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Politics & Policy

‘They must be stealing’: Equipment goes missing as SF Public Utilities employees moonlight on city time, workers say

Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard
Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard

Harlan Kelly—the indicted former public utilities chief whose alleged misdeeds include benefitting from discounted work on his home—failed to properly address complaints that his own employees were doing side jobs on company time, according to claims in a new whistleblower lawsuit.

When a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) employee in 2020 gave information to Kelly about employees allegedly doing private work while drawing city wages, that employee was harassed, threatened and became the target of racial epithets, according to the lawsuit.

A PUC spokesman told The Standard that the agency would not comment on ongoing litigation. 

Kelly’s attorney told The Standard that the former PUC chief passed the information to a subordinate for investigation, which was the extent of his responsibility. 

But current and former employees of the division, which maintains the system delivering water into homes, told The Standard that misuse of materials, equipment and employee time have long plagued the agency.

The entrance of the SF Water Department headquarters in San Francisco, Calif., on August 16, 2022. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

“I can tell you right now people are robbing that place blind for material goods, they are using things they shouldn't use. There is abuse of overtime,” said James Kibblewhite, a laborer with the City Distribution Division, which installs and maintains the network of pipes and valves delivering water to buildings.

“They were using city vehicles, and parking around the block where you wouldn’t see them. They use stuff off city lots,” said Anthony Travis, a former foreman with the City Distribution Division who says in a legal complaint he was racially harassed by his superiors.

More than a decade ago, a group of PUC electricians was indicted in connection with a scam involving years of stealing from taxpayers by moonlighting on city time and fraudulently billing for equipment. 

Following a series of watchdog audits calling for improvements in the agency’s inventory controls, the agency has hired an outside consultancy to hand-count equipment and match the results with an electronic inventory system. 

The yard behind the SF Water Department headquarters in San Francisco, Calif., on August 16, 2022. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

But the current system does not seem to be configured to root out theft of materials, according to reports reviewed by The Standard. Instead, it appears set up to unearth technical problems such as data entry errors.

The SFPUC, like other agencies, has signed on to the city’s GPS vehicle tracking system, using geo-fencing monitors to prevent workers from straying with city equipment or vehicles. But two city audits have faulted officials for failing to use the system to monitor vehicle and equipment use.

The result is a relaxed oversight environment that allows for misconduct, a half-dozen current and former PUC employees told The Standard.

Travis, for one, said the agency struggles to control equipment misuse. His attorney provided The Standard with a detailed spreadsheet he said came from the city’s GPS tracking system that showed a PUC backhoe stopping at various points along a route on Treasure Island in 2020. 

Documents describe work being done along the trajectory of that backhoe at a housing project managed by a partnership led by the private developer Lennar.

Portrait of Anthony Travis, a former SF Water Dept. Supervisor, who has worked for the city for over 17 years in San Francisco, Calif. on August 16, 2022. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

The Standard sent copies of the documents to the SFPUC requesting comment, and requesting additional records relating to the backhoe incident. The Standard had not received responses by press time.

Travis claims that the equipment was being used for a side job.

“We had to find the backhoe with GPS, and we had to tow it back across the bridge,” he said. 

Brandon Johnson, a laborer with the PUC who left the department in May, recalls eight years ago being assigned to load millions of dollars worth of valves and pipe onto a truck to be sold for scrap.

"What I’m guessing is, they saved that job for me because they figured I was too stupid to know what was going on,” he said. “They were stealing.”