Post image for Ed Lee’s High Wire Act without a Net

Ed Lee’s High Wire Act without a Net

by Larry Bush on 10/10/2011

in Paper Trails

Every mayor but one has entered office after having gone before the voters to make the case for his or her election.

And now that one unelected mayor, Edwin Lee, is beginning to show the rookie mistakes that a seasoned elected official knows to avoid to keep from slipping off the political tight rope of city politics.

None has caused him to plunge to the ground, but there is no guarantee.

This week Lee’s missteps twice took him into the danger zone.  His response was clumsy and unconvincing.

First Lee as interim mayor reportedly failed more than 67 times to file required notifications that he signed contracts for the city, a process of public disclosure to ensure those contractors aren’t making unlawful contributions in pay-to-play politics.

Rather than responding in his capacity as Mayor, Lee turned to his campaign spokesperson, Tony Winnicker, who immediately trash talked the disclosure requirement.

“Mayor Lee finds the process bureaucratic and cumbersome,” Winnicker told the San Francisco Examiner. Instead he said Lee is engaged in talks to get rid of the requirement that the mayor be responsible for any disclosures.

“He said that Lee has already been in talks with the City Purchaser to create a centralized database for the disclosure forms “so we’re not chasing pieces of paper around City Government,” according to the Examiner story.

An Expensive Slip

Oliver Luby, the former Ethics Commission fines officer responsible for monitoring and alerting the Commission of violations, had a different take.

“Overall, I’ve never seen worse late filing of the required contract reports,” Luby wrote in a comment at the Bay Guardian web site. “In fact, there are far more than 67 instances of late contract disclosure, since many of Lee’s filings were consolidated. One filing alone consists of 44 pages of separate contracts.”

Luby then went on to calculate the automatic late filing fines Lee owes, regardless of any enforcement actions to follow, now totaling $41,050.

A $41,000 fine for late filing is the kind of development that catches people’s attention even more than the late filing itself.

Doing the Shuffle

A day later, the Bay Citizen broke the story that Ed Lee contributions from employees of Go Lorrie, an airport shuttle outfit, bore all the marks of money laundering at the direction of company officials. The company had just been awarded an Airport contract after the bid provisions were changed, resulting in giving it an apparent advantage over its competitors.

Airport Director John Martin defended the contract award as entirely his own, with no political influence, but such decisions go through the Airport Commission. Lee had just reappointed Eleanor Johns, Willie Brown’s chief of staff, to the commission.

At the September 6 Airport Commission meeting that discussed the change in airport shuttle service, Commissioner Eleanor Johns took note that there were political issues that needed to be considered.

“You’re going to have to look long and hard to find one that can deal with the issues we know are out there … the political aspects,” told Eleanor Johns to her Commission colleagues according to the September 6 minutes as they debated hiring a consultant to revamp the rules for shuttle pick-ups.

The contributions to Lee’s campaign came on September 15.

Campaign spokesperson Tony Winnicker stepped to the mike once more, this time claiming that it was the Lee campaign that spotted the money trail and decided to return the questionable contributions.

Notably missing from the Lee camp was a vow to work with any investigation of wrongdoing, which would have been the first instinct of a seasoned political operation and which his rivals already were putting into play.

“We’ve had suspicions about these for a while,” Winnicker said. “I don’t want there to be any doubt that we returned these contributions as a result of our own concerns about the sources,” the Chronicle reported. He didn’t explain why the suspicions didn’t result in any action.

Unfortunately, the Lee campaign didn’t return the questionable contributions until the story was going to print.  At the Chronicle the spin worked, including with Phil Matier on KCBS.

“They were suspicious about how drivers were coming across with $500 and actually had begun to return the checks on Thursday morning just as this story was breaking,” Matier said, according to the KCBS news site.

The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission wasn’t such an easy mark, and the Commission President announced that they were beginning a review that could lead to an investigation and more.

Meanwhile, both the state Attorney General and the city’s District Attorney confirmed that they were reviewing the situation as a possible criminal investigation, following a formal complaint from City Attorney Dennis Herrera, also a candidate for mayor.

Stumbling at the Outset

Pay-to-play politics began surrounding the Lee campaign even before he officially filed, fueling rumors even then that a federal investigation may have begun.

Recology, which benefits from an exclusive city contracts for hauling waste and garbage but that faces a potential ballot measure to open the city’s contract to more bidders, admitted that it had used its offices to gather signatures to encourage Ed Lee to file as a candidate for mayor.

The firm identified Lee’s ally and confidant Rose Pak as having approached a “senior official” to collect signatures in the company’s lunch room and otherwise support the Draft Ed Lee effort.

Lee was forced to tell reporters that he knew nothing about the effort and knew nothing about any federal investigation.

Lee then went a step further to falsely claim that the Recology contract he signed was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors, a rookie claim easily discredited. The press had to correct Lee’s story to note that both Supervisors John Avalos and David Campos had voted against the Recology contract.

Meanwhile, the Draft Ed Lee campaign falsely reported a major contribution from Victor Makras, a well-known real estate agent. Makras denied having made a contribution, and the Draft Ed Lee campaign corrected the paper record but couldn’t explain it.

Shortly afterwards, Chronicle columnist Willie Brown wrote that Pak had used a ceremonial occasion at the Airport to push contractors there to contribute to Ed Lee.

“Your firm should raise a million dollars for his election campaign,” Pak reportedly said to Art Gensler, whose firm was involved in remodeling the airport terminal.

$1 Million Backer

One beneficiary of Lee who has pledged to raise $1 million is Ron Conway, head of Angel Investment. Conway has set up an independent expenditure committee that can accept contributions of any amount – and from any source. Conway launched his campaign with a $151,000 check of his own.

The million dollar pledge for an independent expenditure effort exceeds the $900,000 that candidates raise on their own before hitting the spending cap. Lee has rejected the spending cap.

In a September 6 interview with the Chronicle’s business editors, Lee called Conway “key” in providing input on tax breaks for business.

“Ron Conway is one of the key people who provides us input,” Lee told the paper. Lee named three others as having that “key” role – Marc Benioff, who now has contributed $50,000 and Jack Dorsey, who has returned to head Twitter and was the central focus of the tax holiday plan.

Independent expenditure committees are required to keep strictly separate from candidate committee, but Lee refuses to provide the information to show the rules are being followed.

Lee declined to name the members of his finance committee, which makes it impossible to determine whether Conway’s independent expenditure committee shares a relationship with Lee’s campaign.

It also opens the way for city contractors who are forbidden from giving to the Lee campaign to serve on his Finance Committee, soliciting others for checks and bundling them to give to Lee. The city law doesn’t forbid contractors from being intermediaries for contributions or bundling the checks they collect to give to the candidate.

While the loophole is not new, the aroma of pay-to-play politics around Lee has given the issue greater immediacy.

Conway, for one, has made clear that his objective is to both elect Lee and to change the city’s politics to benefit himself and others like him.

“We need to take the city back” from progressives, Conway declared at a Bay Area business forum last October. “It’s a matter of survival.” Conway expects to be a key player in a Lee Administration long after Election Day.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Lee has dodged concerns about such issues in large part by dodging public forums where he might be asked questions. He giggled with reporters about skipping the major African American forum by instead doing a pub-crawl with a reporter in tow, declaring it to be more fun that the forum would have been.

He has further shielded himself by creating an aura that capitalizes on Lee’s natural good nature and approachable manner. The result is that Lee is seen not as Gavin Newsom’s successor but as the non-Newsom in City Hall, not given to the snarky comment or public fits of pique that marked Newsom.

Lee’s operation simply outsourced the snark, bark and bite to Newsom’s former staffers, who now fill Lee’s spots at his campaign committee, the America’s Cup Event Committee (as arranged by the mayor’s office), and as spokesperson for Lee’s pension measure.

Much of the work of any mayor is under the radar, and here is one place where Lee hasn’t grasped the reins of power, as an experienced mayor would do.

Key commission seats remain vacant, even to the point of leaving one commission unable to put together a quorum. He neglects to see that his own close staff complies with the law on filing Statements of Economic Disclosure; recently his scheduling secretary, who also is a member of the Recreation and Parks Commission, was referred to the state Fair Political Practices Commission for enforcement action.

Go Along to Get Along

As Mayor, Lee has not hesitated to put into positions of authority individuals with a clouded ethical history, repeating a go-along to get-along attitude toward corruption that marked Lee’s tenure in two early positions.

Earlier this year he endorsed the interim appointment of Mohammed Nuru to head the city’s Department of Public Works.

Nuru directed employees of a city-funded nonprofit that came under his office to campaign on behalf of Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris in 2003, according to a lengthy investigation by the City Attorney’s office. Nuru declined to be interviewed by the City Attorney’s office during the investigation.

Under city procedures, the results of the investigation were forwarded to Nuru’s supervisor, Ed Lee, for disciplinary action based on misuse of city funds and illegal campaign activity. Lee took no action.

In July, the city’s Ethics Commission broke precedent to forward to Lee a recommendation that he discipline and possibly dismiss the President of the Library Commission for violations of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance.

In the months since then, Lee has taken no action and made no comment.

Earlier, Lee had been the head of the city’s Human Rights Commission and faced pressure to approve Charlie Walker and Krystal Trucking as a bona fide minority contractor. Walker also was a convicted felon.

Lee conducted an investigation with the city attorney’s office that concluded that Walker’s outfit was a sham serving as cover for a non-minority firm anxious to benefit from the city’s preference for minority firms in awarding contracts.

In short order, Lee was moved to the position of city Purchaser, and once there, signed the contract papers for Walker and Krystal Trucking.

Walker was and remains closely allied with Willie Brown, who was mayor at the time. He also headed a sham nonprofit that received city funds that ultimately had to be refunded to the city following an investigation by federal authorities.

Whatever tale those details of city government may tell, it is Lee’s response to inconvenient issues that marks his rookie.

It is probably not to be expected that city officials are fully candid even much of the time. What can be expected, however, is that it is handled a little less clumsily so that the truth doesn’t peek out from behind the façade of fable.


Lee appears to be a practioner of “truthiness,” something defined by comedian/commentator Steven Colbert as telling people what you want to believe and then believing it yourself.

It is damaging and occasionally fatal for a public figure.

Lee’s claim that he brought all the city stakeholders together to forge a measure to address the pension reform appears about to unravel.

City retirees were denied a place at the table despite the fact that Lee’s measure sharply affects their health benefits. Now they are laying plans for a grassroots campaign against Lee’s reform pointing to the fact that they were not allowed in the room on a matter that deeply affects them.

It places Lee in a doubly awkward position because he enjoys the reputation of having been at the helm in creating both the “city family” approach to pension reform and to take credit for the result.

As the San Francisco Weekly reported in a lengthy account of the pension reform effort, Lee’s role was a reduced as one of “an affable uncle” rather than the head of the family.

Such a relatively small matter as the flying of a flag on a national day became an instance of an inconvenient fact that caused the mayor’s office to first deny the facts only to have to later admit the truth.

The People’s Republic of China flag was flown recently from the mayor’s balcony on the anniversary of the day the Chinese Communist Party took control of that nation.

Members of Falun Gong, deeply troubled by the honor paid to a government they claim persecutes them, showed at the Board of Supervisors to testify in during public comment about what they had endured.

But the mayor’s office denied that the flag had been displayed, finally admitting a day later that the event had taken place.

It was an odd situation for a mayor who claimed that his goal as interim mayor was to help restore trust at City Hall. It was also clumsy and easily disputed, playing into the hands of those who see an unsavory influence of Rose Pak over Ed Lee.

Thirty days out from the Election, the Ed Lee narrative remains potent, but is poised on a tightrope. To move from the 30 plus percent support that places him ahead of his rivals but short of the majority he needs, Lee needs to begin generating some excitement.

That will require putting more of a focus on Lee, his values and his competence. But that runs the risk that Lee will have to face some of the issues his campaign has worked hard to hide from view – from the Central Subway’s contracts to city departments like Recreation and Parks and the Housing Authority that are engaged in a guerrilla war with their own customers and partners. As a placeholder mayor, Lee let city agencies and projects drift on their own in a way no elected mayor ever would.

To build the image of a leader, the Lee operation will have to show that he did more than just get by without a wreck. They will have to start to claim that he made a difference beyond keeping the chair warm and that the difference lay in Lee’s vision and leadership for the City. That’s one more place where the tightrope stretches quite a distance before reaching a safe perch.

There is also the dangerous reality that in decades as a city bureaucrat, Lee’s survival depended on his ability to implement the goals of others, not on his own vision or leadership. While Lee proclaims that he served under four mayors, three of the four former mayors have not endorsed him.

City Hall insiders see Lee acting much as he did as a bureaucrat and department head — accommodating himself to the wishes and goals of bosses who called the shots. The big problem for Lee is that he is shadowed by those whose ego requires that they be seen as calling the shots, and aren’t afraid to tell the world that they invented Ed Lee and who stand to privately benefit from that.

Lacking the drive and instinct that put other mayors into office, Lee’s interim period gave the public some relief from the drama of City Hall politics, a breather from breathless press conferences. Good enough for now, but it remains to be seen whether voters will think it is good enough for the next four years.

In campaigns, thirty days is a lifetime.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: