Remember the Keating Five?
The political consultants and propagandists defending Council members Jim Oddie and Malia Vella against allegations of improper interference in the selection of the City’s new fire chief ought to. And if they don’t, maybe the Alamedans who go to the polls this November will.
Recently, the Oddie/Vella spinmeisters have gone into overdrive in an effort to divert attention away from the Councilmembers’ own conduct to the means employed by City Manager Jill Keimach to obtain evidence of it. Not only have they branded Ms. Keimach as a serial criminal “wiretapper,” they have portrayed her supporters as the “anti-rent control/no Just Cause crowd” (the quotation – hyphen, initial caps and all – comes from Ms. Vella’s Facebook page) or the “folks who have to head home before it gets dark” (the phrase used by local labor leader Mike Henneberry to mock those who laughed as he addressed Council on April 16).
But this diversion can’t – or shouldn’t – wipe from voters’ memories certain uncontested facts:
- Under the City Charter, the city manager has sole authority to appoint subordinate officers such as the fire chief. The Charter gives no role in the selection process to Council members, and they have neither the duty to ratify, nor the right to veto, the city manager’s choice.
- The Alameda firefighters’ union wanted Ms. Keimach to appoint a former union president and current fire captain, Domenick Weaver, to succeed retiring Chief Doug Long. (In Alameda, a captain typically supervises a three-person crew.) The first of the two most recent public-safety-union contracts providing guaranteed annual salary increases was signed during Capt. Weaver’s tenure as IAFF Local 689 president.
- The firefighters’ union had not only endorsed but promoted the Council candidacies of Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella, both of whom were running for office for the first time, in 2014 and 2016, respectively. The union spent $11,799.57 on fundraisers, mailers, and phone banking for Mr. Oddie and $2,035.48 on fundraisers and mailers for Ms. Vella. It also provided phone lines – at a cost of $1,750.60 – to “Alamedans United,” the PAC backing Ms. Vella and other pro-labor candidates. (All told, Mr. Oddie got $23,544.90, and Ms. Vella $41,235.67, from organized labor for their campaigns.)
- After Chief Long announced his intent to retire, Mr. Oddie wrote a letter to Ms. Keimach on official City letterhead “strongly recommend[ing]” Capt. Weaver for the fire chief’s job. “Dom has demonstrated his leadership abilities for many years,” Mr. Oddie wrote, “in the Department, as an officer of IAFF Local 689, and in our community.”
- A day later, Mr. Oddie told Police Chief Paul Rolleri, “Well, she’d better do the right thing,” referring to Ms. Keimach’s decision about the new fire chief. “There are already two council members who are ready to fire her if she doesn’t.”
- Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella arranged a private face-to-face meeting with Ms. Keimach to discuss the appointment of the new fire chief. We don’t know the contents of the discussion, but we think it is safe to assume that the two Council members urged Ms. Keimach to give the job to Capt. Weaver. (There is, of course, a tape recording of the meeting, but neither Mr. Oddie nor Ms. Vella, whose “privacy” allegedly was invaded by Ms. Keimach, has called for its public release).
- Ms. Keimach ended up selecting Edmond Rodriguez as the new fire chief.
This is where the story of the Keating Five comes in.
The scandal stemmed from the actions taken by five United States senators, including California’s Alan Cranston, to influence federal officials in their decisions about the fate of a savings and loan run by one of the politicians’ major campaign fundraisers.
The S&L was known as Lincoln Savings & Loan, and its president was Charles Keating. Relations between Lincoln and its primary regulator, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, began to deteriorate in 1982 after the Board’s chairman, a man named Edwin Gray, proposed new rules Keating regarded as inimical to Lincoln’s business strategy. The situation worsened when the FHLBB staff prepared a preliminary audit report critical of Lincoln in 1986.
Keating had friends on Capitol Hill, particularly the five senators, for whom he had raised a total of $1.5 million over the years. The legislators made it their mission to act as advocates for Lincoln with the federal banking officials.
At a meeting whose ostensible purpose was to discuss pending legislation, one senator, Michigan’s Don Riegle, pulled Gray aside and told him that “there were senators out West who were concerned” about the FHLBB’s dealings with Lincoln. Senator Riegle then set up a sit-down for the other four senators with Gray, who was told not to bring any aides with him.
At the meeting, Gray fended off the politicians by describing himself as a “big picture” guy unfamiliar with the details of Lincoln’s situation. But the senators requested and obtained a follow-up meeting for all five of them with the staffers in the FHLBB’s San Francisco office who were responsible for the case.
According to notes taken by one of the regulators at the second meeting, the lawmakers differed in how they couched their demands that the FHLBB call off the dogs. “I wouldn’t want any special favors for [Lincoln],” Senator John McCain of Arizona declared (which the staffer took to mean that is exactly what he did want). Another senator, John Glenn of Ohio, was more direct. “[Y]ou should charge them or get off their backs,” he said. Told that it was “very unusual” for senators to get so involved with regulatory decisions, Senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona responded: “It’s very unusual for us to have a company that could be put out of business by its regulators.”
The get-together ended abruptly when the regulators revealed that they intended to refer the Lincoln case to the Justice Department. Later, the San Francisco staff recommended that Lincoln be shut down, but their bosses in Washington overruled them. Lincoln’s fortunes continued to decline, and the government ended up seizing the thrift after all. Lincoln declared bankruptcy.
The story of the five senators’ intervention with the FHLBB then hit the papers, and the Senate Ethics Committee began an inquiry. The senators’ primary defense was that they had done nothing wrong. Meeting with the Bank Board chairman and FHLBB staff to push Lincoln’s cause did not violate any statute or Senate rule, they pointed out. As far as the legislators were concerned, they were only discharging their duty to represent a constituent. “This duty may create an appearance of mutual dependence,” Senator Cranston’s lawyer argued, but “there is nothing improper, nor is there an appearance that there is anything improper, about that mutuality.”
Ultimately, after months of hearings and debate, the Ethics Committee voted to “reprimand” Senator Cranston for engaging in “improper and repugnant” conduct. The other four senators escaped sanctions, but the committee found that two of them (Riegle and DeConcini) had given the “appearance” of acting improperly and the other two (Glenn and McCain) had exercised “poor judgment.”
The Keating Five have not fared well in the court of public or scholarly opinion. Almost immediately, they saw themselves featured in a deck of playing cards whose face showed Keating holding up his hand with the five senators as puppets on his fingers. Since then, every time McCain has run for re-election – or for higher office – his detractors have dredged up his role in the scandal and forced him to defend himself yet again.
Likewise, soon after the hearings were over, Dennis F. Thompson, the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard, published an article in the American Political Science Review in which he argued that the behavior of the Keating Five exemplified a new form of political corruption he called “mediated corruption.” This form of corruption occurs when an elected official, having obtained a political benefit (like a campaign contribution) from a private party, serves as an intermediary in an attempt to influence another public official to take an action for that party’s benefit (like calling off a regulatory audit). The intervention is “corrupt,” Professor Thompson suggested, if a “reasonable citizen” would believe that it “bypasses the democratic process.” He explained:
When an official accepts large contributions from interested individuals under certain conditions, whether or not the official’s judgment is actually influenced, citizens are morally justified in believing the official’s judgment has been so influenced and acting on that belief themselves. The official is guilty of failing to take into account the reasonable reaction of citizens.
(Another Harvard professor, Lawrence Lessig, later sounded a similar note in his book, “Republic Lost,” in which he introduced the concept of “dependence corruption.” When a politician comes to depend on contributions from interest groups to attain, and retain, elective office, her responsiveness to the will of ordinary voters falters. Rejecting the position taken by Senator Cranston’s lawyer, Professor Lessig argued that this “mutual dependence” between officeholder and funder is in fact pernicious. Not only does it distort a legislator’s policy choices, it also diminishes the public’s trust in government.)
From this perspective Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella cannot rest easy even if the evidence ultimately leads to the conclusion that they did not “threaten” or “intimidate” Ms. Keimach. Their decision to intervene at all in a process in which Council members are supposed to play no role may strike a “reasonable citizen” as objectionable by itself. What’s worse, by urging the city manager to give the fire chief’s job to the candidate hand-picked by the union that underwrote their campaigns, they can be seen as acting more like paid lobbyists than public servants.
Mr. Oddie may well have been careful enough not to say to Ms. Keimach what he said to Chief Rolleri: pick Capt. Weaver or lose your job. Ms. Vella may well have been shrewd enough to tell Ms. Keimach, like Senator McCain did Chairman Gray, that she didn’t “want any special favors.” If so, the two Council members, like the Keating Five, can claim that they did nothing wrong – certainly, nothing illegal. That may be good enough for some. But it may not play well with those Alamedans who cringe at the idea of their elected officials even appearing to put their contributors’ wishes ahead of the interests of the citizenry as a whole. In that event, Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella may find themselves in trouble the next time they’re on the ballot.
Campaign disclosure reports are available on the City website: http://docs.ci.alameda.ca.us/WebLink8/Browse.aspx?startid=310100&row=1&dbid=0
The Thompson article can be read online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/2939047?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (free registration required)
The Lessig book can be found at the public library.