Family Affair? 

Lawsuit claims media giant exploits children, and even steals tips from Bay Area news carriers; Charges dropped for Berkeley mayoral candidate who thinks 9/11, OJ Simpson trial were GOP plots.

Are the notoriously cheap execs at MediaNews so greedy that they're stealing tips from their poor newspaper carriers? A recent class-action lawsuit on behalf of carriers says they do. The suit, filed last month in Alameda County Superior Court, also accuses the owner of the Oakland Tribune and almost every Bay Area daily not named the San Francisco Chronicle of "illegal exploitation of cheap family labor — including young children — in the packing and delivery of its papers every day."

The legal action challenges the way MediaNews insists on classifying its delivery people as independent contractors, rather than employees entitled to prevailing wages. Many big newspapers do this, and there's been much debate as to whether carriers are really indie workers. The lawsuit is nothing new in that sense. What makes it interesting, though, are the details of the Denver-based company's alleged exploitation of its Bay Area carriers.

MediaNews, the filing claims, uses the indie-contractor classification to circumvent state labor laws. The carriers — often immigrants who speak little English — get paid per newspaper delivered, the suit notes. MediaNews provides all the necessary supplies, but at a price — the carriers have to pay for everything, including rubber bands. To make ends meet under this arrangement, the suit claims, carriers are often compelled to make delivery a family affair, even bringing their school-age children into the company warehouse to help fold and bag papers in the wee hours to beat the 6 a.m. delivery deadline. If deliveries are late, carriers face a $5-per-complaint fine.

"That's a slave-labor relationship," says plaintiff's attorney Frank Pitre of the law firm Cotchett, Pitre, Simon & McCarthy. "They're treating those people like slaves, but calling them independent contractors."

The suit's lead plaintiff is Cynthia Sotelo, who delivered the Argus, MediaNews' Fremont paper, from 1990 until 2003. Sotelo was getting divorced when she first started, and her kids helped her deliver the paper, the lawsuit says.

Dan Smith, local vice president of circulation for the news chain, said last week that he hadn't had a chance to read the lawsuit and couldn't comment immediately. He didn't return a follow-up call by press time.

Oh, and those tips? Pitre conceded he doesn't have explicit proof that managers were actually pocketing them, but he believes it's the logical explanation. When subscribers pay their bills, they have an option to give extra money to tip the carrier. But, Pitre reasons, since none of the carriers he contacted ever got those tips, that must mean management kept the money.

They Cause Tornadoes, Too

Alameda County prosecutors have decided not to charge Berkeley mayoral candidate and 9/11 conspiracy theorist Christian Pecaut for disturbing the peace after campus cops dragged him from a UC Berkeley forum last month.

Cal police cited Pecaut and banned him from campus for a week after he kept interrupting a panel discussing the effects of 9/11 on the Constitution. The 23-year-old former communications director for the Northern California 9/11 Truth Alliance believes that the terrorist attacks of five years ago were orchestrated by the Republicans, the CIA, and Israeli spies.

According to Pecaut, he was the first person called upon during the Q&A period. He asked, "Do the Republican Party, the CIA, and the Israeli spy agencies have the means, motive, and calculated cruelty to set up 9/11 in order to get the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?" He became upset when panelists responded skeptically, and declared that police would have to arrest him to make him quiet down and leave.

"I intended to leave an indelible mark of illegitimacy on the entire sham forum," Pecaut explained during a recent interview.

Deputy District Attorney Marty Brown says he decided not to press charges because it seemed the matter had been resolved and wasn't an ongoing problem: "I didn't see anything to be gained by filing criminal charges."

Among the 9/11 panelists was former Congressman Pete McCloskey, a liberal Republican who is backing Democrat Jerry McNerney against Representative Richard Pombo in a critical Bay Area swing district.

Pecaut, a Democrat, tells Feeder that after the forum, he came away convinced that McCloskey is a Republican mole "holding down the McNerney campaign from accomplishing much of anything."

McCloskey chuckles that, as a Stanford man, he "thought it wouldn't have been Berkeley if somebody didn't try to disrupt" the event. The funny thing, Pete, is that Pecaut also is a Stanford alum, who majored in literature.

Pecaut moved to Berkeley last year and says he joined the mayor's race, in part, to spread the truth about the GOP plot behind 9/11 — especially to the city's many Democrats. Asked if he had any proof, he replied, "I really don't spend most of my time doping the proof side of it. To me, it's so obvious."

As weird as that may sound, Pecaut is far from alone in doubting the official version of 9/11 events. A Scripps Howard poll of 1,010 adults in July cited in a recent Time article found that "36 percent of Americans consider it 'very likely' or 'somewhat likely' that government officials either allowed the attacks or carried out the attacks themselves."

Where Pecaut enjoys less company is in his devotion to the conspiratorial musings of Neil Robert Miller, a high school teacher who believed Republicans and the CIA also were behind the OJ Simpson frenzy. Pecaut devotes most of his campaign Web site (BerkeleyMayor.org) to theories advanced by Miller, who died last year. On an audio selection titled "Every Big Terror Manipulation," you can hear Miller's take on the Simpson case, the gist of which is that Republicans gave Simpson the okay to off his wife because they wanted to distract the masses during the run-up to the 1994 election, which gave the GOP control of the House for the first time in decades. Here's a sample:

"Just as a theorist, it seems obvious to me that Simpson would never have dared such a thing, essentially, in effect, in broad daylight ... if he had not had prior assurances."

Asked about Miller's GOP-OJ theory, Pecaut responded, "It's the best explanation I've heard."

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