By Will Harper
On Monday the Chronicle reported that the FBI was looking into state Sen. Don Perata’s role in steering business to a Washington lobbyist. While Chron reporters Susan Sward and Lance Williams made it read like this was all some big brand new revelation, Bob Gammon and I had already reported most of the details of the story more than two years ago in the East Bay Express (“Road to Nowhere,” March 1, 2006).
I will give Sward and Williams credit for doing something Bob and I were unable to: Getting John Burton on the record about his role in getting his old pal Dawson Mathis the cushy $135,000 lobbying gig eight years ago.
At the time this all went down in 2000, Burton was state senate president and Perata aspired to succeed him. Burton told the Chron that Perata came to him when the Federal Aviation Administration was stalling approval of a four-lane roadway connecting the Oakland Airport to Alameda (a pet project of developer Ron Cowan, one of Perata’s top campaign donors). According to the paper, Perata told Burton he didn’t know anyone in Washington who could budge the FAA. "I recommended Mathis for the job because he was good at what he did for a living and he didn't have a lot on his plate,” Burton explained to the Chron.
When Bob and I were reporting “Road to Nowhere,” Burton ducked us in clumsy, suspicious ways. Each of us had managed to get Burton on the phone at different times, only to be told something to the effect of, “Uhh, I’m really busy right now, call me back later.” Of course, he wouldn’t answer his phone the next time we called. We ultimately had to run our story without a comment from Burton.
So why does the FBI care about Burton and Perata steering business to Mathis? Here’s the money shot in the Chron piece: “[O]ne source who was interviewed by federal agents said his attorney ‘speculated that they were trying to determine whether Mathis gave Burton a finder's fee and, if he did, whether Burton shared any of it with Perata.’" (My god, what a tortured attribution -- hearsay speculation by the unnamed attorney of an anonymous source.)
“Finder’s Fee” is a nice way of saying a “kickback” of public funds.
There were indeed plenty of fishy things about the way Mathis, a former Congressman and friend of Burton’s, got picked and compensated. For one, Mathis was grossly overpaid for the little amount of work he did. As far as I could tell, all Mathis did was persuade a couple of old pals in the House to sign a letter extolling the virtues of the roadway (which they actually misidentified in the missive), and get on the horn with Perata and Rep. Barbara Lee a few times. That’s hardly worth the $135,000 Mathis pocketed.
Three local public agencies involved in the project—the Port of Oakland, The Alameda County Transportation Authority and the city of Alameda—each paid Mathis $45,000 for his efforts at Perata’s behest. That’s not to say officials for those agencies were happy to pay their share. In fact, privately some of them complained. The Transportation Authority’s director noted she could hire two lobbyists for her agency’s $45,000 share. And Chuck Foster, former director of the Port of Oakland, was livid about having to pay Mathis (the port already had the powerhouse lobbying firm of Patton Boggs on retainer). Still, Mathis got his money because, well, are you gonna tell a power state senator to go to hell?
Another fishy aspect of the whole deal is that Mathis got paid without a contract with any of the three agencies involved. They simply cut him a check.
In the Chron’s story this week, Burton denied taking a fee from Mathis. But if Perata is indicted, Burton very well could have to testify under oath about the roadway debacle. Sward and Williams reported that “sources familiar with the probe said prosecutors are close to deciding whether to ask the grand jury to issue indictments.”
Hmmm, I read that somewhere else recently. Oh yeah, it was in Gammon’s column two weeks ago.
Photo by Luke Thomas, Fog City Journal