A Friend of Chevron Gives It a Costly Gift
A Contra Costa County panel recently voted to award Chevron
$12.6 million in tax breaks. But one panelist didn't disclose
his ties to the oil giant.
October 21, 2009
The group of protesters allegedly paid by
One year ago, the supporters of a Richmond ballot measure
that would have cost Chevron about $16 million a year in taxes
were about to host a press conference. Then, suddenly, a band of
protesters who witnesses said appeared to be "street people"
showed up to disrupt the event. According to one of the
witnesses, the protesters said an influential Richmond
businessman had sent them. "They told me, 'Joe Fisher's paying
us to be here,'" recalled Courtland "Corky" Booze, who
was a Richmond city council candidate at the time. "They told me
that they were getting $8 an hour to carry signs and protest."
If true, it wasn't the only time that Joe Fisher did a
favor for Chevron. Over the years, the Richmond real estate
agent has funneled tens of thousands of dollars of Chevron money
to the political campaigns of candidates who support the oil
giant. Fisher's relationship with Chevron normally wouldn't be
all that newsworthy — except for one fact. Last month, he voted
to award Chevron a $12.6 million refund on its Contra Costa
County property taxes.
Fisher's vote to give Chevron a taxpayer-funded windfall at a
time when Contra Costa County is slashing public services is
troubling to some East Bay leaders, especially since Fisher did
not publically reveal his ties to the oil giant before casting
his vote. "It definitely creates an appearance of a conflict of
interest," said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia,
who appointed Fisher to the panel that awarded the tax refund.
Gioia, who represents Richmond on the county board of
supervisors, said he disagreed with the panel's property tax
In an interview, Fisher denied that he paid protesters to
disrupt the Richmond ballot measure press conference. But he
acknowledged his relationship with Chevron. "I have a long
history with Chevron," he said, adding that he didn't feel he
needed to disclose these ties before his vote because it was no
secret. When told that Gioia said he didn't know about it,
Fisher replied: "I don't care what John said. They all knew
about the relationship."
Fisher's financial links to one of the world's largest oil
companies date back to at least 2006. That year, a political
campaign committee he runs — the Black American Political Action
Committee of Contra Costa County, better known as BAPAC —
accepted $50,000 in donations from a committee financed by
Chevron known as the "Committee for Quality Government Sponsored
by Energy Companies." Fisher's organization, BAPAC, then
immediately spent $47,766 of Chevron's money on campaign mailers
trying to re-elect then-Mayor Irma Anderson, a
Chevron-friendly politician who was facing a tough fight against
Green Party candidate Gayle McLaughlin.
At the time, there also was an initiative on the ballot that
Chevron strongly opposed. Known as Measure T, the initiative
would have cost the oil giant millions each year. McLaughlin
supported it on the grounds that Chevron has not adequately paid
for the pollution that its refinery spews over the area. Chevron
spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defeat the
measure, and the company was helped by Mayor Anderson, who
campaigned against it. In the end, Chevron defeated Measure T by
convincing voters that it also would hurt small businesses.
However, McLaughlin beat Anderson in an upset.
Normally, BAPAC's use of Chevron money to support Anderson
wouldn't have attracted much interest. After all, the
organization was ostensibly started to help elect African
Americans and Anderson, who is black, was fighting for her life
against a white environmentalist. But campaign finance records
show that BAPAC also has a history of supporting non-black
candidates who are friendly to Chevron. Fisher is not only the
president of BAPAC, but has donated more than $2,400 of his own
money to it in the past two years.
In 2008, BAPAC accepted $1,500 from Chevron and then helped
the campaigns of Richmond city councilmen John Marquez,
who is Latino, and Harpreet Sandhu, who is South Asian.
At the time, both of them were known as members of the "Chevron
Five" because they were among a group of five councilmembers who
approved the oil giant's plans to massively expand its refinery.
Both men also opposed a new Measure T, which sought to tax
Chevron about $16 million annually and was the initiative that
protesters allegedly said they were paid by Fisher to defeat.
Ultimately, Marquez and Sandhu lost re-election and the new
Measure T was passed in what was widely viewed as a rebuke to
the oil giant. Chevron has since sued to overturn the measure
and currently it's tied up in the courts.
But as Chevron was fighting Richmond tax measures, it also
was seeking a refund on its property taxes. The oil company
filed an appeal with the Contra Costa County Assessment Appeals
Board, claiming that the assessor had overvalued its Richmond
refinery for tax purposes from 2004 through 2006. In 2004, the
county assessed the worth of Chevron's property at $2.5 billion,
but the oil company claimed it should have been just $600
million. In 2005, the county said it was worth $2.6 billion,
while Chevron said it should have been $940 million. And in
2006, the county said it was worth $2.7 billion, and Chevron
said it was $1.14 billion.
County assessor Gus Kramer defended the assessments.
Their accuracy was of particular importance because Chevron is
one of the county's largest landowners, and thus one of the
biggest taxpayers. But it was up to the assessment appeals board
to decide who was right.
Gioia appointed Fisher to the five-member board in 2006,
before Chevron filed its appeal. Then Fisher volunteered for the
panel that decided Chevron's request. After numerous hearings,
it voted 3-0 in Chevron's favor, ruling that the county had
overvalued the company's property by a total of $1.2 billion —
or about $400 million a year. As a result, the panel said
Chevron deserved a $12.6 million refund.
The decision angered politicians who have stood up to Chevron
over the years. "It's a problem when you have a president of an
organization that launders tens of thousands of dollars of
Chevron money and then ends up voting for Chevron," said
Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt, who often opposes the
oil giant. Butt said he didn't know Fisher was on the appeals
board until after it issued its decision.
Fisher's relationship with Chevron is part of a long unholy
alliance between the oil giant and some black politicians. Black
leaders who support Chevron have been able to count on the
company's money come election time. But Chevron has failed to do
all it could to help Richmond's African-American residents, many
of whom live downwind from its refinery. When asked why he has
maintained a relationship with Chevron over the years, Fisher
said it was because the company employs so many workers and is
one of the city's biggest taxpayers.
He also denied that this relationship affected his tax vote,
although he declined to explain its rationale. "It would be
impossible for me to share two years of hearings with you in a
few minutes," he said. However, he noted that his panel's
assessment was closer to the assessor's than to Chevron's. He
also said his panel had attempted to find middle ground.
Chevron also is appealing the county's assessment of its
property value for 2007 and 2008. And with the decision by
Fisher's panel in hand, the oil giant likely will be up for
another huge refund for those years as well. However, it will
have to obtain it without Fisher's vote. His term on the
assessment appeals board ended on September 3, immediately after
his vote for Chevron, and he's not seeking reappointment.
There is no evidence that Fisher broke the law, and he's not
in violation of public ethics rules unless he personally took
money from Chevron and didn't disclose it. As for Gioia,
although he said Fisher "has the reputation of integrity," the
county supervisor was clearly unhappy that Fisher did not
disclose his ties to Chevron earlier. Gioia said he will work to
ensure that members of county panels with decision-making power
over public funds disclose similar apparent conflicts of
On a final note, E.R. "Bob" Brooks, who also was on
the assessment appeals board and voted with Fisher in Chevron's
favor, was unanimously reappointed to the panel by the county
board of supervisors earlier this month. Brooks also reportedly
plans to run for county assessor against Kramer.