Oakland City Attorney John Russo merits enough love around his 'hood to have a Parkway Theater sandwich named after him. And why not? He's a progressive politician in a land of like-minded liberals. But Russo the man, not the sandwich, acts like a guy with a little too much spicy mustard under his collar -- a hothead.
The native New Yorker's short fuse has become apparent in recent weeks over a couple of different matters. The first involves the latest chapter in Russo's ongoing feud with Bob Valladon, president of the Oakland Police Officers' Association. After a second jury failed last month to convict a band of allegedly rogue Oakland cops known as the Riders, Valladon used the opportunity to publicly bash Russo in the media, claiming the city attorney's $10.9 million settlement of the Riders civil suit against the city two years ago had been premature. Russo took the bait and lashed out at Valladon in The Recorder, a legal newspaper: "I got a deal to make with Bob Valladon, since he regularly decides to comment on my lawyering. If [he] will agree to stop commenting on my lawyering, I'll agree to stop commenting on his watching baseball games on the public dime." The next day, KTVU News ran a story showing Valladon "working" overtime at an A's game, sitting in a bar drinking bottled water. After the story aired, City Hall denizens naturally speculated that Russo had leaked the story.
Also trying Russo's patience is Clinton Killian, the ex-planning commissioner running against him for the 16th district Assembly seat. Earlier this month, Killian issued a press release suggesting Russo was trying to leverage his position as city attorney to win an early endorsement from OakPAC, the campaign committee for the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The press release said four of the six OakPAC board members, who would vote on the PAC's endorsement, have millions of dollars of contracts with the city under review by Russo's office. To avoid a conflict of interest, Killian said Russo should recuse himself from reviewing those contracts. "I have asked John Russo to join me in ending politics-as-usual in Oakland," he wrote in the release.
Actually, Killian's ploy sounds exactly like politics as usual -- making a charge without offering any details to back it up. (In an interview, he refused to name the OakPAC board members with pending city contracts.) But an experienced pol like Russo should have easily deflected the attack without any further bloodshed. Instead, he left a peculiar voicemail for Feeder in which he began by saying he had no comment. He then spent another minute not commenting, insisting he had no conflict of interest. For good measure, he threatened repercussions should Feeder write anything about Killian's accusations: "That would be disappointing and would certainly make me feel certain ways about working with you on stories if you're gonna go to press with something that has no basis in fact or in law."
Well, John, your noncomment made Feeder feel "certain ways" too -- like he just finished eating a rotten Russo sandwich.
The abovementioned story by KTVU political editor Randy Shandobil certainly heated tempers around City Hall: The package focused on abuse of police overtime and called out Valladon personally for billing extra while sitting on his ass. But Valladon wasn't the only one pissed about the piece, which led city auditor Roland Smith to seek a grand jury investigation of overtime abuse by police union heavies. Gil Duran, Mayor Jerry Brown's flak-catcher, also groused about how the story portrayed his boss, who came out looking like Valladon's bitch.
Near the end of the damning report, Shandobil reveals that Brown refused to comment for the story. He then interviews former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara, now at Stanford's Hoover Institute, who points out that Brown is running for attorney general and needs the backing of law enforcement.
Duran says the mayor didn't comment because Shandobil and his behind-the-camera cohort, special-projects editor Roland De Wolk, wanted to "blindside" Brown. In negotiating for an interview with the mayor, Duran says, De Wolk asked to talk to Brown only about police overtime, and never mentioned Valladon's name. Only on the day of the interview, Duran says, did he discover from the police department's press officer that the producers planned to spring the footage of Valladon lounging at the A's game and ask for the mayor's comment. Duran says he canceled the interview because he felt De Wolk wasn't being straight with him.
Not true, De Wolk says, adding that he spent a week negotiating with Duran to get an interview with the mayor and told him "just about everything" -- that KTVU was doing a story on overtime in general and Valladon in particular. De Wolk concedes he didn't mention the videotape, for fear the mayor's office would tip off Valladon and spoil KTVU's chances of scoring an interview with the union boss. In any event, De Wolk says KTVU News wouldn't set out to ambush the mayor. "It is so not our style," he reasons, adding that after seeing the videotape, "Jerry could have commented or not. I would have worked with him."
While gabbing with Feeder, Duran and De Wolk couldn't contain their mutual contempt. Each called the other a liar and criticized his foe's job performance. Duran, a former San Jose Mercury News reporter, sniffed, "Journalistically speaking, it's a weak piece. It implies [things], but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered." During their talks, De Wolk, a thirty-year news veteran, says Duran lectured him and boasted about having been a "real" newspaper reporter. "This kid got his one byline ... for covering some piddly-ass fire," De Wolk sneered. (Actually, Duran, who also has contributed to the Express on occasion, wrote more than one hundred stories for the Merc unrelated to the piddly-ass fire.)
De Wolk, meanwhile, argues that Duran screwed up the story for his boss, making Jerry look cowardly. The mayor just as easily could have used the opportunity to score political points by being concerned about overtime abuse, the producer says. He concluded by suggesting that Brown, who has burned through a few press aides during his mayoral tenure, should find one "who works for him and not against him."
No Soup for You!
In spite of Mayor Jerry's insistence that his wedding last weekend at the Rotunda building wasn't a publicity stunt for his attorney general campaign, the caste system his office created for the event suggests otherwise. Feeder didn't get an invite, but then a snarky columnist from the local alt-weekly is hardly a big "get." Feeder's spies at the wedding, though, say that other local reporters weren't exactly treated like swells. While the mayor's peeps allowed CNN to roam the second-floor balcony with the real guests, the ink-stained masses were confined to the third floor to mingle amongst themselves for almost four hours without food or drink before being allowed to snack on the hors d'oeuvres as the event wound down. The wedding hosts failed even to provide enough seats for the observers, forcing some reporters, including a very pregnant one, to sit on the floor. A sentry even guarded the stairwell to ensure that none of the peasants tried to sneak downstairs and accost the guests, or the sushi. The lack of foodstuffs, however, didn't impair the objectivity of the Chron, which ran a forty-column-inch blow job on the nuptials the following day. Memo to the mainstream: Now that the wedding is over, perhaps the honeymoon-style coverage can end too.
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