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December 18, 1997

Richmond fire union used retirees' names Thursday, December 18, 1997 

Suzanne Espinosa Solis, Chronicle Staff Writer 

A politically powerful union in Contra Costa County misrepresented the source of nearly $15,000 in campaign contributions this year in possible violation of state law, The Chronicle has learned. 

The Richmond firefighters union, which has financed campaigns for city and school officials and even tried to defeat a supervisor candidate on the other side of Contra Costa, listed 93 current and 94 retired firefighters as giving $157.42 apiece this year to its political action committee. The total donations listed with the county Elections Department came to $30,000, of which the retirees' share was $14,797. 

But that came as news to some of the retirees, who said they hadn't contributed a cent. 

``I haven't given a thing to the union since I retired 25 years ago,'' said Leo Yarnell of Richmond, a former firefighter who said he was once a union leader. 

Retired firefighter James Ascari of Sonoma scoffed, ``I did not send them $157. I don't donate that kind of money. Tell them to send it back to me.'' 

Local 188 of the International Association of Firefighters is headed by Darrell Reese, who has achieved prominence in Richmond by lobbying officeholders on behalf of industry and developers. 

Its enemies have long accused the union of secretly funneling contributions from Reese's clients into political campaigns. Reese calls the suspicions groundless and says the union's political action committee gets all its money from Richmond firefighters. 


Reese, 60, the union's consultant and former president, acknowledged that retirees do not contribute to the PAC. He said they were ``honorary members'' who were listed in order to get around state Proposition 208, which limits individual contributions to PACs to $250 a year. 

Reese said the money had come from the union's general fund, consisting of dues from working firefighters and the proceeds from a circus that the union sponsored this year. To avoid having the firefighters' donations exceed Proposition 208 limits, Reese said, he listed the retirees. 

Reese said he and his wife, Doris, who performs bookkeeping for the PAC, had checked their strategy with two staffers at the state Fair Political Practices Commission. He said they had believed that what they were doing was within the law. 

``You can't bend the law in political spending and get away with it,'' Reese said, explaining that he would never have listed the retirees if he had known it violated the law. ``These kinds of things eventually come out.'' 

Gary Huckaby, a spokesman with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, would not comment on Reese's story or on whether the agency is investigating Local 188. He pointed out that the intent of campaign finance laws is to identify the true sources of contributions. 

``Disclosure of contributions from individuals who in fact did not make the contributions is a violation of California's Political Reform Act,'' Huckaby said. 

Reese acknowledged that he hadn't gotten any advice from the FPPC in writing and that ultimately the union is responsible for its financial reports. 

``If we're wrong, we're wrong,'' he said. ``We'll be fined.'' 


Yesterday, Reese said he was preparing an amended campaign filing that would show working firefighters contributing the maximum $250 limit apiece, for $23,000. The rest of the $30,000 in reported donations, he said, would be listed as coming from the Bentley Brothers Circus. 

``Their (the FPPC's) intent is to find out where the money came from,'' Reese said. ``Well, that's where the money came from -- 2,000 or 3,000 people paid as much as $47 a ticket.'' 

Reese, who volunteers his services as a consultant for the union, said the FPPC has ``incessantly'' investigated the union over the years and has never substantiated any complaints. 

Huckaby said the agency has no records showing past penalties against the firefighters union. 

Reese is no stranger to political funding probes, but the investigations have never led to formal charges. 

In 1984, Reese was caught up in a federal grand jury investigation for allegedly helping San Francisco entrepreneur J. William Oldenburg obtain a majority vote by the City Council for a 365-acre condominium development project in east Richmond. Oldenburg allegedly offered $3,000 in campaign contributions to three council members in exchange for their votes, which helped raise the value of the property. His lobbyist was Reese, who denies that payoffs were ever discussed. 


``I testified before a grand jury. As far as I was concerned, we were completely exonerated,'' he said. 

Oldenburg went on to face charges of using $26.5 million in deposits from a Utah savings and loan he once owned to buy the Richmond property, which federal prosecutors claimed was worth only $4 million. In 1991, after two mistrials, prosecutors dropped the charges. The condominiums were never built. 

Last year, the Defense Department suspended a federal grant for a Richmond project after concluding that the City Council had improperly awarded the grant to a business with ties to Reese. 

The council initially hired Dan Peterson & Associates, a Richmond architect that consulted with Reese, to draft a civilian reuse plan for the Point Molate U.S. Naval Fuel Depot. Because Peterson was rated poorly by city staff, the council's decision to hire him instead of a top-rated firm raised suspicions that Reese was behind the vote. 

``I had been told by other council members that Reese was lobbying for Peterson in the Point Molate project,'' said Councilman Tom Butt, one of Reese's most outspoken critics. Butt voted against Peterson and filed a complaint with the Defense Department. 


The five council members who voted to hire Peterson -- each of whom had received campaign contributions from the firefighters union but denied being lobbied by Reese -- were forced by the Defense Department to scrap the contract and take new bids. The second time, the top-rated firm of Brady and Associates in Berkeley won the job. 

Reese and the firefighters union have also been active outside Richmond. In 1992, the union spent nearly $25,000 -- almost its entire budget -- in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Gayle Bishop from winning election to a county supervisor's seat representing Walnut Creek, Danville and San Ramon. 

Bishop was running a campaign against the proposed 11,000- home Dougherty Valley development in central Contra Costa. Her opponent was Sue Rainey, wife of state Senator Richard Rainey, whom Reese describes as a good friend. 

Reese shrugged off questions by opponents of Dougherty Valley about whether the union was fronting for Shappell Industries, the project's developer. 

``People say that. But the interesting thing is, when you go through our campaign filings, you can't find a shred of evidence'' of money from Shappell, Reese said. 


In fact, in the 14 years worth of campaign statements filed with the county by Reese and the union, there are no entries showing contributions from businesses or anyone other than firefighters. There are, however, several thousand dollars worth of loans -- but the loans are all attributed to either Reese, his wife or other firefighters. 

The union raised eyebrows this year when it spent $6,600 to support three candidates for the West Contra Costa Unified School District board, only one of whom won. 

``Why would the firefighters voluntarily use their money in a jurisdiction they aren't involved in?'' said two-term school board member Charles Ramsey, who has never been backed by the union. ``It doesn't make sense.'' 

The union explained that firefighters are committed to quality education. The school district includes Richmond and stretches from Kensington to Hercules. 


Councilman Butt thinks Reese is trying to expand his political influence by becoming a significant contributor in school board races. 

``Richmond's a poor city, but there's a lot of money floating around here and a lot of city actions that involve a lot of money,'' Butt said. ``What Darrell Reese does is he puts people in office and then they owe him favors.'' 

Reese smiled at the suggestion. 

``Most of the people I get involved with in campaigns turn out to be friends. So, I have friends. I've never asked them to do something in the long run that would make them vulnerable. You don't ask friends to do things like that.''