Mayor London Breed in November 2018. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez

By a 4-0 vote, the San Francisco Ethics Commission today approved a stipulated agreement with Mayor London Breed, fining her nearly $23,000 for a series of legal and ethical missteps. 

This is not an insignificant amount of money. And this is the first instance of the Ethics Commission dinging a sitting mayor — despite a healthy selection of ethically challenged (and extremely ding-able) prior San Francisco mayors. But if the purpose of today’s proceedings, and the Ethics Commission writ large, is to give San Franciscans confidence that our elected leaders are adhering to the law or face consequences — well, that didn’t happen.

Everyone came out looking rotten today: The mayor, those in her circle and, perhaps most especially, the Ethics Commission. “We practice and promote the highest standards of ethical behavior in government” is the Ethics Commission’s mantra. But today’s action didn’t feel that way.  

Rather, Ethics staff took a jarringly long time to investigate and rule on infractions notably uncovered by other entities — in some cases, the press. And, when it was all said and done, the stipulated agreement that was ratified today includes a number of questionable and even dubious conclusions. Ethics Commission staffers, meanwhile, refused to answer germane questions about their investigation and the conclusions it reached — both to Mission Local and to the frustrated Ethics Commissioners who were tasked today with voting on the matter. 

Essentially, we’re being told “trust me — I know what I’m doing.” 

You should never trust anyone who says “trust me — I know what I’m doing.”

Rather, if you’re going to live by one witticism from Ronald Reagan, it’s “trust but verify.” But the Ethics Commission has made it damn near impossible for us to do the latter — so why should we extend the former? 

Mayor London Breed is sworn in as San Francisco’s 45th mayor by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, this city’s 42nd mayor. Pool photo by Gabrielle Lurie, S.F. Chronicle.

Today’s stipulated agreement covered three instances that any fluent reader of San Francisco news likely already knew about — for years and years:

It’s confusing and a bit nonsensical that three such unrelated matters were amalgamated into one stipulated agreement (though, from the mayor’s point of view, it’s certainly more favorable to sign one agreement acknowledging ethical lapses than multiple ones). Yet this is only the first of many confusing and even somewhat nonsensical details.  

Let’s start with the passage of time. San Francisco is a town known for its scleroticism and lethargy — the Saturn V rocket was conceived, designed, engineered and constructed and a man was flown to the moon in a fraction of the time this city will take to construct a rapid bus lane on Van Ness — but, yes, 2015 was a long while ago. 

Yes, we’re all suffering through the pandemic. But the Ethics Commission has long worked at a glacial pace. And, in the realm of campaign finance, this is of limited utility when those campaigns have — sadly, like glaciers — melted away into distant memory. 

On the same docket as Friday’s action regarding Breed was a stipulated agreement against erstwhile Supervisor Norman Yee for improperly accepting donations from nine city contractors — in 2016

Yee has since won that contested election, served a complete term, been elected board president by his peers, and termed out into private life. 

He was fined $3,850. That showed him. 

Mohammed Nuru
Former Director of Public Works, Mohammed Nuru. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

By taking so long to adjudicate cases, the Ethics Commission undermines its core raison d’être. And, after years worth of time to undertake investigations — and, in the specific instance of the Pride float donations, news stories like this one from Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez did the legwork — it’s not clear just how much investigating and due diligence the Ethics Commission staff has actually done. 

And, somewhat amazingly, Ethics staff won’t say. Its methodology and investigations are deemed “confidential.” Even who the staff interviewed (or did not interview) is off limits, which was a matter of some frustration to the Ethics Commissioners today tasked with approving the results of those investigations.

So, to echo the not-so-dearly departed Donald Rumsfeld, we don’t know what we don’t know. And that’s a shame, because the stipulated agreement isn’t doing a great job of telling us the things we’d most want to know.

Let’s start with that Pride float. For some reason, Ethics staff deemed Breed hitting up both Bovis and Konstin for checks exceeding the contribution limit as one count. It also deemed her failure to report both checks as another, single count. 

This is confusing: Like an infielder muffing a grounder and then throwing the ball over the first baseman’s head on the same play, there are two violations on each donation — a contribution over the limit and a failure of Breed’s campaign to report it. And this happened twice. Why are there not four violations here instead of two? 

And this is pertinent, because the maximum fine is calculated based upon two violations, not four. That’s not to say that Breed should be fined the maximum amount, or even more than she was. But if the amount she was ultimately dinged was reached because it’s a percentage of the maximum — well, that maximum appears to be inaccurate and low.

The difference isn’t titanic — the max penalty on Count 1 would be $10,000 instead of $7,500; the max on Count 2 would be $11,500 instead of $6,500. Rather, this manner of discrepancy, after so many years of head time, simply does not inspire confidence. 

But wait: There’s more. Throughout the stipulated agreement, Bovis and Konstin are referred to as “Nick Bovis/Lefty O’Doul’s” and “John Konstin/John’s Grill.” Those are the restaurants both men ran or still run, and both of those businesses are/were legally organized as corporations.   

Corporations, under San Francisco law, cannot contribute to candidate committees, which is how this transaction was handled. If Bovis and Konstin paid for the float from their corporate funds — and they are, again, referred to, repeatedly, by the names of their corporations in the stipulation — that would constitute another violation. In fact, two more. 

You’d think they could show us the checks. But Ethics staff wouldn’t reveal the source of the funds in question — not to me, and not to stymied Ethics Commissioners in an open meeting today, under direct questioning. 

Ethics staffers, in essence, told the commissioners to trust them — they know what they’re doing.

The actual Lefty O’Doul’s rep is untarnished. Everyone else fared worse.

Again, we don’t know the things we most want to know. Did Ethics Commission investigators actually get the receipts from the mechanic paid thousands of dollars by Nuru to fix — actually not fix – Breed’s tetchy 18-year-old car? Or did it simply take the numbers on faith from those self-reported by Breed in her disclosures? 

We don’t know, and Ethics staff won’t tell us. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.   

After all that, did Ethics investigators even interview the mayor? 

They won’t tell us. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.

We know, meanwhile, that our sources tell us they did not interview the  mayor. That’s a shame because all we can glean about her mindset and intentions are the canned statements released to the public.

We can glean even less about how much actual due diligence Ethics investigators did, and what pertinent documents they tangibly obtained — and even less still about the methodology used to end up where we ended up. 

That’s also a shame, and seems to run counter to the mission of transparent and ethical government. If Ethics Commission members, who seemed peeved today at the lack of information shared with them by staff prior to their deciding vote, decide to push back — that could be the most significant outcome of the day. 

Because, separate and apart from the trust, it’s the verifying that’s important. Otherwise, nobody knows what you’re doing. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. How much don’t we know about Neru and Breed? I’d imagine quite a lot more. A $13 billion dollar budget provides a lot to skim from.

  2. This is a wonderful and enraging article. The Ethics staffers need a wholescale reorganization, same as Public Works and the DBI. The next Mayor should run on overhauling all of these corrupt Departments.

  3. Enjoyable read and had a few laughs. Almost makes me frustrated enough to do something at the same time reminding me that structural inequality is built into the system where different rules and consequences exist for those in power and with money and connections and the rest of us. Will there ever be people who run for honest government who are not corrupted and compromised in pursuit of winning that office?

  4. As a
    former 2011 Mayoral candidate, I finally became free of the Ethics Commission in 2019. My volunteer-run campaign failed to safeguard receipts for many of our campaign expenses. We fucked up and I took full responsibility for the missing receipts. To slightly paraphrase the not so dearly departed Ronald Reagan “the buck stopped here”. I personally tracked down from my credit union a cancelled check for every expense, proving that no campaign funds had been misspent. The Ethics Commission concurred. In fact, our campaign returned $48,000 in unspent public funds back to the city. We spent the least amount of money per vote and ran a lively campaign, advancing many of the issues that would be enacted in the years to follow. The Ethics Commission staff held me to each and every count. They interviewed me personally several times over months and years. They sought to levy a fine of over $400,000 in their search for justice. I had no such money and requested leniency. To consider my request, Ethics staff request 6 months of bank statements and several years of tax returns. They interviewed me, asking me about personal expenses like my children’s after school program and therapy appointments. It was the most embarrassing and painful episode of the 9 year ordeal. The fine had nothing to do with justice nor accountability. Ethics staff, however, told me that they were obligated to follow the letter of the law. Receipts are receipts and the lack of them carried a certain monetary penalty. I paid the fine. Paid it having learned my lesson years before — hire a competent treasurer to be part of your core campaign team. I totally fucked up not just for losing receipts but for not being careful with the trust my supporters and the public placed in me. After all, for my brand of independent and progressive politics, I knew that I would be held to a higher standard than office holders at the highest ranks of the local SF political establishment but I did not give the proper attention to dot my i’s and cross my t’s.

    In the end, the Ethics Commission staff won their case but not without a sense of the inadequacy and futility in carrying out their role in creating transparency and fairness in San Francisco’s political and electoral shystem.

    1. “Buck stops here” was Harry Truman, not Reagan. And by the way, “Trust but verify” wasn’t conceived of by Reagan either – it’s a Russian expression originally. (It rhymes in Russian, fun fact.)

  5. Smoke and mirrors, Masters of deception, Sanfrancisco is so expensive and corrupt,these gangsters are all about money, it’s their God, their are many good folk’s here, working so hard to make it .

  6. This is an excellent article that gives us more reason to not trust the supposed investigations of wrongdoings by people in power. The fines were tardy and miscalculated.

  7. Predictable in a city as corrupt as San Francisco. Watchdog agencies such as the Ethics Commission always seem to downplay allegations against the sharks, but go after the minnows in a big way. They’re appointed be elected officials who are, themselves, generally corrupt to the core.

    1. They are not watchdogs. I reported clear evidence to the staff of corruption of environmental enforcement of the Sewer Use Ordinance in numerous cases. They even laughed at the situational absurdity once or twice

  8. This city is crooked. Has been my whole life and won’t change till you clean the whole house completely. Also Breed outta work on being the mayor instead of infringing on Americans freedoms. Stop these tyrants. Because that is all she is. A pawn.

  9. Hrm, who has authority over the Ethics Commission budget and why is this not a screaming conflict of interest?

    Why is the Mayor the exempted from official misconduct charges, why is recall the only recourse to remove a corrupt lawbreaker?

  10. It’s not so much as ethics enforcement but ethics theater. But no surprise since like all of these appointed commissions in San Francisco, the members are beholden to the machine for the positions.

  11. Someone should ask why the Ethics Commission’s Chair, Noreen Ambrose, resigned 2-3 weeks ago reportedly.

    Oh, and she was also the PUC gen counsel for years.

  12. I wonder how long it will take before the Feds corruption cases against Nuru et al will reveal that London Breed truly is a corrupt crony backed by large real estate developer’s money. We have been giving her a free pass for growing up in the Western Addition as if that somehow qualified her to represent her former community and it’s long struggle for recouping the wealth stolen during redevelopment.
    And I can’t think of any real accomplishments her mayoral term has brought the most needy in San Francisco. We continue to have a poor image, thousands living on our streets and an inability for people to live here without a government handout.
    I guess the Ethics commission gave her a belated birthday gift.

    1. Well said. I’m surprised that your response wasn’t deleted by the moderator(s) of this web site.

      1. Hi there. I’m the moderator.

        These comments are moderated in real-time, and manually.

        Sorry, it’s a Saturday. I’m not standing over the computer waiting for the latest genius to type a comment. That’s not how it works.

        Things get approved eventually.



    2. Interesting point about ‘wealth stolen during Redevelopment’ is the wealth stolen when the Japanese were moved to Internment camps. The latter allowed for the former to ever happen.