Dirty business

Lawsuit illuminates corruption and crackdowns in City Hall and implicates top officials. A Guardian special report

A top city official testified that then-Purchaser Ed Lee improperly approved a city contract with a "fraudulent" company


The owner of a certified minority-owned business in San Francisco is suing the city, charging that his telecommunications company went belly up after city officials falsely accused him of participating in a fraudulent kickback scheme within the city's Department of Building Inspection (DBI).

The case and depositions of high-ranking officials offer a rare window into the inner workings of city government at a time when corruption was rife within DBI and regulations governing city contracting were considerably less strict. They also provide a glimpse at how city business was sometimes conducted under the administration of Mayor Willie Brown, a powerful figure who has resurfaced recently in San Francisco politics.

In addition, the case alleges inappropriate behavior by current Mayor Ed Lee when he was the city's purchasing director. One of the depositions includes allegations that Lee, at Brown's direction, approved a city contractor who was utterly unqualified and was later accused of being part of a criminal scam.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit — James Brady, CEO of Cobra Solutions — closed up shop years ago and moved to Sacramento with his wife and business partner, Debra. But he's been locked in an ongoing legal battle against powerful forces in City Hall since 2003, when he claims the city stopped issuing payments to his company, terminated its contract, and declined to award it a new contract on suspicions of bribery.

"They want to make us look like we're Bonnie and Clyde," Brady told the Guardian. "We've never done a thing."

Nancy Fineman, an attorney with the firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, which is representing the city in the case, said the corruption allegations against Cobra still stand and she emphasized, "The city attorney was not involved in doing anything wrong."

In a complaint filed Jan. 7, attorney G. Whitney Leigh — law partner of former Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez — alleges that a host of city officials are responsible for precipitating Brady's financial ruin.

According to Leigh's version of events, Cobra was dragged into an overzealous campaign to hold someone accountable after a contractor the city alleged was corrupt vanished, leaving a number of subcontractors unpaid and the city "with egg on its face."

Leigh subpoenaed Ed Harrington, former city controller and current head of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission; Deputy City Controller Monique Zmuda; former officials from the Office of Contract Administration, and others to testify out of court during discovery. Leigh describes the case as "a Shakespearean tragedy combined with a cartoon combined with a soap opera."

For City Attorney Dennis Herrera, it might be more like a zombie flick. The city attorney is gaining momentum in his campaign for mayor and has taken an early lead in fundraising against his opponents. The Cobra Solutions saga might be one that he — and other top city officials — would rather forget.



Appeals in the case have reached all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled that Herrera had a conflict of interest that should have disqualified his office from suing Cobra. Beginning in September 2000, before he was elected city attorney, Herrera provided legal representation to Cobra while working with a private firm called Kelly, Gill, Sherburne & Herrera.

Due to the disqualification, Herrera could not discuss specifics in the case. But he did offer us a general comment. "I've made it very clear that me and my office are going to have zero tolerance for corruption and individuals who would violate the public trust," he said. "This case, I think, represents that philosophy."