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Lieutenant governor's family farm has had many safety violations

A worker at Abel Maldonado's 6,000-acre Santa Maria operation was crushed by a tractor. The firm has had numerous other Cal/OSHA citations, plus tax liens. The Republican says some citations stemmed from overzealous regulation that harms California businesses.

October 15, 2010|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — First in a series of candidate profiles

Early on a winter morning in 2007, a 25-year old Mexican farmhand was crushed beneath a tractor on Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado's family farm, sparking an investigation that resulted in citations for four workplace safety violations, including failure to have a spotter direct the tractor driver and failure to have someone on the scene with first-aid certification.

Although the young employee's death was an isolated tragedy, the run-in with regulators was part of a pattern for Agro-Jal Farming Enterprises, the farm in Santa Maria that pays Maldonado a six-figure salary to serve as controller. Maldonado, a telegenic former state senator, is running for the seat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to earlier this year.

Agro-Jal has accumulated dozens of violations from Cal/OSHA since 1990, hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax liens, and multiple citations for exposing workers to toxic pesticides and skirting clean water regulations, government records show.

Four of the violations were for running tractors across the fields with no driver at the wheel and no means of steering or stopping the machines.

The lieutenant governor, who casts himself as a defender of small businesses against entrenched bureaucracy, said in an e-mail that many of the violations against the farm are the product of overzealous regulators "who put businesses out of business and dissuade new businesses from coming to California."

Maldonado, the son of a Mexican farmworker who came to California in the early 1960s, grew up on farms, picking strawberries with his parents and helping to build the family business, which now covers more than 6,000 acres and employs more than 250 people. In campaigns over the years, he has frequently invoked the values he learned in the fields — sacrifice, hard work, personal responsibility — but it became clear early on that a life tilling the soil would not satisfy his ambition.

Maldonado, 43, ran for his first public office, a seat on the Santa Maria City Council, at age 26 after months of battling city bureaucrats for a permit to build a refrigerated warehouse on the family property. Two years later, the gregarious young man was elected mayor. By 1998, he had won a seat in the state Assembly and was off to Sacramento, where he served in the Legislature until Schwarzenegger chose him to fill the vacant lieutenant governor post.

The largely ceremonial job can be a steppingstone to higher office. The last lieutenant governor, John Garamendi, is now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Among the highlights of Maldonado's political career is a speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention, when he told his inspiring family story in Spanish an hour before George W. Bush accepted the presidential nomination. Californians also know him — and some Republicans can't forgive him — for crossing the aisle to cast the deciding vote in last year's state budget battle.

In return, Maldonado, a critic of Sacramento's excessive partisanship, extracted the support he needed to get a measure on the June ballot creating open primary elections. Voters overwhelmingly approved it.

He's now running against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, and taking advantage of Schwarzenegger's travel schedule to issue a stream of official statements as "acting governor." He gained national media exposure for directing the state's response to last month's San Bruno gas pipeline explosion while Schwarzenegger was in Asia.

Maldonado's campaign website sums up his philosophy with a promise he made in 2004 while running for state Senate: "I will never forget whose money government spends — it's the people's money, and I will never let the people down."

Agro-Jal, where Maldonado still plays an active role, according to his annual financial disclosures, has not always exhibited a similarly high level of concern for employees' safety, records show. In fact, Cal/OSHA has cited the firm 28 times for workplace safety violations since 1990.

Just before backing over 25-year-old Raul Garcia Osorno on Maldonado's farm, the driver of that tractor honked his horn and waited until he saw three cauliflower pickers who he knew were standing behind the massive machine move out of the way. But the driver didn't realize that a fourth picker, Osorno, had joined the others, Cal/OSHA investigators reported.

Osorno was crushed beneath the wheels as the tractor rolled over his abdomen, according to the coroner's report. OSHA investigators determined that Agro-Jal had violated regulations by not having a spotter guide the driver and failing to have anyone with valid first-aid certification on hand.

It's not clear from the reports whether any amount of first aid could have saved Osorno, but Brooke Armour, Maldonado's campaign spokeswoman, argued that the Cal/OSHA investigators seized on a technicality.

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