Newsom criticized for personal use of city SUV

November 20, 2008 7:15:13 PM PST
Compared to all recent San Francisco mayors, Gavin Newsom has used the most police escorts. But are they for security or for show? That is the question tax watchdogs, city supervisors and at least one former mayor are asking.

We wanted to find out how the mayor is using his police escorts and his state of the art hybrid SUV, purchased with tax dollars. Is it appropriate for Newsom to use it for personal use?

This story began with a tip from inside the police department that an officer drove Mayor Newsom's new $58,000 hybrid SUV with its police lights, radios, and satellite TV, all the way to Montana for his wedding this summer. Several top brass told us, "No way -- it couldn't have happened."

However, expense reports and time sheets obtained by the I-Team under the Sunshine Ordinance show it did.

"It sounds like it's really the mayor's ego, the mayor wanting to show off his fancy new ride at his wedding," said Jamie Court who heads the taxpayer group Consumer Watchdog.

An inspector from the police Special Investigations Division made the 1,000-mile journey to Bitterroot Springs Ranch in the mayor's SUV. It took him three days. The mayor took a private jet with another officer.

If you add up the hotel bills for the police escort, their meals, regular pay, overtime, and gas on a city credit card, the tab climbs to more than $15,000.

"Having city employees drive your souped-up vehicle without you in it thousands of miles is excessive, wasteful and I think it's something that the mayor should regret and apologize for," said Court.

The city could have saved some money by leaving the mayor's SUV at home.

"We've got pickup trucks -- right now those are a hit because hunting season's here," said Ernie Gawryluk who runs a Missoula car rental agency. He would have rented the mayor an SUV for about $400 a week.

"Hands down, he certainly could have saved a lot of money by renting from us versus using his own vehicle," said Gawryluk.

This is not something Mayor Newsom wants to discuss. He refuses to sit down with the I-Team on any topic, so we waited for him to arrive at City Hall this past Monday. The SUV pulls up, an officer opens the door, they spot me and our camera, and drive away.

Mayor Newsom is drawing criticism for using the city-owned SUV at his wedding from the board of supervisors.

"The mayor and anybody in public office who says, 'I want to do something that's 101 percent personal should say, ''I'll pay for it out of my pocket,'" said San Francisco Supervisor Jake McGoldrick.

The mayor's spokesman, Nathan Ballard, also declined to be interviewed on camera, but told us by phone the police department alone decided to send the security detail and the SUV to the wedding.

We wanted to interview Chief Heather Fong, but she also refused to sit down with us. So, we caught up with her at a recent conference.

Noyes: "Was that really a good use of tax dollars to send the mayor's SUV all the way to his wedding in Montana?"

Fong: "The department is responsible for insuring his safety and we assess threat potentials based on information we have and then we make decisions."

The chief would not discuss the threat Mayor Newsom faced out on the private ranch in the remote Bitterroot Valley.

Noyes: "Was there a threat in Montana?"

Fong: "That is a threat assessment that was conducted by our Special Investigations Division."

Noyes: "What threat was there in Montana?"

Fong: "It's not appropriate to share the threat."

Chief Fong did not even share what threat there might have been with local law enforcement in Montana.

"We had no contact from San Francisco Police," said Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman.

Sheriff Hoffman says the SFPD has no jurisdiction in Montana and that it would have been up to his officers to handle any problems at the ranch.

"That's what concerns me here. If indeed there was a threat that potentially could have followed the mayor and his party to my county, I certainly would have appreciated a call," said Sheriff Hoffman.

All this begs the question, just how often is Mayor Newsom using police escorts and how does that compare to past San Francisco mayors?

"And as I started to turn, the guy fired into my chest twice," explained Art Agnos who was mayor of San Francisco from 1988-1992.

When he was a community activist in 1973, Agnos was shot on Potrero Hill. It was part of the zebra murders crime wave. Even with that history, Agnos says he rarely used police escorts when he became mayor.

"It is tempting to have the trappings of power, among them being security forces and an entourage," said Agnos. "I couldn't afford it. There were tough times, I had a city to put back together after an earthquake and I couldn't afford those kinds of celebrity trappings."

Mayor Agnos says he never used police escorts on trips to Los Angeles.

For comparison, one week after his wedding, Mayor Newsom was at a Malibu Starbucks with his new wife and political consultant Garry South, discussing a possible run for governor. It was caught on tape by Zuma Dogg, a local activist and entertainer.

Dogg (from videotape): "The feds are going to have to get involved, will you please do something, future governor, please?"

Along with Mayor Newsom, two different San Francisco police officers and a rented Yukon XL -- no hybrid this time -- parked in the red zone.

Dogg (from videotape): "Excuse me, it's Zuma Dogg from the scene of the crime where you got the San Francisco mayor, y'all he's got his Yukon gas guzzler parked in the fire lane zone, y'all."

After Zuma Dogg raises a fuss, Mayor Newsom's police escort moves the SUV.

Dogg (from videotape): "Thank you so much, Zuma Dogg gets things done."

Supervisor McGoldrick says the mayor should repay the cost of the police escort to his wedding and to his meeting with the consultant in Malibu.

"If it looks like and smells like and walks like and talks like a gubernatorial campaign stop, then the gubernatorial campaign funds should pay for it," said Supervisor McGoldrick.

"I am not prepared to speak about his Los Angeles visit because I'm not familiar with the circumstances to that," said Chief Fong.

Chief Fong did not discuss the Los Angeles trip with us, why the mayor and his security detail rented an SUV there, and why they could not have rented one for Mayor Newsom's wedding in Montana.

"The fact that he's in Los Angeles and he's renting SUVs sure makes it seem like this was all about vanity, ego and show and not about anything to do with the business of being mayor," said Court.

We have had a difficult time getting public documents out of the mayor's office and the SFPD on this topic. Much of the information has been redacted, even which hotels the officers used. We will keep trying.

By the way, you may have heard that the mayor's SUV was sideswiped by a Muni bus three weeks ago. We filed a Sunshine request for the on-board video from the bus of the crash, but the answer? The video somehow got erased.

We are streaming some of the video from the hour after the crash in a new I-Team blog here. You can hear the driver explaining what happened.


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