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.