Until last week almost everything about San Francisco Supervisor Ed Jew seemed a surprise. He astonished many veteran city political observers when he emerged from a crowded and well-funded group of candidates to win his Outer Sunset district supervisor’s seat in November.
And he has been anything but conventional since he joined the 11-member board, showing a maverick streak in his votes that have often left him as a sole voice of dissent — or, some might say, he’s just plain quirky.
Whatever his colleagues or the mayor thought Jew might do on the board, he’s usually left them scratching their heads.
It certainly stunned more than a few people that the presumably straight-laced fiscal conservative had his homes and his offices raided by FBI agents on Friday, apparently in a search for a trail of money that was funneled his way under rather mysterious circumstances.
About the only thing not surprising about Jew is that he’s clammed up under advice of his counsel, having hired a former federal prosecutor who immediately cut off Jew’s exchanges with the press — and it appears, federal investigators. It’s a tack that Jew probably wishes he had taken immediately after the raid, since the strange tale being followed by members of the fourth estate came directly from Jew himself, not the FBI.
And if we are to take him at his word, the only proper response would probably be: Let me make sure I’ve got this right.
Jew has told reporters that he was contacted by businessmen who were having permit troubles for their chain stores and that he directed them to a City Hall player named Robert Chan, and apparently they did just that. Sometime after, the businessmen — who have not been identified — showed up at Jew’s Chinatown flower shop with $40,000 in cash.
Jew allegedly said they should give the money to Chan, but they persisted, and he agreed to take it. Jew said he then forwarded the money to Chan — but somehow $20,000 remained in his safe, which he later said was intended to go to renovation and upgrades at Sunset Playground in his district.
Yet the money apparently never made it over to the Recreation and Park Department — and the FBI was reportedly looking for specific serial numbers on the $100 bills they walked away with in their search.
Now if you’re an elected official and people start handing you $40,000 for services that you did not render, it might dawn on you that perhaps this is rather unusual, and just possibly illegal. And at the very least, you’d think that a receipt for any monetary transaction would be the general rule of thumb.
I’m not making any judgment here but it does seem rather more serious and complicated than what Jew’s lawyer is now calling a “misunderstanding.’’ (It should be pointed out that Jew has not been charged with any crime.)
Yet perception plays a pivotal role in politics and the perception right now is that Jew has a penchant for playing loose and fast with the rules. In his runs for office, he has far exceeded the amounts a candidate can loan himself, seemingly oblivious to the campaign-contribution limits.
And then there’s that little question about his Sunset district house — like whether he actually lives in it. The City Attorney’s Office is investigating whether Jew was residing in the house at the time he was running for supervisor, based on water department records that apparently show that the house was dry for two months when Jew was allegedly living there. I don’t know about you, but I would call those very tough living conditions.
Lawyers I talked to Wednesday say residency requirement laws are difficult to enforce, because even if water, tax and other property records seem to indicate a house was vacant for long periods, you still have to prove that a person had no “intent’’ on living there.
There’s a famous case of a San Francisco man who lived in a hotel and who went to work up north shortly before the ’06 quake, coming back to find his hotel destroyed. When he went to vote, he was told he couldn’t because he couldn’t prove his residency, so he went to court and a judge ruled that since he intended to move back, he could vote. That tenet still forms the foundation of residency laws.
Of course, at this point whether Jew is going to be tangled up on a technicality seems the least of his worries. FBI agent Joseph Schadler told me that the agency is engaged in a “truth-finding expedition’’ in the case.
And so far, the truth has been hard to come by.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at email@example.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.
Get the latest news and updates about this controversy at Examiner.com's “Supervisor Ed Jew” page.