Another city parking-garage contract is called into question

A small-business owner has filed a lawsuit against Muni chief Nathaniel Ford and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, claiming that backroom lobbying led to the loss of a major parking-garage contract.

It is the third lawsuit in months against The City claiming that shady deals led to the loss of lucrative contracts. A preliminary hearing involving the new operators of the Stow Lake Boat House happened last week, and the city attorney is embroiled in a million-dollar lawsuit filed by the contractor selected to complete the Fourth Street Bridge project.

The latest suit involves Fred Bekele, whose company, Convenient Parking, teamed up with a larger company, Imperial Parking, to operate a handful of SFMTA parking garages. In September 2009, Bekele received a letter that he had beat out larger parking companies Five Star and Pacific Parking Management for a 14-garage contract that included the Financial District’s Golden Gateway Garage.

Pacific Park Management and Five Star each qualified for much smaller contracts, and that is when the lobbying began, according to the lawsuit from Bekele and his attorney Whitney Leigh.

Pacific Park Management immediately began fighting the recommendation, represented by prominent San Francisco attorney Steven Kay. Ford at one time had a private attorney-client relationship with Kay in connection with changes to his employment contract with the SFMTA. Only two days after the announcement of bid winners, Kay’s office sent an email to an SFMTA staffer requesting all information about the process. On that same day, Ford called up staff members to say, “We need to talk about this,” according to the lawsuit.

After a private meeting between the companies failed to result in a compromise, Kay began pushing Ford and the SFMTA staff to reject the contracts and allow companies to rebid, according to the lawsuit.

In March 2010, the SFMTA board did just that, voting to reject all the bids despite a recommendation to award Bekele the most-lucrative contract.

Now, the SFMTA is accepting requests again for the garage contracts, although the number of garages for each of three contracts has been changed so that each has about the same number of parking spots. The winning bids should be announced by August, according to SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose.

Neither the SFMTA nor the city attorney would comment on the lawsuit, but the City Attorney’s Office conducted its own investigation last month and found that the contract was rescinded lawfully.

“These events were understandably frustrating to Mr. Bekele and may have contributed to a public appearance of unfairness,” wrote City Attorney’s Office investigator George Cothran. “But key aspects of the claim are not supported by the evidence revealed through the investigation.”

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

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