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 September 1999, the San Francisco City Attorney's Office filed a lawsuit against the Scott Company of California and an African-American plumber from Hunters Point, Alvin P. Norman, accusing the contractors of creating a minority-owned front company to get preferential treatment in bids for city contracts at the airport. The U.S. Attorney's Office subsequently brought criminal charges against Zula Jones (no relation to Yolanda Jones), a senior contract compliance officer at the Human Rights Commission, alleging she had aided the Scott Company and Norman in the illegal scheme.

According to many press reports based, in part, on grand jury subpoenas, federal investigators were at one point looking into allegations that Krystal Trucking Inc., a white-owned trucking company associated with Walker, had been given unfair competitive advantages by the Human Rights Commission. But neither Krystal nor Walker has been charged, and at least one news report has suggested that Walker will not be indicted.

The FBI's August 1999 raid on the Housing Authority was inspired by allegations of bribery contained in a whistle-blower lawsuit that had been languishing in federal District Court since 1995. In that lawsuit, Carmen T. Rosales, the former head of the Housing Authority's eligibility department, which processes applications for public housing, and Michael V. Meadows, a former director of maintenance at the authority, claimed that authority executives systematically lied to HUD in applications that brought the authority tens of millions of dollars in federal grants.

Williams' defense attorneys, Robert C. Scremin and Randy Sue Pollock.
Paul Trapani
Williams' defense attorneys, Robert C. Scremin and Randy Sue Pollock.
Former Housing Authority Commissioner Richard Carpeneti.
Paul Trapani
Former Housing Authority Commissioner Richard Carpeneti.

The lawsuit also accused former Housing Authority Executive Director David I. Gilmore of ordering Rosales to give housing subsidies to 148 ineligible people, including someone referred to the authority by an aide to then-Mayor Art Agnos. (Agnos is currently the head of the HUD office that administers the western region of the U.S., including San Francisco.) Agnos did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

In an incendiary amendment to the lawsuit filed in early 1999, Rosales said that bribery was rife in a housing subsidy program known as Section 8 (i.e., Section 8 of the United States Housing Act of 1937). The amendment was backed by sworn depositions by Rosales and three Housing Authority eligibility clerks who testified that they had been getting phone calls -- for years -- from enraged people who claimed they had paid thousands of dollars to Yolanda Jones for public housing they had yet to receive. Rosales and the clerks said, under oath, that they had transferred the calls to Ronnie Davis, the Housing Authority's current executive director.

Within the boxes of records they seized from the eligibility office, FBI agents found several dozen fraudulent Section 8 applications. Tracy Baker, niece to O.J. Simpson, subsequently confessed to paying Yolanda Jones for housing. Her testimony led federal investigators to Jones, and then to Pat Williams. Where they, apparently, stopped.

In the fall of 1999, federal agents arrested Jones, Williams, a Housing Authority eligibility clerk, and a score of the "customers" who'd allegedly paid Jones for Section 8 certificates they did not qualify for. That indictment portrayed Jones as the ringleader of a bribery conspiracy, within which Williams played a real, but not the leading, role.

Months of interrogation by FBI agents followed. Alleged co-conspirators testified against supposed fellow schemers, and most of those who cooperated received probated sentences in return. Only Williams stood firm in refusing to plea bargain. She says that she did not go along with the demands of FBI agents that she implicate Housing Authority executives, or even Jones. Williams contends that, although she did process a few fraudulent documents, she did it to help poor people. Williams says she did not take bribes; she did not see Jones take bribes. Williams admits to accepting small gifts of money from Jones.

In return for the possibility of receiving a reduced sentence, probably probation, Jones agreed to testify that Williams was the mastermind of the bribery conspiracy. The U.S. attorney rewrote the original indictment, dropping its many references to Jones' leading role, and appointing Williams as the big fish of the conspiracy.

Williams' trial started in late August of this year. A plea-bargaining platoon of Jones' customers testified that they paid Jones for public housing, with two witnesses saying they passed relatively small amounts of cash to Williams. Jones, however, testified that she split about $70,000 in bribes with Williams.

Jones, 40, created an unforgettable figure on the stand. Six feet tall, svelte, and caustic, she often tap-tapped her long, gloss-white fingernails impatiently as she described how she and Williams operated their illegal business. Jones told the court that her official, $50,000-per-year job as a relocation clerk at the Housing Authority was a sham. She seldom showed up to work, yet high-level executives, such as Barbara Smith, director of housing development, signed off on her time cards.

The Section 8 bribery scheme started in early 1996, Jones testified, when the Housing Authority began relocating hundreds of tenants from housing projects that were about to be demolished. Jones was assigned to help Williams remove tenants as quickly as possible, and families slated for relocation were given Section 8 certificates, which allowed them to receive subsidized housing anywhere in the country. (Certificate holders pay about 30 percent of their household income in rent; the government covers the balance of the cost.)

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