File photoMark Farrell

SF Ethics Commission united behind fining SF supervisor $191K

If Supervisor Mark Farrell doesn’t want to pay a $191,000 fine for violations committed by his campaign, he will have fight it in court.

The Ethics Commission voted unanimously Friday to overturn a recommendation by its outgoing executive director, John St. Croix, to waive the penalty associated with a Fair Political Practices Commission’s investigation that found Farrell’s campaign consultant had violated campaign laws.

Farrell’s attorney James Sutton argues the statute of limitations had run out in October. It wasn’t until December that St. Croix sent a letter to Farrell imposing the penalty. St. Croix announced his retirement in April and didn’t attend Friday’s meeting.

“There is clearly a disagreement between some of you on the commission and your staff and the way things have happened,” Sutton said. “[St. Croix] could have brought charges by October 2014. He chose not to bring charges.”

Ethics Commissioner Paul Renee said he would have supported taking enforcement action had he known of the matter earlier.

The FPPC’s investigation didn’t find any evidence Farrell had done anything wrong in his 2010 election to the Board of Supervisors. However, his campaign consultant Chris Lee was fined $14,500 for illegally coordinating with an independent committee called Common Sense Voters.

But Ethics Commissioner Peter Keane grilled Sutton over the facts. “Can you represent with a straight face … that Supervisor Farrell had no part in the solicitation of those funds?” Keane said.

Farrell told the FPPC during the more than three year investigation that “he had no knowledge of or interactions with any of the activities of the committee,” Sutton responded.

To which Keane replied: “The idea that they would give that money to some little schlump like Chris Lee is absolutely absurd.”

The donations came from two prominent figures: Republican Thomas Coates, a real estate investor, who donated $141,000, and socialite and philanthropist Diane “Dede” Wilsey, who donated $50,000 to the Common Sense Voters committee. The funds paid for political hit mailers in October, the month before the election. Farrell’s candidate committee, which caps individual donation at $500, spent about $260,000.

Although Farrell was cleared by the FPPC of any wronging, he’s still on the hook by the commission for $191,000 — the amount that was donated to the Common Sense Voters committee.

In 2010, Farrell, new to politics, was in a heated battle with the more progressive Janet Reilly for the supervisor seat representing the Marina and Pacific Heights. Farrell beat Reilly by 258 votes.

Reilly’s attorney Charles Bell, who filled the FPPC complaint, made arguments Friday in favor of the penalty.

In voting to reject the waiver, Ethics Commissioner Benedict Hur said the legal argument over the statute of limitations is a “close call” but added that there are “reasonable legal and factual disputes” related to that issue.

“The finding of the FPPC did demonstrate an egregious violation of the campaign ordinances and for us to say we are going to put it under the rug and waive it I am just not prepared to do,” Renne said.

While Farrell did not attend the meeting, a handful of people spoke on his behalf including longtime labor boss Vince Courtney Sr. who said of Farrell, “I know him to be very credible and very pointed in making clear he wants everything to be squeaky clean.”

The commission’s decision not to waive the penalty leaves Farrell with the recourse of filing a lawsuit.

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