Gwyneth Borden, the vice chair of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, and a member of two different city commissions over the course of 15 years, was censured last month by the Ethics Commission.
A proposed stipulation lays out the case that she spent six months illegally lobbying city staff, planning commissioners, and a city supervisor on behalf of a restaurant that paid her $12,500.
Starting in 2019 and into 2020, while she was a member of the SFMTA Board, Borden sent 32 emails to six Planning Department staffers, sent personalized emails to all seven members of the Planning Commission, and sent another email to Supervisor Dean Preston, hoping they would support the legalization of an outdoor deck for the Sunset District Italian eatery Fiorella, according to the Ethics Commission.
For years, according to Borden, the restaurant Park Chow, at 1240 9th Ave. had sat diners on a second-floor outdoor deck that was never authorized by the city. When Fiorella moved into the location in 2019, the restaurant sought to legalize the non-compliant deck and hired Borden.
She reported $12,500 paid to her by Fiorella for her efforts in a position described as a “consultant.” The proposed stipulation, which is not final and will be revisited by the Ethics Commission as soon as next month, would fine her $9,000 — $3,500 less than she made on this transaction.
At an Ethics Commission hearing held on April 14, Director of Enforcement Patrick Ford noted that this kind of contact with fellow city officials would be illegal for a sitting commissioner, even if they registered as a lobbyist. Borden, however, was acting as an unregistered lobbyist.
All three present members of the Ethics Commission last week voted to return the stipulation to staff to assess a higher penalty. Commissioner Yvonne Lee hoped for the maximum: Three times the total unlawful compensation, or $37,500.
“She should’ve known,” Lee said.
San Francisco law is clear that city commissioners cannot receive “any form of compensation to communicate orally, in writing, or in any other manner on behalf of any other person with any other officer or employee of the City and County with the intent to influence a government decision.”
Further, those who do contact other city officials “five or more” times in any month must register as a lobbyist with the city, and disclose those contacts. Borden had some 40 undisclosed contacts.
Borden admits the facts of the case, and admits that she broke the city’s rules.
“I made a mistake, I should have known, I misunderstood that I shouldn’t have contacted another city department at the time,” she said. “Dem’s the rules.”
Borden stressed that she was overt in all her actions, and was even listed as the project’s sponsor in the Planning Department packet, because she didn’t realize what she was doing was problematic.
Borden served on the Planning Commission from 2008 to 2014. She was appointed to the SFMTA commission by Mayor Ed Lee in 2014 and elevated to vice chair of that body in January; she was previously the chair of the board. The notion that Borden, who has served 15 years on city commissions, was ignorant of her impropriety struck those familiar with San Francisco ethics codes as unlikely.
“If you’re unsure, you call the City Attorney, you call the Ethics Commission, you get help,” said a former planning commissioner, who pointed to the long litany of scandals that has befallen commissioners and city staff of late. “Trust in city government is at an all-time low, and the last thing we need is more of this kind of stuff coming out. We have this drip, drip, drip of corruption; it’s sad.”
Commissioners are handed a big binder every year filled with some 200 pages of ethics rules, the so-called Good Government Guide put out by the City Attorney’s Office. They must yearly answer a set of multiple-choice questions proving they have completed a required ethics course, and then sign forms certifying that they have done so. Borden had taken that test twice before the alleged lobbying occurred, according to filings she made with the Ethics Commission.
Per the stipulation, Borden claimed she did not know of any prohibition against lobbying city staff or fellow officials until she had been informed by the City Attorney, after her unregistered lobbying had finished.
The Ethics Commission has the option to recommend Borden be removed from office, per Section C3.699-13 of the San Francisco Charter. The appointing authority — in this case, the mayor, who appoints all the members of the MTA board — could choose to act on that recommendation, or not.
Borden, for her part, said she has been duly chastised and that her infraction was just that; not high-level corruption, but an honest mistake.
“I wasn’t getting paid, like, $10,000 a month. It was literally the legalization of a pre-existing deck,” she said. “The restaurant needed help. I was helping them.”
Much of the corruption uncovered in San Francisco over the last several years, however, has not been high-dollar. Now-incarcerated former Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru and restaurateur Nick Bovis were nabbed by feds in 2020 after pushing $5,000 in an envelope across the table to then-Airport Commissioner Linda Crayton. Their quest: Open a chicken shack at the airport (Crayton refused). Nuru was also plied by city contractors with an eye on obtaining rights to operate an asphalt plant with a tractor.
In 2013, federal agents posing as cannabis impresarios met in a San Francisco hotel with then-state Sen. Leland Yee and his right-hand man, Keith Jackson. They unsubtly dropped an envelope stuffed with $11,000 in cash on the table. At the conclusion of the discussion, in which the agents plied Yee for beneficial legislation, Jackson stood up without pocketing the envelope. Yee reportedly tapped him on the back and said “take that.”
The rooftop deck at Fiorella’s is now legalized. The restaurant is seating and serving customers on it. For $45, you can order spring pea arancini and radiatore alla vodka diavolo on that very deck today, part of Fiorella’s Restaurant Week testing menu, or reserve it for a private party for a few dozen friends.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Fiorella had a non-compliant deck prior to 2019; the deck belonged to Park Chow, the restaurant that previously occupied the same address.