Thursday, April 06, 2006 | Jim Sutton is one of San Diego’s busiest political attorneys – and he doesn’t even live here.

Go down the list, it’s a long one. The San Francisco-based lawyer is representing and advising the Lincoln Club of San Diego in a lawsuit the club filed against the city to try to balance out what the conservative group has long held was a basic inequity in the local political scene: that labor unions are able to spend far more on independent expenditures than smaller groups of wealthy people in favor of or against candidates or initiatives.

Right now a wealthy guy can spend millions supporting a candidate or issue in an election, he just has to say “I, Mr. Rich Guy, paid for this ad.” The problem comes when two wealthy people want to combine their money and call themselves the “Committee for Change” or some other vague name. They can do that, sure, but they can only spend $250 each on a candidate or initiative.

Labor unions, on the other hand, have thousands, sometimes millions of members. So they can add up $250 contributions all over the place and spend wildly on any given race.

The Lincoln Club says that’s wrong. A decision on this one might come sooner rather than later.

Sutton is also representing and advising County Supervisor Bill Horn, who has found himself in the unenviable position of answering questions like “Are you cheating on your wife and hiding investments from your mandatory financial disclosure forms?”

That can’t be much fun – especially when your answers are broadcast on television and published in the morning paper.

Sutton is also advising Mayor Jerry Sanders on how to properly set up and eventually dismantle the San Diego Inaugural and Transition Fund. Sutton told me that the fund paid for the big chocolate brownies and the water that were outside Golden Hall after the mayor gave his famous “delay, deny and deceive” speech. (For those of you who weren’t there to bask in that awesome rhetorical performance, he was saying that “delay, deny and deceive” is what the city used to do and he wouldn’t be continuing the practice.)

Seems there’s a little confusion about whether the San Diego Inaugural and Transition Fund is ethically questionable or not. The fund is not subject to election fundraising laws and it seems like a way to give money to influence the mayor. But, on the other hand, Sanders has taken several steps to distance himself from it and, frankly, it’s nice to have rich people pick up the bill for events like this from which the public as a whole might benefit.

After all, those brownies were really good. And proof that Sanders is concerned about the appearance of this fund is evidenced by the fact that he ran up $30,000 in legal and accounting fees just to make it pass the smell test.

“The reason the legal fees were so high is because the mayor insisted that we get a letter from the Ethics Commission and the [Fair Political Practices Commission] which meant researching the issue and talking to those agencies,” Sutton said.

In other words, a third of the 250 or so people who gave to the fund were paying for the proof that the fund was legitimate.

Where were we? Oh yeah, Sutton is also representing a hodgepodge of lobbyists, developers and corporations who are watching the Ethics Commission intently as that agency considers changes to lobbying laws. His clients include the Building Industry Association, the Lodging Industry Association and a few others.

There are dozens of little things about local lobbying laws that will change when the Ethics Commission finishes what has become a protracted and seemingly endless discussion about them. But a couple of the possible changes stand out and have a chance of raising the eyebrows of the sort of people and businesses that Sutton has built a lucrative practice representing.

One of the proposals out there, for example, would require that lobbyists not only disclose any personal contributions they made to elected officials, but also the amount of money they raised for that official.

In other words, it’s one thing to know that a lobbyist has met with a councilman. It’s quite another to know that the lobbyist not only represents such and such company, but that he or she raised a billion dollars to get that person elected. As such, they may have a little more of that councilman’s ear when they meet with them.

Yes, we’ve touched on this before.

But now we have Sutton’s perspective. He said his clients have not taken a position on the question of whether lobbyists should be required to disclose their fundraising activities. That may only be because the issue hasn’t come up yet as the Ethics Commission plods through its schedule.

And it’s pretty clear where Sutton and his clients will come down if such a reform is presented.

He said a similar law in Los Angeles is a “mess.” And it doesn’t necessarily matter what residents may want to know about what lobbyists are doing, Sutton said.

“Just because something’s interesting to the public doesn’t mean it’s constitutional,” he said.

Before the city’s leaders change the law and require lobbyists to cough up that info – or worse, ban fundraising by lobbyists altogether – “they need to show some proof that fundraising by lobbyists somehow hurts the system,” Sutton said.

Los Angeles has a requirement currently that lobbyists disclose their fundraising activities. But city officials there very recently proposed banning fundraising by lobbyists altogether.

Sutton, then, was singing a bit different of a tune when he was fighting that ban. Turns out, the existing full-disclosure laws may do some good after all.

“By taking steps to enforce existing laws rather than passing a whole new set of rules and regulations, the city can achieve its objective of ‘letting the sun shine’ on lobbying and fundraising activities, while taking into account the First Amendment rights of lobbyists and their clients, and the practical realities of running for office,” Sutton wrote to the Lost Angeles Rules and Elections Committee last month.

So what will Sutton do if those disclosure requirements become a possibility for San Diego?

“Lawyers don’t speak for themselves, they speak for their clients,” he said.

And in Los Angeles, his clients simply didn’t want the laws to get any worse.

scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org

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