How developers, corporations, and city contractors buy influence in San Francisco City Hall -- a 47th anniversary Guardian special investigation
"I never saw Derek use his position as an architect or position for any political gain, I never saw it," Renne told us. But no one else would see it either, because organizations like the now closed Laguna Honda Hospital Foundation operate without public oversight.
The Health Commission itself even noted this in its March 2012 meeting, the minutes describing then-commissioner James Illig as critiquing the foundation for not being open about its source of funding.
"Commissioner Illig thanks Ms. Renne and Mr. Parker for coming to the Commission," the minutes read. "Because (LHHF) is a project of Community Initiatives, a fiscal sponsor for nonprofits, it is not possible to find basic financial information about the Foundation or its activities."
Due to a quirk of her foundation being under the "umbrella" of a separate entity, Community Initiatives, Illig was never able to even get the LHHF's IRS forms, he told us. "We tried to get information and reports, and the Community Initiatives [Form] 990 was giant," Illig said. "It didn't separate anything out."
Illig told us that it made sense to have Parker on the board because he is monied and well connected, making it easier to solicit donations. But insiders close to the board told us that Parker's position may have made it easier to swing getting other contracts for his firm.
Parker got another city contract building the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital at Mission Bay, slated to open in 2015. No doubt his firm got the job partly due to his reputation as pioneering architecture that leads to healthy patient outcomes — but then again, the board he served on also approved donations to research at UCSF.
Laguna Honda Hospital Foundation may now be defunct, but it serves to illustrate the lack of controls and oversight of the foundations beyond even gift disclosure.
OFF THE BOOKS
It might be characterized as a web of influence, cronyism, or just the way business is done. But is there something improper about all of this?
Private funding often represents a needed boost that allows for important work to take place beyond what could happen under ordinary budgeting. At the same time, it smacks of privatization. While departments and funders point to lean times in the public sector to justify the need for this help, the funding continues to flow whether it's a good year or a bad year for city government. And at the end of the day, the most glaring issue of all seems to be the lack of transparency.
Are city departments ever tempted to bend the rules to lend a little help to their Friends? As long as the funding is in the dark, the public has no way of knowing.
Ethics chief St. Croix told us his office lacks the resources to visit every city website and check up on whether departments are following the disclosure rules. "If someone brought it to my attention that a department received a gift and didn't post it [on the website]," he said, "we would look into it."
But if the watchdogs need watchdogs, citizens who can't even review documents that should be publicly available, then these quasi-governmental functions and the people who fund them will remain in the shadows.
Danielle Parenteau contributed to this report.
When city funders operate in the dark, one of the best ways to learn about corrupt influence, misuse of funds, and other transgressions is from whistleblowers. If you have a tip for us, send us snail mail at SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN, 225 Bush, 17th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94104. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Just make sure not to use an email address provided by your workplace, which is less secure.
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