The San Francisco Chronicle
Can the East Bay’s “Teflon Don” beat his latest rap?
State Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, is no stranger to controversy. In recent years, as he has climbed the ladder from county supervisor to state Legislature, he has twice run afoul of the state’s political watchdog agency for failing to properly disclose his financial dealings.
He is the consummate political insider, ultimate fund-raiser, kingmaker and political confidant on the East Bay political scene, and questions about his fund-raising activities have revved up over the years.
In April 2001, Perata was fined $4,000 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to properly disclose a $90,000 loan from his late father to his campaign war chest when he was first elected to the Senate in 1998.
Two years ago, Perata agreed to pay a $10,500 fine for failing to disclose income from a consulting business he ran with his wife after he resigned as an Alameda County supervisor and before he was elected to the state Assembly.
Now the man who is perhaps the most influential politician in Alameda County is in the crosshairs again.
He is the target of a state Senate ethics probe that stems from a complaint that he violated campaign finance laws or conflict-of-interest rules by receiving consulting fees from a college friend.
The new questions come as Perata is a front-runner to replace Senate Pro Tem leader John Burton, D-San Francisco, who will retire in June. Perata will have to prove once again his reputation as a man with ability and smarts to navigate sticky situations.
The trouble began Feb. 17, when a Chronicle investigation raised questions about Perata’s business dealings with Timothy G. Staples, a longtime friend and campaign consultant.
Since 2000, Staples’ company has been paid more than $300,000 for political campaign work for organizations or individuals with ties to the senator. During the same time, Perata has reported between $10,000 and $100,000 in outside income for business consulting work for Staples.
In one case, a group called Community Leaders for Neighborhood Preservation founded by Oakland developer and Perata ally Phil Tagami hired Staples as a consultant.
The day the Chronicle story appeared, top Senate leaders ordered an ethics investigation into a complaint that Perata’s unusual arrangement with Staples violated campaign finance laws or conflict-of-interest rules.
The complaint was filed by a Santa Monica-based consumer advocacy group, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which sent a letter to Burton, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee.
Jason Kinney, a spokesman for Perata, said the advocacy group does not have a case against the senator. “It’s nothing more than the frantic rantings from a group with an ax to grind based on some of the senator’s past legislation,” Kinney said.
Perata has admitted no wrongdoing, although he said he would end his business relationship with Staples.
That was the right thing to do. While Perata may not have done anything illegal, the arrangement still stinks.
Despite the allegations leveled against Perata, no East Bay elected officials are willing to step forward and point a finger at the senator. It’s no wonder. Perata has had a hand in the political careers of county supervisors and former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris.
Just beneath the surface of the controversy, Perata supporters are grumbling that the real motivation for the scandal is the forthcoming battle for leadership of the Senate.
That may be, but this isn’t the first time that Perata has been suspected of crossing the line and mixing his political standing with his outside work as a consultant to all sorts of businesses looking to land contracts with public agencies.
A decade ago, he was under scrutiny for accepting a $15,000 consulting fee from Grigsby, Branford & Co., which at the time was the largest minority-owned bond firm in the nation.
The San Francisco company’s principal officer, Calvin Grigsby, had bid for and won several bond deals in Alameda County, and financed the 1995 deal to remodel the Coliseum to bring the Raiders football team back to Oakland.
But the glitter started to rub off of Grigsby over time, and he was fined $5,000 by the state’s political watchdog agency in 1996 for an illegal campaign contribution to former Alameda County Supervisor Mary King.
Two years later, Grigsby was indicted for making $350,000 in payments to top Miami officials in exchange for bond contracts valued at nearly $400 million.
Perata’s links to Grigsby and his financial misdeeds over the years, while red flags, have failed to derail his political ambition. He continues to receive the backing of the Senate’s Democratic caucus.
Given his history, it stands to reason that the “Teflon Don” will find a way to survive the current charges against him like he has all the others.
E-mail Chip Johnson at [email protected]
or write him at 483 Ninth St., Suite 100, Oakland, CA 94607