Some say that one-time Santa Clara ethics consultant Tom Shanks has given ethics a back seat to politics: First in an editorial published in September by the Mercury News attacking Mayor Lisa Gillmor’s political opponents. Second in consistently refusing to meet or speak with those he targets in his attacks.
“I have repeatedly emailed him to ask for a meeting,” said Council Member Suds Jain, “and he has never responded.”
Mayoral candidate Anthony Becker reports the same lack of response to his requests to speak with Shanks.
The Weekly requested comment from Shanks but similarly received no response.
Shanks is the former director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, a position he held until 2007. Following that he started a consulting practice he calls The Ethics Company, which doesn’t appear to have a web presence.
His consulting engagement with Santa Clara began around 2000 and according to available records, he billed about $24,000 a year from 2003 through 2014 — totaling $260,000.
After 2014, Shanks was completely absent from Santa Clara until he reappeared on the scene with his editorial shortly before the release of the now-controversial grand jury report attacking Gillmor’s political opponents. He shares a regular podcast with San José resident and Gillmor’s “special advisor” Kirk Vartan and has done an interview with pro-Gillmor blogger Robert Haugh.
Shanks and his followers constantly tout his work with the City 20 years ago in developing Santa Clara’s code of ethics. People who were in City government at the time say his work was valuable.
“We had so many ethical scandals,”* said former Council Member Pat Kolstad. “[Mayor] Judy Nadler said that we needed rules and regulations for campaigns. Tom Shanks was teaching at the University [Santa Clara]. He gave us good advice and we followed it.”
“He instituted some very good practices,” said former mayor Patricia Mahan. “One of the best was the Last Word forum on the night before elections. He also helped to develop the City’s ethics campaign. I thought what he did was quite valuable.”
However, she didn’t think that work was worth $260,000.
Selective Ethics For Political Outsiders
Council Member Kevin Park has a different view of Shanks’ pre-2022 tenure in Santa Clara. In 2014, Park ran against former council member Dominic Caserta. In the course of the campaign, Park says his yard signs were regularly stolen.
On one occasion, Park saw the culprits, who, he said, were driving Caserta’s car and appear to be Caserta’s high school students. Parks also filed a complaint about signs stolen from one of his neighbors’ yards.
“I called Shanks and told him about it,” said Park, “and he said, ‘we’ll talk about it later.’”
That was the last Park heard about the issue from Shanks, despite emailing Shanks repeatedly.*
Park was taken aback when Shanks announced at the Last Word forum that “there were no ethics complaints” and ended the session before anyone had the opportunity to speak.
“We never actually had an airing of what had gone on,” said Park. “Why would we pay anyone $20,000 a year for this ethics program?”
Park complained about Shanks to the person who hired him, Rod Diridon Jr., and the next year Santa Clara had a new consultant running the Last Word forums.
Council Member Karen Hardy remembers Shanks from her first campaign for City Council in 2004 and says his impact came down to feel-good activities.
“He was big on giving out glass hearts and saying, ‘let’s be our best selves,’” Hardy said. “We paid for exactly what from him?”
Shanks was working in Santa Clara in 2010, but no public record can be found from that time showing that he thought the 49ers’ $5 million in campaign ads to build Levi’s Stadium (Measure J) caused an “egregious lapse in ethics,” as he describes the team’s more recent independent expenditures.
Also, when he was getting paid by elected officials, Shanks didn’t think there was a major difference between independent expenditures and direct donations. In recent writings, he believes there is.
Referring to a hit piece that went out the weekend before the 2002 election attacking mayoral candidate John McLemore, sent by two supporters of McLemore’s opponent Patricia Mahan, Shanks told the Mercury “that the candidates had promised not to send last-minute campaign literature attacking one another.
“But third parties did not promise,” he said. “Third-party mailers are almost always a problem because the candidates have so little control over them.”
But now he seems to have changed his tune and wants to hold those candidates responsible.
Current Conduct and Reassessment
“Lately, he’s been going against everything he used to say 10, 20 years ago,” said Kolstad. “To berate council members for meeting with the 49ers when what you need to resolve a dispute is to talk makes no sense.”
Talking things out, Kolstad said, was what Shanks used to encourage.
“Finding out what people think and want, that’s not wrong. That’s a good thing,” said Kolstad.
“When Related approached the City about developing the golf course we met with them,” Kolstad continued. “You have to gather all the data you can before you can cast your vote. You’re obligated to do that.”
Mahan says she was “beyond surprised” and “shocked” at Shanks’ editorial.
“I thought it was biased and unfair,” she said. “I thought it was unethical and wondered, ‘Why did he write it?’ I don’t think he just decided to weigh in out of the blue.”
After hearing that Shanks now shares a podcast Vartan, Mahan said, “Now it’s very clear who is behind it: the mayor’s special advisor.”
Tom Shanks’ Santa Clara contracts and payments can be found in public records request 22-1124, at santaclara.nextrequest.com.
*Kolstad is referring to a campaign donation scandal that dovetailed with a landfill cash skimming sandal, as well as a 2002 campaign independent expenditure scandal. 1993 Mercury arno campaign employee paid, 2002 shanks ANTI-MCLEMORE_AD. Former Mayor July Nadler began her career on the city council as a reformer, driving an investigation of favors given to developers in return for campaign donations. [politician as outsider- judy nadler and the santa clara city council] Nadler subsequently became a Markkula Center Fellow.