San Francisco

Union Lawsuit Alleges Retaliation for Whistleblowing in SF City Hall Corruption Probe

SF City Hall

Union officials representing San Francisco Department of Public Works and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission workers on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging the city is denying workers basic rights as retaliation for a widespread federal corruption probe.

The lawsuit has been filed in San Francisco Superior Court by the Laborers International Union Local 261, as well as union members Theresa Foglio-Ramirez and Juan Rivera.

The suit alleges that union officials began complaining to city leaders and others starting in 2018 about suspicions the SFPUC and DPW department heads were diverting public funds to nonprofit organizations. In particular, the union found issues with the DPW's workforce training program and the SFPUC's community benefits program, alleging both programs were funneling taxpayer money through the organizations.

But, the suit alleges, no action was taken, prompting union officials to instead bring their complains to federal authorities, which in turn, sparked a widespread corruption probe that eventually became public after former DPW Director Mohammed Nuru was arrested and charged with wire fraud in January 2020.

The federal corruption investigation remains ongoing and has, so far, resulted in charges for a dozen other defendants, including former SFPUC general manager Harlan Kelly.

The suit alleges the city has harassed and discriminated against union members in retaliation for the whistle blowing. In addition, the suit alleges, the city continues to deny DPW and SPUC workers who clean up homeless encampments and city streets access to bathrooms and handwashing stations.

"Like a true bully does, management of the city concentrated its efforts on the most vulnerable targets: Local 261's members, the lowest-paid city employees who work at the Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission," the lawsuit said. "The retaliation has taken an especially egregious form in the middle of the historic pandemic; with full knowledge of the safety violations and the threat to these workers' lives, the city is refusing to provide these employees with safe and sanitary facilities to perform basic hygiene and to take breaks."

"The city of San Francisco has waged a systematic campaign of revenge against Laborers Union Local 261," said attorney Angela Alioto, who is representing the plaintiffs. "The union blew the whistle on the corruption and the city has targeted Local 261 leadership and its members in an effort to silence and destroy them." The suit is asking the court to order the city to provide union workers with "safe and sanitary restroom facilities and handwashing facilities," as well as a court order mandating the city respond to all of the union's public records requests.

The City Attorney's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit.

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