Whale bites

Will the mayor's billionaires club save us or eat us? And are the old rules enough for K.J.'s new kind of political fundraising?

Upon hearing news that hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen would buy the Sacramento Kings and move them to Seattle, Mayor Kevin Johnson’s first reaction was to do a little branding. The mayor’s not just trying again to keep a professional sports team in town, he’s also “Playing to Win.” Four years, the man has not found a problem that he can’t throw a catchy slogan at.

Playing to win means corralling several “whales”—billionaires who will save Sacramento by beating Hansen’s offer. These whales have always been ready, willing and able to buy out the Maloofs; they’ve just been waiting for an invitation from the mayor and an appropriately catchy slogan to go for it.

The local daily obliged the mayor with an above-the-fold headline, “City whales play to win.” Oh, the Bee. Google The Seattle Times headline, “Telling the NBA off was just smart business.” Even in Seattle they are asking, “What the fuck is Marcos Breton talking about?”

Anyway, whales play to win. In everything, even love. Whale Ron Burkle used his oversized political influence (and campaign donations) a few years back to get state legislators to write a law to help keep divorce records of rich guys like himself secret. (He was involved in a nasty split at the time.) Courts threw the law out, but it’s good to know that Sacramento might get into bed with someone so resourceful in getting their way.

Speaking of which: What exactly is the mayor promising these whales who play to win? He has talked about borrowing a page from the “San Francisco playbook,” referring to the time when one group of whales got together to fend off another set of whales who wanted to take the San Francisco Giants to Tampa Bay, Fla. What’s left out of that analogy is that the S.F. whales of the 1990s didn’t stick taxpayers with two-thirds of the costs of a stadium. That’s what the mayor and council offered the Maloofs last spring—though the details were damn sketchy beyond that. The whales will want an arena deal at least that generous, on the off-off off (off) chance the NBA rejects Hansen’s bid. Bites just wonders: Will these whales save us or eat us?

Last month, Johnson told SN&R that public concerns about the money flowing into his network of nonprofits were overblown. Sure, some money wasn’t reported when it should have been, leading to fines from the California Fair Political Practices Commission. Not a problem. “We didn’t cross a T,” the mayor explained in a recent interview with SN&R’s Nick Miller.

In the end, it turned out to be about $6.5 million worth of T’s. That’s how much in “behested payments” Johnson reported in 2012, most of into nonprofits that he controls or is closely associated with.

The flood of money put to shame the $3.5 million raised in behests last year by California Gov. Jerry Brown. Who is the governor. Of the entire state of California.

Bites brings this up because it’s a new year, a new council and time to close the giant loophole Johnson has blasted into the city’s political-fundraising rules. Behests have been used by council members for years, but not like this. The law was written to regulate charitable contributions. But these are also political contributions—from companies with business before the city, people who want curry favor with elected officials, interest groups advocating certain policies.

When Waste Management or the Sacramento Kings write big checks to the mayor while their bottom line is being voted on by the council, that’s a problem. When would-be arena developer AEG gives cash to the mayor’s charter-school company, St. Hope, it shouldn’t take an FPPC investigation for taxpayers to find out. When Siemens Industry Inc., which makes light-rail cars, gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote the mayor’s environmental (and transportation) policies in the region (that’s new, too). And when the mayor uses his office to funnel millions into a controversial and ideologically driven education-reform movement—that’s not what the laws were set up for.

This is no longer just your local council member raising a few bucks to put on a neighborhood concert or to fund pools and youth sports. The council ought to be asking whether the old rules are adequate for this powerful new kind of political fundraising. Bites suspects many of them would rather figure out how to get in on the action.