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Soft Corruption Blues: In San Francisco, Some Wrongs Are Too Big to Make Right 

Wednesday, Apr 23 2014

April has been the cruelest month for Velma Louise Jones. The erstwhile Muni driver has been disgorged from her bus and all but dragged to the public stocks; there is nothing that delights city management and tickles the media like outing a front-line worker allegedly caught with her hand in the till.

Jones purportedly conjured up a violent on-the-job attack and subsequently filed a bogus workers' comp claim. She has been charged with four felonies by the District Attorney following an investigation launched eight months ago. Her plight inspired a bevy of triumphant local stories; these wended their way around the Internet, amassing hundreds of righteous comments.

Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

And, most certainly, it was. Chest-thumping pronouncements from public officials have been dutifully included within the many articles. You've had ample opportunity to read about the woman accused of defrauding the system.

You haven't heard so much, however, about the woman who accused the system of defrauding you.

In the same week Jones was serving as our lawmakers' lunch, SF Weekly published the tale of LaVonda Atkinson, the cost engineer for the $1.6 billion Central Subway project.

Poring through sheaves of accounting material, Atkinson disclosed alarming and unethical practices portending multimillion dollar cost overruns. In brief, she claims she was ordered to retroactively alter the numbers for long-completed Central Subway tasks, matching the budget to the greater amounts actually expended ­— eliminating project overruns, on paper at least.

This was concealed by manually entering "zero" in the column which should denote a change in costs. And that was possible because Muni uses Microsoft Excel to balance the project's books, despite spending $17.1 million on a program that would actually keep track of its curiously shifting numbers.

Going back in time to change the budget to match your actual expenditures makes it look like you knew what you were doing. But it doesn't stave off the eventual fiscal reckoning when work remains to be done and the project's finite resources run dry. A late 2013 attempt to reconcile the project's overall costs with those of its individual line-items revealed an astounding $141 million discrepancy.

Attention must be paid.

And, most certainly, it was. But not in the way you'd think.

Atkinson took a leave of absence this month; she said she could no longer stand even tacitly being connected to the Central Subway project. "I felt wrong going into work when we're ripping off the taxpayers," she says. Earlier this year, she filed a complaint with the city's whistle-blower program outlining many of the charges elucidated in our article. She has, in the past week, received many calls from former colleagues.

They say things are worse than ever.

"People really thought, 'It's out there; something's going to change,'" she says. But nothing changed. The managers Atkinson says ordered her to magically move money around and manually enter zeroes in the spreadsheets to cover it up "are still there." Everyone thought they were untouchable. Now they know they are.

But that's Muni. And, to a larger extent, that's San Francisco. The Velma Louise Joneses of the world, purportedly caught siphoning a few drops from the city's tank, may face repercussions for their actions. Statements are made; articles are written; attention is paid.

But the larger players — the ones who actively shape the dysfunctional and corrupt system — they skate. They get promoted. Those hoping to change things for the better are in for a hell of a climb.

"I wanted to see proper management of the project. I wanted there to be a proper estimation of the costs — because that's what our job is," says Atkinson. "I would hope someone would be allowed to come in and do the job. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen."

One day after SF Weekly published its story about the Central Subway, every Muni employee found an email in his or her inbox from the agency's HR director. The message succinctly noted how to contact the city whistle-blower program.

Atkinson, however, didn't receive such an email — as she's a contract worker, not a Muni employee. And that's not inconsequential: San Francisco employees, board members, and former board members are afforded whistle-blower protection in this city. Contract workers are not. The city charter forbids doing business with a contractor that fails to provide health benefits for domestic partners or has dealings in Myanmar. A contractor that fires whistle-blowers, however, is essentially in the clear.

"Everyone working on the Central Subway is a contractor," says Atkinson. "None of them are covered."

Last week, your humble narrator and Rachel Swan co-wrote a feature on the strange and terrible saga of state Sen. Leland Yee. Our thesis was counter-intuitive. Rather than focus on the truly bizarre spectacle of a legislator being accused of masterminding a shipment of rockets and machine guns to the incomparably named Filipino jihadi outfit "MILF," we chose to trace how such a man came to be in a position to betray the public trust in the first place.

A major reason is that San Francisco's government is run like a cartel; the Central Subway is a hobby horse of the city's top influence-peddlers, all of our federal representatives, and, as such, any elected official who cares to remain in that position for the foreseeable future.

There is, as of yet, no plan for the DA to investigate Atkinson's claims. Members of the Board of Supervisors asked if they would look into the matter told us they'd look into looking into it.

San Francisco is so rich and so beautiful that a functioning government would be one more luxury in a city of luxuries. We have become inured to the soft corruption that is endemic here. As such, a multibillion-dollar hole is being drilled through San Francisco's skull and no one — no politician, no journalist, no altruistic cost engineer — can do anything about it, let alone even force us to reckon with how much it's all going to cost.

But that's not LaVonda Atkinson's problem anymore. She lives in Oakland — it won't be her city services being curtailed to make up the shortfall; it's not her property taxes that'll be garnished for Muni bonds; it's not her bus fares that'll be jacked up.

Not showing up for a job in which, she claims, her role was reduced to that of a stenographer-forger feels good. Knowing that nothing has been fixed does not. "I really thought things were going to change," she says.

Alas. If things changed — that'd be a change. First, people have to care.

First, attention must be paid.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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