly assess the project\u2019s impacts and mitigation and may have considered perceived issues that were beyond the scope of the Corps\u2019 mandate,\u201d he wrote.

The Corps\u2019 permit decision has been the biggest unknown in the longstanding Rosemont dispute. The Forest Service has said it has no legal right to deny the mine if it meets all federal rules.

The Corps and Forest Service decisions are the last major approvals the mine needs after having received three approvals from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and a favorable biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among other approvals.


At issue is the mining company\u2019s proposal to dredge and fill various washes near the mine site, in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson, with mine tailings and waste rock. These activities are expected to cause direct and indirect impacts to 68 acres of washes, the Corps has said.

Federal officials have long said the areas that could be affected are nationally significant for their aquatic habitat and provide a significant source of drinking water for the Tucson area. Nearly two years ago, EPA official Jared Blumenfeld wrote that the Upper Santa Cruz River groundwater sub-basin, where Rosemont would be located, provides 20 percent of the total groundwater recharge for the state\u2019s water management area covering Tucson and its suburbs.

In his Sept. 7 letter, Hudbay\u2019s Merrin said the project wouldn\u2019t materially affect special aquatic sites or other types of unique aquatic resources and that the washes flow only during storms. The larger washes serve as numbered and maintained Forest Service roads, Merrin wrote.

He added that the company's total mitigation cost is $700,000 per acre for the 68 acres that would be impacted. That comes to about $48 million total. That plan \u201cas far as we know, exceeds anything the Corps\u2019 Arizona office has previously required,\u201d Merrin wrote.

Overall, nine years of review and analysis of this project has \u201chelped us design a mine that minimizes associated impacts and meets or exceeds the regulatory standards for air, water and biological impacts,\u201d Merrin wrote Helmlinger on Nov. 17.

He noted that the state has issued 14 permits for the project and that former Gov. Jan Brewer and current Gov. Doug Ducey have written the Corps in support of the project \u2014 two letters last year, in Ducey\u2019s case.

But in his Dec. 28 letter, Helmlinger wrote that the mine would cause substantial reductions of functions and services in the washes, and contribute to degradation of state-protected \u201cOutstanding Waters.\u201d The state Department of Environmental Quality has classified stretches of neighboring Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek as Outstanding Waters, which under state rules aren\u2019t supposed to be degraded.

While Hudbay\u2019s 4,800 acres would mitigate the mine\u2019s indirect impacts, permanent, direct impacts and loss of 40.4 acres of washes won\u2019t be mitigated, Helmlinger wrote. They include an effort to re-establish washes at Sonoita Creek Ranch in Santa Cruz County and mitigation land buys in Davidson Canyon and of other lands outside the watershed where Rosemont would be built, Helmlinger wrote.

Among key concerns regarding public interest are the mine\u2019s adverse effects on cultural resources and traditional cultural properties important to tribes, he wrote. The Tohono O\u2019Odham tribe and others have warned that the mine would seriously damage artifacts and other cultural resources in the Santa Ritas, although the mining company has promised extensive mitigation .

The Corps\u2019 L.A. office staff met with Rosemont officials about once a week for a year and frequently throughout its review of the permit, which dates back to 2011, he wrote.

Responding to Hudbay\u2019s request for a chance to respond to the L.A. office\u2019s concerns, Helmlinger wrote, \u201cIf at any point you intend to modify, supplement or withdraw the proposal, please let me know promptly. Supplementation or any other changes should be in writing.\u201d

If the proposal does change, it may be sent back to the L.A. office\u2019s district engineer for evaluation and, potentially, for more analysis which could include consulting with other agencies and getting more public comment, Helmlinger wrote.

The Corps and Hudbay are supposed to meet this month to discuss permit matters.

"}, {"id":"4ec65ef4-15dc-5980-aef7-98008c3e7dfb","type":"article","starttime":"1484280000","starttime_iso8601":"2017-01-12T21:00:00-07:00","lastupdated":"1484767982","priority":41,"sections":[{"watchdog":"news/local/watchdog"}],"application":"editorial","title":"Pima County jail officers fired over 'lewd' behavior get jobs back","url":"http://tucson.com/news/local/watchdog/article_4ec65ef4-15dc-5980-aef7-98008c3e7dfb.html","permalink":"http://tucson.com/news/local/watchdog/pima-county-jail-officers-fired-over-lewd-behavior-get-jobs/article_4ec65ef4-15dc-5980-aef7-98008c3e7dfb.html","canonical":"http://tucson.com/news/local/watchdog/pima-county-jail-officers-fired-over-lewd-behavior-get-jobs/article_4ec65ef4-15dc-5980-aef7-98008c3e7dfb.html","relatedAssetCounts":{"article":0,"audio":0,"image":1,"link":0,"vmix":0,"youtube":0,"gallery":0},"byline":"By Caitlin Schmidt\nArizona Daily Star","prologue":"Reached settlement where they were suspended without pay in lieu of being fired; both back at work.","supportsComments":false,"keywords":[],"internalKeywords":["#latest","#watchdog","#top5"],"customProperties":{"arm_id":"72290"},"presentation":"","images":[{"id":"42ad329b-b9c2-5ab1-8f51-923a5f5a3ebd","description":"Alexandra Barajas and Bryan Melton have returned to work.","byline":"Courtesy of the Pima County Sheriff\u2019s Department","hireswidth":null,"hiresheight":null,"hiresurl":null,"presentation":"","versions":{"full":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"620","height":"422","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/4/2a/42ad329b-b9c2-5ab1-8f51-923a5f5a3ebd/580686cb4fc2b.image.jpg?resize=620%2C422"},"100": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"100","height":"56","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/4/2a/42ad329b-b9c2-5ab1-8f51-923a5f5a3ebd/580686cb4fc2b.image.jpg?crop=671%2C377%2C0%2C61&resize=100%2C56&order=crop%2Cresize"},"300": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"300","height":"169","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/4/2a/42ad329b-b9c2-5ab1-8f51-923a5f5a3ebd/580686cb4fc2b.image.jpg?crop=671%2C377%2C0%2C61&resize=300%2C169&order=crop%2Cresize"},"1024":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"1024","height":"575","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/4/2a/42ad329b-b9c2-5ab1-8f51-923a5f5a3ebd/580686cb4fc2b.image.jpg?crop=671%2C377%2C0%2C61"}}}],"revision":8,"commentID":"4ec65ef4-15dc-5980-aef7-98008c3e7dfb","body":"

Two Pima County corrections officers who were fired in late October are back to work at the jail, after reaching a settlement with the Sheriff\u2019s Department last week, officials said.

Alexandra Barajas and Bryan Melton were fired from the Pima County Sheriff\u2019s Department on Oct. 24, after an internal investigation showed \u201cpervasive and inappropriate lewd behavior\u201d between the two while on duty at the jail, according to documents from the Pima County Merit System Commission.

The pair was originally placed on administrative leave without pay Sept. 8, while the Sheriff\u2019s Department investigated the claims against them. Barajas and Melton immediately appealed the suspensions with the Merit Commission and were fired while awaiting their December hearing, which was postponed, documents show.

During the Merit Commission\u2019s Jan. 4 meeting, Barajas and Melton\u2019s attorney, Mike Storie, reached a settlement agreement with the Sheriff\u2019s Department, allowing the pair to receive suspensions without pay in lieu of being fired, said Wendy Petersen, deputy director of Pima County Human Resources.

The suspensions were in effect through Jan. 8, and both have since returned to work, said Deputy Cody Gress, a sheriff\u2019s department spokesman.

The department\u2019s investigation into Barajas and Melton began in July, after it was reported that the two had been spotted \u201ctouching, petting, kissing and holding hands\u201d while on duty and in front of inmates and staff, according to the documents.

Investigators also learned the pair left their assigned posts without permission, missed mandatory inmate welfare checks, abused their breaks, failed to administer medications and didn\u2019t \u201cproperly, truthfully and completely\u201d document records and incidents.

Melton\u2019s suspension notice also said he used unnecessary and unprovoked force on a juvenile inmate, and mentioned that he\u2019d been involved in \u201chorseplay\u201d with more than one female corrections officer.

Sheriff Mark Napier said the settlement came after the department\u2019s lawyers determined there was a good chance the Merit Commission would rule in favor of Barajas and Melton.

\u201cAs an alternative to a long hearing process with an uncertain outcome, the employees agreed to a substantial unpaid suspension and a very rigid last chance employment agreement,\u201d Napier said. \u201cIt was the best judgment of the department to accept this in consideration of the totality of the circumstances.\u201d

"}, {"id":"46be34fe-d834-11e6-aa3f-e754b7415a2b","type":"article","starttime":"1484170200","starttime_iso8601":"2017-01-11T14:30:00-07:00","lastupdated":"1484245701","priority":30,"sections":[{"crime":"news/local/crime"},{"watchdog":"news/local/watchdog"}],"application":"editorial","title":"Man arrested after Ajo toddler's death pleads guilty to child abuse","url":"http://tucson.com/news/local/crime/article_46be34fe-d834-11e6-aa3f-e754b7415a2b.html","permalink":"http://tucson.com/news/local/crime/man-arrested-after-ajo-toddler-s-death-pleads-guilty-to/article_46be34fe-d834-11e6-aa3f-e754b7415a2b.html","canonical":"http://tucson.com/news/local/crime/man-arrested-after-ajo-toddler-s-death-pleads-guilty-to/article_46be34fe-d834-11e6-aa3f-e754b7415a2b.html","relatedAssetCounts":{"article":3,"audio":0,"image":1,"link":0,"vmix":0,"youtube":0,"gallery":0},"byline":"Caitlin Schmidt\nArizona Daily Star","prologue":"Prosecutors said man allowed child to live in a filthy home with access to knives and drugs.","supportsComments":false,"keywords":[],"internalKeywords":["#latest","#watchdog"],"customProperties":{},"presentation":"","images":[{"id":"6fa0900a-1aa3-560c-9f44-d4ec5d194f37","description":"Julian Moore","byline":"","hireswidth":null,"hiresheight":null,"hiresurl":null,"presentation":"mugshot","versions":{"full":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"480","height":"600","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/6/fa/6fa0900a-1aa3-560c-9f44-d4ec5d194f37/57d4404d9698d.image.jpg?resize=480%2C600"},"100": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"100","height":"125","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/6/fa/6fa0900a-1aa3-560c-9f44-d4ec5d194f37/57d4404d9698d.image.jpg?resize=100%2C125"},"300": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"300","height":"375","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/6/fa/6fa0900a-1aa3-560c-9f44-d4ec5d194f37/57d4404d9698d.image.jpg?resize=300%2C375"},"1024":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"1024","height":"1280","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/6/fa/6fa0900a-1aa3-560c-9f44-d4ec5d194f37/57d4404d9698d.image.jpg"}}}],"revision":12,"commentID":"46be34fe-d834-11e6-aa3f-e754b7415a2b","body":"

An Ajo man arrested in June after his girlfriend's daughter died while under his care pleaded guilty to one count of felony child abuse, court records show.

Julian Moore was arrested on multiple charges of child abuse days after 17-month-old VictoriaLynn Heredia-Manuel's June 10 death, according to Pima County Superior Court records.

On Dec. 16, Moore entered a change in plea, admitting guilt in one of the three counts of child abuse leveled against him, records show.

At around 12:30 a.m., paramedics arrived at a home in Ajo and found VictoriaLynn unconscious. After 90 minutes of life-saving efforts and nine rounds of adrenaline, the child was pronounced deceased.

The Pima County Sheriff's Department investigation revealed that Moore was in Pima County jail at the time of VictoriaLynn's death, but had left her at a friend's house, court records show.

After collecting evidence at Moore's home and speaking with him, detectives learned that he used heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, and three weeks before VictoriaLynn's death, he saw her eat part of a marijuana joint that was left within her reach, records show.

Moore also told them that VictoriaLynn had been sick the week before her death, and although he had considered taking her to the clinic, he thought she was doing better, despite the fact that \"she had been screaming in pain as if she were being 'tortured,'\" according to court records.

Moore was initially charged with three counts of child abuse, after prosecutors said that he didn't seek treatment for VictoriaLynn and allowed her to live in a filthy home with access to knives and drugs, court documents say.

VictoriaLynn's autopsy report came back inconclusive, but showed that she had\u00a0minor injuries to her head, face and torso, although none were serious enough to kill her.

Pima County prosecutors accepted the plea agreement and dismissed the other charges against him. Moore will be sentenced by Judge Jane Eikleberry on Jan. 17.

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A Tucson mom arrested Jan. 5 on charges of child abuse after her daughter was severely burned in the bathtub might have waited up to six hours to seek medical treatment, court records show.

Samantha Osteraas is facing two counts of child abuse, after her 5-year-old daughter suffered third-degree burns to 80 percent of her body during a Dec. 29 incident, according to a Pima County Sheriff's Department search warrant document filed in Pima County Superior Court.

At about 8 p.m., sheriff's deputies and paramedics with Rural Metro Fire Department arrived at Osteraas' home, in the\u00a02900 block of West Sun Ranch Trail, near North Shannon Road and West Lambert Lane, for reports of a burned child, the warrant return says.

Osteraas told 911 dispatchers that she didn't realize she was bathing her daughter in hot water. When paramedics arrived, they noticed serious burns on the girl's whole body, from her upper-chest down, the document says.

Deputies also noted bruises to the child's neck and left arm, and saw blood and signs of trauma on her upper-lip. Hours after the incident, it was reported that she was in respiratory and organ failure, the warrant return says.

Osteraas told detectives that her husband was at work and she had just bathed two of her other children, when she drained the water and refilled the tub, leaving her daughter in the room \"to climb into the tub herself,\" the document says.

Osteraas said that she went into the other room to watch TV for about 15 minutes and when she went back into the bathroom, she turned off the running water and \"noted that the victim was slumped over the side of the tub and appeared to be what she described as lethargic, with the top of her body hanging out over the tub,\" according to the document.

\"She told detectives that the child looked up and stated, 'hi mommy,'\" the search warrant return says.

Osteraas told detectives that she took the daughter out of the tub and into the master bedroom.

\"Detectives did note in the master bedroom a large blood stain on the floor where the victim was laid by her adoptive mother,\" the document says.

When she returned to drain the tub water she described it as being hot to the point that she had to use cold water to cool her hand, according to the document.

Osteraas said she called her husband and neighbors on her cell phone after pulling her daughter from the tub.

During her interview she told detectives that\u00a0she had drank two beers that night and has a prescription for Adderall, an amphetamine-derived drug used to treat ADHD, according to the document.

Doctors at Banner-University Medical Center told detectives the next morning that medical findings indicated the girl's burns could have been inflicted up to six hours before Osteraas called for medical treatment, the search warrant return says.

The Osteraas' three other children were taken into custody by DCS, and during an interview two of the children told case workers that they were playing on an iPad while the victim was in the bathtub, the documents says.

Because of the time discrepancy between when Osteraas said the incident happened and when doctors believe it did, detectives are reviewing the iPads to help determine when the incident took place.

Osteraas is currently in the Pima County jail on a $25,000 bond. It's unclear from court documents if she has an attorney.

\"I am very appreciative of the professional investigation conducted by the deputies on the scene and our detectives,\" said Sheriff Mark Napier. \"The victim suffered significant injuries that were very difficult for our personnel to have to address as part of the investigative process.\"

The girl remains in critical condition at a local hospital

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With a $6 million budget deficit going into the final stretch of the fiscal year, the Sheriff\u2019s Department has indefinitely postponed training academies for deputies and corrections officers, but Pima County\u2019s new sheriff says public safety won\u2019t be compromised.

The Pima County Sheriff\u2019s Department is close to being fully staffed, and while Sheriff Mark Napier is concerned about the department\u2019s finances, he\u2019s confident his deputies can keep the streets safe.

\u201cMy commanders tell me we\u2019re in pretty good shape in the field and corrections, but I\u2019m sure that we always want and put to use more bodies than we have,\u201d said Napier, who began his term on the first of the year. \u201cRight now we\u2019re expending a lot of overtime at the jail, because they\u2019re a little short there, but overall I think we\u2019re doing fine.\u201d

Once some of the immediate changes Napier plans to make take effect, he\u2019ll re-evaluate the budget to decide when the academies will resume.

\u201cI don\u2019t want to kick that can too far down the road, because then you start getting so far behind that it\u2019s impossible to catch up,\u201d Napier said. \u201cIt can snowball after awhile if you delay it too much.\u201d

Despite the 9,000 square miles within the department\u2019s jurisdiction, deputy response times to 911 calls have remained consistent over the past year, with high-priority call response averaging five minutes, Napier said, adding that the department has been keeping a close eye on the situation.

In a Dec. 19 memo, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry provided 10 years of Sheriff\u2019s Department budget, expenditure and revenue history to demonstrate that the department\u2019s budget hasn\u2019t been underfunded by the Board of Supervisors.

During that time, the department\u2019s budget increased from $114 million to $147 million, but this year\u2019s projected deficit is the largest to date. In five of the last 10 years, the department has produced deficits ranging from $1.5 million to $4.7 million.

\u201cFrom my standpoint, all of this stuff that has currently popped up would have been easily foreseen six to nine months ago,\u201d Napier said. \u201cWe should have seen this coming and should have made some preparatory steps in this budget cycle right after July 1 to prevent us from getting so far into the projected red.\u201d

Huckelberry\u2019s projection put this year\u2019s deficit at $5,692,758, but Napier said that number isn\u2019t set in stone.

\u201cIt\u2019s a number that\u2019s in flux based on things we\u2019re doing daily to try to mitigate the problem,\u201d he said. \u201cWe\u2019re not sitting on our hands, we\u2019re doing things all the time.\u201d

Decreasing staffing levels at the command level is first on his list and has already been implemented.

The chief of staff and chief deputy positions were both vacant when Napier took office, and as he said prior to the election, he won\u2019t be filling them just yet.

\u201cWe\u2019re not giving up the positions, they\u2019ll sit on the sideline so that in better times we can refill these positions if we feel like they\u2019re needed and we have the fiscal ability to fund them,\u201d Napier said.

The administrative staff in the sheriff\u2019s office has also been reduced to one person, who was brought in from another part of the department, after Napier eliminated two administrative positions that were costing the department more than $150,000 in annual salaries.

\u201cWe\u2019re really trying to \u2014 and it\u2019s a philosophical thing from my part \u2014 to start from the top down,\u201d he said.

\u201cWe always start at the bottom and we\u2019re always asking people actually delivering service to do more with less. It sends a disheartening message to the line-level people. They need to see us absorb some of the cuts, too.\u201d

In addition, the department will be moving to three bureau chiefs from the existing four.

Napier doesn\u2019t know yet how the reorganization will work, but there will be some combination in command of the operations, investigations, administrative and corrections bureaus.

All three positions will be part of a competitive selection process that Napier hopes to have done by the end of the month, with all the current bureau chiefs reapplying for their jobs and competing against any of the nine department captains who want to apply.

\u201cI talked during my campaign about needing to do a cultural reset in the department, and that\u2019s what we\u2019re doing,\u201d Napier said. \u201cFor many department employees, their confidence in the executive leadership team has been shaken.\u201d

Other ways that Napier is looking to curb the budget deficit will be reducing on-call pay and take-home vehicles, which in some situations were used to inappropriately supplement income, he said.

\u201cSome ancillary staff have take-home vehicles that were more perks than operational necessity, and on-call pay was given to a lot of people in the department that really don\u2019t have on-call responsibilities, so we\u2019re going to be reeling some of that in,\u201d he said.

Napier has also asked his command staff to control overtime, which he says has gotten out of hand, as it was used to loosely compensate employees who hadn\u2019t seen raises in years.

\u201cDiving in, there\u2019s a great sense of excitement in the department,\u201d Napier said of his first week, which he acknowledged had a few bumps.

\u201cThere\u2019s also some anxiety, because in the career life of every single person in this department, they\u2019ve known two people: Clarence Dupnik and Chris Nanos (former sheriffs). So they don\u2019t know what to expect, but there\u2019s this great sense of excitement that there\u2019s new opportunity and that things are going to happen.\u201d

"}, {"id":"364a6dd4-73b5-5d53-80c6-3c930e691f04","type":"article","starttime":"1483570800","starttime_iso8601":"2017-01-04T16:00:00-07:00","lastupdated":"1484256484","priority":44,"sections":[{"crime":"news/local/crime"},{"watchdog":"news/local/watchdog"}],"application":"editorial","title":"Indicted ex-Pima County sheriff's commander sets defense plan","url":"http://tucson.com/news/local/crime/article_364a6dd4-73b5-5d53-80c6-3c930e691f04.html","permalink":"http://tucson.com/news/local/crime/indicted-ex-pima-county-sheriff-s-commander-sets-defense-plan/article_364a6dd4-73b5-5d53-80c6-3c930e691f04.html","canonical":"http://tucson.com/news/local/crime/indicted-ex-pima-county-sheriff-s-commander-sets-defense-plan/article_364a6dd4-73b5-5d53-80c6-3c930e691f04.html","relatedAssetCounts":{"article":0,"audio":0,"image":1,"link":0,"vmix":0,"youtube":0,"gallery":0},"byline":"By Caitlin Schmidt\nArizona Daily Star","prologue":"Says he was acting on department's behalf when alleged crimes were committed.","supportsComments":false,"keywords":[],"internalKeywords":["#latest","#top5","#watchdog"],"customProperties":{"arm_id":"72268"},"presentation":"","images":[{"id":"9c27dbd7-3711-5cfb-b6d2-c076578dfde5","description":"Chris Radtke","byline":"Pima County Sheriff's Department","hireswidth":null,"hiresheight":null,"hiresurl":null,"presentation":"mugshot","versions":{"full":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"117","height":"118","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/9/c2/9c27dbd7-3711-5cfb-b6d2-c076578dfde5/57fc97cc404c2.image.jpg?crop=117%2C118%2C4%2C3&resize=117%2C118&order=crop%2Cresize"},"100": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"100","height":"101","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/9/c2/9c27dbd7-3711-5cfb-b6d2-c076578dfde5/57fc97cc404c2.image.jpg?crop=117%2C118%2C4%2C3&resize=100%2C101&order=crop%2Cresize"},"300": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"300","height":"303","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/9/c2/9c27dbd7-3711-5cfb-b6d2-c076578dfde5/57fc97cc404c2.image.jpg?crop=117%2C118%2C4%2C3"},"1024":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"1024","height":"1033","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/9/c2/9c27dbd7-3711-5cfb-b6d2-c076578dfde5/57fc97cc404c2.image.jpg?crop=117%2C118%2C4%2C3"}}}],"revision":21,"commentID":"364a6dd4-73b5-5d53-80c6-3c930e691f04","body":"

The former second-in-command of the Sheriff\u2019s Department, who was indicted on charges of theft of federal funds, is claiming in a court filing he was acting on behalf of the department when the alleged crimes occurred, documents show.

In a notice filed this week with U.S. District Court, Christopher M. Radtke said he intended to use a \u201cpublic authority defense\u201d in his upcoming trial on seven felony charges related to money laundering and embezzlement of roughly $500,000 in public funds, court documents show.

\u201cAt all times alleged in the indictment, and with respect to the acts alleged in the indictment, Christopher Radtke was acting as an employee of the Pima County Sheriff\u2019s Department, acting within the lawful scope and authority of his employment on behalf of and in the interests of his employer,\u201d the document says.

A public authority defense means the defendant knowingly committed a crime, but did so \u201cin reasonable reliance upon a grant of authority from a government official to engage in illegal activity,\u201d according to the U.S. Department of Justice website.

The notice said that as a result of the motion, it\u2019s likely his trial will be delayed.

In November, U.S. District Court Judge James A. Soto set a date of Jan. 6 for Radtke to enter a change of plea and scheduled the trial to begin Jan. 24. It was unclear Wednesday if the date would be rescheduled.

\u201cThe public authority defense exists to protect employees like my client, who were simply acting at the direction of their superiors with respect to the allegations contained in the indictment,\u201d said Radtke\u2019s attorney, Sean Chapman. \u201cWe anticipate calling multiple witnesses at trial to establish this fact.\u201d

The grand jury indictment says that between 2011 and 2016, Radtke embezzled, stole or fraudulently obtained at least $500,000 of forfeiture money from the Sheriff\u2019s Auxiliary Volunteers fund.

Radtke\u2019s September indictment came on the heels of a months-long FBI investigation, which began after the Star reported his niece, Nikki Thompson, took over a cafe inside sheriff\u2019s headquarters in 2011.

The indictment includes multiple allegations of conspiracy, several relating to cafe purchases, including nearly $2,000 for custom-designed chalkboards that were used as menu boards in Thompson\u2019s two cafe locations.

Other allegations include hundreds of dollars in reimbursements for restaurant bills and tips, materials used to assemble a Santa\u2019s sleigh for the department\u2019s 2011 awards banquet and more than $700 in model airplanes.

The conspiracy charge indicates other parties were involved, and the indictment mentions other persons \u201cknown and unknown to the grand jury,\u201d but as of Wednesday, no one else had been charged.

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The owner of La Placita Village downtown is asking the city of Tucson for a tax break to help redevelop the property.

Demolition on the brightly colored buildings is scheduled for May, the property\u2019s owner said.

City officials confirm HSL Properties recently applied for the city\u2019s Proposed Revision to Government Property Lease Excise Tax incentive, paying the $5,000 application fee.

Omar Mireles, president of HSL Properties, says the 43-year-old property is an excellent candidate for the tax incentive, which requires the redevelopment to increase the property\u2019s value by at least 100 percent.

Early plans call for a new six-story building with up to 230 apartments while still protecting three existing historic buildings in the iconic development at 110 S. Church Ave.

There are also plans to open some retail shops on the first floor, including plans for a restaurant and a coffee shop inside the project.

City officials said the application is still being evaluated and that no estimate exists on how much the tax incentive would be worth.

The Tucson City Council recently signed off on a tax incentive to help developer Don Bourn build a five-story building that is a few blocks away from La Placita. The tax reduction for the City Park development, which will feature a food hall and bowling alley, would cost various taxing districts, including the city of Tucson, an estimated total of $1.2 million over an eight-year period.

HSL closed La Placita Village earlier last year, telling the remaining tenants to vacate the property in the summer and putting up a chain-link fence around the property.

Mireles said the city has not given him any indication how long it will take to evaluate his application, but said plans to demolish the existing structures are expected to proceed in April. The City Council is expected to discuss the tax break next month during a closed-door executive session.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild hadn\u2019t seen the application but said the city would carefully review the it to see if it meets the city\u2019s guidelines to encourage redevelopment throughout the community.

He added that depending on the independent economic analysis, the council has the option to offer a partial incentive to HSL Properties and has done so in the past with other projects.

Councilman Steve Kozachik said he would be keeping an eye on the state\u2019s gift clause provision to ensure that if the city offers an incentive to HSL that it is similar to tax breaks the city has already signed off on for other developers.

La Placita Village, which opened in 1973, had before it closed more than 200,000 square feet of office and restaurant space and a 500-space parking garage, which remains open.

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To combat one particularly vicious bacteria, known as C. diff, Tucson Medical Center bought a robot \u2014 here attended to by Denise Trujillo \u2014 to sanitize rooms. .","byline":"A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star April 2016","hireswidth":1500,"hiresheight":967,"hiresurl":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/6/d9/6d95ee62-9780-5d76-9dcf-d7010b399e6b/5866e910a13f6.hires.jpg","presentation":"","versions":{"full":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"620","height":"400","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/6/d9/6d95ee62-9780-5d76-9dcf-d7010b399e6b/5866e910a068b.image.jpg?resize=620%2C400"},"100": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"100","height":"64","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/6/d9/6d95ee62-9780-5d76-9dcf-d7010b399e6b/572000cfd5fa3.preview-100.jpg"},"300": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"300","height":"169","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/6/d9/6d95ee62-9780-5d76-9dcf-d7010b399e6b/5866e910a068b.image.jpg?crop=1500%2C843%2C0%2C61&resize=300%2C169&order=crop%2Cresize"},"1024":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"1024","height":"575","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/6/d9/6d95ee62-9780-5d76-9dcf-d7010b399e6b/5866e910a068b.image.jpg?crop=1500%2C843%2C0%2C61&resize=1024%2C575&order=crop%2Cresize"}}}],"revision":21,"commentID":"4a3e241d-e77a-5a00-8e7a-497c2d8c6fbc","body":"

For the third year in a row, Medicare is penalizing Banner-University Medical Center Tucson for its rate of patient injuries and infections.

The hospital was among the worst-performing 25 percent of hospitals nationwide on a matrix of hospital-acquired conditions, recently released data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) show.

One of two local academic medical centers owned by Phoenix-based Banner Health, Banner-University Medical Center Tucson was the only Tucson hospital penalized by Medicare for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

An analysis of federal data by Kaiser Health News shows a total of 15 hospitals in Arizona were hit with the penalty, which amounts to a 1 percent reduction in federal Medicare payments through Sept. 30. For some hospitals, the penalty means a cut in payments of a half million dollars or more this fiscal year. Sixteen Arizona hospitals were fined during the last federal fiscal year.

Nationally, 769 of 3,203 hospitals rated will have their payments cut this year, CMS officials say. The federal agency released the data Dec. 19. Children\u2019s, psychiatric, veterans and long-term care hospitals weren\u2019t scored; also excluded were hospitals deemed \u201ccritical access\u201d \u2014 rural facilities that are often the only hospitals in their area.

While supporters say the penalty program is an effective way to improve patient safety, critics argue it unfairly penalizes hospitals like Banner-University Medical Center Tucson \u2014 Southern Arizona\u2019s only top-level trauma center \u2014 that deal with the sickest patients with the most complex cases.

at Banner

Banner Health did not own Banner-University Medical Center Tucson for much of the data collection period, nor when the hospital was penalized in the first two years of the program, said Dr. Gordon Carr, who is the hospital\u2019s chief medical officer. Banner became owner of the hospital after a merger with the University of Arizona Health Network in March 2015.

The data cited by CMS are drawn from July 2013 through December 2015, Carr emphasized, and do not reflect new investments the company has made and new strategies it has put in place here, he said.

Banner has made \u201csubstantial investments\u201d in the clinical infrastructure since the merger, he said. Among other things, the hospital has new central-line protocols, and a new electronic intensive care unit monitoring system that engages a virtual Banner medical team to back up bedside caregivers by constantly monitoring patient vitals for changes that require immediate medical intervention.

Carr said he\u2019s hopeful that more recent improvements will positively affect future CMS reports for the local hospital. He cited Banner-University Medical Center Tucson\u2019s latest data for January through September of this year, which, using the same clinical reporting areas, show a 46 percent reduction in central-line-associated bloodstream infections.

A central line is a catheter inserted into a large vein for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes, such as administering medications. Central-line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSIs) cause thousands of deaths each year and billions of dollars in added costs to the U.S. health-care system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

\u201cBanner Health is committed to continuous quality improvement for the safest, most reliable clinical care,\u201d Carr said.

Reducing infections

The federal penalties were created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, also known as Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The penalty program\u2019s official name is the Hospital-Acquired Condition Reduction Program, and it was created to provide incentives for hospitals to improve patient safety and reduce medical costs.

The hospitals are scored on their self-reporting of quality measures, among them central-line-associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections (CAUTI), surgical site infection rates for colon and abdominal hysterectomy surgeries, and a composite score of eight patient-safety indicators, among them pressure ulcers, postoperative hip fractures and postoperative sepsis rates.

The government added two more measures to this year\u2019s data: rates of the antibiotic-resistant infections methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and clostridium difficile, often known as C. diff.

Banner-University Medical Center Tucson scored worse than the national benchmark on its rate of central-line-associated bloodstream infections in ICUs and select wards.

The hospital also scored worse than the national benchmark on surgical-site infections from colon surgery, on MRSA infections and on C. diff.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says C. diff, which is shed in feces, was estimated to cause almost half a million infections in the United States in 2011, including 15,000 deaths.

C. diff causes inflammation of the colon and the risk of infection increases with age. The germ can live for long periods on hard surfaces.

Those most at risk are people, especially older adults, who take antibiotics and also get medical care. Any surface, device or material that becomes contaminated with feces may serve as a reservoir for C. diff spores, which CDC officials say are transferred to patients mainly via the hands of health-care personnel who have touched a contaminated surface or item.

Publicly searchable information is on the federal website Hospital Compare,\u00a0 and tells how a hospital compares to the national benchmark.

C. diff is a problem around the country. Other local hospitals that scored worse than the national benchmark on C. diff were Carondelet St. Mary\u2019s Hospital and Tucson Medical Center.

Tucson Medical Center

This year\u2019s data release marked the first time in the three years of the program that Tucson\u2019s largest hospital \u2014 Tucson Medical Center \u2014 was not penalized.

Tucson Medical Center officials say they have made a concentrated effort in recent years to reduce both hospital-acquired infections and the incidence of the eight patient-safety indicators that are part of the federal scoring system: pressure ulcers; accidental puncture or lacerations; postoperative rupture of a wound incision; postoperative sepsis; blood clots during all phases of surgery; postoperative hip fractures, central venous catheter-related blood stream infections; and lung injuries due to medical care.

Two years ago, TMC scored in the worst 10 percent of hospitals nationwide for its composite patient-safety indicator score. Its score now is in the top 20 percent of all hospitals, chief medical officer Dr. Rick Anderson said.

\u201cWe\u2019ve gone from worse than the national average to better than the national average,\u201d he said.

The hospital improved by focusing on three of the eight patient safety indicator areas: pressure ulcers, blood clots, and accidentally puncturing or piercing somebody during surgery, Anderson said.

The hospital looked at best practices in medical literature and \u201cshamelessly stole\u201d protocol from hospitals like Mayo Clinic whose scores are high, Anderson said. \u201cMost hospitals are more than happy to share that because it really is all about protecting patients and keeping them from harm,\u201d Anderson said.

Tucson Medical Center used the Mayo Clinic\u2019s protocol, for example, to reduce its incidence of infection rates following colon surgery.

\u201cWe noticed their rate was very low. They actually have something they put in place that starts before the patient even comes to the hospital,\u201d Anderson said. \u201cWe put that whole cascade of things in place from before the patient gets here to after the patient leaves. It goes from changing instruments out when you close the colon, to changing gowns, changing instruments, timing of antibiotics, making sure patients\u2019 blood sugars are well-controlled and that their temperature is well-maintained in surgery.\u201d

C. diff a problem

Tucson Medical Center still has work to do in sustaining its improvements, and in further reducing hospital-associated infections, particularly C. diff, officials said. Anderson said the hospital has an ongoing emphasis on hand-washing and stressed that hand sanitizer doesn\u2019t work against C. diff.

If a patient is in isolation because he or she is at risk for C. diff, or already has it, Tucson Medical Center tells nurses and visitors that they must wear gowns and gloves. An audit revealed that rule was being ignored, so hospital officials became more strict about it.

\u201cIt\u2019s so important because a cellphone, anything can get contaminated and if it goes out, or if patient families then go to the cafeteria, we just worry about where that goes,\u201d Anderson said. \u201cWe really just put our foot down.\u201d

In 2013, the CDC published a report that categorized C. diff as an urgent drug-resistant threat in the U.S. Because overusing high potency antibiotics puts patients at risk for C. diff, Anderson said at Tucson Medical Center there\u2019s a constant evaluation of antibiotic use.

Criticism of penalties

Some critics say that the penalty program for hospital-associated infections is not a fair way to judge a hospital\u2019s level of safety for patients. For one thing, 25 percent of hospitals are always penalized under the current formula, which means that even if they are all good, one quarter are always penalized.

Also, several hospitals that were penalized are highly rated on other matrices. For example, Banner Heart Hospital has a five-star quality rating with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, yet it finished in the worst quartile in the nation under this year\u2019s hospital-acquired condition reduction program.

Akin Demehin, director of policy for the American Hospital Association, calls the Medicare penalty program \u201cpoorly designed policy that results in unfair penalties, especially for teaching hospitals and large hospitals that care for the sickest patients and perform the most complex surgeries.\u201d

The program, which has assessed more than $1 billion in penalties since it began, is in need of reform to more effectively promote improvement, Demehin said. \u201cAnd we need better measures that more accurately reflect performance on important issues,\u201d he said.

The government did not release an estimate of how much the program will cost penalized hospitals. But an analysis by the Association of American Medical Colleges says the hospitals altogether will pay about $430 million, up 18 percent from $365 million last year.

The public should remember that the data does not take recent improvement efforts into consideration, said Sandra Severson, vice president of care improvement for the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.

The difference in a hospital being penalized and non-penalized can come down to one-tenth of a point, which is an arbitrary point and not a valid measure of safe or unsafe care, she said.

Patient safety

But supporters note that hospital-acquired infections have dropped nationally, which is the ultimate goal of the program.

\u201cIt\u2019s important stuff. I think whether you want to complain about the measurement, or say the data is old, who wants to have hospital-associated infections or patient safety problems like blood clots or pressure ulcers?\u201d said Tucson Medical Center\u2019s Anderson.

\u201cWhen you look at your measurements, it should really be that you don\u2019t want any of those things to ever happen. ... For us, it is so important to patients, but also to our bottom line. In general I think it\u2019s a good program.\u201d

The Kaiser Health News analysis says 241 hospitals nationwide, including Banner-University Medical Center Tucson, were punished all three years of the program. Others include Brigham & Women\u2019s Hospital in Boston; Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta; and Northwestern Memorial in Chicago.

\u201cIt really is a disservice to the public to dismiss these findings,\u201d said patient safety expert Helen Haskell, a South Carolina resident who founded the national group Mothers Against Medical Error.

\u201cThe hospitals are upset because they\u2019ve shown some of the most famous and wealthiest hospitals have safety problems.\u201d

Haskell said the public also deserves to know that large academic medical centers can and do have safety problems \u2014 they have young, inexperienced people working there and a lot of turnover, she said.

\u201cTransparency always helps,\u201d she said.

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Seven of eight senior executives at the University of Arizona are taking home more money this school year, as is most of the UA workforce, public records show.

President Ann Weaver Hart approved pay raises of 4 to 5 percent for every member of her senior leadership team except for the top earner, the records show.

The highest paid, Joe G.N. \u201cSkip\u201d Garcia, who recently announced he\u2019s about to step down as senior vice president for health sciences, is drawing the same $870,000 salary this school year as last.

University spokesman Chris Sigurdson couldn\u2019t immediately say why Garcia didn\u2019t get a raise.

This school year marks the first time since 2013 and the second time since 2007 that the UA\u2019s overall workforce \u2014 Southern Arizona\u2019s largest \u2014 saw pay raises.

The percentage increases varied and were based on individual merit and market demand, said Sigurdson, who received a 5 percent raise and now earns more than $194,000 a year.

In most cases, faculty members saw raises of 3 to 6 percent while staff members saw increases of 1 to 5 percent, he said.

Allison Vaillancourt, the UA\u2019s head of human resources, said some employees \u2014 such as those deemed underpaid or in high-demand fields \u2014 received raises of more than 10 percent. Each of those cases were reviewed by the school\u2019s provost and finance chief, she said.

Kendal Washington White, the UA\u2019s dean of students, had one of the highest percentage increases at 20.3 percent, the records show. Her new salary is $180,500, up from $150,000.

\u201cThe university is a people-intensive business, and we have to have regular salary increases to stay competitive or we lose brilliant people,\u201d said Vaillancourt, who received a 4.5 percent raise and now earns more than $258,000 annually.

\u201cWe also need to recognize the great work by all our employees, which is why President Hart has made compensation increases part of the annual budgeting process for all units,\u201d she said.

Hart\u2019s $665,500 pay package is set separately by her bosses at the Arizona Board of Regents.

Pay raises for the president\u2019s inner circle are as follows:

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Two Tucson police officers caught up in an investigation into a long-running prostitution ring were sanctioned by the state agency that regulates officer certification, officials said.

Oscar Ramos was one of eight Tucson Police Department employees who was fired or resigned from the department, after a years-long investigation revealed the men were either customers of or had knowledge of the illegal massage parlors, according to Arizona Daily Star archives.

On Wednesday, the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board accepted a consent agreement with Ramos, allowing him to voluntarily surrender his certification, said board spokeswoman Sandy Sierra.

Without AZPOST certification, Ramos will no longer be able to work as a police officer in Arizona.

The board also accepted a consent agreement with Tucson police Officer Vincent Valenzuela for a three-month suspension of his certification, Sierra said.

Valenzuela was fired in August 2015, but appealed his termination with the city\u2019s Civil Service Commission, who overturned the department\u2019s decision and reinstated Valenzuela to the force, according to city records.

In 2011, Tucson police began investigating the prostitution ring, \u201cBy Spanish,\u201d that advertised illicit services on Backpage.com. Over the next four years, police learned that a former employee of \u201cBy Spanish\u201d had started her own company, \u201cDaisy\u2019s Delights,\u201d and the two businesses occupied more than 10 locations across Tucson, according to Daily Star archives.

In January 2015, police seized hundreds of pieces of evidence during a raid, including cellphones, which were found to contain the phone numbers of Border Patrol agents, Davis-Monthan airmen, Tucson firefighters and at 10 least employees of the Tucson Police Department, including Ramos.

In his internal affairs interviews, Ramos admitted to \u201cutilizing these services, knowing they offered sex acts in exchange for additional money,\u201d according to AZPOST documents.

Ramos also admitted to paying for massages from one of the women that ended with sexual contact on more than one occasion, the documents said.

Valenzuela\u2019s phone number also turned up on one of the cellphones seized in the raid, and an internal affairs investigation revealed that he had a personal relationship with the alleged operator of \u201cDaisy\u2019s Delights,\u201d according to AZPOST documents.

In his interview with internal affairs, Valenzuela told detectives that he knew Stephanie Garcia from his previous job at her middle school, according to the internal affairs report.

Valenzuela told investigators that he went to Garcia\u2019s house in early 2014 to \u201chang out,\u201d but after learning of her lifestyle he cut off contact with her. Internal affairs documents reveal that Valenzuela had phone contact with Garcia during the time he said they weren\u2019t communicating.

During the investigation, detectives learned that in April 2014, Valenzuela used his work computer to run Garcia\u2019s name through state and federal law enforcement databases for no valid law enforcement reason, AZ Post documents show.

When asked about the incident, he told investigators that he didn\u2019t remember doing that.

During the January 2015 raids on the \u201cBy Spanish\u201d and \u201cDaisy\u2019s Delights\u201d locations, Valenzuela assisted in serving a search warrant on Garcia\u2019s home without notifying his supervisor of their personal relationship, according to the AZPOST documents.

\u201cHe attempted to minimize her role in the search warrants, indicating that had she been at the location, he would have advised his sergeant of his relationship with her, but since she was not present, it wasn\u2019t necessary,\u201d the AZPOST document reads.

Garcia is facing eight felony charges, including illegal control of an enterprise, money laundering, maintaining a house of prostitution and receiving the earnings of a prostitute, according to Pima County Superior Court records. Her trial is scheduled to begin in April.

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PHOENIX \u2014 A state senator is trying again to make it easier for public officials to deny requests for records they believe are \u201cunduly burdensome or harassing.\u201d

The proposal by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, leaves in place existing requirements for records to be open to public inspection, and spells out that those who are denied access can sue and recover their legal fees.

But SB 1019 adds a requirement that the records sought must be identified with \u201creasonable particularity.\u201d

Potentially more significant, it provides public officials with the ability to claim that \u201cthe request for access to public records is unduly burdensome or harassing.\u201d

Kavanagh acknowledged that his legislation provides no definition for either term.

But the senator said that does not make it a flawed measure.

\u201cJust like when the personal privacy trumps the public\u2019s right to know is vague,\u201d he said. \u201cBut we live with that and we allow judges to make that determination.\u201d

He said it\u2019s a matter of common sense, saying some people \u201ctake pleasure out of making the government do all this work and then not even showing up to look at it.\u201d

The measure traces its roots to problems in several rural areas.

Steven Moore, the Yuma city attorney, said last year that two individuals make 70 percent of all the public-records requests. One, Moore said, made 46 requests in 44 business days, even requesting copies of all his prior requests.

And Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, made his own stab at changing the law after saying local officials were getting requests that take up to five days to research and fill, with some agencies having to hire additional staffers to comply.

Dan Barr, attorney for the First Amendment Coalition, said he understands the desire to deal with that kind of problem.

\u201cEveryone agrees in the extreme instance where you have some gadfly repeatedly making vague and large public-records requests \u2014 and in some cases not even picking up the records \u2014 at that point the public body can say \u2018We shouldn\u2019t have to comply with these requests anymore,\u2019\u201d he said.

But Barr said he reads existing law to already allow public agencies to get a court order for such \u201cextreme instances.\u201d

He said he fears that the proposed language could be abused.

\u201cIt gives the public body a way to deny the request if they don\u2019t want to comply with the request from a reporter or a criminal defense attorney or a private investigator because they feel it\u2019s harassing them,\u201d Barr said. He said that provides cover for officials who would rather not reveal information that could be controversial or embarrassing.

And once a public official raises the excuse of burdensome or harassing, it puts the burden on the person requesting the records to hire an attorney and go to court to get the documents.

Kavanagh said he understands the concerns and would consider any proposals to tighten up the language.

\u201cI would certainly not want to make harassing some policy position to be grounds for denial,\u201d he said.

\u201cIn fact, if it\u2019s a controversial policy (at the heart of the request), all the more reason to have public inspection.\u201d

Kavanagh shepherded legislation with the same language out of the Senate last year on a 22-7 vote, but ran into opposition in the House, where members voted 40-19 to kill the measure amid concerns it could be abused.

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Marylan Tran crouches next to a boarded-up trailer on a December afternoon, her hands moving quickly and confidently. Squatting in flip-flops, her bare toes and forearms streaked with mud, Tran wrangles with a leaky water pipe she dug up that morning amid the 50 trailers at Su Casa Mobile Home Park.

Smearing pungent blue glue over a piece of PVC, Tran replaces the section of pipe within minutes. A stinky clogged sewer line is next on her list, and Tran is smiling as she rapidly shovels dirt over exposed pipe at the south-side trailer park, which she bought last year at a foreclosure sale.

Tackling substandard housing with her own two hands has become a passion for Tran, 45, and Southern Arizona has plenty of it.

Since 2013, Tran has partnered with friends to buy four of the most degraded trailer parks she could find in Tucson and then set out to completely overhaul them: replacing old trailers that are beyond repair, upgrading the parks\u2019 utility infrastructure, insulating trailer walls and installing brand-new appliances.

Her most recent trailer park purchase was Su Casa at 5353 S. Country Club Road. Dozens of trailers there are boarded up and under renovation.

In less than a year, Tran and her work crew replaced 27 trailer roofs at Su Casa. She\u2019s also committed to keeping rents low enough that low-income tenants can afford to live there.

The work is so rewarding, it makes up for the exhaustion, financial stress and occasional bout of loneliness, said Tran, who moved here from Southern California and has no family in Tucson.

\u201cI\u2019m just so grateful,\u201d she said. \u201cI dream this is a community, with people able to have a good life together.\u201d

The labor is a stark departure from Tran\u2019s first job. As a young woman she spent 11 years as a nun, mostly at the Lovers of the Holy Cross convent in Los Angeles. But in her early 30s, she had to leave the convent to take care of her father when he was dying of cancer. Soon after she returned to her sisters, she had to leave again to care for her ailing mother.

As time passed, Tran said she realized how much good she could do outside the sisterhood, without any constraints on her independent streak.

\u201cAt the convent, you serve under obedience,\u201d she said. \u201cHere, you serve directly to God, you listen to whatever God is calling you to do through the people. You touch them and feel them every day. You need to make decisions all day long, by yourself. And I have to take care of myself, too. It\u2019s a little bit tough, but I feel very free.\u201d


In 1990, when Tran was 18, she and most of her family moved to the U.S. from a remote mountain town in Vietnam.

After leaving the convent to care for her parents, Tran went to school for nursing, working her way up to becoming a registered nurse. She was earning money for the first time in her life, while still living the simple, ascetic life of a sister, she said.

\u201cAll of the sudden I had money,\u201d she said. \u201cI didn\u2019t know what to do with it.\u201d

She bought a home in Westminster, California, began teaching herself how to remodel it and then rented it out. She sold it for $600,000 in 2015.

With money to spare, Tran started thinking about how to give back. She\u2019d heard Arizona had a plethora of distressed mobile home parks, where she thought she could make a difference on multiple fronts: improving the quality of the housing and counseling the residents.

After buying her first park in Tucson in 2013, she worked almost nonstop alongside her first partner, another former nun who recently decided to return to the sisterhood.

For 18 months every week they commuted between Tucson and San Diego, where Tran worked three, 12-hour nursing shifts between Thursday and Saturday. They left for Tucson each Sunday at 5 a.m. and were back to renovating trailers by 2 p.m. Tran said she put more than 100,000 miles on her nearly new Prius.

In late 2015, Tran quit nursing to focus on her mobile home parks.

\u201cI had more tenants that needed more,\u201d she said. \u201cI don\u2019t have people to go run errands. I am the one who checks everything is ready for the tenant, I am the one who will buy all the materials and I am the one who is handy. \u2026 I needed to be here.\u201d


Conditions were dire in the parks she bought. Neglected water leaks led to mold growth. Broken plumbing meant raw sewage piling up beneath the trailers. Shoddy electrical work led to fire hazards. Crime and drugs were rampant, as was despair among existing tenants.

\u201cThe conditions shocked me. How can people live like this? It looks like they have no choice,\u201d she said.

Su Casa was in complete disrepair after the previous owner abandoned it last year, leaving tenants confused and without water until Pima County\u2019s Community Services department stepped in to restore water service. Tenants moved out as squatters moved in, stripping anything valuable out of the abandoned trailers, Tran said.

Tran works alongside her maintenance crew, and her self-taught renovation skills run the gamut.

\u201cI can do everything. I can do the roofing, tile, electrical, plumbing,\u201d she said. \u201cYouTube will teach me everything I don\u2019t understand.\u201d

Today, Tran said she has a waiting list of low-income tenants eager to move into Su Casa. Her park at 2901 N. Fairview Ave., has 16 occupied trailers and six others are still being renovated. At her property at 5755 S. Fontana Ave., all 17 trailers and RVs are now occupied.

At the Fontana park \u2014 the first she purchased \u2014 Tran disposed of the trailers that were beyond salvaging and brought in quality RVs. She\u2019s also installed free Wi-Fi to help her younger tenants with their job searches and so her elderly tenants can stay in touch with family and friends through social media.

\u201cMy priority is to make the tenant have a good life,\u201d she said. \u201cThey deserve it. It\u2019s a loss (to provide Wi-Fi) but it\u2019s a gain for the tenant.\u201d

Two years ago, Sandra Miller, 66, moved to Fontana to be closer to her disabled son, who lives in the RV next door. After Miller told Tran about a crack in the linoleum kitchen floor, within a week Tran had re-tiled the entire thing, said Miller, a part-time in-home caregiver. Tran also installed a new air conditioner, toilet and refrigerator, Miller said.

\u201cShe really loves the people who live here, and she bends over backwards for us,\u201d she said.


Tucson\u2019s worst mobile home parks are downright dangerous, and the most vulnerable tenants there can be victims of exploitation, housing advocates say.

Aging and neglected trailer parks can be the last resort for low-income residents who either can\u2019t afford another option or can\u2019t find a landlord who will rent to them due to bad credit, a criminal history or an eviction on their record. Undocumented immigrants often choose trailer parks because some landlords don\u2019t do background checks.

The threat of eviction can keep tenants quiet about deplorable housing conditions, and that fear allows the conditions to fester \u2014 and exploitation to thrive, said Jana Happel, attorney with Southern Arizona Legal Aid.

Another Tucson mobile home park owner said the economic recession helped weed out some of the most negligent or absentee landlords.

Jeff Landon owns 13 parks, including Kino Mobile Home Park next door to Su Casa.

\u201cWhat I try to do is provide safe, cheap housing for low-income people. Looks like she (Tran) is trying to do the same,\u201d said Landon, who also bid on Su Casa park during last year\u2019s foreclosure sale. \u201cI\u2019m always happy whenever anybody improves any property \u2014 especially when it\u2019s next door to mine.\u201d

Landon said the sale of some of the most badly run parks after the recession has left an opening for owners like him and Tran to redevelop them.

\u201cI think the better operators fared better and there was some shake out\u201d after the recession, he said. \u201cThe people who were out-of-state owners and didn\u2019t have strong management here, I think they suffered a lot of vacancies and those parks became a lot less profitable. Some of them changed hands because of that.\u201d


Tran makes a point to spend time with her tenants and her maintenance crew, sharing meals or hosting barbecues. She counsels tenants on their personal problems \u2014 unemployment or addiction struggles \u2014 blurring the lines between landlord, social worker and friend. She likes her tenants to see her on the roofs of trailers or crawling underneath them, looking for the source of a tell-tale sewage smell.

\u201cYou need to journey with them. You need to become one of them,\u201d she said.

Sally Valenzuela and her fianc\u00e9 rent a trailer at Tran\u2019s park on Fairview Avenue. Valenzuela, 50, said it\u2019s easy to like Tran, who lived at the park for a year while renovating it.

\u201cI think of her as a really good friend,\u201d she said. \u201cI always tell her, \u2018You need to stop working so much, Mary.\u2019 It\u2019s seven days a week.\u201d

Valenzuela said Tran is compassionate as a landlord, too. When Valenzuela\u2019s fianc\u00e9 had a stroke in October, he had to take time off from his landscaping job. Since Valenzuela was laid off from her office manager position months earlier, they knew they\u2019d have trouble making their rent, which is $385 plus utilities.

When they told Tran, \u201cshe said not to worry \u2014 she\u2019d give us the time to catch up,\u2019\u201d Valenzuela said.

\u201cA CURIOUS MIND\u201d

Tran invests heavily in her mobile home parks, spending upwards of $10,000 on a trailer remodel.

\u201cMarylan amazes me,\u201d said James Guan, 31, Tran\u2019s friend and business partner. When it came to home renovation, \u201cshe has a curious mind and she learned fast. And she understood if you do it on your own, you save money and put it back into the park.\u201d

Tran, Guan and his wife, Therese \u2014 also a former nun from the L.A. convent \u2014 purchased a 1930s-era trailer park at 99 E. Palmdale St. in March. They rebuilt the park from the ground up, Guan said, replacing the unlivable trailers, redoing the plumbing and electrical infrastructure and adding plenty of security cameras.

\u201cI was more profit-driven in the beginning. (Tran) saw it as a way to help the poor,\u201d Guan said. Today, he sees the financial and moral benefits of being a responsive landlord.

\u201cA lot of (park) owners want to squeeze every penny out of tenants and not do repairs,\u201d he said. \u201cWe do it right the first time, even though it costs double or triple. You save money that way, and also your tenants are happier and stay longer.\u201d

One of their tenants, Jenell Sweeney, broke into a huge smile when asked how the park had changed under the new owners.

\u201cI\u2019m getting goosebumps,\u201d said Sweeney, 49. \u201cI can\u2019t believe the changes in the area.\u201d

When Sweeney first moved in two years ago, she lived for three weeks with broken plumbing that resulted in human waste dropping from the toilet onto the ground below her trailer. Electrical problems meant her family had to rely on candles at night for lighting. Despite her pleas, the former park owners wouldn\u2019t repair the sewage problem until a city code inspector threatened to condemn the trailer, she said.

She used to always keep her trailer door shut, fearing the squatters who were living in the park\u2019s abandoned trailers. Prostitutes were always walking by and she worried about gun violence, said Sweeney, who lives with her boyfriend and his 12-year-old daughter.

Within 48 hours of buying the park, the new owners had visited every tenant and asked for a list of their problems, Sweeney said. Now, the abandoned trailers are gone. Park tenants held a Fourth of July barbecue this year. And Sweeney said she now feels safe relaxing on a couch outside of her trailer, with the door wide open.

\u201cIt\u2019s nice to be that comfortable again,\u201d she said. \u201cTheir first concern is the safety and happiness of their tenants, and it shows. They\u2019re not slumlords.\u201d

Tran recently visited her old convent in L.A. after her mother\u2019s death in October. For the week she stayed there, she easily fell back into the routine of early-morning prayer time and a strictly regulated schedule. Back among her sisters, it felt like she\u2019d never left, she said.

\u201cI was into the groove. I do miss them a lot,\u201d she said.

Tran often wonders when will be the right time to return to the sisterhood, but she said she can\u2019t leave Tucson any time soon; her tenants are her new family, and there\u2019s too much work to do.

\u201cThe need here is more than the convent,\u201d she said. \u201cMy heart is here now.\u201d

"}, {"id":"201ebaba-4d80-5899-9fec-54eb309f1d3f","type":"article","starttime":"1482443100","starttime_iso8601":"2016-12-22T14:45:00-07:00","lastupdated":"1482948841","priority":40,"sections":[{"local":"news/local"},{"watchdog":"news/local/watchdog"}],"application":"editorial","title":"Goal: Hold irresponsible trailer-park landlords accountable in Tucson","url":"http://tucson.com/news/local/article_201ebaba-4d80-5899-9fec-54eb309f1d3f.html","permalink":"http://tucson.com/news/local/goal-hold-irresponsible-trailer-park-landlords-accountable-in-tucson/article_201ebaba-4d80-5899-9fec-54eb309f1d3f.html","canonical":"http://tucson.com/news/local/goal-hold-irresponsible-trailer-park-landlords-accountable-in-tucson/article_201ebaba-4d80-5899-9fec-54eb309f1d3f.html","relatedAssetCounts":{"article":0,"audio":0,"image":5,"link":0,"vmix":0,"youtube":0,"gallery":0},"byline":"By Emily Bregel Arizona Daily Star","prologue":"Housing advocates hope to improve ailing mobile-home parks without pushing residents out of their homes.\u00a0","supportsComments":true,"commentCount":0,"keywords":["arizona housing alliance","manufactured housing communities of arizona","pima county housing center","pima county development services","code enforcement","southern arizona legal aid"],"internalKeywords":["#toptwo","#latest","#watchdog"],"customProperties":{},"presentation":"","images":[{"id":"ab4ee34d-42ab-5b86-a536-aa64f1ec25e4","description":"Pamela Smith packs up for her move from a mobile home she rented at Prince Road Park. 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Pamela Smith points out her trailer\u2019s broken windows, busted out by thieves, and the edges of the bathtub, separating from the wall. The ground below the trailer is visible through holes in the bathroom floor, the heater doesn\u2019t work and a wobbly set of stairs leading to the trailer door appears ready to collapse, she said.

She didn\u2019t have a written lease in October when she moved in to the mobile home park at 110 E. Prince Road, but she said the park manager promised he would make repairs.

Smith said she was lucky she could afford to move out a few weeks ago, after the trailer was burglarized and the promised repairs never happened. Her neighbors aren\u2019t so fortunate, she said.

\u201cPeople moving into places like this won\u2019t stand up for themselves,\u201d said Smith, who said she is on disability because of mental illness and lingering problems related to a broken femur. \u201cIt\u2019s a quick-fix for putting a roof over your head.\u201d

Substandard housing is too often the standard in Arizona\u2019s mobile home parks, housing advocates say. State and local officials are trying to improve the parks and hold irresponsible landlords accountable, without inadvertently putting more low-income residents in the streets.

\u201cSome cities and towns are getting more restrictive on these parks,\u201d said Val Iverson, executive director of the Arizona Housing Alliance, a nonprofit working to expand access to affordable housing. \u201cBut I think we\u2019d rather have someone living in a dumpy trailer than on the street.\u201d

The Arizona Housing Alliance has launched a mobile home \u201cworking group\u201d \u2014 including advocates, local governments and owners of mobile home parks \u2014 focused on improving the state\u2019s aging mobile homes, which comprised about 10 percent of occupied housing in Arizona as of the 2010 Census.

Many of the oldest trailer parks in Arizona are either in disrepair or are being redeveloped into other uses, said Susan Brenton, executive director of Manufactured Housing Communities of Arizona, a lobbying group for mobile home park owners.

That\u2019s unfortunate because the parks are a major source of housing for low-income Arizonans, and modern zoning codes can make it hard to open new parks, she said.

\u201cCities and counties have to look at the issue of, do we really want these older mobile home parks to go away or not?\u201d she said. \u201cThis is affordable housing. If we close down that park, what is going to happen to these people?\u201d

Local housing assistance is stretched thin: Tucson\u2019s Section 8 housing-voucher program, which subsidizes rent for low-income people, has a wait list of more than 18,600 families, said Sally Stang, director of the city\u2019s Housing and Community Development Department.

The mobile home working group\u2019s initial recommendations, compiled in a September report, include:


While some municipalities are cracking down on trailer parks, advocates for the poor in Tucson say code enforcement is still too weak here.

Lax or underfunded enforcement allows problems to persist in aging mobile home parks and in other low-cost housing \u2014 especially in Pima County. The county has intentionally adopted a limited set of property maintenance codes to avoid the cost of enforcing the code inside occupied residential properties.

That means renters living in unsafe or uninhabitable units can\u2019t just call up a county inspector to force repairs of hazardous conditions inside their homes \u2014 they would have to take their landlords to court.

Government should not pass the burden of code enforcement onto low-income, vulnerable tenants who may not have the time or resources to engage in a lengthy court case, said Beverly Parker, attorney for Southern Arizona Legal Aid.

Many can\u2019t afford the expense, are afraid of retaliation or don\u2019t know their rights as tenants, and so they tend to keep quiet, she said.

In 2014, after the Star reported on the lack of code enforcement in the county, Pima County Developmental Services \u2014 which oversees code enforcement \u2014 wrote a budget proposal to expand the code to cover occupied housing, starting in fiscal year 2016. The cost would have been $269,000 for that year, but County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry did not include it in his recommended budget, said Carmine DeBonis, department director.


Vulnerable mobile home buyers need more support in ensuring the trailer they\u2019ve purchased or rented is decent and safe, said Marcos Ysmael, program manager for the Pima County Housing Center. The center is part of the Arizona Housing Alliance\u2019s mobile home working group and will help implement the group\u2019s recommendations locally.

\u201cA lot of times these folks are in desperate situations. They don\u2019t have resources and time to do a thorough inspection of the unit, and some problems you\u2019re only going to see when it rains, for example,\u201d he said.

Prince Road Park is owned by Todd Kroepel of Talazera Holding Group LLC, who lives in Southern California and referred questions to the park\u2019s local manager, Don Knitter.

Knitter said he made a mistake in renting the trailer to Smith in such poor condition, but he said Smith was supposed to make the repairs. The previous park owner was negligent, resulting in widespread maintenance issues, said Knitter, who took over the park in August.

Keeping up with maintenance is especially tough when tenants don\u2019t quickly report issues like water damage that only worsen over time, he said.

At the trailer park, \u201cI\u2019m cleaning up a mess left by someone else,\u201d he said. \u201cWe\u2019re doing our best to make it livable and safe and compliant.\u201d


Pima County officials added plans to improve distressed mobile home parks to the county\u2019s long-term plan, called Pima Prospers, following the Star\u2019s reporting on the issue, said Carla Blackwell, deputy director of Pima County Development Services department.

At the top of the agenda: The department is trying to crack down on people who are relocating trailers built before 1976 \u2014 before U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development construction standards were established \u2014 without proper paperwork, Blackwell said.

Those older, and potentially dangerous, trailers require permits to move and an inspection to prove they\u2019ve been brought up to livable standards, Blackwell said. The requirement aims to stop landlords from moving decrepit trailers from a defunct park to another location where they can continue to rent or sell them, she said.

Other systemic issues need attention, including the power landlords wield over mobile home tenants who are scared of having an eviction on their record, which can make it nearly impossible to find decent housing, said Parker of Southern Arizona Legal Aid. Stronger protections for tenants in eviction court could help, she said.

During eviction proceedings, held in the justice courts, tenants often show up without a lawyer and their cases are usually decided within minutes.

Some unscrupulous trailer park owners run \u201crent-to-own\u201d scams, offering tenants the option to pay extra each month toward purchasing their trailer. But before the trailer is paid off, the sellers find a pretext to evict the tenant, in order to re-sell the trailer and make more money on it. Often the trailers they\u2019re selling are only worth a fraction of the price they\u2019re charging, Parker said.

In other cases, tenants pay off the trailer, only to find the seller never actually held title to it because it was abandoned by the previous owner. Among the Arizona Housing Alliance\u2019s recommendations: Make it easier for new buyers to immediately acquire proper title to their trailer, so unscrupulous sellers can\u2019t find a way to take them back, and impose penalties on sellers who deal in mobile homes without titles.

Brenton emphasized that in Arizona, \u201cthe vast majority of the parks are well-run\u201d.

\u201cMost of what you\u2019re going to read about in newspapers and hear about on TV are bad issues,\u201d she said. \u201cEveryone has to realize, we are the most affordable type of living that\u2019s unsubsidized.\u201d

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Hong / The Associated Press 2014","hireswidth":1763,"hiresheight":1175,"hiresurl":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/2/fa/2fa60d5b-fc6f-53e5-979c-52a1449754a5/5855be8a5899f.hires.jpg","presentation":"","versions":{"full":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"620","height":"413","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/2/fa/2fa60d5b-fc6f-53e5-979c-52a1449754a5/5855be8a56b62.image.jpg?resize=620%2C413"},"100": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"100","height":"67","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/2/fa/2fa60d5b-fc6f-53e5-979c-52a1449754a5/5855be8a56b62.image.jpg?resize=100%2C67"},"300": {"type":"image/jpeg","width":"300","height":"200","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/2/fa/2fa60d5b-fc6f-53e5-979c-52a1449754a5/5855be8a56b62.image.jpg?resize=300%2C200"},"1024":{"type":"image/jpeg","width":"1024","height":"682","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/2/fa/2fa60d5b-fc6f-53e5-979c-52a1449754a5/5855be8a56b62.image.jpg?resize=1024%2C682"}}}],"revision":12,"commentID":"874dc286-cd59-5f0c-92c9-a0e0821194b8","body":"

LAS VEGAS, Nevada \u2014 A long-term plan for protecting Lake Mead and preventing severe shortages in deliveries of Colorado River water to Arizona and two other states won\u2019t be approved before the Obama administration ends, throwing more uncertainty into the outlook.

While the three states keep discussing a drought contingency plan, Arizona water officials say they\u2019ve reached general agreement with water users here for a shorter-term fix for Lake Mead\u2019s chronic declines.

The Arizona plan calls for cities, farms and Indian tribes to keep enough water in Mead through 2019 to lower the risks of the first round of shortages of Central Arizona Project water deliveries. Such shortages would hurt agriculture significantly, although not enough to threaten viability of the CAP, which delivers drinking water to Tucson and Phoenix and irrigation water to central Arizona farmers.

Federal and state water officials announced at a water conference here last week that too many issues remain unresolved to wrap up the major regional drought plan, in the works for three and a half years. They\u2019re optimistic agreement can be reached next year and perhaps in the first few months. They said they hope that if they\u2019re close to agreement, the new Trump administration won\u2019t want to change it radically.

The Arizona plan can act as a bridge, helping the over-allocated Colorado River water system until a long-term plan is in place, said Arizona Water Resources Department and CAP officials at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference.

Standing in the way of the short-term fix, however, is money. It will cost up to $60 million to compensate Arizona users who give up their CAP water to make the short-term plan work, said Terry Fulp, Lower Colorado regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the river reservoir system.

Asked how confident he is of finding that money in the next few months, Fulp replied, \u201cThat\u2019s a really good question. I don\u2019t know if we have a really good answer. All I can tell you is that we\u2019re working hard to do that.\u201d

Meanwhile, standing in the way of the long-term fix are two longstanding water disputes in California. One is the fate of the Salton Sea in the southern California desert, which in January 2018 is slated to lose 200,000 acre feet of water that\u2019s to be transferred to San Diego under a 2003 agreement.

At that point, many authorities are worried that the exposed playa\u2019s salt and heavy-metal tainted soils will blow around, triggering massive air pollution.

The sea\u2019s water is runoff from the neighboring Imperial Valley Irrigation District, which controls huge amounts of Colorado River water and is reluctant to give up more under the proposed drought plan unless something can be done to shore up the sea. It wants to see a detailed \u201croad map\u201d outlining what California will do to fix the looming problems there.

The other is a $15 billion proposal to build twin tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to improve the reliability of water deliveries from northern to southern California.

The Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles wants to see progress toward building the tunnels \u2014 which are heavily opposed by other groups \u2014 to ensure that it will have enough other water if it gives up Colorado River water under the drought agreement.


Outgoing Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan Lopez told conferees Friday that the failure to reach agreement is \u201cbittersweet.\u201d

\u201cThere\u2019s been an incredible amount of work by the states and water users, and by the U.S. with Mexico, to do what we have to do to prepare ourselves for the possibility that this drought continues,\u201d he said. \u201cWe made and thought of some amazing innovations that, once enacted, will provide us some tools that people will figure out how to use to really help to sustain this river system. But we are not there yet.\u201d

Federal officials said they won\u2019t carry out a threat made at this conference a year ago by Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor to impose their own Colorado River plan on Arizona, California and Nevada if the states didn\u2019t adopt a plan by now.

\u201cIn the first six months of 2016, we have to see progress, coming together\u201d among leaders of the three states, Connor told the Arizona Daily Star a year ago.

Last week, however, Connor told reporters that because the states have installed a \u201cvery good framework\u201d for the long-term drought plan and made progress toward approving it, the feds won\u2019t step in.

\u201cBut we will leave that strategy in place\u201d for the incoming Trump administration if the three states can\u2019t reach agreement next year, he said.

Environmentalist John Weisheit, head of the Utah-based group Living Rivers, said he was disappointed the feds aren\u2019t following up on the threat.

\u201cThe states didn\u2019t follow through and neither did the federal government. This is a joke. Somebody should be fired,\u201d said Weisheit, predicting an agreement will never be reached. \u201cThey\u2019ve known about this problem (of an over-allocated Colorado River) for decades. Even if they do a drought contingency plan, it\u2019s not going to be sufficient in the long term. Why aren\u2019t they doing a 60-year plan?\u201d

Arizona Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said as far as he\u2019s concerned, \u201cfailure is not an option.\u201d But while the state has pretty broad support for the plan, \u201cthe details are still in flux. Details matter. We have to make all pieces of the puzzle fit together. We have forward momentum.\u201d

For now, \u201cwe find ourselves in a very precarious situation on the Colorado,\u201d Lopez, the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, told the conference Friday.

\u201cIn 2007, we were in an eight-year drought ... (lakes) Mead and Powell combined were at 47 percent of normal. Now, we\u2019re in our 17th year of drought. It\u2019s the driest 17-year period in recorded history. ... Our combined storage today is 43 percent.\u201d

He pointed to photos showing Mead\u2019s bathtub ring, standing about as high as a 15-story building, and displaying salts left behind by disappearing water. \u201cIf we had another five years like 2000 to 2005, we would be in very dire straits right now. That\u2019s why we\u2019re working so hard on this,\u201d he said.

2 river-saving plans detailed

The main drought contingency plan calls for Arizona to give up 512,000 acre feet of water \u2014 enough for more than a million homes \u2014 once Mead drops below 1,075 feet at the end of any year. The reclamation agency predicts about a 50 percent chance of that by the end of 2017. Under the plan, farmers would take the largest share of cuts, by far, although Indian tribes would also stand to lose water.

For the long term, Arizona, Nevada, California and the bureau would give up 1.2 million acre feet total if the lake hit 1,025 feet. The goal is to keep the lake from dropping below 1,020 feet \u2014 a point where major urban water deliveries would be jeopardized and Hoover Dam couldn\u2019t deliver electric power.

Under Arizona\u2019s temporary plan, the state would leave in Mead 400,000 acre feet a year through 2019. Arizona is already leaving nearly 200,000 acre feet a year.

The river\u2019s current guidelines for dealing with shortages and the initial drought plan are viewed by some \u201cas penalizing or harming certain classes of water users disproportionately,\u201d CAP General Manager Ted Cooke said last week.

The temporary Arizona plan would \u201ckind of balance those things out a little bit.\u201d Higher priority users would voluntarily forbear their use of water so lower priority users could keep their water longer. Some users who don\u2019t give up water may be expected to join the feds and state in compensating those who do.

The biggest cuts under the Arizona plan would most likely hit the Gila River Indian Community in Sacaton in northern Pinal County. The tribe controls by far the biggest share of CAP water \u2014 311,000 acre-feet, more than twice that of Tucson, the next biggest CAP holder.

Farmers say it would be hard for them to swallow more cuts when they\u2019re already going to be hurt by a 100,000 acre-foot cut scheduled next year that has nothing to do with CAP shortages.

Tucson Water Director Tim Thomure noted the city has already agreed to give up 26,000 acre feet next year. Phoenix would be hard pressed to give up any CAP now because it lacks an adequate well system for a backup, said Phoenix Water Director Kathryn Sorenson; such a system is about five years away.

Some of the water not taken would be left in the lake forever, and couldn\u2019t be withdrawn by even the owners, a concept known as \u201csystem conservation.\u201d The rest could be withdrawn by its owners in the future under certain conditions. Owners of the water left in the lake forever would be compensated for it.

\u201cWe would contribute a large portion,\u201d Gila tribal attorney Jason Hauter said Friday. He thinks the Tohono O\u2019Odham tribe, which also controls a significant although much smaller CAP share, would also contribute some water, and that other tribes and other non-Indian water entitlement holders would follow suit, he said.

Given the Gila tribe\u2019s large share of CAP water, \u201cwe see this as an opportunity to provide a solution to this ongoing issue,\u201d said Gila Tribal Governor Stephen Lewis at the conference last week. \u201cWe\u2019re looking for long-term stability for our own community. We see this as a regional solution as well. We have longstanding relations with surrounding agricultural communities. We are wanting to ... positively influence drought mitigation and planning for the future.\u201d

The Gila Indian community doesn\u2019t necessarily see this as giving up water \u2014 \u201cwe see this as an investment in the future. ... Keeping Lake Mead healthier longer benefits all parties and definitely benefits the community as well,\u201d Lewis said.

Paul Orme, attorney for four irrigation districts, still has a lot of questions about the money: \u201cThere is no pile of $60 million that we can latch onto. It will have to come from a variety of sources, a bit at a time.\u201d

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Phoenix roofers labored 20 feet above the ground without guardrails or fall-protection gear. In Tempe, workers were exposed to hazardous chemicals, including chlorine gas, without an adequate safety plan. An untrained Mesa worker was injured using a machine that didn\u2019t guard human limbs from moving parts.

After all three workplace safety violations this year, officials from the cited businesses showed up at an Industrial Commission of Arizona meeting, asked for a reduction in the penalties proposed by occupational safety inspectors \u2014 and got it.

Now, federal officials are scrutinizing the unusual practices of the governor-appointed commission.

In Arizona, civil penalties imposed for hazardous working conditions aren\u2019t only subject to reductions during settlement conferences or formal appeals with employers. Unlike in all other states, penalties here can also undergo an early round of cuts that are largely unaccounted for because they happen before the penalties are even issued.

A Star investigation found the Industrial Commission routinely reduces the penalties recommended by inspectors at the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or ADOSH. The commission reviews ADOSH penalties that exceed $2,500 and its cuts often appear to lack clear justification, a federal OSHA official said.

The Star analysis of Industrial Commission meeting minutes found the 139 penalty proposals reviewed between January and the end of November were reduced by a total of more than $186,000. Commissioners voted to reduce ADOSH\u2019s recommended penalties in more than half of the cases they reviewed this year, the Star analysis shows.

Arizona is one of 26 states with a state-level occupational safety and health enforcement program, which must be at least as effective as federal OSHA or risk takeover. The Industrial Commission oversees ADOSH and other labor-related programs.

In response to questions about the Industrial Commission\u2019s practices, including from the Star, federal OSHA officials began monitoring the commission\u2019s meetings in July.

\u201cWe want to make sure these people who are so knowledgeable and trained are the ones that are the real decision-makers in ADOSH cases,\u201d said Zach Barnett, area director for federal OSHA in Arizona. \u201cIt will be ongoing monitoring until I\u2019m comfortable with the decisions that are being made and how they\u2019re being made.\u201d

On Dec. 9, federal OSHA officials also sent a formal complaint to Industrial Commission director James Ashley about the commission\u2019s practice of reducing penalties and reclassifying safety violations, Barnett said. Ashley has 30 days to respond to the complaint, which won\u2019t be made public until it\u2019s closed, Barnett said.

Commission Chairman Dale Schultz said he understands federal OSHA\u2019s concerns, but he defended the commission\u2019s performance, which he said prioritizes improving workplace safety, not necessarily issuing the highest penalties.

\u201cWe are working very hard with (federal OSHA) to make sure we are in compliance with the expectations of the state plan,\u201d he said. \u201cBut we also feel a very strong responsibility to make sure we are focused on our objective, which is making all workplaces safer.\u201d

Occupational safety experts say that even without the commission\u2019s intervention, ADOSH penalties are too low to be effective.

Arizona\u2019s average final penalty for serious violations in fiscal year 2015 was $960, about 40 percent lower than the national average of $1,598, according to an April report from the labor advocacy group AFL-CIO. The average penalty for workplace incidents in which someone was killed was $2,759 \u2014 70 percent lower than the national average of $9,271.

Congress voted last year to increase maximum OSHA penalties to account for inflation, the first such increase since 1990. Arizona is in the process of updating its maximum penalties, which may require approval from the Legislature, Barnett said.

Without any real threat to their bottom line, unscrupulous employers have little incentive to invest in training, procedures and equipment that put worker safety over profits, said Terry Stobbe, associate professor of public health at the University of Arizona. He teaches industrial hygiene, industrial safety and ergonomics.

Penalties are supposed to have a deterrent effect, but \u201cthe reality is, they\u2019re so small it\u2019s a joke,\u201d Stobbe said. \u201cADOSH has a huge responsibility and they\u2019re not living up to it.\u201d


State plans have flexibility in how they operate, including how penalties are reviewed, said Bill Warren, ADOSH director. Legislation that created OSHA encourages state plans to be \u201claboratories for safety,\u201d so long as they meet federal OSHA\u2019s standards, he said.

Still, experts say it\u2019s unusual for a review commission to alter penalties before they are issued to employers.

\u201cThis sounds very unique to me,\u201d said Celeste Monforton, lecturer at George Washington University\u2019s department of environmental and occupational health, and a former OSHA policy analyst.

ADOSH\u2019s recommended penalties already reflect reductions that federal OSHA allows based on an employer\u2019s safety history, company size and \u201cgood faith\u201d efforts to abate safety violations quickly. Penalties can be reduced further during informal settlements or formal appeals between ADOSH and employers.

Peter Dooley, a Tucson-based senior project coordinator for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said ADOSH inspectors have better insight into appropriate penalties than Industrial Commission members who review them later.

Commissioners are \u201cso far removed from what\u2019s happening at that workplace,\u201d he said. \u201cTo me, that seems like a process fraught with problems.\u201d

Any Industrial Commission penalty reductions, and changes in the severity of citations imposed, are supposed to be based on doubt concerning \u201clegal sufficiency\u201d for the proposed citations or concern about whether the ADOSH inspection was conducted properly, Barnett said. The commission\u2019s reductions don\u2019t appear to be limited to those situations, he said.


The Industrial Commission invites employers to attend its public meetings and make a case for why their penalties and citations should be reduced. Those discussions could be problematic, too, said OSHA\u2019s Barnett.

\u201cI don\u2019t believe it\u2019s appropriate for it to evolve into some sort of extra-judicial proceeding,\u201d he said. \u201cIt is unique that cases would be aired publicly and discussed publicly prior to the issuance\u201d of penalties.

During their June 14 meeting, commissioners reviewed ADOSH\u2019s proposed citations for Sedona-based Hale\u2019s Roofing, where untrained laborers were working on a 23-foot roof without fall-protection gear. The company also didn\u2019t provide an enclosed chute to safely drop roof debris into a ground-level dumpster.

At the meeting, commissioner Robin Orchard asked \u201cwhether a serious citation would impact a company\u2019s ability to acquire contracts,\u201d meeting minutes show. After a company representative \u201ccommented on the impact of a serious violation,\u201d the commission deleted Hale\u2019s Roofing\u2019s two serious citations and changed a third from serious to non-serious. The recommended penalty was cut from $3,500 to $1,250.

Commission spokesman Bob Charles said the reduction was based on the company\u2019s \u201cimmediate abatement\u201d of the violations. He noted employees chose not to use fall-protection gear provided by the company.

Schultz, the commission\u2019s chairman, said engaging with employers advances workplace safety, and workers who attend Industrial Commission meetings are welcome to share their side of the story, too.

But employees would be unlikely to publicly oppose their boss, said Monforton, the former OSHA analyst.

\u201cMost of them are not represented by a union,\u201d she said. \u201cThe situation is set up very much to hear the point of view of the employer. It seems very one-sided to me.\u201d

The Industrial Commission\u2019s efforts to include Arizona businesses in penalty reviews has won praise from some employers.

Roofing companies can struggle to persuade workers to comply with safety protocol, such as using fall-protection gear when working above 6 feet, said Ray Byrne, co-owner of American Roofing LLC in Phoenix.

Since 2015 American Roofing has spent $250,000 on safety equipment and training and has fired dozens of employees for misconduct, Byrne said. But the company still gets cited by ADOSH for the actions of employees.

Earlier this year, commissioners reduced the penalty for American Roofing\u2019s most recent fall-protection violations from the $44,000 recommended by ADOSH to $7,000. Commissioners also downgraded the severity of ADOSH\u2019s citations.

\u201cBefore, we had no control, no say. The only recourse we had was to take them to court,\u201d Byrne said. \u201cI can\u2019t speak highly enough of what the commission has done.\u201d


Declining injury rates in Arizona show the commission\u2019s strategy is working, chairman Schultz said.

Workplace injuries or illnesses in the state have declined fairly steadily from a rate of 4.9 per 100 full-time workers in 2005 to a rate of 3.1 in 2015, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. The national average in 2015 was 3.0 workplace injuries per 100 workers.

\u201cFrankly, we don\u2019t think about how much we\u2019re reducing a penalty or how often we are reducing those penalties,\u201d Schultz said. \u201cWe believe what we\u2019re doing is the right answer and is effective.\u201d

The data trend for workplace fatalities in Arizona is less linear: The latest BLS data show workplace deaths declined from 3.4 per 100,000 workers in 2008 to 2.3 four years later. In 2014, the rate rose to 3.1 deaths per 100,000 workers, then dropped back to 2.4 last year.

Local worker advocates say declining injury rates don\u2019t guarantee workplaces are getting safer.

Some companies don\u2019t report all injuries, and some discourage workers from reporting, said Eleazar Castellanos of the nonprofit Southside Worker Center, which helps ensure fair pay and safe conditions for day laborers. Castellanos also trains workers so they can speak up if conditions are hazardous.

\u201cFor those employers who don\u2019t care about the workers, they only want to do the job and that\u2019s it \u2014 whatever it takes,\u201d he said.


Workers at Flambeau Inc., a plastics manufacturer in Phoenix, faced aggressive production quotas and were trained to reach inside active molding machines to remove pieces of plastic that got stuck in the mold cavity, a 2015 ADOSH accident investigation found.

Using the safety door would have kept workers\u2019 limbs safe, but it would also stop the machine and waste valuable time \u2014 about 10 seconds per part, one supervisor told ADOSH. So workers reached under the safety door more than 400 times per shift, the report said.

The practice came to light last year with the permanent disfigurement of an 18-year-old Phoenix high school senior who was working the second shift at Flambeau to help support his family.

On March 31, 2015, he reached into the mold cavity to remove a piece of plastic and the machine closed on him, crushing his right hand and driving a metal pin through it. His hand was also burned by hot plastic and he had to undergo multiple surgeries.

The teenager declined to comment on the accident. But during last year\u2019s mandatory accident investigation, he told ADOSH he knew the work was hazardous, but he was afraid he\u2019d lose his job if he objected. Two employees also told ADOSH they\u2019d complained to superiors about unsafe practices, with no response.

Flambeau did not contest ADOSH\u2019s two \u201cwillful\u201d violations, meaning the employer knowingly violated a legal requirement or showed indifference to worker safety. Still, in an informal settlement, ADOSH agreed to reduce Flambeau\u2019s penalty from $95,000 to $77,500 after the company fired two managers and installed a guard on the machine.

\u201cEmployer respectfully requested a reduction in penalty,\u201d an ADOSH document reads. Flambeau officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.


Many employers have come to expect they can negotiate for deeper cuts or downgraded citations during settlement negotiations with regulators hoping to avoid a lengthy appeal if employers quickly fix dangerous conditions, said Katie Tracy, policy analyst at D.C.-based Center for Progressive Reform.

Deleting or downgrading a citation\u2019s severity makes a company\u2019s violation history look cleaner than it is, helping repeat offenders avoid detection, Tracy said.

Of the 10 highest penalties issued by ADOSH between 2010 and 2015, Arizona workplace safety officials reduced penalties by an average of 61 percent, either through informal settlements or formal courtroom proceedings, a Star analysis shows. Overall, ADOSH initial penalties were reduced by an average of 25 percent during that time.

The reductions don\u2019t reflect Industrial Commission pre-issuance discounts.

Through settlement negotiations, ADOSH officials can secure concessions from employers such as safety training and new equipment, said Warren, ADOSH director. Penalty reductions mean a company can devote more money to bolstering safety, he said.

In one of the most dramatic reductions in recent years, Kitchell Contractors of Arizona\u2019s initial penalty of $140,000 was reduced to $14,000 in a formal settlement after a 2010 fatal accident.

Kitchell employee Samuel Monge-Garcia was run over by a 30,000-pound forklift when working on his knees on a job site at Phoenix Children\u2019s Hospital. He was in a roadway without the protection of barricades, traffic cones or a spotter.

ADOSH initially cited Kitchell with two willful violations: one for failing to provide a safe workplace and a second for failing to provide protective equipment for employees (another employee was working in a roadway without a reflective vest). In a formal settlement, ADOSH agreed to downgrade the first willful violation to serious and delete the second, reducing the penalty by 90 percent.

Kitchell president and CEO Jim Swanson said the company believes every accident is avoidable. Still, Kitchell has a \u201cfiduciary and legal responsibility\u201d to defend itself, he said in an email. Kitchell shared new information during the appeal that countered ADOSH\u2019s findings and led to a reduced penalty, he said.

\u201cThe monetary penalties assessed by ADOSH are not a deterrent in the grand scheme, because the cost of any accident \u2014 not only physically but also psychologically \u2014 always far exceeds any penalty that could be issued,\u201d he said.


A longtime employee of Western Precooling Systems in Yuma, Jos\u00e9 Mata knew something was wrong with the ammonia condenser, which was shaking in the truck bed on which it was mounted. As Mata moved to shut it off, the overpressurized condenser exploded, sending liquid ammonia into the air.

Mata, 56, said he reacted automatically: He closed his eyes, held his breath and fled the ammonia cloud engulfing him.

Ammonia burns like fire, and immediately freezes any tissue it encounters. The chemical froze Mata\u2019s shirt to his skin, and when his co-workers removed his clothes, the skin was pulled from his arms.

Mata suffered burns over 42 percent of his body: second-degree burns on his face and third-degree burns elsewhere. He underwent five surgeries and lost his sense of smell and taste. His family has sought therapy to cope with the accident and its aftermath, he said.

An ADOSH inspection found a web of factors caused the accident, among them: The condenser wasn\u2019t properly connected to a diffusion system that would have relieved growing pressure, and the last safety review was conducted before that condenser was on site. Someone had capped the openings on a pressure-relief system, which would have diffused growing pressure.

ADOSH issued an initial penalty of $69,300 to Western Precooling after the December 2011 accident. In a formal settlement agreement, that was reduced to $25,300 and one willful violation was downgraded to serious.

After two years of recovery, Mata is back at Western Precooling. He said the accident made a big impact on the company, which got new equipment, improved safety protocol and added more eye-wash water stations.

Mata doesn\u2019t blame his employer, but he faults ADOSH for not visiting often enough, even after the accident. An OSHA inspection database shows ADOSH hasn\u2019t returned to Western Precooling\u2019s Arizona sites since the 2011 accident.

The AFL-CIO report found that, based on the number of safety and health inspectors in Arizona, it would take 128 years for the state\u2019s OSHA plan to inspect every workplace once.

\u201cEvery year they should check on things, check on the improvements, and not only at my company,\u201d Mata said. \u201cI hear about tragedies where people get killed, they pay (a penalty) and three months later, it\u2019s back to the same deal.\u201d

"}, {"id":"eab82e96-c64f-53e9-960b-cd611de86b1e","type":"article","starttime":"1482013800","starttime_iso8601":"2016-12-17T15:30:00-07:00","lastupdated":"1482297964","priority":30,"sections":[{"news":"news"},{"local":"news/local"},{"health-med-fit":"news/science/health-med-fit"},{"watchdog":"news/local/watchdog"}],"application":"editorial","title":"Tucson doctor surrenders license over liposuction and prescribing issues","url":"http://tucson.com/news/article_eab82e96-c64f-53e9-960b-cd611de86b1e.html","permalink":"http://tucson.com/news/tucson-doctor-surrenders-license-over-liposuction-and-prescribing-issues/article_eab82e96-c64f-53e9-960b-cd611de86b1e.html","canonical":"http://tucson.com/news/tucson-doctor-surrenders-license-over-liposuction-and-prescribing-issues/article_eab82e96-c64f-53e9-960b-cd611de86b1e.html","relatedAssetCounts":{"article":0,"audio":0,"image":1,"link":0,"vmix":0,"youtube":0,"gallery":0},"byline":"By Stephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star","prologue":"Laurance Silverman worked at a local medical spa","supportsComments":true,"commentCount":0,"keywords":[],"internalKeywords":["#latest","#watchdog"],"customProperties":{},"presentation":"","images":[{"id":"bd804cdb-ed56-5438-b5b4-097a7a62f4dd","description":"","byline":"","hireswidth":null,"hiresheight":null,"hiresurl":null,"presentation":"","versions":{"full":{"type":"image/png","width":"620","height":"457","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/b/d8/bd804cdb-ed56-5438-b5b4-097a7a62f4dd/5769e3c98355f.image.png?resize=620%2C457"},"100": {"type":"image/png","width":"100","height":"73","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/b/d8/bd804cdb-ed56-5438-b5b4-097a7a62f4dd/55f352e2c9ee7.preview-100.png"},"300": {"type":"image/png","width":"300","height":"168","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/b/d8/bd804cdb-ed56-5438-b5b4-097a7a62f4dd/5769e3c98355f.image.png?crop=620%2C348%2C0%2C54&resize=300%2C168&order=crop%2Cresize"},"1024":{"type":"image/png","width":"1024","height":"575","url":"http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/tucson.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/b/d8/bd804cdb-ed56-5438-b5b4-097a7a62f4dd/5769e3c98355f.image.png?crop=620%2C348%2C0%2C54"}}}],"revision":34,"commentID":"eab82e96-c64f-53e9-960b-cd611de86b1e","body":"

A Tucson doctor has surrendered his medical license over issues with prescribing and his supervision of liposuction procedures.

Laurance Silverman signed documents to voluntarily give up his license Nov. 10, following a medical board investigation that began in 2015, board documents show.

The investigation was triggered by Silverman\u2019s disclosure on his medical license renewal in 2015 that in May 2014 he had surrendered his U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) certificate to prescribe controlled substances.

Silverman had surrendered his DEA certificate for providing controlled substance prescriptions to patients without performing an exam, Arizona Medical Board records say.

The investigation also found that Silverman admitted to allowing a nonmedically licensed individual to perform tumescent liposuction procedures on patients at the \u201cmed spa\u201d where Silverman was medical director.

An agreement with the medical board that is part of the surrender says Silverman\u2019s conduct, uncovered in the investigation, constitutes unprofessional conduct.

The Arizona Medical Board can accept the surrender of the license of a physician under investigation if the licensee is either unable to safely engage in the practice of medicine or has committed an act of unprofessional conduct, board officials say.

Silverman had been licensed to practice medicine in Arizona since 1992 and the state medical board lists his areas of interest as physical medicine and rehabilitation.

The Arizona Medical Board documents do not provide a timeline for the unprofessional conduct, do not name the med spa, and the complete investigative file on the case is not public record.

Reached by telephone, Silverman said he feels he was a victim of circumstance as the unprofessional conduct was related to a time when he was supervising a medical assistant named Gustavo Nu\u00f1ez.

Nu\u00f1ez, who is in his 50s, is in jail and awaiting trial on charges that he performed liposuction procedures without a medical license. He was arrested in 2013 after a DEA investigation into his clinic, called NuTec, in an industrial warehouse at 1656 N. 15th Ave.

Silverman had previously been Nu\u00f1ez\u2019s medical director when they worked together at LaserOne, a salon day spa in Tucson. Silverman worked there for four years and left in 2012, he told the Star. While working there he had assumed Nu\u00f1ez was qualified to perform the procedures he was doing, he said \u2014 although LaserOne\u2019s co-owner says Silverman would have had to vet Nu\u00f1ez\u2019s background before agreeing to hire him.

In a court filing that\u2019s part of the state\u2019s criminal case against Nu\u00f1ez, prosecutors say that Silverman and Nu\u00f1ez performed about 12 liposuctions together at LaserOne.

Silverman told the Star he will testify for the state against Nu\u00f1ez in the criminal case.

\u201cAccording to my contract, everyone who worked there under me was supposed to be licensed and qualified to do procedures,\u201d Silverman said. \u201cI am upset with LaserOne.\u201d He declined to answer any follow-up questions.

Callie Cox, co-owner of LaserOne, said she has no knowledge of the medical board investigation. Silverman was the medical director when Nu\u00f1ez was hired, so he would have had to both approve his hiring and know his background, she said.

She said that Nu\u00f1ez\u2019s arrest was related to events that occurred after he left the day spa.

\u201cI would not even have brought Gustavo on board if Dr. Silverman did not approve of him,\u201d Cox said. \u201cEverything we did when Dr. Silverman was here was on the table as far as I know. There was no funny business here.\u201d

Nu\u00f1ez left LaserOne at the end of 2012 to focus on providing services at his own clinic, the court filings say. In a 2014 interview with the DEA, Silverman said that when he left he did independent examinations for insurance companies.

Silverman had an issue with Arizona Medical Board once before for a problem while he was supervising Nu\u00f1ez.

In 2011, the board reprimanded Silverman after a patient, a 55-year-old women, complained that the lip injections she received in 2010 caused severe swelling and necrosis. The board documents don\u2019t specify where Silverman was working at the time, only that he was supervising Nu\u00f1ez.

Nu\u00f1ez performed the lip augmentation with a dermal filler, the board\u2019s investigation found. The woman said she called Silverman after business hours because of the swelling but was unable to reach anyone, the records say.

An outside medical consultant hired by the board found that Nu\u00f1ez had no record of being certified as a medical assistant, though he did meet the minimum standards for acting as a medical assistant under Arizona law.

However, the outside medical consultant found that in plastic surgery and dermatology it is not accepted practice to allow even certified medical assistants to perform sensitive cosmetic filler injections.

That\u2019s because their training for injections does not include those for cosmetic purposes, and weekend courses and company-sponsored training do not qualify as recognized formal training or certification, the consultant said.

The board in 2011 also found that Silverman violated the standard of care by failing to have after-hours phone support available to patients. The standard of care is to provide such support in the event of complications after cosmetic procedures.

He also violated the standard of care because the patient did not sign a \u201cconsent for treatment\u201d form, the board found. Without that form, the board said there\u2019s no assurance that the patient was aware of the risks involved with the procedure.

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With barbers required to complete more training hours than police in Arizona, an expert from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York says law enforcement officers here are missing out on critical training involving stress management and dealing with high-risk situations.

Arizona requires 585 hours of training for a person to become a certified law enforcement officer, according to the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.

Law enforcement candidates in Southern Arizona receive about 100 more hours of training to be certified and those hours typically deal with officer safety issues.

But both amounts fall short of many other states, and even what it takes to be certified as a barber, which requires an applicant to complete 1,500 hours of training before he or she can take the exam with the Arizona State Board of Barbers.

The Star contacted law enforcement agencies, training academies and oversight boards in all 50 states to see where Arizona stacked up as far as required hours needed to be a certified law officer.

Required training hours elsewhere ranged from 340 to 1,112, with one state requiring a college degree to become a police officer.

Arizona is near the middle range in the number of hours required, coming in as the 29th lowest number of training hours required to become an officer. With 340 required hours, Indiana was at the bottom of the list of hours required.

Minnesota was the most stringent, requiring that applicants earn an associate\u2019s or bachelor\u2019s degree from a regionally accredited college and complete the professional peace officer education, which is usually included in the degree, said Peggy Strand, education director for the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training.

No national training standards

With no federal agency to regulate training and more than a 700-hour variation in required hours, officers in many states aren\u2019t being fully educated in critical areas, said Maria Haberfeld, chairwoman of John Jay College of Criminal Justice\u2019s department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration .

In the 48 states that have peace officer standards and training boards, it\u2019s up to the board to decide the minimum hours of training for the state\u2019s basic curriculum, she said. From there, it\u2019s up to the training academies if they choose to add hours and in what areas they add them.

\u201cWe have over 700 police academies and 18,000 police departments,\u201d Haberfeld said. \u201cSo basically it\u2019s up to the police chief or commissioner or superintendent to decide what\u2019s good for the agency.\u201d

Another problem is that because academies operate within different training modules, such as legal matters, patrol procedures and proficiency skills, the advancement from one module to another doesn\u2019t always allow officers to progress as efficiently, because there\u2019s no repetition in basic knowledge that\u2019s used along the way.

\u201cUse of force is not separate from ethics training, for example, because it\u2019s all interrelated,\u201d she said. In Arizona\u2019s curriculum, ethics is part of the first module and use of force isn\u2019t discussed until the eighth.

But the most pressing issue in Haberfeld\u2019s eyes is the increasing frequency in high stress situations that officers find themselves in and the immediate and lasting effects.

\u201cPrimarily, I think something that needs to be addressed as soon as possible is lack of stress training,\u201d Haberfeld said. \u201cIt\u2019s the tools that the officers are not getting, how to deal with the stress that accumulates on the job and how to deal with yourself in certain stressful situation. It\u2019s sort of completely disregarded.\u201d

Local academy requires more hours

But the Tucson area\u2019s training academy has taken action to increase the hours in many of the critical areas discussed.

The Southern Arizona Law Enforcement Training Center requires nearly 100 hours more training than AZPOST requires, said Tucson police Lt. Tim Reese of the department\u2019s training division.

The academy trains officers from agencies all over Southern Arizona, including Pima County and surrounding areas.

The academy also increased training by 40 hours in what Reese calls \u201chigh-liability\u201d areas. The current program lasts a total of 17 weeks and provides 680 hours of training in 10 separate areas.

\u201cWe do additional hours in things like first aid, firearms and physical fitness because a lot of those are high-liability situations,\u201d Reese said. \u201cMost of the feedback that we\u2019ve gotten is that they would like to see additional training in areas about how to properly defend other people or yourself.\u201d

The local training facility\u2019s focus is de-escalation techniques and giving police the proper tools and techniques to keep that situation from becoming a use-of-force situation, Reese said.

Required training hours at Southern Arizona academy are increased as needed, but the local center does periodic reviews, either two of four times each year, and has an open-door policy with the hiring agencies in Southern Arizona, Reese said.

To maintain their state certification, Arizona police officers are required to complete eight hours of continuing training each year, and most states have the same requirements, although the hours vary.

In addition, the state has committees that address statewide issues, such as defensive tactics and high-risk traffic stops, to make sure that Arizona is on the forefront of any changes in policing.

Reality-based training has proven to be an effective way to address high-liability issues, because recruits learn how to work through the adrenaline that builds up, Reese said.

\u201cThey get out on the street and have kind of a memory bank of data on to to handle these situation,\u201d he said. \u201cThey\u2019re able to continually think about things like the escalation and use of force, or thinking through problem solving.\u201d

Haberfeld says it\u2019s unlikely that the federal government will take action to regulate police training, as it\u2019s already been a topic of discussion for years.

\u201cI\u2019ve always felt that we need federal standards for law enforcement agencies,\u201d she said. \u201cThis should be mandated with set standards, because we\u2019re dealing with people\u2019s lives.\u201d

The President\u2019s Task Force on 21st Century Policing was established in 2015, and according to a one-year update from the Task Force, nine states have taken significant steps to implement its suggestions on helping to keep police officers and neighborhoods safe.

For the most part, the task force isn\u2019t moving past reviewing documents and issuing reports, Haberfeld said.

\u201cIt\u2019s unfortunate because people die and not just in terms of making the wrong decisions, but from the standpoint that police aren\u2019t given all the tools that they need,\u201d she said.

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The second in command at the Department of Veterans Affairs says he\u2019ll hold staffers at the Southern VA Health Care System in Tucson accountable for alleged falsification of patient wait-time records that surfaced in a recent report.

But the broader remedy is to improve scheduling and staffing issues, Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson said during a visit to the Tucson VA hospital on Monday.

Gibson\u2019s visit comes as the Department of Veterans Affairs is still dealing with the fallout of a scandal over dishonest scheduling practices and dangerously long wait times for veterans seeking care, spawned by allegations against the Phoenix VA hospital about two years ago.

The Tucson VA hospital also has been criticized for long patient wait times, and last month a report released by the veterans agency\u2019s Office of Inspector General confirmed whistleblower complaints that some employees were prompted to falsify wait-time records in 2013 and 2014.

Citing \u201cinconsistencies\u201d in scheduling, Gibson said the agency is still looking to improve its scheduling processes and add staffing where needed to avoid long wait times.

\u201cWhere there has been misconduct, we will hold people accountable for that,\u201d Gibson said during a brief news conference.

But he said holding staffers accountable for their misdeeds poses another issue for the VA, whose employees are protected by the federal merit system.

Gibson cited a recent ongoing case where the VA tried to remove a staffer, in which he personally gave four hours of testimony as part of a weeklong appeals hearing in the quasi-judicial process before the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

Gibson said he has read the Inspector General\u2019s report on the Tucson records case and an investigation is ongoing.

He said he has been impressed with the staff and operations at the Tucson VA hospital, even though according to internal VA scoring it ranks relatively low on several key ratings, including mortality of acute-care patients and infections.

Gibson said the Tucson VA hospital is working to correct those problems.

\u201cAccess has improved here in Tucson during the last two years \u2014 improved meaningfully,\u201d he said.

He cited an average four-day wait for primary care, six days for specialty care and two to three days for mental-health care, noting that a new 25-bed residential treatment center is scheduled to open at the Tucson VA hospital this spring.

He acknowledged the Tucson facility has had some problems filling certain positions, but noted that the job turnover for registered nurses here is relatively low, about 7 percent.

The VA\u2019s most recent monitoring report, called Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning (SAIL) shows a third-quarter 2016 nurse turnover rate here of 7.4 percent, which puts it in the middle of facility ratings.

Overall, the Tucson VA hospital has a rating of two out of a possible five stars, under an internal star rating system based on the publicly available SAIL data, according to data obtained by USA Today, which revealed the non-public star rating system this week. The Phoenix VA hospital carries a rating of one star.

Often wait times are made longer by staffing shortages in specific areas, Gibson said, citing the ongoing need for more radiology and echocardiogram technicians in Tucson.

The Tucson VA hospital has beefed up its primary-care staff, Gibson said, and the hospital has only three open primary-care positions, including one doctor.

Gibson acknowledged the system must improve and that the agency has been under intense scrutiny from Congress.

The VA\u2019s leadership has embarked on a dozen system-wide improvement initiatives and has pushed the 146 VA hospitals to share information on \u201cbest practices\u201d like using local providers for \u201cgap\u201d care when staffing is short, double-scheduling for some routine visits while keeping a few appointment times open each day.

Gibson said he and other VA officials have been meeting with President-elect Donald Trump\u2019s transition team, and the team came away impressed with the scope of the agency and the improvement efforts.

\u201cThis has changed the system as the VA has never done before,\u201d he said. \u201cChanging a culture doesn\u2019t happen overnight.\u201d

"} ]