Newsletter: School iPads, political mavericks, unexpected treasures and more L.A. stories that aren’t about the rain

As we close out this rain-soaked week, welcome to the latest edition of Essential California. I'm Shelby Grad, the California editor at the Los Angeles Times.

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Putting iPads in L.A. Schools: Fiasco or Fraud?

Was there fraud at the heart of L.A. Unified’s ill-fated program to provide iPads to all students? Revelations that a federal grand jury is looking into the $1.3-billion program have many asking that question, even though little is known about the scope or target of the investigation.

From the beginning, critics have claimed that the bidding process for the computers favored Apple and the iPad over other makers. But is that a crime? Experts say prosecutors would have to show an "honest services fraud" of taxpayers by public officials. While top LAUSD officials supported picking Apple, so far no evidence has been made public that shows they benefited financially from the choice. Here’s a breakdown of how the iPad bidding process worked, warts and all.

Political Mavericks

Independent-minded politicians are nothing new to California: Here are two cases in point.

On paper, John Dennis seems to be a Republican moderate. But he’s earned a rebel’s image in liberal, wealthy San Francisco for his quixotic bids to unseat Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi. He’s run against her three times, and each time she crushes him.

But as Times political writer Mark Z. Barabak found, Dennis is getting some grudging respect for putting up a fight. In San Francisco, you could even call him a radical. "This town is an echo chamber, like a super-red town would be," Dennis said. "And it's really important to break down the stereotype of what people think so you can have a more interesting discussion of what's going on."

Zev Yaroslavsky entered L.A. politics in the 1970s, fresh from years of student activism -- including leading protests in support of Soviet Jewry. But as he retires this month, the county supervisor will probably best be remembered for his willingness to stand up to his liberal friends. As Times reporter James Rainey noted, Yaroslavsky held the line against efforts by organized labor for salary hikes and other issues. Some would argue that’s helped Los Angeles County avoid some of the fiscal problems now facing City Hall.

"In the world of music, I am known as a cellist. In the world of chess, I am known as the husband of Mrs. Piatigorsky." -- Gregor Piatigorsky. Credit: Los Angeles Times Read more

Reporter Finds Unexpected Treasures

Times reporter Martha Groves has been on the Westside beat long enough that people know to call her with a juicy tip. But she didn’t know what she was getting herself into when a source told her that the Brentwood estate of famed cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and his chess wizard wife, Jacqueline, was about to be torn down.

Groves drove over to check it out and found workers ready to toss reams of family papers. “Minutes later, we were transferring from a wheelbarrow a 2-foot-high trove of dusty, musty Piatigorsky family ephemera — rodent droppings and all — into the back seat of my car.” What happens next is a rich tale of old Los Angeles, a couple of true iconoclasts and the magic of sorting out a family’s past.

A Tale of Two Cemeteries

Few places offer as rich a history of the city as Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. It reflects the waves of immigrants who came to the Southland -- Jews, Japanese, Mexicans, Chinese -- and is the final resting place for some of the city’s most storied fathers, including Isaac Lankershim and Isaac Van Nuys. But these days, the cemetery is in a shocking state of disrepair,  so bad that loved ones do their own gardening and maintenance.

Upkeep is not likely to be a problem at a proposed cemetery in Malibu. A developer wants to erect a posh seaside memorial park complete with underground parking and mausoleums that can run $100,000. Officials in the famously slow-growth city like the idea, in part because it would mean less traffic than other types of development. Quipped Malibu Mayor Skylar Peak: "Guests check in, but they can't check out.”

Finally, Here Are Some Great Reads for Your Weekend:

Patrick McGreevy examines Southeast L.A. Assemblyman Isadore Hall III, who has used campaign funds to pay for expensive dinners, limousine rentals, luxury suites at concerts and trips to resorts in Maui, Ojai and Pebble Beach.

Anh Do looks at how a duck farmer has become the street food king of Little Saigon by supplying an old-country delicacy.

Amanda Covarrubias writes on the guardian of a Ventura County beach and its birds.

Steve Lopez tries to redeem himself as a dog owner in the eyes of some angry readers.

David Zahniser discusses how L.A. officials have a new reason to boost voter turnout -- so they can get tax measures passed. An earlier idea to give out cash prizes to those who vote has been shelved.

— Ben Poston and Emily Alpert Reyes examine whether L.A.’s overflowing trash problems are hurting the city’s brand.

— Transportation reporter Dan Weikel explains how one of L.A.’s biggest white elephants got turned around.

— These are tough times for millennials in California (and their parents), according to reporters Rosanna Xia and Rong-Gong Lin II.

Nicole Santa Cruz of the Homicide Report tells about three friends who grew up in a tough part of South L.A. Only one is still alive.

— No scissors are allowed at the beauty shop at the women’s jail complex in Lynwood, for obvious reasons. But, as Cindy Chang points out, that hasn’t stopped it from being one of the most inspirational corners of the troubled jail system.

— And finally, make sure you check out Part 1 of a special report on the exploitation and extreme hardship facing farmworkers in Mexico -- the ones who pick the produce that ends up in your salads and stir-fries. Richard Marosi, the California section’s border reporter, and Times photographer Don Bartletti produced the investigation.

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