SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – One of San Francisco’s highest-ranking city government officials was arrested and federally charged Tuesday in connection to a bribery scheme.
San Francisco Public Works director Mohammed Nuru, 57, faces charges of honest services wire fraud and lying to FBI agents. He could be sentenced to 25 years in prison if convicted.
“Federal law gives the citizens of San Francisco a right to honest services from their public officials. San Francisco has been deprived of honest services,” said U.S. Attorney David Anderson for the Northern District of California.
According to a criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday, Nuru and San Francisco restauranteur Nick Bovis tried to bribe a member of the San Francisco Airport Commission to steer a contract for airport lease space at to an unnamed source. In a recorded phone call, Bovis told a confidential source that Nuru would pay the unnamed airport commissioner $5,000 and provide her a free trip in exchange for help winning the airport lease.
Bovis, 56, of Burlingame, was also arrested Monday and charged with honest services wire fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Bovis is owner of the famed Union Square bar and restaurant Lefty O’Douls, which closed in 2017, and other restaurants.
Nuru was initially arrested on Jan. 21 and agreed to cooperate with the FBI investigation in exchange for his release. According to Anderson, Nuru violated the terms of his release by disclosing the investigation to others and then reportedly lied to FBI agents about it when confronted. Nuru was rearrested Monday and charged with an additional count of lying to the FBI, which carries a maximum five-year sentence.
Bovis and Nuru were each released on $2 million bond after appearing in court Tuesday afternoon.
The complaint details four other schemes which federal authorities say provide further evidence of Nuru’s corrupt intent. The complaint says Nuru used his position to benefit a Chinese developer involved in a multimillion-dollar mixed-use project in San Francisco in exchange for luxury hotel stays in China, high-end liquor and other gifts.
Nuru also used his position as chair of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority to help Bovis secure a desirable lease in the new Transbay Transit Center in exchange for “benefits provided by Bovis.” Nuru told confidential FBI sources that he could help them obtain leases there as well, according to the complaint.
Federal authorities further accuse Nuru of helping Bovis win contracts to provide portable bathroom trailers, deployed throughout San Francisco to help combat unsanitary conditions related to the city’s growing homeless population and lack of public restrooms.
According to the complaint, a construction company that was awarded a DPW contract worth over $2 million did free or discounted work on Nuru’s vacation property in Stonyford near Mendocino National Forest, about 3.5 hours north of San Francisco.
John “Jack” Bennet, special agent in charge of the FBI San Francisco field office, said the charges against Nuru and Bovis are part of an ongoing investigation into city government corruption.
“Corruption big or small tears at the foundation of our democracy,” Bennet said. “No level of corruption will be tolerated.”
San Francisco Mayor London Breed called the allegations “extremely serious” in a statement Tuesday and said the city will cooperate fully with investigators. Nuru was placed on administrative leave Monday, and the city attorney and controller were asked to review city contracts and other decisions made by Nuru.
“Nothing matters more than the public trust, and each and every one of us who works for the city must hold ourselves to the highest standard,” Breed said. “I accept nothing less for myself or for those who serve in this administration, and I will do everything I can to ensure that those who fail to uphold that standard are held accountable.”
Nuru has served as Department of Public Works director since he was appointed to the position by former Mayor Ed Lee, now deceased, in 2011. He previously worked as deputy director for operations for 11 years.
As director, Nuru manages a department with an annual budget exceeding $500 million and a workforce of 1,600 employees. Nuru made over $323,000 in pay and benefits in 2018, according to the website Transparent California, which tracks public employees’ salaries and benefits.
In the early 2000s, DPW whistleblowers accused Nuru – then the deputy director – of misusing public funds and replacing city employees with cronies that worked for a nonprofit Nuru previously ran. Some staffers complained Nuru improperly extended a $1 million street cleaning contract for his former nonprofit, the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), and that he allowed the organization to charge the city more than $100,000 for other questionable expenses.
In 2004, the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office investigated complaints that Nuru improperly pressured SLUG employees to campaign for Gavin Newsom, who was running for San Francisco mayor at that time.
A father of five, Nuru earned a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from Kansas State University. He lives in San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood, according to an online biography on the city government’s website.
Nuru and Bovis are both scheduled to appear back in court before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim on Feb. 6.