Mayor Darrell Steinberg vowed to bring a new era of ethics to City Hall. But that doesn’t mean he’s sworn off one of his predecessor’s most controversial practices – steering donations to favorite charities.
Kevin Johnson raised eyebrows with his big-dollar behests – a total of nearly $6.5 million in 2012 and another $1.3 million in 2013. He was also fined, twice, by the state political watchdog for flouting the rules on behests – payments from corporations, well-off individuals and foundations made at the behest of elected officials.
As of Friday, Steinberg had raised more than $2 million through 58 behests since just before taking office in December 2016, according to reports filed with the city clerk.
There are some big distinctions with what Johnson did on behests. But that doesn’t mean the practice shouldn’t be watched carefully.
Johnson directed donations to nonprofits he founded or affiliated with him so he could push his agenda on education, clean energy and other issues from outside City Hall. That was unusual, besides the amounts being way more than what Sacramento elected officials had raised before he became mayor in 2008.
Steinberg, on the other hand, has raised money for well-known, separate charities – with one very large exception: $1.5 million from Sutter Health to his Steinberg Institute to improve mental health services across California, especially for children and teens.
The beneficiaries of Steinberg’s behests include the California Museum ($71,000 for its anti-racism Unity Center) and the Sacramento Asian-Pacific Chamber of Commerce ($21,000 for its first leadership trip to Washington, D.C.). He says his most direct involvement was in making some phone calls seeking money for the museum’s Unity Center, a cause of Steinberg’s ever since white supremacists torched three Sacramento-area synagogues in 1999. A $10,000 donation came from Kevin Nagle, the lead investor of Sacramento Republic FC, who is working closely with the mayor to try to land a Major League Soccer franchise.
Steinberg also filed behest reports for donations to the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center ($127,500) and Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Sacramento ($25,000) because he was listed as a co-host, along with other elected officials, for their annual fundraisers.
As did Johnson, Steinberg relied on behests from local unions, businesses and others to pay for his inauguration, totaling $210,000. Another group has collected $45,000 for security, food, outreach and other expenses for Steinberg’s State of the City speech on Jan. 18. The biggest contribution so far is $15,000 from Verizon, which signed a deal last June with the city – supported by Steinberg – to bring 5G wireless internet service across the city.
Because most recipients are independent, you could argue that Steinberg’s behests are less problematic than Johnson’s. For his part, the mayor says he didn’t worry about the criticism of Johnson when deciding to solicit behests. Steinberg also actively solicited behests while in the state Senate, a total of more than $611,000 between 2011 and 2014.
“I’m my own person. I’ve established my own reputation as an elected official,” Steinberg told me. “I’ve always done my public service with integrity. I don’t worry about what my predecessor did or didn’t do.”
Still, Steinberg may face a higher standard because he made ethics reform a big deal when he took office. And whatever good works are being done by the groups benefiting from his behests, you don’t have to be a complete cynic to wonder what’s in it for the generous donors, particularly since while direct campaign contributions are limited, behests are not.
Steinberg’s donors include a who’s who of local corporations: Dignity Health, Kaiser Permanente, Teichert Construction, PG&E, the Sacramento Kings and Vision Service Plan. He says the donations are entirely separate from his public policy decisions. So far, Steinberg has not recused himself from any council votes because it involved behest donors.
To avoid any appearance of conflict, he says he would have to not allow his name to be used for fundraising – which he isn’t willing to do. “Nonprofits struggle. They do a lot of crucial work that government can’t do enough of,” he says. “It would be a mistake not to support these causes.”
Potential conflicts led to an investigation of Johnson by the state Fair Political Practices Commission over $500,000 the Walton Family Foundation gave to a schools nonprofit he founded and $8 million the foundation pledged to an education reform group started by Johnson’s wife. While the commission fined him $1,000 in 2014 for improperly reporting travel expenses paid by the foundation, it rejected allegations that it was a conflict when Johnson joined the rest of the City Council in voting to ease restrictions on big-box stores such as Walmart, owned by the Waltons.
The FPPC had earlier docked Johnson $37,500 for not reporting 25 behests on time. With Steinberg’s support last year, the council required that officials publicly announce behests before a council vote that could benefit the donor.
Steinberg says he’s “very diligent” about reporting behests and is more than willing to answer any questions about them.
Yet, no matter how transparent or how pure his intentions, he’s still reaching out to influential individuals and companies for cash. It deserves public scrutiny – even when someone’s reputation is as squeaky clean as Steinberg’s.