Ron Cowan wiped away his tears, but they wouldn't stop flowing. The flashy developer who once crashed his helicopter into San Francisco Bay held his breath and muttered "Goddammit" as he stepped up to the microphone. It was June 11, 2004, and many of his longtime friends were on hand to sing his praises and name a road after him. He had helped put most of them in office.
But Cowan knew something many of those in the sizable audience did not: He'd paid a steep price to get his road, the Ron Cowan Parkway. The man had gambled everything for this 1.4-mile stretch of pavement connecting his flagging Alameda business park to the Oakland International Airport.
Cowan started out as a nobody, a high-school dropout, and rose to become one of the most influential developers in the Bay Area. Among his close friends are former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, former state Senate president John Burton, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, and, most recently, state Senate boss Don Perata, the second most powerful man in California. "I'm blessed with a vivid imagination," said Cowan, who was decked out in an exquisitely tailored suit for the occasion. "My supporters would call it 'visionary' and my detractors would call it ... 'He's full of fantasies.'"
Over the last four decades, the 71-year-old has had more than his share of success and failure. In the good times, his spending was legendary: He once owned a $12 million Tiburon villa with 24-carat-gold sinks, and rented Mel Gibson's Malibu estate to throw parties for his rich friends and politicians. In the quest to get his road built, though, he went bankrupt and defaulted on millions of dollars' worth of loans.
But none of that was mentioned on the day of the dedication. One by one, Citizen Cowan's powerful pals took up the microphone to extol his tenacity and marvel at his "vision." Among them were Lockyer, Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, and Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger even sent a personal envoy to speak on his behalf.
Perata was master of ceremonies. Dressed in a dark pinstriped suit and wearing sunglasses on this cloudless day on Alameda's Bay Farm Island, the politician declared, "Ron Cowan, I'm proud to be your friend and to represent you anywhere I go."
But being friends with Don Perata is a double-edged sword. One year later, Cowan and his beloved roadway became ensnarled in Perata's legal troubles when the FBI subpoenaed the developer in its public corruption probe of the senator, the Express has learned. The FBI has been investigating whether Perata has pocketed illegal kickbacks, and now federal investigators are scrutinizing his role in steering a lucrative deal to a Beltway lobbyist to ensure the Ron Cowan Parkway would get built.
At least two dozen interviews and hundreds of pages of documents reviewed for this story raise serious questions as to whether the lobbyist, former Georgia Congressman Dawson Mathis, accomplished anything for the $135,000 he received in public funds from three East Bay agencies. They also shed light on how taxpayers ended up footing an estimated bill of $40 million for a road that was essentially designed to benefit one man -- and in the end didn't even do that.
A Long, Hard Road
An understanding of how Cowan's roadway came to pass is worth a trip back to the beginning. In the early 1960s, after a stint owning a men's clothing store failed to satisfy his ambitions, the Alameda businessman launched a real-estate company called Doric Development. Throughout the decade, Doric built small- and medium-size housing complexes. By the early '70s, the company's prowess had earned Cowan a partnership with Utah International, which owned nearly one thousand acres of San Francisco Bay wetlands on Bay Farm Island, adjacent to Oakland International Airport. Cowan and Utah had big ideas for the land -- they wanted to fill in the wetlands and erect a densely populated city of nearly 10,000 homes for 21,000 new residents.
But Cowan's plan sparked a strong backlash. Among his harshest critics was Perata, then an Alameda schoolteacher. In 1975, Perata ran for mayor of Alameda, railing against Cowan's plans; he lost the race by the slimmest of margins. Public opinion had clearly turned against Cowan. The city forced him to downsize his development, which he named Harbor Bay Isle, to 3,000 homes for 10,000 people.
Before he could break ground, Cowan had to overcome another adversary -- the Port of Oakland, whose officials believed his development would interfere with their own desires to expand the airport. At one point, an angry Cowan claimed to the Oakland Tribune that delays from his years-long legal fight with the port was costing him $5 million annually. So Cowan used his political savvy to get what he wanted. He started a local ballot drive to eviscerate the port's independence and turned to then-state Senator Bill Lockyer for legislation to curb airport noise. Lockyer admitted to the Tribune that the genesis of the resulting bill was Cowan's Sacramento lobbyist. In the end, the port got the message and settled with Cowan, allowing his plans to move forward.
The homes Doric built amid the lagoons of Harbor Bay sold briskly, and Cowan spent his profits freely. He reportedly poured $12 million into his 20,000-square-foot Tiburon villa, a hidden hilltop mansion known as the Roundhill Estate. It featured eleven bathrooms, nine bedrooms, seven fireplaces, waterfalls, pools, spas, a twenty-seat Art Deco movie theater, and panoramic bay views. Understated it wasn't. According to a 1996 San Francisco Chronicle story, Roundhill also boasted Dutch gold-leaf ceilings, alabaster fixtures, and Honduran mahogany doors.
But where Cowan's residential development succeeded, his 350-acre office park, the Harbor Bay Business Park, was struggling. Corporations viewed it as too remote, despite its proximity to the airport. Recognizing this problem early on, Cowan launched campaigns both to run a ferry service from Harbor Bay to San Francisco and to build a road from his business park to the airport. "I've been planning for that since the late 1970s," he said in a phone interview last month. It took the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the resulting Bay Bridge collapse to jumpstart his ferry service plan. And when the roadway project later steered off course, Cowan's onetime enemy Don Perata, whom he had since befriended, jumped in to save it.