Blowing Smoke, Breathing Fire (Part I)

The Fang family rides tabloid journalism and hardball politics to the winner's circle

In the spring of 1993, James and Ted Fang invited some 30 businesspeople to a fund-raising party at the Grand Palace, the family's restaurant in Chinatown. The brothers, sons of a local family that owns eight community newspapers, a national newsmagazine, a printing company, and $6.5 million worth of real estate, wanted to raise money for a new political action committee they had just formed.

James, a member of the BART board, told the potential donors, many of them Asian professionals, that giving to the PAC -- Citizens for Mass Transit -- would be good for their businesses. Fang wasn't just blowing smoke. He and Ted had lined up two powerful politicos -- BART board member Michael Bernick and transit-obsessed state Sen. Quentin Kopp -- to warm up the crowd at the Grand Palace with speeches about the future of Bay Area public transit.

According to one donor, James told him something like this: You're an architect and I have some power over who gets BART contracts. But the donors were also told that their money would advance transit issues like extending BART to the San Francisco airport and support candidates who agreed with their transit policies.

The Fangs didn't exactly make good on their pledge. According to campaign disclosure statements on file with the Registrar of Voters, not a dime of the PAC money disembarked anywhere near a transit issue or a viable candidate. The vast bulk of it, $14,000 of the $20,660 the Fang brothers raised, went to help retire the debt of Ahmad Anderson, an also-ran BART board candidate who had lost in the previous November's election. Anderson owed the $14,000 to the Fang's printing company, Grant Printing, for campaign literature it had produced for him.

The remainder of the funds, $5,728, went to Grand Palace for its cost of putting on the fund-raiser, to Grant Printing for the invitations, to the Fangs' attorneys, and to pay for postage and a consultant.

"The whole episode left a bitter taste in our mouth," says Kendall Young, a local architect who gave the PAC $250. "We felt we had been taken."

Whether the Fangs violated campaign finance laws is a topic the assistant district attorney in charge of investigating campaign finance violations, Tom Boggot, refused to comment on.

And don't bet that Boggot's new boss, District Attorney Terence Hallinan, will have Boggot scrutinize the Fangs. Ted Fang, publisher of the family's flagship newspaper, the San Francisco Independent, combined with companies owned by or that work regularly with the Fangs, assisted Hallinan's victorious campaign to a wide-ranging extent.

During the December runoff between Hallinan and former Assistant DA Bill Fazio, Ted Fang says he ran the media campaign for Hallinan. He designed and helped lay out brochures and produce direct mail as he advised Hallinan on overall strategy. "Ted was the de facto chief of staff of the campaign," a source close to the Hallinan camp says.

Grant Printing produced the Hallinan mail pieces, the 33-year-old Ted Fang says. Fang could not recall if Hallinan still owes for direct-mail brochures produced by Grant Printing. If Hallinan does owe Fang for direct mail, the debt could easily exceed several thousand dollars. Fang did say, however, that Hallinan still owes the Independent $2,500 for ads it ran on his behalf during the DA's race. But neither the advertising nor direct-mail costs show up on Hallinan's campaign disclosure statements.

If Hallinan owes anybody any campaign money, he is required to list it as an accrued expense. If the Fangs have directly donated services gratis to Hallinan, Hallinan must list them as in-kind contributions. Hallinan has done neither, according to the latest campaign finance documents filed at the Registrar of Voters' office. To avoid a fine, Hallinan must file an amended statement.

The purpose of the campaign laws is to let the public in on who is backing politicians like Hallinan and for how much. Without this information, it's hard to hold Hallinan answerable for his decisions. Such low accountability comes from the city's top cop regarding the very laws he's supposed to enforce.

Meanwhile, the Fang fund-raising for Hallinan continues. On Jan. 23, the Fangs opened the doors of the Grand Palace for a Hallinan debt-retirement fund-raiser.

What Hallinan's campaign statements do show is that the new DA owes nearly $4,000 to an advertising brokerage company that works regularly with the Fangs for campaign literature and management services. The documents also show that Hallinan owes $2,500 to Grant Printing from his 1992 re-election to the Board of Supervisors. Hallinan says that debt has been whittled down over the years in accordance with the law.

In several campaigns over the years, the Fangs have billed politicians thousands of dollars for campaign goods and services, but in many cases the Fangs have not collected on those debts according to campaign finance statements.

In 1991, for instance, the Independent published The Agnos Years, a compilation of anti-Agnos diatribes written by Independent columnist Warren Hinckle. California Common Cause filed a complaint with the city attorney's office, saying the book was an in-kind contribution to the Frank Jordan campaign and should be listed on campaign finance statements. Two local voters brought suit in a separate action on the same issue. According to court documents, Fang was deposed and said his company spent between $30,000 and $60,000 on the booklet. Ted Fang has insisted all along that The Agnos Years was a promotional vehicle for his newspaper. A superior court judge disagreed with Fang, but the matter was dropped by both parties on appeal. The Common Cause complaint is still active.

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