FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ISSUE: Former Mayor Willie Brown is a powerful advocate for private interests — but he flouts lobbyist registration laws
In 2007 and 2008, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. paid former Mayor Willie Brown a total of $480,000 for consulting work. Since Brown has never been utility lawyer, it's almost certain that money has bought political advice and access.
Brown is also working for the owners of the Fairmont Hotel, which wants to tear down one of its towers and build as many as 180 luxury condos.
His public affairs institute shares office space with one of the most powerful lobbying firms in town. He meets with or talks regularly with the mayor and members of the Board of Supervisors.
Yet unlike dozens of others who seek to influence public policy for hire, Brown is not registered as a lobbyist at City Hall.
On the surface, it's a fairly modest issue — all Brown would have to do to comply with the letter and spirit of the city's law is to fill out a form, list his clients, and reveal which officials he's been talking to. It would take him 10 minutes.
But the fact that someone who is widely acknowledged to be among the most influential power brokers in San Francisco refuses to disclose whom he's working for leaves city officials and the public in the dark — and raises a long list of questions about the effectiveness of the city's ethics laws.
There's a reason city law requires people who seek to influence city officials for money to disclose what they're up to. When elected officials, commissioners, or department heads meet with advocates, they need to know who's paying the bills. If, for example, Sup. Jane Kim has breakfast with Brown (which Brown himself reported on in a recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle), she needs to know: Does he have a client with an agenda? If he asks her to meet with someone, is he just looking out for the interests of the city — or is he pushing a paid special interest?
When Brown has dinner with Mayor Ed Lee (as he did several weeks ago) the voters need to know: Is this dinner companion pushing the mayor to make policy decisions that might help a private interest?
The definition of "lobbyist" in city law is designed to avoid putting special requirements on advocates who push issues on their own or for purely political reasons. A neighborhood activist pushing for a stop sign or better police patrols doesn't have to register. Neither does a restaurant owner looking for a permit to put tables on the street. The only people who have to register are those who represent a client who pays them more than $3,000 in any given three-month period.
Lawyers are exempt if they're contacting city officials purely about specific pending litigation or claims. Labor leaders are exempt if they're talking about wages or benefits for their union members.
The requirements aren't onerous. Lobbyists simply disclose their clients, the issues they're working on, the city officials they have contacted, and any campaign contributions they've made.
There's no doubt Brown meets the financial threshold in at least one instance. Documents on file with the state Public Utilities Commission show that PG&E paid him $280,000 in 2007 and almost $200,000 in 2008. And although Brown is a lawyer, there's no indication that he is representing PG&E in any litigation against the city.
On the other hand, PG&E is fighting hard to derail the city's community choice aggregation program. Is Brown part of that effort? There's no way to know.
It's clear he talks to local officials regularly. Most members of the Board of Supervisors we contacted said they had talked to Brown at some point in the past year. "He called me to ask how he could help with the local hire legislation," Sup. John Avalos told us. "I told him he could call (then-Sup.) Bevan Dufty. He said he would, but I don't know if it ever happened." Sup. Sean Elsbernd told us he speaks to Brown about "the state of local political dynamics," but said he can't remember being lobbied on any particular issue.
Insiders say that's typical — Brown rarely lets anyone know exactly what his interests are. "The talent of Willie is his ability to create plausible deniability," one city official, who asked not to be named, told us.
But when Brown is involved, things have a funny way of happening. Take the Fairmont Hotel.
The Fairmont's owners, who include the Saudi royal family and a group of American investors, want to tear down one of the hotel's towers, eliminate several hundred hotel rooms, and replace them with high-end condominiums. That requires a city permit — legislation by former Sup. Aaron Peskin limits the number of hotel rooms that can be converted to condos and requires applicants to submit to a lottery for the right to convert.
The Fairmont applied for a permit in 2009, and won tentative approval. But in October 2010, the Planning Commission refused to certify the project's environmental impact report. With no valid EIR, the permits expired, meaning the hotel would have to go back and reenter the lottery, with no guarantee of success.
So the Fairmont owners are seeking special legislation that would allow them to submit a new EIR without going to the back of the line — in essence, an exemption from the lottery. So far there's no champion on the Board of Supervisors, and the hotel workers union has been dubious about the project, fearing it will cost union jobs in the long run.
But early in March, Mayor Lee quietly submitted his own legislation to the board, offering the Fairmont everything the owners want.
Who's working for the owners? Willie Brown.
Bill Oberndorf, part of the local ownership group, told us Brown was an "advisor" to the project. "Nobody in the city has more knowledge about how to get things done than Mayor Brown," he said.
So did Brown talk to Lee before the mayor introduced his Fairmont bill? And isn't that a valid question? At press time, Lee's office hadn't responded to my questions. But if Brown was a registered lobbyist, he'd have to report that information.
Who else are Brown's clients? Since he doesn't register, there's no list. But there are some clues.
For example, the headquarters of the Willie Brown Institute is situated at One Market Plaza, Suite 2250. That's the same address as Platinum Advisors, the high-powered lobbying firm founded by Darius Anderson. Among the firm's clients: AECOM, the engineering and construction giant, which has a $147 million contract on the Chinatown subway project; PG&E; and Sutter Health, which wants to build a $1 billion hospital on Van Ness Avenue.
Others who lobby regularly at City Hall don't always register. Rob Black, who works for the Chamber of Commerce, is a constant presence.
Black told us the chamber used to be considered a "registered lobby entity" that was required to report all contacts with public officials and the issue involved. But the Board of Supervisors changed that law last year, requiring lobbyist registration only from individuals who are paid at least $3,000 per quarter for lobbying. Furthermore, the definition of lobbying doesn't include attending or speaking at public hearings or writing letters. So while the SF Chamber's Black, Steve Falk, and Jim Lazarus all lobby city officials, Black said, none have exceeded that threshold. "If we hit the monetary threshold, we'll start filing individually," he said.
The fact that Brown is a lawyer doesn't excuse him from registering, said Ethics Commission director John St. Croix "If someone is paid specifically to lobby government, they should register," St. Croix said.
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi told us that the city needs to take a look at the lobbyist registration law to make sure that everyone who has private interests is properly registered.
Elsbernd said that others — particularly labor leaders and union staffers — also regularly lobby but don't register. And while the law may allow them to skate underneath (like Black), there's a huge difference between, say, Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson appearing at City Hall and Brown meeting with city officials.
When Paulson appears, there's no doubt in anyone's mind whom he represents. The same could be said of Black. Although the chamber has many members, it's clear that he's pushing the interests of the big-business community.
On the other hand, Ken Cleaveland, public affairs director of the Building Owners and Managers Association, is duly registered with the Ethics Commission.
Brown — as is his typical practice — didn't return my calls seeking comment. But by flouting the rules, he's able to operate completely behind the scenes, influencing policy decisions in secrecy, with no accountability whatsoever. That's a violation of the exact reason the lobbyist registration laws exist.