SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A Chinese immigrant businesswoman was sentenced to one year in prison for bribing a city official Thursday, marking the first criminal penalty handed down in a sprawling city hall corruption probe.
Florence Kong, 63, of Hayward, pleaded guilty in October to giving $95,000 and a gold Rolex watch to former San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru in exchange for help obtaining lucrative business from the city.
Kong owns several real estate and construction businesses, including SFR Recovery Inc., a recycling plant in the city’s Bayview neighborhood.
In a sentencing memo filed last week, prosecutors say Kong started pressuring Nuru in 2018 to give the recycling plant company a contract to do work for the Department of Public Works (DPW). Once acquired, Kong “repeatedly pressed” Nuru to increase the amount of construction debris sent by DPW to her plant, boosting payouts from the city.
In March 2019, she complained to Nuru in a phone conversation that her recycling plant wasn’t getting enough business from the city. Nuru replied that he spoke with a DPW employee about driving more business toward her company. Emails also show Kong urging Nuru to help her obtain city contracts for other ventures, according to prosecutors.
Nuru sought to benefit one of Kong’s companies by extending the deadline for bids on an animal shelter construction project in November 2018. At the same time, Kong was “showering” Nuru with gifts, including expensive meals and envelopes of cash for his children, prosecutors say.
When interviewed by FBI agents, Kong insisted she and Nuru were friends but never discussed city business. She denied asking Nuru to help her by pushing back a bidding deadline and steering more work toward her recycling business. She also denied giving him a gold Rolex watch worth about $36,500. FBI agents found the watch during a search of Nuru’s home, and its serial number matched one on a receipt from Kong.
Kong, who immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1990, was charged with bribery and lying to the FBI. Those crimes carry maximum penalties of 10 and 5 years respectively.
Prosecutors acknowledged that Kong pleaded guilty early and cooperated with investigators after her arrest. For that, they recommended an 18-month prison term and a $250,000 fine.
Kong’s lawyers asked for a sentence of home detention and $95,000 fine, arguing it would be cruel to place her in prison during a pandemic due to her age and elevated risk of death from Covid-19. They cited a research study finding no difference in the deterrent effect of probation or imprisonment for white collar crimes.
They also argued that Kong is a first-time offender, will suffer stigma from the conviction for the rest of her life and that she has supported the community and contributed to a wide range of charitable organizations.
Kong also argued in a separate filing that she did not deprive taxpayers of a competitive bidding process when Nuru helped push back a deadline for an animal shelter project job because “the extension was granted to all subcontractors.”
“By extending the bid deadline, the city invited more qualified companies to submit their bids for the [Animal Care and Control] project, including but not limited to Ms. Kong’s company, thereby encouraging the competitive bidding process, and increasing the city’s chances at obtaining the best service at the lowest cost,” Kong’s lawyers wrote in a response to prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation.
Kong was also presented as someone who grew up in poverty in Hong Kong, suffered abuse as a child and “was determined to do anything to ensure that her children would never experience the type of poverty and despair she had lived through as a young girl.”
Kong’s lawyers emphasized the importance of “social networks and influential relationships” in Chinese business culture, which usually includes giving gifts and favors, to explain how their client got mixed up in a city bribery scandal.
Kong was the third person to plead guilty in a widening corruption scandal that has led to the resignation of four city department heads, including San Francisco’s highest-ranking unelected official, former City Administrator Naomi Kelly, who has not been charged with a crime. Other outgoing department heads include Nuru, former Building Inspection Director Tom Hui and Kelly’s husband, former San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Chief Harlan Kelly.
Permit expediter Walter Wong and restauranter Nick Bovis previously pleaded guilty to obtaining or attempting to obtain city contracts and inside information in exchange for bribes.
In total, ten people — including city employees and contractors — have been charged with crimes related to the corruption probe, which was first made public with the arrest of Nuru in January 2020.
“The sentence handed down today recognizes the seriousness of Florence Kong’s offenses,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson said in a statement. “Both corrupt officials and those who corrupt them are accountable for their crimes. Our City Hall prosecutions are not over. The investigation continues.”
Kong will start serving her prison sentence on Aug. 13, 2021. She was also ordered to pay a $95,000 fine and sentenced to a three-year probation term after her release.
Kong’s attorney John Runfola declined to comment on the sentencing.
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