A highly orchestrated and well-financed campaign to persuade interim San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to run for a full term this fall has cast a new spotlight on the political activities of Recology, the controversial garbage company that has held a monopoly on refuse collection in San Francisco since 1932.
Recology has for decades enjoyed exceptionally strong ties to one of Lee's main patrons, former Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr., with campaign finance records showing a history of Recology employees donating to Brown campaigns in a coordinated fashion. The company has also enjoyed a close relationship with Lee, who as head of the Department of Public Works once came under fire for proposing a huge increase in residential garbage collection fees.
On Friday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak, a close ally of Brown and the mastermind behind the Lee mayoralty, had repeatedly urged a Recology executive to help with the “Run Ed Run” effort, and that two company employees were then instructed to help gather signatures for the campaign. Lee is expected to announce next week that he's entering the race, despite having agreed to stay out as part of the political horse-trading that got him appointed interim mayor last January.
David Chiu, a mayoral candidate and president of the Board of Supervisors, called Pak’s behavior an “unethical and possibly illegal coordinated shakedown” of a major city contractor. He elicited support from four other leading campaigns -- all of whom would be severely undercut by a Lee candidacy -- to issue a joint statement calling for an investigation into Progress For All, the committee steered by Pak that has been driving the campaign to draft Lee.
Pak, on Friday, denied any wrongdoing, saying she was casually soliciting help from friends. “There are thousands of people,” Pak said. “I know my friends and I call up everybody.” Recology blamed the signature-collecting effort on the poor judgment of a single high-ranking executive who has since been disciplined.
Chiu’s accusations of a “shakedown” belie what critics say has in fact been a cozy, mutually beneficial relationship between the Brown-Pak-Lee nexus and Recology, which just this week won a major landfill contract from the city and currently collects some $220 million a year from San Francisco residents for trash pick-up and recycling.
In the summer of 1999, Lee, who had been tapped by Brown to head the Department of Public Works in 1996, came under public criticism after proposing a 44 percent rate hike for residential garbage collection. Although the rate was lower than the 52 percent hike proposed by Norcal (as Recology was then known), it was substantially higher than the 20 percent increase recommended by his staff, said Quentin Kopp, a former supervisor and state senator and a retired judge who advocated against the rate hike at the time.
The agreement was heavily criticized in newspaper editorials and by supervisors including Aaron Peskin, who said it was a deal based upon “political considerations.”
Several months later, Norcal employees gave a total of $11,600 to Mayor Brown’s campaign for re-election. Campaign finance records show that Norcal employees -- mostly managers and executives -- tended to bundle their contributions and direct most of them to Brown. With 34 donations of up to $500 each, Norcal employees padded Brown’s war chest with an extra $8,650.00 on March 9, 1999 and $2,950.00 on November 17 of that same year.
No political donor listed as a Norcal employee donated to any other San Francisco candidate during the 1999 calendar year.
Roxanne Frye, who served Norcal’s corporate secretary in 1999, denied that the company bundled political gifts. When reminded by a Bay Citizen reporter that she was among those who donated to Brown's campaign on the same day as many colleagues, she said: “It’s a long time ago, and I can’t remember.”
Brown’s relationship with Recology extends back to the 1980s: while serving as speaker of the California Assembly, he received more than $11,000 in campaign contributions from the firm and was also paid at least $60,000 -- and possibly more than $250,000, according to a 1991 Los Angeles Times story -- by Norcal to work as a legal advisor.
A federal grand jury investigated his ties to the company in connection to his atttempts to help Norcal secure a dump site deal, but ultimately declined to bring charges.
“A big part of their business model is very, very, very, tight, expensive well-cultivated relationships with elected officials, which from time to time crosses over into bribery,” said Tony Kelly, a community activist who was leading a ballot initiative effort to force the city to open its garbage collection contract to an open bidding process. In the 1990s, a Norcal executive was sentenced to prison after investigators uncovered a bribery scheme in San Bernardino County that steered $20 million in contracts to the company. A former San Jose mayor was also indicted for his dealings with the company.
The ballot initiative on open bidding, also supported by Kopp, is expected to go before voters in 2012.
Michael Sangiacomo, Recology’s president and CEO, said in his statement this week that the company's official policy was to remain "non-partisan."
“We want to bring our own error to light,” said Sangiacomo, in reference to the pro-Lee signature gathering. “It’s important our employees and the City know that we are non-partisan in candidate races in San Francisco. We want them to know that we acted swiftly to stop the signature gathering and publicly disclose this situation when alerted to the issue.”
Progress For All, the group behind the "Run Ed Run" campaign, recently disclosed that it has already spent some $60,000 on the Lee campaign. The group has technically not specified a candidate that it is supporting, critics say, in order to subvert campaign finance laws that regulate who can give how much to political candidates.
Senior writer Elizabeth Lesly Stevens also contributed to this report.