Legislators are ‘special’
by Quentin Kopp
“We live in an age disturbed, confused, bewildered, afraid of its own forces, in search not merely of its road, but even of its direction. There are many voices of counsel, but few voices of vision; there is much … feverish activity, but little concert of thoughtful purpose. We are distressed by our own ungoverned, undirected energies and do many things, but nothing long. It is our duty to find ourselves.” That’s not the mandate of contemporary political commentators and philosophers, but Woodrow Wilson, speaking at Princeton University on June 9, 1907.
Once upon a time, presidential campaigns were relatively short. Not now in the era of Trump, especially for Democrats, like an unknown congressman from Texas who was vanquished two months ago for U.S. Senate or another similar type unknown except in Alameda County and the SF Chronicle, and rookie U.S. senate members, including one from San Francisco.
Forgotten is Kamala Harris’ conduct 16 years ago. Before election as San Francisco’s district attorney in November, 2003, she benefited from appointment to the $97,000-per year California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, by then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in 1993, and the next year to the even higher-paying California Medical Commission.
The Feb. 23, 2003 San Diego Union-Tribune observed that those two state boards were frequently condemned by taxpayers for “allow(ing) politically connected people with no expertise … to earn large salaries for jobs that are less than full-time.”
The erstwhile Bay Guardian’s Savannah Blackwell noted that Harris had no experience at the age of 30 to “qualify her to oversee the work of 15 staff members who negotiate Medi-Cal reimbursement rates with state hospitals.” Additionally, she was paid by taxpayers as an Alameda County deputy district attorney.
In 1998, her California Medical Commission salary soared to $99,000 a year. Given a six-figure job by then-SF District Attorney Terence Hallinan as a San Francisco deputy prosecutor, she rewarded her benefactor by running against him in 2003 after San Francisco adopted public financing with clear eligibility rules, including a maximum amount of campaign spending. In her case, it was $211,000.
After spending $1.15 million compared to Hallinan’s $362,000, she was the subject of an SF Ethics Commission complaint (that wasn’t a new experience: in 2000, she was paid $8,000 to manage the unsuccessful re-election campaign of SF Supervisor Amos Brown and failed to notify the public of the mailing of two political brochures within the time legally required).
Eventually, in 2003, Harris was charged by the Ethics Commission with violating her promise not to spend more than $211,000 on her district attorney’s campaign. Her violation of the public financing law was clear, but instead of fining her the maximum penalty of $275,000, the Ethics Commission assessed her a mere $34,000.
The law also permitted her disqualification. As Blackwell wrote in September, 2005 for the former SFProgressive.com: “By law, Harris should not even be the city’s district attorney.”
Most recently, taxpayers funded the December settlement of a harassment suit against a top aide in her U.S. Senate office for $400,000. As California’s most knowledgeable political commentator, Dan Walters wrote in Cal Matters on Dec. 18, after Harris claimed ignorance of the suit or settlement: “It seems incredible that Harris would have been kept in the dark about a harassment allegation against one of her closest aides, and the secret payoff that made it go away.
That’s especially true since Harris has made sexual harassment a touchstone in preparing for a presidential run.”
As a U.S. senator, of course, Harris is eligible for Washington elite access to an obscure, lucrative Social Security alternative under which one monthly payment ($11,334) equals a whole year’s sum of ordinary Social Security payments. That’s 10 times more than the average Social Security payment.
Including Al Gore, about 351 former congressmen and congresswomen collect such benefit, but deployment of taxpayers’ money also occurs locally. The California Fair Political Practices Commission (F.P.P.C.) recently fined BART a modest $7,500 for failing to file campaign expenditure statements in 2016 for a $3.5 million bond.
Public agencies are prohibited from using taxpayer funds for political campaigns. Unfortunately, F.P.P.C. authority doesn’t include whether such activity was legal in the first place because it can only apply sanctions for undisclosed public agency campaign spending.
BART spent $7,791 of taxpayer money to produce videos and send texts to promote the bond measure, which won easily. Meanwhile, local district attorneys and the state attorney general declined to sue agencies that used public money for political campaigns, criminally. In my 27 years in elected public office, I witnessed one such criminal action by the San Mateo County district attorney, the best prosecutor’s office in the nine Bay Area counties.
State Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda has requested the attorney general investigate the violation and promises legislation to expand F.P.P.C. power. In November, the F.P.P.C. also decided there’s probable cause the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors spent more than $800,000 of taxpayer money to campaign for a 2017 homeless services ballot measure.
The lesson? Pity the poor taxpayer.
Quentin Kopp is a former San Francisco supervisor and state senator, retired judge and current member of the SF Ethics Commission.