Trying to prove that its rivals cheated in the November 2002 election, a local landlord group has been feeding some fishy internal documents concerning a troubled tenants' rights organization to Oakland's public ethics commission. The documents show that employees for a city-funded social-justice charity, PUEBLO -- acronym for People United for a Better Oakland -- actively campaigned on company time that fall. How the landlords got the documents is an amusing story.
Last October, amid the fallout from fiscal meltdown caused by mismanagement and possible embezzlement, PUEBLO was behind on its rent and in the process of moving. During the move, the nonprofit left behind some of its old computers, which the landlord put up for sale, ostensibly to recoup his dough. When Wayne Rowland, president of the Rental Housing Association of Northern Alameda County, discovered that his rivals' office computers were being liquidated, he snapped them up. Rowland and his cohorts mined the computers and turned over what they considered incriminating documents to the ethics commission and the city auditor. The lesson here, says Steve Edrington, the RHA's executive director, is "Don't discard your old computer."
PUEBLO spokeswoman Rashidah Grinage says the group didn't intend to discard the computers. The group had left behind other computers for the landlord, Osman Ma, as partial compensation for unpaid rent, Grinage says. But she claims a PUEBLO rep had worked out a temporary deal with Ma to store three computers and other office items, which the charity planned to retrieve once it settled into its new office. Finding a space, however, took a month longer than expected, and by the time PUEBLO officials went back for their stuff, only one remained. "We've been victimized in so many ways by so many people," Grinage lamented.
Efforts to reach Ma were unsuccessful. Rowland and Edrington, however, insist they got the computers legitimately.
The feud between the Rental Housing Association and PUEBLO dates back before November 2002, when a PUEBLO affiliate backed Measure EE, the "just cause" for eviction ordinance that passed with a slim majority. The landlords suspected that PUEBLO -- a charity subject to strict limitations on political activities -- secretly subsidized the Yes-on-EE campaign and maybe even diverted city grant money intended for youth programs. Last August, Edrington filed a complaint with the ethics commission against the Measure EE campaign, which alleged the campaign had improperly underreported its contributions and expenses, conveniently omitting, for instance, mention of resources and time supplied by PUEBLO and its staff. An ethics commission investigation found that the campaign low-balled its numbers, and possibly failed to account for the in-kind services of a moonlighting PUEBLO organizer.
As for the more serious issue of whether PUEBLO used public money for the 2002 campaign -- it received $367,753 between December 2000 and July 2002 -- there appears to be no smoking gun. Dawn Phillips, the charity's executive director during the period in question, adamantly denies taxpayer dollars went to any campaign. City Auditor Roland Smith is still investigating.
The documents discovered by the landlords, however, raise the question of whether PUEBLO broke the rules that limit its ability to engage in political campaigns. The docs include phone-bank scripts, letters requesting endorsements and donations, and campaign fliers. Task calendars refer to campaign-media strategy and precinct walks. A "schools outreach plan" suggests recruitment of campaign foot soldiers from Oakland high schools by setting up presentations in social science classes.
All of these activities involved an electoral election all right, but for the most part not for the anti-eviction measure the landlords so loathed. PUEBLO's employees were working against Measure FF -- Jerry Brown's first attempt at convincing Oakland voters to let him hire lots more cops.
Phillips insisted PUEBLO did nothing wrong by campaigning against FF. While federal law prohibits PUEBLO from backing candidates, Phillips says a charity can work for or against ballot measures so long as the activity doesn't comprise a "substantial part" of its annual budget. She figures that PUEBLO devoted about a third of its resources to the No on FF campaign during the two months leading up to the election. Responds Rowland: "This is over the top; you can't do that much."
The city ethics commission plans to weigh in on the debate at its June meeting.
When Exes Attack
So why is District 2 Oakland City Council frontrunner Pat Kernighan attacking opponent David Kakishiba in her campaign lit? Is it because Kakishiba, a member of the Oakland School Board, is her most formidable competition? Or is it perhaps because Kernighan's campaign consultant, Catherine Lew, happens to be Kakishiba's ex-wife?
Kernighan's four-page glossy mailer devoted a whole page to dissing Kakishiba for presiding over "mismanaged public schools," blaming the school-boarder for the district's lousy grades and shutting down schools to save money. The piece was, to put it politely, misleading. Kakishiba and fellow members of the school district's vestigial tail didn't shut down the schools. That honor belongs to the real boss, state administrator Randy Ward. And Kakishiba was elected after the district's $57 million fiscal meltdown that led to the state takeover. Kakishiba and other District 2 candidates -- who are criticized only in passing -- even called a press conference recently to condemn the mailer. "While I've been working to correct the district's problems and get on with the business of educating our children," the Tribune quoted Kakishiba as saying, "[Kernighan] has been asleep at the wheel."
Okay, but what about the lady who used to be asleep in your bed, man? Are you upset that she's running your opponent's campaign? No, Kakishiba says. Before the race began, Lew ran it by him first to make sure he was cool with it. "I told her to go ahead and do it," he recalls. At the time of their chat, however, Kakishiba wasn't planning to run. Obviously, he changed his mind. Still, the candidate says there's no bad blood. In fact, Lew ran his school board campaign, he says. Guess it's like the mobsters say, sort of: It's just politics, nothing personal.
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