Lobbying in San Francisco takes place in a shadowy world, one where virtually no enforcement compels compliance with city ethics laws and one where the ethics laws themselves have gaping loopholes.
For all that, it is big business – for the lobbyists, for their clients, and for its impact on taxpayers. It also appears to put city officials on a treadmill meeting with lobbyists 1,670 times in 2011, more than six times for every business day, 365 days a year. Reported and unreported lobbying meetings may well exceed the meetings of elected and key appointed officials with their constituents.
Registered lobbyists pulled in $11,307,291 in total for 2010 and 2011. Nearly one-third of that total was paid to Platinum Advisors’ Chris Gruwell ($3,098,500), while Marcia Smolens was paid $2,136,500.
Other top dollar lobbyists include Samuel Lauter ($1,723,750), Jaime Rossi (Barbary Coast Consulting) ($883,182), Alex Tourk ($745,167), Denise Lapointe ($521,750), Alex Clemens ($335,970), Kimberly Smith ($198,000), Steve Atkinson ($182,350) and Janan New ($159,825).
In turn, lobbyists contributed $521,978 in campaign contributions. One-third of that total — $170,000 – came from Chris Wright of the Committee on Jobs. Patricia Breslin of the Hotel Council accounted for another $100,000. In 2010, when five Board seats were on the ballot, lobbyists contributed $153,936 and $287,651 toward ballot measures.
Lobbyists are prohibited from contributing to officeholders and candidates in Los Angeles and several other jurisdictions. That is not the case in San Francisco.
Money Follows Controversy
The top ten clients who promised payments for lobbying surfaces some of the most controversial issues at City Hall.
California Pacific Medical Center promised the most in payments for lobbying, at $750,985. Aecom, which is leading the Central Subway and other projects, ranked second at $360,000. Third was Millennium Partners, also at $360,000.
The top ten is filled out with Lennar Communities ($340,000), Mirant California ($303,000), SF Waterfront Partners ($300,000), Parkmerced ($292,500), Fluor Enterprises ($240,000), Recology ($238,354) and American Beverage Association ($237,500).
Pay-to-Play Law Ignored
While city clean government laws ban pay-to-play politics when it comes to city contracts, the provision now does not ban contributions from those seeking permits or other financial benefits from the City. Taken in total, decisions at City Hall have billions of dollars in financial impact for the clients hiring lobbyists or using in-house lobbyists.
Yet the number of contacts with city officials regarding permits – 1,529 – is nearly ten times more than the 179 contacts regarding city contracts.
Lobbying over legislation, much of which involves a financial benefit to a specific company or industry, also was magnitudes higher than lobbying over contracts. Some 774 contacts were reported as involving city legislation, ranging from the ban on Yellow Pages to self-checkout at grocery stores where liquor is sold.
Even with the ban limited to contractors, the law is meaningless since the San Francisco Ethics Commission does not enforce the contractor contribution ban.
Although the prohibition carries a criminal penalty of a misdemeanor, there has yet to be a prosecution for violating this section of the city’s law on campaigns. The Ethics Commission is required under the law to refer cases to the District Attorney; citing confidentiality provisions, it declines to provide information on whether any referrals were made in 2009, 2010 or 2011. The District Attorney also declines to provide information on referrals.
CitiReport’s review of the top categories underscores that lobbying for city contracts is far down the list of reasons for contacting city officials – it doesn’t even make the top ten. The overwhelming number of contacts and payments to lobbyists go for influencing decisions on permits — and there is no ban on making contributions to officials who decide those permits.
The number one issue for all lobbying was California Pacific Medical Center where 220 contacts of public officials took place. The second rank issue was discussion regarding the Fiber Network Upgrade, (148 contacts) which involved AT&T’s street boxes.
Lobbying over payroll taxes took third place (104 contacts) in a year that saw intense activity over both mid-Market tax benefits and internet company tax benefits.
The other top ten categories were Planning Department approvals (92 contacts), Booker T. Washington zoning (90 contacts); General Meeting on unspecified issues (80 contacts), Planning Commission issues, separate from Department approvals (77), BOMA’s San Francisco Building Tour (71 contacts), Candlestick Point-BVHP Environmental Impact Reviews (where Lennar faces criticism over allegations of environmental hazards) (66 contacts), and coming in tenth, City Budget Funding (63 contacts).
This list cannot be considered conclusive because the Ethics Commission, which is responsible for ensuring that lobbying reports are accurate and complete, has never questioned reports submitted. For this reason, many contacts may not be reported.
For example, lobbyists are required to report “activity expenses” involved in their lobbying effort. For all of 2010 and 2011, there are only two reported activity expenses.
The top lobbying client was BOMA, with 538 contacts reported. Second place went to AT&T with 198, and third to California Pacific Medical Center (152).
The top ten were rounded out with Lennar Communities (110), California Nurses Association (105), California Music and Culture Association (102), Neighbors of 800 Presidio/Roger Miles (90), Committee on Jobs (75), Walgreens (72) and Aegon Use Realty Advisors (61).
A Permanent “Government”
The pace of lobbying is relatively unchanged even while seats change hands at City Hall. Between 2010 and 2011, San Francisco put a new mayor into office and three new supervisors.
However, lobbyists reported some of the most frequent contacts with the newest supervisors who came into office in 2011. Scott Wiener ranked just behind Board President David Chiu (Chiu, 150 contacts) with 141 reported lobbying contacts.
Mark Farrell came in third, with 102 contacts, while Malia Cohen racked up 79 contacts.
The shift in power showed up with John Avalos, contacted 76 times in 2010 and then, when no longer on the Budget Committee, down to 42 times in 2011.
In 2010, there were 1,508 contacts with city officials; in 2011, there were 1,670 contacts.
Neither Mayor Lee nor Mayor Newsom or their staff made the list of top ten officials contacted by lobbyists.
For the two year 2010 and 2011 record, top honors go to Board President David Chiu, as lobbyists reported contacting him 304 times. That is twice as many as second place Sean Elsbernd, who had 152 contacts reported by lobbyists. Third place honors go to Scott Wiener, close behind with 141 lobbyist contacts reported.
Although the city Sunshine Ordinance requires officials, including Supervisors, to maintain a daily calendar of all meetings, including the person and subject, currently there exists no process for those records to be provided to the Clerk of the Board for easier public access.
For this reason, it is likely that the number of contacts exceeded the number reported by lobbyists, since some contacts come from groups that aren’t required to register. In 2010, at the urging of the Ethics Commission, the definition of lobbyist was changed to exempt many who previously had registered and reported. Among those now not required to register and report is the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.
The other “Top Ten” for the two-year period 2010-2011 were David Campos (126 reported contacts), Eric Mar (also 126 contacts), John Avalos (118), Malia Cohen (103), Mark Farrell (103), Ross Mirkarimi (101) and Planning Commission President Ron Miguel (88).
To piece together the money trail, CitiReport undertook a major data mining effort of records from 2010 and 2011 from four separate datasets– lobbyists and their clients, lobbyist contacts, political contributions, and payments promised.