Oakland City Councilmember Sheng Thao. Credit: Amir Aziz

Election observers are calling it an October surprise—a bomb intentionally dropped in the final stretch of an election to derail a candidate or boost another. But a former staffer’s complaint against Sheng Thao wasn’t first made in October. Rather, it was lodged in June and was slowly winding its way through the Public Ethics Commission’s administrative process until a political blogger amplified the allegations in an Oct. 25 interview posted to YouTube.

LeAna Powell, a 38-year-old Oakland resident, said in the interview that Thao hired her to work in her City Council office in April 2022. Powell claimed Thao illegally directed her to do work for her political campaign—a potential violation of state election law—and fired Powell on June 16 after she refused.

Powell also alleged that other members of Thao’s city council staff worked on her campaign while on city time.

Thao’s campaign denied the allegations in an email to The Oaklandside, calling them “politically motivated” and timed to undermine her at the polls. She says Powell was fired for not performing her job duties.

“Why do this right before the election unless the intent was to damage Sheng’s campaign and not give her time to let the facts get sorted out until after the election?” said Noah Finneburgh, a spokesperson for Thao’s campaign.

Political blogger Zennie Abraham’s interview with Powell prompted reports by the San Francisco Chronicle, KTVU, and The Oaklandside. Over the past week, additional questions have been raised about the timeline of events. When did Powell first lodge a complaint with the ethics commission? When did the ethics commission—which is made up of seven volunteer commissioners and six full-time staffers—actually open its case?

Thao’s detractors, including fellow mayoral candidate Seneca Scott, have taken to social media to share Powell’s interview and other allegations that could damage Thao’s chances of winning—including that one of her staffers set up an anonymous Twitter account attacking Thao’s critics and tweeted about campaign matters while on the clock for the city.

Complaint was first filed in June

The ethics commission told The Oaklandside Wednesday evening that Powell came to them with her complaint just over four months ago. They disclosed this in response to a public records request filed by our newsroom.

“LeAna Powell first called us in June,” said Kellie Johnson, the executive director of the ethics commission who served as its enforcement chief at that time. “City Hall was closed at the time, but I asked her to come in person to have a face-to-face conversation.” City officers were still following strict COVID-19 precautions and urging people to do business remotely, including filing complaints.

According to the commission, Powell and her spouse met with Johnson on June 29. According to a timeline the commission provided to The Oaklandside, Powell told Johnson that “Sheng Thao had required/coerced her to work on her mayoral campaign during City work hours.” Then, according to Powell, when she “declined to continue working volunteer hours, Sheng Thao first took away her access to certain office information, responded in a hostile manner, and eventually had her fired.”

However, Powell did not fill out a formal complaint form, and the ethics commission treated the case as a preliminary investigation. A preliminary investigation is one in which PEC staff take extra time to verify basic factual information and determine if a complaint could have merit to it before the PEC spends more time and resources on a full investigation. Johnson said one example of information the PEC needed to verify was whether or not Powell worked for Thao during the time she said she did.

For Powell’s allegations to have immediately triggered a full investigation, which would have progressed faster, she would have needed to file a formal complaint. Under city law, a formal complaint requires the person making it to fill out a form describing the alleged misconduct and to sign this under the penalty of perjury.

Powell has not responded to multiple requests from The Oaklandside for an interview or for evidence backing up her allegations against Thao.

On Aug. 5, ethics commission investigator Simon Russell met with Powell, her spouse, and PEC interim executive director Johnson at City Hall to get a more detailed account.

Johnson told The Oaklandside that Russell and other PEC staff were methodically confirming information Powell had given them in order to determine whether they should open a formal investigation.

Some PEC staff have been working double duties over the past couple of months due to not having hired a replacement for Whitney Barazoto, the PEC’s longtime executive director, who left in June. But Johnson also said that investigations normally take between three to six months and can take much longer when lodged as informal complaints that need to be vetted before deciding to devote resources to them.

Then, last week, Abraham’s video interview with Powell was posted online. The day after, on Oct. 26, Russell met again with Powell, and on Oct. 28, the PEC opened a formal investigation based on Powell’s original informal complaint from June. Upon doing so, the commission’s staff sent letters to both Powell and Thao confirming they had opened a full investigation.

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.