San Jose mayor’s chief of staff accused of conflict of interest
Jim Reed, chief of staff for San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan. Image courtesy of Jim Reed's reelection website.

    While working in the top offices of San Jose government, Jim Reed helped raise six figures to elect Mayor Matt Mahan. Then he went to work for him.

    Many say that could be considered a conflict of interest. And some in political circles are even considering a call to demand Reed step down as Mahan’s chief of staff—or at least be investigated by the city’s ethics commission.

    “Big money swamps our politics at all levels, and the public is right to be cynical about the possibility that politicians grant special access to the special interest donors that fuel their campaigns,” Sean McMorris, an ethics expert at Common Cause, told San José Spotlight. “In this situation, the person who organized the money for special interest donors ended up in a top role in the mayoral administration, seemingly validating that cynicism.”

    It all began when former Mayor Sam Liccardo launched two organizations during his final years inside City Hall. Reed was his chief of staff for eight years.

    In February 2021, Liccardo and Reed launched Solutions Silicon Valley, a 501c(4) organization, to advocate for “common sense” policies. The group ended up lobbying on issues such as reopening public schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic and opposing water rate hikes. Then nine months later, the pair launched Common Good Silicon Valley, a political action committee (PAC) that raised millions to elect business-friendly moderate policymakers like Mahan. The PAC effectively replaced the now-defunct chamber of commerce political action committee that tanked in November 2020 after publishing a racist ad.

    The two organizations became deeply intertwined and linked to some of this election cycle’s most vicious attack ads against local candidates last year.

    Reed was at the helm of both organizations, and previously told San José Spotlight he served as the executive director of Common Good while working for Liccardo. But Reed says he was never paid by either organization and did all the work—whether lobbying or fundraising—after hours outside of City Hall.

    “I take my ethical responsibilities very seriously,” Reed told San José Spotlight. “I do not get paid to volunteer and I do not volunteer on city time. Everybody has a constitutionally-protected right to volunteer for organizations such as Solutions and Common Good, and I’m thankful that we all live in a country with such protections.”

    An act of service?

    Government employees such as Reed cannot intermingle official resources with political campaigns, or use public, taxpayer-funded resources including their time or city offices for lobbying or political activities.

    The Common Good PAC spent more than $1 million last year on the San Jose mayor’s race where Mahan faced off with Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

    Liccardo raised more than $420,000 in three months for the PAC before stepping away from it. At least 70% of those dollars came from wealthy developers—15 developers gave at least $10,000 a pop.

    “Here, like in many instances across the country, the people managing the independent spending are independent only momentarily and only in name,” McMorris said. “After the election season, they switch roles and are tied at the hip with the elected officials they were supposedly independent of.”

    Reed insists his work on the PAC and nonprofit is a labor of love and act of service to the city.

    “Nothing interferes with my role as chief of staff,” Reed said. “Every election year, hundreds of thousands of government staffers across the nation ethically engage in both public business and politics every year, and do so legally by keeping the two separate, just as I do.”

    But the political influence of the two groups—led by Reed—hasn’t stopped with his boss’ election. Solutions Silicon Valley paid for a poll in January which found residents overwhelmingly supported a special election, instead of an appointment process, to fill the two council vacancies. Mahan and Liccardo voted in favor of a special election, but were the losing minority at the end of last year.

    Reed was called out during a public meeting last month for being the mayor’s chief of staff and running the group that funded a poll that sought to sway the city’s decision.

    John Pelissero, senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said while it’s common for staff to blur the lines, Reed’s political activity oversteps it. He said Reed has a conflict of interest, and if Mahan runs for reelection in 2024, he should not be involved in Solutions Silicon Valley or Common Good.

    While it’s not uncommon for city officials to help with their boss’ political campaigns after hours or while on a leave of absence, the PAC Reed helped run funded independent expenditures to defeat Chavez and elect Mahan. That means he could not coordinate with any of the candidates, including then-councilmember Mahan. He also never took a leave of absence from his job as Liccardo’s chief of staff. Chavez’s communications director, Beth Willon, worked on her campaign for mayor, though she eventually took a leave of absence from her county role.

    “It’s difficult to believe that Reed can serve the people and the public interests of San Jose as a member of the mayor’s staff, and not be seeking to advance the interests of these outside interests that he has made,” Pelissero told San José Spotlight. “Just to keep the public trust in the mayor’s office, it would behoove him to step aside from these outside organizations, and not engage in such political activities while he’s serving as chief of staff.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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