One year ago, the supporters of a Richmond ballot measure that would have cost Chevron about $16 million a year in taxes were about to host a press conference. Then, suddenly, a band of protesters who witnesses said appeared to be "street people" showed up to disrupt the event. According to one of the witnesses, the protesters said an influential Richmond businessman had sent them. "They told me, 'Joe Fisher's paying us to be here,'" recalled Courtland "Corky" Booze, who was a Richmond city council candidate at the time. "They told me that they were getting $8 an hour to carry signs and protest."
If true, it wasn't the only time that Joe Fisher did a favor for Chevron. Over the years, the Richmond real estate agent has funneled tens of thousands of dollars of Chevron money to the political campaigns of candidates who support the oil giant. Fisher's relationship with Chevron normally wouldn't be all that newsworthy — except for one fact. Last month, he voted to award Chevron a $12.6 million refund on its Contra Costa County property taxes.
Fisher's vote to give Chevron a taxpayer-funded windfall at a time when Contra Costa County is slashing public services is troubling to some East Bay leaders, especially since Fisher did not publically reveal his ties to the oil giant before casting his vote. "It definitely creates an appearance of a conflict of interest," said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who appointed Fisher to the panel that awarded the tax refund. Gioia, who represents Richmond on the county board of supervisors, said he disagreed with the panel's property tax refund decision.
In an interview, Fisher denied that he paid protesters to disrupt the Richmond ballot measure press conference. But he acknowledged his relationship with Chevron. "I have a long history with Chevron," he said, adding that he didn't feel he needed to disclose these ties before his vote because it was no secret. When told that Gioia said he didn't know about it, Fisher replied: "I don't care what John said. They all knew about the relationship."
Fisher's financial links to one of the world's largest oil companies date back to at least 2006. That year, a political campaign committee he runs — the Black American Political Action Committee of Contra Costa County, better known as BAPAC — accepted $50,000 in donations from a committee financed by Chevron known as the "Committee for Quality Government Sponsored by Energy Companies." Fisher's organization, BAPAC, then immediately spent $47,766 of Chevron's money on campaign mailers trying to re-elect then-Mayor Irma Anderson, a Chevron-friendly politician who was facing a tough fight against Green Party candidate Gayle McLaughlin.
At the time, there also was an initiative on the ballot that Chevron strongly opposed. Known as Measure T, the initiative would have cost the oil giant millions each year. McLaughlin supported it on the grounds that Chevron has not adequately paid for the pollution that its refinery spews over the area. Chevron spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defeat the measure, and the company was helped by Mayor Anderson, who campaigned against it. In the end, Chevron defeated Measure T by convincing voters that it also would hurt small businesses. However, McLaughlin beat Anderson in an upset.
Normally, BAPAC's use of Chevron money to support Anderson wouldn't have attracted much interest. After all, the organization was ostensibly started to help elect African Americans and Anderson, who is black, was fighting for her life against a white environmentalist. But campaign finance records show that BAPAC also has a history of supporting non-black candidates who are friendly to Chevron. Fisher is not only the president of BAPAC, but has donated more than $2,400 of his own money to it in the past two years.
In 2008, BAPAC accepted $1,500 from Chevron and then helped the campaigns of Richmond city councilmen John Marquez, who is Latino, and Harpreet Sandhu, who is South Asian. At the time, both of them were known as members of the "Chevron Five" because they were among a group of five councilmembers who approved the oil giant's plans to massively expand its refinery. Both men also opposed a new Measure T, which sought to tax Chevron about $16 million annually and was the initiative that protesters allegedly said they were paid by Fisher to defeat. Ultimately, Marquez and Sandhu lost re-election and the new Measure T was passed in what was widely viewed as a rebuke to the oil giant. Chevron has since sued to overturn the measure and currently it's tied up in the courts.
But as Chevron was fighting Richmond tax measures, it also was seeking a refund on its property taxes. The oil company filed an appeal with the Contra Costa County Assessment Appeals Board, claiming that the assessor had overvalued its Richmond refinery for tax purposes from 2004 through 2006. In 2004, the county assessed the worth of Chevron's property at $2.5 billion, but the oil company claimed it should have been just $600 million. In 2005, the county said it was worth $2.6 billion, while Chevron said it should have been $940 million. And in 2006, the county said it was worth $2.7 billion, and Chevron said it was $1.14 billion.
County assessor Gus Kramer defended the assessments. Their accuracy was of particular importance because Chevron is one of the county's largest landowners, and thus one of the biggest taxpayers. But it was up to the assessment appeals board to decide who was right.
Gioia appointed Fisher to the five-member board in 2006, before Chevron filed its appeal. Then Fisher volunteered for the panel that decided Chevron's request. After numerous hearings, it voted 3-0 in Chevron's favor, ruling that the county had overvalued the company's property by a total of $1.2 billion — or about $400 million a year. As a result, the panel said Chevron deserved a $12.6 million refund.
The decision angered politicians who have stood up to Chevron over the years. "It's a problem when you have a president of an organization that launders tens of thousands of dollars of Chevron money and then ends up voting for Chevron," said Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt, who often opposes the oil giant. Butt said he didn't know Fisher was on the appeals board until after it issued its decision.
Fisher's relationship with Chevron is part of a long unholy alliance between the oil giant and some black politicians. Black leaders who support Chevron have been able to count on the company's money come election time. But Chevron has failed to do all it could to help Richmond's African-American residents, many of whom live downwind from its refinery. When asked why he has maintained a relationship with Chevron over the years, Fisher said it was because the company employs so many workers and is one of the city's biggest taxpayers.
He also denied that this relationship affected his tax vote, although he declined to explain its rationale. "It would be impossible for me to share two years of hearings with you in a few minutes," he said. However, he noted that his panel's assessment was closer to the assessor's than to Chevron's. He also said his panel had attempted to find middle ground.
Chevron also is appealing the county's assessment of its property value for 2007 and 2008. And with the decision by Fisher's panel in hand, the oil giant likely will be up for another huge refund for those years as well. However, it will have to obtain it without Fisher's vote. His term on the assessment appeals board ended on September 3, immediately after his vote for Chevron, and he's not seeking reappointment.
There is no evidence that Fisher broke the law, and he's not in violation of public ethics rules unless he personally took money from Chevron and didn't disclose it. As for Gioia, although he said Fisher "has the reputation of integrity," the county supervisor was clearly unhappy that Fisher did not disclose his ties to Chevron earlier. Gioia said he will work to ensure that members of county panels with decision-making power over public funds disclose similar apparent conflicts of interests.
On a final note, E.R. "Bob" Brooks, who also was on the assessment appeals board and voted with Fisher in Chevron's favor, was unanimously reappointed to the panel by the county board of supervisors earlier this month. Brooks also reportedly plans to run for county assessor against Kramer.