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Charlotte's Web 

The mayor's plan for City Hall could net the city's protocol chief millions in taxpayer-financed rent

Wednesday, May 8 1996
Ousted as the city's chief of protocol during the Jordan years, Charlotte Mailliard Swig was rehabilitated by Willie Brown. She has been the Energizer bunny of civic hoo-ha ever since, racking up gushy profiles in local papers, giving heartfelt speeches at the opening of the New Main Library, traveling with Mayor Brown back to his hometown of Mineola, Texas, and even performing a quasi-striptease for Brown at a roast in his honor.

Now Mayor Brown may be boosting Swig's profile as civic diva even higher with his plans to make City Hall a showcase by emptying it of many of its governmental agencies once the building reopens in 1999. In the empty space, Swig would have the opportunity to throw lavish galas and other public celebrations. In fact, the Mayor's Office says, that's among the reasons Brown wants to declutter the seat of municipal government.

But along with receiving a beaux-arts party playground, Swig and her family would also reap a sweet financial advantage from the arrangement: More than $400,000 a year in taxpayer-financed rental income would flow into the Swig family's investment company, in which Charlotte serves as a full partner.

Swig Investment Co. and three other general partners, registered as Folsom Street Partners, temporarily house three city departments and the Municipal and Superior courts at 633 Folsom St. Annual rent: $2.5 million. Since January 1995, when the courts, the Registrar of Voters office, the Purchasing Department, and the Sheriff's Department moved into 633 Folsom, the partnership has earned $3.3 million on the city lease. In addition, the city pumped $7 million in modifications into the Swig building.

If Brown gets his plan past the Board of Supervisors, Folsom Street Partners -- and the city's protocol maven -- could stand to make a lot more.

Regardless of Brown's plans, in July 1997 the partnership will lose the courts, which are scheduled to move into new digs under construction at Civic Center (on McAllister and Polk streets). That will significantly lower the $2.5 million in rent. But if Folsom Street Partners keep the remaining departments as tenants, they'll still reap generous rental income of approximately $405,000 a year.

Officials at the city's Real Estate Department, which arranges leases of rental properties for city agencies, agreed that the Swig lease would likely be continued for another five years or so -- the typical duration of a commercial lease -- if Brown empties out City Hall.

"To implement the mayor's plan we would have to leave the city departments in their current locations for a while -- or maybe as a permanent thing," says Steve Legnitto, principal real property officer at the Real Estate Department and the man who negotiated the original lease with the Swigs.

Overstating the obvious, Folsom Street Partners Vice President Robert Swig, son of the late hotelier Mel and stepson of Charlotte, says, "A landlord would have to be a fool to not want the city as a tenant." However, he stresses, he hasn't thought about extending the leases, and he says the mayor hasn't contacted him about the matter.

Regardless, the potential Swig deal would be classic Willie Brown: Do something for the public -- give them a grand palace to hold parties in -- and take care of an old and dear friend at the same time. And a generous friend at that: Between 1987 and 1995, members of the Swig family donated $18,500 to Brown's various political campaigns, with Charlotte making $16,000 of those donations all on her own.

If the Swigs get a new five-year lease in 1999 when City Hall reopens, they would receive more than $2 million in rent revenue over the life of the lease. That's $2 million they wouldn't have received if Brown allowed all city departments to return to City Hall. So you can think about it this way: At a cost to the family of $18,500 in contributions to Brown campaigns, the Swigs would tap into the city treasury for a return of $2 million. Not bad at all.

Also benefiting from the potential deal would be the other Folsom Street Partners: the Adlai Stevenson family, the Robert Haynie family, and the Weiler Investment Co. And let's not forget the other landlord renting space to the city to temporarily house city departments. Western Mart Co., a New York company, makes $1.8 million a year housing the City Recorder, the Tax Collector, Treasurer, Controller, and divisions in the Department of Public Works.

(Aside from Swig's potential conflict of interest, there's the separate issue of Brown running up $2.2 million a year in extra expenses if he keeps renting from Swig and Western Mart Co.)

According to the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the city's Ethics Commission, Swig has broken no conflict-of-interest law. Since she isn't a paid city employee or an elected official who has a vote to cast on Brown's plan, she is immune to the Political Reform Act.

But still, she has the mayor's ear on all matters of pomp, and she is likely to clock in at some point -- and she may already have -- on Brown's idea to glamorize City Hall. If and when she does, she'll be in a difficult role of shaping a policy in which she has a direct financial interest. (Swig did not respond to two interview requests by deadline.)

And then there's Brown's role of pushing a policy that -- intended or not -- will financially benefit one of his longest-standing political supporters.

But the Mayor's Office is sanguine about the matter. "There are so many people in this town who rent space to the city or provide some service or have some contract and who have a relationship with the mayor at some level that what we have here is a potentially endless stream of conflicts of interest," says P.J. Johnston, the mayor's press secretary.

But surely the mayor understands that the mere appearance of conflicts where a beloved friend wins millions in city contracts dissolves the public's trust.

Then again, maybe he doesn't.

About The Author

George Cothran


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