FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ISSUE: Former Mayor Willie Brown is a powerful advocate for private interests — but he flouts lobbyist registration laws
It's clear he talks to local officials regularly. Most members of the Board of Supervisors we contacted said they had talked to Brown at some point in the past year. "He called me to ask how he could help with the local hire legislation," Sup. John Avalos told us. "I told him he could call (then-Sup.) Bevan Dufty. He said he would, but I don't know if it ever happened." Sup. Sean Elsbernd told us he speaks to Brown about "the state of local political dynamics," but said he can't remember being lobbied on any particular issue.
Insiders say that's typical — Brown rarely lets anyone know exactly what his interests are. "The talent of Willie is his ability to create plausible deniability," one city official, who asked not to be named, told us.
But when Brown is involved, things have a funny way of happening. Take the Fairmont Hotel.
FRONT OF THE LINE
The Fairmont's owners, who include the Saudi royal family and a group of American investors, want to tear down one of the hotel's towers, eliminate several hundred hotel rooms, and replace them with high-end condominiums. That requires a city permit — legislation by former Sup. Aaron Peskin limits the number of hotel rooms that can be converted to condos and requires applicants to submit to a lottery for the right to convert.
The Fairmont applied for a permit in 2009, and won tentative approval. But in October 2010, the Planning Commission refused to certify the project's environmental impact report. With no valid EIR, the permits expired, meaning the hotel would have to go back and reenter the lottery, with no guarantee of success.
So the Fairmont owners are seeking special legislation that would allow them to submit a new EIR without going to the back of the line — in essence, an exemption from the lottery. So far there's no champion on the Board of Supervisors, and the hotel workers union has been dubious about the project, fearing it will cost union jobs in the long run.
But early in March, Mayor Lee quietly submitted his own legislation to the board, offering the Fairmont everything the owners want.
Who's working for the owners? Willie Brown.
Bill Oberndorf, part of the local ownership group, told us Brown was an "advisor" to the project. "Nobody in the city has more knowledge about how to get things done than Mayor Brown," he said.
So did Brown talk to Lee before the mayor introduced his Fairmont bill? And isn't that a valid question? At press time, Lee's office hadn't responded to my questions. But if Brown was a registered lobbyist, he'd have to report that information.
Who else are Brown's clients? Since he doesn't register, there's no list. But there are some clues.
For example, the headquarters of the Willie Brown Institute is situated at One Market Plaza, Suite 2250. That's the same address as Platinum Advisors, the high-powered lobbying firm founded by Darius Anderson. Among the firm's clients: AECOM, the engineering and construction giant, which has a $147 million contract on the Chinatown subway project; PG&E; and Sutter Health, which wants to build a $1 billion hospital on Van Ness Avenue.
Others who lobby regularly at City Hall don't always register. Rob Black, who works for the Chamber of Commerce, is a constant presence.