Letters For March 19-25, 2008 

Readers sound off on our new design, our story about AC Transit manager Rick Fernandez, and more on those darn Van Hool buses.


"The House That AC Transit Bought," Full Disclosure, 3/5

Unsubstantiated Allegations from Losing Litigants

I am simply appalled by the substandard journalism contained in your March 5, 2008 article entitled "The House That AC Transit Bought." The baseless misrepresentations and sinister innuendos in the article are false and disappointing. The author ignores basic facts that clearly contradict allegations contained in your article: the most noteworthy being that an Alameda County Superior Court probate judge issued a court order confirming the validity of the decedent's will. There appears to have been very little investigation work in preparation for the article. Had the author taken time to investigate, and ask the obvious question of why your source chose to withdraw their "will contest" prior to the trial, it would have been clear from the beginning that the allegations contained in the article are baseless.

At a minimum you should have conducted a review of public records, the court file and interviewed key parties involved in this case. As the decedent's attorney, my office was not contacted for this story. It appears from the structure of your story that you have relied on the perspective of unsubstantiated allegations from disgruntled, losing litigants.

There are many false statements contained in the article that skew the facts. For example, the decedent did not "apparently sign a new will." She validly executed her will according to California probate law, and it was admitted by the court for probate. The will was not "a last-minute will," but rather the product of an attorney/client estate planning process that started years earlier and took over five months and twenty hours of work to complete. My testimony did not "force the family to settle the case." The facts and California probate law rendered the litigants' claims invalid.

With the paper's ownership change, I had hoped that East Bay Express would maintain standard journalistic investigative practices and standards. Instead this article is an example of lazy investigative work and a reckless disregard of the truth. Your baseless and patently false allegations dishonor the memory of the decedent in this case and demonstrate a very low journalistic standard. I sincerely hope that you will make an effort to improve your investigative practices.

Clinton Killian, Oakland

Robert Gammon responds

You said my story appears to have relied on "disgruntled, losing litigants." The story was based primarily on public and court records and focused chiefly on the $400,000 secret loan that the AC Transit Board of Directors gave agency General Manager Rick Fernandez in April 2004 so that he could buy the house of his deceased girlfriend, Georgia DeTro. Moreover, the court record shows there were no "losing litigants" in Georgia DeTro's probate case. The case settled before trial. While it's true that under the settlement Fernandez was able to purchase the house for $350,000, as the will authorized, it's also true that the settlement resulted in him surrendering his right to be co-executor of Georgia DeTro's estate, giving up his interest in a 27-foot Sea Ray boat that they co-owned, and agreeing to repay her estate for running up her credit cards — along with her phone, garbage, and utility bills — after she died.

You said my source — and I assume here that you mean Frank DeTro, Georgia's brother and the executor of her estate — "withdrew" his "'will contest' prior to trial," thus "it would have been clear from the beginning that the allegations contained in the article are baseless." A thorough review of the court record shows that Frank DeTro only withdrew his legal challenge to the will after he reached a full settlement with Fernandez. In the settlement, Frank DeTro withdrew his legal objections to the will, not the allegations he made about it.

You said that a "probate judge issued a court order confirming the validity of the decedent's will." But court records show that the judge in the case only accepted the will you wrote after it was modified and the case settled.

You said that the statement that she "apparently signed a new will" was false, and that the will was "validly executed." If you were objecting to the word "apparently," I used it in the story for two reasons: Frank DeTro challenged the validity of the will; and Georgia DeTro's signature on it barely resembled her handwriting.

You said this was not "'a last-minute will,' but rather the product of an attorney/client estate planning process that started years earlier and took over five months and twenty hours of work to complete." Court records show the will was signed and dated just four days before Georgia DeTro's death, at a time when her family members said she was racked with cancer. In the legal bill you submitted to court, you stated that you first began working on the will on January 21, 2003, less than four months before her death on May 18 of that year. There is no mention in the court record of the process starting several years before.

Furthermore, in the bill you submitted to the court for your work on the will, you charged $4,825. But records provided to me by Frank DeTro show that the bill you sent Georgia DeTro and Rick Fernandez for your work eleven months earlier only charged them $1,250 for the very same work.

You said your testimony did not "force the family to settle the case" and that "the facts and California probate law rendered the litigants' claims invalid." According to the official court file available for public viewing in Alameda County Superior Court, there was never any ruling issued that invalidated Frank DeTro's claims. He could have taken the case to trial, but he told me he chose not to because he could not overcome your testimony in defense of the will, since the only person that he believed could have contradicted you was dead.

"The New East Bay Express: Smaller But Bigger," Editor's Note, 2/20

One Unhappy Reader

I've always enjoyed looking forward to reading the East Bay Express when issued every Wednesday and have done so during your 29 year history. You can't imagine my disappointment and frustration after going through the first edition with your new format! Yes, you have "managed to retain the same number of words per page." However, the typeset is so small that it is certainly NOT "easy-to-read — even for us folks with reading glasses." You must be reading with a large magnifying glass as well as reading glasses! What a MAJOR error — what on earth were you folks thinking? (Have you thought about conducting a survey before or after your new format to test the waters with your readers?) I guess I'll have to rely on other sources for keeping abreast of arts and culture, food and drink, movies and music — the new format is too daunting for this reader. What a pity.

David Simmons, Oakland

"Belgium or Bust," Feature, 1/30

Think You've Heard Everything About the Buses? Here's Some More.

Dump the Van Hool pool! These buses are terrible and unsafe for passengers. At least the MUNI buses have rails and bars for people to hold onto when there are no available seats. Why are there so few of these in the Van Hools? Do they think buses are never that crowded? When the bus lurches forward (or slams on the brakes), people who are too short to reach the really high bars are practically flying through the aisles. More bars and straps are needed for safety, or you're going to pay the price (more lawsuits!)

What happened to the seats? Why are there so few of them? Why are they covered in fabric? Yuk!! That platform makes it much harder to maneuver through the bus, and as a spot for the handicapped and/or elderly, are you kidding?? Many handicapped and disabled CANNOT get up there. Those little fold-out seats on the floor are impossible to maintain balance on (and put the rider at risk for having people get thrown into their lap or sending them flying off the seat). What exactly are you supposed to hold onto when you're in those tiny little fold out seats? Why is there a big partition behind the driver that is impossible to see past? How am I supposed to know where I am? There are no maps on the buses that show me the route the bus takes, so I just have to guess? No stop announcements, no scrolling information on a screen; guess I just have to hope for the best at night, because that driver won't bother giving me any information or they're too busy ignoring the kids in the back (kids blaring their stereos, eating/drinking and throwing the garbage on the floor ... even throwing it ACROSS THE BUS ... because nobody stops them).

What's up with the stop buttons? Why are they so spread out? When you're in a packed bus, how are you supposed to crawl past all of these people just to push the button so the bus will stop? If you're in a seat, you've got to jump up to get to the button (this is pretty hard on the disabled and elderly who are already fighting to keep their balance). And the transfers! If you have a ride with more than one bus transfer, you get stuck paying 2x! WTF? Other places give you several hours to use your transfer and it's good for more than one. I'm paying an extra quarter for a transfer that is only good once? What's the point? Can I pay another quarter and get two transfers? If AC Transit wants to INCREASE ridership and INCREASE revenue, cutting service and increasing fares isn't going to do it. Why should I bother taking the bus if it's expensive, unreliable, and unsafe? I might as well drive.

The Bay Area is huge. You can't tell me that we can't have a cheap, reliable, and safe public transit system. Other cities (Portland? Seattle? New York?) are able to do it. Why can't we?

Missy Olson, Oakland

Correction

In our March 12 review of O Chamé, we failed to note that the restaurant's former neighbor, the Sugar Bowl Bakery, has been replaced by Cafe M.

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