Accountability Oakland Tribune / Argus

Argus Investigation: Embattled Former CEO has Left Several Positions Under Pressure

John Copley was convincing. He had the vision and the experience that seemingly made him an excellent choice to lead the chamber of commerce. But the man who was arrested Friday on suspicion of embezzlement also had a past that the Newark chamber didn’t know about.

Copley Has History of Turmoil

Embattled Former CEO has Left Several Positions Under Pressure

By Rob Kuznia and Rob Dennis

NEWARK — John Copley was convincing. He had the vision and the experience that seemingly made him an excellent choice to lead the chamber of commerce.

But the man who was arrested Friday on suspicion of embezzlement also had a past that the Newark chamber didn’t know about.

Copley — who resigned as the president and CEO of the cash-drained North Silicon Valley Newark chamber under increasing pressure from its members — left at least three previous leadership positions under cloudy circumstances during the past 12 years, sources told The Argus. He also changed his name at least once, according to Social Security records.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the man the Newark business community knew as Copley was working under the name of John Rodgers and was a volunteer minister at a Sacramento-area church, former associates said. He later worked as chairman of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County and executive director of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, they said.

All of those jobs appear to have ended in turmoil, according to sources and news articles, although some of the same people also said Copley was a hard worker and an able organizer.

Before the Newark chamber hired Copley in March 2000, chamber officials conducted a reference check that turned up nothing questionable, they said. But the chamber did not conduct a background check because it was not standard practice at the time, said the Rev. Ed Moore, a chamber board member who served on the hiring committee at the time.

In October, police began investigating the finances of the chamber.

Copley, two days before he resigned, said he did nothing illegal.

“If I was doing something wrong or illegal with all this coming up, I would have been out of here and gone,” he said.

Copley, 39, who has been working for two months at the Billy DeFrank Lesbian and Gay Community Center in San Jose, refused to answer questions for this story.

“I will respond to those questions in the appropriate manner in the appropriate time,” he said in a telephone message left at The Argus at 1:44 a.m. the day after a reporter tried to talk with him at his San Jose office.

A background investigation by The Argus turned up several instances in which Copley left leadership roles amid controversy, although he never was accused of breaking any laws.

In 1990, a month after a bimonthly newspaper published a story stating that he commonly and falsely claimed to be an ordained minister, Copley — then John Rodgers — resigned as co-chairman of Sacramento’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The newspaper, Mom Guess What!, has been focusing on gay and lesbian issues since its inception in 1978.

Rodgers, according to the article, had served as a volunteer minister at Metropolitan Community Church, a Protestant church for gays and lesbians in the Sacramento area. But he stepped down in 1989 after his credentials were investigated by a church official, the Rev. Ed Sherriff, who determined Rodgers had not been ordained.

Sherriff, who died in 1999, determined that Rodgers was not an ordained Methodist minister and did not have the credentials he claimed, said the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Elder Freda Smith.

“He was very convincing,” Smith said of Rodgers. “He certainly knew quite a bit about churches.”

Then-GLAAD member Mary Smith told Mom Guess What! in the 1990 article, “It never occurred to me to question that he (Rodgers) wasn’t a real minister — he was always wearing that collar.”

After leaving the GLAAD job, Rodgers moved into the political sphere, becoming heavily involved with the Democratic Party of Sacramento County.

Robert Jordan, a party employee, said he met Rodgers at another Sacramento gay and lesbian organization in late 1989.

“He kind of disappeared for a while after those articles came out,” said Jordan, adding he did not see Rodgers again until 1993 or early 1994.

“He was a member of a young Democrats club,” Jordan said. “He said his name was Copley, but I recognized him from before.”

Rodgers had changed his last name to Copley in the early 1990s.

Copley established himself as a talented activist for the party, sources said. In 1997, after managing the campaign headquarters, Copley became
chairman of the county party, a volunteer position in which he performed well, sources said.

“This guy was clearly a hard worker,” said Bruce Pomer, who succeeded Copley as chairman. “I thought him to be a very competent chair who ran a very tight ship.”

Copley, however, left the party on bad terms, and money was the source of the problem, said Virginia Moose, who has served as the party’s treasurer for 17 years.

At issue was about $4,800 Copley used to buy fliers and postcards to advertise candidates the party endorsed, according to bills obtained by The Argus.

Because Copley told Moose the mailers were an in-kind contribution, “we sent out many more mailers than we could afford,” she said.

The party later received an overdue bill from Allied Printing Co. for about $4,800, and a call from an accountant at the shop, Moose said.

“Allied Printing had been told I was out of town and that’s why the bill wasn’t paid,” Moose said. “That was not true.”

Moose never took any formal action.

“It didn’t occur to me to sue him (Copley),” she said. “I just wanted him to get out of here.”

At the time, Copley also was serving as a campaign manager for his roommate, Sam Ciraulo, who was running for the Los Rios Community College Board of Trustees, she said. The pair shared a home in North Sacramento, records show.

Ciraulo, who wound up losing the Los Rios bid, moved to Fremont in August and again was Copley’s roommate. He ran unsuccessfully in November for a seat on the Ohlone College board of trustees.

In Sacramento, Moose and Jordan both said Copley was criticized for allocating more resources to Ciraulo’s race than to those of other candidates.

And the party, whose two-year budget was about $22,000, ended up $5,000 in debt, Moose said.

Moose said she told Copley that if he ran for chair again, she would go public with her suspicions. She said Copley declined a nomination to run
again for chairman in January 1999.

Pomer, who succeeded Copley in the chair position, said while he had a good relationship with him at the Democratic Party, Copley left the office in disarray by taking all of the records.

“It seemed real traumatic at the time,” he said. “I didn’t have anything.”

While volunteering for the Democrats, Copley was working full time as an executive assistant for Roberts & Associates in Sacramento, a company that raises funds for politicians, spokeswoman Toni Roberts said.

“He did a really good job. I completely trusted him,” she said, adding that “John, at the time, really wanted to leave and take another job. He in
essence felt underemployed.”

In 1999, Copley was hired as executive director of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce. But he left in January 2000 and “is not eligible for rehire,” said Laurel Brent-Bumb, who occupies the top paid spot — now called the chief executive officer.

Brent-Bumb would not say whether Copley was terminated, offering only that he did not resign.

“There was not a financial issue here,” she added.

In February 2000 — about a month after Copley left the El Dorado County chamber — he responded to a job posting for the top position at the Newark Chamber of Commerce, mem-ber Mike Donohue said.

At the time, the chamber had been without an executive director since August 1999, when Sandy Young resigned, and one person had turned down its job offer, Donohue said.

A chamber committee of about six members — whose primary goal was an increase in membership — quickly whittled the candidates to Copley and one other person, members say.

“He interviewed well,” Donohue said. “He had the answers we were looking for.”

Moore, another committee member, agreed.

“To the best of my knowledge, we all agreed he would be the best for the chamber.” Moore said. “There was no debate.”

The chamber did not conduct a background search and never had for past candidates, Moore said.

Helbush said she was not sure if the chamber still has Copley’s resume, and she would not provide any information it contains because it is a personnel matter, she said.

“It would be helpful to work with the benefit of hindsight, but we can only move into the future by learning from our mistakes,” Moore said.

Moore said the group checked more than three references listed on Copley’s resume. However, he said, he wishes the group had asked whether the organizations would have rehired Copley.

Shortly after the chamber hired him, Copley changed his title from executive director to president and chief executive officer. The bylaws were rewritten, listing the president/CEO — Copley — as the treasurer.

Under his leadership, the chamber started Newark’s first farmers market. Copley also did a stellar job as head organizer for the Newark Days Parade in September, members said. He tapped into his connections to line up Grand Marshal Mervyn Fernandez, a former Los Angeles Raiders standout.

Another Copley coup came in April, when chamber member Pat Danielson was named one of California’s six Small Business Advocates of 2002.

Copley also became involved with Ohlone College, serving as the fund-raising chairman for the committee supporting its March $150 million bond election. He served as chairman of Ohlone’s bond oversight committee until trustees removed him from the position following his resignation from the chamber.

And after some last-minute maneuvering, Copley wooed Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to town for a speech — although his appearance was uncertain until days before the April event.

But Copley also caused some strain among chamber members, beginning when he decided to change the name of the Tri-City area’s oldest chamber to the North Silicon Valley Newark Chamber of Commerce.

Although state law required the general membership to approve the name change, only the 18-member board of directors voted on it last year, former Chairwoman Helbush said.

But a document filed with the secretary of state in May 2001 indicated the general membership had approved the change. It was signed by both Copley and Sheri Flister, then the chamber president.

The name change — meant to increase membership — angered many members who said it undermined the city’s independent spirit. Membership numbers, meanwhile, remained steady — about 300 — chamber members say. On Jan. 15, chamber members voted to change the name back to the Newark Chamber of Commerce.

Other members were disappointed by the low turnout at the chamber’s business exposition and trade show in April 2002. Several demanded booth fee refunds.

But the discontent did not boil over until June 2002, when chamber members began sending mass e-mails containing concerns about various issues, including money, Copley’s title as treasurer and the name change.

Others were skeptical of his repeated claims that he was a member of the Copley newspaper family, which owns the San Diego Union-Tribune. A Union-Tribune official said John Copley is not part of the Copley family. Copley also falsely claimed that the family at one time owned The Argus.

The city, meanwhile, which had been donating about $50,000 to the chamber annually, grew wary of the organization’s financial state and withheld its 2002 donation, City Manager Al Huezo said. The city never pursued any records to verify its financial concerns, he added.

“You have to understand, for a time, some chamber members were leery of the city’s closeness (to the chamber),” Huezo said. “So we kind of purposefully took a step back.”

But times have changed.

On Jan. 16, the chamber accepted the city’s offer of up to $30,000, plus a year of free rent of a city-owned building — amounting to more than $25,000 — on several conditions, including the resignation of its six executive board members.

The city approved less money than in past years because of the ailing economy, Huezo said.

Now the beleaguered chamber is regrouping.

The two other employees were laid off in October. Helbush and others had been volunteering at the office, which shaved its weekly operating hours from 40 to 15.

The members on Jan. 15 also passed a new set of bylaws that created a separate treasurer position.

Most agree that things seem to be on the upswing. But Donohue, who apologized in a mass e-mail for helping to hire Copley, said the reorganization should have happened much sooner.

“We should have known, we should have known,” he said. “It took two years to figure it out.”