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.”
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?
Today’s stipulated agreement covered three instances that any fluent reader of San Francisco news likely already knew about — for years and years:
- Then-Supervisor London Breed, in 2015, asking restaurateurs Nick Bovis and John Konstin to pony up $1,250 each for a Pride float. This donation was structured as a campaign donation — and the amounts in question both exceeded the $500 campaign donation limit and were not reported by Breed’s campaign.
- Mayor Breed, in 2018, using an ersatz mayoral letterhead while requesting then-Gov. Jerry Brown grant clemency to her long-incarcerated brother — in violation of city rules forbidding the use of “city title for personal purposes.”
- Mayor Breed, in 2019, accepting some $5,500 in “gifts” from then-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru — her former romantic partner and self-described longtime friend — for auto repairs and rental car payments.
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.
He was fined $3,850. That showed him.
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.
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.