What did Supervisor Mark Farrell know and when did he know it? That's the question before the city's Ethics Commission — and it's one Mayor Ed Lee's ally prefers to let his attorney and spokesman answer.
The trouble started in 2010, when Chris Lee, then a consultant with Farrell's first bid for the District 2 seat, launched an independent expenditure committee (or IE, the local version of a Super PAC) called Common Sense Voters. By law, a candidate's main campaign can't coordinate with IEs, but Lee did and banked hefty donations in the process: $141,000 from real estate magnate Thomas Coates, and $50,000 from Pacific Heights socialite Dede Wilsey. On Election Day, Farrell won in a squeaker over Janet Reilly by a scant 258 votes.
Reilly smelled a rat and asked the California Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate. The FPPC found Lee guilty of illegally coordinating with both campaigns and assessed a $14,500 fine. However, there was nothing to suggest Farrell had authorized Lee's extracurricular fundraising.
But according to city law, candidates are responsible for their campaign committees, which, per the FPPC's ruling, Common Sense Voters was. The Ethics Commission fined Farrell $191,000 — the amount the IE committee had collected.
Farrell has not only refused to pay the ethics fine, but has also refused to appear before the Ethics Commission. He's also remained mum about his involvement (or lack thereof) with Lee.
Unsurprisingly, he also refused to talk to SF Weekly, referring us instead to his spokesman, Nathan Ballard.
Ballard, a former press secretary for Mayor Gavin Newsom and now a flack for the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, calls the ethics inquiry into Farrell “frivolous” and insists Lee was a “rogue consultant” acting without the supervisor's knowledge.
But could a rogue consultant persuade donors to cut six-figure checks? That's unlikely, argues Ethics Commissioner Peter Keane, who told SF Weekly that Lee is “a minor character, some minimum-wage figure, who can't just call up people and get that kind of money.”
Common Sense Voters formed a month before Election Day in 2010, when, according to Keane, Reilly was “way ahead” in the polls. Using money from the IE committee, Farrell's underdog campaign produced “hit pieces” against his opponent — all under Farrell's watch, Keane believes.
Of course, there's no paper trail connecting Farrell to Lee's work with Common Sense Voters, but that doesn't matter. All the Ethics Commission requires is “strong circumstantial evidence” that Farrell probably knew what his consultant was up to. “We don't need a videotaped confession, “Keane says.
Nor do they need to follow the FPPC's ruling that Farrell is innocent.
Larry Bush, a longtime City Hall observer and aide for former Mayor Art Agnos, notes Farrell's case may fall outside the FPPC's jurisdiction. Prohibiting campaign contributions of more than $500 is a San Francisco law, which means a municipal agency, such as the Ethics Commission, has more authority in this case than the state-level FPPC.
Then there's the matter of a statute of limitations. Since action against Farrell wasn't considered until 2014, prominent campaign lawyer Jim Sutton, the supervisor's attorney, argues the Ethics Commission waited too long to investigate alleged wrongdoing from 2010. Keane says that argument is bogus, and that Farrell has a “continuing obligation” to report irregularities in his campaign.
Farrell appeared in person before the FCCP to defend his innocence, and Sutton has cooperated with local inquiries, says Ballard. Once the FCCP exonerated him, Farrell apparently considered the matter closed.
When pressed to explain why the self-proclaimed innocent supervisor has declined to appear before the city's Ethics Commission, Ballard says there's “no reason for Farrell to waste his time.”
Keane and Bush suggest Farrell's power as head of the Budget and Finance Committee insulates him from accountability, and the time has come for him to talk — or pay up. The Commission has asked the City Treasurer to pursue the claim, although Ballard vows Farrell and his attorney are prepared to fight the judgement all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
Keane is unimpressed. “We have an open invitation to Farrell. All he has to do is call, and we'll calendar it. Or he can just write the city a check.”