Political Notebook: Gay Pelosi chief Bernal seeks waiver for UCSF job

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday October 11, 2023
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SF Health Commissioner Dan Bernal. Photo: Rick Gerharter
SF Health Commissioner Dan Bernal. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Dan Bernal, the longtime gay chief of staff to Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), is seeking a waiver from San Francisco's ethics watchdog body in order to take a job with UCSF as its vice chancellor of community and government relations. It is needed due to his being a member of the city's health commission, on which he serves as president.

Yet the ethics commission's staff is recommending that Bernal's waiver request be rejected. The oversight body is scheduled to take up the matter when it meets Friday, October 13.

In a texted response to the Bay Area Reporter Wednesday, Bernal wrote, "Out of respect for the process, I won't be commenting before the meeting this Friday."

Because UCSF has numerous contracts with the city, some amounting to tens of millions of dollars, Bernal needs an exemption from the city's rules governing when members of oversight bodies can receive compensation from city contractors. Under the prohibitions, Bernal would need to wait one year after stepping down as a health commissioner before he could become an employee of the public university.

But Bernal would like to take over the vice chancellor role immediately. In a letter dated September 29 to the ethics commission, Bernal argued that he should be granted a waiver enabling him to do so since he had only nominal involvement with the city contracts he approved for UCSF over the last 12 months.

He noted that the health commission had not debated or discussed any of the contracts, totaling more than $75 million, nor discussed a legal settlement where the city and the world-renowned medical school were co-defendants and each received $100,000. Rather, he wrote, the matters were all unanimously adopted by voice votes as part of the commission's consent calendars.

Plus, Bernal noted, it was public health staff that brought forward the contracts, all of which were recommended for approval by the oversight body's finance and planning committee, of which he is not a member. To further bolster his argument, Bernal pointed out that the health commission is not the decision-making authority when it comes to the health department's contracts and legal settlements.

Per guidance from the city attorney's office, "the commission acts only in an advisory capacity by reviewing and recommending contracts and settlements that must be approved by the Director of Health or the Board of Supervisors," wrote Bernal, 53, who was appointed to the health oversight body in 2017.

In his letter, Bernal noted that "as a person living with HIV for more than 33 years," he not only has a deep, personal tie to UCSF but has benefited from its pioneering research into HIV and AIDS.

"I know that I would not be alive today without the decades-long hard work and dedication of the researchers, physicians, nurses and staff of UCSF," wrote Bernal. "It would be my great privilege to be a part of UCSF's leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS, addressing health disparities in underserved communities, and other critical areas."

According to the ethics staff report on Bernal's waiver request, he has already given notice to Pelosi of his intent to take the job with UCSF. A search firm had contacted him in April about the position, which he received a tentative offer for on August 29.

It came just days prior to Pelosi announcing September 8 that she planned to seek reelection in 2024. It ended months of speculation that she might retire from Congress when her current term ends next year.

According to the ethics staff report, it had advised Bernal to delay terminating his job with Pelosi until the ethics commission voted on his waiver request. It also raised questions on if Bernal had violated city rules by pursuing the job with UCSF at the same time as he was approving contracts for the university.

But Bernal informed the ethics commission that he had sought advice from the city attorney's office after being contacted about the UCSF position. He also stated that he would abide by the restriction that bans him from lobbying the city's health department on behalf of UCSF for a year in his new job.

"None of my actions as Health Commissioner were taken in order to accrue any personal benefit, financial or otherwise, nor were they taken with the intention of benefiting a prospective future employer," wrote Bernal. "Therefore, the waiver I am requesting would be fully consistent with the intention of the law."

With Pelosi likely to secure another term next fall, and thus being able to keep Bernal on as her chief of staff in her district office in San Francisco, a job Bernal has held since 2002, the ethics staff saw no evidence that he would face "extreme hardship" should he not be granted the waiver. It also noted that due to Bernal's "experience and skillset" he is likely to find other "well compensated" jobs he could take that would not require his needing a waiver.

The staff report noted that was not the case when gay former District 8 supervisor Jeff Sheehy was granted a post-employment waiver by ethics commissioners in 2018. Sheehy, the city's first supervisor living with HIV, had been appointed to a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors in 2017 but the following year was not elected to serve out the remainder of the term. (Current District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, one of three gay men now on the board, had won that race.)

After stepping down from the board, Sheehy sought a waiver to be rehired by UCSF, for which he had worked for 17 years. While he had participated in the approval of three UCSF contracts as a supervisor, Sheehy was granted the waiver so he could apply to work again for the university.

"In contrast to Mr. Bernal, Mr. Sheehy was unemployed, had looked for other employment opportunities in his desired field, and was unable to find any other suitable opportunities," noted the ethics staff report.

According to the website Legistorm, which compiles compensation figures, Bernal earned $174,058.38 working for Pelosi last year. He noted in his letter to the ethics commission he would double his income by taking the UCSF job, which would also come with "generous retirement and other benefits."

Such compensation would help him pay off the legal bills he racked up from divorcing his ex-husband, noted Bernal, and help defray his expected travel costs to care for his elderly parents who live in Florida and "have complex medical needs."

"In many ways, it feels like I have been preparing my entire career for this position," wrote Bernal. "By granting this waiver, the Ethics Commission would enable me to continue my government service while addressing my current and future financial obligations and preparing financially for retirement without incurring more debt."

The ethics staff did allow for some wiggle room with its recommendation on Bernal's request, noting that the commission could determine there are "relevant" factors to show that he would face "an extreme hardship" by being denied the waiver.

"If the Commission determines that not granting the waiver would cause extreme hardship to Mr. Bernal, the Commission should approve Mr. Bernal's waiver," states the ethics staff report.

Should Bernal be able to take the job with UCSF then the health commission would need to elect a new president and Mayor London Breed would have a vacancy on the oversight body to fill. While he is the lone gay man on it, there are currently two other health commissioners from the LGBTQ community.

Cecilia Chung, a transgender woman who is living with HIV, has served on the body since 2012 and is the senior director of strategic initiatives and evaluation at the Transgender Law Center. Susan Belinda Christian, a lesbian who is an assistant district attorney in San Francisco, was appointed to the health commission in 2020.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on the dedication ceremony for the first LGBTQ California Historical Landmark.

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Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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