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They're Back: Ethics Resumes Meltdowns

By Joe Lynn

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 of those three decisions 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 $267 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 the story. 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 settlement 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 disagreed 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 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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