The Dark Prince of City Hall

First Larry Bush was a politician. Then he was a journalist. Then he was a politician. So now as editor and publisher of CitiReport, a hard-hitting journal with a private agenda, what the hell is he?

Put plainly, Bush is San Francisco's self-appointed ethics cop. Like an angry school marm who checks beneath her pupils' fingernails, Bush follows the flow of political money down to the account numbers on canceled checks in his unyielding pursuit of violations and influence-peddling.

His watchdoggery is unrelenting, and San Francisco can be damn thankful. No one else is doing the job. Bush is a big guy, more than 200 pounds of big guy. But the political vacuum he fills is even bigger: San Francisco is a city where the avuncular district attorney jumps on his chair eek-a-mouse style whenever a potential political crime crosses his desk; the city attorney ain't much better; and most members of the Board of Supervisors are too busy schmoozing big donors to give a farthing for reform.

What of the fourth estate? Well, most reporters have become inured to the pervasive influence of political money. For them, lucre is as much part of City Hall as the mortar and the marble.

That leaves Larry Bush, rooting around all alone in the musty public records room at the Registrar of Voters Office, poring over campaign finance records. More often than not, his snooping pays off.

In 1992, Bush spurred an ongoing probe by three law-enforcement agencies into the funding of Mayor Jordan's 1991 campaign. This month, Bush's ferreting muddied the waters of Jordan's nomination of Jack Ertola to the post of chief administrative officer and raised new questions about the mayor's handling of political donations.

The latest flap began last year when Bush noticed that corporations like Chevron and Bechtel were giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to something called the San Francisco Citizens Inaugural Committee for the Mayor-Elect, a group headed until two weeks ago by Ertola, a retired Superior Court judge and former city supervisor. But the inaugural committee had never publicly reported receiving or spending any of this money.

Smelling a slush fund, Bush pressed for records. Ertola surrendered partial documents showing that corporate donors were coughing up as much as $50,000 in one pop -- which the mayor was spending on his VISA bills and on staff salaries during his transition period.

At the same time, Bush noticed that Chevron, a $50,000 donor, secured the mayor's help in seizing control of an independent gas station. And development giant Catellus, which donated $5,000, is about to ask for revisions in the Mission Bay development agreement that could release the company from toxic cleanup and housing construction requirements. "Raising this kind of money from people who stand to benefit from your decisions and not telling the public goes against all principles of open, democratic government," Bush says.

The district attorney and the Fair Political Practices Commission are chasing Bush's lead. And his reporting on the issue -- in the February 19 Examiner and in the February 27 CitiReport -- led Supervisor Tom Ammiano to press Ertola about the inaugural committee during the nominee's confirmation hearing. "From the way he was asking his questions, I got the idea Tom had read CitiReport," says a boastful Bush.

That same day, February 27, Bush visited the law offices of Reuben and Cera -- Jordan's attorneys -- to demand the committee's records. Because the committee had renewed its corporate charter in December, Bush felt he had a right to see if the mayor was still collecting money for his, ahem, inaugural. The lawyers were not amused. "They told me they didn't have to show me anything," Bush says. "I told them yes they did and if they didn't, they could get fined $5,000."

Ken Cera threatened to call security if Bush didn't leave and then personally escorted the muckraker to the elevator. "I was going to tell them I had been thrown out of better places, but it was an awfully nice law office," Bush says, laughing.

Bush grew up in a well-to-do, politically connected Mormon family in suburban Washington, D.C. His maternal grandfather, Carl Karston, helped found the American Federation of Labor with Samuel Gompers. His father worked for the FBI and then later became director of finance for the CIA, after he was personally recruited by Wild Bill Donovan, founder of the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA. (Bush's older brother currently works as a physician for the CIA.) His Sunday school teacher was columnist Jack Anderson, and his scoutmaster was Brent Scowcroft, a member of the national security team for five presidents. Bush even once dated Chief Justice Warren Burger's daughter, Margaret, who lived with her family a few doors down from the Bushes.

Bush's father, Lester, was in the vanguard of Mormons who made a push to take up positions of power in government during the 1950s. Both his sons would soon follow suit.

Larry Bush attended Brigham Young University, but dropped out in 1970 after he was called on the university president's carpet for writing an antiwar flier. "He did say it was eloquent," Bush recollects.

After a brief stint at a Salt Lake City newspaper, Bush made a roundabout pilgrimage back to Washington and the bosom of government.

He recalls the incident that inspired him to leave Utah: "The editor took me aside one day and showed me a picture of Tricia Nixon on the steps of the Mormon church headquarters. She was wearing a pink dress with puffy shoulders and a big bow in her hair. He said, 'Isn't she just a princess?' And I thought, 'No. I'm a princess and I'm getting the hell out of here.'"

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