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When Fire Department supervisor Steven Van Dyke was arrested for embezzling city funds in May 1998, it seemed like a cut-and-dried case for the district attorney.
Van Dyke was accused of illegally collecting more than $54,000 from two dozen contractors to move inconveniently located fire hydrants at construction sites. Van Dyke had his Fire Department plumbers do the work, circumventing city bureaucracy, and then deposited the contractors' fees into a personal bank account, which he then used to pay for such things as jewelry for his wife, groceries, and maintenance on his swimming pool.
Most of the basic facts in the case were not even in dispute. It was the sort of case, in other words, that is "usually resolved within a year," says Assistant District Attorney Floyd Andrews, who is in charge of prosecuting Van Dyke.
And yet, nearly 2 1/2 years later, the case is still languishing on the DA's to-do pile. Not only has Van Dyke not been brought to trial, he is still awaiting a preliminary hearing.
"This is taking a long time," Andrews admits.
Why has the DA's Office been stalling the prosecution of a senior administrator accused of stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the city?
One of the main reasons is that the defense lawyer, George Beckwith, is a former assistant district attorney himself, which has allowed Van Dyke to get special treatment -- as Andrews himself freely acknowledges.
"I worked with Beckwith for a long time," the assistant DA says. "I gave him a lot of slack."
So much slack that even Beckwith complains, perhaps disingenuously, that the case is taking an "abnormally long time to settle."
The investigation of Van Dyke began in September 1997, after a Fire Department plumber tipped authorities to the illegal payments. According to court records, Van Dyke's alleged scheme began in 1991, when he opened an unauthorized checking account at the San Francisco Firemen Credit Union, for which he was sole signatory, and printed up bogus Fire Department business cards. For the next six years, acting on tips from a confederate in the city's Water Department, he approached contractors who needed to relocate fire hydrants obstructing their work sites, offering to have the Fire Department do the job for $1,500 a pop. The city's Water Department normally charges up to $16,000 for the service. Van Dyke's bargain basement fee did not even cover the labor costs, but of course the payments never reached the city anyway. Van Dyke simply deposited the contractors' fees into his private account. All in all the city lost well over $300,000 from Van Dyke's operation.
Investigators found $2,045 in checks from Van Dyke's account made out to cash, with no receipts, $2,347 in payments for Van Dyke's personal cell phone, and $2,726 in checks for lunches and bar tabs at the Double Play, a seedy bar on 16th Street frequented by city officials. Tens of thousands in city funds were spent by Van Dyke on toys for his son, college tuition for himself, a pingpong table, and a sidewalk for his home, among other expenses.
In 1998, Van Dyke turned himself in and was charged with several counts of embezzlement, grand theft, and misappropriation of public funds.
Andrews, who works for the district attorney's white-collar crime division, cites a number of reasons why the case has dragged on since then. He was ill last year for a few months. And a year after Van Dyke's arrest, a judge at his initial preliminary hearing reduced the charges against him on a technicality, forcing the case to be reinvestigated and the charges refiled. But Andrews also says he has allowed the case to continue as a favor to Beckwith.
Van Dyke's attorney admits his client should not have used city money for his personal expenses. But Beckwith's defense of his client is based on the premise that many city departments -- including the District Attorney's Office itself, according to a city audit -- operate funds of the type Van Dyke is accused of abusing. He says Van Dyke did nothing out of the ordinary -- he simply made accounting errors. Van Dyke also claims that some of the funds were spent on department business, especially on items that were hard to acquire through normal channels: for example, $1,000 on gold pins shaped like fire hydrants for retiring fire chiefs, cell phones for fire commissioners, and a forklift for the department. However, he also says he did not keep any records to document those purchases. He lost the checkbook, too.
Beckwith is hoping for a quiet plea bargain: a few thousand in restitution and no jail time for his client. The last thing he wants, of course, is for the city to make a cautionary example out of the errant plumber.
Prosecutor Andrews is not eager to send Van Dyke to jail, either. He says that jail time is likely to be meted out on a "sliding scale" -- the greater the amount restituted, the less time in county jail. For $40,000 in restitution, Andrews says, he will be flexible about demanding jail time.
Another preliminary hearing has been set for Oct. 17, which will mark 30 months since Van Dyke's arrest.