Former San Francisco Public Works Director Admits To String Of Briberies And Corruption During Years In Office
Mohammed Nuru Agrees To Plead Guilty To Committing Honest Services Wire Fraud As SF DPW Head
SAN FRANCISCO – Former San Francisco City Hall public official Mohammed Nuru agreed in a plea agreement filed today to plead guilty to honest services wire fraud, announced Acting United States Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds, Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Craig D. Fair, and Internal Revenue Service–Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Mark H. Pearson.
Today’s development follows the January 15, 2020, 79-page federal complaint filed against then San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Mohammed Nuru charging him with public corruption and describing a long-running scheme involving multiple bribes and kickbacks during his tenure as DPW’s Director. Nuru, 59, of San Francisco, served as DPW’s Director from 2011 until charges were brought against him in 2020. Nuru was also charged in a second federal complaint filed on January 28, 2020, with lying to a federal agent in the course of the San Francisco City Hall corruption investigation. Today, in anticipation of entering his plea agreement resolving his cases, Nuru was arraigned today on an information – a charging document – that charges him with his sweeping scheme to defraud the San Francisco public of its right to his honest services in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343 and 1346.
“Mohammed Nuru admits to a staggering amount of public corruption in his plea agreement,” said Acting United States Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds. “For years, Nuru held a powerful and well-paid public leadership position at San Francisco City Hall, but instead of serving the public, Nuru served himself. He took continuous bribes from the contractors, developers, and entities he regulated. He now faces a prison sentence for enriching himself at the expense of the public as he sat in high office. Federal authorities will investigate public corruption wherever it leads in San Francisco and throughout the district.”
“Today’s announcement, while significant, is by no means the end of the FBI’s investigation into the corrupt conduct we have uncovered in San Francisco city government," said FBI Special Agent in Charge D. Fair. “We will continue to hold accountable those who seek to personally benefit by corrupting the fair administration of public business and we will persist in our commitment to protect the integrity of the institutions that serve the people of San Francisco.”
“Our communities place great trust and responsibility in our public figures. Mohammed Nuru ultimately betrayed this trust when he abused his power to defraud the City and County of San Francisco and its people,” said IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Mark H. Pearson. “We will not tolerate public corruption and will hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. Today’s guilty plea is a direct result of the hard work and dedication of IRS Criminal Investigation and our law enforcement partners towards obtaining justice.”
Nuru signed today’s plea agreement and the agreement has been filed with the United States District Court in preparation for Nuru’s upcoming appearance to enter his guilty plea orally. As the plea agreement outlines, before Nuru was appointed Director of DPW in 2011 he became DPW’s Deputy Director of Operations in 2000. The Deputy Director of Operations is DPW’s second most senior position, behind only the Director. In 2014, Nuru was also appointed to the Board of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) and eventually served as its Chair. As Deputy Director and eventually Director of DPW, and as Chair of the TJPA, Nuru exercised great influence over San Francisco (the City) business and policy, including public contracts, permits, and construction projects. His power and influence extended beyond DPW’s jurisdiction to numerous other City departments and agencies, making him one of the most powerful public officials in the City.
Nuru admits in his plea agreement to a spectrum of public corruption involving bribery and kickbacks he received while in DPW leadership. His admissions are summarized below:
In his plea agreement, Nuru admits he received a stream of bribes from Walter Wong. Wong did business in the City through Walter Wong Construction, among other businesses. In exchange for Wong’s bribes, Nuru helped Wong secure City contracts. Sometimes Nuru provided Wong with confidential insider City information on competitors’ bids or specifications. At other times Nuru allowed Wong to structure the requirements for the City’s Request for Proposals (RFP) for projects ahead of time, to tailor their requirements to ensure that Wong’s company would be the most-qualified bidder. Nuru also helped Wong expedite permit approvals.
Nuru admits in his plea agreement that his “corrupt relationship” with Wong began in approximately 2008 when Nuru was the Deputy Director for Operations at DPW. Wong installed a gate for free at Nuru’s San Francisco home in exchange for future business with DPW and the City. Wong continued to perform construction services for free, or nearly free, at Nuru’s San Francisco home and later primarily at Nuru’s vacation ranch property in Colusa County.
Nuru admits that, in exchange for Wong providing construction and other things of value, he exercised his official influence and took actions to benefit Wong. In one example outlined in the plea agreement, Nuru used DPW’s emergency contract process, which did not require a public bidding process, to direct construction work to Walter Wong Construction on a navigation center located at 1515 South Van Ness Street and on the Jelani House (a housing shelter), resulting in City payments to Wong’s company during fiscal years 2017-2018 and 2019-2020. In another example, Nuru used his position and official influence to direct DPW, the Market Street Association, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to purchase Christmas lights from one of Wong’s businesses, regularly leading to tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of purchases.
Nuru further admits in his plea agreement that:
o between approximately 2008 and January 2020, Wong provided in excess of $260,000 in labor and materials for work on Nuru’s San Francisco home and Colusa County ranch.
o Wong paid for home furnishings for Nuru, including a chandelier, kitchen appliances, and furniture.
o Wong paid for Nuru to travel to China multiple times and to South America on one occasion, which included reimbursing Nuru in cash for the cost of international flights. Wong paid for Nuru and Sandra Zuniga, his girlfriend at the time, to accompany Nuru to South America and paid for their stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Santiago, Chile.
o On multiple occasions, Wong handed Nuru envelopes of cash, often as much as $5,000 at a time.
Walter Wong was charged in June 2020 with conspiracy to defraud the public of its right to honest services and with conspiracy to engage in money laundering, both involving Nuru. Wong entered a guilty plea and agreed to cooperate with the government’s San Francisco City Hall corruption investigation.
Multimillion-Dollar Mixed-Use Development:
Nuru admits he received free travel, gifts, and benefits, for working with Walter Wong to use Nuru’s official position to benefit a billionaire developer from China, referred to as DEVELOPER 1 in the plea agreement, who was developing a large multimillion-dollar mixed use project in San Francisco. Wong, who worked as a consultant for DEVELOPER 1 on several of his large developments in the City, introduced Nuru to DEVELOPER 1. Nuru met with Wong, another Department of Building Inspection official, DEVELOPER 1, and others over dinner on multiple occasions and discussed DEVELOPER 1’s projects. Nuru never paid for the dinners. Nuru admits that he also met with DEVELOPER 1 multiple times in China. According to Nuru, DEVELOPER 1 owned multiple hotels in China, including five-star hotels. Nuru received gifts from him, including free hotel stays.
Nuru admits that, in exchange, he used his official position and influence to help DEVELOPER 1 obtain necessary approvals for his large, multimillion-dollar mixed-use project. Nuru admits, among other things, that he told Sandra Zuniga that DEVELOPER 1 was upset because he had spent large amounts of money and had provided “a whole list of things” that Nuru said “we need to get done[.]” Nuru admits that whenever DEVELOPER 1 or one of his employees notified him of an issue, Nuru directed one of his DPW managers to solve the problem and expedite the process. Nuru also used his official influence with other City officials to solve problems encountered by DEVELOPER 1 that fell within the other City officials’ area of responsibility.
Recology Inc. is a waste management company headquartered in San Francisco and the parent company of Sunset Scavenger Company, Golden Gate Disposal & Recycling Company, and Recology San Francisco (referred to as the “SF Recology Group” and, collectively with Recology Inc., as “Recology”). Recology Inc. provided refuse collection and disposal services for residential and commercial customers in the City, as well as for the City itself, through the SF Recology Group.
As Director of DPW, Nuru presided over the process governing the rates Recology could charge in San Francisco. Nuru recommended to the Rate Board whether to approve any rate increase for Recology. Nuru also influenced “tipping fee” rates that Recology charged DPW when DPW dumped materials at a Recology facility, Sustainable Crushing. Nuru could approve, deny, or affect operational changes that Recology wanted to make in San Francisco which, Nuru admits in his plea agreement, gave him the ability in his official capacity to affect Recology’s business.
Nuru admits he accepted numerous valuable items from Recology and used his official position to help Recology’s business. Among other things, Recology paid for soil to be delivered to Nuru’s ranch property in Colusa County, for expensive meals for Nuru, and for a two-night trip to New York on the City’s business in December 2017.
Nuru admits that he also requested Recology to pay, and Recology did pay, hundreds of thousands of dollars to a San Francisco non-profit (Non-Profit A) in the form of donations for a cleaning program known as Giant Sweep. Non-Profit A would then donate the payments to another non-profit that administered funds for the Giant Sweep program. Nuru admitted he could then access the funds for a variety of other uses—including procuring goods and services for staff meals and appreciation events, volunteer programs, merchandise, community support, and events from specific vendors—in addition to their originally designated purpose for Giant Sweep. From 2014 through the end of 2019, Recology donated approximately $150,000 per year for Giant Sweep, in $30,000 installments—for a total of approximately $750,000.
Nuru also admits he requested Recology hire his son. Recology hired him and paid him, between 2015 and 2017, approximately $17,000. Recology also funded a paid internship for Nuru’s son at a different non-profit organization and, between 2017 and 2018, paid approximately $23,600 to fund the paid internship.
Nuru admits he requested that Recology fund his DPW holiday parties. Between 2016 and 2019, Recology paid approximately $60,000 for that purpose. Recology made the payments through the Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation, a non-profit organization run by Nick Bovis.
Two former Recology executives, Paul F. Giusti and John F. Porter, have been charged in this investigation. Giusti was charged in November 2020, and Porter was charged in April 2021. Both men were charged with bribery of Nuru and money laundering involving Nuru. Giusti pleaded guilty in August 2021 to engaging in a conspiracy to bribe Nuru and is cooperating with the government’s San Francisco City Hall corruption investigation. Porter’s charges remain pending.
The three subsidiaries of Recology, Inc. now have new leadership and have implemented enhanced corporate compliance programs to end any corrupt practices. Recology resolved corporate charges brought against them through a deferred prosecution agreement with the government. Pursuant to the agreement, the companies paid a $36 million fine, agreed to implement enhanced corporate compliance programs, and agreed to fully cooperate in the government’s San Francisco City Hall corruption investigation.
Nuru admits in his plea agreement that he received multiple bribes from restaurateur Nick Bovis. The bribes were in exchange for Nuru using his official acts and influence to assist, or to promise to assist, in public business opportunities with the City. The bribes included free meals and entertainment for Nuru, his family, and associates at restaurants owned by Bovis and thousands of dollars in free appliances for Nuru’s ranch property. Nuru also anticipated and expected tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from proceeds that Bovis would earn from the City concessions or contracts awarded due to Nuru’s official acts or influence to assist Bovis.
In one plea agreement example, Nuru admits he helped Bovis in a plan to win a bid for a restaurant lease at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Bovis expected to make money from the SFO concession, and Nuru expected Bovis would continue to provide bribes in exchange for Nuru’s help with the airport concession process and other public contracts.
In another example, Nuru admits he gave Bovis a price list of appliances that Nuru wanted for his ranch in or about 2018, a time when Bovis was seeking Nuru’s assistance with the SFO concession and other City business opportunities. Bovis purchased the appliances and brought them to Nuru’s ranch. Nuru accepted them as an exchange for his continued official acts and influence to help Bovis, and he did not pay for them. The appliances were worth approximately $22,000.
Nick Bovis pleaded guilty in May 2020 to wire fraud and honest services wire fraud involving Nuru and agreed to cooperate in the government’s San Francisco City Hall corruption investigation.
Nuru admits in his plea agreement that he accepted a gold Rolex watch from Bay Area businesswoman Florence Kong. The watch was valued at approximately $36,550. Nuru admits he used his official position to benefit Kong’s businesses and did so in exchange for the Rolex and for cash, free meals, and other items of value provided by Kong, including an iron fence that Kong installed at Nuru’s ranch. In one example, Nuru states that he used his official position to direct business to SFR Recovery Inc., a recycling business that Kong owned.
Florence Kong was charged and pleaded guilty to bribery of Nuru and to making false statements to FBI agents during the investigation. She was sentenced in February 2021 to one year and one day in prison and ordered to pay a $95,000 fine.
Balmore Hernandez, William Gilmartin, & Alan Varela:
Nuru admits in his plea agreement that between 2013 and January 2020 he accepted a series of bribes and kickbacks from Balmore Hernandez, William Gilmartin, and Alan Varela in exchange for past and future official actions benefitting their City business ventures. Nuru received free meals and entertainment, cash, and free labor and materials for his ranch – including a brand new tractor. Nuru also expected to receive a portion of the proceeds from anticipated City contracts awarded to them or their associates as a result of Nuru’s official acts or influence on their behalf.
In one example, Nuru admitted he helped Varela and Gilmartin’s joint venture win a DPW supply contract and a related lease with the Port of San Francisco (the “Port”) to operate an asphalt recycling plant and a concrete plant on the Port’s land. In the early stages, Nuru helped the group prepare their proposal by providing them inside non-public information on the project. The non-public information was delivered to Hernandez through emails or phone calls or through regular dinning meetings in San Mateo with Gilmartin and Hernandez. Gilmartin paid approximately $20,000 for the dinners, with the parties agreeing that Nuru’s dinners were worth approximately $7,000.
Nuru admits that Gilmartin promised him $100,000 for his official assistance to pressure a large developer to select one of Gilmartin and Varela’s joint-venture partners for a large project in San Francisco. The large developer complied with Nuru’s request because, as Nuru admits, the large developer needed DPW approvals for the project and for other large developments in the City.
Nuru admits that he received approximately $25,000 in cash from Hernandez and received approximately $250,000 in free labor and materials from Hernandez at Nuru’s ranch.
Nuru also requested the group give him a tractor. In February 2019, Alan Varela delivered a new tractor to the Nuru’s ranch, a benefit valued at approximately $20,000.
Balmore Hernandez was also charged in connection with this investigation. He pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud in October 2020 and agreed to cooperate in the government’s San Francisco City Hall corruption investigation.
William Gilmartin was charged in connection with this investigation. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud in May 2021 and agreed to cooperate in the government’s San Francisco City Hall corruption investigation.
Alan Varela was charged in connection with this investigation. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud and was sentenced in September 2021 to two years in prison and ordered to pay a $127,000 fine.
Sandra Zuniga Money Laundering:
Nuru admits that in or about 2010 he bought a 10-acre lot in Colusa County and developed it into his vacation ranch with free labor and materials provided by City contractors seeking favors from him. Nuru admits he also used the proceeds of his crimes to pay the mortgage. To conceal and launder the source of the proceeds, Nuru states he funneled the money through Sandra Zuniga who made the monthly $1,000 mortgage payments out of her checking account. Nuru admits that from 2014 through August 2017, he typically gave Zuniga approximately $1,000 per month, generally in cash, and she deposited the money into her bank account. She then made the $1,000 payment towards the mortgage. In this way, Zuniga paid at least $42,000 of the mortgage.
Zuniga was charged and pleaded guilty in March 2021 to engaging in a conspiracy to launder money with Nuru. She agreed to cooperate in the government’s San Francisco City Hall corruption investigation.
Nuru admits in his plea agreement that around 2018 he accepted a bribe of $20,000 in cash from a former government employee in exchange for Nuru using his position to help a particular person obtain an engineering job with the City. Nuru received the cash in three installments of $10,000, $5,000, and $5,000. Ultimately, the individual failed to maintain employment with the City.
Nuru also admits he accepted cash bribes from a prominent developer in San Francisco. The cash bribes usually consisted of a few thousand dollars. The developer would later call Nuru when he had any problems with DPW-related approvals or other matters that Nuru could help resolve.
In his plea agreement, Nuru admits guilt and agrees to plead guilty to one count of honest services wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343 and 1346. If convicted of the count, he faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 or not more than the greater of twice the gross gain or twice the gross loss of the crime.
The government indicates in the plea agreement its intent to ask for up to a 108 month (9 year) sentence for Nuru. However, any sentence imposed by the court will follow only after the court’s consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.
Today, in a procedural step towards orally entering his guilty plea, Nuru was arraigned and pleaded not guilty before United States Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero to an information charging him with a count of honest services wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343 and 1346.
Nuru’s next appearance is currently set before United States District Judge Susan Illston on January 14, 2022, at which he is currently scheduled to formally enter his guilty plea pursuant to his plea agreement. Nuru remains out of custody on bond.
This case is part of a larger federal investigation targeting public corruption in the City and County of San Francisco. To date, 12 individuals and three corporate entities have been charged, including two high-ranking San Francisco public officials, Nuru and Harlan Kelly. Multiple city contractors and facilitators have been charged. Allegations in the complaint filed against Harlan Kelly assert that he received thousands of dollars in airfare, meals, jewelry, and travel expenses, along with repair work on his house.
The case is being prosecuted by the Corporate and Securities Fraud Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The case is being investigated by the FBI and IRS-Criminal Investigation.