Unregistered lobbyist

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ISSUE: Former Mayor Willie Brown is a powerful advocate for private interests — but he flouts lobbyist registration laws

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"The talent of Willie Brown is his ability to create plausible deniability."

tredmond@sfbg.com

In 2007 and 2008, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. paid former Mayor Willie Brown a total of $480,000 for consulting work. Since Brown has never been utility lawyer, it's almost certain that money has bought political advice and access.

Brown is also working for the owners of the Fairmont Hotel, which wants to tear down one of its towers and build as many as 180 luxury condos.

His public affairs institute shares office space with one of the most powerful lobbying firms in town. He meets with or talks regularly with the mayor and members of the Board of Supervisors.

Yet unlike dozens of others who seek to influence public policy for hire, Brown is not registered as a lobbyist at City Hall.

On the surface, it's a fairly modest issue — all Brown would have to do to comply with the letter and spirit of the city's law is to fill out a form, list his clients, and reveal which officials he's been talking to. It would take him 10 minutes.

But the fact that someone who is widely acknowledged to be among the most influential power brokers in San Francisco refuses to disclose whom he's working for leaves city officials and the public in the dark — and raises a long list of questions about the effectiveness of the city's ethics laws.

There's a reason city law requires people who seek to influence city officials for money to disclose what they're up to. When elected officials, commissioners, or department heads meet with advocates, they need to know who's paying the bills. If, for example, Sup. Jane Kim has breakfast with Brown (which Brown himself reported on in a recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle), she needs to know: Does he have a client with an agenda? If he asks her to meet with someone, is he just looking out for the interests of the city — or is he pushing a paid special interest?

When Brown has dinner with Mayor Ed Lee (as he did several weeks ago) the voters need to know: Is this dinner companion pushing the mayor to make policy decisions that might help a private interest?

 

THE RULES

The definition of "lobbyist" in city law is designed to avoid putting special requirements on advocates who push issues on their own or for purely political reasons. A neighborhood activist pushing for a stop sign or better police patrols doesn't have to register. Neither does a restaurant owner looking for a permit to put tables on the street. The only people who have to register are those who represent a client who pays them more than $3,000 in any given three-month period.

Lawyers are exempt if they're contacting city officials purely about specific pending litigation or claims. Labor leaders are exempt if they're talking about wages or benefits for their union members.

The requirements aren't onerous. Lobbyists simply disclose their clients, the issues they're working on, the city officials they have contacted, and any campaign contributions they've made.

There's no doubt Brown meets the financial threshold in at least one instance. Documents on file with the state Public Utilities Commission show that PG&E paid him $280,000 in 2007 and almost $200,000 in 2008. And although Brown is a lawyer, there's no indication that he is representing PG&E in any litigation against the city.

On the other hand, PG&E is fighting hard to derail the city's community choice aggregation program. Is Brown part of that effort? There's no way to know.