"It's sort of like the IRS going after the little guy," Haaland told us. "The commissioners need to set the direction of the commission for where they're spending their time and resources."
Eileen Hansen is perhaps the only member of the five-person commission to really embrace the idea that its mission is to help citizen activists comply with the law and to go after well-funded professionals who seek to skirt it. To do otherwise is to harm San Francisco's unique grassroots political system.
"It's true, the law is the law," Hansen told us. "But I do think the Ethics Commission needs to grapple with how to apply the law in a fair manner."
Is it fair to apply the same standard to Knee and to the treasurer of the campaign on the other side of the public power measure she was pushing, veteran campaign attorney Jim Sutton, whose failure to report late contributions from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. later triggered a $240,000 fine by Ethics and the California Fair Political Practices Commission, while those contributions might have tipped the outcome of the election?
Sutton gets hired by most of the big-money campaigns in town, such as Mayor Gavin Newsom's, and has a history of skirting the law, including a recent case of allegedly laundered public funds at City College; coordination of deceptive independent expenditures against Supervisors Chris Daly, Gerardo Sandoval, and Jake McGoldrick; District Attorney Kamala Harris's violation of her spending-cap pledge in 2003; and an apparent attempt to launder inaugural-committee funds to pay Newsom's outstanding campaign debts (see "Newsom's Funny Money," 2/11/04). Yet the practice of the commission is to ignore that history and treat Sutton, who did not return calls seeking comment, the same as everyone else.
"We all admire and want grassroots organizations to do what they need to do," Commissioner Emi Gusukuma said. But, she said, "the laws are there for a reason.... We're supposed to enforce and interpret the law. The law should only apply to big money? The law has to apply to everybody. We can't pick or choose."
David Looman, a campaign consultant and treasurer involved in dozens of past elections, put it wryly. "Some people talk as though the grassroots campaigns shouldn't have to obey the law," he said of some activists he's worked for who consider themselves the good guys. He said he reminds them, "This is the act that you helped pass, and now you gotta abide by it."
"But there ought to be some kind of business sense here. Most regulatory agencies have offenses which they regard as de minimis," Looman said, meaning "you get a nasty letter that says, 'Don't make a habit of it,' and when you do make a habit of it, stricter penalties come into play."
His experience with the commission has led him to believe there's no sense of priorities when it comes to what Ethics pursues. Many of the small campaign committees Looman represents have been audited to what he feels is a ridiculous extent.
In one case, he told us, he took over the management of the Bernal Heights Democratic Club and discovered that it hadn't been filing certain documents for years. He ended up paying $10,000 out of his own pocket to cover Ethics fines just because his name was now on the dotted line.
"Yes, the Bernal Heights Democratic Club was in complete violation of the law. They deserved to pay a penalty, but it was so far out of proportion. It was two times our yearly income. I think that's inappropriate," Looman told us.