Oakland ethics commission considers lobbying allegation

Daniell Purnell speaks to the commission

Daniel Purnell, right, executive director of the Public Ethics Commission, addresses the commission about the complaint beside deputy city attorney Alix Rosenthal.

Carlo Busby, owner of a books and arts store on Telegraph Avenue, occasionally contacts Oakland City Council President Jane Brunner about the interests of his business and those around him, addressing parking issues, crime concerns and development ideas. But a complaint recently filed with the Oakland Public Ethics Commission has raised a debate about whether such discussion makes a business owner like him a lobbyist.

Oakland’s Lobbyist Reform Act, which came into effect in 2002, states that a person can be considered a lobbyist if the individual is entitled to receive $1,000 or more for lobbying services or “whose duties … include communication directly or through agents with any public official” for the purpose of affecting governmental policy. Sanjiv Handa, who reports for the East Bay News Service, has filed a complaint with the commission alleging that six local business people are violating the act by lobbying without being registered to do so.

Though this complaint only names six prominent business leaders, the committee’s decision in the matter could have broader implications for other Oakland businesspeople, including those who run much smaller operations. Under this interpretation of the law, anyone who speaks to a public official as part of their paid duties would have to register as a lobbyist and thoroughly detail his or her official interactions. Penalties for lobbying public officials without registering include fines of up to $1,000 per violation and a reprimand from the commission.

Busby, who is also the head of the Temescal Merchants Association, said requirements like these could make democratic participation burdensome for fellow small business owners unfamiliar with the complexities of lobbying law. “It would be another barrier toward access,” Busby said. “I think it would be an irritant at the very least.”

Handa said he brought the complaint in an attempt to make Oakland government more transparent and to encourage more diligent monitoring of reform act rules.  Currently, he said, it is uncertain what has or has not been negotiated between business owners and public officials. “We don’t know what kind of deals have been made between council members, city staff and these developers,” Handa said. “We don’t know—that’s part of the problem.”

Handa’s complaint, addressed at the Public Ethics Commission’s October 4 meeting, alleges that six individuals have engaged in lobbying activities without having first registered as lobbyists. Phil Tagami, a developer, was dismissed from the claim by the commission. The commission decided to gather further information on the five remaining individuals before deciding whether or not to hold an evidentiary hearing. The five named in the complaint are Joseph Haraburda (president of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce), Scott Peterson (public policy director of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce), Sharon Cornu (executive secretary-treasurer of Alameda Labor Council), Barry Luboviski (secretary-treasurer of the Building and Construction Trades Council) and Victor Uno (president of the Board of Port Commissioners).

“There are all these people who are acting as lobbyists and aren’t registered,” Handa said. “The [Public Ethics] Commission isn’t doing anything about it.  That’s a fundamental issue.”

Peterson declined to comment on the complaint. The four others still named in the complaint did not respond to repeated interview requests by press time.

Having to register as a lobbyist could have a big impact on whether business owners choose to petition government officials.  Oakland lobbyists are required to submit a quarterly report disclosing the names and addresses of public officials with whom they meet, a narrative description of positions advocated at those meetings, and the name of those paying for the lobbyist’s services.

Attorney Bill Sokol, who represents Cornu, Luboviski and Uno, said that if the label of “lobbyist” were applied to his clients, the line between lobbyist and citizen would become blurred. “I, as a citizen, want to talk to my officials about all kinds of things,” Sokol said. “I want to talk to them and I don’t want Sanjiv Handa and everybody in my neighborhood to know I talked to them about it.”

Although Handa’s complaint targets big developers, if the public ethics commission rules in his favor Sokol argues that every Oakland business owner could be compelled to register through a similar complaint. Indeed, Handa indicated that he plans to continue bringing complaints against those he believes are unregistered lobbyists, and said he has a list with over 200 names of possible violators.

But Handa said the he does not intend to target all business owners, and that he believes in the right to free speech. He said Busby’s name would not appear on a future complaint because Busby petitions public officials as an unpaid volunteer head of a merchants’ association rather than on behalf of his own business.

Sokol also argues that the Public Ethics Commission does not have jurisdiction over private individuals. “They have the authority to investigate the behavior of city officials and employees,” Sokol said. “If someone wants to file a complaint saying a city official has been unethical, that’s where you go, but they don’t have any jurisdiction over the people of Oakland.”

But Daniel Purnell, executive director of the commission, said the language of the act gives the commission authority to enforce the rules wherever they are being broken. “The commission’s authority is set forth in the act,” Purnell said. “It can impose those penalties.”

While the commission’s ruling in Handa’s complaint could have future implications for other local businesses, Purnell said that the commission will only consider the current case against the remaining five individuals at this time. “The commission is concerned with the particular complaint it has in front of it, and will be making a determination at that point concerning these individuals,” Purnell said. “Any argument beyond the four corners of that complaint is outside the commission purview at this point.”

The commission will not make its decision until Purnell has gathered further information on the five people still named in the complaint. The commission has also requested an opinion from the Oakland City Attorney on the matter.  Purnell said it is uncertain when the next step in the commission’s process will begin. “There are protocols of due process that must be strictly obeyed,” Purnell said.

[Full disclosure: Bill Sokol is the spouse of Oakland North editor and class instructor Cynthia Gorney. Gorney was not involved in the editing or reporting of this story.]

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3 Comments

  1. Helen Hutchison

    Just fyi: the person next to Dan Purnell is Deputy City Attorney Alix Rosenthal, not Tamika Thomas.

  2. Evan Wagstaff Post author

    You are right, I incorrectly named the person in the photo. The caption has been fixed. Thank you for helping us make this article more accurate.

  3. Max Allstadt

    Tagami is a business owner who talks to councilmembers about his own business interests. That isn’t lobbying in my book.

    I spend a lot of time around city hall, I don’t know Mr. Busby, so I can’t make a judgement as to whether or not what he does amounts to lobbying.

    I can say that I’m really surprised that Peterson, Haraburda, Cornu, and Luboviski are not already registered lobbyists. I kind of assumed they were. It’s kind of their job description to lobby. Cornu and Luboviski lobby for their unions. Peterson and Haraburda lobby for the Chamber of Commerce, it’s just what they do.

    I can also say that Oakland’s lobbyist registration ordinance is problematic. In fact, I wrote a blog about it! Check it out: http://www.abetteroakland.com/max-allstadt-an-open-letter-to-the-oakland-public-ethics-commission/2009-05-13

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