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Media must hold City Hall accountable

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San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee reportedly took “substantial bribes in exchange for favors” in relation to campaign finances, according to new documents from an FBI probe of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow. (Mike Koozmin, 2011 S.F. Examiner)

On Guard column header Joe

Last week, scandalous accusations rocked Mayor Ed Lee’s office, alleging he took bribes and regularly practices the shadiest of pay-to-play politics.

Much like the Twitter Tax Break, the eviction of the Lee family or SFPD officers’ racist text messages, controversial moments like this put a face to mounting trends in The City.

This is where news coverage does its most important work, shaping the conversation with information and commentary. So when I opened up The San Francisco Chronicle last week and turned to the editorial page, my jaw dropped to the floor.

The Chronicle’s stance on the bribery accusations against Ed Lee basically amounted to, “Hold your horses, everybody. Take this all with a big grain of salt.”

This is a major moment, when years of foggy rumors of dark political money have finally parted, revealing the clearest look anyone in San Francisco has seen of this behavior so far.

Yet in this pivotal time, the Chronicle has jumped straight to Lee’s defense.

The Chronicle’s editorial began by saying Lee is “normally the squeakiest of clean players.” Do the Chronicle’s editorial writers read their own newspaper?

A May 2015 story by Chronicle reporter Heather Knight revealed total numbers on Lee’s “behested payments,” which many local news media have often covered.

Her story detailed more than $10 million in what her sources called “‘an ugly loophole’ that allows politicians to collect unlimited amounts of money while getting around much more stringent campaign finance limits.”

In 2011, the now-defunct Bay Citizen broke the GO Lorrie’s scandal, in which one of the largest shuttle companies at the San Francisco International Airport illegally divvied nearly $8,000 in contributions from employees that went to Lee’s campaign.

GO Lorrie’s executives pleaded guilty to funneling the funny money. Lee denied any wrongdoing — but questions lingered.

Those questions were again raised in a 2014 San Francisco Examiner story on the property firm Archway Property Services LLC, which was fined $40,000 by the Fair Political Practices Commission for laundering $4,000 into the campaigns of Lee and another official.

Now, the newest accusations from Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow’s lawyers show FBI wiretaps recorded Zula Jones, an official connected to Mayor Lee, saying, “Ed knows that you gave $10,000 … he knows that you will give another $10,000. He also knows that we had to break the $10,000 up.”

Jones said Lee learned how to divvy up money from San Francisco Chronicle columnist and former mayor Willie Brown.

“You got to pay to play here,” Jones said in the FBI wiretap recording. “We are the best at this game.”

Despite mounting incidents, the Chronicle’s recent editorial said, “There is little to go on besides what one team of defense lawyers is dispensing … It’s much too early to draw judgment on the thin evidence that is now available.”

Poppycock. Hogwash. Bull. And also a selective remembrance of history.

Now to be clear, I am not saying Lee is automatically guilty. I am not even saying we shouldn’t all be cautious about these accusations. What I am saying is this: Slamming the brakes on investigating Lee is not any newspaper’s job.

Lee has plenty of high-paid consultants for that. The role of the Chronicle, the Examiner and our colleagues at other news sites is to take these allegations seriously and investigate.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics states reporters must “recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government” and to “be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.”

Lee is the least voiceless man in San Francisco.

He commands the bully pulpit of the tech epicenter of the world, backed by tech’s richest players. He doesn’t need the Chronicle to deflect bribery charges on his behalf.

Troubling as well, is this Chronicle editorial seems to be the tip of the spear, leading the tone of its news coverage.

When the public needs answers about people in power, all news outlets in San Francisco have many roles, but one role must be paramount: We are watchdogs.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

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