Records reviewed by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit show that thousands of dollars raised by the San Francisco Parks Alliance scholarship fund, ended up paying for the city's Recreation and Parks staff retreats instead.
The Parks Alliance, a major non-profit dedicated to bettering the city’s parks, became ensnared in the city’s ongoing corruption scandal involving Public Works. Federal investigators say the alliance maintained a $1 million off-the-books fund that then Public Works director Mohammed Nuru frequently tapped to pay for employee parties, events and swag. Nuru recently pleaded guilty to wire fraud and is awaiting sentencing. No Parks Alliance officials have been implicated in the probe.
Newly disclosed documents – sought under subpoena by city supervisors critical of the Alliance -- detail transactions involving a different fund related to the Parks Alliance’s annual Crab Fest event. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, the Crab Fest had been a major affair in the city, drawing top city officials, community leaders and contractors, raising more than $100,000 annually for parks “scholarships.”
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Those scholarships pay the fees or other costs for low-income youth and seniors to enjoy summer programs and other activities at city parks. But critics say substantial sums ended up being spent elsewhere.
The documents show that in 2019, more than $64,000 that had been raised by the Crab Fest fund was transferred into a “general” fund.
That general fund had paid more than $5,000 in costs associated with the parks department staff retreat held in 2018 at Cavallo Point, The Lodge at the Golden Gate. Alliance records also reflect more than $5,000 from the general fund paid for another park staff gathering in 2019, at a hotel in Seattle.
“This raised a lot of questions,” said City Supervisor Connie Chan, who has been a vocal critic of the Parks Alliance’s role in city politics. “People thought that what they're donating to is a scholarship fund,” she said, but the money instead “allowed Parks Alliance to create a slush-fund account to allow the executive staff of the Recreation and Parks Department to use and tap into those funds for whatever it is, at their leisure.”
In a statement, Recreation and Parks officials denied wrongdoing. They said while the bulk of the money raised went for scholarships, about 20% of the crab feed proceeds went for Recreation and Parks operational costs, including girls baseball leagues, World Cup soccer viewings, training retreats and worker appreciation events.
“We are happy to invest in their learning and morale, which helps them deliver great services every single day,” the department said in a statement.
At a hearing last year, Lisa Bransten, director of partnerships for the parks department, said Parks Alliance backing “certainly played a part” in “boosting job satisfaction to 86%’’ among the staff.
Even so, Supervisor Aaron Peskin has joined Chan in questioning the ethical implications of shifting money from a scholarship fund to a separate pot controlled by parks officials.
“I've long had questions about the Parks Alliance and their practices” Peskin said. “This is just confirming all of the suspicions that I’ve had for a number of years.”
Peskin worries that the Crab Fest event could allow for an end run around city ethics rules that otherwise restrict direct contributions to city officials by firms doing business with the city.
“What is particularly troubling is the fact that there are a number of companies that do direct business with the Recreation and Parks department that are making donations to the Parks Alliance that are flowing directly back to the Recreation and Parks department and their general manager,” Peskin said.
The parks department said in a statement that its “integrity and transparency…is unimpeachable.”
“We are proud of our conduct as public servants and our adherence to all city laws and ethical guidelines. Our track record is clear. We have nothing to hide.”
The Parks Alliance non-profit said in a statement that it has cooperated and turned over all documents sought by the city’s subpoena, but Chan and Peskin are skeptical that the city has all the documents. They say they are awaiting a complete review by the City Controller’s office of the data turned over so far to determine next steps.