Disgraced Former SF Public Works Chief Mohammed Nuru Sentenced to 7 Years for Bribery Scheme

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A man wearing business suit, glasses and a hat points up with his right hand outside in front of a microphone.
Mohammed Nuru, then-director of the Department of Public Works, speaks on the steps of City Hall during a rally supporting Better Market Street on Oct. 15, 2019, in San Francisco. (Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Former San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru was sentenced to seven years (84 months) in federal prison and three years of supervised release on Thursday.

Nuru’s sentencing, while expected, marks an important milestone in the years-long indictment of multiple San Francisco officials. The bribery scheme unveiled in January 2020 continued to snowball, ensnaring contractors, a restaurant owner and five city department heads.

But the man known to be at the top of the FBI’s list, publicly at least, was Nuru.

Expensive watches, international flights, extravagant dinners, even a John Deere tractor — Nuru took bribes of all sorts from contractors seeking multimillion-dollar contracts with the city, hoping to sway Nuru to give them a much-coveted rubber stamp. Nuru also attempted to bribe an airport contractor on behalf of a restaurateur who was his co-conspirator. 

While much of his misdeeds were known, and Nuru pled guilty in January, the severity of Nuru’s punishment was unknown until Thursday when he heard the verdict in court. 

U.S. Northern District Judge William Orrick said Nuru’s sentence reflected how severely Nuru’s crimes as a public official breached public trust.

"If what you had done was a one-off occurrence, I would absolutely agree the leniency was called for, but you made the city's decision-making and competitive bidding a farce," said Orrick. "By awarding [contractors] and favoring them in exchange for money, gifts, trips, a job for your son and construction for a home, a vacation home, what you've done is to question the fairness of every matter, every decision you made at DPW. During my time on the bench, I've sentenced people for really horrible things, gang murders, and really deadly stuff. In many ways, what you've done is at least as reprehensible."

The federal government initially sought nine years' imprisonment, three years of supervised release and a $35,000 fine for Nuru. Nuru’s attorneys argued for a three-year sentence and the forfeit of his property.

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"Mohammed Nuru knows and accepts to his core that the conduct he engaged in was wrong, it was prolonged, and it is inexcusable," said Miles Ehrlich, Nuru's attorney. "It was a breach of the trust placed in him by the citizens of San Francisco, his co-workers, and his friends. In the public's mind, it will overshadow any of the good he did in his life as a public servant, and perhaps Mr. Nuru knows deep down, it should."

Ehrlich also argued that Nuru deserved a lighter sentence, citing Nuru's poor health from diabetes, a recent heart attack and two surgeries for heart problems.

In response, U.S. Attorney Alexandra Shepard argued that Nuru lied and laundered money for years. When he was caught, he spent days, almost a week, sabotaging the investigation by notifying people under investigation.

"This is who he is," said Shepard.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office sought a particularly harsh sentence for Nuru since, after the FBI quietly arrested him in January 2020, Nuru leaked the investigation to multiple people. In doing so he “caused incalculable damage to the investigation,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote in a sentencing memo a week before Nuru’s sentencing date, saying the leak tipped off potential targets and jeopardized the FBI’s ability to obtain evidence.

“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,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote. 

In response, Nuru’s attorney wrote that Nuru regrets his wrongdoing, and “Mohammed Nuru apologizes to the people of San Francisco, to this Court, and to his family and friends for violating the public trust.”

His corrupt acts don’t represent “the whole of him,” they argued, adding that Nuru has taught marginalized and incarcerated youth how to farm, and provided education and training jobs in his role at the Public Works department. They also argued Nuru raised five children as a single parent after his ex-wife became addicted to drugs, and that he helps financially support them and his elderly parents.

But the U.S. Attorney’s Office argued Nuru did not commit these crimes out of financial hardship, citing his $278,586 annual salary.

After the FBI’s revelations, Nuru's nickname of “Mr. Clean,” so-given for his department's efforts to spit shine the city, proved to be the height of irony. The U.S. Attorney’s Office described Nuru’s scheme as “a tale of greed as old as time.”

They said Nuru “shook down” contractors for more then a million dollars in cash, goods and services over a 12-year period. Much of those ill-gotten gains went to paying for his ranch in Stonyford, California. That ranch was a cash cow for contractors seeking to influence Nuru: He gave them favorable treatment in city contracts after they custom-built and furnished it. 

Nuru also often sought the help of contractors to buttress his San Francisco home; a city contractor did such work for free in 2008, when Nuru was a deputy director of the Department of Public Works. 

“Nuru was the quintessential grifter, using his position at DPW to enrich himself in a multitude of ways,” the U.S. Attorney's Office wrote. 

Nuru was far from alone in his crimes. 

After the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office revealed their explosive allegations against Nuru in January 2020, one by one new San Francisco officials were accused of taking bribes, and prominent community members well-known to San Francisco politicos for their charitable good deeds were revealed to be in on the scheme. Most have already pled guilty. 

Since Nuru was first taken in, the federal government has indicted the former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Harlan Kelly, and the head of the Mayor’s Office's "fix-it team," Sandra Zuniga, in related bribery schemes. 

Nuru, Kelly and Zuniga all worked under Mayor London Breed, and Breed counted Nuru, Kelly and Kelly's wife, Naomi Kelly, as long-time friends and allies for years. Naomi Kelly resigned as city administrator following her husband's arrest, although she wasn't charged; Carmen Chu took her place.

Breed publicly revealed she once counted Nuru as a romantic partner, and a few weeks after Nuru was charged by the FBI, she acknowledged in a statement that Nuru had paid for expenses involving repairs to her car in 2019. Last year she agreed to pay an $8,292 fine for accepting that gift.

Since Nuru’s arrest, Breed has sought to distance herself from Nuru. Breed and the City Controller’s Office also have sought to plug the holes in city law that allowed much of the bribery under their noses to take place. 

Co-conspirators of Nuru, construction contractor Walter Wong and Lefty O’Doul’s restaurant owner Nick Bovis, also were indicted by the federal government. Wong helped connect now-indicted officials to a luxury developer who sought to bribe them, and Wong himself admitted to bribing officials for contracts. Bovis set up a fake baseball charity that funneled bribes to Nuru so he could shower his employees with extravagant parties. 

Other city contractors also were indicted for bribing Nuru: Balmore Hernandez, Alan Varela and Bill Gilmartin all provided workers and equipment to help build or improve Nuru’s ranch. Hernandez, Varela and Gilmartin gifted Nuru with a John Deere tractor worth $40,000. 

Paul Fredrick Giusti, working for waste management company Recology, gave Nuru a “continuous stream” of money and benefits. He allegedly funneled over $1 million in bribes from Recology, through restaurateur Nick Bovis’ baseball charity, to Nuru. Giusti also found jobs for Nuru’s son. In return, Nuru allegedly gave Recology favorable treatment in setting garbage rates and securing millions of dollars in city contracts. City Attorney Dennis Herrera reached an agreement with Recology in March 2021 to reimburse $95 million in improperly charged garbage bills set under Nuru’s purview.

All have pled guilty, save Kelly.  

Lastly, in an effort related to the federal investigation, the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office also accused former San Francisco Department of Building Inspection Director Tom Hui of taking an inappropriate dinner with a luxury housing developer who wished to curry favor with the department. Hui resigned after the allegations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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