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Oakland City Attorney Faces Ethics Complaint Over Campaign Emails

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Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker. (CBS)

Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker. (CBS)

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OAKLAND (CBS 5) — A political dustup in Oakland has the city’s attorney defending her political campaign from accusations of violating campaign rules.

An anonymous complaint has been filed with the Oakland Public Ethics Commission, accusing City Attorney Barbara Parker of sending campaign emails soliciting donations to city employees at their work email addresses, CBS 5 has learned.

The complaint, dated Sept. 12, alleges Parker sent emails from her campaign email address to an unspecified number of city employees. The campaign email includes a plea for money that said, “Please click here to make a contribution to our campaign right now.”

The Ethics Commission complaint appears to have been signed, but the signature line was later scratched out.

Appearing in the margin of the document is a handwritten note that reads, “Representing department heads who sent me complaints.”

One recipient of the city attorney’s solicitation email was Andrea Gourdine, Oakland’s Director of Human Resources. Gourdine told CBS 5 she was surprised because, “It’s against city policy for a candidate to send an email (solicitation) directly to a city employee.”

Gourdine said she did not file the anonymous Ethics Commission complaint. But she said she has heard complaints from “a number of employees” who received the emails. She did not specify the number. Gourdine said the issue was discussed at a recent staff meeting.

Alex Katz, spokesman for the City Attorney, said it was a mistake made by a campaign staffer.

“Barbara’s campaign has thousands of email addresses on their list,” Katz said. “At the beginning of the campaign they tried to remove every single city email address. They missed a few and a few city emails received a campaign email inadvertently.”

When she recognized the mistake, the City Attorney ordered her campaign to take all city email addresses off the list, Katz said.

State law stipulates that political campaigns cannot use public resources to solicit support and donations, but leaves some room for city employees to be contacted as long as it is a part of a mass mailing. Oakland city ordinance mirrors state law, making it difficult to determine whether Parker has broken a law or made an ethical misstep.

However, courts have sanctioned city employees who use public resources for political purposes and handed down felony convictions for such violations.

As for the Ethics Commission complaint, Katz said it’s unfair and politically motivated. “It’s campaign season in Oakland,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s anything for the Ethics commission to investigate because there are no more addresses on there,” Katz said. “There are no more city addresses on that list.”

Katz said it is a common mistake in Oakland political circles caused, in part, because campaigns often trade and buy email lists and don’t thoroughly scrub them to make sure they are free of city email addresses.

In fact, CBS 5 has obtained about a dozen emails sent to city email addresses from other campaigns this year.

City Councilmember Jane Brunner, Parker’s opponent in the November election, said she has also accidentally sent out emails to city email addresses.

“I’ve had one or two wrong emails and what we do when we find that…e immediately send an apology, we rescind them and it’s done,” she said.

But Brunner said she has reason to believe the City Attorney’s emails were sent to many city employees, not just a few.

“So if it is massive, and I’m going to guess from the different people I know who got it, then it’s broad. Then it is a serious violation,” said Brunner.

Regardless of whether the number of city employees who received the solicitation on their government accounts was large or not, some political experts said the use of public resources — in this case, the city’s email system — is unethical.

“Using the public infrastructure for private good is not fair,” says Steven Sloan, a political science professor at St. Mary’s college in Moraga. “It’s wrong, but I think what people in the political arena find wrong with it—is getting caught.”

The Oakland Ethics Commission ultimately will review the complaint against Parker, but Chairman Richard Unger admits the group charged with oversight may not make a final ruling for months. The commission, which has a backlog of more than forty cases, does not plan to meet until November 5th.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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