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Union-Tribune Editorial

Still shameful / Air board’s response to scandal is appalling

Chris Reed

Friday, December 4, 2009 at midnight

Beginning with two editorials in late December 2008, this editorial page repeatedly has criticized the California Air Resources Board for its headline-hunting decision to adopt unprecedentedly sweeping and costly diesel-emission rules at its meeting earlier that month. Soon after that meeting, we had confirmed that Hien Tran – lead author and coordinator of the study justifying the rules – lied about having a Ph.D. in statistics from the University of California Davis.

Our subsequent reporting showed senior air board officials from Chairwoman Mary Nichols down knew of Tran’s academic fraud before the Dec. 12, 2008, vote but chose not to inform the public, the media or most of the board members who voted for the diesel rules.

The outrageousness of this deceit is finally being acknowledged. One of the board members who was kept in the dark – Fresno cardiologist John Telles – learned of the deception earlier this fall. Now Telles and another board member, San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, are calling for suspension of the diesel rules.

But the reaction from the agency’s hierarchy and board members to this common-sense request has been obtuse to the extreme.

Chief Counsel Ellen M. Peter told Telles that the board officials’ failure to reveal the deception before the Dec. 12 vote didn’t amount to a violation of proper procedures.

In a letter he co-wrote that was published in the Union-Tribune, board member John Balmes – who was informed of Tran’s fraud by e-mail on Dec. 11, 2008, and failed to tell Telles and other colleagues about it – rejected all criticism of the air board for its actions in the Tran matter. But in an e-mail to Telles, he said “in retrospect” the Tran report should have been withdrawn – which can’t be reconciled with his public comments.

Nichols is worst of all. In an e-mail to Telles, she acknowledged Tran’s fraud was “illegal and unethical” and apologized for not disclosing it to the full board before the vote. But she characterized the matter as a “distraction” and a “stupid personnel problem” – not a real scandal.

It was, is and will continue to be a real scandal until the rules are suspended and a new study is done. It is worth remembering why the scandal ever came to light: because UCLA epidemiologist James E. Enstrom was so dismayed by the study’s omission of crucial evidence that he began looking into Tran’s background.

Enstrom needs to be given a chance to present the omitted evidence – and be taken seriously. He has been a fellow of the American College of Epidemiology since 1981. Tran? The Ph.D. he provided to his air board bosses when his UC Davis deceit emerged was from a diploma mill based at a Manhattan UPS store.

Yet Tran still works for the agency as a researcher. He was demoted, not fired. This speaks volumes about Mary Nichols’ air board. As long as your “research” promotes ever-more-costly regulations, you’re indispensable.