Classic SF

The Unstoppable Quentin Kopp

By Jesse Hamlin

As a member of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, the always opinionated, amusingly acerbic Quentin Kopp can’t comment on city ballot measures or candidates. But he can say whatever he wants about other matters, which the famously crusty lawyer, retired Superior Court judge, former state senator and former city supervisor does with delight in his monthly column, Ruminations of a Former Citizen Supervisor, on westsideobserver.com.

Portrait by Matthew Petty.

“Last month, I mentioned the self-congratulatory dedication of the Transbay Terminal, another San Francisco project years behind schedule and tens of millions of dollars more expensive than represented to taxpayers for over a decade,” Kopp wrote in September, deriding the Terminal Authority for picking up legal fees for the “wealthy builder of the sinking Millennium Tower.”

 “Ineptitude and deceit of taxpayers emblemize this sorry saga,” he concludes, noting that on September 25, “those transportation wastrels closed the bus terminal completely because of cracked beams.”

Kopp relishes the space to ruminate, riffing on everything from Brett Kavanaugh to high-speed rail, with timely references to H.G. Wells, Justice Louis Brandeis and H.L. Mencken. 

Energetic at age 90, Kopp is bearing down on PG&E and skewering Donald Trump Jr. “I’m busy,” he says.

 “It gives me the opportunity to vent,” explains Kopp, sitting in the lounge of the St. Francis Yacht Club, where he’s been a member for about 20 years but hasn’t been on a sailboat in at least 30. “I rarely get a letter to the editor published in the Chronicle.”

A Syracuse native who fell for San Francisco while stationed at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento during the Korean War, Kopp has been a colorful and consequential presence here since 1955, when the Harvard Law School grad took a job at venerable Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro. He didn’t dig corporate law and quit after three years to open his own firm in the historic Mechanics Institute building at 57 Post Street. 

Still vital and feisty at 90, Kopp is an old-school guy who remembers the address of every office and home he ever occupied and dresses in a classic Yankee style. This stormy morning he’s got on a blue blazer, khakis, rep tie, brown wingtips. His daily swim at the Olympic Club or City College keeps him fit. 

Kopp represented the conservative West Portal neighborhood as a city supervisor from 1971 to ’86, losing the 1979 mayoral race to Dianne Feinstein. Now he practices law from a small office in a medical building at 380 West Portal Avenue.

“I’m busy,” says the jurist,whose sardonic, slightly nasal tone suggests Walter Matthau. He reels off clients and nonprofit boards that occupy him.

He’s suing PG&E on behalf of people affected by last year’s Sonoma-
Napa fires, and representing a developer who’s doing a project at Millbrae BART and bidding on another one at the North Concord station. As state senator, Kopp was key to bringing BART to the airport, and he champions high-speed rail. In another lawsuit, a group of Chinese investors claim they were fleeced by “this crook in Florida,” Kopp says. “He raised $100 million, but instead of building the hotels he was supposed to, he used it for himself. I hope we’re going to be signing ’em up this week.”

As president of the Korean War Memorial Foundation, Kopp raised a lot of money for the memorial in The Presidio that was dedicated in 2016. He’s also on the boards of the First Amendment Coalition and the Jewish newspaper J

Holding his tongue about city government — “an $11 billion budget?” is all he’ll say — he speaks of the departure of Governor Jerry Brown, “who was, after all, fiscally disciplined, and who recognized the problem of pensions that will be due and owing, even if he leaves without covering them. I’m not sure Gavin Newsom cares to recognize them, because manifestly he will be running for president next year.”

Kopp has known Newsom forever. The governor-elect’s late father Bill, the poetry-loving retired California Appellate Court judge, officiated Kopp’s wedding to his second and current wife, Mara Sikaters, in their friends Judy and Brayton Wilbur’s Hillsborough backyard.

A grandfather of four, Kopp scored a victory in his recent federal suit seeking Secret Service documents showing how much it cost to protect Donald Trump Jr. on his business trip to India last February. He’s received a series of records. 

“They folded under the Freedom of Information Act,” says Kopp, who brought the suit with Joe Cochett’s firm and is seeking attorney’s fees.

“The records are redacted in large part, but we estimate from the material that’s not redacted that the cost to taxpayers for this strictly Trump Enterprise business trip was $260,000 to $480,000.” 

Unfortunately, he adds, private citizens don’t have standing in such federal cases to sue to get the money back. But the tenacious jurist has other plans. 

“I’d like to have Joe’s firm investigate business trips to Saudi Arabia by Donald Trump Jr.,” he muses. “And maybe by that Jared Kushner, too.”

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