Tilting at Political Windmills

Some people, like attorney Paul Melbostad, just don't know when to quit. Bully for him.

There are attorneys who, after impoverishing and humiliating a prominent client, aggrandizing a sworn enemy, and spending $19,000 out of their own pocket to help pay for the whole mess, might call it a day and move along to other projects.

Paul Melbostad, however, is not that type of attorney.

Melbostad is the San Francisco general legal practitioner who in 2004 represented Gerardo Sandoval pro bono in a lawsuit against Gap Inc. founder Don Fisher and political consigliere Jim Sutton, alleging campaign finance violations. A judge threw the case out under a state law discouraging lawsuits that might limit free speech, known in the legal profession as "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation," or SLAPPs. The judge also ordered Sandoval to pay his opponents' attorneys' fees. Sandoval appealed. The appeal was rejected. The San Francisco supervisor's total bill came to nearly $100,000, including $20,000 for a white-shoe lawyer to come in late in the day to clean up the fiasco, which, as it happens, is about the same amount Melbostad paid from his own money as recompense for the failed legal work.

"I felt that I had encouraged him to pursue this action, and I wanted to assist him in paying the fees," says Melbostad, former head of the S.F. Ethics Commission, which monitors campaign finance.

This debacle left Melbostad undeterred, however.

In October, he sent a letter to City Attorney Dennis Herrera urging him to prosecute the defendants in Sandoval's suit. Herrera declined.

And on Dec. 23 Melbostad was at it again, filing a lawsuit against Sutton and Fisher claiming, just as he had previously, that Sutton helped launder Fisher's campaign contributions as part of an allegedly illegal attempt to route money in support of Sandoval's 2004 Board of Supervisors election opponent.

"We've seen the complaint, and as far as I can tell, it's the same claims that the judge rejected last November, and then that another judge rejected in late April, and which the city attorney chose not to pursue," says Sutton. "As far as we can tell it's his fourth attempt at making these claims. And they still don't have any merit."

The new suit has been reworded so that -- Melbostad hopes -- it won't be thrown out of court, and, even if he loses, the plaintiff won't have to pay the defendants' legal bills as happened with the 2004 case.

Sutton says Melbostad's attempt to correct the errors of the original suit ignores a judge's preliminary ruling that Sandoval hadn't produced clear evidence that campaign finance law had been violated.

Melbostad's relentlessness tempts me to think: "Doesn't this loser know when to quit? Hasn't he done enough harm already? Doesn't he know that this sort of blind zealotry is responsible for half the problems in the world?"

But another cranial chorus drowns those thoughts. It says: "This guy's got balls the size of grapefruits." And, "Damn. Wouldn't it be cool if he got up, scraped the mud and blood off his face, and somehow beat the campaign finance sharpies who make San Francisco a less democratic place?"

Sometime during Sandoval's fall 2004 campaign to retain his Board of Supervisors seat representing the Outer Excelsior neighborhood's 11th District, mailboxes began filling with fliers festooned with swastikas, equating a remark Sandoval had previously made about bar mitzvahs with Nazism. Sandoval traced the anonymous mailings to a company connected to a consultant at the time working on a committee to oppose that year's Proposition F, which would have allowed illegal immigrants to vote in school board elections. Sutton was the committee's treasurer. To Sandoval's mind, the fliers were designed to benefit his opponent in the Board of Supervisors race, a real estate saleswoman named Myra Lim, and were an improper use of campaign funds that, Sandoval and Melbostad believe, violated city law.

Sandoval got the idea of suing, and was egged on by Melbostad. Melbostad had a particular motivation to try a case like this. Not only had he served on the Ethics Commission, he had also helped author Proposition O, passed on the fall 2000 San Francisco ballot, which prohibits using money slated for one political campaign on another.

Though set up to oppose the immigrant measure, Melbostad believes, the committee focused its firepower on the Sandoval-Lim race.

For Melbostad, this supposed redirecting of campaign money was tantamount to money laundering. He believed he could give his 2000 campaign finance law its first courtroom tryout. What's more, Melbostad would get to battle his old nemesis Jim Sutton.

"I was one of the primary persons on the Ethics Commission who was a constant, I would say, thorn in his side regarding his efforts to get away with schemes to avoid the law," Melbostad says. "What Sutton specializes in is concocting schemes to try to launder contributions in such a way that enforcement action won't be taken, and it takes someone very savvy like myself to see that it's obviously a scheme to evade -- I shouldn't say evade, it's to avoid enforcement of the law."

In response to Melbostad's allegations that he broke the law, Sutton again notes that these allegations were thrown out of court, failed on appeal, and that the city attorney declined a request to address them.

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