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Willie Brown Will Make Your Problems Disappear—Or Your Money Back

The Better Call Saul of San Francisco politics, caught in writing.


After a long night of too much drinking, a tippler’s reward is to be blinded by the lights coming on at closing time. And many a drunken patron has realized, at that moment, that he was sitting in a dirty, squalid place. It’s depressing. But it’s good to know. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal served the role of the 2 a.m. lights. And San Francisco is the putrid bar.  

In one of the great journalistic gets of 2015, WSJ reporter Jeff Elder outlines a series of correspondences, largely between disgraced former RadiumOne CEO Gurbaksh Chahal and his erstwhile boardmember, once (and future?) Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Westly. Westly’s m.o. was to resolve Chahal’s pending domestic violence case, posthaste, so as to initiate a lucrative IPO for RadiumOne. Chahal had inconveniently been caught on video purportedly striking a woman more than 100 times, and was facing 45 felony counts. But, in a bevy of emails revealed by Elder, the two men discussed how former Mayor Willie Brown could help Chahal. Brown, according to Chahal's email, “wants $1 million if he can make this go away.” Brown was, per the emails, also given a $250,000 retainer. 

Brown, the onetime “Ayatollah of the Assembly,” is San Francisco's ex-“juice mayor,” a current Chronicle columnist, bridge namesake, and the city's premier influence peddler. And his much-repeated quip that the “e” in “email” stands for “evidence” has never been more pertinent. Yet, the only “evidence” in play here proves that longtime political observers are right to be depressed—and right to harbor an unnuanced, even Manichean worldview in which powerful, unseen individuals are deploying vast webs of influence for a cool million bucks. 

“It makes me want to vomit,” was one veteran elected official’s reaction to this story. But nothing here comes as a surprise, per se. Elder’s remarkable achievement is to hunt down and put in writing what so many people already assumed to be true. The Willie Brown of Westly and Chahal’s emails corresponds nearly exactly with the Willie Brown-as-Keyser Söze narrative pushed by so many of this city’s also-rans. 

Even more hilariously—we laugh so as not to cry—none of the behavior outlined in the emails seems to break the law. First off, none of the correspondences are in Brown’s hand. There’s no proof that Brown met with anyone or did anything for his money (D.A. George Gascon denies any knowledge that Brown was brought in to hondle him—and Gascon’s unwillingness to back down from the 45 felony charges purportedly enraged Chahal.) If Brown “lobbied” anyone, he did so in a far subtler manner than Westly and Chahal, whose emails are now, if not evidence, certainly news copy.   

In the end, Judge Brendan Conroy tossed the video depicting Chahal striking that woman more than 100 times, as it was seized without a warrant. Chahal pleaded guilty to a mere two misdemeanors and was last year sentenced to three years' probation (his Friday court appearance will be continued, but his probation may soon be revoked because of another alleged domestic violence incident). And Brown purportedly returned $198,400 of that retainer. 

And here’s where we laugh just to laugh. More classic Brown: Find a rich sucker, extract $52K in walking around money, and don’t do anything quantifiable. This rings a bell. Hustling, columnist Willie Brown recently noted, is no crime. Here's Da Mayor on the Leland Yee affair: “The biggest crime he was accused of was trying to hustle some undercover FBI agents. . . . It was allegedly just Yee thinking he could hustle some money, that he was ripping off someone who was not very smart.”

Gleaning money from rich bullies isn’t a crime. It’s not illegal to be immoral. And, in the end, the real loser in the fallout from Elder’s article isn't Brown or Chahal but Westly. It reflects poorly on an aspiring Democratic gubernatorial candidate to, in writing, outline how money and influence will be used to “do whatever it takes” to aid a man accused of punching and kicking a woman more than 100 times. 

As for Brown and Chahal, their reputations were what they were—and now only more so. 

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