Noir You See It, Noir You Don't

Naming one of the masterminds of the SFO Enterprises scandal as a "watchdog" over billions in public investment: city government or pulp fiction?

So much for sound and transparent public investment.

Though this travesty supposedly ended when the Board of Supervisors voted to formally halt the SFO Enterprises fiasco, it seems apparent Martin and Fermin had further activity in mind.

By May 2003, Supervisor Aaron Peskin had made abundantly clear to airport officials that he had the votes to shutter SFO Enterprises. Still, Martin, Fermin, Martin's secretary, Jean Caramatti, and SFO Enterprises board member Roberta Achtenberg held a corporate directors meeting to discuss, among other things, the private company's "long term strategy and implementation status." Long-term strategy should have engendered a pretty short discussion; after all, SFO Enterprises was under official orders to shut down and give the city back the money it had squandered.

There's a funny thing about that May 2003 meeting, though. The three pages of minutes of the meeting released to SF Weeklyconsisted of pieces of paper from which all text had been deleted. The deletions were apparently based on the idea that these plans were "business secrets."

To put the perverse logic here in the starkest possible terms: In the eyes of SFO Director John Martin, the San Francisco public is not allowed to know about the future plans of the company SFO Enterprises LLC -- a company owned by the public of San Francisco, and which has been ordered shut down by representatives of this same San Francisco public -- because the future plans for this supposedly defunct company are a commercial trade secret.

I get the distinct sense, after reading this extensive and extensively blanked-out archive of SFO Enterprises documents, that Martin, Fermin, and others associated with the company may have intended not to shut down the shell corporation, but to sell off its interest in the operation of Honduras' airports -- and keep right on dealing in other business areas. It seems clear, at least, that Fermin and his cohorts were interested in finding other ways to sluice public money through their shady firm.

One folder I received as part of SFO Enterprises' internal files included a presentation by a real estate financial services company describing how the airport might sell to investors the right to use SFO's huge rental-car parking garage as a tax shelter. When I asked the city Controller's Office about this, it forwarded my question to Fermin. He said the folder was merely a presentation from the real estate firm, and SFO had not taken the firm up on the idea. Written in pencil on the margin of the presentation, however, are the words "SFO Enterprises."

For two years now, I've been waiting for a city audit of SFO Enterprises to be completed. The Board of Supervisors ordered the audit in 2003. Initially, City Controller Harrington responded with a highly peculiar investigation, pretending the company was a private "outside vendor" with no obligation to allow city accountants access to its books -- even though the city owned the company. After I described this bungle in a column, Supervisor Peskin rephrased his audit request in more specific terms, asking that SFO Enterprises be audited as the city-owned entity it actually is. Two years later, however, the Controller's Office still hasn't finished the audit. I really would like to know why it's taking so long to complete the audit that would explain what Martin, Fermin, and others did with all the money that worked its way through SFO Enterprises. Perhaps the delay is a topic Harrington and Fermin can discuss at length, given that Harrington was also confirmed last week to serve on the Treasury Oversight Committee.

After skidding to a halt, doing a triple take, then yelling to find out who's in charge here, my San Francisco film noir reporter hears nothing but unseemly quiet. He puzzles in his head:

Did José Cisneros think up the idea of renominating Fermin to oversee city investments on his own? Did he really dream up the notion that it would be best to reappoint an airport official who oversaw the loss of at least $1 million in a truly crazy investment scheme?

Perhaps. But it seems to me that's the kind of thing one usually bounces off the higher-ups.

As the camera dollies in, a cacophony of questions fight in the noir reporter's brain:

Who truly benefits from lax supervision of the city till? What's in it for whom when billions in city investments are overseen by a mismanager of city funds? Why do officials at the airport -- who just happen to have many millions of dollars' worth of construction and other contracts at their disposal -- seem to have complete impunity to engage in what I believe to be the wanton and illegal misappropriation of public money?

The scene fades, and a voice from the past makes the final pronouncement.

Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

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