San Francisco City Hall works to restore tarnished reputation

San Francisco City Hall is working to restore moral character on several fronts this week, nearly two years after a massive corruption scandal erupted.

On Tuesday, the supervisory board voted unanimously to restrict how officials can solicit donations for their favorite causes – a mechanism that federal prosecutors say has been abused by the San Francisco Department of Public Works, which is at the center of their ongoing investigation.

“We have an imperative to pass this legislation today,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said at Tuesday’s meeting, responding to what he called “embarrassing and shameful behavior.” Matt Haney, co-author of the legislation, said the bill seeks to reform “a comfort that creates a culture of corruption.”

The new legislation prohibits city officials and department heads from soliciting charitable donations from “interested parties,” including lobbyists and those seeking contracts and permits from the city.

But that’s not the only effort underway to curb the city hall’s paid gambling culture. On Friday, the San Francisco Ethics Commission, a panel of appointed members that assesses conflicts of interest the city faces, is expected to discuss a ballot measure it hopes to propose to voters that would establish general guidelines on corruption, gifts, other prohibited. behavior and ethics training.

Peskin and Haney, the supervisors who defended the measure passed on Tuesday, cited the public works scandal as the motivation for the new law. In this federal case, three Recology affiliates admitted to conspiring to bribe former public works director Nuru in return for helping to increase litter rates. The company and its subsidiaries have also agreed to pay significant penalties to both the federal government and the City. Nuru, who was arrested in January 2020 and remains at the center of the ongoing city hall corruption scandal, is still awaiting trial.

In another example, The city’s ethics committee has singled out former supervisor and mayor Mark Farrell, which facilitated the donation of $ 882,500 to the Parks Alliance, a powerful nonprofit organization where Farrell’s wife is the chair of the board.

The commission found that in 2016, a registered lobbyist contacted Farrell on behalf of telecom giant AT&T on the same day Farrell introduced tenant internet service legislation. A month later, the lobbyist contacted Farrell about the order. The lobbyist’s company, who worked for AT&T, made a payment of $ 5,000 at Farrell’s request to the Parks Alliance, the commission found.

The Parks Alliance received anonymous donations ranging from $ 1.5 million to $ 3 million or more from 2016 to 2020, according to an analysis from the nonprofit found this month. Connie Chan, another supervisor who co-wrote the municipal legislation passed on Tuesday, asked The report of the Office of the Budget and Legislative Analyst.

Anonymous donations allow a donor to gain favor with an official without the public knowing, Chan told The Examiner. A business, or other powerful donor, could then benefit from the manager’s actions without sufficient transparency, Chan said.

Farrell, who left city government to work for a venture capital firm, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Parks Alliance said in a statement to The Examiner that it has implemented a series of measures to increase accountability. “We look forward to working with the city on additional common sense policies that provide greater transparency and allow us to continue supporting and improving San Francisco’s parks and public spaces,” the association said at Purpose non-profit.

AT&T, when contacted by The Examiner, said the Ethics Commission report “draws conclusions and attempts to find links between unrelated events. We have never asked our consultants or anyone else to make contributions on our behalf.

San Francisco’s new law to reform the practice of charitable donations made at the request of a public official – known as “ordered payments” – marks progress where the city has failed for years. In 2018, the chairman of the ethics committee resigned in the middle of a meeting due to his inability to restrict donations.

These types of gifts have taken many forms over the years. Nuru and other Public Works employees allegedly solicited payments from various Parks Alliance accounts, then used the money for parties and other personal uses, according to federal prosecutors.

And big tech companies and investors have legally donated millions to London Mayor Breed’s favorite charities, at his behest. In December 2020, Airbnb founder Joe Gebbia donated $ 2.5 million to All Home, a nonprofit that fights homelessness, at the behest of Breed, a commission report of ethics tabled by the mayor. Gebbia gave a total of $ 25 million to nonprofits fighting homelessness at the time, which Breed said in a press release. “I want to thank Joe Gebbia for his incredibly generous support to these organizations,” said the mayor at the time.

The mayor said in a statement to The Examiner that she has worked with charities and philanthropists to promote causes such as housing and youth employment. “The mayor reports charitable funds to the ethics commission,” said the statement, which “ensures transparency by identifying the amount of funds, the donor, the beneficiary organizations and the object of the funding”.

Gebbia and Airbnb did not comment on the donation. But Gebbia said at the time he was “proud to support the work that Rising Up-Larkin Street Youth Services and All Home are doing to improve the lives of so many.”

Some say Tuesday’s supervisory board vote comes after damage has already been done. “He’s a day late and a dollar short,” San Francisco Ethics Commissioner Larry Bush told The Examiner, stressing that he was speaking only for himself, not for the commission. “A lot of what happened with Mohammed Nuru could have been prevented. “

San Francisco is not alone in struggling to regulate required payments. California regulators in October approved new transparency requirements for orderly payments from unidentified donors – including $ 1 million given last year on behalf of Gov. Gavin Newsom, as revealed by a Los Angeles Times investigation.

And the ethics commission says the issue of required payments is only part of what city hall has to deal with. On Friday, the committee plans to discuss a proposed June voting measure that would regulate gifts to individuals and departments and set out broad ethical guidelines.

Commission auditors said an example of what needs to be curtailed would be the Airport Commission, which “said it accepted $ 1,018,000 in gifts from sources outside the city.” The commission found that 86 percent of that money came from contractors or airport tenants. The biggest donor, giving $ 99,000, was a contractor who was part of a $ 1.1 billion construction contract with the airport, according to the commission.

The Airport Commission told The Examiner that it followed city rules because the events involved a fund established by the Supervisory Board, known as the Airport Capital Improvement Promotion and Event Fund, to de such gifts.

City hall insiders say the legislative and reform efforts are also aimed at sending a broader message. “We need to stop this pay-to-play culture,” Supervisor Connie Chan, co-author of the city’s law passed Tuesday, told The Examiner.

Efforts expected on Friday to put a new ethics reform on the ballot could continue this mission, ethics committee officials said. “This reform package represents a holistic approach to improving the ethical culture of municipal government. As we approach the second anniversary of the federal corruption charges against Mohammed Nuru, this measure is a way for San Franciscans to make ethics a priority for the city and for the city to regain the public trust ”, Patrick Ford , commission director senior policy and legislative counsel told The Examiner.

The reform efforts moving forward this week have taken years of preparation and are aimed at mending the scars inflicted on the ethical reputation of Town Hall. Some saw it coming.

“I hope in the future we get another chance to revisit this,” Charles Marsteller, former director of the Bay Area chapter of Common Cause, a non-partisan nonprofit, told the Ethics Commission. in 2018. “This could come after a series of major corruption scandals. “

Shortly after the comments were made, former commission chairman Peter Keane resigned in disgust over San Francisco’s failure to regulate the practice of orderly payments.

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