Who are the Duongs? Recycling executives raided by the FBI have spent years schmoozing Bay Area politicians

OAKLAND — For years, Andy Duong enjoyed a prolific gift for political schmoozing.

The “public relations agent” for a family-owned West Oakland recycling business jetted to the Philippines with California Attorney General Rob Bonta, whom he called his “brother.” He made dinner plans with former Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, took selfies with Nevada’s attorney general and posed for pictures alongside the last two Democratic presidents and numerous local and state politicians.

Even California elections regulators appeared awed at Duong’s networking prowess — making special note of Duong’s star-studded social media pages in a searing complaint filed against him nearly three years ago. In it, authorities questioned whether it was all part of a sprawling, illegal scheme to buy influence with Bay Area politicians and benefit his family’s recycling company, California Waste Solutions.

Those allegations took on a new light this week when FBI agents raided the houses of Andy Duong, his father David Duong and Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao. A day after those raids, Thao and the Duong family responded with a mix of stony silence and cautious pleas for patience.

Thao’s attorney, Tony Brass, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was given no indication by officials at the U.S. attorney’s office that Thao was a target of the raids. He added that the mayor would cooperate with the investigation and make a public statement next week.

Brass did not respond to multiple requests for comment Friday from the Bay Area News Group.

“It’s unfortunate that the mayor did not receive any request for information from the authorities, because she would have responded, and she would have cooperated,” Brass told the Chronicle. “And now, the optics of an elected official having a search warrant executed on her residence suggests wrongdoing. I hope that everyone will reserve judgment until this can be sorted out.”

Meanwhile, a receptionist at the Duong family’s company, California Waste Solutions, refused Friday to forward calls from this news organization to either Andy Duong or his father, David Duong, who owns the business. Other attempts to reach the men by phone were unsuccessful and it was unclear if they had obtained legal counsel.

In San Jose, where they also provide curbside recycling pickup, the Duongs’ company played a tangential role in the 2006 scandal that led to the indictment of San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales on bribery charges. Prosecutors alleged a conspiracy to help Norcal Waste Systems secure a lucrative trash hauling contract amendment. California Waste Solutions was a subcontractor for Norcal at the time. A judge later tossed the charges, citing errors given to the grand jury.

The Duongs have had a long and — at times — turbulent relationship with the city of Oakland dating back to the 1990s. The city sued the recycling contractor in 2017, alleging that it made a habit of ripping off the owners of multi-family dwellings by overcharging for the service of pushing heavy recycling carts to the curb, raking in millions in profits.

Yet five years ago, their work in the city’s political sphere — as highlighted in reams of handshake photographs posted by Andy Duong to his Instagram page — garnered new scrutiny from state and local regulators.

The city’s Public Ethics Commission opened an investigation 2019 into the family’s use of “straw donors,” or obscure third-party entities, to funnel money to City Council candidates in past elections. The family secretly gave $51,000 to a host of Oakland City Council candidates — including Thao, then a representative of District 4 — by paying more than a dozen individuals and businesses to make the donations for them.

Regulators claimed the scheme dated to 2013, and around the time CWS was negotiating with the city to buy and lease land for recycling facilities.

A year after that inquiry began, California elections regulators directly accused Andy Duong of orchestrating another elaborate scheme to improve the standing of his family’s business with local lawmakers and officials by deceptively funneling thousands of dollars to the campaign chests of 11 political candidates across Alameda and Santa Clara counties.

Regulators claimed he was the source of 93 donations from 2016 to 2018. Once again, Thao was among the recipients of those funds — garnering nearly $10,000, with many of the donations believed to have been directed by Duong himself.

An internal email for Thao’s campaign in 2018 laid out exactly how important the Duongs’ donations could be for political newcomers, such as herself, with a staff member asking: “Have you spoke with Andy Duong about $20,000 by June 30th? let me know when I should follow up with him, please,” the complaint alleges.

Within a week, Thao’s campaign received 14 contributions — seven of which were believed to have come from Duong himself, through his network of “straw donors,” the complaint alleges.

Repeatedly, Andy Duong appeared to value politicians for how they might benefit him or his family’s company, authorities claimed. In one memo sent by Andy Duong to his father, he asked to donate $4,100 to Rob Bonta’s campaign for State Assembly district 18, noting that the lawmaker “has always been very supportive of us and has a bright potential in the near future.”

In the memo, he called Bonta an “ally,” and said the politician “will deliver whatever we ask for” when needed in the future.

Calls to Bonta, now the state’s attorney general, were not returned Friday. His office referred a call for comment to the FBI. His wife — Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, who represents District 18, which includes Oakland, Alameda and Emeryville — also appeared alongside Andy Duong in multiple pictures posted to social media in recent years. The assemblywoman declined to comment as well, citing her need to recuperate from a recent health procedure.

In a text, O’Malley — the former District Attorney — denied having any contact with Andy Duong for more than five years, and said she only had “very minimal contact” with him before that.

The Duongs have remained active in the East Bay’s political scene — hosting fundraisers for numerous politicians in the 2022 election cycle, and even donating drones to the Oakland Police Department to help thwart crime in the city’s Chinatown district.

Political candidates in the region have continued accepting the family’s money, despite ongoing probes by the Public Ethics Commission and the Fair Political Practices Commission. Among the candidates to receive donations during the 2022 elections cycle were Alameda County Sheriff Yesenia Sanchez, Supervisor Lena Tam and Chinatown leader Stewart Chen.

On Friday, Chen said he “wasn’t aware” of any investigation into Andy Duong when he received two donations of $5,000 from him as part of his unsuccessful bid for an AC Transit board of directors seat. Chen framed Andy Duong as exceedingly “generous.” When he approached Duong for help in purchasing the drones for the Oakland Police Department, the recycling executive didn’t hesitate.

“It didn’t take them long to say ‘If the police need it, if it’ll help public safety, then we’re all on board,’ ” Chen said. “I was very impressed with that kind of generosity.”

Bay Area News Group staff writers Robert Salonga and Caelyn Pender contributed to this report.

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