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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nat Ford, Muni Chief, Accused of Violating Ethics Laws -- Updated

Posted By on Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 1:30 PM

Did Nat Ford grant an inappropriate favor to his personal attorney?
  • Did Nat Ford grant an inappropriate favor to his personal attorney?

Nat Ford, executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, violated ethics rules when he moved to scuttle a lucrative parking garage contract in 2009, according to a new lawsuit.

"Ford violated the ethics code," said Whitney Leigh, an attorney who represents Fred Bekele, a parking garage manager who believes he lost business thanks to Ford. "The code is very clear: If you have a professional relationship with someone whom a decision would help, you have to recuse yourself."

According to the claim filed Tuesday, a parking management company seeking a major contract hired Nat Ford's own attorney to lobby the Muni boss on a parking garage contract.

"This is an influence-peddling case. Plaintiffs, having provided the winning bid for a San Francisco parking lot management contract, soon found the award attacked by well-connected parking companies that previously held the management contracts for the parking lots at issue. These well-connected companies sought the intervention of Nathaniel Ford, the head of San Francisco's Municipal transit authority. Shortly thereafter, at a meeting in the offices of Ford's attorney -- who simultaneously represented one of the nonwinning companies -- plaintiffs were presented with a choice: Either work out a deal to split the parking contracts along lines the nonwinning companies found acceptable, or face the delay, or complete denial of the award of the contracts.
According to a 2010 SF Weekly story, Ford called a meeting in his office with competing parking contractors, and Steven Kay, a well-connected local attorney who shares an office with former Mayor Willie Brown. Kay represented Pacific Park Management, which stood to lose control of the 639-space St. Mary's Square Garage in the Financial District.

Shortly after, a garage-management contract award to Bekele was scuttled.

"There's really something very strange and uncomfortable about what's

going on with this contract," MTA board member Bruce Oka said at the time.

When I wrote the April 21 story, I didn't know Kay was representing Ford in contract negotiations with the city.

By not disclosing this connection, Ford violated the law, the lawsuit alleges.

When plaintiffs refused to accede to these demands, the well-connected companies made good on their threat. Ford -- without disclosing his professional connection -- purported to act on demands to reverse the award issued on behalf of these companies by their attorney, that is, Ford's attorney. Based on a series of erroneous and misleading statements and elisions by Ford, the SFMTA overturned the award.
We've reached out to Ford's spokesman requesting comment, and will post a response if and when we get one.

The lawsuit also accuses City Attorney Dennis Herrera of a conflict of interest in the case. Bekele complained to Herrera's office about the alleged influence peddling. Subsequently, a city attorney investigative report absolved Ford and all other city officials of any wrongdoing.

But according to Leigh, whose law partner is former Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, Herrera should also have recused himself from matters relating to the parking contract.

That's because three days after Kay wrote a letter to Ford asking that a contract award to Bekele be ditched, Kay's client, Pacific Park Management, gave a political donation to Herrera of $500.

The result, Leigh alleges, was a bogus investigation.

"To describe the report as a "whitewash" is an insult to whitewashes," Leigh wrote. "The report absolved Mr. Ford and all other city officials or employees of any wrongdoing."

We've contacted Herrera's spokesman for a response, we will tell you more when we learn more.

Update 8 p.m. Wednesday:

Herrera's office has responded to the allegations, with gusto. In an e-mailed statement, Herrera spokesman Jack Song said:

Mr. Leigh's allegation of a City Attorney conflict due to a campaign donation is bogus, and he should know that.

The law is very clear that campaign contributions are neither gifts nor income, and can't create legal conflicts.
 If they did, campaign donations would literally prevent all elected officials from doing their jobs.

This is an obvious and well-known point of law. And it's one I'm certain Mr. Leigh is well aware of -- both because he's a lawyer and because he was a former political candidate who also accepted campaign contributions.

The rest of this lawsuit is similarly without merit, and we're confident the court will agree.

The law is the Political Reform Act in Cal. Government Code section 82028 (b).

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