Candidate Accused of Conflict of Interest

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With the November election rapidly approaching, one City Council candidate yesterday found himself embroiled in allegations of soliciting improper campaign contributions and promptly fired back at his "political enemies."

James Peterson, a candidate for District 3 and member of the Zoning Adjustments Board, was accused of soliciting money from an architect whose project came before the board for permit approval.

In a letter to the chair of the commission and others, Marcy Wong, who owns a Berkeley-based architectural firm, said Peterson had called her to discuss her proposed project, which came before the board last night.

"He discussed this project and then informed me that he is running for the City Council," the letter said. "He solicited my support and told me that he would send me an envelope for a contribution."

Wong said she sent him a contribution, but then, feeling "discomfort" wrote the letter to ask Peterson to recuse himself from voting on the issue "even though doing so may hurt my project's chances for approval."

Peterson said he talked with Wong and later received two donations of $49, but never solicited the money.

"Let me take the high ground on this," he said. "I would never do anything that would bring embarrassment or disgrace to this esteemed body."

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque made a special appearance at the meeting. She advised Peterson to recuse himself from the vote.

"We would advise him that he should not be soliciting contributions from applicants," she said. "(It concerns) the right to fairness of the people before the (board)."

Wong's donations were not illegal, since state law prohibits such a transaction only if it exceeds $250.

Peterson said he cashed the checks but returned the money today to avoid the "sense of any impropriety." He offered to recuse himself and even take a leave of absence or resign if the board or the person who appointed him so desires.

In an unusual spin, the person who appointed him to the board last year was Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek - the very person now running against him for re-election.

"I'm saddened. I'm shocked," Shirek said. "It goes way beyond mere politics. We're going to have to look into this. I just hope it's not true."

Simon Walker, Peterson's campaign manager, said the letter was distributed all over the city by a fax number connected with Peterson's political foes.

"The fallout of it is very negative," Walker said. "One cannot avoid looking at it as a hatchet job perpetrated by political enemies. He's a serious candidate in District 3. They want to get him out of the way early."

Walker said Wong was "shooting herself in the foot" by writing the letter, and suggested that Peterson's opponent put her up to the job.

Despite repeated calls yesterday, Wong was not available for comment.

Shirek denied that she or her supporters distributed the letters to damage Peterson's campaign.

The "moderate" Berkeley Democratic Club endorsed Peterson in his race against Shirek, the council's "progressive" figurehead.

When considering projects before the board, Peterson said he visits the sites and talks to all people involved in order to do a good job. Albuquerque, however, told all of the board members to avoid talking to anyone about board matters outside of their scheduled meetings.

Boardmember David Freeman, appointed by moderate Mayor Shirley Dean, said that if the allegations are correct, Peterson had engaged in a conflict of interest and should recuse himself.


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