Good-government activists are raising questions about whether Oakland Public Ethics Commissioner Alex Paul has an ethical conflict. It’s the job of the ethics commission to regulate lobbyists and political action committees in the city. And yet Paul is the registered domestic partner of Michael Colbruno, an in-house lobbyist for Clear Channel and the chairman of OakPAC, an influential committee closely tied to the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
Over the past year, Paul has repeatedly engaged in discussions and enforcement decisions involving lobbyists, even though those decisions could ultimately affect his finances. In his statements of economic interests filed with the city earlier this year, he acknowledged that he financially benefits from Colbruno’s work — although he only mentioned Clear Channel and not Colbruno himself.
Paul also apparently didn’t disclose his relationship to Colbruno until after he was appointed to the ethics commission and sworn in. Paul’s résumé and commission application make no mention of the relationship, and commission President Andrew Wiener, who vetted applicants, said he didn’t learn of it until Paul was already on the commission.
Ethics experts say Paul’s domestic partnership with Colbruno doesn’t represent a direct legal conflict that would disqualify him from being on the commission. Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and former general counsel to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, said Paul is only legally required to recuse himself during discussions and decisions involving Colbruno. However, Stern said the perception that Paul may be biased toward lobbyists and PACs is a problem. “I would probably recuse myself for ethical reasons,” Stern said. “It seems to me that he’s too close to the situation.”
Former Oakland Public Ethics Commission President Ralph Kanz agrees. “Anything involving lobbying of any kind — I believe he should be recusing himself,” he said. “To my mind, it could affect his income.” Kanz also questions whether Paul’s continued service on the commission is harming its reputation. “Public perception is the most central part of public ethics,” Kanz said. “But he has so many potential conflicts. I don’t see how he can go forward on that commission without people questioning everything he does.”
Commission Executive Director Dan Purnell said Paul recused himself from discussions earlier this year over a lawsuit brought by Colbruno and OakPAC against the city and the ethics commission. The lawsuit concerned an Oakland law that limits contributions to PACs. Paul, however, has not recused himself from discussions and enforcement involving other lobbyists or PACs. The commission has the power to levy fines against people who violate city lobbying and campaign finance laws. But if the commission decides not to punish a lobbyist who appears to violate the law, it’s generally considered a signal to other lobbyists that they can do the same thing without worry.
Paul did not return two phone calls seeking comment for this story. But since joining the commission in January, he has exhibited a penchant for preferring lax ethics rules. For example, earlier this year, after a complaint was filed against Oakland lobbyist Carlos Plazola, Paul voted on the issue without disclosing that Plazola serves on the OakPAC board with Colbruno. And then last week, Paul voted to reject a proposal that would have required commissioners such as himself to publicly disclose wedding gifts or gifts of out-of-state travel, including first-class air fare.
Paul also grew obviously perturbed at last week’s meeting during a discussion about commissioners being married to or partners of lobbyists. Kanz and the leaders of the Metropolitan Greater Oakland Democratic Club, including president Judy Cox, have proposed that people like Paul who benefit from their spouse’s lobbying should be prohibited from serving on the commission.
Although the club’s proposal carves out an exemption for Paul, he instead chose to interrogate Kanz and Cox rather than discuss the merits of their idea. “Who do you represent?” he asked repeatedly, according to a video of the meeting provided by KTOP. “Whose views do you represent?” Later, he asked pointedly if the club would pay the city’s legal costs if it were sued over their idea.
Deputy City Attorney Alix Rosenthal, who is assigned to staff the ethics commission, told Full Disclosure that she could think of no legal grounds for why anyone would ever sue the city if it were to adopt the Democratic club’s proposal. Also, it would be unprecedented for a community group to pay the city’s legal bills simply because the city had adopted the group’s proposal.
In an interview, current commission president Wiener said that if he were Paul, he would recuse himself from all discussions and decisions involving lobbyists and PACs. But Wiener expressed concerns about the club’s proposal to disqualify future commissioners with conflicts like Paul’s. Instead, he said he would prefer that commissioners recuse themselves. If they refused, then the other commissioners should have the power to exclude them from a particular issue, he said.
As for Colbruno, who also is chairman of the Oakland Planning Commission, he also did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story. But earlier this year, he strongly defended Paul in an e-mail to Kanz, city councilwoman Nancy Nadel, and others.
Police Union Breaks Law for Perata
The Oakland police union violated state and local laws last week when it turned an event partially financed with taxpayer dollars into an endorsement for mayoral candidate Don Perata. It is illegal to use public funds for political purposes. The public meeting had been billed as a chance to meet Oakland’s new police chief Anthony Batts and was paid for in part by the city’s Neighborhood Services Division, which also sent out the invitations for the event.
Nicholas Vigilante, chairman of the Neighborhood Watch Steering Committee, which sponsored the event with the Oakland Police Officers Association, said he didn’t learn that police union president Sergeant Dom Arotzarena planned to announce the union’s endorsement of Perata and invite the former state senator to speak until just before the event. The event was held at the police officers union headquarters near downtown. “I said, ‘That’s not what we agreed to,'” Vigilante said he told Arotzarena about the Perata endorsement announcement. “He said, ‘It’s our house and that’s what we’re going to do.'” Vigilante said that he then suggested to Arotzarena that Councilwoman Jean Quan, who is running against Perata, also be allowed to speak. “He said, ‘No, that’s not going to take place,'” Vigilante said.
After Batts finished speaking, he left the event. According to Oakland activist and Quan supporter Pamela Drake, Arotzarena then took the stage and complained about Oakland’s lack of leadership, without noting that Batts had been selected by Mayor Ron Dellums. Drake said that Arotzarena then announced the union’s endorsement of Perata and invited him to speak. “It was clear that it was an endorsement meeting,” Drake said, adding that a group of people became disgusted and walked out.
After Perata finished talking, he handed the mic to Vigilante, who had decided that he would invite Quan to speak as well about her campaign for mayor, despite Arotzarena’s objections. Witnesses said Quan’s appearance didn’t go over well with the police union members. In an e-mail sent out after the event, Vigilante, who is also a Quan supporter, apologized for the politicking. “Neighborhood Watch is a non-partisan organization, and as its chairperson, I truly regret what happened,” he wrote.
After the event, City Administrator Dan Lindheim said in a statement that he was “conducting an investigation to determine whether disciplinary or other action is appropriate.”
Arotzarena did not return a call asking whether the union planned to reimburse the city for the funds it used for the event. The union also has yet to issue a public apology.