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Politics & Policy

Oligarchs, rubber rooms and secret moonlighters: The Standard’s top investigations of 2022

Photo illustration | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Throughout 2022, journalists at The Standard revealed numerous governance failures that harmed San Francisco and its residents: Mayor London Breed requiring appointees to sign resignation letters before starting their jobs; city employees working six-figure side gigs; the city spending millions on bad cops; a Russian oligarch stashing major money in the Bay Area; and much more.

Here are the 10 investigative stories that rocked San Francisco in 2022.

How a Sanctioned, Putin-Linked Russian Oligarch Planted His Money in SF

Suleyman Kerimov is not a well-known figure in San Francisco, but that didn’t stop him from derailing plans for a homeless shelter in the city

In 2015 and 2016, the Russian oligarch—one of his country’s richest men and, reportedly, a figure close to President Vladimir Putin—invested $28 million in the Bay Area. His money flowed into self-driving car technology Luminar and other startups, but it also went toward the purchase of a defunct Catholic church in the city’s Russian Hill neighborhood. As it turns out, that church was slated to become a homeless shelter until Kerimov’s money entered the picture.

Kerimov would not have been able to invest his money so easily without the help of a coterie of banking and investment professionals who managed his investments. It’s a system that U.S. lawmakers have attempted—and, so far, failed—to rein in.

SFPD Paid $17 Million To Keep Troubled Officers on the Job

After a teenager accused him of doing drugs and having sex with her, San Francisco police officer Rodger Ponce De Leon was stripped of his badge and gun. But he wasn’t fired. Instead, he was sent to the Department Operations Center, where he’s spent six years doing menial clerical jobs while receiving his full, six-figure salary.

He isn’t the only one. The SFPD has repeatedly stashed officers with troubled pasts at the Operations Center, paying them their full salaries and benefits while weighing whether to cut them loose. Some officers spend years in the “rubber room.” The practice has cost the city approximately $17 million since 2016.

Mayor Breed Required Appointees To Sign Undated Resignation Letters

In September, reporting by The Standard on Mayor London Breed’s spat with Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone yielded a surprising finding: The mayor had required a large number of appointees to sign undated resignation letters in advance of starting their jobs. Subsequent reporting by The Standard revealed that 40 appointees had signed the letters. Breed quickly dropped the practice, but it was too late: The news sparked a scandal in City Hall. 

City Attorney David Chiu concluded that demanding the letters was inconsistent with the City Charter and could threaten the independence of the appointees, but did not explicitly violate the law. Despite that, the Board of Supervisors grilled Breed’s chief of staff on the practice, and Supervisor Dean Preston introduced legislation that would explicitly ban it.

Did a $25,000 Donation Help Recology Receive a Lucrative City Contract?

In 2015, Debbie Raphael, then-director of SF’s Department of the Environment, asked waste management company Recology to donate $25,000 to sponsor a series of climate change events featuring the late Mayor Ed Lee. At the time, the department was finalizing plans to grant Recology, which has a monopoly on trash collection in the city, another contract to transport garbage to the city’s dump in Solano County.

In the wake of the corruption scandal that brought down SF Public Works chief Mohammed Nuru, the donation appeared to be another example of the notorious “pay-to-play” politics that has long plagued City Hall. In fact, Raphael solicited the donation from a Recology executive who later pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Nuru. She ultimately resigned from her post

A Recology facility in Bayview | Camille Cohen

Ethics Commission Probes Ex-Supervisor Jane Kim’s Opposition to SoMa Housing Development

From 2011 to 2019, Jane Kim represented San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood on the Board of Supervisors. After leaving office, she advocated against the Stevenson Street housing project in that same district, part of a campaign that led the board to put the development on hold in October. 

But there was a problem. Some felt that Kim should have registered as a lobbyist because she had been paid as a political organizer by the person leading the campaign to block Stevenson: John Elberling, president of Tenants and Owners Development Corporation (TODCO), which owns low-income housing in the neighborhood. After receiving a complaint, San Francisco’s Ethics Commission opened a probe.

Kim denied wrongdoing, telling The Standard that she had opposed the housing development on her own time, not as part of her work for TODCO. 

DA Jenkins Pocketed Six Figures as Consultant for Boudin Recall Nonprofit

When Brooke Jenkins, the woman who would become San Francisco’s district attorney, quit her job as a local prosecutor to serve as spokesperson for the campaign to the recall of her predecessor, Chesa Boudin, she said it was volunteer work. But, in August, newly filed ethics records showed she had received more than $100,000 as a consultant for Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, a nonprofit that shares an address and virtually the same name as the organization behind the district attorney’s recall but is legally a separate entity.

After San Franciscans voted to recall Boudin, Mayor Breed appointed Jenkins to replace him. The discovery of the payments from Neighbors raised questions about the ethics of her involvement in the recall. But those questions ultimately did not threaten her job. In November, she easily won election to the DA’s Office.

Willie Brown Cashes in at Hunters Point

A Willie Brown company got a seven-figure payday from developers at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, but it’s unclear what the former mayor did to earn the money.

The company, called Shipyard Advisors, consisted of Brown and two others. Their assigned job was to smooth things out with government agencies amid hazardous waste cleanup delays. During his 1996-2004 term as mayor, Brown played a central role in advancing the Hunters Point redevelopment plan. And he’s retained a reputation as a rainmaker ever since. But despite payments by developer Five Point Holdings, LLC, of $1.3 million during 2020, and a $100,000 monthly retainer paid out during 2021, the project remains mired in disputes over a flawed effort to clean up radioactive contamination.

Unlicensed Downtown Patrols and the Shooting of a Tenderloin ‘Ambassador’

The shooting of a private patrol worker near City Hall in February led to questions from The Standard about whether his employer was abiding by state laws regulating security guards.

California requires an extensive licensing process for operators of a “private patrol service.” But San Francisco’s most ubiquitous private patrol—vest-wearing employees of government contractor Urban Alchemy seen all over Downtown—have not even applied for licenses.

Licensing laws exist so that guards can be decertified for misconduct. Urban Alchemy denies that its employees do private patrol work—despite the fact that the very San Francisco bureaucrats that have hired the organization describe its work this way, in emails obtained by The Standard.

Unless security companies, their controlling offices, managers and staff are licensed, California has no recourse for removing bad actors from the job, according to Jerry Hill, the former state senator behind California’s security guard law.

“It would be ludicrous not to register a security guard if they are acting in that role,” he told The Standard.

An Urban Alchemy worker on patrol | Camille Cohen/The Standard

300 City Workers With Illegal Side Gigs Exposed

Reporting by The Standard forced 300 city health care workers to acknowledge they worked secret side gigs, following revelations that a top city bureaucrat, Lisa Pratt, earned six figures moonlighting for a city contractor.

Pratt, who oversees health care for city inmates, earned $123,000 per year as medical director for city-funded nonprofit Baker Places on top of her $428,750 city pay.

Department of Public Health workers submitted dual-employment applications only after the department reminded its staff that any outside work had to be officially approved. And the reminder only came after The Standard’s reporting.

“In other words, those 300 were violating the law, never asked for permission and are now asking for forgiveness?” Supervisor Aaron Peskin told The Standard. “Well shit, somebody call the police.”

As Fentanyl Kills Thousands, SF Lacks a Strategy, or Even Basic Information, for Fighting It

San Francisco’s solution for fighting the fentanyl overdose epidemic is largely in the hands of an advocacy group with limited experience in public health that does not keep the kind of information essential for addressing such a crisis.

In March 2021, the Harm Reduction Coalition, which distributes opioid antidotes to users on the city’s behalf, reported that it had stopped asking questions about users’ history with the drug. The idea, according to a memo obtained through a public records request by The Standard, was to streamline the distribution of naloxone (brand name Narcan) and make the process easier for the uninitiated.

The failure to collect that vital data runs contrary to guidelines put out by the National Association of County and City Health Officials, which advises local governments to conduct monitoring and surveillance to collect information guiding “public health investigation and response.”

“There’s no way to make progress without data because you don’t know what the problem is,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of public mental health and population sciences at Stanford University. “If you don’t have that, any coherent strategy would be based on guessing.”