Supervisors Scrutinize Ethics Commission Budget

by Paul Hogarth on March 16, 2007

After a record number of independent hit-pieces were waged in the last election, Supervisors on the receiving end of such an avalanche want to help the Ethics Commission monitor these excesses. Yesterday, the Rules Committee held a hearing about the department’s finances – in preparation of setting up the City’s annual budget.

Only one conclusion can be drawn – as the City department that monitors and prosecutes campaign finance, lobbyist, and conflict-of-interest violations, the Ethics Commission cannot adequately serve its mission with the current resources that it has. What good are laws on the books if there is no money out there to enforce them?

“When the Ethics Commission was created in 1993, some of its work had previously been done by other agencies,” said Mary McAllister, who served on a Civil Grand Jury in 2005 that investigated the department. “But those agencies had more than $25,000 to enforce the budget than what the City gave the Ethics Commission. It’s a funding gap that began from the start – and has only been further exacerbated every year.”

John St. Croix, Executive Director of the Ethics Commission, acknowledged that the department has a history of being under-funded – but that its staff has increased in the last two years. Nevertheless, it is currently only at 50% of the funding of where it should be to fully satisfy its mission. That’s an improvement over the previous level of one-third, but it’s still a glass that’s half-empty.

The Ethics Commission is supposed to investigate violations, for example, when S.F. S.O.S. or the Golden Gate Restaurant Association wages a smear campaign against a candidate. Meanwhile, the candidate’s opponent can claim that they had nothing to do with it, and the candidates have agreed to a self-imposed spending limit of $83,000 to get public financing. Only if the Ethics Commission issues a finding that there have been more than $83,000 in independent expenditures spent can the cap be lifted.

But in order for that to happen, somebody has to first file a complaint – because the Ethics Commission only has three investigators for its entire department. Robert Haaland of SEIU was involved last year in the complaint against independent expenditures that were waged in District 6. “Had we not amassed all the evidence that we did, it’s not clear if the staff would have gone out and done the investigation,” he said.

St. Croix acknowledged that these investigations are difficult – and by necessity, they are done right around an Election season when the Department staff is most busy. “It’s one of the most difficult things to do,” he said.

By having a complaint-driven process (rather than having investigators be pro-active), the Ethics Commission also leaves itself open to abuse. “When you’re completely reliant on complaints, you become a tool of political vendetta,” said McAllister. Most of the violators who get caught tend to be small campaign committees that have made clerical errors – rather than large corporate outfits who have lawyers advising them what to do.

Even if a complaint gets filed, it’s not likely that it will be investigated. Richard Knee of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force explained that when they see a potential scofflaw, they file a complaint with the Ethics Commission. “Of the five cases that we have filed,” he said, “four were dismissed and it took over two years for the Ethics Commission to even get to the fifth.”

The Ethics Commission provides seminars for political candidates and campaign treasurers on filing a statement – and avoiding small mistakes that will get you caught. But it doesn’t help ordinary citizens on how to file a complaint for the Commission to investigate. This, said Sunshine Task Force member Bob Planthold, may prevent legitimate (but not articulate) complaints from getting a proper hearing.

St. Croix acknowledged that with limited resources, they don’t investigate all of the complaints filed. Most of the department’s priorities, he explained, are the ones that have legal deadlines. “With what resources we have, we end up only investigating the most egregious violations that have the most public harm,” he said.

“What kind of vision do we have for the Ethics Commission?” said Joe Lynn, a former Ethics Commissioner who wrote an extensive report about the department’s budgetary constraints. “Why is it that San Diego has more registered lobbyists than we do? Because here, lobbyists know that they can get away with not filing because there is no enforcement.”

In 2001, then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom supported a Charter Amendment that would have taken the Mayor out of the Ethics Commission’s budget process, and allow the department to seek independent counsel. But in 2005, Mayor Newsom opposed such an amendment when it was put on the ballot. “We need to restore public trust and public interest in the Ethics Commission,” said Lynn.

The Supervisors were sympathetic to reforming the Ethics Commission, but the devil is still in the details about where the extra money will come from. “I know that it sounds a little new age,” said Tom Ammiano, “but the Ethics Commission needs to be nurtured.” Let’s see if the Ethics Commission does get that nurturing.

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