Friends in the shadows

How developers, corporations, and city contractors buy influence in San Francisco City Hall -- a 47th anniversary Guardian special investigation

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Illustration by Brooke Robertson

rebecca@sfbg.com, joe@sfbg.com

It's a simple fact of life: Money buys influence. But in San Francisco, despite strict sunshine laws to illuminate donations to city agencies and gifts to the regulators from the regulated, money still circulates in the shadows when it flows through the coffers of "Friends" in high places.

Major real estate developers, city contractors, and large corporations often lend financial support to San Francisco city departments, to the tune of millions of dollars every year. But the money doesn't just flow directly to city agencies, where it's easily tracked by disclosure laws. Instead, it goes through private nonprofits that sometimes label themselves as "Friends Of..." these departments.

They include Friends of City Planning, Friends of the Library, a foundation formerly known as Friends of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Friends of SF Environment, and Friends of San Francisco Animal Care and Control.

The Friends pay for programs the departments supposedly cannot cover on their own. Bond money can build a skyscraper, but sometimes not fill it with furniture. Agencies are barred by law from funding an employee mixer or a conference trip, so departments turn to their Friends to fill in the gaps. Adding bells and whistles to city websites, holding lunchtime lectures, hiring a grant writer — or, in the case of the Department of Public Health, bolstering health services for vulnerable populations — these are all examples of what gets funded.

The extra help can clearly be a good thing, but the lack of transparency around who's giving money raises questions — especially if it's a business gunning for a major contract or a permit to build a high-rise.

City agencies receive outside funding from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes grants are made by the federal government, or a well-established philanthropic foundation — and according to city law, gifts of $10,000 or higher must be approved by the Board of Supervisors. But in the case of organizations like Friends, which are created specifically to assist city government agencies, the original funders aren't always identifiable. And the collaboration is frequently much closer, with city staff members serving on Friends boards in a few cases.

the circle of donations to "friends of" foundations

Friends board members told the Guardian that their partnership with government helps bolster city agencies in a time of increasing austerity, in service of the public good. But do the special relationships these influential insiders hold with high-ranking city officials come into play when awarding a contract, issuing a permit, making a hiring decision, or determining whether a developer's request for a rule exemption should be honored? Without more transparency, it's tough to tell.

City disclosure rules state that any gift to a department must be prominently displayed on that department's website, along with any financial interest the donor has involving the city. But Friends and other outside funders are under no obligation to share their supporters' names, much less financial ties, when they distribute grants. Meanwhile, the disclosure rules that are on the books seem to be frequently ignored, misunderstood, or unenforced, our investigation discovered.

How are donors repaid for their support? Consider the controversy earlier this year around Pet Food Express, which won approval in June for another store in the Marina District despite opposition from four locally owned pet stores in the area that fear competing with a large national chain. Pet Food Express won the unlikely support of the city's Small Business Commissioners, some of whom reversed their 2009 positions opposing the chain's previous application.

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