Click photo to enlarge
Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks (Ray Chavez/Staff File)

OAKLAND -- Two council members illegally directed city staffers to swing a lucrative contract to their preferred construction firm, City Auditor Courtney Ruby said in a report released Thursday.

Council members Desley Brooks and Larry Reid both told city employees to contract with Turner Group Construction on a $2 million demolition project at the Oakland Army Base, and Brooks negotiated a portion of the contract herself, Ruby wrote.

Turner, whose vice president has close ties to both Reid and Brooks, ultimately lost out on the contract when City Administrator Deanna Santana stepped in and ordered a competitive bidding process, Ruby found.

The episode underscores a "culture of interference," among Oakland council members and their aides in violation of city law, Ruby said. Council meddling in administrative affairs was so pervasive, the report found, that city staffers fear retaliation if they don't cater to the wishes of council members.

"This report strikes at the very integrity of city government," Ruby said Wednesday. "Employees should be able to do their jobs without being subjected to undue influence from council members and citizens, and businesses should be able to live and work in a city where they know everyone plays by the same rules."

Representatives for Turner didn't return phone calls Wednesday, nor did Brooks, who Ruby cited for four separate violations.

Reid said that he was only trying to make sure that Oakland-based firms had a shot at the job, which was originally set to go to an out-of-town firm on a no-bid contract.

"I've never directed city staff to benefit anyone," he said. "But I have stood up to challenge city staff when I thought they were wrong."

The audit also cited one of Reid's aides for trying unsuccessfully to intimidate parking officials into forgiving two tickets.

While Oakland council members are responsible for setting policy and approving budgets, they are supposed to take their concerns over the city's day-to-day affairs to the city administrator or mayor.

The city charter does allow council members to make inquires of city staffers but prohibits them from giving orders or attempting to influence them when it comes to contracts, purchases or personnel decisions.

A violation of the charter provision is a misdemeanor punishable by removal from office if the council member is criminally convicted. Ruby said her findings will be forwarded to District Attorney Nancy O'Malley.

Although the audit only substantiated accusations against Reid and Brooks, it found many instances of perceived interference and an overall sense from city staffers that the protective wall between them and council members had crumbled.

Staffers often see council members as their bosses, the audit found, and have prioritized council member requests over those of their direct supervisors.

Several city employees refused to speak with auditors, Ruby said in the report, because they feared that council members would retaliate by undermining their performance reviews or voting against their initiatives.

The report did include interviews with more than 40 city employees and a review of council member emails and phone records dating back to 2008.

City Council President Pat Kernighan, who received an advanced copy of the audit, said it raised "serious issues" that the council needed to discuss in public.

She said the council should set up a process to censure colleagues who violate the charter but also said that interference is on the wane since Santana took over as city administrator in 2011.

"She is good at letting everyone know that council members cannot fire them and that they should not be intimidated by us," Kernighan said.

Ruby initiated the audit almost a year ago in the wake of revelations that Brooks had appeared to violate the rules by spearheading the construction of the Rainbow Teen Center and staffing it with her own employees.

The audit found that Brooks had overstepped her bounds with city staff both in connection to the Rainbow and the Arroyo Viejo Recreation Center. Brooks was found to have purchased equipment for centers and then required staffers to obtain bids for the items retroactively.

In a separate case, the audit found that Brooks had threatened to remove a city employee from an assignment in front of that employee's direct supervisor.

The fight over the Army Base contract began in spring of 2011 when Reid and Brooks objected to a city administration recommendation that Top Grade Construction, an out-of-town firm get a no-bid contract.

After an effort to include Turner on the contract fell apart, Brooks told city staffers that she and Reid opposed the recommendation and that she was negotiating a portion of the contract with Turner, according to the report.

In July, city staffers "received direction" from Brooks and Reid to "work with Turner to establish a bid proposal for the project," the report found. Meanwhile, Turner representatives told staffers that "they had (Brooks and Reid) on their side and that they were here for a fight."

On Sept. 19, Oakland redevelopment workers sent Turner a letter asking the firm to submit a bid for the job, according to the report. However, a week later, Santana questioned why city workers were dealing with Turner and put an end to the negotiations.

The job ultimately went out to bid among local firms. Both Reid and Brooks voted to approve the contract with Downrite Corportion, which was the low bidder.

Reid and Brooks both have close ties to Turner's vice president Ken Houston, who runs a political action committee and volunteered on Reid's most recent re-election campaign.

Brooks named Houston to the city's Budget Advisory Committee last year.

Reid had Houston stand with his family members when he was sworn in for his fifth term on the council in January. "Kenny is a true friend, and he's like my brother," Reid said during his speech.

However, Reid said Wednesday that he has never gone to bat for Houston when it comes to contracts. "A whole lot of people are like brothers and sisters to me," he said.

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.

Read the audit report