Rockridge Soundwalls

Approval process: Pay to Play

Until she left office, the soundwall approval process was largely in the hands of Councilmember Jane Brunner, who ran unsuccessfully for the office of Oakland City Attorney in the November, 2012 election and not for re-election to her Council seat. Her key role in the soundwall approval process was due to the fact that she still represented District 1 (where the soundwalls would be built) on the City Council, albeit as a lame duck.

Charges of conflict of interest were made by both candidates for City Attorney. Here's what Councilmember Brunner had to say about "Pay to Play" in a September 11, 2012 campaign e-mail regarding her opponent, incumbent City Attorney Barbara Parker:

"My opponent's campaign for City Attorney has received over 28% of her campaign contributions from attorneys at law firms that are receiving contracts from the City of Oakland!

That's 'Pay to Play' and it's wrong!

Outside attorneys who receive contracts from the City Attorney's office are the key financial contributors to my opponent's campaign. In campaign filings, the Appointed City Attorney has disclosed that she received a total of over $34,000 from attorneys at law firms who received more than $8.7 million in outside contracts from the City Attorney's Office in the past three years. That is over 28% of her total campaign contributions, and that doesn't include the campaign contributions that she has received from law firms that she has settled with.

While Oakland faces severe budget shortages, the City Attorney's Office spends over $32 million in taxpayer money. They have 70 employees and 35 attorneys, yet they spent over $6 million last year to contract out their legal work to outside attorneys. And still, they settle cases that should be fought and lose cases that should be won.

Now we see the very attorneys who benefited greatly from these contracts and these settlements contributing to the election campaign of the Appointed City Attorney. For too long attorneys and outside law firms have looked to Oakland as a cash cow - an easy mark for contracts and settlements. As City Attorney, I will dramatically reduce the use of outside law firms. The savings can go to add more police, fix pot holes, or expand after-school programs.

It's time to end 'Pay to Play' in the City Attorney's Office. As City Attorney, I will do just that."

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And here's what Councilmember Brunner had to say about "Pay to Play" in a September 18, 2012 campaign e-mail:

"Despite the protestations of Appointed City Attorney Barbara Parker, the facts remain that the City Attorney's office is actively soliciting donations from law firms she has awarded work to and to law firms that are suing the city.

Unlike every other Department in Oakland City Government, the appointed City Attorney allocates the millions of dollars (over $6 million last year and close to $4 million this year) in outside contracts to law firms with no transparency, no review, and no oversight. In addition the City Attorney recommends lucrative settlements with law firms who are suing the city. To accept money from these sources is, in fact, the essence of 'pay to play.'

Every other significant City contract goes through a public review process and comes to the City Council for approval. The City Attorney's Office refuses to do this. Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks has questioned this practice for more than a year and has demanded that the appointed City Attorney explain her procedure for contracting out. The appointed City Attorney has refused to respond to this request.

So we are left with a situation in which there is no transparency in the awarding of contracts to outside law firms. The appointed City Attorney makes the decision with no public review, no City Council involvement, and no oversight. That's why she is open to the charge of Pay to Play when her campaign receives $35,000 in campaign contributions from the attorneys in law firms that have received millions of dollars of contracts on her say so alone.

You may have seen the Matier and Ross Column in the Chronicle yesterday discussing the appointed City Attorney's conflict of interest in soliciting and taking the maximum in campaign contributions from attorney John Burris and his family. John Burris is suing and threatening to sue Oakland in a variety of cases right now, including seeking to get a federal judge to take over the Oakland Police Force in relation to the Negotiated Settlement Agreement arising from the Rider's case.

If the appointed City Attorney really wanted to address this serious problem, she would bring forward a policy proposal to:

- Establish a transparent public process for awarding contracts to outside law firms.
- Prohibit accepting campaign contributions from the attorneys at outside law firms that receive contracts from the City Attorney's Office or that are suing the City of Oakland.

It's time to end Pay to Play in the City Attorney's Office."

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But as Editor Robert Gammon pointed out in the East Bay Express, June 6-12, 2012,

"...you [Councilmember Brunner] also have received many similar campaign contributions that raise questions about pay-to-play politics.

Records show, for example, that in your campaign for city attorney you have received a total of $1,400 in donations from the owners of B amd B Vehicle Processing, which has long owned the exclusive monopoly contract on towing and storing cars for the City of Oakland. It also should be noted that, during your fifteen years on the city council, you repeatedly voted to extend B and B's contract without putting it out to bid.

You also received $700, the maximum contribution allowed under city law, from Waste Management, which holds the city's garbage-collecting contract that you voted for. You also took a $500 donation from Douglas Parking, which operates city-owned garages. Plus, you received $1,300 from the Oakland First PAC, which is run by Ken Houston of Turner Group Construction, which has vied for a public contract at the old Army Base.

Among your other contributions was a $700 donation from the Tidewater Group, which is co-run by Ana Chretien, owner of ABC Security, which has maintained private security contracts with the city over the past two decades. Tidewater also is co-run by Oakland lobbyist Carlos Plazola, who represents numerous entities that seek special deals from the city. You've also received $700 from lobbyist Lily Hu.

Unfortunately, we don't know more about Plazola and Hu's clients and what they want from the city because you and the council have voted to gut the city's political watchdog - the Public Ethics Commission. It also should be noted that you have voted repeatedly over the years to slash the city attorney's office budget, forcing the office to lay off lawyers, thereby requiring taxpayers to hire expensive outside counsel to defend the city in litigation.

As such, your contention that Barbara Parker has done something untoward while your hands are clean is hypocritical. Moreover, as a longtime city councilmember, if you were truly worried about pay-to-play politics in Oakland, you could have easily introduced legislation to ban contributions from businesses and people who do business with the city. But you haven't."

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And as Mr. Gammon wrote in the East Bay Express article Jane Brunner Has 'Some Brass',

"Last year, several Oakland councilmembers put forward a plan to make the city attorney an appointed position. It was clear at the time that the council intended to keep City Attorney Barbara Parker in her job. Parker has earned a reputation over the years as being both an excellent lawyer and a consummate professional. Councilmembers also knew that one of their colleagues, Councilwoman Jane Brunner, planned to run against Parker if the city attorney remained an elected position. Although Brunner also is a lawyer, she is known better for being a career politician and prodigious fund-raiser.

The conventional wisdom was that Brunner would easily out-raise and out-spend Parker and thus win this year's election. Brunner also made it known that she strongly opposed the proposal to turn the city attorney into an appointed position - knowing that her fellow councilmembers would select Parker over her.

Last November, city voters rejected the council's proposal after opponents argued that such a move would strip voters of their democratic powers. Apparently lost on voters was the fact that councilmembers are their elected representatives who make decisions on their behalf all the time. Also lost was the fact that many cities have made the city attorney's position appointed, realizing that the job is better suited for a nonpartisan legal expert than a politician adept at raising campaign cash.

Sure enough, Brunner ramped up her campaign for city attorney after the election. But then something happened that many people - including Brunner - didn't expect: Parker turned out to be an excellent fund-raiser.

When including last year's campaign finance reports, Parker actually out-raised Brunner - $151,863 to $120,208 - through the most recent reporting period, which ended June 30. So how did Brunner respond when she realized that Parker was beating her at her own game? The longtime North Oakland councilwoman began hurling charges at Parker, alleging that the city attorney was engaging in "pay-to-play" politics because Parker had received campaign donations from attorneys and firms that have done business with the city.

One of those firms is Keker and Van Nest of San Francisco. Jon Streeter, who is one of the firm's partners and is the current president of the California State Bar, rejected the pay-to-play accusation, telling the legal newspaper The Recorder last week that he's backing Parker because Brunner has "no significant experience in legal practice."

Although Brunner has produced no evidence that Parker has provided favors to donors in exchange for campaign donations, the councilwoman has nonetheless continued to make unsubstantiated charges of pay-to-play. How unsubstantiated? Earlier this month, Parker's office noted that, under her command, the city reduced its spending on outside law firms by 40 percent last year. So the lawyers and firms donating money to Parker's campaign don't appear to be getting many favors.

In fact, if they were searching for favors, they should be donating to Brunner. Over the past decade, Brunner and the council have helped make those firms wealthy by repeatedly voting to reduce the number of in-house lawyers in the City Attorney's Office, thereby forcing the city to hire outside law firms to do its legal work.

Brunner's allegations are even more hypocritical because she also has been receiving campaign donations for years from contractors and companies that do business with the city. Records show that in her campaign for city attorney, Brunner has received a total of $2,100 in donations from B and B Vehicle Processing and its owners, who have long held the exclusive monopoly contract on towing and storing cars for the City of Oakland. Brunner also received $700 from Waste Management, which holds the city's garbage-collecting contract. Brunner also received donations totaling $1,100 from Douglas Parking, which has contracts with the city to operate city-owned garages.

Brunner also received a $700 donation from the Tidewater Group, which is co-run by Ana Chretien, owner of ABC Security, which has maintained private security contracts with the city over the past two decades. ABC Security also has donated $700 to Brunner's city attorney campaign. Last year, the Chronicle noted that Brunner voted to reject a recommendation by city staff to hire a new security firm and instead voted to renew ABC Security's contract after receiving a $350 donation from the company.

In other words, Brunner has repeatedly engaged in the pay-to-play politics that she's now criticizing Parker of doing. To quote Bill Clinton in his Democratic National Convention speech, noting the numerous hypocritical statements that GOP Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan made about President Barack Obama's Medicare savings: "It takes some brass to attack a guy for what you did."

Moreover, evidence shows that Brunner has actually engaged in pay-to-play - by voting to award a contract to a donor, ABC Security, that, according to nonpartisan city staffers, didn't deserve it. Not surprisingly, Brunner's hypocritical allegations against Parker have angered several of her council colleagues. "It's amazing to me that Jane has the gall to make this accusation, when Jane has been hitting up developers for contributions for years, even though she runs the council's economic development committee," Councilwoman Pat Kernighan told the Express. "I guess Jane is admitting that she gave favors to all the developers she took money from, and is assuming that anyone else would do the same." "

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This "Pay-to-Play" described by Councilmember Brunner and Robert Gammon refers to conflicts of interest in performing the duties of City Attorney due to campaign contributions for the City Attorney race. The conflict of interest regarding the soundwall approvals lies in the performance of the duties of District 1 City Council seat due to contributions to Ms. Brunner's campaign for City Attorney.

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