When the Oakland police union decided to attack Vice Mayor Jean Quan last week in robocalls made to city residents, it raised the battle over cop layoffs and generous pensions to a new level. It also may have been illegal
According to the California Public Utilities Commission, it is unlawful to bombard residents with automated robocalls that originate from within the state. Political campaigns often get around the law by hiring an out-of-state firm to conduct the robocalls, because California law does not apply to other states. However, the Oakland police union's robocalls appear to have originated in the East Bay, which, if true, means that cops violated state law in their attempt to blame Quan for the city's budget woes and the decision to lay off officers.
Several Oakland residents contacted Full Disclosure to say that when they received the calls on Tuesday, June 22, their caller ID showed them as having come from a 510 area code. The tips came in after the Express first broke the news about robocalls on its web site last week. One Oakland resident, Ralph Cooke, said the robocall he received came from 510-324-5566, a number that appears to have been subsequently disconnected. "I was pissed off," Cooke said of the robocall. "If it was a real person, I was going to tell them what I thought."
In an interview, Dom Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, admitted that it was his voice on the robocalls, and that the police union commissioned them. However, he said he didn't know whether they were made from a California phone number. "I have no idea how they went down," he said.
State law allows an exception to the robocall ban — provided that a live voice comes on the phone and asks the recipient if he or she wants to listen to the automated message. The caller also must identify himself and say who paid for the call. But the Oakland police union's robocalls don't appear to have qualified for that exception because they contained no live caller and none of the other elements. As a result, the calls appear to have been unlawful. "I think it's very disappointing that police, of all people, would do an illegal robocall," Quan said.
Christopher Chow, a spokesman for the utilities commission, said if robocalls are found to have violated state law, then the person or group behind them could face a $500 fine per call. So if, for example, the police union placed 40,000 robocalls, it could be facing a $2 million fine. Typically, it's relatively easy for the utilities' commission to check with AT&T to see where the robocalls came from. Chow said a complaint filed with the utilities commission is usually enough to generate an investigation.
The robocalls also appear to have been political since Quan is running for mayor this year against the police union's favored candidate, ex-state Senator Don Perata, who has taken up the union's cause in its debate with city leaders. In the robocalls, Arotzarena provided residents with Quan's council office phone number and urged people to call her and tell her not put Oakland "lives at risk" by laying off cops.
However, the robocalls do not mention Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, even though he has been the most outspoken proponent of and the driving force behind the cop layoff plan. De La Fuente is Perata's close friend and longtime ally. Arotzarena declined to discuss the contents of the robocall. And Larry Tramutola, Perata's campaign manager, said the ex-senator had nothing to do with them.
It also should be noted that the robocall contained inaccurate information. It blames Quan for the city's budget problems, noting that she is the council's budget chair. However, most City Hall observers agree that the city's financial problems are primarily due to the recession and to generous employee wage, benefit, and pension packages approved by the council before the economic downturn.
The robocalls also alleged that Quan had refused to consider budget cuts other than police layoffs, when, in fact, she and De La Fuente, along with council President Jane Brunner and Councilwoman Pat Kernighan, had proposed nearly $19 million budget-balancing measures, including cuts unrelated to the layoffs, prior to the robocalls going out.
Guards Attack Quan and Kaplan
A shadowy political group with ties to Perata and the state prison guard's union blanketed Oakland homes late last week with two glossy mailers, targeting Quan and Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who is also likely running for mayor. The hit pieces also criticize Kernighan and Councilwoman Desley Brooks for the cops' layoff plan.
In an interview, Larry Tramutola denied that Perata was involved with the mailer. However, the group behind the mailer, Coalition for a Safer California, is funded primarily by the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association, which gave it $100,000. As Full Disclosure reported last week, the prison guard's union has paid Perata at least $350,000 in the past seventeen months for work as a "campaign consultant," even though it has mounted no political campaigns. Perata has long had ties to the prison guard's union, and helped protect it from budget cuts while he was state Senate president pro tem.
The group behind the mailer also is co-run by Paul Kinney, a Sacramento political operative whose son, Jason Kinney, has been one of Perata's longtime spokesmen. The group's headquarters is Paul's Sacramento offices.
Other contributors to the group include longtime Perata supporters and campaign donors, including Foster Interstate Media, which is owned by the ex-senator's close friend John Foster. Foster gave the group $25,000. Perata friend Ronald Dreisbach donated $10,000 to the group. Oakland lobbyist and Perata supporter Carlos Plazola and his business partner Laura Blair donated $5,000.