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City’s Ethics Commission Laying Down Its Law

City’s Ethics Commission Laying Down Its Law

Government: Newly Formed Panel Seeks Passage of City’s Prop. B

BY MIKE ALLEN

Senior Staff Writer

Charlie Walker, the first executive director for San Diego’s Ethics Commission, says the vast majority of elected officials are honest, but he’s not na & #271;ve.

“There will be those, from time to time, who push the envelope and commit a crime,” Walker said. “They have to raise money, and money brings access. And as long as that factors into the equation, it’s going to cause problems.”

Walker and the seven-member commission appointed last summer have been meeting regularly, developing a code of laws and the process for acting as the city’s ethical watchdog.

The commission was established last May as a key platform of Mayor Dick Murphy, a former Superior Court judge who vowed to restore honesty to a City Council rocked by the Valerie Stallings conflict-of-interest scandal.

Stallings, the former council member, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and resigned in 2000 after she admitted taking gifts from Padres owner John Moores, not fully reporting them, and not recusing herself during votes involving the Padres’ Downtown ballpark and redevelopment project.

Walker isn’t sure whether the Stallings scandal could have been avoided had his commission been around several years ago, but it may have.

One of the main missions for the commission is to set up an educational program for both elected officials and candidates on what is legal and what isn’t, he said.

For the complaints it investigates, the commission will have the power to levy administrative sanctions that could include fines of up to $5,000. In addition, should it uncover evidence of criminal wrongdoing, it would refer the case to the City Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the FBI.

Although some scoff at what appears to be limited enforcement powers, and penalties, Walker said the impacts of such sanctions on a politician’s career would be significant, and could end their public careers.

Because of those repercussions, the commission will not touch any complaint that isn’t signed personally under the penalty of perjury.

“We want the complaints to be substantial, not some sort of political vendetta,” Walker said.

While the commission hasn’t begun looking at any charges yet, Walker has no doubt once it does so, it’s going to be busy.

In fact, Walker anticipates the commission will be so busy, he’ll have to hire an investigator and an auditor to carry out the commission’s tasks.

That would certainly increase the commission’s current budget of about $260,000, which includes Walker’s $90,000 salary and that of one administrative assistant.

Walker’s background as a top investigator and administrator with the FBI helped win him the job over more than two dozen applicants.

He was offered the job in November just before marking his 31st year with the FBI, the last seven as chief division counsel for the local office.

Among Walker’s more memorable career achievements was working as an investigator on the convictions of a group engaged in fraud and money laundering that included Chris Petti and Richard Silberman in 1990. At the time, Silberman was married to then-county Supervisor Susan Golding.

Walker says in his last years with the FBI, he was involved in ethics training for agents, an interest he enjoyed and led to his applying for the post.

Although Walker’s credentials are impressive, not everyone thinks much will change at City Hall.

“I think Walker will try to do a good job but I don’t think he’ll be able to because he reports to the commission, and the commission is under the thumb of the City Council,” said Mel Shapiro, an activist who has attended most of the commission’s twice-monthly meetings.

Shapiro criticized the commission for holding subcommittee meetings (less than the quorum of four commissioners) that aren’t open to the public.

Walker said such meetings are rare and involve the drafting of the commission’s bylaws and its educational program. The issues are then presented at the commission’s public meetings.

Shapiro counters there’s no good reason for the secrecy, “especially when they’re for a commission that’s supposed to be promoting ethics, not secret government.”

As it embarks on its mission, the commission is seeking passage of Proposition B on the March 5 primary ballot giving it subpoena power. Walker said the power is essential in providing the commission with real teeth in uncovering evidence and compelling witnesses to testify before it.

One thing the commission is intent on doing is resolving complaints in a timely fashion. In the past such complaints were usually referred to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento. By the time findings were made, the official or candidate was no longer in office or around, Walker said.

Among the areas the commission will look into is the bundling of campaign contributions by companies, Walker said.

Because the city’s laws prohibit any company from making any contributions to a city election and limit individual contributions to $250, there have been instances when companies break the law, he said.

In the past, some companies used their employees to “donate” multiple maximum contributions to campaigns, and shield that fact from both candidates and the supposed donors, Walker noted.

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