City Slackers

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

Funny how San Francisco pols define those words. Going by Fang's record, the standard for probity must be low.

Ning Yung wasn't the only James Fang ethics question hovering offstage. The charges about his misleading resume -- the way he listed his attendance at Hastings Law School and his status with the state bar made him appear to be a law school graduate and lawyer when he was not -- were, of course, old news. But the fact that Fang had violated the California Constitution by taking a $700 airline upgrade had not yet been dismissed by the attorney general as a technical breach.

And more important, the allegations of illegal campaign contributions to Jordan's mayoral campaign race were still very much alive. Fang was accused by Common Cause in 1993 of setting up phony shell committees with the purpose of secretly funneling tens of thousands of dollars into Jordan's 1991 campaign in violation of campaign finance limits. (The case is still unresolved.)

During the race, Fang dismissed the allegations and, according to news accounts and internal DA documents, apparently continued to embroil himself in ethics controversies.

As BART was negotiating a contract with its unions, the Oakland Tribune reported in its Sept. 21, 1994, edition that "sources said [BART] directors agreed to make one or more concessions if the union agreed to endorse ... Fang."

Moreover, Fang allegedly tried to buy up and presumably destroy campaign literature produced by his opponent, real estate broker Victor Makras, according to an affidavit filed with the DA's office by Peter Tangermann.

Tangermann, owner of Coronet Distribution Co., declared in his affidavit that the distributor for the Fangs' San Francisco Independent showed up at his company's loading docks with Independent trucks and offered to pay him $200 for every 1,000 pieces of Makras campaign literature. At the time, Makras had yet to pick up 50,000 campaign mailers. Independent distributor Marc Chamot denied the charges. In an interview, Fang said he'd never heard of the incident.

Makras made Fang's ethics problems an issue in the campaign, filing a complaint with the DA, the attorney general, the United States attorney, the FPPC, and the city attorney, asking them to investigate the alleged attempt to abscond with his campaign material. He even collected newspaper accounts of Fang's alleged misdeeds and distributed them in a campaign mailer.

But he couldn't turn a single ethics cop's head. And he lost the BART election.

Today, Makras still takes issue with the DA's decision not to prosecute Fang.

"The DA said that the attempt to take my literature did not constitute a bribe because the bribe was never accepted," Makras says. "That's like saying that if you walk into a bank with a loaded gun and wave it around, but if you didn't walk away with any money, then no crime has been committed. I just don't think that's what the law contemplates."

What irks Makras the most is the way elected officials, mostly Democrats, lined up to support Fang despite his constant brushes with the law.

"Elected officials show time and time again that ethics is very low on their priority list," Makras says. "What's truly disturbing is that the issue is very high on the public's priority list. And unethical behavior is such a contributing factor to voter discontent."

FPPC enforcement chief Darryl East shares Makras' belief.
"James Fang is a launderer," says East. "That's a misdemeanor. But so is petty theft. To me, laundering is a lot more damaging to the public than a petty theft. That certainly does more harm than petty theft. But the petty thief goes to prison and the launderer does not."

So, if fair gamesmanship and respect for the law don't count, what does?
One word: power. The Fang family has money and owns a newspaper and a printing plant. Their cash and endorsement are cherished, and their perfervid columnist Warren Hinckle is widely feared.

"James has done some sleazy things, yeah," says a top elected official who asks not to be named. Pressed about why he endorsed Fang anyway, the official, whose smiling face graces Fang's campaign literature, says, "Simple. I didn't want to make enemies of the Fangs."

James Fang has since departed from the Mayor's Office and has taken the editorial helm at Asian Week, one of the Fang family's publications.

"We're going to have some fun here this mayor's race," he says, but he grows testy when his record of ethics problems comes up. He gives "no comment"s when asked about the details of the Ning Yung case. His only statement:

"The sophistication of Ning Yung was not there."
Asked about the allegations of money laundering that serve as the heart of the Common Cause complaint, he first denies any involvement at all, then says:

"If there were mistakes, we learned from them. One of the good things about all this investigative reporting is it has made me more aware of the technicalities of the law. It has definitely raised my consciousness."

Lance Williams hit town in the mid-'80s to take a job with the San Francisco Examiner. Muckraking in his marrow, Williams immediately hit on the kind of story that makes investigative reporters wet themselves.

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