There is nothing inherently improper about this relationship. But Reuben & Alter is a registered lobbyist at City Hall and regularly represents clients before the Board of Appeals. And R&A name partner James Reuben and John McInerney are, in the parlance of Southern states, "bubbas." They are also tightly woven into the city's political establishment.

For most of the 1980s, McInerney served as a board member of the Residential Builders Association, an organization headed up by Joe O'Donoghue, a politically powerful City Hall lobbyist who has a deep base of support in the Irish-American community. The RBA donates tens of thousands of dollars to state and local politicians each year.

James Reuben has done campaign finance legal work for Mayors Frank Jordan and Willie Brown. Reuben represents the San Francisco 49ers. He is also good friends with Jack Davis, Mayor Brown's campaign manager, a point he made clear to me, apropos of nothing, when I interviewed him for this column.

While McInerney was negotiating the terms of affiliating with Reuben & Alter in late 1997, the firm was lobbying him on behalf of two clients with cases before the Board of Appeals. McInerney voted for the interests of the Reuben & Alter clients in both cases.

Then, in July of last year, McInerney announced that he was "of counsel" to Reuben & Alter, and that he would be recusing himself from hearing or voting on the firm's cases before the appeals board, as a way of avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest.

But, gosh, McInerney had a strange way of addressing ethical concerns.
Public documents show that Reuben & Alter lobbied its "of counsel" affiliate on three building-permit votes. In each of those cases, the Board of Appeals was dealing with a client represented by both Reuben & Alter and McInerney -- RAM Development Inc., an RBA member and a prominent builder of live-work units in San Francisco. (McInerney says he draws up condominium covenants for RAM projects; Reuben & Alter does general real estate law and government relations work for the corporation.)

Some of these lobbying registration documents are quite specific. In one case, they show that a Reuben & Alter attorney directly lobbied McInerney on a matter to be heard by the Board of Appeals.

McInerney says he was not lobbied by Reuben & Alter on the RAM Development Inc. projects. He said in an interview that since he and Reuben & Alter share RAM as a client, Reuben simply let him know the case was coming to the Board of Appeals. "The conversation had nothing to do with the vote," McInerney said.

But the object of lobbying, after all, is to obtain a favorable ruling by government for your client. And the documents Reuben & Alter filed with the Ethics Commission are meant to report lobbying, not passing conversations. And those documents, therefore, raise real questions:

Why would Reuben & Alter lobby McInerney, if he could not influence the outcome of the matter?

Even if he abstained from the final vote on the issue, could he not influence his fellow commissioners?

Or are Reuben & Alter lobbyists so stupid that they 1) file lobbying reports when no lobbying has occurred, and 2) lobby public officials who can provide clients with no assistance whatsoever?

These three recusals seem, to me, more like moral fig leafs than ethics at work. And at least once, McInerney didn't recuse himself from a Reuben & Alter-related case, until challenged about conflict of interest.

In August 1998, a woman named Sue Cauthen went before the Board of Appeals trying to get a decision of the city's zoning administrator, Robert Passmore, overturned. Cauthen had complained that a restaurant in her neighborhood stayed open later than zoning laws allowed; Passmore ruled in favor of the restaurant, a client of Reuben & Alter, and Cauthen took her case to the Board of Appeals.

She and her attorney, Steve Williams, were late; the hearing was over when they got there. On arriving, they discovered that McInerney had sat in on the hearing and voted against Cauthen. Williams complained, noting that McInerney had a conflict of interest.

McInerney explained to Williams and his client that he could indeed vote on the matter because Cauthen was appealing Passmore's ruling, and the restaurant (the Reuben & Alter client) was not a party to the action. Williams calls this reasoning "weasel-y." He says McInerney was still voting on behalf of the financial interests of the Reuben & Alter client, who, in legal parlance, would be considered "a real party in interest."

Williams asked for a pro forma three-minute re-hearing of the case. McInerney recused himself at Williams' request. The board deadlocked and, as a result, the appeal by Cauthen failed.

Reuben & Alter, and the restaurateur the firm represented, prevailed.

When McInerney left Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe late in 1997, he did so to take an equally prestigious job -- managing partner at TRI Coldwell Banker, one of the biggest real estate firms in the country. But he still wanted to keep making money from his law clients. (According to the limited disclosure required by the city, he makes more than $10,000 a year from his law clients.)

It is very simple: McInerney wanted to make a career move to TRI Coldwell Banker and keep his hand in the law, where he makes good money. Reuben & Alter made this possible.

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