Ron Gonzales, the mayor of San Jose, California, is an embattled man. On Monday, June 26, facing Santa Clara County Judge Rene Navarro in a spectator-filled courtroom, he postponed entering a plea relating to corruption charges. Then, straight out of the movies, he made a hasty exit, crowded by dozens of reporters and cameramen, holding hands with his wife. An hour later Gonzales was back at his desk in City Hall, vowing that a controversial contract was a good deal for taxpayers. The mayor stands accused of accepting a campaign bribe to help a Teamsters local obtain jobs with a contractor. But if this is another case of a bought politician, the details of the purchase are less than clear.
On June 21, Gonzales, chief budget aide Joe Guerra and contractor Norcal Waste Systems were indicted on bribery, conspiracy and public-funds misuse charges relating to an alleged backroom deal. Prosecutors say the mayor back in 2000 guaranteed one of Norcal’s subcontractors, California Waste Solutions, the hiring of recycling workers represented by International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 350 rather than those affiliated with a Longshoremen’s local. The Teamsters had represented the workers since 1993, and wanted to keep things that way. So did the mayor’s office. But there was a complication: money. The Teamster employees stood to receive $10.85 an hour, plus benefits; the Longshoremen, by contrast, had been expected to agree to only $7 an hour. The City allegedly agreed to cover Norcal’s extra labor costs, which wound up amounting to $11.25 million.
Local 350 boss Bob Morales denies the existence of an under-the-table deal. “How can I be in a secret deal when I went and testified before the entire city council and we lobby everybody and we talk to every staff member?…I cannot concede a secret deal when you talk to everybody who will listen to you,” he said. Mayor Gonzales, he insists, is guilty of nothing more than correcting a faulty assumption held by Norcal when it submitted its original bid. But prosecutors charge that Gonzales, who faces six felony counts, did more than that. In a private 2000 meeting prior to the awarding of the contract, the mayor allegedly expressed his desire to have the Teamsters do the work. The Teamsters got the contract; Gonzales in turn got $10,000 in campaign contributions from Norcal and the Teamsters. This, says, Santa Clara County Deputy Attorney Julius Finkelstein, represented “a gift of public funds.”
Gonzales, 55, did not benefit personally. However, in California it is established case law (People v. Diedrich, 1982) that a public official does not have to realize personal gain to be subject to bribery charges. The state’s legal definition is “something of present or future value or advantage or a promise to give such a thing that is requested or taken with a corrupt intent that the official’s actions will be unlawfully influenced.” That apparently includes campaign contributions. Yet even with this high standard in place, Mayor Gonzales is an innocent man, says his attorney, Allen Ruby. “There’s no case,” Ruby said. “There’s a criminal indictment that alleges multiple, serious ugly felonies, and none of them happened.”
Most members of the San Jose City Council aren’t inclined to agree. On June 28, the council passed by an 8-3 margin a nonbinding resolution calling upon Gonzales to resign. Two of the eight no-confidence votes came from current mayoral candidates Cindy Chavez and Chuck Reed (Gonzales’s third, and by law final, term ends this December 31). “I absolutely believe the mayor has the right to due process,” remarked Chavez. “He does not have a right, in my opinion, to bring a cloud over City Hall.” Reed asked, “Why did the mayor step into a dispute between the Teamsters Union and the Longshoremen’s Union?” An answer to that question may come soon; Mayor Gonzales is due back in court July 26. (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/29/06; Sacramento Bee, 7/3/06; San Jose Mercury News, 6/27/06, 7/7/06).