SF Recreation and Park

Chan Raises Questions About Park Groups’ Accounting

By Thomas K. Pendergast

San Francisco’s Parks Alliance and Recreation and Park Department are both facing scrutiny from District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan about their use of donations, after subpoenaed records were made public in an NBC Bay Area news report. 

The story by investigative reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken says some of the money raised by the Parks Alliance – a non-profit organization dedicated to bettering the City’s parks – for a scholarship fund and other youth programs, instead paid for Rec. and Park staff retreats. The report “detailed transactions involving a different fund related to the Parks Alliance’s annual Crab Fest event,” according to Derbeken.

Both SF Parks Alliance and Rec. and Park officials deny any wrongdoing or improprieties in handling revenues raised by the Crab Fest.

Copies of Parks Alliance records obtained through Chan’s office show that while these events in 2018 and 2019 did indeed contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Recreation Scholarship Fund, there was a documented Internal Revenue Transfer of $64,412.42 from the Crab Fest to the General Fund, which appears to act as a slush fund for various Rec. and Park expenditures. 

Examples of how that fund was used include $7,556 for a Rec. and Park executive staff retreat at Cavallo Point Lodge in 2018; $6,112 for a “Clement Tours and Tr-travel exp. For Executive Leadership Annual Report”; and at least $6,987 for a 2019 staff retreat in Seattle. 

“The question that I raise is that this money, for those who donated through the Crab Fest, they donated because they believe in the cause of scholarship or they think that they are currying favor with a City department or buying influence,” Chan said. “And in this case it shows that this money does go to a slush fund account, which then looks like the executive staff can spend however way they want. There doesn’t seem to be any protocol, threshold, how they spend it, why they spend it, where they’re spending it and, in this case, we see that it is going to luxury retreats and travel. 

“And so, those are my questions; are those gifts to the executive staff? And, is this appropriate?”

Rec. and Park Spokesperson Tamara Aparton responded that the Cavallo Point expenditure was an executive staff training retreat. She also claimed that within the two-year period covered by the $64,000 transfer, Rec. and Park contributed $230,000 to the Recreation Scholarship Fund.

“The integrity and transparency of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department is unimpeachable,” Aparton said. “Our books have always been open for anyone to view. Any allegations or insinuations to the contrary are patently false, We are proud of our conduct as public servants and our adherence to all city laws and ethical guidelines. Our track record is clear. We have nothing to hide.

“Each year, proceeds were allocated exactly as advertised,” she explained. “In 2019, 80% of proceeds went directly to our scholarship program. The remaining 20% went to department operations, including youth soccer in the Bayview, holiday trees at Civic Center Plaza and Golden Gate Park, and World Cup viewings for the public,” Aparton said.  

“It also included professional trainings and employee recognition events for the men and women who worked tirelessly through the pandemic to improve our parks,” she continued. “We are happy to invest in their learning and morale, which helps them deliver great services every single day.”

Fallout from the arrest of former SF Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru on allegations leading to a federal charge of wire fraud – after he was caught up in a wide criminal corruption investigation by the FBI – has put the SF Parks Alliance in the spotlight after revelations that it was among the “friends of” type of non-profits involved in moving money around for Nuru’s department.

Nuru agreed to a plea bargain and pleaded guilty to a single count of fraud related to a failed attempt to bribe an airport commissioner. He is now awaiting sentencing. 

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds said Nuru admitted to a “staggering amount of public corruption. Instead of serving the public, Nuru served himself.”

Officials at the Parks Alliance did not respond to a request for comment for this article, however, Board Chair Liz Farrell previously stated they have not been accused of any wrongdoing as part of the investigation into the government corruption.

“I also wanted to say that, throughout this whole process, we are committed to being transparent. We are committed to working with the City so that we can continue to improve our parks and public spaces,” Farrell said. “The City controls the contracts and we follow the terms of the contracts, so there is a lot of information that came out that is really a City issue.”

An auditor with the City Controller’s Office, Amanda Sobrepena, said that from 2015 through 2020, the SF Parks Alliance received $11.9 million from multiple city departments and serves in this role for both SF Public Works and Rec. and Park.

In March of 2021, the Parks Alliance threatened to withdraw more than $2 million in funding for a playground in Chan’s district if she did not recant statements she made when she and District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin called for an investigation into the organization’s finances. The playground was scheduled to open in the fall of 2022 and that money represented about two-thirds of the project’s budget, according to the Chronicle.

Chan said in her mind that move just further confirmed suspicions she already had since the Observation Wheel in the Music Concourse area of the park got a four-year extension.

“That just got me starting to question why this Ferris wheel needs to stay beyond its intended time, which is only for the 150th anniversary of Golden Gate Park, which is really just supposedly for the year of 2020, for one short year,” Chan said. “And yet Rec. and Park suddenly is asking for an additional four-to-five-year term. I didn’t quite understand why. Why was that necessary?

“Then by asking those questions and combing through the contract, I recognized that all the revenue, unlimited revenue, was going toward Parks Alliance. It didn’t make sense to me why a private entity, a social contractor operating a Ferris wheel only for a year and now suddenly getting some extension contract and whatever revenue that was generating, instead of directly going into the City department, was now going to a third party,” Chan said. “It didn’t make sense to me at all…. Why Parks Alliance? Why are they getting that fund? It’s public dollars,” Chan said.

“I think the Richmond Playground threatening letter issued by Parks Alliance, which since then they apologized for the tone and the mannerism, it tells you their thinking and approach more than anything.”

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