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 1996, shortly after Willie Brown assumed office as mayor, HUD took over the daily operation of the Housing Authority, which was in such financial disarray that it could not account for the whereabouts of $12 million. One of the experts on the recovery team sent by HUD to clean up the authority was Ronnie Davis, the chief operating officer of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1997, HUD turned the San Francisco Housing Authority back over to city control, and Brown named Davis as executive director.

Last March, the HUD Inspector General's Office released an audit of the authority's performance under Davis. The auditors concluded that Davis should be fired because he:

  • "used favoritism to hire acquaintances and former associates";
  • undermined the integrity of the Housing Authority's Section 8 program, which doles out $50 million in housing subsidies each year. Davis treated the program as his personal fiefdom, the auditors reported, unilaterally awarding overpriced contracts to unqualified firms with which he had personal business ties;
  • retained senior staffers who were unqualified and overpaid; and
  • was improperly reimbursed for expenses, including his personal income taxes.

On the day the San Francisco audit was made public, the inspector general released an equally damning report on the Cuyahoga Housing Authority, accusing Davis and a colleague of misusing $11 million. To protect the government, the inspector general recommended nine months ago, Davis should be hit with the harshest administrative punishment possible, which, a HUD spokesman recently explained, would be tantamount to being fired and barred from working with any federally funded program for life. The inspector general also recommended that San Francisco's board of Housing Authority commissioners be punished.

Housing Authority spokesman James Van Bergen said the agency declines to comment on allegations made in connection to the whistle-blower lawsuit because of an agency policy against commenting on pending litigation. Van Bergen did, however, provide SF Weekly with a letter that, he said, shows that Ronnie Davis asked the HUD Inspector General's Office in December 1998 "to conduct an investigation into allegations of the sale of Section 8 certificates."

The special agent in charge of the inspector general's investigation, Daniel Pifer, responded this way to Van Bergen's assertion: "I've been meaning to clear this up. At no point in time did Ronnie Davis ever refer these matters to the inspector general, or have anything to do with initiating the bribery investigation. It started as a result of the whistle-blower lawsuit."

The letter Van Bergen provided SF Weekly as evidence that Davis had instigated a HUD investigation did not ask for such a probe; instead, the letter assured the HUD inspector general that the Housing Authority had "completed a review of the Section 8 Eligibility component and has found no ... improprieties."

Any decision on whether to fire, to prosecute, or to take no action against San Francisco's Housing Authority officials is the responsibility of the agency's enforcement division, which reports to HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

It is possible that federal law enforcers are pursuing the multitudinous trails of possible Housing Authority corruption revealed by the Jones and Williams prosecutions, the whistle-blower lawsuit, and the inspector general's report. If they are, they are proceeding very quietly. Attorneys representing several defendants in the Housing Authority probe and sources within the authority say they have seen no indication of an ongoing investigation.

Richard Carpeneti was the president of the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners in 1995. The attorney had been appointed to the commission by Mayor Frank Jordan. Shortly after Willie Brown beat Jordan in the runoff election, Carpeneti visited the mayor-elect, along with commissioner Barbara Meskunas. Carpeneti and Meskunas, who are both now strong detractors of Brown, delivered a letter to the new mayor, detailing what they saw as severe problems at the agency.

Carpeneti says he was keenly aware of problems with the Section 8 program, but he chose to complain to Brown about the agency's abundance of patronage employees.

"I particularly mentioned Yolanda Jones," Carpeneti remembers. "I said she didn't do anything, and that it upset me having someone making that kind of money not doing anything.

"I'll never forget. He was opening Christmas cards at the time. I wasn't sure that he heard me, so I repeated it. He looked up and gave us kind of a ghost of a smile. Then he changed the subject. He just did not seem to care at all."

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