Waste of paper

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ISSUE: Ethics Commission system for routing out political corruption doesn't work, but it could easily be fixed



Several weeks ago, Sup. Chris Daly e-mailed the San Francisco Ethics Commission to ask what seemed like a simple question. Daly is spearheading a June citywide ballot measure to ask voters to support the designation of the new Transbay Transit Center as the end point for the planned California High Speed Rail project, a response to the California High Speed Rail Authority's move to explore alternative locations.

As an elected official, Daly knew there were certain individuals he might be barred from accepting money from for this effort. A San Francisco campaign finance law prohibits entities holding city contracts worth $50,000 or more from donating to political campaigns run by the elected officials who approve those contracts, a rule crafted to eliminate quid pro quo dealings that can corrupt the political process.

But when Daly tried to find out whose checks he shouldn't be accepting, he didn't receive a simple list of names in response. Instead he got a dense e-mail highlighting the complexity of this area of campaign finance law, offering no easy answers. For one, it wasn't clear whether the law applied to his committee. Assuming it did, however, there was another hurdle.

"Determining which contributors are prohibited from contributing to your committee is a bit complex at the moment," Oliver Luby, an Ethics Commission staffer, wrote in the e-mail, "because the contractor disclosures filed ... are only in hard copy format."

This vexing detail meant that obtaining a searchable list of banned contributors would require scanning hundreds of Ethics Commission forms filed on behalf of the Board of Supervisors, then manually entering potentially thousands of data rows into a spreadsheet, a project that could suck up significant time and resources.

The campaign contribution ban applies not only to major contractors, but the executive officers, subcontractors, and major shareholders of those contracting firms, so there could be a long list of individuals prohibited from making a political donation once a single contract is approved.

These restrictions theoretically create an excellent safeguard against corruption — but since it's not recorded in electronic format, the filings amount to an almost useless sea of data. In fact, even the Ethics Commission, which is supposed to regulate violations of this ban and issue fines, isn't able to routinely do so.

Luby pointed out the shortcoming of the system and an easy solution to Executive Director John St. Croix and Deputy Director Mabel Ng in an internal e-mail last December. "Private interests that can afford to manually create databases using the data ... will have an advantage over other interests (perhaps even our own office) where the resources are not available to manually create such databases," he wrote. "The obvious solution to this problem is e-filing."

For example, if city agencies and political campaigns were required to submit their data in Excel spreadsheets or through an online system that automatically created spreadsheets, it would be easy to compare them to see who is violating the law.

When asked about this, St. Croix said the resources just don't exist to upgrade the commission's online capabilities. "We don't have the resources to develop the software right now," he told us. "So someday, yes. After we go through the next election season, and people see that they have a lot of difficulties in complying with this, then we may be able to build some support to make these changes."