An attorney hired by Alameda’s top officials wants a grand jury to consider whether Councilwoman Lena Tam should be removed from office for allegedly leaking confidential information to developer SunCal and the local firefighter’s union against the city’s interests, and for leaking similar information to local bloggers and others, including this reporter.
Michael G. Colantuono, who was hired by Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant and City Attorney Teresa Highsmith to investigate the alleged misconduct also accused Tam of breaking the state’s public meetings law by e-mailing groups of City Council members in an effort to influence some of their decisions. Council members are only permitted to discuss city business in publicly agendized sessions.
"Based on our review of the evidence available to us, we believe that Tam has engaged in numerous Ralph M. Brown Act, Government Code sections 54950 et seq. (“the Brown Act”) violations and other serious official misconduct, which warrant removal from office pursuant to a grand jury charge,” attorney Colantuono wrote to Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Blazer on May 26.
He wrote to Blazer that he believes Tam’s actions could also warrant separate, criminal charges under the Brown Act.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s office is reviewing the matter, according to a press release that was issued on Tuesday night just moments after the City Council voted to make the investigation results public. The council was made aware of the investigation Tuesday.
Tam denied the accusations, which were based on e-mails Gallant pulled from Tam’s city e-mail account.
“I think it’s appropriate that I do my due diligence whether it’s the SunCal matter, whether it’s the IAFF [firefighters] matter, whether it is looking at the interim city manager’s past relationships with bond financiers. I welcome the scrutiny,” Tam said.
The city is in the midst of heated contract negotiations with both SunCal and the firefighters – negotiations in which Tam and Gallant have found themselves on opposite sides. And they have clashed on a number of other issues as well.
Tam said she believed the accusations came as a result of questions she raised publicly about a bond deal proposed by Gallant, one of several issues that have been raised by council members and others during her tenure as interim city manager. Gallant had previously worked for one of the partners in a firm she sought to hire to handle the deal.
“I contacted a number of individuals that were concerned that the city acted inappropriately,” Tam said.
In his report to Blazer and a second report forwarded to Assistant District Attorney Ann Diem on July 2, Colantuono accused Tam of leaking confidential closed session information to representatives from SunCal, and of carrying their interests in developing Alameda Point ahead of the city’s. Tam has been a firm supporter of SunCal’s efforts, while city staff has voiced a host of concerns with their development plan.
Colantuono said the e-mails demonstrate Tam “repeatedly exploited her official position for a private benefit,” though he did not accuse her of gaining anything from any of the parties whose interests she is alleged to have served.
He said Tam forwarded SunCal vice president Pat Keliher on a March 17 e-mail she sent to Mayor Beverly Johnson and City Councilwoman Marie Gilmore detailing legal advice that City Attorney Teresa Highsmith had offered in an earlier closed-door meeting. In that same e-mail, she also talked about an earlier closed session regarding Highsmith’s job performance.
He also accused Tam of forwarding an April 15 e-mail from Highsmith titled “Heads up on SunCal blog” to SunCal Chief Operating Officer Frank Faye that was labeled confidential. He said Tam forwarded the e-mail to her personal account and that shortly afterward, Gallant and Highsmith got calls from Faye complaining that the e-mail’s assertions were inaccurate.
And he said Tam offered similarly privileged information – a letter from a company vying for Alameda County’s ambulance contract – to the political director for the city’s firefighter’s union, Jeff DelBono.
Tam has advocated for the firefighters at council meetings, though they have had a rocky relationship with city staff and others on the council. The firefighters petitioned for a ballot measure that would require the city to maintain minimum staffing levels and they have also sued the city for reducing benefits for new hires.
Colantuono also accused Tam of leaking the same confidential information to local bloggers and others. He said Tam forwarded a number of e-mails to local blogger and political activist John Knox White, including information for an April 20 closed session item on the process for conducting performance evaluations for Gallant, Highsmith and City Clerk Lara Weisiger.
“There is absolutely nothing that she says that makes this an allowable closed-session item!” Knox White wrote Tam on April 19.
Knox White, who sits on the city’s Sunshine Task Force, had written a a letter to the city on April 17 telling them the discussion would violate state open-meeting rules. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Beverly Johnson called on Knox White to step down from the task force, and she said she’d ask her dais-mates to remove him if he does not do so.
Tam also forwarded an e-mail from Lonnie Odom containing contact information for a city staffer in Desert Hot Springs, where Gallant served as city manager, to blogger Lauren Do and this reporter. Odom is a financial adviser who said he had originally offered the city a bond deal similar to the one Gallant proposed but was ultimately cut out of the deal.
“I talked to [the staffer] Friday night and he indicated that he’s still cleaning up the mess left behind from Ann Marie’s tenure,” Odom wrote in the June 7 e-mail to Tam.
Colantuono also accused Tam of violating the state’s serial meetings law by blind-copying some council members so others were unaware they were breaking the law, in a effort to urge them to take action against Highsmith and Fire Chief David Kapler.
Tam e-mailed Johnson and Highsmith to request a closed-session performance evaluation of Highsmith following a spat over questions Tam raised about SunCal’s negotiating agreement during a late-night council session. Councilwoman Marie Gilmore and SunCal’s Keliher were blind copied on the e-mail.
She sent a similar e-mail to Gallant and City Councilman Frank Matarrese on May 15 that was blind-copied to Gilmore to follow up on concerns firefighters had raised about Kapler. Colantuono said the intent of the e-mail was to “develop consensus among the Councilmembers to take action against [Kapler].”
The accusations were made public two weeks before SunCal’s exclusive agreement to negotiate a development deal at Alameda Point expires. The council will be asked to decide whether to continue to negotiate with SunCal at its July 20 meeting.
“Given the importance of this decision to Alamedans and the need to review the City’s legal risks in Closed Session without fear of further leaks to SunCal, the city’s attorneys and the Interim City Manager brought the pending investigation to the attention of the Mayor and the City Council,” the press release says.
The accusations also come as Tam kicks off her re-election campaign for her council seat. A fundraiser for Tam thrown by Alameda County Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker, Alameda County Supervisor-elect Wilma Chan and other local luminaries is set for Saturday.
City Council members, who voted to release the reports to the public Tuesday night, had little to say about the accusations.
“I’m just astounded by this. It’s unbelievable,” Matarrese said. “It’s in the hands of the DA now, so we’ll see what happens.”
Santa Clara County prosecutors used similar rules to win the removal of Mountain View Mayor Mario Ambra in 2002. Ambra was convicted by a jury of trying to skirt that city manager’s authority and trying to get staff to do his bidding, in an effort to halt development on land that bordered his father’s property, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.