Throughout the early part of the decade, no lobbyist could match Lily Hu's influence with Oakland city officials. Developers of huge, controversial housing projects, from Leona Quarry and Forest City to Oak to Ninth, hired Hu and then watched their plans sail through City Hall. But then Hu was ensnared in the federal corruption probe of her former boss, state Senator Don Perata, and her political juice seemed to dry up.
Hu has landed only one new lobbying client in Oakland in the past three years, according to city records. But that doesn't mean the corridors of City Hall are now devoid of lobbyists shilling for major housing developments. On the contrary, a new Lily Hu has emerged in Oakland in the past year — Carlos Plazola, former chief of staff of City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente.
Over the past several months, Plazola has registered himself as the official lobbyist for five housing developers, including the two most controversial proposed projects in the city — the 42-story condo tower on Lake Merritt known as Emerald Views and an 810-unit development known as the Fruitvale Gateway Community Development Project.
In an interview last week, Plazola said he does not view himself as a traditional lobbyist who roams the halls of power, buttonholing politicians for votes. He said the company he owns, Terra Linda Development Services, specializes in gathering community support for housing developments and helping clients navigate the city's permitting process. One of his partners is Laura Blair, formerly a lawyer in the office of City Attorney John Russo.
Plazola said he believes developers hire Terra Linda because of his and Blair's knowledge of the city and land-use law — not because of his tight relationship with De La Fuente or their Oakland government connections. "I think people come to me because I offer an expertise they find invaluable," the 39-year-old said.
It's also invaluable for a developer to employ a lobbyist with access to power, and none seems to possess more right now than Plazola. The former council aide not only has enjoyed a long friendship with De La Fuente, but also with city Councilwoman Pat Kernighan.
It's also true that once a development sews up De La Fuente's support, it is on its way to city approval. The longtime council president continues to wield considerable influence over a majority of his council colleagues, who ultimately will decide the fate of the projects Plazola is lobbying for.
Despite his claim that he does not lobby politicians for votes, Plazola has contacted council members directly to tout the benefits of his clients' plans. According to lobbying records that he filed with the city in September, he contacted Kernighan for the Emerald Views project and both De La Fuente and Kernighan on behalf of the Fruitvale Gateway project, along with Mayor Ron Dellums, and planning commissioners Douglas Boxer, Michael Colbruno, Michael Lighty, and Madeleine Zayas-Mart.
Plazola said he was merely providing "information" to the politicians. When asked whether he also provided information about the developments' drawbacks and why they have spurred such vocal opposition, he responded: "If they ask."
But Plazola hasn't always been known to disclose the entire truth about his projects. In 2006, he resigned from his job with De La Fuente after the council president said he had not disclosed a possible conflict of interest involving Oakland waterfront property. The issue was embarrassing to De La Fuente because he and Plazola had been trying to rezone a section of the city's waterfront near the High Street Bridge from industrial to housing. Plazola had not disclosed, however, that he owned property in this so-called Tidewater neighborhood with Hu and De La Fuente's close friends Port Commission President Anthony Batarse Jr. and Ana Chretien, owner of ABC Security. Plazola also did not disclose that if the rezoning went through, the value of the land he owned would skyrocket.
When then-Express columnist Will Harper confronted Plazola and told him he was writing about the apparent conflict, Plazola attempted to talk him out of it, expressing concerns that the story could cost him his job, Harper said. Sure enough, Plazola was out of a job less than two months after the story appeared (see "Carlito's Play," 7/5/06), but he maintained that he had resigned voluntarily to work on his real estate "investments."
Spin, of course, is the stock and trade of a lobbyist, and in his new gig, Plazola also has exhibited a talent for political theater and hardball politics.
In the Emerald Views project, for example, Plazola's client, developer David O'Keeffe, convinced members of an East Oakland boxing gym to attend an hours-long planning commission meeting on a Wednesday night in late November to support his luxury condo tower — even though it would be several miles from their homes. A source later revealed that O'Keeffe promised to rebuild the boxing gym if the condo tower got approved (see "Friends in High Places," 12/12/07).
Plazola told Full Disclosure that he did not convince the East Oakland residents, including young children, to get on a bus and travel across town for the planning meeting and then speak out publicly in support of the condo tower. "They did that on their own," he said. He did, however, acknowledge introducing O'Keeffe to the East Oakland residents.
Plazola also played a role in an obvious attempt to silence opposition to Fruitvale Gateway. His client, the developer of Fruitvale Gateway, was angry at Oakland school board President David Kakishiba, because his nonprofit agency was listed on a flier urging Fruitvale area students and their parents to oppose the development. Although there was no evidence that Kakishiba was involved with the flier, developer Jill Worsley and two parents filed an ethics complaint against him, alleging that he used his position as a school board member to coerce district staffers into sending the fliers home with children.
The school district immediately launched an investigation, and quickly discovered that Kakishiba had done no such thing, and wasn't involved in making the fliers. In fact, the fliers were not even sent home with kids, but handed out by volunteers on the sidewalk in front of schools. Moreover, according to the investigative report, which completely exonerated Kakishiba, investigators couldn't even reach Worsley to discuss the basis of her charges. She didn't return two phone calls for this story either.
But investigators had no trouble contacting Plazola — in fact, he called them. According to the investigative report, Plazola repeated the assertion that Kakishiba's nonprofit had pressured school staffers to distribute the fliers, but again, the investigators said they could not corroborate his claims. Plazola believes the investigation was a whitewash and he told Full Disclosure he called the investigators as a concerned parent — and not on behalf of his employer. However, according to the report, Plazola also identified himself to the lead investigator as a "consultant" to Worsley's son, Randall Whitney, and the Fruitvale Gateway project. Ironically, Plazola also failed to disclose that he once asked Oakland schools to distribute a flier on behalf of the project, according to a knowledgeable source.
Plazola is nothing if not a man with chutzpah. After the ethics complaint was filed, Kakishiba said, Plazola and Whitney met with him and sought his support for their housing development — even while maintaining that Worsley's charges were "legitimate." After Kakishiba refused to help, and after a story about the ethics complaint appeared in the Oakland Tribune, Plazola became enraged and left an angry phone message on Kakishiba's phone, the board president said. "You can't be trusted," the quick-tempered Plazola said, according to Kakishiba. "You fed this to the press."
Kakishiba said he found the whole thing strange. "I just thought it was loony tunes — that I would plant a story to denigrate myself with my picture in the paper."
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