At the crossroads

At the crossroads: Ethics Commission chief admits to knowing of alleged money laundering at City College

Part three in a Guardian series

San Francisco Ethics Commission executive director John St. Croix has admitted that his office knew in 2005 about the alleged laundering of public money into a San Francisco City College bond election campaign — well before the story broke in newspapers in April — but did nothing to investigate.

That startling revelation knits together two concurrent series that the Guardian has been running for the past two weeks: one on City College's deceptive and unaccountable use of bond money and another on the uneasiness local watchdogs feel about the Ethics Commission's ability and willingness to mete out balanced punishment to elections-law violators.

When news reports surfaced in April that City College allegedly had diverted up to $30,000 in public money to a bond election campaign committee, Chancellor Phil Day moved quickly to limit the fallout. So did independently elected trustee Rodel Rodis, who along with six other board members is responsible for controlling and managing the San Francisco Community College District.

During meetings organized that month to address the matter, Day came clean and blamed everything on a "relatively new" assistant vice chancellor. At least two trustees, one of whom had been recently elected, still wanted to know more about why it was allowed to happen. Rodis, on the other hand, complained that hiring an independent investigator at a cost of $75,000 to look into the matter was too expensive and framed the stories — written by San Francisco Chronicle investigate reporter Lance Williams — as an unfair attack on the college.

"Let's be mindful that we're still in a budget crisis and we still need to watch taxpayer money," Rodis said at one of the meetings.

Unlike Rodis, District Attorney Kamala Harris didn't treat the allegations as insignificant and is now reportedly probing possible criminal violations in connection with the scandal. The investigation, Williams wrote recently, includes contributions made to the committee by contractors that did recent business with the school.

But where was the Ethics Commission during all of this? The controversy raises serious questions about why the agency never took any action against City College when, as its mission statement declares, its responsibility is to "actively enforce all ethics laws and rules, including campaign finance and open government laws."

Late in the commission's July 9 meeting, St. Croix made the stunning admission that although his office knew about the allegations surrounding City College's dubious handling of public funds all the way back in 2005, for some inexplicable reason it did nothing.

Staff shortages and poor financing have plagued the Ethics Commission since voters created it in 1993. Although the number of staffers has doubled during his three-year tenure, St. Croix nonetheless told the Guardian recently that his agency remains dependent on the public to help expose political candidates and campaign committees that break the law.

"We still rely on people and the city being watchdogs," St. Croix told us. "We're supposed to be the eyes and ears for a lot of things, but we're still extremely limited."

In this case, however, St. Croix's office was well aware of allegations that City College bureaucrats had misappropriated public funds.

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