|S.F. finds nonprofit broke ban on politics |
Gardeners accused of campaigning -- funding in jeopardy
Ilene Lelchuk, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2004
San Francisco officials moved Thursday to sever ties with a city- funded nonprofit organization after an investigation substantiated allegations the group directed employees to campaign and vote for Gavin Newsom for mayor and Kamala Harris for district attorney last year.
The San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, once touted as a national model for urban job-training, faces being barred from receiving city contracts or grants for at least two years as a result of the findings, according to a letter sent Thursday by City Controller Ed Harrington to the nonprofit group's board of directors.
"The Office of the City Attorney has provided this office sufficient and compelling evidence that the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners directed some of its employees to campaign and vote for candidates in the election for mayor and district attorney for San Francisco in November and December 2003," Harrington wrote.
"By doing so, SLUG, at a minimum, violated ... (a city law that) prohibits organizations receiving funds from the City and County of San Francisco to use any of those funds to participate in, support, or attempt to influence a political campaign for any candidate or ballot measure," he wrote.
The city attorney investigation was built in part on reports of SLUG employees who told The Chronicle that SLUG higher-ups and a top official at a city agency that funds the organization had pressured them to vote and walk precincts for Newsom and told them their jobs depended on him being elected mayor last fall. Some of these employees said they also were urged to participate in a vote drive organized by the Harris campaign.
A spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera said Thursday the investigation found no indication that Newsom or Harris or their campaign staffs had any knowledge of alleged misconduct.
Roger Gordon, president of SLUG's board of directors, said the city was going overboard and that the group would appeal the decision through the city's administrative channels.
"It seems drastic and arbitrary," said Gordon, who complained that he doesn't even know how the investigators reached their conclusion. The city attorney's office won't release the report to SLUG or make it publicly available until an appeal is filed by the organization, city attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey said.
"I'm quite eager to find out what was learned from this six-month investigation," Gordon said. "I don't believe any wrongdoing was done. I think there was an instance of poor judgment ... but I don't think anything criminal, premeditated or coercive was going on."
SLUG, which started as a tiny San Francisco gardening co-op, employs mostly at-risk youth and adults, including ex-convicts in the poor Bayview neighborhood, who tend urban gardens and a 4-acre organic farm in Bernal Heights and do entry-level municipal work, such as street cleaning under contract with the city Public Works Department.
The nine SLUG street cleaners whose allegations were published in January by The Chronicle said the pressure to vote and campaign was focused primarily on supporting Newsom for mayor and was applied by Mohammed Nuru, deputy director of the Public Works Department and former SLUG executive director from 1994 to 2000; Jonathan Gomwalk, the then-executive director; and several SLUG crew supervisors.
Some of the street cleaners said they were transported to City Hall to cast absentee ballots for Newsom -- and directed to turn over their voter receipt stubs after casting their ballot.
Others said they were transported or directed to appear at a Newsom campaign office, where Nuru, a Newsom campaign volunteer, directed them to walk precincts distributing Newsom for Mayor campaign literature.
The city's letter Thursday to SLUG does not mention Nuru or Gomwalk. Gomwalk, a native of Nigeria, was arrested this spring by U.S. immigration officials and faced deportation.
Beyond SLUG'S alleged election improprieties, city officials also are seeking reimbursement of $71,978 in overbillings and for work not performed under its contracts with city agencies, according to a draft of a separate city controller's audit obtained by The Chronicle on Thursday.
The audit found deficient accounting practices and financial controls. SLUG overstated its net income by more than $275,000 for 2001 and owed $643, 000 in payroll taxes, according to the draft audit.
Gordon didn't dispute most of the audit's findings. He said SLUG has turned itself around. It has a new fiscal plan that staved off bankruptcy, new board members, a new executive director and a new accountant, he said. And federal authorities have been paid payroll taxes, he added.
Gordon said SLUG won't die if it loses the city's contracts, although they represent a huge chunk of its budget, about $2.2 million during the 2002- 03 fiscal year. But San Francisco will suffer, he said.
"The city needs programs like SLUG," he said. "We hire people who private employers find it difficult to hire. You can't talk about (ending) gang violence in Bayview or homelessness without thinking about programs like SLUG."
E-mail Ilene Lelchuk at firstname.lastname@example.org