A San Jose employee is questioning whether a food distribution company won millions of dollars in city contracts because of its ties to an ally of the mayor.
Jill Mariani, a city official since 2017, is blowing the whistle on her bosses with the city manager’s office for awarding lucrative contracts to Revolution Foods after she disclosed a possible ethical violation by a company representative. According to Mariani, during a November meeting with city officials, the representative tried to score more work by claiming the company’s investors have a personal relationship with Mayor Sam Liccardo.
Mariani reported it to her bosses and brought up the issue—twice—to the Office of Employee Relations this year, which is tasked with handling complaints of misconduct. But she claims they all ignored her and no investigation was done.
Revolution Foods, an Oakland-based company, continued to get contracts with San Jose through recommendations from the city manager’s office. In total, the for-profit organization got $4.6 million worth of contracts in the past year to provide meals to local schools and families during the pandemic—none of them went through the city’s competitive bid process.
“They’re doing this under the guise of feeding people during the pandemic, but it’s wrong,” Mariani told San José Spotlight. “I forwarded this up the chain of command and the chain of command said nothing. Then (Revolution Foods) got more money. There’s something wrong with that.”
A new contract
Records obtained by San José Spotlight show Liccardo met with Revolution Foods executives in Oct. 2020 to work out terms of a contract—it was unsuccessful. But less than a month later, an employee of the food distribution company told City Hall administrators that his company had spoken to Liccardo and boasted the mayor’s personal relationships with investors of his company. By Dec. 2020, the company scored a $2.09 million contract.
The city should not award contracts based on an organization’s personal relationship with elected officials, Mariani said.
Now Mariani wants an investigation into whether the Revolution Foods’ tie to Liccardo influenced the city’s contract decisions.
Liccardo denied any wrongdoing through a spokesperson.
The mayor’s spokesperson, Rachel Davis, said the mayor learned about Revolution Foods through a resident in March 2020 and confirmed that he knew one of its investors, Steve Westly, a politician turned venture capitalist. After Westly connected Liccardo to the company’s CEO in September 2020, Liccardo, city officials and Revolution Foods executives had a meeting but couldn’t agree on better contractual terms, Davis said.
Davis said the mayor doesn’t recall other communication with the company after that.
One month later, Revolution Foods representatives told Mariani that the mayor had discussed new work opportunities with the company and because Liccardo is friends with some of the company’s investors, the city should give those contracts to Revolution Foods.
Revolution Foods ended up with a new $2.09 million contract by the end of 2020. San Jose took over the contract with the company from the county office of education in March 2020.
The company’s CEO emailed Liccardo at least three more times this year—in January, March and again in June—to update him on meal delivery efforts and to ask for phone calls to discuss expanding the meal program.
Westly was copied on the emails in January and March.
Revolution Foods representative James Lee didn’t name Westly as the “investor” who’s friendly with Liccardo, but Westly has close ties to the mayor. And Liccardo’s wife, Jessica Garcia-Kohl, is the executive director at Westly Foundation.
Revolution Foods, a food distribution company, came highly recommended, Deputy City Manager Dolan Beckel said.
“Many individuals and businesses have or claim to have relationships with elected officials,” Beckel told San José Spotlight. “At no point did the mayor or council pressure staff to procure services with specific vendors.”
Revolution Foods did not answer questions about its employee’s attempt to gain more work by claiming its investors have a personal relationship with Liccardo.
A ‘sketchy’ deal
In 2017, Mariani left her cushy Google job for a position with San Jose’s Department of Transportation. The Illinois-native worked as a program manager in innovation when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Mariani volunteered to help the city’s COVID-19 response, where she was assigned to monitor the food needs in the county. In November, Mariani was asked to also take on duties as the food branch’s deputy director. She reported directly to Beckel and now-Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness.
During a private meeting on Nov. 19, 2020, Revolution Foods representative James Lee asked Mariani and another city official about three potential contracts with the city. When they explained those opportunities required a competitive bid process, Lee claimed he already talked to the mayor and that Liccardo has personal relationships with some investors of Revolution Foods, according to Mariani’s account of the meeting and her recap notes.
“He wants to make sure (that) we are aligning accordingly,” Mariani wrote in an email to Beckel and Revolution Foods representatives.
Lee did not dispute her notes and thanked her, an email shared with San José Spotlight shows.
Still shocked by Lee’s comments, Mariani sent a separate email the same day to Beckel and Harkness—her supervisors—and raised her concerns.
“I had a meeting with Rev Foods today and a line may have been crossed?” Mariani wrote in an email. “(Lee) specifically asked me to escalate to the two of you regarding these (three) pots of money that he believes has been earmarked for him.”
Harkness is on a sabbatical leave and didn’t respond to multiple inquiries. Beckel didn’t address questions about how his office handled Mariani’s concerns.
But in December, a month after Lee’s remarks about the investors, the city manager’s office asked the City Council to approve another contract with the company for meals through March 2021.
The council approved a $775,000 contract for shelf-stable meals. The contract eventually ballooned into a $2.09 million deal to accommodate last-minute requests for meals from local schools.
Deputy Attorney Diana Yuan said she’s worried and didn’t want “Revolution Foods taking advantage of the urgency to the city’s detriment” in an email to a city employee asking for direction to increase the contract amount last December. Mariani shared the email with San José Spotlight.
“I think the authority is still a little iffy given that the memo specifically says Revolution Foods at $775,000 but (the city manager’s office) can decide if they want to proceed,” Yuan said in the email.
Mariani met with Jennifer Schembri, director of employee relations, in March and September this year for unrelated work issues. Mariani said she brought up her concerns about the city’s relationship with Revolution Foods. Schembri did not follow up on the issue, she said.
Schembri referred San José Spotlight’s questions about the issue to a city spokesperson.
City spokesperson Carolina Camarena would not confirm whether an investigation into Mariani’s complaints about Revolution Foods was launched.
Mariani said she’s never gotten any update. She alerted her union about her concerns, which has obtained legal representation for Mariani in case of retaliation.
“It’s sketchy the moment I started looking into it,” Elizabeth Kamya, a union organizer with IFPTE Local 21, told San José Spotlight. “The more I look into it, the more questions I have. Unfortunately those questions can only be answered through an investigation.”
The quality of food from Revolution Foods is also questionable, Mariani said. For Thanksgiving, seniors received packaged nuts and a fruit punch—prompting angry emails from county officials. And many of the meals were close to expiring.
The incident wouldn’t be the first time a Liccardo ally or associate got special treatment from the city. San José Spotlight reported in April how the mayor’s personal friend, Carl Guardino, won a last-minute exemption from a natural gas ban for his company Bloom Energy.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Revolution Foods secured $2.5 million in contracts through the city manager’s office and the parks department to deliver meals to local schools.
City officials claimed that Revolution Foods had the scale to handle large orders of 3.5 million meals to students and families per week during the early days of the pandemic. The city waived the usual competitive bidding process for Revolution Foods and several other services to quickly combat the impact of COVID-19, Beckel said.
In an email from July of this year, Beckel asked Mariani and another employee about potential opportunities for new food-related contracts, saying he was “trying to find possibilities for Rev Foods.”
Beckel told San José Spotlight he was preparing for potential food needs as infections by the Delta variant started to surge. He didn’t answer to why he was asking specifically for Revolution Foods.
“I thought I was going crazy,” Mariani said. “And I’m afraid I’ll lose my job, but at least I could sleep at night knowing that the public has this information.”
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.
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