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Accusations of Fraud in S.F. Mayoral Election Spur Probes

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Gavin Newsom has earned praise from some critics for key appointments and calls for reform, but the contentious and surprisingly close election that brought him to power last month may have been marred by voter fraud, according to allegations that are now the subject of three separate investigations.

Inquiries by the city attorney and California’s secretary of state are underway to determine whether city street cleaners participating in a welfare-to-work program were coerced to campaign and vote for Newsom in December.

And newly elected Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris opened her own investigation after a group of activists who had worked for Newsom’s opponent alleged that minority residents had been intimidated and prevented from voting, and that some ballots may have been cast for Newsom in the names of dead people.

Charges of voter fraud are nothing new for San Francisco, which has seen a stream of similar allegations of machine-style politics, particularly under former Mayor Willie Brown. That residue of alleged corruption is precisely what Newsom’s administration has vowed to eliminate. But, as one supervisor noted, political cultures don’t change overnight.

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“There seems to be kind of a hangover effect after the election,” said Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, who backed Newsom’s opponent -- Board of Supervisors President and Green Party member Matt Gonzalez -- but gave Newsom good grades so far.

“The political culture in San Francisco is very deep-rooted, and it’s going to take the new mayor a long time to do the housecleaning that he’s promised,” Sandoval said. “There’s still quite a long way to go. Unfortunately, there are probably going to be other things discovered.”

Allegations of improper inducements to voters and other voter fraud have “been here as long as the city’s been here,” Sandoval said. But now, “people are expecting clean government and smart government.”

The allegations that street cleaners were compelled to stump and vote for Newsom were brought to light by a San Francisco Chronicle investigation. Nine members of a city street-cleaning crew said the deputy director of the San Francisco Department of Public Works and supervisors of a nonprofit gardening organization funded by that city agency had pressured them into walking precincts for Newsom and had driven them to City Hall to vote during their work hours, telling them that their jobs depended on a Newsom win.

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One has said that a supervisor looked over her shoulder while she marked her ballot, and several said they had been told to hand over their voting stubs. Both Mohammed Nuru, the public works official, and Jonathan Gomwalk, executive director of the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, have denied wrongdoing. Neither returned calls from The Times.

San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Hererra began an investigation before the accounts were publicized, and Secretary of State Kevin Shelley -- a Newsom supporter -- opened his own investigation Jan. 16, calling the accusations “serious in nature.”

Shelley, the state’s top elections official, said his Voter Protection and Fraud Investigation Unit would review the allegations of electioneering and voter intimidation, which constitute violations of the California Elections Code. The investigations are also exploring whether the Department of Public Works and the gardening group spent taxpayer money on election activity -- which is illegal -- and whether the gardening group was in violation of its nonprofit status.

Last month, a group calling itself the People of Color Caucus came forward with other allegations of violations that its members said had plagued precincts and disproportionately affected minority voters. The organization is composed of former Gonzalez campaign workers but is not currently affiliated with Gonzalez.

Among the group’s allegations: Some Latinas wearing Gonzalez buttons were told they were not allowed to vote; others who learned that their names were not listed at their usual polling places were not informed that they could vote by provisional ballot; and a number of provisional ballots were hand-delivered to likely voters outside the polling places, in violation of the law.

Newsom has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing and urged a thorough investigation. His spokesman, Peter Ragone, said that no Newsom campaign worker or administration official had been implicated by the allegations.

“There was no tolerance during the campaign for those types of behaviors or activities, and there will be no tolerance for it” while Newsom is mayor, Ragone said. “We feel strongly that, if there is ample evidence to warrant an investigation, it should go forward. It should be swift and fair.”

Meanwhile, though the hard work of carving through the city’s $300-million deficit and eliminating government waste lie ahead, Newsom has received praise by appointing women to a series of top posts, including Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and interim Police Chief Heather Fong. San Francisco is now the only major U.S. city with women at the helm of both public safety agencies. Newsom also chose a woman, Michela Alioto-Pier, to fill the seat he vacated on the Board of Supervisors.

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Alioto-Pier, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a skiing accident, becomes the first disabled member of the board. She is deeply rooted in San Francisco -- her grandfather was Mayor Joseph Alioto -- and shares many of Newsom’s moderate views. But she is also close to the more liberal members on the board who opposed Newsom, and many believe she will build consensus.

Newsom last week also pledged to cut 15% from his $168,867 annual salary and called on other city officials earning more than $125,000 a year to do the same.


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