Commentary

Commentary – Quentin Kopp

Bad move for commission

By Quentin Kopp

 

An anonymous writer once observed: “Maybe we were better off when charity was a

virtue instead of a deduction.”

 

Another writer observed: “Real charity doesn’t care if it’s deductible or not.”

 

Friends and acquaintances have mostly ceased asking me about my experience and

opinion of service on the SF Ethics Commission, since September 2016, as an appointee

of the SF Board of Supervisors. I refrain no more because of the failure of a necessary

four-fifths majority of the five-member Ethic’s Commission to approve restoration

of anti-corruption laws, which were approved by voters in 2000, then repealed by the

Board of Supervisors in 2003.

 

Bear in mind that the Charter, for more than 20 years, requires a four-fifths approval of

commissioners to submit a proposed strengthening of ethics requirements to the

Board of Supervisors for submission to voters; or the commission can submit it directly

to the voters, too.

 

One of the major provisions of the high-sounding Anti-Corruption and Accountability

Act propounded last year for commission adoption barred so-called “behest” donations

to a local elected or appointed official’s favorite charity in return for favorable

treatment to the donor on a permit, license or other city government benefit. That

incited non-profit entities to bombard Ethics Commission members and staff with

catastrophic objections, claiming they (the nonprofit corporations) never tried

to exercise undue influence and such an act by the Ethics Commission would diminish

donations substantially.

 

I can recall the venerated pastor of Glide Memorial Church in the 1980s pleading with his

chosen candidate for mayor to withdraw from the run-off in November, 1987, against

future Mayor Art Agnos, based upon a fear that Agnos’ election would cause termination

of taxpayer money flowing to the Glide Memorial Church.

 

Friends of Ethics, a volunteer city organization receiving no taxpayer money, discovered

as of Feb. 13, that $798,566,250 has been paid to non-profit entities for the fiscal year

2017-18, that $191,790,256 remains to be paid by June 30, 2018, for a total

of almost $1 billion from taxpayers, and that the estimate of the percentage of San

Franciscans working for a non-profit entity is 17 percent, according to the Mayor’s

Workforce Office, and the number of grants written annually is 2,277, with the number

of recipients being much lower because many receive a large number of grants.

 

The infestation of nonprofits is remarkable.

 

Friends of Ethics, through its president, Larry Bush, reported the most recent Internal

Revenue Service filing for 2016 of the non-profit “Friends of City Planning,” which

included Peter Cohen from the Council of Community Housing Organizations, who

testified repeatedly at the Ethics Commission against a prohibition on “behest”

payments, and S. Osborn Erickson, a major developer and behest donor; and

Larry Nibbi, another major “behest” donor. These are just three of the nonprofits’

members who regularly need permits from the SF Planning Commission.

 

Cohen’s organization doesn’t even provide benefits in the form of housing or medical

treatment or recreational activities; it’s an association of non-profit housing entities,

which supposedly do provide direct benefits to San Francisco residents.

 

The non-profit entities succeeded in stopping the prohibition of behest payments in the

proposed ordinance in favor of simply a disclosure of “behest” donations by contractors,

planners, architects and developers to designated charities. As I stated last December,

how many citizens possess an interest in reading City Hall ethics forms? Not very many,

in my long experience.

 

Moreover, the same nonprofits succeeded in deleting a clause conferring the ability of a

citizen to sue for such ethics and conflict of interest violations if the city attorney or

district attorney refuse to act after 90 days of a complaint to the Ethics Commission. It’s

called a “private right of action.”

 

More than 10 city ordinances bestow that power upon taxpayers if city officials fail to act

and allow recovery of their attorney fees and court costs. State law contains numerous

such provisions, but the nonprofits were able to claim that unidentified but well-heeled

entities and individuals would find ways to harass charities with frivolous lawsuits.

 

Thus, there’s no private citizen empowerment to enforce the now-insipid anti-corruption

act. The culmination occurred on Feb. 16 at the Ethics Commission meeting, with two

commissioners voting against even conveying a weakened law to the Board of

Supervisors for consideration.

 

One commissioner who voted “no” told chairman Peter Keane he would support him,

leading Keane to resign from the commission immediately, a saddening event. (Keane

was chief deputy public defender for 25 years, a law professor and dean at the Golden

Gate University School of Law. He currently teaches at Hastings Law School.)

 

Best laid plans have gone awry.

 

Quentin Kopp is a former San Francisco supervisor and state senator, retired judge and

current member of the SF Ethics Commission.

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