Lawsuits claim Richmond mayor led development decisions in violation of ethics laws
This is the first story in a four part series on how Richmond Mayor Tom Butt navigates the conflicts that arise from his roles as a public official, business owner and investor. immovable.
Before even running for office, Mayor Tom Butt had a vision for building Richmond. When he moved to town from Marin County in 1973, he opened an architectural firm specializing in historic preservation and, over the years, has helped rebuild and preserve some of Richmond’s iconic historic sites – the Mac Hotel, the East Brother Lighthouse and the SS Red Oak Victory, among others. His company has applied for 19 building permits for projects in Richmond since being elected mayor in 2014, according to city records.
Before becoming mayor, Butt served on city council for 20 years. During this time he was not only a business owner but also involved in real estate development in Richmond. This combination has created numerous conflict of interest opportunities since Butt took office in 1995. Clients of Butt’s architectural firm, Interactive Resources Inc., have appeared before City Council on several occasions, each presenting a potential conflict of interest.
Since becoming mayor in 2015, Butt has recused himself from council deliberations at least 29 times due to business conflicts of interest. Most of the conflicts stemmed from his relationship with a business partner and the company’s association with a handful of clients who could have been affected by the zoning changes and real estate negotiations the city was pursuing. There have been five times in his political career where the line was not apparent and Butt sought written advice from California’s political ethics committee, the Fair Political Practices Commission, the commission’s website says. In one case, Butt sought an opinion on a potential conflict from the California Attorney General. The mayor said he had also consulted with the Richmond city attorney and an outside conflict of interest lawyer on whether or not to recuse himself.
“I’m really trying to play fair,” he said in an interview in October. “It’s a complicated area and I’m trying to get the best advice I can.”
Three lawsuits in the past four years – including the one filed by a business partner –accuse Butt of circumventing open meeting ethics or rules and working behind the scenes to inappropriately steer controversial development decisions. One of those decisions benefited a client of architectural firm Butt, and one of them has the potential to generate more business for the firm. All three lawsuits claim Butt used his influence to speed up or influence council votes.
In interviews in October and April, Butt said he was doing everything possible to seek legal advice on potential disputes. He denied any suggestion that he used his elected post to grow his company’s business. On the contrary, he said his company lost money due to its involvement in politics because, to avoid conflicts of interest, it did not bid on city projects.
“I don’t make money when development comes to Richmond. I only make money when my architectural firm takes on a project, ”Butt said in the October interview.
Running into business-related conflicts of interest is not uncommon for local politicians, who are not required to disengage from their private businesses in the same way as their state and national counterparts. It shouldn’t be difficult for local officials to deal with these situations ethically, said John Pelissero, government affairs expert at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Santa Clara.
“It’s only a tense problem when you have someone who just seems to be entangled [to the extent that it’s difficult] so that they can act in doing public business without raising questions about their own potential conflicts, ”Pelissero said.
Public officials also have an ethical duty to avoid even the appearance of conflict, Pelissero said. “The mayor, or any other public official, can work very hard to make sure they never break the law,” Pelissero said. “But the other question is, do they act in a way that shows they take this obligation seriously, and they don’t even put themselves in a position where it appears they might have a conflict of interest.”
One of the lawsuits that Butt led development decisions was filed by attorney Joshua Genser, with whom Butt is in a joint venture with four others to manage two historic properties. Genser argued that Butt pushed for decisions that benefited the mayor’s company while negatively affecting a Genser property. And he claimed the mayor broke the law in the process.
“He tried all kinds of smart things to make sure we couldn’t develop the property, but it wouldn’t legally be a [government] take, ”Genser said. “And you know, he’s a very smart guy.”
Genser’s lawsuit claimed that the rulings pushed by Butt and which the city council ultimately passed constituted a seizure of his private property by the city government. The city disputed this in its response to the lawsuit, saying the council’s decision did not prevent Genser and other landowners from using the property.
Butt is defending his position, even as he accepts lawsuits, public criticism and backlash on social media as an integral part of his status as a public official. It’s a role he learned in part through observation, as his family has a history of public service.
Butt’s grandfather was mayor of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a small town in the Ozark Mountains, and state senator. And his father was a longtime Arkansas judge. Butt’s public service began when he joined the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1966, and he then served in Vietnam. This tradition of service is passed on to the next generation. One of Butt’s two sons has served on Richmond’s commissions and boards, as have Butt’s wife and daughter-in-law. Each member of the family has a background in architecture or town planning.
Butt’s sons Andrew and Daniel say they too must deal with the ethical issues that accompany their family’s involvement in business and politics. Andrew – who served on the Design Review Board and the Richmond Planning Commission for approximately 10 years – is also director of interactive resources. Andrew Butt has recused himself at least seven times over trade disputes during his stint as planning commissioner – including over a decision his father voted on as mayor. Daniel Butt, lawyer and real estate broker, appeared on behalf of a client before the Planning Commission of which his brother was a member.
Regarding interactive resources, Mayor Butt said the company has few clients in Richmond. And he believes those clients hired the company because of its reputation, not its connection to the city government.
“No one has ever asked me to intercede or do anything like that with their project,” he said.
Andrew Butt, meanwhile, might recall having to question a client who had hinted he expected special treatment from the city.
Mayor Butt says that over the years he has closely followed the law governing when politicians should recuse themselves from decisions in which they have a financial stake. “Usually it’s kind of black and white,” he says. “You are either involved [in a given project] or you are not involved.
The lawsuit filed by Butt’s business partner suggests it’s not so clear. The second part of this series, coming Wednesday, examines the PowerPlant Park case in which Genser accused Butt of interfering behind the scenes.
This story has been updated to correct the fact that Daniel Butt appeared before the Planning Commission and not before multiple boards.