‘It’s a lot of taxpayer dollars that were stolen’: The con that stripped Fresno of $600,000
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, March 29. I’m Justin Ray.
Recently, Fresno revealed a big mistake.
The city was a victim of wire fraud and lost $600,000 worth of taxpayer money. The public, however, was only recently notified about the 2020 incident.
It all came to light when the Fresno Bee published a story about the city losing $400,000, citing emails among city officials and confirmed by Council Member Miguel Arias.
Then, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer revealed that the total was actually $200,000 more than that, saying the discrepancy was due to an incorrect amount cited in a City Council member’s email. “It’s a lot of taxpayer dollars that were stolen from us. And we haven’t given up on trying to recover those dollars,” Dyer said at a news conference.
City officials said that silence was maintained to protect a federal investigation. Here’s what else we know about the fraud.
How the scam worked
In January 2020, city officials wired $324,473 to a person they thought was a contractor building a new police station in the city. Less than two months later, the officials sent another $289,254, for a total of $613,727 in electronic payments. The invoices were similar to previous ones sent to the actual contractor doing the work except for one big difference: The account numbers weren’t the same.
The suspected fraudsters are American, Dyer said, citing FBI sources.
Federal agents asked that the investigation be kept quiet “for fear that it would hinder their investigation because they had good leads at that time,” Dyer said. “And it could also impact the ability to be able to recover any of the funds that were taken not only from the city of Fresno but also other agencies that had been victimized.”
At least two other unidentified cities were targeted in the scheme, including one that lost twice as much as Fresno, according to Dyer — one of many jarring aspects of the crime that have come to light.
Meanwhile, Arias wants to propose a policy addressing how the city would reveal such funding losses in the future.
“What I’m concerned about is how we publicly acknowledge when there’s significant loss of city taxpayer money, so that there’s no allegations of cover-up, as well as making sure we are in compliance with our credit rating agencies and our fiscal and auditing standards as a city,” Arias told the Bee.
And now, here’s what’s happening across California:
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Nicki Minaj, Mark Hamill and other celebs unpack Will Smith’s shocking Oscars slap. Viewers and celebrities took to Twitter after the exchange to call out Smith for being unable to take a joke and condemned the eventual Oscar winner for setting a dangerous example on how to react to comedians. (We also published a piece on the moment that solidified the night as the most chaotic Oscars in history.) Los Angeles Times
Huge Angels Landing project wins a key city OK. Victor MacFarlane and R. Donahue Peebles have devoted years to Angels Landing, a $1.6-billion hotel-housing-retail complex that would change the Los Angeles skyline. The Bunker Hill development’s highest tower, at 63 stories, would be among L.A.’s tallest buildings. The developers said Monday that city planning officials approved Angels Landing’s so-called entitlements to build, a major hurdle that the project had to clear on the way toward completion before the 2028 Olympics. Los Angeles Times
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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to a California ballot measure that would force pork producers across the country to end “extreme methods” of confining breeding pigs. The justices will review Prop. 12 and its provisions against animal cruelty, and decide whether out-of-state producers may be required to change their practices if they want to sell their products in California. The court’s action casts some doubt on the future of the state measure, which has forced major changes in the egg and veal industries. Los Angeles Times
CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING
A visa crisis is hitting the children of Silicon Valley tech workers. Brought to the U.S. on their parents’ work visas, many kids of Indian immigrants have spent their entire childhood here. The process for gaining legal permanent residence, however, can take years — even decades — for Indians because of visa backlogs. As they turn 21, they lose their family status and face expulsion from the country. San Francisco Chronicle
California makes history with its first openly transgender judge appointed to the bench. Andi Mudryk, 58, will serve as a judge in Sacramento County Superior Court, filling the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Benjamin Davidian, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said Friday in announcing a batch of judicial appointments and nominations. “I’m humbled, honored, and I’m thrilled,” Mudryk told The Times on Friday. Los Angeles Times
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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
The importance of Indigenous-led science. Technicians with the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s wildlife division have been capturing and studying fishers since 2005, observing the weasel-like animal that is both culturally significant and rare. Data have provided insights about their behavior and population size; the information also has unveiled troubles brewing for forests and other wildlife. “The tribe’s work illustrates how Indigenous-led science can support conservation efforts at a time when Congress is considering increasing its funding for tribes to conduct wildlife research,” writes Elizabeth Miller. Undark
Revisiting a deadly SoCal train crash. Casefile is one of the most popular true crime podcasts in the world. Its latest episode revisits a train crash that claimed the lives of 11 people in Glendale. The podcast has attracted its large fan base by doing a thorough job covering cases, and this episode is no different. The unnamed host takes you through the tragedy, from moments after a fiery crash to the man who would end up facing charges over the deaths. Casefile
As historically Black neighborhoods in Sacramento see an exodus, new housing and good schools are drawing African Americans to the suburb of North Natomas. Hundreds of Black residents have started calling the community home in the last decade. Why? Good public schools, beautiful parks and trails, an abundance of new and relatively affordable homes, clean and safe streets, proximity to major highways, and growing diversity. “You’d go to the grocery stores or be walking on a trail and pass a fellow Black person and it’s like a mini-reunion, you’re almost surprised to see another Black person,” said resident Tré Everett. Sacramento Bee
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Today’s California memory is from Saul Roe:
In 1958, my mom took us to live in La Jolla in a bungalow across from Children’s Pool. I was allowed to go swimming there by myself. It was the most beautiful and wonderful time of my life. Today there is a skyscraper where we lived, crossing Prospect is dangerous, and people are prohibited from the Children’s Pool. We lived there in violation of the covenants. I wasn’t allowed to attend story time at the library because I might give away we were passing as white.
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