Did San Francisco City Attorney Abuse Its Power Against African-American Landlord Anne Kihagi?

A December 2017 HuffPost article explored the issue of prosecutorial misconduct, noting that “prosecutors are relied upon to police themselves, and it isn’t working… The problem is rooted in a culture of infallibility.” Public prosecutors are legally obliged to serve as arbiters of justice; instead, more and more are interfering with it by abusing their power. Justice quickly takes a backseat to fame, money, and ego.

A recent contentious case in San Francisco raises questions of prosecutorial misconduct that is becoming stunningly common. City of San Francisco v. Anne Kihagi was based on claims of undertaking remodeling work without permits, as well as tenants’ fabricated accusations of interference with quietude. Ms. Kihagi’s only crime, however, was going up against the vicious and powerful City, who made the trial proceedings and aftermath as emotionally and financially painful as possible.

Reaching beyond the accepted scope of his branch, the City Attorney began prodding the Building Department to investigate Ms. Kihagi, though this is not their function, “because she evicts long term tenants,” according to one inspector’s testimony.

Why would a City Attorney be involved in the routine inspection of a building? The truth is that Deputy City Attorney Michael Weiss had already been meddling behind the scenes for months, emailing back and forth with tenants who were directly asking Mr. Weiss to “keep the pressure on” Ms. Kihagi, as in a message from tenant Dale Duncan. These emails indicate not only the unorthodox relationship between the City Attorney and tenants, but that they both intended to use the Building Department as a vehicle to harass Ms. Kihagi.

The goal was to find something to use against her. When this did not work, Weiss assembled a group of nine investigators – including personnel from the fire department, two armed police officers, and plumbing and electrical experts – to bombard Ms. Kihagi’s properties. What nonexistent building violation necessitated armed officers? Moreover, what sort of message was this sending to Ms. Kihagi’s tenants and neighbors about the building’s new owner?

Ms. Kihagi naturally requested her due process in court to determine why the investigators wanted access to her buildings. Instead of obtaining a warrant, the City Attorneys again circumvented the law and wrote directly to Ms. Kihagi’s tenants, even instructing tenants to take the day off from work for what they said would be a routine building inspection. But this was no regular inspection – this was a rogue and remorseless investigation with every intent of bringing Ms. Kihagi down however they could.

On the day of inspection, the City’s team was greeted by a security firm that Ms. Kihagi had hired for her and her tenants’ protection. As a small, migrant, female landlord of color, Ms. Kihagi was likely even more intimidated by this show of brute force than her primarily white tenants. The security personnel again asked the investigators to present probable cause and obtain a warrant, and the City Attorney assured them that they would. Instead, the investigating team went to a different property of Ms. Kihagi’s to continue their search. Luckily, the security team decided on a hunch to check the other properties. When discovered by security, the City representatives maintained that it was a legal search because tenants were granting them access to their apartments.

Even laymen outside of the legal profession can tell you that knocking door-to-door does not replace a court-ordered search warrant. This was a desperate attempt to amass evidence through further imposition of the City’s power and force. It’s only natural that a tenant would cooperate with representatives of the law and City officials. It’s also nearly a guarantee that tenants would blindly accept the word of the City over that of their new and unfamiliar landlord, and this dramatic investigation was certainly sending a pervasive, negative message to Ms. Kihagi’s tenants, permanently shaping their perceptions of her.

Upon conclusion of the investigation in April 2015, the investigating team compiled a lengthy list of repairs to be completed at each of Ms. Kihagi’s properties. Much to their dismay, they could not find much but still intended to make the list of demands as insurmountable as possible. Ms. Kihagi worked diligently to correct any violations, and within two months, nearly all the repairs had been addressed – many even before the City could file its case.

This “inspection” was a mere drop in the pond of the City’s true intentions: to harass Ms. Kihagi for enforcing lease violations, which the prosecution strategically termed as “evicts long term tenants.” The City was not concerned that some of these tenants had been subletting their units for illegal profits of up to $40,000 annually, nor were they interested in following legal protocol for a fair and just trial without interference. What mattered to the City was that Ms. Kihagi, a new owner in San Francisco – and a minority, at that – was protecting her business and not adhering to city’s anti-landlord traditions.

In the key pre-trial hearing in March 2016, Deputy City Attorney Victoria Weatherford even admitted that “there is only one remaining violation” from the original list of repairs. This raised doubts in the originally assigned judge, who was later removed from the case and replaced by Judge Angela Bradstreet, who exhibited a clear bias toward the City and not much interest in factual evidence.

Ms. Kihagi’s case is an example of prosecutorial misconduct on the part of the City Attorney. He has used his position and power to directly influence the Building Department for his own political gains and consistently circumvented the legal system, which has had far more sinister effects than a simple shortcut. This blatant disregard for established and constitutional practice has blurred the lines of San Francisco municipal departments, coerced and galvanized a group of angry tenants, and mercilessly slandered the reputation of a successful California landlord.

If the City Attorney’s Office and elected judicial officials are not impartial, how can the residents of San Francisco trust that justice will be served? You can learn more about prosecutorial misconduct through The Marshall Project, a non-profit journalist organization.

For more information on Anne Kihagi and West 18 Properties, please visit http://annekihagisf.com/.

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.