Campaign cash roundup and questions about our sleeping watchdog

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Money still talks in San Francisco elections, where third-party cash is playing an increasingly influential role.

Oliver Luby – the last true public-spirited employee at the Ethics Commission (a campaign lapdog when it should be a watchdog) before being forced out in 2010 – has written an insightful and comprehensive analysis of spending by candidates and outside groups during last year's election. It's published by CitiReport.

Among his findings are that the largely unregulated spending by supposedly independent third-party groups totaled $3.6 million, with $1.4 million of that going to support Mayor Ed Lee, and much of it coming so late in the race that voters weren't able to factor its sources into their decisions.

Those outside groups spent almost as much to elect Lee as the campaign itself raised, which was almost $1.6 million. When those two figures are combined, and one subtracts the $419,891 in independent expenditure (IE) spending in opposition to Lee, the appointed mayor and his supporters spent $33.87 for each first place vote he received, or about 2.5-times that of second-place finisher John Avalos, whose $757,327 in “supportive financing” works out to $13.25 per vote.

Luby has long called for Ethics to get tougher on violators of campaign finance law, playing whistleblower at several key points in his career, starting in 2004 when he and then-staffer Kevin DeLiban exposed notorious campaign attorney Jim Sutton's alleged scheme to illegally launder unregulated funds being collected for then-Mayor Gavin Newsom's inauguration into paying off some of his $550,000 campaign debt.

In his latest piece, Luby again calls out his old bosses at Ethics for ignoring local laws against maxing out donations to many candidates in order to buy influence at City Hall. Donors are limited to an “overall contribution limit” that equals the maximum individual donation of $500 times the number of offices open, which was three in this election. It allows the city recoup from the campaigns money collected in excess of that, which Luby said totals $29,111 in this election.

“The SF Ethics Commission does not enforce this law. Supervisor Scott Wiener wants to help them get rid of it,” Luby wrote. Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix was out of the office and hasn't returned a Guardian call for comment.

Among those whose excessive contributions would be diverted to city coffers are Planning Commissioner Michael Antonini (perhaps the city's most powerful Republican), PR powerhouse Sam Singer, medical marijuana activist Kevin Reed, political fundraiser Wade Randlett, city staffer-turned-developer Michael Cohen, moderate Democrat Mary Jung, and Coalition for Responsible Growth (a pro-development group) President Rodrigo Santo. Not surprisingly, they all contributed to Lee, whose campaign would be on the hook for the most in givebacks, $7,725, followed by David Chiu's mayoral campaign at $4,700.

Finally, for all their talk about fiscal responsibility, Lee and his supporters couldn't seem to live within their means in this election. Lee's campaign finished about $275,000 in debt, while two of the pro-Lee IEs also finished in the red: SF Neighbor Alliance ($11,338) and Progress for All ($35,890), the ethically challenged creators of the “Run Ed Run” campaign that purported to talk Lee out of his pledge not to run for a full term in the office he'd been appointed to.

These are just some of the findings in Luby's voluminous reporting, so check it.