Plot thickens in Oakland as grand jury investigates influential family, Mayor Thao, her partner

FBI personnel work on an investigation at a home registered to businessman Andy Duong in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday, June 20, 2024. Duong is a member of the family that owns recycling company Cal Waste Solutions, which has been investigated over campaign contributions to Oakland city Mayor Sheng Thao and other elected city officials, Oaklandside reported in 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
FBI personnel work on an investigation at a home registered to businessman Andy Duong in Oakland on June 20. (Noah Berger / Associated Press)

Federal investigators are ordering the city of Oakland to hand over documents involving a prominent, influential local family that holds a waste management contract with the city, as well as Mayor Sheng Thao and her partner, according to documents reviewed by The Times.

The subpoena, issued five days after agents raided Thao's home on June 20, confirms there is a current federal grand jury investigation that appears centered on Cal Waste Solutions Inc.; its owners, members of the Duong family; and their dealings with Oakland officials, particularly its mayor.

Dated June 25, the eight-page subpoena asks the city to turn over all documents and communications regarding Cal Waste Solutions, all of its employees and representatives, and any documents involving appointments to prominent city posts.

The deadline is Thursday.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice did not immediately respond to questions regarding the subpoena.

Federal investigators are also requesting documents related to the 2022 Oakland mayoral election, when Thao was elected as the first Hmong mayor of a major U.S. city.

Read more: A corruption cloud hangs over Oakland City Hall. It comes at a terrible time for the struggling city

The subpoena further reveals the possible involvement of Thao's partner, Andre Jones, in the inquiry. Investigators requested the city turn over calendar entries and records involving meetings for Thao and Jones from June 1 to the present.

Attorneys for Thao declined to comment on the subpoena but said the investigation involving Thao did not involve criminal charges or allegations.

Thao has denied any wrongdoing.

"I can tell you with confidence that this investigation is not about me," the mayor said in a news conference three days after FBI agents raided her home.

Exactly what the focus of the federal investigation is remains unclear, but the June 25 subpoena offered a slightly wider glimpse into the scope of the investigation, the latest scandal to plague the Bay Area city that has recently faced a mayoral recall effort, a growing budget deficit, and concerns about crime that have driven out major businesses.

Shortly after city officials received the subpoena, Oakland's city attorney directed staff in an email to preserve all records involving Thao, Jones, and the Duong family, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

A spokesperson for the city attorney's office confirmed the existence of the memo to staff but in an email declined to provide a copy of it or answer questions about it, referring to the memo as "confidential attorney-client communication between the Oakland City Attorney and the other city of Oakland staff members."

The federal subpoena, issued by the U.S. attorney's Northern District of California, requests multiple documents involving the Duong family, including David, Andy, Kristina, Victor and Michael Duong.

Read more: Could the closure of Oakland's only In-N-Out help the city with its crime problem?

For at least five years, the family has been at the center of an investigation involving the state's Fair Political Practices Commission and the Oakland Public Ethics Commission. The family is accused of using "straw donors" to circumvent legal donation limits and fill the campaign coffers of elected public officials while the family's companies sought contracts with cities.

The family's company, Cal Waste Solutions, provides recycling services to Oakland.

After the warrants were executed, Cal Waste Solutions officials issued a statement saying they were surprised by the searches and had cooperated with investigators.

"We believe that we have not engaged in or committed any illegal activities and are awaiting the decision of the law enforcement agency," the statement read.

A spokesperson for the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

But the state and local inquiry into the family's dealings with city officials in the area paint a troubling picture.

Court records reveal the Fair Political Practices Commission has been investigating political donations made by the family since 2019. The agency alleges that Andy Duong and former business associates used friends and business connections to make political contributions, then reimbursed them with cash to hide the true origin of the money.

“CWS was the true source of at least 93 contributions to multiple local campaign committees,” one court record reads, with the goal being “to curry favor with candidates and provide more access to candidates.”

The agency tracked questionable donations made in Oakland, as well as San José and other parts of Santa Clara County, where the family was looking to do business.

The investigation found there had been multiple contributions made to Thao's campaign in 2018 for City Council, including "seven of which were admitted reimbursements by or on behalf of [Andy] Duong."

One former associate told investigators, according to court records, he saw Andy Duong pull cash from a drawer in his office at Cal Waste Solutions to reimburse people for donations.

Fair Political Practices Commission officials confirmed their inquiry is still ongoing.

Federal officials are also requesting documents involving the city's declaration of a local emergency on homelessness, and any communication regarding the former Oakland Army Base, a site that had been considered as possible housing for unhoused individuals.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.