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City workers accused of outrageous spending

July 2, 2010 7:23:55 PM PDT
An elite group of San Francisco electricians was apparently living extravagant lifestyles at taxpayers' expense. That is according to a criminal complaint filed by the San Francisco distict attorney. The alleged details are contained in court records obtained by our media partners at California Watch, an independent, non-partisan project of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley.

From a Treasure Island building, five electricians are accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from taxpayers over several years, spending time with prostitutes while on city time and billing the city for their own home remodeling.

"Court records filed since these individuals were arrested paint a really interesting and alarming picture of what unsupervised public employees can do," said California Watch reporter Lance Williams.

Williams poured over legal documents and uncovered a never before published affidavit from the district attorney's office. It outlines the abuse by the Hetch Hetchy Power Crew, an elite team of electricians who respond in emergencies.

"You've got a crew of highly paid, highly skilled electricians with not much to do because they are mostly responding to emergencies posted over on Treasure Island, just stealing the city of San Francisco blind," said Williams.

The crew was arrested last year when a whistleblower reported that crew leader, Donnie Alan Thomas, was working on another job on city time. Court documents claim he was using city tools for his own company, billing city vendors for supplies and then pocketing the money made.

Two women who worked for city suppliers have also been charged with creating fake invoices for the crew. They have also pleaded not guilty.

The five men accused are awaiting trial on felony charges. All of them have pleaded not guilty and would not talk about the charges.

An attorney for Miles Bonner told California Watch that Bonner "has never been in trouble" and has been "completely cooperative and forthcoming" with the investigation.

But the court documents tell another story.

"The list of stuff, well, it's pretty long," said Williams.

Investigators say the accused billed taxpayers for car parts, bar stools, and even meat for their barbeque. While at work, they partied hard.

"Booking prostitutes into a playpen they built for themselves on company property," said Williams.

A specially built room in their office was stocked with liquor, porn, Viagra and condoms.

Court documents show the crew spent thousands in city funds to remodel and landscape Thomas' homes in Martinez and Blackhawk. Records show they purchased chandeliers, fountains, and even a heating and air conditioning system.

The crew is also accused of working for other government agencies on city time. They are accused of bribing a Presidio employee, trading envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars in cash for thousands of dollars of side jobs.

"The problem was time on their hands and obviously saw an opportunity to enrich themselves and just decided to go for it," said Williams.

"I have never seen collusion like that in my years in the city of San Francisco," said Ed Harrington, general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. "We've had one or two dishonest people in different places, but a whole crew in collusion with outside vendors is really pretty unusual, and you can hide quite a bit."

The San Francisco PUC oversaw the Hetch Hetchy Power Crew. Harrington says they have made changes to keep such abuse from happening again.

"We've gone through the approval process for every single person in the organization and made sure that nobody has more approval than they should have," he said.

The San Francisco PUC has pulled the electrical crew from Treasure Island so it can be supervised more closely. Harrington says the case is now in the hands of the district attorney. He hopes those who took the money will be forced to pay the city back.

"We would certainly hope that we would get restitution of a vast majority of the money," said Harrington. "They did wrong, they should pay for it."

If convicted, the most serious offenders are looking at as many as 21 years in jail.

You can read the full report online at CaliforniaWatch.org or in this Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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