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Herrera Faces New Ethics Questions

Prominent SF firm lobbied city attorney while running 2009 campaign, records show

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, his mayoral bid shaken by recent ethics disclosures, is represented by a prominent political consulting firm that lobbied him while simultaneously running his 2009 re-election campaign, records show.

The activity appears to have violated San Francisco’s ethics laws, which prohibit political consultants from lobbying public officials they represent. 

The firm, Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter and Partners, Inc., currently manages Herrera’s mayoral campaign. The other main consultant on Herrera's campaign, Alex Tourk, resigned last week following similar disclosures about questionable lobbying activity.

City records show that in 2009, an Atlanta-based energy company, Mirant, paid more than $100,000 to BMWL to lobby Herrera, who was working to close an environmentally hazardous power plant owned by Mirant in the Potrero neighborhood.

At the same time, Herrera’s re-election campaign paid BMWL more than $116,000 in fees for campaign consulting and media work, the records show.

Herrera has built the fight against the Potrero plant into his image as an activist city attorney who has waged of a series of courtroom battles over the past decade to protect San Francisco residents. Herrera sued Mirant in February 2009 and eventually reached a settlement to close the plant — despite the lobbying contacts made by employees of his campaign.

A former city official with knowledge of the settlement talks said it made sense that Mirant lobbied Herrera even though the city attorney was the most vocal critic of the power plant.

“Dennis was their No. 1 opponent, and Mirant had an interest in shaping how the shutdown happened if it was going to be inevitable,” the former city official said.

Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office, said Herrera’s official conduct was in no way influenced by his relationship with the lobbyists.

“Mirant is an example that no one in City Hall is tougher when standing up to lobbyists than Dennis Herrera,” Dorsey said. “He sued them in court. He blasted them for deplorable corporate citizenship. And he shut the Potrero power plant down.”

He said Herrera may have had informal conversations with BMWL about Mirant but should not be held accountable for what the lobbyists chose to report in their disclosure statements.

“The duty to report is on the lobbyist; the onus is not on the official,” Dorsey said. “This idea that somehow the city attorney doesn’t know what the law is is bullshit.”

John Whitehurst, a principal at BMWL, said the lobbying effort for Mirant was not a violation of ethics laws because the firm keeps its lobbying and campaign activities separate.

"We set it up that way, and that’s how it’s run,” Whitehurst said. “We’re very aware of the law.”

The new disclosures follow a string of recent reports raising ethical questions about Herrera, culminating in Tourk’s resignation from the campaign last week.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported May 5 that Tourk had spoken with Herrera on four occasions since Aug. 31 on behalf of other clients, including the California Pacific Medical Center, which is seeking permission to build a multibillion-dollar hospital in San Francisco. Also on May 5, the San Francisco Appeal website reported that Herrera received a $250 campaign contribution from CPMC’s chairman on the day of Tourk’s lobbying visit.

The continuing disclosures place BMWL — one of San Francisco’s most prominent and feared political outfits — into an uneasy spotlight.

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