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Ethics: San Francisco’s Political Burial Grounds

by Larry Bush on 03/17/2011

in Busted

(CitiReport begins a multi-part examination of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission. Next: Ethics Proposes Repeal of Ban on Contractor Contributions)

It is the most important burial grounds in San Francisco. More important than Colma, the final resting place of such figures as Wyatt Earp, William Randolph Hearst, Joe DiMaggio, A. P. Giannini, Emperor Norton, William Henry Crocker, former mayor Joe Alioto and former governor Pat Brown.

Instead of acres of green lawn and marble monuments, the city’s most important burial ground takes up just a bank of file drawers located a short half block off Market Street on Van Ness. It is the office of the San Francisco Ethics Commission.

That’s where the complaints of political misdeeds and official misconduct are at eternal rest, peacefully free of the trouble to be found if they existed in jurisdictions outside San Francisco.

Who are the deceased?  Some names of the interred:

Pay-to-play appearances at Treasure Island and at the Redevelopment Agency are buried in an unmarked grave.

Using money owed to City College to fund a ballot measure campaign: tag it as an unclaimed body

Former supervisor Ed Jew’s evidence of possible bribery: left in the ambulance and eventually driven off to another location.

Former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s nonprofit Inaugural Committee records raising the issue of money laundering to pay his campaign debts: cremated with the ashes scattered to the winds.

The Department of Public Works contract to SLUG, the nonprofit urban gardening organization,  paying for work on Newsom’s 2003 mayoral campaign: the body can’t be located.

Unregistered lobbyists ranging from the Association of Realtors to the Chamber of Commerce to unions and from progressives to Willie Brown and Rose Pak: all unclaimed bodies.

Allegations of rigged bidding on a multi-million dollar Parking Authority contract: in an unmarked grave.

Morgan Stanley giving then-mayor Willie Brown advance IPO options and then coincidently winning multi-million dollar contracts at the airport: entombed.

And then there are the unknown dead buried in a mass Potter’s Field because claims it can’t afford the budget to intern them: every whistleblower complaint, every Sunshine Ordinance complaint, every charge of illegal lobbying, every charge of money laundering, every charge of official misconduct in abuse of office, every violation of the ban on contractors contributing to officials who decide on their contracts, every violation of failing to disclose economic interests that the public has a right to know.

How did an Ethics Commission established by the voters to serve their interests become an agency that served the interests of politicians and the politically influential?

Once every six years, the Board of Supervisors makes one of five appointments to the Ethics Commission. The Mayor, District Attorney, City Attorney and Assessor each also have one appointment

Six years ago, the Board appointed Eileen Hansen who proved to be a strong voice as an Ethics Commission activist.  Ms Hansen pressed the Ethics Commission’s Executive Director and staff to explain proposals that critics saw as retreats from its obligations. Her appointment was bitterly opposed in an editorial by the San Francisco Chronicle.  Ms Hansen was the target of a proposal by Supervisor Alioto-Pier to deny her and others with an activist history from serving on the Commission. Among the Chronicle’s charges: she made campaign contributions to two supervisors who would vote on her nomination.

The real objection to Hansen was that she wasn’t likely to adopt the hands-off policy that has marked the Ethics Commission from its beginning.  In 1993, voters established a Commission that would corral the bad actors in city politics and government, creating both a fair process and bringing better, more efficient government that wasn’t bloated by pay-offs and pay-to-play contracts.

In its March 17, 2011 meeting, the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee will consider two applications for a six-year term as an Ethics Commissioner.

  • Dorothy Liu, an attorney, was a committee chair at the Asian American Bar Association during the same period when Board President David Chiu was an officer and Ethics Commission deputy director Mabel Ng was a committee chair.  Liu may be the perfect choice for the hands-off style that city politicians want when it comes to ignoring their violations while putting their opponents on the defensive.

Ng has been the lead grave digger at Ethics, even urging discipline against her own staff when they pressed for equal enforcement of violations by powerhouse actors. The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force found Ng to have violated the City’s open government laws and forwarded its findings to the Ethics Commission which then voted not to hold a full investigation. Liu also is listed as a campaign donor to Chiu, who CitiReport has learned is a strong advocate for her appointment. Liu’s application notes that the law firm where she is a partner on occasion is involved in adversarial cases against the City and County of San Francisco. She has a strong record of volunteer work in the community, notably with Chinatown Community Development Corporation, but does not report any involvement with the issues overseen by the city’s Ethics Commission.

  • Alan Grossman was an early applicant for the Board’s appointment to the Ethics Commission. He is a retired attorney who lives in Sea Clift but is noted for his work forcing the Ethics Commission to divulge its records of complaints filed by the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force that receives complaints that city agencies are not following the law on public disclosures. The Task Force’s findings are then forwarded to the Ethics Commission which is charged with taking action. Grossman noted that the Ethics Commission had never taken any action on the Task Force findings and never made public the information on the Task Force findings

Ultimately Grossman filed suit in Superior Court to force the Ethics Commission to comply with the California Public Records Act. The Ethics Commission settled the case, provided the documents and paid attorney fees to Grossman. Grossman is a recognized expert on transparency, has been a consultant to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, and has attended and spoken at Ethics Commission meetings. He has not made political contributions to any of the Supervisors.

WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY

It would be incorrect to conclude than the Ethics Commission, after 18 years, a $6 million budget and a staff of 18 plus interns and temporary workers  has never acted on an ethics violation. It posts information on its action on complaints at its web site at www.sfethics.org.

But the record of enforcement is better read as a blueprint for how the Ethics Commission treats the powerful and those who challenge them.

City officials who file their required conflict of interest statements may only get a light fine.

Ronnie Davis, Housing Authority Executive Director turned in his Statement of Economic Interest to the Ethics Commission seven months after it was due. He was fined $100. Overdue library books actually cost more.

Tom Radulovich,  BART Board Director, was fined over his reports, although the Ethics Commission staff pointed out to Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix, that some of the fine was wrongly applied since the staff incorrectly applied the law’s requirements. St. Croix never informed Radulovich or refunded the excess fine he paid. A similar scenario also took place with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth.

Andrew Lee, politically connected and wealthy, was charged in 2006 with accepting contributions above the city’s cap, failing to identify donors and missing deadlines for disclosures in his 2002 supervisor’s campaign. Faced with a potential fine of $414,000, the Ethics Commission reduced the fine to $17,000 saying Lee, “deserved a break.” The reason: the Ethics Commission didn’t believe he could afford a larger fine. It’s own records, however, showed Lee held $3.7 million in real estate.

In the hotly contested 2003 mayor’s race, the Ethics Commission declined to perform campaign committee audits despite Mayor-elect Gavin Newsom’s repeated errors and amendments in his filing of over $5.7 million in the most expensive candidate committee in the city’s history.  Eventually the Ethics Commission decided to audit only one 2003 candidate among those running for District Attorney or Mayor. It audited defeated mayoral candidate Matt Gonzales’ campaign that had raised a relatively small $800,000, charging it with dozens of violations.  Eventually more than half of the charges were thrown out because the Ethics Commission misapplied the law.

In 2002,voters were asked to decide on a public power proposal. Committees were created in support and opposition to the measure.  PG&E funded more than $2.7 million to defeat the measure but failed to report $800,000 in contributions while the committee to pass the measure raised just $100,000.

Ultimately, the PG&E backed committee was fined $100,000 (the law allowed up to a $2.4 million fine) but only after commissioners raised the fine from the low-ball figure proposed by Ethics staffers. Meanwhile, the San Franciscans for Affordable Clean Energy Committee that supported public power was charged with “cooking the books” and initially fined $26,700. The committee fought the charge, proving most of the allegations were false or demonstrating the Ethics Committee misunderstood the law.

The case was concluded after a public outcry that received national coverage when even Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post accused the San Francisco Ethics Commission of bullying the committee. Ethics Commissioner Emi Gusukuma told the Bay Guardian, “The perception is, all we ever do is go after the small guys, but I don’t know if that’s really true,”  The committee’s fine was lowered from $26,700 to $267.00.

The Ethics Commission’s record is the stuff of legend – if your idea of a legend is Rip Van Winkle or Sleeping Beauty.

AND THE ENEMY IS US

Over the years, the lack of action by the Ethics Commission has not escaped the attention of the City’s media.

In September 1995, the San Francisco Chronicle editorialized, “it has been nearly two years since San Francisco voters passed Proposition K and allegedly created a city Ethics Commission to oversee the conduct of political campaigns and government officials. We’re still waiting for it to get off the dime.”

In November 1996, the San Francisco Examiner editorialized “Once the commission gets its meeting times in order, might we expect some enforcement actions?” Link

In August 1998, under a San Francisco Examiner editorial headlined “Ethics on the Shelf: City Hall’s Political Watchdog Doesn’t Bark, Doesn’t Bite,” asked “JUST ASKING, but what do you think the odds are that among 127 ethics complaints made concerning shenanigans in and around San Francisco City Hall during the last five years, only one had any merit?” In a separate story, the paper told readers “5-year-old Ethics panel issues first fine: $410.”

In more than a dozen years since 1998, other media, including the San Francisco Weekly, San Francisco Bay Guardian and Fog City Journal asked questions about why the Ethics Commission hasn’t acted as an effective watchdog. Hair-raising accounts of political bribery, influence peddling and cronyism have been regular features in the City’s daily newspapers and television news broadcasts.

The Ethics Commission staff reached a tipping point in 2004 when Deputy Executive Director Mabel Ng ordered staff to destroy records that raised significant issues of money laundering from Gavin Newsom’s Inaugural Committee to pay debts owed by his campaign committee. When staff filed a formal complaint with the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, Ng moved to discipline the staff. Ultimately the Sunshine Task Force found Ng was guilty of official misconduct. Shortly after, when John St. Croix arrived as the new Executive Director, he declined to take any action against Ng and has continued to rely on her for most proposals to rewrite the city’s ethics laws.

With the arrival of John St. Croix as Ethics Committee’s Executive Director in 2004, the commission stopped issuing press releases on its lobbyist’s filings. Press coverage dropped off dramatically. Over the past six years, St. Croix used a purchased, off-the-shelf boilerplate as its annual report, changing only a few sentences and resubmitting it each new year as its Annual Report.

St. Croix is a San Francisco import, hired from Washington, D.C. where he worked 22 years for a powerful Democratic member of congress. He is used to the way government ethics is played in the supercharged partisan environment there, a “gotcha” weapon to be employed against opponents but against themselves only in the most scandalous circumstances. Before being hired at Ethics, he had no experience with San Francisco politics, the climate that led to the creation of the Ethics Commission, or the rules that are intended to be applied.

Instead he has directed the Commission along the lines that so well known in the nation’s capital. Nothing could have better suited San Francisco officials who appoint the commission members or the staff that works hand-in-glove with them.

St. Croix has reduced information made available and refused to provide information on pending cases. His Commission  posts the results of completed investigations – nearly all of which are dismissed – but the name of the violator can only be found by opening each case file one by one. When five former Ethics Commission members signed a letter urging the Commission to delve deeply into staff recommendations that would reduce public information on lobbyists, the Commission did not heed their recommendation.  St. Croix wrote that their claim that the Commission no longer issued press releases on lobbyist activity was “absurd” but a check of the Ethics Commission’s own web site and press release listing turned up no such releases.

DOING LESS WITH MORE

As other Ethics Commissions have strengthened and expanded its watchdog and public transparency role, the San Francisco Ethics Commission has reinterpreted their Charter requirements to allow it to do less

In fact, the only complaints that have received the Commission’s full attention are its own complaints that it has too much to do.

  • City law requires elected officials to report contracts when the elected official or his/her appointees approve it. On December 31, 2008, St. Croix wrote to all the city’s elected officials that “we will not require that you file,” saying they were reviewing possible amendments to the law. No amendments have been offered in the years since then. Despite St. Croix’s letter, several elected city officials, including City Attorney Dennis Herrera, continue to file.

* The Ethics Commission mandate includes responsibility for auditing reports from candidates and committees to ensure all required disclosures are made. In 2008, St. Croix decided to audit only the supervisor candidates who accepted public financing, leaving unaudited the reports of candidates who declined to accept the voluntary spending cap. The result was that all the progressive candidates and incumbents faced audits while their free-spending moderate opponents and incumbents did not.

* The Ethics Commission’s responsibility includes notifying the Elections Department of the candidates who have agreed to the voluntary spending limit so that they can be identified with a notation by their name in the Voter Handbook. St. Croix successfully pushed for the law to be repealed following Kamala Harris’ 2003 agreement to abide by the limit, earning her the valued designation in the Voter Handbook, and then breaking the agreement.

* The City’s Whistleblower ordinance requires that an annual report be issued for the mayor, the Board of Supervisors and the public. The Ethics Commission decided that the effect of incorporating the Whistleblower duties into Ethics was to eliminate the requirement for an annual public report. After ten years of no action or reports, voters endorsed transferring this function out of Ethics and into the Controller’s Office.

* California law requires reports from the largest political donors, those contributing $10,000 or more in total during an election season. Local authorities such as the San Francisco Ethics Commission receive these reports and review them. St. Croix, after it became apparent that one review revealed potentially criminal violations, ordered the Ethics Staff to stop reviewing the Major Donors records.

* Elected Officials are required to file Statements of Economic Interests for public review. Sources of income, investments, gifts and other economic information are required and the reports are posted on the Ethics Commission web site. St. Croix determined that it would not publicly post information on the sources of rental income as well as other information, and instead any member of the public wanting to view that information would have to come to the Ethics Commission office.

* The Ethics Commission was able to reduce the number of lobbyist filings and disclosures reported to the public after it won a rewrite of the law including a little-noticed clause amending the definition of lobbyist. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, as one example, no longer registers and files as a City Hall lobbyist. “If we hit the monetary threshold, we’ll start filing,” a chamber representative told the San Francisco Bay Guardian. One outcome: there are no public reports of lobbying over the appointment of an interim mayor, the contract terms for Lennar at either Hunters Point or Treasure Island, the America’s Cup hosting agreement or the proposed mid-Market tax holiday.

* All city departments are responsible for reporting to Ethics that they have received and filed the economic disclosure statements from designated staff required to make public disclosures. Ethics has decided not to post the results for public review.

(Next: CitiReport will look at proposals at the Ethics Commission to repeal sections of San Francisco’s laws banning contributions from those seeking city contracts or board members of nonprofit organizations receiving grants. CitiReport also will look at the Ethics Commission’s desire for the Board of Supervisors to place a ballot measure before voters in November 2011 to allow the Commission to rewrite the law on political consultants without getting voter approval for their changes. Part Three will look at San Francisco Ethics Commission policies and practices compared to other ethics oversight groups in California).

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