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San Francisco eyes stricter reporting of politician-linked donations

A view of downtown San Francisco and the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on September 8, 2013 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A view of downtown San Francisco and the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on Sept. 8, 2013 in San Francisco, California.

New light in foggy San Francisco could soon be turned on the politician-linked practice of "behested payments" that prompted a KPCC investigation earlier this year.

San Francisco's proposed regulations would require significant disclosures about where the behested money goes, and even how it's spent by nonprofits. Behested payments are the thorny fundraising practice that elected officials use to raise money for pet causes, sometimes approaching individuals and companies that do business with government.

In San Francisco, elected officials, donors and charities could all face new reporting requirements — and stricter scrutiny of their activity — if the regulations become law. The proposed rules took a step forward Monday night, advancing out of the city's Ethics Commission and on to its Board of Supervisors.

Government watchdogs consider behested payments — which are unlimited and can reach six and seven figures — a form of influence buying, while those involved often counter that public officials are using the process to provide funding for worthy causes.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has raised more than $31 million in behested payments since his election, far more than statewide politicians, including Gov. Jerry Brown. The KPCC investigation tracked the flow of the money and conflict of interest concerns sparked by the eye-popping sums.

San Francisco's regulations would not bar behested payments from those with business before the city, as an earlier draft of the regulations proposed. The Ethics Commission couldn't muster the votes required for that version.

Instead, the proposal was reworked to boost disclosure on all sides of the process:

  • Public officials would have to report any behested payment of over $1,000 by a person or group with business before the official. State law only requires reporting of payments over $5,000. Officials would also have to disclose family ties with any organization receiving a payment.
  • Donors making behested payments must disclose matters they are involved with before the city, and decisions by an official they are actively supporting or opposing.
  • Recipients would in some cases have to report how they spent the money received from behested payments. This requirement kicks in for groups that receive more than $100,000 in a year.

No such regulations exist or are imminent in Los Angeles.
San Francisco’s disclosures would go far beyond what’s currently required by state law.

"You want government officials who are making decisions about government issues on the merits," said San Francisco Ethics Commission President Peter Keane. "Not because they're receiving something."

In a memo to the Ethics Commission by analysts Pat Ford and Kyle Kundert, the duo spell out the reasoning behind the rules: "These disclosures seek to identify how a person who makes a behested payment may be seeking to influence the behesting official's decision-making," they write.

They call behested payments over $100,000 "exceptional amounts" and write "it is important to know whether such organizations use the funds in a way that benefits the behesting official."

The regulations passed by a vote of 4 to 1. Keane expects the supervisors to face resistance from nonprofits and other groups that benefit from the payments. He told KPCC that if the Board of Supervisors fails to pass the regulations, the Ethics Commission will use its power to place the ordinance on the ballot in 2018, putting it directly to voters.

Explore payments behested by Mayor Garcetti

Further details available here