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Ethics Commission: Asleep at the Switch
on the City College Fundraising Scandal

By Joe Lynn

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 pass. Why?

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 City’s 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 joelynn114@hotmail.com


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