Oakland video blogger Zennie Abraham. Credit: Courtesy of Zennie62 Oakland News Now Live Vlog NFL Vegas Tech

A former staffer of City Councilmember Sheng Thao alleged that the mayoral candidate bullied her and violated elections law in a video interview posted online last week that has been viewed by about 2,000 people.

LeAna Powell, who worked for Thao’s City Council office earlier this year, claimed that Thao ordered her and other city council staff members to work on her mayoral campaign. Powell alleged she was fired for refusing to do so. Under state and local laws, an elected official cannot use public resources—including their official staff—to run a political campaign.

“She was abusing her power with me,” Powell said in the video, adding that she was fired on June 16. The allegations come just one week before ballots are counted in Oakland’s hard-fought mayoral race.

Powell says several times in the interview that she has evidence of Thao’s misconduct, including a recording of when she was fired by Thao’s chief of staff, screenshots, and other documentation supporting her claims. None of this was displayed during the video, and Powell hasn’t made it publicly available elsewhere so far.

The Oaklandside attempted to contact Powell multiple times by email, phone, and Twitter to hear more about her experience working for Thao and to review evidence she has to support her complaint, but she did not return our calls and emails.

Thao’s critics have seized upon the video as proof of misconduct and shared it across social media, demanding that Thao answer Powell’s various claims.

The Oakland Public Ethics Commission confirmed that they have opened an investigation based on Powell’s claims. On Saturday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the ethics commission’s decision to look into the allegations, and on Monday, KTVU aired an interview with Powell in which she said she felt like her job was “one role covering two things” with no separation between her city job and Thao’s campaign.

In the hour-and-forty-minute-long Youtube video, which was produced by Oakland-based political blogger Zennie Abraham, Abraham asks Powell if Thao requested she work on her mayoral campaign on top of her city council staff duties. Powell confirms that she worked for the campaign.

Abraham offers his opinions at several points in the conversation, calling Thao “two-faced,” saying that Thao and her staff don’t understand elections law, and asking Powell if she thinks Thao was “running a secret agent office” because she was “paranoid” or “trying to cover something up.”

If the ethics commission finds that Thao violated election laws by making council staff work on her campaign, she could face a monetary penalty.

The ethics commission’s investigation into Powell’s allegations will likely take weeks or months, and the election will probably be over before it reaches a conclusion about their veracity.

Zennie Abraham’s paid work for West Oakland coal terminal supporters—including Thao’s opponent

Thao’s campaign disputes Powell’s claims. Thao said in an emailed statement that Powell was fired because she wasn’t performing her duties as a council staffer.

“Ever since a poll was released showing Councilmember Thao in the lead in the race for Oakland Mayor, her opponents have been ramping up their attacks,” Thao’s campaign said in a statement. “We are neither surprised nor concerned. These charges are baseless, disgruntled, and politically motivated.”

Powell’s allegations against Thao appear to have been made public for the first time in June in a tweet by another Oakland mayoral candidate, Seneca Scott. Scott, who has been highly critical of Thao, was responding to an unrelated tweet from Thao’s campaign when he wrote, “Maybe worry about that Black mother Sheng just fired unjustly for refusing to campaign on city time illegally who is about to blow the whistle on your office.” 

The allegations weren’t the topic of public discussion again until Abraham released his video interview with Powell, which was posted to Youtube on Oct. 25. A longtime Oakland resident who worked for mayor Elihu Harris from 1995 to 1999, Abraham describes himself as an independent media entrepreneur. On LinkedIn, he says his company, Zennie62Media.com, “is over 90 self-made blogs, hundreds of Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, all under my control.”

To further bolster Thao’s claims that these allegations are politically motivated, Thao’s team pointed out in an email to The Oaklandside that Abraham is working for one of Thao’s opponents in the mayor’s race, Ignacio De La Fuente, who is running in third place in a recent Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce poll. Thao is tied for first place with District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor. 

According to disclosure records, Abraham accepted $740 in payment from Ignacio De La Fuente’s mayoral campaign committee over the past two months. The payment was for email services. And on Oct. 17, an independent expenditure committee supporting De La Fuente’s mayoral campaign, Californians for Safer Streets, paid Abraham $5,000 for digital ads.

Californians for Safer Streets was established by developer Phil Tagami and the Danville-based lobbyist Greg McConnell, who works for Tagami and a variety of other clients, including developers, landlords, and industrial firms. Jonathan Brooks, a hedge fund manager from Los Angeles, has provided major funding for the Safer Streets committee, giving it $550,000. Tagami and Brooks are partners in a proposed coal export terminal in West Oakland. Mayor Libby Schaaf has opposed the project—which is bogged down in lawsuits between the city and developers—but De La Fuente told us he supports the coal terminal.

“I am a very pro-development person,” he said.

Thao is opposed to the coal terminal project and has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and 350 Bay Area, two local environmental groups that also oppose the project.

The recent $5,000 payment from the Safer Streets committee is not the first example of financial ties between Abraham and the coal terminal developers. In 2019, a previous company involved in the project filed for bankruptcy and disclosed that it had been paying Abraham $5,000 a month to spread pro-coal messages using his social media platforms. This included publishing videos lauding the coal terminal project as an economic boon for Oakland that wouldn’t cause pollution and a profile of a coal company executive.

Abraham at first denied working for the coal terminal developers, but in December 2019, he told the East Bay Express, “I sought to get paid. I begged to be hired by them.”

Abraham has more connections with Tagami and De La Fuente. He posted a video in August endorsing De La Fuente for mayor, noting that they’ve known each other for several decades. Last year, Abraham published a blog post to help Tagami sell his Oakland hills home after Tagami decided to leave the city. “He deserves better than the way Oakland has treated him,” Abraham wrote about the city’s opposition to the coal terminal project. “If you’re interested in this property and would like more information or to speak with the listing agent, let me know, and I will coordinate for you!”

Over the years, various groups have alleged that Abraham is also a contractor for Sam Singer, the public relations crisis expert whose clients have included Chevron and the Oakland Police Officers Association. In 2009, the website Beyond Chron speculated that Abraham was working for Singer when he blogged negatively about tenants organizing against a large corporate landlord in Palo Alto.

Abraham responded to a query from The Oaklandside about his work for De la Fuente’s campaign and his ties to the coal terminal project by asking who funds The Oaklandside, making erroneous claims about The Oaklanside’s nonprofit status, and refusing to answer our questions unless we participate in a video interview with him.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.