Supervisor Mark Farrell v. Ethics Commission
Not once did Supervisor Mark Farrell stand before the Ethics Commission to answer questions at 8 public meetings over 18 months. Whether indignant, insecure or entitled, he couldn't access the humility once displayed as a novice candidate, or the comity befitting a twice-elected official. Instead, he deployed proxies; attorney James Sutton to parry City Hall, and crisis manager Nathan Ballard to spin the media. Ballard declared an Ethics inquiry into Farrell's tainted 2010 supervisorial campaign "was no reason for Farrell to waste his time."
Farrell had already cooperated with the State's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) investigation. It found that his campaign consultant, Chris Lee, had illegally coordinated with an Independent Expenditure Committee (IEC) that raised $221,500 to defeat Janet Reilly. In November 2014, the FPPC acknowledged Farrell's ultimate responsibility for his agent's misconduct, but decided he hadn't authorized it and held him harmless. Lee was fined $14,500. However, in December 2014 the Ethics Commission told Farrell he violated City campaign laws and had to forfeit $190,903 of the "independent" expenditures made in his behalf. Since then, Ethics has been a battleground with Farrell refusing to pay, Reilly pressing for more penalties, the City Attorney declining to pursue Farrell, Ethics Executive Director John St. Croix waiving the forfeiture, the commissioners overruling St. Croix, and St. Croix resigning. Perceiving "egregious violations", the commissioners had questions for Farrell but got Sutton's answers instead.
Since then, Ethics has been a battleground with Farrell refusing to pay, Reilly pressing for more penalties, the City Attorney declining to pursue Farrell, Ethics Executive Director John St. Croix waiving the forfeiture, the commissioners overruling St. Croix, and St. Croix resigning.”
Political optics were at play. It looked like big money had swung an election illegally. The beneficiary, Farrell, got a pass. His underling was flamed. Also, Ethics was seeking a budget boost while scrutinizing Farrell who chairs the City's Budget and Finance Committee. Still smarting under its "Sleeping Watchdog" tag, inaction would be seen as "genuflecting before an instrument of power" as Commissioner Keane put it. And, Farrell's posture behind surrogates suggested hubris or guilt. On 4/25/16 the Commissioners voted 5 to 0 to sue Farrell to disgorge the $190,903 in shady contributions. Four days later, Farrell sued the City to block the forfeiture, recoup attorney fees, and procure "other and further relief." On 5/23/16 Ethics Chair Paul Rene vowed to "vigorously" respond with a cross-complaint.
Next came echoes of the negative campaign that launched Farrell into City Hall. Much as Farrell's proxies had trashed his rival in 2010, surrogates were now bashing the Ethics Commission. Sutton portrayed Farrell as the "totally and completely innocent" victim of a "witch-hunt". Ethics was "guilty of a gross violation" and "blatantly ignored City law" resulting in an "outrageous" and "utterly frivolous" forfeiture demand. Ballard painted Farrell as persecuted by biased commissioners and sore losers. Behind it all, the pursuit of power.
The 2010 Battle for District 2: By November 2010, the Marina, Pacific Heights, Presidio and Sea Cliff had weathered a 2-week blitz of anti-Reilly attack ads from an IEC called "Common Sense Voters" (CSV). Underdog Farrell squeaked past his rival by 258 votes. Reilly had 196 more first-choice votes, but Farrell culled more secondary votes. His margin was less than 1% of the 28,911 votes cast. Swaying 129 potential Reilly supporters toward Farrell could have done it. Reilly attributed her loss to CSV's mud-slinging, coordinated by Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier and Farrell's campaign. She reported violations of the Political Reform Act to Ethics and the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
The feud originated in 2008 when City Attorney Dennis Herrera decided Alioto-Pier couldn't run for a third term. Seeing an open field, Farrell and Reilly launched their campaigns. Janet Reilly, a former journalist and PR professional, and a Golden Gate Bridge District director, was backed by her husband Clint, a political insider and commercial real-estate baron. Farrell, a lawyer and managing director with Quest Hospitality Ventures was a political neophyte who hired Chris Lee of Town Square Consulting as his campaign consultant. As for Alioto-Pier, she seized the opportunity to run for State Insurance Commissioner. Then, illness thwarted her bid. Still set on governing, she sued the City to run for supervisor. Her win in Superior Court threw the Reilly and Farrell campaigns into disarray. But Herrera prevailed on appeal, forcing Alioto-Pier out in August 2010 and resuscitating the other candidates. Formerly friends, Reilly and Alioto-Pier got entangled in competing ambitions. Reilly even filed an amicus brief faulting Alioto-Pier for disrupting existing campaigns. So, Alioto-Pier projected herself into Farrell's race.
By then Reilly was ahead in endorsements, polls and contributions; eventually receiving $363,865 compared to Farrell's $265,198. Farrell's team had to chop her lead. Enter attacks ads. Because going negative conveys a feral desperation, or a win-at-any-cost ferocity, trailing candidates welcome third parties that malign rivals "independently." IECs can raise unlimited funds, whereas candidate committees are limited to $500 contributions and barred from corporate funding. However, IECs cannot coordinate with candidate committees, must identify major donors in their ads, and report income and expenses to the Ethics Commission.
FPPC records indicate that Farrell's camp concocted "Common Sense Voters" (CSV) in September 2010 when Alioto-Pier decided to endorse Farrell's "common sense values." She encouraged her aides and her political consultant Richard Schlackman to help, gave Farrell her donor list, and boosted CSV. Nominally, CSV was formed by Jack Helfand, a San Mateo corporate attorney. Formerly a law-firm colleague of Farrell's, Helfand served on Farrell's campaign Finance Committee - until he quit to start CSV. He hired Farrell's campaign treasurer as CSV's treasurer. Farrell's campaign consultant Chris Lee gave Helfand set-up advice, pegged Rich Schlackman to guide CSV, writing; "We have a consultant on board that you will need to meet…", and sent him Farrell's campaign donor list. Helfand rallied people "who were sort of outside San Francisco," initially raising $30,500 from 5 venture capital buddies. Slyly, CSV was registered as "primarily formed" to support Farrell – rather than oppose Reilly. Farrell told the FPPC he learned about CSV "through public filings."
Meanwhile Alioto-Pier lobbied socialite-philanthropist Dede Wilsey and Republican real-estate magnate Tom Coates to fund CSV, something Schlackman wanted kept secret "because of politics." Farrell wasn't idle. He told the FPPC that he spent two hours with Dede Wilsey - to solicit a $500 campaign contribution. Wilsey poured $50,000 into CSV 12 days later. Per FPPC records Farrell was "only interested in Coates hosting a fundraising event and possibly writing a check to help out his campaign." Three days after hosting said house-party, Coates pumped $100,000 into CSV, plus another $41,000 the next week. Regarding her energetic fundraising, Alioto-Pier explained to the FPPC that she "really liked Farrell."
In the two weeks before the election, CSV disbursed the $191,000 bestowed by Coates and Wilsey (86% of its war-chest) to depict Reilly as a covert purveyor of "radical politics" and a puppet of the "ultra-lefty Daly-Peskin faction." CSV mailers cited her $500 donation to Peskin's 2000 campaign. Her husband Clint Reilly's $10,000 contribution to the 2008 SF Clean Energy initiative became her "risking public safety." Other ads featured Supervisor Chris Daly as "the wizard behind Janet Reilly's agenda." The ads didn't identify Coates and Wilsey as the major donors. Silly as they sound, such attack ads work subliminally - and effectively, to plant doubts and kindle fears. No matter that Gavin Newsom, Frank Jordan, Louise Renne, and Diane Feinstein denounced the smears as disgraceful, destructive, or ridiculous. Amidst this chorus, Farrell stayed mum. In his victory speech, he pledged to "return common sense…to City Hall."
Common Sense Voters' attack ads overwhelmed all other third party expenditures. Source: Ethics Commission
CSV reported spending $148,004 against Reilly. That doesn't include the $8,399 spent on "comparative mailers" that were actually attack ads, the $5,000 paid to the Republican County Central Committee, or operational expenses like Helfand's $2,181 fee to pay a $500 Ethics fine. Although $35,000 was spent on door-hangers lauding Farrell, most of CSV's $221,500 targeted Reilly. In comparison, outside spending against Farrell was minor; $12,912 by the Bay Area Firefighters PAC and $7,244 from the Democratic County Central Committee.
As for going negative, Farrell finally spoke out in May 2016 while running for the Democratic County Central Committee. In a memo to constituents, he acknowledged that his 2010 campaign had "turned incredibly ugly" - because the Reillys "spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on personal attacks against me" and "tried to win by tearing others down." Why this 180 degree spin? As the Chronicle reported, during the DCCC race Clint Reilly spent $20,000 on ads mocking Farrell's "failed ethics" since he "cheats to win" then sues to "avoid paying" Ethics fines. That's when Farrell condemned as "disgusting tactics" the type of ads that propelled his political career.
Dr. Maria Rivero and Dr. Derek Kerr were senior physicians at Laguna Honda Hospital where they repeatedly exposed wrongdoing by the Department of Public Health. Contact: DerekOnVanNess@aol.com