All Fired Up

Unfinished Berkeley City College building has been relying on human smoke alarms; Oakland FBI informant contradicts the feds; Dellums task force wants to raise mayor's pay.

The new $65 million Berkeley City College was supposed to be a state-of-the-art education facility. So why is the school district paying three guys $13,500 a month to act as human fire alarms?

Enter the building’s atrium and look up, you’ll see them: the college’s “firewatch monitors” perched on the fifth floor keeping an eye on everything. Once every hour they walk through the building making sure there are no safety hazards, checking that classroom doors are closed per city fire regulations, and, of course, sniffing for smoke. “Our presence here is a soothing fact to a lot of the teachers,” says firewatcher Lloyd Harmon.

What isn’t soothing is the dysfunctional electronic alarm system. Since the school opened in August, numerous false alarms have been disrupting classes. When they go off, the whole building has to be evacuated while the fire department makes sure there’s no fire. Deputy Fire Chief David Orth says there have been fifteen false alarms since the school opened. Harmon and his fellow morning crew members, Alex Dantzler and Robert Hartfield, say it’s usually dust from ongoing construction that sets ’em off.

Oh, right: Almost forgot to mention that the new campus isn’t finished, which accounts for the various operational kinks. But with all the headaches the alarms have caused, some wonder whether it was wise to start classes before construction was complete. “They’re in an unfinished building and there are people [being evacuated] not knowing if there’s a fire or not,” says Debra Weintraub, president of the teachers’ union.

In August, when it became clear contractors couldn’t finish the necessary compliance testing, the fire marshal instructed Peralta Community College District officials to post blaze monitors during classes. The district hired Kirk Security for the task on a month-to-month basis.

Why didn’t the district just continue to lease the old Vista College building on Milvia Way until the new building was ready? Shirley Fogarino, Berkeley City College spokeswoman, says the lease had expired and the landlord wanted to charge $100,000 a month. But Jeff Heyman, spokesman for the entire four-college district, says that wasn’t the primary reason for the premature opening. With all the past squabbling over the new Berkeley campus, Heyman notes, school officials wanted to keep their word and open on deadline. “If we delayed it, people would have said, ‘Hey, they’re dragging their feet,'” he reasons.

Now they’re just cooling their heels every time the alarm gets tripped.

What? No Snitch Here.

Who’s lying — the FBI, or its star witness in the bureau’s Oakland corruption case? That’s the question some are asking after the informant, Oakland businessman Donald Cooper, left a phone message for a city employee last month contradicting the feds’ official version of events.

In the official version, Cooper walked into the FBI’s Oakland office in April 2005 and spilled his guts. He told agents an acquaintance with connections inside City Hall was trying to extort money from him. The FBI then had Cooper wear a wire and taped his cell-phone conversations with his permission. Those tapes purportedly contain smoking-gun moments such as when Cooper’s politically connected acquaintance, Maurice Himy, demanded $65,000 from him in exchange for helping him land a contract auctioning off surplus city property like old cars. If Cooper didn’t pay, Himy purportedly threatened to get the deal killed.

But a few weeks ago, Cooper left a voice mail for a city employee saying he’d never contacted the FBI. A source played Feeder the message, which has been making the rounds at City Hall. What really happened, Cooper said in the voice mail, was that the feds bugged Himy’s phone and then came to Cooper and threatened him if he didn’t cooperate. Cooper doesn’t say exactly how or why the feds threatened him.

After hearing the message, Feeder called Cooper on his cell phone last week and asked him if he went to the feds. “I would never go to the FBI,” Cooper responded. Granted, he was not in his regular state of mind when he talked to Feeder. At the time, the businessman said he was in the hospital awaiting surgery and was doped up on painkillers.

Cooper’s new story came as news to John Burris, his attorney. As far as he knows, Burris says, his client went to the FBI and blew the whistle. “Nothing has been told to me that contradicts that,” he says. Either way, the lawyer notes that conflicting versions of how it all started won’t affect the case against Himy because the feds have Himy on tape.

That’s true. But Cooper’s private revisionism raises new questions about the credibility of the man at the center of the corruption probe. As previously reported, he has a sketchy past: A federal judge convicted Cooper eleven years ago for lying to the government when he applied to get reimbursed for property damage caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

And while the feds have most of their dirt on tape, the juiciest allegation in the indictment is not: that Himy had demanded $10,000 in cash for City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente to grease the deal. For that, there’s only Cooper’s word. Obviously, that wasn’t enough for the feds, who haven’t charged De La Fuente with anything. De La Fuente insists he didn’t do anything wrong or take any funny money.

But what about, say, a new Porsche?

On his voicemail, Cooper says De La Fuente wanted a new Porsche, presumably as part of the payoff for the contract. But, well, you figure federal prosecutors would have included that juicy tidbit in court papers if it had any merit. De La Fuente’s attorney Eduardo Roy dismissed the suggestion. “This is just one of many uncorroborated statements made by this FBI informant,” he sniffs.

Makin’ Bacon

Look for one of Oakland Mayor-elect Ron Dellums‘ advisory task forces to recommend a generous bump in the mayoral salary once he takes office in January. According to a task-force document faxed to Feeder, the group is contemplating raising the mayor’s salary from $115,000 to $170,000 next year, and up to $190,000 in 2008.

The mayor’s salary hasn’t been raised since 2001 because the independently wealthy Jerry Brown turned down the last two pay hikes. So the position is due for a raise.

There could be a little battle brewing over the salary hike — at least in terms of when Dellums gets the extra cash. The City Council has to approve the raise and the council finance committee — which includes Dellums rival Ignacio De La Fuente — recently referred the matter to next year’s budget process. That means Dellums, who gave up a lucrative lobbying career to run for mayor, may have to subsist on the meager current $9,800-a-month mayoral paycheck until next July.


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