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of anti-corruption laws, which were approved by voters in 2000, then repealed by the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