(Updates below) A San Francisco political insider forwarded an ICYMI copy of a Wall Street Journal scoop this week that detailed a new case of Willie Brown sleaze, and appended this question to the email: “Wonder how he’ll wiggle out of this one?”
The answer could not have been easier: “By clearing himself in his column,” we wrote back, “that runs in the NEWS PAGES of the Hearst Chronicle.” Cap letters ours.
What’s the story: At post time, the Chron had yet to acknowledge the juicy WSJ story, which quotes documents from a legal file involving a domestic violence case against one Gurbaksh Chahal, a rich, self-important Silicon Valley scumbag who apparently enjoys beating up women.
It seems that Chahal, aka “G,” implored venture capitalist Steve Westly — former state Controller and current wannabe’ governor — to help him out of a legal jam, after he was charged with 45 felony counts for allegedly hitting and kicking his girlfriend 117 times in half-an-hour. Westly, Journal sleuth Jeff Elder reported, was motivated to help in order to protect a $100 million planned IPO in which both stood to make a killing.
No fool he, Westly naturally sent his rich and repulsive pal Willie’s way, suggesting Mr. Fixit was well-positioned to help:
Venture capitalist and one-time California state controller Steve Westly, who joined RadiumOne’s board in November 2013, suggested in a Dec. 3, 2013 email to Mr. Chahal that lawyer Willie Brown, former San Francisco mayor and State Assembly speaker, “believes that he can help you.”
Mr. Westly, who is considering a second run for governor, wrote that Mr. Brown knows the district attorney and “may be able to ‘back him off,’” adding that Mr. Brown is a “very good deal broker.”
Six days later, in an email with the subject line “Willie Brown,” Mr. Chahal wrote to Mr. Westly: “Just met him. Wants $1 million if he can make this go away. Just gave him a $250K retainer. If you meet him tomorrow. Apply some pressure on him to make this go away in 2013.”
Mr. Westly responded: “Wow. That’s pricey, but probably worth it if he can make it happen. I suspect he will pull out all the stops to get this done.”
Nice client, Willie.
Pop quiz: There’s much more to the story, but for Press Clips purposes, that’s the gist of it (the WSJ piece isbetting sites here if you can navigate past the subscription wall, while good overviews from SF Business Times and SFist are here and here if you can’t).
Our question is: where will Chron readers find Brown’s comments on the matter?
A) in context in a news story;
B) in “Willie’s World,” Brown’s own ballyhooed Sunday column.
Based on a recent case study, your best bet is B).
For that’s exactly where the journalistic geniuses at the tweeting incubator formerly known as The Voice of the West allowed Brown to address another recent yarn about corruption in which his name surfaced.
In the tangled affair known in this space as the Shrimp Boy Scandal, Chron reporters Bob Egelko and Emily Green reported, in an excellent, if complicated Page 1 story, about new documents filed in the case; the story said that a city commissioner, allegedly implicated in funneling bribes, told an undercover FBI agent that San Francisco was a “pay to play” city and that she had learned her trade from none other than Willie Brown.
In another conversation reported in the court filings, Jones told the agent she wanted a $10,000 commitment and said, “You pay to play here. … We are the best at this game … better than New York.”
Apparently referring to [S.F. Mayor Ed} Lee, Jones said, “He is a moderate, business-focused mayor. He was pretty much trained and developed by Willie Brown and the same as myself, and we were trained to get the job done.”
No comment from Brown about the assertion followed, however. That came the next day, when Chronicle editors blithely allowed Brown himself to address it – and knock down any suggestion that it might be true — in “Willie’s World,” his Sunday column in the news columns of the paper.
Denying that he’d ever even discussed the subject of campaign contributions with the commissioner – heaven forbid! – Brown wrote that, upon reading the Saturday story, “I could only chuckle.”
Ha, ha, you old rascal you.
No ethics for old men: You don’t have to doubt the veracity of Brown’s account to believe that his perspective belonged in the original news story where he was mentioned, so that readers could weigh and judge for themselves his comments in their full context – not in the self-serving, self-referential clown show that is his Sunday column.
Let’s review: San Francisco’s leading power broker, a lawyer who doesn’t disclose his clients to readers or editors but commands $1 million fees from millionaires to make ugly criminal charges “go away,” a lobbyist so brazen he used his Chronicle column picture to register with the city — gets the news pages handed over to him to laugh off his well-earned reputation for shameless, scheming and guileful behavior while shouting from the rooftops that he’s got the Chronicle in his pocket.
Former Hearst Chron editor Ward Bushee, who originally brought Brown in to write the column, set down the company line several years ago, when he said that “Willie is…not bound by the (Chronicle’s) ethics policy.” Or anyone else’s either, for that matter.
As loyal Calbuzzers know, we’ve long ragged on this issue, which violates the most basic values and standards of journalism, while sacrificing the collective integrity of the news staff to the personal and financial agenda of one powerful influence peddler. Sad to say, Fifth and Mission rank and filers are troubled by the arrangement with Brown, but fear the bosses’ retribution for saying so.
Bottom line: The most thoughtful piece on the subject, published in the Columbia Journalism Review, was written by veteran editor John Mecklin, who worked for a time in San Francisco.
I have my own opinion on Brown’s column, and it’s a simpler one: I think the Chronicle’s decision to give Brown a column is just plain wrong, by any assessment based on standard notions of journalistic ethics. If readers are to trust newspapers, the people who write regularly for them need to avoid creating doubt about their credibility; particularly, they need to assure readers of their disinterest in the financial implications of the activities they cover—or to clearly disclose conflicts they do have. Willie Brown’s persona is based on the notion that he is absolutely in the game, a real player in the high-dollar dealings of government. As it stands now, readers have no reliable way to tell whether Brown might be or might not be a player in any governmental or political endeavor that he—or other Chronicle journalists—describe. In that regard, in my view, Brown’s column undercuts the entire paper’s credibility.
(Update Friday 8:38 am: SF Gate has now posted an edited version of the SF Business Insider story, not a staff-written piece, on the Chahal affair. It reports that Brown could not be reached for comment; strange that the Chron couldn’t reach their own columnist).
(Update Saturday 10:41 am: SFGate
Chron has now published a move-along-nothing-to-see-here version of the WSJ story in the form of a Matier and Ross column that is a straight rewrite of the Elder piece, except for its strong pro-Willie perspective and a couple of self-serving Wilie quotes — it seems poor Mr. Chahal had a “desperate need” for legal representation and the public spirit-minded former mayor gallantly lent his services – gleaned from Phil Matier’s own interview with the Human Hot Air Balloon on KGO yesterday. If your head is spinning on our old friend Phil’s multi-platform roles in this saga, stay tuned for tomorrow, to see if Willie’s World, ghost-written by the ubiquitous Matier, contains even more details about the heroic role the great man played in this immorality play.
Meanwhile, for those keeping score at home, the resourceful Elder’s latest blog post on KGO’s Matier-Willie tete-a-tete, may be found here.)
(Update Sunday 3:10 pm: Calbuzz gets results:”Willie’s World,” a Brown-Matier Production, ran in the print edition of the Hearst Chron today, but the great man had not a word to say about the Chahal scandal. It was a clear cave-in to Calbuzz, while also an effort to distort the results of our multiple choice quiz, above; in retrospect, of course we should have included the Matier and Ross column as possibility d) of where Willie’s comments would appear. His Willieness got a nice ride in the M&R piece with this as the, um, money quote: “Brown had an interesting explanation for why he took on such an apparently distasteful client. He told us Friday that ‘$1 million was the fee that I hoped (Chahal) could not pay. I did not want to deal with a client that had 45 counts of domestic violence, but he said, ‘All right.’ ” Poor Willie, Chahal left him no choice but to represent the scumbag).