Reformers say the Ethics Commission needs to alter its focus and honor the city’s important grassroots political culture
By Amanda Witherell and Steve Jones
Part two in a Guardian series
The San Francisco Ethics Commission is at an important crossroads, facing decisions that could have a profound impact on the city’s political culture: should every violation be treated equally or should this agency focus on the most flagrant efforts to corrupt the political system?
The traditionally anemic agency that regulates campaign spending is just now starting to get the staff and resources it needs to fulfill its mandate. But its aggressive investigation of grassroots treasurer Carolyn Knee (see “The Ethics of Ethics,” 7/4/07) — which concluded July 9 with her being fined just $267 — is raising questions about its focus and mission.
“For the first time in our history, we’re having growing pains,” Ethics Commission executive director John St. Croix told the Guardian, noting that the agency’s 16 staffers (slated to increase to 19 next year) are double what he started with three years ago.
Reformers like Joe Lynn — a former Ethics staffer and later a commissioner — say the commission should do more to help small, all-volunteer campaigns negotiate the Byzantine campaign finance rules, be more forgiving when such campaigns make mistakes, and focus on more significant violations by campaigns that seek to deceive voters and swing elections.
“The traditional thinking is there’s no exception to the law, and that’s been my traditional thinking too,” Lynn said. “But it doesn’t cut the mustard when you see a Carolyn Knee say, ‘I’m not going to do that again.'<\!s>”
At Knee’s June 11 hearing, Doug Comstock — who often does political consulting for small organizations — urged commissioners to reevaluate their mission. “Why are you here?” he asked them. “You’re not here to pick on the little guys.”
Yet St. Croix told us, “That’s not really the way the law is written. Everybody is supposed to be treated the same…. The notion that the Ethics Commission was only created to nail the big guns is not correct.”
That said, St. Croix agrees that regulators should be tougher on willful violators and those who have lots of experience and familiarity with the rules they’re breaking. And he said they do that. But it’s the grassroots campaigns that tend to have the most violations.
“It’s frustrating because the people who make the most mistakes are the ones with the least experience,” St. Croix said, noting that the commission can’t simply ignore violations.
A MATTER OF PRIORITIES
But critics of the commission say the problem is one of priorities. Even if there were problems with Knee’s campaign, there was no reason the commission should have launched such an in-depth and expensive investigation four years after the fact. That decision was recently criticized in a resolution approved by the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, which argued that the approach discourages citizens from getting politically involved.
“[The] San Francisco Ethics Commission spends an inordinate amount of its meager resources in pursuing petty violations allegedly committed by grassroots campaigns; this disproportionate enforcement against grassroots campaigns is directly contrary to the goal of the Campaign Finance Reform Ordinance,” one “whereas” from the resolution read.
The resolution’s principal sponsor, Robert Haaland, is intimately familiar with the problem. When he ran for supervisor in District 5 two years ago, his treasurer had a doctorate from Stanford and still struggled to understand and comply with the law. But they made a good-faith effort, he said, and shouldn’t be targeted by Ethics.
“It’s sort of like the IRS going after the little guy,” Haaland told us. “The commissioners need to set the direction of the commission for where they’re spending their time and resources.”
Eileen Hansen is perhaps the only member of the five-person commission to really embrace the idea that its mission is to help citizen activists comply with the law and to go after well-funded professionals who seek to skirt it. To do otherwise is to harm San Francisco’s unique grassroots political system.
“It’s true, the law is the law,” Hansen told us. “But I do think the Ethics Commission needs to grapple with how to apply the law in a fair manner.”
Is it fair to apply the same standard to Knee and to the treasurer of the campaign on the other side of the public power measure she was pushing, veteran campaign attorney Jim Sutton, whose failure to report late contributions from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. later triggered a $240,000 fine by Ethics and the California Fair Political Practices Commission, while those contributions might have tipped the outcome of the election?
Sutton gets hired by most of the big-money campaigns in town, such as Mayor Gavin Newsom’s, and has a history of skirting the law, including a recent case of allegedly laundered public funds at City College; coordination of deceptive independent expenditures against Supervisors Chris Daly, Gerardo Sandoval, and Jake McGoldrick; District Attorney Kamala Harris’s violation of her spending-cap pledge in 2003; and an apparent attempt to launder inaugural-committee funds to pay Newsom’s outstanding campaign debts (see “Newsom’s Funny Money,” 2/11/04). Yet the practice of the commission is to ignore that history and treat Sutton, who did not return calls seeking comment, the same as everyone else.
“We all admire and want grassroots organizations to do what they need to do,” Commissioner Emi Gusukuma said. But, she said, “the laws are there for a reason…. We’re supposed to enforce and interpret the law. The law should only apply to big money? The law has to apply to everybody. We can’t pick or choose.”
David Looman, a campaign consultant and treasurer involved in dozens of past elections, put it wryly. “Some people talk as though the grassroots campaigns shouldn’t have to obey the law,” he said of some activists he’s worked for who consider themselves the good guys. He said he reminds them, “This is the act that you helped pass, and now you gotta abide by it.”
“But there ought to be some kind of business sense here. Most regulatory agencies have offenses which they regard as de minimis,” Looman said, meaning “you get a nasty letter that says, ‘Don’t make a habit of it,’ and when you do make a habit of it, stricter penalties come into play.”
His experience with the commission has led him to believe there’s no sense of priorities when it comes to what Ethics pursues. Many of the small campaign committees Looman represents have been audited to what he feels is a ridiculous extent.
In one case, he told us, he took over the management of the Bernal Heights Democratic Club and discovered that it hadn’t been filing certain documents for years. He ended up paying $10,000 out of his own pocket to cover Ethics fines just because his name was now on the dotted line.
“Yes, the Bernal Heights Democratic Club was in complete violation of the law. They deserved to pay a penalty, but it was so far out of proportion. It was two times our yearly income. I think that’s inappropriate,” Looman told us.
THE GRASSROOTS CULTURE
Some say the whole idea of local campaign reform is to nurture an important and unique aspect of San Francisco: its vibrant and diverse grassroots political culture. “For every two committees in LA, there are three in San Francisco,” Lynn said, adding that it used to be a more extreme, two-to-one ratio. Larger cities often have more professionals involved, he said. “San Francisco has a unique political culture, very heavy on the grass roots.”
Yet the Ethics Commission doesn’t see protection of the little person as part of its mission.
“The fundamental problem with Ethics is it is not staffed by people who have been advocates for good government reforms,” Lynn said. “The Ethics Commission needs to come to grips with the fact that they’re tampering with the grassroots political culture of San Francisco.”
Lynn would like the commission to direct some resources toward hiring assistants to staff the office during the two or three weeks prior to Election Day, a crew that would help prevent violations and inoculate campaigns against being fined for errors that do occur.
“If you looked at the money that the Ethics Commission is spending going after citizen filers and reallocated it toward a staff of clerks, the cost to the city would be minimal,” Lynn said, estimating it at about $100,000.
Calling it the “H&R Block Unit,” Lynn thinks a staff of 10 to 15 clerks could be trained to assist small campaigns, individuals, and first-time filers who would come in and be walked through the complex paperwork.
St. Croix said such services are available now to inexperienced treasurers and those who ask for help — although not nearly as extensive as Lynn envisions — and he’d like to expand them in the future. But he said there are legal and practical complications to giving campaigns formal advice in letters that they might later use in their defense.
“I think it’s a lofty goal to educate people,” commission chair Susan Harriman told us. “We have staff with the sole job to keep people educated.” She said she’s attended meetings at which outreach occurred between the commission and community, but only as an observer. She thinks it’s the job of the staff to take an active community role, although St. Croix said that’s a resource issue.
Commissioner Emi Gusukuma thinks the appointed commissioners should be more involved. “I would be happy to be part of that team,” she said of joining any Ethics community outreach. “Going to clubs — I would definitely be willing to do that.” She noted that she and her fellow commissioners are all very busy, but she still thinks the educational aspect of their role is important.
Hansen also noted that a commission filled with relatively new appointees needs to hear more about the real-world impacts of its policies. “The public can educate the commissioners, and right now the commissioners are not educated on these issues,” Hansen said.
She and other reformers would like to see St. Croix facilitate a discussion of what the commission’s enforcement history has been and where the focus should be going forward.
“The perception is all we ever do is go after the small guys, but I don’t know if that’s really true,” Gusukuma said. She’s pushing staff to do more research into past enforcement actions “so we can tell the staff … not who to prosecute but what kinds of cases are important. We haven’t been able to get that analysis yet.”
Lynn said another key component in the education campaign would be to televise Ethics Commission hearings, which would help people become more engaged with the agency’s work. Commissioners Hansen and Gusukuma agreed, endorsing the proposal in this year’s budget cycle and winning the support of Sup. Chris Daly before he was ousted as chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, after which the expenditure (estimated at about $30,000 per year) was removed from the budget.
Harriman is opposed to televising hearings and thinks the money should be spent elsewhere. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think interested people who are interested in items on the agenda will appear. I think it’s a waste of city funds to televise something.”
Lynn said that attitude is the problem.
“The Ethics Commission doesn’t want to be televised, which is the reason to televise them,” he said. “They don’t want it because they’re trained that they are quasi-judicial and you don’t have cameras in courtrooms. Right now Ethics is invisible. The only way it can build a constituency is if it’s visible.”
Bob Planthold, another former commissioner, agreed. “Ethics doesn’t make friends,” he said. “It doesn’t have a constituency of positive advocates, and you need that at City Hall to get money and resources.”