S.F. taxi chief’s ethics questioned

Controversy continues to swell around the Taxicab Commission as questions about its de facto director loom a week after his boss — and former roommate — was fired.

Tristan Bettencourt, 49, a senior administrative analyst who is heading the agency since Heidi Machen was voted out of office by the Taxi Commission on June 28, admits to a felony burglary conviction from 1989.

But it was 17 years ago and is only coming to the surface now because he’s the target of anorganized smear campaign, Bettencourt said.

“That’s part of a stressful past,” Bettencourt said. “I got it dismissed.”

In 2002, after successfully completing his probation and avoiding any run-ins with the law, his attorney was able to get the conviction dismissed by a judge. That means that when applying for jobs, Bettencourt can answer “no” when asked if he has ever been convicted of a felony.

That doesn’t sit well with some members of The City’s taxi community, who say Bettencourt shouldn’t be at the helm of the agency tasked with regulating taxis.

“I feel like he did the deed,” said Carl Macmurdo, president of the Taxi Permit Holder’s Group. “His ethics are questionable.”

Bettencourt, who worked as a cabdriver for 13 years, said one of his fares in 1989 accused him of stealing a $100 necklace from her home.

While it was his instinct to fight the accusation, the overworked public defender representing him advised him to accept a plea bargain, according to Bettencourt.

“I got five weeks of work furlough” instead of state prison, he said. “I did not steal the necklace.”

Bettencourt said some holders of medallions, also known as permits, are trying to undermine the work he and Machen were undertaking to clean up the taxicab industry in San Francisco.

Medallions are thin pieces of tin that license the operation of a cab. There are fewer than 1,400 in The City and each can earn its owner up to $6,000 a month. The medallions come with the rule that an owner drive his or her cab for 800 hours a year, although the permit can be leased out the rest of the time.

Some medallion holders don’t want to be stripped of their cash cow permits, Bettencourt said, even if they’re being used improperly,

“They’re trying to hold on to their medallions, so they’re digging up dirt” Bettencourt said. “I’m a soft target. It makes me less credible and makes Heidi less credible.”

Four members of the commission voted last week to oust Machen, a day before Mayor Gavin Newsom realigned the board with two new picks and reappointed the two members who voted to keep Machen.

Newsom backed the creation of the panel in 1998, when he was a supervisor. He appointed his former aide, Machen, to lead the commission in August.

Machen referred inquiries about Bettencourt’s conviction to his attorney, Joyce Jordan.

The 1989 felony is not an issue for the mayor, said Peter Ragone, a spokesman for Newsom. It was 17 years ago and has since been dismissed, Ragone said.

Cab agency under fire for cronyism

Eight years after then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom backed the formation of the San Francisco Taxi Commission, the mayor’s creation is under fire for cronyism.

Not only was the director who was ousted last week once the roommate of the man now temporarily at the helm, she was also once Newsom’s aide.

Heidi Machen was appointed by Newsom to run the commission in August, less than a year before four commissioners voted her out of office.

Machen’s reinstatement is expected following last week’s realignment of the board by the mayor.

While she is away, her friend and former roommate, Tristan Bettencourt, is running the commission. He earns about $65,000 a year in salary, he said. Bettencourt was hired as an analyst a month after Machen was appointed by the mayor last year, he said.

While Machen and Bettencourt no longer live together, they worked together until last year at the San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority, Bettencourt said.

“I worked there three and a half years” as an assistant to the CEO, Bettencourt said.

He got the idea to apply there because Machen was also working at the authority, he said.

Machen is listed as the public affairs officer for the organization, an outdated Web page shows.

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