Richmond Councilman Gets Called on His Junk
The Richmond city attorney is targeting blighted property controlled by Corky Booze, as previously undisclosed accusations that he battered women come to light.
By John Geluardi
- The city attorney says Vice Mayor Booze's junkyard is a threat to public health.
The Richmond City Attorney's Office is cracking down on a blighted property that has been maintained for decades by embattled Vice Mayor Corky Booze. The property, which is overrun with inoperable cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats, and forklifts, is the latest controversy to envelop Booze, whose two years on the Richmond City Council have been characterized by petty arguments, grandstanding, and race-baiting. In addition, the crackdown coincides with revelations that Booze had been accused previously of battering a female Richmond police officer and a woman who volunteered for him.
In a five-page letter obtained by the Express, city prosecutor Trisha Aljoe described the property that Booze uses at 22 Carlson Boulevard as a public nuisance and a fire hazard. The 69-year-old Booze (pronounced "boo-zay") has claimed for decades that he operates an automotive repair business on the property, according to public records. According to the letter, the property also includes piles of discarded appliances, furniture, storage tanks, and metal cylinders — all of which are maintained illegally. The junkyard has become a threat to public health by "maintaining, permitting or allowing property as a declared public nuisance per se due to blighted and unsightly conditions detrimental to the health, safety or welfare of the public," Aljoe wrote in the March 6 letter.
The abatement order, however, is addressed to a mysterious woman named Laura Baker, a resident of Vallejo who is the owner of record on the property. She also appears as the legal owner of two other properties that Booze at one time owned and continues to control, public records show. The abatement letter also names Booze as the operator of the blighted business on her Carlson Boulevard property.
The city is giving Baker and Booze until March 21 to clean up the 28,000-square-foot property or face further legal action. But exactly what Baker's role is with regards to the property is uncertain. In the past, Booze has claimed publicly to know little about her. But in a 2003 letter to the Contra Costa County Superior Court, he described her as his "domestic partner of 30 years."
During his council campaign, Booze paid Baker $18,000 from his campaign fund, listing the payment as being for the rental of his campaign office at the Carlson property, records show. However, the payment raises questions because Booze has continuously controlled the property, and the only structures on the site are in a deteriorated state, with broken windows and graffiti-covered walls. Booze's business license for the property expired in 2010. Since the city's code enforcement unit opened an investigation into the property, Booze has applied for a license renewal, but it likely will not be granted because the property is not zoned for automotive repair, junkyards, or automobile storage.
This is not the first time that the city has wrangled with Booze over the Carlson property. Booze ignored city abatement orders for the same problems in the early 1990s and then fought the city in court for four years, records show. After losing his final appeal in 1997, the city finally came in and cleaned up the property at taxpayer expense in 1999. More than 65 inoperable vehicles were removed, along with rusting oil drums, assorted garbage, and dog feces, according to court documents.
During the three-day clean-up in 1999, Booze allegedly battered Richmond Police Officer Lisa Pheil when she asked him to move his truck. The 230-pound Booze became angry and yelled obscenities, according to a summary of the police report, and then he moved aggressively toward Pheil, who is 5-foot-4 and weighs 110 pounds, and chest-bumped her. Pheil put her hand up for protection and Booze swatted it down, according to the report.
Pheil, who is now retired, told me recently that she was surprised when Booze wasn't taken to jail for the battery, but not as surprised as she might have been. Five months before, Pheil had pulled Booze over in his truck and had given him a ticket for failing to register the vehicle for multiple years. Pheil said Booze was condescending to her and that he named councilmembers and police officers who were his friends. Pheil said that later that day police brass pressured her to "make the ticket go away." Nonetheless, she said she still doesn't understand why Booze was not arrested for battering a police officer in front of at least three witnesses, including another police officer. "Had it been anyone else, they would have been immediately cuffed, booked, and put in jail," Pheil said. "My supervisor wrote up a crime report, but nothing ever happened, which is a shame because every time Booze gets away with something like that, it just feeds his distorted sense of self-entitlement."
Since Booze was elected to the council in 2010, he also has allegedly battered at least one other woman. On September 21, Booze's volunteer chief of staff Jackie Thompson showed up at the Richmond Police Department shaking and crying, according to a summary of a police report that was shared with the Express. Thompson claimed, according to the report, that Booze had attacked her two days before and that she had injured her head when he pushed her to the ground. Thompson, who at the time was 64 years old, had been a tireless volunteer for Booze's council campaign, and after he was elected, she volunteered to be his chief of staff.
According to the police report summary, on September 19, Thompson showed up at a MacDonald Street office building that Booze had used during his campaign. Thompson believed she had interrupted Booze in a romantic tryst with another city staffer, a much younger woman who Thompson considered her rival for Booze's attentions. Thompson found Booze in a state of undress, and the two argued. Thompson then resigned her position as Booze's chief of staff.
At one point, according the police report summary, Booze began pushing Thompson, who had recently had hip surgery and uses a cane to walk. Thompson fell to the ground and Booze dragged her by the ankle through the campaign office and out onto MacDonald Street, where he left her lying on the sidewalk, according to the police report summary. Thompson's claims of a head injury and chest injuries were verified by a Kaiser emergency room medical report, the summary stated. Nonetheless, the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office refused to charge Booze because there were no witnesses. Thompson declined to comment about the incident.
Also in September, Booze was involved in a physical altercation with 72-year-old David Moore, another campaign volunteer. The two got into a brief fistfight outside of a candidates' meeting. Moore was arrested and both men claimed the other started the fight. No charges were ever filed.
Over the years, Booze has had a lot of trouble in the courts. More than thirty civil actions have been filed against him in Contra Costa County, records show. The vast majority of the complaints are for nonpayment of debts; the plaintiffs include banks, credit card companies, and individuals. In one 1997 case, a woman named Jacquelyn Wingfield claimed that Booze had failed to repay $124,736 in loans that he used to bolster his gas station business, which is now defunct. The court found in Wingfield's favor, but there was a problem collecting the money, as there has been with other civil actions against Booze. Until recently, the four properties he controls in Richmond were all in Baker's name, which means that creditors have not been able to file property liens against him. Within the past year, however, he put his residence back in his name. Also on Booze's official statement of economic interests, which all councilmembers are required to file with the city, he reported that he had no salary, no business profits, and no stocks worth more than $500.
In a brief interview, Booze denied any knowledge of the lawsuits and the allegations of battery. He said he is focused on helping the people of Richmond. He pointed to a $200,000 contribution to the Richmond Youthbuild program that Chevron made in his name. "I am just focused on creating jobs. I am a ceaseless advocate for more jobs," he said. "I am focused on helping my community and all of Richmond."
Booze is up for reelection in 2014 and Chevron is expected to back him because he often votes against the progressive majority on the council. Along with Councilman Nat Bates, who is heavily supported by Chevron, Booze has voted against bicycle and pedestrian projects; the general plan, which calls for new infrastructure and health-based policies; and the city's contract with a renewable energy provider. Booze has also called for an end to the free dock rental for the Red Oak Victory ship, which was built in Richmond's historic shipyards during World War II and continues to be a source of local pride. He has also railed against the city's Office of Neighborhood Safety, which is arguably one of the most innovative anti-crime programs in the country.
Ironically, the Richmond chapter of the NAACP awarded Booze with its Peace and Freedom Award in February despite the allegations that he is abusive and engages in divisive, race-baiting tactics. Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who, like Booze, is African-American, called the award a "mockery." "I think that many in Richmond know him to be a bully who makes regular abusive threats, including at council meetings," Beckles told the West County Times. "He has threatened to have physical harm done to me and to others."
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