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Why I Oppose the Ballot Measure on Political Consultants

by Larry Bush on 08/07/2011

in Empty Chairs


This measure seems to simply “clean up” some provisions of the law that requires political consultants to register and make disclosures about their clients and their work.

And I think that’s why it was approved for the ballot by all 11 supervisors.

But it takes a giant step beyond that.

It grants authority to the Ethics Commission to make any other changes it wants.

As the Voter Handbook says:

“A yes vote means: You also want to allow the City to change any of the campaign consultant ordinance’s requirements without further voter approval.”

Why should you oppose that?

And why do five former Ethics Commissioners, several former Ethics staff members, oppose this a member of the Civil Grand Jury and others?

There is a reason why the latest Civil Grand Jury called the Ethics Commission a “Sleeping Watchdog.”

It doesn’t do the job of safeguarding the citizens against influence peddling and pay-to-play politics.

The reason we have a law forcing political consultants to register and make disclosures is because the voters demanded one when City Hall refused.

City Hall fought against it every step of the way.

Former Supervisor Tom Ammiano introduced the measure in 1996, and got it passed at the Board.

Then Mayor Willie Brown vetoed it.

Supervisor Ammiano then rewrote it in 1997 to meet Mayor Brown’s objections.

He passed it again.

Mayor Brown vetoed it again.

And the Supervisors who had voted for it before…refused to vote for it again and overturn the veto.

So Tom and several other supervisors put it on the ballot for the voters to enact it.

The political consultants raised a war chest to defeat it. They spent over $100,000 in direct mail, billboards and other voter contacts.

And they trashed Tom every time.

The voters passed it with 61 percent approval.

Given that history, do you want City Hall to be able to make changes in this law and particularly do you trust the Ethics Commission to make the kind of changes that will better serve the public?

How Ethics Understands City Politics

Here’s what you want to keep in mind about that.

In October, the Ethics Commission approved –by a 4-1 vote, the same margin they have to approve any changes under this measure – eliminating pay-to-play laws involving anything to do with the Redevelopment Agency, Treasure Island, the Housing Authority and several other agencies called “state agencies” but whose leadership is all appointed by the mayor and or the Board together.

Here is the explanation offered by John St. Croix, the Executive Director, and that was approved on a 4-1 vote:

“Second, based on my observations, section 1.126 does not actually address a serious risk of pay-to-play arrangements – or even the appearance of pay-to-play – in State agencies like the Redevelopment Agency or the Health Authority. Although City elective officers appoint some members of those bodies, City officials rarely have any involvement with those agencies’ contracts. Prohibiting the contracting parties from making contributions to City elective officers does not practically serve the City’s anti-corruption goal.”

St. Croix even said “City “City elective officers who appoint members to serve on state agencies usually do not have any influence on, much less have knowledge of, the contracts that the state agency enters.”

Do you believe the mayor had no involvement in the contracts with Treasure Island? Do you believe that members of the Board had no involvement in the contract with Lennar over Hunters Point? Do you believe that the Mayor has no involvement in the contracts at the Housing Authority? Do you believe the Mayor has no involvement in any discussions with the San Francisco 49ners about using Redevelopment land for a stadium?

That’s what the Ethics Commission believes. Fortunately, so far the Board has not enacted the Ethics Commission proposal – but it can pass it because the pay-to-play provisions aren’t protected with a voter mandate behind them.

But meanwhile in 2008 the Ethics Commission director wrote to every city elected official – all of who have to report contracts they approve – saying, “we will not require that you file.” Why? Because they were thinking about changing that law too.

By the way, Ethics says since the first pay-to-play law went into effect 14 years ago, they have investigated a total of three complaints and never found any wrong doing.

No Enforcement

And what is the record when Ethics recognizes that it is responsible for enforcing the law?

Look at the Sunshine Act. The Civil Grand Jury found that Ethics had rejected every one of 18 complaints sent by the Sunshine Task Force. Then they agreed to consider one.

They took two years to investigate a tape that everyone could listen to in five minutes.

And then they discussed it. It involved the actions of a city commissioner during a commission meeting.

And they all agreed that this was a violation.

But what did they do? After two years of investigating the complaint, they decided that the Ethics Commission did not have any authority regarding City Commissioners. And so they just sent a letter.

In politics, people say, “I called and left a message.” And we all know what that means.

Is that the only time something like that has happened with this Ethics Commission?

I wish it were.

I Don’t Know Who Dropped The Ball

But look at what happened when money laundering was uncovered in a City College bond measure.

The Ethics Commission learned about it in 2005. And they then referred it to someone else to investigate – two years later, in 2007.

What explanation did they offer? This is what John St. Croix said to the Guardian:

“I’ll take responsibility for that….I don’t know who actually dropped the ball. But at the time we had less staff and there were a lot of things we were supposed to do and we weren’t doing.”

The money laundering emerged because a diligent Ethics staffer was auditing the statements filed by Major Donors – those who contribute $10,000 or more in a year to campaigns.

So since this turned out to be an important thing to do, what did St. Croix decide?

He ordered staff to stop auditing the Major Donor reports because he said it takes too much time.

Remember Ed Jew and the issue of whether he took money to help a tapioca company? That ultimately became the basis for his removal from the Board and a criminal conviction.

But that happened in February. Months before that, in June, Ed Jew turned into the Ethics Commission a form stating that the money was actually a charitable contribution that he helped arrange. It was signed under penalty of perjury.

But the Ethics Commission knew by then that it was a lie…a perjured statement.

So what did they do with this signed document evidence of perjury?

They gave it back to Ed Jew and said they wouldn’t accept it because they didn’t believe it was true.

And then when the mayor finally asked Ethics to conduct an investigation and hearing into Ed Jew, here’s what Ethics did.

They debated for month after month what the rules ought to be for such an investigation.

And waited for someone else do to something.

What Ethics “Cleans Up” in Clean-Up Rewrites

In 2009, two years ago, Ethics decided to write a “clean up” of the city lobbyist law. Just like they want to do with the political consultant law now.

And what happened with that law?

It changed one little aspect that didn’t get any real attention. It changed what is defined as a lobbyist – a person or entity who seeks to influence administrative or legislative decisions.

And what is the result?

Now the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce no longer has to file and disclose its lobbying. Neither does Lennar. Neither does the America’s Cup or Larry Ellison.

All those groups had to file before the “clean up.”

And that doesn’t even touch the issue of whether a Rose Pak or Willie Brown actually seeks to influence decisions on behalf of clients. I’ll let you take your own guess on that.

What kind of clean up do they plan now on the political consultant law?

Right now political consultants have to disclose if they were appointed to a public office.

This ballot measure would change that.

They only have to disclose those appointments if the appointment was made by a city official who was a client of the consultant.

What might that change?

We have a group called the Rate Board that advises on sewer and water rates, not just for homes but also for hotels, restaurants and commercial businesses.

One of the appointees to that Board is the Executive Director of the Hotel Council. That’s a group, by the way, that gets heavily involved in campaigns – including over PUC issues.

But an elected official does not appoint that Board. An appointee of an elected official one step removed appoints it.

So that will never show up.

Same thing with members of the commission that oversees city bonds.

It is my opinion that changes like those don’t just happen. Someone wanted that to happen.

And when they come in to burgle our city for their purposes, the city Watchdog is the Ethics Commission. And it is a Sleeping Watchdog.

Do not support now giving them authority to rewrite the political consultants law.

I urge you to vote to oppose this measure.

The former Ethics Commissioners who also are opposing this measure are Paul Melbostad, who served on the Commission when the political consultants act was passed; Bob Dockendorff; Joe Julian; Bob Planthold; and Eileen Hansen, who just completed her term and was the only commissioner who voted against the pay-to-play rewrite

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

gdewar August 7, 2011 at 9:16 pm

While I applaud the intent of the original campaign consultant measure (even if it was mostly based on attacking one certain consultant who is no longer in the business), as a soon-to-be former consultant I found that it did little to affect the bigtime consultants. On the other hand, smaller consultants and day-to-day campaign folks, most of whom (especially the latter) didn’t make a lot of money, were paying proportionally MORE than the big guys.

( I realize that demonizing ad professionals of any stripe makes for good copy, and hating on political people is low hanging fruit, it seems that in the end the good people get painted with the same broad brush as the scoundrels. I’d hardly call that fair.)

I think there’s a bigger issue, which you correctly hit on, which is that the Ethics Commission as-is is simply not doing its job. Case in point – I have yet to hear of anyone being fined for NOT filing as a consultant under the consultant tax measure, for not filing with the City. Also, I’ve yet to see any consultant who also consults with clients who have pending business before the city, lose said work, or get punished for any wrong doing.

That’s not to say wrongdoing isn’t going on, but as is, the measure hasn’t really affected the pay to play politics of San Francisco, and this measure discussed here would only make public what is already going on informally, which is that those that are in the know can do what they want, while the rest of us pay the price.


Larry Bush August 7, 2011 at 9:26 pm

I believe there are a number of good government laws that can be improved. At this time, I think we should view this as a referendum on the Ethics Commission itself because it will be the only way to force City Hall to face up to its negligence. Consider that the Board appointed Dorothy Liu saying that she was the “perfect candidate” because she has no history of understanding city politics and influence. And then consider that her background includes working with the Chinatown Community Development Corporation that is heavily involved in the Run Ed Run campaign — and that she is the person who asked for the committee to be discussed at Monday’s Ethics Commission meeting. I will be most surprised if there is any action whatsoever taken against that committee, and instead I’m guessing Ethics will say this is a new issue and they need to study it further.
Time to send a signal that we don’t think this group should be given more power over our ethics laws and enforcement, and this is the public’s best opportunity to issue a report card on their work.


Bill August 9, 2011 at 5:32 am

Thanks Larry for the heads up on this. Unfortunately, most people aren’t going to get this excellent info. Even the Supes voted unanimously to put it on the ballot and apparently some of them didn’t see the ramifications of it (though, no doubt, some of them did and liked those ramifications).

The more I read about John St. Croix, the Executive Director of the Ethics Commission, the angrier I get. This guy makes one suspect he is being paid off – at least he makes me suspect that. And he seems to have been in there forever. He really needs to go. Any idea who put him in there? Let me guess: either Willie Brown or Newsom (who has Brown’s corrupt habits).

Thanks for the great article. One wonders why the San Francisco Chronicle doesn’t do research like this. Maybe I’ll ask them and see if they can give a good reason they don’t (except PG&E – that’s the only subject they do research on – important topic but so are tons of other topics).


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