April has been the cruelest month for Velma Louise Jones. The erstwhile Muni driver has been disgorged from her bus and all but dragged to the public stocks; there is nothing that delights city management and tickles the media like outing a front-line worker allegedly caught with her hand in the till.

Jones purportedly conjured up a violent on-the-job attack and subsequently filed a bogus workers' comp claim. She has been charged with four felonies by the District Attorney following an investigation launched eight months ago. Her plight inspired a bevy of triumphant local stories; these wended their way around the Internet, amassing hundreds of righteous comments.

Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

And, most certainly, it was. Chest-thumping pronouncements from public officials have been dutifully included within the many articles. You've had ample opportunity to read about the woman accused of defrauding the system.

You haven't heard so much, however, about the woman who accused the system of defrauding you.

In the same week Jones was serving as our lawmakers' lunch, SF Weekly published the tale of LaVonda Atkinson, the cost engineer for the $1.6 billion Central Subway project.

Poring through sheaves of accounting material, Atkinson disclosed alarming and unethical practices portending multimillion dollar cost overruns. In brief, she claims she was ordered to retroactively alter the numbers for long-completed Central Subway tasks, matching the budget to the greater amounts actually expended ­— eliminating project overruns, on paper at least.

This was concealed by manually entering "zero" in the column which should denote a change in costs. And that was possible because Muni uses Microsoft Excel to balance the project's books, despite spending $17.1 million on a program that would actually keep track of its curiously shifting numbers.

Going back in time to change the budget to match your actual expenditures makes it look like you knew what you were doing. But it doesn't stave off the eventual fiscal reckoning when work remains to be done and the project's finite resources run dry. A late 2013 attempt to reconcile the project's overall costs with those of its individual line-items revealed an astounding $141 million discrepancy.

Attention must be paid.

And, most certainly, it was. But not in the way you'd think.

Atkinson took a leave of absence this month; she said she could no longer stand even tacitly being connected to the Central Subway project. "I felt wrong going into work when we're ripping off the taxpayers," she says. Earlier this year, she filed a complaint with the city's whistle-blower program outlining many of the charges elucidated in our article. She has, in the past week, received many calls from former colleagues.

They say things are worse than ever.

"People really thought, 'It's out there; something's going to change,'" she says. But nothing changed. The managers Atkinson says ordered her to magically move money around and manually enter zeroes in the spreadsheets to cover it up "are still there." Everyone thought they were untouchable. Now they know they are.

But that's Muni. And, to a larger extent, that's San Francisco. The Velma Louise Joneses of the world, purportedly caught siphoning a few drops from the city's tank, may face repercussions for their actions. Statements are made; articles are written; attention is paid.

But the larger players — the ones who actively shape the dysfunctional and corrupt system — they skate. They get promoted. Those hoping to change things for the better are in for a hell of a climb.

"I wanted to see proper management of the project. I wanted there to be a proper estimation of the costs — because that's what our job is," says Atkinson. "I would hope someone would be allowed to come in and do the job. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen."

One day after SF Weekly published its story about the Central Subway, every Muni employee found an email in his or her inbox from the agency's HR director. The message succinctly noted how to contact the city whistle-blower program.

Atkinson, however, didn't receive such an email — as she's a contract worker, not a Muni employee. And that's not inconsequential: San Francisco employees, board members, and former board members are afforded whistle-blower protection in this city. Contract workers are not. The city charter forbids doing business with a contractor that fails to provide health benefits for domestic partners or has dealings in Myanmar. A contractor that fires whistle-blowers, however, is essentially in the clear.

"Everyone working on the Central Subway is a contractor," says Atkinson. "None of them are covered."

Last week, your humble narrator and Rachel Swan co-wrote a feature on the strange and terrible saga of state Sen. Leland Yee. Our thesis was counter-intuitive. Rather than focus on the truly bizarre spectacle of a legislator being accused of masterminding a shipment of rockets and machine guns to the incomparably named Filipino jihadi outfit "MILF," we chose to trace how such a man came to be in a position to betray the public trust in the first place.

A major reason is that San Francisco's government is run like a cartel; the Central Subway is a hobby horse of the city's top influence-peddlers, all of our federal representatives, and, as such, any elected official who cares to remain in that position for the foreseeable future.

There is, as of yet, no plan for the DA to investigate Atkinson's claims. Members of the Board of Supervisors asked if they would look into the matter told us they'd look into looking into it.

San Francisco is so rich and so beautiful that a functioning government would be one more luxury in a city of luxuries. We have become inured to the soft corruption that is endemic here. As such, a multibillion-dollar hole is being drilled through San Francisco's skull and no one — no politician, no journalist, no altruistic cost engineer — can do anything about it, let alone even force us to reckon with how much it's all going to cost.

But that's not LaVonda Atkinson's problem anymore. She lives in Oakland — it won't be her city services being curtailed to make up the shortfall; it's not her property taxes that'll be garnished for Muni bonds; it's not her bus fares that'll be jacked up.

Not showing up for a job in which, she claims, her role was reduced to that of a stenographer-forger feels good. Knowing that nothing has been fixed does not. "I really thought things were going to change," she says.

Alas. If things changed — that'd be a change. First, people have to care.

First, attention must be paid.

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6 comments
sebraleaves
sebraleaves topcommenter

SFMTA claims crime is down on Muni, but it appears to be rising on the Central Subway project, if these claims of cooked books are valid.

There are a few brave souls out there who are trying to Fix the MTA. Let’s hope that LaVonda pens a best-seller. We all can benefit from closer scrutiny on the city agency with the largest most fungible budget. Concerned citizens are uniting to challenge the beast at the ballot box. The lastest effort kicks off on Saturday.

Support the November Ballot initiative: Restore Transportation Balance: http://www.restorebalance14.org/


marcos
marcos

Good work, Joe, you're on a roll.  If we tug at the exposed ends of the corruption string, the entire ball of twine becomes unraveled and we'll be surprised at what falls out. Resistance to the contesting regime of corruption is what unites the entire political class.


This MTA cannot be trusted with the significant resources required to invest in the Muni.  Prop E has been a a failure, insulating the MTA from the Board of Supervisors by ensconcing it in the Mayor's office.  Not one more dollar for the MTA until the governance is opened up beyond mayoral appointees, elected or diverse appointed.


Keep on a'tuggin, Joe, it is time to unravel this corrupt mess.

awayneramsey
awayneramsey

The self-righteous former MUNI employee, LaVonda Atkinson may not care to be reminded that the Christian Holy Book records the following: Luke 16:10, “[She] that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and [she] that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.” That said, you're a psychopath.

jasongrantgarza
jasongrantgarza

Jason Grant Garza ... well surprise, surprise, surprise that some WRONGS are too big to make right and some holes too big to avoid. Just like Ms. Atkinson is discovering .... city hall will fight and as the article states "Everyone thought they were untouchable. Now they know they are." This is the same battle I have had with the Department of Public Health, the Office of Citizen's Complaints, the Mayor's Office on Disability, the Human Rights Commission, etc. Go to youtube and type in Jason Garza to see close to 400 videos of being denied medical services, police services, human right services, etc. As a matter of fact here is a video that shows a false fake restraining order from the Department of Public Health used against me and KNOW that I was NOT protected by SFPD nor received any help https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cP3jCmJFRo&list=TLRY7ngOR4K97h2llzxlKZfLl8pieEgjxy  as a matter of fact when I went to the DA to fie charges ... I was informed that they DID NOT care about my LEGAL RIGHTS https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eN41g_veF8  


So do I have ANY HOPE for Ms. Atkinson ... not just NO but hell NO. Here is a specific example of why ... in 2001 I was illegally arrest and denied medical care and when I took SF to federal court in 2003 (C02-3485PJH) the city testilied committing fraud to have my case dismissed. In 2007 they signed a settlement/confession with the Office of Inspector General admitting fault and guilt YET left their innocent vindicated victim for DEAD.  http://myownprivateguantanamo.com/settle1.html  and as Snowden and Greenwald have all discovered .... the TRUTH against POWER is fought LONG and HARD. It is 2014 and NO ONE from the courts, DPH, SFGH nor City Attorney (Dennis Herrera) have explained. So do I hold hope for Ms. Atkinson ... would you?

Do I expect JUSTICE, REWARD or PRAISE for Ms. Atkinson ... no, just more risk management and soon as James Clapper at NSA recently issued a direct order from Above not to speak. As far as the Whistleblower Complaint ... shall I show you mine ALONG with a signed confession where I was told I was WRONG?


Go to youtube ... type in Jason Garza to see the videos and learn the GAMES and watch the INHUMANITY.

sfmike
sfmike

Thanks for the follow-up, as depressing as it is. I've also been waiting to hear some repercussions from your powerful Central Subway story but there's been zilch, which underlines your "cartel" characterization.

 
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