Twelve convicted drug dealers and other major felons have recently been employed by the San Francisco Housing Authority. But are there even more criminals on the public payroll?
By David Pasztor and George Cothran
SF Weekly's findings are the first detailed confirmation of rumors that known drug dealers and violent criminals have found their way onto the Housing Authority payroll.
As part of a massive jobs program begun under the administration of Mayor Willie Brown, the San Francisco Housing Authority has used federal funds to hire at least 12 convicted felons with significant criminal histories that include dealing crack, assaulting police officers, attempting murder, and violating weapons laws, an SF Weekly investigation has found.
Five of the 12 men are still on the public payroll, including a $61,000-a-year painting foreman whom a police source describes as one of the biggest crack dealers in San Francisco. Seven other felons have worked for the agency in temporary jobs but are not on the payroll now.
Through court files and other sources, SF Weekly has confirmed that at least two of the 12 are targets of an ongoing federal investigation into charges that current or former Housing Authority workers are operating drug rings in the city's housing projects. Several of the 12 also have criminal histories linking them to a notorious drug gang that dominated crack and cocaine sales in the housing projects until it was busted up by federal prosecutors eight years ago.
SF Weekly's findings, first published July 15 on the newspaper's Web site, are the first detailed confirmation of rumors, swirling for months, that known drug dealers and violent criminals have found their way onto the Housing Authority payroll.
Ron Sonenshine, the agency's spokesman, contends that those findings are no cause for alarm. "You're talking about an extremely minute portion of the work force," Sonenshine says. The agency employs more than 1,000 people, most of them laborers, painters, and other workmen.
When first informed of the results of the SF Weekly investigation on July 14, Sonenshine asserted that federal law prohibited the Housing Authority from discriminating against job applicants with criminal histories.
"Within this socio-economic level, it is common that some individuals may have had an adversarial relationship with the criminal justice system," Sonenshine wrote in a statement responding to SF Weekly's questions. "Our objective, however, is to assist them to become a productive part of society. It is against federal law to hold against someone any previous criminal justice history with respect to employment."
A week later, after SF Weekly broke the story on its Web site and both the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner reported some of SF Weekly's findings in their July 17 issues, Sonenshine announced that the agency was conducting a thorough review of its hiring practices.
"Please understand that this agency has been neglected for decades," Sonenshine said. "That's no secret. What the task is now, and it is a formidable one, is to conduct a thorough review of all policies, and that includes who we hire, how we hire them, and why we hire people."
Indeed, Alex Sachs, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C., says that nothing in HUD law or federal law in general prohibits housing authorities from looking into criminal backgrounds and using them as criteria for employment.
Any Housing Authority policy changes, however, will take time to formulate and implement. In the meantime, residents of the housing projects who have for years been besieged by crime, violence, and drug dealing might be shocked to learn of some of the neighborhood criminals who have drawn paychecks from the agency.
The 12 felons identified by SF Weekly are not minor miscreants. Most have major and repeated convictions and several are considered by police to be career criminals.
They include Aaron J. Johnson, a convicted cocaine dealer and one-time top lieutenant in the Beasley-Tatum drug gang who now makes an hourly wage that could add up to an annual salary of $61,048 as a painting foreman. Johnson, according to a police source, is one target of the ongoing federal investigation into drug dealing in the projects.
Then there's Robert Newt, who's served prison time for selling drugs, and who until March was a painter making a potential $53,019 a year. Just last Tuesday, Newt was sentenced to two years' probation in yet another drug case, and he has been identified as a target of the federal probe.
There's also Charles L. Tatum Jr., sentenced last Wednesday to 20 years in federal prison for dealing cocaine. He had been on the Housing Authority payroll until last November, and was arrested with 13 kilos of coke while he was supposed to be at work.
The list of other crimes committed by current and former Housing Authority workers runs the gamut of the state's penal code. Collectively, these once or present employees have been caught with massive quantities of drugs and cash, shot their enemies, beaten up their girlfriends, tried to run over police officers, been caught with guns and bombs, and committed a host of other offenses.
During its investigation of Housing Authority employees, SF Weekly spent three months sifting through hundreds of criminal case files in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Alameda counties, comparing court records with a Housing Authority payroll list.
Sonenshine and other sources ultimately confirmed that each of the 12 criminals SF Weekly identified is or has been a Housing Authority employee. There are several dozen additional Housing Authority employees who may have substantive criminal histories. SF Weekly has not yet been able to ensure that the known criminals are one and the same as the Housing Authority employees with identical names.
But the dozen uncovered so far are an impressive lot.
Aaron J. Johnson didn't look on paper to be a hard-core criminal when he was arrested in 1990 with two other co-defendants in a cocaine conspiracy case. He had only one previous conviction, in 1984, for possession with intent to sell marijuana. But according to the United States Attorney's Office, Johnson, then 28, was a deadly felon and a "lieutenant" in a cocaine distribution ring run by James Beasley Jr., a notorious figure in the crack trade in the 1980s. Court papers show that Johnson bought guns and laser sights for the gang and that the guns were used in deadly assaults. As such, Johnson was the gang's enforcer, prosecutors claimed. Johnson was so dangerous he was refused pretrial release, even though his two co-defendants, Clifton Donnie Robinson and Ernie Stansberry, were released on bail.