Uber gave $50,000 to one of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s nonprofits

On that and more pay-to-play at City Hall

The U.S. Conference of Mayors met in Sacramento this weekend. Conference president, Mayor Kevin Johnson, has made “Cities 3.0” the theme of his USMC presidency. He even led a workshop on Sunday with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, focusing on technology and innovation.

That dovetails nicely with the overall theme of Johnson’s time in public office: pay-to-play.

In June, Uber cut a $50,000 check to the African American Mayor’s Association, a nonprofit organization that K.J. created earlier last summer. Its stated mission is to share best practices and take policy positions on important issues facing cities.

In August, Johnson did just that, penning an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle that praised Uber and condemned California legislation to require rideshare companies to carry the same level of insurance as traditional taxi companies.

See how that works? It’s like an endorsement deal—but instead of basketball shoes, K.J. is shilling public policy.

Bonus: Uber got top billing at the U.S. Conference of Mayors this weekend, and the Sacramento Kings just announced Uber is their official ride-sharing app.

Speaking of which: Anyone else notice that Kings vice-president of strategic initiatives, Kunal Merchant, has pretty much become a surrogate for Johnson’s strong mayor campaign—sending out a constant stream of social-media messages in favor of Measure L, changing his online avatars to the “Yes on Measure L” logo?

Merchant of course is Johnson’s former chief of staff, and former head of Johnson’s Think Big Sacramento arena-booster organization. But is there really any difference between those three jobs, beyond the name on the signature line on Merchant’s paychecks?

Back to the AAMA: The executive director, Stephanie Mash Sykes, is Johnson’s former director of governmental affairs, and AAMA’s been the beneficiary of a steady stream of “behested payments” solicited by the mayor’s office from various business interests.

That includes $15,000 from Miracle Gro, naturally; Johnson’s wife Michelle Rhee just joined the board there.

Also United Water, which makes its money privatizing municipal water supplies, gave $15,000 to the AAMA in August. Advance America, which makes its money selling payday loans in low-income and minority neighborhoods, gave $15,000 to the AAMA in May.

Then in June, the AAMA announced members had adopted a resolution supporting new financial products as alternatives to payday loans. The resolution was lauded—and apparently lobbied for—by the RLJ Companies, which sells that very sort of financial product. In July, the RLJ Company gave the AAMA $50,000.

That’s the beautiful thing about pay-to-play: There’s no rule that says the pay can’t come after. Perhaps Advance America should have given more.

Contrast the brisk business at K.J. Inc. with The Sacramento Bee, where even the appearance of a conflict of interest can cost you your job. Bites remains curious about the sudden exit of Bee editorial page writer Pia Lopez, and the Bee’s nothing-to-see-here handling of the incident.

You’ll recall that Lopez “parted ways” with the paper after her work on behalf of her husband Jim Read’s Minnesota congressional campaign got too tangled up with her duties on the editorial page.

Bee honchos wouldn’t explain to readers what actually triggered the separation, other than to say there was some inappropriate campaign-related business done using her Bee email account and that she failed to notify her bosses about potential conflicts.

What conflicts, the Bee won’t say. Which is odd, because Bee has had no trouble airing ethical dirty laundry in the past when reporters and columnists have screwed up.

We don’t have access to Bee email accounts. But we can see in campaign-finance records that developer and political heavy hitter Phil Angelides gave Read $500 for his campaign. Another $500 came from Greg Geeting, a member of the Sacramento County Board of Education, who seems pretty simpatico with the pro-charter-school policies that Lopez and the rest of the board espouse.

These are obviously potential conflicts, because the editorial board frequently writes about local education issues, and because Angelides’ McKinley Village development project was the subject of Bee editorials at the time of the donation.

Certainly, 500 bucks is not going to buy Team Scoopy’s opinion on anything. The general chumminess/marriage between Bee editors and publishers and the leaders of the business and political establishment is probably the bigger concern.

But we can also probably all agree that we don’t want those developers and politicians giving money to the candidate-spouses of editorial-board members, while those folks are being covered by that editorial board.

More disturbing than any of that, however, is the fact that the Bee—a newspaper that insists on others’ transparency and that takes as its motto “speak truth to power”—is unwilling to give readers the facts. What are they afraid of?