Inside a 'tale of greed' in San Francisco: Bribery scandal leads to 7-year prison sentence

FILE - Mohammed Nuru, then-director of San Francisco Public Works, center, leaves a federal courthouse with attorney Ismail Ramsey, right, on Feb. 6, 2020, in San Francisco. Nuru agreed to plead guilty on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, to accepting bribes and kickbacks to settle a sweeping federal corruption case that has ensnared several City Hall officials and insiders. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
Mohammed Nuru leaves a San Francisco federal courthouse in 2020. Nuru was sentenced to seven years in federal prison on Thursday for his role at the heart of a sweeping corruption case that has ensnared several City Hall officials and insiders. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Federal prosecutors called it "a tale of greed as old as time" — a powerful San Francisco official at the heart of a web of kickbacks, bribery and fraud that stretched across more than a decade.

Mohammed Nuru, a former public works director, was sentenced Thursday to seven years in federal prison for his role in a public corruption scheme that has ensnared at least a dozen San Francisco officials and business figures, eroded trust in City Hall and led to an ongoing FBI investigation.

Nuru, 59, "shook down multiple contractors eager for lucrative city business for well over a million dollars in cash, goods and services over a 12-year period," federal prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed in U.S. District Court on Aug. 18.

He funneled the money and favors toward a vacation ranch in Stonyford, a community near the Mendocino National Forest north of Sacramento, whose mortgage "was partly paid by laundered bribes from city contractors, with a large home custom-built and furnished by city contractors, on grounds maintained with the help of equipment and soil provided by city contractors," according to the memo.

Known as "MrCleanSF" on Twitter, Nuru served as the Department of Public Works' deputy director from 2000 to 2011 before being promoted to lead the department, a post he held until his arrest in early 2020.

In January, he pleaded guilty to defrauding the public of its right to honest services, according to the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of California.

Prosecutors had asked for a nine-year prison sentence, three years of supervised release and a $35,000 fine, seeking to make an example of Nuru, who admitted in his plea agreement that several people paid him in exchange for "favorable official acts."

"San Francisco has experienced other public corruption scandals," the prosecutors wrote. "Yet the sentences imposed in those cases did little to deter Nuru from his conduct. A substantial sentence would send a message to other public officials that using their office for their own personal benefit will result in significant jail time."

U.S. Atty. Stephanie Hinds said Nuru betrayed his duty to the public.

"Nuru owed the people of San Francisco a duty of faithful, honest services," Hinds said. "His abhorrent conduct erodes the public’s trust in its government."

Among the leading figures involved in the scheme was San Francisco-based contractor Walter Wong, who began a corrupt relationship with Nuru in 2008, prosecutors said in a statement Thursday.

Investigators learned that Wong handed over envelopes with as much as $5,000 in cash on multiple occasions and bribed Nuru with more than $260,000 in labor and materials provided to his San Francisco home and his vacation ranch in Stonyford.

The contractor also paid Nuru for multiple trips to China and to South America, where Wong footed the bill for international flights and a stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Santiago, Chile, for Nuru and his then-girlfriend, Sandra Zuniga.

In exchange for the payments, flights and other kickbacks, Nuru structured city requests for project proposals to ensure that Wong's company secured the contract, "by providing Wong with confidential information on competitors’ bids," prosecutors said. He also helped the contractor expedite permit approvals.

Wong and Zuniga, the former director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services and San Francisco's Fix-It Team, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and agreed to cooperate with the investigation, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

Recology, a waste management company headquartered in San Francisco, was also swept into Nuru's schemes.

As public works director, Nuru oversaw the process that set Recology's collection rates, including dumping fees the company charged the city. Recology bribed Nuru with soil deliveries to his vacation ranch, expensive meals and a two-night trip to New York; at his request, the company also gave a nonprofit hundreds of thousands of dollars "that Nuru could access and use for other purposes," spent $60,000 to fund public works holiday parties, hired Nuru's son and then funded a paid internship for him at a nonprofit, prosecutors said.

Two former Recology executives, Paul F. Giusti and John F. Porter, were charged with bribery and money laundering. Giusti pleaded guilty last year to a conspiracy charge and is cooperating with the investigation, and Porter's case is pending, prosecutors said.

Recology and its subsidiaries also resolved corporate charges brought against them through a deferred prosecution agreement in which the companies paid a $36-million fine and agreed to adopt enhanced corporate compliance programs and to fully cooperate in the City Hall corruption investigation, prosecutors said.

Nick Bovis, a restaurateur, provided free meals and entertainment to Nuru, his family and associates, and about $22,000 in appliances for Nuru's ranch in exchange for Nuru's help getting city contracts. Bovis pleaded guilty in May 2020 to wire fraud and honest services wire fraud and agreed to cooperate in the investigation, prosecutors said.

As of Thursday, 12 people and multiple corporate entities had been charged in the federal probe into corruption at San Francisco City Hall, including former Public Utilities Commission General Manager Harlan Kelly.

According to a federal indictment filed in October 2021, Kelly and Victor Makras, a prominent San Francisco real estate investor, were charged with bank fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud. Their cases are pending.

In their sentencing memo, Nuru's attorneys painted a picture of a public servant and single father who regretted his actions and took responsibility for his corrupt behavior. They sought a three-year prison sentence, arguing that it would "provide just and appropriate punishment" in addition to the "significant collateral consequences his conduct has caused, including the impending loss of his pension, the forfeiture of his [Stonyford] property, and his negligible job prospects upon release."

"Again, I want to apologize to the people of San Francisco for my misconduct," Nuru said in a statement provided to The Times on Thursday by his attorneys. "Now that sentencing is behind me, I plan to concentrate on my family and my health in the near term. I look forward to the time that I can return to serving my community and work to repair the damage that my actions caused both the City and my family."

Nuru will begin serving his prison sentence Jan. 6. After his release, he will serve three years under supervision.

He is also required to give up his property in Stonyford, prosecutors said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.