Over the past two years, Chip Johnson has proven himself to be a force to be reckoned with. The San Francisco Chronicle columnist has repeatedly held Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums' feet to the fire, while demanding transparency in local government and an end to political nepotism. He's both made a lot of enemies and won accolades for his bull-dog determination, and it's safe to say he's one of the most feared journalists in the East Bay.
By contrast, Desley Brooks may be the hardest person to like on the Oakland City Council. She fights relentlessly for her constituents, but she's also an abrasive, in-your-face politician who absolutely abhors criticism. In fact, Full Disclosure has yet to meet a journalist covering Oakland city government who hasn't received an irate phone call or e-mail from Brooks after writing a story about her. She's also notorious for demanding corrections and retractions for the most minor of details. This newspaper and this journalist are no exception. In fact, the Express printed a correction about Brooks just last week. We also turned down a request from her to correct a Full Disclosure column last year after the editor determined her demand was unfounded.
So it should come as no surprise that when Brooks sued Johnson and the Chronicle last year for libel, Bay Area journalists responded with a collective, "ho, hum." Brooks' suit garnered some initial headlines, but then was mostly forgotten. However, a closer look at the case, which is currently at a critical juncture in Alameda County Superior Court, reveals that the councilwoman might not have cried wolf after all. In fact, Judge Jon Tigar last week indicated that he was going to deny Johnson and the Chronicle's request to throw out the lawsuit, thereby allowing it to move forward. If he does, Brooks' lawyer says their first move will be to put Johnson under oath and demand to know who his sources were.
Brooks v. San Francisco Chronicle centers on one passage in a column that Johnson penned last summer. The June 24 piece, "Time to Probe Corruption at Oakland City Hall," focused mostly on then-embattled City Administrator Deborah Edgerly, before listing a run-down of alleged wrongdoing in Oakland government and calling on Attorney General Jerry Brown to intervene. (It must be pointed out that Johnson mostly stood on the sidelines during Brown's pay-to-play era at Oakland City Hall and thus it seemed ridiculous last summer for him to call on the former mayor for help when Brown had hired Edgerly in the first place. But that's another story).
Buried in the eighth paragraph of Johnson's June 24 piece was a startling allegation about Brooks — namely that police sources said they had found evidence that the councilwoman received illegal kickbacks of taxpayer funds. Brooks strongly maintains that the statement was a lie and she immediately demanded a retraction. After the Chronicle refused, she sued. It now appears that the Chron should have given her what she wanted and written a correction. Because it looks as if Johnson made a mistake that could prove costly.
It's obvious from court documents that Johnson was referring to allegations about Brooks that first surfaced in 2005. The claim back then was that she had hired her boyfriend's daughter, Christen Tucker, to work in her city council office and then illegally received a portion of Tucker's pay — a kickback. Both the Alameda County District Attorney's Office and the Oakland Public Ethics Commission looked into the allegation, which first came from an anonymous e-mail that had spread around city hall, but no charges were ever filed.
The allegation itself was well-known at the time. Stories appeared in the Chron, the Oakland Tribune, and the Express, focusing particularly on the fact that while Tucker was employed by Brooks, she also was enrolled in classes at Syracuse University in upstate New York, according to university officials. But none of the stories ever stated that authorities actually found evidence Brooks received illegal kickbacks and thus committed a felony.
That is, until Johnson's June 24 column. His passage about Brooks appeared in a list that began with "Police sources say: ... Two years ago, nothing was done when allegations of illegal kickbacks were raised against District Six Councilwoman Desley Brooks, another of Edgerly's allies, after police investigators linked bank deposits made by the mother of one of Brooks' employees to several personal checks for $1,200 written to Brooks (exactly half the employee's paycheck)."
Although the sentence requires multiple readings to comprehend, it's seems that Johnson was claiming that anonymous police sources had told him they were aware of actual proof of an illegal kickback scheme involving Brooks. Namely, that they had discovered that Tucker's mother made bank deposits and that somehow some of that money was transferred to Brooks in the form of personal checks. In short, they said there was actual evidence that the East Oakland councilwoman committed a felony.
The first thing that's strange about this passage, if it's true, is why Johnson buried it in a column about Edgerly. If he had police sources saying they knew of real evidence that an Oakland City Councilwoman took illegal kickbacks, then it should have been a column unto itself. In fact, it's explosive enough that arguably it should have been splashed across the front page (provided that Johnson could come up with some corroborating details). Ask yourself, when was the last time you read a story that police had uncovered actual proof of a local politician committing a felony and they had specifics about it?
The second strange thing is just how specific the passage was. Full Disclosure could find no other story that mentioned the $1,200, or for that matter, any specific dollar amount connected to Brooks, let alone that it was "exactly half the employee's paycheck."
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