Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Santa Barbara (Mar. 21, 2014)
Paul Wellman

Vice President Joe Biden flew into Santa Barbara early Friday afternoon as part of a two-day visit, straight from the Ukraine. Biden appeared as the guest of honor at a $5,000-a-plate fundraising event at the home of Santa Barbara resident Doug H. Phelps, one of the many national movers and shakers who have quietly ensconced themselves into the South Coast way of life.

Phelps, while hardly a household name, is the head of Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. and Telefund, Inc., the fundraising shock troops that have been hired over the years by progressive and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, Oxfam, National Organization for Women, Amnesty International, and of course, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Dating back to 1982, Phelps was active in a senior leadership capacity with the Public Interest Research Group — the national umbrella entity for statewide groups like CALPIRG, well known for its work in town and on the UCSB campus. CALPIRG — and its more recent descendant, Environment Now — has served as a boot-camp training ground for young, idealistic, and for the most part college-educated organizers who learned the ABCs of knocking on doors, walking precincts, making phone calls, and asking for money. In recent years, the famously low wages paid to PIRG workers has become the subject not just of journalistic controversy but legal action by former employees who’ve sued and in some instances won.

When Biden came to Santa Barbara two years ago, his official plane was struck by local water fowl, thus precipitating an environmentally messy chain of events. Because the Goleta Slough has functioned as an attractive nuisance to gathering birds, airport officials have sought to bulldoze an opening through the accumulation of sand berming the water in. This has triggered an outcry from environmentalists concerned that so doing could create problems for endangered species like the tidewater goby that rely on the slough remaining closed off. (The status of the goby is now the subject of some controversy, as well, as federal authorities are pushing to downgrade its listing from endangered to merely threatened.)

This year, Biden’s arrival coincides awkwardly with the much-heralded release of a new documentary about Anita Hill, who in 1991 testified at Supreme Court confirmation hearings chaired by Biden that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Eventually, Thomas’s confirmation would be approved by the slimmest majority in Senate history — 52-to-48 — and Biden’s role as chair of the Judiciary Committee has made him the subject of considerable criticism. “If it hadn’t been for Joe Biden, Clarence Thomas would not be on the Supreme Court today,” declared journalist Ann Louise Bardach, a Carpinteria resident, who covered the hearings for Vanity Fair.

As chair, Biden had acceded to demands by Republican committee members to not allow four witnesses — who could have been called to corroborate Hill’s accusations — to testify. In that hearing, Hill’s testimony was greeted with such unbridled suspicion and derision that one Senator suggested she might qualify as the “woman scorned.” Hill, now a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, had worked for Thomas while he served with the Department of Education and then later with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Hill testified that Thomas had repeatedly pestered her to go out with him and that when she declined, he began peppering her with detailed accounts of his sexual prowess, the size of his penis, and pornographic films he’d seen, one involving the now famous “Long Dong Silver.” Even more famously, Hill suggested Thomas placed a public hair on the rim of her Coke can and then asked her how it got there. And perhaps more famously yet, Thomas, when he took the stand, visibly seethed when describing the “high-tech lynching” to which he’d been subjected. Members of Biden’s committee questioned why Hill would move with Thomas from one posting to another if the harassment were as bad as she testified.

Thomas had been nominated by President George Bush to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall. Thomas came into the hearings with an exceptionally low rating by the American Bar Association, so among his supporters, his character became his chief selling point. When rumors of Hill’s experience first surfaced, Biden was initially reluctant to pursue them. Only when those reports gained wider inside-the-Beltway circulation — particularly among Democratic women officeholders — did Biden order the FBI to investigate.

The hearings were extensively televised, and the image of Anita Hill remaining poised and calm under hostile questioning by 14 white male Senators galvanized a national backlash that helped secure passage for new workplace protections against sexual harassment. Since his appointment, Thomas has been a rock-solid conservative and has distinguished himself for — among other things — uttering the fewest words from the bench of any Supreme Court Justice in history.

In a related but tangential vein, the brother of a former Santa Barbara school boardmember sentenced Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair to forfeit $20,000 of his Army salary of $144,000 after pleading guilty to several counts in a highly publicized sexual harassment court martial case. The sentence imposed by Judge James Pohl — brother of former Santa Barbara School Boardmember Robert Pohl — was so light that even Sinclair’s defense attorneys expressed shock at the leniency. As a result of Pohl’s sentence, Sinclair will be allowed to remain in the Army and he will serve no jail time.

Sinclair was initially accused of forcing a young female captain to have sex with him — after she’d broken off their three-year affair — and threatening to kill her and members of her family. He was also accused of harassing other female officers into giving him nude photographs of themselves. The case against Sinclair was problematic almost from the start and was nearly tossed out of court entirely when Pohl recently discovered that Army prosecutors refused to consider a plea deal Sinclair was willing to make because of political considerations that had nothing to do with the facts of the case.

As reports of sexual assault within the military have increased, so, too, has the political pressure by Congress to pass tougher laws that military brass have objected will disrupt the chain of command crucial to any military organization. In that context, it appears the military had hoped to make an example out of Sinclair to assuage Congress that such actions were not warranted. Likewise, credibility issues about the primary victim surfaced regarding an old cell phone she failed to turn over in a timely fashion during the discovery process. This proved sufficiently serious that the officer in charge of prosecution resigned and had to be replaced.

Ultimately, Sinclair pleaded guilty to adultery, conducting inappropriate relationships with subordinate officers, and interfering with the investigation into these allegations. Judge Pohl’s brother, Robert Pohl, an education consultant, served on the school board from 1996-2000. He also ran as a moderate Republican for the State Assembly against Democrat Pedro Nava. After Nava won, Pohl, who enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle, moved to Ohio.


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