Lawsuit alleges union members targeted with retaliation for whistleblowing on SF City Hall corruption

One of San Francisco's labor unions filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the city saying their members have been targeted for blowing the whistle on corruption.

It's all part of the scandal that took down the city's former head of the Department of Public Works, Mohammed Nuru.

Every day a small army of city workers from the Department of Public Works and the Public Utilities Commission work to keep the streets clean. But now Laborer's Union 261, which represents them, has filed a lawsuit against San Francisco saying they were systematically targeted and harassed because their leadership spoke up about corruption. 

"261 blew the whistle, things happened, people got investigated by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, and now 261 has taken the brunt of that in the form of retaliation," said attorney Angela Alioto.

Workers say starting in 2018 they raised red flags when they saw contracts awarded to friends and family of the then head of the DPW, Mohammed Nuru. Nuru has since pleaded guilty to corruption charges. 

The former head of the Public Utilities Commission, Harlan Kelly, is facing federal charges. City worker say then City Manager, Naomi Kelly, who has since resigned and is married to Harlan Kelly, was among those penalizing the union workers for whistle blowing. 

"I was told by high ranking officials, 'look, you're in the doghouse'," said Theresa Foglio-Ramirez from Laborers International Union Local 261. "You know, Naomi dug in, Naomi Kelly, the former City Administrator. You know, they were very angry about us blowing the whistle."

Among the harassment, Local 261 says workers were forced to endure was lack of access to bathrooms. They say workers were even penalized for going outside of their assigned work area to find a restroom. A problem that only got worse when COVID struck. 

"Once the pandemic hit they didn't give us bathrooms prior to the pandemic," said Foglio-Ramirez. "But, once all the businesses shut down then there was no place for the workers to go."

The city attorney's office released a statement reading in part, "The city is committed to rooting out corruption wherever it exists. Once we are served with the lawsuit, we will review it and respond in court," and the city's department of public works would not comment on specific allegations, but said they do not retaliate or discriminate against workers.

Now the issue will go before a judge and jury to decide. "This is a stunning case, because not just the corruption, I mean, people will tell you, a lot of city contracts are corrupt," said Alioto. "The indignity to these working men and women is stunning."

The attorneys for the union say they are suing for money damages, and to get the city to change its policies, and to make sure the rules against retaliation are enforced.