Bundles of Joy: City Lobbyists Eat Fundraising Rules for Breakfast

An invitation for breakfast or a cocktail is always welcome. But less so when a contribution of $250 is mandated to earn the title of “friend.”

In San Francisco, however, affection is one more commodity to be bought and sold. That's certainly the case during fundraising events in which the breakfast, drinks, or “friendship” are incidental to the fundraising.

Last month, San Francisco politicos were hit up for invitations to two such happenings, boosting the campaign war chests of incumbent supervisors Jane Kim and Norman Yee. Fundraising for re-election was described to SF Weekly as “gauche” by political insiders — but fundraising is not exactly a subtle art. Raising eyebrows, rather, was that the invitations were sent directly from lobbying firm Platinum Advisors and required an RSVP to a Platinum Advisers employee — who'll handle your check and seating arrangements. Lobbyists' individual donations are capped at $500 per candidate and must be reported to the Ethics Commission. But, via gatherings like those held for Kim and Yee, lobbyists can bundle vastly more cash and direct it to the candidate or committee of their choosing.

This, too, may qualify as gauche. But it's hardly illegal. In this city, lobbyists have free rein to hit up — or perhaps demand — friends, clients, and the world writ large for money, amass it in a big pile, and bestow it upon favored ends.

So long as it's reported.

While that surprised even longtime San Francisco politicos, it didn't startle good-government activist Charles Marsteller. He recalled one of the city's more powerful lobbyists long ago making a practice of randomly leaning on clients for $500 checks made out to someone else, which would then be placed in envelopes and delivered to various candidates or committees. “And then that would be disclosed in her report,” he says. “It's free speech. She was being honest about it. That's what it takes to do business in this town.”

City ethics codes in fact allow leeway for bundling that makes a mockery of quaint fundraising prohibitions. City contractors, for example, are barred from making political contributions to the officials who decide upon their contracts — but can fundraise far and wide, bundle those offerings, and hand them to the same officials.

Rule changes proposed by Supervisor David Chiu and City Attorney Dennis Herrera wouldn't much alter lobbyists' lives. They could continue to extract and distribute funds — but not without maintaining records of ephemera such as “copies of all invitations sent by the lobbyist for fundraising events.”

That'll show 'em.

View Comments