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Politics & Policy

Mark Farrell lived large on campaign cash while mayor, supervisor

Mark Farrell in a suit holds a golden cup at a lavish table with meats, cheeses, fruits, and drinks, while silhouetted figures sit around in a dimly lit dining setting.
As a supervisor and mayor, Mark Farrell spent thousands at some of the city’s fanciest bars and restaurants—with donors footing the bill. | Source: AI illustration by Jesse Rogala/The Standard; photo by Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Mark Farrell’s last stint as a public official concluded with a victory lap fit for a king.

During his final year as a supervisor, Farrell spent thousands of dollars in campaign donors’ cash to frequent some of San Francisco’s swankiest bars and restaurants, treating money raised for an already-concluded Democratic Party race in a manner that ethics experts likened to a slush fund. Farrell also appears to have used a legal loophole while interim mayor to accept large chunks of money from special interest groups that would have been otherwise barred.

The Standard’s investigation into old campaign records filed by Farrell—who is now running to reclaim the Mayor’s Office—found that he used leftover money from a 2016 Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) campaign to wine and dine unnamed constituents at more than three dozen meetings for meals. After being appointed mayor in early 2018, Farrell continued to tap into the campaign account while also using it to accept thousands of dollars from trash giant Recology and a friend’s restaurant—both of which had business with the city. Farrell then gave out coveted commission appointments to the restaurant owner and a Recology exec who pleaded guilty to a bribery scheme.

Multiple campaign ethics experts contacted for this story said they were surprised by the number of gastronomic outings Farrell took and the opaqueness around who attended, especially given his past ethics issues. In 2016, Farrell paid a record fine of $25,000 after his first supervisor campaign was found to have illegally coordinated with a committee funded by real estate magnate Thomas Coates and socialite and philanthropist Dede Wilsey.

“Given that history, it is rational for the public and the press to scrutinize his record,” said Sean McMorris, an expert on campaign ethics and transparency for California Common Cause. “Who were these people [at the meals]? Was their business campaign-related?” 

Several active members of the DCCC told The Standard that leftover campaign funds for a seat on the local party are generally used to help pay off debts to staff, fund travel for Democratic Party functions and pay for civic events and organizations.

In contrast, from late 2016 through March 2018, Farrell’s DCCC campaign picked up more than $7,400 in tabs for meals and drinks at Spruce, Swig, Bix, Novela, Balboa Cafe, The Beer Hall, Bob’s Steak & Chop House, Izzy’s Steak & Chop House, Fat Angel Food & Libation—the list goes on for more than three-dozen meetings with “DCCC constituents” whom Farrell has declined to identify. 

A man in a dark suit and white shirt is giving a speech, gesturing with one hand up. A flag is seen in the background, and a presentation slide is partially visible.
Mark Farrell declined to identify who he met with for more than three dozen meals while using money from his Democratic Party campaign account. | Source: Adahlia Cole for The Standard

Many of the restaurants and bars Farrell frequented have closed since the start of the pandemic, but The Standard obtained an itemized receipt from a $1,511.62 dinner Farrell held at Michelin-starred restaurant The Progress to thank DCCC volunteers. According to the receipt, the dinner occurred the night of Dec. 14, 2017—a year and a half after his DCCC victory and just two days after the death of Mayor Ed Lee, which eventually led to Farrell’s appointment as mayor.

Items Farrell and company ordered at The Progress included: two bottles of Tassin Champagne; two bottles of heritage blend from Bedrock winery in Sonoma; one bottle of chardonnay from Massican Hyde Vineyard in Napa; eight tasting menus at $78 apiece; two cappuccinos; and one sparkling water. The receipt noted eight meals were served while Farrell’s campaign report said the party featured the candidate and 11 unnamed guests.

It’s unclear if Farrell was paying for the table or only himself on other occasions, as Farrell began reimbursing himself directly starting with a meal charged on Christmas Eve 2017, according to campaign filings. He did not report the location of almost a third of his expensed meals, which totaled more than $1,900 in charges.

Additional charges for Farrell’s DCCC campaign committee, which had more than $56,000 in remaining funds at the start of 2017, show that he kept the account open to: reimburse his wife, Liz, for $440 in office expenses; purchase more than $1,200 of office supplies from Walgreens in just two purchases; buy more than $1,000 worth of office furniture; and rack up a $195 bill at Bed Bath & Beyond in a transaction inexplicably labeled as a meeting.

Farrell’s campaign told The Standard that he did not recall who attended all of the meals and he does not have a calendar documenting the meetings. Farrell’s spokesperson said the furniture was used in his supervisor office.

Mark Farrell, wearing a suit and tie, smiles at a podium with microphones as his wife holds "Mark Farrell for Mayor" sign behind him.
Mark Farrell used campaign money to reimburse himself for thousands of dollars worth of meals while also giving his wife, Liz, money for unknown office expenses. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Farrell’s $1,245 in charges for two Walgreens visits and a $440 reimbursement to his wife were likely for thank-you notes, envelopes, stamps and other supplies, according to campaign officials.

“I followed the law around fundraising and spending at all times,” Farrell said in a statement. “All of the fundraising and expenses that I submitted were legitimate, vetted and approved by counsel.”

A spokesperson for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) declined to comment for this story, instead pointing The Standard to state law on campaign funds being used to purchase meals. A local campaign committee can charge up to $200 for food and drinks as long as the charge is reasonably related to a political, legislative or governmental purpose. However, if the charge exceeds $200, “the expense must be directly related to one of these purposes,” such as a campaign fundraiser or a meeting to discuss a change in city policy.

David Campos, a former chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, said that when people have money left over in their officeholder accounts, they are normally asked to donate money to the party to help with voter registration. Campos said he did not recall Farrell donating money or furniture to the Democratic Party following the 2016 election.

“I would hope the FPPC takes a look at all of the things you’re reporting on in terms of campaign expenditures,” Campos said.

The statute of limitations on Farrell’s DCCC campaign spending has expired at this point. However, in narrow circumstances, the statute of limitations can be extended if a candidate or officeholder is found to have concealed a campaign violation.

Peter Gallotta, a member of the DCCC since 2017, said that Farrell’s spending appears to be a “clear abuse” of his officeholder account.

“They’re not personalized ATM accounts for people,” Gallotta said. “I think it’s shameful to raise money and then use that money for wining and dining. It erodes public trust.”

Oysters and trash money

By keeping his DCCC campaign account active after the 2016 election, Farrell was able to continue accepting money from restricted sources that could give well above the $500 contribution limit for supervisor and mayor campaigns.

Near the end of March 2018, Farrell accepted a $5,000 contribution from a political action committee for the city’s trash company, Recology, and a $2,500 payment from Mayes Oyster House, one of San Francisco’s oldest restaurants. Mayes Oyster House had business before the Planning Commission about a week before making the contribution.

Farrell’s campaign said he did not solicit contributions from Recology and Mayes Oyster House, and he had no role in the Planning Commission’s unanimous vote to allow the restaurant to remain open every night until 2 a.m. That same week, Farrell stepped down from the DCCC.

However, in one of Farrell’s final acts as mayor in June 2018, he appointed one of the restaurant’s owners, Matt Corvi, to a seat on the city’s Small Business Commission. The two men now serve on the board of the Olympic Club Foundation, which is connected to the private golf and social club that has hosted multiple U.S. Opens.

Corvi told The Standard in a phone interview that he runs the operations at Oyster Mayes House and had no idea the business had given money to the campaign of Farrell, whom he called a friend.

“Honestly, I was not in charge of finances at that time,” Corvi said. “I had two partners and I never wrote checks.”

Matt Corvi man in a grey jacket stands with arms crossed in front of Mayes Oyster House restaurant, featuring a red facade and vintage neon sign.
Mayes Oyster House owner Matt Corvi received an appointment to the city’s Small Business Commission in June 2018, three months after his business gave $2,500 to Mark Farrell's Democratic Party campaign account | Source: Juliana Yamada/The Standard

David Latterman, a longtime political analyst in San Francisco, suggested that Recology’s contribution to Farrell deserves even more scrutiny after the company was found to be deeply enmeshed in a City Hall corruption scandal that led to numerous arrests and Recology being fined $100 million in a rate-hike scheme.

Records show that when Farrell was mayor, he nominated Paul Giusti—a former Recology exec who admitted to arranging more than $1 million in bribes—for a reappointment to the Treasure Island Development Authority a little more than a week after the $5,000 contribution went into Farrell’s DCCC campaign account.

“That needs to be looked at,” Latterman said. “It certainly raises eyebrows. Recology has been a thorn in the side of the city ethics-wise for years.”

A report by the city’s Ethics Commission in 2020 found that Farrell acted as an intermediary for $882,500 in “behested payments,” which are donations from private entities that Farrell passed along to the Parks Alliance, a nonprofit that disgraced former Public Works director Mohammed Nuru used as a slush fund in the City Hall corruption scandal. Farrell’s wife served as the chair of the Parks Alliance’s board of trustees during his time as a supervisor, and records show that Farrell helped with $35,000 in behested payments on behalf of Recology.

The Ethics Commission report from 2020 noted that some of the behested payments Farrell made were timed closely to lobbyist contacts he had with AT&T, Facebook and the San Francisco Realtors Association. In the case of AT&T, Farrell introduced legislation that would have benefited the telecoms giant by preventing landlords from interfering with a tenant’s choice of internet service providers.

In response to emailed questions about behested payments and the $5,000 contribution to Farrell’s DCCC campaign, Recology issued a statement saying the company “instituted a robust set of compliance practices” in the wake of the corruption scandal and no longer makes behested payments or contributes to elected officials’ campaigns in San Francisco.

“A lot has changed at Recology in five years,” Recology spokesperson Robert Reed wrote in an email to The Standard. “We have a new CEO, a new leadership team, and new management at our San Francisco operations.”

Paul Giusti, a bald man in a pink shirt, speaks into a microphone in a room filled with seated people. Some attendees are paying attention, while others are focused on their own activities.
Paul Giusti, a former Recology executive who pleaded guilty for a bribery scandal, was nominated for a reappointment to the Treasure Island Development Authority after the trash company gave Mark Farrell’s Democratic Party campaign $5,000. | Source: Courtesy SFGOVTV

Farrell’s campaign opponents said his unorthodox use of his DCCC account deserved scrutiny from voters.

“Mark’s growing list of ethics scandals is catching up to him and exposing why San Francisco can’t afford to give him another shot,” said Tyler Law, a consultant for the campaign of mayoral candidate Daniel Lurie. “Mark is literally invested in keeping the status quo.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who is also running for mayor, said that Farrell’s liberal spending on meals and drinks with unknown individuals—as well as expenses Farrell paid directly to himself while taking money from special interests like Recology—should be thoroughly examined.

“It begs the question why someone who is receiving a lucrative mayor’s salary was nickel and diming the garbage company to pay for his meals and extravagances,” Peskin said. “It certainly is not the hallmark of the kind of leadership that San Francisco deserves.”

Peskin and Breed both had DCCC campaign committees in 2016, but the manner in which they used these accounts appears to differ greatly in scope from Farrell. Peskin had a zero balance by the end of 2016, while Breed—who was serving as the president of the Board of Supervisors at that time—spent the bulk of her expenditures on Democratic Party travel, office expenses and civic events like the Pride Parade.

Breed had almost $9,000 in debt from her DCCC campaign at the end of 2016, which kicked off a fundraising drive the next year to bring in about $74,000. In total, she spent money on nine meals—three of which were for campaign staff and volunteer events, while the other six were noted as staff meals. The total cost came to just under $2,500.

“How can the voters trust Mark Farrell to run San Francisco, if his default setting is habitually breaking the law for his personal benefit?” asked Joe Arellano, a spokesperson for Breed’s campaign.

McMorris, of California Common Cause, said it’s unfortunate that many people have become conditioned to think campaign finance and ethics laws are less important than other laws because of the way lifestyle expenses are routinely baked into campaigns.

“You’re not robbing a bank or holding someone up, but these are important laws and I wish people would take them more seriously,” McMorris said. “They are part of our Democratic foundation.”