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Newly elected Mayor Gavin Newsom and District Attorney Kamala Harris have at least one thing in common: Political lawyer James Sutton worked behind the scenes on both their campaigns. Friends with Newsom for years, Sutton served as counsel for “Care Not Cash,” the 2002 ballot measure sponsored by the then-supervisor, and was subsequently hired as general counsel for Newsom’s mayoral campaign. Sutton’s entree into the Harris campaign came much later, after she got into a scrape last fall with the city’s Ethics Commission. Though the commission ultimately slapped Harris with what is believed to be its largest fine ever, her campaign and at least one of her opponents credit Sutton with minimizing the political damage. Carving a niche advising local politicians and special interest groups on their campaigns and activities, Sutton built a reputation as a go-to lawyer at political powerhouse law firm Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor. He left the Marin County-based firm in May to launch his own firm, Sutton & Partners — and business has taken off. Sutton estimates he and his three associates will pull down $1 million in revenues their first year in business. While Sutton serves clients around the state, his specialty is San Francisco politics. “Jim’s developed a real expertise in San Francisco law and obviously it’s paying off with clients like Newsom and Harris,” said Peter Bagatelos, a San Francisco solo who was volunteer counsel for Bill Fazio’s DA campaign. While his critics say he goes too far in bending the rules, Sutton’s clients appreciate his ability to stretch laws without breaking them. “He has given us options [as] to whether you want to be cautious or whether you want to push the envelope,” said Kathleen Harrington, a board member of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a Sutton client. “A good attorney would give the client that option.” Mark Mosher, a partner at S.F. political consulting firm Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners, places Sutton among the top three Bay Area attorneys — along with Pillsbury Winthrop’s Frederick Lowell and Remcho, Johansen & Purcell’s Thomas Willis — in his Rolodex for San Francisco ethics and election laws. “Jim is a little bit my political American Express card. I don’t leave home without him,” said Mosher, whose firm has worked with Sutton for about a decade. “He not only is good with the technical compliance side of the business, but he’s a good strategist.” Not everyone is a fan. Charles Marsteller, former coordinator for Common Cause in San Francisco, claims Sutton has gotten around campaign finance disclosure rules in recent years. He points to one instance where Sutton served as treasurer for No on D, a campaign against a public-power ballot measure in 2002. According to the Associated Press, the No on D committee failed to report $800,000 in contributions from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. until a month after the deadline — and more than three weeks after the election. Marsteller contends that Sutton waited to disclose those contributions to avoid “a political firestorm” about the committee’s spending just before the election. Sutton told AP in 2002 that the late filings were an honest mistake — “We screwed up” — and pointed out that PG&E’s involvement in the campaign was already well-known. Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan organization in Los Angeles that studies campaign finance issues, has taken a stance against Sutton on a variety of issues but says the lawyer “represents his clients very well.” WORKING BOTH SIDES Though he’s outspoken about his political affiliation, Sutton has worked for nonpartisan clients as well as those on both sides of the political aisle. “There’s no way that I can say I’m only going to work for candidates or causes that I agree with,” he said. “That’s what volunteers do.” And if he were to limit himself to Republican candidates in San Francisco, he noted, he’d be very poor. That said, he does have a litmus test. “Will they pay their bills, No. 1. No. 2, will they respect the law,” he said. The answer to No. 3 — “Are they extreme on either end of the spectrum?” — should be no, he added. Sutton has worked as general counsel for the state’s Republican Party for two years, and also worked on the public defender campaign of Kimiko Burton-Cruz, daughter of state Sen. John Burton, a Democrat. His client list also includes the 2003 Committee to Stop Aggressive Panhandling, Yes on Prop H campaign, Garrett Gruener’s campaign to unseat ex-Gov. Gray Davis in last year’s recall election, and a San Diego city council campaign. He also provides advice on lobbying and contribution laws for law firms such as Los Angeles’ Weston Benshoof Rochefort Rubalcava MacCuish. Harris, concerned that her office may at some point have to investigate a situation in which Sutton is involved, declined to comment about Sutton for this story. But her campaign consultant, Jim Stearns, said Sutton knows the city’s political laws better than any other lawyer he knows. “Jim is a great compliance lawyer but he also helps you implement a political strategy through the legal system.” Newsom says he chose Sutton for the job on his mayoral campaign largely because of his reputation “as someone who’s worked with many different people, from both parties.” After graduating from Stanford Law School, Sutton wasn’t sure what to do with his law degree and interest in politics. He spent a year clerking for then-California Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli, who pointed Sutton toward Nielsen, Merksamer. Sutton climbed from associate to partner at Nielsen, Merksamer, a law firm with a lobbying arm and a national client base. Facing his 40th birthday last year, Sutton said, he began to wonder if he should strike out on his own to develop his practice, which had come to focus on local election laws in California. His partners had a different view of where the firm should be in 10 years, Sutton said. Plus, the commute from his Richmond district home to the firm’s Mill Valley office was getting taxing, he said. “It just became harder and harder, with most of my client base in San Francisco, and three little kids,” Sutton said. After 13 years at Nielsen, Merksamer, he opened his offices on Sansome Street on May 12. Sutton charges $275 to $300 an hour now — 10 to 15 percent less than he billed at Nielsen Merksamer, he said. His associates bill at $125 to $225 an hour and his paralegal charges $50 to $75 an hour. Most of the clients Sutton handled at Nielsen, Merksamer followed him to his new firm, though a number of corporations and clients with out-of-state political activities stayed behind, said Chip Nielsen, one of Sutton’s former partners. Sutton’s most recent high-profile case involved doing damage control on Harris’ run-in with the Ethics Commission during her campaign. Harris had filed a statement in January saying she’d abide by a voluntary spending cap. About a week before Harris reported in September that her spending had surpassed the cap, Stearns said, he realized the campaign and city regulators might not be on the same page about whether she’d agreed to limit her spending, and called in Sutton. Harris’ camp contended that the pledge was nullified when the city amended its campaign finance law in July. The two opposing district attorney campaigns cried foul, and at least one Hallinan supporter filed a formal complaint alleging Harris had illegally busted the cap. “We were under the spotlight, we were under the gun, and our opponents were coming after us on the issue,” Stearns said. “We felt like the fate of our campaign hung in the balance.” Sutton was honest about the outlook from the start, Stearns said. “We were going to have to cop to it and say, ‘Yeah, we screwed up some stuff.’” One of the first things Sutton had the campaign do was file late paperwork saying that Harris rejected the voluntary spending cap and had raised and spent beyond it, Stearns remembered. “[Sutton] changed it from sort of an amorphous thing to a concrete thing, which was, ‘You filed your paperwork late.’” And he helped develop a strategy to make the campaign’s viewpoint of the situation the official viewpoint, Sutton added. “We wanted the spending cap lifted, and we wanted our campaign to be officially declared as voluntarily not abiding by the spending limits.” Sutton negotiated a settlement with the Ethics Commission and took over as treasurer for the campaign. While the commission found probable cause that Harris and her campaign violated provisions of the law, it concluded in an October stipulation order that the violations appeared unintentional. Harris agreed to pay up to $34,000 in penalties, including a roughly $19,300 fine to be paid in installments and immediate advertisements saying she hadn’t agreed to the spending cap. “Between the fine and the legal fees, it was certainly not a painless mistake,” Stearns said. “But ultimately it was a price that the campaign could afford.” Sutton also helped defeat a lawsuit challenging the settlement in which ex-DA Terence Hallinan and Supervisor Matt Gonzalez asked for a heftier fine and enforcement of the spending limit. Had that suit succeeded, Harris’ spending would have been brought to a screeching halt weeks before the November general election. Hallinan says Sutton did an “awesome” job. “The fine looked like a slap on the wrist � and she got to spend as much money as she wanted,” he said. “You have to judge something by its results, and [Sutton's] effective.”

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