The woman can’t recall the exact nature of the meeting, but one thing stands out clearly: Jacques Barzaghi. That afternoon, the man who has been Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown’s trusted adviser for the last thirty years allegedly turned to her during an official city meeting and asked, in his thick French accent, “What color underwear are you wearing?” No one who heard the comment flinched, she says, not even the woman herself. Everyone was already used to Barzaghi and his Pepe le Pew-type ways.
In a roomful of city bureaucrats, Jacques Barzaghi definitely stands out. He is bald, wears only black, and is covered with tattoos — resembling nothing so much as an artsy Jean-Luc Picard. He also has six ex-wives, once lived in an Australian rain forest, and may be the only political adviser in America who also does professional feng shui consulting — the ancient Chinese art of decorating one’s home or office to invite harmony and prosperity.
Also remarkable about Barzaghi, according to one former mayoral staffer, is the extent to which he believes the world revolves around sex. Nor is this sexually charged view of the world confined to his private thoughts. Two other former staffers say Barzaghi’s amorous murmurings permeated the day-to-day workings of the mayor’s office.
For years, no one paid much attention to Barzaghi’s sex-infused blathering — that is, until he met Nereyda Lopez-Bowden. Hired in 2000, Lopez-Bowden was brought on to manage the city’s Office of International Affairs and act as a trade representative to Mexico, her native country. She later alleged that from the moment she was hired, Barzaghi began a campaign to get her into bed. With a lifetime of political service behind him, Barzaghi understood the importance of staying on-message. And that, Lopez-Bowden says, is exactly what he did with her.
Lopez-Bowden was not amused. She was married with three children and really didn’t like enduring Barzaghi’s sexual banter as she went about her business at City Hall. So, she later claimed, she went to an assistant to the mayor to find out what the hell was going on. That woman, who is unnamed in Lopez-Bowden’s legal declaration, allegedly told her Barzaghi was “simply weird” and informed her “the usual practice in the office was to inform prospective employees of Barzaghi’s behavior” before they came on board. Weird or not, Lopez-Bowden decided to make some noise — a lot of noise — and for the first time during his three decades at Jerry Brown’s side, Jacques Barzaghi’s political fortunes took a very public and humiliating nosedive.
City officials investigated her complaint and found other women who said he’d also made inappropriate sexual remarks to them. Barzaghi was suspended for three weeks without pay and sent to counseling. Later, he was demoted from his post as director of the city’s Craft and Cultural Affairs Department to the more amorphous position of senior adviser to the mayor. Several months thereafter, he surrendered his former salary of about $126,000 a year for the reduced annual wage of $89,500 as part of an officewide salary reassessment.
And Barzaghi, after being taken to the woodshed and disappearing from public view for several months, is back at Brown’s side. He regularly shows up at the mayor’s staff meetings, and confers with police department brass, local developers, and school district officials on Brown’s behalf.
Oakland officials from Brown on down insist that the messy, unseemly matter has been taken care of and it’s on to the business of governing. City Attorney John Russo asserts that Barzaghi’s demotion ensures he won’t harass any other women. Because Barzaghi is no longer in a supervisory position, Russo claims that the city has minimal legal risk.
But legal experts say the city’s remedy for curbing the lascivious Frenchman is hardly as neat and tidy as city officials claim. As they see it, Oakland is legally exposed and could potentially face a nasty sexual harassment judgment given Barzaghi’s troubled track record with women at City Hall.
Look for Jerry Brown and it’s likely you’ll find Barzaghi hanging around somewhere. Barzaghi has had a staying power in the political life of Brown equaled by no other insider. The beret-wearing Barzaghi was at Brown’s side when he served as California’s governor for eight years and during his 1992 presidential bid. He’s been a part of Brown’s mayoral team since the mayor first took office in 1999.
Barzaghi brings a spiritual, artsy, almost whacked-out spin to government. He’s worked with poets, actors, and filmmakers. He once encouraged the governor to bring a Sufi choir to an official prayer breakfast, a move that was later ridiculed in the press. Perhaps his most famous touch was encouraging Brown to eschew the governor’s mansion in Sacramento and live like a monk in an apartment furnished with a used mattress and old towels from a state hospital.
“Without that creative approach, government tends to reproduce itself in an unimaginative, pedestrian way,” Brown explains. “Jacques is a catalytic element in the mix of advisers I have. I understand he’s not everybody’s favorite person, but he’s quite remarkable.”
The loyalty between Barzaghi and Brown runs very deep. It’s a brotherly, almost familial kind of connection that is rare in an arena in which alliances frequently shift and change according to the latest polls, news, or elections. Up until recently, when the mayor moved in with his longtime girlfriend, Barzaghi and his latest wife and child were roommates with Brown at his now-famous We the People loft in Oakland. Now both 64, the two met at a party in the early ’70s while Brown was secretary of state. As the story goes, the men were deep in conversation when Barzaghi asked Brown when the secretary of state was coming — not realizing he was already talking to him. Barzaghi, who was then working on a documentary about Native Americans, spent much of the evening sternly lecturing Brown about the plight of American Indians. His lack of deference to Brown’s power, insiders say, was the key to their connection.
“Jerry hates yes men,” says Bill Biamonte, a longtime friend of Brown’s who was active in his 1992 presidential campaign. “Jacques challenges him.”
Barzaghi was an unusual man with a sad past. He grew up in the village of Beausoleil in southern France, and his parents abandoned him to his maternal grandmother soon after they divorced. Life with his grandmother was marked by abject poverty in which Barzaghi often went hungry, according to Roger Rapoport, author of the book California Dreaming: The Political Odyssey of Pat and Jerry Brown. “He had a painful and lonely childhood,” Rapoport says.
As a young man he joined the French army and served in Algeria where he took up arms and tended camels between 1958 and 1960. From there, he studied acting in Paris and eventually got into filmmaking.
His trouble with women has a long history dating back to France, where he created a public scandal by romancing a celebrated movie star’s fifteen-year-old daughter. He met the girl, Tanya Krajewsky, daughter of the American-born French film star Eddie Constantine, at her home where he went to visit with a friend in the early 1960s. She ultimately became his first wife.
Several years after they married, the couple took off to explore the United States. During a visit to New York, Rapoport says, Barzaghi met a drunk in the men’s room at Kennedy Airport who handed him a bottle of whiskey. The gift was to be a landmark event in his life.
“When he drank this whiskey, he decided he was in paradise and wanted to stay in the United States,” says Rapoport, who traveled extensively with Brown and Barzaghi in the early ’80s. “He remembered being hungry as a kid in France. He thought of this as a transforming experience.”
Barzaghi and his wife moved to California and started working in the film industry. The pair rented a home with another married couple and, before long, Barzaghi was involved with the other woman. Barzaghi and his wife divorced a year later, but the bald Frenchman remained good friends with the man whose wife he stole, according to a 1992 story in The Washington Post. Over the years, Barzaghi would go on to sire seven different children with a number of women.
Barzaghi met Brown in the early 1970s, just as his visa was about to expire. Brown intervened and helped Barzaghi obtain a green card by writing to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Frenchman left a deep impression on Brown, who got him a job as a clerical trainee in the secretary of state’s office. Barzaghi also began working on Brown’s gubernatorial campaign.
Once Brown was elected governor in 1974, Barzaghi became his cabinet secretary — and one of the most powerful men in Sacramento. Although he had no political background whatsoever, he was the governor’s eyes and ears in office. He even got a concealed-weapons permit so that he could carry a gun to help protect his boss — a status he reacquired once Brown became mayor of Oakland. His frequent conflicts with Gray Davis, who was Brown’s chief of staff at the time, were legendary. Barzaghi developed what The Washington Post called an “uncanny ability to make bureaucratic end runs around … the Machiavellian Gray Davis.”
Barzaghi also became Brown’s manservant; an aide for whom no task was too onerous. “There is not anything Jacques won’t do for Jerry,” Rapoport says. Barzaghi acted as Brown’s chauffeur and helped him shop for clothes, decorate his home, monitor his food intake, and interview prospective employees for the governor’s office. As someone who prides himself on having outstanding taste in everything from clothing to home furnishings, Barzaghi reportedly critiqued both male and female administration staffers on their appearance and sense of style. And his interviews were as legendarily offbeat as the man himself, focusing on things such as the job prospect’s taste in luggage.
“This is tricky, and it’s not going to come out right,” one of Barzaghi’s ex-wives once told a Washington Post reporter, “but Jacques is like Jerry’s wife.”
Poll those who’ve worked with Barzaghi through the years and you’re as likely to find supporters as detractors. His critics say he is arrogant, ridiculous, and beyond-the-pale offensive when it comes to the opposite sex. “Jacques is way beyond normal outrageousness,” says one former colleague from Brown’s days as governor. “Part of that involves his treating women in a very hostile way. This is not somebody who’s borderline. He is a flaming sexual predator. … In staff meetings, he used to say things like, ‘What use are women?'”
Barzaghi’s admirers, meanwhile, describe him as brilliant, funny, and quite astute. Perhaps his most notable contribution to Brown’s efforts as governor was helping Brown set up the California Arts Council, a statewide group that encourages cultural development efforts through artist-in-residence programs in schools, hospitals, and prisons. Barzaghi drafted Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, actor Peter Coyote, and filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola to the board.
Over time, Barzaghi also has come to be seen as a kooky but brilliant political strategist. John Betterton, a former chief aide to Mayor Brown who now works for the Port of Oakland, recalls a time when he was in the mayor’s office after a young Oakland child was slain. Some of the mayor’s staffers were encouraging Brown to attend the funeral. Barzaghi, however, cautioned that the parents themselves may have killed the child and the mayor shouldn’t get involved until the homicide was solved. Barzaghi, it turns out, was right: The murderers turned out to be the child’s own parents. “He’s got uncommon, good smarts,” Betterton says.
The lean and intense aide, who introduced Brown to the practice of Zen meditation, also gained a reputation as a kind of funky guru who was masterful at using the pregnant silence. “Jacques would often sit there and not say anything,” Rapoport recalls. “Then he would disappear. He was always there. He’s the sidekick. Jacques is very articulate and kind of like a one-man brain trust.”
Years ago, Barzaghi was evidently given a nickname by a Zen master with whom he studied. One former City Hall associate says the name sums the man up perfectly. In Japanese, the word is “kiku,” which means “he who is constantly surprising, like the sharp corner of a table.”
Even as Brown’s political star ascended higher and higher, Barzaghi remained unrepentant about just how different he was from other politicos. His sense of decorum as to just what should be said to whom is, at best, off-kilter. Once, after being assigned to report on conditions in the California penal system, Barzaghi announced, “We are all prisoners.” And during Brown’s quixotic 1992 presidential bid, he told a New York Times reporter that the effort was not disorganized, it simply “transcends understanding.”
But being made fun of by reporters never did trouble Barzaghi. “The thing about Jacques is, unlike everybody else, he never seemed to be worried about what people thought,” Rapoport says. “He wasn’t a poll-driven person.”
Barzaghi certainly didn’t seem too worked up about this story. He failed to return numerous phone calls from this newspaper. One of his friends called the paper to report that Barzaghi planned on ignoring the story altogether. “He told me he wasn’t going to participate in your story and he wasn’t ever going to read it,” Betterton says.
Despite Barzaghi’s public silence on the harassment matter, his City Hall shenanigans reportedly created big problems between him and Brown. Insiders say that while the mayor is reluctant to publicly discuss his friend’s indiscretions, privately the mayor “took Barzaghi to the woodshed” over the ordeal. “Jerry Brown,” recalls one former colleague from Brown’s days as governor, “can be a very cold Jesuit.”
Lopez-Bowden was an unlikely character to have brought such trouble to Barzaghi’s career. After all, the 32-year-old woman had a big problem herself. According to city officials, she apparently lied on the résumé she submitted to the city, erroneously claiming she graduated from law school, among other things. Her attorney, Mike Meadows, calls it an “error.” “This issue is a red herring and it wouldn’t have made one bit of difference and was irrelevant to her case,” Meadows says. “This is what happens when you make allegations of sexual harassment against highly placed officials.”
Meadows suggests that Lopez-Bowden’s appearance was an issue from the moment Jacques interviewed her for her job. “She was hired because she was attractive,” he says. Her looks apparently remained an issue throughout her brief career with the city. Lopez-Bowden testified in a legal declaration that Barzaghi had her office moved from the eleventh floor to the third just so she’d be closer to him. She claimed he often glared at her, told her she was beautiful, and one day summoned her to his office simply to declare, “I want you.” The harassment culminated, she alleged, during an official trade trip to Mexico where he proclaimed that he wanted to bite her neck. When she protested, he became quite clear about his intentions, she alleged. “You and I should just fuck,” Barzaghi allegedly said.
Back home in Oakland, Lopez-Bowden says she complained to two city officials: Mayor Brown, who allegedly told her to back down and stop “undermining his position,” and Assistant City Manager George Musgrove, who told her to “not wear out her welcome” at City Hall. Brown denies he ever discouraged Lopez-Bowden in any way and says he passed on her complaints to the appropriate people. “I handed it over to Robert Bobb and he handled it appropriately,” Brown says. Musgrove did not return this newspaper’s phone calls.
Clearly, Lopez-Bowden would have been easy to discredit in court. But the matter didn’t get that far. Instead, she left her job and the city paid her $50,000 to settle her claim in early 2001, just three months after she’d started at City Hall. She has since moved to Arizona, and could not be reached for this story.
The settlement didn’t end Barzaghi’s sexual harassment problems. Prior to settling the case, the city brought in an outside attorney who specializes in the subject to investigate Barzaghi’s dealings with women at City Hall. That lawyer interviewed nineteen women who’d worked with the Frenchman. The results of that inquiry probably would have remained confidential had not the Oakland Tribune stepped in to fight the decision that left the investigation closed to public scrutiny.
“Essentially, we’d heard Barzaghi had been accused of harassment and we were trying to get information about the details,” says Tribune editor Mario Dianda. “What we wanted to find out was what happened, and how did the city enforce this zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment in City Hall. … We knew he’d been disciplined but John Russo wouldn’t tell us any details.”
Russo himself was in an uncomfortable position. His own wife once had been an editor at the Tribune who had sued and settled a sexual harassment case against the paper years earlier. Now, he was on the other end of the stick, essentially defending the rights of someone who’d been accused of harassment. The city had ruled that nearly everything related to the matter, including what kind of discipline was imposed on Barzaghi, was off-limits to City Hall reporters. Russo contended that he was prevented from releasing any information because of Barzaghi’s right to privacy. Tribune officials weren’t persuaded. “This is a very influential person, essentially Jerry Brown’s right-hand man, with a lot of influence,” Dianda points out. “If he was allowed to go around harassing women and wasn’t being disciplined, the public had a right to know.”
The Tribune prevailed in court and wrested the most important information out of the city. It got a confidential memo from City Manager Robert Bobb to Barzaghi outlining the nature of the allegations against him, the results of the city’s confidential inquiry, and exactly what kind of discipline was to be meted out. Although written in dull bureaucratese, the essence of the memo was stunning. City officials had learned through the investigation that the mayor’s closest aide had harassed a number of women during his employ. “The results of the investigation show that you acted in an inappropriate manner in your workplace in violation of city policy,” Bobb wrote Barzaghi. “You exercised very poor judgment in your interaction with several female employees.”
The punishment included a three-week suspension without pay, mandatory “attitudinal counseling,” and attendance in sexual harassment training workshops. It also required Barzaghi to avoid all one-on-one contact with women in City Hall and to limit his dealings to three named female employees. The last two requirements had a sunset provision and were only temporary while the city finished investigating the matter. Bobb and Russo had concluded that, although the victim in the matter was hardly flawless, some of her allegations about Barzaghi were accurate.
The Tribune failed, however, to get the actual records of the investigation in which the nineteen women were interviewed. The city argued that its release would violate the women’s right to privacy, since many of them still worked at City Hall. The Tribune, meanwhile, asked for a redacted version of the report and promised to not release any details that would identify them. A lower court ruled in the city’s favor and the Tribune appealed. But the issue was never resolved because the paper’s lawyer missed a critical deadline and the whole issue was thrown out of court.
One aspect of Barzaghi’s discipline not discussed in the memo was his demotion from codirector of the Craft & Cultural Affairs Department to senior adviser to the mayor. He was demoted, Russo says, so he wouldn’t be in a supervisory position and able to harass other women. “He can’t say who’s fired or who stays and he doesn’t do reviews, which substantially improves the city’s position against legal claims,” Russo says. Brown, meanwhile, insists that Barzaghi’s new job is unrelated to the sexual harassment fiasco.
Another matter of debate is whether Barzaghi’s indiscretions should have gotten him fired. Under state law, the bar is set very high for proving sexual harassment and the perpetrator’s behavior must be severe, unwanted, and pervasive. If, as Russo and Brown assert, no woman had ever before complained about Barzaghi, it’s unlikely his conduct ever reached that threshold. However, Barzaghi’s behavior certainly violated the city’s own “zero- tolerance” policy, which prohibits all sexual harassment and includes a range of disciplinary options.
Under the city’s policy, offenders are to be disciplined in a way that ends the harassing or discriminatory conduct and deters others from doing the same. Remedial action may include discipline and possible termination depending on the “nature, frequency, and severity of the conduct.” The policy leaves open just what is meant by “severe” and does not spell out whether “frequent” is once a day or once an hour. Whether Barzaghi’s discipline was sufficient under this policy may never be known outside City Hall, given that the details of the investigation remain confidential.
His aides’ travails are a tough subject for Mayor Jerry Brown. He discusses the topic in a way that makes it clear he’s not eager to dissect it too thoroughly. “The city manager said he violated city policy and showed poor judgment,” Brown says. “He did that. Most of this was banter. There’s a huge gap between what Jacques did and some irredeemable offense that requires termination.”
But probe Brown for details and he gets a little steamed. He believes his friend’s career was railroaded by a liar. “I thought there were serious credibility problems with her. … Our investigators contacted the university in Mexico where she said she got a law degree and they had no record of her attending the school or ever getting a law degree,” he says. “That really undermines a person’s credibility when they put on a résumé something that isn’t true.”
As to the other women who came forward to complain about Barzaghi, Brown simply states, “I don’t believe that’s true. … There are different sides to the story.” Without question, the mayor insists that he has never, ever heard his old pal being sexually inappropriate. But such conversations certainly occurred in his office, Brown says. “I’ve heard sexual comments in the office by some of the women who were interviewed.”
Although Brown and Russo assert that the city’s Barzaghi mess has been tidied up, several outside legal experts believe Oakland remains legally vulnerable.
Linda Krieger, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law who specializes in sexual harassment, insists that Barzaghi’s career downgrade does little to limit the city’s liability.
“The notion that somebody has to be a supervisor to create liability is wrong under state and federal law,” she explains. “Under California and federal law, any employer can be held liable for a hostile work environment created by anybody in the workplace.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if the offender is a janitor or the mayor: A city has an obligation to protect its employees from harassment.
“The city’s obligation once it’s aware of the situation is to take effective remedial action,” concurs University of California, Los Angeles law professor Chris Littleton. “What is effective is determined by the circumstances. The city could be liable in the harassment of a co-worker if it hasn’t taken steps to create a harassment-free workplace.”
Lopez-Bowden’s attorney, a man with an impressive track record of multimillion-dollar settlements and verdicts, insists that the city is vulnerable. “All I can say is legally if the city doesn’t do something to separate him and prevent him from harassing women, it can be deemed ratification, which means the city’s gone along, accepted, and essentially approved what he was doing,” Meadows explains. “The extent of the city’s liability worsens with each successive incident. … The people who are protecting Barzaghi are asking to get clobbered with some large, punitive-damage award.”
Barzaghi still can be found lurking wherever Mayor Brown happens to be. At a recent antiwar event at his We the People loft, he was spotted in his trademark all-black outfit, sitting on the sidelines in a straight-backed, yoga-style position, rocking back and forth, fingering worry beads. He sat quietly, then disappeared.