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Campaigns Turn Up Heat on Embattled Ethics Commission

Candidates say decision to absolve "Run, Ed, Run" of wrongdoing proves agency's toothlessness

The San Francisco Ethics Commission closed a chapter in a high-profile case Monday night when it unanimously voted to absolve Progress For All, the group that publicly campaigned this summer on interim Mayor Ed Lee’s behalf, of any ethical misconduct — for now, at least.

But the commission’s 5-0 decision, which overruled an opinion released late last week by its executive director, John St. Croix, opened up the regulatory body to a new round of recriminations as it struggles through a period of unprecedented political pressure.

In June, a civil grand jury investigating the commission’s performance published a scathing report entitled “Sleeping Watchdog.” The commission could be overhauled soon if a hotly contested ballot initiative meant to strengthen its enforcement powers passes this November.

This week, mayoral candidates have been quick to criticize the commission's ruling. And while legal experts mostly agree with the narrowly cast decision, the immediate backlash reflected a city agency whose most important asset, its credibility, is being openly challenged.

Even before the Monday ruling, Rose Pak, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce consultant who funneled thousands of dollars into Progress For All, and the former Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. ridiculed St. Croix’s judgment. In an interview published in the Chinese-language Singtao newspaper on Saturday, Pak called a memo written by St. Croix “the biggest joke in the world.”

“He doesn’t know the U.S. Constitution,” Pak said. “I don’t know how he does his job.”

On Monday night, state Sen. Leland Yee received news that the Progress For All case had been dismissed while at a debate at the Castro Theatre — the first at which Lee appeared as a candidate. Onstage, Yee appeared visibly angry and lashed out against the commission, calling it a “toothless tiger.”

Aaron Peskin, the chairman of San Francisco’s Democratic Party, chimed in this week, saying the commission had "undermined" St. Croix after he “finally actually tried to adhere to the law.”

Political insiders speculated this week that the commission's decision to overrule St. Croix amounted to a vote of no confidence. But the panel's chairman, Benedict Y. Hur, rejected that suggestion.

“The fact that we disagreed didn’t say anything about how we work with the executive director,” Hur said. “Often we agree and sometimes we don’t. I don’t see that as indicating more than that.”

Hur, who is a partner in litigation at the San Francisco law firm Keker & Van Nest LLP, said the commission's staff is working to close a potential loophole that Progress For All may have discovered. He said if Lee's opponents could prove that he was in fact a candidate before his official announcement, the commission would reopen its inquest.

When reached briefly by phone on Tuesday afternoon, St. Croix said he did not have time to discuss the matter.

“I believe I did the right thing. I really have to go,” St. Croix said. He could not be reached Wednesday.

For weeks, Lee’s opponents have accused the his supporters of skirting campaign finance laws by raising tens of thousands of dollars to gather signatures and run advertisements on Lee's behalf, ostensibly to draft the reluctant mayor into the race.


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