Slim majority supports L.A. sales tax increase

A Los Angeles sales tax hike being promoted as vital to preserving public safety and helping end years of budget deficits is drawing support from a narrow majority of likely voters, according to a new USC Price/L.A. Times poll.

Fifty-three percent of surveyed voters said they definitely or probably would vote for Proposition A, which is on Tuesday's ballot and would raise $200 million a year by boosting the city's sales tax rate by half a cent to 9.5%, one of the highest in the state.

About 41% of respondents said they expected to vote against the measure, while 6% were undecided. The results offer hope to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other backers of Proposition A, which needs 50% plus one of the vote to pass.

GRAPHIC: Contributions to Yes on Prop. A

Because of the poll's 4.4-percentage-point margin of error, support could dip below 50% and passage can't be taken for granted, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "On one hand, [Proposition A] enjoys a fairly sizable lead in the polls," he said. "On the other hand, margins this close to 50% should always be cause for concern for an initiative's proponents."

The bipartisan USC Sol Price School of Public Policy/L.A. Times Los Angeles City Primary Poll canvassed 500 likely voters between Feb. 24 and 27. The poll was conducted jointly by the Benenson Strategy Group, a Democratic firm, and M4 Strategies, a Republican company.

Backers of Proposition A — using contributions from labor unions, billboard companies and real estate interests needing City Hall approvals — have been airing TV ads featuring images of accident victims being rushed to hospitals and a grim-faced Police Chief Charlie Beck warning that "public safety is now in danger."

Beck also has been warning at news conferences and in interviews that the Los Angeles Police Department will lose 500 officers if voters reject the tax increase.

Opponents, who lack the money to mount an advertising campaign, say voters are being asked to pay for bad City Hall spending decisions, including a deal that gives civilian city employees a 25% pay hike over seven years.

Some warn that city leaders will only give away the added sales tax collections by pursuing a proposed phase-out of the business receipts tax. The top five candidates for mayor have come out against Proposition A, and the poll results suggest that was politically wise. Close to half of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a mayoral candidate who supports the sales tax increase.

The poll indicates that the Proposition A language that city officials put on voters' ballots could end up pushing it to victory, said Chris St. Hilaire, chief executive of M4 Strategies, which helped conduct the poll.

The ballot title calls it the "neighborhood public safety and vital city services funding and accountability measure" and says it would help maintain 911 emergency and other services.

Retired nurse Annette Koppel, 80, voted by mail for the sales tax increase, but only reluctantly. Although she is living on a fixed income, Koppel — a victim of a carjacking in the late 1980s — said she worries about a decrease in the number of police, firefighters and paramedics.

"Without them, what are we going to do?" she asked.

Some, including a former top budget advisor to Villaraigosa who is now running for City Council, have questioned whether the budget crisis is as severe as city officials say.

James Cotton, 84, of Winnetka told The Times that he voted against the sales tax increase even though his daughter is an employee in the Fire Department. Cotton said lawmakers should look for other ways of balancing the budget and making better choices about how to spend taxpayer funds.

"I'm of the opinion that a lot of the money could be better spent," said Cotton, adding that the measure would hurt businesses and residents on fixed incomes.

The push for a sales tax increase is being led by City Council President Herb Wesson, who has helped raise more than $1.2 million for the pro-Proposition A campaign. More than one out of every four dollars has come from labor unions, most of them representing city employees. Service Employees International Union, which represents civilian city employees, has given $100,000. Its members at City Hall received a 3.75% pay increase last summer and are in line for another 1.75% raise in July and a 5.5% pay hike on Jan. 1, 2014.

As of Friday afternoon, real estate interests and billboard companies had provided one-third of the money collected in support of Proposition A, according to Ethics Commission records. Several donors are waiting for the City Council to approve their projects or have already received permission to use tax revenue to finance their projects.

The single biggest donor has been NFL stadium developer Anschutz Entertainment Group, which has received a series of lucrative deals with City Hall over the last decade. The company was given the right to keep up to $270 million in tax revenue generated by its hotels at the LA Live entertainment complex over 25 years.

AEG is also seeking to run the city's Convention Center.

The company, its top executive and its lawyers have given a combined $126,000 to get the measure passed, according to campaign reports.

Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.

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Comings and goings at 'Downton Abbey' next season

NEW YORK (AP) — Shirley MacLaine will be returning to "Downton Abbey" next season, and opera star Kiri Te Kanawa is joining the cast.

MacLaine will reprise her role as Martha Levinson, Lord Robert Crawley's freewheeling American mother-in-law, Carnival Films and "Masterpiece" on PBS said Saturday. MacLaine appeared in episodes early last season.

New Zealand-born soprano Te Kanawa will play a house guest. She will sing during her visit.

Other new cast members and characters include:

— Tom Cullen as Lord Gillingham, described as an old family friend of the Crawleys who visits the family as a guest for a house party (and who might be the one to mend Lady Mary Crawley's broken heart).

— Nigel Harman will play a valet named Green.

— Harriet Walter plays Lady Shackleton, an old friend of the Dowager Countess.

— Joanna David will play a guest role as the Duchess of Yeovil.

— Julian Ovenden is cast as aristocrat Charles Blake.

"The addition of these characters can only mean more delicious drama, which is what 'Downton Abbey' is all about," said "Masterpiece" executive producer Rebecca Eaton.

Meanwhile, the producers have confirmed that villainous housemaid Sarah O'Brien won't be back. Siobhan Finneran, who played her, is leaving the show.

These announcements come shortly after the third season's airing in the United States. It concluded with the heartbreaking death of popular Matthew Crawley in a car crash, leaving behind his newborn child and loving wife, Lady Mary Crawley.

Matthew's untimely demise was the result of the departure from the series by actor Dan Stevens, who had starred in that role.

The third season also saw the shocking death of Lady Sybil Branson, who died during childbirth. She was played by the departing Jessica Brown Findlay.

Last season the wildly popular melodrama, set in early 20th century Britain, was the most-watched series on PBS since Ken Burns' epic "The Civil War," which first aired in 1990. The Nielsen Co. said 8.2 million viewers saw the "Downton" season conclusion.

"Downton Abbey," which airs on the "Masterpiece" anthology, won three Emmy awards last fall, including a best supporting actress trophy for Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess), who also won a Golden Globe in January.

In all, the series has won nine Emmys, two Golden Globes and a Screen Actors Guild Award for the ensemble cast, which is the first time the cast of a British television show has won this award.

Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter and Brendan Coyle are among its other returning stars.



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England Develops a Voracious Appetite for a New Diet

LONDON — Visitors to England right now, be warned. The big topic on people’s minds — from cabdrivers to corporate executives — is not Kate Middleton’s increasingly visible baby bump (though the craze does involve the size of one’s waistline), but rather a best-selling diet book that has sent the British into a fasting frenzy.

“The Fast Diet,” published in mid-January in Britain, could do the same in the United States if Americans eat it up. The United States edition arrived last week.

The book has held the No. 1 slot on Amazon’s British site nearly every day since its publication in January, according to Rebecca Nicolson, a founder of Short Books, the independent publishing company behind the sensation. “It is selling,” she said, “like hot cakes,” which coincidentally are something one can actually eat on this revolutionary diet.

With an alluring cover line that reads, “Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, Live Longer,” the premise of this latest weight-loss regimen — or “slimming” as the British call “dieting” — is intermittent fasting, or what has become known here as the 5:2 diet: five days of eating and drinking whatever you want, dispersed with two days of fasting.

A typical fasting day consists of two meals of roughly 250 to 300 calories each, depending on the person’s sex (500 calories for women, 600 for men). Think two eggs and a slice of ham for breakfast, and a plate of steamed fish and vegetables for dinner.

It is not much sustenance, but the secret to weight loss, according to the book, is that even after just a few hours of fasting, the body begins to turn off the fat-storing mechanisms and turn on the fat-burning systems.

“I’ve always been into self-experimentation,” said Dr. Michael Mosley, one of the book’s two authors and a well-known medical journalist on the BBC who is often called the Sanjay Gupta of Britain.

He researched the science of the diet and its health benefits by putting himself through intermittent fasting and filming it for a BBC documentary last August called “Eat, Fast and Live Longer.” (The broadcast gained high ratings, three million viewers, despite running during the London Olympics. PBS plans to air it in April.)

“This started because I was not feeling well last year,” Dr. Mosley said recently over a cup of tea and half a cookie (it was not one of his fasting days). “It turns out I was suffering from high blood sugar, high cholesterol and had a kind of visceral fat inside my gut.”

Though hardly obese at the time, at 5 feet 11 inches and 187 pounds, Dr. Mosley, 55, had a body mass index and body fat percentage that were a few points higher than the recommended amount for men. “Given that my father had died at age 73 of complications from diabetes, and I was now looking prediabetic, I knew something had to change,” he added.

The result was a documentary, almost the opposite of “Super Size Me,” in which Dr. Mosley not only fasted, but also interviewed scientific researchers, mostly in the United States, about the positive results of various forms of intermittent fasting, tested primarily on rats but in some cases human volunteers. The prominent benefits, he discovered, were weight loss, a lower risk of cancer and heart disease, and increased energy.

“The body goes into a repair-and-recover mode when it no longer has the work of storing the food being consumed,” he said.

Though Dr. Mosley quickly gave up on the most extreme forms of fasting (he ate little more than one cup of low-calorie soup every 24 hours for four consecutive days in his first trial), he finally settled on the 5:2 ratio as a more sustainable, less painful option that could realistically be followed without annihilating his social life or work.

“Our earliest antecedents,” Dr. Mosley argued, “lived a feast-or-famine existence, gorging themselves after a big hunt and then not eating until they scored the next one.” Similarly, he explained, temporary fasting is a ritual of religions like Islam and Judaism — as demonstrated by Ramadan and Yom Kippur. “We shouldn’t have a fear of hunger if it is just temporary,” he said.

What Dr. Mosley found most astounding, however, were his personal results. Not only did he lose 20 pounds (he currently weighs 168 pounds) in nine weeks, but his glucose and cholesterol levels went down, as did his body fat. “What’s more, I have a whole new level of energy,” he said.

The documentary became an instant hit, which in turn led Mimi Spencer, a food and fashion writer, to propose that they collaborate on a book. “I could see this was not a faddish diet but one that was sustainable with long-term health results, beyond the obvious weight-loss benefit,” said Ms. Spencer, 45, who has lost 20 pounds on the diet within four months and lowered her B.M.I. by 2 points.

The result is a 200-page paperback: the first half written by Dr. Mosley outlining the scientific findings of intermittent fasting; the second by Ms. Spencer, with encouraging text on how to get through the first days of fasting, from keeping busy so you don’t hear your rumbling belly, to waiting 15 minutes for your meal or snack.

She also provides fasting recipes with tantalizing photos like feta ni├žoise salad and Mexican pizza, and a calorie counter at the back. (Who knew a quarter of a cup of balsamic vinegar dressing added up to a whopping 209 calories?)

In London, the diet has taken off with the help of well-known British celebrity chefs and food writers like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who raved about it in The Guardian after his sixth day of fasting, having already lost eight pounds. (“I feel lean and sharper,” he wrote, “and find the whole thing rather exhilarating.”)

The diet is also particularly popular among men, according to Dr. Mosley, who has heard from many of his converts via e-mail and Twitter, where he has around 24,000 followers. “They find it easy to work into their schedules because dieting for a day here and there doesn’t feel torturous,” he said, adding that couples also particularly like doing it together.

But not everyone is singing the diet’s praises. The National Health System, Britain’s publicly funded medical establishment, put out a statement on its Web site shortly after the book came out: “Despite its increasing popularity, there is a great deal of uncertainty about I.F. (intermittent fasting) with significant gaps in the evidence.”

The health agency also listed some side effects, including bad breath, anxiety, dehydration and irritability. Yet people in London do not seem too concerned. A slew of fasting diet books have come out in recent weeks, notably the “The 5:2 Diet Book” and “The Feast and Fast Diet.”

There is also a crop of new cookbooks featuring fasting-friendly recipes. Let’s just say, the British are hungry for them.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 2, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated part of the name of the national healthcare organization in Britain. It is the National Health Service, not the National Health System. The article also misidentified the Balsamic product that has 209 calories per cup. It is Balsamic vinegar dressing, not Balsamic vinegar.

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'Like finding lost Rembrandts'

Peter Mullin cracks open the door of a 1935 Voisin Type C25 Aerodyne at the back of the auto museum bearing his name. He points out the intricate details of a vibrant Art Deco interior, restored to its original luster.

A small ashtray hangs on the inside of each door — made from etched Lalique crystal.

Light streams into the car through three small glass windows in the fully retractable roof. A bold black and white patterned fabric covers the doors, seats and roof, sourced from the same French textile mill that wove the original fabric more than seven decades ago.

"You can see why this one is kind of the favorite," Mullin says of the C25 with a smile.

Once relegated to the scrap heap of automotive history, the Voisin brand has undergone a renaissance within the classic car world. The cars, which cost as much as a Bugatti in the 1920s and 30s, are worth millions of dollars today. They were the creation of Gabriel Voisin, a colorful yet fastidious French architect and engineer who made a fortune selling airplanes during World War I.

Mullin's navy blue and grey C25 won Best of Show at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, arguably the most prestigious prize in the classic car world. Another Voisin, a 1934 C15 ETS Saliot-bodied Roadster, won Best of Show in 2002.

When Pebble Beach Concours hosted Voisin as the featured marque in 2006, it provoked a frenzied reaction among collectors.

"It was like finding the lost Rembrandts," said Richard Adatto, an expert in classic French cars and a member of the classic car show's selection committee.

Prior to 2006, he said, no Voisin had sold for more than $1 million. After that, prices nearly doubled. Peter Mullin's C25 could be worth as much as $5 million today, said David Gooding, president and founder of the Gooding & Co. auction company. Most experts estimate there are 250 to 300 known Voisin automobiles, though they are starting to turn up as barn finds throughout Europe.

Fortunately for Mullin, he got into the brand early.

"I fell in love with the Art Deco nature of Voisin a number of years ago," Mullin said. "One by one, they found their way into the collection."

In addition to his prize-winner, Mullin owns 15 other exceptionally rare and valuable Voisin models on display at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard until the end of April. The museum is also home to dozens of gleaming prewar cars from other French marques like Bugatti, Delahaye and the odd Talbot-Lago.

Mullin, the man, owns nearly everything in the building. But the Voisin cars have become his favorite, not just for their intricate details, but because they embody the values of the man behind their nameplate.

Gabriel Voisin was a colorful figure who made a name for himself in the early 1900s as an aviation pioneer. Despite being in their mid-20s, Voisin and his younger brother Charles started the world's first aircraft company. Their early planes set several European flight records.

Gabriel Voisin kept the company open after his brother was killed in a 1912 car crash, and sold several thousand fighter planes to the French military and its allies for use in World War I.

After the war ended, a glut of planes and little demand for new ones pushed Voisin to build a machine with a more benevolent purpose. He spent roughly the next 20 years building some of the most elaborate and expensive cars of the era. The rigors of aviation engineering and attention to detail carried into Voisin's forward-thinking automobiles.

"Everything was designed all the way out," Adatto said. "Even the taillights were handmade."

Many of Voisin's cars have struts connecting the front wheel fender to the grille — like the wing struts common on aircraft from the era. The cars were largely built from lightweight materials such as aluminum or magnesium. Most cars from that time — and even today — were built from heavier steel.

Inside, the dashboard of many Voisin vehicles had gauges to show oil pressure and temperature in an era when most cars didn't even have a fuel gauge, Adatto said. A complex engine design used sleeve valves rather than the standard overhead poppet valves found on engines today.

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Bell jurors ordered to begin anew after panelist is dismissed

After nearly five days of deliberations, jurors in the Bell corruption trial were ordered Thursday to begin anew after a member of the panel was dismissed for misconduct and replaced by an alternate.

The original juror, a white-haired woman identified only as Juror No. 3, told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy she had gone onto a legal website to look up jury instructions and then asked her daughter to help find a definition for the word "coercion."

Although all but one defense attorney requested that the woman stay, Kennedy said the juror needed to be removed. "She has spoken about the deliberations with her daughter, she has conducted research on the Internet, and I've repeatedly, repeatedly throughout this trial — probably hundreds of times — cautioned the jury not to do that," the judge said.

The removal came after jurors notified the judge that they were deadlocked and that continued deliberations seemed fruitless.

It was unclear how to interpret the day's events, whether the dismissed juror had been a lone holdout or an indication of a fractured jury.

The juror started to tell the judge which way she was leaning in the case, saying she had gone online "looking to see at what point can I get the harassment to stop.... How long do I have to stay in there and deliberate with them when I have made my decision that I didn't think there was —"

Kennedy cut her off before she could finish.

The woman clasped her hands over her mouth and said, "I'm sorry."

Two defense attorneys thought she was leaning toward acquittal and wanted her to stay. "I would have preferred the deadlock to a guilty verdict," said Alex Kessel, the attorney for George Mirabal, one of six former council members charged with misappropriation of public funds.

The council members are charged with inflating their salaries in what prosecutors contend was a far-reaching web of corruption in which fat paychecks were placed ahead of the needs of the city's largely immigrant, working-poor constituents.

When attorneys and defendants were summoned to the courtroom Thursday morning, they were initially told that the jury appeared to be deadlocked.

"Your honor, we have reached a point where as a jury we have fundamental disagreements and cannot reach a unanimous verdict in this case," read a note signed by two jurors, including the foreman, that was given to Kennedy.

A note from another juror alerted the judge that Juror No. 3 had consulted an outside attorney. That did not appear to be the case, but her other actions were revealed under questioning from the judge.

The same juror made a tearful request Monday to be removed from the panel because she felt others were picking on her. Kennedy told the woman that although discussions can get heated, it was important to continue deliberating.

On Thursday, however, the juror again broke into tears and said she had spoken with her daughter about "the abuse I have suffered." She said her daughter told her, "Mom, they're trying to find the weak link."

The woman said she had turned to the Internet to better understand the rules about jury deliberations and came across the word "coercion." After her daughter helped her look up the word's definition, she wrote it down on a piece of paper and brought it with her to court. When the judge asked to see the paper she went into the jury room to retrieve it.

The woman later left the courtroom in tears.

With an alternate in place, Kennedy told the panel to act as if the earlier deliberations had not taken place. The alternate had sat in the jury box during the four-week trial but did not take part in deliberations.

Former council members Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and Mirabal are accused of drawing annual salaries of as much as $100,000 a year by serving on boards that did little work and seldom met, part of a scandal that drew national attention to the small city in 2010.

Prosecutors said that Bell's charter follows state law regarding council members' compensation. In a city the size of Bell, council members should be paid no more than $8,076 a year.

The trial began in late January, and the case went to the jury last Friday.

As the jury resumed deliberations in downtown Los Angeles, the verdict was clearly in on the streets of Bell.

One resident unfurled old protest banners and signs from the days when the pay scandal was first exposed and then called former members of an activist group that had led the charge for reform in the city.

"We're holding our breaths and waiting," Denise Rodarte, a member of the grassroots group Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse, said in regard to a verdict.

"It's cut and dry: Local elected officials were supposed to make a certain amount of money, and they made a lot more."

Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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Well: A Rainbow of Root Vegetables

This week’s Recipes for Health is as much a treat for the eyes as the palate. Colorful root vegetables from bright orange carrots and red scallions to purple and yellow potatoes and pale green leeks will add color and flavor to your table.

Since root vegetables and tubers keep well and can be cooked up into something delicious even after they have begun to go limp in the refrigerator, this week’s Recipes for Health should be useful. Root vegetables, tubers (potatoes and sweet potatoes, which are called yams by most vendors – I mean the ones with dark orange flesh), winter squash and cabbages are the only local vegetables available during the winter months in colder regions, so these recipes will be timely for many readers.

Roasting is a good place to begin with most root vegetables. They sweeten as they caramelize in a hot oven. I roasted baby carrots and thick red scallions (they may have been baby onions; I didn’t get the information from the farmer, I just bought them because they were lush and pretty) together and seasoned them with fresh thyme leaves, then sprinkled them with chopped toasted hazelnuts. I also roasted a medley of potatoes, including sweet potatoes, after tossing them with olive oil and sage, and got a wonderful range of colors, textures and tastes ranging from sweet to savory.

Sweet winter vegetables also pair well with spicy seasonings. I like to combine sweet potatoes and chipotle peppers, and this time in a hearty lentil stew that we enjoyed all week.

Here are five colorful and delicious dishes made with root vegetables.

Spicy Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew With Chipotles: The combination of sweet potatoes and spicy chipotles with savory lentils is a winner.

Roasted Carrots and Scallions With Thyme and Hazelnuts: Toasted hazelnuts add a crunchy texture and nutty finish to this dish.

Carrot Wraps: A vegetarian sandwich that satisfies like a full meal.

Rainbow Potato Roast: A multicolored mix that can be vegan, or not.

Leek Quiche: A lighter version of a Flemish classic.

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Stocks eke out gains as manufacturing improves

An encouraging manufacturing report nudged the stock market higher Friday, giving it a slight gain for the week, even as a deadline for avoiding sweeping government spending cuts loomed.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 35.17 points, or 0.3 percent, to close at 14,089.66.

It was down as much as 117 points in early trading but recovered following news that U.S. manufacturing expanded in February at the fastest pace since June 2011. The Institute for Supply Management said its manufacturing index reached 54.2, up from January's reading of 53.1. Any reading above 50 signals growth.

President Barack Obama summoned congressional leaders to the White House for a meeting aimed at avoiding the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts set to kick in Friday. The cuts are part of a 10-year, $1.5 trillion deficit reduction plan that was designed to be so distasteful to both Democrats and Republicans that they would be forced to drum up a longer-term budget deal.

Any agreement between the White House and Congress on the spending cuts could drive the market up next week, regardless of whether investors consider it a good deal or not, said Stephen Carl, head equity trader at The Williams Capital Group in New York.

“The lack of clarity is the problem,” he said. “I think it will be a positive for the market just as long as there's concrete news.”

In other Friday trading, the Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 3.52 points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,518.20. The Nasdaq composite gained 9.55 points, 0.3 percent, to 3,169.74.

All three indexes ended higher for the week: The Dow rose 0.6 percent, the S&P 500 and Nasdaq each rose about 0.2 percent.

The Dow came within 15 points of its record close of 14,164 on Thursday before sliding back and ending the day lower.

Oil and gas companies fell Friday as the price of crude sank to its lowest level of the year. Halliburton, Peabody Energy and other energy stocks were among the biggest losers in the S&P 500. Benchmark U.S. crude oil dropped below $91 a barrel.

Americans' incomes fell 3.6 percent in January, the worst one-month drop in 20 years, the Commerce Department said Friday. U.S. consumers increased spending modestly in January but cut back on major purchases. The report suggests that the expiration of tax cuts on Jan. 1 may have made Americans more cautious.

Unemployment across the 17 European Union countries that use the euro currency hit a record 11.9 percent during January. That drove money into U.S. Treasurys, pushing their prices up and their yields down.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 1.85 percent from 1.88 percent late Thursday.

Among other stocks making big moves:

— Gap added 95 cents to $33.87. The retailer said late Thursday that its quarterly profits jumped 61 percent, topping analysts' estimates, helped by better sales at its Old Navy stores. Gap also raised its quarterly dividend to 15 cents.

— Best Buy Co. rose 75 cents to $17.16 after the retailer said that its fourth-quarter loss narrowed as better sales in the U.S. helped offset weakness abroad, particularly China and Canada.

— Groupon jumped 13 percent following news that CEO Andrew Mason was fired. The online deals company's stock plunged 24 percent Thursday after the company delivered a weak revenue forecast for the current quarter. Its stock gained 57 cents to $5.11

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Jury in Bell corruption trial may be deadlocked

A court spokeswoman said Thursday the jury in the Bell corruption case appears to be deadlocked.

“The jurors may be at an impasse,” said Patricia Kelly, a spokeswoman for L.A. County Superior Court.

Jurors sent a note to the judge Thursday morning, and all the attorneys in the case were called in.

Six former Bell City Council members are accused of stealing public money by paying themselves extraordinary salaries in one of Los Angeles County’s poorest cities.

Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal are accused of misappropriation of public funds, felony counts that could bring prison terms.

They were arrested in September 2010 and have been free on bail.

The nearly $100,000 salaries drawn by most of the former elected officials are part of a much larger municipal corruption case in the southeast Los Angeles County city in which prosecutors allege that money from the city’s modest general fund flowed freely to top officials.

The three defendants who testified painted a picture of a city as a place led by a controlling, manipulative administrator who handed out enormous salaries, loaned city money and padded future pensions. Robert Rizzo, the former adminstrator, and ex-assistant city manager Angela Spaccia are also awaiting trial.

The four-week trial of the former council members turned on extremes.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller said the council members were little more than common thieves who were consumed with fattening their paychecks at the expense of the city’s largely immigrant, working-poor residents.

Miller said the accused represented the “one-percenters" of Bell who had “apparently forgotten who they are and where they live."

Defense attorneys said the former city leaders -- one a pastor, another a mom-and-pop grocery store owner, another a funeral director -- were dedicated public servants who put in long hours and tirelessly responded to the needs of their constituents.

Jacobo testified that Rizzo informed her she could quit her job as a real estate agent and receive a full-time salary as a council member. She said she asked City Attorney Edward Lee if that was possible and he nodded his head.

"I thought I was doing a very good job to be able to earn that, yes," Jacobo said.

Cole said Rizzo was so intimidating that the former councilman voted for a 12% annual pay raise out of fear the city programs he established would be gutted by Rizzo in retaliation if he opposed the pay hikes.

The defense argued that the prosecution failed to prove criminal negligence -- that their clients knew what they were doing was wrong or that a reasonable person would know it was wrong.

The attorney for Hernandez, the city’s mayor at the time of the arrests, said his client had only a grade-school education, was known more for his heart than his intellect and was, perhaps, not overly “scholarly.”

Prosecutors argued that the council members pushed up their salaries by serving on city boards that rarely met and, in one case, existed only as a means for paying them even more money.

Jurors were also left to deal with the question of whether council members were protected by a City Charter that was approved in a special election that drew fewer than 400 voters.

Defense attorneys say the charter allowed council members to be paid for serving on the authorities.

But the prosecutor argued that the charter -- a quasi-constitution for a city -- set salaries at what councils in similar-sized cities were receiving under state law: $8,076 a year. Because council members automatically serve on boards and commissions, the district attorney said the total compensation for all of each council member's work was included in that figure.

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Doctor and Patient: Why Failing Med Students Don’t Get Failing Grades

Tall and dark-haired, the third-year medical student always seemed to be the first to arrive at the hospital and the last to leave, her white coat perpetually weighed down by the books and notes she jammed into the pockets. She appeared totally absorbed by her work, even exhausted at times, and said little to anyone around her.

Except when she got frustrated.

I first noticed her when I overheard her quarreling with a nurse. A few months later I heard her accuse another student of sabotaging her work. And then one morning, I saw her storm off the wards after a senior doctor corrected a presentation she had just given. “The patient never told me that!” she cried. The nurses and I stood agape as we watched her stamp her foot and walk away.

“Why don’t you just fail her?” one of the nurses asked the doctor.

“I can’t,” she sighed, explaining that the student did extremely well on all her tests and worked harder than almost anyone in her class. “The problem,” she said, “is that we have no multiple choice exams when it comes to things like clinical intuition, communication skills and bedside manner.”

Medical educators have long understood that good doctoring, like ducks, elephants and obscenity, is easy to recognize but difficult to quantify. And nowhere is the need to catalog those qualities more explicit, and charged, than in the third year of medical school, when students leave the lecture halls and begin to work with patients and other clinicians in specialty-based courses referred to as “clerkships.” In these clerkships, students are evaluated by senior doctors and ranked on their nascent doctoring skills, with the highest-ranking students going on to the most competitive training programs and jobs.

A student’s performance at this early stage, the traditional thinking went, would be predictive of how good a doctor she or he would eventually become.

But in the mid-1990s, a group of researchers decided to examine grading criteria and asked directors of internal medicine clerkship courses across the country how accurate and consistent they believed their grading to be. Nearly half of the course directors believed that some form of grade inflation existed, even within their own courses. Many said they had increasing difficulty distinguishing students who could not achieve a “minimum standard,” whatever that might be. And over 40 percent admitted they had passed students who should have failed their course.

The study inspired a series of reforms aimed at improving how medical educators evaluated students at this critical juncture in their education. Some schools began instituting nifty mnemonics like RIME, or Reporter-Interpreter-Manager-Educator, for assessing progressive levels of student performance; others began to call regular meetings to discuss grades; still others compiled detailed evaluation forms that left little to the subjective imagination.

Now a new study published last month in the journal Teaching and Learning in Medicine looks at the effects of these many efforts on the grading process. And while the good news is that the rate of grade inflation in medical schools is slower than in colleges and universities, the not-so-good news is that little has changed. A majority of clerkship directors still believe that grade inflation is an issue even within their own courses; and over a third believe that students have passed their course who probably should have failed.

“Grades don’t have a lot of meaning,” said Dr. Sara B. Fazio, lead author of the paper and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who leads the internal medicine clerkship at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “‘Satisfactory’ is like the kiss of death.”

About a quarter of the course directors surveyed believed that grade inflation occurred because senior doctors were loath to deal with students who could become angry, upset or even turn litigious over grades. Some confessed to feeling pressure to help students get into more selective internships and training programs.

But for many of these educators, the real issue was not flunking the flagrantly unprofessional student, but rather evaluating and helping the student who only needed a little extra help in transitioning from classroom problem sets to real world patients. Most faculty received little or no training or support in evaluating students, few came from institutions that had remediation programs to which they could direct students, and all worked under grading systems that were subjective and not standardized.

Despite the disheartening findings, Dr. Fazio and her co-investigators believe that several continuing initiatives may address the evaluation issues. For example, residency training programs across the country will soon be assessing all doctors-in-training with a national standards list, a series of defined skills, or “competencies,” in areas like interpersonal communication, professional behavior and specialty-specific procedures. Over the next few years, medical schools will likely be adopting a similar system for medical students, creating a national standard for all institutions.

“There have to be unified, transparent and objective criteria,” Dr. Fazio said. “Everyone should know what it means when we talk about educating and training ‘good doctors.’”

“We will all be patients one day,” she added. “We have to think about what kind of doctors we want to have now and in the future.”

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Moving, slowly, toward a la carte cable

The cable company Cablevision says it's just looking out for consumers in its lawsuit against Viacom, owner of MTV and Nickelodeon, over bundled programming packages that drive monthly bills higher.

And the company is correct — to a point.

Cablevision Systems Corp. alleges that Viacom Inc. is violating federal antitrust laws by requiring cable and satellite companies to carry less popular channels in return for paying a reasonable price for the good stuff. In other words, if a cable company wants Comedy Central at a fair price, it also has to take Teen Nick.

The lawsuit is a direct assault on an industry practice that forces the average cable or satellite subscriber to pay for dozens, possibly hundreds, of channels they may never watch. According to the ratings company Nielsen, the typical cable subscriber watches only about 17 channels on a regular basis.

"The manner in which Viacom sells its programming is illegal, anti-consumer and wrong," Cablevision said. "Viacom effectively forces Cablevision's customers to pay for and receive little-watched channels in order to get the channels they actually want."

Well, well, well. Sure sounds as if the nation's fifth-largest cable company, operating primarily on the East Coast, is saying the same thing I've been saying for years: Cable and satellite subscribers should pay only for the channels they want.

Or is it?

After the lawsuit was announced this week, I spoke with Charlie Schueler, Cablevision's executive vice president of communications. I asked what a legal win for the company would mean for Cablevision subscribers.

Would it mean lower bills? Would it mean so-called a la carte programming — that is, allowing subscribers to pick their own channel lineup from a menu of options?

"Without forced bundling," Schueler said, "cable providers could tailor smaller and lower-priced packages to specific audiences."

OK, but that basically means customers would still have to buy a package of channels, rather than pick the channels they want.

"We would offer more flexibility to customers," Schueler replied. "We would favor anything that offers broader choices and flexibility for customers."

But you're not saying the words. Will you offer a la carte programming?

"Choice and flexibility are the words I'll offer."

Cablevision's lawsuit against Viacom is a step in the right direction. Props to the company for trying to unravel the fat bundles that programmers such as Viacom, Fox and Disney force down the throats of distributors, which then pass them and the higher fees along to us.

If bundles do indeed violate antitrust law, all cable and satellite companies would be able to renegotiate their programming contracts to allow customers to pay for, say, Disney's ESPN and ditch the company's Military History channel.

But here's the thing about Cablevision's plan for smaller packages: You'd still have to pay for channels you may not want.

It's as if Hearst Magazines could make you buy Redbook if all you wanted was Road & Track.

Other cable and satellite companies have voiced support for Cablevision's legal broadside against Viacom.

"We frequently have pointed out that there are serious problems with the current programming environment," Time Warner Cable said. "We think this lawsuit raises important issues, and we look forward to their resolution in the courts."

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