SF group questions travel gifts to officials

January 18, 2011 7:15:25 PM PST
The group San Franciscans for Clean Government says public records disclose that the city's elected officials received travel donations of more than $44,000. Is it a conflict of interest? The agency that monitors government ethics says existing laws already prevent abuse, but the group says the city should restrict public officials from accepting gifts for travel. They looked at public documents over a span of two years.

Funders included the Chamber of Commerce, the Taipei City Council and even Harvard University.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu received the most at $16,600 for seven trips. City Treasurer Jose Cisneros was second with $7,400 for nine trips.

"While we saw nothing that was illegal under current law, it points out a major need to correct the law to ensure that special interests don't influence City Hall too much," San Franciscans for Clean Government spokesperson Jon Golinger said.

State law prohibits elected officials from accepting gifts of more than $420 from a single donor.

San Francisco has one of the toughest laws on that of any city. Elected officials are generally prohibited from receiving gifts from lobbyists and potential contractors, but San Franciscans for Clean Government points out there are no laws restricting travel.

"It's the appearance, the public's trust in politics is low enough and making the friendly skies just a little too friendly is not something that's wise to our political system," Golinger said.

John St. Croix is the executive director of the Ethics Commission. He says if the travel is for legitimate reasons, it should be allowed. He adds the city requires public officials to disclose all trips before they take them.

"In addition to who funded the travel, there are regulations that travel be reported in advance and after the fact and if there are substantial donees for official travel that these names be listed," St. Croix said.

Longtime political consultant Don Solem says disclosure generally prevents improprieties.

"Disclosure is prevention absolutely, that's part of the purpose and the public is the ultimate source of democracy and has a right to know many, many things they would not know in private employment," Solem said.

Chiu and Cisneros tell ABC7 they disclosed all the trips as required and they were all for legitimate purposes and the fact that the watchdog group was able to get access to the information shows the system works.