SAN FRANCISCO – The recent formation of a joint task force by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and the FBI to thwart political corruption suggests another act may be unfolding in the continuing story of a federal investigation that began several years ago and has so far snared more than 20 people.
The FBI investigation into money laundering, racketeering and conspiracy in San Francisco led to the convictions of former State Sen. Leland Yee, who was sentenced to five years in prison this year, and Chinatown gang leader Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who is scheduled to be sentenced by May. That investigation also turned up leads about other questionable activities, and led San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon to charge three one-time fundraisers for Mayor Ed Lee with bribery and money laundering.
The mayor has not been charged with any crime and supports the prosecution of his former fundraisers. In announcing the joint corruption task force, however, Gascon seemed to indicate that political corruption in San Francisco remains a problem.
“Public corruption is a cancer that must be rooted out and extinguished,” Gascon said at the time in a prepared statement.
Some critics say Gascon is targeting the mayor unfairly. Nathan Ballard, a supporter of Lee’s and a Democratic strategist, told the Los Angeles Times that no evidence has been presented showing the mayor has taken part in any pay-to-play activity.
Robert Stern, the past president of the Center for Governmental Studies and the principal co-author of the California Political Reform Act of 1974, said the formation of such a task force was positive because it makes sense for local and federal officials to work together to ensure that both campaign finance and ethics rules are followed.
“That is always good,” Stern told the Northern California Record. “The people in government will feel that somebody is there looking over their shoulder.”
He said the Bay Area has dealt with corruption problems in recent years, but so have other California cities. On the positive side, San Francisco now has a new ethics commission that seems to be working aggressively, Stern said.
“It is much more active politically than Los Angeles, and also smaller,” he said of San Francisco. “They take their politics there more seriously.”
Stern favors doing much more to ensure that financial contributions to politicians are fully disclosed so that the public can better understand the role of money in political campaigns. That includes providing more resources to city ethics commissions.
“I’m satisfied that disclosure works well,” Stern said. “Clearly, it hasn’t cleaned everything up.”
Other observers have speculated that the joint task force might be a way for federal investigators to lend a hand to local prosecutors enforcing the strict California disclosure laws. “You may well view this as a kind of cooperative loan of FBI resources to the DA,” Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg recently told public television station KQED’s website.
Stern said that a common law enforcement tactic is to go after aides in an effort to get them to talk about the higher-ups, who are politically more savvy and careful about their actions than underlings.
“There’s a lot of serendipity too,” he said. “Investigators will look at one thing and find connections to another.”