James Fang, a San Francisco representative on the BART board and scion of a powerful political family, needed a way around the limit of $500 per contribution to make a $2,000 donation to Frank Jordan's 1991 mayoral campaign.
It made political sense to take the risk: Five hundred dollars buys good will, but $2,000 buys four times as much.
As a member of the Hoy-Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Association, which has several bank accounts and a political action committee, Fang had access to the money. The challenge was to make the $2,156.63 of Ning Yung money look like it came from four different sources. To make it look like it came from four different -- and legal -- sources.
According to documents on file at the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), here's how Fang did it: Ning Yung President Tommy Ng purchased four $500 cashier's checks from the Bank of Canton with Ning Yung money. Cashier's checks were a perfect way to conceal the source of the funds because all of them could be made out to "Frank Jordan for Mayor" and the line normally signed by the purchaser could be left blank.
Fang then obtained the checks and signed his name to one and the names of his mother, father, and brother to the remaining three. The full house of Fang checks was then delivered to Jordan's treasury.
After Jordan's election, Fang and Ng were rewarded with positions as mayoral trade czar and fire commissioner, respectively.
Then Ng screwed up. He pushed the wrong guy around -- Wing Fun Wong -- during an internal power struggle in Ning Yung, and Wong blew the whistle, calling in the FPPC.
After two years of investigating, the FPPC uncovered a far-ranging series of illegal campaign contributions. Ning Yung hid its hand in two ways when making contributions: It had members make donations in their own names and then reimbursed them out of Ning Yung coffers, and it used cashier's checks.
The FPPC determined that beginning in 1990, Ning Yung made $11,000 in contributions without regard for campaign finance limits. Several prominent pols, including Mabel Teng, Dick Hongisto, Tom Hsieh, and Angie Fa, unknowingly benefited from the illegal donations.
The state watchdog agency ended up charging Ning Yung with 28 counts, and Fang, who was the subject of a separate probe, with four counts of violating the Political Reform Act.
In accusing James Fang of violating the law, the FPPC went to extra pains to rebuke his actions as inconsistent with elected office.
"James Fang has been an elected government official with [campaign finance] filing responsibilities under the Political Reform Act since 1990," the FPPC stated in documents related to the charges against Fang. "As such, he has a special responsibility to foster compliance with its provisions by himself and by others. By reason of the circumstances ... James Fang failed to discharge that responsibility."
On Nov. 4, 1994, the FPPC joined with San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith and City Attorney Louise Renne (whose campaign was the recipient of some of the questionable cash) in fining the association a whopping $42,500. For his part, Fang was fined $22,000.
It's never pleasant for a public official to be whacked by the FPPC, but Ng and Fang lucked out. Thanks to the newspaper strike, there were no headlines in the daily papers. This was especially sweet news for Fang, who three days after his fine was announced faced re-election to the BART board. Imagine how the voters would have reacted had Fang's nefarious deeds been publicized.
And there were two more reasons for Fang to smile as he wrote his checks to the FPPC. DA Smith declined to prosecute him in criminal court, and City Attorney Renne decided not to sue in civil court.
A couple of oh-so-public court cases would have dragged the nasty little business out in the light of day and led to weeks of testimony in open court. All of which would have made it rather difficult for Ng and Fang to maintain their political jobs. Instead, the whole matter was resolved relatively quietly, with Fang and the association signing what are called "stipulations," in which they're allowed to agree to a set of facts and avoid a criminal or civil trial. Fang was not called to task by the mayor. Ng, who signed nothing at all because he wasn't found guilty of anything by the FPPC, is currently raising money for Mayor Jordan's re-election effort.
Smith's decision not to prosecute was hard for Darryl East to swallow.
"I even offered to cross-designate," says East, the FPPC's enforcement chief and a former DA from Sacramento County. "Arlo Smith would swear one of my people in as an assistant district attorney and we would prosecute the case for him, and we were turned down."
At the time, Smith said Fang would face only a civil charge, claiming that a criminal offense likely would only result in a diversion, an arrangement allowing the defendant to avoid a sentence and a criminal record.
But East begs to differ.
"Nobody that I know of believes [Arlo Smith's] theory would occur in their jurisdiction," he says.
The Ning Yung case illustrates the extent to which the city's two top ethics cops decline to enforce the law. Even when they have a dead-bang case -- the San Francisco Police Department crime lab confirmed that Fang faked his family members' signatures, according to police records -- they tread as lightly as possible. Which just goes to show: The prevailing ethic, when it comes to San Francisco's political ethics, is circle the wagons and don't let anything too terrible happen to the kinsfolk. In this scenario, Smith and Renne are driving the lead carriages, and inside the circle, protected from the outrageous slings and arrows of the law and public uproar, are their fellow politicos.