Pest to the Powerful 

City Hall gadfly? Oakland municipal watchdog? Citizen journalist? Just what is Sanjiv Handa up to anyway?

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Betterton isn't the only one bothered by this. "I think someone like Sanjiv can serve an important function," says Richard Cowan, chief of staff to Councilwoman Jean Quan the past four years. "What concerns me and bothers me is that over the years, he's felt the need to increase the ad hominem attacks. That takes away from the legitimate function he could perform."

Handa went after Cowan's boss for her allegedly poor food etiquette in the June 2006 issue of The Oakland Digest, a printed tabloid Sanjiv puts out on occasion (and in which he sometimes quotes himself in the third person). He noted that council members are served fancy meals in the closed-session meetings before the regular council meetings, and that Quan had prepared herself a second helping of baked chicken, rice, and veggies to go. The next morning, according to the Digest article, custodians found her plate — which she'd clearly forgotten — covered with ants. The paper also ran a picture of a Mug Root Beer can she allegedly had left behind at a budget meeting, and which allegedly had spilled. "Quan also discards papers she no longer needs by just dumping them onto the floor wherever she is sitting, instead of nearby recycling bins," the caption noted.

While Handa blasts council members for all their perks, his City Hall critics point out that Sanjiv himself is an unapologetic freeloader. For one, he is regularly spotted helping himself to leftovers from the council's closed-session meetings. Handa figures there's nothing wrong with getting a free meal, since taxpayers paid for it in the first place. "My mind-set is, it's public money that paid for it; let whoever's at the meeting eat what's left over," he says.

"It's not that there's anything wrong with it; the food could go to the poor," Cowan concedes. "It's just low-life."

Having covered City Hall, and goaded it, longer than anyone else, Handa has created enemies in high places. Chief among them is Ignacio De La Fuente.

The council president refuses to speak to Sanjiv, who is likely the only reporter on De La Fuente's do-not-call list. Anyone who's covered the city knows De La Fuente has incredibly thick skin, and doesn't shy away from tough questions. For instance, when the Express called him for comment on Maurice Himy's arrest — a case in which De La Fuente was implicated in a pay-to-play scheme — he called back right away to deny any wrongdoing and make his case. Unlike the more sensitive folks in his business, he doesn't take bad publicity so personally that he hates individual reporters. De La Fuente knows they're just doing their jobs. With Sanjiv, though, it's personal.

For years, Handa has antagonized De La Fuente from the podium for missing votes, leaving meetings early, and doing favors for his buddies. At a council retreat six years ago, he reportedly snitched on the council president for driving his motorcycle with expired tags. Then there was the time he photographed De La Fuente throwing a cigarette butt on the ground when an ashtray was nearby.

The funny thing about this feud is that, on some level, the men share similar views: Both routinely complain about a lazy and wasteful bureaucracy. When told that he and Sanjiv may think alike, De La Fuente snapped, "I don't consider myself similar in any way, shape, or form to that piece of shit." Handa, meanwhile, argues that De La Fuente complains about the bureaucracy because it drags its feet on attending to the council president's pet projects.

Sanjiv's other main target is Jerry Brown. He has repeatedly criticized the mayor for, among other things, putting his skirt-chasing friend Jacques Barzaghi — who ultimately got himself fired — on the public payroll. The needling clearly has gotten under the mayor's skin. In his 2005 State of the City speech to the city council, Brown bragged that Forbes magazine had named Oakland one of the top places in the country to start a business. When Handa was called to speak at the ensuing council meeting, he said the mayor had neglected to mention that Forbes' data was based on the Oakland metropolitan statistical area, which included many surrounding cities. Afterward, an irritated Brown said Handa was wrong, and complained to a reporter, "He just makes shit up." It turned out Handa was right.

Handa thinks the mayor's anger toward him goes back to the days before Brown took office. Back then, he claims, Brown asked him to be his press secretary and warned him that if he turned down the offer, he'd have his access cut off. Handa says he rejected the deal. Gil Duran, Brown's current press secretary, says he doubts his boss ever made such an offer, and that he must have been joking if he did.

In any case, there's no denying that shortly after Brown took office in 1999, he blew up at Handa in public. According to the Oakland Tribune's account, Handa was working in the City Hall press room when he heard Brown's voice outside, so he went to ask the new mayor a question. When he did, Brown shot back, "We know you're living here," and vowed to change the rules about access to the press room, which acted as a temporary workspace for reporters covering meetings, but served as Handa's main office.

Other reporters had complained that Handa essentially took over the room with all of his stuff, city sources say. Given the state of his car, that doesn't seem like a stretch. But Sanjiv denies ever living there. He suspects the rumors got started because the nine-to-five civil servants couldn't understand why he was still in the building after hours. He was working, he says. Ex-Tribune reporter Williams agrees that the story of Handa living there was a myth.

A couple of years later, De La Fuente managed to get Sanjiv banned from the press room. Handa thinks it was payback: He says he'd run a story saying De La Fuente had steered a lucrative Y2K contract to a campaign donor. De La Fuente counters that he was simply responding to complaints. "I found out he was living in that place; he had all his belongings there," he says. "The other press people wouldn't use that room."

Besides, De La Fuente reasons, the press room is for the real press, and in his view Handa is nothing more than a gadfly: "This guy isn't a journalist, he's not a reporter. He's not a damn thing!"


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