[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

[whitespace]
Star Power: Though tainted by ethic issues of his own, Craig Mann gave a convincing performance at last week's hearings, painting his former boss as a Boss Tweed wannabe.

Feeding Frenzy

If last week's testimony is an indication, Terry Gregory is a first-class mooch

By William Dean Hinton

IN THE FIRST WEEKS of June 2003, Terry Gregory wanted baseball tickets to one of the biggest Oakland A's games of the season, an August match with the hated Yankees. The contest was such a must-see it sold out two months before the teams would meet. So the freshman San Jose city councilman did what any sports fan would do: He picked up the phone and called a friend, attorney Christopher Schumb, who took Gregory's call as he was dropping his kids off at school. Schumb, a large man active in valley political races, was no baseball fan. Instead of trying to accommodate Gregory, Schumb did something he would later apologize profusely for. He handed the phone to John DiNapoli, a commercial real estate heir, whose kids attend the same school as Schumb's daughter.

According to testimony DiNapoli gave last week, he was no fan of baseball either. He doesn't have season tickets to the A's or Giants, doesn't attend games and, in fact, didn't know the Yanks were coming to town in August. Even so, DiNapoli took if upon himself to accommodate Gregory. He contacted John Poch, the executive director of an at-risk youth group, After-School All Stars, who happened to know an A's intern, who purchased four tickets in the Coliseum's lower bowl.

Those four tickets would eventually become one of the reasons the San Jose City Council voted 10-0 to censure Gregory last week, beginning what pundits expect to be many rounds of public rebukes of the former Franklin McKinley School Board member. As with the free meals, bottles of premium wine and other extra-gratuitous gifts Gregory accepted in two years in office, he didn't pay for the tickets, didn't send a thank you note and didn't seem very interested in them once he obtained them. At least one of them wound up in the hands of one of Gregory's office assistants.

Even Gregory's friends were at a loss to explain why he didn't pay for his request. "I certainly didn't have the impression that the guy was saying, 'Hey, get me some tickets for free and I'm a mooch and I want some tickets," Schumb testified. "I would have remembered that."

Unfortunately for Gregory, other witnesses testifying against him last week remembered him as one of the city's biggest mooches in memory. State law permits public officials to accept no more than $340 worth of free meals per year. Gregory exceeded that limit from one constituent, businessman Dennis Fong, who estimated he donated more than $2,000 to Gregory's empty stomach in 2003, though that is probably an exaggeration. When Fong was asked what he thought about paying for Gregory's meals, Fong replied, "In the beginning, I was somewhat surprised but somewhat flattered and honored ... You get sticker shock after one or two [meals]. As it increases, it becomes a concern."

The media vultures have circulated over Gregory's political carcass for months now, after the city's daily newspaper broke allegations in May that Gregory was using his office for personal gain. The hearings merely confirmed Gregory's reputation as a freeloader. "Even cumulatively this is small-scale stuff, which is maybe why there isn't huge outrage [from the public]," says San Jose State political scientist Terry Christensen. "It's clearly wrong, but it's also a little pathetic. Major impacts probably include the Mercury News editorial page growing even more confident in its power and prowess, and greater cynicism among the general public. Neither is very good."

Erin Brockovich

If one key witness is to be believed, Gregory went to embarrassing lengths to strong-arm companies to give to his district, which is located in south-central San Jose. Gregory had his chief of staff, Craig Mann, who testified at last week's hearings, write to a dozen companies, suggesting how they could contribute to projects in his district. When Costco officials donated a $50 gift card to Gregory's district, he looked at it like an "insult," according to Mann. Their offer rejected, Costco officials flew down from Washington to meet with Gregory personally, eventually giving him a $500 card his office used to pay for refreshments at district gatherings. "They were taken aback by our assertiveness," claimed Mann, who seemed to be the only one of nearly a dozen witnesses to enjoy his time at the microphone. "They felt they were being bullied. They'd never had any politician in the history of their working in communities come at them so hard to make donations."

Mann says Gregory also tried to thwart an effort by General Electric to convert 55 acres of industrial property to commercial use, at Monterey and Curtner roads. Gregory intervened because he wanted the projects to include apartment buildings or condos. Mann says GE has a policy against converting industrial property to residential because company officials fear an "Erin Brockovich-type situation." At first, Gregory threatened GE officials, according to Mann. "It was communicated to GE on more than one occasion that we can play it one of two ways," Mann testified. "You can accommodate my wishes or I'll kill this at every possible turn in the process, which included planning commission approval and ultimately when it reached the city council."

Gregory eventually relented, handing GE officials a list of seven projects he wanted donations for, including an African American museum and 13-acre park, amounting to $14 million. That effort fell through when the Mercury News began reporting on the land conversion last December, Mann said.

The shakedowns, if true, are bad enough. But evidence has emerged that Gregory tried to cover his tracks on at least two occasions—which, if corroborated, would prove Gregory knew he was breaking city ordinances and state law.

Testifying last week, businessman Dennis Fong said Gregory invited him to his house in May, days after the Gregory story first broke. According to Fong's testimony, Gregory wanted Fong to lie by saying Gregory had left cash on the tables as a tip to cover Gregory's portion of dinner expenses. Unfortunately, the receipts, which Fong says he turned over to the district attorney's office, show Fong paid gratuities as well as meals.

A year earlier, in April 2003, Gregory admonished Mann for using email to discuss with an aide how to handle 18 campaign checks that arrived for his campaign after the cutoff date in late 2002. "Stop the Press," Gregory wrote to Mann. "This entire conversation should be taken off the air. Please use your telephones."

Mann also contributed to deceptions in the District 7 office. While researching what to do with the campaign checks, Mann told an office assistant to research in "stealth mode" so nobody would detect that Gregory needed the information.

Vultures

Those same campaign checks illustrate what a couple of bumblers Gregory and his sidekick were. It's no big deal to receive checks after the cutoff date, which was Oct. 19, 2002. Candidates are expected to document the checks on a Form 460 and return the checks. Instead of returning the checks and suffering no penalty, Gregory ordered Mann to destroy them. Mann, however, kept them and made photocopies, which eventually found their way to the Elections Commission, helping to build the case against Gregory.

Gregory has maintained his innocence since the story first broke. But at last week's council meeting to determine his fate, he looked like a dead pol walking. He said he had regrets, apologized to the council for putting them through the mess, hoped everyone could put the matter behind them and said he couldn't speak on advice of his attorney. Then he walked out and let the council deliberate his fate. A moment later, an aide grabbed a white binder and followed him out the door. Not once did he profess his innocence.

Gregory still faces a district attorney investigation as well as the city's Elections Commission and maybe a Fair Political Practices Commission inquiry. Four councilmembers have signed a letter asking him to resign. He might face more council sanctions, including removal from office if he is convicted of a crime.

Even if he survives all that, Gregory might have a rough time with District 7 voters in the 2006 election. "I expect him to tough it out, which means he can only be removed by [criminal] conviction or recall, which could also take months," says Christensen, the SJSU professor. "I don't sense enough community outrage to drive a recall, although I expect the vultures are circling, by which I mean political consultants and potential candidates who see an opportunity."

Whatever Gregory's fate, his freeloading ways seems to have awakened the council to improve its ethical standards. They've already voted to prohibit accepting more than $50 in meals annually. And they profess to know their constituents a little better. "I have learned from this that there is a reason people from the general public write checks to councilmembers or do nice things for councilmembers," says District 10's Pat Dando. "And it's not necessarily because we're great people and fun to be around." Hopefully, future Boss Gregorys will hear Dando's message loud and clear.


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

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]


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.




Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate