Conflicted Chron buries the lead in city corruption case

Mayor Ed Lee arrives at court for a city corruption case in which he is a witness.
Luke Thomas/Fog City Journal

UPDATE 2/15: READ OUR CURRENT STORY ON THE CASE HERE. The San Francisco Chronicle's Matier and Ross love to poke snarky fun at progressives such as Matt Gonzalez, as they did again today when they wrote about his work on the Cobra Solutions vs. San Francisco case, for the second time. But they waited until the last paragraph in this second-to-last item in their column to reveal the real news: Mayor Ed Lee was deposed in the case last week and may be called as a witness.

Wow, talk about burying the lead. Here you have a sitting mayor implicated in a major corruption scandal – acting on orders from then-Mayor Willie Brown, who last year helped elevate Lee into Room 200 (and who just happens to write a weekly column for the Chronicle) – in a case that could cost city taxpayers $16 million.

The Chron hasn't really covered the substance of the case, but Guardian readers may remember our investigative report on it last year. That's when we unearthed evidence that Ed Lee, who was the city purchaser at the time, approved a fraudulent city contract – overruling city staff in the process – allegedly on orders from Brown.

It's a complicated case and a long story well worth reading, but essentially it involves a company called Government Computer Sales Inc. (GCSI) that had ties to Brown. It's accused of improperly getting a multi-million-dollar city contract with Lee's help and then soliciting kickbacks from its subcontractors, including Cobra Solutions.

Cobra claims it didn't know payments to GCSI were kickbacks and that it was damaged by the accusations and being frozen out of its city work by the City Attorney's Office (under Dennis Herrera, who has his own interesting conflicts in the case). Also implicated in the case are SFPUC Director (and then-Controller) Ed Harrington; Monique Zmuda, still a top official in the Controller's Office; and Steve Kawa, the chief-of-staff for Lee, Brown, and Gavin Newsom, and a powerful player at City Hall.

In a deposition, a city computer operations manager named Deborah Vincent-James testified that she and other city staffers knew GCSI was a fraudulent company, but that they were placed in the Computer Store (a list of qualified city contractors) to do work for the Department of Building Inspection on orders from above: "[Lee] was directed by the Mayor's Office and told to do an evaluation process. They evaluated them. They were put in the store."

UPDATE 2/7: Mayor Lee took the witness stand in court yesterday, where he was questioned by attorney Whitney Leigh about overruling staff to certify GCSI, which the City Attorney's Office has deemed a fraudulent company that has since left town and evaded justice. More on what he said later.


Sue, as I mentioned, there's been a media circus around the Mirkarimi case. In that kind of climate, we've opted to cover it online so we can stay up with rapidly unfolding events and not run dated stories in the paper. And until we gain a better understanding of exactly what happened -- which probably won't happen until the trial -- it's difficult to offer a big picture takeaway, which is what we would use space in the paper for. But rest assured, we'll get there.

Posted by steven on Feb. 08, 2012 @ 11:55 am

Your reporting on Mirk has been biased towards his favor but the reporting has been detailed, factually accurate and better than the Chron (which is a low bar!)...

Posted by Guest on Feb. 08, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

La Casa de las Madres has come up with the cash for a new billboard that will be displayed near the Hall of Justice on Wednesday. The sign says "Domestic Violence is NEVER a private matter." Of course, this is in reference to Mirkarimi's statement that an alleged act of domestic violence against his wife is "a private matter, a family matter."

Similarly, Matt Gonzalez seems to want to hush up a matter that is clearly in the public interest (certainly, it's in the interest of SF taxpayers). One sentence in particular leapt out at me from his letter protesting the article by Matier & Ross in the Chron: "Whether my participation in the civil trial is a breach of office policy, which I believe it is not, is his (Jeff Adachi's) decision alone, not that of political columnists."

What is it with these guys?? I think it speaks volumes about how men in power really think and operate.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 12, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

Will they ever stop jammin wit Matt and Jeff? From today's Chron:

"Ethics confidential: San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi finds himself in an interesting position in the Matt Gonzalez lawsuit affair."

"Adachi, in effect, is the chief investigator, judge and jury in determining whether his good friend and chief assistant violated conflict-of-interest guidelines when - with Adachi's blessing - Gonzalez helped an outside corporate client sue the city for $16 million."

"And now Adachi is heading the in-house investigation to see if there was a conflict when Gonzalez expanded his role to that of full counsel in the case."

'"First we do an initial investigation," Adachi said. "If it is determined that there was a possible violation, the matter is then referred to the department head for a decision."'

"And it turns out all those steps will be done by Adachi himself - who is, of course, the department head."

Posted by Guest on Feb. 08, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

maybe he should have listened to Ralph:

"The rationalization of illegality is endless. If there is a dictionary of antonyms to the word 'infinity', one of the examples would be the ability of members of the legal profession to rationalize illegality from A to Z."

~Ralph Nader in a speech to the Harvard Law School Forum on Feb. 8, 2012

Posted by Guest on Feb. 13, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

Let me get this straight. SF taxpayers got screwed out of $500,000 through the DBI kickback scheme, and taxpayers will be on the hook for another $16 million or 32 times that amount, if Gonzalez wins his case. With his boss's blessing (Jeff 'the maverick' Adachi who campaigned to "save our city" from financial ruin).

Meanwhile, GCSI's assets, officers and staff have all flown the coup, except for Robert Fowler who has surfaced in Alaska as the head of a natural gas company. Yet, no city official, other than Armstrong, has done, or will ever do a lick of time for his involvement in this scheme, because, as you note, Steven, the statute of limitations has run out.

So, what does this mean? Willie Brown, Ed Lee, and Ed Harrington will continue to prosper, while SF taxpayers suffer the brunt of the the cuts resulting from this suit. How will this affect SF schools, libraries, health care delivery and other vital services?

In short, none of the principal players in this melodrama that Whitney Lee called "a Shakespearean tragedy combined with a cartoon combined with a soap opera" will suffer the consequences. Yet, we are supposed to feel grateful for "the knowledge" -- for something we already knew,. namely that corruption was rife under the Brown administration.

Sorry to break this to you, but these corrupt practices didn't just happen under the Brown's watch. Pay-to-play politics is the way business is done in this town. Until we start cracking down by changing the laws and filing CRIMINAL charges against the folks who engage in such practices, it will be business as usual.

Posted by Lisa on Feb. 09, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

just realized that I spelled his name wrong (on reading Ann Garrison's comment). mea culpa...always was a 'creative speller'.

Posted by Lisa on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

@Steve Jones: I understand you want the Chron to do some better reporting. I alled Luke Thomas and tried to get to the essence of the issue regarding the mayor and the former mayor on Satuday for KPFA:

But, is there something you'd like to see happen in response to this, other than better reporting by the Chron? Do you know whether Lee and Brown are free from fear prosecution because of a statute of limitations? Lee did appear in court with a lawyer, for one reason or other, to testify that he couldn't remember GCSI.

Of course Brown would be subject to prosecution only if a public prosecutor thought they could prove that either benefitted from what was otherwise a dumb ass mistake, but not illegal.

It's close to impossible to imagine that Brown and Lee would go so far out of their way to override staff and certify a fraudulent contractor with no benefit in sight, and there was certainly no benefit to the city in sight. But any benefit to Brown and Lee, e.g. campaign contributions, consulting fees, charitable donations, whatever, would be very difficult to trace, especially at such a late date.

Posted by Guest Ann Garrison on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

What if some other whistleblower(s) comes forth or new evidence pops up proving that Brown and Lee not only benefitted, but colluded to cover this up? (note: I'm not saying they did necessarily.) Could this lead to new charges? From what I hear, Brown was always very careful not to leave a paper trail.

Posted by Lisa on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

Brown or Lee have done anything illegal, or even unethical. Essentially this is a fishing expedition which so far has turned up nothing, yet you and the SFBG constantly hype it up.

And of course, if it were Avalos under investigation, you'd be as quiet as a dormouse. As you have been re Mirk.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

Whoever you are, give me a break. When even the Chronicle is calling Brown's administration out for its corruption, you know that something is 'rotten in the state of Denmark' (or SF, in this case)~

"...among the 3,000 supporters who packed Yerba Buena Gardens for his January 1996 inauguration were some whose dreams were far more personal.

"They were lawyers, lobbyists, campaign donors and political players -- Brown's "juice clientele," as one state legislator described them at the time - - the mayor's cronies, as they came to be known.

"These insiders would form the core of Willie Brown Inc., a Sacramento-style political machine in which influence with the mayor has been the trump card in quests for hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts, land deals, favorable regulatory rulings and jobs.

"It's a dynamic that has sparked a public corruption investigation by the FBI and U.S. attorney's office, triggered a voter backlash during the recent Board of Supervisors elections, and prompted a new call for charter changes to limit the mayor's authority."

Read more:"

Posted by Lisa on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

Did he do something wrong 10 or 15 years ago?


Does anyone care?


You're chasing shadows.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

I haven't looked at this site in days. For what it's worth, I think corruption is pernicious, it's rampant among Brown and his cronies (of which our mayor is one), and it should be aggressively investigated and prosecuted.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

Even Eric Brooks has gone anonymous or has given up.

And now Greg is a byword for pathos.

Life is hard in the left lane.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

fortunately, it's easy to tell him apart from the usual trolls (you're not even clever enough to imitate his style). and btw, don't you have any better way of occupying your time than harassing other people? just asking.

Posted by Lisa on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 7:08 pm
Posted by Tertullian kzak on Apr. 15, 2013 @ 10:51 pm
Posted by Tertullian kzak on Apr. 15, 2013 @ 10:53 pm

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