Nuru corruption scandal prompts call to boost Ethics Commission budget

Watchdog agency lacks staff, resources to carry out its duties

Right when San Francisco needs an anti-corruption sheriff, our Ethics Commission is about to run out of ammo.

And personnel. And enforcement ability. And just about everything else.

The City’s government arm tasked with ensuring campaign finance compliance and rooting out corruption is asking Mayor London Breed for a $1.7 million increase in its budget this year, for a grand total of $6.2 million.

At the Ethics Commission’s regular meeting last Friday, the commission’s executive director, LeeAnn Pelham, made clear that the recent FBI arrest of former Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru showed a strong Ethics Commission is needed now more than ever.

But ensuring San Francisco politicians stay within the bounds of the law isn’t cheap, she said.

“It comes with a price tag,” she said. “We think it is a sound investment, particularly considering the costs that come from having to pick up the pieces of broken confidence in city government.”

That’s not the future Breed envisioned in December last year.

Breed asked departments to slash their budgets by up to six percent over two years, anticipating a budget deficit exceeding $640 million over the next five years, my colleagues previously reported.

While perhaps fiscally prudent, it could leave the Ethics Commission even weaker than it already is.

The commission doesn’t have a full time human resources director. It doesn’t have a legislative affairs manager. And it has failed to meet some aspects of its core mandate already. For instance, it was supposed to audit lobbyists for compliance with the ethics code, but Pelham told the Ethics Commission they haven’t had the staff to do this for years.

Yes, that’s right — years.

The Ethics Commission has so few administrative positions that its staff wear multiple hats, essentially hampering investigations, Pelham told me by phone, Friday.

And, particularly frightening to anyone who cares about politicians running for office doing so cleanly — and by the books — the Ethics Commission may lose vital tech support without an expanded budget.

Without an information systems engineer that they asked Breed for in their expanded budget, “the Commission will not be able to create dashboard tools for upcoming elections including the November 2020 election, further automation of new forms and the maintenance of existing electronic forms will be significantly delayed or halted, and disclosure data integration efforts and community outreach will not be possible,” the Ethics Commission wrote in a budget request to Breed Friday.

For those in the know, the Ethics Commission’s data dashboard and electronic compliance is an incredibly vital tool used by civic watchdogs, other campaigns, journalists (yes, I’m on it every election season), and well, anyone interested in keeping tabs on those running for office.

I’ve used those electronic tools to write about potentially illegal uses of campaign dollars, “slush funds” busting legal campaign limits, and contractors seeking to influence government officials. All San Francisco journalists covering civic life have relied on the Ethics Commission’s online services some point.

Now, this isn’t to say their budget ask is above critique.

For one thing, this isn’t the first time they’ve used a recent corruption scandal to argue for a more robust budget; in 2016 Pelham made a similar argument after officials working for the late Mayor Ed Lee came under the microscope for campaign finance misconduct. We sure don’t have a shortage of corruption quandaries in this town, do we?

Their budget expanded, but as evidenced above, the Ethics Commission still hasn’t been able to fulfill its core functions, Pelham has said.

Larry Bush, co-founder of the group Friends of Ethics, a long-time City Hall watchdog and all-around local ethics expert, blames the Ethics Commission itself for its small budget. His group presented a possible ballot measure to raise funds for the commission, which they rejected.

To be fair, Pelham is looking at alternate funding structures, which she presented to the commission last Friday.

But Bush also feels the Ethics Commission has broadly become a body that cares more about slapping down government officials for using the wrong font size on its advertisements than rooting out true corruption in City Hall.

“They’re focusing on paperwork. Most of their work is, ‘did someone fill out a form right? Did they get it in on time? Is it the right font size?’” Bush told me Monday. “It took the FBI to find out what was going on in our own City Hall. They should have known from the get-go. Mohammed Nuru was identified as a known violator of our city’s laws going back fifteen years.”

Indeed, Nuru, who stands accused by the federal government of various schemes, including plotting to bribe an airport commissioner $5,000, was previously investigated by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who lambasted City Hall when Nuru was promoted to head of Public Works in 2011.

As Bush wrote in 2012 for his blog CitiReport:

“Among a list of examples of Nuru’s misconduct, his EEO officer included tolerating a DPW official who sought sexual favors from staff members over a 30-year period and held a woman employee imprisoned in a car while he sought sexual favors from her.

Flash back to 2004, when an extensive City Attorney’s investigation led by a deputy city attorney who now is a Superior Court judge found Nuru to be at the center of a pattern of corruption in 1997, 1999 and 2003 campaigns. The report was turned over to Nuru’s supervisor, at the time Ed Lee, who shelved it with no action.”

Supervisor Matt Haney, perhaps amongst the most vocal of the supervisors following Nuru’s corruption scandal, said the Ethics Commission’s lack of an adequate budget would explain much.

“I think in all of this, with all of this unfolding scandal, a lot of us have been asking where the Ethics Commission is and why they aren’t more engaged,” Haney told me Monday. “What’s come back is, they’re not built, or equipped, to be as pro-active and preventative as they need to be.”

Haney said the $1.7 million budget ask “sounds like a lot,” but it “pales in comparison of the cost of this sort of corruption and waste, and the cost when the government gets it wrong.”

Pelham, the Ethics Commission director, hopes an expanded budget would allow the commission to foster a “culture” of ethics in San Francisco, with more outreach and a focus on compliance.

Reading between the lines, I suspect its also a way to make more in-person contacts within city government to find corruption at the source — but that’s just my hunch. Perhaps I’m being too hopeful.

Either way, the decision is in the mayor’s purview, now — and it is a thorny one for her to make considering recent allegations that she may have taken illegal gifts herself.

So will she up The City’s ante on ethics?

“We just received initial budget requests from departments on Friday and we’re in the process of evaluating all of them,” Mayor’s Office spokesperson Andy Lynch told me by email Monday.

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.

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