When Outside Lands returned to Golden Gate Park in October, ticket prices ran up to nearly $1,200–unless you happen to have a job at City Hall, in which case there might have been a discount in the neighborhood of 100 percent.
That’s what the San Francisco Ethics Commission discovered in September when, as part of SF’s ongoing dark-night-of-the-soul moment over a culture of corruption exposed by a sweeping FBI investigation, they released a withering report on the habit of gift-giving between private bodies and city employees.
Tickets to Outside Lands were handed out like candy over the years–and the SF Standard’s reporting shows the practice is anything but typical around the country.
San Francisco Recreation & Parks, the office that oversees permitting for Outside Lands, for years accepted hundreds of free passes to the blockbuster musical event from SF-based promoter Another Planet Entertainment, despite the apparent conflict of interests this poses.
Rec & Park so normalized this practice that it was actually spelled out in the contract with Another Planet that they “donate a customary and reasonable number of complimentary tickets” for eventual city employee use.
To assess whether this is a uniquely San Franciscan arrangement, the SF Standard queried oversight agencies for six cities and counties that host music festivals on a similar scale, like the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience in New Orleans or the Life Is Beautiful fest in Las Vegas (the latter also an Another Planet endeavor).
None of the relevant oversight bodies said they were aware of any free tickets or other gifts exchanged between promoters and city officials, either directly or through legal workarounds. Nobody could cite an example of such an exchange being put into writing or being made a part of the formalized permitting and oversight process.
The SF Standard also obtained past contracts for musical festivals such as Chicago’s Lollapalooza, Indio’s Coachella, Austin’s City Limits, Miami’s Ultra, and the Kaaboo festival in Del Mar: None referenced complimentary tickets for city employees, “customary” or otherwise. This doesn’t mean that someone, somewhere isn’t unethically benefiting from events in those jurisdictions–but if they are, at least they’re bothering to be sneaky about it.
Rec & Park did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the City Attorney. For the record, no one has been formally accused of any crime related to this story, although Ethics Commission members are obviously of the opinion that these favors violated public trust.
“I've not heard of another example of this–it runs counter to the whole concept of permitting,” says John Pelissero, senior scholar at the Markulla Center For Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
“Even if someone has constructed a workaround to skirt the law, there is still the appearance of an inappropriate unethical action” that degrades public trust and breeds cynicism, Pelissero says.
Under state and local law, city employees are barred from accepting a gift from any party that contracts with their department or “has sought to influence the official’s actions in the last 12 months.” That policy is known as the “restricted source rule” in San Francisco’s ethics code.
However, City Hall types have been relying on a workaround so simple and straightforward that it’s almost hard to believe: Rather than giving freebies directly to city employees, vendors like Another Planet simply gift them to the department or some other intermediary, who then dole them out to staff as they see fit.
Does that really make it legal? Well, maybe: “The way the restricted source rule works now is if you know or have a reason to know” where the gifts come from, says Ethics Commission Senior Policy and Legislative Affairs Counsel Patrick Ford. “It doesn't hinge on actual knowledge,” he said, but more on whether recipients did their due diligence to figure out who their benefactor was–something that would require a direct investigation to determine.
For the record, Ford says he cannot confirm or deny whether there are currently any investigations into city staff who accepted passes over the years.
“The tickets that we give to Rec and Park are part of our lease agreement with the city and they always have been...so we're just doing what's in our lease,” said Mary Conde, vice president at Another Planet, in a recent interview with the SF Standard. “It's not our contract provision, and the City Attorney's office approved it. So maybe you guys want to look at your practices as a city.”
Either way, the tickets made their way to scores of city employees, including top officials: According to a detailed story by KQED, City Administrator Carmen Chu, SFMTA Board of Directors Chair Gwyneth Borden, SFMTA commissioner Manny Yekutiel, former Homelessness Department Director Jeff Kositsky, and Human Rights Commission Executive Director Sheryl Davis were among those who accepted free passes to Outside Lands. So did then-City Attorney Dennis Herrera, whose office oversees city contracts. In total, Rec & Park distributed 1,422 free passes, with a combined value of more than $315,000, to city employees between 2015 and 2019.
The SF Standard reached out to each of the above-named officials for comment. Only Yekutiel responded, saying that he hasn’t accepted any gifts since his appointment.
“This is something totally new for me,” says David Jancsics, an associate professor of public affairs at San Diego State University who studies public corruption and “informal practices.”
Even if city staff don’t feel that they’re acting with corrupt intent, Jancsics warns that just accepting the offer can create an unconscious sense of obligation that could hinder oversight duties.
“This is one of the few universal norms that can be found in almost every society on the earth, the norm of reciprocity. When I give you a gift, you're going to feel pressure [to give something back], and this is totally normal,” Jancsics says.
Gary Kalman, director of the US office of the non-profit Transparency International in Washington DC, says that it’s common in most jurisdictions for freebie tickets to be passed around. “The mayor, for example, of most cities with major sports stadiums has a box they use for all kinds of things,” Kalman says.
However, the context changes radically when it comes to city employees who are supposed to regulate the industries doling out passes. He adds: “If this isn’t to be made illegal, then it is incumbent on the department to be transparent about who is getting this.”
Michael Johnston, a political science professor at Colgate University in New York specializing in public policy and corruption, says that legal ethics violations are often just as bad as those that cross the line into criminality.
“A lot of what makes many citizens angry...might well be entirely legal, or at least not clearly illegal, but reflects cozy elite relationships/accommodations from which ordinary citizens are (or feel) excluded,” Johnston tells the SF Standard by email.
“It's not just tax revenues wasted, etc, but also a widespread sense of being disregarded and exploited” that creates the impression of corruption when a city government gets too chummy with private actors, Johnston said.
Nobody consulted for this story could think of another example of a regulator formalizing freebies in writing with a party they’re supposed to oversee: It is not, in short, customary or reasonable.
On Friday, the Ethics Commission considered a new set of provisions that could tighten up rules on gift-giving and create new enforcement mechanisms, although some members of the commission have voiced doubts that they could stamp out every avenue for corruption. The commission plans to finalize a new ordinance in the coming weeks and, if approved, send it to the Board of Supervisors or to voters to become law.
Also unclear at the moment is whether any city employees or officeholders will face enforcement action for past Another Planet dealings, or whether there are any ongoing ethics investigations that might lead to direct fallout.
Either way, we sure hope the concerts were worth it.
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