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Private eyes' hidden cameras help city nab power crew

Flickr photo by Husky

It was a letter from an anonymous whistle-blower that first led San Francisco authorities to target the Power Crew, the five city electricians now awaiting trial on charges of misappropriating huge sums from taxpayers through an alleged theft scheme.

But court records show that the evidence that propelled the probe came from a battery of hidden cameras installed near the crew’s remote Treasure Island headquarters by private investigators retained by City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

The time-stamped video obtained by the D.L. Price investigative firm documented the crew’s workday comings and goings. When the videos were lined up against timecards, major discrepancies became evident, according to an affidavit by district attorney’s investigator Matt Irvine.

Details of the crew’s alleged theft binge were reported by California Watch Sunday in a story that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle and was featured on KQED radio’s California Report, KABC-7 TV and KCBS news radio.

The report details how the highly paid electricians charged taxpayers for hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal purchases, ran a private contracting business while on city time and even partied with prostitutes in a bedroom installed in their office. The men have pleaded not guilty. No trial date has been set.

According to Irvine’s affidavit, here’s how they got caught:

In 2007, a city Public Utilities Commission official received the anonymous letter accusing crew leader Donnie Thomas of moonlighting on city time. The PUC took the matter to Herrera, who retained the private investigators. They surreptitiously put up hidden cameras on two buildings at Treasure Island, the decommissioned U.S. Navy Base in San Francisco Bay where the crew was headquartered. On occasion, the video didn’t square with the crew’s time sheets, especially when it came to charged overtime.

For example, on Aug. 24, 2007, electrician Miles Bonner and two other crew members whose names are redacted from court records were paid four hours of OT for fixing street lights on Treasure Island, from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. But on the video, none of the men showed up for work until 6 a.m.

Two weeks later, Thomas, Bonner and crew member Vince Padilla put in for five hours overtime on TI starting at 2 a.m. Again, nobody arrived at work until 6 a.m.

The private investigators also used surveillance teams to track the crew.

On Sept. 6, 2007, when Bonner was supposed to be at work at 7 a.m., he showed up at 10:45 a.m., hitched a trailer to a truck belonging to Thomas and drove away. Investigators looked for Bonner and Thomas all day but could not locate them on Treasure Island or elsewhere. Nevertheless, both Thomas and Bonner charged the city for a full days’ work, records show.

In all, Thomas either came to work late or left early on 17 of the 23 days on which the investigators tailed him, according to the affidavit.

Eventually, the evidence was turned over to District Attorney Kamala Harris, who launched  the criminal probe.

Later, in a taped interview with investigator Irvine, one of the suspects said faking overtime was relatively easy because the crew’s supervisor “had no idea how much labor ought to be involved in any project, and so she never questioned any of the Treasure Island time sheets,” the affidavit says.

In the interview, the crew member, John Rauch, who today is awaiting trial on a theft charge, described the supervisor, who was stationed in downtown San Francisco, as an intelligent woman who was “kind of out of her realm of expertise” when it came to supervising high-voltage electricians.

The city “put her in a position she wasn’t knowledgable about … I guess (Thomas) just blew her over,” the affidavit quotes Rauch as saying. The supervisor’s name is redacted from the affidavit. A PUC spokesman identified the power crew’s supervisor as Marla Jurosek and said she was reassigned after the scandal unfolded.

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