UnderCurrents: The Amazing Ending to the Brown-Barzaghi Story by J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday August 06, 2004

Last week, we talked about how Mayor Jerry Brown got himself stuck on the Tarzaghibaby…that dilemma in which he was running for California attorney general while dragging the sexual harassment of his longtime aide and confidante, Jaques Barzaghi. This we ek: the miraculous unstucking. 

On Saturday, July 17, the Oakland Tribune headlined the story: “No Charges In Mayoral Aide’s Dispute.” Four days earlier, “Aisha Barzaghi [the wife of Mayor Brown aide Jacques Barzaghi] called 911 and told police her husban d had tried to push her down a flight of stairs during a heated argument,” the Tribune reported. “At the mayor’s direction, police Chief Richard L. Word personally responded to the Barzaghi home…along with…Word’s chief of staff, and two officers and anoth er sergeant.” 

“Barzaghi didn’t get any special treatment, I made sure of that,” the Tribune quoted Mr. Brown as saying. (Yes, of course. Every accused wife batterer in Oakland gets the personal attention of the police chief.) Anyway, no charges were file d, we were told, because Mrs. Barzaghi declined to do so, and it was determined by police that she had no injuries. 

On the following Tuesday, July 20—a week after the alleged incident at the Barzaghi house—the Tribune reported that Mr. Brown had fired Mr. Barzaghi, the man who had been his friend, advisor, confidante and constant companion for 30 years. And thus, quite miraculously, the single greatest impediment to Mr. Brown’s 2006 run for California attorney general had been swept away. Amazing. 

In ea rly 2001, you might remember, Mr. Barzaghi had been suspended for 17 days by the city and forced to take counseling courses because of his sexual harassment of city employees, some of which allegedly took place during a trip to Mexico City. But he remaine d—for all outward appearances—in the mayor’s confidence, keeping his city job, continuing as the mayor’s bodyguard and aide, and continuing to live in the mayor’s Second Street home, staying there after the mayor later moved out to live with his girlfrien d over on Telegraph Avenue. 

That’s where the problem came in. Mr. Brown couldn’t bring that baggage with him into the attorney general’s election. But dumping Mr. Barzaghi now—this close to the election—would have looked like mere political expediency fo r Mr. Brown. And politicians can’t afford to look expedient. 

Thus, the domestic dispute incident at the Barzaghi home seemed like a miracle—a gift from the political gods to Mr. Brown. Sexual harassment is bad, but wife-beating is badder. By firing Mr. B arzaghi after accusations of attacking his wife, it wiped away any stain Mr. Brown might have had for not firing him immediately after the sexual harassment findings. And so an issue which seemed likely to sink Mr. Brown’s chances for attorney general sud denly was no more. 

You might think I’m cynical, but me, I’m suspicious of political miracles. And so, a couple of concise questions. 

Who called the mayor, and when? 

The Tribune reports that Aisha Barzaghi called 911 and then, sometime later, Chief Word personally responded “at the mayor’s direction.” So who called Mr. Brown, and when? Mrs. Barzaghi? Mr. Barzaghi? Someone in the police department? It’s perfectly understandable—given Mr. Barzaghi’s volatile nature, his political connections, and the fact that he legally carries a concealed pistol—that police would want to be extra cautious in responding to a domestic violence call to his home. But why, then, wouldn’t the police themselves contact their chief directly? Mystery. Mystery. 

How did the repor ters find out, and when? 

The domestic violence incident at the Barzaghi house took place on Tuesday, July 13. The article didn’t appear in the Tribune until Saturday, the 17th. If the Tribune reporters discovered the incident on their own, why did it tak e them so long to either discover it or to report the story? And if somebody called them, who? And why? Another mystery. 

In any event, it has not taken long for the subtle spin to begin. On July 25, the Los Angeles Times reported the Barzaghi firing unde r the clever headline “That Was Zen, This Is Now.” 

“Neither Brown nor Barzaghi has spoken publicly about the split,” the Times story goes. “Friends said that Brown, who has announced plans to run for state attorney general, could no longer afford to have his old friend on the city payroll. He had already suspended Barzaghi once and reduced his salary after a sexual-harassment allegation [emphasis added].” The Los Angeles newspaper quoted an unnamed “mutual friend in the Oakland arts community” (who might that be?) as summing up the best possible case for the mayor, stating that “as a result of the Mexico fallout, Jacques’ influence was already seriously weakened. The domestic problems were the final blow.” 

Add this all up, and it sounds like instead of Mr. Brown covering up a political scandal, it appears as if he took prudent, measured steps to solve an escalating problem, ending with the reluctant firing of an old friend when the situation finally went over the top. 

But those of us who were hanging a round Oakland City Hall in 2000-01 might find the Times analysis a little puzzling. Mr. Barzaghi kept a low profile after the sexual harassment scandal, true, but where is the evidence that his influence over the mayor was “seriously weakened?” The report s I was getting at the time were that the Brown/Barzaghi alliance was pretty much business as usual. 

Regarding the “revelation” of Mr. Brown being the one to mete out the discipline back in 2001: The Tribune reported in the summer of 2001 that it was for mer City Manager Robert Bobb who wrote the suspension letter to Mr. Barzaghi, with no mention of Mr. Brown. 

As to the reduction of Mr. Barzaghi’s salary…well, that’s a more difficult one to figure. In December of 2000, around the time the harassment char ges were swirling, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “officially, Barzaghi is Brown’s ‘senior adviser’ and co-director of the city’s craft and cultural arts department, for which he is paid $114,000 a year.” In August of 2001, in its article revea ling the Bobb suspension letter, the Oakland Tribune reported that “Barzaghi currently earns $126,000 a year as Brown’s senior adviser, but Brown said this week his salary is being re-evaluated now that his role in the Craft and Cultural Arts Department i s only informal.” That fits in with my memory of that time, from a phone call to the City of Oakland Personnel Department, that Mr. Barzaghi actually got a raise following the harassment charges. In any event, by December of 2001, Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson wrote that Barzaghi had left the Craft and Cultural Arts Department, and was working as “director of building and planning” in the mayor’s office at a salary of $118,000 a year. Quién sabe? On this point, confusion continues to abound. Both the O akland Tribune and the Los Angeles Times now report that Mr. Barzaghi was making $89,000 a year at the time of his firing last month; the Chronicle puts his final salary at $114,000. 

We might have been able to check up on Mr. Barzaghi’s actual salary dur ing these periods except that—just before the events that led to Barzaghi’s firing—the City of Oakland ended its long-time policy of revealing the salaries of individual employees. How fortuitous for Mr. Brown… 

Anyway, we are left with three possible exp lanations of the events surrounding the firing of Mr. Barzaghi. One is that this all a terrible Greek tragedy played out as described in the press…the mayor—reluctantly—forced by circumstance to fire his old friend after giving him several chances. Or you can take the view that Mr. Barzaghi was set up—by the mayor himself, or someone close to the mayor—in order to get Mr. Barzaghi out of the way in time for the AG’s race.  

The third possible explanation? That there is no split at all—that the whole Secon d Street incident was planned by Mr. Brown and Mr. Barzaghi together, and that the two men will re-emerge publicly as friends following the 2006 elections. No charges were filed against Mr. Barzaghi, after all, and therefore he will apparently suffer no h arm from the domestic violence accusations. In fact, the whole incident enhances his carefully cultivated macho image. 

Miracle, set-up, or conspiracy. Either way, a sticky problem is removed, and Bro’ Brown is free of the terrible trap of the Tarzaghibaby. Amazing. Truly amazing.