United Neighbors member files ethics complaint against chief information officer over trips
Palo Alto’s top technology official violated California’s gifts law by taking at least 28 all-expense-paid trips funded by companies tied to telecommunications firms that do business with the city, according to a complaint filed with the state.
Reichental on a Jan. 18, 2017 “Connected Cities” agenda is listed as “owner” of a number of items involving Verizon, including “90 site DAS project entering ARB review,” which refers to Verizon’s plan to install 90 cell towers in residential neighborhoods, including the 11 approved last year.
In her filing with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Jeanne Fleming of United Neighbors contends Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental took illegal trips totaling 114 days between 2013 and 2017. United Neighbors is a group of local resident who unsuccessfully fought the City Council’s approval last year of a Verizon Wireless project to install 11 cell towers in the Midtown, South of Midtown, St. Claire Gardens and Palo Verde neighborhoods.
According to public records that Fleming acquired, Reichental’s trips included a trip in 2016 to China for six days and one to the French Riviera for three days, both paid for by TM Forum, a global trade association that seeks “to maximize the business success of communication and digital service providers and their ecosystem of suppliers,” according to its website.
Another trip had him spending seven days in Melbourne, Australia, in October 2017, paid for by Blockchain Association of Australia, an organization formed in 2017 to support Australia’s blockchain community. Blockchain, originally devised for digital currency, is being hailed in tech circles as the backbone of a new type of internet., the records indicate.
“The crux of my complaint is two-fold,” Fleming said in an email. “First, Dr. Reichental has been taking expensive junkets all over the world paid for, in particular, by the telecommunications industry. And second, Dr. Reichental has used his position . . . to influence the City’s dealings with the telecommunications industry. What he is doing is both unethical and a violation of California law.”
City Manager James Keene defended Reichental’s travel, saying in an interview that he takes the trips on his own time and never receives compensation for his involvement in the conferences. Reichental, who oversees a department of more than 30 and reports directly to the city manager, was not immediately available for comment. City staff said he was on vacation.
“I have the utmost confidence in the professional ethics of our chief information officer,” Keene said. “As long as we can keep him working for our city government with the talents and the perspective he has, we are way ahead of the curve.”
An FPPC official confirmed receiving the complaint Tuesday, but the agency has not yet determined whether it will conduct an investigation. Fleming’s complaint alleges that on travel forms he filed with the state, Reichental “repeatedly mischaracterized the parties paying for his trips as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, although they clearly are not . . . in order to evade the constraints imposed by California gift law.”
New Jersey-based TM Forum, for instance, was listed in 2016 as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit on its tax forms, which is not exempt from gift law limits of $470 per entity each year. She also alleges he has taken all-expense-paid trips that he failed to report. Both of those allegations, if proven true, would constitute gift law violations, punishable by fines of up to $5,000 in each case.
Reichental said by email Tuesday that he has reported all his trips with the state, does not believe any were paid for by telecom firms or agencies that represent telecom firms and that the purpose of the trips “was almost exclusively as an educator.” “All of the flights and hotels were paid for by other governments, public-sector entities, not-for-profits, and educational institutions,” he wrote.
Reichental stated he made an error reporting that a trip to a TM Forum smart cities conference in Yinchuan, China, in September 2016 was paid for by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. He said he plans to correct it “and make other small corrections should they exist” immediately after he returns from vacation.
Councilman Tom DuBois, who is aware of Fleming’s complaint, said he has asked the city attorney to look into the matter. “Even if the trips were all on vacation, there’s a question of, you’re working for the city of Palo Alto, where’s your focus? Are you focusing on your job?” DuBois said Tuesday. “It looks troubling, but I kind of want to get the full story . . . Jonathan’s worked really hard for the city. I don’t want to jump to conclusions.”
Keene said the city hired Reichental away from the private sector in December 2011 — he was chief information officer for O’Reilly Media and director of innovation for PricewaterhouseCoopers before joining the city — specifically because Reichental would help Palo Alto become a smart city. Keene credits Reichental for upgrading the city’s Wi-Fi network, moving data into the cloud, working toward universal fiber-based internet access, creating an open data portal and putting city employees through cybersecurity training.
Keene said Reichental has not played a role in approvals of cell antennas. He said those are land use and legal issues handled by other departments. But Fleming argues in her complaint that even if Reichental played no direct role in Verizon’s recent approvals, as chair of the city’s Connected Cities working group, which oversees telecom projects in the city, he’s directly involved in telecomrelated matters, including those placed before the City Council for approval.