Opinion: How to avoid going to prison for public corruption in San Francisco

To avoid hard time in the future, SF officials must learn lessons of corrupt past

By Gil Duran

Francis J. Heney once tried to clean up corruption in San Francisco. This earned him a bullet in the head.

It happened in a packed courtroom. As Heney spoke to a colleague, a former San Quentin inmate named Morris Haas shot him below the right ear. Heney grabbed at the wound, blood streaming through his fingers.

“Send for my wife,” he said.

“Prosecutor assassinated in courtroom,” read a front page headline in the Humboldt Times on Nov. 14, 1908.

Heney, the lead prosecutor in what became known as the San Francisco graft trials, survived. His assisting attorney — Hiram Johnson — eventually won a conviction against Abe Ruef, the corrupt political boss and mayoral henchman who funneled bribes to the Board of Supervisors and witnessed the shooting from his seat at the defendant’s table. (In 1910, Johnson got elected governor.)

Some believed Ruef had arranged the hit, and the shooter quickly turned up dead in his jail cell with a .22 caliber round in his skull. Facing uncomfortable questions about these circumstances, police chief William J. Biggy went overboard from a patrol boat in the bay and died. The San Francisco Call, the crusading newspaper behind Heney’s investigation, blamed The San Francisco Examiner for stoking the assassination attempt.

“District Attorney Langdon and other men of prominence in the community have placed the responsibility for the shooting down of Francis J. Heney on the Examiner and other journalistic advocates of crime and criminals,” read a front page editorial headlined “Hearst’s paper incited Haas to shoot Francis Heney.”

The Examiner front page on Saturday, Nov. 14, 1908, detailed the courtroom shooting of attorney Francis J. Heney while he was the lead prosecutor in a corruption scandal known as the San Francisco graft trials. (Examiner Archives/Newspaper.com)

The Examiner front page on Saturday, Nov. 14, 1908, detailed the courtroom shooting of attorney Francis J. Heney while he was the lead prosecutor in a corruption scandal known as the San Francisco graft trials. (Examiner Archives/Newspaper.com)

I came across this lively episode in history while researching the ever-relevant topic of public corruption. Earlier this month, former San Francisco Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru plead guilty to fraud in a deal with federal investigators. Nuru’s plea is the latest in a corruption scandal involving numerous city officials and allegations of flagrant corruption. With Nuru cooperating, we may see some dramatic developments in the scandal.

Metal detectors now keep most guns out of courthouses, but it seems not much else has changed since Heney’s day. Ruef received a 14-year sentence for taking bribes from corporate interests. A century later, Nuru will do time for nearly the exact same crime. Ruef’s scheme involved payoffs from wealthy corporate interests like the all-powerful railroads, while Nuru’s involved $1 million in bribes from waste management company Recology.

Why do good public servants go bad?

“Simple greed,” said James J. Wedick, a retired FBI agent who specialized in corruption cases.

Wedick gained renown in California for taking down multiple state legislators and aides in Sacramento during an investigation known as “Shrimpscam” in the 1990s. After hearing that it was possible to get a bill through the California State Legislature for around $30,000, Wedick and the FBI incorporated a fake shrimp business in need of friendly legislation and doled out $85,000 in bribes to crooked politicians and their aides. The sting operation caught over a dozen corrupt public officials, including legislators who eventually did prison time.

“A number of times I’ve had journalists ask me: ‘Are you surprised that it has happened again?’” said Wedick of endemic public corruption. “The answer is no, because people are always looking to make a buck, they’re always looking to take a shortcut. That motivation is going to be there.”

The temptations of corruption abound in public life, even for relatively small fish. Once, early in my career as a political aide, someone offered me a sweet deal on a house. Fortunately, I had the sense to reject the entreaty, along with the other suspicious freebies that occasionally gravitate toward those in proximity to power.

Wedick described public corruption as a slippery slope in which relatively minor transgressions can snowball into serious crimes.

“It never starts with someone just walking in and giving you $250,000,” Wedick said. “It starts with that free lunch … attending a baseball game … and it grows from there. It’s an insidious relationship that just continues.”

Analyzing The City’s most recent corruption scandal, Wedick said the fact that the corruption unfolded over a long period of time suggests that figures like Nuru felt they could act without consequences.

“What usually happens is that there’s been a void where authorities have not demonstrated that they are actively looking at public corruption matters or fraud in city contracts,” Wedick said. “When you have a void or a space or time where someone has not been charged, the forces of evil will erupt.”

This latest eruption follows a familiar pattern. Powerful public officials succumb to the lure of dirty money. Immoral corporate interests happily oblige them, greedy for favors. A coterie of more junior officials aid and abet the scheme.

Corruption and conspiracy tend to generate complicated labyrinths of relationships and transactions that can be hard to explain. It takes motivated crusaders with long attention spans to keep track of winding narratives that can evade the interest of most citizens until they end in dramatic consequences.

The graft trials came to fruition after former Mayor James Phelan, sugar magnate Rudolph Spreckels and newspaper editor Fremont Older recruited Heney to investigate. Today, we have the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office — along with dogged reporters like Joe Eskenazi of Mission Local and Michael Barba of the San Francisco Standard — leading the charge. (And unlike in 1908, The Examiner Editorial Board now strongly supports anti-corruption investigations.)

The spectacle of convictions, plea deals and prison time should scare City Hall straight for a while, but corruption usually grows back. Some idiotic future cohort of officials will forget the lessons of the past and engage in conspiracy, bribery and fraud once again.

As an antidote to corruption, I think every person entering public service should become a regular visitor to FBI’s Public Corruption website. Every week, someone — a formerly high-ranking city attorney in Los Angeles, a senior policy advisor in Austin, Texas, a contractor in Connecticut — sees their once-promising career end in disgrace via a triumphant FBI press release.

Wedick urges public officials to “learn how to say no” to rule breaking and freebies.

“There is no free ride,” he said. “You have to draw that line.”

But he said those who get ensnared in corruption should remember “it’s not the end of the world.” They can always come clean and choose to cooperate, said Wedick, who added that he still gets Christmas cards from cooperating witnesses who went on to lead productive lives post-conviction.

“Admit your wrongdoing, cut your losses and get on with your life,” he said.

Ruef was the only person to do time as a result of The City’s graft trials. The corrupt mayor he served, Eugene Schmitz, was convicted of extortion and removed from office, but he won on appeal and then got elected to the Board of Supervisors. Ruef was paroled after four years and went on to write a newspaper column about his career at City Hall. Once worth over a million dollars, he reportedly died flat broke and forgotten in 1936.

Heney died in 1937. Few remember his heroic anti-corruption efforts today but perhaps — in light of present circumstances — San Francisco should consider renaming a school in his honor.

Gil Duran is Editorial Page Editor of The Examiner.

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