Corporation Pleads Guilty in Procurement Scam to Defraud City

Written by Luke Thomas. Posted in News, Politics

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Published on February 28, 2012 with 4 Comments

District Attorney George Gascón announced Monday that city-approved vendor Cole Hardware has accepted responsibility for its part in a procurement scam with the City and County of San Francisco. Photos by Luke Thomas.

By Luke Thomas

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a public statement released by Cole Hardware.

February 28, 2012

An approved city vendor pled guilty to two felony charges February 24 for its part in a procurement scam to defraud the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, District Attorney George Gascón announced Monday.

“Our city will not tolerate city vendors who steal taxpayers’ money,” Gascón said during a press conference at the Hall of Justice. “We are pleased Cole Hardware has accepted responsibility for its role in this multi-level scheme to defraud the SFPUC.”

According to court documents, Cole Hardware is one of two city vendors and one of ten co-defendants to have engaged in a conspiracy to bilk the city out of at least $100,000 between 2003 and 2007.  It is alleged that Donnie Alan Thomas, a former SFPUC supervisor who pled guilty last year for his role in the scam, worked in conjunction with Cole Hardware employee Elizabeth Bradford and knowingly submitted fraudulent invoices to the SFPUC with false descriptions of items purchased. The false descriptions allowed Thomas to conceal that he was purchasing items for his personal benefit. Bradford has not pled in the case and awaits a preliminary hearing.

Cole Hardware released a statement explaining its role in the case. “For more than 50 years, Cole Hardware has stood for integrity, excellence and good citizenship in San Francisco. Unfortunately, a few years ago two trusted 20+ year employees submitted misleading invoices to the City, thereby facilitating a fraud by some of the City’s SFPUC workers. At the time, Cole Hardware’s ownership was not aware of this misconduct. When we learned the details we terminated both employees, fully cooperated with the District Attorney’s investigation, adopted new internal policies to prevent future misconduct and offered to reimburse the City for any losses attributable to our employees. Sadly, after more than two years of huge expenses fighting the charges in court, Cole Hardware has reluctantly accepted a plea bargain. This is purely an economic decision. Cole remains committed to our mission of serving those living and working in San Francisco.”

The other city vendor to have pled guilty to fraud is Centennial Distributors, Inc.

Items that are alleged to have been obtained fraudulently through Cole Hardware include decorative landscaping rock, redwood lumber, high performance automobile parts and meat for a party, said lead prosecutor Kelly Burke.

Cole Hardware pled guilty to felony counts of grand theft and forged requests for payment. As part of its plea agreement, Cole Hardware will be required to pay restitution in the amount of $51,544.72 – the fraudulent monies tracked to Cole Hardware – and is required to pay $650 in fines and court fees. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 23 in Department 28.

“The officers of [Cole Hardware] were not individually charged and so they have not accepted individual liability,” Burke said. “This is about corporate liability for actions of an employee – but [Cole Hardware] is still criminally liable for actions that would have been taken on behalf of an employee.”

Assistant District Attorney Kelly Burke.

Then-City Controller Ed Harrington, who is now head of the SFPUC and who was recently called to the witness stand to testify in an unrelated civil case involving a city employee who bilked the city out of at least $482,000 between 1999 and 2001, conceded the city’s internal fraud-detection controls failed.

“When you have collusion, it’s very difficult to catch,” Harrington said. “We are changing all of our procedures within the public utilities commission to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Former City Controller Ed Harrington.

As well as centralizing city purchasing, as many as 400 city employees will receive fraud-detection training, Harrington said.

In addition to Thomas’ plea, Jean Quiroz, John Rauch, Robert Mazareigos and Vincent Padilla, have also pled guilty in the case. Their employment with the city has been terminated. Two of the employees are retired and have had their pensions revoked.

Two other co-defendants, Miles Bonner and Tri-Delta Electric, have not as yet pled in the case and are awaiting a preliminary hearing.

Despite its guilty plea, Cole Hardware remains a city-approved vendor, “but I don’t know what level of business is being done with them,” Harrington said. “As far as I know [Cole Hardware has not been] debarred as a city vendor.”

“Today we have sent a strong message that the City will not tolerate public servants or vendors who attempt to fleece our hard-working taxpayers,” Harrington stated.

Gascón “pleased” with evidence ruling in Sheriff Mirkarimi domestic violence case

Also during Monday’s presser, Gascón was asked to comment on Judge Garret Wong’s pretrial ruling that will allow prosecutors to present video evidence against Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi in his upcoming criminal trial.

Mirkarimi is charged with three criminal misdemeanors – domestic violence, dissuading a witness and child endangerment – stemming from an alleged domestic violence incident involving his wife Eliana Lopez on New Year’s Eve.

The video, recorded by Lopez’ neighbor Ivory Madison on January 1 at Madison’s urging and with Lopez’ permission, contains a statement from Lopez about the incident and shows a bruise on Lopez’ inner right bicep. Mirkarimi’s defense lawyer, Lidia Stiglich, had sought to render the video inadmissible based on hearsay rules of evidence.

“We believe it was the right ruling,” Gascón said.

On the question Judge Wong raised about the release of photos to the media from the video having the potential of “tainting” the jury pool, Gascón said, “That is always a concern when you have a public trial, especially when it involves well-known people within the community. I think it will obviously be the work of the court and the other parties involved to make sure that we do get a jury that would provide a fair assessment of the evidence – certainly that’s the intention of my office and I am sure that will be the intention of the defense and I think we’ll have the right jurists to make sure that occurs.”

Asked about accusations that the District Attorney’s office is trying the case in the media, Gascón responded, “There were photos that were attached to the motion to argue against the motion by the defense to exclude the evidence here. It is important to be able to illustrate the importance of this evidence, and the pictures in this particular case speak very clearly to what the contents of the evidence are.”

“It was important for us to establish very clearly to the court the value and the substance of this case,” Gascón added. “We have to make our argument in order to be able to establish that, in fact, this is important evidence.”

When asked if there have been any discussions about a possible plea agreement, Gascón said, “Certainly we’re always open for discussions. I think it would be beneficial to have those discussions, but we have not heard anything from the other side. Leading up to this point there has been a refusal to work with our office to cooperate so we have not been able to have those types of discussions.”

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.

Luke Thomas

Luke Thomas is a former software developer and computer consultant who proudly hails from London, England. In 2001, Thomas took a yearlong sabbatical to travel and develop a photographic portfolio. Upon his return to the US, Thomas studied photojournalism to pursue a career in journalism. In 2004, Thomas worked for several neighborhood newspapers in San Francisco before accepting a partnership agreement with the, a news website formerly covering local, state and national politics. In September 2006, Thomas launched The BBC, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, New York Times, Der Spiegel, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Magazine, 7x7, San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Bay Guardian and the San Francisco Weekly, among other publications and news outlets, have published his work. Thomas is a member of the Freelance Unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, TNG-CWA Local 39521 and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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Comments for Corporation Pleads Guilty in Procurement Scam to Defraud City are now closed.

  1. Not at the moment, Patrick. But this should all be changing soon.

    I removed the previous errant links.

  2. Oh fiddlesticks.
    Luke, is it possible for us to erase/edit goofs after they’ve posted?

  3. Founded in 1959 by Dave Karp, and now run by his son Rick, COLE HARDWARE is a model small local business. They are socially and environmentally responsible, providing needed goods, services and employment to city residents. It is unfortunate that a handful of criminal city employees and a couple of sleazy employees have tarnished their reputation. Meanwhile the actions of many corrupt corporations and city officials who are responsible for diverting public funds and resources in the billions of dollars over the years remain uninvestigated.
    Support you local business.
    Shop at Cole Hardware.

  4. No news on the case against Go Lorrie’s Airport Shuttle for laundering illegal contributions to the Ed Lee for Mayor Campaign?