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Censored: Terry Gregory, moments before he told councilmembers he wouldn't defend himself against charges of ethical misconduct.

Editor's License

The Lynching of Terry Gregory

The scandal-plagued Gonzales administration discovers ethics

By Dan Pulcrano

ON FRIDAY, the San Jose City Council voted unanimously to censure Councilman Terry Gregory. Amid the drum beat of the city's power-drunk monopoly daily and the specter of a mayoral election less than two years away, his colleagues lined up to take whacks at the beleaguered pol as if he were a corpse dangling from a tree in St. James Park.

The final blow will likely be an indictment by the district attorney, but politicians were too impatient to let justice take its course, and last week the council staged a low grade kangaroo court orchestrated to force Gregory from office before the wheels of justice could even reach second gear.

The session was gaveled to order by Mayor Ron Gonzales, who has presided over the most scandal-plagued mayoral administration in modern San Jose history, a casserole of slush funds, influence buying, inside deals and revolving doors, with a workplace romance tossed in for extra spice. Gonzales famously ushered in an unprecedented lack of transparency with his closed-door mayorship, an opaque black box of nonpublic "social" meetings, dodged media questions, undocumented transactions and perk snarfing.

As they sat upright in their chairs, the councilmembers adopted the high-minded language of ethics and public service as they sharpened their knives and prepared to act on a report from the city's colorfully named Blue Ribbon Task Force on Ethics. At that body's hearing two days earlier, Councilmember Pat Dando had asked local attorney Christopher Schumb, "Do you remember any requests [from Mr. Gregory]?"

"I get requests from a lot of different council people to donate to various charitable things they are interested in," he answered.

Perhaps hoping the answer might change if she repeated the question, Dando tried again. Had Mr. Gregory ever asked for help in soliciting contributions for community events?

"Nothing that no other councilmember's ever asked," the attorney reiterated.

Dando was so focused on nailing Gregory that she missed the obvious follow-up question that any ethics investigation should pursue, which would be the names and requests of others who were engaged in the same behavior that they were probing.

A double standard was at work, though. Scrappy, tough-talking Gregory, born in Guyana and raised in the Bronx, was being held to a higher standard than the mayor and the other councilmembers. The East Side representative had broken the code; he had been too blatant and made them all look bad. The allegations against Gregory--mostly petty, some serious--would be pursued to their conclusion. There would be no panel convened to examine the activities of others more powerful or more polished than Gregory.

To understand the deeper cancers infecting San Jose's political culture, one need only look at the various components of this latest political scandal.

STANDARD OF PROOF: A political censure requires a lower standard of proof than a criminal prosecution. How low did the council go? It considered hearsay evidence--variously "the buzz going around" or "the general buzz"--as supporting allegations of favor-seeking. And its chief witness was Gregory's bitter, unemployed former chief of staff, Craig Mann.

GREGORY'S SILENCE: Gregory's failure to address the charges at the Friday censure hearing (upon the advice of a lawyer since a criminal investigation is pending) clearly irked the council. Even without that legal instruction, it would have been difficult to prepare a defense in less than 24 hours. Gregory had received the transcript of the sworn testimony against him just a day earlier.

FREE MEALS: Terry Gregory is accused of taking free meals. I have little doubt this is true because I've seen him at Dynasty restaurant, and when I met him elsewhere for dinner once, he didn't exactly fight me for the check. Basically, this is known as the "short arms" syndrome, a biological handicap in which a person's limbs don't extend far enough to reach for their wallet or a restaurant tab.

The condition is hardly unique to Gregory. When you are a San Jose City Council member, you basically can eat for free whenever you want. Metro has for years written about the councilmembers who dine together at expensive restaurants at public expense. They take junkets to France, Scandinavia, Israel and Ireland. When they travel, they order room service, run up tabs for liquor, chardonnay, oysters and movie rentals, rent SUVs and avail themselves of valet parking--then stick taxpayers with the bill. At least Terry Gregory didn't travel.

When John Q. Public isn't feeding them, their dining partners in the private sector take over. During Tom McEnery's administration, things seemed to be a little stricter. I remember when McEnery met with a group of downtown business owners, it was the mayor who bought the round of beers. When I lunched with his chief of staff, we split the check.

After McEnery, things tended to get more lax. Mayor Susan Hammer invited me to lunch two or three times, as part of a an annual media relations effort. Each time I reached for the tab, she promised to get it "next time," but never did. Councilmember Cindy Chavez once asked me to lunch and booked a table at 840 N. First St. When the check arrived, I waited for her to make a move, since she had requested the lunch and made the reservation. Finally, when some awkward time elapsed, she confessed that she had left her credit card at the office. So I picked up the tab. Chuck Reed and Dave Cortese have admitted that they've let people buy them lunch, though Reed now says he considers business over meals a waste of time. It is not illegal or necessarily improper, but anything other than a split check muddies the waters.

TIPPING IN CASH: Gregory claimed that he contributed his share of meals by leaving cash tips on the table after dinners with Fong, who disputes this and provided credit card receipts. The same lame excuse was used by Mayor Gonzales after Metro caught him taking free golf games with lobbyists at the area's most expensive golf club. If the council had any cojones, it would subpoena Gonzales' golfing buddies and ask the district attorney to get to the bottom of this. It should also look into how Gonzales could afford to get married at the superexclusive Corde Valle golf club on his government salary, and whether accepting the de facto privileges of a $250,000 membership there constitutes an illegal gift. Absent a legal investigation, the public will never know if Gonzales broke the law, as he has refused to release documents or answer questions related to his golfing and dining activities.

FREE TICKETS: One of the most serious charges against Gregory is that he asked a wealthy property owner with holdings in his district for four tickets to a Yankees/A's game. It is believed that he gave the tickets, worth $90, to a member of his administrative staff. Gregory is hardly the first public servant to receive or ask for tickets. Mayor Gonzales attends many shows at the HP Pavilion, from the Rolling Stones to Ricky Martin, and councilmembers enjoy free seats at everything from Cirque du Soleil to the San Jose Repertory Theatre, the opera and the symphony. Obviously, the weekly council meetings don't provide enough free entertainment.

FINE WINE: Businessman Dennis Fong carried a half-case of Opus One wine to Gregory's car, then supplied a videotape to the Mercury News after he failed to win Gregory's support on the financial terms of a Tropicana Shopping Center renovation. Fong says he bought the wine wholesale for between $600 and $700 and gave it to Gregory in exuberance after Fong won an eminent-domain case against the city. The Mercury News consistently uses the list price of the wine--"worth almost $1,500 a case"--to describe the gift. As the preferred social lubricant of the valley's political elite, wine is frequently poured and donated at political events and private meetings. Somehow wine never seems to be disclosed on councilmembers' Form 700 disclosure statements.

STRONG-ARMING: Gregory was accused of asking Wal-Mart and other businesses to contribute to a community events fund, part of which was used to commemorate the opening of a skatepark. The practice of squeezing funds from businesses that either do business with the city or need favorable regulatory treatment is widespread.

Yellow Cab's Larry Silva chuckled when I asked him if he gets calls from councilmembers asking for money. "Yes, that's happened before," he said. The mayor called him to donate to the library funding ballot measure. "We were happy to do that," Silva said. He also supports the mayor's golf tournament to fund mentoring programs, council office-holder accounts and district events. "We stay active to make sure that business has a voice" on a labor-friendly council, Silva says.

Mayor Gonzales also burned up the phone lines to raise money for John Kerry. Cindy Chavez is a prolific fundraiser for everything from private school scholarships to breast cancer walks, and she is legendary for asking developers to cough up money for unfunded district projects as a condition of getting their projects approved. Barry Swenson was asked to pay for a park to get a high-rise housing project built. To her credit, Chavez does the strong-arming openly, and always "within the ordinance," she says.

EMPLOYMENT CLAIMS: Mayor Gonzales reversed his earlier position against holding censure hearings when Mann filed a wrongful termination claim against the city, saying it put the city at risk. Gonzales, the record reflects, took the opposite position with respect to his own indiscretions as an employer, when he engaged in a sexual relationship with a mayoral staff member and lied to his chief aides about it, an event that could have put the city at risk of a sexual harassment claim had his love affair not had such a happy ending.

Compounding the hypocrisy is the fact that Gonzales has long maintained that the affair with the woman he later married was a personal matter, and he has lashed out at media covering the scandal as if they were invading his privacy rather than covering a matter of legitimate public interest.

GIFT CARDS: One practice that came to light during the Gregory hearings is the donation of gift cards by local businesses to council offices for use in buying goods for district events. At least one other councilmember, Cortese, volunteered that a gift card was among the donations toward his annual community event. The use of this virtually untraceable financial instrument should be regulated by a future ordinance.

GENERAL ETHICAL CLIMATE: The council is notoriously lax about promoting a culture of ethical behavior. When new councilmembers are oriented, they are briefed about various city departments during a daylong ritual, but neither they nor their staffs are schooled in the city's complex gift and reporting rules.

When asked about the city's gift ordinance, Mann, the chief of staff who should have been watching his boss' back, testified, "My familiarity of it was zero."

Since the council is comprised mostly of lawyers, former council aides and the former mayor of a nearby city, the majority knows which lines not to cross--or at least how not to get caught doing so. One of the good things to come out of the hearings is a plan announced by Councilman Ken Yeager to hold a workshop on ethics in January.

It's about time.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the December 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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