Monday, Oct. 13, 2008 | During his ultimately unsuccessful run for city attorney earlier this year, City Council President Scott Peters touted his role in forming the San Diego Ethics Commission, which he called “one of the toughest and most effective ethics commissions in the state.”
Now, two months from being termed out of office, Peters is saying the commission is too tough.
In a rare dressing down of the city’s political watchdog by an officeholder, Peters last week said fine amounts levied by the commission on his council colleagues and other politicians have been excessive, and its disclosure requirements of paid lobbyists unfair.
“I have always been in favor of an ethics commission,” Peters said. “But it has become more punitive than I had envisioned it. We didn’t intend to set up a criminal enforcement system.”
Peters’ sentiments were shared publicly by fellow termed-out Councilman Jim Madaffer, who leveled sharp criticism from the council dais at the Ethics Commission Chairman Gil Cabrera and Executive Director Stacey Fulhorst.
“Look, you guys need to spend more time on the educational side of things,” said Madaffer, who later called some of the fines “outrageous,” and referenced a $17,000 fine levied on Councilman Ben Hueso in 2007 for accepting unlawful campaign contributions.
Cabrera was taken aback by the ire from the council members, and said it threatens the commission’s independence given that City Council controls its funding.
“The appearance this creates for the public is problematic,” Cabrera said in an interview. “It certainly concerns me that the body we regulate would raise those issues — and not in a subtle manner.”
Neither Peters nor Madaffer have made proposals to change the Ethics Commission’s fine structure, which allows for fines from $1 to $5,000 per each violation of law. Fines amounts are ultimately at the discretion of the commission. However, in all but one case in the commission’s history, the fines were the result of a negotiated settlement between the commission and the offending officeholder.
The commission was established in 2001 largely in response to former Councilwoman Valerie Stallings’ conflict-of-interest scandal. Stallings pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and resigned in 2000 after it was revealed that she accepted gifts from Padres owner John Moores, and didn’t recuse herself from votes involving the Padres’ downtown ballpark and redevelopment project.
Cabrera said the council members were overreacting to a small number of large fines in recent years. Since 2002, just seven of 85 cases that resulted in settlements included fines of over $5,000, and 68 percent of the fines were less than $1,000. He added that the Ethics Commission’s fine structure closely mirrors that of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s political watchdog.
Hueso, for example, was fined for reporting the collection of $10,500 in campaign contributions for the general election in 2006. However, in that election, Hueso won in the primary and there was no general election. The money was used to pay back debts from the primary.
Beyond Hueso’s, the larger fines included: $10,000 paid by Councilman Tony Young in 2007 for failure to pay campaign debts; $15,000 paid by San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts in 2005 for inaccurate reporting of occupation and employer information of campaign contributors, and $9,000 paid by City Attorney Mike Aguirre in 2005 for failure to disclose expenses.
The largest ever fine levied by the commission was $75,000 charged to San Diego Unified School District board member Luis Acle for violating 42 campaign laws during his 2005 run for City Council. This was the one case in which the hearing was held and the fine was not the result of a negotiation.
However, the vast majority of fines are for less than $2,000. An example is a fine levied against Councilman-elect Carl DeMaio in August for sending e-mails to city employees inviting them to a fundraiser at his home. Madaffer was fined $500 in 2007 for not disclosing stock holdings in his statement of economic interest.
Both Peters and Madaffer stressed that their comments should not be read as a lack of support for the commission’s overall mission, but said such large fines keep good people out of public service.
Again referencing Hueso’s fine, Madaffer said: “When you take out take out taxes (from a council member’s $75,000 salary) he’s left with $50,000 and then he has a $15,000 fine. I don’t know who would apply for these jobs — it’s just not right, it’s not what we were put in business for.”
Ethics Commission records show that Hueso paid a third of his fine ($5,666) out of his own pocket. His treasurer and his fundraiser paid the rest. Young paid his fine with leftover campaign funds. Neither Hueso nor Young returned calls seeking comment Friday.
Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, isn’t surprised at public officials complaining about their Ethics Commission, but said he is somewhat surprised by Peters and Madaffer going public with their feelings.
“No governmental body likes their ethics commission — they are the skunk at the party,” Stern said. “But what is different is that you have the lame ducks taking on the Ethics Commission. You must have the council members who will stay on saying privately to the lame ducks, ‘hey help us out here.’”
Stern added: “What a time to be taking on the Ethics Commission. If there is ever a time that San Diego needs a strong Ethics Commission it is now.”
Cabrera and Fulhorst were before council last week to get approval on several proposed changes to the law that governs the commission. Among other things, the commission has sought to increase campaign contribution limits, add a campaign finance reporting period in the weeks leading up to an election and give the commission subpoena power during investigations.
Council approved the additional reporting period, and an increase in the individual contribution limit to $500 for all city office seekers. The commission had requested the limit be raised to $1,000. The current limits are $270 for council candidates and $320 for mayor and city attorney candidates. The changes will take affect in January. Council will vote on the subpoena power request on Monday.
Peters also said he is bothered by how the commission handles lobbyists. He talked at length at a Rules Committee meeting Wednesday about a commission press release that details contacts between paid lobbyists and city officials and campaign contributions from lobbyists. The information came from public records that the city must keep to comply with a new lobbying disclosure law that went into effect this year.
Peters said the release gave the impression that officeholders only have contact with paid lobbyists, when the reality is that they have just as much, if not more, contact with volunteer members of environmental groups and other large organizations.
“This press release I thought was pretty alarming,” he said. “If you read it, it reads like a conviction, it is a very dark-looking thing. It gives the impression that money is driving the show, and I just don’t think that is true.”
Peters favors requirements similar to those in place at the California Coastal Commission. Coastal commissioners must disclose contacts with all people who have an interest in a project the commission is voting on. The city only requires contacts with paid lobbyists to be disclosed.
Both Stern and Cabrera said requiring volunteers and regular citizens to report their contacts with elected officials would require a lot of extra paperwork and infringe on a citizen’s First Amendment right to petition their government.
“We want to know how much money is being spent influencing public officials,” Stern said. “We don’t want to know everyone who is coming down to City Hall and saying ‘I hope you vote this way.’”