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Ethics Wants Good Government Law Stricken From the Books

by Larry Bush on 01/12/2012

in Paper Trails

The new year begins with yet another proposal by the San Francisco Ethics Commission to repeal a city law intended to thwart the undue influence of money in local elections by placing a cap on the aggregate amount a donor can contribute during an election season.

Under its newest proposal, introduced by Supervisor Scott Wiener on November 22, contributors could write checks totaling tens of thousands of dollars in the upcoming supervisorial contests.

City lawmakers enacted the cap to ensure that deep pocket donors didn’t buy influence by contributing to every candidate, not unlike placing a chip on every number at a roulette table. The effect also is to spread campaign fundraising through a larger number of people just as the individual $500 cap to candidates operates.

In making the case for repeal to the Ethics Commission, staffers justified repealing the cap by calling it “arbitrary” and difficult for candidates.

The Ethics Commission offered no support for its proposal either in hearings, in staff memoranda to Commissioners, or in a letter to the Board of Supervisors.

No testimony was offered at Ethics in favor of repealing the cap, and a Sunshine Ordinance request turned up no letters, emails or phone logs in support of the repeal.

San Francisco’s ethics law requires that changes only be made when it can be shown that the changes “further the purposes of the act” which are specified as reducing the influence of money in politics.

The failure to provide a record demonstrating that the repeal furthers the purpose of the act leaves the Commission open to a legal challenge, according to former Ethics commissioners.

Ethics has never enforced the cap and in the last election, took no steps to ensure that candidates or donors were aware of the law’s restrictions. It provided no press release, no notice on its web page, and did not include information on it in training for candidates.

A simple expedient would address the difficulty that Ethics claims faces campaigns that may not know if a donor has reached or exceeded the aggregate campaign limit.

Donors already asked to affirm under penalty their name and employer and address could also be asked to note on the donor card that their contribution does not exceed the cap. This would provide any campaign with a defense in the case of a violation.

The Ethics Commission staff record does not indicate that this simple step was given consideration as a mean to educate donors on the cap and to protect committees from facing allegations of violating the law.

Ethics also provided no study on whether the law was consistently ignored by donors or campaigns. A separate CitiReport study (see accompanying article) made preliminary findings that only a relative handful of donors exceeded the November 2011 cap and then not by a significant amount. That suggests that the law is having the impact intended of curbing big money donors from flooding the political landscape.

Since the Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate spending on behalf of candidates, the pay-to-play strategy has largely moved from candidate contributions to independent committee contributions where there are no caps and no bans on contractor contributions.

The Year In Ethics: Reversing, Repealing Ethics Standards

Ethics proposal to eliminate the cap follows a familiar pattern of first failing to enforce the law and then requesting that the law be repealed.

Earlier this year, the Ethics Commission asked that the law be repealed that bans contributions from directors of nonprofit agencies receiving city funding, as well as the law that bans contributions from those with contracts with city agencies like Redevelopment.

Ethics has never enforced the ban and never offered any training to educate the public despite a charter requirement to provide public education. Instead Ethics claimed that it was too difficult to identify donors who are in a prohibited category.

CitiReport produced its own study identifying city-funded nonprofits whose officers were making contributions despite the law and despite specific information in their contract spelling out that such contributions are prohibited. Ethics took no action.

Ethics also appears not to have considered requiring that contributor donor cards include a statement that the donor is not a party to a city contract either directly or as an officer. That step would underscore that the pay-to-play ban was in effect.

Earlier Ethics won a repeal of the law that notified voters through the Voter Handbook of candidates that accepted the voluntary spending limit. At that time, Ethics claimed it was too difficult to know whether candidates ultimately would adhere to the voluntary spending limit.

Ethics also asked that the law be suspended that requires city officials to notify the Ethics Commission when a contract is signed, claiming that the paperwork involved was burdensome. Earlier Ethics staff suspended the reporting requirement without informing the Ethics Commissioners, which later overturned that decision.

Ethics also has never enforced that requirement.

Even when facing public pressure, as Ethics did this year with the Civil Grand Jury recommendation that it televise its commission meetings, Ethics refused to do so until ordered by the Board of Supervisors.

The repeal was introduced by Wiener on November 22 and assigned to the Rules Committee that could calendar it for its January 18 meeting.

Wiener carried a ballot measure in November at the urging of the Ethics Commission to repeal voter oversight over changes in the city’s political consultant law. Voters soundly defeated that proposal, which was Proposition F.

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