During bull sessions with leaders of Richmond's police and firefighters' unions earlier this year, Darrell Reese would roll up his pant leg and brandish the electronic monitoring device wrapped around his ankle as though it were a fashion accessory he'd just bought at Nordstrom. "It was a big joke with me and the police officers," Reese chuckles. "I told them, 'Not only does this thing monitor me, it's also taping our conversations and taking pictures of you.'" A retired Richmond fire captain, Reese was among friends who didn't mind that in the eyes of federal prosecutors and his political enemies, their pal was a convicted felon. As he had done so many times in the past, Reese, a former union president, was just giving his friends a few strategic pointers as they negotiated with City Hall over a new retirement benefits package. In spite of his undesirable fashion accessory, Reese couldn't resist the temptation to remain a political player in Richmond.
On February 2, US District Court Judge Lowell Jensen ordered Reese to wear the monitoring device for four months as punishment for not reporting to the IRS $40,000 he made from his lobbying and consulting business during 1996 and 1997. Jensen also sentenced Reese to three years' probation. After the sentencing hearing, Reese and his wife, Doris (whom he met while teaching a driver's ed course in San Francisco), quietly exited the Oakland Federal Building. Doris clutched the long left arm of her husband's lanky six-foot-two frame, while Reese tucked his right hand into the pocket of his suit. His bushy eyebrows topped rectangular eyeglasses. His hair was combed forward to hide his receding hairline, but unlike most comb overs, the 64-year-old Reese's indulgence to vanity managed to look smooth instead of desperate.
"I'm going to be involved in campaigns," he told the West County Times in his low-key Oklahoma drawl following the sentencing hearing. "I'm going to be doing other activities that are legal, obviously." It was a bold statement from a man who had been at the center of a multiyear FBI corruption investigation. Federal agents had tailed Reese for months, hoping to prove that Reese had made illegal payoffs to local politicians in exchange for the approval of city contracts. They tapped his phone, scoured city contracts and voting records going back to 1992, and called dozens of witnesses to testify before a grand jury. But all of this effort failed to produce a single corruption indictment. The feds could only come up with a turgid tax-evasion charge.
For his part, Reese was not going to let the "convicted felon" label kill his unofficial career as Richmond's political boss. He had come too far to quit now. He'd begun his adult life as a lowly farm laborer chopping cotton in the Central Valley, later joining the Richmond fire department and eventually becoming the refinery town's top power broker. A white Republican living in the suburban town of Rodeo, Reese has been called an unlikely candidate for kingmaker in this blue-collar industrial city largely populated by African Americans and liberal Democrats. In Richmond politics, however, money has always talked, and with the financial resources of the International Association of Firefighters Local 188, Reese had plenty to say. Using the local's cash, Reese got union-friendly candidates elected to the City Council and funded often vicious campaign hit pieces to knock off incumbents he didn't like. As his influence on the City Council became increasingly visible, Reese branched out and began moonlighting as a lobbyist, asking people he'd helped get elected to back his developer clients. His critics complained about Reese running his lobbying business from the El Sobrante fire station. One such critic paid with his City Council seat thanks to Reese-crafted hit pieces.
But the FBI investigation did succeed in one respect, Reese says. It changed the outcome of the 1999 City Council election so that only one of four candidates he backed -- Vice Mayor Nat Bates -- celebrated victory at the end of the night. Everyone else suffered from what Reese insists was an FBI smear. "Eighteen days before the election there were close to one hundred FBI and Internal Revenue agents that hit the city of Richmond," he says. "The FBI had been taping all of the strategy of my side of the campaign for months in advance. You think Watergate was a fucking travesty? This was a massive governmental intervention into the electoral process. Was it political? How could it be otherwise? What was the compelling public interest that demanded that this raid hit just before the election?" Reese won't say exactly which of his enemies he thinks triggered the FBI raid, but there's no doubt in his mind that powerful people were out to get him that year.
Now, two years later, another city election season is upon us and Darrell Reese is back, pushing a slate of candidates for City Council as well as backing his old pal Nat Bates in his bid for mayor. For most voters, next month's municipal election will be about deciding the future of the city in which they live. But for Darrell Reese, the election will also determine his future in the city people say he once owned.
Optimistic Richmond political veterans like to compare their hometown to the fabled Scottish village of Brigadoon, where every one hundred years the omnipresent fog lifts for a day to reveal an idyllic paradise. Unfortunately, in Richmond's 96-year history the fog has arguably never lifted. The city has never been able to shake its image as the "armpit of the Bay Area" (as the mayor of neighboring El Cerrito once put it). The stench in the air hasn't just come from the Chevron refinery. The distinct odor of scandal and corruption has always been as stubborn a part of Richmond's social landscape as crime and poverty.
In 1999, to cite one example, the Contra Costa County grand jury issued a report describing gross mismanagement in the city's recreation department going back 25 years. According to a news account filed at the time, the grand jury report documented "employees failing to show up for work or leaving early, misusing travel funds, tampering with personnel files, ignoring work assignments and instructions from managers, and arranging for special deals for themselves or friends to rent the [city's civic] auditorium." Early this year, City Manager Isiah Turner got into hot water when it was discovered that his wife was an executive at US Filter, a company vying to take over management of Richmond's waste water treatment facility.
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