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Politics & Policy

SF environment director resigns as city hall corruption scandal claims another top official

Debbie Raphael at the offices of San Francisco’s Department of Environment on Thurs. August 24, 2017. | Getty Images

San Francisco’s top environment official Debbie Raphael has resigned while under investigation for soliciting a $25,000 donation from Recology at the same time she was preparing to award the trash-hauling giant a lucrative contract.

Raphael stepped down Thursday as director of the Department of the Environment, just two days after The Standard first reported on the donation. The payment is being examined as part of a larger investigation into her department by the city attorney and controller.

Raphael is the eighth high-ranking official to resign in the wake of a pay-to-play scandal at City Hall that began two years ago, when federal prosecutors first accused former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru of taking bribes. The scandal has also ensnared two former Recology executives who allegedly bribed Nuru with donations from the firm, resulting in Recology’s admission that it overcharged ratepayers nearly $95 million.

The Standard first reported Raphael’s resignation Thursday morning, and Mayor London Breed confirmed her departure in a statement noting that “issues with the Department have been raised recently by the controller and the city attorney.”

“At this time, new leadership at the department will allow us to continue the important work started under Debbie’s tenure,” Breed said.

Tyrone Jue will serve as acting director of the Department of the Environment. He previously served as assistant deputy general manager at the city’s Public Utilities Commission, and as the mayor’s environmental policy advisor.

Raphael said she planned to retire in her resignation letter Thursday.

“I leave my post with a full heart and a deep appreciation for the privilege of a career in public service,” she wrote. “I am proud of my contributions and that the department’s programs are stronger and more respected, influential, and vibrant than when I arrived.”

Raphael, 62, was appointed to her position in 2014 by the late Mayor Ed Lee. The following year, records show, she emailed former Recology executive Paul Giusti asking him for the $25,000 donation to help pay for two climate awareness events including an Earth Day bus tour. Giusti responded in an email that he believed sponsoring the events would be a “business development opportunity” for Recology. The sponsorship meant Recology executives could ride along on the bus tour with city officials including Lee.

At the same time Recology made its donation, the Department of the Environment was closing out a decade of planning on where San Francisco should dump its garbage. The department chose to award Recology the contract to haul the city’s trash to a landfill owned by the firm in Solano County. Records show that Raphael issued the contract on the same day she signed a grant agreement for her department to begin receiving a pool of funds that included the $25,000 donation from Recology.

Last year, Giusti admitted to conspiring to bribe Nuru in a cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors. He did not respond to a request for comment through his attorney. The other former Recology executive accused of bribing Nuru, John Porter, has not pleaded guilty and is still facing criminal charges.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment previously said the $25,000 donation did not influence Raphael, and she “was never directly part of any active negotiations with Recology over terms.”  The department said it did not have to disclose the donation as a gift because it did not directly receive the sponsorship.

Raphael has previously admitted to inappropriately accepting small gifts and meals from Recology. She refunded portions of the gifts to the firm.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin said he was not surprised to learn about the $25,000 donation at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. He called for a hearing on the department’s contracting processes in response to The Standard’s reporting.

“This is more than deeply disturbing, it really makes me sick,” Peskin said. “I am deeply concerned that it is not close to over.”

The Controller’s Office is due to release a report this month on the findings of its joint investigation with the City Attorney’s Office.