'Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.”—Jane Addams
First off, an apology.
When Stacey Fulhorst was tapped to take over the reins of the San Diego Ethics Commission in late 2003, Spin Cycle wondered if this slip of a 38-year-old English-lit major was up to the task.
Spin Cycle is wondering no more.
Five-plus years later, the La Jolla High grad and former city attorney investigator seems quite comfortable in her own skin and in the role she takes on with gusto—despite whirlwinds of whining and whisper campaigns that she's running an agency hell-bent on accumulating maximum power.
Comes with the territory, she acknowledges. Regarding her minimalist staff of six—including two investigators and an auditor—Fulhorst beams. “We work really well together,” she told Spin Cycle recently. “I think we all understand that we're not going to make people happy a lot of the time, and that's just what comes with the job.
“In fact, if everybody loves us all the time, then we're probably not doing such a good job.”
Judging by last week's meeting of the City Council's Rules Committee, Fulhorst's love gauge seems to be pointing to “job well done.”
Fulhorst and the Ethics Commission's new chairman, attorney Richard Valdez, appeared before the council committee last Wednesday seeking to beef up its investigative and enforcement powers. Put simply, the commission, as it has on several occasions in the past, sought the ability to subpoena witnesses (not just documents, as it can now) during an investigation. The commission also wanted to establish some form of sanctions for witnesses who lie to the commission.
As has been reported, these are not requests unique to San Diego. Ethics commissions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as the state's ethics watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, have had these tools for decades.
Richard Mo, chief enforcement officer for the San Francisco Ethics Commission, said his agency would be severely handicapped without the ability to compel witness testimony or to penalize folks for lying.
“Our job would be a lot tougher without those tools,” Mo said.
After agreeing to a number of safeguards recommended by City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, Fulhorst said she was hopeful the council would finally see the light and approve the reforms. Instead, the Rules Committee simply ran out the clock and made no effort to forward the recommendations to the full council.
“This feels wrong to me,” Councilmember Donna Frye reasoned. “I don't want to subject people to this. I don't want to see it go anywhere…. I think if there was some compelling reason that this has been a huge problem, I might think otherwise.”
Ironically, Fulhorst had kicked off her testimony that day by providing examples where those new powers would have come in handy.
Without providing names, she told of a city employee who complained that an elected official “was walking around a city office soliciting campaign contributions from city employees.” When the commission tried to interview the employee, the individual “became terrified of retaliation and refused to come forward. There was nothing we could do,” Fulhorst said.
In another case, she said, a “high-level city official” prepared a document that included “what he knew to be false information and submitted it to the commission as evidence.” In yet another, she continued, a “well-known” campaign consultant for an elected official “absolutely refused to be interviewed” during an investigation.
“The point here is,” Fulhorst told the committee, “the proposals in front of you are not solutions in search of a problem. They are remedies that the commission needs to ensure that its investigative and enforcement activities are as effective as can be….”
City Council President Ben Hueso, who chairs the Rules Committee, clearly seemed intent on shutting down the discussion, particularly after he stepped into a conversation about his own experience with the Ethics Commission, who fined him $17,000 in late 2007 for raising money for a general-election campaign that never occurred because he had won in the primary.
Hueso asked whether the accused are required by the commission to hire an attorney. Fulhorst said it's not required.
“In my experience, you told me that I could not go out and get information from witnesses because that was considered intimidating and that I needed to hire an attorney,” Hueso replied, adding snidely, “So is that your policy for elected officials?”
Stunned, Fulhorst wondered aloud if Hueso was asking her to comment publicly on his case.
“Uh-huh,” Hueso answered.
“OK, in the case in which you were the respondent and you had an attorney representing you and you were contacting city employees and interviewing them, we had city employees contact us and indicate that they were very uncomfortable being interviewed by an elected official,” Fulhorst said.
Hueso, appearing flummoxed, stumbled through a series of comments defending himself and denying the characterization before asking, “What is your response to frivolous complaints?”
From there, despite efforts by Goldsmith to suggest that the commission operates the way it does because the City Council created it that way, Hueso made a couple of weak efforts to stop the discussion before finally putting the hammer down without even calling for a motion.
“Well, there's no movement from the committee, so we're going to move on,” Hueso intoned.
Gil Cabrera, the outspoken former Ethics Commission chairman who remains on the board despite the efforts of Mayor Jerry Sanders to boot him off, couldn't believe what he was hearing.
“I think [for Hueso] to say that the witness wasn't intimidated because the witness told me they weren't intimidated when I asked her, I think, is such a weird statement,” Cabrera told Spin Cycle.
At the Rules meeting, only one member of the public spoke on the matter—attorney Bob Ottilie, who is representing City Councilmember Marti Emerald in her campaign-related case before the Ethics Commission, called on the committee to “rein in” the powers of the agency rather than expand them.
Cabrera later said Ottilie's comments “demonstrated incredible chutzpah.”
Ottilie suggested that many people wanted to testify that day against what he called the “bullying tactics” of the commission's staff but were afraid to out of fear of retaliation.
In an interview, Ottilie—who says he is a “strong supporter” of the commission—claimed the staff is “just creating work for themselves to justify their positions” by chasing “minor matters.”
Asked why no others testified in opposition, Ottilie snapped, “Why don't you ask them?” without providing any names. Then he added, “The people I talk to and, I think, the council are afraid to a certain extent.”
Spin Cycle, for one, likes to hear that. Give 'em hell, Stacey!
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