Updated Jan. 18, 2011 at 6:47 p.m.
Groups associated with Rose Pak, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce lobbyist, were by far the largest sources of travel gifts given to San Francisco officials in the past two years, according to public disclosure forms reviewed by a newly formed group calling itself San Franciscans for Clean Government. Board of Supervisors President David Chiu was identified as the top individual recipient of travel gifts during that period.
Receiving travel gifts is not illegal as long as the trips are reasonably associated with an official’s duties, according to San Francisco ethics rules.
But disproportionately large gifts, or generous giving from one source, may create the appearance of undue influence by special interests, said Jon Golinger from San Franciscans for Clean Government, the new group.
Golinger, a longtime Telegraph Hill resident, is no stranger to politics, having worked for many years for former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin as well as Jim Stearns, a San Francisco political consultant who is now running the mayoral campaign of state Sen. Leland Yee. Golinger also worked briefly on Chiu's supervisorial campaign in 2008.
He found that through conduits like the Chinese Chamber and the Chinese New Year Festival Committee, for which she serves as a director, Pak gave nearly half of the total amount of travel gifts given to city elected officials — $19,506 of the $44,283.60 total — during calendar years 2009 and 2010.
Pak spent most of that money on five-day trips, each worth $6,122, for three supervisors — David Chiu, Carmen Chu and Eric Mar — to China’s Guangdong Province, Macau and Hong Kong. The trips took place in mid-November 2009; several supervisors reported the trip’s purpose as attending the International Friendship Cities' 30th anniversary event and meeting government officials.
“What stands out is that one source stands heads and shoulders above the rest,” Golinger said Tuesday, without mentioning Pak by name. “Every other interest in town put together barely equal what one single source gave. It opens up the door for influence that allows dollars and favors to be used.”
Pak’s political dealings have come under scrutiny in recent weeks ever since she, in concert with former Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. and then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, assembled enough votes on the Board of Supervisors to elect Edwin M. Lee as interim mayor — a deft coup that bared her clout within the city’s highest echelon of power.
In response to the criticism, Pak argued that the money for each of the supervisors did not come directly from the Chinese Chamber but from the trip’s two dozen participants — who were, in fact, businessmen and other hangers-on who chipped in to cover for the three supervisors.
Pak said the group visited the ancestral hometowns of Chu and Mar and often dined on lavish meals paid for by local government officials, including a Portuguese banquet at the mansion of Macau’s chief administrator, Edmund Ho.
When asked about the $6,122 figure that each supervisor reported as the value of the five-day trip, Pak said she provided the supervisors with estimates of the value of meals, transportation and lodging they received. Many of those figures were inflated, she said, because the goods and services were gifted by local officials, and their true costs were unknown.
“I want to be on the safe side, so we report a little higher,” Pak said. “I’m very upfront. This stuff is not worth cheating.”
Golinger’s report singled out Chiu, whose district includes Chinatown, for individually receiving by far the most travel gifts, at $16,639.71. Chiu received a $3,400 travel gift, among others, to the Netherlands courtesy of the Bikes Belong Foundation, a Colorado-based transit advocacy group, and a $3,310 trip to Taipei, paid by the Taipei City Council.
City Treasurer Jose Cisneros received the second most travel gifts.
Chiu dismissed the report and any suggestion of impropriety.
“This report shows that our system of full disclosure is working well,” Chiu told The Bay Citizen on Tuesday. “The only reason this report could be created is that all of us public officials fully disclosed our travel.”
There has been a long precedent for trips to China, Pak said. During his term, Brown visited China three or four times in such trips. Newsom was slated to participate in one of the trips in 2007, but canceled several days before his scheduled departure, and then-board President Aaron Peskin took his place instead.
Official trips can be sumptuous affairs. In August 2009, for instance, a business group paid more than $30,000 for Newsom to visit Mexico.
Golinger said he was motivated to begin his research after watching the intrigue surrounding the interim mayor and district attorney appointments unfold in City Hall. On Jan. 10, three days after the board selected Lee as interim mayor, Golinger began publishing a blog, cleanupcityhall.wordpress.com.
It was a process, he felt, that eroded the public’s trust in government — and one that inspired him to volunteer his time to work on the report.
The document includes several recommendations for the city’s ethics authorities, including a new rule to prohibit officials from receiving travel gifts worth more than $420.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Bay Area Council as the source of funding for Mayor Gavin Newsom's trip to Mexico in 2009. The trip was paid for by an independently formed committee of businesses that included, among others, PG&E, Holland & Knight and Grainger Industrial Supply.