Oakland candidate Rebecca Kaplan returns major Lew Wolff checks

In what may have been a violation of city campaign laws, Oakland mayoral candidate Rebecca Kaplan — who was a big force in working out the lease that kept the A’s at the Coliseum — received $2,100 in campaign contributions from team co-owner Lew Wolff and his family.

No sooner did we question Kaplan and her aide about the money, however, than they told us the checks were being returned.

Wolff gave $700 to Kaplan’s mayoral campaign on Aug. 18 — only a month or so after the city councilwoman had helped renegotiate the terms of the A’s 10-year lease extension at the Coliseum. While many cheered the deal, some at City Hall criticized it, particularly for giving the team an escape clause with two years’ notice.

Records show that Wolff’s wife, Jean, also gave Kaplan $700 on Aug. 19, and their adult daughter Kari Wolff contributed $700 on Sept. 3.

City law bars anyone in contract talks with the city from donating to a candidate from the start of negotiations until six months after the deal is done. There’s a similar, three-month prohibition under state law.

Wolff said Friday that he and his family had never intended to skirt the law. “All we did is take (the information) off her website for donations — we wouldn’t know that rule,” he said. “We are very careful.”

When first asked about the donations Thursday, Kaplan seemed unaware of any potential problem. Campaign manager and aide Jason Overman then pointed out that “the law applies to the donors, so it’s their responsibility to check it out.”

But Kaplan jumped in during our face-to-face encounter, saying, “Why don’t we check it out?” and promising to get back to us the next day.

And they did. Overman e-mailed us Friday to say, “Actually our finance team has returned that contribution. It will appear on our next report.”

He added that he didn’t think the donations were legally barred, but that “the ambiguity around the law caused our campaign to return it just in case.”

Wolff said Kaplan contacted him Thursday night to let him know she’d be returning the checks.

The A’s co-owner, unhappy with Mayor JeanQuan’s leadership, was publicly effusive about Kaplan’s role in the lease talks, praising her as someone he could deal with.

Kaplan has made a point of highlighting Wolff’s support. A recent campaign mailer prominently featured a line from a Chronicle story that reported: “Wolff said he wasn’t going to consider the city’s (lease deal) until Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan called him.”

Before Kaplan’s campaign said it was returning the checks, a spokesman for City Attorney Barbara Parker said her office would need time to look into their legality and referred us in the meantime to Oakland Public Ethics Commission executive Whitney Barazoto.

Barazoto told us she too would have to take a closer look, but also said she couldn’t comment because her agency is already investigating a pair of complaints filed against Kaplan’s recently shuttered Safe Streets and Local Jobs campaign fund.

One of those complaints involves a $1,000 contribution from Wolff back in May — about the time he met with Kaplan and Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty to discuss the Coliseum lease extension.

The Safe Streets fund was set up to support a half-cent sales tax measure in Alameda County. But Kaplan closed it down in June amid reports she had used the account to help fund her 2010 mayoral campaign and was perhaps preparing to do so again this year.

Fizz: One of the consultants behind a “Soda Sucks” health campaign in 2012 is now the lead spokesman for soda makers’ megabucks effort to defeat San Francisco’s and Berkeley’s soda tax measures this fall.

“I helped out for about five minutes on it,” Sacramento consultant Roger Salazar said of his work as point person for the California Endowment health foundation’s antisoda campaign a couple of years back.

“But there is a wrong way and right way to go about influencing health policy and lifestyle choices,” said Salazar, explaining his new gig with the American Beverage Association California’s political action committee. “And taxing common grocery items is not the right way to do it.”

San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross appear Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. Matier can be seen on the KPIX TV morning and evening news. He can also be heard on KCBS radio Monday through Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 5:50 p.m. Got a tip? Call (415) 777-8815, or e-mail matierandross@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @matierandross