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How to Lie, Cheat, and Steal Your Way to Influence at City Hall -- Legally 

Wednesday, Jul 5 1995
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Let the Candidate Owe You San Francisco law caps campaign contributions at $500 from any one individual, business, or political action committee. You can also only make an "in-kind" contribution up to $500 in goods or services to a campaign. Here's the trick: Send your candidate a bill, and then don't collect! Do this for any amount -- tens and tens of thousands of dollars, if you want. Own a hotel and want to let your pal use the ballroom for a fund-raiser? Bill him and forget it. Own a printing plant and want to provide brochures for a candidate who can't afford them? Print them and file the bill in the bottom drawer. In other jurisdictions, "accrued" bills convert to contributions -- which face the limits -- within 30 days. But not here -- and more than one elected city official has ended up "owing" someone when the campaign was over. Bonus points: You can even write your "uncollected" bills off your business taxes as a bad debt, something you can't do with a political contribution.

Produce a "For-Pay" Slate Card In the last election, politicos Robert Barnes and Clint Reilly were among the half-dozen individuals and organizations to create and mail slate cards that endorsed specific candidates -- in some cases, for a cash payment. Barnes, whose enmity for fellow gay Tom Ammiano may stem from the drubbing Ammiano meted out to Barnes in a school board election, didn't invite Ammiano onto his for-pay slate card, saying he knew Ammiano didn't have the money. Then Barnes went ahead and placed Carole Migden, Susan Leal, and Mabel Teng on his card -- for free. Since state law exempts for-pay slate cards from the in-kind contribution rules, Barnes was well within his rights. After receiving a free ride, Migden helped Barnes get a $1,750 contract from the Democratic Central Committee, where Migden stands guard à la Leona Helmsley.

Donate to the Nonprofit That Backs Your Favorite City Official Mayors Feinstein, Agnos, and Jordan have all accepted Sister City Committee financing for their trips to one of San Francisco's dozen sibling metropolises. Because their books are closed, nobody knows who paid their way -- but you can bet the mayors have been told sotto voce by their contributors that those same contributors helped pay for the trips. Bonus points: There's no limit to what you can give, it's all tax-deductible, and the mayor needn't report this as income or a gift from you. The Host Committee, which strokes the foreign counselor corps, is another place to deposit your check. According to Dick Goldman, chair of the Host Committee and Jordan's chief of protocol, that committee helped cover some of Frank and Wendy's recent trip to Vietnam.

Run a Voter-Registration Drive There are no limits to spending on voter registration, so hire bounty hunters to station themselves in neighborhoods that are likely to contain unregistered voters who will support your candidate or issue. This can earn you a twofer: If your man-in-the-street registers as a Republican or a Democrat, those parties usually reimburse the bounty hunter up to $2 per registered voter. (Special-interest ballot initiatives will contract with your voter-registration effort, too.)

This can be a lucrative business, and there's not much risk. In 1991, the Rev. Clay Shaw ran a "Voter Education Project" that paid him more than $10,000. Jordan took note of Shaw's effort and named him a Housing Authority Commissioner. Investigators later determined that 30 of the registrations were signed by the same hand, indicating potential fraud. But not to worry; the DA couldn't determine who was responsible and never prosecuted.

Invite a City Official to Serve on Your Board of Directors The city's nonprofit institutions are a modern version of the smoke-filled room. City officials are happy to serve on boards because it brings them into proximity with deep-pocketed contributors; the nonprofits, such as the Jewish Museum, love the arrangement because it provides them political juice. In 1993, the Jewish Museum wanted a prime piece of Redevelopment Agency property for its new facility, and its treasurer was Kent Sims, Jordan's business/economic czar. Sims sat in on the Redevelopment Agency's closed-door discussion of whether Redevelopment land should be given to the Jewish Museum -- but didn't mention that he was the treasurer of the museum. Guess who got a new piece of city property sans cost?

Contribute to a State Party Candidate's Campaign This is an excellent way to influence an elected official: No reports are filed on these campaigns, and there are no spending limits at all on funds raised or spent for campaigns that take place among convention delegates. Give early, and give often.

Exploit Term Limits In the November 1996 election, four of the six incumbent supervisors will be barred from seeking re-election. Two of them, Supervisors Carole Migden and Kevin Shelley, have already announced for the State Assembly and formed committees that will accept your contribution today -- even though neither has an opponent. If there is an issue before the board that you want to influence, try writing the Migden or Shelley campaigns as big a check as you want (there are no contribution limits for state offices). Last year, lame-duck Supervisor Bill Maher's Assembly campaign committee collected nearly $150,000 in his last three months in office. An appreciable portion came in contributions of $5,000 or more -- sometimes from companies that just happened to have issues before the Board of Supervisors at the time (like the real estate transfer tax vote).

Find a Friendly Nonprofit (or Start Your Own) Then give money to it to publicize the ballot issue you favor. Motorola did this in 1993, giving $5,000 to the San Francisco Taxpayers Association, which in turn mailed an endorsement list of ballot measures that included a $40 million bond measure to build a communications system -- rigged to make Motorola the sole-source contractor. Motorola declared its contributions a charitable deduction, the ballot measure passed, and Motorola won the contract.

Fund a Referendum or Initiative Campaign There is no limit on how much money you can spend, and nobody knows who is paying the bills until after the measure qualifies for the ballot. If you're an employee of the measure, go ahead and pay yourself as much as you like.

Hire the Relative -- or Lover -- of a City Official City officials must report the income of and the property held by their spouses, but not their lovers. Hire the lover of a city official and exert your influence through the bedroom. Since we all want equality, San Francisco could change its disclosure form to include domestic partners, but no one -- including a supervisor with a domestic partner -- has suggested such an amendment.

Relatives are a little trickier, but only if they're legal dependents. Shortly after Frank Jordan Jr. was admitted into the hard-to-enter Plumbers Union apprentice program, the head of the union was appointed to the Airport Commission (where new contracts are coming up). Jordan doesn't have to report the arrangement, and neither do the plumbers.

The $99 Special Establish a political action committee and be careful to solicit contributions of $99 or less to beat the $100 contribution disclosure law. A similar effort by Supervisor Bill Maher in 1992 netted his committee over $14,000 for a mailer that helped defeat Supervisor Jim Gonzalez and elected Supervisor Barbara Kaufman. All but two of the contributors gave less than $100, providing them anonymity in case anyone wanted to retaliate.

Steal Free Newspapers That Oppose You Although it is against the law to destroy campaign signs in San Francisco, District Attorney Arlo Smith has ruled it isn't a crime in S.F. to pinch whole stacks of free newspapers -- even though Berkeley officials cite the same California law in their determination that it is unlawful. (Former Police Chief Richard Hongisto nearly perfected this form of legal thievery; his mistake was to assign police officers on duty to pull the papers, which resulted in his dismissal.) A new law has been proposed by Smith, with Supervisor Shelley's support, to criminalize such thefts, but it only punishes newspaper recyclers. If you just want to burn the damn things, it may prove to be no hitch under the proposed law.

Contribute Late in the Campaign Hold off until the last 10 days of the campaign -- when every candidate is desperate to cut a deal. The state requires all large contributions made in the last 10 days of the campaign be reported within 24 hours, but because the state cutoff is $1,000 and the limit in San Francisco for candidates is $500, this rule doesn't apply.

Hire a City Official to Work for You Outside the City Limits Under the law, city officials need only report income earned in San Francisco or from San Francisco businesses.

Donate Professional Services to an Officeholder Are you an interior decorator? Graphic artist? Political consultant? Investment banker? You can donate personal or professional services (free maid service?) so long as you aren't paying someone else to do the work. This is great for accountants (let's just check on those investments, shall we?), auto mechanics, writers, and others whose product isn't tangible.

So You Want to Be a San Francisco Commissioner The only problem is that you live in Marin, and the city charter says you have to be a San Francisco "elector" in order to be named to a city post. It's actually not a problem anymore. City Attorney Louise Renne ruled last year that Jan Zivic, registered to vote in Napa County (and with a homeowner's exemption there), was legally sworn in to the San Francisco Library Commission. An "elector," Renne decided, meant only that you were eligible to vote.

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Larry Bush

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