5 Corrupt Ways to Influence San Francisco Politics

“Corruption,” as anyone who followed the Supreme Court’s tortuous logic in Citizens United knows, is a nebulous concept. And San Francisco’s political system does not clarify matters. Money sloshes from corporations, industry groups, and the rich, and can easily sidestep disclosure requirements and spending limits, flowing downhill through lobbyists, ostensibly independent groups, and even city contractors.

According to the experts, much like political views, corruption is a spectrum. There are flat-out illegal acts, the most common of which is a politician or bureaucrat using his or her position for personal gain. Think of Leland Yee, the former state senator, who was convicted for taking bribes in exchange for passing legislation and greasing the wheels for phony contracts undercover feds pretended to want.

At the opposite end are activities that are, in the strictest sense, legal but can be viewed as unethical. It’s a realm where the likes of Willie Brown thrive and are the most difficult to pin down. So many legal loopholes remain in widespread use that city politicians can often avoid violating the law by simply going around it.

“They are legal,” Corey Cook, an expert on San Francisco politics, says, “but at the very least problematic.” Cook, a dean at Boise State University, is a former politics professor at the University of San Francisco.

So, in the spirit of transparency and accountability, here are a few common and less common methods officials have used to disrupt city politics, without necessarily breaking the law.

Set up an “independent” fund for a politician.

In September 1999, a federal court judge overturned what were then strict limits on campaign contributions to independent political groups — anything other than ones explicitly controlled by candidates. The ruling came just in time for Mayor Willie Brown to ramp up his re-election campaign, which he won handily.

That legal change spawned a cottage industry of independent expenditure committees trafficking soft-money donations, and transformed a tradition of inexpensive campaigns into contests costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

These committees are autonomous and do not have to respect individual donation limits for candidates, which normally cannot be more than $500. (They can also accept corporate cash, which is otherwise banned.) Technically, they cannot coordinate electioneering with candidates, but that does not mean much since they are able to openly support or oppose anyone.

Cook says indirect campaign financing gives wealthy donors substantial influence over a race. The most striking recent example was in 2012, when businessman David Lee challenged incumbent Eric Mar for supervisor in District 1. Though Mar persevered, third-party spending against him, mostly from landlord-funded political action committees and from Lee’s tech industry confidant, Ron Conway, totaled a stunning $923,962, an amount that Cook calls “absurd” for a city election.

Give a candidate soft money to throw at future ballot measures.

Another political legacy of the Willie Brown years is the rise of so-called ballot committees, which are designed to support or oppose local propositions. Because they are ostensibly independent of the campaigns, they can also take unlimited money from corporations and individuals. And a key feature is that they can be under a candidate’s control.

Some ballot committees are tied to specific measures, though one current trend is for candidates to create ongoing general-purpose entities to be unleashed in future ballot disputes.

“The people contributing to the committee are exactly the people who folks are concerned with having undue influence over politics,” Cook says.

Mayor Ed Lee, for example, maintains a ballot committee that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and doles the money out to suit his own agenda. Major funding comes from a typical cast of Lee backers, including Conway, developers such as Lennar Corp. and other real estate interests, as well as a smattering of state and local Democratic Party branches.

This structure effectively obscures the true source of donations, giving it the imprimatur of a city official. When the cash is deployed for or against a ballot measure, it looks as though it comes directly from the mayor — because the committee is called “Mayor Lee for San Francisco.”

Contribute to a government official’s charitable slush fund.

City officials often ask third parties to make cash or in-kind donations on their behalf. In 2015, Lee asked Conway and venture capital associate Lonnie Dorn to give $1 million to the Mayor’s Fund for the Homeless. And last April, District Attorney George Gascón (who ran for re-election unopposed last fall) asked the San Francisco Foundation to give the city $25,000 to temporarily hire a staff member to handle the reclassification of drug suspects following the passage of state Proposition 47.

The bottom line for these gifts, which are known as “behest payments,” is that as long as the pet project is not directly linked to a political campaign, it is legal. But such payments cannot be divorced from political influence. Substantial donations buy time, access, and influence that an ordinary citizen would have a difficult time obtaining.

Wash local campaign donations through political parties.

One of the more creative ways of getting around the $500 limit on individual donations is by running to be an officer of the Democratic County Central Committee. As with independent expenditure committees, there are no limits on contributions, allowing anyone with money to effectively spend an unlimited amount to get a favored candidate elected. After running for a position at the local Democratic Party — or the relatively feeble Republican Party — officials can simply transfer some of the money left over from their campaigns for the party seat to a new campaign for, say, supervisor or mayor.

An investigation by 48 Hills revealed that Supervisor Malia Cohen used this technique: After raising $116,700 for her 2012 race and spending only $39,588, she transferred $10,000 from her DCCC account to her 2013 re-election campaign.

Unfortunately, Republicans in the legislature enshrined this loophole into state law in 2012 by pushing through a bill — which Gov. Jerry Brown signed — that prevents local governments from limiting contribution from certain donors to partisan county committees.

Siphon off cash for city contracts.

One form of graft that is hard to track is the use of charge orders in large city projects to bleed cash from city coffers.

The mechanics are straightforward: A contractor bids on a contract with the city — say, to renovate public housing. The company then submits a “change order” saying it needs a little more money to finish a part of the job. But corruption in change orders is hard to sniff out: The technical aspects of a job can be arcane, making the details and costs subjective.

One contractor who has done business with the city says change orders often amount to a sort of bait-and-switch. Some of these siphoned funds, the source asserts, can end up going to officials who oversee contracts, or they can become donations to the campaigns of politicians who grant their appointments.

“Corruption,” as anyone who followed the Supreme Court’s tortuous logic in Citizens United knows, is a nebulous concept. And San Francisco’s political system does not clarify matters. Money sloshes from corporations, industry groups, and the rich, and can easily sidestep disclosure requirements and spending limits, flowing downhill through lobbyists, ostensibly independent groups, and even city contractors.

 

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