Road to Nowhere 

The FBI probes links between state Senator Don Perata and a $40 million roadway project designed to enrich Alameda developer Ron Cowan.

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On July 12, 2000, the state senator presided over a meeting with officials from the three agencies funding the roadway -- the port, the Alameda County Transportation Authority, and the city of Alameda. Perata outlined a plan to light a fire under the FAA: They would ask the federal agency to fast-track the Cross Airport Roadway Project by separating it from the larger airport expansion plan. The roadway project was just a small facet of the proposed $1.4 billion expansion, which called for a dozen additional gates, a new 6,000-car parking garage, and extra space for the two passenger terminals.

"At the urging of Senator Perata," all present at the meeting agreed to hire a lobbyist to get the job done, according to a memo written after the meeting by Matt Naclerio, Alameda's public works director. Naclerio's handwritten notes show that the lobbyist's name was Dawson Mathis.

Mathis, a Democrat, served in the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1981. After he left Congress, he did what many Washington politicians do: He returned to Capitol Hill as a hired gun. How he fits into Don Perata's universe is unclear. Mathis had never been publicly associated with the senator before. Campaign finance records from 1998 to the present indicate that the lobbyist hasn't given Perata a dime during that period. In its corruption probe of the state senator, the FBI almost exclusively has subpoenaed Perata's former staffers, friends, and family members -- profiles that don't apply to Mathis.

One common connection between the two men is John Burton, whom Perata succeeded as leader of the state Senate. Perata has adopted as his own consultant at least one former Burton aide, Sandra Polka, whose name has appeared in other FBI subpoenas. Mathis and Burton, meanwhile, became tight friends when they served together in the House of Representatives. Mathis even drove Burton to rehab when Burton's cocaine addiction spiraled out of control, according to a December 2004 article in the Orange County Register.

Burton didn't return phone calls for this story, and Mathis, who is no longer working as a Beltway lobbyist, declined to comment, citing the pending FBI investigation. In an interview, Cowan said he didn't know Mathis. But like many people interviewed for this story, Cowan had fuzzy recollections. He also was good friends with then-state Senate boss Burton, and it was more likely he would have talked to Burton than Perata about roadway delays, he said. Cowan speculated it was Burton who'd recommended Mathis, and added that he never asked Perata to intervene on his behalf.

Money talks in politics, however, and Cowan's cash flowed freely into Perata's coffers. Since 1998, campaign finance records show, Cowan has contributed at least $198,300 to Perata's various campaigns and to political action committees that were either run by the state senator or closely associated with him. Last year alone, Cowan wrote five separate $10,000 checks to Perata's legal defense fund -- making him the fund's largest benefactor.

Cowan wasn't Perata's only pal losing money on the road project delays, however. Over the years, contractor Ed DeSilva has been the state senator's single biggest contributor, and as long as the FAA kept him from breaking ground, DeSilva wasn't getting any of the tens of millions of dollars his company stood to receive.

Alameda and port officials say it wasn't unusual for Perata to call meetings and mediate disputes between public agencies in his district. Perata spokesman Jason Kinney did not answer questions about the senator's connection to Mathis. Instead Kinney provided a short written response saying that the senator got involved because he has "long been an outspoken and passionate champion of vital transportation and infrastructure improvements. ... When bureaucratic inertia threatened to jeopardize a project vital to the entire region and derail nearly twenty years of regional collaboration, Senator Perata joined many others in helping to keep the project on track."

Neither the FBI nor the US Attorney's Office comment on pending investigations and thus won't reveal why agents have taken an interest in Mathis. But two sources close to the investigation have said investigators in the federal Perata probe are generally seeking evidence as to whether the state senator took illegal kickbacks.

While the Express found no proof of any illicit connection between Mathis and Perata, it did uncover a deal in which Mathis was paid lavishly despite questions over whether he was needed or effective. Furthermore, the lobbyist collected his fees in the absence of a written contract with any of the three public agencies that hired him. In fact, at least two of the three local officials involved in the hiring of Dawson Mathis have never met the man, or even talked with him by phone.


The Senator Is Outraged

Contrary to the memo that claimed all the players at the July meeting had agreed to Perata's plan to hire Mathis, public records and interviews show that not everyone was fully on board.

Christine Monsen, head of the county transportation authority established by Measure B, apparently complained about Mathis' high fee. The original estimate cited during the meeting with Perata was $175,000, which included a $15,000 retainer. In the end, Mathis charged $135,000 -- absent any contracts, it's unclear how he arrived at that figure. In an e-mail, Alameda's public works chief noted at the time that Monsen "unofficially told me that they are reluctant to fund the lobbyist because the costs are so high (they can fund two lobbyists for this price tag)."

Indeed, the transportation authority could have hired at least two lobbyists for its $45,000 share of the fee Mathis charged for perhaps a few months of work. Records show that the authority paid its regular lobbyist, Simon and Company, just under $25,000 for all of 2000. Monsen told the Express that she vaguely recalled objecting to Mathis' fee. "We had a federal lobbyist," she said. "I would have preferred to use that lobbyist, but there was agreement ... that we needed to use someone who was specialized and connected."

Chuck Foster, the port's executive director at the time, would dispute that. In a recent interview, he insisted that he never agreed to hire Perata's man. He didn't see why he should hire another lobbyist when the port was already under contract with Patton Boggs, one of Washington's most powerful firms, which was paid $120,000 by the port for all of 2000, records show. "There was no need from our perspective to bring in Dawson Mathis," Foster recalled.

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