August 14, 2014

It’s been more than a month since I published a CounterPoints column about Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan’s silence following allegations published in the Oakland Tribune charging her with possible ethical and legal violations in the operation of her campaign finance accounts (“Ms. Kaplan’s Silence Is Not An Option” CounterPoints, July 8, 2014). I wrote at the time that Ms. Kaplan needed to face the press and public to answer the allegations and clear the matter up. Ms. Kaplan instead chose continued silence. And rather than the original allegations going away, as Ms. Kaplan may have hoped, two potentially more serious ones have now surfaced.
The original allegations were made in late June in an article written by Tribune reporter Matt Artz. In that article (“Kaplan Kills Scrutinized Independent Campaign Fund” ), Mr. Artz wrote that Ms. Kaplan set up a campaign committee in the fall of 2010 named “The Campaign For Safe Streets And Local Jobs” with the stated purpose of supporting a transportation ballot measure on the Alameda County ballot that November. Mr. Artz went on to allege that instead of using the money for the ballot measure, Ms. Kaplan used the money raised to support both her 2010 and 2014 runs for mayor of Oakland, which would be a violation of both Oakland and state campaign finance law, if true.
Mr. Artz also wrote that most of the money that went to Ms. Kaplan’s “Safe Streets” committee in 2010 came in the form of a $25,000 donation from a single company—Kansai Development of San Francisco—shortly after the Oakland City Council voted to give Kansai a favorable ruling on the use of a parcel of its downtown Oakland property. The clear implication in the article was that even if Kansai’s large donation to Ms. Kaplan’s committee was not a “pay-to-play” payment for her support for Kansai’s parcel re-use request, it certainly gave the appearance of one.
While Ms. Kaplan’s spokesperson denied these allegations of campaign finance improprieties in both Mr. Artz’ original “Kaplan Kills” article and in a followup article (“Oakland Tries To Close Campaign Finance Loophole” Contra Costa Times June 26, 2014), Ms. Kaplan herself has chosen not to speak directly to the issue.
Since that time, more questions have been raised.
Ten days ago, the Oakland Tribune reported a new campaign finance violation allegation against Ms. Kaplan. Mr. Artz wrote at that time that a search of newly-filed campaign finance reports showed that Oakland A’s co-owner Lewis Wolff contributed $1,000 to Ms. Kaplan’s “Safe Streets” campaign finance committee on May 5 during the period when Ms. Kaplan was serving as a city representative on the Coliseum Joint Powers Authority negotiating with the A’s for an extension of their lease at the Oakland-Alameda County stadium (“A’s Owner Contributed to Kaplan’s Shuttered Campaign Fund” Oakland Tribune August 1, 2014).
Mr. Wolff’s contribution appears on the surface to come close to a direct violation of Oakland’s campaign finance law. That law  reads at Section 3.12.140 (a) that:

No person who contracts or proposes to contract with or who amends or proposes to amend such a contract with the city for the rendition of services, for the furnishing of any material, supplies, commodities or equipment to the city or for selling any land or building to the city or for purchasing any land or building from the city whenever the value of such transaction would require approval by the City Council shall make any contribution to the Mayor, a candidate for Mayor, a City Councilmember, a candidate for City Council, the City Attorney, a candidate for City Attorney, the City Auditor, a candidate for City Auditor, or committee controlled by such officeholder or candidate at any time between commencement of negotiations and either one hundred eighty (180) days after the completion of, or the termination of, negotiations for such contract.”

Though one could make an argument that the leasing of the use of the stadium by A’s does not strictly fit into the items in the above city ordinance, that may be a distinction without a difference, at least as far as the opinion of Oakland voters is concerned.
While Ms. Kaplan chose, again, not to answer these new allegations about the Oakland A’s contribution to her “Safe Streets” committee, Ms. Kaplan was busily seeking credit for the successful conclusion of the lease transaction itself (see “Coliseum Board Finalizes 10-Year Lease Agreement With Oakland A’s” ABC7 News August 6, 2014 and “Coliseum Board Unanimously Approved A’s New Lease” KTVU August 6, 2014.
Meanwhile, two other donations to Ms. Kaplan’s “Safe Streets” campaign committee also appear to come close to crossing over the line of breaking Oakland’s campaign finance law, though on a somewhat smaller scale. These involve SST, Inc., the operators of Oakland’s shot-spotter gunshot detection system, which was set up in the city in 2006 for the purpose of electronically monitoring city streets and informing police the exact location where gunshots are being fired.
Last March, leaders of the Oakland Police Department announced that they were considering scrapping SSI’s $264,000 per year system (“Oakland Cops Aim To Scrap Gunfire-Detecting ShotSpotter,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 14, 2014).
SSI’s ShotSpotter contract with Oakland was scheduled to end this month and needed to be renewed for the operation to continue.

According to the Chronicle in a followup article published two weeks later, “Two members of the City Council, Larry Reid … and Rebecca Kaplan … said in a letter … that they ‘could not vote to support any proposal that eliminates funding for ShotSpotter. … Our work with ShotSpotter is an excellent investment in public safety.” (“Oakland Officials Want ShotSpotter Technology To Stay” San Francisco Chronicle, March 28, 2014).

A copy of the Reid-Kaplan letter in support of SSI and ShotSpotter is posted online at

Within a month after writing that letter, Ms. Kaplan received contributions of $100 apiece to her Safe Streets ballot measure committee from the CEO and the Vice President of Operations of SSI.
To sum up, there are now allegations of three intertwined campaign finance violations against Ms. Kaplan. The first is that she illegally drew money out of her Safe Streets ballot measure committee for use in her two Oakland mayoral campaigns, first in 2010 and again this year. The second is that in using the Safe Streets contribution for her mayoral committee—money that came in single donations of as much as $25,000—she violated Oakland’s campaign finance limitations to candidates for Oakland office of $700 per individual or company. The third allegation is that Ms. Kaplan took campaign contributions from companies during a time when those companies were in negotiations to do business with the City, in violation of Oakland ordinance.
It must be remembered that at this point these are only allegations of improprieties or illegalities, not proof, and either the facts in those allegations may be wrong or there is another way of interpreting them that does not place Ms. Kaplan in the wrong. We’re certainly willing to hear the Councilmember’s side. But by failing to speak publicly on these matters a month and a half after the allegations first surfaced, Ms. Kaplan has only strengthened the suspicion that both the facts and the allegations are correct. Those allegations are so serious, and speak so directly as to how she might operate the office of mayor, that Oakland citizens could not be blamed if they decided that this, and this alone, is enough to disqualify Ms. Kaplan from getting their vote.

One could reasonably make the argument that it was financial improprieties—and no other issue—that caused State Senator Don Perata’s defeat in the Oakland mayoral election four years ago. While the financial impropriety allegations against Ms. Kaplan by no means reach the level charged against Mr. Perata in volume, they far too disturbingly resemble them in kind.
It’s past time for Ms. Kaplan to explain herself to us on this issue. Long past time. We’re waiting to hear from her.