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BART board president fined $5K for lobbying violations by San Francisco ethics watchdog

BART board member Janice Li speaks with Susan Pfeifer at her campaign event in San Francisco on Aug. 9, 2022. | Source: Juliana Yamada/The Standard

BART Board President Janice Li agreed to pay a $5,275 fine after San Francisco ethics watchdogs said she failed to register as a lobbyist for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition—a violation unrelated to her role as an elected transit official.

The coalition's former executive director, Brian Wiedenmeier, was also named in the complaint with Li, who served as the nonprofit's advocacy director from 2015 to 2022. Li was elected to the BART Board of Directors in 2018 and named board president this year.

In a stipulation reached last week and coming up for review Friday before the San Francisco Ethics Commission, Li and Wiedenmeier agreed to pay the fine for failing to disclose how they lobbied city officials as representatives of the 501(c)(4) bicycle advocacy nonprofit. The two qualified as "contact lobbyists" under local law because they reached out to city officials about coalition business at least five times a month.

From April 2017 through the end of 2021, Li lobbied city officials 219 times without reporting it, according to the agreement; Wiedenmeier made 170 unreported contacts between January 2017 through 2021.

The unreported contacts included reaching out to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors about the Slow Streets Program and advocating for a car-free John F. Kennedy Drive, the agreement said.

When notified of these violations, Li and Wiedenmeier retroactively registered as lobbyists and disclosed all contacts they made in that four-year time span.

Wiedenmeier said he was happy to cooperate when the violations were made known to him, saying the process "made [him] aware of how confusing and complex the rules around lobbying are."

He attributed the violations to misunderstanding the rules governing lobbying on behalf of nonprofits. Under city law, some nonprofits are exempt from lobbying disclosures while others are not.

Wiedenmeier said the discussions with city officials that led to the ethics violations related to him "doing his job fulfilling the purpose of the organization."

If the Ethics Commission approves the stipulation on Friday, Li and Wiedenmeier will have 10 days to pay a $5,275 and $5,050 fine, respectively.

When reached for comment, Li deferred to the Bicycle Coalition.

Janelle Wong, who helms the Bicycle Coalition, said these ethics violations relate solely to Li and Wiedenmeier and "their specific contacts that were made on behalf of the organization."

The Bicycle Coalition Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) arm of the coalition, was also named in the stipulation for failing to register as a political committee after asking for donations in an email last year about defeating Proposition I, which allowed cars on JFK Drive.

Wong said the email was meant to raise money and not for the specific purpose of defeating the ballot measure. However, she acknowledged the "email was confusing in nature" and that the education fund returned all donations received as a result of the email.