Ex-San Francisco Employee Pleads Guilty to Money Laundering

Sandra Zuniga is the first city employee to plead guilty to charges related to a City Hall corruption scandal that was revealed to the public over a year ago.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — An ex-city employee will plead guilty to conspiring to launder money for a former city department head in the latest twist of an ongoing San Francisco public corruption scandal, federal prosecutors announced Tuesday.

Sandra Zuniga, erstwhile director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services and Fix-It Team, was charged in June 2020 with conspiracy to launder money. She is accused of carrying out a series of bank transactions to conceal the source of money she used to pay expenses on behalf of her longtime romantic partner, former Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru.

Zuniga, 45, of South San Francisco, had been in a romantic relationship with Nuru since 2009. Nuru was arrested in January 2020 for bribery and lying to FBI agents. Prosecutors say he attempted to bribe an airport commissioner and used his position to benefit a billionaire Chinese developer and various city contractors in exchange for gifts and money.

The Justice Department announced Tuesday that Zuniga has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the FBI’s investigation into city hall corruption. The scandal has led to the resignations of four city department heads, including Nuru. Zuniga is the fourth person to plead guilty, following guilty pleas by three city contractors last year. She is the first city employee to plead guilty to charges arising from the scandal.

“This investigation continues, but the window of time for cooperation is closing,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Stephanie Hinds said in a statement Tuesday. “If you are involved in public corruption at any level, reach out to the FBI before the FBI reaches out to you. Early cooperation is always viewed favorably.”  

In a criminal complaint filed last year, prosecutors said Zuniga had been helping Nuru launder money since as early as 2014. An updated charging document filed Monday claims the conspiracy started at least four years earlier in 2010.

Prosecutors say Zuniga deposited more than $135,000 in cash and checks into her bank account over three years and used the money to make mortgage payments on Nuru’s vacation home near Mendocino National Forest. She also received a $5,000 check from a city contractor in September 2018, laundered the funds and used them to pay a contractor for work on Nuru’s vacation home, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit filed in June last year.

In 2014, Zungia made two cash deposits totaling $5,600. Four days later she wrote Nuru a check for $3,600 and used another $1,000 to pay Nuru’s mortgage bill. The June 2020 complaint also described a lavish, two-week trip to South America that Nuru and Zungia went on in 2018 that was subsidized or paid for entirely by a contractor doing business with the city.

Michael Daniels, an IRS criminal investigation special agent in charge of the Oakland, California, field office, said in a statement Tuesday that Zuniga committed these crimes because she thought she could get away with it.

“Through numerous financial transactions, over a period of almost ten years, she attempted to hide the true source of Mohammed Nuru’s funds,” Daniels said. “No public official should be allowed to behave as if they are above the law.”

Craig D. Fair, FBI special agent in charge of the San Francisco field office, said the FBI is still very interested in talking to city employees and contractors who have first-hand knowledge of government corruption.

“In her plea agreement, Sandra Zuniga has agreed to cooperate with the FBI,” Fair said. “We encourage others who have knowledge of this to do the same.”

Zuniga’s lawyer, Galia Amram of the firm Durie Tangri in San Francisco, did not respond to an email request for comment Tuesday.

Last week, a trash and recycling contractor agreed to reimburse city residents $100 million for overcharges allegedly obtained through a cozy and corrupt relationship with former DPW director Nuru.

Other department heads that have resigned in the wake of the scandal include former Department of Building Inspection Director Tom Hui, former San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Director Harlan Kelly, and former City Administrator Naomi Kelly. 

San Francisco city contractor Nick Bovis and permit expediter Walter Wong pleaded guilty to bribery charges last year. Last month, Florence Kong, another city contractor who pleaded guilty to bribing Nuru, was sentenced to one year in prison. 

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