FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ISSUE: Ethics Commission system for routing out political corruption doesn't work, but it could easily be fixed
Several weeks ago, Sup. Chris Daly e-mailed the San Francisco Ethics Commission to ask what seemed like a simple question. Daly is spearheading a June citywide ballot measure to ask voters to support the designation of the new Transbay Transit Center as the end point for the planned California High Speed Rail project, a response to the California High Speed Rail Authority's move to explore alternative locations.
As an elected official, Daly knew there were certain individuals he might be barred from accepting money from for this effort. A San Francisco campaign finance law prohibits entities holding city contracts worth $50,000 or more from donating to political campaigns run by the elected officials who approve those contracts, a rule crafted to eliminate quid pro quo dealings that can corrupt the political process.
But when Daly tried to find out whose checks he shouldn't be accepting, he didn't receive a simple list of names in response. Instead he got a dense e-mail highlighting the complexity of this area of campaign finance law, offering no easy answers. For one, it wasn't clear whether the law applied to his committee. Assuming it did, however, there was another hurdle.
"Determining which contributors are prohibited from contributing to your committee is a bit complex at the moment," Oliver Luby, an Ethics Commission staffer, wrote in the e-mail, "because the contractor disclosures filed ... are only in hard copy format."
This vexing detail meant that obtaining a searchable list of banned contributors would require scanning hundreds of Ethics Commission forms filed on behalf of the Board of Supervisors, then manually entering potentially thousands of data rows into a spreadsheet, a project that could suck up significant time and resources.
The campaign contribution ban applies not only to major contractors, but the executive officers, subcontractors, and major shareholders of those contracting firms, so there could be a long list of individuals prohibited from making a political donation once a single contract is approved.
These restrictions theoretically create an excellent safeguard against corruption — but since it's not recorded in electronic format, the filings amount to an almost useless sea of data. In fact, even the Ethics Commission, which is supposed to regulate violations of this ban and issue fines, isn't able to routinely do so.
Luby pointed out the shortcoming of the system and an easy solution to Executive Director John St. Croix and Deputy Director Mabel Ng in an internal e-mail last December. "Private interests that can afford to manually create databases using the data ... will have an advantage over other interests (perhaps even our own office) where the resources are not available to manually create such databases," he wrote. "The obvious solution to this problem is e-filing."
For example, if city agencies and political campaigns were required to submit their data in Excel spreadsheets or through an online system that automatically created spreadsheets, it would be easy to compare them to see who is violating the law.
When asked about this, St. Croix said the resources just don't exist to upgrade the commission's online capabilities. "We don't have the resources to develop the software right now," he told us. "So someday, yes. After we go through the next election season, and people see that they have a lot of difficulties in complying with this, then we may be able to build some support to make these changes."
The e-mails were among hundreds of documents included in response to a Sunshine Ordinance public information request the Guardian submitted to the Ethics Commission in February. The assortment of documents relating to the contractor contribution ban revealed just how difficult it is for the average person to discern whether any entities striking deals with the city are at the same time trying to curry favor with the politicians who approve their contracts.
In 2006, a batch of reforms were approved to tighten restrictions on campaign contributions from major city contractors and require filing disclosure forms. Intended to point a floodlight on pay-to-play practices, the rules were championed by former Ethics Commissioner Joe Lynn, who died late last year.
Since it was established in 2006, however, the law has seen neither steady enforcement nor routine compliance from elected officials, documents show. The Mayor's Office, for example, did not start filing the forms until April 2009, a month after critical media reports pointed out that few city departments were in compliance. While many more have started filing regularly, it appears that certain state agencies covered by the law — including the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) — have not.
Nor does the Ethics Commission itself seem focused on ferreting out potential violators. "I am reluctant to ask my auditors or enforcement staff to review [contract disclosure] filings and compare them against campaign filings because the sheer amount of data will make the search wasteful and likely fruitless," St. Croix wrote in a memo to his staff last October.
At the same time, attempts have been made to scale back the scope of the law, based on the argument that it is difficult to enforce. St. Croix's memo recommended that the contribution ban not apply to contractors who deal with state agencies such as TIDA or the Redevelopment Agency, which are controlled by mayoral appointees and oversee development contracts worth millions of dollars. "Although city elective officers appoint some members of those bodies, city officials rarely have any involvement with those agencies' contracts," he argued.
Asked if these suggestions will be discussed formally anytime soon, St. Croix was doubtful. "Unfortunately, even though we think they're necessary, it's going to be a very difficult sell at the Board [of Supervisors]," he said. "Even though we think we're fixing a problem, it looks like you're rolling back reform, and that's not popular."
On the eve of an election season featuring hotly contested seats on the Board of Supervisors, the Democratic County Central Committee, and other high-profile local and statewide offices, the relatively arcane archive of the contractor disclosure forms stored away at the Ethics Commission might get more attention. Are major corporations that do business with the city scratching the backs of politicians who want to advance their political careers to keep the wheels greased for their own business ambitions?
Without a user-friendly, functional system for tracking contracts and comparing them against campaign contributions, it's tough to say.