Big money and dubious ethics in the D3 election

Mayor Lee with APDC and Realtor lobbyist Jay Cheng entering into private nonprofit "Friends of Tenants" rally for Julie Christensen at a public school site
Mayor Ed Lee walks into a “Friends of Tenants” rally for Sup. Christensen with Jay Cheng, a Realtor lobbyist and leader in APDC

By Tim Redmond

OCTOBER 28, 2015 – There are advantages to being the incumbent in an election. That’s hardly news. There are also advantages to being supported by a mayor who has strong connections in a crucial part of your district.

So Julie Christensen gets to do events like this, where she is the featured speaker at a Planning Department forum on how to more easily get permits for your projects.

But at a certain point, an election campaign pushes a line – and the effort to elect Christensen, involving a wide range of players other than the candidate, is getting awfully close.

In fact, her involvement with events where gifts were handed out to voters, her connections to a very dubious “tenant” group that is linked to the most anti-tenant factions in town, and her massive support from landlord groups and one wealthy real-estate developer who has devoted millions of dollars to trying to destroy rent control, raise a lot of serious questions about the state of politics in San Francisco.

Three times this fall, according to witnesses and Chinese-language media reports, Christensen has appeared at events at a public school that at involved exhortations to vote for and her least twice involved a food giveaway– something that even the Mayor’s Office says is against the law.

Event sponsors say the supervisor’s participation was a coincidence, and maybe if it happened once, that would be credible. Three times? Seems more like a coordinated campaign effort.

The sponsor of the events, according to Chinese language newspaper reports, is a group called Friends of Tenants, which was incorporated Aug. 6, 2015 as a nonprofit organization under Section 501 c 3 of the Internal Revenue Code, state records show.

It’s charitable purpose, documents on file with the Secretary of State show, is to “promote tenant rights.”

An organization with that designation is not allowed to endorse or support any political candidate at the local, state, or federal level. The IRS is very clear about this and there’s little wiggle room.

And yet, FOT held an event July 19th that Sing Tao Daily described this way:

“Friends of Tenants”, a tenant group established at the beginning of this year, gathered 300 members yesterday morning at Jean Parker Elementary School to rally for Julie Christensen. They were also registering members to become voters,

An article in the Epoch Times, which was translated for 48hills, states that

On August 22nd, “San Francisco Friends of Tenant Association” held an event to support Julie Christensen for District 3 Supervisor at Jean Parker Elementary School.

Among the speakers was Josephine Zhao, who is the head of a landlord group that has opposed virtually every piece of tenant legislation at the city or state level; in fact, she and her group were out in force to oppose Mayor Ed Lee’s efforts to reform the Ellis Act. It’s hard to imagine how a group called “Friends of Tenants” could be working with her.

A person who attended told us through a translator that she was given cooking oil and noodles for showing up. It wasn’t a public event, tickets were required, and members of the Chinatown Tenants Association were told they were not welcome.

On Sept. 26, the Sing Tao daily reported, FOT held another event at the same school, and again, Christensen was present – this time with Mayor Lee – and part of the program was an exhortation to vote for her. Again, the translation provided to us reads:

Ed Lee pointed out, elected officials should spend more time on practical matters rather than wasting time on arguments. He said Christensen works closely with him at City Hall in fighting for more funding to hire more police officers and fire fighters, as well as building more housing. When Julie Christensen came up to the stage, Ed Lee raised her hand, asking voters to support her in the November election.

At the event, reported in SF Weekly, slate cards from the Asian Pacific Democratic Club, which endorsed Christensen, were handed out, witnesses who asked not to be identified said.

 

An article in the Chinese newspaper World Journal quoted the head of Friends of Tenants saying that the event did happen, and that Lee and Christensen were there – but said that the political rally was purely a coincidence:

“Friends of Tenants” President Tow Kuk Wong said the [SF Weekly] article is inaccurate. 9/27 was Mid Autumn Moon Festival, 26th was the Mid Autumn Moon Festival celebration, and not a political activity.  It was the organizations second activity since its establishment, only gave out small amounts of moon cake and sausages to celebrate Mid Autumn without a political purpose. Tow Kuk Wong said that it was an event for their members, Mayor Lee and Julie Christensen were not invited; rather they initiated to attend after learning of the activity.

Even so, if the event started with a nonpolitical purpose and turned into a campaign event, a tax-exempt entity could have problems.

And again: This isn’t the only FOR event that Christensen appeared at. There is a pattern here.

Also: The mayor doesn’t typically invite himself to events after learning about them. He has been aggressively campaigning for Christensen. And a mayoral staffer, Hydra Mendoza, who serves as Lee’s education advisor and also sits on the school board, was the one who arranged for the use of the space, the Weekly notes:

 Mayoral backer Walter Wong approached the mayor’s education advisor Hydra Mendoza, an elected member of the Board of Education, about renting the room at Jean Parker early in the summer. (Wong is a real estate developer and “permit expediter” — a nice way to describe someone who speeds construction projects along in exchange for cash.)

The facility is not normally rented out, Principal Wesley Tang wrote to Mendoza, who nonetheless made it happen. “Please work this out and let me know if I can offer the site to the group,” Mendoza wrote in an email to school district staffers.

Mendoza told SF Weekly that she handles requests like this all the time, and that she just happened to be “who he [Wong] knew on the school board.” That Wong is a longtime supporter of former mayor Willie Brown and of the current mayor — he gave $25,000 to two of Lee’s pet campaign efforts last year and traveled with the mayor on a recent junket to China — is pure coincidence.

“I didn’t ask what he used it for,” she said. “I don’t get involved in that kind of stuff.”

Nonetheless, with Mendoza’s help, Wong associate Betty Chen secured Jean Parker for several events throughout the summer and fall, including the one Ying attended.

“Thank you for providing the meeting place at Jean Parker,” Wong wrote to Mendoza in an email. “It worked out perfectly.”

If Friends of Tenants spent more than $1,000 – in cash or in-kind contributions — running an event that was designed to promote Christensen’s candidacy, the group would be required to file a report with the city’s Ethics Commission. I could find so such report at press time.

Gentle Blythe, spokesperson for the SFUSD, told me that it’s legal to use public schools for political events, but the rental price is higher than it is for non-partisan events. At press time, she had not provided me with the names of the people who booked the site and the price they paid.

Friends of Tenants lists Stephen Lau as its incorporator. He’s not a major political player – in fact, most of my Chinatown sources say they don’t know much about him.

But we do know that Sing Tao reported he was with Christensen when she visited the newspaper’s editorial department, and the paper described him as a “campaign team member.”

Friends of Tenants is not listed in any of the Christensen campaign documents as a donor or vendor. And we don’t at this point know where its money comes from. That means if the group is spending money to elect her, it’s supposed to operate independently, and not coordinate with her campaign.

But there’s no way that three events happened in Chinatown, with Christensen appearing at all of them, and Lau showed up with her at Sing Tao, unless there was some degree of coordination.

I tried to contact Stephen Lau, but my messages to him were not returned.

Christensen didn’t return my messages either.

But somebody had to pay for the room, the promotional materials, and the food gifts. It seems unlikely that two such events could be done for less than $1,000.

 

The Asian Pacific Democratic Club Political Action Committee, which had slate cards handed out at at least one event, has spent more than $50,000 to support Christensen, records on file with the Ethics Commission show. That includes more than $25,000 for a Chinese-language TV buy.

The group is listed as an IE – that is, an organization that can’t coordinate with the Christensen campaign. It can’t, for example, arrange to hand out slate cards at a event where she is featured.

The PAC is rolling in money; as of September, it had more than $250,000 in contributions, including $10,000 from Laurene Jobs, the widow of Apple CEO Steve Jobs; $10,000 from attorney Steven Kay; $25,000 from Mayor Ed Lee’s re-election committee; $10,000 from the Police Officers Association; and $5,000 from realtor Victor Makras.

The group is very close to the Association of Realtors, which has provided food and phone banks for its canvassers, who were working to elect Christensen, the records show.

The California Association of Realtors, of which the SF group is a member, is a major influence on tenant laws in Sacramento. In fact, state Sen. Mark Leno, who tried really hard to reform the Ellis Act to prevent evictions in San Francisco, told me that the Realtors were the major force that shot down the bill – which Mayor Ed Lee supported.

So Lee’s candidate, running at a time when the city’s eviction crisis is as bad as it’s ever been and the mayor is talking constantly about affordable housing, has the support of one of the most radical anti-tenant groups in the state.

It’s just another example of how so much of Democratic Party politics in this town has been taken over by the real-estate industry and its allies.

The head of the Democratic County Central Committee, Mary Jung, is also a lobbyist for the Board of Realtors.

Jay Cheng, the president of APDC, is also a lobbyist for the Realtors and Jung is on the APDC board.

Tom Hsieh, who sits on the DCCC, is a paid staffer for the Airbnb-backed No on F campaign, and has been paid $107,000 in consulting fees by the APDC.

The level of landlord and tech-investor money pouring into the Christensen effort at the last minute is stunning. Ron Conway has put in $50,000. Thomas Coates has poured $125,000 into the anti-Peskin campaign at the last minute.

Coates is a far-right Republican who backed Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor and spent millions of his own money on a state measure to end rent control. He’s stuck his fingers into local politics in the past, but we haven’t heard from him in several years.

There’s a whole web of influence here – big-money tech and landlord influence – swirling around and through the Christensen campaign.

The Ron Conway money, the Thomas Coates money, the really dubious work of real-estate interests… all of it suggests just how frightened the landlords, the evictors, and the tech barons are of the possibility that Peskin might get elected.

 

Here’s what’s so crazy about all of this: There are multiple possible violations of law here. Richard Slota, a District 3 resident, has filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission charging that the Friends of Tenants events were illegal for numerous reasons.

Among other things, his complaint charges that Lee’s campaign illegally coordinated with Friends of Tenants and the Asian Pacific Democratic Club, which are supposed to be independent of the Christensen campaign.

And, the complaint alleges, the events illegally offered gifts of food in exchange for participation.

But that complaint won’t be addressed, much less adjudicated, until after the election – and the worst that will happen is a minor fine.

If the allegations are true, then seriously illegal activity occurred with the tacit support of the mayor and Christensen – and if she wins re-election, it will all be covered up, dismissed, and ignored.

The district attorney won’t prosecute. All the players will continue to do what they do, with impunity.

That’s the way politics works in this city under the powers that be who support Mayor Ed Lee.

It’s a disgrace.