San Jose Mercury News
By Ramona Giwargis

SAN JOSE — Amid growing political tension over Mayor Sam Liccardo’s push to fingerprint Uber and Lyft drivers at San Jose’s airport, the mayor’s office sent a strongly-worded letter to a taxicab driver to submit to this newspaper as his own.

Shakur Buni promptly complied, attaching his name and sending the letter from his personal email address two days later as if it were his own.

A political ethics expert called it a deception to the public.

“It leaves the public in the dark about the true author of the letter,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. “I don’t think it looks good for the mayor. It looks like he is strong-arming drivers into doing his public relations work for him.”

The letter was attached to a July 22 email sent from Liccardo’s policy aide, Katie Scally, to Buni six days after this newspaper published an opinion piece opposing the mayor’s position on fingerprinting the taxi companies’ competitors. The opinion piece, written by Orson Aguilar, argued that fingerprinting ride-booking company drivers, who the taxi companies say should face background-checking like the cab drivers, would hurt minorities and disadvantaged communities.

Scally urged Buni, a Yellow Cab driver for 20 years and president of the San Jose Airport Taxi Driver Association, to “write an editorial in response” and that the mayor’s office wrote a draft letter for him.

“We have taken the liberty of writing a draft I have attached to this email,” Scally wrote. She tells Buni to add to the letter, but urges him to submit it “today as soon as possible.”

Two days later, Buni submitted the exact letter from the mayor’s office to this newspaper. When it didn’t get immediately published, Scally wrote another email to Buni directing him to follow up with the paper’s editorial pages editor.

Buni once again complied and resubmitted the letter to this newspaper the same day. The letter was never published.

Liccardo said he didn’t know who actually wrote the letter, but said Scally would not have taken the liberty to write it on her own. Liccardo initially said he “doubts” he wrote the letter himself but would have to go through his emails to confirm.

He later called to confirm he didn’t write it and believes the original draft came from someone representing the taxicab industry.

In an interview Thursday, Buni said he could not recall the email from Scally. Buni added that he didn’t think submitting the letter from the mayor’s office was wrong because he disagreed with the opposing author’s opinion.

“I did what I thought was the right thing,” Buni said. “We just wanted to respond that fingerprinting doesn’t hurt minorities.”

Liccardo said the position of the opposing author was “fairly ludicrous” and agreed to having taxicab leaders write responses to it. But the mayor said it was not his intention to have Buni pass off the letter from his office as his own writing.

“It seems to me that the author should have used their own words,” Liccardo said. “That shouldn’t have happened. The expectation is whatever he signed his name to should have been truthful and accurate.”

The mayor also could not say how often his office urges people to submit letters to advocate for his position or how often it provides draft letters, though he believes it’s uncommon. “But I take responsibility for anything that happens on my team,” he said.