Group that backed Farrell for supervisor coordinated too closely with the candidate’s committee; now he’s on the hook for $190,000
By Larry Bush
June 5, 2015 — In a 5-0 vote, the SF Ethics Commission today rejected for the second time a proposal by Executive Director John St. Croix to waive a $191,000 fine against Sup. Mark Farrell’s campaign committee as a result of an “independent” campaign run against his 2010 opponent.
The vote sends a strong message that these supposedly distinct committees, which often raise and spend huge sums of money, can’t skirt the rules and work as a secret part of a candidate’s official campaign.
Janet Reilly, who lost to Farrell, had filed a complaint that Farrell’s campaign benefitted from the Common Sense Voters committee that operated to attack her. Some $150,000 in contributions to that independent expenditure committee came from Thomas Coates, and another $40,000 from Denise Hale, both friends of Farrell.
Farrell won by only 258 votes, suggesting that the IE could have changed the outcome of the election.
So-called IE committees have to operate entirely separate from official campaign committees. Under city law, a candidate can only raise $500 from any one donor; IEs, thanks to the US Supreme Court, can raise unlimited money from anyone.
But the catch is that the IEs can’t coordinate anything with the official campaign: no contacts, no discussions of strategy – nothing. And an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission found that the CSV group was actually working closely with the Farrell campaign.
That meant that Farrell would have to pay back to the city the difference between what the IE raised and what it would have been allowed if every donor gave only $500.
This kind of wink-and-a-nod coordination has happened in the past, largely with impunity. Ethics did nothing when it was very clear that now-disgraced campaign consultant Enrique Pearce was running an IE that had to be coordinating the campaign of Mayor Ed Lee.
But Reilly, unlike the foes of Mayor Lee, had the resources and motivation to hire a law firm to file and pursue this complaint. And Farrell, whom the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission had exonerated, took the hit.
The FPPC found that the fault was primarily with the campaign consultants he had hired.
St. Croix tried to argue that Farrell should be off the hook because the supervisor himself had not been identified by the FPPC as being at fault, and the statute of limitations had passed for the commission to act.
I informed the commission that St. Croix’s statement that the agency was not informed until December was inaccurate, because I had an email from the FPPC to Ethics dated in August informing the agency that the investigation was complete, providing a copy of the finished stipulation, and offering to do a joint release with a copy of a model joint statement — and that Ethics had no record of any reply going back to the FPPC.
As to Farrell’s fault, that question was punted in favor of forwarding the entire matter on where another body would examine that question.
Farrell was represented by Jim Sutton, and once again did not attend the commission meeting or speak in his defense.
Commission chair Paul Renne termed the violation “egregious” and among the most serious to come before the commission.
Several commissioners said that this case had been mishandled by staff and that new oversight is required — and even Sutton in defending Farrell recommended that the commission examine St. Croix’ relationship to the commission and adopt new rules.
Rob van Ravenswaay, a member of the recent Civil Grand Jury, spoke to say that the Grand Jury had recommended a policy that the commission, and not staff, make these decisions.
Several Friends of Ethics representatives spoke, including van Ravenswaay, Bob Planthold, Charlie Marsteller and me. Attending and closely following to let the commission know of its interest were Elena Schmid, past foreperson of the Civil Grand Jury, Hulda Garfolo, pas chair of the 2011 Civil Grand Jury report on Ethics, Bob Dockendorff, past Ethics Commission member, and others.
With St. Croix on his way out, the Ethics Commission may be taking seriously the challenge of limiting the sewer money that is corrupting local politics.