In 2010, Mark Farrell won his seat on the Board of Supervisors representing Pacific Heights and the Marina, District 2, by a mere 258 votes. That's Supervisorial elections for you. Previously a political unknown as a lawyer and venture capitalist, now the 42-year-old Supe's work on the budget committee and elsewhere has led some to speculate that he'll run for mayor one day.
Maybe, but for now, a $191,000 fine over his alleged violation of campaign finance laws in that winning election has been coming back to haunt him, somewhat literally in the form of the tax collector. And so, now the Chronicle announces he's suing the City of San Francisco to get the fine off his back.
The Examiner noted in January that he's threatened to sue over the fine before, so it's not a complete surprise he's finally done so — with gusto, calling the Ethics Commission's work a "witch hunt" — though it is a bit counterintuitive for a Supervisor to sue, like, the city he works for.
The fine? It's for this: After his upset victory, Janet Reilly, the 2010 race's frontrunner, filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission. Farrell and his campaign consultant, she alleged, had coordinated with an independent committee — which would be illegal — called Common Sense Voters that dropped $191,000 (hence the sum of the fine) in the last weeks of the campaign, clinching his win.
Common Sense Voters donations came from two sources: $141,000 from Thomas Coates, a Republican and real estate owner, and $50,000 from "Oh Dear" Dede Wilsey, a socialite and the Board Chair of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Those donations, of course, are far larger than anything that would have been permissible to give Farrell directly, as candidate committees have $500 contribution limits.
After a year spent looking into the matter, the Fair Political Practices Commission determined that Farrell's campaign, but not the now-Supervisor himself, had coordinated with the Common Sense Voters independent committee. Their punishment: Fining Farrell's campaign consultant, Chris Lee, $14,500.
Unsatisfied, Reilly picked up her complaint and brought it to the Ethics Commission, who implicated Farrell himself, asking him in 2014 to give $191,000 to the city. While at one point under an outgoing Ethics Commissioner there was talk of waiving the fee, that plan was scrapped.
But Farrell doesn't want to part with the money, and probably would also like his record untarnished by the scandal (maybe too late). Therefore, the lawsuit, filed in Superior Court. As well as the City of San Francisco, it names the Ethics Commission and the fine collector, which would be the Treasurer.
In the words of his lawsuit, "the Ethics Commission has systematically and blatantly ignored city law, as well as its own procedures, and is guilty of a gross violation of Supervisor Farrell’s rights... This miscarriage of justice must be stopped.”
While the lawsuit admits that campaign consultant Lee "had “minor and unauthorized communications” with the Common Sense Voters independent committee, it maintains that Farrell had no personal knowledge of the matter.
However, Commissioner Keane says that's not exactly how that works. While state law might not hold Farrell responsible for his campaign consultant, city law does, Keane argues.