Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Nominee for S.F. Homeless Oversight Improperly Billed Government

A 2018 report found that Vikrum Aiyer improperly billed the federal government for more than $15,000 of expenses. Aiyer has been nominated by San Francisco Mayor London Breed to help oversee the city’s homeless commission.

(TNS) — A technology executive nominated by San Francisco Mayor London Breed to sit on a key city board improperly billed the federal government for expenses and put other officials' names and fictitious names on receipts when he was an appointee in former President Barack Obama's administration, according to a 2018 government report.

The report, from the Office of the Inspector General, also alleged that Vikrum Aiyer misrepresented his educational credentials on a resume.

Aiyer, whom Breed tapped this week to sit on the city's new homelessness oversight commission, said in an interview with The Chronicle on Wednesday that the expenses — which totaled more than $15,000 — were "a grave mistake." He said he paid back all the money after the practice came to light. The Chronicle could not immediately reach the inspector general's office for comment.

He said he accidentally listed that he had a master's degree on his resume, explaining that he'd failed to update his resume to reflect that he left a graduate program early to take a full-time job in Washington, D.C.

"This has been out there for a while, and it was just a mistake," said Aiyer, a rising figure in San Francisco politics who is the head of global public policy and external affairs at Heirloom, a carbon capture company. "It's both a teachable moment and also a moment that I don't take lightly."

The mayor's office said Wednesday that she nominated Aiyer because of his policy expertise and community work. Previously, he was vice president of global public policy and strategic communications at Postmates and was a deputy director at the ACLU.

Breed's nomination of Aiyer raises questions about how much weight such missteps should be given years later when someone seeks a prominent public position. The South of Market resident is one of four nominees that the mayor tapped Tuesday to sit on San Francisco's new commission to oversee the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), an agency with a $600 million budget that has for years operated without any formal oversight or accountability.

Del Seymour, a member of the city's Local Homelessness Coordinating Board, praised Aiyer as a nominee and said he is a "good guy" whose experience in the public and private sector makes him a fit for the position. He said the missteps in his past should not disqualify him.

"It does not give me pause," he said of the OIG report. "I know enough about him and talk to him enough, and ... I look forward to working with him."

All of Breed's nominations for the commission must be approved by the Board of Supervisors, which will consider her picks at a public hearing in the coming weeks. It's unclear how this part of Aiyer's past — which was detailed in a Washington Post article in 2018 — will play into the board's decision, and whether it will overshadow other parts of his resume and support from members of the Tenderloin and SoMa communities.

In a Wednesday statement, the mayor's office said that Breed spoke with Aiyer about the issues raised in the inspector general's report, and that the mayor "accepted that he owned his mistakes and has learned from them."

"He acknowledged his efforts and he previously paid the government back for his mistakes, and has learned from them," the statement said. "She believes people who are dedicated to San Francisco should be allowed to serve their community and bring their experiences to that service."

According to the 2018 report, Aiyer improperly billed the federal government on at least 130 occasions from 2014 to 2016 for a taxi service to bring him from his home in Washington, D.C., to his office about 10 miles away. At the time, he was the chief of staff for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Investigators also found that said Aiyer misrepresented his identity on some cab receipts and vouchers, instead putting the name of current and former high-level agency officials or fictitious names instead of his own.

At the time, records show, Aiyer told investigators that he believed taking taxis to work and billing the government for it was standard practice for officials at his level.

The report also found that he used his government-issued credit "card to make over $15,000 in impermissible personal charges during the four-year period between July 2012 and July 2016, including charged expenses at local bars, clubs, coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaners, and at least one liquor store." His card was revoked in 2013 for failing to pay the outstanding balance, the report said.

Aiyer had years of government experience by the time he charged the expenses and should have known better, according to the report.

"The evidence in this case supports a finding that Political Appointee knew it was inappropriate to use the Agency's Cab Company account for personal travel ... and that he knowingly supplied false, fictitious, or fraudulent information to conceal his use of the account for this purpose," the report read.

During the probe, Aiyer told investigators that he was "deeply apologetic for the air of irresponsibility I demonstrated" and said he had taken steps to ensure that such missteps did not occur again. Once his card was reactivated, though, investigators said Aiyer continued to charge impermissible expenses.

In Wednesday's interview with The Chronicle, Aiyer said that, at the time, he did not believe he was doing anything wrong in expensing cab rides, and he reiterated his regret for the actions detailed in the report. He said he learned from the experience.

"I owned it ... and learned from it. It hasn't happened again, and it won't happen again," he said. "There is no better teacher than lived experience, and while my lesson was in a very public way, it gave me appreciation for government oversight, which means I'm coming in with a unique vantage point."

The report said Aiyer resigned from his position two weeks after investigators from the Office of the Inspector General interviewed him in 2016 and before the agency took any action against him. He resigned along with thousands of other Obama political appointees before Donald Trump took office.

"Because our investigation found credible evidence that Political Appointee's misuse of the Agency's Cab Company account violated federal criminal and civil statutes, the OIG consulted with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), but no prosecution resulted," the report said.

Aiyer went on to Postmates, which was later acquired by Uber. He has also served as deputy director for the ACLU's National Political Advocacy Department.

He now serves on the mayor's Workforce Investment Board, which establishes policies for workforce development in San Francisco. Aiyer has been advocating for the Tenderloin and SoMa communities including helping with vaccine outreach during the height of the pandemic.

His name was floated as a potential mayoral appointee for District Six supervisor last year, but Breed instead tapped Matt Dorsey, a former spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department.

Pratibha Tekkey, the director of community organizing for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said she first met Aiyer about two years ago when he was interested in the District Six position. She said he seemed "dedicated" and "made a very genuine effort" to get to know the community. She said the findings of the OIG report should not hold him back from the position, and that she is more focused on his current work and what he has learned from the experience.

"We need someone who is going to be dedicated and who will be fiscally responsible and hold people accountable," Tekkey said. "I appreciate that he owned up to it and that he rectified it."

Aiyer, who said Wednesday that he has "no intention" of running for public office, has increasingly waded into controversial topics in San Francisco, and hasn't always agreed with the mayor. In 2018, he advocated for Proposition C, a gross receipts tax on large companies to fund homeless services. Breed was strongly against the measure, which voters approved.

When Aiyer was deputy director of the ACLU, he penned an opinion piece in The Chronicle supporting Breed's controversial Tenderloin Emergency initiative titled "I work for the ACLU because I want to end mass incarceration. I also support Breed's Tenderloin Plan." The ACLU of Northern California responded in a tweet that "the views expressed were his own and do not represent the ACLU's official position."

In the Wednesday interview, Aiyer stood by his comments, which he said he published in his "own personal capacity." He said his positions prove that he's independent and would bring a fresh perspective to the homelessness oversight commission.

"We cannot create ... a false choice or a binary choice between criminal justice reform or safety on the streets," he said. "We need to overcome debates that pit these conclusions against each other."

If Aiyer's nomination for the commission is approved by the Board of Supervisors, he would serve a four-year term beginning May 1. The oversight board will have direct input on the department's $600 million budget and can investigate the agency's activities. It can also approve or reject most homelessness and supportive housing contracts.

Breed's other nominees for the commission were Katie Albright, a senior adviser for nonprofit Safe and Sound, an organization focused on preventing child abuse; Dr. Jonathan Butler, a research faculty member in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and the Center for the Study of Adversity and Cardiovascular Disease at UCSF; and Sharky Laguana, an entrepreneur and musician.

The Board of Supervisors will choose the remaining three members of the commission.

The commission, created by a November ballot measure, was proposed in direct response to a yearlong Chronicle investigation that exposed dangerous and unhealthy conditions within HSH's housing for formerly homeless people. Aiyer said he is interested in serving on the city's commission because he frequently hears desperate pleas for change from members of the SoMa and Tenderloin communities.

"We need a clear-eyed view on where our current services are going, and how we are measuring outcomes," he said. " San Francisco is one of only a few counties that has seen a decrease in homelessness, but I think there's a reason that citizens voted for this ballot measure, and they would like more accountability and data-driven perspectives."

(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Special Projects