Eric Swalwell announcing his first run for
Congress at a 2011 rally in Dublin.

On a rainy night in April 2012, during what would be former Rep. Pete Stark’s final political campaign, the irascible 40-year congressman lashed out at his young opponent, then Dublin Councilmember Eric Swalwell, alleging he took bribes from a well-connected Tri-Valley developer. “If I were a lawyer, I would call that bribery,” Stark charged. “So, I’ll let Mr. Swalwell define what he thinks taking all this money from people that he gave special zoning privileges to is. Maybe it’s how he sees his role in government.”

Somewhat shaken, Swalwell regrouped and quipped to the overflow audience at the Hayward City Council chambers, “As far as I know, I have not accepted any bribes. I don’t know what Congressman Stark is talking about. Maybe the F.B.I. is waiting for me outside.”

Years later, it turns out, a kernel of Stark’s charges appears to again have some credibility after one of the donors referenced during that fateful candidates forum, influential Tri-Valley developer James Tong of Charter Properties, was indicted by a federal grand jury on Aug. 31 for making more than $10,000 in illegal contributions in the names of family members. The contributions were made to Swalwell’s 2012 congressional campaign.

The federal indictment does not mention Swalwell by name, nor is he accused of any wrongdoing. Instead, the indictment refers to a candidate running for “election and re-election to the House of Representatives.” However, Tong’s only federal contributions during the 2012 election cycle were to Swalwell’s campaign. In addition, contributions from other members of Tong’s immediate family were made that year, according to finance records, highlighting the improper aggregation of campaign contributions alleged by the federal grand jury.

Tong’s ties to Swalwell, though, were further entangled during the 2012 campaign through a large, albeit legal, donation by the developer to a political action committee formed in support of Swalwell. Tong gave $10,000 to the Alpha Valley Business and Technology Consortium, an amount that constituted roughly one-third of the PACs total contributions that year.

Starting in 2011, Swalwell was an unknown first-term Dublin councilmember. Tong, well-known in the Tri-Valley and as powerful as any other private citizen in the area, was one of Swalwell’s earliest supporters. Tong, along with each member of his family contributed $2,500 donations as early as September 2011. The indictment, though, list his aggregate campaign contributions, totaling $10,000 between himself, and three others within his immediate family. Alleged illegal contributions totaling $8,500 in 2013 and 2014 are also part of the federal probe.

In addition, Tong’s Charter Properties often works in tandem with the Lin Family, one of the largest landowners in the valley. Several members of the Lin Family also contributed to Swalwell’s 2012 campaign, according to finance records.

Violations of the Federal Election Code for misrepresenting campaign contributions is a felony. If proven, Tong faces a maximum of two years in prison and a $50,000 fine, according to the indictment. A hearing in Tong’s case is scheduled for U.S. District court on Wednesday.

Last month’s indictment adds to Tong’s growing legal troubles. In 2015, Tong was ordered to pay a $650,000 fine to the U.S. Department Game and Wildlife for forging receipts totaling $3.2 million in credits meant to offset environmental damage for a Charter Properties project in Dublin. Tong was also ordered to serve one-year probation and 100 hours of community services.

The federal investigation into Tong’s dealings began in 2013, but that didn’t stop Swalwell’s campaigns from continuing to accept contributions. Tong gave the campaign $4,400 during Swalwell’s 2014 re-election and an additional $5,400 in 2015.

The act of campaign donors essentially “bundling” contributions toward one candidate through intermediaries such as family members is often a dirty secret in politics meant to enhance the influence of a single contributor. A former Silicon Valley executive named Bill Watkins contributed to Swalwell’s 2014 campaign by maxing out his donation, along with his wife, daughter and teenage son. 

The daughter later snagged a job in Swalwell’s district office, but it’s unclear how the younger child, who listed their occupation as “unemployed student” could afford the large contribution. Incidentally, Watkins, was also a contributor to the same Swalwell PAC that Tong helped finance back in 2012.

Surprisingly, Tong’s legal entanglements have not dissuaded other prominent Alameda County elected officials from accepting his contributions. Tong gave to Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley‘s re-election campaign last year, with the $2,500 donation coming a month before Tong admitted to felony fraud in late 2015.

And just in February, Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan‘s re-election campaign accepted $500 from Tong, according to the most recent finance records, ending June 30.

Back in 2012, at the conclusion of the infamous candidates forum, Swalwell rose from his seat and offer his hand to Stark. But from afar, Swalwell could be scene bristling from the exchange. Later Swalwell and the Republican primary challenger acknowledged the brief exchange was indeed terse. Stark returned Swalwell’s pleasantries by calling him a “fucking crook.”