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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That interview with Foster and documents obtained by the Express in fact suggest it was the port director -- not Mathis -- who convinced the FAA to get on the ball. In July 2000, just two weeks after the meeting at which Perata urged officials to hire the pricey lobbyist, Foster flew to DC, e-mail records show. In defiance of the state senator's wishes, Foster met with FAA managers and urged them not to "decouple" the roadway from the larger airport development. Word of Foster's trip apparently got back to Perata. "The senator is outraged," Alameda's public works director wrote in an e-mail.

Foster feared that separating out the roadway project would remove the port's only leverage for dealing with the city of Alameda, which was still suing the port over other aspects of the airport expansion. He said he asked the FAA to hurry up and greenlight the expansion as a whole. The official he met with, Foster recalled, assured him that he would get his approval by the end of that year.

Sure enough, in December 2000, the FAA issued a so-called "finding of no significant impact" for the entire expansion, the roadway project included, which meant that the federal agency had specifically rejected the proposal Perata had directed Mathis to push through.

That Mathis' services were perhaps unnecessary wasn't the only dubious aspect of the arrangement. The lobbyist also appears to have had little, if any, oversight by the agencies paying the bills. Shortly after the meeting with Perata, Alameda's public works chief complained in an e-mail about receiving a bill from Mathis, who had already begun work "without any authorization." And when the county transportation authority got its $45,000 bill from Mathis in January 2001, apparently no one could decipher what he had done to earn his money. Christine Monsen, the transportation authority boss, recalls that her agency had to ask Mathis for more information before it would pay him.

In response, Mathis supplied a July 27, 2000, letter to then-FAA administrator Jane Garvey that he'd had signed by two influential congressmen on the House transportation subcommittee. The letter urged Garvey to expedite approval for what is repeatedly misidentified as the "Port Roadway Project" and once as the "Port Railway Project." In a note to Monsen, Mathis said he also had coordinated with Perata and worked closely with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who wrote Garvey as well.

Foster also received a $45,000 bill from Mathis for "professional services rendered" on the "Oakland Airport Roadway Project." That's all it said. Foster said the port -- like the other payees -- had never laid out the price and terms of Mathis' services. Foster strenuously objected to paying Mathis at first, he said, but ultimately left the decision to the seven-member Port Commission, which included several Perata allies.

Foster's displeasure comes through in a terse but carefully worded note accompanying the lobbyist's payment in March 2001. In it, the port director reminded Mathis that the "port did not support efforts" to separate the roadway from the rest of the project, "so the port was very pleased that the [FAA] approved the entire Airport Development Program." Three months later, Foster surprised the East Bay political establishment when he abruptly announced his retirement at age 61.

Cowan paid for some of Mathis' fee, at least indirectly -- Alameda cut Mathis a $45,000 check from its Harbor Bay Assessment District fund. At the time, Cowan's companies owned most of the properties in the assessment district, city records show. Stephen Brimhall, chief financial officer of Harbor Bay Associates and Cowan's majordomo, confirmed he was contacted by the FBI, but refused to say what investigators asked about. "I don't think it's any of your business," Brimhall said.


The Road to Nowhere

The questions surrounding the Mathis arrangement and what the lobbyist did -- or didn't do -- to justify $135,000 in fees don't necessarily add up to evidence of corruption. They could simply be evidence of sloppy government, or the confused byproduct of involving three public agencies, each with its own agenda. While Foster didn't like the idea of hiring or paying Mathis, for instance, the transportation authority's Christine Monsen credited the lobbyist with helping to speed up the process and thus safeguard the $5 million state grant. "It turned out to be effective," she says of Mathis' work.

It's also unclear whether the FBI has found any evidence of wrongdoing by Don Perata. Nearly eighteen months after the FBI began issuing subpoenas in the case, it has yet to produce any indictments. Jason Kinney, a Perata spokesman, has described the sprawling investigation as "a mile wide and an inch deep."

Perata certainly has been proactive. Last year he shelled out $742,389 for his legal defense, according to spending reports filed with the California secretary of state. Much of that was probably spent to determine exactly what sort of case the FBI is building, legal experts say. Indeed, a private investigator working for Don Perata's lawyer approached Alameda County last October, seeking copies of any FBI subpoenas mentioning the senator, Dawson Mathis, the roadway, the Doric Group, Doric Development, and/or Harbor Bay -- in other words, Ron Cowan. The Express learned of the PI's inquiries and the FBI subpoenas through a routine review of county records.

Cowan confirmed that the FBI subpoenaed him and his companies, and that they gave the feds "a boxload of documents." But the developer wouldn't discuss specifics, saying he believed the FBI had requested that he not talk about it.

He was, however, willing to discuss the parkway named in his honor. Waiting for the roadway all those years had simply cost him too much, Cowan acknowledged. "Had the Cross Airport Roadway been built in the '80s, it would have made a difference -- no question about it," he said.

But in 2002, with the parkway still two years from completion, the businessman's finances tanked for the last time. He defaulted on the Lehman Brothers loans, which had grown to $43.1 million, including interest, property records show. The investment bank and SRM Associates, its property management partner, promptly seized much of what Cowan still owned at Harbor Bay Business Park. His companies now own only about twelve acres of the 350-acre park, Cowan said.

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