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The Grid 

Wednesday, Jan 29 1997
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Alioto Debtwatch
Reportedly considering a bid for city attorney this coming November, former Supervisor Angela Alioto can count on almost unsurpassed name recognition, which is coin of the realm in politics. She's also got a big piece of the rhetorical franchise for being S.F.'s heart. And, oh yeah, she's also a lawyer, though whether she's really "practicing" is open to debate.

Yet one component of credibility is lacking: money.
Alioto has so mortgaged her political future, accumulating significant debts from past races, that she may not be able to run. Maybe that's why one supporter says that Alioto might merely encourage someone else to challenge sitting City Attorney Louise Renne.

Public records show that Alioto has had a hard time raising enough money to keep pace with the expense of running a modern campaign.

According to files at the city's Department of Elections and Ethics Commission, Alioto has $405,115 in outstanding campaign debt from four different races. A good portion of the debt is owed to herself -- she made several loans to her own campaigns over the years -- but that money can be assumed to be consequently owed to others, banks and individuals who hold deeds of trust on her 2606 Pacific Ave. manse. (More on that later.) The greatest part of the debt, $247,451, has been left outstanding for more than five years, stemming from her failed bid for mayor in 1991. Smaller sums are owed to political professionals, consultants, and the like.

In many counties in California, outstanding debts turn into contributions -- like carriages into pumpkins -- after six months or so. At that point, if they exceed the local contribution limit, which falls between $150 and $500 in S.F. depending on the race, they are deemed illegal and automatically trigger fines.

But in S.F. the political watchdogs, the district attorney and the city attorney, have been feckless. Part of the blame lies with Renne, who could clear up S.F.'s murky contribution laws by proposing remedial legislation. However, given Alioto's situation, she should hardly be expected to push for any such reform herself.

The most current records show that Alioto has no fewer than five campaign accounts carrying debt from one reporting period to the next.

Her latest addition: the Alioto for Senate committee, which she opened in her losing 1996 state Senate bid against then-Assemblyman John Burton. She carries $25,143 in debt from that race.

Strangely, she even accumulated debt setting up a committee to retire debt left over from her 1992 supervisors race. She owes $96,350 from that effort. In other words, in 1995 while whittling down the debt from $8,892 to $4,900 from the supervisors race, she accrued the new $96,000-plus. (Oddities like this, as well as other questions about Alioto's finances, can only be answered by the former supervisor. And she didn't return phone messages left at her home and law office.)

Researching her mortgages at the county Recorder's Office provides a clue as to where she gets the loans she makes to her campaigns. Records suggest that they begin as bank loans, secured with deeds on her property.

For example, in August 1991, the same month she declared her candidacy for mayor in a sunny ceremony in Washington Square Park, Alioto borrowed $250,000 from San Francisco Federal Savings & Loan. Her campaign account for that race shows almost the same amount in loans made to herself.

One thing is fairly clear, however. If she wanted to finance her campaign for city attorney with bank loans, using her houses as collateral, the well seems pretty much dry.

Records show that she is currently carrying three mortgages on her S.F. house. (Oddly, Alioto failed to list the dollar amount of two of the three loans in officeholder disclosure statements, as required by law.) And after churning mortgages totaling close to $1 million on her Santa Clara County home between the mid-'80s and 1994, Alioto sold the house in January 1995, according to a grant deed on file at the Santa Clara County Recorder's Office.

It should be noted that Alioto does make an effort to chip away at her debts. Her campaign accounts show a slow decline in the accrued expenses category. And Recorder's Office records show she keeps pace with bank loans in the same manner.

However, those records also show a remarkable timing between loans retired and new loans received, sometimes involving the same bank.

In 1990, for instance, Alioto borrowed $100,000 from San Francisco Federal. Nine months later, she paid off that loan. But on the same day, she borrowed $150,000 more from the same bank. That loan was subsequently sold to another bank, Beneficial Management Corp. of America, and Alioto paid it off in September 1991, one month after borrowing the quarter-mil from San Francisco Federal. (Whew! Busy, busy.)

Similarly, in Santa Clara, the money raised off her property, located in the town of Monte Sereno (just outside Los Gatos), was sometimes borrowed shortly before another debt was paid off.

In January 1993, Alioto borrowed $200,000 through American Funding Source, a loan broker. The money was used to help pay off a loan from Pacific Bank, which had come due the previous year. The same month she dipped into America's Funding Source, she paid off the loan completely -- with a $325,000 loan from a family trust. (Anyone see a pattern here?)

In June, she borrowed more, using the same property as collateral, this time from one Robert D. Philputt. She secured yet another loan with the property in 1994.

Between 1993 and 1995, when Alioto sold the house, many of these loans were retired. But this intricate filigree of borrowing had to end sometime, and it appears it took the sale of the house for Alioto to finally pay off at least some of her creditors.

She sold the Monte Sereno property on Jan. 3, 1995, and paid off a loan from California National Bank 15 days later.

It's hard to say how much Alioto still owes to her campaign accounts and financial institutions. Her political memoir, due out in April, may help end her long history of indebtedness -- though it's hard to imagine the thing topping the New York Times best seller list.

In the end, short of "The Grid" sitting down with Alioto and scrutinizing her finances (uh, unlikely at best), the only sure gauge of her solvency may be her willingness to jump into the city attorney's race.

George Cothran (gcothran@sfweekly.com) and Chuck Finnie (cfinnie@sfweekly.com) welcome tips, suggestions, and innuendo. Complaints, however, can be sent to SF Weekly, Attn: The Grid, 425 Brannan, San Francisco,

About The Authors

George Cothran

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