Categories: On Guard

Chariot lobbyist may have illegally bundled campaign contributions to London Breed

A lobbyist working for the tech transit company Chariot may have illegally contributed to London Breed’s mayoral campaign, a review of public campaign finance filings reveals.

The lobbyist, Nima Rahimi, may have also flouted campaign finance laws by “bundling” about $1,000 in contributions from various donors for Breed’s campaign in late April.

Both activities were made illegal after San Francisco voters approved Proposition T in 2016, which sought to diminish lobbyist influence in city politics. In particular, the law sought to curtail lobbyists who contact city officials pushing for favorable regulations, or for the Board of Supervisors to push other city agencies on their behalf to approve controversial projects.

And tech-enabled transit companies are the poster-children of “controversial” in The City right now.

Chariot is a private transit company that was purchased by Ford for a reported $65 million in 2016. The company’s little teal vans ferry San Franciscans on their daily commutes and can be hailed along their routes via mobile phone — think Uber, but a bus.

“Before I went about doing this, I touched base with lawyers to confirm I could do this,” Rahimi told me. “This,” namely, is to collect checks from nine San Franciscans at a Breed fundraiser at Le Colonial. Those donations ranged from $50 to $250, including $250 from Chariot’s Chief Operating Officer Kari Novatney, for instance.

Rahimi’s attorneys believed one wrinkle in the law exempted him from it: “I’m registered as a lobbyist to lobby the [San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency], then I cannot raise money for members of the SFMTA,” he told me, “but you’re still allowed to raise money for the Board of Supervisors and mayor. So that’s what I did.”

Indeed, that was Breed’s campaign response.

“Nima Rahimi has not registered to lobby, and has never lobbied, the Mayor or a member of the BOS in 2018 — only MTA officials. If those records are accurate, Rahimi is free to contribute to Supervisor Breed’s campaign,” Tara Moriarty, a Breed campaign official, wrote to me in a statement.

However, Rahimi told me Chariot is in talks with Supervisor Ahsha Safai to expand its services into the Excelsior District.

This may be tricky, however, as the SFMTA Board of Directors voted to approve regulations late last year that ban Chariot from mirroring Muni routes — a ban on competition with public transit.

Enter Safai.

The supervisor confirmed Rahimi came in at his request to discuss Chariot expanding into the Excelsior, a request Rahimi told me came at a time when the company was already planning expansion throughout The City in accordance with the new regulations.

“We’re looking at all options to expand service in our district,” Safai said. And he thinks Chariot is the bee’s knees. “Their workforce is unionized. We’re a fan of that type of model,” he added.

But as a registered city lobbyist, Rahimi’s attorneys filed his meeting with Safai with the Ethics Commission as a lobbying meeting. After a phone call from me, Rahimi said they were working to rescind that filing.

San Francisco Ethics Commission Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham said she could not comment directly on cases that may come before the commission, but generally speaking she said lobbyist activity with any supervisor under the law bars them from contributing to campaigns of supervisors, no matter what office they’re running for.

“If someone has lobbied a member of the board, they’ve lobbied the board,” Pelham said.

And that lobbying could reap benefits down the road, said Sue Vaughan, an advocate and member of the SFMTA Citizens’ Advisory Council who has long critiqued Chariot vehicles for double-parking, stopping in crosswalks and handicapped zones and using public bus stops without permission.

“There does appear to be pay-to-play here,” Vaughan alleged. “Chariot will need to get its permit renewed on an annual basis … If London Breed wins [the election], will she pressure members of the Board of Directors to ignore Chariot’s ongoing violations of the rules of the road?”

It’s important to note the Mayor’s Office appoints members to the SFMTA Board of Directors, which has direct influence on Chariot.

What the mayor says, then, goes.

Moriarty did put forward an idea to fix things, however.

“Even if it were a violation,” she said, “we would return any contributions from persons registered to lobby the Mayor or Board of Supervisors if we were to discover such a contribution.”

Consider it discovered.

As for the other candidates, I’ve found no records of lobbyist bundling in candidate Mark Leno’s campaign this year, though the Breed campaign has attacked him for taking $12,000 in bundled campaign donations last year before the activity was made illegal.

Records did reveal Supervisor Jane Kim took $4,500 in bundled contributions from lobbyist Tom Rocca for her mayoral campaign in January. Those funds were promptly returned after a campaign audit, Kim’s spokesperson Julie Edwards told me.

You know what, readers? I’m declaring the official winner of the June 2018 San Francisco Mayor’s race early: It’s money.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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