Dirty business - Page 4

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

According to Cobra's complaint, "The city intentionally frustrated payments to Cobra and TeleCon because investigators hastily and incorrectly concluded that the companies had conspired with Armstrong in a GCSI-type scheme to defraud the city."

Fineman, the city's attorney, said she strongly disagrees with "the idea that we just stopped and left them in the lurch," emphasizing that there had been a whole separate legal proceeding arising out of the fact that "Cobra was not paying its subcontractors," in violation of its contract.

The city defended its decision to delay Cobra's payments by pointing to the GCSI scandal, which had left city agencies high and dry. "By the time the City discovered GCSI's fraud and stopped making payments to GCSI, GCSI had already received millions of dollars in city payments that were not then passed on to the subcontractors," a letter from the City Attorney's Office to Brady's attorneys explained. "Once the city started investigating the payments to GCSI that Marcus Armstrong authorized, GCSI's assets, officers and staff disappeared. ... The city has an obligation to its taxpayers to prevent the GCSI scenario from unfolding with regard to Cobra / TeleCon."

Brady insists that because Cobra couldn't get paid, it couldn't pay its subcontractors, or its creditors, either — and the financial holdup triggered a cascade of losses. "I've got IBM, Booz Allen Hamilton, and American Express breathing down on me like a dragon," he said. "Everybody wants to get paid. We owed folks after we couldn't collect our receivables."

The bills were piling up. "We were sinking fast," said Debra Brady, "so we sold our house in El Sobrante."

Brady said he was stunned to learn that Cobra had been named in Herrera's suit.

"I have 37 employees, and I had to go in and tell them. I was all choked up and the phone was ringing, and it was my attorney on the line telling me that the FBI was coming. I could not believe that after everything we had achieved in the last three years, my former attorney was filing a lawsuit against me."

 

CLEARING THEIR NAMES

After filing the complaint against Cobra, the City Attorney's Office called on the company to submit to an audit — but Cobra refused on the basis that Herrera's firm had represented it in the past. "The City Attorney's assumption of the role of auditor seems calculated to exacerbate and expand the existing conflict of interest," Cobra attorney Ethan Balogh wrote in an April 2003 letter. "This problem could easily be solved by allowing an agency other than the City Attorney to conduct the audit."

In a lengthy back-and-forth, Herrera's office responded: "You have never explained why your client, having been caught sending over $240,000 in cash to a San Francisco IT manager who authorized over $2.4 million in payments to Cobra/TeleCon during the period of time which he received those payments, has elected not to immediately ... open its books and records to the city. Instead ... you have raised a host of constantly-shifting objections and arguments as to why the city's demand was inappropriate."

Cobra's lawsuit charges that the City Attorney's Office never informed the Controller's Office that Cobra would have allowed an audit by another party. At the same time, it charges, city attorneys weren't allowing Cobra to communicate with the controller directly, due to the legal dispute.

"The question of who would do the audit and whether or not the City Attorney was doing the audit was not something that I was aware of or certainly had not agreed to," Deputy City Controller Monique Zmuda said during her deposition.

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