Willie Inc. rears its ugly head again

On Guard column header Joe

The City’s former Mayor Willie Brown is in headlines again, now for defending a man who viciously beat his girlfriend and was caught on video in the act.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Elder had an alarming scoop. A tech CEO who hit and kicked his girlfriend 117 times in the space of 30 minutes was offered help by none other than Brown to make his charges “go away.”

Gurbaksh Chahal founded RadiumOne, a tech advertising firm. Brown allegedly wanted $1 million from Chahal to help clear him, and took a $250,000 retainer, according to emails obtained by the Journal. Later on, Brown returned $198,400 of that retainer.

To be clear, Chahal, like anyone, is entitled to legal representation in the criminal justice system — but Brown didn’t necessarily plan to defend him in court.

In emails, Chahal described how Brown planned to politically pressure District Attorney George Gascon to sway him. Brown has since admitted to taking Chahal’s retainer.

Leaning on Gascon (which Gascon and Brown have denied) is the kind of “juice politics” the San Francisco Chronicle’s investigative team — Chuck Finnie and Lance Williams — exposed in an explosive five-part series in 2001.

Back then, the Chronicle investigated Brown, instead of bolstering his image with a weekly column.

The pair revealed Brown created more than 350 new “special assistant” jobs as political favors to flunkies, to the tune of $45 million a year. He also awarded close allies hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts and subsidies — and that was only the beginning.

The reporters dubbed this mess “Willie Inc.,” in a nod to the reach of his hand-built political machine. Now, Willie Inc. is grinding again.

Fourteen years after its bombshell investigative report, however, the Chronicle may have flipped its position on Brown.

As the political watchdog column CalBuzz pointed out, Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andy Ross basically rewrote the Wall Street Journal exposé, while also touting apologist quotes from their favorite source/colleague: Da Mayor.

There are many-a-conflict around Brown and the columnist duo – Matier includes Brown frequently on his TV show, Brown is a fellow Chronicle columnist, and the three share an attorney (Steven Kay). Matier also notoriously tried to book Brown as his co-host for a KRON-TV show concept called “Live with Willie and Phil,” in a move that was initially denounced by then-Chronicle Editor in Chief Phil Bronstein as unethical.

“For us, that was not a tenable situation,” Bronstein told then-SF Weekly editor John Mecklin in 2008, “because it went from Phil having some kind of presence on-air with Willie as a guest to them having some kind of business enterprise together.”

We called up Bronstein, who said he had nothing new to add to his original comments in 2008. He did say this: the quote was accurate then, and is accurate now.

Matier didn’t answer an email requesting comment. But the Pacific Media Workers Guild Local 39521, which represents Chronicle staff, did respond. Guild Executive Officer Carl Hall, also a former Chronicle reporter (and a former employer of mine), said he thought Matier’s coverage was fair.

He did note “there was nothing in the Chronicle for a few days” after the news about Willie and Chahal first broke. “From what I gather it looks like a pretty good job,” he said, of the Matier and Ross story.

But when it comes to perceived conflicts of interest, “you’re raising some legitimate questions,” Hall said.

The most we’ve gotten out of the Chronicle in terms of comment on the matter was a tweet from columnist Chuck Nevius. After the story about Brown broke, he tweeted a link to a NY Times profile of Brown with the hashtag, “#somethingtoaspireto.”

Yikes. I hoped Chronicle Editor in Chief Audrey Cooper would perhaps offer a more concerned comment, but she was not available for this story, a representative told me.

I asked Cooper more generally about the ethical conflicts of publishing Willie’s column at the last Northern California Society of Professional Journalists gathering in April, while she was on stage in front of a hundred journalists.

“Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people at the Chronicle have tried to put Willie Brown in jail for a long time, and I’m proud of that,” she said. “But nobody did.

“I think it’s possible,” she continued, “to have reported faithfully on something and now to realize he’s not the same person as back then.”

Above, Audrey Cooper answers questions about Willie Brown’s column.

Whether or not a tiger can change his stripes, it seems Brown is pouring on the same political “juice” the Chronicle exposed fourteen years ago.

And though that juice may have helped an alleged domestic violence abuser, Chahal, Willie’s client list includes companies which touch every San Franciscan, from those building new high rises to the tech companies transforming our city.

Fourteen years ago, the Chronicle exposed Willie Inc., and dared to take on the special interests crushing San Francisco for the sake of money.

Now, the “Voice of the West” may be just another cog in Willie’s machine.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com. This column has additional content not in the print edition.Domestic Violencejournalism ethicsSan Francisco ChronicleWillie Brown

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