Don’t let your ethics slip” by We Are Neo

October 11, 2017; KPCC 89.3

A nonprofit fundraising tactic broadly employed for years across America has come under scrutiny in San Francisco.

Southern California Public Radio-KPCC reports that the San Francisco Ethics Commission is exploring strict new limits on “behested payments,” where local elected officials partner with community-based nonprofits to raise money for their pet causes, often approaching individuals and companies that do business with local government.

The proposal under consideration would bar public officials from asking any person or group to donate to a civic or charitable cause if the person or group has business before that official, according to KPCC.

The story comes on the heels of recent reports of more than $31 million in donations requested and raised by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, setting a statewide record and raising conflict of interest concerns among ethics experts. San Francisco’s proposal to restrict such payments is designed to reduce corruption and conflicts of interest, reports the station, with a penalty of $5,000 for each violation levied on the politician, but not the donor.

It would be the first such regulation anywhere in California, city staff told KPCC. Government watchdogs view behested payments as a way to skirt contribution limits. Unlike campaign contributions, there’s no ceiling on behested payments, so donors can give as much as they want, buying influence and currying favor with local mayors and councilmembers, who take credit for raising money for charity.

Meanwhile, local nonprofits enjoy the benefits of donations they would be unlikely to secure on their own, and many of them view the practice as a critical component of their overall fundraising strategies. With very rare exceptions, nobody questions the worthiness of the causes that reap the benefits of behested payments. It has been a common practice among nonprofit fundraisers and their political patrons for years, although it’s not well known among the general public.

Many of the contributions Garcetti has solicited for the Mayor’s Fund and other causes are from companies doing business with the city, such as real estate developers and utility franchisees. These are the type of donations regulators in San Francisco are trying to ban, calling it “soft corruption.”

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors would have to approve any proposed ordinance dealing with behested payments, limiting their own fundraising. Another option would be to place the changes on the June 2018 ballot and ask voters to decide. If that measure becomes law, it will go far beyond the lax reporting requirements in Los Angeles.—Larry Kaplan