Bunco Squad

Police brass can't account for a rogue vice operation

A phalanx of suits from the San Francisco Police Department sat in two middle rows, among them a deputy chief, two lieutenants, and a handful of functionaries armed with binders. Watching, off to the side, were the city's controller and budget analyst, the two men most responsible for minding the public's money. An assistant district attorney and the director of a little-known local nonprofit organization were also on hand.

None of these people appeared happy to be spending this Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago sitting in a richly refurbished, stiflingly hot City Hall hearing room. Like children caught with a hand in the cookie jar, they awaited a scolding.

Supervisor Leland Yee had summoned them to appear before the Finance and Labor Committee of the Board of Supervisors. Yee was calling them to account for a surreptitious program that the police and the District Attorney's Office had devised to collect fines from massage parlor workers arrested by the city's vice squad.

The program was unknown to the city's elected officials or financial watchdogs until SF Weekly first reported its existence in December. For more than a year, the cozy arrangement allowed the vice squad to pad its budget by raking in tens of thousands of dollars in "restitution" from women arrested in massage parlor raids.

Those arrested were allowed to pay money directly to the vice squad in exchange for having charges against them dropped. The arrangement had the blessing of District Attorney Terence Hallinan's office. The money, presumably, was intended to flesh out the vice squad's budget, paying for overtime, supplies, and other police costs.

Immediately after SF Weekly unveiled the arrangement in two stories, the Police Department and the District Attorney's Office scurried to abolish it. Officials swear no such payments are now being collected.

But the rogue program remains an embarrassment, and on this day Yee wanted answers. The whole setup, Yee noted, smacked of "legalized extortion," and he was determined to force the police to "clean this up."

For almost two hours, with prodding from Yee and Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Sue Bierman, the assembled civil servants stepped to the mike and tried, alternately, to justify and disavow the program.

As the committee sifted through the wreckage, it became clear that top police officials cannot fully account for the operation. The bookkeeping was incomplete. Records were lost or destroyed. No one apparently kept track of how many arrested massage parlor workers agreed to pay fines, and whether any money might have slipped through the cracks.

Records that the Police Department grudgingly released in response to public information requests from SF Weekly further underscore the point. Simply put, no one is able to say with certainty how many women were arrested, how many agreed to pay money to the vice squad, how much money was actually collected, or whether all the money made its way into the proper city bank accounts.

SF Weekly's review of the vice squad's spotty financial records, in fact, reveals about $2,000 in fines that were paid to the vice squad, but that cannot be reconciled with any of the department's bank deposit slips.

The amounts of money involved certainly are minuscule in comparison to the Police Department's $250 million annual budget. But the relatively small sums do not assuage the concerns of Yee, Ammiano, and others who are troubled that such a program was ever allowed to operate in the Hall of Justice.

Effectively, the program created a financial incentive for vice officers to step up their arrests of massage parlor workers. And those arrested, even if the cases against them were pathetically weak, often felt compelled to fork over money to keep the incidents off their records.

The way the money was handled leaves open questions about the adequacy of the Police Department's financial accounting -- questions that cannot be answered because of gaps in the department's fiscal records.

"This has shaken the confidence of many individuals, myself included," Yee told the assembled officials as the hearing drew to a close. "To this day, I don't think there's much accountability for this program. Everybody, if they can duck for cover, they're ducking for cover. ... It's absolutely incomprehensible to me."

The San Francisco Police Department has long had a schizophrenic relationship with massage parlors. For the past 40 years, the department has collected licensing fees from the parlors. The fees now total about $130,000 a year.

But even as the department accepts money to sanction parlors, it is also charged with policing them, ensuring that no prostitution or other untoward acts are taking place. It is no surprise to anyone that sex is offered for sale in many massage parlors, and efforts to curb illegal activities in the parlors have waxed and waned over the years.

Starting in about mid-1997, the Vice Department -- as it is officially known -- began stepping up arrests at the parlors, primarily because of increasing numbers of complaints from neighboring businesses and citizens. Sometime in late 1997 -- no one seems to know exactly when -- someone in the Police Department or the District Attorney's Office -- no one seems to know exactly who -- figured out a way for the Vice Department to start collecting money from massage parlor busts.

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