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Grand Jury determines that Santa Clara City Councilmembers Becker, Jain, Park, Chahal, and Hardy committed malfeasance; police chief asks DA to investigate.
Levi's Stadium, which is owned by the city of Santa Clara and leased to the San Francisco 49ers, has become a virtual battleground.
Photo by jejim, Shutterstock
One of the most contentious races in the state of California is taking place in the barely mid-sized city of Santa Clara (population 127,151)—not coincidentally home of the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium.
Lisa Gillmor, who has been mayor since 2016, is being challenged by Anthony Becker, a candidate heavily backed by the 49ers organization. The race is largely focused on the relationship between the team and the city, which owns the stadium.
On Oct. 10, Patrick Nikolai, the city’s chief of police, sent a letter to Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen asking that his office investigate members of the city council for numerous issues relating to the 49ers. Chief Nikolai’s letter included damning charges against councilmembers Becker, Sudhanshu “Suds” Jain, Kevin Park, Karen Hardy, and Raj Chahal—dubbed the “49ers Five” by media outlets.
The voting bloc earned their nickname partly because a PAC formed by team CEO Jed York helped Becker, Jain, and Park get elected by putting an unprecedented $3 million collectively into their 2020 campaigns. Municipal candidates typically receive and spend under six figures in donations.
The 49ers PAC has spent another $3 million on the current campaign.
In addition to making charges that they hold frequent secret meetings with the team, Nikolai accused the councilmembers, who stopped an investigation of themselves in August, of being engaged in an illegal coverup.
Nikolai’s charges came directly from a Civil Grand Jury Report published earler that day.
The Grand Jury report, titled “Unsportsmanlike Conduct,” charges that Becker, Jain, Park, Chahal, and Hardy “engage in unethical behavior, lack transparency in their governance, and govern as if the City Council owes a fiduciary duty to the 49ers as opposed to the city,” effectively creating a “voting bloc” that votes in favor of the franchise over Santa Clara residents.
Recent voting trends show that the five rarely vote against each other and, in fact, always vote in solidarity on items relating to Levi’s Stadium and the football team.
Nikolai’s charges that the councilmembers engaged in a coverup stem from a series of events that began in February. Two days after City Manager Deanna Santana publicly raised concerns about a top 49er executive having a conflict of interest regarding some stadium business and FIFA, the world soccer association, she was fired by the council.
That action—and charges that councilmembers were meeting secretly with team officials, giving orders to city staff, and thereby violating the city charter—sparked an independent investigation by the city’s personnel office.
At a meeting on Aug. 23, the council majority voted to end the investigation. That’s according to an email, obtained by California Local, sent to investigator Steven Brower by Steve Ngo of the law firm Lozano Smith, who is serving as Santa Clara’s interim city attorney.
Tom Shanks, former head of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, who helped the City of Santa Clara develop its own code of ethics, told California Local this closed-session vote is a serious ethical violation.
“Stopping the investigation appears to be a cover-up,” Shanks said, “as they stopped an investigation into their own actions.”
He also points out that the council majority appears to have attempted to keep its decision secret.
“The investigation was not on the [public] agenda,” Shanks says, “nor was the result reported out by the city attorney.”
Assistant City Clerk Nora Pimentel confirmed that there was no “reportable action” taken at the Aug. 23 closed session.
“Stopping the investigation is a serious matter,” Shanks said, adding that failure to agendize could be considered a violation of the Brown Act, which is designed to allow citizens to know what their elected leaders are up to.
“None of this is supposed to happen in the dark,” Shanks said. “The public is supposed to know what is happening.”
Niners Fight Back
49ers spokesman Rahul Chandhok responded to the allegations in an interview with the Silicon Valley Business Journal, calling the Grand Jury a “kangaroo court.”
"The Grand Jury’s report was ethically compromised, politically motivated and methodologically flawed,” he said. “This corruption of the justice system is outrageous, unethical and the public deserves an independent investigation. Among other things, many of the body’s members are friends or associates of Santa Clara Mayor and team opponent Lisa Gillmor, and two of its members were dismissed for conflicts of interest.”
The last statement is actually false—two members of the Grand Jury recused themselves voluntarily. Chandhok did not respond to interview requests from California Local.
Several of the councilmembers accused in the Grand Jury report have echoed Chandhok’s attack on the appointed body. Gillmor told California Local her colleagues’ comments at public meetings stray from the “actual substance of the report.”
“They’re not attacking the substance,” she said, “only the actual institution and individuals on the institution.”
At an Oct. 18 meeting, Gillmor made a motion to form an independent ethics committee in light of the Grand Jury’s allegations, which pointedly would not be chosen by council members.
“It became clear to me from the minute that this report came out that we would not be able to objectively look at ourselves and make recommendations, when you have the subjects of the report attacking the body of the report,” Gillmor said. “There are serious allegations here. If you have facts that you believe are not stated properly, this would be your opportunity to clear the record.”
The bloc voted in solidarity to table the formation of a committee to be discussed at a later meeting. With no meeting slated before Nov. 8, the discussion would naturally occur after the election.
Secret ‘Serial Meetings’
The Brown Act assures the public’s right to access legislative meetings, and dictates that any meeting by a majority of a legislative body that could influence policy-making decisions should be open to the public. The report stated that a majority did not meet with 49ers officials together, but serially; “serial meetings” involve communication between members of a legislative body that are less than a quorum, but when all participants are considered, it constitutes a majority. Serial meetings are Brown Act violations.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that, on several occasions, 49ers representative Rahul Chandhok met with Hardy and Chahal at 3:30 p.m.; then Jain, Becker and Park at 5 p.m. on the same day. These meetings were held in “close proximity with City Council meetings,” the Grand Jury reported.
From January 2021 through September 2021, 49ers officials held 57 meetings—about one every four days—with the councilmembers who have supported the team’s position on city-related issues.
“Because of the large number and systematic nature of these closed-door meetings with lobbyists, the Civil Grand Jury is concerned about transparency and whether the 49ers lobbyists are dictating City/Stadium Authority policy to the detriment of the residents,” the report stated.
Official Tour on Game Day?
Councilmembers Hardy and Chahal are being investigated by the Fair Political Practices Commission for accepting gifts from 49ers lobbyists, including game tickets. Elected officials may not accept gifts from any lobbyists, and shall not accept gifts from any single source amounting to $470 or more, according to city charter.
Hardy and Chahal were invited by the 49ers to attend a 49ers v. Rams game on Nov. 15, 2021. According to the Grand Jury report, both claim that they gained entry to the stadium to conduct “operational tours,” coincidentally on game day, but not to watch the game.
“It is not known what the operational tour involved. For example, did the councilmembers observe the areas of [the stadium]'s fire and safety violations? None of this information is available because they did not arrange it through the City, have not discussed this information publicly, and the typical protocol of arranging, noticing, and coordinating operational tours was not followed,” the report stated.
Neither councilmember has spoken publicly about their attendance, or disclosed with residents their findings at said operational tour.
October Surprise or Moral Obligation?
Becker called the timing of the Grand Jury report an “October surprise” and a “political hit piece” because it was released so close to the elections.
He has been vocal at public meetings about the fact that he has not had a chance to tell his story. At an Oct. 18 city council meeting, he complained that local news media are spinning the story.
“We are only given the one opportunity to defend ourselves through the media,” Becker said, “and what’s sad is the media calls us and says, ‘is this true?’ We give so much information to the media and only one or two sentences are taken … .”
Becker did not respond to multiple interview requests from California Local.
Shanks said that, from an ethics standpoint, the Grand Jury had a moral obligation to release the information they had.
“Every human being has a responsibility to reduce harm,” he said. “The Grand Jury made a decision that there was more harm in not releasing it than releasing it.”
Should the Jury findings that elected officials are in the hands of a billion-dollar franchise prove true, the potential harm to Santa Clarans is multifaceted, said Gillmor, who supported the construction of Levi’s Stadium under Measure J. According to Forbes, the 49ers as a company is valued at $5.2 billion. When it took residence in Santa Clara in 2014, it was valued at $1.2 billion.
“That’s how much their franchise has increased because of Levi’s Stadium, so $3 million on a campaign is nothing compared to the return,” she said. “All the benefits we were promised, Jed York has broken every one. I want those promises fulfilled. This is why the community let them in and agreed to have them as our partner. Instead, they are trying to buy city council seats.”
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