Over the past year or so, three investigations have essentially concluded that Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks repeatedly violated city law. The first investigation was by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Demian Bulwa, who uncovered strong evidence that Brooks had run afoul of the city’s separation-of-powers law. The law forbids councilmembers from interfering with the work of city staffers and launching their own government programs, as Brooks appears to have done when she engineered the creation of a teen center in her East Oakland district. City Administrator Deanna Santana then essentially confirmed Bulwa’s findings in her own probe. And then last week, independent City Auditor Courtney Ruby reconfirmed Bulwa and Santana’s findings, and also stated flatly that her investigation had conclusively found that Brooks had broke the law.
Ruby also found that Brooks violated the same law in another teen center project, and did it again, along with Councilman Larry Reid, in an attempt to steer a multimillion-dollar city deal to a favored contractor.
So what happens now? Ruby forwarded her findings to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. But if the past is any indication, don’t expect anything to happen. The Alameda County DA’s Office has shown virtually no interest over the years in pursuing cases involving alleged political wrongdoing and instead have focused on prosecuting street-level crimes.
Ruby, however, also sent her findings to the FBI. And the FBI’s political corruption unit has shown considerable interest over the years in investigating East Bay politicians and their cronies. However, the US Attorney’s Office in Northern California often doesn’t prosecute those cases. Current US Attorney Melinda Haag seems preoccupied with targeting law-abiding medical cannabis dispensaries.
As for the Oakland City Council, it apparently has never before reprimanded one of its own for wrongdoing. In fact, Ruby cited this longstanding lax attitude for helping foster a culture that led to Brooks and Reid’s actions. Indeed, last year a majority of the council, including Reid, blocked a proposal to hire an outside investigator to further probe the allegations against Brooks. Joining Reid were then-Councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente and Jane Brunner. However, as the independent city auditor, Ruby is not required to pay attention to the council, and she didn’t.
The council also has changed a lot in the past year. De La Fuente and Brunner are gone, and there are now three new councilmembers — Dan Kalb, Lynette Gibson-McElhaney, and Noel Gallo — none of whom have a history of condoning, let alone engaging in, illegal interference with the work of city staff. Reid also is no longer president of the council, having been replaced in January by Councilwoman Pat Kernighan (Brooks also made a play for council president but failed to garner the needed votes among the new councilmembers).
And Kernighan said last week that she plans to develop a process for censuring councilmembers who engage in wrongdoing. “It’s never been done around here, as far as anyone can remember,” Kernighan told me. “So, there’s no precedent.”
It’s time one was set. Ruby’s audit findings are damning — even more so considering the fact that two previous investigations basically had the same results. And Ruby’s audit was more extensive; it involved interviewing 40 city staffers and investigating 27 hotline tips. In all, the audit found fourteen violations — twelve involving Brooks, one involving Reid, and one involving Reid’s aide, Iris Merriouns — of the city’s separation-of-powers law.
Reid’s violation involved a city contract at the former Army Base. Ruby found that Brooks and Reid had improperly intervened in the work of staff, circumventing the staffers’ boss, Santana, in an attempt to steer a $2 million contract to Turner Group Construction. Both Reid and Brooks have ties with a high-ranking official in Turner Group, Ken Houston. As for Merriouns, Ruby found that she had repeatedly pressured city staffers to fix her parking tickets.
Despite these findings, censuring Brooks and Reid would no doubt be a messy process. Brooks has long had a reputation for attempting to intimidate people through anger and fear. And both councilmembers maintain that they’ve done nothing wrong, and so would surely argue their cases forcefully during a censure hearing. As of late last week, there also were allegations being tossed around on Twitter that the audit must have been racially biased because the only two councilmembers found to have violated the separation-of-powers law are black.
There’s no evidence, however, that Ruby, who is white, is biased racially or politically. Her audit clearly stated that while there was a “culture of interference” involving several councilmembers, the only allegations that she could substantiate with actual evidence involved Brooks and Reid. Moreover, Ruby is not politically aligned against the two councilmembers. In fact, she historically has had a rocky relationship over the years with their primary political enemy in Oakland — Mayor Jean Quan.
A vote for censure by the council would not result in Brooks or Reid being removed from office, but it would be a public rebuke of their actions. It also would serve as a strong and valuable lesson to other councilmembers who may be tempted to interfere with the work of city staffers and order them around.
In fact, many staffers, according to the audit, view councilmembers as their real “bosses” — not the city administrator. And some staffers declined to be interviewed for the audit because they feared retaliation from councilmembers. Moreover, in Ruby’s annual Ethical Climate Survey, city staffers once again gave elected officials low scores — although they improved slightly in 2012 compared to the two previous years.
In truth, the audit and survey simply affirmed what many Oakland City Hall observers have known for years: Some councilmembers have routinely acted as if they’re de facto mayors or city managers of their council districts, telling city staffers what to do while making sure that their favored projects get top priority.
But that’s not how a good functioning government is supposed to work. Separation-of-powers laws, which are commonplace nationwide, are designed to ensure that councilmembers and legislators make policy, but are not involved in the day-to-day operations of city government. Such laws also are designed to guard against favoritism and the possibility of politicians funneling taxpayer money to cronies or family members — or worse, lining their own pockets.
Oakland, however, has a long history of looking the other way when councilmembers cross the line. Part of the problem has to do with the public’s perception of what a councilmember’s job is. Constituents often expect them to interfere with the work of city staff (rather than consult with the city administrator, as they’re supposed to do) to get things done in their districts. And if councilmembers do not, then they’re viewed as ineffective.
But that type of system leads to abuses — as evidenced by Ruby’s audit and the other investigations of Brooks. And until residents realize that, and stop demanding that their councilmembers fix their particular problems, then the abuses are likely to continue — even if Brooks and Reid are censured.
Time to Go After the Money
The Oakland school board made the right move last week when it voted 4-3 to revoke the charters of the three American Indian Model Schools in the city. A lengthy report by District Superintendent Tony Smith and General Counsel Jacqueline Minor made it clear that the board overseeing the three schools had failed to fix lax regulations that had allowed former schools chief Ben Chavis to steer $3.8 million of taxpayers funds to himself and his wife.
Although the schools can petition both the county and the state for new charter licenses, they don’t appear to have much of a chance at prevailing and so they will likely have to close for good on June 30 — even though they have some of the highest test scores in the state. The reason is that it was the county, specifically Alameda County Superintendent Sheila Jordan, who originally requested the audit that uncovered the financial improprieties. And it was state auditors who conducted the audit.
It also seems unlikely that, before the schools close, the board overseeing the schools will go after Chavis for the millions he steered to himself and his wife. So far, the board has refused to do so. And the Alameda County DA probably won’t do anything for the reasons cited above. As such, it’s time for the Oakland school board to take action and file suit against Chavis. Board president Jody London told me late last week that Minor is looking into the possibility of doing just that.