Second Person Pleads Guilty in San Francisco Corruption Scandal

San Francisco Department of Public Works director Mohammed Nuru. (SFPW photo)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A permit expediter has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy charges and cooperate with investigators in a corruption scandal that took down one of San Francisco’s highest-ranking government officials.

Walter Wing Lok Wong, 70, is accused of conspiring for 15 years to defraud the public in a purported scheme with former Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, who resigned in February after being charged with attempted bribery and lying to the FBI.

According to federal prosecutors, Wong started colluding with Nuru and other unnamed government officials as early as 2004 in a scheme involving bribes, kickbacks and efforts to conceal their illegal activities. Prosecutors claim Wong also worked with Nuru and others to launder money and hide the profits of their corrupt dealings.

Wong is the sixth person to be charged in the city government corruption scandal and the second defendant who has agreed to plead guilty. He faces a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000 or twice the amount of funds involved in the alleged money laundering scheme.

U.S. Attorney David Anderson called the alleged conspiracy “breathtaking” in its duration and scope. He urged those with information on the corruption scheme to come forward, saying the federal court and prosecutors will make sharp distinctions between those who cooperate with investigators and those who do not.

“If you love San Francisco, and regret your misconduct, you still have an opportunity to do the right thing,” Anderson said in a statement. “Run, don’t walk, to the FBI, before it is too late for you to cooperate.” 

As a permit expediter, Wong has assisted developers in navigating San Francisco’s complex permitting process and offered to speed up authorizations for projects from the city’s Department of Building Inspection and other government agencies. He also works as a building contractor.

Prosecutors say Wong played a role in facilitating the connection between Nuru and a Chinese billionaire responsible for a mixed-use development at 555 Fulton Street in San Francisco. They say Nuru used his position to benefit that developer, Zhang Li, in exchange for luxury hotel stays and gifts, including a $2,070 bottle of French wine.

Wong’s plea deal follows the June 8 announcement of charges filed against thee others, including Sandra Zuniga, formerly the city’s Fix-It Director and director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services; Balmore Hernandez, a former longtime DPW employee and now CEO and vice president of the construction engineering firm AzulWorks Inc.; and Florence Kong, owner of a San Francisco-based construction company.

Zuniga, 44, is accused of helping Nuru launder money. Hernandez, 55, is accused of bribing Nuru with tens of thousands in labor and materials in exchange for city contracts. Kong, 62, is accused of lying to the FBI about her alleged corrupt dealings with Nuru.

Wong is the second person to agree to plead guilty in the widening corruption scandal. In May, San Francisco restaurant owner Nick Bovis, 56, announced he would plead guilty and cooperate with investigators.

According to federal prosecutors, Nuru and Bovis tried to bribe a San Francisco airport commissioner to steer a contract for airport lease space to an unnamed source. Federal prosecutors also claim Nuru used inside information to help Bovis obtain city contracts to provide bathroom trailers and shipping container-type shelters for homeless people in San Francisco.

Additionally, Nuru is accused of using his position as chair of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board of Directors to help Bovis secure a desirable lease for retail space at the city’s Transbay Transit Center.

Wong’s attorney, Mary McNamara, of Swanson & McNamara in San Francisco, did not immediately return a request for comment.

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