Thursday, February 22, 2024

Ethics Commission Investigates Alleged Violations in Oakland Mayoral Race

It’s not clear yet whether Sheng Thao, a longtime Democrat and mayoral candidate in the City of Oakland, California, ever before understood there are laws prohibiting city employees from campaigning for a candidate or ballot measure while being paid by the city, although she might know now.

Thao, also an Oakland city councilmember, is under investigation by the Oakland Public Ethics Commission over allegations she had her city council staff work on her campaign while receiving their pay from the city.

According to a verbal complaint submitted to the Commission by LeAna Powell, a former Thao staffer, she was hired in April and told volunteering for Thao’s upcoming campaign was not required and that she would stay focused on her council duties. However, Powell continued in the complaint, after she turned down volunteering for the campaign, she was quickly fired in June, allegedly because of her refusal to volunteer on Thao’s mayoral bid.

“She got rid of me fast because I refused to do the extra work on her campaign,” Powell said, according to a report in the California Globe.

Such a supposed disregard of campaign laws is considered a major ethics violation. That means if Thao is elected mayor in less than a week, she will have deeply troubling allegations facing her before she’s sworn in, a possibly disastrous start for her mayorship.
In a written statement, Thao and her campaign strongly rejected Powell’s accusations. In fact, the counter statement said, Powell actually expressed interest in serving on Thao’s campaign and was told she was welcome to do that, but only on her own time. Thao also explained Powell’s firing had nothing to do with her refusing to volunteer and was because she had reached the end of her 90-day trial employment and it was discovered she had not been fulfilling her duties for the council.

“If people want to volunteer on a campaign on their own time, they can but it is, of course, not required,” Thao’s statement emphasized.

The Thao campaign asserts Powell’s complaint to the Commission is instead politically motivated and was initiated in direct connection to a recent poll showing an extremely close race between Thao and her opponent, fellow Councilmember Loren Taylor..
Since the release of the poll showing Thao leading the contest for Oakland’s mayor, “her opponents have been ramping up their attacks,” Thao’s statement said. “We are neither surprised nor concerned. These charges are baseless, disgruntled, and politically motivated.”

Despite Thao’s insistence otherwise, Simon Russell from the ethics commission confirmed in an email that an investigation is currently underway and looking into “whether Thao may have used one or more members of her City Council staff to work or volunteer for her mayoral campaign during her regular work hours as a city employee and whether Thao may have induced or coerced council staff to work on her campaign as a condition of their employment.”

The ethics investigation and any subsequent determination is not expected to conclude until after the election next week, due to the length of time required for the investigation to be fully processed.

The commission can impose fines and penalties on Thao if the accusations are found to be true. Meanwhile, political experts in the Oakland Bay region believe the accusations against Thao’s campaign could affect enough votes to change the outcome of the race.
“Both Thao and [Mayoral opponent Councilman Loren] Taylor are trying everything to get that edge, especially now with the election about a week away now,” Greg Kim, an Oakland area pollster, told the Globe. “But filing a false complaint carries a lot of baggage with it, and to do so now this close to an election, well, it makes political sense but not practical sense. Last minute allegations have happened in the past, and it never works out well for those who just make these allegations and then many are roasted for it because it was found that they weren’t true. Those who put those allegations out there are pretty much destroying any hope for a career in any thing public or political or periphery to those for a long time.”

Then again, “Kim said, “If these allegations are true, she picked  a very critical time to report her, with the race just about even right now. If they aren’t true, Thao’s campaign was just hurt, lending credence to her theory that this is political. Either way, it’s just yet another thing that has popped up that has made this race more of a circus.”