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

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The e-mails were among hundreds of documents included in response to a Sunshine Ordinance public information request the Guardian submitted to the Ethics Commission in February. The assortment of documents relating to the contractor contribution ban revealed just how difficult it is for the average person to discern whether any entities striking deals with the city are at the same time trying to curry favor with the politicians who approve their contracts.

In 2006, a batch of reforms were approved to tighten restrictions on campaign contributions from major city contractors and require filing disclosure forms. Intended to point a floodlight on pay-to-play practices, the rules were championed by former Ethics Commissioner Joe Lynn, who died late last year.

Since it was established in 2006, however, the law has seen neither steady enforcement nor routine compliance from elected officials, documents show. The Mayor's Office, for example, did not start filing the forms until April 2009, a month after critical media reports pointed out that few city departments were in compliance. While many more have started filing regularly, it appears that certain state agencies covered by the law — including the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) — have not.

Nor does the Ethics Commission itself seem focused on ferreting out potential violators. "I am reluctant to ask my auditors or enforcement staff to review [contract disclosure] filings and compare them against campaign filings because the sheer amount of data will make the search wasteful and likely fruitless," St. Croix wrote in a memo to his staff last October.

At the same time, attempts have been made to scale back the scope of the law, based on the argument that it is difficult to enforce. St. Croix's memo recommended that the contribution ban not apply to contractors who deal with state agencies such as TIDA or the Redevelopment Agency, which are controlled by mayoral appointees and oversee development contracts worth millions of dollars. "Although city elective officers appoint some members of those bodies, city officials rarely have any involvement with those agencies' contracts," he argued.

Asked if these suggestions will be discussed formally anytime soon, St. Croix was doubtful. "Unfortunately, even though we think they're necessary, it's going to be a very difficult sell at the Board [of Supervisors]," he said. "Even though we think we're fixing a problem, it looks like you're rolling back reform, and that's not popular."

On the eve of an election season featuring hotly contested seats on the Board of Supervisors, the Democratic County Central Committee, and other high-profile local and statewide offices, the relatively arcane archive of the contractor disclosure forms stored away at the Ethics Commission might get more attention. Are major corporations that do business with the city scratching the backs of politicians who want to advance their political careers to keep the wheels greased for their own business ambitions?

Without a user-friendly, functional system for tracking contracts and comparing them against campaign contributions, it's tough to say.