When West Oakland activist and longtime newsman Paul Cobb bought the Oakland Post two years ago, he thought it would be a dream come true. Instead, for the past 26 months, Cobb has been mired in ugly legal battles with the City of San Francisco, as well as the woman who sold him Oakland’s largest black newspaper.
The story began three and a half years ago when former Post owner Velda Berkley decided to move the paper from Oakland’s Uptown district. Her husband, Thomas Berkley, who had died two years earlier, founded the paper in the early 1960s and later rose to become one of the most influential African Americans in the East Bay, a successful businessman and port commissioner who had a street named for him.
In the summer of 2003, Velda Berkley’s employees were cleaning out the Post‘s old newspaper plant when they discovered dozens of large cans of unused newspaper ink totaling hundreds of gallons. A local hazardous waste company offered to dispose of the ink properly for $3,000, but according to court documents, Velda Berkley refused to pay so much.
So one of Berkley’s trusted employees, Victor Martinez, hired two men to get rid of the of the ink. For $500, William Araujo and Vicente Cruz loaded it into a van, drove to San Francisco, and dumped the ink along Cargo Way, near Third Street, in the city’s impoverished Bayview-Hunter’s Point district.
The three dozen cans of green, blue, red, and black ink went unnoticed until early 2004, when JoHannah Deterding, an investigator for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, launched an investigation. It turned out to be an open-and-shut case; many of the containers still had labels that read “Post News” or “Post Newspapers.”
By the end of April 2004, Deterding had wrapped up the investigation. But the San Francisco district attorney’s office held off on filing criminal charges until that December 13 — one week after Berkley completed the sale of her paper to Cobb. Prosecutors filed felony charges against Martinez, Araujo, and Cobb’s company, Alameda Publishing Corporation. But they never charged Berkley, even though they admit the dumping occurred on her watch.
In fact, Martinez fingered Berkley when Deterding interviewed him. “I carried out the orders of Velda Berkley and Jesse Zachary,” Deterding quoted him as saying. Zachary, Berkley’s majordomo at the time, has not been charged either. Although Deterding failed to find Cruz, she interviewed Araujo and he also confessed. Martinez and Araujo subsequently pled guilty and each were sentenced to probation.
“Why didn’t they go after the previous owner?” Cobb asked. He and his Oakland attorney, Clinton Killian, smell a conspiracy that involves San Francisco DA Kamala Harris. And her mom.
Cobb and Killian claim they know of evidence that Velda Berkley had a relationship with Kamala’s mother, Shyamala Harris — the two allegedly played bridge together. “There appears to be a conflict of interest in the case between Velda Berkley and the district attorney’s mother, and the district attorney has not responded to that,” said Killian, a former Oakland planning commissioner.
After playing phone tag with Full Disclosure, Shyamala Harris, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, flatly denied the allegation. “Absolutely not,” she said. “What’s her name? Wilma? I don’t know her.” She allowed, however, that Velda Berkley “might belong to a bridge group that I have gone to.” But even if she and Berkley were friends, Harris said, she would not attempt to influence one of her daughter’s cases.
Kamala Harris’ spokeswoman Bilen Mesfin said Cobb and Killian’s allegation had “no merit whatsoever.” If it did, Mesfin said, Killian would have filed a motion to disqualify the DA’s office from the case.
Killian said he hasn’t taken that step because he has yet to speak to Shyamala Harris, whom Cobb said was subpoenaed last Friday to tell her story under oath.
So what’s the truth? Cobb and Killian have yet to produce evidence of any bridge conspiracy. But there’s no disputing the fishy timing of the charges.
There’s also no dispute that the DA is prosecuting Cobb’s company pretty vigorously, considering he was unaware of the illegal dumping before charges were filed. On the contrary, prosecutors know of another former Post employee who said Berkley was present when Araujo and Cruz picked up the drums and pails. The witness, according to the DA office’s own court pleadings, said Berkley “would have had to approve the moving of the ink, because it involved money.”
Assistant DA Evan Ackiron, who is now the lead prosecutor in the case, was nonchalant about why his office waited eight months to file charges. “I don’t think it falls outside the scope of what is normal,” he said. Ackiron wouldn’t comment on why he’s not prosecuting Berkley, but was quick to point out that he’s not technically prosecuting Cobb, either. “The company is the defendant,” he said. “He’s the owner, but he’s not personally exposed.”
That’s not how Cobb sees it. He said the criminal case has cost him $300,000 because it scared away investors and advertisers who don’t want to be publicly associated with a black newspaper that dumped toxic waste in a black neighborhood. Cobb added that he pumped his life savings into the paper and now can’t get a bank loan while his company faces trial.
In December 2005, Cobb tried to recoup some of his losses by suing Velda Berkley for fraud. He alleged she duped him by failing to disclose the paper’s illegal act. But Berkley, who now lives in Pasadena, has effectively tied the case up in court — she countersued over Cobb’s refusal to pay the final $66,000 installment due on the sale.
Berkley’s new phone number is unlisted and her Oakland attorney, Ron Carter, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Cobb said his combined legal fees have topped $100,000. He also said Berkley has refused to settle the lawsuits, or pay the $50,000 criminal fine sought by Kamala Harris. He is scheduled to be back in criminal court for a preliminary hearing on February 16.
Full Disclosure: Cobb and I were co-workers at the Oakland Tribune from 1999 to 2001.
Flubbing the Race Card
Alameda County courts are buzzing about a lawsuit filed by two experienced investigators against Public Defender Diane Bellas. Plaintiffs Steven Todar and Paul Perez accuse Bellas of fabricating a story about office racial tensions in order to pass them over for promotion. They’re demanding damages in excess of $1.1 million.
Controversy is nothing new for Bellas. For years, the county Public Defender’s Office was known as one of the best in the state. It teemed with experienced litigators who routinely outmaneuvered prosecutors, kept drug addicts out of jail, and got innocent defendants off the hook. But since Bellas took over in 1999 for the retired Jay Gaskill, morale has plummeted.
Bellas’ iron-fisted style and her habit of promoting friends who have never set foot in a courtroom have sent some of the best defense lawyers in the East Bay into private practice, other public defenders’ offices, or early retirement. “She runs that office by threats,” said Kimberly Kupferer, who handled murder and death penalty cases under Bellas before leaving in 2005. “If you don’t do what she wants you to do, she punishes you. One of the things she does is send people to Fremont.”
Todar and Perez’ beef began fourteen months ago when Bellas advertised an opening for chief investigator. On March 1, 2006, she promoted Todar to the job. But according to Kupferer and two inside sources, her choice sparked an immediate uproar.
Veteran trial attorneys were outraged that Bellas did not promote one of the two more experienced investigators — Robert Caturegli and Mark Stroup. Bellas had woefully miscalculated the pulse of the office, sources said.
In the lawsuit, Todar said Bellas quickly responded by calling him in for a private sit-down. She then allegedly told Todar, who is white, that he should forsake his promotion because African-American investigators were angry over the promotion and were going to sue. Todar dutifully stepped down on March 2.
But Bellas then promptly promoted Caturegli, who also is white. Two inside sources said Bellas’ story had been a “bullshit” line. Todar also believes Bellas deceived him, the lawsuit states. The public defender’s alleged story seemed believable enough. After all, she’s been hit by allegations of race discrimination before.
To date, neither Bellas nor Todar has talked publicly about the case. Nor has Perez, who claims that Bellas should have promoted him instead of Caturegli, and that she illegally used race in hiring.