Dirty business - Page 2

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

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A top city official testified that then-Purchaser Ed Lee improperly approved a city contract with a "fraudulent" company
LUKE THOMAS/FOGCITYJOURNAL.COM

When Herrera was campaigning for city attorney in the November 2001 race, he ran on a platform of cracking down on fraud and corruption. The DBI case began as a triumphant delivery of that campaign promise.

In 2003, following a yearlong investigation by a Public Integrity Task Force that Herrera had convened, a corrupt DBI official named Marcus Armstrong got busted by the feds. He'd allegedly falsified the qualifications on his resume and set up shell companies to funnel money out of city coffers for his own personal gain. He pleaded guilty to corruption charges brought by the U.S. Attorney, and spent time in prison for cheating the city out of about $500,000.

Herrera brought a civil suit against Armstrong and a DBI contractor, Government Computer Sales, Inc. (GCSI), which allegedly partnered with Armstrong in a kickback scheme. Questions surrounded GCSI from the start. It only gained certification as a city contractor after being rejected multiple times by city staff as unqualified. Deborah Vincent-James, who directed the city's Committee on Information Technology (COIT) at the time and has since died, testified in a 2008 deposition that GCSI was "fraudulent" and got the contract only because of ties to Mayor Brown.

Herrera hit a stumbling block when he amended the complaint to name Cobra Solutions and its management company, TeleCon Ltd., as another city contractor in on Armstrong's kickback scheme. (Debra Brady was president of TeleCon, which predated Cobra. Although the Bradys insist the two entities were separate, Herrera named TeleCon in the suit as an alter ego of Cobra.)

Cobra struck back, claiming the City Attorney's Office wasn't entitled to file suit against the company because Herrera's old firm had represented Brady. Herrera told us the whole thing came about "because of the 18 minutes that I billed to work for Cobra."

Herrera's office initially denied any conflict of interest. "Immediately upon discovery of Cobra's role, the office screened Herrera off from further involvement in the investigation and all matters related to it in accordance with a stringent ethical screening policy Herrera established when he took office," according to a statement issued by the City Attorney's Office.

But the Supreme Court disagreed in a 2006 ruling. "The possibility that the City Attorney's former client might be prosecuted for civil fraud by the City Attorney's office may test public faith in the integrity of the judicial system," the ruling stated, "raising the specter of perceptions that the former client will be treated more leniently because of its connections, or more harshly because of leaked confidences."

 

COBRA'S CASH

The city's lawsuit alleged that Cobra paid Armstrong about $240,000 in bribes in exchange for $2.4 million worth of business with DBI from April 1999 through 2000. The allegation was based on checks Cobra sent to Monarch Enterprises, which the city said was an Armstrong front. The investigation found that GCSI paid Armstrong about 10 percent of the contract amount in a similar fashion.

"Armstrong used these and all other funds received from Cobra for his personal benefit and gain," the suit claimed. The complaint also charges, "Cobra ... knew that Monarch enterprises was wholly owned and controlled by Armstrong, and that any payment made by Cobra was in fact a payment to Armstrong."

But Cobra's suit claims an FBI investigation into Cobra's involvement found no wrongdoing. Additionally, "We turned all of our records over to the U.S. Attorney," Leigh noted, and that didn't lead to a criminal prosecution.

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