Ambush at Rules – St. Croix blindsides Comstock

Written by Joe Lynn (RIP). Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on May 27, 2008 with 1 Comment

By Joe Lynn

May 28, 2008

When the Rules Committee met on May 15 to continue the consideration of Doug Comstock’s application to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, John St. Croix sat in the audience as an unexpected presence. The Director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, St. Croix was about to become the first Executive Director in its 15-year history to comment on a nomination being heard by the Rules Committee.

He was there, he said, not to oppose or support any of the nominees but only wished to correct the record.

The Task Force, chaired by Comstock for the last three years, administers the City’s Sunshine policies and refers findings to the Ethics Commission for enforcement. At its earlier hearing, Comstock, other members of the Task Force – and even non-incumbent applicants for the Task Force – had unanimously expressed their frustration with the Ethics Commission for being missing in action.

There had not been one public hearing on the many referrals and as a result, City departments no longer attended Task Force hearings, knowing that there were no teeth for enforcement.

Bruce Wolfe, a respected Task Force member, had resigned rather than continuing to do the 40-hours a month volunteer work. Comstock had in exasperation said, “We have made scores and scores of referrals to the Ethics Commission.” In response, Ethics has done nothing on most of the referrals and dismissed others without comment, even without a courtesy interview of the complainants.

Mr. Comstock at Rules, May 1, 2008

Mr. St. Croix was ready to correct the testimony: “He [Comstock] intimated that there were in excess of a hundred complaints referred to the Ethics Commission by the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.”Mr. Comstock in fact had said there were “scores,” and later in the meeting appeared personally confused about the meaning of the word “score.”

No, continued St. Croix. The true number was much less, something like 14. So St. Croix – without any prior notice to Comstock, without ever giving Comstock the opportunity to correct the record on his own – testified at the May 15th hearing that Comstock had misspoken. Then Mr. St. Croix added gratuitously and without substantiation, “He knows this not to be true.”

It was a low blow to Comstock who was not told what to defend himself against.

Mr. St. Croix’s testimony at Rules, May 15, 2008

The effect of having the Ethics Commission’s Executive Director call Comstock’s testimony knowingly false was immediate. Supervisor Dufty, who had been teetering before the meeting, no longer was comfortable in voting for Comstock, and the hearing has been continued until June 5. Observers upon learning that St. Croix had not talked to Comstock prior to the meeting shook their heads at St. Croix’s unprofessional conduct. Why hadn’t he picked up the phone and ask Comstock to review the record and correct it?Why did he go beyond correcting the record to add the accusation of knowingly false testimony?

Why did he feel the need to mischaracterize Comstock’s seemingly trivial mistake?

Despite St. Croix’s protestation to the contrary, most observers are concluding that St. Croix’s real motive was to torpedo Comstock’s appointment, preferring to blindside Comstock.

St. Croix’s compulsion here stands in stark contrast to his failure to correct the record back in 2005, when Mike Garcia, then the Chair of the Ethics Commission, had appeared at Rules for his renomination. Garcia’s testimony included two misstatements of fact that slandered sitting Commissioners, including me. He had also revealed confidential deliberations of the Commission made in closed session.

I emailed St. Croix as a Commissioner of the Ethics Commission asking him to correct the record and remove the slander. Yet St. Croix did nothing concerning Garcia’s testimony. Why was St. Croix so eager to strike out at Comstock?

Comstock is in part a controversial figure. He is well respected in some progressive circles who point to his reputation for even handling of hearings and his willingness to give all their say. He was among the citizen activists that proposed the 1999 ballot measure that formed the Task Force.

Others who are uncomfortable with him point to his political consultancy which has had him involved with folks in the political spectrum from Angela Alioto to Ed Jew. Staff at Ethics have an ongoing grudge against Comstock which first surfaced a few years ago when he ran up a fine close to $20,000 and unjustifiably tried to blame the fine on Ethics staff. Such a charge, even when fair, is not received well by bureaucrats. Comstock settled for a much smaller fine.

Comstock’s fines problems were only part of his irritation to St. Croix. Institutional tensions have grown between the Task Force and almost all the City departments. Sunshine is not favored by bureaucrats. I discussed this problem last year at greater length in The Metadata Skirmish. The City has not given administrative support to departments producing documents, and bureaucrats balk at doing things that are not supported adequately.

Further, citizen activists had appeared at the May meeting of the Ethics Commission, noting that St. Croix was burying Sunshine enforcement.

St. Croix has unilaterally decided to treat Sunshine referrals as Complaints. This subjects them to the utmost secrecy allowed by law, giving the parties more confidentiality than rape victims receive. It’s also contrary to the Ethics Commission treatment of the Mayor Gavin Newsom’s referral of Official Misconduct against Ed Jew where there were immediate public hearings. In contrast, Task Force referrals are buried in utmost silence with St. Croix claiming he cannot even comment on investigations even after they have been publicly vetted at the Task Force. In addition, the Sunshine referrals languish for months on end unlike the prompt hearings given to the Mayor’s referral.

Advocates note that State law requires that they be treated with the highest priority. The Commission has never publicly vetted these issues, and St. Croix is flying blind. Comstock’s testimony on the referrals to Ethics stepped on some sensitive nerves.

St. Croix’ unprecedented testimony signals a further deterioration of the Ethics Commission whose list of horrors continues to grow under his management. Last year, he admitted to “dropping the ball” on a campaign finance scandal involving the City College; he apologized for an investigation gone terribly wrong against Carolyn Knee; he continued to speak publicly about supposedly confidential investigations such as Tony Hall’s; he fined Matt Gonzalez for a violation after ordering staff not to go after Newsom on the same violation; and he presided over the degradation of an online database that is the joke of City Hall insiders now. With the exception of Commissioner Eileen Hansen, the overseeing Ethics Commissioners have shown no interest in having a hearing on any of these matters.

Without oversight, the Executive Director will continue to maneuver as he sees fit.

Editor’s Note: Comstock apologizes for the incorrect use of the word “score”, May 15.

Joe Lynn (RIP)

BIO Joe Lynn was the campaign finance and budget officer of the San Francisco Ethics Commission from 1998 to 2003. From 2003 to 2006, he served as one of the five Ethics Commissioners. The Bay Guardian called him “a leading voice for reform,” and the San Francisco Examiner called him “the backbone of the Ethics Commission.” While a staff member on the Ethics Commission, he received numerous awards and has been a speaker at many conferences on Good Government. He maintains an active interest in good government laws.

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1 Comment

Comments for Ambush at Rules – St. Croix blindsides Comstock are now closed.

  1. On May 16, the day after Mr. St. Croix’s unprecedented testimony, I wrote Mr. St. Croix concerning his unprecedented testimony. Twelve days later and only after the publication of Ambush at Rules, did Mr. St. Croix address some of the issues:

    “Mr. Lynn – On March 12, 2007, Douglas Comstock stated to the Ethics Commission that the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force had made between twenty and thirty referrals to the Ethics Commission (see the Minutes of that meeting available on the EC web site). That same day, Mr. Comstock made an immediate disclosure request (see below). When Mr. Comstock visited the Ethics Commission to review the files that week, there were five of them in total. Mr. Comstock is aware of subsequent referrals from the SOTF (see
    the SOTF minutes, there are not in my custody) and therefore should have known that the current number is 14 total referrals, and not the “scores and scores and scores” that he represented to the Rules Committee.

    John St. Croix
    Executive Director, San Francisco Ethics Commission”

    While Mr. Comstock did refer to “scores and scores” of referrals, nowhere did he state, as Mr. St. Croix writes above, “scores and scores and scores.” See the testimony of Mr. Comstock at the May 1, 2008, meeting of Rules above. Mr. Comstock’s defenders note his common use of “scores” to mean many (testimony, May 1) and his confusion as to its numerical meaning (testimony, May 15). I will leave it to the readers to judge the adequacy of Mr. St. Croix’s case that Mr. Comstock had given knowinly false testimony. Mr. St. Croix’s comment knew the facts to be untrue remains gratuitous and a breach of protocol, even if an argument can be made that it is true.