Mayor Lee's trip to China raises questions of ethics and influence

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Being the man behind the mayor has its privileges.
Luke Thomas/Fog City Journal

[UPDATED(x3)] Mayor Ed Lee barely had time to unpack from his recent political junket to Paris before he was off on his current trip to China – both of which were paid for and accompanied by some of his top political supporters and among the city's most influential power brokers. No wonder Lee doesn't have time to weigh in on Airbnb's tax dodge, the condo conversion stalemate, or other important city issues.

Local good government advocate Charles Marsteller learned of the current China trip from Willie Brown's column in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, whose editors (including Editor Ward Bushee, who we're still waiting to hear back from about this trip) consider it a “man about town” column immune from conflict-of-interest policies that normally require journalists to disclose who is paying them on the side.

“I'm here with Mayor Ed Lee for my seventh official visit,” Brown cheerfully wrote, although readers were left to wonder just what official business Brown might be conducting with our mayor and his entourage. So, being an expert on political disclosure laws, Marsteller went down to the Ethics Commission to pull the Form SFEC-3.216(d) that state law requires elected officials to file before leaving on trips paid for by outside interests.

But it wasn't there, so Marsteller filed an official complaint with the commission, telling us, “I did so to impress upon our Elected and other City Officials the need to properly report gifts in a timely way and in the manner as called for by State law and on the forms provided by the SF Ethics Commission.” 

When we contacted mayoral Press Secretary Christine Falvey, she forwarded us a copy of the form that should have been filed before the trip and told us, “I’m not going to answer the question about why we failed to file the appropriate forms with the Ethics Commission, as we worked closely with the City Attorney’s office to exceed reporting requirements by all appropriate deadlines.” [UPDATE: The time stamp on the form indicated it was filed on May 25, before the trip, even though it wasn't publicly available at the Ethics Commission office when Marsteller went down to look for it].

The form indicates that Lee's portion of the trip was paid for by the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce, whose influential leader Rose Pak conspired with Brown to get Lee appointed mayor more than two years ago. This is also the same Rose Pak who was admonished by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission for illegally funding another political junket to China in 2009 with Sups. David Chiu and Eric Mar and then-Sup. Carmen Chu, who Lee appointed as Assessor earlier this year.

Those officials were forced to repay the expenses after the FPPC found that Pak, that time acting under the auspices of the Chinese New Year Festival Committee, was not allowed to make gifts exceeding $420 per official that year. “Please be advised that since the Chinese New Year Festival Committee is not an organization that falls under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, no public official may accept gifts of any type from this organization valued in excess of the applicable limit,” FPPC counsel Zachary Norton wrote in an Aug. 22, 2011 enforcement letter to Pak.

In other words, because this committee and “other 501(c)(6) chamber of commerce organization[s]” are in the business of actively lobbying top elected officials for favorable policies, rulings, and projects, they are barred by ethics law from giving them the gifts of big overseas political junkets. As Marsteller noted in his complaint letter, violations are punishable by fines of $5,000 per violation, or if they are “willful violations of the law” – which doing the same thing you were sanctioned for just two years ago certainly might be considered – the criminal penalties are $10,000 per violation or up to a year in jail.

Mayor Lee's portion of the trip cost the Chamber $11,970, according to the form. But this time, to get around the FPPC restrictions, Pak seems to have passed the hat among various business elites to fund the trip. The mayor's form shows that 41 people paid up to the current gift limit of $440 “to defray the cost of the mayor's trip.”

They include Pak, Brown, four people from Kwan Wo Construction, three from American Pacific International Capital, two each from Boyett Construction, Young Electric, and Bel Builders, Harbor View Holdings Director Gorretti Lo Lui, and SF Immigration Rights Commissioner Sonya Molodetskaya – most of whom were also part of the trip's 43-member delegation.

Among others who tagged along for the trip are Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru (who has a history of political corruption under Mayors Brown and Newsom and no clear business being on a Chinese trade delegation, but who doesn't love a free trip?!), Kofi Bonner from Lennar Home Builders, Harlan Kelly with the SFPUC, Jay Xu with the Asian Art Museum, the wives of Lee and Bonner, Kandace Bender with San Francisco International Airport, and Mark Chandler with the Mayor's Office of International Trade and Commerce.

It's not clear who paid for those other public officials or even what they were doing there. [UPDATE: Department of Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon told us that Nuru paid for the trip himself, but that he'll be studying China's instrastructure, from its separated bikesways to greening of public rights-of-way, as well as meeting with Chinese businesses involved in the redevelopment of Hunter's Point. "He's been looking at a lot of the infrastructure in China," Gordon said. "I expect a dozen if not more ideas when he returns."] Then again, it also wasn't clear why venture capitalist Ron Conway – Lee's top campaign fundraiser and possible reason for publicly subsidizing big tech companies, including many that Conway funds – joined and helped sponsor Lee's recent trip to Paris. This is just how business gets done in San Francisco.

"Willie Brown is the former Mayor of San Francisco," Falvey told us when we asked why Brown was on the trip and what its purpose was. "The purpose of the trip is to promote San Francisco, its local manufacturing, cultural exchanges, he is signing an MOU and meeting with high level, new Chinese government officials."

[UPDATE 4/5: Marsteller has withdrawn his complaint from the Ethics Commission alleging the mayor's form wasn't filed on time, but he and another citizen have filed separate complaints with the FPPC alleging the trip and its funding mechanism may violate the agency's 2011 ruling against Pak.]

Comments

Immigration laws exist, they are political, and they pick and choose based on politics who gets in and who does not. Either you support completely open borders or you support immigration controls. If you support controls, then the debate is merely on the politics of who gets in, if anyone.

I mistyped earlier. There is support for African immigration, so long as you're a Nigerian like Kofi Bonner or Linda Richardson and you've managed to claw your way out of poverty by stepping on everyone who gets in your way.

I'd never discriminate against an American citizen based on their national origin. But I would discriminate against an American citizen who did not even bother to register to vote and who is apparently a for-profit agent of a foreign government.

There is no evidence on the table that Rose Pak is an American citizen, and there is evidence in the record that her immigration status was questionable at one point in time and that Brown and Feinstein pulled strings to get her special treatment that made everything okay. And she has all of this money to fly to China on these junkets yet she lives in affordable housing that is as scarce as political ethics in San Francisco.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

person simply because they do not choose to vote. Nor, for that matter, how they vote.

US immigration rules are governed federally and have stayed similar under all administrations. preference is given to those with skills that we need and those with family here. Most other nations have a very similar set of rules, so there is no controversy there.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 7:27 am

In politics, it is relevant that a political player is not registered to vote.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

If I can achieve more change thru other means, I surely would. And in fact that's exactly what so-called "activists" are doing.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

Whether one is a registered voter is a valid political issue both for Rose Pak and for the professional activists that have decamped to Oakland and commute here every day for a small paycheck.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 3:20 pm

Nor do I really care where you live in the Bay Area - you are still entitled to a political viewpoint, and to use what influence you can, for the greater good of the larger urban area where you live.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

Special favorable treatment was given to certain groups, Irish and Russians in the second half of the 20th century, for instance for political not economic reasons, just as unfavorable treatment was given to other groups such as Mexicans over that same interval.

Immigration policy is purely political. It is being used for economic purposes in my field. There is no way that a democratic politics that was responsive to popular will would take affirmative steps to diminish the economic position of its own citizens by flooding the market with cheap immigrant labor.

With immigration, as with war and Wall Street subsidy, popular will is irrelevant, no impediment to corrupt government demonstrating contempt for the citizenry by screwing them at every turn.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

Why is Rose Pak not registered to vote?

Posted by marcos on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 6:34 am

So is registering to vote.

Some other countries make voting registration compulsory, although I've no idea how that can be enforced.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 7:12 am

Whether one votes or not is a relevant political issue. It helped sink Carly Fiorina's Senate campaign:

http://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/Senate-bid-dogged-by-Fiorina-s-fa...

It is reprehensible that someone who participates in politics does not vote, it is reprehensible that someone who cannot vote or does not vote has more power than citizens who do vote. That's just basic enlightenment era democratic theory that you'd just as soon repeal and foist Capitalism with Asian Values on us.

We must smile nicely and obey our new Asian overlords.

But really, why do you hate Americans and America so?

Posted by marcos on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

perilitis.

Voting is optional and nothing can be inferred from your choice about whether to vote or for whom or what to vote, of an asian persuasion or not.

If you think a vote has primacy then you would not be an activist nor seek to influence the polical process in any way other than voting. Activists are as bad as lobbyists - both seek to achieve an end by non-voting, i.e. non-democratic, means.

I am not scared of Asians. Are you scared of blacks?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 09, 2013 @ 1:37 pm
Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 11:09 am

a jury anyway.

SF juries are a crapshoot because the people you'd want on a jury do not want to serve, so you get a jury of people who want to do it, which generally are the worst types.

Handy if you're a defendant as it means you've always got a decent chance of getting off no matter how guilty you are. The "OJ Effect".

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 11:28 am

Really? An American citizen? Strange. She has no voting history and is not registered. Odd for someone so devoted to local politics. I believe she applied for amnesty as an illegal resident in 1988 or so, but that had to be completed by 1992 and there is no record that it was ever done. So, Demented, can you please provide those citizenship papers for us all to see?

Posted by CitiReport on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 11:55 am

A green card is perfectly adequate to do everything in the US that you can do, except for vote and do jury duty.

And if she lives here, she is perfectly entitled to take an interest in politics.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

Well, if she were undocumented immigrant -- an "illegal alien" -- which is what I'm gathering is being mooted here, so correct me if I'm wrong -- it would make the reactionary trolls position... quite... awkward.

After all, you regularly criticize the local progressives as being "out of towners".... and you regularly pontificate about the dangers of illegal immigration (from Mexico, at least).... and your regularly extol the virtues of Edwin Lee and Rose Pak.

That's just one thing I can see. I'm sure there might be wider significance.

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

illegally. The question was whether she has US citizenship OR whether she has a green card. I do not see why it matters which.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

Were she not a citizen that would present a question of improper foreign influence on the electoral process. But she's talked about running for the Board of Supervisors and you can't do that unless you ARE a citizen, plus she's taken out mortgages and she travels on a US passport, so it's pretty much 100% assured she is a citizen.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

If she travels on a US passport, she is a US citizen.

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 1:27 pm
Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

seek to influence the political process. It's perfectly legal for such people to make political contributions, lobby for changes, and otherwise organize others and support campaigns.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

You cannot fiscally contribute to ANY election on any level unless you are a permanent resident. In Pak's case this issue is moot as she is a citizen.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

Steve, you are bias and you belong on sfbg forever.
If you want to cover unethical, conflict of interest and 501(c), you should write about Juliet Ellis of SFPUC.

http://ethicsalarms.com/2013/04/02/now-thats-an-appearance-of-impropriety/

http://blog.sfgate.com/matierandross/2013/03/27/did-sf-official-steer-co...

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 7:52 am

I am not playing the anti-Asian card but we can't afford to be short-sighted. Sure, the funds, if secured, from Chinese investors would allow some projects to go forward and sure jobs would be created but in the long run, who would control business interests as well as many non-business aspects here? Can we afford to cede controls to foreigners whose interest is not in the best interest of our well being?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 11:41 pm

Everyone in America is from some place else, except for the small number of Indians that we didn't kill off.

Posted by anon on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 6:04 am

Why do you like totalitarian communists more than real Americans?

Posted by marcos on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 8:02 am

form of totalitarianism.

You may prefer our so-called capitalist democracy but many of us here recognise that a more dictatorial approach may help promote progressive values of equality and wealth redistribution.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 8:40 am

Which is why I prefer the anarchist analysis to the leftist analysis.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 9:26 am

of course been many non-democratic socialist societies.

So you can support that if you wish, but you condemn yourself to a lifetime of being a peripheral figure, constantly frustrated that things do not go your way, and watching from the sidelines. In politics, irrelevance is a curse.

Oh, wait . .

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 9:40 am

Comrade Stalin's words, like those of the Great Leader, are distinguished by the use of red ink. The rise of the contemporary "left" has been most successful in Latin America where it has been populist, democratic, structurally reformost and the antithesis of authoritarian.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 10:23 am

It only failed because it wasn't "real" socialism.

Oh, and if Latin America is the poster child for socialist success, then you are in real trouble. Basket case banana republics, fascist dictators, socialist dictators, collapsing currencies, drug wars, revolutions and continuing poverty.

I don't notice you moving to Cuba or Venezuela.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 10:46 am

The dictators, gangs and drug wars happen in Latin America where the US is most involved, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras and this happens because the US is involved there and because US involvement is there to inhibit democracy.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

they are lawless in the first place?

Either way, if a Latin American basketcase is the best example of socialism you can come up with, then my work here is done.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

Wherever and whenever the US intervenes, violence increases.

Mexico had not seen the level of drug violence that it has seen in recent decades until after it became clear that post-PRI, Washington was not going to accept anything to the left of right.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

Too bad nowhere else will have your useless ass, huh?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

Ed Lee dismissed the important issues like he was too important of a person. I don't like that attitude at all.

Posted by Qiang Kung on Apr. 30, 2013 @ 11:38 pm

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