Chair of Oakland Chamber of Commerce May Have Violated Oakland Campaign Finance Law for Years

Posted on March 13, 2019




Oakland public records suggest that Robert Zachary Wasserman, the Chair of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, violated Oakland’s Campaign finance laws from 2017 to 2019 campaign cycles.

Oakland’s Campaign Reform Act forbids individuals, companies or organizations or their principals from donating to city candidates from the time they begin negotiations with the city–defined as submitting a proposal or bid–to purchase city land or property to a period 6 months after the end of the negotiations. The possible violations come from Wasserman’s position at Oakland and the World–a non-profit organization where he fills more than one executive role and which has been in negotiations to purchase city land since 2014–and political contributions Wasserman made to council members, council candidates and the Oakland Mayor.

According to public city documents, Oakland and the World submitted a proposal to buy a city property known as 7th and Campbell in October, 2014. Based on the proposal, the city set up a meeting with OAW where it committed to a process with the company that would produce an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement and a final Disposition and Development Agreement to buy and develop the land–the DDA is the contract by which the city would sell the land to the organization.

At the meeting, the city awarded OAW a one year lease of the property with the goal of facilitating the organization’s final development plan–the lease was signed in November, 2014 and the ENA was passed by the Oakland City Council in January, 2015. In July, 2017, the city council approved the sale parameters and gave authorization for the city to enter into the DDA contract with OAW.

According to city documents from that vote, during negotiations OAW argued that the land should be sold rather than leased. The city’s own laws obligate lease over sale unless there is a compelling reason to sell–but OAW apparently succeeded in convincing city staff to sell rather than lease and the city used OAW’s justifications in its explanatory report to the council. Moreover, city staff asked the Council to approve the sale at a “nominal” price, even though they stated in the same report that doing so would forego potential revenue of 1.4 million dollars (unconfirmed newspaper reports have stated the city’s offering price for the land to OAW is one dollar).




The city of Oakland helped OAW secure city and other sources of financing for the project, and various documents indicated that the city expected to close a Development and Disposition Agreement with OAW at various points since 2014. But a recent public records request states that no DDA has been finalized or executed, and that the land remains in negotiation between the parties. The city agreed to loan OAW $2.6 million to develop the property and in 2019, city council approved a joint city/OAW application for up to $12 million in state financing, but the DDA is contingent on OAW securing 100% of the financing before the city and state financing or sale can be finalized.

According to the public records request, the city has not completed the DDA with OAW, awarded any funds, nor finalized the sale of the property, because OAW and MBS must secure funding for the entire project as a pre-condition for both the financing and the transfer of title. That means that the 7th/Campbell property has apparently been in negotiations since 2014.


Thus, CEO of OAW, Elaine Brown, may have violated OCRA with donations to Lynette Gibson McElhaney in 2016, and Loren Taylor and Natasha Middleton–both District 6 candidates–in the 2018 election. Brown gave McElhaney $100, and gave Taylor and Middleton $800 each. Two incidents strongly suggest council members’ concern about Brown’s contributions. In 2016, public finance records show that Lynette Gibson McElhaney returned the $100 contribution from Brown. In February 2019, Loren Taylor recused himself from the vote on a joint city/OAW  application for state financing for the 7th/Campbell project when the issue of Brown’s negotiations for city land and contribution to his campaign became public at the meeting .


But if Wasserman indeed violated the law as a principal of OAW, he did so for years and at a much greater level of contribution. It’s unclear exactly when Wasserman assumed active executive roles at OAW. A 2015 tax return for the organization does not list him in any role, but a press release from 2014 claim he’s a member of OAW’s “advisory board”. Wasserman is listed in the 2016 return under the heading of key personnel as one of two “directors”; he is also listed as a board member on the company’s website. There was no 2017 tax return for OAW available from either Guidestar or The Foundation Center.


In April 2017, OAW separated from the developer it had originally partnered with for negotiations, CHDC, to partner with a new developer McCormack, Baron, Salazar–an action that required city council approval because OAW’s application for city financing for the project had listed CHDC as co-developer. Wasserman is identified as OAW’s “counsel” in a subsequent lawsuit by CHDC over the switch. Email exchanges presented as evidence in the suit  are sent to and responded from Wasserman’s law firm’s email address at Wendel, Rosen, Black and Dean LLP. Though Wasserman doesn’t identify himself as an attorney representing OAW, portions of his response imply he is responding as a member of the OAW board or in some other executive role.


Wasserman is identified as both General Counsel and Board Member in a 2018 San Francisco Chronicle report on Oakland and the World’s 7th/Campbell purchase, where he claims to have done at least some of the negotiating, stating “Elaine Brown and I are a good negotiating team–although Elaine did most of the negotiating”. Under the OCRA’s various definitions of a principal, a member of a company is recognized as a principal if they are an “individual employee, independent contractor, or agent of the entity, that represents or is authorized to represent the entity before the City in regards to the contract or proposal contract”. All this strongly suggests that Wasserman is a principal at OAW as defined by OCRA, and thus subject to the law’s prohibition on donations to city election campaigns.

Wasserman made as many as eight campaign donations from 2017 to 2019 totalling over 4,000 dollars that would appear to be violations of OCRA. Wasserman donated to Mayor Libby Schaaf, Council Members Lynnette Gibson McElhaney (for her legal defense fund), Abel Guillen, Loren Taylor and Sheng Thao. Wasserman also donated to Council candidates Charlie Michelson and Pamela Harris during this same period.


The Campaign Reform Act defines unlawful contributions as misdemeanor offenses, which can lead to fines of up to 3x the amount of the contribution for each offense if convicted. Notably, any conviction may prohibit the offender from being involved in a “contractor” position with the city for four years, implying that any final sale of the land to OAW could be in jeopardy as well.

Previous iterations of the law were not as specific regarding principals of organizations and entities, but the law was amended in 2017 by a city council resolution to specify various individual “principals” roles in such organizations. As such, it’s possible that contributions made before 2017 could also apply to Wasserman, Brown and OAW.

Both Brown and Wasserman have had extremely visible political profiles in Oakland in recent years. Brown, a former Black Panther, won a $2.2 million suit against the city accusing District 6 Council Person Desley Brooks of assault and elder abuse in 2018. Wasserman has been an influential political fundraiser for years for politicians such as former Governor Jerry Brown, and Oakland Council Person Lynnette Gibson McElhaney. Wasserman has also represented controversial high-profile clients–such as developer Danny Haber–in his legal practice. While Wasserman was Chair of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce this year, the organization’s political action committee donated $57,000 to Oaklanders for Responsible Leadership Opposing Desley Brooks. The anti-Brooks PAC was arguably a key component to Brooks’ defeat and the election of Loren Taylor in District 6. The OakPAC contribution constituted over 1/3 of the total money that the anti-Brooks PAC raised.




As of publication of this post, I couldn’t locate a Schedule O for Oakland and the World. Schedule O is a form mandated by the OCRA that states that the person(s) are aware of the law and its limitations on campaign spending within the specified time frame. I tried first in the City Clerk’s Office, which by the law’s previous mandate was required to maintain a copy for viewing. I then tried the Ethics Office, which after 2017, was required to maintain a copy. No one had it. I then called Contracts and Compliance to see if they had it in their original packet of documents from OAW. I was told then that they couldn’t locate it. Then I followed up with Housing and Community Development, the city agency that in the city council documents was reported to have been involved in negotiations with the organization and still nothing and for another two days they couldn’t find it.

Finally, someone from Contracts and Compliance sent me a Schedule O form they had found for OAW. This Schedule O form brings up a lot of questions, because it comes so late in the process and seems to be attached not to the sale of the property, but to the city financing application. From a direct reading of the law, it seems likely that Brown violated the OCRA. According to the law, any principal would also have broken the OCRA law, including Wasserman, if he is in fact, as I argued, a principal under the law. It would be surprising if Brown and/or Wasserman didn’t/don’t properly understand the OCRA prohibitions listed in the form, because Wasserman, an experienced real estate attorney, is the company’s General Counsel.



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