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‘Extreme’ example of 49ers lobbying influence laid bare in Silicon Valley corruption probe

Frequent meetings between five Santa Clara City Council members and the San Francisco 49ers could violate California's open-meeting laws.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (CN) — A yearslong war between the Santa Clara, California, mayor and the San Francisco 49ers over the management and funding of Levi's Stadium has morphed into a grand jury investigation into City Council corruption and collusion — raising questions over the clout of professional sports in city politics.

But were laws broken?

“It depends,” Hamline University political science professor David Schultz said in an interview. “If the report is accurate, there is a potential state law violation of the open meetings law that could implicate city and individual council member liability.”

The civil grand jury's 61-page report released Monday surrounds the controversy concerning Santa Clara City Council members' dealings with the National Football League team, which has been embroiled in a lawsuit with the city over the use of stadium land for years. The grand jury delved into multiple ethics complaints involving some members of the City Council and found the activities of five council members are “not consistent with the duties owed to the constituents they were elected to serve” and cause “severe dysfunction."

Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Councilmember Kathy Watanabe were not implicated in the report, which describes clear divisions on the council. Council members Anthony Becker, Suds Jain and Kevin Park, elected in 2020, enjoy backing from political action committees affiliated with the 49ers. Council members Karen Hardy and Raj Chahal side with them and together they often vote on issues that align with the 49ers' preferences, the grand jury found. 

The report also raised concerns that several council members received large campaign donations from 49ers-backed PACs just days after a legal settlement over the stadium use was reached, handing over at least $1.5 million to their war chests. The grand jury also noted former City Manager Deanna Santana, who the grand jury said tried to “bring to light” the lack of transparency and potential risks to the city from the stadium and events, was ousted earlier this year.

According to the report, the five aligned City Council members meet regularly with 49ers lobbyists ahead of council meetings, and the details of their gatherings are opaque and could violate the Brown Act. The grand jury recommends the City Council vote unanimously on making changes by Feb. 1 to record private meetings, put meeting minutes online and require council members to verbally disclose if they met with 49ers lobbyists before they vote.

“Because of the large number and systemic nature of these closed-door meetings with lobbyists, the civil grand jury is concerned about transparency and whether the 49ers’ lobbyists are dictating city/Stadium Authority policy to the detriment of the residents," the report said.

The 49ers blasted the grand jury report, with a team spokesperson calling it riddled with "shoddy methodology" and phrases repeated by the mayor, who is often critical of the sports team. Team spokesperson Rahul Chandhok said Mayor Gillmor has personal relationships with members of the grand jury and claimed the 49ers were never contacted for the report.

Santa Clara Police Chief Pat Nikolai released a statement Monday stating he has requested Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen to investigate the report’s findings.

“It raises serious questions about unethical conduct, state and city law violations and potential corruption,” Nikolai said, adding he has seen “unwarranted personal attacks” on the grand jury members by a 49ers representative.

“When the team is questioned about their actions, they immediately attack individuals and challenge their motives and integrity,” Nikolai said. “Their targets have included the city staff, auditors and many others. The team's response should not be dismissed lightly. The 49ers are sending a disturbing message: If anyone challenges the team, they will be publicly attacked, including the grand jury.”

Rosen did not respond to a request for comment about whether his office will investigate the matter by press time.

The report marks the the latest in an ongoing political battle in Santa Clara, where Gillmor and her sole council ally Watanabe have routinely sparred with the other five council members since she lost the council majority in 2020. Nikolai has historically sided with the mayor, who opposed the settlement with the 49ers — which the other five council members voted for. Gillmor faces Becker for the mayor's seat in November.

Schultz, the political science professor, said the court and the public need to know what the city's conflict of interest policies are, what they prohibit and if they carry civil or criminal fines for violations.

“However, the report and the facts here raise broader questions both about the power that professional sports has in city politics, the role of power interests in politics, and what laws, if any, are in place to address conflicts of interest and undue influence," he said. "At some point the courts may in this case and others be asked to enter the debate on this issue.”

He said the situation is unique since the 49ers have significantly funded the campaigns of several city leaders.

“Corporations or sports teams use lobbying influence or the threat to close or leave as ways to leverage influence,” he said. “They do not have to go to the extreme seen here.”

The implicated council members, interim city manager and interim city attorney did not respond to requests for comment by press time. City spokesperson Michelle Templeton said the city has 90 days to respond to the grand jury report and "will provide responses to the findings and recommendations as appropriate."

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