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Don Perata's Costly Legal Defense

Ex-Senate boss' last year in Sacramento was a microcosm of his me-first career, and left his campaign coffers nearly empty.

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Don Perata is the leading candidate to be Oakland's next mayor — unless he gets indicted on public corruption charges. He has considerable name recognition, is a prodigious fund-raiser, and has a reputation for getting things done. But a review of the now retired senator's long legislative career reveals that much of his reputation is more myth than reality. And his last months in Sacramento serve as a stark reminder that whenever the going got tough, the senator usually put his needs — and desires — first.

In fact, during his last year as president pro tem of the Senate, Perata failed to achieve a single significant legislative accomplishment. He can point to no bill, or act as Senate leader, that made California or the East Bay a better place. Although he grabbed headlines last summer for sponsoring a new foreclosure law, it had virtually no effect on the housing crisis. Instead, his last year in Sacramento will be remembered for his love of hardball politics and a vindictive recall drive against Republican Senator Jeff Denham that backfired miserably. And when he left office in December, the state's budget was in shambles, and Democrats had just suffered a stinging defeat over legislative redistricting.

Public records also show that Perata chose last year not to use his single greatest gift — his ability to milk campaign donors for money — to help Democratic causes. Instead, he stood mostly on the fund-raising sidelines, and then transferred nearly all of what he had left of his personal campaign cash, nearly $2 million, into his legal defense fund while embarking on a brief, but lavish, spending spree.

Campaign finance records show he spent $2,480 on four meals at Scott's Seafood in Oakland's Jack London Square, plus $215 on a dinner for two at Oliveto restaurant in Rockridge. He also spent $215 for a dinner for two at Morton's of Chicago, one of Sacramento's finest restaurants. He also took five trips to his favorite bookstores, Diesel on College Avenue and Barnes & Noble in Walnut Creek, spending $986 on "office supplies." Perata has spent tens of thousands of dollars over the years on "office supplies," although he has never had a formal campaign office. It's in his home. Always a generous gift giver, Perata also plopped down $932 at Philippa Roberts Jewelry in Oakland on jewelry for some of his closest aides, including his longtime personal political consultant, Sandi Polka.

After the Express exposed Perata's over-the-top spending practices nearly two years ago (see "Living Large," May 16, 2007), the senator drastically reduced his habit of using campaign funds to feather his own nest. He occasionally spent money on meals and "office supplies," but it was nowhere near the torrid pace he set from 1997 through 2006, when he spent more than $1 million of his donor's money on expensive meals, hotel stays, and other questionable expenditures. Still, he apparently couldn't leave office without wetting his beak one last time.

Over the past few weeks, Perata also has been criticized for not doing more to fight Proposition 11, the redistricting measure that barely passed in November. Backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Prop. 11 stripped Democrats of their power to draw legislative district lines. It was a huge setback for Democrats who have dominated both statehouses for years in large part because they have gerrymandered districts to limit Republican opposition. Prop. 11 promises to alter the balance of power in California.

Perata could have played a significant role in stopping it, but chose not to. At the beginning of autumn, he was sitting on $2.7 million in campaign cash. But he spent only $162,000 of it helping fight Prop. 11. By contrast, he transferred $1.9 million to his legal defense fund, and went on his spending spree. Ironically, he reported on his campaign disclosure forms that several of his expensive dinners were supposedly "meetings" about Prop. 11. For some longtime political observers, it was classic Perata. "Don Perata's first priority has always been Don Perata," said Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog. "When the final choice came to fight for causes or issues, he looked after himself."

In fact, last year was a microcosm of Perata's career. He's long had a reputation for being an effective legislator and political leader, but it's largely a myth. In 2004, this newspaper published a report showing that he had one of the capitol's worst records for getting legislation passed and signed into law (see "Fund-Raising and Bill-Passing," December 8, 2004). His one signature accomplishment, a statewide assault weapons ban, passed when he pressured the legislature to approve it — before he took office in Sacramento.

The truth is Perata rose to power and prominence because of his fund-raising ability and because he spread his wealth within the Democratic Party and to his fellow legislators. Last year proved it was all about self-interest. When the party needed him most, he was glaringly absent, and Prop. 11 won by fewer than 2 percentage points.

As for the four-plus-year FBI probe, Perata had better hope the feds never indict, because he's nearly broke. Not long after he transferred the $1.9 million to his legal defense fund, he gave it all to his lawyers. In fact, he spent $2.2 million on his legal defense last year, raising his four-year total to $3.8 million. And he only has about $600,000 left.

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