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What we all know in regards to the FBI’s search of Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao’s residence

FBI agents carried out four raids today in Oakland. They searched Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao’s home as well as the homes of David and Andy Duong. The Duong family owns California Waste Solutions, which has a multi-million dollar contract with the city for curbside recycling services. FBI agents were also busy searching California Waste Solutions’ offices.

We don’t know why the FBI and possibly other law enforcement searched these properties. Federal agents haven’t publicly accused the mayor, the Duongs, or California Waste Solutions of any wrongdoing. But the FBI’s actions signal that they are investigating the mayor, the Duongs, and perhaps others.

Thao has not made any public statements since the morning raid, and her office directed our inquiries to the FBI. 

While we know very little about what the FBI is up to, there is another investigation underway right now having to do with Andy and David Duong and California Waste Solutions.

Here’s what you need to know about the Duong family, their business in Oakland, ties to Thao and other city officials—and allegations that the Duongs illegally funneled thousands of dollars to politicians in past elections.

The Duongs control Oakland’s recycling services

CEO of California Waste Solutions David Duong speaks to press in 2022 about a donation to the city. Credit: Amir Aziz

Andy Duong is the son of David Duong, a prominent member of the Bay Area’s Vietnamese-American community. David Duong founded California Waste Solutions in 1992. The company’s website says the Duong family, which once owned a paper mill in Vietnam, escaped their home country during the Vietnam War in 1979 and settled in San Francisco. They created a small paper recycling company in 1983 called CoGiDo Recycling and bought a warehouse in West Oakland that same year.

California Waste Solutions is Oakland’s official recycling collector. Its workers gather recycling from homes and businesses every day. The Duongs’ company also provides services for San Jose and they operate a waste treatment facility in Vietnam

In 2014, the Oakland City Council surprised many when they voted to award California Waste Solutions a billion-dollar contract to run the city’s trash and recycling collection services. Waste Management, a much larger corporation that had also bid for the contract, objected, claiming that CWS was unprepared for the work. City staff also said giving all the work to the Duong family’s company was risky for Oakland because CWS wasn’t as big a company with as much experience. The council relented to the objections and voted to split the contract, giving trash collection to Waste Management and letting California Waste Solutions handle recycling.

In 2017, the city of Oakland sued California Waste Solutions for allegedly overcharging some landlords of multi-unit buildings and making millions of dollars of additional profit. The company filed a countersuit against the city. The parties agreed to a settlement in 2021 where California Waste Solutions would refund landlords over $6 million and reduce their monthly premium service rate. The city also agreed to refund the company for some alleged overcharges. But it wasn’t until January of this year that the parties agreed on how to handle the refunds and implement a new system going forward.

From 2016 to 2021, California Waste Solutions was also in negotiations with Oakland about relocating one of its recycling centers to a city-owned property on the former Oakland Army Base. This multi-million dollar deal was finalized in July of 2021.

Andy Duong and David Duong are politically connected

The Duongs’ social media accounts are filled with photographs of the two men glad-handing some of the most powerful politicians in the state and nation. 

On Instagram, Andy Duong posted photos of himself with Thao, former District 6 City Councilmember Loren Taylor, and District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas. Duong also has photographs of himself with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, State Senator Nancy Skinner, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, former Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, and Gov. Gavin Newsom. Duong has also been photographed with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris

There are numerous photos of Duong with California Attorney General Rob Bonta and State Assemblymember Mia Bonta. In a March 27, 2021 post, Duong posted 10 pictures of himself with Rob Bonta at different events, including a Warriors basketball game. 

On Facebook, David Duong has shared photos of himself meeting with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Virginia Senator Tom Kaine, former Secretary of State John Kerry, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley. He’s also been photographed with the governors of Montana, Maine, New Jersey, Virginia, Kentucky, Kansas, Arizona, New Hampshire, and New Mexico (all seemingly at the same event). 

Some of these politicians and other supporters of the company were on hand at its 25th anniversary party in San Jose in January 2018. 

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao stands at a podium.
Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao. Credit: Amir Aziz

Last summer, Thao led a trade delegation to Vietnam in her first overseas trip as mayor. The stated purpose was to promote the Port of Oakland, which does significant business with markets in Asia, including Vietnam. Thao was accompanied by Oakland and Alameda County officials, including Supervisor Lena Tam and Sheriff Yesenia Sanchez. 

The delegation was sponsored and planned by two groups: the Bay Area Council, which represents business interests in the Bay Area, and the Vietnamese American Business Association. David Duong and his brother Victor Duong serve as chair and vice chair of the association. According to the East Bay Times, the organization covered the trips of two staffers from Oakland’s Department of Economic and Workforce Development, while the port paid for Thao. 

During the trip, Thao and other officials met with representatives from the Long An International Port and the mayors of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang. They also met with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, and with companies, including VinFast, an electrical vehicle manufacturer, and the airline VietJet. 

“This trip was an investment in Oakland’s future, by cultivating critical relationships that will grow our city’s economy,” Thao said to the press after returning. 

Oakland Port officials signed non-binding agreements with Vietnamese officials to stimulate trade. One agreement was with Thaco Industries, which makes specialized equipment for vehicles, and another was with the Port of Long An. 

David Duong also runs a company in Vietnam called Vietnam Waste Treatment Company.

In 2022, David Duong and the Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council donated three drones worth $80,000 to the Oakland Police Department. Prior to this, OPD had never owned drones. Chinatown leaders said at the time they hoped the drones would help OPD crack down on robberies in the neighborhood, which increased during the pandemic.

The Duong family also gave the police department 1,200 KN95 face masks in April 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning. The family also donated 1,250 oxygenators to Vietnam in 2021, personally delivering the devices to Vietnam President Nguyen Xuan Phuc when he was in New York.

Andy Duong is the main target of a major political campaign money laundering operation

Starting in 2019, Oakland’s political watchdog, the Public Ethics Commission, and the state Fair Political Practices Commission launched a joint investigation after getting a tip accusing the Duong family of secretly giving tens of thousands of dollars to Oakland city councilmembers’ campaign committees. 

From 2016 to 2018, the Duongs allegedly funneled $67,000 into the campaign coffers of Dan Kalb, Rebecca Kaplan, Lynette Gibson McElhaney, Larry Reid, Abel Guillen, Desley Brooks, and Thao, who was on the council at the time. Elected officials in other cities also allegedly received money to help run for office.

This happened while the city was negotiating with California Waste Solutions about the relocation of its West Oakland facilities to the old Army Base, and while City Attorney Barbara Parker was locked in litigation with CWS in the dispute over whether or not the company had overcharged landlords.

In records made public as part of a lawsuit, Public Ethics Commission investigators claimed that Andy and David Duong used “straw donors” to disguise the money they were giving to Oakland councilmembers. A straw donor is someone who gives money to a campaign and is secretly reimbursed by the person who really is putting up the money.

Investigators subpoenaed 13 people who allegedly participated in the straw donor scheme but most refused to cooperate. This joint investigation is ongoing: the government commissions haven’t yet brought charges of wrongdoing against the Duongs. But public awareness of the case emerged after Oakland’s city attorney and the Public Ethics Commission went to court to try to get witnesses and alleged participants to talk.

McElhaney told The Oaklandside today that she thought the ethics investigation had closed without any findings. Kalb, Kaplan, and Reid did not respond to a request for comment. Thao could not be reached.

Investigators allege a drawer full of cash and direct ties between Thao’s campaign and the Duongs

The Oaklandside obtained more court records today that discuss the investigation into the Duong family’s political activities. Fair Political Practices Commission investigators wrote in a report three years ago that they had evidence showing that Andy Duong “had cash in a drawer in his CWS office” that he handed out to a business associate of his who was allegedly in charge of lining up straw donors to give money to politicians.

Other people who allegedly participated in the money laundering told investigators that Duong asked them to make political contributions, or had them line up friends and family to do so, and they were reimbursed by Duong.

In 2016, Andy Duong sent his father an email recommending which candidates they should give money to or otherwise support. The list included Congressman Eric Swalwell, then Assemblymember and current state Attorney General Rob Bonta, Richmond Councilmember Jael Myrick, Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, and at least two of the three people running for the Oakland City Council at-large seat, including Rebecca Kaplan, Peggy Moore, and Bruce Quan. None of these officials have been accused of any wrongdoing.

One record investigators say they uncovered a June 13, 2018 “internal Sheng Thao for Oakland City Council” email between people working on Thao’s campaign. A Thao representative wrote to other members of their team asking about people they would like to invite to the campaign’s “finance committee,” a group of people who could raise money. “Have you spoke with Andy Duong about $20,000 by June 30th,” the campaign representative wrote.

“Soon after,” alleged investigators, “between June 20 and June 29, 2018, 14 contributions were provided to the Sheng Thao for Oakland City Council 2018 committee, seven of which were admitted reimbursements by or on behalf of Duong.”

Where the FBI searched—and didn’t

Federal law enforcement agents have been seen today at four locations: the homes of the Duongs and Thao and California Waste Solutions’ offices.

Earlier today, KGO-TV reporter Dan Noyes claimed that City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan’s home was also raided but Kaplan refuted this on Twitter. Noyes later deleted the post. 

A KRON-4 reporter also incorrectly indicated that the FBI visited four homes owned by Thao this morning. Thao does not own any of the properties raided today but lives in one as a renter.

The misstatement about Thao’s homeownership spread online through social media accounts. 

The FBI did not make any visits to Oakland City Hall or other city properties, as some had reported, a city spokesperson told The Oaklandside.

Natalie Orenstein and Azucena Rasilla contributed reporting to this story.

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