City Slackers

A guide toSan Francisco political corruption -past, present, and future

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.

Here's how they protect their fellows: Eleven of 12 cases referred to the DA by the FPPC for further action since 1989 have not been acted on. Asked about the cases, the DA's prosecutors draw a blank. Meanwhile, Renne's batting average is impossible to calculate because, as she says, "We don't keep a list of complaints."

The lax enforcement of ethics and campaign finance laws is so widespread, it's as if elected officials, lobbyists, and consultants seem to relish breaking, skirting, and flaunting clean-government laws -- and blowing Bronx cheers at the measures. What's more, when officeholders are caught red-handed and removed from office, their fellow pols are more than willing to wink and nudge and give them a new job.

Take the case of Ben Hom. In 1993, Hom was removed from the Redevelopment Agency Commission after the mayor learned he had solicited money from companies that did business with the commission. Regardless, the Board of Supervisors unanimously appointed Hom to the equally powerful Assessment Appeals Board, which helps calculate tax bills for property owners. The board determines the tax bills of downtown property owners, among the city's biggest campaign contributors, all of whom want their tax bills lowered. Naturally, every supe who was up for election following Hom's appointment and voted for him received a campaign contribution from Hom.

Explaining their low batting averages, the DA and the city attorney say San Francisco is a relatively clean city. But Common Cause, the statewide political reform group, thinks differently, comparing S.F. to ol' Chicago, home of Al Capone and cemeteries full of active voters.

"San Francisco's politics are among the worst in the state," says Ruth Holton, the group's executive director.

But why travel to Illinois for a measuring stick? We have our own storied history of graft, sleaze, and corruption right here. At the turn of the century, supervisors convened at the St. Francis Hotel on Sunday nights to smoke cigars, drink brandy, and trade votes for bribes with Boss Abe Ruef, the premier lobbyist and fixer of the time.

And truth be told, all that's really changed since Ruef's days are political manners. Pols have merely learned to be more careful and subtle in how to subvert the electorate, break the law, line their pockets, and pay off special interests.

They've learned every trick in the book, including how to pay lip service to reform. Listen to Frank Jordan and Willie Brown prattle on about ethics this mayoral season, throwing around their "ethics pledges" and "ethics contracts."

Brown's 10-point blueprint for disclosing the financial interests of candidates and their partners is designed to expose conflicts of interest created by the clients of the mayor's wife, Wendy Paskin, and to create a point of attack for his campaign. Jordan's less imaginative proposal has a similar premise: exposing conflicts created by Brown's law clients.

Brown's and Jordan's proposals are nothing more than campaign confetti.
As politically motivated as it is, Brown's challenge serves as a good way of smoking out one local politician for her apparent indifference to ethics. As part of the research for this article, the Brown ethics challenge was posed to all local candidates -- mayor, State Assembly and Senate, DA, and sheriff. All agreed to comply by deadline except Supervisor Carole Migden, who's seeking Brown's assembly seat in 1996.

Despite the election-year interest in full disclosure, make no mistake: Once the votes are all counted, ethics will be packed away and returned to the back shelf. Officeholders, lobbyists, and consultants will continue to engage in questionable and illegal behavior -- from using their City Hall aides to run personal errands to making illegal contributions -- and very little will be done about it.

Without enforcement, alleged acts of wrongdoing will continue to be deep-sixed or allowed to go unresolved from one election cycle to the next, helping lawbreakers and -benders win re-election and retain their positions of authority in the political culture.

And ultimately, all a voter can really do when he steps into the booth and punches holes in his election cards is accept the word of politicians who profess to be clean.

When James Fang was running for BART District 8 last November, his campaign literature read like a who's who of San Francisco politics. Officials right, left, and center -- Frank Jordan, Willie Brown, Quentin Kopp, Nancy Pelosi, John Burton, Angela Alioto, Michael Hennessey, Terence Hallinan, and more -- lined up to trumpet Fang's "integrity" and "honesty."

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