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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Despite the financial entanglements, Abraham said Insight Terminal Solutions provides no editorial oversight over what he publishes. "They don't check. I told them the deal is, 'I agree to do the project, so let me do this my way.'" Abraham would not reveal how much is paid by Insight Terminal Solutions. Instead, he said that Hearst Media Services, which owns the San Francisco Chronicle, offers content marketing services for more than $100,000. "I can assure you I get paid much less," he said with a guffaw.

Siegel also met with other people who could be described as Oakland influencers. He attended two meetings that also involved attorney Zachary Wasserman. Siegel's memo described Wasserman as someone "who counsels everyone from the mayor to each of the councilmembers on various issues. While he is outside counsel, he is referred to as 'Mr. Oakland' by most and his advice is generally, in my opinion, heeded when solicited and given."

Other people were courted by Siegel include Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Leslie, Act Fulls Gospel Church Pastor "Bishop" Bob Jackson, and former Mayor Elihu Harris. During meetings in January and two days before Valentine's Day earlier this year, Siegel and Wolff met with a number of labor officials, some of which represent members who could benefit from additional work at the bulk terminal. They included Andreas Cluver, the head of the influential Alameda County Building Trades Council, and also a current Port of Oakland commissioner; Doug Bloch, political director for the Teamsters Joint Council 7; Brian Lester of the Operating Engineers Local Union Local 3; and Capt. John Carlier of the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association.

Coal's Point Man: The Lobbyist

The precursor to Insight Terminal Solutions was ostensibly run by two former executive directors of the Port of Oakland, Omar Benjamin and Jerry Bridges. Most opponents of Oakland coal believed that Bridges and Benjamin were merely frontmen for the coal company. The speculation over their involvement appears to be correct, according to Siegel's memo. Bridges and Benjamin were paid to strategize and lobby Oakland officials, but Siegel believed they were not successful. So he sought the help of well-known Oakland lobbyist Greg McConnell.

"He would be available 24/7 to strategize with us, meet with us and most importantly, accompany us/or conduct meetings with target community activists who once won over to our side, could help us immensely with various city council members," Siegel wrote. "It is exactly what I had been paying Jerry Bridges and Omar Benjamin for two years to do but for whatever reason, they did not accomplish the task."

As head of the McConnell Group and Oakland Jobs and Housing Coalition, McConnell is often a fixture at Oakland City Hall and at the lectern inside council chambers, where he often addresses councilmembers during public comment. Siegel met with several times with McConnell during this period and came away certain he would be his new point man.

"I have watched Greg, who is an influential African American lobbyist and businessman, and I believe he is as good as we could hope for as an advocate for our message within our target community community," Siegel wrote.

He didn't come cheap. Siegel wrote that he cost an upfront annual fee of $15,000 and a short-term retainer of $7,500 a month.

In an interview, McConnell said that his role is to assess who is being affected when a proposal is brought to the city. "Because quite often in Oakland, the people who speak vociferously are not the people affected in the community," he said. "As it pertains to this terminal, there were a lot of people from the Sierra Club, a lot of environmentalists from the hills and many from out of town. I would say most from out of town. They spent most of their time on the impacts on African Americans in District 3, and the question I had in my mind is 'Are their concerns about coal dust or their concerns about global issues around clean energy? And are they using allegations that people will be hurt health-wise to buttress their claims?"

McConnell said there's no evidence local doctors are treating patients for coal-related respiratory factors. Instead, the high level of trucks transporting goods through West Oakland and other environmental concerns are the culprits, he said. "That causes me to say, 'Who is speaking for whom and why don't you have someone with a voice to be heard?"

In his memo, Siegel explained part of the strategy behind bringing McConnell on board. "No matter how compelling I may be, I am still a white outsider and he is most decidedly an insider," Siegel wrote.

McConnell said the line was poorly constructed by Siegel and meant to point out that his status as an outsider but added, "I would not have allowed him to send that letter with that statement."

Lobbying Ms. Margaret: The Community

Margaret Gordon, "Ms. Margaret" for short, is a force of nature. The co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicator Project has for years highlighted the high incidents of asthma and other respiratory issues associated with truck pollution in West Oakland. She is tough and no-nonsense. She was also viewed as someone Oakland coal needed on its side, or, at least, not totally against it. "Winning over a local activist named Margaret Gordon ("Ms. Margaret") who is analogous to a local Maxine Waters in terms of being extremely vocal against coal," Siegel wrote. "She is an African American woman who apparently has a significant amount of clout."


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