Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who is often credited with wielding influence over city government and development long after his tenure as mayor ended in the early 2000s, has weighed in on the latest corruption scandal at City Hall in a new interview.
Former Examiner reporter turned KQED reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez got Brown on the phone the day that the federal charges against now former SFPUC head Harlan Kelly were made public. Brown previously spoke to the Nob Hill Gazette back in April and said that he was funding Mohammed Nuru's defense. And Fitzgerald Rodriguez notes that several of the figures involved in the FBI's corruption probe, specifically Nuru, Kelly, and Kelly's wife Naomi Kelly, the city administrator, are said to be proteges of Brown's — a characterization he seems to deny in the interview.
Brown demurs when it comes to the validity of the charges themselves — most of which relate to alleged graft on the part of officials and alleged sweetheart deals for certain real estate developers. And he seems to dismiss the whole thing as standard procedure, saying at the outset, "I don't understand what the object [of the outrage] happens to be, frankly, because the kind of thing they're talking about, and the kind of thing they're doing, doesn't seem to have a whole lot of implications for the operation of city government."
And, he adds, "It sounds like these people have been entertained and have been more tolerant of those entertaining them."
When asked how he feels about the fact that his friends are facing serious charges, he expresses some anger at any presumption of guilt or finger-pointing at Mayor Breed for letting such alleged graft occur. "Please don't draw any conclusion based on raw numbers. Jesus. You do that and you really impose on the head person an enormous burden," Brown said, in response to a comment about the growing number of department heads at City Hall who are implicated. And he added that the district attorney during his tenure (Terence Hallinan) attempted to prosecute the entire command structure of the SFPD at the time during the Fajitagate scandal, only to be shut down by the court — implying the same thing could happen here.
And Brown compared his current emotions about the indictments to feeling "sad when any friend or relative has a serious illness or problem of any sort, and that includes a serious problem with law enforcement people."
Predictably, Brown remains vague in most of his commentary, and he suggests that he's not so well tied into Mayor Breed's administration as to be able to take the pulse of the moment — he mostly only makes comparison's to his own time as mayor.
"If people viewed it as something that would embarrass them, people wouldn't do it," Brown says of the corruption allegations so far, suggesting that no one perceived that was going on as actual graft. (It's long been said that "low-level corruption" is just business as usual in San Francisco, but it's not clear that Brown is necessarily confirming that.) "But people do not think, I don't think, in terms of someone buying you a drink, or buying you dinner, or anything of that nature, that there's anything that caused them to influence or give up their responsibility to public service for the benefit of the public," he says.
He also finishes with a wildly broad statement, saying, "I think people should never lose confidence in government, period. I don't think government rises or falls based on the conduct of a few. Trump proves that today."
In any event, Brown doesn't sound too concerned that this federal probe will go much further or yield any bigger revelations than it has so far. But, he agrees, that "transparency" is a good thing, and it's good I guess that we're all learning about these free trips and stuff that government officials are accused of accepting?
Actually I don't know what Brown is saying. It mostly just sounds like, "Don't worry about it. This will blow over."
Top image: Willie Brown speaking at a memorial service for Ed Lee in December 2017. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images