City Slackers

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

The Marcos regime in the Philippines was laundering money into the campaign accounts of prominent local officials like Dianne Feinstein and Carol Ruth Silver. The scam emanated from a real estate broker who fronted for dummy corporations set up by Marcos to develop Union Square property. As any developer knows -- even if said developer is a brutal dictator -- developing prime real estate in downtown San Francisco means greasing politicians' palms.

The broker wrote checks on her personal account, making it appear that she and other employees were the donors. But the account was full of Marcos government money. A team of three reporters, including Williams, nailed the story by getting copies of the broker's checking account through divorce filings.

"We busted their chops," Williams says today. "The Philippines government was highly naughty at the time, and we thought for sure the city attorney or the district attorney would jump all over this. But they did nothing."

Two years later, Williams was covering another ethics story and found a kindred soul in then-Registrar of Voters Jay Patterson.

"He pointed to all the filing cabinets full of campaign finance reports, and he said to me, 'Why in the hell do they make me keep these things if [law enforcement officials] aren't going to enforce the law?' "

Patterson's pithy comment isn't mere hyperbole. In the 16 years he's been in office, DA Arlo Smith has never taken a political corruption case to trial. Never. Asked to defend his record, Smith cites a case almost a decade old in which School Board Commissioner Agrapino Richard Cebados pleaded guilty to a conflict of interest and left office.

Taking a case to trial is a good measure of a prosecutor's effectiveness. But DAs can't take every case to trial. Much of the time, they settle cases and impose fines. But how many, how much, and how often are questions the office cannot answer.

"There have been ... uh ... I'd have to ask," Smith says.
Fair enough. District attorneys, especially ones running for re-election, are busy folk. But Smith's promise to supply the information and call back goes unfulfilled. Numerous other requests for a record of recent cases and their dispositions go unanswered, as well.

The closest thing to an answer to the institutional ethics quandary comes from John Carbone, assistant district attorney in charge of political corruption cases.

"A tiny percentage of our cases end up as court filings," Carbone says. The DA is currently investigating seven ethics cases.

Still, Smith defends himself against the charge that he's soft on political crimes.

"That's nonsense," Smith says. "All our cases are dealt with in an evenhanded fashion."

What about Fang? Were there political considerations?
"That is not a factor -- ever," Smith insists.
But a persistent critic and Smith's main opponent in this year's DA race, Supervisor Terence Hallinan, knows firsthand the frustrations of reporting an alleged violation crime to the DA and watching as it goes nowhere.

In 1992, Hallinan and his fellow supe Jim Gonzalez were the victims of a nasty hit piece -- a negative political mailing sent out late in a campaign when there was no time to respond. A little under 50,000 mailers went out redbaiting Hallinan for inviting Fidel Castro to address the Board of Supervisors on health care. The mailer attacked both supes as soft on illegal immigrants, rowdy protesters, and panhandlers. Gonzalez lost and Hallinan barely won re-election.

Hallinan and other knowledgeable sources allege that campaign aides to then-candidate Barbara Kaufman were involved in funding and producing the hit piece. The prime mover was the bete noire of liberals, Supervisor Bill Maher, who admitted his involvement at the time.

Hallinan says that Kaufman aide John Whitehurst admitted his involvement to him, and that Kaufman apologized for the hit but denied that she knew about it. Whitehurst would not comment for this article.

Maher denies that he controlled the committee, San Franciscans for Representative Government (SFRG), that funded the mailing. Controlling a campaign committee without properly disclosing one's involvement constitutes misdemeanor perjury. Maher was never charged with breaking the law. The former supervisor could not be reached for comment.

SFRG filed as independent of any other campaigns. If Whitehurst worked on the hit piece, SFRG could be construed as adjunct to Kaufman's campaign. In that case, Kaufman's campaign would have had to report the mailer as an in-kind contribution. Plus, several people who helped fund the hit piece had already given the maximum allowed to Kaufman and might have violated contribution limits. And as Hallinan pointed out and continues to point out, conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor, which may have also occurred, is a felony.

Hallinan says he ran into a stone wall of indifference when he brought his complaint to the DA.

"They said they wouldn't touch it," Hallinan says. "I had to write to the forewoman of the criminal grand jury twice to get any action out of them."

Finally, the DA launched a probe.
"Carbone showed me an affidavit for a search warrant for bank records that alleged four misdemeanors," Hallinan says. "I said, 'Great, I'll take the misdemeanors.' But he said it wasn't enough. Afterwards, he told me the office wouldn't go after a politician unless it was a felony. And he didn't think conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor was enough."

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