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Tom Shanks: From Ethics Referee to Political Player

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

*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.


  1. Buchser Alum 2 years ago


    Instead of directly addressing any of the criticisms and suggestions that Shanks made you instead write an editorial that insinuates attacks on Shanks from any possible angle you can drudge up no matter how pithy.

    His editorial was clear and had very distinct points of criticism. You could have addressed those points and explained why they were wrong or hypocritical or whatever point you want to make.

    But instead it seems that the point you want to make is to impeach the personal character of Tom Shanks and not even directly but with oblique and weak insinuations and ad hominem attacks and red herrings. It is a good piece of writing to use to show people what it looks like when people resort to logical fallacies to make political attacks instead of using logic and reasoning.

    • Davy L 2 years ago

      Interestingly, I remember reading another article by Tom Shanks, that is similar which repeated the same lies. I’ll just mention one item. He claims Chahal and Hardy need to recuse themselves, simply because of a complaint filed against them. But complaints do not show “guilt”. Especially a complaint from a “fired” employee. I could go on, but what’s the sense. Shanks’s editorial is a fake and a phony. Carolyn, please ignore Buchser’s comment. Your article is very well written and very informative.

  2. ThreesCompany 2 years ago

    Shanks is an embarrassment to the city and to himself, love how the Special advisor for the mayor happened to hear from Shanks wanting to do a podcast. Next thing we will find them having a blog together, they can hook up with the other blogger and become a threesome. Now that would be a juicy SC scandal.

  3. CSC 2 years ago

    • Tom Shanks is dug up from the academic ethics boneyard
    • Civil Grand Jury refuse to interview subjects of their inquiry
    • A court supervised report is leaked either from the elected City Clerk, the appointed Assistant City Clerk, and/or other city employees ahead of formal approval by the presiding judge (violation of California Penal Code 933.05)
    • Police union PAC buys URL in preparation to promote the leaked report
    • Elected police chief constructs letter to District Attorney offering police support to investigate political opponents
    • Neither the Mayor or Police Chief request the Civil Grand Jury or District Attorney investigate violation of CPC 933.05
    If put before an independent and unbiased trier of fact, I believe it’s easy to see the Gillmor Gang lined all this up months ago. In my opinion, neither Gillmor or Nikolai are elected officials seeking accountability, they’re simply looking to use influence of their elected office to snuff out political opponents.
    1. Vote for Becker on or before November 8, 2022
    2. Change city charter to appoint Police Chief and City Clerk
    3. Call on the DA and Superior Court to investigate violation of CPC

    • Davy L 2 years ago

      Tom Shanks is not an ethical person. Here is example. He accuses the 49ers of being involved with our Council’s action in the firing of Brian Doyle and Deanna Santana. Well, everyone is aware innocence before guilt, and it is the one who accuses who needs to present the evidence. Well, to him it is the one being accused (49ers), to prove their innocence. What type of ethical person does that?

  4. Buchser Alum 2 years ago


    I would not be surprised if the grand jury formulation and report process had politics mixed up in it or even a concerted political agenda. This should be investigated and a civil grand jury should not be easily convened and aimed at partisan political goals.

    At the same time a civil grand jury is a rare tool that the public and public officials have to investigate and highlight public corruption when that corruption involves corporate special interests spending massive amounts of money and the officials suspected of improper relations having a majority to reject any investigation of themselves.

    What do you think of all the private meetings that the council bloc has had with the Forty Niners and the lengths they have gone to keep them private and skirt the Brown Act. If they are having high level discussions with the Forty Niners because they oversee the business partnership as the stadium authority then why do they not hold these meetings as the stadium authority?

    If they need to have confidential discussions of sensitive issues they should still include all seven stadium authority members or include nonpolitical city staff such as the city attorney or city manager or even city clerk? Why not have a closed session meeting within the city and stadium process like they did when they discussed and approved the Forty Niners settlement without any public discussion? Why split up a group of five into groups of two and three and waste time with redundant back to back meetings with the same Forty Niners executives to make sure the public is locked out of the meeting and that there will be no public records of what was discussed other than the paltry and general descriptions they self report?

    Do you not feel that this is unacceptably lacking in transparency? If the shoe was on the other foot and Gillmor and four council allies made it a point to keep their meetings private and then got millions of dollars in campaign support from a corporate special interest that they consistently vote in favor of would not you be concerned and want some safeguards instituted against the possibility of corruption and improper influence?

    • Davy L 2 years ago

      If there is an investigation into the Civil Grand Jury and their report, that should also include all the nonsense points their report brought up. Hopefully, that should satisfy you that all these issues you keep bringing up are really of no importance.

    • Davy L 2 years ago

      Rational people see evidence and reach a conclusion. This phony report starts with a conclusion and then seeks to find or make up the evidence in the support for it.

  5. carolyn schuk 2 years ago

    This piece is about Mr. Shanks history with the City of Santa Clara. Please let me know what is factually incorrect. I am only reporting that other people – who had valued Mr. Shank’s services to the city- are “shocked” by his recent activities. I asked Mr. Shanks for his comment, and received no response. We welcome his response to these criticisms.

    • Buchser Alum 2 years ago


      This is an article written to try to paint Shanks in the most negative light you can muster. This is obvious and is to be expected even by those who are happy to read your attack.

      There are valid questions and criticisms to point out about Shanks of course. As there are with anyone but your selectivity shows your bias.

      A fuller picture would also examine some of the valid points he has raised. Anyone who is not purely partisan in opposition to Gillmor would agree at least partially with Shanks and many others that it is improper to have serial private meetings with the Forty Niners with only one side of a council political alliance and nobody else including professional and far more knowledgeable city staff such as the city attorney and manager.

      Anyone who is trying to be fair and reasonable in summarizing Shanks’ editorial would agree that it is troubling and problematic for a corporate special interest to spend over $4,500,000 in a few months on three Santa Clara elections. And that this coupled with the lack of transparency is troubling for any citizen wanting ethical behavior to be a matter of known fact instead of blind trust.

      Your coverage is glaringly one sided and obviously written for political impact. Maybe you are okay with your work being viewed this way but I expect what was the Weekly to have a higher degree of journalistic integrity than an amateurish political blog.

      • Davy L 2 years ago

        I suggest just the exact opposite is true. It is Shanks’ articles that are the most negative. His attacks on our Council Members are unfounded. He makes his accusations without any proof or evidence. How ethical is that? I consider myself to be fair and reasonable and I have no objection to any person or organization to spend their money as they wish. I personally view Carolyn’s coverage as fair in every way. She attempted to contact Shanks before her article was published, but Shanks failed to respond. Personally, from his writings, I would not consider Shanks to be a very ethical person.

        Here are some further words from SCFirst:
        “Further more the so called Ethics professional (Shanks) who called out the so called Five is a sham – he resigned over a cloud of ethics himself. Ask Mr Park more – Park put in many complaints to Shanks who ignored them. I had heard that same story from others who ran in the past, Shanks only favored complaints that came from the Gillmor or Matthews side. It’s laughable that a so called “Advisor to the Mayor” who is a Dough Maker is teamed up with Shanks looking at the “ETHICS” of our city. Shouldn’t we be looking into these shady characters who use “ethics” as excuse to talk up the wonderful job Lisa is doing. Another example of how Lisa manipulates people.”

        • Davy L 2 years ago

          Incidentally, I believe the “Advisor to the Mayor” alias “Dough Maker”, he is referring to is Kirk Vartan.

  6. Just Saying 2 years ago

    Just going to leave this here ……. SHANKS is creepy ….. if you haven’t noticed ….. Just saying ….. he’s not someone with a whole love of Ethics …. Just Saying ….

    • Davy L 2 years ago

      I agree. Every article I’ve read from Tom Shanks has included lies and misinformation.

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