The High Life

Breathing in sleaziness at the rarefied and urbane levels of San Francisco political life

Just Dandy

If I owned spats and a gold-tipped walking stick, I'd have been wearing them Dec. 9. My day's schedule included a 9 a.m. meeting with Louise Renne, the former San Francisco city attorney who now sits on the city's Police Commission and on the board of Laguna Honda Hospital for the Aged With Politically Connected Offspring. She had called and asked to meet me over coffee, and I felt in an uptown frame of mind.

A private law firm she recently established, called the Public Law Group, Renne Sloan Holtzman & Sakai LLP, had filed a suit alleging financial abuse of the elderly by certain insurance brokers, some of whom I had written about in great detail. The case's allegations contained factual misstatements in some places and substituted speculative generalizations for actual evidence in others.

But incomplete legwork wasn't why I was excited to see Renne. I was simply keen to meet the S.F. Democratic Party insider known among her critics as Willie Brown's lawyer, the city attorney who didn't make a single important ethics case affecting the activities of Brown during his 1990s mayoral reign over San Francisco. That era, you will recall, launched San Francisco into the ranks of Chicago and New Orleans in the areas of patronage and allegations of corruption. The idea of sharing coffee with the living vestiges of a modern Tammany Hall seemed to me sort of, well, urbane.

When she arrived at Peet's Coffee at the Ferry Building, Renne exuded the same charm and forcefulness that news accounts give her credit for, smiling here, flattering there, while maintaining an unerring sense of purpose amid even the lightest banter. The problem was that I couldn't figure out the purpose of the meeting. After about 20 minutes of my becoming curiouser by the minute as to why, exactly, she had wanted to meet with me, she finally cut to the chase.

Renne wanted to pay me to be a part-time investigator on her insurance-broker lawsuit, apparently to benefit from knowledge I'd gained while looking into the situation as a journalist. In that moment, she made it clear why her stint as city attorney was tinged with a vague hue of sleaze that seemed so similar to the one that surrounded her political ally Willie Brown.

Had I accepted her offer, I would have been taking money from a public figure active in the very areas that I routinely cover. In the journalistic world, this is a fairly obvious no-no, a case of accepting a financial benefit from a source and, potentially, a public personage I might have reason to write about.

Such a conflict of interest would have undermined much of my coverage of San Francisco. This includes the current mayoral administration, whose transition team Renne headed; the SFPD, over which she's a commissioner; and the ongoing hangover from the public-integrity problem known as Willie Brown, who counted Renne as a political and bureaucratic ally. The list grew longer last week, as state auditors revealed scandal-plagued Secretary of State Kevin Shelley improperly diverted $220,000 in federal voting act funds to Renne's firm, which includes as a principal Jon Holtzman, the treasurer of Shelley's political campaign, and was supposed to include me as a part-time investigator and hopelessly compromised political columnist.

I have to believe Renne must have known the offer was improper: The principles surrounding conflicted interests confront most attorneys, and most all public figures, at sometime or another. I declined the offer.

"Oh, would that be seen as a conflict of interest?" she asked rhetorically, in a tone that evoked the innocence of a debutante seeing a condom for the first time.

Our conversation ended soon afterward, and over the course of that day, I think I must have washed my hands 10 times. I'd experienced the urbanity of upper-echelon San Francisco politics, and I wanted it off my skin.

Out in the Nick of Time

About a month ago, the cowboy bureaucrats at San Francisco's airport finally unloaded their contract to help run the privatized airports of Honduras, some three years after Supervisor Aaron Peskin began pressuring them to close down the crooked deal. Soon after airport officials had involuntarily rid themselves of this tawdry enterprise, one of their newly ex-associates in the Honduran airport privatization fiasco faced criminal fraud charges in connection with an unrelated deal in Trinidad. Talk about great timing.

As is often necessary when explaining the convoluted and improper dealings of San Francisco International Airport officials, I must start by backing up a bit.

Four years ago, I wrote about the activities of a group of airport officials who had improperly diverted around a million tax dollars to fund the efforts of a company set up by these airport officials to be private yet city owned. The idea behind the "private" artifice was, in theory at least, to let the city reap benefit from worldwide airport consulting by supposed experts from SFO. Because the entity was a private, for-profit firm, it also freed airport officials from having to respond to journalists' public records requests and, thus, let them do business in secret.

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