SAN FRANCISCO (CN) --- A former city department head facing federal bribery charges was ordered to undergo a mental health exam Monday following a bizarre incident in which he was arrested on charges of trying to steal a man’s potato chips with a knife.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim ordered erstwhile San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru to be evaluated by a mental health professional during a bond review hearing.
Nuru, who has been volunteering at a local food bank, is accused of threatening a fellow volunteer with a knife in the kitchen area of the food bank warehouse in the Central Waterfront neighborhood of San Francisco.
Nuru was arrested on June 2, but prosecutors declined to press charges after interviewing a witness who said Nuru appeared to be making a joke about taking the person’s potato chips.
On Monday, Nuru’s attorney Ismail Ramsey said the whole thing was a big misunderstanding. He blamed the San Francisco Police Department for failing to properly investigate the incident before arresting his client.
“The police report really wasn’t a complete investigation,” Ramsey said. “It turns out there was actually a witness to this that the [district attorney] insisted be spoken to and ultimately the witness said it was just a joke.”
San Francisco District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Rachel Marshall confirmed that a witness corroborated Nuru’s story and that there was no evidence Nuru actually tried to take the man's potato chips.
Ramsey told Judge Kim that Nuru often brings an orange and trail mix to the food bank where he volunteers. After using a small kitchen knife to peel his orange, Nuru was washing the knife at a sink when he noticed a fellow volunteer with a bag of potato chips.
Nuru said something along the lines of “you went to the store and didn’t bring me back any chips.” The male volunteer responded, “Don’t play with me” and walked off, according to Nuru’s attorney.
Ramsey said Nuru immediately looked to a nearby female volunteer and asked, “Why is he reacting like that?”
“It was seconds of interaction that led to this misunderstanding and an incomplete investigation by the police department that led to this,” Ramsey said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Joiner disagreed with that assessment, saying the “facts don’t line up” with that version of events, especially when compared to the recorded statements of the alleged victim taken by police.
“Whether it was a joke, the victim clearly didn’t think it was joke,” Joiner said. “The police did an initial investigation and detained him. However he intended it, it was a really poor decision to make a joke like that.”
Joiner also noted that city contractors have pleaded guilty to “basically buying Mr. Nuru free meals.”
A representative from the court’s pretrial services department, which supervises defendants and makes recommendations for bond conditions, suggested that Nuru undergo a mental health evaluation and possibly be required to attend therapy.
Judge Kim said she thought that was a reasonable and pragmatic course to follow.
“It’s kind of unusual for a joke to be interpreted that way so I am worried,” Kim said.
The judge said Nuru could come back to court and request the mental health requirements be lifted after his evaluation.
“There’s no harm in ordering an evaluation,” Kim said.
Joiner also voiced concerns about Nuru returning to the food bank where the incident occurred, but Kim said she would leave that decision to the food bank's director.
“I would like Mr. Nuru to continue volunteering if it’s allowed at the facility or some other place that could use his services,” Kim said.
Nuru was charged in January 2020 with attempting to bribe an airport commissioner and lying to the FBI. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 25 years in prison.
Nuru was released on $2 million bond and resigned his $273,000-per-year job the following month.
A criminal complaint claims Nuru used his position to benefit a Chinese developer in exchange for luxury hotel stays and gifts, including a $2,070 bottle of French wine. Prosecutors also say a company that won a $2 million public works contract gave Nuru a free John Deere tractor and free or discounted labor and construction materials for his vacation property in Stonyford north of San Francisco.
The sprawling federal corruption probe that kicked off with Nuru's arrest has led to the arrests of multiple city contractors and city employees. It has also resulted in four guilty pleas. Four city department heads --- including Nuru and directors of the Building Department, Public Utilities Commission and City Administrator’s Office --- have resigned their positions amid allegations of corruption.
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