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High-ranking San Francisco official sentenced to seven years for public corruption

"You made the city's building permitting process a farce," the judge told disgraced public works department chief Mohammed Nuru at sentencing Thursday.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — As a high-ranking city official, Mohammed Nuru got a $278,000 annual salary and looked forward to a lucrative retirement with a $7,000-a-month pension. Now the self-titled “Mr. Clean” will spend the next seven years in federal prison for public corruption.

"It is important that this sentence make clear that public corruption cannot be tolerated in a democratic society,” U.S. District Judge William Orrick said, calling Nuru’s crimes among the most reprehensible he’s seen.

Nuru, who headed the city’s public works department for 12 years until his arrest in Jan. 2020, pleaded guilty to one count of honest services fraud last year, admitting he received envelopes of cash, free international trips and hotel stays, a $36,000 watch, free construction labor and materials for his vacation home and other benefits in exchange for favors to city contractors and developers.

Nuru admitted working with permit expediter Walter Wong to help a billionaire developer from China win approvals for a multimillion-dollar mixed-use development in San Francisco. The developer, who owned multiple five-star hotels, gave Nuru free travel and luxury hotel stays, high-end liquor, meals and other gifts.

In exchange, Nuru ordered subordinates to help the Chinese businessman cut through red tape and used his influence with other city officials to expedite approvals in various departments. Wong pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to defraud the public in June 2020 and agreed to cooperate with authorities. Wong's next court date is scheduled for Jan. 12, 2023.

“You made the city's building permitting process a farce,” Orrick chided Nuru, who stood before Orrick in a dark suit flanked by his defense attorneys. “What you did for 12 years undermines civil service and trust in government everywhere. The assumption becomes that they all do it. But they don't all do it. But you did it. Your crime resulted from greed. And you called into question fairness of the bidding department. You have weakened the public’s confidence in our leaders.”

Nuru was eventually caught after a failed attempt at bribing an airport commissioner on behalf of disgraced restaurateur Nick Bovis, who wanted to open a concession at the San Francisco International Airport.

Prosecutors had recommended a nine-year sentence for 59-year-old Nuru, seeking to make an example out of him for undermining the public’s trust in government.

"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. It also sends a message to the public that the courts and the government take this conduct very seriously and that nobody should simply accept this kind of criminal activity from their public officials,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexandra Shepard told the judge.

She reminded Orrick that Nuru had obstructed rather than helped the FBI’s investigation. Shortly after he was pulled out of the security line at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, she said he began to tip off friends who might also also be targets, then later lied to the FBI about his actions.

The government’s sentencing memo casts Nuru as a rapacious power broker, insulated by a network of co-conspirators who needed his influence to win coveted city contracts.

Nuru accepted kickbacks and bribes from a number of city officials and business people, including the waste management company Recology in exchange for his help in raising the trash collection rates of San Francisco residents.

At Nuru’s request, Recology gave the former DPW director’s son a job that paid $17,000 over two years and funded a paid internship at a nonprofit that earned his son $23,600. Nuru further admitted that he told Recology executives to funnel $60,000 into a charity account that he used to pay for DPW holiday parties.

He also received $20,000 in restaurant meals and a $40,000 tractor for his vacation home from contractors William Gilmartin and Alan Varela in exchange for inside information about a city contract to build and operate an asphalt recycling plant, and $250,000 in labor and materials for his vacation home in Stonyford near Mendocino National Forest from contractor Balmore Hernandez. All three pleaded guilty to bribery.

Nuru also confessed to receiving a Rolex watch, cash and other gifts from Florence Kong, a Chinese immigrant businesswoman who Nuru helped win city contracts for her recycling company.

Shepard noted Nuru’s shakedowns occurred in tandem with another public corruption scandal that implicated former state Senator Leland Yee, who was sentenced five years in prison in 2015 for accepting bribes from undercover FBI agents. Yee also agreed to vote on certain legislation, help phony companies get state grants and contracts, and offered to import guns from a suspected terrorist group in the Philippines in exchange for campaign donations.

“It’s inexplicable that [Nuru] could see fellow politicians being arrested, convicted and sentenced for public corruption crimes and still continue,” Shepard said.

Nuru’s attorneys pleaded with Orrick for leniency, touting his long history of being a mentor and leader in the community who regularly welcomed homeless people into his home to live with him, and gave former inmates jobs.

Defense attorney Miles Ehrlich noted the throngs of friends, family and former employees who packed the gallery, spilling into the aisles and out the door. Many of them gasped and began to cry after Orrick handed down his sentence.

Orrick said he was moved by the dozens of letters and character statements he received on Nuru's behalf. "They speak eloquently about a man who has done really admirable work and has benefited this city," Orrick said. "I've read and been moved by your stories. That is precisely what makes this sentencing so difficult."

Turning to Nuru, he said, "You were a well regarded leader of this city and from 2008-2020 you were taking bribes and corrupting our public life."

Outside the courtroom, Nuru hugged his supporters and brushed off requests for comment from reporters. His attorney Katherine Kates, who also declined to speak, handed out prepared statements that read: “Again, I want to apologize to the people of San Francisco for my misconduct. Now that sentencing is behind me, I plan to concentrate on my family and my health in the near term. I look forward to the time that I can return to serving my community and work to repair the damage that my actions caused both the city and my family.”

Nuru requested a surrender date in January, citing acute diabetes and a recent heart attack that required two surgeries. Orrick granted the request and set his surrender date for Jan. 6, 2023.

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