Nuru Scandal: Former Mayor Willie Brown Reflects on Long-Time Allies Charged by FBI

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Former San Francisco Mayor and California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown poses with the sign now bearing his name.  (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

The news hit last week — the U.S. attorney's office charged yet another San Francisco official in connection to a bribery scheme. Yes, again.

The corruption probe in San Francisco, it seems, is ever-expanding.

Harlan Kelly resigned as the San Francisco Public Utility Commission's general manager just last week after denying charges made by the FBI and U.S. attorney's office. He is the third San Francisco department head to resign or otherwise lose his office in the wake of this corruption scandal: First was former Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, in late January, who was charged in connection with a bribery scheme, and then the Department of Building Inspection's former director, Tom Hui, who resigned after it was revealed he breached ethics laws by dining with billionaire developers seeking to curry his favor in a project's approval.

Harlan Kelly's wife, City Administrator Naomi Kelly, is also implicated in this affair, having taken trips to China and allegedly taking cash to community figure Rose Pak, according to the FBI. Naomi Kelly is now on a leave of absence.

The scandal has even ensnared Mayor London Breed, at least tangentially, after she publicly admitted she had accepted $5,600 in car repairs from Nuru in 2019, a gift she did not initially report despite a legal requirement to do so.

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All of these figures saw their careers in city service begin under Mayor Willie Brown. He appointed Harlan Kelly city engineer in 1996, Naomi Kelly was executive director of the Taxicab Commission under Brown and Nuru was first brought into City Hall by Brown in various roles. Even Breed served at the Treasure Island Development Authority after working on Brown's mayoral campaign.

Brown, now a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, is funding Nuru's defense, according to an interview he gave to the Nob Hill Gazette. He spoke with KQED the day allegations against Harlan Kelly were released to reflect on the ever-expanding scandal around his many former staffers.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: You've known these people — Nuru, Harlan, and Naomi, in particular — for years. Are these allegations a surprise to you? Are the reactions from the public a surprise to you?

Willie Brown: I don't understand what the object (of people's ire) happens to be, frankly, because the kind of thing they're talking about, and the kind of thing they're doing, doesn't seem to have a whole lot of implications for the operation of city government.

It's not like someone built a bridge and used inferior products to build the bridge, and therefore risked the lives of lots of people. Or built a rail line and built equipment that risked the lives of people.

It sounds like these people have been entertained and have been more tolerant of those entertaining them.

Well isn't this something where people are angry that people may have been given an upper hand in winning contracts after wining and dining public officials?

Under the law, it says the lowest eligible qualified bidder is what we (approve), and I think we potentially get the worst (contractors) and ignore the best.

I have always thought the quality of the structure should be what determines it, not the price (of the bid).

How this affects the public is one thing, but how have you reacted to these allegations personally?

It affects people personally because it's always sad when any friend or relative has a serious illness or problem of any sort, and that includes a serious problem with law enforcement people. Yes, you're always concerned.

I'm always sorry to see that any of my friends, my supporters, become the object of any actions that would disrupt their career paths, period.

And I would hope that it would never happen to any of them.

These aren't just your friends, though, right? People have described Nuru and the Kellys as your proteges. Didn't they learn from you? Did you not have a mentor/mentee relationship with these public officials, and take them under your wing, so to speak?

The news organization writes down that everyone is a protege of mine, period. They never say they're a protege of everyone else that might exist.

I must have the most awesome influence of anyone alive. The story doesn't work unless they're a "protege of Willie Brown."

Are they someone who supported my candidacy for mayor? Yes.

Did they in many cases have some promotions? Yes.

Did they earn them? Yes.

I don't think anyone goes under anybody's "wing." I think people observe how you operate. They will ask you questions or learn from you.

But unless you learn from them every day, or talk to them like I'm talking to you — is that a protege?

I don't recall ever doing anything except trying to convince people to do good work in public service, at all levels.

If that translates to people being proteges, then I accept it.

You've seen city and state government from almost every angle. How rampant are schemes like the ones the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office have alleged here?

There are very few people I know who would seek that kind of help, that might create that kind of problem for them on the integrity side.

All the people I've dealt with in 40 or more years, and when I served as speaker of the Assembly, I had 79 members of the Legislature, and all of them spent six or more years in the halls of the Legislature. They would develop friendships and et cetera. They'd develop informational sources. They voted for bills or against bills.

The counsel has always been: "Make sure the result is in the best interest of the public."

I'm trying to understand what you said earlier, that this scandal has had no impact on services rendered by city government. That structures weren't necessarily falling apart. Do you mean to say, as long as the city doesn't collapse on itself, and services are delivered, the occasional bout of alleged graft is OK?

I don't think people even think that way, frankly. If people viewed it as something that would embarrass them, people wouldn't do it.

There are people who are thieves. And there are people who seek money benefits.

But people do not think, I don't think, in terms of someone buying you a drink, or buying you dinner, or anything of that nature, that there's anything that caused them to influence or give up their responsibility to public service for the benefit of the public.

If this isn't a failure of government, then, how should the public look at these accusations?

I think transparency is really important. I think they should know everything. And be entitled to have one explain everything if this calls to a person's attention their belief is that they've done something inconsistent with the best interest (of the people).

People should be able to prove they know what the relationships were, that everything done was in the best interest, the highest quality of the public service, and let the world know that you did that — let that be the judge of your conduct.

You're one of the few folks who would have real insight into how Mayor London Breed's administration must be reacting to this unfolding scandal. That's three department heads stepping down in a single year related to corruption allegations. What's going on in the mayor's office right now, would you say?

When I served as mayor of San Francisco, every time any department ran afoul in any fashion, on the conduct side, it was always attributed in some fashion to my inability to spot that person as a potential problem, and therefore it was my responsibility.

As mayor, you have the responsibility for all things, ultimately. You don't have the blame, but you do have to exercise good judgment.

Just as I thought (former mayors) Ed Lee did, and Art Agnos did, and Frank Jordan did, even though I defeated Frank Jordan.

It was so many department heads, though. Does that mean there might be a broader problem?

Please don't draw any conclusion based on raw numbers. Jesus. You do that and you really impose on the head person an enormous burden.

For instance, (during my administration) the (district attorney) indicted my whole command structure of the police department. He indicted everybody, period.

I had to literally tolerate that. Ultimately, the courts ruled he never should have done that, and the courts gave them all back their lives for career purposes, without them having to ever answer that they were indicted. They all walked into my office and placed down their guns and badges. Except for the chief, he came in by himself.

So what does that say about what Mayor London Breed is going through?

I have no idea, I'm not that connected to the current mayor's operation, I can tell you about my operation.

I don't think I could speculate, frankly, how my operation would be. But I know any time a department head was confronted, or a member of law enforcement, we moved as quickly as we could to protect the public interest, period.

I think the big question here, given the wide reach of the scandal, for people who live and work in the city, is probably pretty simple — should people still have confidence in San Francisco government?

I think people should never lose confidence in government, period. I don't think government rises or falls based on the conduct of a few. Trump proves that today.

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Dec. 8: This story has been updated to clarify that Mayor London Breed did not report she had accepted $5,600 in car repairs from Mohammed Nuru in 2019, "initially." She has since reported it.