The Ethics Commission fiasco

Pub date July 14, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The San Francisco Ethics Commission is a serious mess, and if Director John St. Croix can’t turn things around — quickly — he needs to resign and make room for someone who can.

Ethics has badly damaged its reputation in recent years by hounding small-time violators from grassroots campaigns and ignoring the major players who cheat and game the system as a matter of practice. A couple of festering examples:

In 2004, then-Ethics Director Ginny Vida and Deputy Director Mabel Ng ordered the staff to destroy public records that pointed to malfeasance on the part of the Newsom for Mayor campaign. The records — which the Newsom campaign sent to the commission by mistake — suggested that the newly-elected mayor was illegally diverting money from his inaugural committee to pay off his campaign debt.

St. Croix admits that the agency knew back in 2005 that public money was being laundered and improperly used in a City College bond campaign — but did absolutely nothing. Now, four years later, District Attorney Kamala Harris has indicted three college officials in that case.

In fact, Oliver Luby, an investigator with Ethics, says he brought the problem to St. Croix’s attention back when that bond campaign was still underway — and was told, in essence, to shut up. "He instructed me not to speak of my report," Luby wrote in a Nov. 4, 2008 San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece.

But the well-paid operatives working for City College and Newsom never felt the sting of an Ethics investigation. Instead, the commission spent thousands of dollars hounding Carolyn Knee, the treasurer of a public-power campaign, threatening the volunteer who lives on a modest fixed income with more that $20,000 in fines. (The case wound up being resolved with a fine of $267.)

And now Luby — who was honored for his courage as a whistleblower by the Society of Professional Journalists — has been demoted, received a formal reprimand from Ng (for doing something other staffers have done routinely) and is under investigation on the basis of an anonymous complaint.

Luby’s technical violation: writing a letter from his Ethics e-mail account during work hours commenting on new regulations proposed by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. Ng, writing as Luby’s supervisor, claims in a reprimand letter that no employee has the right to speak for the agency, and that someone in Sacramento might have misjudged his personal comments as official Ethics Commission policy. (Nobody has suggested that his comments were anything but useful or that anything he said would damage the city’s reputation. And others in the agency comment on this sort of thing all the time, with no punitive repercussions.)

Now there’s an anonymous complaint against him raising the same issue, suggesting that he was using city resources for his own personal political causes. (Never mind that his job is working on the exact same issues as the FPPC rules cover and that he has absolutely no political or personal stake in the outcome.)

This city desperately needs aggressive enforcement of the political reform laws — and people like Oliver Luby ought to be getting praise and support from management and ought to be put in charge of ferreting out corruption. Instead, St. Croix and Ng are trying to hound him from his job.

The commission members need to tell St. Croix and Eng to drop the complaints against Luby, change the agency’s priorities and start going after the real scofflaws. The Board of Supervisors also needs to convene hearings on the problems at Ethics, something that Sups. David Campos and John Avalos have indicated a willingness to do.

P.S. : Since Ethics has refused to follow-up on the City College mess, the D.A.’s Office needs to pursue the case as broadly as possible, looking not just at the chancellor and his two aides but at anyone else who might have knowledge of the alleged criminal activity. And the Community College Board needs to move immediately to launch a fully public internal investigation and start complying with the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. *