Furor in the sheriff's union

Ambitious president under fire in lawsuit claiming financial impropriety
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news@sfbg.com

The president of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs' Association, who has made no secret of his larger political ambitions, is fighting a lawsuit by union members who allege that he embezzled money and improperly donated union funds to local campaigns.

The suit seeks to oust David Wong as president and force an audit of the union's financial records.

Captain Johna Pecot, Chief Deputy Thomas Arata, senior deputy Rick Owyang, Lieutenant Stephen Tilton, and deputy Joseph Leake allege in the lawsuit that Wong collected a double salary, used union money to pay his personal mortgage, made numerous unauthorized political contributions, began an outside foundation using the SFDSA's name, and ended an important union affiliation, all in violation of the SFDSA bylaws.

On top of that, they say he led a campaign to kick Pecot and Arata out of the union after the two began requesting to look into the SFDSA finances.

The lawsuit has obvious political implications. Wong is an elected member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee. He challenged incumbent Sheriff Mike Hennessey for the elected post in 2007, and has said that he would consider running again in 2011. Some observers say that Hennessey, who has been in office 28 years, may be ready to retire at the end of this term.

Pecot and Arata are senior officers and close to Hennessey.

Wong's attorney, Larry Murray, says the complaint, filed in federal court Nov. 10th, has "no specific information" about the alleged fraud. He's asked that the case be dismissed. "The Complaint reveals nothing more than a round of an ongoing local dispute between union management and a few disgruntled members whose allegations long ago have been independently investigated and proven without merit," according to Wong's motion.

Wong wouldn't comment to us about the case, although he told Vic Lee of KGO-TV that "This is purely politics, political." But if any of the serious charges stand up in court, it could complicate any future run for office.

"We have not asked for any money in our lawsuit, we have asked that there be accountability and the books be opened," Tilton told us.

WHO PAID WHOM — AND HOW MUCH?

In 2002, the union board approved a plan to pay the salary of a full-time union president, the suit states, and between 2003 and 2005, funds totaling $285,367 were appropriated to pay Wong. However, it states, "in 2003 SFDSA members learned that the sheriff's department was continuing to pay David Wong his regular ... salary." Upon the discovery the board cut his union pay to $24,000 a year, but "the excess funds ... have never been restored to SFDSA," the suit charges.

The exact financial figures would come out in a trial, but at this point, the picture is murky. Susan Fahey, a spokeswoman from the sheriff's department, said that Wong is considered a permanent civil servant and that under the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the DSA, 40 percent of his $86,538.92 salary is paid by the sheriff's department and 60 percent is paid by the SFDSA.

"It's not double salary," Murray said. "There's two employers: one hires him for 40 percent of the time, the other 60 percent."

The lawsuit claims that the union used a rather unusual procedure to compensate Wong. Instead of paying his salary directly to him, it alleges, the union paid the money to the banks that held Wong's mortgage.

A 2004 report on an internal union investigation of the practice, a copy of which was filed with the suit, notes that the plan was a "Creative way to compensate the President of the DSA for the salary difference ...

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