City Slackers

A guide toSan Francisco political corruption -past, present, and future

The apparent motive and means were simple. And simply dirty. Help elect Frank Jordan, even if it meant violating campaign finance laws and faking signatures on checks.

James Fang, a San Francisco representative on the BART board and scion of a powerful political family, needed a way around the limit of $500 per contribution to make a $2,000 donation to Frank Jordan's 1991 mayoral campaign.

It made political sense to take the risk: Five hundred dollars buys good will, but $2,000 buys four times as much.

As a member of the Hoy-Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Association, which has several bank accounts and a political action committee, Fang had access to the money. The challenge was to make the $2,156.63 of Ning Yung money look like it came from four different sources. To make it look like it came from four different — and legal — sources.

According to documents on file at the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), here's how Fang did it: Ning Yung President Tommy Ng purchased four $500 cashier's checks from the Bank of Canton with Ning Yung money. Cashier's checks were a perfect way to conceal the source of the funds because all of them could be made out to “Frank Jordan for Mayor” and the line normally signed by the purchaser could be left blank.

Fang then obtained the checks and signed his name to one and the names of his mother, father, and brother to the remaining three. The full house of Fang checks was then delivered to Jordan's treasury.

After Jordan's election, Fang and Ng were rewarded with positions as mayoral trade czar and fire commissioner, respectively.

Then Ng screwed up. He pushed the wrong guy around — Wing Fun Wong — during an internal power struggle in Ning Yung, and Wong blew the whistle, calling in the FPPC.

After two years of investigating, the FPPC uncovered a far-ranging series of illegal campaign contributions. Ning Yung hid its hand in two ways when making contributions: It had members make donations in their own names and then reimbursed them out of Ning Yung coffers, and it used cashier's checks.

The FPPC determined that beginning in 1990, Ning Yung made $11,000 in contributions without regard for campaign finance limits. Several prominent pols, including Mabel Teng, Dick Hongisto, Tom Hsieh, and Angie Fa, unknowingly benefited from the illegal donations.

The state watchdog agency ended up charging Ning Yung with 28 counts, and Fang, who was the subject of a separate probe, with four counts of violating the Political Reform Act.

In accusing James Fang of violating the law, the FPPC went to extra pains to rebuke his actions as inconsistent with elected office.

“James Fang has been an elected government official with [campaign finance] filing responsibilities under the Political Reform Act since 1990,” the FPPC stated in documents related to the charges against Fang. “As such, he has a special responsibility to foster compliance with its provisions by himself and by others. By reason of the circumstances … James Fang failed to discharge that responsibility.”

On Nov. 4, 1994, the FPPC joined with San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith and City Attorney Louise Renne (whose campaign was the recipient of some of the questionable cash) in fining the association a whopping $42,500. For his part, Fang was fined $22,000.

It's never pleasant for a public official to be whacked by the FPPC, but Ng and Fang lucked out. Thanks to the newspaper strike, there were no headlines in the daily papers. This was especially sweet news for Fang, who three days after his fine was announced faced re-election to the BART board. Imagine how the voters would have reacted had Fang's nefarious deeds been publicized.

And there were two more reasons for Fang to smile as he wrote his checks to the FPPC. DA Smith declined to prosecute him in criminal court, and City Attorney Renne decided not to sue in civil court.

A couple of oh-so-public court cases would have dragged the nasty little business out in the light of day and led to weeks of testimony in open court. All of which would have made it rather difficult for Ng and Fang to maintain their political jobs. Instead, the whole matter was resolved relatively quietly, with Fang and the association signing what are called “stipulations,” in which they're allowed to agree to a set of facts and avoid a criminal or civil trial. Fang was not called to task by the mayor. Ng, who signed nothing at all because he wasn't found guilty of anything by the FPPC, is currently raising money for Mayor Jordan's re-election effort.

Smith's decision not to prosecute was hard for Darryl East to swallow.
“I even offered to cross-designate,” says East, the FPPC's enforcement chief and a former DA from Sacramento County. “Arlo Smith would swear one of my people in as an assistant district attorney and we would prosecute the case for him, and we were turned down.”

At the time, Smith said Fang would face only a civil charge, claiming that a criminal offense likely would only result in a diversion, an arrangement allowing the defendant to avoid a sentence and a criminal record.

But East begs to differ.
“Nobody that I know of believes [Arlo Smith's] theory would occur in their jurisdiction,” he says.

The Ning Yung case illustrates the extent to which the city's two top ethics cops decline to enforce the law. Even when they have a dead-bang case — the San Francisco Police Department crime lab confirmed that Fang faked his family members' signatures, according to police records — they tread as lightly as possible. Which just goes to show: The prevailing ethic, when it comes to San Francisco's political ethics, is circle the wagons and don't let anything too terrible happen to the kinsfolk. In this scenario, Smith and Renne are driving the lead carriages, and inside the circle, protected from the outrageous slings and arrows of the law and public uproar, are their fellow politicos. [page]

Here's how they protect their fellows: Eleven of 12 cases referred to the DA by the FPPC for further action since 1989 have not been acted on. Asked about the cases, the DA's prosecutors draw a blank. Meanwhile, Renne's batting average is impossible to calculate because, as she says, “We don't keep a list of complaints.”

The lax enforcement of ethics and campaign finance laws is so widespread, it's as if elected officials, lobbyists, and consultants seem to relish breaking, skirting, and flaunting clean-government laws — and blowing Bronx cheers at the measures. What's more, when officeholders are caught red-handed and removed from office, their fellow pols are more than willing to wink and nudge and give them a new job.

Take the case of Ben Hom. In 1993, Hom was removed from the Redevelopment Agency Commission after the mayor learned he had solicited money from companies that did business with the commission. Regardless, the Board of Supervisors unanimously appointed Hom to the equally powerful Assessment Appeals Board, which helps calculate tax bills for property owners. The board determines the tax bills of downtown property owners, among the city's biggest campaign contributors, all of whom want their tax bills lowered. Naturally, every supe who was up for election following Hom's appointment and voted for him received a campaign contribution from Hom.

Explaining their low batting averages, the DA and the city attorney say San Francisco is a relatively clean city. But Common Cause, the statewide political reform group, thinks differently, comparing S.F. to ol' Chicago, home of Al Capone and cemeteries full of active voters.

“San Francisco's politics are among the worst in the state,” says Ruth Holton, the group's executive director.

But why travel to Illinois for a measuring stick? We have our own storied history of graft, sleaze, and corruption right here. At the turn of the century, supervisors convened at the St. Francis Hotel on Sunday nights to smoke cigars, drink brandy, and trade votes for bribes with Boss Abe Ruef, the premier lobbyist and fixer of the time.

And truth be told, all that's really changed since Ruef's days are political manners. Pols have merely learned to be more careful and subtle in how to subvert the electorate, break the law, line their pockets, and pay off special interests.

They've learned every trick in the book, including how to pay lip service to reform. Listen to Frank Jordan and Willie Brown prattle on about ethics this mayoral season, throwing around their “ethics pledges” and “ethics contracts.”

Brown's 10-point blueprint for disclosing the financial interests of candidates and their partners is designed to expose conflicts of interest created by the clients of the mayor's wife, Wendy Paskin, and to create a point of attack for his campaign. Jordan's less imaginative proposal has a similar premise: exposing conflicts created by Brown's law clients.

Brown's and Jordan's proposals are nothing more than campaign confetti.
As politically motivated as it is, Brown's challenge serves as a good way of smoking out one local politician for her apparent indifference to ethics. As part of the research for this article, the Brown ethics challenge was posed to all local candidates — mayor, State Assembly and Senate, DA, and sheriff. All agreed to comply by deadline except Supervisor Carole Migden, who's seeking Brown's assembly seat in 1996.

Despite the election-year interest in full disclosure, make no mistake: Once the votes are all counted, ethics will be packed away and returned to the back shelf. Officeholders, lobbyists, and consultants will continue to engage in questionable and illegal behavior — from using their City Hall aides to run personal errands to making illegal contributions — and very little will be done about it.

Without enforcement, alleged acts of wrongdoing will continue to be deep-sixed or allowed to go unresolved from one election cycle to the next, helping lawbreakers and -benders win re-election and retain their positions of authority in the political culture.

And ultimately, all a voter can really do when he steps into the booth and punches holes in his election cards is accept the word of politicians who profess to be clean.

When James Fang was running for BART District 8 last November, his campaign literature read like a who's who of San Francisco politics. Officials right, left, and center — Frank Jordan, Willie Brown, Quentin Kopp, Nancy Pelosi, John Burton, Angela Alioto, Michael Hennessey, Terence Hallinan, and more — lined up to trumpet Fang's “integrity” and “honesty.”

Funny how San Francisco pols define those words. Going by Fang's record, the standard for probity must be low.

Ning Yung wasn't the only James Fang ethics question hovering offstage. The charges about his misleading resume — the way he listed his attendance at Hastings Law School and his status with the state bar made him appear to be a law school graduate and lawyer when he was not — were, of course, old news. But the fact that Fang had violated the California Constitution by taking a $700 airline upgrade had not yet been dismissed by the attorney general as a technical breach.

And more important, the allegations of illegal campaign contributions to Jordan's mayoral campaign race were still very much alive. Fang was accused by Common Cause in 1993 of setting up phony shell committees with the purpose of secretly funneling tens of thousands of dollars into Jordan's 1991 campaign in violation of campaign finance limits. (The case is still unresolved.)

During the race, Fang dismissed the allegations and, according to news accounts and internal DA documents, apparently continued to embroil himself in ethics controversies.

As BART was negotiating a contract with its unions, the Oakland Tribune reported in its Sept. 21, 1994, edition that “sources said [BART] directors agreed to make one or more concessions if the union agreed to endorse … Fang.” [page]

Moreover, Fang allegedly tried to buy up and presumably destroy campaign literature produced by his opponent, real estate broker Victor Makras, according to an affidavit filed with the DA's office by Peter Tangermann.

Tangermann, owner of Coronet Distribution Co., declared in his affidavit that the distributor for the Fangs' San Francisco Independent showed up at his company's loading docks with Independent trucks and offered to pay him $200 for every 1,000 pieces of Makras campaign literature. At the time, Makras had yet to pick up 50,000 campaign mailers. Independent distributor Marc Chamot denied the charges. In an interview, Fang said he'd never heard of the incident.

Makras made Fang's ethics problems an issue in the campaign, filing a complaint with the DA, the attorney general, the United States attorney, the FPPC, and the city attorney, asking them to investigate the alleged attempt to abscond with his campaign material. He even collected newspaper accounts of Fang's alleged misdeeds and distributed them in a campaign mailer.

But he couldn't turn a single ethics cop's head. And he lost the BART election.

Today, Makras still takes issue with the DA's decision not to prosecute Fang.

“The DA said that the attempt to take my literature did not constitute a bribe because the bribe was never accepted,” Makras says. “That's like saying that if you walk into a bank with a loaded gun and wave it around, but if you didn't walk away with any money, then no crime has been committed. I just don't think that's what the law contemplates.”

What irks Makras the most is the way elected officials, mostly Democrats, lined up to support Fang despite his constant brushes with the law.

“Elected officials show time and time again that ethics is very low on their priority list,” Makras says. “What's truly disturbing is that the issue is very high on the public's priority list. And unethical behavior is such a contributing factor to voter discontent.”

FPPC enforcement chief Darryl East shares Makras' belief.
“James Fang is a launderer,” says East. “That's a misdemeanor. But so is petty theft. To me, laundering is a lot more damaging to the public than a petty theft. That certainly does more harm than petty theft. But the petty thief goes to prison and the launderer does not.”

So, if fair gamesmanship and respect for the law don't count, what does?
One word: power. The Fang family has money and owns a newspaper and a printing plant. Their cash and endorsement are cherished, and their perfervid columnist Warren Hinckle is widely feared.

“James has done some sleazy things, yeah,” says a top elected official who asks not to be named. Pressed about why he endorsed Fang anyway, the official, whose smiling face graces Fang's campaign literature, says, “Simple. I didn't want to make enemies of the Fangs.”

James Fang has since departed from the Mayor's Office and has taken the editorial helm at Asian Week, one of the Fang family's publications.

“We're going to have some fun here this mayor's race,” he says, but he grows testy when his record of ethics problems comes up. He gives “no comment”s when asked about the details of the Ning Yung case. His only statement:

“The sophistication of Ning Yung was not there.”
Asked about the allegations of money laundering that serve as the heart of the Common Cause complaint, he first denies any involvement at all, then says:

“If there were mistakes, we learned from them. One of the good things about all this investigative reporting is it has made me more aware of the technicalities of the law. It has definitely raised my consciousness.”

Lance Williams hit town in the mid-'80s to take a job with the San Francisco Examiner. Muckraking in his marrow, Williams immediately hit on the kind of story that makes investigative reporters wet themselves.

The Marcos regime in the Philippines was laundering money into the campaign accounts of prominent local officials like Dianne Feinstein and Carol Ruth Silver. The scam emanated from a real estate broker who fronted for dummy corporations set up by Marcos to develop Union Square property. As any developer knows — even if said developer is a brutal dictator — developing prime real estate in downtown San Francisco means greasing politicians' palms.

The broker wrote checks on her personal account, making it appear that she and other employees were the donors. But the account was full of Marcos government money. A team of three reporters, including Williams, nailed the story by getting copies of the broker's checking account through divorce filings.

“We busted their chops,” Williams says today. “The Philippines government was highly naughty at the time, and we thought for sure the city attorney or the district attorney would jump all over this. But they did nothing.”

Two years later, Williams was covering another ethics story and found a kindred soul in then-Registrar of Voters Jay Patterson.

“He pointed to all the filing cabinets full of campaign finance reports, and he said to me, 'Why in the hell do they make me keep these things if [law enforcement officials] aren't going to enforce the law?' ”

Patterson's pithy comment isn't mere hyperbole. In the 16 years he's been in office, DA Arlo Smith has never taken a political corruption case to trial. Never. Asked to defend his record, Smith cites a case almost a decade old in which School Board Commissioner Agrapino Richard Cebados pleaded guilty to a conflict of interest and left office.

Taking a case to trial is a good measure of a prosecutor's effectiveness. But DAs can't take every case to trial. Much of the time, they settle cases and impose fines. But how many, how much, and how often are questions the office cannot answer. [page]

“There have been … uh … I'd have to ask,” Smith says.
Fair enough. District attorneys, especially ones running for re-election, are busy folk. But Smith's promise to supply the information and call back goes unfulfilled. Numerous other requests for a record of recent cases and their dispositions go unanswered, as well.

The closest thing to an answer to the institutional ethics quandary comes from John Carbone, assistant district attorney in charge of political corruption cases.

“A tiny percentage of our cases end up as court filings,” Carbone says. The DA is currently investigating seven ethics cases.

Still, Smith defends himself against the charge that he's soft on political crimes.

“That's nonsense,” Smith says. “All our cases are dealt with in an evenhanded fashion.”

What about Fang? Were there political considerations?
“That is not a factor — ever,” Smith insists.
But a persistent critic and Smith's main opponent in this year's DA race, Supervisor Terence Hallinan, knows firsthand the frustrations of reporting an alleged violation crime to the DA and watching as it goes nowhere.

In 1992, Hallinan and his fellow supe Jim Gonzalez were the victims of a nasty hit piece — a negative political mailing sent out late in a campaign when there was no time to respond. A little under 50,000 mailers went out redbaiting Hallinan for inviting Fidel Castro to address the Board of Supervisors on health care. The mailer attacked both supes as soft on illegal immigrants, rowdy protesters, and panhandlers. Gonzalez lost and Hallinan barely won re-election.

Hallinan and other knowledgeable sources allege that campaign aides to then-candidate Barbara Kaufman were involved in funding and producing the hit piece. The prime mover was the bete noire of liberals, Supervisor Bill Maher, who admitted his involvement at the time.

Hallinan says that Kaufman aide John Whitehurst admitted his involvement to him, and that Kaufman apologized for the hit but denied that she knew about it. Whitehurst would not comment for this article.

Maher denies that he controlled the committee, San Franciscans for Representative Government (SFRG), that funded the mailing. Controlling a campaign committee without properly disclosing one's involvement constitutes misdemeanor perjury. Maher was never charged with breaking the law. The former supervisor could not be reached for comment.

SFRG filed as independent of any other campaigns. If Whitehurst worked on the hit piece, SFRG could be construed as adjunct to Kaufman's campaign. In that case, Kaufman's campaign would have had to report the mailer as an in-kind contribution. Plus, several people who helped fund the hit piece had already given the maximum allowed to Kaufman and might have violated contribution limits. And as Hallinan pointed out and continues to point out, conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor, which may have also occurred, is a felony.

Hallinan says he ran into a stone wall of indifference when he brought his complaint to the DA.

“They said they wouldn't touch it,” Hallinan says. “I had to write to the forewoman of the criminal grand jury twice to get any action out of them.”

Finally, the DA launched a probe.
“Carbone showed me an affidavit for a search warrant for bank records that alleged four misdemeanors,” Hallinan says. “I said, 'Great, I'll take the misdemeanors.' But he said it wasn't enough. Afterwards, he told me the office wouldn't go after a politician unless it was a felony. And he didn't think conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor was enough.”

Prosecutors refuse to discuss the case and why they didn't take action. Assistant DA Thomas Bogott, the lead attorney of political corruption cases, offered this response in a June 20 letter regarding a request for files: “I am quite concerned about the type of information you are requesting since it can cause harm and unwarranted damage to reputations when no public action was taken.”

In May, Smith announced his campaign “dream team,” with John Whitehurst as his lead consultant.

The suggestion that politics drives prosecutions makes Carbone and Bogott angry. They blame their poor record on inadequacies of the law.

They have a point: Search warrants and subpoenas are a prosecutor's best tools, but they can only be used in felony cases and not the misdemeanor cases that fall under the ethics charges. Therefore, prosecutors must rely on the cooperation of people who have every reason not to cooperate.

“It's a real mistake in the drafting of the law,” Carbone says. A mistake — surprise — that the state Legislature has refused to correct on several occasions.

Carbone adds that his office focuses on criminal cases, even though district attorneys can proceed in civil court.

“We look for criminal cases like money laundering and vote fraud,” he says.
But those cases are hard to make because a prosecutor has to prove bad faith on the part of the defendant, which is difficult. “We don't focus on cases where there's an inadvertent violation,” Carbone says. “We look for willful violations.”

Moreover, Carbone says, the vast majority of the cases the office receives are “sour grapes” complaints, meritless filings made by candidates who lose an election.

Still, questions remain about how interested the DA is in enforcing ethics laws. For one, why the inaction and amnesia on the FPPC referrals?

Reading from an FPPC computer printout, the cases tick off: California Judges Association? “No recollection,” Carbone and Bogott say. The call and response goes on from there.

League of Conservation Voters? “Don't remember that one.”
Philip Morris USA? “Rings no bells.”
San Franciscans for Common Sense? “No recollection.”
Angela Alioto? “Nope.”

And on and on until … Wendy Nelder? Finally, a synapse sparks. “We looked at it,” Bogott says. “But there was no chargeable offense.”

Carbone estimates that less than 10 percent of the FPPC referrals are ever looked at. He says the office doesn't have the manpower to do more with the FPPC filings.

But in bankrupt Orange County, the DA reviews all FPPC referrals carefully and prosecutes or sues in civil court 10 percent of the time, according to Wallace Wade, the assistant district attorney in charge of Orange County's political corruption unit. (Orange County contains more than 30 cities. San Francisco County has only one.) [page]

Wade thinks it's a good idea to review FPPC referrals.
“If the FPPC takes action, we will sometimes find something more because we are more familiar with the local scene,” he says. “We will make connections and see implications that they may not see because we are on the scene here.”

Carbone thinks the FPPC does a good enough job. “Those guys are the pros,” he says.

Making the DA's excuses even harder to swallow is the office's complete lack of proactive investigations. In several other California counties — Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside, for example — the DA conducts periodic audits of all campaign finance filings. Riverside has gone as far as to conduct sting operations.

“We look for obvious things like late reporting, contributions made on the same date, things like that would indicate a problem,” says Orange County's Wade, who adds that his office regularly turns up prosecutable offenses through audits.

Carbone admits that proactive audits are a good idea. “Every county that has tried them has had success,” he says.

So why isn't San Francisco doing audits? “We don't have that kind of manpower,” Carbone says.

Bogott offers a different answer. “I don't think it would be a good use of our office's resources to scrutinize every report filed,” he says.

If anyone makes the DA look good on ethics enforcement, it's City Attorney Louise Renne.

Like the DA, she declined to bring civil action against Maher and his cohorts for the Castro “hit piece” mailer. And she's equally responsible for the three-year delay in resolving the Common Cause complaint against James Fang for funneling Ning Yung money into Jordan's 1991 mayoral campaign. She also gave Fang a pass on the airline-upgrade issue, saying the attorney general's opinion would have made it impossible to win in court.

Renne says she has an official policy of allowing one unpunished violation of the law prohibiting the use of public resources for political purposes — essentially advertising her willingness to look the other way. Likewise, she sends only warning letters to lobbyists who fail to report contributions to politicians, though the law allows her to impose fines.

Citing “attorney-client” privilege, she refuses to make public letters her office writes alerting elected officials of their financial conflicts. And despite numerous violations, some of which have been reported in the press, Renne has never acted to enforce the law requiring lobbyists to disclose their activities. She has also been silent when several city commissioners have failed to disclose their conflicts of interest.

But while the DA is all excuses, Renne offers a surprising mea culpa when asked about the lack of action on complaints filed with her office.

“I wish we could move faster and do more,” she says, sitting in her Fox Plaza offices, an expansive view of Market Street behind her. “The criticism of our office is fair. I accept it.”

Renne blames her poor record on the difficulty in coordinating investigations with the DA and the FPPC as required by law. But the main problem, she says, is lack of resources. Renne recently lost one of her two corruption enforcers, Randy Riddle, to the private sector, leaving her with only one attorney to enforce clean-government laws. And she's unsure if she will be able to replace Riddle.

“We are trying to move ahead despite the budget [cuts],” Renne says.
There's another, unspoken reason why the city watchdogs snooze. The DA and the city attorney are elected officials, and their political careers depend on the good will of the same activists, consultants, power brokers, and money men that they're charged with policing. In fact, both offices employ politically active attorneys and investigators. It's the mother of all conflicts of interest. And though the conflict has little to do with money, it has everything to do with integrity — or the lack thereof.

If a city or county is concerned with ethics, it shows — in its charter. In San Jose, the mayor is required to review ethics laws every two years and make recommendations for reform. In San Jose, San Diego, and Los Angeles Counties, campaign debts that last more than 30 to 90 days after an election automatically become illegal campaign contributions subject to fines. And in San Diego and Santa Clara Counties, companies and corporations are prohibited from donating money to politicians.

Is it any surprise that San Francisco is moving in the opposite direction? The charter rewrite committee — chaired by Supervisor Barbara Kaufman — has been steadily loosening ethics provisions. The requirement that city commissioners resign before they start running for office and raising money from special interests was tabled. The proposal prohibiting supervisors from lobbying city boards and commissions — a practice fraught with the potential for undue influence since supes set budgets for commissions and the departments they oversee — was also voted down. And a new, stricter definition of official misconduct was rejected.

Exasperated with politicians' disregard for reform, voters passed Proposition K in 1993, which created an Ethics Commission. The body was supposed to fill the enforcement void left by the DA and the city attorney. Audits and investigations are its main charge. Moreover, as an administrative body, the commission can act on less evidence and issue subpoenas without meeting the high felony standard that confronts a DA.

But politicians have undermined the commission from Day 1. Hidden away in a closet-size office on the third floor of the War Memorial Building, Commission Director Jane Rubin fights against incredible odds to get the agency up and running.

She has only one computer, no investigative staff, and a budget just big enough to be operative but totally ineffective. Frustrated with the barely concealed hostility from the Mayor's Office and the Board of Supervisors, her commissioners are resigning left and right. She is down to two; she should have five. [page]

“The commission is going to have too many effectiveness problems,” says former commissioner Don Sloan, who resigned last week. “I just couldn't deal with that.”

The commission needs at least a $300,000 budget to be effective. This year, the mayor allocated $190,000 and Rubin negotiated him up to $260,000. Then the board's parsimonious budget analyst, Harvey Rose, whittled that sum back down to $190,000. The board is currently weighing Rose's recommendation.

“Because of our staffing problems, all the complaints we are receiving we are referring right back out to the DA and the city attorney,” Rubin says.

A look at the record of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission may explain why local politicians are hostile to the idea of independent enforcers here. Founded in 1990, it took the L.A. commission a mere three years to make California history with the largest fine ever levied for a campaign finance violation, an $895,000 penalty against a multinational shipping line for laundering contributions.

The shipping line, Evergreen Inc., was docked in San Francisco before pulling up anchor and moving to Oakland last year.

Ethical government should be an end in itself. But pragmatists in search of additional reasons for why the ethics laws should be enforced should talk to MacArthur Fellow Robert Hall.

Hall, research director at the Institute for Southern Studies, a Virginia think tank, says that weak political reforms and lackadaisical enforcement push voters right out of the polling booth.

Hall's pioneering work studying campaign laws and voter turnout in all 50 states produced a “Democracy Index” that correlated over 80 factors to measure voter confidence in elected governments. He found that the more reforms, the more enforcement of ethics laws, the greater the voter turnout.

The four states with the fewest political reform measures had the nation's lowest voter turnout — and also were below average in electing women.

“These facts suggest the lack of strict contribution limits and disclosure rules in the states seems to reinforce the rule by the 'good ole boys,' and correlates with low voter turnout,” he declares.

“Moreover,” Hall warns, “if such regulations are not comprehensive in their design and enforcement, if they can be easily evaded, they may have no effect or a negative effect on voter confidence and turnout.”

This year's mayoral campaigns in San Francisco are expected to set an all-time record for campaign spending — likely more than $7 million. The money will be spent fast (in just five months), and, given the lax enforcement standards of previous campaigns, the money will be spent loose of ethical restraints. It will take months to sort out where the money came from, who got it, and what it bought. And what exactly the candidates bought will be guarded most closely of all.

San Franciscans will live with the results for four years; their quality of life will be shaped by the elections, as will the priorities of government. If the campaign is done dirty, and none of the scoundrels caught or punished, the city will suffer, as will democracy.

“The key to boosting voter turnout lies in creating a culture of citizenship that values public participation over private wealth,” Hall asserts. “Over time, voters get the message that the government is — or is not — 'theirs,' and that their voices do — or do not — count.

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