Mohammed Nuru gets 7 years in prison

Disgraced former public works czar Mohammed Nuru will serve seven years in prison after pleading guilty to a federal fraud charge, a judge ordered Thursday afternoon, closing a chapter in a corruption scandal that has ensnared senior officials and business heavyweights, and shattered public confidence in the city government.

Judge William Orrick read the sentence in a San Francisco courtroom so crowded that people stood in the aisles and spilled out into the hallway. Some wiped their eyes as the judge announced his decision. In addition to incarceration, Nuru will serve three years of probation, 100 hours of community service and pay a $35,000 fine.

Nuru stood silently next to his lawyer on Thursday. Orrick ordered him to surrender to authorities on Jan. 6, potentially at a facility close to his family in San Francisco — an accommodation his attorney, Miles Ehrlich, requested in light of the former public works director’s medical conditions. . He has diabetes and recently had a heart attack, Ehrlich said in court.

Federal prosecutors sought to set the example of Nuru, 59, seeking a nine-year prison sentence. In a lengthy court memorandum, prosecutors argued that a “substantial” sentence would help deter others who might be tempted to use their office for personal gain. They described Nuru as “a quintessential trickster”.

The proposed sentence was triple the sentence sought by Nuru’s defense lawyers, who sought three years’ imprisonment, combined with the likely forfeiture of his municipal pension. As the two sides prepared for Thursday’s hearing before Judge William Orrick, a complicated portrait of Nuru emerged from their dueling documents.

He emerged as a power-hungry bureaucrat with sole dominance of a city department that oversaw many lucrative contracts, which Nuru admitted to handing out to friends and cronies in exchange for cash and other bribes. wine. Yet friends who sent letters of support also portrayed him as a dedicated public servant and a single father who gave in to everyone in his orbit and whose largesse contributed to his downfall.

The prosecution and defense have addressed the impulses that have tugged at Nuru throughout his career. He “cultivated the image of a man of power, a life-changer and a giver of favors” by controlling the purse strings at Public Works, prosecutor Alexandra Shepard said during the determination hearing. sentencing Thursday. Ehrlich stressed the importance of balancing “both sides of the ledger” – the clean and the corrupt – in calculating Nuru’s sentence.

“You’ve made the city’s bidding, permitting and decision-making a joke,” Orrick told Nuru during a raunchy speech in which he invoked the 12 years – from 2008 to 2020 – which Nuru spent exchanging preferential treatment and confidential information on tenders for international travel, jewelry, premium wine, cash envelopes, kitchen appliances and construction work at her ranch in the county of Colusa, a sprawling home that Nuru partly funded with laundered kickbacks, according to the memorandum.

He persisted in this conduct even as former state senator Leland Yee and former city supervisor Ed Jew were convicted of bribery, Orrick and the prosecution noted. When FBI agents pulled Nuru out of a security line at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, he first agreed to cooperate – then turned around and informed friends who were potential targets investigation, prompting his re-arrest in January 2020. Earlier this year, Nuru pleaded guilty to a federal fraud charge, sparked by an allegedly unsuccessful attempt to bribe an airport commissioner.

“During my time on the bench, I had to convict people for really horrible things — gang killings, drug dealing, really deadly stuff,” Orrick said. “In many ways, what you have done is at least as reprehensible, in my opinion.”

Nuru was the first senior official shot dead in a gradually widening City Hall saga, with a web of allegations that includes around a dozen other key players – including the former head of the Public Utilities Commission Harlan Kelly, who pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges, and Mayor of London Breed, who was not charged with any crime but admitted accepting gifts from Nuru.

Kelly’s wife, Naomi Kelly, resigned as city administrator – San Francisco’s highest unelected government post – after her husband’s arrest, although she will not face it. to criminal charges.

Former building inspection chief Tom Hui also left after an investigation by the city attorney’s office found he granted preferential access and treatment to a permit consultant who admitted have defrauded. Sandra Zuniga, the former manager of the city’s Fix-It team and former love partner of Nuru, resigned and later pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to launder money after being charged with helping Nuru withdraw financial proceeds from his schemes.

“The sad thing is he wasn’t alone,” state Assemblyman Matt Haney told The Chronicle. “The entire apparatus of city government has been polluted by his corrupt behavior.”

Haney frequently clashed with Nuru while serving as city supervisor whose district included the trash-strewn Tenderloin and Downtown neighborhoods, a quality of life issue Haney said Nuru overlooked because he spent so much time manipulating the city government to serve his cronies. After Nuru’s 2020 arrest, Haney lobbied for various anti-corruption measures and tried to derail public works by establishing a sanitation department, which is still the subject of litigation at the city ​​Hall.

Principal among the bribes Nuru received was $260,000 in construction work on businessman Walter Wong’s ranch; a John Deere tractor and implements from Balmore Hernandez, Alan Varela and William Gilmartin; a $36,550 gold Rolex watch from businesswoman Florence Kong and an annual donation of $150,000 from the city’s garbage company, Recology, which Nuru has split between an anti-litter campaign by public works and a personal slush fund, the memorandum says.

Former Recology vice president John Porter was indicted in July on corruption charges, while another company executive, Paul Giusti, pleaded guilty in 2021. San Francisco restaurateur Nick Bovis, who , according to prosecutors, regale Nuru with $22,000 in appliances for the ranch, plus meals, entertainment, and kickbacks from his dealings with the city, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and wire fraud from Honest Services in May 2020. Kong pleaded guilty to bribing Nuru and making false statements to the FBI, and Hernandez, Varela, and Gilmartin all pleaded guilty to wire fraud. .

On Thursday, spokespersons for the FBI said in a tweet that their investigation into the “long-running kickback scheme” was ongoing. Published Public Works a Twitter feed saying the department was “moving forward with unwavering determination to regain the public’s trust”, with expanded ethics training.

During the time he maneuvered various pay-for-play deals, Nuru was one of City Hall’s most senior officials, a bespectacled janitor who cleaned the streets before every tape-cutting, organized parties for his staff and went by the nickname “Mr. Clean.”

Beloved and admired by many, he maintained a cadre of supporters, as evidenced by the more than 100 family members, friends, public works employees, mentees and former colleagues who sent letters to Orrick on Nuru’s behalf. , praising his dedication as a single father and his work developing community gardens in Oakland and San Francisco.

In a letter, veteran city bureaucrat Ed Reiskin — who headed San Francisco’s public works department and municipal transportation agency before he was named Oakland city administrator in 2020 — called Nuru a worker. and efficient at work, and gregarious in social settings.

“The times we came together over colleagues, food and family, Mohammed was generous with his culinary talent and shared his parents’ cultures,” Reiskin wrote, referring to Nuru’s Nigerian father and British mother. .

Nuru’s lawyers chronicled his story of public service, his life raising five children after his wife fell into drug addiction since his arrest. Nuru struck a contrite tone in a letter to Orrick, which began with an apology, recapped his autobiography, and attributed his obstruction of the federal investigation to what he now sees as misguided loyalty to his friends. He also pointed to his current health issues, which could be exacerbated by a lengthy prison sentence, he and his lawyers said.

“As I have made a career of giving those who have broken the law a second chance, guiding them, training them and encouraging them, I look forward to undoing the damage I have caused and working hard to win back the confidence of the people in our democratic systems and the confidence of the court in me,” Nuru wrote.

The entire episode – which still appears to be unfolding – “left an indelible stain on our city,” supervisor Aaron Peskin said, acknowledging the handful of positive consequences, including tightening of ethics rules and greater scrutiny of public works, which has become “the most studied department” in the city’s 150-year history, he said.

Rachel Swan is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @rachelswan

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