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S.F. Ethics Commission finds ‘problematic’ gifting at city departments

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 10/2/2021 By Lauren Hernández
This file photograph, taken via Google Street View, shows the San Francisco Ethics Commission at 25 Van Ness Ave #220, San Francisco, California. © Google Street View/

This file photograph, taken via Google Street View, shows the San Francisco Ethics Commission at 25 Van Ness Ave #220, San Francisco, California.

Several San Francisco city departments have accepted gifts from restricted organizations — groups with which the city does business — and distributed those gifts to city employees, actions that undermine the city’s rules regarding gifts, according to a new report by the city’s Ethics Commission.

The 41-page report released on Thursday details “problematic” conduct related to gifts, including the awarding of tickets to events such as concerts and shows and the receipt of benefits and funds to pay for private parties, dinners and other celebrations. Among the departments or city organizations cited for questionable actions were the Recreation and Parks Department, the group that oversees the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, Airport Commission, Department of Public Works, and the Mayor’s Office.

Ethics Commission officials said in the report that the conduct creates “the appearance of an improper relationship between City agencies and the entities that they do business with and regulate.” The commission’s report was first reported on by Mission Local.

Under San Francisco’s restricted source rule, city employees are prohibited from asking for and accepting a gift from a person or organization that contracts with that employee’s department or “has sought to influence the official’s actions in the last 12 months,” according to the Ethics Commission.

The commission recommends changing city law in a number of ways, such as: prohibiting city employees from acting as an “intermediary” for a restricted source by asking for, accepting, delivering or coordinating a gift that “confers a personal benefit on any” city employee if the go-between employee “knows or has reason to know that the source is a restricted source” to whomever would receive the gift; and prohibiting restricted sources from giving gifts to non-city employees or organizations if they know the gift would benefit city employees who are considered to be restricted.

Additionally, the commission recommends creating a “single, standardized disclosure requirement” to ensure that detailed information about gifts given to departments can be found in a single location. It also recommends requiring any department that uses a gift “in a manner that bestows a personal benefit on any City officer or employee, including any tickets distributed in accordance with a ticket policy,” to disclose the name of each employee.

The report refers to Mohammed Nuru, the former San Francisco public works director who has been charged by federal prosecutors with fraud for allegedly trying to bribe an airport commissioner.

Here are some instances that commission officials noted in their report:

• The Airport Commission in 2019 held three events commemorating the Harvey Milk Terminal 1 and the Grand Hyatt at San Francisco International Airport and scheduled a fourth event for 2020, which was subsequently canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Airport Commission reportedly accepted more than $1 million in gifts from “non‐City sources,” in order to “cover the cost of the four scheduled events,” according to the report. Commission officials said that “Nearly all of the reported funding for these gifts came from entities that do business with the Airport and would thus be restricted sources for Airport officials.”

• The Mayor’s Office in December 2019 hosted a staff holiday party at Emporium SF, an arcade bar and event space in San Francisco, where between 80 and 100 people received free food and drinks. The Mayor’s Office reported receiving $3,800 in funding for the party, but the report says that neither the Mayor’s Office nor nonprofit that reportedly “provided” funding for the party — San Francisco Special Events Committee — publicly disclosed the source of the funding. The commission’s report says the “lack of public transparency into the ultimate source of funding for this event is problematic.” The report likened this incident to the Department of Public Works “holiday parties in that a non‐City organization funded a free holiday party for City officials using money collected from undisclosed private sources. In the case of DPW, the Department of Justice found that the use of the nonprofit intermediaries constituted a deliberate attempt to conceal the true source of the funds (which was Recology) and charged multiple individuals with money laundering.”

In a statement to The Chronicle on Friday evening, the Mayor’s Office said it “properly disclosed that the 2019 holiday party was paid for by the Special Events Committee, and at no point was there any funding provided by a restricted source. We consulted with the City Attorney’s Office before the Holiday Party to ensure we followed all rules. This is not similar to the Public Works Holiday Party at all.”

• Of the 1,855 tickets to Outside Lands that the Recreation and Park department reported it distributed between 2015 and 2019, 1,442 tickets were reported as going to city officials, with 1,202 tickets, or 65% “going to officials within Rec and Park,” the report says. Commission officials said this “practice is problematic because the tickets are donated by Another Planet Entertainment,” which is a restricted source for employees within the Recreation and Park Department.

Lauren Hernández is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: lauren.hernandez@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ByLHernandez

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