Supervisor Aaron Peskin has proposed legislation that would expand the Board of Supervisors’ power to call people to testify under oath. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Supes to boost subpoena power

Peskin legislation would allow committee to compel testimony under oath

At least four supervisors are now supporting a proposal by Supervisor Aaron Peskin to increase their subpoena power in the wake of the City Hall corruption scandal that led to public works director Mohammed Nuru resigning from his post.

Under the proposal, just two members of the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee could vote to issue a subpoena and those subpoenaed would have to provide testimony under oath under the penalty of perjury — bypassing the current process that requires a vote at the full board.

The Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on Monday held its first hearing on the proposal where Supervisors Matt Haney and Gordon Mar said they support the legislation. Committee chair Supervisor Hillary Ronen is a co-sponsor, after voting against a similar proposal from Peskin in 2017.

The board has rarely used its subpoena power.

In fact, Peskin said he was the first to use it two year ago “for the first time in a couple of decades” for his hearings into the cause of the sinking and leaning of the Millenium Tower.

Peskin attempted to pass a similar proposal in 2017 for the hearings on the building, but it failed to pass by one vote. Changing board rules requires at least eight votes on the 11-member board.

But given the latest public corruption scandal at City Hall, Peskin said he thought it was a fitting time to try again because “inquiring minds have a lot of questions.”

He added that the committee would “of course not in any way impede or interfere with ongoing civil and criminal investigations.”

Peskin called the current board subpoena rules a “lengthy cumbersome process where the testimony doesn’t happen in real time.”

“By the time you introduce the motion, send it to committee, send it to the full board, issue the subpoena, four, five, six weeks goes by,” Peskin said.

Changes to the proposal were made Monday, requiring a continuance until next Monday. Among the changes, is an amendment that, instead of letting the committee decide if someone would be administered the oath when testifying under subpoena, would make the oath mandatory.

Also, one change makes clear that department heads could be subpoenaed and required to take the oath.

Peskin intends to exempt city employees other than department heads from being subpoenaed by the committee, which he said was a concession made for labor union IFPTE Local 21. However, he noted that the full board currently has and would retain its power to subpoena city employees.

Ronen explained that three years ago she opposed the proposal because she considered it “a very serious power” and “a huge responsibility and should be taken with all seriousness and due process.”

But what has changed her mind since then “is all of the recent news about the corruption that the FBI has uncovered.”

“We cannot have the people’s faith in government if there is low-level or high-level corruption happening at all times,” Ronen said. “It has become such a part of the culture in this city and county that we must use every power at our disposal to root it out once and for all.”

The Mayor’s Office did not respond to request for comment on the proposal, but Mayor London Breed did vote in support of the 2017 version.

When the board last voted on the proposal, the board had a different membership.

Breed, who was board president at the time, voted for Peskin’s proposal along with then Supervisors Malia Cohen and Jane Kim. The current board members who voted for it at the time included Sandra Fewer, Ahsha Safai and board president Norman Yee.

Those who opposed it at the time were Ronenand then supervisors Mark Farrell, Jeff Sheehy and Katy Tang.

The latest public corruption scandal at City Hall erupted in late January, when Public Works head Mohammed Nuru was arrested and charged with fraud along with local restaurateur Nick Bovis for allegedly attempting to bribe an airport commissioner with $5,000 for a chicken restaurant lease at the San Francisco International Airport. Nuru resigned from his post on Feb. 10.

The federal complaint detailed four other alleged public corruption schemes involving Nuru for which he has not been charged. Those include receiving a gift of a tractor and work on his summer home from a city contractor, receiving gifts and lodging from a Chinese developer to help with permitting help for a construction project and helping Bovis land city contracts for toilets.

Fallout from the federal complaint included the launch of a City Attorney’s Office investigation into city contracts tied to Nuru that may have violated conflict of interest laws. The City Attorney’s Office also issued eight subpoenas of city contractors and nonprofits for allegedly funneling donations to fund public programs and events, including Public Works holiday parties, in potential violation of local laws.

After the public corruption probe became public, Breed announced she received a $5,600 gift from Nuru last year for repairs to her vehicle and a rental. The gift may violate local ethics laws.

Those board members who opposed in 2017 argued other legal venues were more fitting to collect testimony under the penalty of perjury and that power shouldn’t be entrusted to just two board members.

Peskin said Monday that should the board approve the new subpoena process it “is not going to happen very often, one would presume.”

Ronen said that “I know that there is some concern about overuse of this law, and what I would say is that let’s see.”

“Let’s try it out. Let’s see what happens,” Ronen said. “We can always scale it back.”

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