Carolyn Knee is free! Finally, after five years, the poster girl for ethics reform has been freed by the Unethical Commission

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By Bruce B. Brugmann

Rick Knee flashed the word from City Hall about 6:35 p.m. Monday (July 9): Carolyn Knee is free!.

In a follow up email that was uncharacteristically short, Carolyn's husband wrote, "The Ethics Commission voted unanimously Monday evening to accept the $267 settlement that staff members and Carolyn's attorney reached.
This concludes the case."

Well, this case may be closed and the long nightmare and high drama may be over for the Knees, who took the brunt of the commission's wrath for the 2002 grassroots public power campaign that damn near kicked PG&E out of City Hall, but their fight was well worth it and the battle for ethics reform goes on. Carolyn's rousing defense even made nice folks out of the commission and staff, at least for one hearing.

The commissioners and Executive Director John St. Croix were unusually chastened and gracious at the hearing, in contrast to previous public and private confrontations with the Knees and their community supporters. Croix told the commissioners that the case had been a learning experience for the commission and that it pointed up the need for commission and staff to look seriously at how they can improve their policies and procedures. He also said that the low settlement amount was justified by mitigating circumstances and the fact that Carolyn had already been through enough.

Susan Harrington, the mayor's appointee, said that of all the people who spoke on Carolyn's behalf, Carolyn herself was the most persuasive. Charles Ward, who only a month ago accused Carolyn of trying to dodge responsibility for her "violations," seconded the motion of Eileen Hansen to accept the $267 settlement.

Following the decision, Carolyn, as polite as always, commented to Luke Thomas of FogCityJournal. "I absolutely support the purpose of the Ethics Commission," she said. "There needs to be oversight and I have no argument with that. I just think they went a little overboard on me but, but in the end, they arrived at a just decision."

Her attorney David Waggoner, who represented the Knees through the investigation, told Fog City: "It was a reasonably fair settlement. I wish the commissioners had dismissed it, initially. I think they should have taken the advice of the campaign officer, Oliver Luby, when he recommended no fine. However, I don't think the commissioners would have accepted a no fine settlement." FogCityJournal put the mainstream press to shame with its excellent coverage of this critical highly important political case.

The questions are obvious: Would the commission have been so accommodating if the proceedings had not been public? (Carolyn insisted on breaking precedent and asking for a public hearing, knowing full well she would be hammered by a commission in effect punishing the Knees for having the gall to take on PG&E.)
Would the commission have been so accommodating if the case had not become a grassroots and neighborhood cause celebre (due to publicity mainly from the Guardian and FogCityJournal, not the Chronicle nor the mainstream press, and lots of community support)? Would the commission have been so accommodating if Carolyn and her campaign hadn't gone after PG&E and its illegal San Francisco power monopoly? Would the commission have been so accommodating if Carolyn and her campaign hadn't tried to do what City Hall has never properly done: worked to end the PG&E/City Hall/Raker Act scandal, the biggest ongoing urban scandal in U.S. history? The answers are even more obvious.

In any event, Carolyn's decision to stand tall and to stand tall publicly on principle has started a major movement to reform the Ethics Commission and the way it takes on the little guys and gals and tosses only pebbles in the path of the PG&Es and the big privatizers who are doing the real stealing in town. (See "Whose Ethics," by Amanda Witherell and Steve Jones. See also previous Bruce blogs.)

As the Knees were filing out of the hearing room after the settlement, a well dressed man in the audience looked up and gave Carolyn a smile. It was Attorney Jim Sutton, of PG&E fame.

Carolyn: on behalf of the tens of thousands of people working and voting against PG&E and for public power in the 2001 and 2001 initiative campaigns, and on behalf of all the hundreds of thousands who ever fought PG&E on anything for all these years, our many many thanks. You performed a noble public service way way beyond the call of duty.

P.S. The gist of the issues that Carolyn's sturdy defense raised was laid out in the current Guardian story by Joe Lynn, a former ethics staffer and later a commissioner. The commission, Lynn said, "should do more to help small, all-volunteer campaigns negotiate the Byzantine campaign finance rules, be more forgiving when such campaigns make mistakes, and focus on more significant violations by campaigns that seek to deceive voters and swing elections.

"The traditional thinking is there's no exception to the law, and that's been my traditional thinking too,? Lynn said. "But it doesn't cut the mustard when you see a Carolyn Knee say, 'I'm not going to do that again.'" B3