OAKLAND, Calif. - A former staffer of Oakland City Councilmember Sheng Thao claims her previous boss required employees to work on her mayoral campaign, while on city time.
LeAna Powell, who had worked for Thao less than 90 days, first spoke with the Oakland Public Ethics Commission about perceived violations in June. She said she was fired after she refused to work on the campaign, a claim Thao’s campaign denies.
Simon Russell, the acting enforcement officer for the commission said it is also investigating allegations Thao "may have induced or coerced" members of her City Council staff to help with her mayoral campaign as a condition of their employment.
Thao’s campaign rejected all of the allegations calling them "politically motivated."
But Powell said the lines were blurred and pressure was applied to work for both the city and Thao’s campaign simultaneously.
"I needed to say something. I felt like it was one role," Powell said. "It was one role covering two things. I didn’t feel it was separate at all."
The ethics commission says it’s a violation for city staff to use work time to advocate for a candidate or work on a campaign.
It is investigating if Thao "used one of more members of her City Council staff to work or volunteer for her 2022 mayoral campaign while those staffers were on City time and receiving City salaries."
"It started to become a problem when Sheng Thao said, ‘I need you to manage this part of my campaign’ and I’m just like wait a minute," Powell said.
Thao’s campaign said Powell initially wanted to volunteer for the campaign during her off hours but later changed her mind and assured it was not required. The council member’s chief of staff later determined Powell was "not performing her council duties as expected and decided to end her employment," the campaign said in a statement.
Thao’s campaign also pointed to political opponents for the allegations arising shortly before Election Day.
"Ever since a poll was released showing Council member Thao in the lead in the race for Oakland Mayor, her opponents have been ramping up their attacks," the statement read in part. "We are neither surprised nor concerned. These charges are baseless, disgruntled, and politically motivated."
Professor David Levine with the UC Hastings College of the Law said the timing is questionable, but that ethics rules need to be policed and enforced.
"You have to assume there’s some political motivation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not warranted and it’s not worthy of investigation," he said.
If the allegations are proven true, Levine said it could result in discipline ranging from a warning letter to fines tied to potentially wasted city money, or other penalties.
"It’s okay to volunteer for your employer in a campaign but it is not okay to do that work on city time," he said. "That’s the line that need to be investigated to see if the people in this office did or did not violate that rule."
There is no deadline for the commission to complete its investigation. Until then, it’s unclear if any violations actually occurred.