Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan has been fined $19,000 by the city’s Public Ethics Commission following conflict of interest allegations and accusations she failed to report her part ownership in a condominium in the city.

Public ethics commissioners on Wednesday voted 5-0 in favor of imposing the fine against Kaplan who admitted to the wrongdoing, but said it was inadvertent.

Kaplan did not report her ownership of the condo until 2019 following the purchase of it by she and her parents in December 2013. Later, Kaplan voted as a city councilmember on a project that may have increased the value of that property.

“These are serious violations,” said Simon Russell, enforcement chief of the Public Ethics Commission.

That’s the reason for the relatively high penalty rather than simply asking Kaplan to sign a diversion agreement, which could involve getting training on ethics rules. But Simon also said significant mitigating factors came into play that kept the penalty from being higher.

One factor is the belief by public ethics staff that Kaplan’s wrongdoing was not intentional. Still, commissioners believe Kaplan’s actions were both “negligent” and “reckless.”

‘Truly sorry’

Kaplan told ethics staff in an interview that she thought of the condo as more of her parents’ place. Her parents would stay there when they visited Oakland, and Kaplan lived elsewhere full-time until 2018.

“She is truly sorry,” said Matthew Alvarez, who spoke on behalf of Kaplan during the public comment period at Wednesday’s meeting.

Alvarez said Kaplan didn’t realize she was making a mistake.

But Tanya Boyce, who also spoke during public comment, said “I think she absolutely did know.” Boyce said Kaplan is one of the smartest women she knows. Kaplan has a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a law degree from Stanford University.

Kaplan has been on the city council since 2009.

Nevertheless, Kaplan should have reported the property as a financial asset on Form 700 that city officials are required to file each year. She also should have recused herself from voting on the project that may have increased the value of her condo.

Russell said it’s not necessarily that Kaplan had nefarious intent or will gain anything of value. In fact, the item before the commission came to light because Kaplan eventually reported her ownership of the condo on Form 700, Russell said.

The 500-foot rule

But Kaplan’s action may have given the appearance of corruption, which is one of the key reasons for ethics laws, Russell said.

Kaplan’s condo is less than 500 feet from Estuary Park, which Kaplan voted on as a member of a City Council committee and as part of the full council. City law prohibits councilmembers from taking action on projects within 500 feet of their own property.

Kaplan voted to allocate bond money to finance the Estuary Park project and to select an architect.

This image shows the Estuary Park project site in relation to the nearby Portobello condominium complex, where Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan owns property. City law prohibits councilmembers from taking action on projects within 500 feet of their own property. (Google image)

Russell said it’s a conflict of interest whether or not a councilmember gains anything, even if they don’t realize they have a conflict of interest.

Another factor that mitigated the penalty was a vote Kaplan made against her own economic interests. When Estuary Park came before a council committee, Kaplan voted to delay the project. She felt city staff failed to properly vet a vendor that staff wanted to use to design the park.

Commissioner Ryan Micik said he hopes the action against Kaplan will lead some of Oakland’s other “officials and top electeds” to take another look at their disclosures and perhaps amend them if necessary.

He also hopes elected officials will take a look at what they are voting on even if it’s on the consent calendar, which was the case at times when Kaplan voted on Estuary Park.

Kaplan did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A previous request for comment was also not returned.