Ethics Commission: Asleep at the Switch
on the City College Fundraising Scandal
June 27, 2007
Where has the Ethics Commission been regarding the City College
fundraising scandal? As reported
yesterday in The Chronicle, the District Attorney has been asking
questions about a possible crime uncovered
by its reporter Lance Williams earlier this year.
As one example outlined in the article, a tenant who owed City
College $10,000 rent in 2005 was instead directed to make a contribution
of that amount to a committee formed to pass bonds to benefit
the college. The committee was treasured by Jim Sutton, who is
also the Mayor's political attorney. The transaction may carry
criminal penalties because it is a crime to give away public money,
particularly to a political campaign.
Before complying with the instruction, the tenant says he called
Jim Sutton's law firm and talked to an attorney who told him that
there was nothing wrong with the payment. He would not name the
attorney when he told his story to the Community College Board.
Shortly after he wrote the check to the Committee, Ethics Commission
Fines Officer Oliver Luby discovered the transaction and reported
it on the Ethics Commission records. I personally know the excellent
work habits of Mr. Luby with whom I worked for several years.
I have no doubt that he would have reported such an important
find to senior Ethics staff. They sat on the news and did nothing.
This was in flat contradiction to their duties as filing officer,
a role I held for over five years. The Ethics Commission had been
specifically named by the Fair Political Practices Commission
as the filing officer for Community College bond measure committees.
As filing officer, the Ethics Commission has the duty to ensure
that campaign reports and any required amendments are properly
filed. When the Ethics Commission learned that the true source
of the $10,000 had been improperly concealed on the campaign report,
it had the obligation to request an amendment to the report. A
correct report would have shown the Community College, not the
tenant, as the contributor. The report on file at Ethics still
claims that the tenant is the contributor, something the tenant
denies. Why didn't Ethics demand an amendment?
An amendment to the report would have alerted the public to the
problem two years ago. The Community College (and the District
Attorney) would have been able to investigate the case while the
evidentiary trail was still hot. What's more, the Community College
would have been able to recover the $10,000 lease payment that
was improperly in Jim Sutton's hands. Instead two years had to
The whole scam might have worked had it not been for the work
of an investigative reporter. If Mr. Williams had not done his
homework, someone might have gotten away with it. Ethics had all
the facts in its possession but dropped the ball.
When the Community College Board met in April to discuss the
scandal, these were the questions asked by the Trustees and Chancellor.
They felt blindsided by the affair. The Chancellor wanted to know
why hadn't Ethics given him a heads up on the possible theft.
When the Ethics Commission met next, questions regarding Ethics'
role in the matter were raised to the Commissioners. Ethics though
has been singularly incurious, and the answers to these questions
is still wanting.
Until those questions are answered, there will be public speculation
concerning the possible reasons. In the past there have been many
questions raised concerning the relationship of Mr. Sutton and
the Ethics staff. We can predict that inaction by Ethics will
add fuel to that fire. So we owe the parties involved an answer.
But more importantly, we owe the public an answer. Ethics needs
to learn something here from the Community College Board, which
treated the story with the attention it deserved. Even though
it involved possibly distasteful investigation into College staff,
the Trustees agreed to set aside $75,000 and go forward with an
independent investigation. The Ethics Commissioners must also
step up to the plate and find out why Ethics never followed up
on what Mr. Luby discovered. The public needs to learn why Ethics
was asleep at the switch.
Joe Lynn was the campaign finance officer and office manager
of the San Francisco Ethics Commission from 1998 to 2003. From
2003 to 2006, he served as one of the five Ethics Commissioners.
The San Francisco Examiner called him the backbone of the
Ethics Commission. While on staff, he was named SF Government
Employee of the Year by the SF Weekly in 2003. Mayor Willie Brown
gave him two awards for his mentorship work He also received two
commendations from the Board of Supervisors, one initiated by
then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom and the other by then-Board President
Matt Gonzalez. The Northern California Society of Professional
Journalists presented him the James Madison Freedom of Information
Award in 2003. He managed the Citys electronic campaign
finance program (named best in the country by the Center for Governmental
Studies) and the conflict of interest program (named best in the
state by the Montclarion). He maintains an active interest in
good government laws. Email Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org
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