Retired Judge Quentin Kopp has applied for a position on the San Francisco Ethics Commission. (Ryan McNulty/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Retired Judge Quentin Kopp ready to return to City Hall as Ethics commissioner

Retired Judge Quentin Kopp is ready to enforce San Francisco’s ethics laws.

After decades of public service, the 87-year-old has decided he wants to serve on San Francisco’s Ethics Commission, which oversees the activities of lobbyists, contractors and politicians.

“Why not now?” Kopp countered when asked about his decision. The decision came after the commission’s vice chair, a long time friend, asked him over lunch to consider applying when the vacancy arose with the recent resignation of Brett Andrews.

Kopp is expected to boost the commission’s prestige. But he also represents the next in a series of steps taken to awaken the “sleeping watchdog,” as the Ethics Commission was called in a scathing 2011 civil grand jury report.

Earlier this year, a new executive director was hired by the commission and city funding was significantly increased, improving the commission’s abilities to fulfill its mission of stamping out corruption by holding violators of campaign finance and open government laws accountable, and by closing loopholes in the existing law.

The retired judge, former state senator and former member of the Board of Supervisors has applied to serve on the five-member Ethics Commission. His appointment is before the board’s Rules Committee on Thursday.

Kopp said he applied after having a lunch with current Ethics Commissioner Peter Keane, “an old and respected friend.”

“He suggested I might apply. I thought about it. I also talked to other people, my wife, my one-time chief of staff and a couple of supervisors,” Kopp said.

Those supervisors included Scott Wiener, who said Monday he supports Kopp’s appointment, as well as Aaron Peskin and Katy Tang, chair of the Rules Committee.

Keane, who serves as vice chair of the Ethics Commission, said he “encouraged him very strongly” over lunch to apply for the post, in part because Kopp “can sniff out a rat better than any terrier.”

Keane said that Kopp will be a “very powerful member” and “would lend tremendous credibility to our commission.” He added, “Anything Quentin does, he does 500 percent.”

Kopp served on the Board of Supervisors from Jan. 8, 1972 until Nov. 30, 1986, and then for 12 years in the state Senate. He later served as a superior court judge between 1999 and 2010 in San Mateo County.

Kopp said his decision had nothing to do with the commission’s handling of former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s misconduct finding on charges brought by Mayor Ed Lee in 2012 over a domestic violence incident. Mirkarimi was defended by Kopp’s son.

He also said it has nothing to do with recent pay-to-play allegations surrounding the mayor’s campaign, brought to light during a broad federal probe involving two former city officials, who are facing charges of bribery and money laundering. Lee has not been charged with any crime.

But Kopp said the commission appears to have a strong helmsperson, ensuring his talents would not go wasted.

“I’ve concluded that this new executive director of the Ethics Commission is a capable, responsible person who is much more competent than her predecessor,” Kopp said. The new director will ensure commissioners are no longer “flailing” with an unresponsive staff, he added.

Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham, who formerly worked for 19 years with the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, replaced retired San Francisco Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix in January.

One of her first efforts was to boost funding for the department from last fiscal year’s $3.9 million to $4.4 million in the current fiscal year that began July 1.

Kopp said he also decided to apply because he views the post as a continuation of his efforts around open government.

That record was celebrated by Bruce Brugmann, retired editor-publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, in a letter to the board committee supporting Kopp’s appointment.

“He was the go-to man in Sacramento for the California Newspaper [Publishers] Association in its endless battles on behalf of open government and against the Secrecy Lobby,” Brugmann wrote. “Kopp capped his senate career by leading the campaign to update and reform the California Public Records Act.”

Kopp remains a board member of the First Amendment Coalition, which is also supporting him for the post.

Brugmann said in the letter that “Kopp was more conservative than the Guardian but we always liked and respected him” and that “his work and voting record demonstrated his particular passion: clean honest government and the public interest over the private interest.”

Telegraph Hill resident Jon Golinger, a Peskin ally who helped campaign for a progressive taking back of the Democratic County Central Committee this past June, wrote a letter in support of Kopp’s appointment arguing he is the best suited to address “the enormous and sustained pressure from lobbyists and powerful interests seeking to exploit loopholes in the law.”

Golinger added that there is an “enormous workload ahead of it during and following this fall’s historic election.”

The outcomes of this November election for the Board of Supervisors’ six races, including three without progressive incumbents, will decide whether the board will retain a progressive majority to counter Mayor Ed Lee and his moderate allies.

Larry Bush, head of the group Friends of Ethics, which advocates for greater ethical controls and enforcement, acknowledges he’s had his differences with Kopp over the years, but still supports Kopp’s appointment to the body.

Bush said that Kopp’s presence is a “strong indicator that ethics has started to matter.”

“It’s a place where a difference can be made to confront unethical practices, deter pay-to-play, and generally put the rascals on the run,” Bush said. “As a former elected official, he is in a unique position to know what happens when the door is closed.”

Those backing Kopp for the seat think his presence will generate more interest in the body’s work.

“I don’t know how many San Franciscan’s pay attention to it,” Kopp said. “It should be known.”

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