Critics scrutinize Mayor Ed Lee’s China trip
by John Cote
April 7, 2013
Mayor Ed Lee was looking the part of a high-level diplomat during his recent visit with China’s vice president, Li Yuanchao, with aides discretely perched behind them and a soaring stylized mural of the Great Wall of China looming over it all.
But as Lee talked to students at Tsinghua University in Beijing about tech innovation, tried to convince Southern China Airlines to open a nonstop route from Guangzhou to San Francisco, and visited his father’s ancestral village, the funding for his 10-day official trip to China was being blasted by perennial critics at home as dubious or potentially illegal.
While Lee’s office contends the mayor did everything openly and by the book, three different complaints were recently filed with either the city’s Ethics Commission or the state Fair Political Practices Commission over the trip, which documents show was funded through the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
State law, with some exceptions, prohibits officials from accepting gifts of more than $440 a year from any single source, a rule that’s designed to curb the influence of moneyed interests on policy makers.
The tab for Lee’s official jaunt through Hong Kong, Beijing, Guangzhou, Taishan and Macau is listed at nearly $12,000 in disclosure documents the mayor filed at the Ethics Commission. But the filing contends that the chamber “acted as the intermediary” for gifts of $440 each provided by 41 different individuals or companies, many of whom are among the 43 people in Lee’s official delegation. That $18,040 total also covers the travel costs of the mayor’s wife, Anita, said Lee’s spokeswoman, Christine Falvey.
The same group of people chipped in similar amounts to cover travel costs for three of the mayor’s staffers on the trip, Falvey said. Those disclosure forms are not yet required to be filed.
Among those who are both donors and delegates are Chronicle columnist and former Mayor Willie Brown, his companion and city Immigrant Rights Commissioner Sonya Molodetskaya, and Lee confidant Rose Pak, the Chinese Chamber consultant who helped organize the trip. Six different companies or entities, including the chamber, Kwan Wo Construction and Boyett Construction, had at least two executives donate to cover the trip costs.
That looks sketchy to Jon Golinger, the president of the influential Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association, who wants the FPPC to investigate whether individuals were reimbursed or were named as the donor without actually paying, either of which would appear to violate state law.
“That’s why the paperwork matters,” said Golinger, who filed two of the complaints. “If those people of their own volition wrote separate checks, they’re allowed to do that. …. If it was reimbursed by the organization or they just claim that that’s who wrote the checks, as far as I know, that’s not legal.”
The FPPC already scolded Pak in an August 2011 letter for using another Chinese Chamber of Commerce entity, the Chinese New Year Festival Committee, to improperly cover the travel of Supervisors David Chiu, Carmen Chu and Eric Mar to southern China in 2009 in excess of the gift limit.
A separate complaint to the Ethics Commission from Golinger contends that even at $440, Pak’s gift to the mayor is illegal because it violates the city’s ban on accepting gifts from “restricted sources.”
Since 2007, no city officer or employee can accept a gift from someone who “who does business with or seeks to do business with the department of the officer or employee,” or anyone who during the last 12 months “attempted to influence the particular officer or employee in any legislative or administrative action.”
Pak, one of Lee’s longtime friends and someone who helped convince him to drop his promise to be a one-year caretaker and run for a full term, is viewed by some City Hall watchers as often trying to influence the mayor on issues, including appointments to commissions and boards.
In September, Pak acknowledged to The Chronicle that she called the mayor’s office to stop the then-head of his Office of Economic and Workforce Development from hiring a staffer that Pak disliked. The job offer was rescinded. Pak later told San Francisco Magazine: “I’m very proud of it, and I’d do it again.”
Golinger, in his complaint, said that episode qualified Pak as a “restricted source.”
Pak could not be reached for comment as she traveled in China. Falvey dismissed the complaints as the handiwork of a few regular malcontents who are trying to distract from a trip where the mayor is promoting cultural connections and introducing the burgeoning Chinese middle-class market to San Francisco-made products like TCHO chocolate and DODO, cases for tablets and smartphones.
“We publicly disclosed in great detail the purpose of the trip and those who contributed to it,” Falvey said. “We’ve exceeded reporting requirements in the spirit of transparency. People know exactly why he’s going and who he’s traveling with.”
Who he is traveling with — including a few top city officials, the primary developer for the Hunters Point shipyard and Treasure Island, and construction figures that have had city contracts — is part of the problem, as Golinger sees it.
“It’s certainly troubling that a small cadre of influential people are getting extreme access to the highest elected official in the city, which regular San Franciscans don’t have, simply by virtue of writing a check,” he said.