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Column: The climate scientist who just won a $1-million judgment against climate change deniers

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Column: The climate scientist who just won a $1-million judgment against climate change deniers

One of the major issues confronting scientists today — especially those working in the heavily politicized fields of global warming, vaccines and the origin of COVID-19 — is how to deal with the torrents of misinformation and disinformation, some of it personal, pushing back against their work.

Climate scientist Michael E. Mann just found an answer. Sue the critics — and win.

Last week, a Washington, D.C., jury awarded Mann more than $1 million in punitive damages against two right-wing writers who had accused him of research fraud.

I hope this verdict sends a message that falsely attacking climate scientists is not protected speech.

— Climate scientist Michael Mann

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The jurors didn’t appear to find this a close question. They ruled that the online posts written by Rand Simberg and Mark Steyn breached the legal standards applied to defamation lawsuits involving a public figure such as Mann — that their writings asserted facts that were “provably false” and that they knew or should have known that their assertions were false.

The jury awarded Mann $1 in compensatory damages from each defendant, plus $1,000 in punitive damages from Simberg and $1 million in punitive damages from Steyn. The verdicts capped a painful 12-year battle that Mann waged to protect his reputation from trolls questioning his integrity.

“I hope this verdict sends a message that falsely attacking climate scientists is not protected speech,” Mann said after the verdict.

There’s more to the case than the exoneration of a single scientist. The verdict scored a direct hit on personal attacks on scientists using innuendo and outright lies, all aimed at advancing partisan and economic ideologies by undermining scientific research.

“The attacks denigrating science and trying to undercut science, both for climate science and biomedicine, [are] not just about the science,” Peter Hotez, a leading authority on medicines and vaccines and a prominent foe of anti-science politics, told PBS.

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“It’s now gone the next step to attack the scientists and portray us as public enemies,” said Hotez, who is collaborating with Mann on a book about the anti-science movement. “Both Michael and I are stalked regularly. We receive threats online, phone calls to the office, sometimes physical confrontations. So it’s gone out to that new level.”

Scientists working in all fields subjected to partisan critiques have lamented that the flow of lies about their work and about established science can be unrelenting.

The critics are financed by right-wing foundations and their claims repeated at congressional hearings — typically, these days, chaired by House Republicans aiming to pump conspiracy theories into the mainstream. Sometimes, as many targets have experienced, the criticism degenerates into personal threats and physical confrontations.

Much is at stake in these battles. Global warming is an elemental threat to life on Earth, and ignoring it as its deniers advocate is a recipe for extinction. Campaigns by anti-vaccine activists can cause sickness and death for untold millions in the U.S. and worldwide.

To understand Mann’s case, it helps to start at the beginning.

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In 1998 and 1999, Mann and colleagues published two papers reporting that global temperatures, which had been stable for at least a millennium, began rising sharply during the 20th century and especially in the last 50 years. They used evidence from tree rings, sediment cores from oceans, caves and lakes and ice cores from glaciers to reconstruct climate patterns of the distant past.

The famous “hockey stick” graph developed by Michael Mann and colleagues showed average climate temperatures soaring sharply over the last century as burning of fossil fuels increased.

(Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

The 1999 paper illustrated their findings with what became known as the “hockey stick” graph because it resembled that implement with a long horizontal shaft (the distant past) ending with a nearly upright blade (recent times).

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Mann’s research and the graph drew immediate pushback from global warming deniers, who questioned his data and methodology. After 2009, when emails among climate scientists including Mann were hacked from the files of the University of East Anglia in Britain and cherry-picked to suggest that the scientists were manipulating their data, they also questioned his integrity.

The attacks on Mann should have been ended by a series of official investigations through 2021 that cleared him of research wrongdoing, including two by Pennsylvania State University, where Mann taught from 2005 to 2022, and another by the National Science Foundation.

In all, eight separate investigations by official bodies found Mann innocent of wrongdoing or validated his research findings; the results all were made public. But the attacks continued, even up to this day. (Mann is now at the University of Pennsylvania.)

That brings us to the noxious posts by Simberg and Steyn.

Simberg’s post, titled “The Other Scandal in Unhappy Valley,” was published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute on July 12, 2012 — after Mann had been cleared. It’s worth noting that the CEI is a free-enterprise think tank that has been funded by the Koch network, other far-right moneybags and the tobacco industry, and that global warming denial has been one of its favorite themes.

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Simberg drew a connection between the scandal in the Penn State football program involving a cover-up of sexual molestations by Jerry Sandusky, an assistant coach, and the university’s purported “whitewash” of Mann’s hockey stick deceptions. (The headline referred to the nickname of Penn State’s scenic location, “Happy Valley.”)

“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science,” Simberg wrote, “except for instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.”

CEI has left Simberg’s post up on its website but has excised his references to Sandusky as “inappropriate.” However, the full post, including its original references to Sandusky, was reprinted in a 2016 decision by a Washington, D.C., court of appeals that allowed Mann’s case against the writers to proceed to trial.

Steyn followed Simberg’s post with his own, published in the conservative organ National Review on July 15.

While writing, apropos of Simberg’s Sandusky reference, that he was “not sure I’d have extended that metaphor all the way into the locker-room showers,” Steyn asserted that Simberg “has a point.” He called Mann’s hockey-stick graph “fraudulent.”

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Steyn and Simberg both questioned the investigations that cleared Mann. Simberg noted that Penn State’s investigators were all tenured professors on its faculty. Steyn wrote, “If an institution is prepared to cover up systemic statutory rape of minors, what won’t it cover up?”

Simberg also referred disdainfully to a 2011 investigation by the National Science Foundation’s inspector general, which exonerated Mann, writing that it relied on information from Penn State and therefore was “not truly independent.”

A couple of points about that. First, Simberg wrote that the investigation was by the National Academy of Sciences, which is different from the NSF. (The NAS conducted its own investigation upholding Mann’s work, in 2006, but that’s not the one Simberg quoted.)

Second, the NSF’s office of inspector general specifically stated that in its investigation it did not rely on Penn State.

Rather, it examined “a substantial amount of publicly available documentation concerning both [Mann’s] research and parallel research conducted by his collaborators and other scientists” in the field of global warming, and also interviewed Mann, “critics, and disciplinary experts” before finding that there was no evidence that Mann “falsified or fabricated any data.”

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National Review defended itself and Steyn’s column with the sort of vacuous braggadocio that is its stock in trade.

In a 2012 editorial headlined “Get Lost,” its editor, Rich Lowry, laughed off Mann’s threat to file a lawsuit by pledging that if Mann did so it would be pleased to engage in “extremely wide-ranging” discovery — “we will be doing more than fighting a nuisance lawsuit; we will be embarking on a journalistic project of great interest to us and our readers.”

In any event, National Review turned tail and ran. It persuaded the D.C. court to drop it from Mann’s lawsuit in 2021 by pleading that Steyn wasn’t its employee but merely an “independent contractor” and that none of its employees had reviewed his posting until it was published on its website, which it portrayed as sort of a neutral landing place for posts to appear. That “journalistic project of great interest”? Fugeddaboutit.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute also got itself dismissed from Mann’s lawsuit in 2021 via a similar argument that a judge described as “an assertion of ignorance”: It said Simberg wasn’t its employee and that the low-level employee who did review his article before it posted checked it only for “formatting error and typos,” not for content.

National Review continued to ridicule Mann. In January, as the trial against the writers began in a D.C. courtroom, it labeled Mann “a darling of fashionable opinion,” placed his case in the category of “runaway snowflakery” and called it “laughably weak.” (Whoops.) Given the publication’s court-ordered immunization against liability, it appeared to be taking on the role of a bully who goads others into waging battle with the words, “Let’s you and him fight.”

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Now that the verdict is in, National Review is wrapping itself in the U.S. Constitution. It editorialized that a few blocks from the courthouse, “at the National Archives Museum, the 1st Amendment faded a little on its parchment.”

It asserted that Mann won the $1-million verdict merely for a blog post that did no more than “ruffle [his] feathers.” It charged that Mann’s “mendacity and egomania” motivated his lawsuit.

“Ultimately, this lawsuit is not about Mark Steyn or about conservative magazines or about climate change,” National Review wrote, “but about the integrity of free speech in these United States.”

The truth is, however, that Steyn and Simberg lost only after the jury applied the most stringent standards for defamation lawsuits — standards that have been developed precisely to protect “the integrity of free speech” and that protect serious journalism. Mann had to show that the authors knew or should have known that their factual assertions about his work were false, and that’s exactly what he did.

The lesson embodied in the jury award is not that you can’t smear or defame your targets. The jury didn’t rule that you can’t express an opinion about them or their work in the course of robust debate.

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What it did rule, and it isn’t alone in honoring this principle, is that you can’t smear them by parading lies and misrepresentations as though they’re facts — not without paying a price.

That may be a frightful lesson for National Review and other publications like it, but it should be comforting for the rest of us.

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The battle brewing over California workers' unique right to sue their bosses

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The battle brewing over California workers' unique right to sue their bosses

California workers who believe they have been victims of wage theft or other workplace abuses have for more than two decades relied on a unique state law that lets them sue employers not only for themselves but also for other workers.

Now a battle is shaping up over the law, known as the Private Attorneys General Act, or PAGA. An initiative seeking to replace PAGA will appear on the ballot in California in November, the culmination of long-standing efforts by corporate and industry groups to undo the law.

Two reports released last week offer dueling narratives about whether PAGA helps or hurts workers — marking the opening of a potentially expensive fight over the landmark law that relatively few know about.

Labor researchers say that the ballot measure, if approved, would harm employees, particularly people with low-wage jobs, by taking away their ability to file what are essentially class-action suits against employers that allege labor law violations. The ballot measure also would weaken the state’s already strained system for enforcing workplace laws, the researchers say.

But the business coalition backing the ballot initiative, called the Fair Play and Employer Accountability Act, counters that the labor law has resulted in a proliferation of lawsuits that small businesses and nonprofits have little ability to fight. Workers end up getting less money after a long legal process than if they had filed complaints through state agencies, the initiative’s proponents say.

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Worker advocates have long complained that chronic understaffing at state agencies responsible for investigating employee complaints means that allegations about wage theft and other violations can take years to be resolved. So workers turn to the courts.

Luz Perez Bautista and her mother, Maria de la Luz Bautista-Perez, were among three named plaintiffs who sued Juul Labs Inc. in federal court in 2020 for allegedly misclassifying some 450 campaign staffers working on a ballot measure the company was promoting to allow the sale of electronic cigarettes in San Francisco. The workers were all classified as independent contractors rather than employees, which saddled them with expenses that employees wouldn’t have to pay.

Juul was sued in 2020 by three workers, who alleged they were misclassified as independent contractors rather than employees, using a California law that allows employees to sue companies on behalf of other workers.

(Ted Shaffrey / Associated Press)

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Workers were made to travel long distances between campaign offices without pay, were not given lunch breaks and were terminated abruptly, Perez Bautista said, speaking at a news conference last week to unveil a report by the UCLA Labor Center as well as researchers at advocacy groups PowerSwitch Action, and the Center for Popular Democracy.

Because the workers had signed arbitration agreements, without PAGA they would not have had the legal standing to take Juul and the nonprofit it created for the campaign to court. Through their PAGA claim workers secured a $1.75-million settlement.

“It is important for other workers to see that … you can hold your boss accountable,” Bautista-Perez said at the news conference.

The report argues broadly that eliminating workers’ ability to pursue private lawsuits would leave them more vulnerable to having their wages stolen by employers and other abuses of their rights.

PAGA plays a “vital role” in bringing bad actors into compliance, said Tia Koonse, legal and policy research manager at the UCLA Labor Center.

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Koonse and other authors of the report said the ballot initiative is disingenuously framed as a push to reform PAGA and bolster other enforcement mechanisms.

“By cloaking policies that hurt workers in language that says they’re helping workers, corporations are making it sound like what is down is up,” said Minsu Longiaru, senior staff attorney for PowerSwitch Action.

Other mechanisms to enforce California labor laws are insufficient on their own, including wage claims and whistleblower complaints investigated by state agencies, the report argues, because the sheer number of labor violations dwarfs the state’s capacity to enforce them.

Each year, the $40 million recovered in approximately 30,000 wage claims filed with the state labor commissioner represents roughly 2% of the estimated $2 billion California workers lose to wage theft, according to the report.

An analysis of California Labor & Workforce Development Agency data by the report’s authors found that 91% of PAGA claims allege wage theft, primarily overtime violations and failure to pay for all hours worked, although some involved violations of earned sick leave rights. Other forms of wage theft include paying workers less than minimum wage, denying workers meal breaks or rest periods and requiring employees to finish tasks before or after their shifts.

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The initiative at the center of discussion, the Fair Play and Employer Accountability Act, got the green light to be placed on the November 2024 ballot almost two years ago.

It proposes to remove the law’s powerful private right of action, which empowers workers to file lawsuits against their employers, suing for both back wages and civil penalties on behalf of themselves, other employees and the state of California. Official language for the measure states it would eliminate “employees’ ability to file lawsuits for monetary penalties for state labor law violations.”

Backers emphasize it also offers replacement provisions that would bolster state agency enforcement of workplace rules.

Replacement provisions include doubling penalties for employers “willfully” violating labor law, requiring 100% of monetary penalties to be awarded to harmed employees (rather than the current division of 25% to the employee and 75% to the state of California), and requiring that the state provide employers with resources to help with coming into compliance.

“Today’s PAGA system is completely broken and does not work well for employees or employers,” said Jennifer Barrera, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, in announcing a report released last week by backers of the ballot initiative, called the Fix PAGA coalition.

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Barrera said that because one employee can sue on behalf of others, it allows lawyers to stack charges and extract high penalties from employers with few barriers because PAGA claims don’t require the same type of notification and certification of workers allegedly affected that a class-action suit would require.

“The statutory framework of PAGA is what creates the abuse,” she said in an interview.

Barry Jardini, executive director of the California Disability Services Assn., said that members of the trade group, many of which are nonprofits reliant on state or federal funding, are increasingly burdened by PAGA claims. He said 20 of some 85 members who responded to a recent survey said they dealt with PAGA claims in 2023.

Jardini said that disability service businesses have struggled to provide true “responsibility-free” 10-minute rest breaks in accordance with labor laws because often workers “can’t just walk away” from clients especially if they are out and about instead of at home. He said employers have looked for creative solutions, such as paying employees extra for working through breaks or tacking on breaks at the beginnings or ends of shifts rather than the middle, but these fixes aren’t legal substitutes for rest breaks workers are entitled to.

“We run into a bit of a legal rock and a hard place,” he said. “We do have a conflict with the law in terms of some of our services. Once that becomes known, it’s relatively easy for an attorney to try to solicit a client that works in this industry that is maybe ripe for PAGA claims.”

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The claims sap resources and lead to program closures because “providers with very thin margins are using up their reserves on settling these claims,” Jardini said. “Other times providers are unable to give wage increases to their staff. And at the end of the day it impacts people with disabilities.”

Some disagree that there is rampant of abuse of PAGA. UCLA Labor Center researchers published a report in February 2020 finding no evidence that PAGA unleashed a flood of frivolous litigation, as its detractors complain, and that it had demonstrably enhanced Labor Code compliance among employers.

In response to criticisms outlined by the recent UCLA Labor Center report, Kathy Fairbanks, a spokesperson for the coalition, pointed to findings in the coalition’s report, which argues that PAGA is too slow to resolve claims, leaves workers with little compensation, and enriches lawyers while saddling businesses with costly suits.

Fairbanks said that workers get about one-third of the compensation and that PAGA cases take twice as long compared with cases adjudicated by state agencies. That is because “lawyers take massive fees and are getting rich while workers get very little,” Fairbanks said.

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the powerful California Labor Federation, agreed that PAGA is at times abused by “unscrupulous attorneys,” but said repealing the law is not a solution.

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“There’s massive wage theft that goes unaccounted for, and to take away this tool from the tool box would be damaging to workers and a gift for corporate America,” said Gonzalez, who formerly served as a state assembly member known for writing labor-friendly legislation.

If approved by voters, the ballot measure “would leave workers with dwindling opportunities to enforce labor law.”

Gonzalez said it is well understood that state labor agencies are subject to short staffing and ebbs and flows of political desire to take on major cases. Although it’s not ideal to have to rely on private attorneys to help enforce the law, PAGA provides an important avenue for enforcement, she said.

The initiative doesn’t mandate or otherwise clear the way for increased funding for enforcement agencies, Gonzalez said.

To suggest the business lobby, through the ballot initiative, is asking for changes that will actually improve labor law enforcement “doesn’t pass the smell test,” she said.

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Backers of the ballot initiative are open to working on a legislative compromise to avert a costly battle, spokesperson Fairbanks said. But any sort of deal would have to be reached before the end of June — the deadline to pull measures off the November ballot. The Fix PAGA coalition reports having banked some $15 million in campaign contributions so far.

Business groups have sought to shrink PAGA’s reach in state and federal courts with limited success in recent years.

In June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court, considering the California case Viking River Cruises Inc. vs. Moriana, ruled that PAGA violated the rights of employers and that the claims of other employees would have to be dismissed because the employee sent to arbitration would no longer have standing to pursue that litigation.

But in a concurring opinion, it also affirmed that interpretation of PAGA was a matter of state, not federal, law and in effect kicked the matter back to California.

State appellate courts consistently have held that PAGA claims by workers cannot be forced into arbitration because they are brought as if the individual is operating on the state’s behalf.

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In July 2023, the California Supreme Court rejected an argument by Uber that sought to limit the ability of its drivers to take employment-related disputes to court, unanimously determining that a driver could not sign away the right to represent their peers in a lawsuit.

The decision didn’t end the debate, however, with other cases bouncing around the courts.

A federal appeals court, citing the Uber case, ruled Feb. 12 that a PAGA suit against Lowe’s Home Centers for allegedly underpaying workers who took sick leave could stand.

Judge William Fletcher wrote in the ruling that a state court “has the authority to correct a misinterpretation of that state’s law by a federal court,” including the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Nothing says Los Angeles like 213. Or 738? A new area code is coming

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Nothing says Los Angeles like 213. Or 738? A new area code is coming

Remember when Los Angeles had only one area code?

Of course you don’t. The area’s relentless growth forced regulators to split the iconic 213 area code again and again, starting a mere four years after its introduction in 1947.

Today there are 10 area codes in L.A. County, and in about eight months, there will be an 11th: 738, which will cover the same territory now served by 323 and the much-diminished 213.

This is why we can’t have nice things: Landlines may be going the way of the fax machine — in fact, AT&T wants to end its duty to provide wired phone service to anyone in its California service area who asks for it — but the population of cellphones and other connected devices that require phone numbers continues to grow. So the area served by 213 and 323 is, believe it or not, running out of unassigned numbers.

The California Public Utilities Commission approved a proposal last year to add 738 to the mix as an overlay, meaning that it will be used in the same turf as 213 and 323. “The 213/323 area codes generally serve the downtown portion of the City of Los Angeles and the surrounding cities and communities, including Alhambra, Bell, Bell Gardens, Beverly Hills, Commerce, Cudahy, Glendale, Hawthorne, Huntington Park, Inglewood, Lynwood, Maywood, Montebello, Monterey Park, Pasadena, Rosemead, South Gate, South Pasadena, Vernon and West Hollywood, as well as unincorporated portions of Los Angeles County,” the CPUC helpfully explained on its website.

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Under the plan approved by the CPUC last year, 738 will make its official debut in mid-November, so if you’re itching for a new number — say, (738) 543-2539, which would spell out the easy-to-remember (738) JHEALEY — you’ll have to wait till then. The commission and phone companies in the state are supposed to begin educating the public about the new code March 1.

The additional area code won’t change any numbers already in use, nor will it make it dialing numbers any more demanding than it already is. Since the 323 area code overran its original boundaries in 2017 to become an overlay throughout 213’s turf, people with 323 or 213 numbers have been required to dial all 10 digits of a phone number even when calling someone in the same area code. That will continue to be the case once 738 is in use.

With cellphones gradually replacing wired phones, new area codes and longer numbers aren’t as meaningful as they used to be. Increasingly, people place calls by touching a link on a smartphone screen rather than punching numbers on a keypad.

And with number portability — the ability to keep your phone number even when you change phone companies — area codes are losing their place as geographic symbols.

Twenty years ago, when your phone’s Caller ID display said the call was coming from Colorado, you could be pretty sure someone was calling you from Colorado. Today, all you know is that the caller’s phone number originated in Colorado.

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Food truck rip-off? Supplier denies claims he exploited 'campesinos'

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Food truck rip-off? Supplier denies claims he exploited 'campesinos'

Guitars flutter, an accordion wheezes and a singer unwinds the triumphant tale of Fernando Ochoa Jauregui, a Modesto-area builder of food trucks and trailers.

“He still parties just because he feels like it,” the lyrics go. “But what he enjoys the most is partying with a banda at festivals in his town with a beautiful lady by his side.”

In a video accompanying the Spanish-language corrido, images flash of Ochoa beaming in front of shiny cars and atop jet skis. In some, he wears hats with the logo of his company: 8A Food Trucks. It ends with footage of stacks of cash and a money-counting machine.

The narrative ballad, titled “El del 8A” on YouTube, gives the impression that Ochoa is a kingpin at the helm of a burgeoning empire — one who “gives thanks to his father for making him a good kid.”

But unhappy 8A Food Trucks customers across California — from Sacramento to Salinas and San Bernardino — tell their own stories. They describe toiling as cooks, custodians and construction workers, saving for years to get a chance at starting their own business, only to have their dreams dashed. In a rough and tumble industry, largely secluded in poor, immigrant neighborhoods and farming communities, they allege Ochoa stands out for his callousness.

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In lawsuits and interviews, former clients accused Ochoa and his company of not delivering trucks or trailers they ordered and refusing to return their partial or full payments. Others alleged that they received vehicles so poorly built that they couldn’t be used. And some have accused Ochoa of taking back trailers they’d purchased from him.

All told, 15 alleged victims claimed more than $475,000 in losses, according to a Times analysis.

In an interview, Ochoa, 28, disputed several of the allegations and acknowledged some mistakes, chalking them up in part to his inexperience in business, which he said led to delays in completing projects for customers. “I’m trying to deal with this scandal so I can make my business better again — I had a real company,” he said. “I’m not a business expert. I just know how to build trucks.”

Ochoa has become a symbol in Spanish media of the perils that lurk in the mobile food industry. In a 2023 report on him, a Univision news anchor warned those entering the business to exercise extreme caution. The controversy comes at a fraught moment for vendors in Southern California. Several in the L.A. area were robbed by gunmen last summer in brazen attacks that highlight the risks of selling food on Southland streets.

Alejandro Gonzalez was in a dispute over payment for a trailer when an old Toyota Camry pulled up to the drive-through window of Mi Casita Purepecha, his San Bernardino restaurant, on Feb. 1.

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“Are you Alejandro?” the front-seat passenger asked Gonzalez, who was standing at the window.

The restaurateur said he was — and the man pulled out a gun and pointed it at him.

In the confusion of the moment, Gonzalez said, he turned to help customers inside the Mexican restaurant and the Camry sped away. Gonzalez, 44, didn’t recognize the men. But he said he fears that they are connected to Ochoa. Asked about the incident, Ochoa said he did not send armed men to Mi Casita Purepecha.

Gonzalez and his wife, Paulina Quintal, had contacted 8A Food Trucks in early January about building them two trailers so they could start a mobile food business. Ochoa delivered a trailer to their home two weeks later. Gonzalez said that he and his wife paid for it in full, and gave the builder a check for the down payment on a second one.

San Bernardino resident Alejandro Gonzalez said that this mobile food trailer, which he purchased from 8A Food Trucks, was stolen from his driveway in January.

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(Alejandro Gonzalez)

Soon, however, men working for Ochoa appeared at Mi Casita Purepecha to dispute Gonzalez’s ownership of the trailer he’d bought days earlier, he said. Then, after the couple’s check for the second trailer didn’t clear, a third party passed along what Gonzalez said was a threatening voicemail from Ochoa.

On Jan. 21, Gonzalez said he returned from an errand to find his trailer had been stolen from his driveway. Seeking answers, he said he traveled to 8A Food Trucks’ headquarters in Ceres, Calif., but found the site deserted. The next day, Gonzalez said, the men with the gun visited him.

Gonzalez filed reports with the San Bernardino Police Department over the theft and the run-in at his restaurant. Regarding Ochoa, Gonzalez said, “I don’t know how he sleeps.”

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Ochoa denied stealing the trailer from Gonzalez and Quintal’s home — “I would never do that,” he said — and alleged that they had not fully paid for it, saying that the check that bounced was meant to go toward the money they owed on it. Ochoa said he had sent two people to Mi Casita Purepecha to address those matters — and not to intimidate the couple.

“None of my people are armed,” he said. “We are businessmen; we dedicate ourselves to working and building trailers.”

Though the dollar amounts in most of the cases involving Ochoa are not large, for fledgling operators trying to break into the mobile food industry — many of them working-class immigrants — it’s enough to sidetrack their business dreams. And their predicaments highlight the vulnerability of California’s food industry workers, many of whom lack a financial safety net or the time and experience required to navigate the legal system. Some are undocumented and fear speaking to authorities.

“There were nights that we would cry, my husband and I,” said Adriana Nicanor, a San Joaquin resident. She and her husband filed a lawsuit against Ochoa and 8A Food Trucks last year that asserted he never delivered a trailer and claimed he refused to return their $20,000 deposit. They secured a default judgment, court records show, but have been unable to collect on it.

“It’s very frustrating,” Nicanor said. “My brother lent me that money. There were times we would struggle. Who asks for this?”

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For many of Ochoa’s clients, making a down payment on a truck or trailer — both of which typically include kitchens — was an important first step in fulfilling a long-held entrepreneurial ambition. Some said that the alleged losses were especially painful because they came at the hands of one of their own: a Mexican immigrant who lived in the Central Valley and previously worked at an industrial shop before founding 8A Food Trucks in 2019.

He’s taking advantage of “the campesinos — the farmworkers,” said activist Alicia Espinoza, a Moreno Valley resident who has helped organize some of Ochoa’s accusers. “My dad, when he came to this country, he was a strawberry picker. It just hurts me that this guy could take advantage of people like him.”

Ochoa said he has many happy customers and has gone out of his way to help them achieve their aspirations, noting, for example, that he has sometimes accepted payment in installments. “Not many businesses do that,” he said. “You know, we’re not a bank.” As for the Nicanors, Ochoa denied that he failed to meet an agreed-upon deadline for delivery, and said he plans to pay them back.

Mi Casita Purepecha restaurant's drive-through area

Mi Casita Purepecha owner Alejandro Gonzalez said a car pulled up to the restaurant’s drive-through window and a passenger pulled a gun on him Feb. 1.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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Several of those making allegations against Ochoa reside in Stanislaus County, an agricultural hub whose biggest city is Modesto. Wendell Emerson, a deputy district attorney for the county, confirmed that his office is conducting “an active criminal investigation” of Ochoa. He declined to comment further.

After the incident at Mi Casita Purepecha, Gonzalez closed the restaurant and left San Bernardino, relocating his family — he and his wife have three children — to a place they feel safe.

“I don’t know how long it is going to be,” Gonzalez said. “I feel like I lost everything.”

Lawsuits reveal a pattern

Ochoa is an entrepreneur of the internet age.

Food industry workers who’ve done business with the Colima, Mexico, native said that they found him via social media, where his posts depict a professional at the helm of a prosperous company.

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The Instagram account for 8A Food Trucks includes several images of gleaming vehicles, their stainless steel kitchens spotless under bright lights. The “8A” in the company’s name is a play on words: pronounced in Spanish, it sounds like “Ochoa.”

A recently divorced father of two young girls, Ochoa has positioned 8A as a brand beyond the world of food services: There are Instagram pages for a hat company with 8A in the name, and another for a jet-ski rental service. It’s all part of a slick image that Ochoa has cultivated online, where it’s easy to find his self-aggrandizing corridos and photographs of him posing in front of his black Chevrolet Corvette.

“Now they see me living well,” the lyrics of one song go, “driving around in a Corvette, buzzing.”

Ochoa’s flaunting of his success has infuriated customers with whom he’s tussled.

For Norma Estevez and her husband, Sebastian Delgado, entering the mobile food trade was a step toward realizing an important goal: owning a business they could pass onto their three children. But Estevez and Delgado, both Mexican American, believe they lost more money than any of Ochoa’s other alleged victims.

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The Salinas couple contacted Ochoa in 2021 to build a pair of trailers, selecting him, Estevez said, because he was Latino. “He didn’t have many clients,” she said, “and you could tell he has this aspiration to succeed.”

Estevez needed the trailers for a big opportunity: She had signed a contract with a produce company in nearby Watsonville to feed 70 field workers for 10 months beginning in February 2022. The owner had predicated the deal on her securing a trailer and having proper permits.

Ochoa told her that each trailer would cost $41,000, and promised to complete construction by the end of January, according to Estevez, who showed The Times invoices that documented the deal.

She and her husband sent Ochoa $60,000 over the course of several months, and as the deadline approached, they scheduled a day to pick up the trailers from 8A Food Trucks’ shop, Estevez said. But Ochoa canceled on them, she said, explaining that “his mother had arrived from Mexico and that he needed to pick her up from the airport.” They rescheduled, but he again put them off.

By then, Estevez’s contract with the Watsonville company had begun, and she scrambled to honor it. She was forced to buy meals for the workers, spending about $37 per person a day for the next week and a half — an all-in cost of nearly $26,000. Eventually, she rented a kitchen for $800 a week, and did so until the contract concluded, turning only a small profit on the deal.

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And without the trailers, Estevez wasn’t able to renew the contract. “I felt embarrassed … like we had lost a great opportunity,” she said.

Ochoa acknowledged that he didn’t meet the agreed-upon deadline — and that the situation was similar to that of other clients who didn’t receive their vehicles on time. But, he said, others were willing to wait. “Norma’s situation was that if she didn’t get the trailers by a certain date, then she wasn’t going to need them,” he said.

Estevez and Delgado filed a lawsuit against Ochoa for breach of contract and other claims in July 2022. Months later, the parties agreed to a settlement that called for Ochoa to pay Estevez and Delgado about $70,000, including attorney’s fees, according to court documents. Estevez said that Ochoa has only paid $30,000, leaving her deeply disillusioned.

“We were like him, we came to this country to better our lives,” she said. “He knew our dream and ambitions — we told him how hard we worked for it.”

Gonzalez, meanwhile, isn’t the only person who alleged that a trailer purchased from Ochoa was later taken back by him.

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Shelly Lopez and her husband, Jesus Avalos, said they paid Ochoa $37,000, and after nine months of delays — and their appearance in a Univision 19 Sacramento segment to discuss them — the Sacramento couple received a trailer in January 2023.

A man attaches a mobile food trailer to a truck

A man Shelly Lopez identified as Fernando Ochoa Jauregui came to her Sacramento home, she said, in February 2023 to take the trailer that 8A Food Trucks had recently sold her.

(Courtesy of Shelly Lopez)

After just a week, though, Ochoa told Lopez that he needed to take it back to his shop to make some adjustments, she said. A video that Lopez provided to The Times shows a man she identified as Ochoa connecting the trailer to the back of a pickup truck in February 2023.

“I didn’t want to let him take it,” Lopez said. “But my husband said, ‘It’s OK, he’ll make the repairs and bring it back to us.’”

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It was the last time Lopez and Avalos saw the trailer.

“We had so many fights after that,” she said. “It would come up whenever we were driving and saw people running their businesses, selling food. I would blame him for it.”

Ochoa said that Lopez hadn’t paid for the trailer in full, and that she was making payments in installments. He said that he only retrieved the trailer after she told him it needed repairs. After seeing her negative public comments about him, Ochoa said that he decided to void the payment plan, and resolved to return her funds.

Lopez said she has not gotten the money back.

‘He’s been laughing at us’

In recent days, Ochoa has come under attack online by disgruntled customers — and his former mother-in-law.

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Gisela Macias, 48, said that strangers began showing up at her Modesto home over the summer in search of Ochoa. They came, she said, to demand he pay them back for vehicles they’d purchased but never received. The visits were so frequent that she began recording interviews with some of the people to post on TikTok.

Ochoa said that the internet activism and local TV news stories have led to an exodus of clients, which has imperiled his ability to pay back customers like Estevez. He said that he can only make payments in $1,000 increments. “I know it’s not much,” he said, “but I have no business due to everything that’s being said about my company.”

He said he had to close 8A Food Trucks’ headquarters in Ceres because angry clients kept going there to confront him. But his braggadocio is still easy to find on the internet. A 2023 corrido about Ochoa titled “Por 8A Me Conocen” includes the boast that “business is steady and we’re never going to stop.”

“I fought hard and little by little grew the empire that I founded,” the singer trills.

It incenses Estevez. “He’s been laughing at us — the people who had dreams, who worked hard to save money to make those dreams a reality,” she said.

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These days, the equipment that Estevez and her husband bought for their two trailers — ovens, cooking wares and more — is mothballed in their garage. It’s hard for her to enter the space without crying.

“That’s our dream right there, collecting dust,” she said.

Times researcher Scott Wilson and columnist Gustavo Arellano contributed to this report.

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