Sometimes, it's just sitting there, right out in the open.
During each of his first two years in office, Mayor Willie Brown was paid more than $10,000 by the L.A. powerhouse law firm of Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro. That indeterminate sum is described in public records as part of the price Christensen, Miller paid to acquire the mayor's old law firm.
During much of that same two-year period, a partner in Christensen, Miller, etc. (previously known as Christensen, White, etc.) lobbied city agencies on behalf of clients seeking city work.
In other words, companies chasing city business paid a law firm, while the mayor, who has no small influence over who gets city business, was receiving unspecified (but large) amounts of money from the same law firm.
Warning: Interpretations of this situation could vary.
The payments to the mayor could, for example, be entirely unconnected to who got which city contract. Under this interpretation, the mayor would absolutely not be using his official position for personal profit. He would just be making the astoundingly stupid mistake of letting himself look like a bare-faced influence-peddler.
Then again, the payments to the mayor could be -- well -- evidence of extreme official misconduct. You know, quid pro quo, directed by the mayor: Mayor gives our clients city contract. Clients pay us. We pay mayor.
At this point, I can't say with certainty whether one of the above explanations, or some other, completely benign account, best fits the situation.
But I can say that Willie Brown owes San Francisco a detailed, credible explanation. And when I use the words "credible" and "Willie Brown" in the same sentence, I mean the kind of documentation lawyers rely on in court.
Contracts. Bank records. Phone logs. Affidavits.
Yes, Willie, it really does look that bad. And no, Willie, there's nothing slick about it.
Willie Brown's relationship with Christensen, White/Miller has been questioned on ethical grounds for years. After the July 1994 announcement that then-Assembly Speaker Brown would join the firm in an "of counsel" role (i.e., that he would be an adviser to, rather than a full partner in, the firm), and that his San Francisco law firm would be "merged" into Christensen, White's new San Francisco office, eyebrows rose.
"Interests with business in front of the state might become clients of the firm to get special treatment," the state director of Common Cause worried with no small degree of understatement.
When Brown was term-limited out of Sacramento and into the San Francisco Mayor's Office, he ran smack into a provision of the city charter barring a mayor from outside employment. So Brown sold his law firm. Apparently.
The mayor has not been particularly open about the sale. In one of the great comic passages in recent San Francisco journalism, the Examiner's Lance Williams revealed the supposed divestiture this way, in the summer of 1996, some eight months after Brown had become mayor:
When queried Friday, spokesman P.J. Johnston huddled with the mayor, then repeatedly denied that Brown had sold the law firm, calling the idea "completely unrelated to reality."
"There was no sale and there is no sale," he said in a phone interview. "It's just simply ridiculous."
When told Brown had testified under oath in a July 2 deposition that he had sold the firm, Johnston said he would check further. Later, mayoral Press Secretary Kandace Bender confirmed that Brown had indeed sold the firm.
Back then, the Examiner paraphrased a spokesman for the First Amendment Coalition as saying that "the voters' chief concern should be ensuring that Brown has no continuing financial interest [emphasis mine] in Christensen, White, a buy-back deal allowing the mayor to repurchase his firm when he leaves office, for example."
It is relatively easy to understand why Brown, or any mayor, should be completely divorced from ownership of a law firm: If a mayor owned a law firm, he and/or his men might be tempted to make official decisions that favored clients of that firm. And businesses attempting to gain city work might feel -- or be -- pressured to retain the mayor's firm (at, shall we hypothesize, above-market rates) as a precondition to obtaining city contracts.
In short, secretly bribing the mayor would be easy to do. You would overpay his law firm by, say, 20 or 30 grand. Presto chango, one midsize city contract or approval, direct to your doorstep.
Back in mid-1996, spokesmen for Mayor Brown were unable to explain the terms of the sale of his law firm to Christensen, White, etc. This week, a Christensen, Miller representative did not return my phone calls, and mayoral spokeswoman Kandace Bender revealed few new details about the sale of Brown's law firm. When asked Monday whether the mayor would release the contract for the sale, Bender said, "No, it's a private transaction."
Bender said she didn't know how much the mayor would be paid overall for his firm, or how long the payout will take. "But," she said, "he'll report it as he needs to report it."
So far, though, the information Brown has "needed" to report raises questions, rather than answering them.
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.