Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




April 25, 2008

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been engaging in a political-difference dialogue with one of the candidates for Oakland City Council At Large, Charles Pine. I’m not going to go into the details of that dialogue; it’s all on-line, and you can look it up, if you haven’t been following it ("Cultural Differences And The Oakland Police" UnderCurrents April 11, 2008. "Letters To The Editor" Berkeley Daily Planet April 15, 2008. "A Look At Local Candidate Debates" UnderCurrents April 18, 2008).

I only raise it because I hope this serves as an example of how political dialogue ought to take place. Mr. Pine put his political positions out on his campaign website, following that up with public statements at a candidates forum. I wrote my criticisms in my column about those positions, signing my name to the criticisms. Mr. Pine answered those criticisms in a letter to the editor of my newspaper and liked his answers so much, apparently, that he posted them as well on his campaign website under the link “Exchange With Columnist About Law And Order.”

In this discussion, I believe, Mr. Pine and I have had a fair exchange of ideas, out in the open, which the public can look up, if you’re interested, and make up your own mind about who is right, who is wrong, and who made the better argument. And that’s how political debate and political campaigns ought to work.

Unfortunately, everybody doesn’t operate that way.

A new political tactic has surfaced in Oakland in another local race. Sleazy. Reprehensible. One of the worst campaign tactics I’ve ever seen. It ought to be denounced, by everyone, and never allowed to gain any kind of traction in our area.

Sometime in that past several days—I have no idea how long it’s been up—an anonymous website has been posted at slamming the candidacy of 5th District City Council candidate Mario Juarez, who is running against longtime incumbent Council President Ignacio De La Fuente.

Under the front page title “The Oakland Swindler” with a picture of Juarez labeled “Corrupt Crook,” the website’s front page reads: “All the statements made in these pages can be verified through Public records. If you love Oakland, half as much as we do, you will look further into Mario Juarez’s background and make an informed decision. Don’t give Mario Juarez the opportunity to BANKRUPT our city, DESTROY our hopes and STEAL our hard earned tax payer dollars! Aside from being a crook, liar, dead beat father, etc., Mario R. Juarez has NO POLITICAL EXPERIENCE! He is a real estate agent, for crying out loud and a shady agent that sells illegal properties to innocent buyers! Mario R. Juarez can’t even manage his own business and his personal life is a disaster. How can we expect him to handle the many problems facing our city? MARIO JUAREZ is ROTTEN TO THE CORE but don’t take our word for it…”

The “Oakland Swindler” website then provides links to various pages, including “Fraud & Breach Of Contract,” “City Sues Mario,” “Bankruptcy,” “Under Investigation,” “Family Life,” and “Verify Facts,” all of which contain various allegations about Mr. Juarez, some of which are supposedly backed up by court docket numbers or police report numbers.

It would seem that with allegations so serious—libelous, in fact, if they are not true—those making the allegations would back them up by giving their own names.

They don’t, friends. The “Oakland Swindler” allegations against Mr. Juarez are all posted anonymously.

On the “About Us” link where the information about the website operators would normally be posted, the following paragraph is present: “We, the authors of this site, are a group of Fruitvale residents and merchants that have been lied to, stolen from, extorted, threatened and/or cheated by Mario Juarez. We may individually have our own different opinions about who should be council person for District 5 of Oakland, but there is one thing we all agree on: It SHOULD NOT be Mario Juarez. Everyone in the real estate industry in Oakland knows that Mario R. Juarez is ‘shady’. Everyone on International Boulevard, where some of us do business, know he is corrupt. We know if our identity is known, Mario will try to retaliate against us. He has threatened many of us. He has a dark heart and no conscience. We list sources of information where any of you can do your own investigation.”

But what if you want to start your investigation into who put up the money, gathered the information, and organized the “Oakland Swindler” website?

Well, that’s a bit more difficult. We can only take the “word” of the website organizers that they are actually Fruitvale merchants and residents who are so frightened of Mr. Juarez, they dare not take him on publicly.

The “Oakland Swindler” website backlinks to a website called “Oakland Council Elections 8.6.3”. That website lists the five contested Oakland City Council races in the June 3rd election, recommending Patrick McCullough in District One over incumbent Jane Brunner, Sean Sullivan in District Three over incumbent Nancy Nadel and challenger Greg Hodge, De La Fuente in District 5, incumbent Larry Reid over challenger Clifford Gilmore in District 7, and Charles Pine in the At Large race where incumbent Henry Chang chose not to run.

The “View My Complete Profile” link on the “Oakland Council Elections 8.6.3” page takes you to a standard blog page that has no information about the blogger himself, herself, or themselves. There is a link to a separate blog page entitled “Mario Juarez. 100% Crook” that links back to the “Oakland Swindler” website, as well as contains the statement “Do not vote for this scumbag or Clint Killian” (Mr. Killian is a candidate in the At Large City Council race).

The “Oakland Council Elections 8.6.3” website also has includes a line on how these people intend to operate: “If you have info or dirt on candidates, such as Clinton Killian, let us know.”

So that they can post it anonymously, one supposes. How courageous.

Tips from unnamed sources—either from people who are truly anonymous, or from people who you know but who pass on a bit of information but ask that their names be kept out of it—are common in the news business, and every journalist is familiar with them. Some of journalism’s best stories come from such tips. The normal procedure is to follow up the suggestions with a review of public documents, if any, and with interviews with people willing to go on the record. Sometimes this leads to real stories. Sometimes it leads to dead ends.

And so, because of the explosiveness of the nature of the charges against Mr. Juareaz on the “Oakland Swindler” website, there may be something of a temptation to ignore the method in which the information came, and to follow up to see if any of the allegations are true. At the very least, I could contact the Juarez campaign for comment, and contact the De La Fuente campaign to see if they know anything about it.

But under these circumstances, I am going to resist that temptation. This is different than the usual “tip” from an unnamed source. In those situations, the “tip” is made to the journalist, and it is up to the journalist and the journalist’s media outlet to decide whether or not the information should be followed up on, and published. In this case, the unverified, unsourced “tips” have already been disseminated, on the anonymous website.

Some other journalist in town, probably, will take the bait and follow up on the allegations themselves, but it won’t be me.

The reason is, I don’t think this type of anonymous dissemination of unverified slander—on anybody—should not be encouraged. Instead it should be denounced as the slimey, low-lifed, cowardly, and underhanded tactic that it is. They have no place here.

There is also an argument to be made that by publicizing the website in this column, it will lead people to look at the website who otherwise might not to, therefore spreading the ugly venom I say I am trying to prevent. Unfortunately, that is one of the traps that the anonymous “Oakland Swindler” website puts us in. Denouncing it gives it publicity. But in my opinion, ignoring it is worse.

Back to the issue of the allegation by the “Oakland Swindler” website organizers that they are afraid of retaliation from Mr. Juarez if they let their names be known. Retaliation can be a real fear, especially if you go after the powerful. But Mr. Juarez hardly seems to fit the category of someone people in Oakland need to be afraid of. Even in the worst of the charges against him on the “Oakland Swindler” website, there do not appear to be any charges that his enemies or opponents have been shot at, or their businesses burned. Oakland has a history of open criticism of some of the most powerful politicians in the state or the area, politicians who have been known to retaliate: State Senate President Don Perata, or former Oakland mayor, and now California Attorney General Jerry Brown, Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. Although I don’t agree with many of those criticisms, the people who have been criticizing Mayor Ron Dellums since Mr. Dellums’ election in 2006 have been willing to do so publicly and openly, putting their names and their charges out for everybody to see. Should our hearts now pump Kool-Aide (to use the popular street term) because of fear that someone like Mario Juarez might get angry about being criticized? Sorry, friends, but that has the ring of self-serving bogus to it, a way to hide identity behind another, anonymous charge.

If the charges against Mr. Juarez contained anonymously and in such a cowardly way in the “Oakland Swindler” website are actually true, let the organizers of the website reveal their names, reveal their funding sources, and stand behind their words, as the rest of us do. Otherwise, they should be denounced by everyone in Oakland—regardless of our political differences and our various positions on the issues—who agree that those differences should best be aired honestly and openly, giving people who are attacked a fair chance to respond.

If the “Oakland Swindler” organizers can’t abide the revealing light of the sun, they ought to go back to the shadow from where they crawled. Oakland doesn’t need this.

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