Prosecute election theft

Pub date October 31, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL There’s no doubt at all that a group of downtown businesses operating through a series of supposedly independent political committees organized in part by attorney Jim Sutton have used every tool at their disposal to influence the outcome of the District 6 supervisorial election. And there’s no doubt that what these folks have done violates at least the spirit of the city’s election laws, which were designed to offer, as much as legally possible, a level playing field for candidates and full disclosure of campaign expenses.
There’s also no doubt that Sutton has been willing to bend and at times break the rules: in 2002 his law firm was fined $240,000 — the largest penalty of its kind in city history — for failing to disclose late contributions from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to a campaign to defeat a public power initiative.
At some point this sort of conduct rises to the level of a crime — and at least some respectable, credible activists and observers think the attacks on Sup. Chris Daly have reached that level. In a letter to the Guardian, published on page 8, former ethics commissioner Joe Lynn argues that Sutton and his allies are guilty of attempting to steal an election.
There’s no crime in the books called “Grand Theft, Election,” although there probably should be. But Lynn says that what’s happened here — unregulated committees raising and spending tens of thousands of dollars and not fully disclosing it until late in the cycle — is not merely sleazy and unethical but criminal.
We’re always nervous about bringing the criminal justice system into political disputes (we still remember how then-mayor Art Agnos pushed the district attorney into conducting a witch-hunt investigation into the opponents of a downtown ballpark ballot measure). But we’re also sick of seeing the likes of Sutton, Don Fisher, and SFSOS operate with virtual impunity when what they are doing comes very, very close to a conspiracy to subvert local election laws. The Ethics Commission needs to conduct a full investigation here, but that body can impose only civil penalties, which means cash fines — and for billionaire Fisher, whose money is behind a lot of these shenanigans, a stiff fine is just the cost of doing business.
District Attorney Kamala Harris ought to look into this. The problem is that Sutton was her lawyer in a heated campaign in 2003 during which her opponent, Terence Hallinan, raised similar charges. So Harris is conflicted; the best solution would be to appoint outside counsel — a special prosecutor, to use the Washington terminology — to investigate whether Sutton, Fisher, SFSOS, or anyone else ought to face criminal prosecution. The sooner that process gets started, the better. SFBG