Blowing Smoke, Breathing Fire (Part I)

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

That same year, an Independent employee formed an unaffiliated anti-Agnos campaign committee, Citizens for a United San Francisco. The committee printed one anti-Agnos hit piece, which was designed by another Independent employee and printed on Grant Printing presses. Campaign disclosure statements filed by the committee show the printing bill amounted to $7,321. Ted Fang says the debt was never paid. And Asian Week, the national magazine owned by the Fangs, spent $2,600 using its bulk-rate mailing permit to send the flier out. In the 1991 lawsuit, plaintiffs Agar Jaicks and Ellen Chaitin alleged that the Asian Week expenditure constituted an illegal loan in excess of the $750 contribution limit.

There is no record in campaign disclosure statements that the Fangs' Independent newspaper has collected a $14,172.08 political advertising debt owed to it by the "BART to the Airport" campaign of 1994, controlled by the family's longtime ally Quentin Kopp.

Campaign disclosure statements also show that in his 1994 BART board campaign, James borrowed $45,000 from his mother, Florence. Available campaign statements do not reflect a repayment. James Fang, 34, and Florence Fang declined to be interviewed for this story.

During the 1990 and 1994 campaigns for his BART seat, James incurred debts from the Independent, Asian Week, the Grand Palace, and Grant Printing in excess of $31,000, all of which are reflected in campaign disclosure filings. Current statements show no repayment on these debts either.

California Common Cause has accused the Fangs of essentially giving services away and evading the $750-per-contribution limit proscribed by local law.

Ted Fang acknowledges that there are uncollected campaign debts, but says they are the result of bad bookkeeping, not a desire to skirt campaign finance laws.

"We have had lax collection efforts in the past, but we are getting better," he says. "Besides, we don't need to give free services to have a political impact."

The family has myriad other ways to make its voice heard. They don't need to break the law -- as James did in 1995 when he was fined $22,000 by the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for illegally funneling contributions to the 1991 Jordan campaign. Fang obtained four $500 cashier's checks, the FPPC says, and signed his family members' names to the check that then was given to the Jordan campaign.

But the Fangs have been accused of engaging in political dirty tricks. In 1994, the DA investigated whether Independent distributor Marc Chamot tried to bribe a printing company official and abscond with campaign literature belonging to James Fang's opponent in the 1994 BART board race, Victor Makras. (The DA declined to prosecute.) The literature, produced for Makras, compiled James Fang's alleged ethical transgressions and was packaged in a purple can that bore the label: "Can James Fang."

An eyewitness, who asked not to be named, says that 10 Hefty bags of the cans showed up at the Burlingame offices of the Fangs' Independent Newspaper Group, and were stored there for several months.

In an interview, Ted Fang denies all of the allegations.
Over the years, the Fangs' political machine has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for politicians ranging from George Bush and Pete Wilson to Frank Jordan and Willie Brown. And the Fangs' political allies seem to care not that the family has trod on and over the line of what is allowed by the law, or that when they climb into the political ring it's often with horseshoes in their gloves. Year after year, they advance, making friends and racking up success after success in the political and business arenas. This last election they were in the winner's circle again, arm in arm with the new mayor, for whom Ted Fang says they raised five figures, and in a love lock with the new district attorney, for whom they employed their newspaper like a laser guided missile against opponent Bill Fazio.

Fear and loathing still outstrip respect in local political circles when some people talk about the Fangs. But the Fangs don't seem to care. They're winning.

"People are just uncomfortable that an Asian family knows how to play hardball," Ted Fang says. "We play by the same rules as everybody else."

The strongest political support that rolled off Grant Printing presses for Terence Hallinan was the editorial content of family's flagship, the San Francisco Independent. Reporter Joe Strupp and consultant to the publisher John Gollin wrote some of the most unfair and distorted stories in recent memory -- all aimed at Fazio.

The most damning allegation, that Fazio consorted with criminals, was contained in the first story of a three-part anti-Fazio series titled "Tainted Prosecutor?" The headline, above the masthead of the paper's Nov. 28 issue, screamed: "D.A. Candidate's Underworld Ties." Further review of the article reveals no support for that wild and reckless claim. Fazio says he is consulting a local attorney about suing the paper for libel.

Contacted at Independent offices, Strupp and Gollin refuse to defend their stories. Asked to identify Fazio's exact underworld ties, Strupp dodges. "I'm not going to get into a long back-and-forth," he says. "The story speaks for itself." Informed that the story apparently does not speak for itself, Strupp refuses to comment. Gollin is equally evasive. First, he admits that he isn't a journalist and has spent most of his career on the business side of papers. Then when pressed on the distortions in the series, he refuses to comment except to say, "We wrote what was told to us."

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