Part three in a Guardian series
San Francisco Ethics Commission executive director John St. Croix has admitted that his office knew in 2005 about the alleged laundering of public money into a San Francisco City College bond election campaign well before the story broke in newspapers in April but did nothing to investigate.
That startling revelation knits together two concurrent series that the Guardian has been running for the past two weeks: one on City College’s deceptive and unaccountable use of bond money and another on the uneasiness local watchdogs feel about the Ethics Commission’s ability and willingness to mete out balanced punishment to elections-law violators.
When news reports surfaced in April that City College allegedly had diverted up to $30,000 in public money to a bond election campaign committee, Chancellor Phil Day moved quickly to limit the fallout. So did independently elected trustee Rodel Rodis, who along with six other board members is responsible for controlling and managing the San Francisco Community College District.
During meetings organized that month to address the matter, Day came clean and blamed everything on a "relatively new" assistant vice chancellor. At least two trustees, one of whom had been recently elected, still wanted to know more about why it was allowed to happen. Rodis, on the other hand, complained that hiring an independent investigator at a cost of $75,000 to look into the matter was too expensive and framed the stories written by San Francisco Chronicle investigate reporter Lance Williams as an unfair attack on the college.
"Let’s be mindful that we’re still in a budget crisis and we still need to watch taxpayer money," Rodis said at one of the meetings.
Unlike Rodis, District Attorney Kamala Harris didn’t treat the allegations as insignificant and is now reportedly probing possible criminal violations in connection with the scandal. The investigation, Williams wrote recently, includes contributions made to the committee by contractors that did recent business with the school.
But where was the Ethics Commission during all of this? The controversy raises serious questions about why the agency never took any action against City College when, as its mission statement declares, its responsibility is to "actively enforce all ethics laws and rules, including campaign finance and open government laws."
Late in the commission’s July 9 meeting, St. Croix made the stunning admission that although his office knew about the allegations surrounding City College’s dubious handling of public funds all the way back in 2005, for some inexplicable reason it did nothing.
Staff shortages and poor financing have plagued the Ethics Commission since voters created it in 1993. Although the number of staffers has doubled during his three-year tenure, St. Croix nonetheless told the Guardian recently that his agency remains dependent on the public to help expose political candidates and campaign committees that break the law.
"We still rely on people and the city being watchdogs," St. Croix told us. "We’re supposed to be the eyes and ears for a lot of things, but we’re still extremely limited."
In this case, however, St. Croix’s office was well aware of allegations that City College bureaucrats had misappropriated public funds. The school’s Board of Trustees, along with Day’s office, created the Committee to Support Our City College in 2005 to convince voters to give the school $246.3 million in bond money to continue with a slate of capital works projects that began in 1997 and now are costing hundreds of millions of dollars more than anticipated.
The owner of a motorcycle training school claimed in a December 2005 letter to the Ethics Commission that he was told by the college to make a rent check for the regular use of school property payable to the committee instead of the school itself. Amazingly, the Ethics Commission pondered contacting the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission to disclose the allegations, which is the least it should have done, but never actually did so, as St. Croix has acknowledged only now.
"I take responsibility for that," St. Croix told us. "I don’t know who actually dropped the ball. But at the time we had less staff and there were a lot of things we were supposed to do and we weren’t doing."
Nor did the Ethics Commission contact the college to demand that it amend its campaign filings from that year to reflect the true source of that $10,000 payment and acknowledge itself rather than the motorcycle training school as a major contributor to the bond committee. St. Croix figured that could happen at the conclusion of the FPPC’s inquiry. Of course, the FPPC didn’t know about the allegations, at least not until the Ethics Commission finally contacted it in May, following the Chronicle‘s front-page stories.
The Ethics Commission’s lax approach to City College oversight also extends to trustees like Rodis, who has his own apparent campaign finance violations from his 2004 reelection campaign. That year, records show, his campaign failed to turn in three key election filings required to ensure that before heading to the ballot box, voters have a chance to see where candidates are getting their campaign money from. The commission sent his campaign several warning letters; just one of the filings finally arrived nine months later.
The trustee pointed to a campaign staffer when we contacted him regarding the tardy campaign statements. "We had someone working on the campaign who was supposed to do that," Rodis told us. "He indicated to us that everything was in order. We relied on him. We paid him. And then we found out later that he didn’t do what he was supposed to do…. It was one of those things that happen when you trust people."
The filing Rodis did manage to turn in shows that of the more than $44,000 he raised for his reelection effort that year, at least $1,700 had no identified donors, and other donations were marred by confusing data entry errors. An internal Ethics memo obtained by the Guardian that discusses the Rodis reelection campaign committee concludes that its poor reporting "appears to be a matter of willfulness and disregard for the law" and what belated filings do exist "present significant data problems." According to the memo, "Based on the record, significant questions remain regarding the true facts of the committee’s financing."
Rodis in 2004 won reelection to the board for the fourth time since he first became a trustee in 1991. According to our conservative estimates based only on the late filings, he could be liable for thousands of dollars in fines. *