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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Were S.F. Public Works Jobs Part of Massive Fraud Scheme? Union Officials Say Yes.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 26, 2009 at 12:30 PM

click to enlarge Police escort a woman from NBC General Contractors' Oakland offices during a May raid - DON FERIA
  • Don Feria
  • Police escort a woman from NBC General Contractors' Oakland offices during a May raid
If you're looking for the Lord Voldemort of local labor, Bay Area union officials have a nomination: Monica Ung. The owner of NBC General Contractors has been charged by Alameda County prosecutors with methodically defrauding her limited-English workers -- and the state -- of millions or even tens of millions of dollars.

In a nutshell, Ung is accused of exploiting her Chinese immigrant labor pool by stiffing them with substandard wages, then turning around and reporting hourly payments more than double what employees were actually earning on public works jobs. What's more, she reportedly forced her laborers to toil up to 12 hours a day, six days a week -- but reported to government overseers that they were working only 20-odd hours weekly. The rise and fall of her alleged criminal scheme -- and how local governments failed to intercede -- is the cover feature in this week's East Bay Express. But while Ung is facing dozens of felony counts in an Alameda County courtroom, union officials told SF Weekly they believe she may have defrauded workers -- and the government -- here in San Francisco, too.

"We think that she was able to pull off this fraud in San Francisco, Albany, Berkeley, Oakland, and throughout the Bay Area because of the how she did her time cards and intimidated her workers," said Victor Uno, the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 595.

Uno added that the numbers Ung reported to the government ought to have raised serious red flags -- but didn't.

"How can the public agencies monitoring job sites [believe] certified payroll stating construction workers worked 16 hours a week to complete a school?" he asked. "Scrutiny has to be more than just looking at what the contractor turns in. There have to be effective policies in place to protect the workers, public agencies, and the taxpayers."

According to Oakland labor lawyer Ellyn Moscowitz -- who has filed a class-action suit against NBC on behalf of roughly 200 allegedly defrauded workers -- the contractor worked at least three jobs on behalf of San Francisco in recent years: At the Mission Neighborhood Center, the Moscone Club House, and at Sanchez Middle School (for the San Francisco Unified School District). The city controller's office has not yet answered our query of whether an investigation will be launched to determine if NBC committed any wrongdoing during these jobs. The $4.8 million Moscone job, meanwhile, was approved by the city's Parks and Recreation Department in 2006 over the objections of the Local No. 22 Carpenters' Union -- which noted that NBC was under investigation across the Bay. 

Paul Cohen, the director of public and governmental relations for the Northern California Carpenters' Union, said he'd be surprised if fraud of the sort NBC is accused of committing in the East Bay wasn't carried out here, too. 

"When somebody's got 40 felony charges, it appears to be a pattern of behavior," he said. "If the allegations are correct, they've taken it to a whole new level."

Uno -- like other labor leaders before him -- had harsh words for Ung's top legal hired gun -- former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. The IBEW boss points out that the statute of limitations for fraud of the sort Ung is accused of is only four years. Yet ads the union ran in Chinese-language newspapers turned up a number of workers who claim they were defrauded years ago.

"If it's true that Monica Ung has been defrauding workers for many years, money she obtained from ill-gotten gains is now going to very expensive lawyers -- and that's unfortunate," said Uno, who further charged Brown with accepting "blood money."

Brown also came in for criticism from his fellow members of the bar. "The money paid to someone at a Willie Brown-level really could be used as restitution for the workers," Moscowitz says. "I'm concerned that by the time our case goes to trial, [Ung] will be in jail. Now that [Brown] is out of the political limelight, he'll sink as low as possible and take money from anybody."

Brown has not yet returned a message from SF Weekly -- or any other potentially critical media outlets. He was quoted in the column of his fellow San Francsico Chronicle employees, Matier & Ross, with a snide redjoinder to criticism from the California Labor Federation's Art Pulaski: "Obviously Mr. Pulaski doesn't believe in equal justice. This woman is entitled to full and quality representation, and I intend to give it to her. I'd even defend Mr. Pulaski -- If he could afford me."

SF Weekly has not yet been able to determine the years of all the city's contracts with NBC (the Moscone pact was approved in '06). So it is unclear if any of these contracts were meted out during Brown's tenure as mayor.

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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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