The lobbyist loophole

Pub date March 15, 2011

EDITORIAL As the stories in this issue show, open government laws are critical to democracy. Without the city’s sunshine law, we wouldn’t know how the proposal to give Twitter a tax break ballooned into a major giveaway. Without the sunshine laws, Tim Crews, the embattled publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror, wouldn’t have been able to use his small paper to hold public officials accountable.

That’s why the laws on the books need to be enforced — and sometimes strengthened. One example in San Francisco is the lobbyist registration requirement.

Here’s the problem: Former Mayor Willie Brown, who now works for at least two major outfits with business before City Hall. As Tim Redmond reports on page 10, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. paid Brown some $480,000 in 2007 and 2008. And although Brown is a lawyer, nobody can honestly believe that was for legal work. He was clearly paid to give the embattled utility political advice and to pull political strings. And PG&E has major interests at City Hall — San Francisco is trying to set up a community choice aggregation system that PG&E opposes, and (of course) the utility has spent almost 90 years trying to block public power in this town. There are dozens of other city issues, from facility safety to the franchise fee, that affect PG&E’s bottom line.

Has Brown tried to influence city officials on behalf of the utility? The public has no way to know. By law, any individual who lobbies for a private client (and earns more than $3,000 a quarter doing so) has to register with the Ethics Commission, reveal his or her clients, and report on all contacts with city officials. Brown has never done that.

Brown also works for the owners of the Fairmont Hotel, who want the right to convert hotel rooms to condos. Mayor Ed Lee just submitted legislation giving the hoteliers what they want, and Brown is Lee’s political mentor. Connection?

The public has a right to know who’s trying to do what deals behind closed doors; that’s why the city has a lobbyist registration law. The voters have a right to know whether lobbyists are giving money to elected officials; that’s why the law requires registered lobbyists to itemize those contributions. But it’s not always honored — and as Brown shows, it can be openly defied. And nothing happens.

Part of the problem is that the Ethics Commission has been far too lax in pursuing enforcement of the laws. The agency lacks the resources to do serious investigations. As a result, its director John St. Croix told us, all the staff can do is respond to complaints. But even with the limited money it has, the commission can do a lot more. Public hearings on the failures of lobbyist registration and campaign contribution reporting would be a good first step. And how hard would it be to cross-check campaign filings with lobbyist filings to see which lobbyists don’t properly report their contributions? A simple computer program could do that in a few minutes.

The commission also needs to do a better job making its funding case to the supervisors. The utter lack of serious enforcement of laws involving powerful interests doesn’t instill confidence in the agency.

But the law is also vague in parts, and the supervisors need to fix it. A clearer definition of “lobbyist” is a clear mandate. And enforcement needs to be increased. Willful violation of the state’s Political Reform Act is a misdemeanor crime. Violating the city’s lobbyist law should be too.