To Whine and Whine Not
It's long past time now for Mayor Willie Brown to quit huffing and puffing and mewling and whining about how unfair the news media have been to him and to begin addressing, with specificity, some of the many significant questions that have been, and are being, raised about the conduct of his administration. Deeply researched news stories, in the Weekly and other publications (notably the San Francisco Examiner), have repeatedly detailed what can reasonably be described as obscenely untoward circumstances relating to the city's contracting and regulatory processes. Among other things, the stories recount many instances in which it strongly appears that associates of the mayor, or firms with which these associates have become allied, have received special consideration while seeking city business. Taken singly, the stories are disturbing. Taken together, they are frightening, even to a realist who grew up in Chicago, and who has no illusions whatever about the amounts of grease usually found on and around the spinning gears of municipal government.
A quick and far (far) from exhaustive summary:
* Earlier this year, the Redevelopment Commission awarded the lucrative and highly sought-after rights to develop the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard to the Lennar Corp., against the recommendation of the commission's own consultant. In 1998, the Examiner reported, Lennar hired a firm, owned by multiple felon and longtime Brown associate Charlie Walker, as a "jobs broker" in regard to its shipyard bid. The commission president, who cast a deciding vote in favor of Lennar, just happens to be treasurer of one of Walker's nonprofit firms, the Ex said. In 1997, the Weekly reported, a subsidiary of Lennar paid millions of dollars for the rights to build out a section of a Sacramento-area golf course development whose owners include Willie Brown. (When the Weekly wrote about the golf course development, Mayor Brown's office declined to comment.)
* During each of Brown's first three years in office, an L.A. law firm paid the mayor "more than $10,000" to buy the private law firm Brown had long owned. (The sale stemmed from a city charter provision that forbids mayors from having outside employment.) During much of Brown's first two years as mayor, a partner in the L.A. firm lobbied city agencies on behalf of clients who were seeking (and sometimes receiving) 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. (Through a spokeswoman, the mayor declined to tell me what, exactly, the L.A. law firm purchased from him, how much it was paying, or why the purchase price is being paid out over time.)
* And, as the Weekly's George Cothran explains in this issue, a husband-and-wife team seems to have gotten enormous mileage out of its Friends of Willie status, glomming onto bids that won multimillion-dollar contracts to manage parking garages and organize taxis, buses, and vans at the city airport, and gaining what seem to be clear advantages in the competition for more millions in contracts to transport the disabled and provide the city with a long-term health care plan. (I won't give further details here, other than to say I, who am all but unshockable, was very nearly shocked by Cothran's column, which really has to be read in the original to be ... um ... enjoyed.)
An FBI investigation into many aspects of city contracting is under way. There has been no official statement that Brown is a target or subject of that inquiry; the mayor has made petulant public statements to the effect that he is not under investigation, and the news media should stop suggesting the federal investigation is aimed at him. Whether he is, is not, will be, or won't be in the cross hairs of federal law enforcers is not really the question of the day, though, for our embattled mayor or the citizens of San Francisco. Federal investigations take a long time; a mayoral election is just three months away.
The real question of this day, and every day until Nov. 2, has been raised obliquely, but repeatedly, in the many news stories written over the last three-plus years about the many occasions when favoritism seems to have trumped the public interest at San Francisco City Hall. The question is easy to ask: Has Mayor Brown used his office for personal benefit?
Proving a negative is not easy, and -- let's face facts -- many people in this city would not believe Willie Brown to be honest if God announced it on CNN. But Mayor Brown has been blessed to possess the most important of all political gifts -- luck. In an ordinary city, and an ordinary election year, when ordinary electoral opponents were present, an incumbent mayor in Willie Brown's shoes would be political toast. But this is no ordinary place or time, and Willie Brown's luck has given him opponents who fall, I am sorry to say, far, far short of ordinary.
So instead of whining about the media -- who have, if anything, been overkind to him -- the mayor should thank his lucky stars, and then start explaining in great, documented detail why the instances mentioned above (and many others) are not the corruption that they might appear to be, and how, in a second term, he would change his method of governing to thin the cloud of apparent impropriety that now surrounds City Hall. He could begin the process of re-winning some level of public trust by apologizing for consorting with Charlie Walker, a known felon. Then he might release his federal and state tax returns (something he vowed earlier this year he would do, and then never followed up on) and make public the contractual agreement under which he sold his law firm. These actions would not end the FBI investigation, or media inquisitiveness. But they would give fair-minded San Franciscans some way to decide whether they should be more afraid of the sub-ordinary, or the extraordinary goings-on that a second round of Willie Brown might bring.