Nonprofit with Wall Street Connections Pays for a Lot of City Treasurer’s Travel

Public bank advocates question nonprofit’s ties to big banks.

San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros / Courtesy photo

City treasurer is a position people don’t think about much.

Members of one organization have been thinking about San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros quite a bit, however.

Cisneros, running unopposed this November, travels a lot. In fact, among all San Francisco elected officials in recent years, Cisneros takes the cake in travel paid by someone else — largely coming from one group with connections to Wall Street as San Francisco explores establishing a public bank. When a public official travels on someone else’s dime, they have to file a disclosure with the Ethics Commission. This public official travel data has been collected since 2007.

Since March 2015, Cisneros has made 46 travel disclosures, some being amendments, as he travels around the country — twice the amount of the next most disclosures by a San Francisco official (District Attorney George Gascón has 23). Mayor London Breed has the third most disclosures with 10.

Even more interesting than the total number of disclosures is who’s paying for them.

More than a quarter of Cisneros’ trip filings (12) have been paid for by the nonprofit Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund. That’s four times the number of the next highest number of trips by an official paid for by the same entity.

Cisneros co-founded the nonprofit in 2008 with then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the beginning of the recession with the goal of getting cities more involved in the financial stability of their residents. The theory behind the organization was that cities would help their residents become more financially stable through initiatives like banking the unbanked and preventing predatory practices. It now has 16 coalition members and dozens of associated financial empowerment projects across the country.

Part of the coalition’s network includes San Francisco’s Office of Financial Empowerment with programs to connect residents to banks, provide financial coaching, educate youth on finance, and even universal child savings.

“I’m proud of the work we’ve done around financial empowerment,” Cisneros tells SF Weekly. “I’m often asked to speak at conferences and to engage in the CFE Fund and Coalition. I’m excited that other cities and localities are interested and eager to do that work as well.”

Not all agree with CFE Fund’s mission. Jackie Fielder of the activist-run San Francisco Public Bank Coalition also wants to see payday lenders out of business but says aspects like the Bank On program merely replaces “one financial abuser for another.” CFE Fund’s funding partners are big financial institutions like Bank of America, Capital One, Wells Fargo, Visa, Deutsche Bank, and JPMorgan Chase. The Bank On initiative, which is part of the city’s Office of Financial Empowerment programming, helps low-income residents sign up for accounts at places like Bank of America. Cisneros kicked Wells Fargo out of the program in 2016 after news emerged of its fake accounts.

“CFE finds thousands of new customers for these big banks through the Bank On programs that Treasurer Cisneros has spread throughout the country on San Francisco taxpayer’s dollar,” Fielder says. “Seeing that Wall Street banks are flying Treasurer Cisneros around the country to find them new customers and boost their public image, it does not surprise me that he has been skeptical of a public bank for the public good.”

A Municipal Bank Feasibility Task Force convened by former Supervisor Malia Cohen in 2017 has explored public banking options for the city. Instead of leaving the city’s $12 billion budget in the hands of big, commercial banks with a track record of investing in immigrant detention centers and oil, the idea of a public bank is to invest in local issues like affordable housing, small businesses, and student loans. The Bank of North Dakota, which opened in 1919, successfully manages the state’s funds and kept credit flowing where big banks had little during the 2008 financial crisis, according to a San Francisco 2017 policy analyst report.

All throughout the task force meetings, public banking advocates like Fielder have questioned how invested his office has been considering his minimal public involvement and slow-moving process. Cisneros declined to share his thoughts on a public bank, leaving how to spend the city’s money to supervisors and Breed. But the Treasurer’s Office was criticized by the Public Bank Coalition and supervisors alike for not thinking ambitiously enough in its initial report about public banking options that seemed to shy away from a full-fledged bank.

“It’s hard to make a direct connection on those things,” Jon Golinger, a San Francisco political consultant, tells SF Weekly about the Wall Street link and Cisneros’ perceived investment in the public bank venture. “Maybe he’s not standing in the way of it. He has been lukewarm.”

The connection between CFE Fund and big banks isn’t just in funding. Naomi Gendler Camper sits on the CFE Fund Board of Directors with Cisneros and leads policy with the American Bankers Association, whose California arm led the defeat of Los Angeles’ November ballot measure to establish a public bank.

But Cisneros says he keeps the two separate and is proud of the task force and the final report his office put together based on those meetings.

“We’ve been really faithful to their work,” Cisneros said of the task force. “I’ve never had a conversation with anybody at the CFE Fund about public bank matters. There’s absolutely no connection to any of those things.”

With Cisneros running unopposed, public bank advocates don’t have flexibility in choosing someone else to oversee the process. But it’s not just in his hands — San Francisco’s Assemblymember David Chiu authored Assembly Bill 857, which is making its way through the California Legislature to allow cities like San Francisco to establish their own bank. The California Bankers Association, again, provided input calling such ventures “misguided.”

A hearing on the report will soon come before the Board of Supervisors, which unanimously approved a resolution in April supporting the bill. Creating a public bank is endorsed by several San Francisco Democratic clubs, the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Northern California chapter of the California Nurses Association, and other local groups.

“A bank owned by the City and County of San Francisco would allow the City to have more local control, transparency, self-determination, and allow us to move in a direction to achieve sustainable community investments such as affordable housing, small business development, loans to low-income households, public transit, infrastructure, renewable energy,” the resolution reads.

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