Mayor Lee's trip to China raises questions of ethics and influence

Being the man behind the mayor has its privileges.
Luke Thomas/Fog City Journal

[UPDATED(x3)] Mayor Ed Lee barely had time to unpack from his recent political junket to Paris before he was off on his current trip to China – both of which were paid for and accompanied by some of his top political supporters and among the city's most influential power brokers. No wonder Lee doesn't have time to weigh in on Airbnb's tax dodge, the condo conversion stalemate, or other important city issues.

Local good government advocate Charles Marsteller learned of the current China trip from Willie Brown's column in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, whose editors (including Editor Ward Bushee, who we're still waiting to hear back from about this trip) consider it a “man about town” column immune from conflict-of-interest policies that normally require journalists to disclose who is paying them on the side.

“I'm here with Mayor Ed Lee for my seventh official visit,” Brown cheerfully wrote, although readers were left to wonder just what official business Brown might be conducting with our mayor and his entourage. So, being an expert on political disclosure laws, Marsteller went down to the Ethics Commission to pull the Form SFEC-3.216(d) that state law requires elected officials to file before leaving on trips paid for by outside interests.

But it wasn't there, so Marsteller filed an official complaint with the commission, telling us, “I did so to impress upon our Elected and other City Officials the need to properly report gifts in a timely way and in the manner as called for by State law and on the forms provided by the SF Ethics Commission.” 

When we contacted mayoral Press Secretary Christine Falvey, she forwarded us a copy of the form that should have been filed before the trip and told us, “I’m not going to answer the question about why we failed to file the appropriate forms with the Ethics Commission, as we worked closely with the City Attorney’s office to exceed reporting requirements by all appropriate deadlines.” [UPDATE: The time stamp on the form indicated it was filed on May 25, before the trip, even though it wasn't publicly available at the Ethics Commission office when Marsteller went down to look for it].

The form indicates that Lee's portion of the trip was paid for by the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce, whose influential leader Rose Pak conspired with Brown to get Lee appointed mayor more than two years ago. This is also the same Rose Pak who was admonished by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission for illegally funding another political junket to China in 2009 with Sups. David Chiu and Eric Mar and then-Sup. Carmen Chu, who Lee appointed as Assessor earlier this year.

Those officials were forced to repay the expenses after the FPPC found that Pak, that time acting under the auspices of the Chinese New Year Festival Committee, was not allowed to make gifts exceeding $420 per official that year. “Please be advised that since the Chinese New Year Festival Committee is not an organization that falls under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, no public official may accept gifts of any type from this organization valued in excess of the applicable limit,” FPPC counsel Zachary Norton wrote in an Aug. 22, 2011 enforcement letter to Pak.

In other words, because this committee and “other 501(c)(6) chamber of commerce organization[s]” are in the business of actively lobbying top elected officials for favorable policies, rulings, and projects, they are barred by ethics law from giving them the gifts of big overseas political junkets. As Marsteller noted in his complaint letter, violations are punishable by fines of $5,000 per violation, or if they are “willful violations of the law” – which doing the same thing you were sanctioned for just two years ago certainly might be considered – the criminal penalties are $10,000 per violation or up to a year in jail.

Mayor Lee's portion of the trip cost the Chamber $11,970, according to the form. But this time, to get around the FPPC restrictions, Pak seems to have passed the hat among various business elites to fund the trip. The mayor's form shows that 41 people paid up to the current gift limit of $440 “to defray the cost of the mayor's trip.”

They include Pak, Brown, four people from Kwan Wo Construction, three from American Pacific International Capital, two each from Boyett Construction, Young Electric, and Bel Builders, Harbor View Holdings Director Gorretti Lo Lui, and SF Immigration Rights Commissioner Sonya Molodetskaya – most of whom were also part of the trip's 43-member delegation.

Among others who tagged along for the trip are Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru (who has a history of political corruption under Mayors Brown and Newsom and no clear business being on a Chinese trade delegation, but who doesn't love a free trip?!), Kofi Bonner from Lennar Home Builders, Harlan Kelly with the SFPUC, Jay Xu with the Asian Art Museum, the wives of Lee and Bonner, Kandace Bender with San Francisco International Airport, and Mark Chandler with the Mayor's Office of International Trade and Commerce.

It's not clear who paid for those other public officials or even what they were doing there. [UPDATE: Department of Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon told us that Nuru paid for the trip himself, but that he'll be studying China's instrastructure, from its separated bikesways to greening of public rights-of-way, as well as meeting with Chinese businesses involved in the redevelopment of Hunter's Point. "He's been looking at a lot of the infrastructure in China," Gordon said. "I expect a dozen if not more ideas when he returns."] Then again, it also wasn't clear why venture capitalist Ron Conway – Lee's top campaign fundraiser and possible reason for publicly subsidizing big tech companies, including many that Conway funds – joined and helped sponsor Lee's recent trip to Paris. This is just how business gets done in San Francisco.

"Willie Brown is the former Mayor of San Francisco," Falvey told us when we asked why Brown was on the trip and what its purpose was. "The purpose of the trip is to promote San Francisco, its local manufacturing, cultural exchanges, he is signing an MOU and meeting with high level, new Chinese government officials."

[UPDATE 4/5: Marsteller has withdrawn his complaint from the Ethics Commission alleging the mayor's form wasn't filed on time, but he and another citizen have filed separate complaints with the FPPC alleging the trip and its funding mechanism may violate the agency's 2011 ruling against Pak.]


are only becoming the most powerful economy in the world AND one third of SF'ers are Chinese or Asian AND we share the pacific rim with our sister city Shanghai?

Yes, trying to extort taxes out of AirBnB is so obviously why we voted for Lee.

Whatever is Ed thinking?

Oh, and Mayor Quan of Oakland has made a few visits to China as well, but of course that's completely different because Quan is a liberal, right?

She's also a much, much worse mayor than Lee.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

There is something vastly different about this trip than the ones earlier mayors took or that other mayors took. Mayor Lee is seeking loans for housing -- but for a private, profit-oriented developer. In 30 years I have never seen a mayor go overseas seeking to help a developer obtain a loan that will result in profits for the developer.

In addition, former mayor Willie Brown is accompanying the mayor, and he also is seeking to convert city projects into personal profits under a scheme that provides him $40,000 for every visa he helps obtain in exchange for investments in U.S. projects. Those projects are at Treasure Island and Hunters Point -- the same locales as the Lennar projects that Ed Lee is courting Chinese funding sources to help Lennar.

In addition, the Lennar project leader is also on this trip.

One would be hard pressed to view this trip as anything but an effort to assist the mayor's friends and supporters in their effort to maximize profits for themselves. This makes the issue of who funds the trip vastly more important.

Posted by CitiReport on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 8:53 am

part of the job of a Mayor to try and attract inward private investment for the city?

I'd put that at the very top of the list of priorities for a mayor.

And especially for one who stood for election and easily won on a pro-jobs, pro-growth, pro-development mandate!

Posted by Guest on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 9:17 am

indicating the massive interest in SF real estate from the Chinese, in some cases buying SF homes without even seeing them:

Posted by anon on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

Notice how Steven focuses almost exclusively on the fear of China - playing on the Guardian's continuing fear of Asian political domination. From a paper with zero minorities on its staff why should any of us be surprised?

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

the very least attractive things about them.

For some reason, that "model minority" thing really gets their goat.

Posted by anon on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

"For some reason, that "model minority" thing really gets their goat."

They don't vote the right way, so they must be demonized!

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

Lee could have gone to North Korea with Dennis Rodman to visit Kim Jong Un on Arnold Schwarzenegger's money for all I care. All Ed Lee would need to do is disclose the finances BEFORE traveling as is required by law.

The law applies to all people, not just the little people.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

It's hardly unusual. Some trips are official and some are private. You don't need to know about them all.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 6:08 am

Yeah, you do. Either the Mayor pays for his own trip and there is no need to report, or the the Mayor receives a gift of travel and must report it.

That is the law.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 6:38 am

But more generally, I'd expect anyone in a position of power to receive generosity from others, and it doesn't trouble me unduly.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 7:14 am

Of course we don't need to know about them because Ed Lee is not a public official. He sits in a public office, but his job is to serve private, not public, interests. And so if Rose Pak puts a trip together with one single accomplishment hailed in the Chinese press -- a $100,000 donation to the Chinese Hospital in town where Rose Pak is the fundraiser and board member -- it means nothing to any of us. Say, how is that fundraising for the America's Cup coming along, Ed??

Posted by CitiReport on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 11:53 am
Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

Your either for your political officials following the law so corruption is minimized or you're for political favors that no one knows about. Since you're advocating for the latter, what are you getting out of this or your connections? You're not advocating for corrupt city govt for nothing.


Posted by Guest on Apr. 07, 2013 @ 11:59 am

SFBG Exclusive:

Lee is going to visit Fu Manchu in China to get his marching orders!

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

interesting story.

Also, I just had a bit of an epiphany reading the troll scatter which has already appeared here; the recurring theme of imputating anti-Asian sentiment to "the Left," etc.

This is a rehearsed script.

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 6:45 pm

Thanks, Steven, for the link to my post regarding the mayor's recent junket to Paris and who accompanied him, including BAR publisher Thomas E. Horn and Ron Conway, and who paid for the trip.

This requirement you report is news to me:

"So, being an expert on political disclosure laws, Marsteller went down to the Ethics Commission to pull the Form SFEC-3.216(d) that state law requires elected officials to file before leaving on trips paid for by outside interests."

Today I blogged about DA Gascon last week filing a gift of travel disclosure form with the Ethics Commission, for a June 7, 2012, paid for by outside interests in Arizona.

Oh, now I learn that the law required Gascon to file a disclosure _before_ traveling to Arizona and he didn't adhere to the law, and took almost ten months to finally comply with the law. What's up with the tardiness?

Check out my post on Gascon's ten-months of non-compliance with ethical standards for travel here:

Posted by MPetrelis on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

He's getting a free ride. Mayor lee is a joke. Worst mayor.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

Deport Rose Pak.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 10:09 pm

Rose Pak is an American citizen.


Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 11:45 pm

Deport Marcos!

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 11:56 pm

Not very progressive at all.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 6:01 am

The only thing you care about is immigrants and Asians, you're just as bad as the progressives.

Doesn't anyone care about Americans who are already here, who have created the culture that is so in demand? Ditto for San Franciscans.

Why do you hate us so?

Posted by marcos on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 6:39 am

"The only thing you care about is immigrants and Asians, you're just as bad as the progressives.

Doesn't anyone care about Americans who are already here, who have created the culture that is so in demand?"

Wow. Just wow. Good to know that if we form a fascist party, Marcos will be first in line to join.

Immigrants and Asians have contributed nothing to American culture!

Keep San Francisco for white people!

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 7:10 am

by trolls when I realized that it didn't always matter.

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 7:47 am

immigrants driving down wages, and Asian H-1B workers in particular.

It never occurs to him that maybe the H1=B's are hired because they are smarter than he is.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 8:15 am

"It never occurs to him that maybe the H1=B's are hired because they are smarter than he is."

More a matter of work ethic.

San Francisco flourishes as whiny, aging, white people are replaced by hard-working, productive Asians.

The SFBG hates that - whiny, aging, white people are their constituency.

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 8:37 am

SFBG appeals to, with their mostly unjustified mostalgia about when SF was an affordable destination for those who never wanted to grow up.

Now, the sad losers who want to come to SF are priced out, and many of us are feeling very good about that.

SF Progressives don't really care about the poor or about non-whites. They care only about their own hopelessly dated vision of the city.

Inadequacy personnified.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 9:03 am

Well, that's why the SFBG is so rabid on the subject of rent control.

The whole point of rent control is to discriminate against new residents in favor of existing residents.

Rent control is how the "aging hippie gone sour demographic" can continue to squat in their residences in San Francisco for decades, rather than have Asians and other newcomers outbid them for those places.

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 9:22 am

It's the same yuppie boomer sense of entitlement and envy that we see elsewhere, only cloaked in a thin veneer of egalitarianism.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 11:08 am

Progressives support immigrant rights and stick up for the most vulnerable. Marc can't stand that. I don't what he stands for really, but he's a sell out for sure. Or worse...

Posted by Keepin it real on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 11:17 am

for themselves and not for others at all. It's a power and control thing.

Or, if you get yourself hitched up with a non-profit, or have a law license and are willing to be unethical, you can make out like Shaw, Hestor, Welch and that whole, sad, sordid bunch of ageing losers.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 11:30 am

marcos isn't so bad as long as he stays pointed towards the right but he *never* does. Might be a problem there.

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 11:43 am

that says more about you than it says about anyone else.

Nobody is good enough for the 55 year old unemployed virgin who lives in a rent-controlled hovel and spends all day posting to websites, most of which have now banned him.

If that's not a whole sack of sadness, I don't know what is.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

being imped by marcos might be expected to say.

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

It's not like being unpopular on websites is a novel feeling for you.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

I support taking care of people who are already here but who have been marginalized first. That includes blacks and Latinos. But in exchange, they need to support the needs of tech workers to not have our labor power diluted by special immigration exceptions.

Immigration is not a monolithic issue, there are many components to it and there are many contradictions amongst those components. There is no "right" way to reconcile those contradictions. There are competing interests at play and no group gets to decide that their interests trump the interests of other working people.

This failure to practice reciprocal solidarity is what has alienated the American left and San Francisco progressives from the people they claim to speak for.

And, yeah, compared to the dominant Eastern Asian culture, what is called Capitalism with Asian Values, there is practically no difference between white, African American and Latino American cultures, our languages and history are intertwined.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

I've hired a number of Indian H1-B's, and sponsored several of them to get green cards. Generally speaking they are smart, well-educated, hard-working and do a better job that ageing white troublemakers like you, and for less money.

Why would I ever hire you? I want a worker who doesn't spend 24/7 blogging.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

Yes, I want protectionism. People hire me because I know my shit and I'm good at it. I get done in 30 hours what it takes an idiot 50 to accomplish.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 3:21 pm

I'm very comfortable with my ability to compete globally so I do not seek all the "special treatment" that is vital for you to stay employed.

Oh, and every worker thinks they are good, but it is your boss I would ask about that. Altho his judgment is suspect if he does not see how much you goof off at work.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

Right, the weak that force us to spend a trillion dollars on "defense" to keep our weak selves safe buy protection and the weak corporations that spend billions buying elections buy protectionism by the importation of cheap labor.

You're aghast that anyone would assert interests that don't coincide with corporate interests. Parasite.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

What a racist post, as if there were not African and Latino American well established over the past few centuries.

You're saying that you're so comfortable with how blacks and Latinos have been treated that instead of raising us all up, you'd kick white Americans down and out of the middle class in favor of new immigrants from everywhere BUT Europe, Africa and Latin America.

Why do you hate Americans so?

Posted by marcos on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 7:21 pm

But statistically, Asians do much better than blacks and hispanics, and even do better than whites which appears to be the basis of your systemic hatred of Asians.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 7:29 am

If Americans wanted to work in sweatshop conditions, they could always move to Asia where that is the norm. My grandparents' generation shed blood to make the US better than that and their kids' generation built the American middle class and the leisure society. Those gains must be defended at all costs. If you're playing the race card, then you've got nothing else left to defend the indefensible.

Why do you hate America so and why do you hate Americans?

Posted by marcos on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

does not mean that they work in a "sweatshop". It could just be that you are overpaid.

You can "defend" whatever you want, but being overpaid is indefensible.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

50 hours a week at 60% wages is the road to sweatshops.

Outside the US, this does not happen. The US Government and the industry giants that own it are undercutting American labor. I want protectionism.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 3:19 pm

anything else?

A global marketplace emans just that, and some overpaid Americans cannot compete, and so whine about immigration, outsourcing, a weak dollar, imports etc. without realizing that all of those are inevitable as long as you feel entiled to receive more than you are earn or are worth.

And I'll bet my last dollar you say none of this BS at job interviews.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

The going rate for software professionals in Europe is similar to that in the US. It is just that Americal capitalism, the one that is accumulating Asian values is cut throat and cheap skate, devouring the very conditions that made the US desirable in the first place.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 06, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

of that, like you. While others welcome the challenge.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

unless you're 100% native American. So discriminating against people based on where they originally derive from is unethical, as well as illegal in many cases. So, for instance, an employer is not allowed to ask where you were born or where you "came from".

I'm a big fan of immigration and do not like to see xenophobia, whether it be from the left or the right.

But the point here was more how white liberals appear to hate on any non-white who is successful. White liberals have difficulty relating to non-whites unless they are poor victims. Asians typically out-perform whites and that troubles the left. It doesn't trouble me at all.

Whites created American culture?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 05, 2013 @ 7:17 am