Mayor London Breed on Tuesday called for the dismissal of Department of Building Inspection Director Tom Hui, citing a City Attorney’s Office investigation and subsequent report, revealing “legal and ethical” lapses.
Hui allegedly offered “preferential treatment” to billionaire developer Zhang Li and known permit expediter Walter Wong, the investigation has found.
He also is alleged to have accepted dinners and gifts from that developer as he attempted to influence Hui to aid in approvals of a local condo development. Wong, the permit expediter, also allegedly helped Hui’s son and another family member to obtain a city job.
“The City Attorney’s report shows a number of legal and ethical violations committed by the Director of DBI from 2011-2016 that compromise the public’s trust in City government and are completely unacceptable by any civil servant,” Breed said in a statement.
“We’re following the evidence wherever it leads,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera said. “Our investigation is continuing, and we will get to the bottom of this. There is no place in San Francisco government for self-dealing and nepotism.”
Breed asked the DBI Commission to immediately remove the director from his position, which they have the authority to do under The City’s charter. The mayor also placed Hui on leave, pending that removal.
She revealed Hui’s dismissal during the Board of Supervisors’ monthly “question time,” when the mayor comes before the board to answer questions.
The dismissal is the result of an ongoing investigation following the arrest of former Public Works director Mohammed Nuru and Lefty O’Doul’s restaurant owner Nick Bovis by the FBI in late January. Both were later released on a $2 million bond.
Federal prosecutors chiefly accuse Nuru and Bovis of trying to bribe a San Francisco Airport Commissioner with $5,000 to obtain a restaurant contract for Bovis, though that bribe was never consummated.
Federal officials also alleged other schemes by the two men, including attempts to obtain a restaurant contract for Bovis in the Salesforce Transit Center, which Nuru oversaw in his role as chairman of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, and accepting trips from a Chinese billionaire to influence approvals for a housing development at 555 Fulton Street. Nuru also allegedly accepted gifts from city contractors, including work on his vacation home and a new tractor.
City Attorney digs in
Herrera has since widened the scope of that investigation, issuing subpoenas to various nonprofits and government contractors, including companies connected to Wong, a long-time San Francisco permit expediter, who the subpoenas indicated had some ties to Nuru’s efforts to influence the 555 Fulton Street condo approvals.
Now, however, The City Attorney’s Office is laying those connections bare.
The U.S. Attorney’s charging documents against Nuru featured a mysterious DBI OFFICIAL 1 connected with the scandal. The City Attorney’s office report said Hui told City Attorney investigators that it “sounds like me,” when asked about DBI OFFICIAL 1.
Hui revealed he attended “three to four” dinners with Zhang Li, the billionaire developer from China who was seeking to build a condo development at 555 Fulton Street.
Zhang and Hui dined at the R&G Lounge in Chinatown in a private room, Hui told investigators, with about seven people from Zhang’s company present. Hui’s agency, DBI, has approvals authority over various permitting decisions related to the 555 Fulton project, which would make Zhang a “restricted” source. This makes dining with him and discussing those approvals a potential violation of city policies.
“I should not have gone,” Hui told The City Attorney’s Office investigators. “I cannot defend it.”
DBI officials are not allowed to accept gifts in exchange for doing their job.
Wong arranged the dinners between Zhang and Hui, according to The City Attorney’s Office report.
The City Attorney’s Office also alleges Hui violated “anti-favoritism” laws in seeking to get his own son, and his son’s girlfriend, hired by The City in 2011.
In June 2011 Hui’s son sought a job at Public Works. When his son could not make a job interview appointment, Hui forwarded a request from his son to reschedule the interview to Wong.
“Hi Walter. Please help my son to change the interview date. Thanks Tom,” Hui wrote.
Wong responded “Can he do a phone interview.”
Hui’s son was eventually hired as a junior engineer at Public Works in August 2011, and the son later applied for a position at DBI under Hui. Hui later approved his son’s new job, which was a promotion.
Wong also helped Hui’s son’s girlfriend secure a job at Public Works, after she was notified in 2012 that she was “not selected” for the position. An email regarding the job rejection was forwarded to Wong, who asked Nuru “Can we help them.”
Nuru responded “yes i [sic] am working on it. I gave the paperwork to our Human Resource staff. we [sic] should hear soon from them.”
The son also asked Hui for help. Hui then emailed Wong asking for help in the hiring.
After a lengthy process between Nuru, Hui, and Wong, eventually, the girlfriend was hired at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. In 2015 she transferred to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency into a similar role.
The investigation also shows Wong and Hui embroiled in a well-publicized legal action by The City Attorney’s Office against a Bayview landlord accused of skirting building codes.
Wong also emailed Hui’s personal email address to ask for detailed guidance related to properties owned by clients of Wong, whose job includes moving permits through a labyrinthine city approvals process for deep-pocketed developers.
Those properties, owned by Xia Qi Wu, also known as Judy Wu, featured numerous violations of illegally subdividing properties into the Bayview to allow more people to live in them, usually veterans receiving federal housing vouchers.
The City Attorney’s office sued Wu for those violations in 2016.
As far back as 2008, before Hui was DBI director or acting director, Wong emailed Hui to seek advice on how to respond to DBI about construction in Wu’s homes, according to The City Attorney’s Office.
The Department of Building Inspection has also featured heavily both in the FBI’s investigation and in the City Attorney’s Office investigation.
The FBI also raided known permit expediter Walter Wong’s offices shortly after Nuru was arrested, this column exclusively revealed. Wong works hand-in-hand with DBI officials every day.
The FBI also later visited the Department of Building Inspection, as news outlet Mission Local first reported.
After Nuru’s arrest Breed also revealed she took a gift that may have skirted ethics laws from Nuru in the form of $5,600 in car repairs. Reporting by this columnist also revealed Bovis intended to pay for her San Francisco Pride Parade float in a gift that may have, if consummated, violated local ethics laws.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.