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Ron Conway has a way with money

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An independent expenditure committee in support of mayoral candidate London Breed says it will not accept donations from tech investor Ron Conway. (Courtesy Joi Ito)

The new backers of a pro-London Breed independent expenditure committee told San Francisco Examiner columnist Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, “Ron Conway has nothing to do with this IE, and he won’t.”

Has Conway run out of money? Run out of interest in taking over our city?

Forgive my doubts regarding “It’s Our Time, S.F. Women Supporting London Breed for Mayor 2018,” an entity in which two of the three named persons in charge are men and the only woman listed has a history of being fined hundreds of dollars for failing to disclose her own income sources.

My doubts are because of Conway’s campaign spending history and because of the many, many ways money can find its way from him to the people he supports without showing up. Even if it does show up, it will be nearly three more months before anyone sees the names of the donors.

As just one example: Conway’s efforts to hide his campaign money was widely and reputably reported in 2015’s District 3 supervisor contest between Aaron Peskin and Julie Christensen. Conway spoke at a gathering called by then-Mayor Ed Lee to signal he wanted Christensen to be supported and Peskin opposed. According to those reports, Conway indicated his name on contributions was a red flag. Instead, he was said to offer other potential donors, to whom he would give equal amounts to causes they supported in exchange for their contributions to Christensen. He wouldn’t show up, but his money would.

At other times, Conway’s money certainly shows up. He has handed out more than $1 million to committees intended to defeat people who were in his way. Using outside committees, Conway contributed to the committees to defeat Peskin, Christine Olague, David Campos and Jane Kim in supervisorial races and Ross Mirkarimi in his re-election campaign for sheriff. It is a record unmatched in recent San Francisco political history. Andrea Shorter, the same titular head of the “S.F. Women” IE, was paid in several of those Conway-backed committees.

It’s that kind of gun-slinging that prompted mayoral candidates Kim, Mark Leno and Angela Alioto to forswear any independent expenditure efforts on their behalf, as well as to close the other committees they had for election to the Democratic County Central Committee. Such committees, as Breed knows, can be very convenient ways to pay for travel, dinners and more, long after the election is over and debts are retired.

There are easier ways to game the system by hiding your money until long after the election is over. The last serious mayor’s contest in 2011 gave us examples.

Eight committees backing either Lee or allied candidates ran up debts to be paid by donors who weren’t disclosed until long after the election. The Coalition for Sensible Government reported no contributions but spent $85,000. The Committee for Effective City Management had $14,000 but spent $73,000. The Coalition for a Safer California was a state committee with $5,000 and spent $25,000; as a state committee, it was exempt from reporting during the San Francisco election year.

None of this includes money contributed to third-party groups, like political clubs, or paid-for nonprofit get-out-the-vote targeted efforts that never have to disclose donors, or money that is washed from one committee to a second committee to a third. That last strategy prompted Ann Ravel, former chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, to go to court to force disclosure of original donors passed through several committees. The names never were released.

There are solutions to be had, but they require a bold, informed Ethics Commission and a Board of Supervisors. Last week, the most ambitious reform yet was postponed for another two weeks after supervisors echoed complaints from reform opponents.

One of the reforms left for now on the table: “No City elective officer or member of a board or commission may, directly or by means of an agent, give, offer, promise to give, withhold, or offer or promise to withhold his or her vote or influence, or promise to take or refrain from taking official action with respect to any proposed or pending matter in consideration of or upon condition that, any other person make or refrain from making a contribution.”

There is a trickle-down impact of looming loopholes and gaming the system: Voters don’t show up the way we once did. Is trading for City Hall votes trading away the public’s interest in voting? We may find out the answer.

Larry Bush is a founder of Friends of Ethics.

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