.Coming Home

Sixties antiwar activist defends a war hero; Richmond execs lose their plastic; and Oaktown YWCA goes to pot.

Q.: How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A.: You don’t know, man, you weren’t there!

That joke probably doesn’t translate so well in print, although it might be just as offensive. We Americans, after all, still bear scars from Vietnam. The current “support our troops” mantra, for instance, has its roots in the national shame over Jane Fonda being such a bitch.

Yet some old wounds have healed since the war ended thirty years ago. Exhibit A in how the-times-they-have-a-chang-ed was on display last week in downtown Oakland in the courtroom of Alameda County Superior Court Judge John F. Kraetzer. That’s where a former Vietnam War protester, attorney Dan Siegel, delivered a tear-jerking closing argument on behalf of his client, Vietnam vet James G. Kelley.

Siegel’s name might be familiar to Feeders. He’s a prominent employment-law attorney who represented filmmaker Michael Moore twenty years ago in Moore’s lawsuit against Mother Jones. He’s also an Oakland School Board member, a likely candidate for mayor in 2006, and a recreational pot smoker. Siegel cut his political teeth in the 1960s, leading antiwar protests at Cal when he was student body prez. Kelley, meanwhile, enlisted and reenlisted for military duty, flew numerous combat missions, and earned a Purple Heart, which he brought to court.

In 1998 and 1999, Kelley, an architect, was the $7,000-a-month project director for the University of California’s new $31 million facility in Washington, DC. UC fired him over a string of what administrators considered bizarre e-mails Kelley had sent to the project team — some of which were carbon-copied to the secretary of defense, Bill Clinton, and ex-Governor Gray Davis. Court papers say the e-mails included highly personal details about Kelley such as his “nocturnal erections,” as well as rants containing allusions to religion, war, and the movie Field of Dreams. The upshot is that Kelley’s bosses decided he was too crazy to do his job, and sent him packing. But Kelley contended that his co-workers feared him only because he was a Vietnam vet.

Siegel says that when Kelley first approached him about the wrongful-termination case, the two talked a long time about their very different experiences during the Vietnam era. Siegel says that while he opposed the war, he was “never hostile” to the GIs, recalling that he lost a high school buddy during the war. (Siegel’s law partner, Oakland Councilwoman Jane Brunner, also worked on the case.)

Last week, the war-protester lawyer asked the jury for hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages and damages, and appealed to the panel’s patriotism by invoking Kelley’s wartime heroism. Siegel recounted the time Kelley took a bullet in the arm and watched the blood gush from the cuff of his fatigues. “If that caused him some psychological problems,” Siegel reasoned, “we owe him an accommodation.” In other words, UC should have reassigned the war hero to a less demanding post rather than just cast him out.

Siegel concluded by reading a passage from the 1998 book Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History. After Siegel was done reading, Kelley and his supporters in the audience wiped tears from their eyes. Later, UC lawyer Michael Bruno chided Siegel in front of the jurors for playing on their sympathies instead of sticking to the facts: “He’s asked you to compensate Mr. Kelley because he is a war hero. … But to suggest a verdict on that basis is disgusting.”

In the end, the war-hero argument didn’t fly. After a three-week trial, the jury sided with the university. Siegel doubts he will appeal.

Are Those Things Recyclable?
You may have read recently that Richmond has been working hard to get its financial house in order after the city discovered it had a $35 million budget deficit a year ago. As part of the cleanup effort, finance director Pat Samsell recently took away the credit cards that had been issued to city executives. An internal audit found that the card users weren’t bothering to turn in supporting receipts, but were buying personal items and treating themselves to fancy meals at taxpayers’ expense. Three months ago, Feeder reported that the city’s human resources director had spent hundreds of dollars on meals at Hs Lordships, Salute, and the Hotel Mac.

While city execs are to blame for making inappropriate charges to the cards — issued by credit card giant MBNA — they aren’t necessarily responsible for all of the combined $20,000 late fees the audit found they had racked up over three years. Samsell blames the short window between the billing date and the due date, something all you plasticheads out there are familiar with. In one case, he says, the postmark on the envelope bearing the bill was ten days after the billing date listed on the statement. “My theory,” he divulged, “is that it’s intentional.”

Young Women’s Cannabis Association
A couple of weekends ago, execs at the YWCA in downtown Oakland were surprised to discover that their facility was hosting a conference on marijuana policy reform. According to executive director Carolyn Stull, the building’s conference space had been rented by the innocuous-sounding Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance, one of the cosponsors of the February 19 event. “Civil liberties sound good to me,” she says. It wasn’t exactly about civil liberties, however. The event’s online registration form states at the top: “Legalize, tax & regulate cannabis.” Organizers posted fliers inside and outside the YWCA around the time of the conference, a building regular tells Feeder.

The funny thing is, last year Stull and the YWCA opposed a medipot club called the Green Door that was located next door. In the end, the city denied the club a permit and it was forced to close. Stull says she can appreciate the irony, but stresses that the Y didn’t oppose medical marijuana — it just didn’t want a pot club next door. Once YWCA managers realized they were hosting a pot conference, she says, “It wasn’t like we were going to run over and say you can’t meet here.” Neither conference organizers nor attendees caused any problems, she adds. Everyone was pretty mellow.


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