Graft and Gaming

City employees are bleeding the city to death. One way is legal and the other is not.

It would be hard to imagine a more pathetic hero than Alexander Deanda, who used to manage the water-meter repair shop for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The 56-year-old recent retiree is being sued by the city for allegedly taking bribes from a scrap dealer for five years until 2007.

Deanda was purportedly willing to take brazen risks for pocket change. In one gambit, he supposedly sneaked off with around 5,000 pounds of brass plumbing parts stolen from the city and had them carted to a recycling plant for a little more than $3,000.

He was also unlucky. Deanda's alleged benefactor, a former used-parts broker named Sheldon Morris, became the target of a federal investigation in 2007. As part of a recent plea bargain, Morris acknowledged to a judge that he'd paid $13,348 to Deanda to steer purchases his way.

Now Deanda is defending himself against a lawsuit that, if successful, would require him to pay the city $233,797, which is the amount of money it spent buying parts from Morris, allegedly on account of bribes. To make matters more worrisome, Deanda's attorney, Daniel Bakondi, a recent graduate of Golden Gate University School of Law, seems to envision himself as more of an artist than a legal technician: "I look at the law as a chess game with a nearly unlimited number of options [sic] of which move to make, and I wield the law with a rare creativity that is very powerful in the law," Bakondi explains on his Web site.

Seemingly faithful to his self-billing, Bakondi has mounted a truly creative defense. It includes unsupported allegations that San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission has long had a "gift policy" in which employees were allowed to accept lavish trips and other presents from suppliers; that city rules designed to prevent kickbacks were "confusing"; and that in the end, the city received "quality parts and services" from Morris and thus was not harmed.

"This is like Rod Blagojevich on steroids," said San Francisco City Attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey in reference to Deanda's apparent "when in Rome" defense. "It's not true. But even if it were, it's a nonstarter. It's not a defense. It's not a defense in third grade, and it's not a defense in a court of law."

"I think 'when in Rome' is a mischaracterization," said Bakondi, who declined a request to arrange a conversation with his client. Deanda, he says, "never accepted bribes at all."

Left unnoted by Dorsey is the undeniable, if pathetic, charm of the deposed Illinois governor whose blithe publicity tour, in which he pointed fingers at everyone save himself, earned him an offer to appear on reality TV.

In a similar vein, I believe Deanda, who didn't return a message left on his answering machine, deserves a place in our hearts as a rascal we can't help but love. He's a pitiable San Francisco antihero whose situation captures the spirit of his time. Deanda may well not have committed the crimes he's accused of. But the city attorney's account of an apparently clumsy, purportedly dishonest employee who supposedly padded his wallet by less than $3,000 per year is a story worth noting because, when it comes to milking the city for money, Deanda's alleged activities paint him as a mere minnow in a vast sea of sharks.

Other city employees may not have broken the law, as Deanda is accused of doing. But San Francisco is a company town where gaming the city for your own advantage is legal, but nonetheless deplorable.

During the current economic-disaster-era city budget cycle, San Francisco is cutting programs for the poor, addicts, the mentally ill, and the elderly. Meanwhile, it is preserving perks for overtime-gobbling firemen, money-wasting policemen, and retirement-padding bus drivers who have gamed and bloated city payrolls. Last year, 2,450 city employees each pulled in more than $140,000 per year, not counting health, retirement, and deferred compensation benefits. If the salary gamers of San Francisco's city government formed a nation, it would be Liechtenstein, the richest country per capita in the world.

These numbers don't include the hundreds of millions of dollars of city money paid to agencies with overpaid employees. Last week I spoke to a police officer who described how at least half a dozen colleagues were being paid six-figure salaries for secretarial jobs easily performed by $40,000-per-year clerks. A Muni insider explained last week how one bus driver on the verge of retirement angled to move to the more highly compensated night shift, so the bigger salary could be used as a benchmark for calculating pension benefits. Last year a group of retired firefighters obtained a settlement of nearly $1 million because they hadn't been fully reimbursed by the city for "time coming," the term for a cushy scheme Fire Department employees have arranged for themselves to pad their income. They sign up for pointless committee meetings to earn deferred time off, requiring other firefighters to fill their place, creating more empty time slots still — so that everybody can take a payout upon retirement.

Now, unions representing the police and fire departments are pressing to maintain the status quo, with the mayor apparently on their side.

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