For more than a decade, AC Transit made a mockery of federal Buy American rules. The cash-strapped transit agency routinely wrapped itself in financial knots, funneling US taxpayer funds through various accounts in order to buy expensive foreign-made buses (see "Thwarting Buy American Laws to Buy Belgian," 1/30/2008). AC Transit officials repeatedly claimed that the Belgian-made Van Hools were superior to American buses, even though the agency's own records showed that the Van Hools were accident-prone and dangerous for riders with mobility problems (see "The Buses from Hell," 1/23/2008). AC Transit officials also downplayed the numerous posh trips they took to Belgium and their side excursions to Paris and Amsterdam, arguing that $1 million in public funds they spent on the getaways merely represented the costs of doing business (see "Belgium or Bust," 1/30/2008).
But then earlier this month, AC Transit, which now has a new general manager who appears to be more interested in making pragmatic choices rather than jetting off to Europe, officially ended its costly relationship with Van Hool. The agency's board of directors, at the urging of new General Manager David Armijo, voted 6-1 to buy forty buses from an East Bay bus-maker — Gillig of Hayward. It was the first time in more than a dozen years that AC Transit had bought an American-made bus, let alone one made locally. And it was about time.
The new $16-million purchase not only will help East Bay union workers at Gillig keep their jobs, it will also provide AC Transit riders with a superior bus-riding experience. Gillig has been manufacturing quality buses for a long time, and its buses are much safer than the dangerous Van Hools, which many riders took to calling the Van Hells.
Because it was located in Hayward and not Europe, Gillig apparently didn't fit the vision for what AC Transit officials, particularly former General Manager Rick Fernandez, wanted for the agency. Fernandez and other AC Transit board members, especially longtime board member Chris Peeples, believed that Europeans were smarter about transit and knew how to build better buses than Americans. They were wrong.
"They were sold to the board on the basis of, you know, how we elite Americans tend to think that everything is done better in Europe, so there was this feeling that if you want good transit, go to Europe," AC Transit board member Greg Harper, who became a critic of the Van Hools over time, told The Bay Citizen. "They just didn't turn out to be any of those things. They weren't better priced; they weren't better made."
The Don and Ignacio Strike Again
Even in his private life, ex-state Senator Don Perata is spurring questions about potentially corrupt dealings. The San Francisco Chronicle recently noted that Oakland Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente had been on Perata's payroll and that Perata is now lobbying on behalf of a company that's trying to win a lucrative public contract that De La Fuente plans to vote on. In addition, Bay Area News Group reporter Josh Richman recently noted that a campaign committee that Perata controls continues to pay cash to several of his longtime cronies — supposedly for working on Prop 29, a statewide measure on the June ballot.
Perata and De La Fuente, who have been close political friends and allies for two decades, maintain that there's nothing wrong with these financial moves. But they've repeatedly said the same thing about other questionable deals they've been involved with in the past. Indeed, no other East Bay politician in the past half-century has taken part in as many shady deals as Perata. And De La Fuente has had numerous troubles of his own, including an FBI probe at City Hall.
Both of the latest news reports concerned Perata's Hope 2012 Committee, which is supposed to support Prop 29 — a ballot measure that would add a $1 tax to cigarettes to fund cancer research. As the Express previously reported, Perata's use of this committee in 2010 raised a host of questions about whether he was employing it to help him win the Oakland mayor's race in violation of state law (see "The Cancer in the Oakland Mayor's Race," 2/10/2012). Many of the same "consultants" that Perata hired for the Hope 2012 Committee also worked on his mayoral campaign at a time when the Hope 2012 Committee appeared not to be doing much work. Perata's actions raised questions as to whether he was paying the consultants from the Hope 2012 account to work on his mayoral campaign. Records showed that the Hope 2012 campaign had paid him for fancy meals and stays at posh hotels.
Perata also had hired De La Fuente to work on the Hope 2012 Committee and paid him at least $37,500 for what Perata said was to help win union support for the ballot measure. But the move was curious because De La Fuente in recent years has earned a reputation for being perhaps the most anti-union elected official in Oakland, particularly when it comes to public-employee unions. Although De La Fuente is himself a union rep, public-employee unions in Oakland view him as their primary foe. It's also unclear whether De La Fuente ever delivered any actual union support for the tobacco-tax initiative in exchange for the $37,500.
Now, the Chronicle reports that Perata has been lobbying for SMG, a large corporation that's bidding for the concession's contract at the Oakland Coliseum. At the same time, De La Fuente not only sits on the board that runs the Coliseum and will vote on the contract, he's also on the committee that's reviewing the bid made by SMG and the bids of its rivals. In addition, De La Fuente failed to report $25,000 in income from Perata's committee on his official statements of economic interests in violation of state law. De La Fuente, who plans to run for mayor again this year if there's a recall election, is calling his failure to disclose the $25,000 an "oversight."
Meanwhile, Richman reported that the Hope 2012 committee has paid out more than $200,000 since last June to several of Perata's longtime "consultants." Among them is Anne Willcoxon, who also lists herself as "charges d'affaires" at Perata Consulting LLC — Perata's consulting and lobbying firm. Willcoxon's status as a staffer for Perata's lobbying business while also being paid by his campaign committee raises questions as to whether the campaign committee is also helping fund his lobbying work — an arrangement that would also violate state law.