S.F. Lawyer Claims She Was Fired for Investigating Suspected Cost Rip-off

In 2012, while her investigation was ongoing, Hoeper's claim alleges that Herrera demoted her, closed the investigation and then fired her earlier that year. She claims that her demotion and firing were in retaliation for her own efforts to expose financial improprieties in the prosecutor's office – including her suspicions that someone was receiving kickbacks.

Herrera is out of town and cannot be reached for comment. In an email, his spokesman Matt Dorsey said the claim reflected “baseless allegations of misconduct by a disgruntled former employee.”

“Although we generally cannot discuss personnel matters, the circumstances of Ms. Hoeper's separation were thoroughly reviewed by outside counsel,” he continued, “and we are confident that the San Francisco District Attorney's Office will prevail over the case will be decided.”

Haase declined to comment and Rothschild did not respond to a request for comment.

Tree roots and sewer pipes

Hoeper's allegations involve several small plumbing companies whose activities have led to a flood of complaints from homeowners to police, city officials and even the FBI, according to documents and interviews. For years, salespeople from the companies went door-to-door in neighborhoods, claiming that the roots of city street trees were damaging homeowners' sewer lines and offering to replace them for free.

To get the job done, homeowners were asked to file legal claims with the state attorney general's office for up to $10,000. After the claims were settled, the homeowners were supposed to pay the money to the plumbing companies that replaced the sewer lines.

Some people who encountered the sellers suspected a scam.

Michael Zack and Odilon Vasconcelos, former operators of a hair salon on Guerrero Street, said in interviews that in 2011, a salesman for a plumbing company called Drainbusters Plumbing obtained their signatures under false pretenses, creating a $10,000 claim for one New hair salon submitted sewer line for her salon.

The claim was “ridiculous,” Zack said, because there was nothing wrong with the salon's plumbing and the nearest street tree was a sapling so far down the block that its roots couldn't possibly have reached the salon. Additionally, the men do not own the building and therefore cannot legally claim the repairs, he said. Still, prosecutors approved the lawsuit, court records show.

Zack was suspicious, emailed Mayor Ed Lee and other officials and eventually called Haase at the DA's claims office. Zack said the officer told him that the salesman's behavior was “unethical, but not illegal” and he asked Zack to turn over the $10,000 damages settlement that the city had paid him and Vasconcelos to the plumbing salesman .

A review of public records shows that from 2009 to 2011, San Francisco paid $8.9 million on about 1,100 claims in these cases.

At first, Zack and Vasconcelos were reluctant, but they ultimately paid the plumbing company the damage money after a small claims court judge ordered them to do so, records show.

In another case, the owner of a Mission District restaurant called police on a Drainbusters vendor in 2012 after he allegedly trespassed on a sewer cleanout, according to a police report. Apparently the seller wanted to convince the property owners that tree roots were damaging their sewers.

Riad Khano, owner of Drainbusters, said his company only performed necessary, city-approved repairs to sewer lines. The city saved significant costs by paying private sanitation companies to do the work, he claimed, calling Department of Public Works crews notoriously inefficient. The city has stopped paying for repairs to private sewer lines because of budget problems, he said.

A few people have complained about his vendors, Khano said, but the complaints are unfounded.

Claim the FBI tipped her off

In her lawsuit, Hoeper says the FBI alerted her to the alleged billing fraud in 2011 after agents received a series of complaints from homeowners. Hoeper hired two investigators to investigate.

She concluded that the city had no legal obligation to pay the claims. No city in California routinely pays for tree root damage to private sewer lines, she said in her lawsuit, and neither has San Francisco for most of its history. But beginning in 2002, prosecutors began approving these claims, sometimes within days of their filing.

She claimed that her investigation found case after case where sewer lines were replaced even though there was no sign of damage or the bills were clearly padded.

In 2012, six months after it began, Hoeper said she told Herrera about her investigation. Herrera asked her for a written report, she said. Shortly after reviewing the matter, he dismissed her as the main trial representative and transferred her to the public prosecutor's office, according to her statements. She said she was fired last January, the day Herrera was sworn in for his fourth term.

A review of public records shows that from 2009 to 2011, San Francisco paid $8.9 million on about 1,100 claims for damage to sewer property or tree care problems that the city described as sewer line damage, which included root damage to private sewer lines could belong. The average payout was about $8,000. Around 140 applications were rejected. In a few cases, the payments went to plumbing companies. Normally the payment went to the property owners.

Public records also show the city stopped paying for private sewer repairs shortly after Hoeper said she reported to Herrera.

City records show that on June 20, 2012, Edward Harrington, then general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, issued a memo stating that no “tree root intrusion” claims should be paid, it said unless he or the city's construction manager personally approved them in advance.

Since then, court records show prosecutors have successfully defeated several small claims lawsuits from homeowners seeking damages for tree root damage to their sewer lines. In court, the city's lawyers contend that the city was never responsible for the cost of such repairs.

Herrera, the city's top law official since 2001, has built an image as a champion of good government and consumer protection. Hoeper was one of Herrera's closest collaborators for years.

In 2003, when a legal newspaper named Hoeper one of the “Top 50 Women Trial Lawyers” in California, Herrera issued a press release praising Hoeper for her efforts to combat public corruption.

Hoeper's claim states that Rothschild, the head of the claims office, was outraged by her investigation into his unit.

According to her account, Rothschild confronted her and angrily declared, “I will not tolerate this.” In another encounter before her demotion, Hoeper claimed that Rothschild accused her of “picking up” his assistant and threatened a “hunger strike, if she continues with the investigation.”

In her lawsuit, Hoeper is demanding reinstatement and back pay and other damages.

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copied by Christine Lee and Nikki Frick.

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