Our Backyard: Libby Schaaf Should Apologize
It’s now clear that the mayor lied to the citizens of Oakland about Police Chief Sean Whent’s departure.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf is facing the biggest challenge of her political career right now—and she’s failing badly. The Oakland Police Department’s horrid sexual misconduct scandal has already ended the careers of several police officers and the city’s police chief, Sean Whent. It has also left two people dead. But instead of dealing with the growing crisis in an honest, transparent, and straightforward manner, Schaaf has been hiding from reporters and ducking questions after having lied about Whent’s departure from the city.
And for that, she should apologize.
Schaaf’s actions are particularly troubling and surprising, given that, over the years, she had developed a reputation for being a forthright public official.
But that reputation began to take a serious beating last Thursday evening. It all started when freelance investigative journalist Ali Winston (who writes for the East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, and other publications) tweeted that, according to his sources, Whent was about to be fired.
Then, a few hours later, Schaaf dispatched an email press release stating that Whent, in fact, had resigned.
The next morning, at a packed press conference at City Hall, Schaaf repeated the claim, stating that Whent had stepped down for personal reasons, and that his departure had nothing to do with the sexual misconduct scandal. She pointed repeatedly to his resignation email in which Whent made no reference to the scandal, and instead claimed that it was just time for him “to move on and explore other opportunities.”
But then numerous journalists quickly confirmed that Schaaf and Whent’s claims were false, and that the police chief, in truth, had been ousted by federal court monitor Robert Warshaw. On Friday evening, Winston and Express staff writer Darwin BondGraham published a bombshell report on the Express’ website, revealing startling new details about the case, including the fact that at least 14 Oakland cops had had sex with the teenage girl at the center of the scandal, and that at least three of them had committed statutory rape. One of those cops was Officer Brenden O’Brien, who killed himself last September, after his wife died under suspicious circumstances a year earlier, apparently after the two had fought.
In addition, Winston and BondGraham’s newest report quoted numerous sources stating that Warshaw had discovered that Whent’s wife also knew for months about her husband’s officers having sex with the girl. The Express report also proved that at least one cop, and likely two more, had warned the young woman, who is a sex worker, about prostitution stings by cops so that she could avoid arrest. The young woman, who goes by the fake name Celeste Guap, also told Winston and BondGraham that she had sex with cops so they would protect her.
Journalists Matthew Artz and David DeBolt of the East Bay Times subsequently confirmed the Express’ report in a follow-up story, published early Sunday. Artz and DeBolt also confirmed that Whent had not resigned on his own, and that Warshaw had forced him out.
As noted in a blogpost on Friday, Schaaf had to know that Warshaw ousted Whent, and that she had agreed with the decision. Schaaf said repeatedly at Friday’s press conference that she had been in contact with Warshaw on this issue, and that they had “concurred” in their decision-making.
Indeed, they must have agreed, because under a December 2012 order from federal Judge Thelton Henderson, Schaaf could have challenged Warshaw’s decision to oust Whent by asking for a court hearing, but she did not.
In other words, Schaaf knew full well that Warshaw had forced out Whent for badly mishandling the sexual misconduct investigation, but the mayor nonetheless decided to lie about it to the press and the public.
It was a huge mistake, and it was a disservice to Oaklanders. It was also unnecessary.
For many politicians, telling the truth can seem untenable during trying circumstances. And perhaps Schaaf wanted to protect Whent, a chief who had considerable success while leading the department.
But the mayor could have told the truth while honoring Whent at the same time. At the press conference, she could have praised Whent for his numerous accomplishments as chief, while noting that he also had botched the biggest misconduct case to hit the department since the Riders scandal. So he had to go, and that she concurred with Warshaw’s decision to oust him.
The truth, while often difficult, is always the best course of action. And Schaaf should apologize for not taking it.
Our Backyard is an occasional opinion column by senior editor Robert Gammon.