San Francisco — The U.S. District Court of Northern California has ruled a whistleblower lawsuit brought by a local union and two longstanding City employees can move forward against the City of San Francisco for an alleged “systematic campaign” of harassment, discrimination, and intimidation against union members for exposing Mohammed Nuru and SFPUC Community Benefits Program corruption.
United States Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler issued a ruling that allows Laborers Union Local 261 of San Francisco to move forward with the vast majority of its complaints against the City of San Francisco.
“We are pleased with the Court’s decision and look forward to immediately starting depositions and discovery to get justice for members of Local 261 who have been outrageously retaliated against by the City for their honest efforts to shine a light on city hall corruption,” said Angela Alioto of the Law Offices of Mayor Joseph L. Alioto and Angela Alioto. “This is justice in action. We are going to investigate all the corrupt actions of the City and the retaliation it took against the union members.”
Judge Beeler ruled July 6 that Local 261 has standing to seek injunctive and declaratory relief on behalf of its members, and to pursue relief on its own behalf for alleged damages it suffered, as a result of the City’s retaliatory conduct. A claim based on the Meyers-Milias Brown Act has been dismissed so that a state administrative hearing can proceed in September 2022. Claims brought by individual plaintiffs and City employees Theresa Foglio-Ramirez and Juan Rivera will also proceed.
Local 261 filed the lawsuit against the City in February 2022, alleging it retaliated against the Union for exposing the corrupt practices of disgraced Public Works Director Mohammad Nuru, indicted SFPUC Executive Director Harlan Kelly, former SFPUC Assistant Manager Juliet Ellis, and other San Francisco City and County officials.
“Our clients will prepare diligently to show why the City must be accountable for its actions against them and other hardworking and loyal City employees,” said attorney Jordanna Thigpen, Of Counsel to the Alioto firm. “It is now more important than ever that our governmental institutions be held to the highest standards under the law,” Thigpen added.
The 5,500 member International Laborers Union Local 261 said retaliation began as a result of its complaints about corruption in multiple City agencies. Local 261 first reported corrupt acts to city officials, including then City Attorney Dennis Herrera (now head of the SFPUC) and others in 2018, all of whom turned a blind eye, Alioto said.
“The City of San Francisco has waged a systematic campaign of revenge against Laborers Union Local 261,” Alioto said. “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.”
When the union’s complaints were ignored by the City, it turned to the Department of Justice, which took them seriously, leading to the federal investigation and indictments that are ongoing today, Alioto said.
The Marina Times and editor Susan Dyer Reynolds first exposed the SFPUC community benefits scandal in July 2020 and have been reporting on it ever since. Late last year, a SF Controller’s Office independent public integrity audit found serious issues with the Community Benefits Program and confirmed many of Local 261’s findings and complaints.
DPW’s Workforce Training and SFPUC’s Community Benefits Programs Exposed as Corrupt
The lawsuit claims Local 261 discovered that there were at least two components to the corruption in the DPW’s workforce training program and the SFPUC’s “community benefits” program.
Instead of these city departments actually creating workforce training programs or providing community benefits, both DPW and SFPUC systematically funneled taxpayer monies to friends, family members, and non-profit organizations, the lawsuit claims.
“As the investigation from Local 261, federal authorities, and members of the media and public has now revealed, the SFPUC Community Benefits Program is nothing more than a slush fund. Since 2020, the program has made at least $34,200,000 in expenditures, with no oversight, no audit, and no accountability,” according to the lawsuit.
“The net result of this corruption has been the destruction of critical workforce development programs that were set up to provide Black residents of San Francisco with quality union jobs subject to the Minimum Compensation ordinance, and (instead) replace them with nonprofit “friends and family” of those involved in the wide-ranging fraudulent scheme,” according to the complaint.
Retaliation for Whistleblowing was Wide Ranging Against Union, Union Members
The complaint was filed in San Francisco Superior Court, Laborers International Local 261, et al. v. City and County of San Francisco, on behalf of Local 261, and two City employees and Local 261 Members, Business Agent Theresa Foglio-Ramirez and DPW Chief Steward, Juan Rivera (featured photo), for egregious discrimination, harassment, and retaliation suffered by Local 261 members, and by Ms. Foglio-Ramirez and Mr. Rivera, for their whistleblowing activities.
The complaint claims the retaliation against the union was wide-ranging, including making false allegations of a conflict of interest against union leader Vincent Courtney when he served as a member of the SFPUC board of directors (the false claims were later dismissed by the California Fair Political Practices Commission) to denying bathroom and handwashing facilities to union members who clean up homeless encampments, public restrooms, and city streets.
Local 261 members have suffered a variety of adverse employment actions because of their whistleblowing activities, including but not limited to (1) being harassed and discriminated against because of their status as Local 261 members; (2) ostracized and retaliated against by other City employees and managers because of their status as Local 261 members; and (3) being deprived of sanitary, safe public restroom facilities, putting their lives at risk during the pandemic. Plaintiff Juan Rivera was demoted and deprived of his pay as a supervisor, and directly informed it was because of Local 261’s whistleblowing actions, according to the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs’ claims that will proceed include claims for gender discrimination and retaliation based on whistleblowing (42 U.S.C. § 1983), California Labor Code § 1102.5, and declaratory relief.
The case is Laborers International Local 261, et al. v. City and County of San Francisco, Case No. 22-cv-02215-LB.