San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell is refusing to pay a past-due $191,000 fine levied last year by the Ethics Commission for campaign violations and has asked The City to cease trying to collect the penalty, according to public records.
A debate over the penalty is expected at today’s Ethics Commission. However it’s unclear how much of the issue will be made public because the meeting agenda allows the body to discuss the matter in closed session, likely since Farrell’s representation has previously threatened to sue over the fine.
Another interesting aspect of today’s discussion is that the commission has a new executive director in LeeAnn Pelham, former Los Angeles Ethics Commission executive director. This month she took over the post vacated by retired John St. Croix. The fine was assessed by the commission during St. Croix’s tenure.
It would be the first time Pelham has weighed in publicly on the issue.
In a November 2015 letter to the Tax Collector, which is seeking to collect the fine, Farrell’s attorney Jim Sutton argued “the City has no basis – legal or otherwise – to demand any payment from Supervisor Farrell or the Farrell Committee.” He requests the Tax Collector cease collection.
“An exhaustive investigation by the FPPC specifically concluded that Supervisor Farrell did nothing wrong, and there has never been any type of administrative or civil proceeding which concluded that Supervisor Farrell violated any law,” Sutton said in the letter.
Sutton continued: “The action by the [Ethics Commission] any action by your office is completely barred by the statute of limitations, and the forfeiture demand is not supported by any findings of fact or conclusions of law.”
In November, after a years-long investigation, the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission fined Farrell’s 2010 campaign consultant $14,500 for illegally coordinating with an independent committee, called Common Sense Voters. The $191,000 fine amount was determined because the political committee received $141,000 from Republican Thomas Coates, a real estate investor, and $50,000 from socialite and philanthropist Dede Wilsey.
Campaign laws prohibit the coordination between independent and candidate committees. Candidate committees have $500 contribution limits and different reporting requirements while independent committees have unlimited contribution limits.
The FPPC’s decision — that Lee was guilty of five violations of the Political Reform Act — appears to be the first time someone was assessed a penalty for coordination between the two different committee types in San Francisco politics.
According to the FPPC’s decision, the “evidence supports the finding that Mark Farrell did not authorize” Lee to coordinate with Common Sense Voters.
At the time, Farrell, a little known political neophyte, beat out progressive Janet Reilly by 258 votes to represent the affluent Marina and Pacific Heights neighborhoods.
Farrell has since emerged as popular politician as he heads into his fourth consecutive year of chairing the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, the most influential of committee seats.
The commission voted in June 2015 not to waive the fee as outgoing St. Croix had recommended at the time.
Ethics Commissioner Peter Keane back then 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 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,” Commission Chair Paul Renne said at the time.
Sutton said in the November letter that “it is certainly not appropriate to attempt to penalize someone who had absolutely nothing to do with [Common Sense Voter’s] activities.”