Oakland Coal’s Wheel of Influence 

Leaked documents about the effort to sell a coal terminal to a reluctant city show how the government sausage gets made.

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In late April, Siegel, Tagami, and Insight Terminal Solutions COO Jim Wolff met with two officials from Oxbow Carbon, a company that specializes in the shipment of natural gas and petroleum coke. Oxbow Carbon's presence in the Oakland coal lobbying effort is problematic from a public-relations standpoint because the company was founded by William I. Koch, one of the politically conservative Koch Brothers, who are often villainized by progressives across the country. Wolff met with Koch himself in March of this year on the subject of Oakland coal.

The Deciders: City Officials

Among Siegel's long list of Oakland officials and insiders, one name appears more than any other. In late October 2018, Oakland Council President Rebecca Kaplan met with Siegel and Insight Terminal Solutions COO Jim Wolff, along with Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney. Kaplan was the first elected official to meet with Siegel and Wolff during this period of time. The next month Kaplan sat down with Siegel and Wolff for a second time, the same day they also met with Councilmembers Noel Gallo and Gibson-McElhaney. In total, Kaplan apparently met with the coal backers on four separate occasions.

In his memo, Siegel described having valuable and "fairly detailed one-on-one time with newly elected President of the Council, Rebecca Kaplan." Tagami later joined that conference, which took place at his Rotunda Building. Siegel wrote that Tagami told Kaplan "that he would present her with additional briefings and facts ... that may not have been disclosed to her before by officials in the current city administration." Precisely what new information Tagami was offering Kaplan is unclear. He declined to discuss the matter in an interview and whether there was an effort to undermine the city's attorney's judgment in choosing to appeal the city's defeat in federal court.

Siegel wrote that he encouraged Kaplan to use her office to bring together disparate parties in the city in hopes of reaching a settlement. That appears to have happened. Kaplan met a third documented time with Siegel and Wolff in March attended by Ces Butner, the president of the Port of Oakland Board of Commissioners. And Kaplan's last meeting with the pair, a gathering with Oakland lobbyist Greg McConnell in attendance, was the last documented meeting on the travel log, occurring last July.

In addition to Kaplan, Siegel eventually talked with every other member of the City Council one way or another — either through direct meetings or at the January Oakland Builders Alliance reception. While he voiced measured optimism about swaying some members of the council, he did not express much optimism about flipping one member. Councilmember Dan Kalb, who has strong ties to Sierra Club and is an avowed environmentalist, "exchanged pleasantries" with Siegel at the reception, but the executive quickly concluded that Kalb "will not be won over."

Siegel also met with Assemblymember Rob Bonta and his then-district director Jim Oddie to discuss Oakland coal. Others city officials, included Oakland school boardmember James Harris and Oakland Fire Chief Darrin White, were added to the loop.

Bloggers & Lawyers: The Influencers

Perhaps nothing has been more influential in turning the Oakland City Council against the coal project than the widespread belief that coal dust represents a health hazard to the residents of West Oakland who live nearest to the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal. Siegel has a problem with that.

"Coal is not dirty," he said in an undated video, reposted last October on YouTube. "The notion that if you live near a power plant that you could ingest coal dust or it could worsen asthma, or that you'll see it on your car and write your name, that is all complete bunk. That's nonsense." The video was repurposed from what appears to be an interview with a local Utah television host.

Siegel's comments were preceded in the video by a brief introduction from Zennie Abraham, a well-known Oakland gadfly who long ago served in Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris's office and runs a media marketing company that reportedly encompasses 98 blogs. As the Oakland coal story began to blossom sometime around 2013 and 2014, a flood of news articles highlighting the potential health concerns due to coal shipments in the East Bay cascaded into the general public's mindset. Insight Terminal Solutions and Tagami were clearly being trounced on the PR front.

Abraham has happily provided Oakland coal with an alternative path around the mainstream media to get its side of the story out to the public. His stories on the rudimentary-designed Oakland News Now blog often rise to the top of Oakland-related Google searches and appear to the untrained eye to be objective news stories. But these stories portraying Oakland coal in a favorable light are actually content paid for by Insight Terminal Solutions.

"I don't hide it," Abraham said. "I sought to get paid. I begged to be hired by them." Local mainstream media outlets purport to be objective, he added, but they exist to convey the point of view of special interests. "My point is, 'Tell the truth.' I'm picking a fight with how things are done," he said. "Somebody has to bite the bullet and blast this shit."

Siegel approached him because they were "having a hard time getting out their word," Abraham said. "I only work with issues that I agree with. This is about a vendetta with me. It's about writing a wrong because a lot of the officials in the city of Oakland are lying." When asked to describe the vendetta, he said, "It's about how they treat Phil. He's always wanted Oakland to be its best. He's helped so many people, sometimes out of his own pocket."


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