The Great Minnow Hunt

Why did the U.S. Attorney's Office angle for fingerlings -- and apparently ignore trophy catches -- during its corruption investigation at the San Francisco Housing Authority?

In the summer of 1999, FBI agents raided two departments of San Francisco's city government, seizing boxes of records from the Human Rights Commission and the Housing Authority. The daily press reported that the FBI was investigating possible wrongdoing by Charlie Walker, part-time trucker and longtime legal client, friend, and political supporter of Mayor Willie Brown. The coverage by the dailies was intense, and repeatedly pointed up the connections between Walker, previously convicted of grand theft, attempted extortion, and defrauding the city's minority contracting program, and Brown, spurring the mayor to complain that the papers were making it appear he was a target of the investigation, when he was not.

Eighteen months later, Willie Brown is untouched, Charlie Walker remains uncharged, and the investigation seems to be winding down.

For all the media Sturm und Drang associated with it, the federal investigation appears to have started and stopped with relative small fry. The Human Rights Commission part of the probe, for example, seems to have run out of steam after a midlevel manager, Zula Jones, was indicted on charges she had helped a San Leandro construction firm illegally obtain tens of millions of dollars in construction contracts at the airport.

The FBI investigation of the San Francisco Housing Authority also seems to have stopped after hooking minnows -- even though public records, including the FBI's own investigative reports, contain significant evidence of wrongdoing by high-level Housing Authority officials.

Last September, a federal District Court jury found Patricia Williams, the relocation manager for the Housing Authority, guilty of taking bribes to provide subsidized housing certificates to people who were ineligible to receive them. Williams was convicted, partly, on the basis of testimony from Yolanda Jones, Walker's daughter, in a plea agreement that may spare Jones from a prison sentence. Assistant United States Attorney John H. Hemann claimed Williams was a kind of mastermind whose conviction would "correct the problems at the Housing Authority and make sure they stay corrected."

The jury that heard the government's case against Williams did not entirely agree. Although they convicted Williams of seven felony bribery counts, jurors found her innocent of the majority of the bribery charges filed against her, and several later said they saw her as a victim of circumstances, rather than a prime mover in the bribery scheme. Those jurors reached this conclusion, even though court rulings prevented them from knowing of the full extent of the connections between Jones' father and Mayor Brown, or of Walker's apparent influence at the Housing Authority.

The U.S. attorney's focus on Pat Williams as a top wrongdoer at the Housing Authority seems to be belied by a wide variety of public documents:

  • FBI reports of interviews of Yolanda Jones and an initial indictment filed against her indicate that Jones was the leader of the bribery conspiracy. After Jones agreed to testify against Williams in return for a reduced sentence, the U.S. attorney amended the indictment to portray Williams as the ringleader.
  • In sworn depositions taken as part of a whistle-blower lawsuit, four Housing Authority employees claim the agency's top officials knew about bribery in regard to the sale of public housing vouchers for years, and did nothing to halt it.
  • In documents filed as exhibits in the Williams' trial, an unidentified official in Mayor Willie Brown's office is accused of ordering public housing vouchers to be given to ineligible individuals, bypassing thousands of people on waiting lists.
  • A HUD inspector general's report issued nine months ago recommends that the Housing Authority's executive director, Ron C. Davis, be punished with the "strongest administrative action" for, allegedly, misusing federal money and practicing favoritism in the awarding of contracts. Michael Zerega, a spokesman for the Inspector General's Office, said last month that the sanction recommended is indeed strong -- a permanent ban against Davis' participation in all programs of the federal government.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco declined repeated requests for comment about its handling of the Patricia Williams and Yolanda Jones cases, and the prospects, if any, for additional prosecutions of Housing Authority employees. An FBI spokesman said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an ongoing investigation of the Housing Authority. Federal grand jury testimony usually is not disclosed to the public. It is, therefore, extremely difficult for outsiders to say with certainty that the probe of the Housing Authority is at an end, or to know the facts that prosecutors possessed when they made decisions about how to proceed.

Still, interviews with Housing Authority insiders and defense attorneys, a variety of news reports, and even the court statements of a federal prosecutor suggest that the conviction of Williams, a midlevel functionary, heralds the end of the federal investigation of criminal activities at the Housing Authority, leaving wide open a basic question: In using Yolanda Jones' testimony to convict Pat Williams, was the U.S. Attorney's Office pursuing a criminal mastermind, or netting a minnow as sharks swam free?


The FBI's investigation of the Human Rights Commission broke into public view in the spring of 1999, when the San Francisco Examiner began publishing a series of reports that questioned the propriety of the agency's actions in approving construction and trucking contracts awarded by the Airport Commission. As the city's chief enforcer of affirmative action laws, the Human Rights Commission can make decisions that essentially control the awarding of city contracts.

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