Law and Odor

For instance, in 1996 and 1997 -- while he was mayor -- Willie Brown received more than $10,000 each year from Christensen, Miller as payment for his law firm. We know this, because it is in the financial disclosure documents he filed with the city Ethics Commission. (Bender said he would report another payment from Christensen, Miller soon, when he files his disclosure covering calendar 1998.)

We also know, from Ethics Commission documents, that Christensen, Miller lobbied city government while it was paying the mayor. We know that at least one of its clients received a significant city contract during that time, and that others now seem well-positioned to bid for major city projects.

What we don't know is:
How much, exactly, did Christensen, Miller pay Willie Brown in 1996 and 1997? (Official disclosures say simply "over $10,000.")

How much will Christensen, Miller pay Willie Brown in coming years, as part of the purchase of his law firm?

What, exactly, are the other terms of sale of the firm? Is a "buy-back" agreement one of those terms?

And which of the mayor's old clients have become clients of Christensen, Miller?

We need the answers to these questions because in not too many months, there will be a mayoral election. Before then, some of us would like to know whether our mayor is or is not (at least in this regard) a crook.

Stephen Besser began to lobby the city on behalf of several businesses in mid-1996. He was then a partner at Christensen, White, etc. (which became Christensen, Miller, etc. late in 1996 after the settlement of a relatively nasty intrafirm lawsuit). He continued to work for that law firm, and to lobby the city in its name, until early 1998, when he joined another law firm and, it seems, took many of his lobbying clients with him.

Among his lobbying clients was Parking Concepts Inc., which, according to the city Controller's Office, has run San Francisco's St. Mary's Garage since September 1997. And since then, the city has paid Parking Concepts more than $1 million.

Besser also represented several other firms during his Christensen, White/Miller days that seem, now, well-positioned to obtain city work. Among them is O'Brien-Kreitzberg, a huge construction management firm that apparently is seeking work on Muni's Third Street light rail line, the airport's master plan, and a 15-year city water and sewer system upgrade. There is also Election Systems & Software, a firm recently selected to provide the city new electronic voting systems.

I do not suggest that Steve Besser (who very nicely returned my call, if only to say he never talks to reporters), or his law firm, or his clients have done anything wrong. Besser's been a governmental relations attorney for a long time; it's not surprising if he's an effective lobbyist.

But for about 18 months, Christensen, White/Miller was active in lobbying San Francisco city government while the firm was paying the mayor. This situation raises an obvious question about whether city bureaucrats who owe their professional lives to Willie Brown gave undue consideration to the firm's clients.

But the question about these lobbying clients is minor, compared to the larger questions that arise: What about other Christensen, Miller clients? What about, for instance, Willie Brown's old clients?

Brown's law firm represented businesses that have substantial interests in decisions by the government of the City and County of San Francisco. Are any of them now clients of Christensen, Miller? Are the legal fees they pay to Christensen, Miller a direct or indirect source of mayoral income or savings?

In other words, when Christensen, Miller, etc. bought Willie Brown's law firm, what, exactly, did the Los Angeles firm purchase?

Until and unless the mayor provides credible information about all the financial and other terms of his relationship with Christensen, Miller, etc., a reasonable person could be forgiven for suspecting the worst, just because the situation appears so ugly.

And what is the worst?
I need to state things baldly here: On the basis of appearance and public record, and in the face of continuing mayoral silence, a reasonable person could well wonder whether Willie Brown is obtaining financial benefit -- direct or indirect -- from the legal fees clients are paying to Christensen, Miller, even as the mayor is making official decisions that benefit those same clients.

In other words, a reasonable person could wonder whether our mayor is, right out in the open, in an extraordinarily bare-faced way, using his public office for personal financial benefit.

Contracts. Bank records. Phone logs. Affidavits.
When appearances are this bad and aromas this thick, even a slick and stylish Willie has to provide proof, if he is to expect a clearing of the air or an avoidance of official investigation.

John Mecklin (jmecklin@sfweekly.com) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,

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