City Slackers

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

But while the DA is all excuses, Renne offers a surprising mea culpa when asked about the lack of action on complaints filed with her office.

"I wish we could move faster and do more," she says, sitting in her Fox Plaza offices, an expansive view of Market Street behind her. "The criticism of our office is fair. I accept it."

Renne blames her poor record on the difficulty in coordinating investigations with the DA and the FPPC as required by law. But the main problem, she says, is lack of resources. Renne recently lost one of her two corruption enforcers, Randy Riddle, to the private sector, leaving her with only one attorney to enforce clean-government laws. And she's unsure if she will be able to replace Riddle.

"We are trying to move ahead despite the budget [cuts]," Renne says.
There's another, unspoken reason why the city watchdogs snooze. The DA and the city attorney are elected officials, and their political careers depend on the good will of the same activists, consultants, power brokers, and money men that they're charged with policing. In fact, both offices employ politically active attorneys and investigators. It's the mother of all conflicts of interest. And though the conflict has little to do with money, it has everything to do with integrity -- or the lack thereof.

If a city or county is concerned with ethics, it shows -- in its charter. In San Jose, the mayor is required to review ethics laws every two years and make recommendations for reform. In San Jose, San Diego, and Los Angeles Counties, campaign debts that last more than 30 to 90 days after an election automatically become illegal campaign contributions subject to fines. And in San Diego and Santa Clara Counties, companies and corporations are prohibited from donating money to politicians.

Is it any surprise that San Francisco is moving in the opposite direction? The charter rewrite committee -- chaired by Supervisor Barbara Kaufman -- has been steadily loosening ethics provisions. The requirement that city commissioners resign before they start running for office and raising money from special interests was tabled. The proposal prohibiting supervisors from lobbying city boards and commissions -- a practice fraught with the potential for undue influence since supes set budgets for commissions and the departments they oversee -- was also voted down. And a new, stricter definition of official misconduct was rejected.

Exasperated with politicians' disregard for reform, voters passed Proposition K in 1993, which created an Ethics Commission. The body was supposed to fill the enforcement void left by the DA and the city attorney. Audits and investigations are its main charge. Moreover, as an administrative body, the commission can act on less evidence and issue subpoenas without meeting the high felony standard that confronts a DA.

But politicians have undermined the commission from Day 1. Hidden away in a closet-size office on the third floor of the War Memorial Building, Commission Director Jane Rubin fights against incredible odds to get the agency up and running.

She has only one computer, no investigative staff, and a budget just big enough to be operative but totally ineffective. Frustrated with the barely concealed hostility from the Mayor's Office and the Board of Supervisors, her commissioners are resigning left and right. She is down to two; she should have five.

"The commission is going to have too many effectiveness problems," says former commissioner Don Sloan, who resigned last week. "I just couldn't deal with that."

The commission needs at least a $300,000 budget to be effective. This year, the mayor allocated $190,000 and Rubin negotiated him up to $260,000. Then the board's parsimonious budget analyst, Harvey Rose, whittled that sum back down to $190,000. The board is currently weighing Rose's recommendation.

"Because of our staffing problems, all the complaints we are receiving we are referring right back out to the DA and the city attorney," Rubin says.

A look at the record of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission may explain why local politicians are hostile to the idea of independent enforcers here. Founded in 1990, it took the L.A. commission a mere three years to make California history with the largest fine ever levied for a campaign finance violation, an $895,000 penalty against a multinational shipping line for laundering contributions.

The shipping line, Evergreen Inc., was docked in San Francisco before pulling up anchor and moving to Oakland last year.

Ethical government should be an end in itself. But pragmatists in search of additional reasons for why the ethics laws should be enforced should talk to MacArthur Fellow Robert Hall.

Hall, research director at the Institute for Southern Studies, a Virginia think tank, says that weak political reforms and lackadaisical enforcement push voters right out of the polling booth.

Hall's pioneering work studying campaign laws and voter turnout in all 50 states produced a "Democracy Index" that correlated over 80 factors to measure voter confidence in elected governments. He found that the more reforms, the more enforcement of ethics laws, the greater the voter turnout.

The four states with the fewest political reform measures had the nation's lowest voter turnout -- and also were below average in electing women.

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