When former City Administrator Deborah Edgerly sued the City of Oakland earlier this month, the scandalous claims she made about Mayor Ron Dellums and his wife, Cynthia Dellums, were met with some skepticism. After all, the mayor had fired Edgerly last year amid charges that she was incompetent and had improperly interfered in a police investigation. Plus, it looked as though Edgerly was looking to score a payout from the city after she had failed to land a job in a small town on the East Coast. But Edgerly's lawsuit, and the allegations in it, may have gained a bit of credibility last week when her former top deputy and good friend, Cheryl Thompson, filed her own suit against the city, leveling some of the very same charges against the mayor and his wife.
In a lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court, Thompson, a former assistant city administrator, alleges that she, too, was fired last summer, in part because she said she refused some highly questionable requests by the Dellums administration. Thompson says that in 2008, the mayor's chief of staff David Chai repeatedly asked her to relocate city staff so that Cynthia Dellums could have her own office in City Hall. Cynthia Dellums is an unpaid advisor to the mayor and not an official city employee. Thompson also alleged that Chai repeatedly asked her to help Cynthia Dellums buy furniture and phones for the office she wanted, using taxpayer funds.
In addition, Thompson claims that Chai sought reimbursement last June for the Dellumses trip to South Africa, which Chai paid for. Thompson said Chai asked for a pay raise and bonus of 5 percent to finance his out-of-pocket expenses for the Dellumses' trip. In each instance, Thompson said she refused the requests and lodged protests with elected city officials.
Paul Rose, spokesman for the mayor's office, said Dellums and Chai declined to comment on Thompson's suit. Alex Katz, spokesman for the City Attorney's Office, which defends the city in such litigation, also said his office had no comment and "would respond in court."
In her suit, Edgerly made the same allegation about Chai asking for a 5 percent salary increase and bonus to pay for the Dellumses' South Africa trip. Edgerly said Chai paid for the excursion with his personal credit card. Edgerly also said that Chai and Cynthia Dellums asked that Edgerly provide office space for Mrs. Dellums and use taxpayer funds to buy five computers and desks for the staff she wanted.
Edgerly, however, also made several eye-popping allegations that Thompson did not. For instance, the former city administrator said that Cynthia Dellums directed her to fire three city employees — then-Controller Bill Noland, then-Employment Services Director Aliza Gallo, and city spokeswoman Karen Boyd. Edgerly also said that the mayor's wife wanted her to hire two people who worked on Ron Dellums' 2006 mayoral campaign — Gene Hazzard and Gay Plair Cobb. Edgerly also alleged that Cynthia Dellums wanted the city to pay for her cell phone and for the Dellumses' PG&E bill — presumably because the mayor's wife used her phone in her role as the mayor's advisor and because the Dellumses conduct much of their city work from home.
Although Edgerly and Thompson's close friendship raises questions about whether they coordinated their attacks against the mayor, the fact that two former top city officials are now leveling allegations about unethical conduct likely will make it tougher for him to rebut them. Moreover, the two lawsuits threaten to cloud the rest of Dellums' first term in City Hall and hamper his reelection campaign, should he decide to run again. Dellums' supporters also will have a difficult time pointing to the many ethical problems of ex-state Senator Don Perata, who is seeking to replace Dellums as mayor in 2010, when Dellums himself is now being charged with some of his own.
In addition, Edgerly and Thompson's lawsuits threaten to further fracture Dellums' political coalition of blacks, organized labor, and progressives, because both women are black and both have fought fiercely over the years to protect African-American jobs in city government.
In fact, Thompson alleges in her lawsuit that she also was singled out for retaliation because, she said, she has repeatedly resisted efforts to give Latinos preference over blacks in city hiring. Thompson claims that the office of City Attorney John Russo facilitated her termination last year because she had publicly disagreed with the city attorney's position on Oakland's Equal Access to Services Ordinance and refused to implement it. Thompson claims that Russo's office and members of the city council, particularly Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, wanted to use the ordinance to give preference to bilingual job applicants — specifically, Latino applicants — for positions in which she said being bilingual was not "a bona fide job requirement." The internal City Hall fight in recent years over the Equal Access ordinance and Edgerly and Thompson's refusal to implement it has furthered exposed the racial tensions in Oakland government between blacks and Latinos and the fight over coveted city jobs.
Thompson's allegations against Russo also may make a quick settlement of her claims less likely. In addition to damages, she is demanding that the city award her severance pay that she says Edgerly had promised her before she was fired. Complicating matters further are the allegations that Edgerly also made against the city attorney. Edgerly claims that Russo helped Dellums fire her last year because she had requested that Russo reimburse the city for $4,200 in salary advances that he received. For his part, Russo told the Oakland Tribune last year that he would "never, ever, ever, ever recommend a penny to settle any lawsuit" filed by Edgerly.
And finally, the whole Edgerly-Thompson-Dellums-Russo affair is further muddied by yet another lawsuit against the city. Last week, Scott Valladon, the son of the former Oakland police officers' union chief Bob Valladon, sued the city, Russo, Edgerly, Thompson, and one of Russo's deputies, Vicki Laden, for allegedly releasing his private medical information to the press last summer in violation of the law. The lawsuit raises the uncomfortable possibility that the city will have to defend Edgerly and Thompson in the case — while they are suing the city at the same time — because Scott Valladon sued them in their capacity as city employees. And in yet another twist, Thompson claims in her lawsuit that Russo and Laden sought to retaliate against her in violation of her constitutional rights by falsely blaming her for leaking Scott Valladon's private medical information.
The controversy stems from a July 29, 2008, KGO-TV news story about the attempts of Scott Valladon to graduate from the Oakland police academy and join the force. The story quoted a letter from an Oakland physician who said that the younger Valladon "will not be able to perform essential job functions" because of his history of seizures. The letter apparently was part of Scott Valladon's medical file.
In a separate letter from around the same time, Laden accused Thompson of being KGO's source, noting that Thompson had been one of just two recipients of an e-mail that Laden had sent questioning Scott Valladon's fitness to be a police officer. City Hall insiders also suspected Thompson or Edgerly, or both, had leaked the information in an attempt to discredit Bob Valladon and the police department because department officials had accused Edgerly of not only interfering in a police investigation involving her nephew, but also of possibly tipping him off about the police bust of a gang of which he allegedly was a member.
It's apparent from Scott Valladon's lawsuit, which he filed on his own behalf, that he doesn't know who leaked his medical file. As for Thompson, she only says that she didn't do it. But regardless of who is responsible, the next twelve months promise to be a very messy time inside City Hall, and another difficult period for Ron Dellums.
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