There's Something About Mary

DEC. 30, 2010


The Sacramento Bee is publishing an eight-part series on “Californians to watch in 2011.” The Dec. 28 profile of Mary Nichols by Rick Daysog fails to mention key reasons why Californians might want to keep a close watch on the California Air Resources Board (CARB) boss. The reasons include the indulgence of scientific fraud and a cover-up.

In 2007, when CARB named Hien Tran, manager of the Health and Ecosystems Assessment Section in CARB’s Research Division, the state agency announced that Tran had earned a Ph.D. in statistics from the University of California at Davis. This was untrue – in fact, Tran had purchased his Ph.D. from Thornhill University, a degree mill located in a New York City office of the United Parcel Service (UPS).

A scientist with an actual earned Ph.D. from the University of California told CalWatchdog that such falsification of credentials usually ends a career. But CARB boss Mary Nichols insisted the ethical lapse was just “a very annoying distraction” and, at the time, said nothing to CARB board members, the press or legislators. Hien Tran was suspended, then demoted, but CARB opted to keep him on staff.

Tran was the author of “Methodology for Estimating Premature Deaths Associated with Long-term Exposure to Fine Airborne Particulate Matter in California.” Dr. S. Stanley Young, assistant director of Bioinformatics at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences, told one CARB member that the reasoning in Tran’s report was “too flawed to be done by a capable statistician.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also took no action against Nichols over the Ph.D. fakery and ensuing cover-up. No legislator has called for Nichols’ resignation; indeed, she “hopes to oversee climate change work for ex-boss Brown,” according to the headline of the glowing Bee profile.

In the accompanying photo, Nichols wears a stylish red jacket and necklace, and poses carefully coiffed and smiling in a rustic setting. The profile cites Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the American Lung Association (ALA) of California, that Nichols has the credibility and politically savvy “that makes her a very strong leader.”

The Bee profile also cites Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a reliable defender of government policy. “Mary is someone who is very knowledgeable about the issues and who is committed to carry out those policies,” Baldassare told the Bee. Governor-elect Brown is not cited in the piece but Nichols describes him as “the most energetic 72-year old I’ve ever met.”

The two go way back. In 1979, then-governor Brown appointed Nichols to chair CARB. Nichols, an attorney, worked for the EPA during the Clinton administration. She is also a veteran of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environment Now Foundation.

From 1993 to 2003 Nichols served the administration of Gray Davis as Secretary of the California Resources Agency. She was Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pick to head CARB, charged with implementing AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

The Bee profile says Brown “is widely expected to reappoint Nichols as chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board as he pushes ahead with the state’s landmark greenhouse gas reduction policy.” Which means the scientific fraud issue may follow her into a new term.

James Enstrom, a researcher with the UCLA School of Public Health, earned a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford. In 2005, Enstrom authored a study that found no evidence that PM2.5, dust and soot from diesel exhaust, causes premature deaths. Enstrom charged that Hien Tran’s study ignored key evidence, and he played a major role in exposing Tran’s bogus Ph.D.

UCLA, where Enstrom earned postdoctoral certification in epidemiology in 1976, is trying to get rid of him. Nichols is a professor-in-residence at UCLA and before Schwarzenegger appointed her CARB boss, she served as director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment. Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Linda, and other legislators raise the possibility of hearings to investigate the action against Enstrom. Those hearings could consider whether CARB pressured UCLA to dump its long-time researcher.

Enstrom had been slated to get his walking papers Aug. 30 but an ongoing grievance procedure has pushed that to March 30, 2011, according to the UCLA Department of Public Health.

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