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Ranger Noir: S.F. Park Patrol Run as Money-Making Machine 

Wednesday, Sep 21 2011

Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen.

Mystery stories are generally concerned with who did what, when, and how.

But in this one, about the way government officials have for years covered up apparent waste, fraud, and abuse in the San Francisco Park Patrol, much of the who, what, and when is clear; the question is why.

Why does the head of the Park Patrol division tolerate that Park Ranger supervisor Thomas Tom has a second full-time job with the state of California on top of his $69,786 per year, full-time city post?

Why is it that another Park Patrol officer enjoys impunity as he allegedly skips his rounds and sleeps during his graveyard shift — and then shows up the next day to work overtime? Why does the head of the Park Patrol division not seem to mind that through questionable overtime pay this alleged sleeper doubles his annual $53,000 salary?

And why do San Francisco officials seem to go out of their way to protect the man in charge of Park Patrol, division chief Marcus Santiago?

SF Weekly has discovered evidence that Santiago manipulates overtime assignments and then divvies them up among buddies, saving some plum ones for himself. Last year, Santiago collected more than $85,000 in overtime pay on top of his $67,000 annual salary, averaging more than 70 hours of work per week, 52 weeks per year. He's been doing this year after year.

It's not as if nobody notices.

Santiago has been the target of whistleblower and other complaints.

To cover his tracks during one city inquiry, Santiago allegedly told underlings to backdate overtime paperwork according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.

Another time, Santiago reportedly responded to a request for cell phone records — which might have shown a city investigator whether or not he was lying about overtime — by claiming that he'd dropped his phone in water.

Despite investigating some of these complaints, his boss, Recreation and Parks Operations Manager Dennis Kern has protected Santiago, SF Weekly has found.

Late this summer, following an extensive investigation, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission authorized an internal report documenting the overtime allegations. The report showed evidence of discrimination against employees not in his inner circle and retaliation against complainants. It also affirmed that Santiago misled city officials on his San Francisco employment application in order to cover up that he was fired from the Oakland Police Department on allegations of misappropriating evidence and abusing people in custody. (See the Jun. 23, 2010 SF Weekly column "Reinventing the Past: The head of the park rangers has some explaining to do.")

The City Attorney's Office has negotiated a possible monetary settlement to a lawsuit related to the EEOC complaint. The complaint alleged Santiago pushed out an officer after the employee protested Santiago's handling of overtime. Two other Park Patrol employees have pending complaints before the EEOC alleging similar discrimination.

For park officials, the investigation contained little news. But it did validate complaints they had made to top officials at city agencies including Recreation and Parks, the Civil Service Commission, the Department of Human Resources, and the City Controller's Whistleblower Program.

As of mid-September, Santiago remained an employee in good standing despite the federal government's impending investigation of the two additional federal EEOC complaints. And Recreation and Parks staffers had retained a San Francisco attorney to file a separate class-action suit against the city for tolerating Santiago's behavior.

All that overtime might benefit more than just Santiago's crew. Protecting him seems to validate a system in which the Park Patrol routinely bills event promoters exorbitant rates for rangers who don't always show up. The Recreation and Park Department, under General Manager Phil Ginsburg, hopes to increase total permit fees by millions of dollars this year.

On June 12, 2010, San Francisco's Karim Mayfield knocked out Sergio del Torre in the fifth round of a boxing match at Kezar Pavilion on Stanyan Street. But that wasn't the last scuffle of the day: Afterward, young fans rushed the ring. Promoter Phil di Mauro's security staff quickly calmed things down, but di Mauro wondered, where were the four city Park Rangers he says he'd been required to hire, at a cost of $1,170, to guard the event?

Di Mauro's permit said he'd paid to have four rangers stationed for nine hours. Instead, "Two showed up right at the beginning when we were set up for the parking. Then they were gone," he said.

Marie Duca, office manager for Hard Knox Boxing Promotions, said, "They were worthless. I didn't need them to start with. They talked to each other for a little while, and they were gone."

Park rangers were assigned to guard Kezar Pavilion again in August, this time at a cage-fighting event. The head of the company hired to staff the event's 20-person security team said that in order to get a Recreation and Parks permit, event organizers had to hire Park Patrol officers as guards. Yet the officers made little effort to work with security staff.

"They're not visible. They don't coordinate with anybody. They show up, walk through it, and that's the extent of it," said the event's security supervisor, who didn't want to be named because he has to continue working with Recreation and Parks. "Frankly, it's a waste of money."

Parks Department sources say these weren't mixups. They were examples of a de facto Recreation and Parks policy of charging event organizers steep fees for Park Ranger security coverage, even though the rangers might not show up for the full time allotted, Park officials say.

"I'd say for 75 percent of people who pay for the service, we're not providing it," said one Recreation and Parks official, who asked not to be identified. "People putting on these events are being screwed."

In 2009, Santiago told SF Weekly that he'd built the Park Patrol from a five-officer unit of docents into an organization with 24 positions, and a $2.1 million annual budget, by convincing his superiors his division could generate revenue. All the city had to do was more expansively enforce a requirement requiring organizers of events operating at park facilities to hire Park Rangers, at a typical hourly rate of $65.

Viewing city park facilities as a potential source of revenue made Santiago ahead of his time. In August 2010, Ginsburg put in place what he called "a new model" of park management, based on "revenue management and growth." Division supervisors would be evaluated based on principles of "outcome-based management," which focused on "revenue generation," according to a department PowerPoint presentation. Budget projections reveal that the department plans to increase this year's permit fees income from $2.5 million to $4.5 million.

Some of that money is intended for the department. And some of it winds up in the pockets of Santiago's favorite employees. But what beyond that are the event promoters paying for?

"During these big events, they might have six to 10 rangers on duty per day," one official said. "Of course, nobody checks how many rangers were there. Was it 10 rangers? Or maybe two? Nobody knows, because nobody oversees Marcus Santiago."

Sometimes, rangers will arrive near the beginning of an event and then leave to fulfill other duties. That's because, while event organizers may be charged the overtime rate, Santiago will sometimes fill the slots with straight-time officers, meaning their responsibilities conflict. To cover for this, they will often show up near the end of an event, so that they'll be spotted by promoters once again, according to several department officials who spoke to SF Weekly.

"We used to call it 'ghost bidding,'" one Recreation and Parks supervisor said. "You're supposed to be there, and you're not, and you're getting paid for it."

Hanley Chan is the fit, fast-talking proprietor of HC Solutions Inc., which provides security, private investigations, and government consulting services out of an office at 1355 Fairfax Ave. in Hunters Point. Chan has long been a business associate of Marcus Santiago. At a South Beach cafe, Chan discussed the fact that an EEOC investigator had been scrutinizing the companies and organizations run out of that address.

Chan had been interviewed by a federal investigator responding to a complaint by ex-Park Patrol employee Mike Horan. Horan had alleged that Santiago discriminated against non-Asian employees in the distribution of overtime hours in the Park Patrol. But judging from the recollections of Chan and a dozen others who said they'd been interviewed by the investigator, the inquiry seemed to have veered into a hunt for appearances of public corruption.

Chan said he'd come to believe the investigation was a federal wild goose chase.

"Those guys are so nasty. They somehow got some bogus stuff on Santiago," he said. "If an Asian American tries to hook up a job for one of his friends, that's supposed to be illegal?"

Chan is referring to questions he says the investigator asked about people Chan and Santiago had known who were hired as Park Patrol officers.

Santiago began his association with companies at 1355 Fairfax after working in what 60 Minutes called one of the most corrupt police units in America — and being relived of his duties. From 1985 to 1993, Santiago was an officer and supervisor with the scandal-plagued Oakland Housing Authority Police Department, a security force where officers routinely beat up and stole from suspects, planted drugs, and lied in police reports and at trial. The unit became the target of local and federal investigations. Four officers went to prison.

In 1993, after the Oakland Police Department had taken over the Housing Authority unit, Santiago was fired for excessive use of force and for stealing police evidence. He took a job managing the private security company Bay Area Patrol Division Inc., which operated out of 1355 Fairfax — the address that has housed businesses and organizations associated with Santiago for over a decade. Bay Area Patrol had a contract to provide security for San Francisco public housing projects. In 2000, Santiago got a job with the Park Patrol. In his application, Santiago did not disclose that he'd been fired from the OHAPD, but he did boast of his role as an experienced internal affairs investigator.

During the early 2000s, the Park Patrol was a crew of part-timers turning off soccer-field lights and directing visitors. In 2003, Santiago became head patrol officer. He told SF Weekly during a 2009 interview that he planned to turn the division into something more closely resembling a real police force, with staff, arresting powers, and guns. He hasn't yet obtained the arrest powers or guns, but he's managed to hire plenty of staff.

In 2004 Santiago and Chan launched a nonprofit called the San Francisco Park Ranger Association. They worked to convince the public, and local politicians, of the need to beef up park security with increased staff and policing powers. Chan had been a campaign volunteer for Supervisor Ed Jew, and he was enlisted to help set up meetings between Jew and Santiago.

"They say Ed Jew gave money to the Park Ranger Association," said Chan, who was described on the organization's website as its secretary, political director, and treasurer. "He supported it. I don't think it's illegal to be supporting it."

Why exactly Chan would suggest Jew gave money to the rangers' nonprofit remains a mystery; nonprofits are not required to reveal donors' names. What is well known is that in late 2008 Jew pleaded guilty to extortion and perjury, in connection with a separate matter, and was sentenced to five years in prison.

By that time, Santiago's plan to expand the Park Patrol had gained an even more important supporter: Operations Manager Kern. A former Navy base commander, Kern reportedly liked the idea of bringing greater order to the city's parks. However, Park Patrol division's hiring methods didn't seem to follow city protocol. Santiago apparently brought many staff aboard first as volunteers or provisional employees, and then promoted them to full time — and then gave them profitable overtime. Five such hires came from Bay Area Patrol.

To sources in San Francisco city government, it's not much of a mystery why Park Patrol officer Jose Mitra might be allowed to sleep during his graveyard shift and then turn up for overtime work the next morning.

Mitra gained notoriety in the division when he put black plastic sheeting over the windows at Park Patrol offices, a move some of his fellow employees believe was to hide the fact he was sleeping. According to sources who know of the findings of the federal investigation, Mitra's GPS unit — the NexTel cellphone-radio device that Park Patrol officers had been required to keep on while working — has remained motionless in the sheeting-covered room for hours at a stretch, during Mitra's shifts.

Mitra worked with Santiago at Bay Area Patrol. So it's little surprise he doesn't seem to fear retribution for allegedly sleeping during his shifts, or why he's earned around $50,000 in annual overtime.

Mitra attributed the allegation to "disgruntled" Park Patrol officers. "Did anybody catch me?" he asked when confronted with the allegation. "I never slept. I have caught people sleeping myself. It needs to be proven. If not, I will sue."

People in Recreation and Parks have a harder time explaining the case of Thomas Tom, one of three head park rangers who supervise officers.

Tom was hired by the city in February 2009 at $51,755 per year. But he didn't immediately quit his job as a security officer for Cal Expo, the California state fairgrounds in Sacramento.

Between starting work with the Park Patrol on Feb. 7 until leaving Cal Expo in June, Tom collected $19,231 in full-time state pay. Quitting Cal Expo didn't mean he was dedicating his attention to the Park Patrol, however. In September 2011, he moved into a full-time job with the California State Lottery, earning $54,518 on top of his Parks Patrol salary.

The city bars employees from taking on second jobs that "impair the efficiency or interfere in any way with the full and proper performance of the employee's regular civil service employment."

Tom's co-workers make it pretty clear that his efficiency has been impaired. A half-dozen people in positions to know tell SF Weekly that he is rarely seen at his city job.

One time, Tom asked a ranger via text message to fax him a report.

"Where should I fax it to?" the ranger replied, via text message.

"To me," Tom replied.

"Where?" the ranger asked.

"Headquarters," Tom replied. The ranger was at Park Patrol headquarters.

"We called him the phantom supervisor," said former ranger Jose Chico. "He was on his own program. He'd come in whenever he'd like."

There's even been a whistleblower complaint about Tom's frequent absences. It didn't seem to come to anything, Parks officials said.

Parks workers found it hilarious when Santiago himself was put in charge of the resulting "investigation." Several people told SF Weekly they found it surprising the Human Resources division wouldn't realize what insiders consider obvious: that Santiago covers for Tom.

One worker who participated in the investigation discovered Santiago seemed to be defending Tom's behavior.

"I told the truth about Thomas Tom not coming to work," said the worker. "Santiago's rebuttal to me was, 'What if Tom were out in the field, and you just didn't know he was really working?' My response to that is, 'How am I not going to know whether or not my supervisor is at work?'"

Last year Tom managed to earn $6,919 in Recreation and Parks overtime and special pay for total city pay of $69,786. His full-time city and state jobs together earned him $124,305, government records obtained by SF Weekly show. A Parks spokeswoman said Dennis Kern approved Tom's dual employment.

"The explanation is there is no conflict," said Connie Chan. She added that Tom had begun working part time for the department in February. According to the city controller's office, however, Tom was paid as a full-time employee at least through Aug. 5.

Flagrant moonlighting is not the only peculiar thing about Tom.

In 2001, Tom applied for a job with the San Francisco Sheriff's Department. He was turned down following a background check, the results of which entered the public record when Tom appealed the decision to the Civil Service Commission.

It turned out Tom was fired in 1995 from the Vallejo Police Department for kicking asuspect in the head.

In 1990, Tom and another officer chased a suspect through some houses. According to the Sheriff's report, "They lost the suspect, and they ended up in the suspect's house."

The other officer maced the suspect's bed and closet, and destroyed some of the suspect's personal possessions. Tom lied to internal affairs investigators who inquired into the incident, he later admitted.

"Mr. Tom's willingness to lie for a fellow peace officer brings into question his credibility," the Sheriff's report said.

Investigators also found that while working as a police officer in Albany, San Pablo, and Vallejo police departments, Tom accepted gratuities from local businesses while on his rounds. He had also stolen crack pipes and other criminal evidence, according to a 2001 Civil Service Commission report.

(Attempts to reach Tom at home and at work were unsuccessful.)

But Parks employees have been asking themselves another tough question: Why does Santiago seem to be covering for Tom?

One possible answer: At Park Patrol, Tom is Santiago's internal affairs investigator.

From a certain perspective, the edict ordering "outcome-based management focused on revenue generation" could include Santiago's 3 a.m. calls to his staff, the overtime fees paid by event permit-holders, the loyalty Santiago receives from certain staff, and the firm control over outside complaints.

Perhaps it's no big deal that, year after year, Santiago earns around $80,000 in overtime.

From another perspective, the Park Patrol has been allowed to become Santiago's personal fiefdom.

"It was just weird how Marcus got a lot of the overtime events ahead of time, and then kind of got to take his pick, and assign himself or whomever he wants to work. " said ex-ranger Chico. "Most of the time, he works it for himself."

This means that, even though he now has a staff about the same size as the 20-officer Oakland Housing Authority Police, Santiago behaves as though he is short-staffed. His choice to send certain rangers already on duty to overtime shifts covering permit-holding events has pissed off a lot of employees, at least six of whom have filed whistleblower complaints regarding the overtime hoarding, and punishment of workers who protest.

One complainant is Mike Horan, the ex-ranger who took his case to the EEOC saying he'd been discriminated against because he wasn't one of Santiago's Asian friends.

The federal agency "deposed 10 people, and interviewed 40," Horan said.

The people interviewed came to believe the investigation was serious. Some in the department had even begun to think that Santiago's time was up.

But every indication is that Recreation and Parks has no interest in changing the way the Park Patrol has been managed. Year after year, Operations Manager Kern has given Santiago glowing performance reviews, despite the complaints, investigations, and adverse findings.

From Kern's perspective, there could theoretically be a lot to like about Santiago's management style. Kern manages an agency of around 1,000 employees. As someone who's on the job day and night, Santiago can ensure that things in his small corner of a vast bureaucracy are under control. And thanks to all those Park Patrol overtime fees, Santiago has turned his division into a revenue-generator.

Kern has so far seemed determined to leave the current situation in place.

We wanted to ask him why, but the department declined to make either him or Santiago available for interviews.

To the Parks Department, the real question may be, "Why not?"

Update: An earlier version of this story reported that the Recreation and Parks department had not provided evidence that Tom had filed an approval to work a second job. As indicated elsewhere in the story, the department has provided SF Weekly with this documentation.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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