Months After SF Public Works Boss Nuru's Arrest, Staff Push for 'Corruption' Cleanup

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Former Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, who was arrested by the FBI in January on public corruption charges. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Mohammed Nuru, the disgraced former San Francisco Public Works director, was so proud of his charge to powerwash city sidewalks he called himself “Mr. Clean.”

When he was arrested by the FBI in late January on public corruption charges, however, “Mr. Clean” was suddenly seen as an almost stereotypically dirty bureaucrat. His fall from grace cast a pall over his department.

They felt dirty, too.

Now, those Public Works employees, from street cleaners and sewer workers to arborists and pavement layers, want to scrub their reputations free from “Mr. Clean’s” influence, and they’re looking to San Francisco Supervisors Matt Haney and Gordon Mar to help them.

Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) Local 261, representing a majority of San Francisco Public Works maintenance and trades workers, voted unanimously Wednesday to support Haney and Mar’s forthcoming November 2020 ballot measures to reform Public Works and increase city oversight.

“The corruption had a huge impact on membership,” said Theresa Foglio-Ramirez, a city representative and business agent of LiUNA Local 261, which represents Public Works’ front-line workers, who do hands-on work outdoors cleaning streets, urban forestry, pothole repair and performing sewer work.

“The morale is now terrible,” she said.

The department’s professional workers, including architects and engineers, are represented by the International Federation of Technical Engineers Local 21, which have yet to vote on supporting the ballot measures.

But sources familiar with the matter say department employees represented by Local 21 have long-held concerns about department management and its contracts, which were a focus of the federal investigation.

Haney’s measure, announced in February, would create an oversight committee for Public Works, whereas Mar’s would create an Office of the Public Advocate as an independent city watchdog, replete with subpoena powers, to root out future would-be Nurus.

Already, the measures have detractors. The mayor's office noted San Francisco is facing a budget deficit, a difficult time to create new oversight bodies that would balloon government costs.

"Considering we have a $1.5 billion deficit, we shouldn’t be adding more spending and bureaucracy through ballot measures," Jeff Cretan, spokesperson for Mayor London Breed, told KQED. "We have real challenges ahead to support our existing workforce and provide basic city services."

But according to a statement from LiUNA Local 261, neither measure can come soon enough to battle “casual bureaucratic corruption."

Working for ‘Mr. Clean’

Foglio-Ramirez said Public Works staff had — for two decades — lived under the spectre of corruption, which was only revealed when Nuru was arrested.

“He had no problem in ruling with an iron first,” Foglio-Ramirez said.

More corruption coverage

Foglio-Ramirez has worked at Public Works long enough to remember a time before Nuru. She started in 1997 shortly before Nuru was hired to the department. As his leadership style settled in, the cultural change was a total 180-degree turn, she said.

Workers did try to resist, but to little success.

When they spotted public corruption — like Nuru awarding contracts to suspected friends, or people with deep-pocketed connections as detailed in the U.S. Attorney’s Office complaint — they met resistance.

“If you whistle blew, you were forced out,” Foglio-Ramirez said. She could recall at least a dozen employees pushed out of Public Works after trying to sound the alarm to its now publicly known corruption.

Over the years, Nuru cut standards across the board, Foglio-Ramirez said, including winnowing some safety training for her union members, she said.

“[Public Works] was a respected department. We had top-notch equipment, the best safety training, you were proud. When you said you worked for DPW, people said, ‘Oh, that’s a nice place to work!’ ” Foglio-Ramirez said.

But under Nuru, she said, “Our work was so devalued they would call us the ‘poop patrol.’ That’s how it would affect your everyday life ... because of years of what I call abuse.”

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FBI Investigation Continues

The U.S. Attorney’s Office published a complaint in late January detailing examples of Nuru allegedly abusing his position as Public Works director to help city contractors who were reportedly complicit in his bribery schemes. He also stands accused of planning to bribe an airport commissioner, though that bribe was not consummated.

And just this month, Nick Bovis, a San Francisco restaurant owner who was charged alongside Nuru, agreed to plead guilty to two counts and cooperate with the ongoing investigation, according to federal prosecutors.

“We need to learn from the FBI investigation,” Foglio-Ramirez said. “[Public Works'] budget is huge. You need to make sure that money is spent where it’s supposed to be spent.”

“You need to have oversight,” she said.

That’s what Haney’s proposed ballot measure is intended to provide: It would also split off Public Works’ street cleaning functions into an independent agency, leaving other functions of the behemoth department — like the construction of city properties — under the jurisdiction of the existing Public Works department.

Both the new and old departments would net oversight commissions responsible for approving public contracts.

Public Works said it was still evaluating the measure to reform the department.

The two amendments to San Francisco’s charter have yet to be approved for the November 2020 ballot and are still winding through Board of Supervisors committee approvals.

Haney noted, however, that his measure is polling well above 70% approval, a strong sign it can succeed. While it is intended to stem public corruption, Haney also said a new department concentrating mainly on cleaning city streets would quell a common San Franciscan concern.

“We’re a laughing stock, an international embarrassment, for how dirty our sidewalks are,” he said. “This will add some accountability, focus and oversight to get this done.”