Why a Politically Connected Firm Lost Its Contract

Thanks to a new political guard in Oakland, the city council ends ABC Security's questionable $2 million-a-year contract with the city.


For more than a decade, ABC Security was a poster child for pay-to-play politics and cronyism at Oakland City Hall. The private security contractor repeatedly received mediocre reviews for its work, and yet it held firmly onto to its $2-million-a-year contract. It was no coincidence that its owner, Ana Chretien, is one of the most generous campaign donors in Oakland, and is close friends with influential city leaders, particularly Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente.

However, when the City Council voted last week to finally kill ABC’s security contract, it represented yet another changing of the political guard in Oakland, following the election last November of Mayor Jean Quan over ex-state Senator Don Perata. Chretien also is friends with Perata and was one of his most faithful campaign donors over the years, so it’s a safe bet that ABC Security would still have its city contract if he had become mayor.

Perata had a long history of taking good care of friends and campaign donors, and was fiercely loyal to De La Fuente. So while the Quan administration had recommended strongly that the City Hall contract be awarded to Cypress Security, because it scored as the highest-rated firm, it seems likely that a Perata administration would have found a way for ABC Security to keep its lucrative deal — even though it rated as only the sixth best of the firms that bid.

Chretien also discovered last week that she can no longer count on De La Fuente’s influence. Things were different back in 2001 when the Port of Oakland appeared poised to award its private security contract to another company because of ABC Security’s less-than-stellar performance. De La Fuente was president of the council at the time, and his last-minute lobbying on Chretien’s behalf was enough to change the port commissioners’ minds.

That move, however, quickly became embarrassing for the port in the days immediately following September 11. Federal authorities back then had threatened to shut down Oakland Airport after they found ABC Security guards asleep while guarding the airport’s fuel farm. A chastened port commission, led by then-Commissioner Phil Tagami, then gave half of ABC Security’s contract to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department despite De La Fuente’s protestations.

In recent weeks, however, De La Fuente was able to keep Chretien’s hopes alive when he muscled her contract through a council committee with the help of Jane Brunner. But then City Auditor Courtney Ruby made things uncomfortable for Chretien’s backers when she announced that ABC Security had apparently violated the city’s campaign laws when it donated $1,800 last year to local politicians while its contract was up for renewal.

Yet even without Ruby’s announcement, Chretien didn’t appear to have the votes to get her contract re-upped. With Perata in retirement and De La Fuente’s influence greatly diminished, it didn’t look as if Chretien could muster the five votes needed. Even if she lured Council President Larry Reid into her camp, it looked as if the best she could get was a 4-4 vote. And if that had happened, Quan was ready to break the tie and vote against her.

It never got that far because Reid voted “no,” too. As a result, the council and the new mayor struck a blow for fairness, and against cronyism.

Ignore the Parcel Tax Poll

Over the past several weeks, Quan has been touting a recent poll as a reason to call for a special election so that voters can weigh in on her parcel-tax plan. The mayor has said the poll provides proof that the $80-a-year parcel tax has a good chance of passing. But this week, Quan turned down public records requests to release the poll, saying it was commissioned by a private party that doesn’t want it made public. Consequently, Oakland councilmembers, who ultimately will decide whether to call a special election, should ignore the poll and its alleged results.

Typically, groups that privately commission polls decide not to make them public if the polls have obvious problems. For example, the poll questions may be worded to produce a desired result — a so-called “push” poll. Or, the poll results may be suspect because the pollster failed to obtain responses from a wide enough group of people.

For example, last fall the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce released a poll showing Perata with a commanding lead in the mayor’s race. However, the poll appeared to be too heavily weighted toward older white voters, because the poll only counted respondents who had voted in all recent elections. Of course, the mayor’s race ended up attracting a huge turnout, including many Asian and Latino voters who hadn’t voted in the last mayoral election, and Quan defeated Perata by about 2,000 votes.

Although there is no way to know for sure whether the parcel tax poll has similar shortcomings, we have no choice but to assume it does. That’s because there appears to be no good reason to keep it secret — unless it’s flawed.

Three-Dot Roundup

Three Oakland councilmembers — De La Fuente, Desley Brooks, and Libby Schaaf — blocked Quan’s attempt last week to call for a special election after the mayor failed to provide enough public notice under the city’s open government law. … Jesus “Chuy” Campos, the beloved owner of Otaez restaurants in Oakland and Alameda, was fatally shot during an apparent robbery. … Cal reinstated its baseball program after alumni raised $9 million, and the university might reinstate men’s gymnastics after donors contributed $2 million to the program. … The Richmond City Council voted to kill the plan for a massive Indian-run casino at Point Molate. … Governor Jerry Brown warned that UC student tuition could double to $20,000 to $25,000 a year if Republicans continue to block his plan for a special election. State Senator Loni Hancock of Berkeley also said that the UC system might have to close some of its campuses unless Brown’s tax measures go before voters. … And Congressional Republicans almost shut down the federal government when they tried to defund Planned Parenthood nationwide and attempted to block the US Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions.