San Francisco’s Ethics Commissioners are political neophytes, unfamiliar with the city’s ethics laws and campaign finance rules, despite a city charter that stipulates appointees must have experience in government ethics laws, campaign finance and public information.
In one recent example, the Commission had to turn to the assigned Deputy City Attorney to determine that it had to announce the results of a closed session that concluded its decision on a major enforcement matter. When informed that the public had to be informed, they then made only a partial disclosure and said the full information would be available from staff because it would be too time consuming to detail in open meeting.
Last year, the Civil Grand Jury concluded that they are a “Sleeping Watchdog” under the thumb of their staff, notably staff director John St. Croix, and recommended a series of changes to stiffen their spine.
Two years ago, the Commission sought to repeal the ban on contributors seeking contracts from Redevelopment, Treasure Island and other agencies under city control but established by state law. In 2009, the Commission also rewrote the city’s lobbyist law, resulting in less public disclosure of City Hall influence peddling.
In November 2011, public distrust of the Commission’s effectiveness in protecting the public interest resulted in the sound defeat of a measure to allow the Commission to rewrite the city law on political consultants without a check off from voters.
Notwithstanding this unimpressive record, the Commission in the past six months has begun exercising a somewhat greater control over the operation of the Ethics Commission. Last month it held its first hearing in several years on the city’s Sunshine Ordinance, directing the staff to implement changes favored by Sunshine advocates.
Each commissioner is appointed by a different city elected official, but the appointing officers have largely ignored the charter’s requirements in making appointments.
Three commissioners have professional or financial ties to firms doing business for the city or with the Elect Ed Lee campaign last November.
Commissioner Dorothy Liu is a partner at Hanson Bridgett, where a partner served as the Ed Lee treasurer. The firm also handles clients facing charges of Official Misconduct.
Paul Renne is married to Louise Renne and derives more than $100,000 a year income as a result; her firm represented Ed Lee for Mayor campaign in the Go Lorrie’s case.
Ben Hur, Chair
The commission chair is Ben Hur, an appointee of the Assessor. The charter stipulates that the Assessor’s appointee have experience in campaign finance, although Ben Hur does not include any campaign finance experience in his law firm profile or on the Ethics page profile. He is an attorney at Keker and Van Nest specializing in commercial law.
Hur’s law firm includes Jamie Slaughter, the police commissioner unceremoniously dismissed by Ed Lee without explanation last month. Slaughter was widely hailed as a hard working commissioner.
Hur’s appointment raised eyebrows because the Ethics Commission vice chair, Susan Harriman, also worked at Keker and Van Nest and at some points had been Hur’s supervisor. Harriman was viewed by close observers of the Ethics Commission as a major opponent of strong enforcement of the city’s laws and an opponent of much of the demands for public disclosure.
Hur jointed with Harriman in opposing the crafting of the Ethics Commission’s annual report along the lines specified in the charter, instead suggesting that any information the public or the Board of Supervisors needed could be found in the Commission’s monthly meeting minutes. The Commission’s annual report is a template bought off the shelf by the Executive Director with updated numbers each year.
Last June, Hur led the commission in overturning the staff recommendation that the Run Ed Run committee should file as a campaign committee, ruling narrowly that since Lee was not a declared candidate, no filing was required.
The ruling strongly favored the Rose Pak forces behind the Run Ed Run committee but was greeted incredulously by competing campaigns.
At the time, Hur recognized that the result was a new loophole to allow unlimited contributions to be made secretly to support a potential candidate and thus affect the political opportunities for existing candidates. He asked the staff to propose a method to address the loophole. However, no staff recommendation has been made and Hur has never brought up the question again.
Dorothy Liu is one of two commissioners appointed under a charter requirement for appointees “broadly representative of the general public.” However, in both cases the appointments went to attorneys, making four of the five commissioners with legal backgrounds.
Liu was appointed in April on a narrow vote by the Board of Supervisors. At the time, Board President David Chiu praised her as someone lacking experience in City politics or ethics, stating this would be an advantage. Liu’s background includes community work on behalf of the Chinatown Community Development Corporation whose head was a co-chair of the Run Ed Run committee.
Liu works for Hanson Bridgett, and since being appointed to Ethics, her firm has signed on as the local legal representative for the America’s Cup, whose chair is Mark Buell, who also serves as chair of the Recreation and Park Commission.
Hanson Bridgett also bills itself as the go-to firm to handle clients facing charges of Official Misconduct.
“The public scrutiny that accompanies investigations of alleged official misconduct often creates an air of suspicion and defensiveness that hampers best efforts at fact-finding and problem-solving. Our skill in conducting effective, independent investigations provides the means by which clients can reclaim control of their institutions and regain public trust. We work quickly and professionally to clarify the facts and focus on solutions. Our approach facilitates open communications and thorough review. In the wake of a breakdown, perceived or otherwise, clients can rely on our investigative skills to clear the air,” states Hanson Bridgett’s web site.
The law firm also bills it as having important relationships with city officials who can ease the way for its clients.
“Our backgrounds give us unparalleled access to key decision-makers. We have critical government contacts, as well as the know-how and experience to convert access into success,” states their web site.
After CitiReport contacted Liu to ask how this would be interpreted in light of her appointment to the Ethics Commission, she said that language was now removed from their web site.
In September, Hanson Bridgett hired Kevin Hennegan to head up a new practice area of government and ethics. Liu announced the expansion of her law firm’s practice areas but also said a “fire wall” was erected that included ensuring that she derived no income from his clients and that she would recuse herself in cases involving him or Hanson Bridgett clients.
Hennegan’s clients include the Ed Lee for Mayor campaign, where Hennegan served as Treasurer.
There is strong overlap between Liu’s professional work and the type of cases heard at Ethics.
According to the Hanson Bridgett web site, “Dorothy also handles benefits litigation and defends employers against claims of race and gender discrimination, sexual harassment, disability discrimination, retaliation, breach of contract and wrongful termination in single-plaintiff and multiple-plaintiff matters at the trial and appellate levels.”
In a recent matter, Liu voted with other commissioners to dismiss a charge of retaliation, hearing from the city official in closed session but declining to hear from the city employees who filed the complaint.
Commissioner Liu, in response to questions from CitiReport, clarified her view on conflict of interest issues:
“Before Mr. Heneghan joined Hanson Bridgett, I vetted this issue with the City Attorney’s office. Because all the circumstances that might come up can’t be anticipated, I will have to handle recusals on a case-by-case basis in consultation with the City Attorney’s Office. If any client of Hanson Bridgett is a party in an enforcement matter before the Ethics Commission, I will recuse myself from the matter, regardless of whether Mr. Heneghan or anyone else at Hanson Bridgett is involved in that particular proceeding.
“For Ethics Commission decisions regarding regulations, legislation and other general policy decisions that affect a wide range of candidates and committees, I do not intend to recuse myself, absent special circumstances.
“I will consult with the City Attorney’s Office to determine where recusal is appropriate. Nor do I intend to recuse myself in situations where a party appearing before the Commission is represented by another law firm if Hanson Bridgett is not involved.
The newest commissioner is Paul Renne, a seasoned attorney married to former City Attorney Louise Renne. As a result, Paul Renne reports that he receives $100,000 or more in income from her practice at Renne, Sloan Holtzman Sakai LLP, which provided legal advice to the Ed Lee for Mayor campaign regarding the Go Lorrie’s money laundering case. The case against the Go Lorries contributors was referred by Ethics to the District Attorney where several misdemeanors are pending. The FPPC has fined the Go Lorrie’s company nearly $50,000.
The web site for Renne Sloan Holtzman Sakai LLP notes that its attorneys “have extensive experience in guiding public officials through the labyrinth of ethics laws that govern their conduct. We offer ethics advice and training programs for public officials and employees, including Political Reform Act provisions on conflicts of interest and restrictions on gifts and other perquisites to public officials.”
Randy Riddle, the widely respected former deputy city attorney who helped craft the city’s Ethics Commission, is among the attorneys there.
Paul Renne has been an attorney with the Cooley Litigation department since 1964, with primary responsibility for providing legal support to Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which contracts with a number of major San Francisco law firms.
Paul Renne was appointed February 6, 2012 and has attended two commission meetings.
District Attorney Gascon’s office responded to questions about appointing a fourth attorney to Ethics, this time in a seat earmarked for a member of the general public, stating that Paul Renne was highly regard by the DA. They did not respond to the question of the charter’s requirements.
Jamienne Studley is the most veteran commissioner, appointed in 2007 by City Attorney Dennis Herrera. She is the President and CEO of Public Advocates, a California social justice law firm. Prior to this position, Commissioner Studley was President of Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and most recently Scholar-in-Residence at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
She served as Deputy and Acting General Counsel to the U.S. Department of Education in the Clinton Administration, advising Secretary Riley on legal matters, including civil rights, legislation, and student aid. She led the department’s regulatory reinvention initiative and was a member of the White House Regulatory Reform Working Group. As Acting General Counsel she oversaw the department’s Ethics Division, which trained all employees and advised current and former employees on ethics issues and ensured the Department’s knowledge of and compliance with all ethics laws and policies.
Studley’s role at the Commission most recently has been to push forward some of the reforms urged by the Civil Grand Jury, including televising commission meetings and altering the system for bringing complaints before the full commission.
The Civil Grand Jury faulted the Ethics Commission system that required two commissioners to agree for an issue to be brought before the full commission, saying the result was to empower the staff since commissioners could not discuss a case with each other while deciding if it should be brought forward. This catch-22 meant that almost no cases have been heard.
Studley urged and ultimately succeeded in the Commission voting to allow a single commissioner to put a complaint on the agenda.
Beverly Hayon joined the commission early in 2011, a midnight appointment by outgoing mayor Gavin Newsom. She is retired from serving as Director of National Media Relations for Kaiser Permanente, Director of Public Information for San Francisco Department of Public Health, and was a producer, writer, and on-air program host at KGO-TV and KRON-TV.
Active in local community affairs, Hayon has served on the Library Commission, and is a past Chair of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She has served on the boards of the CORO Foundation, the San Francisco Friends of the Library, Bay Area Big Sisters, and Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s Gun Control Task Force. She currently serves on the Metta Fund board.
Hayon also has been a new voice urging a somewhat more aggressive pace in the Commission’s actions, noting at one point that it was hard for her to understand why some cases were pending at the Commission for more than two years. She also was a supporter of televising the commission meetings.