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The Grid 

Wednesday, Sep 4 1996
Rangoon Squad
Under S.F. law, no city contracts may be struck with companies doing business with the brutal military dictatorship of Myanmar (formerly Burma). So why is the city poised to cut a $50 million deal with one of two telecom concerns that are up to their elbows in the junta's blood money?

If the pact goes through, it will clearly violate the ordinance, signed in April by Mayor Willie Brown, that put S.F. at the forefront of the "selective purchasing" movement aimed at punishing Myanmar. The extreme human rights abuses documented in the country since a military coup in 1988, however, apparently don't bother the two telecommunications giants bidding on the city's proposed emergency radio system, Motorola Inc. of Illinois and Ericsson Telecommunications Pte. Ltd. of Sweden. They both have significant business relations with the Myanmar regime, known by its Orwellian acronym, SLORC (the State Law and Order Restoration Council).

According to the Investors Responsibility Research Center (IRRC), the Washington, D.C., consultants used by the city to gauge compliance with selective purchasing rules, Ericsson signed up this year to wire Myanmar dictators with millions of dollars' worth of communications technology.

And get this: Though Motorola denied having dealings with Myanmar last month, it turns out the company has been aggressively courting the butchers, says Ken Bertsch, director of social issues programs at IRRC. Indeed, in a letter sent to the city purchaser, Motorola Vice President T.W. Jaron admitted as much -- that a Motorola rep in Rangoon schmoozes the regime and that the company in fact sold the SLORC hundreds of thousands of dollars of its communications equipment.

Ah, the spin: "We have concerns about human rights," says Motorola mouthpiece Pat Sturmon. "But we believe the most effective way to change things is through engagement and not separation from democratic institutions and countries. As Motorolans we represent democracy throughout the world." (Bay Area Ericsson representatives -- or should we say Ericssonians? -- did not return phone calls.)

Whether the city's Department of Electricity and Telecommunications is prepared to put on the brakes is an open question.

"City policy says we need a new radio system," says Fred Weiner, the deputy general manager of the telecom office. But although he acknowledges that the anti-Myanmar ordinance is a "very real" issue, he adds, "I'm just not sure how we are going to resolve it."

Supervisor Tom Ammiano, the author of the ordinance, is sure, however. And that means going back to square one.

Making Friends and Influencing Constituents
Ringmaster Willie's juggling of interest groups continues to amaze. Take the case of Ed Lee's quietly announced departure as director of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) last week.

With Lee as the city's official affirmative action and civil rights cop, the mayor found himself caught in a simmering rivalry between black and Asian politicos. Some of Brown's black supporters were hostile to Lee, a Chinese-American, for what they felt was unfair treatment (See "But Could You Drive a Truck Through It?" The Grid, Aug. 28.) The hard feelings were compounded by the black community's frequent observation that though it was responsible for creation of the HRC -- via sit-ins at auto dealerships in the '60s -- no African-American has ever held the agency's top slot.

Keeping Lee as HRC director meant Brown would have to deal with continued discontent on the point. But if he bounced Lee, he courted anger from Chinese-Americans.

So Brown found a way out. Surprise, surprise.
He named Lee the city's new purchaser, giving Lee even more power over the affirmative action crusade in city government. As purchaser, Lee can crack the good-old-boy arrangements the city has had with white firms that sell the city everything from mattresses to multimillion-dollar radio systems (though that carries its own complications, see above).

This all leaves the HRC job open for an African-American. How convenient.

Terms of Endorsement
Matthew Rothschild, the Democratic operative and deputy city attorney who's running for the Municipal Court bench with a Bar Association rating of "unqualified," has been courting both Democrats and Republicans in his bid for the judge's seat (see "Judging Matthew Rothschild," Feb. 28). He paid his way onto no fewer than three Republican fliers in the primary and has amassed a credible list of conservative supporters -- all while lambasting the Republican Party as a hotbed of right-wing meanies.

These kind of hypocritical ideological balancing acts have a way of falling apart, however.

The first backlash came from former U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello. A conservative Republican widely respected in legal circles, Russoniello endorsed Rothschild last year with the understanding that the candidate would use Russoniello's gilded name to round up other Republican endorsements. Which he did. But when Russoniello learned that Rothschild was bagging his elephantine brethren, he hit the roof.

"I have never regretted an endorsement I've given a candidate more than my endorsement of your candidacy for Municipal Court Judge," Russoniello wrote Rothschild in an April 2 letter. "Your message to the gay community was vicious and divisive. You attempted to cast any Republican appointee ... as homophobic. That you even had the temerity to ask for my support when you obviously planned all along to engage in such a negative, vituperative campaign is, if nothing, testament to you [sic] cunning and audacity ... characteristics well suited to the rough and tumble political world ... but, in my opinion, disqualifiers for any judicial position." Russoniello ended his missive by withdrawing his endorsement.

If that weren't enough, another one of Rothschild's Republican supporters, former Judge Jack A. Ertola, also pulled his endorsement. In an Aug. 19 letter, Ertola said he had determined that Rothschild's opponent, Judge Pro Tem Kay Tsenin, is more qualified. Ertola elaborated in an interview. "I did not examine the trial experience of the two candidates closely enough," he said. "When I did, however, I discovered that I had made a terrible mistake.

About The Authors

George Cothran


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