As the controversy over her earning a six-figure salary while campaigning to recall Chesa Boudin haunts her first weeks in office, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins has scoffed at claims that what she did was unlawful—or that it was a problem at all.
“I did nothing wrong or illegal,” she told The Standard’s Han Li at a press event. “And so I think that this is all being used, quite frankly, as a distraction from the actual work that's being done to keep San Francisco safer.”
Jenkins’ critics, however, say it looks like she was paid by unknown donors via charitable contributions so she could campaign full time to recall Boudin. With myriad local, state and federal laws governing election funding and nonprofit operations—including one ordinance that could put Jenkins herself in legal jeopardy—the issue may yet prove to be more than a distraction.
A closer analysis of public records by The Standard has unearthed more links than previously known between the recall and all three of the nonprofits that employed Jenkins.
Jenkins began working as a consultant for the nonprofits after quitting her job as a San Francisco assistant district attorney, saying she was going to volunteer as a spokesperson for the recall campaign.
One of the nonprofits was registered at the same address, by the same person and with a nearly identical name as the committee behind the recall. And Jenkins had the same boss on paper for both her volunteer work on the campaign and paid work at another of the nonprofits: longtime local political strategist Mary Jung.
Records show the nonprofits collectively paid Jenkins at least $120,000 for just over six months of work. That could be enough money to trigger prohibitions against 501(c)(3) charities funding political campaigns, depending on how the money was used.
Jenkins, who Mayor London Breed appointed July 8, says the money had nothing to do with the campaign, and that she had been assigned by one of the nonprofits to do an analysis of an 8-year-old successful ballot measure, Proposition 47, that shortened prison sentences for some crimes.
“I had a separate role for a separate organization that was a job, and I was a volunteer on the campaign,” Jenkins said. “They were two separate things. One had no influence on the other.”
So far, however, Jenkins has declined to provide evidence beyond her own statements, saying that doing so would violate relationships protected by attorney-client privilege.
Donors to the charities that paid her, meanwhile, are secret under the law governing these types of public benefit organizations. While Jenkins could ask the nonprofits to release her from these constraints to clear up the situation, she has made no mention of doing so.
Much of the controversy surrounding Jenkins has focused on a nonprofit that paid Jenkins more than $100,000—Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, a 501(c)(3) that shares virtually the same name as the 501(c)(4) Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy, and the political action committee (PAC) by the same name that bankrolled the recall.
The Neighbors 501(c)(3) launched in May 2021, a month after Mary Jung submitted paperwork to begin gathering signatures to get the Boudin recall on the ballot.
William Oberndorf, the single biggest individual donor to the Boudin recall and a significant financial backer of conservative political campaigns, was listed as the president and chairman of the nonprofit.
Oberndorf also sits on the board of the Neighbors 501(c)(4) nonprofit that set up the Neighbors PAC. The PAC contributed $4.5 million to recall Boudin, including more than $600,000 from Oberndorf, records show.
The PAC, run by close Jung associate and SF Realtors deputy director of government affairs Jay Cheng, passed the funds to yet another entity: San Franciscans for Public Safety Supporting the Recall of Chesa Boudin.
Jung, meanwhile, served as the treasurer and principal officer for the San Franciscans for Public Safety PAC. That group paid for the recall campaign, titled Safer SF Without Boudin, for which Jenkins served as a fundraiser, and which advertised her as a volunteer spokesperson.
Reached by The Standard via email, Oberndorf did not answer questions about Jenkins’ work or pay and instead offered a description of his political positions. Oberndorf said he is no longer a registered Republican and voted for both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden for president.
He referred The Standard to Cheng for further comment.
“Jay Cheng can fill you in on the mission of Neighbors for a Better San Francisco,” Oberndorf wrote. “Although a significant donor we have over 300 members of which I am just one.”
Cheng, Jung and other representatives of the various nonprofits, committees and other entities did not respond to requests for comment.
Jenkins first disclosed her six-figure earnings earlier this month by filing a statement of economic interests form, which only requires officials to report income in ranges and was first reported by The Standard. She later told the San Francisco Chronicle in an interview that the total from Neighbors was $153,000.
In addition, Jenkins disclosed receiving more than $10,000 each from two other 501(c)(3) nonprofits, Sister’s Circle Women Support Network, which hosts women’s gatherings in the Bayview, and GlobalSF, whose work includes recruiting Chinese investors for San Francisco real estate deals.
A review of public records and social media posts shows that GlobalSF and Sister’s Circle had ties to the recall through Jung.
Jung, a Breed ally, former real estate lobbyist and erstwhile head of the local Democratic party, holds leadership roles at both the San Francisco Association of Realtors and its nonprofit foundation. She served as chair of the Boudin recall that Jenkins volunteered for, making her Jenkins’ boss.
Jung is a longtime associate of Darlene Chiu-Bryant, who serves as the executive director of GlobalSF.
Jung is also registered as the chief executive officer of Sister’s Circle, again making her Jenkins’ boss on paper.
Jung did not respond to questions from The Standard asking what measures she took to separate her apparent roles as Jenkins’ boss at Sister’s Circle, and also her boss at the recall Boudin campaign.
Both Sister’s Circle and Global SF have received contributions from the SF Realtors nonprofit in the past, disclosure records show.
“Mary’s like, she’s my big sister, my mentor,” Traci Watson, the founder of Sister’s Circle, said in a video posted to YouTube by the SF Realtors nonprofit in which she praises Jung. “And so we’ve built an awesome relationship with SF Realtors, they’ve been a huge supporter of Sister’s Circle.”
Watson declined to comment when reached by phone.
Jenkins refused to answer questions from The Standard about how she came to work for each of the nonprofits, the extent to which the recall backers were involved in arranging her employment, what work she actually performed, how many hours she worked and how much she was paid in total.
Analysts interviewed by The Standard described various types of legal problems with using a 501(c)(3) charity to pay a campaign consultant on behalf of a political organization.
IRS rules disallow these types of charities from becoming political organizations, with the idea that tax breaks afforded donors to these organizations should be for broad public benefit, not partisan causes.
Local law requires paid political consultants to register with the government before doing work.
Misappropriation of charitable funds, meanwhile, can theoretically trigger legal problems ranging from disallowed tax-deductions, to striking an organization’s charitable status, to allegations of fraud if certain types of violations were shown to be part of some pre-planned scheme.
That’s why some critics say Jenkins is the wrong person to dismiss the situation as “a distraction.”
“Brooke Jenkins is already implicated in the ethics scandal, and she is not the person who should be making the final call about whether she herself [or one of the nonprofits] broke the law during the recall campaign,” said Alexandra Grayner, a former prosecutor who quit after Jenkins demoted her.
In San Francisco, those paid more than $1,000 to conduct, manage or supervise a recall are required to register as a campaign consultant or face a misdemeanor charge if the violation was intentional or negligent.
If Jenkins was paid to support the recall, Ann Ravel, who previously served as an Obama-appointee to the Federal Election Commission and as chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, said the law could apply.
“It appears that the DA acted in some capacity as a campaign consultant,” Ravel said. Under San Francisco law a consultant must register with the Ethics Commission before providing services or accepting pay.
Another issue: If she was paid to oust Boudin, that could potentially count as what’s called a non-monetary campaign contribution, triggering transparency laws requiring the naming of donors, their employers, the amount given and other information.
Public benefit charities such as the one paying Jenkins are typically permitted to keep such information secret—as long as they comply with rules limiting involvement in political campaigns.
Jenkins’ decision to not disclose her payments sooner has already become a central issue for her opponents in this fall’s district attorney election, John Hamasaki and Joe Alioto Veronese.
“She’s illegally using a nonprofit to skirt San Francisco and state election laws,” Alioto Veronese said in a written statement.
“There is a lot of evidence out there calling into question her account but not any evidence supporting her account,” Hamasaki said. “It looks like the interim DA was being paid by Republican donors to wage a campaign.”
Jenkins has defended her failure to disclose her payments during the campaign as the product of political naivete.
“Having not been a politician before, but being in a political role now,” she said, “it would have been beneficial, I think, to disclose that sooner, just for the sake of transparency.”
Michael Barba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org