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Judge orders two defendants to stand trial in SF public corruption case, dismisses charges against third

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Keith Jackson (Natasha Dangond/Special to S.F. Examiner) Nazly Mohajer (Luke Thomas/Courtesy) Zula Jones (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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A San Francisco judge Friday threw out all charges against one defendant in a public corruption case and dropped others against the two remaining defendants following a lengthy preliminary hearing.

Superior Court Judge Tracie Brown dismissed all charges against former Human Rights Commissioner Nazly Mohajer, who was accused along with former commission staff member Zula Mae Jones and former school board member turned political consultant Keith Jackson of soliciting $20,000 in bribes from an undercover FBI agent during multiple meetings, which took place mostly in 2012.

Brown also dismissed a money laundering charge against Jones and Jackson, as well as a grand theft charge against Jackson related to a separate incident in which he allegedly took money to help a family get a child into a particular city school.

Brown found there was insufficient evidence against Mohajer, who worked to raise campaign funds for Mayor Ed Lee, to support the four counts of bribery and one count of money laundering she was charged with.

During the hours of recorded phone calls and conversations played during the preliminary hearing, Mohajer made fewer statements than either Jones or Jackson. The bulk of those statements related to a scheme to break up a large campaign contribution among straw donors to circumvent city campaign finance laws, however, and not directly to bribery, Brown said.

“Ms. Mohajer was unquestionably a very aggressive fundraiser for the mayor,” Brown said, but noted that while the campaign finance violation “may be illegal,” it was not what she was actually charged with.

However, Brown ordered Jones and Jackson to stand trial on the bribery charges.

Defense arguments maintained that the help offered in return for donations by the undercover agent, who was posing as an out of town developer interested in setting up shop in San Francisco, amounted only to advice and introductions.

However, Brown found there was probable cause to think Jones and Jackson offered more than that by promising access to Lee and influence on city contracts.

Jones told the undercover officer she “had the mayor’s ear,” at one point putting Lee on the phone with the agent briefly, and at another point assured the agent that in San Francisco “…you pay to play here. We know this, we’re the best at this game.”

Jackson, in other recordings, asked the agent explicitly “what do you want?” in return for the donation and assured him that he would get what he wanted.

Deputy Public Defender Niki Solis, who is defending Jackson, described the case as a “waste of taxpayers money.” She noted that even with a lower standard of proof at a preliminary hearing than in a jury trial, the judge still found insufficient evidence to support some of the felony charges.

“It just goes to show how weak the evidence is and how much the DA is overreaching,” Solis said. “The jury will understand this is a political witch hunt.”

Max Szabo, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, said that the judge had found there was sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. He said prosecutors were weighing their options when it came to Mohajer’s case.

Lee has not been charged or implicated in the case. The mayor’s office has stated that Lee was “thoroughly vindicated” in an investigation by federal officials and an Ethics Commission audit and that there is no evidence of wrongdoing on his part or on the part of his campaign.

The charges filed against Jackson, Jones and Mohajer in January of last year were the result of a prior FBI investigation that led to the conviction in January last year of alleged Chinatown gang leader Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow on charges including murder and racketeering.

Roughly two-dozen other people were also convicted in that case, including Jackson and former state Sen. Leland Yee on one count each of racketeering conspiracy to accept campaign contributions in exchange for political favors.

Jackson is currently serving a federal sentence in connection with that prior case.

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