Emails, texts reveal how Oakland missed out on millions to fight retail theft

Waiting until the last minute, a citywide 911 outage, and a lack of a centralized leader all contributed to Oakland's failure of getting in on millions of dollars from the state to combat organized retail theft, according to details revealed by a public records request. 

KTVU obtained communications in the form of emails and text messages between city employees and others involved in preparing an application to the California Board of State and Community Corrections, the agency in charge of handing out millions of dollars in grant money to combat retail theft – which Oakland missed out on this fall. 

Those messages show a gap in action between when the application opened and its deadline. Despite knowing about it in April, messages show Oakland employees did not put their heads together until late June, a week before the deadline.

That time crunch made editing documents difficult and didn't account for an unexpected power outage at the last minute, preventing police officials from uploading necessary documents to complete their application. It's unclear if the power outage actually affected submitting the grant, but city employees suspected as much, revealed in text messages. 

Within those emails, leaders of the Economic Workforce Development department refused to accept blame for the missed opportunity, and asked the city administrator's office why the Oakland Police Department wasn't held accountable.

On April 14, the state board opened up an application process to grant $267 million to police departments, sheriff's offices, and district attorney's offices. Any agency considered "large scope" would receive up to $15,650,000. The deadline to apply was set for July 7 at 5 p.m. 

In September, a state spokesperson revealed the City of Oakland missed its deadline to submit a full application. Other cities reaped large awards.

For example, the city of San Francisco received $17 million from the grant. San Jose's police department received $8.5 million.

Any questions on the matter to city leaders, including Mayor Sheng Thao, were directed to the city administrator's office, citing a "decentralized approach" to the application. 

When asked for more details, city leaders would call the matter a "personnel" issue, adding the the Economic Workforce Development department had the responsibility to submit the application. EWD leaders say they are not to blame.

In an attempt to learn more specific details, KTVU obtained correspondence between those involved in the application process.

The city first became aware of the grant in April, weeks after the application opened. The heads-up came from Niccolo De Luca, vice president of Townsend Public Affairs, who sent an email on April 25. 

"Hello Team Oakland, not sure if there is a level of interest in going for these public safety opportunities but I have had some chats with some of you about the problems so sending your way," De Luca emailed, attaching the  details of the retail theft application. 

His email was addressed to members of the Oakland Police Department, including interim chief Darren Allison.

"Our team should be able to handle pending their assessment," responded Chief Allison. He assigned the task to the department's interim grant coordinator.

Per the public record that KTVU obtained , there isn't any correspondence between agencies again until June. 

KTVU asked OPD what work it had done in that time frame, but a city spokesperson could not answer and suggested those answers should come from a separate records request within the police department. 

KTVU filed that request in October but it still has not been fulfilled.

In June, an employee of the EWD discovered the grant opportunity. According to its website, the department's purpose is to grow the city's economy, create job opportunities, and enhance the quality of life for people who live in Oakland.

The department's "urban economic analyst" notified Savlan Hauser, executive director of the Jack London Improvement District. She then looped in Barbara Leslie, CEO of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. Both served as advisors, offering perspectives on the merchant community and how the grant would help retail theft.

With the deadline a month away, Leslie appeared to push for urgency.

"Sounds like, from my call this A.M., that many jurisdictions are farther along than Oakland in their application process," she emailed. "It seems like we are a bit late and don’t want to miss the opportunity."

Throughout the month, the EWD recruited the deputy city manager, a police lieutenant, and Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunado Bas's office to help. 

After delays due to conflicting schedules, the stakeholders finally had their first group discussion on June 28 -- nine days before the grant deadline. 

The EWD identified uses for the grant money. They wanted more staff, more cameras, and more police vehicles. They also mentioned funding for police technicians in neighborhoods, as well as lights, window cages, roll down doors, and murals.

The police grants coordinator responded to a follow-up from Chief Allison on that same day about the application, to which they reply "we should have everything written up by the end of this week."

After days of meetings and gathering letters of local impact from retailers, as well as letters of support from the Chamber and other agencies, deadline day hits. 

Four hours before the 5 p.m. deadline, Leslie wrote "we know today is your deadline but have not had any confirmation of receipt of our support letters."

Through text messages, representatives from OPD told EWD their interim grants coordinator uploaded some of their documents, but he cannot see them, adding he is having trouble uploading his attachments. 

That grants coordinator at the time was not at work.

"I keep uploading and I don't see it," said an OPD lieutenant.

Finally, 5 p.m. strikes, and the application is submitted, without some of the forms from the police. 

On July 10, the OPD lieutenant sent a text message, linking a newspaper article about a power outage at OPD on July 6. The city reported its 911 systems went down and affected emergency calls.

"Outage update was all Thursday and wasn't resolved until Sunday," read the text message. 

That meant Oakland dealt with that outage from July 6 to July 9 -- the deadline fell right in the middle.

Leaders hoped to use that technical glitch as an appeal to the state board to submit those missing documents after the deadline. About two weeks later, after a legal review, the board denied that request.

In September, Cristy Johnson, deputy director of the EWD, told OPD she was tasked to try and determine how the application wasn't submitted correctly. 

The OPD interim grant coordinator had written that she didn't have any issues uploading the documents. 

This prompted an angry email from the EWD's director, Sofia Navarro, to city administrator Jestin Johnson and members of Mayor Thao's staff. 

In part, she questioned why the EWD was taking the fall for dropping the ball.

"If OPD was already working on this grant and aware since April, I question why this was not mentioned at all during this process to us?" Navarro wrote. "Why did this responsibility, which very clearly was OPD’s from the start, suddenly become EWD’s responsibility to submit?"

KTVU requested  interviews with Thao, Bas, the Oakland Police Department and several members of the EWD. 

Each request was directed to the city administrator's office. Their office declined any interview request.

In an interview Tuesday on KTVU, Thao said many lessons were learned in the failure to secure millions of dollars in grant funding. One change in policy is hiring a centralized grant coordinator.

"That was one of the issues," Thao said. "If it's a multi-department grant, they sometimes it can get caught up in whatever it is and then we don't know. So we're centralizing that process."

The city is also assigning the responsibility to applying and following up on grant applications to the city administrator's office while "increasing capacity with the support of professional consultants."

An investigation by the city auditor is still ongoing.