Newsom's slush fund

LET'S LOOK AT the basic scenario: Mayor Gavin Newsom finished the race with his campaign more than $550,000 in debt. Among those who were owed money are campaign consultants who are still involved with Newsom's administration. Raising half a million in $500 chunks – that's the maximum allowed under state and local laws – is a bit of a chore.

But it was easy to raise $300,000 for Newsom's inaugural celebration; since that wasn't a political campaign, the limits didn't apply, and big-money interests like the Shorenstein Co. and Clear Channel could kick in more than $10,000 apiece.

A document prepared by the law firm for Newsom's campaign, Sutton and Partners, indicates there was, at least at one point, a proposal to pay some of those same consultants big fees out of the inaugural fund. That might have violated state law.

But since the document with the accounting breakdown was sent to the San Francisco Ethics Commission by mistake, and commission head Ginny Vida ordered the record destroyed, a real issue over Newsom's campaign spending has been caught up in a legal and political mess.

And unfortunately, City Attorney Dennis Herrera is refusing to step in and sort things out.

There are at least several critical issues here: for starters, Vida shouldn't have ordered her staff to destroy a document that was sent to the commission. Herrera's deputy advising the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, Ernest Llorente, argued in a Feb. 3 opinion that the document wasn't ever a public record – a remarkable conclusion that defies common sense and good public policy.

"If the police department was given a document that might relate to a crime, and someone called them and told them to get rid of it, do you think they would?" asked Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition.

If there's any doubt about whether the documents are public record and should be retained, the task force ought to have jurisdiction over the case, so it can be debated in public. If nothing else, the task force should be able to evaluate Vida's decision with an eye toward recommending amendments to the Sunshine Ordinance.

The final, and perhaps biggest, issue is whether Newsom's campaign is trying to skirt the law – and if so, whether the mayor knew about it and approved the decision. In response to Bay Guardian inquiries, the Sutton firm has now released a different spending breakdown, one that doesn't include big payments to campaign consultants; Sutton argues that the earlier document was just a working draft that was never implemented. Maybe so – or maybe one of Newsom's campaign aides changed the plans once the document showing questionable expenditures reached the Ethics Commission. There's enough evidence of possible wrongdoing here to merit a full investigation by the city attorney, the district attorney, and the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. All three should announce a public inquiry immediately. In fact, if Newsom wants to be seen as a reform mayor, he should be the first to call for those investigations. A cover-up is no way to start a new administration.

February 11, 2004