DA’s office makeover may have skirted the rules

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In a San Francisco Chronicle article published March 31, District Attorney George Gascon was quoted as saying he would not “even bother to defend” his decision to accept payments and in-kind donations for office furniture, valued at $26,445, from a roster of influential donors.

Although San Francisco’s top law enforcement official minimized the issue when questioned by reporters, it appears the DA may not have followed a number of state disclosure regulations when he accepted and reported the donation, which consists of a new glass-top desk and other trimmings to spruce up his executive office and the DA’s victim services lounge.

And the Guardian has learned that a formal complaint will be filed with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, a government accountability agency, alleging violations.

Charles Marsteller, a public ethics advocate and former co-coordinator of San Francisco Common Cause, sent the Guardian a copy of a complaint he intends to file with the FPPC, charging that Gascon either failed to properly disclose political contributions, or violated a gift limit imposed by state law.

"The District Attorney appears to be actively disregarding the applicable state law regarding the furniture payments," a statement attached to Marsteller's complaint notes.

Thirteen well-connected donors contributed payments toward the office set, with billionaire angel investor Ron Conway outspending the rest with a monetary contribution just shy of $10,000.

Other contributors, who gave between $1,000 and $2,000, included the Nibbi Brothers Contractors, who have worked on public housing renovations and other residential housing projects within San Francisco; Victor Makras, a member of the San Francisco Employees Retirement System board; Pius Lee, who previously served on the Police Commission; Charlotte Schultz, who holds the position of San Francisco’s Chief of Protocol, and Ryan Brooks, who formerly served on the city’s Public Utilities Commission.

The kind of disclosure form Gascon filed to report the new furniture, known as a behested payment report, is filed in cases where an elected official solicits a donation to a nonprofit entity or a government agency, and successfully secures a payment exceeding $5,000. In the case of governmental agencies, behested payments benefit a department as a whole, rather than any particular individual.

The fact that the donation was reported on a behested payment report, rather than a gift disclosure form, suggests that the new office furniture arrived only after Gascon requested it specifically, to benefit the DA office as a whole. But Marsteller's complaint charges: “Since the furniture payments at issue were made for the benefit of Gascon’s own use, they would not constitute a behested payment that must be reported on Form 803.”

The complaint goes on to state that payments for Gascon’s furniture should either be counted as "contributions" or "gifts," but not "behested payments."

According to a memo prepared by the San Francisco City Attorney in 2008, department heads must obtain Board approval before accepting donations made to public agencies.

“Generally, the Board of Supervisors must approve, by resolution, any gift with a value greater than $10,000 before a City agency or department accepts such a gift,” according to a 2008 memo drafted by San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Jon Givner. The total value of the new office furniture is $26,445, but the funding was divided up among numerous donors, with payments submitted over the course of several months. Conway contributed $9,999 – exactly one dollar under the $10,000 disclosure threshold.

However, Gascon did not solicit Board approval before accepting the furniture payments. Instead, he submitted a resolution and memo to the Clerk of the Board on March 19, to be introduced at the April 2 Board meeting, seeking retroactive approval.

"Apparently, Gascon decided that he should seek to sanitize any violation of San Francisco's Charter provision regarding acceptance of gifts by requesting retroactive approval," Marsteller’s complaint suggests.

Reached on his cell phone and asked to comment for this story, Gascon told the Guardian that he was unable to answer questions at that time because a family member was undergoing surgery.

The 2008 memo from the City Attorney also states that city agencies “must report gifts worth more than $100 on the department’s website.” Visitors to the DA’s website will find a section on the “About” page, titled “Supporters of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office,” which links to a PDF disclosing the donors’ names and individual gift amounts. However, a search on the Wayback Machine, a historical webpage snapshot service provided by the Internet Archive, shows that as of March 12, that disclosure section had not yet been created.

It’s possible that it was created as a result of questions raised. Larry Bush, who maintains a government watchdog news site called CitiReport, told the Guardian he began raising questions about the gift in March. Marsteller’s complaint is endorsed by Friends of Ethics, an ad hoc government accountability group that has also been scrutinizing the furniture payments.

Reached by phone, City Attorney spokesperson Matt Dorsey said he was unable to offer an official comment on the matter. “I wouldn’t be able to comment on, or even acknowledge whether, we gave advice or were asked for advice,” Dorsey told the Guardian.

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