Friday, March 5, 2021
News + Politics Are SF departments 'corruption resilient?'

Are SF departments ‘corruption resilient?’

Despite assurances from the Controller's Office today, it sure doesn't look that way.

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Most of what the City Controller’s Office told the supervisors today was that the system to avoid political corruption at the airport worked, and that other basic oversight rules could help prevent future corruption at departments like Public Works and the Public Utilities Commission.

In fact, the controller reported, the attempts to bribe an airport commissioner failed – and would have failed anyway – because one commissioner can’t have any impact on contract decisions.

Sup. Rafael Mandelman noted in the hearing that the airport seems to be “corruption resilient” – independent employees evaluate contracts and decide who gets them, and the commissioners don’t even know who has applied.

Sounds wonderful. Except that it’s hard to believe it’s entirely true.

As Sup. Dean Preston pointed out, the people involved in this operation were pretty sophisticated about the workings of the city. And the evidence in the FBI wiretaps clearly indicates that some of the airport commissioners have close ties to some private businesses that win contracts; in fact, the commissioner later identified as Linda Crayton says on tape, referring to a different contract:

“Oh, they cooked it outside, I know that they did.”

Preston noted that the Controller’s Office is assuming that “there was no ability for the commissioner to deliver” on the alleged bribe.

“I am having trouble squaring that with the actors and the complaint,” he said. “The findings are that they were attempting to bribe someone with no power to do anything. It’s hard to accept on its face. It doesn’t add up.”

That’s correct. Commissioners are supposed to stay out of the day-to-day operations of their departments, but everyone who has watched City Hall closely knows that’s not how it works. If you’re a member of a powerful commission, and you have the support of the mayor (which these airport commissioners clearly did) then you can make a call to the director (who works for you) and ask for favors.

It happens all the time. It’s one reason people want to be on these commissions. Sometimes it’s pretty innocent – hey, director, can you get my daughter’s boyfriend a summer job? Sometimes it’s more nefarious – hey, director, can you make sure this company gets a fair deal on the contract bids?

And the department heads know what that means.

Now: Do you suppose if a department head gets a call from a commissioner close to the mayor and then calls the Mayor’s Office to complain about improper influence, anything is going to happen?

Not under the succession of mayors who have allowed, if not encouraged, this to happen.

“What is the oversight of how that would come to light?” Preston asked. The answer: Someone would have to call the whistleblower hotline and report it.

Who’s going to do that? The department head, who has a great, high-paying job? The other commissioners, who are all (in many cases) also appointed by the mayor?

Mandelman asked if there was any way to fix the problems at DPW, which is clearly not “corruption resilient” – other than “don’t hire corrupt department heads.”

That’s a good solution. There’s a better one: Make it clear that the Mayor’s Office doesn’t tolerate any of this, from anyone, at any time. Change the entire culture of corruption that has permeated City Hall at least since the days of Mayor Willie Brown.

It’s not happening yet: So far, I have not seen any move by Mayor Breed to fire all the airport commissioners who routinely violate the Brown Act by lining up votes in advance of meetings.

That would be a start.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

7 COMMENTS

  1. The first step towards making departments transparent enough so as to give corruption no quarter is to get rid of City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Controller Ben Rosenfield, the allegedly “responsible adults” in the room, on whose overseeing watch their clients and government felt free to pursue their corruption schemes.

    Why hasn’t Herrera been disbarred for offering authoritative legal counsel to an ongoing criminal conspiracy?

  2. Where are the investigations into allegations that tie at least one SFMTA Board director to contracts involving the Central Subway tunnel and the plans for the Bay Bridge bike lane? Have any of those contracts been investigated yet, or has anyone bothered to question why there was no voluntary recusal to participate in those matters when they came before the board? The Central Subway tunnel has been one of the l worst managed, if one can pick one, SFMTA capital projects since passage of Prop E turned SFMTA loose to wreck havoc on the city. SFMTA created a monster and now they are charging us to feed it.

  3. We have heard a lot of reports, statements, and comments from our city attorney’s office delineating the various laws, statues and ordinances that describe the power the our various government authorities, agencies, departments, and staff have under multiple situations. What we have not heard is where the power of the people lies.

    SF residents and businesses have paid for investigations into massive government fraud and corruption. We have every reason to believe that major crimes are being committed against the citizens, yet their role in SF’s legal protection system has not been addressed. Where is the public advocate for the people’s voice in all of this?

    When we show up to appeal any city action we are forced to hire our own attorneys. The city attorneys that we pay for work against us. We are forced to pay fees to appeal city actions and hire our own attorneys to defend our positions.

    As the city is reducing or eliminating fees for developers, some businesses and some residents, perhaps our representativesmay consider reducing or removing fees for the citizens filing appeals during this emergency. The city might even consider how it might address the need for citizen advocates among its legal staff. And our city authorities may consider informing us who among its employees is the best advocate for the citizens of the city.

  4. SFPUC hires under the rubric GC/CM, and it hires those that do the work. It does this through a program manager, a firm one sees plenty of; its contract will be extended and upped, often a number of times. It’s a way to work with allies, friendlies, lunch buddies. Work used to be let the the lowest competitive bidder, which assured the public of best use of public funds; no more. Then there’s the increasing use of “community benefits,” which are required under the contracts, and which amount to a slush fund for top brass to steer to their favorites. Sure, this small time corruption needs to end. But let’s not stop there. Public money is wasted shamelessly. The largest contract on the water program’s list overran by way over 100%, so the contractor was able to do most of his work on “time and material.” What a sweet deal! Watch the biosolids digesters project (SSIP); that one is likely to overrun big.

  5. Anyone besides me wonder a lot about the Recreation and Parks Department? Seems they are pretty much free to do what they want, with a lot of money. SF has a lot of nice parks and playgrounds, but to what extent do those nice products mollify us at least enough so we don’t look too closely at what goes on behind closed door? There are both broad general issues with how they operate financially and more specific oddities in the decisions that get passed down.

    I at least find it interesting that Rec and Park (including the commission) are utterly disinterested in being forthright about design and safety issues. When pressed about a failure to comply with certain playground requirements as developed and published by ASTM International (American Society for Testing and Materials) and codified in California law in the Health and Safety Code, Phil Ginsburg simply said (paraphrase): We decided that law does not apply here. In order to make their case, Rec and Park hired a certified playground safety inspector who told me without prompting that he has signed off on at least one playground whose ASTM-compliant design was altered because of concerns about esthetics.

    It is also interesting to note that Bauman Landscape is shall we say overrepresented in Rec and Park contracts.

  6. The corruption is certainly resilient.

    One just has to look at Joanne Hoeper, who blew the whistle on corruption while in the City Attorney’s office. Dennis Herrera fired her in retaliation, then spent millions on high-priced outside lawyers to save his backside, in vain (far more than the actual corruption he was protecting cost SF taxpayers, in fact). Why isn’t Herrera rotting in jail instead of saddling us with the cost of his botched cover-up?

    Also, “ hey, director, can you get my daughter’s boyfriend a summer job?” is not “innocent”, it’s pretty much a textbook definition of nepotism.

    You need an independent agency with prosecutorial powers, and some sort of reward for whistleblowers. The DA is supposed to fill this role, but none of the successive DAs has shown any interest in this. Ultimately SF voters are responsible for this by tolerating corruption. There is no way I am voting for London Breed in the next election given her dealings with Nuru.

  7. The Supervisors ( as well as the FBI ) should take a look at the Dept of Technology and the apparent corruption occurring around the open source election system project. Microsoft showed up to close the project down after initial funding. It appears business interests disassembled the effort toward securing CA and U.S. voting systems.

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