Lieutenant governor's family farm has had many safety violations

First in a series of candidate profiles

Early on a winter morning in 2007, a 25-year old Mexican farmhand was crushed beneath a tractor on Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado's family farm, sparking an investigation that resulted in citations for four workplace safety violations, including failure to have a spotter direct the tractor driver and failure to have someone on the scene with first-aid certification.

Although the young employee's death was an isolated tragedy, the run-in with regulators was part of a pattern for Agro-Jal Farming Enterprises, the farm in Santa Maria that pays Maldonado a six-figure salary to serve as controller. Maldonado, a telegenic former state senator, is running for the seat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to earlier this year.

Agro-Jal has accumulated dozens of violations from Cal/OSHA since 1990, hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax liens, and multiple citations for exposing workers to toxic pesticides and skirting clean water regulations, government records show.

Four of the violations were for running tractors across the fields with no driver at the wheel and no means of steering or stopping the machines.

The lieutenant governor, who casts himself as a defender of small businesses against entrenched bureaucracy, said in an e-mail that many of the violations against the farm are the product of overzealous regulators "who put businesses out of business and dissuade new businesses from coming to California."

Maldonado, the son of a Mexican farmworker who came to California in the early 1960s, grew up on farms, picking strawberries with his parents and helping to build the family business, which now covers more than 6,000 acres and employs more than 250 people. In campaigns over the years, he has frequently invoked the values he learned in the fields — sacrifice, hard work, personal responsibility — but it became clear early on that a life tilling the soil would not satisfy his ambition.

Maldonado, 43, ran for his first public office, a seat on the Santa Maria City Council, at age 26 after months of battling city bureaucrats for a permit to build a refrigerated warehouse on the family property. Two years later, the gregarious young man was elected mayor. By 1998, he had won a seat in the state Assembly and was off to Sacramento, where he served in the Legislature until Schwarzenegger chose him to fill the vacant lieutenant governor post.

The largely ceremonial job can be a steppingstone to higher office. The last lieutenant governor, John Garamendi, is now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Among the highlights of Maldonado's political career is a speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention, when he told his inspiring family story in Spanish an hour before George W. Bush accepted the presidential nomination. Californians also know him — and some Republicans can't forgive him — for crossing the aisle to cast the deciding vote in last year's state budget battle.

In return, Maldonado, a critic of Sacramento's excessive partisanship, extracted the support he needed to get a measure on the June ballot creating open primary elections. Voters overwhelmingly approved it.

He's now running against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, and taking advantage of Schwarzenegger's travel schedule to issue a stream of official statements as "acting governor." He gained national media exposure for directing the state's response to last month's San Bruno gas pipeline explosion while Schwarzenegger was in Asia.

Maldonado's campaign website sums up his philosophy with a promise he made in 2004 while running for state Senate: "I will never forget whose money government spends — it's the people's money, and I will never let the people down."

Agro-Jal, where Maldonado still plays an active role, according to his annual financial disclosures, has not always exhibited a similarly high level of concern for employees' safety, records show. In fact, Cal/OSHA has cited the firm 28 times for workplace safety violations since 1990.

Just before backing over 25-year-old Raul Garcia Osorno on Maldonado's farm, the driver of that tractor honked his horn and waited until he saw three cauliflower pickers who he knew were standing behind the massive machine move out of the way. But the driver didn't realize that a fourth picker, Osorno, had joined the others, Cal/OSHA investigators reported.

Osorno was crushed beneath the wheels as the tractor rolled over his abdomen, according to the coroner's report. OSHA investigators determined that Agro-Jal had violated regulations by not having a spotter guide the driver and failing to have anyone with valid first-aid certification on hand.

It's not clear from the reports whether any amount of first aid could have saved Osorno, but Brooke Armour, Maldonado's campaign spokeswoman, argued that the Cal/OSHA investigators seized on a technicality.

"The crew boss, who was there on the day of the accident, was trained in first aid, but unfortunately his certification had expired," Armour said.

In his e-mail, Maldonado said, "My family never forgets that we started out as field workers, and we pride ourselves on providing a safe and healthy work environment for our employees."

The fine for four violations stemming from the death, which also included failing to have heat-illness prevention plan and an accurate summary of injuries and accidents, was $930.

In separate investigations, Cal/OSHA has cited Ago-Jal four times since 1999 for running tractors across the fields with no driver at the wheel and four times for failing to provide adequate access to shade or water for employees, records show. Investigators have also cited the company for failing to provide tractor-operator training and adequate medical provisions in the farm's remote location.

The stiffest penalty Cal/OSHA levied against the farm came in 2005, after two inspections found tractors rumbling across the fields with nobody in the driver's seat. Instead, the crews were relying on furrows in the ground to keep the tractors straight. The agency demanded a fine of $22,950, which was reduced to $3,150 after an appeal from Agro-Jal.

Last week, the U.S. Labor Department released an audit criticizing Cal/OSHA for lax investigations into workplace fatalities and for failing to defend its investigators' findings during the appeals process, leading to excessive reductions in fines.

Agro-Jal had also been cited for using driverless tractors in 1999 and 2001, records show. The California Rural Legal Assistance, which represents injured farmhands, has been trying to stop the practice for years.

"The thing's in motion and somebody slips on muddy terrain in front of it, that's deadly," said Mike Meuter, an attorney for the organization.

Driverless tractors have been an industry-wide problem, not just an issue on Maldonado's farm, his campaign argues. "Unfortunately, drivers would jump off to grab a glass of water or go to the bathroom," Armour said, adding that Agro-Jal now guides the machines by remote control.

Expert opinion is divided on how to interpret the farm's safety record. Worker advocates focus on the repeated driverless tractor violations.

"I would argue that this employer did not learn its lesson from previous run-ins with Cal/OSHA and continued operating a hazardous workplace that finally led to the death of a worker," said Lora Jo Foo, an attorney for Worksafe, an Oakland-based nonprofit.

Cal/OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer said Agro-Jal's tractor citations "might be a good example of where we could have connected things a little bit more" but said that overall, "the record we have with Agro-Jal is not extreme. I would say it's average, or a little better."

Cal/OSHA is one of at least seven government agencies that have taken action against Maldonado's business.

Federal, state and local tax officials have filed liens against Agro-Jal for back taxes nine times since 1992. The company paid the most recent lien under protest in July after The Times reported that the Internal Revenue Service was demanding $111,146 it claimed Agro-Jal owed because Maldonado and family members used company trucks for personal transportation. A campaign spokesman said all the other liens have also been paid.

In 2009, the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner's Office fined Agro-Jal $1,350 for failing to post signs warning employees and neighbors that the company was fumigating with the pesticide methyl bromide, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's website says can cause severe respiratory and neurological problems after short-term exposure.

Agro-Jal had been cited and fined $1,400 the year before for the same thing. In that case, inspectors saw farmhands working in an adjacent field during fumigation, with no warning signs posted.

Maldonado acknowledged the spraying began before all the signs were up, but said, "The farm had notified all neighboring owners of land, as required by law."

Agro-Jal also ran afoul of the Central Coast Water Quality Control Board for a long-delayed response to a 2004 order to prove the company was preventing toxic runoff from the farm. The firm gained a reputation among board staff for stubbornly resisting regulation.

"They got letters from us; they didn't comply.... They got follow-up letters; they didn't comply with that. Staff went out; they didn't comply," said Roger Briggs, the board's executive officer.

Agro-Jal agreed to pay $14,000 in December 2008, half in fines and half to join a cooperative water monitoring program with other local farmers, county documents show.

"The lieutenant governor's farm absolutely did not drag their feet," Armour said, calling the episode "another example of an onerous fee that makes it harder to do business in California."

jack.dolan@latimes.com

Next in the series: Gavin Newsom

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