Stained Rep

The upcoming trial of Oakland Post Publisher Paul Cobb in San Francisco Superior Court should be, if nothing else, dramatic legal theater. Or at the very least, perhaps a good newspaper yarn. Cobb feels — with some justification — that his company is being unfairly prosecuted for the sins of the previous owner, Velda Berkley. Cobb also feels — without so much justification — that S.F. District Attorney Kamala Harris decided to not prosecute Berkley alone and go after him instead because her mom plays bridge with Berkley.

The story begins 3 1/2 years ago when Berkley decided to move the venerable black paper from Oakland's Uptown district. During the move, her employees discovered large cans of unused newspaper ink containing hundreds of gallons. A local hazardous waste company offered to dispose of the ink properly for $3,000, but according to court documents, Berkley didn't want to pay that much.

So one of Berkley's trusted employees hired two men to get rid of the ink. For $500, these two dudes loaded it into a van, drove to San Francisco, and dumped the ink in Bayview-Hunters Point. (Irony alert: Righteous black-owned paper dumps waste in a poor black neighborhood!) The two geniuses didn't bother to cover their tracks: Investigators later found several of the ink containers with labels that read "Post News" or "Post Newspapers."

The Department of Toxic Substances Control completed its open-and-shut case in April 2004. But the district attorney didn't file criminal charges against the newspaper until Dec. 13 — just one week after Berkley completed her sale of the Post to Cobb's Alameda Publishing Corporation. Prosecutors never charged Berkley, even though they admit the dumping occurred on her watch. Cobb, whose preliminary hearing begins Feb. 16, understandably wonders, "Why didn't they go after the previous owner?"

That's where the bridge conspiracy theory comes in. "There appears to be a conflict of interest in the case between Velda Berkley and the district attorney's mother," says Cobb's attorney, Clinton Killian.

But a spokeswoman for the district attorney denies any conspiracy to let Velda Berkley off the hook because she is allegedly a card-playing pal of Kamala's mother, Shyamala Harris. By the by, Mama Harris, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, acknowledges being a bridge player, but she denies Cobb's allegation about being pals with Velda Berkley. "Absolutely not," she says. "What's her name? Wilma? I don't know her."

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