Oakland Councilmember Sues Chronicle Columnist

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday August 07, 2008 - 12:16:00 PM

Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks filed a defamation lawsuit last week against the San Francisco Chronicle and its East Bay columnist, Chip Johnson, over an item written about her by Johnson in a June 24 column.  

The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Oakland on July 29, alleges that the June 24 column item “began a campaign [by Chip Johnson] to smear and defame the reputation of Desley Brooks.” 

Brooks is being represented by Oakland attorney Wayne Johnson. 

In the June 24 column, Johnson gave a list of what he said were instances where recently ousted Oakland City Administrator Deborah Edgerly “intervened on behalf of a co-worker, friend or family member, police sources say.” In that list of instances, Johnson wrote that “two years ago, nothing was done when allegations of illegal kickbacks were raised against District Six City Councilwoman Desley Brooks, another of Edgerly’s allies, after police investigators linked bank deposits made by the mother of one of Brooks’ employees to several personal checks for $1,200 written to Brooks (exactly half the employee’s paycheck).” 

In an interview held this week after the lawsuit was filed, Brooks denied the allegation in the June 24 Chip Johnson column, but said she could make no other comment about the details of the lawsuit. “I’m in litigation mode.” 

Johnson was closed-mouthed as well. 

“Why would I comment on a lawsuit that’s ongoing?” Johnson said by telephone. “I couldn’t do that.” 

Neither the Chronicle nor Johnson has yet filed an answer with the court to the Brooks lawsuit. 

While Brooks would not talk about the lawsuit details, she talked freely about the reasons she was bringing it. “I think it’s reprehensible that the Chronicle feels it can trash and tarnish people’s reputations without factual basis,” the councilmember said. “I will never get my name fully back, but there’s got to be greater accountability in the media. When I was coming up, good journalists reported the facts; they didn’t make them up. But now, reporters are more likely to make things up. They’re reporting subjectively, not objectively. And the people can’t distinguish between the two. They’re taking what goes in the paper as gospel.” 

The lawsuit asks for no stated dollar amount from the Chronicle and Johnson, only undefined “compensatory” and “exemplary” damages. 

Brooks said that following the publication of the June 24 column, she contacted Chronicle officials and asked them to retract the item, but she said they refused. 

Johnson refused in his telephone interview to comment on the original column item.  

The way it was written, it’s not clear exactly what the columnist intended to allege or insinuate about Brooks. Some confusing points: Who was the Brooks employee mentioned? Who was supposed to have written the “several personal checks” to Brooks? How were the checks “linked” to deposits to the employee’s mother’s bank account? And which “police investigators”—and from what agency—had done the linking? 

The Johnson column may have been intended to refer to allegations made against Brooks beginning in August 2005, when the Oakland Tribune said the Alameda County District Attorney’s office was investigating charges that Brooks had taken “kickbacks.” 

“Although District Attorney Tom Orloff declined to discuss the matter,” the Tribune reported in the 2005 story, “the sources confirmed his investigators are looking into whether Christen Tucker, Brooks’ former council aide and the daughter of her boyfriend, Frank Tucker, gave some of her pay to the council member.” The Tribune also reported that “[Christen] Tucker’s paychecks were deposited by the city into an account jointly held by her and her father, records show.” 

A review of local newspaper articles about the allegations in 2005 and 2006 did not reveal any mention of specific-amount personal checks made to Brooks, so that if the Chip Johnson June 24 2008 item referred to Tucker, it is not clear where the columnist got the information about checks. 

In addition, sources close to the Tucker family said that Tucker’s mother died several years before the alleged 2005 kickback activity was supposed to have taken place. 

In 2006, Oakland resident Harold Jackson filed a complaint against Brooks with the Oakland Public Ethics Commission in part over an allegation that Tucker had lived out of state part of the time she was supposed to have been working for Brooks. The Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint on the grounds that it had no jurisdiction to conduct further investigation to determine whether the allegations had occurred, as well as that the matter was being investigated by the District Attorney’s office. 

Brooks repeatedly denied the original allegations made in 2005-06, and no charges ever resulted from the District Attorney office’s investigation. 

Brooks said in this week’s interview that her biggest regret about the allegations was the effect it was having on Tucker. 

“I ran for office accepting the hits I might take in the public and the press,” Brooks said, “but staff members only come on board because they need a job, or want to help in the public sector. For the rest of her life, when someone ‘googles’ Christen Tucker on the internet, these allegations will be the first things that come up. There’s no way to clear her name, and she’ll never get free of that. And that’s not right.”