Mayor’s chief of staff faces complaint he destroyed public records — and is cleared, kind of

Mayor Ed Lee’s Chief of Staff Steve Kawa stood accused of violating city law by destroying public records in a nail-biting San Francisco Ethics Commission meeting Monday night.

In the meeting, Kawa admitted to deleting his calendars, a public record subject to the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, which dictates any document generated by government is a public record subject to inspection by citizens.

Kawa’s calendars could reveal who Lee’s right-hand man is meeting with, and when. Wells Fargo? Tech billionaire Ron Conway? The Easter bunny?

Who knows? We don’t — and that’s the point.

“I’m troubled,” said Ethics Commissioner Peter Keane, that “such an important piece of governmental information like this is discarded routinely.”

Despite those misgivings, Kawa was cleared of wrongdoing in a split 2-2 vote by the Ethics Commission.

Though the commission essentially said Kawa was not in violation of the letter of the law when he deleted his calendars, they said the law should change to protect its spirit.

The commission directed staff to begin drafting tighter public records laws, following a meaty discussion.

The complaint was brought by local political gadfly Michael Petrelis — whose caustic approach to sunshine earned him the title of “asshole” from Supervisor Malia Cohen in a recent public meeting.

Those qualities were on full display that night, as he badgered commissioners.

As for Kawa, he was dubbed by the late Rose Pak as one of the mayor’s “baldies” working behind the scenes to mold San Francisco in his image.

“I take my job quite seriously and I take my obligations quite seriously,” Kawa told the commission.

The performed politeness of Kawa’s presentation may have subtly pushed the proceedings in his favor, especially in contrast to Petrelis’ frequent decibel-busting accusations hurled at commissioners.

“You had me to begin with,” Keane told Petrelis after one of his outbursts. “You just lost me.”

Petrelis’ complaint began when he tried accessing Kawa’s calendars through open records laws but was rebuffed.

In the meeting, Kawa admitted to deleting his calendars every two weeks.

Ethics Commission Deputy Director Jessica Blome laid down the potential seriousness of Kawa’s actions.

“If someone deletes records to prevent someone from getting them, that goes to the District Attorney because that’s a crime,” she said, bluntly.

Kawa, who served under mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom, said the City Attorney’s Office advised him he was following the law, even by deleting records.

“I know I did the right thing by the advice I got,” Kawa said.

But Blome said Ethics staff also recommended not finding Kawa in violation because sunshine law requires government officials provide documents when requested by the public — but doesn’t specify they cannot be destroyed on a routine basis.

City law only dictates the Board of Supervisors, mayor and department heads should retain specific documents like calendars.

“We can’t really do anything about whether or not Mr. Kawa should or should not have deleted his public record, even if you believe he shouldn’t have,” Blome said.

Keane called that notion an “exercise in absurdity.”

Newly appointed Ethics Commissioner Quentin Kopp suggested the Ethics Commission draft changes to city law to protect retention of records.

“I urge that be done,” Kopp said.

Though Kawa was personally cleared of wrongdoing, Blome confirmed staff would propose new rules that would bring sunshine to his office by winter.

When Kawa first went before the commission he said, “I would say I’m happy to be here tonight, but those may not be the accurate words.”

That was doubly true by the time the night was done, I’d wager.

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

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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