SF Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru Arrested by FBI

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San Francisco Director of Public Works Mohammed Nuru speaks before a tour of the Transbay Terminal by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Jan. 22. Nuru was arrested on Monday by the FBI. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated 2:37 p.m. Tuesday

The charismatic head of San Francisco’s Public Works department was arrested Monday by the FBI on public corruption charges including allegations that he attempted to bribe a San Francisco International Airport official to secure a contract for a restaurant space at the airport.

Mohammed Nuru, 57, and San Francisco restaurateur Nick Bovis, 56, are both charged with corruption in connection with a series of alleged schemes involving public agency contracts, according to federal officials.

Nuru, who was first arrested on Jan. 21, was also charged with making false statements to the FBI after allegedly promising to cooperate with the probe and then lying to investigators. He was arrested again Monday, along with Bovis, 56, owner of the baseball-themed Lefty O'Doul's bar.

Nuru and Bovis were freed on $2 million bail each and will return to court Feb. 6.

U.S. Attorney David Anderson said that Nuru and Bovis could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the corruption charges. Nuru could face another five years if found guilty of lying to investigators.

"The complaint alleges corruption, bribery and side deals by one of San Francisco's highest-ranking public employees," Anderson said at a news conference announcing the charges. "Federal law gives the citizens of San Francisco a right to honest service from their public officials. San Francisco has been deprived of that right."

A 75-page complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office details five "schemes" in which Nuru is alleged to have taken advantage of his position to benefit himself and others. Bovis is charged in three of the alleged deals.

One allegation charges that Nuru used his position as chair of the board of directors of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the agency that owns and operates the Transbay Transit Center, to get a favorable lease for Bovis. Another accuses Nuru of feeding Bovis inside information on a city contract to provide portable toilets and "tiny homes" for homeless San Franciscans. Yet another says the Public Works director got contractors doing work for the city to work on a vacation home in the Colusa County community of Stonyford.

In a statement, an attorney for Nuru said he "looks forward to addressing these charges in court."

“Mohammed Nuru, a father of five, has been a dedicated public servant in San Francisco for decades. Before joining Public Works, he served the city through his years-long service at a nonprofit. He is grateful to have worked alongside the many committed and talented individuals of Public Works," said Nuru’s lawyer, Ismail Ramsey, in the statement.

The centerpiece of the allegation is that Nuru and Bovis attempted to bribe an SFO commissioner in 2018 with $5,000 and a free trip so that a restaurant associated with Bovis could secure an airport contract. The alleged bribery scheme was not actually completed, according to federal officials.

Anderson said the alleged SFO bribery is the core of the case against the two men, who are charged with honest services wire fraud.

Among the other charges, prosecutors allege that Nuru was provided gifts ⁠— including a trip to China and a $2,000 bottle of wine ⁠— by a "billionaire developer from China" who was promised help with the permitting process in San Francisco for a "large multimillion-dollar mixed-use project."

The complaint alleges that Nuru failed to disclose the gifts, as required by law.

Anderson said Nuru used construction contractors who have business with Public Works in order to get free work done on his vacation home in Stonyford. The Colusa County hamlet is about 110 miles north of San Francisco — about a 3.5-hour drive.

"Contractors doing work for city of San Francisco provided Nuru free and discounted labor, materials and a John Deere tractor," Anderson said.

The complaint filed in federal court also noted the unusual circumstance of Bay Area workers traveling to a remote location to work.

"Currently in San Francisco and the Bay Area, construction and remodels are very common," the complaint observes. "Local contractors typically have more work than they can handle in the immediate Bay Area. ln this economic climate and given the considerable extra expense to a customer, it is remarkable that Nuru has contractors from San Francisco driving three and a half hours one way to work on his vacation home."

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In a statement, San Francisco Mayor London Breed called the allegations "extremely serious" and pledged that the city will "cooperate fully with any investigation." Breed added that Nuru was placed on administrative leave Monday.

“I’m asking the city attorney and the controller to conduct a thorough review of any implicated city contracts or other decisions and to investigate any suspected violations of the law or the stringent guidelines and rules that ensure the integrity of our contracting process," Breed said in the statement.

Breed added that "nothing matters more than the public trust."

"Each and every one of us who works for the city must hold ourselves to the highest standard," she said. "I accept nothing less for myself or for those who serve in this administration, and I will do everything I can to ensure that those who fail to uphold that standard are held accountable.”

Nuru, a well-connected bureaucrat, was appointed director of Public Works by the late Mayor Ed Lee in 2011. Overseeing an agency with about 1,670 employees and a budget of $500 million, his base salary in 2019 was $273,406.

Despite his high profile in city government, Nuru has been dogged by past allegations of abusing public resources.

In 2004, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera launched an investigation after complaints that Nuru threatened city contractors with loss of pay if they didn't campaign for now Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was then running for mayor.

Nuru first met former Mayor Willie Brown after volunteering on his 1995 mayoral campaign. Brown hired Nuru in 2000, and the two remain close. Nuru and many of Brown's other proteges are still leading city departments.

This is a developing story; check back for updates.

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