They're Back: Ethics Resumes Meltdowns
August 7, 2007
Part One: The July Meltdowns at Ethics
Unsettling news came from July's meeting of the San Francisco
Ethics Commission as three separate meltdowns of the Commission's
enforcement division were announced. The Bay Guardian's analysis
warns us clearly that the Ethics poltergeists of 2001-2005 are
back. There is overpowering evidence of professional incompetence
at best and, at worst, intentional malevolence in the political
process on behalf of big money:
1. Carolyn Knee. For four years, staff pursued Ms. Knee
claiming she should be fined $26,700 for work she had done to
oppose PG&E. The Mayor's attorney, Jim Sutton, represented
PG&E at the time. (I was involved in the case on behalf of
Ms. Knee.) After a public hearing, the Commission agreed to reduce
the fine to $267. Overseeing
and supervising this investigation was the Deputy Director
whose rise to Executive Director had been interrupted by Carolyn
Knee's husband, a member of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.
Five of the top paid staffers at Ethics had been assigned the
job to go after Ms. Knee - each of them earning an annual salary
close to $100,000. Years were spent on the investigation of a
fine. The only explanation advanced for this egregious conduct
has been the conflicted interests of the Deputy Director. Future
hearings may confirm whether staff violated its ethical responsibilities
and drove the case as a vendetta. Of course, another explanation
may be advanced although none has been advanced to date.
2. Jim Sutton, Community College. Jim Sutton is the Mayor's
attorney. He has been implicated in a criminal investigation
launched by the District Attorney, a client of Mr. Sutton's, into
an apparently illegal diversion of $10,000 into a Community College
bond committee controlled by him. Ethics staff now admits that
it learned of the matter in 2005 but dropped the ball and did
not report it to appropriate authorities until May of this year,
two months after Lance Williams of the Chronicle had reported
Staff claims that a lack
of resources was behind the lapse. That explanation is curious
in light of the resources available to staff on the $267 Knee
fine. No explanation has been advanced as to why the resources
were available for Knee, but not for two five minute calls regarding
the involvement of the Mayor's attorney in what is now the subject
of criminal investigation.
3. Matt Gonzalez. Staff and Matt Gonzalez agreed to a
of a case against him for not collecting sufficient information
about some of his contributions. While staff was investigating
Mr. Gonzalez, Mr. Oliver Luby, the Commission's fines officer,
was ordered to stop his normal yearly task of assessing the sufficiency
of contributions of the other 2003 committees. This meant that
the Mayor and his treasurer, Mr. Sutton, got a free pass on the
very infractions for which staff was investigating Mr. Gonzalez.
When the normal business practices of the Commission were interrupted
to give everyone in the City got a free pass except for Mr. Gonzalez,
the Ethics investigation had become politically targeted. Staff
claims that a lack of resources led to their decision to give
Mr. Newsom a free pass. Staff has not explained why no resources
were available for the usual yearly assessment but much greater
resources were spent to investigate Mr. Gonzalez.
The odors wafting from Ethics enforcement division are disturbingly
familiar from the days before its new Executive Director took
over. In 2004, staff had extended professional courtesies to Mr.
Sutton by ordering the destruction of evidence of a possible crime
involving the Mayor's inauguration. Although staff was cleared
of any wrongdoing by the Commission, staff's judgment was soundly
criticized by experts such as Bob Stern, the author of the California
Political Reform Act, and Jim Knox, the Executive Director of
California Common Cause. Also in 2004, staff tried to please the
Mayor by illegally
noticing the meeting necessary to facilitate his triple play appointing
Tony Hall to Treasure Island. The findings of the Sunshine Ordinance
Task Force that the Deputy Director had violated the law are still
before the Board of Supervisors.
The fact that these problems are reasserting themselves is not
surprising. The same staff that brought us July's news was involved
in these earlier scandals. Who can forget staff's biggest doozie
when in 2003 they refused to enforce Kamala Harris's promise to
limit campaign spending and freed her to spend unlimited amounts?
This effectively took the election away from her opponents, Terence
Halinan and Bill Fazio. On that occasion, even the Commissioners
with staff but could find no remedy to put the genie back
in the bottle.
There are echoes of the Harris case in the Gonzalez fine. We
will never know the extent to which this factored into Mr. Gonzlez's
recent decision not to run for mayor this year. He certainly isn't
in a position to admit that to be the case since such an admission
could be used against him in future elections. While we can't
know the entire significance of staff 's selected prosecution,
we do know that the decision at Ethics changed the calculus of
another election. In both 2003 and 2007, the client of Mr. Sutton
was the beneficiary of staff's decision.
The steady record of not being able to get it right pushes us
back further than square one. The Ethics Commission is becoming
the poster boy of the far right's opposition to good government
laws. Last month, the NY Post published an article
citing the San Francisco Ethics Commission as a "bully."
Similarly in San Francisco the conduct of the Commission is sucking
the oxygen from our efforts at reform. Why focus on needed reforms
when there's no one who will enforce them?
To grasp the problem we need to understand the players responsible.
That's where this series goes tomorrow.
Tomorrow: An Insider's Evaluation of the Players Responsible
for the Ethics Meltdown.
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, and the Bay Guardian named him a
leading voice for reform.While on staff, Joe 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