Living Large 

How state Senator Don Perata uses campaign cash to finance his lavish lifestyle. First of two parts.

Page 4 of 6

Kinney said Perata used most of the office supplies to outfit his house, from stationery and pens to computers and other electronic gadgets. The supplies, he said, enabled the senator to write campaign letters and correspond with his donors, constituents, and colleagues from the comfort of his home. "It's all perfectly legal," he said.

It also must be one well-stocked and nicely decorated home office. Over the years, his "office" expenses have included $6,574 at two Oakland art galleries (Barloga et Fils Gallery and Dakot Art); $4,297 at Piedmont Stationers on Piedmont Avenue; $2,679 at Best Buy in Emeryville; $1,201 at CompUSA; $3,259 at fine office products; and $11,773 at Office Depot in Oakland. And then there's the $1,826 in "office supplies" from Montclair Village Wines.

One fact is beyond dispute: The senator supports local businesses from his campaign coffers. From office supplies and wine to restaurants and hotels, he gives meaning to the slogan "Buy Oakland." "He puts his money where his mouth is," said Piedmont Stationers owner Shelly Lowe, who adds that she's a strong supporter of the state senator. "He's a great guy, and a great customer."

The Grand Pooh-Bah

Don Perata also is a great customer at Macy's, Bullock's, and Nordstrom. His total expenditures at the three upscale department stores were $14,747 over the past ten years. Oftentimes he labeled these purchases "gifts." For instance, in October 2004, he charged $5,786 in "staff gifts" at Macy's in Walnut Creek. "He's very generous to people," explained one Sacramento source. "He's the Grand Pooh-Bah. He wants to take care of people."

The Grand Pooh-Bah especially likes to take care of people during the December holidays. In late 2005, he went to the Apple Store in Emeryville and plopped down $3,249 on "holiday gifts for colleagues." In late 2002 alone, he spent $6,669 at Abigail women's apparel on Piedmont Avenue. Though he labeled the expenditures "office supplies," they were probably gifts, because the next year he spent $630 there and labeled it "staff gifts." Why, in any case, would a politician need to buy women's clothing for his office?

Despite his generosity, Perata doesn't always treat staff and fellow legislators to the quality to which he's become accustomed. For example, his favorite place to buy gifts in the past few years has been Target in Albany. Last holiday season, he spent $16,750 at the discount department store, including $10,000 that he labeled "holiday gifts for staff and legislators." In all, he has charged $30,048 in Target purchases to his personal campaign accounts.

For his donors, though, the senator usually spares no expense. In particular, he likes to buy fund-raising gifts from T. Shipley ($2,677), a retailer of fine leather goods. According to one Sacramento source, Perata is fond of handing out $150 pens engraved with his name. In late 2005, he purchased $1,549 worth of Italian ceramics for his contributors at Bella Ceramica on Piedmont Avenue. He charged another $544 for his donors from the upscale Herrington catalogue.

But Perata's real gift-giving extravaganza is the Perata Cup, his annual golf tournament. Like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, he typically arrives with bags full of presents. "The more money they give," explained one source, "the better presents they get."

Based on campaign finance reports, it's not difficult to determine who should get the best presents. Although Perata's list of donors is long and varied, there are a few loyal East Bay contributors whom he can count on to cut checks for at least $5,000, and sometimes as much as $50,000, nearly every time he launches a new campaign committee. They are the true creators of the Grand Pooh-Bah. The top five among them are Ed DeSilva, roadbuilder and developer ($512,500); Ron Cowan, Alameda developer ($210,300); Jim and Michael Ghielmetti, owners of Signature Properties, and Jon Reynolds, owner of Reynolds and Brown, developers of Oak to Ninth, a giant condo project on Oakland's waterfront ($175,800); T. Gary Rogers, chairman and CEO of Dreyer's Ice Cream ($143,500); and billboard owner John Foster ($81,300).

In return, the senator has done right by them. DeSilva, for example, stands to be the biggest Bay Area beneficiary of the $20 billion statewide transportation bond Perata sponsored last year (see Full Disclosure, page 4). As for Cowan, Perata was instrumental in getting a $40 million road — which DeSilva built — constructed between Oakland International Airport and Cowan's flagging business park ("Road to Nowhere," feature, 3/1/06). Foster, meanwhile, made millions after Perata twice carried state legislation that let him erect a series of billboards next to the Oakland Coliseum ("Fishing for Revenues," Full Disclosure, 2/21). Finally, Signature Properties and Reynolds and Brown could gross nearly $2 billion after Perata pushed legislation that let them buy sixty-plus acres of public waterfront property for less than half its likely value ("Oakland Can Do One Hell of a Lot Better," City of Warts, 8/16/06).

In four out of the past six years, meanwhile, Signature Properties has benefited by hosting the Perata Cup at Ruby Hill Golf Club, an exclusive championship golf course and country club the company owns in Pleasanton. Perata uses campaign cash to pay Signature between $17,000 and $35,000 per tournament — the price includes eighteen holes of golf and a banquet dinner at the villa-style clubhouse for his guests. "The strange thing is that he doesn't golf," said a source familiar with the tournaments. "He just drives around in a cart and hands out cigars and golf shirts that say 'Perata Cup' on them." Stranger still is the fact that Perata is using his donors' own money to buy them gifts, dinners, and rounds of golf.

The Ruby Hill tournaments are usually half party, half fund-raiser, the source said. None of the guests pay directly for the golf or the dinner, but out-of-town donors are expected to write checks to one of Perata's campaign accounts. For his most loyal contributors, the ones who have donated heavily to his campaigns, the Perata Cup is just a "big thank-you party," the source explained.

Sometimes, in fact, it appears to be more of a thank-you than a fund-raiser. In October 2003, Perata spent $45,141 on a Ruby Hill event, including gifts and prizes. But his campaign statements show no contributions originating on that day, and none from his usual stable of contributors in either the month before or the month after the tournament. "Are they really events for fund-raising purposes?" asked Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "Or is he just socializing on the campaign's dime?"

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