A nonprofit charity run by one of the two men at the center of an unfolding city corruption scandal took in thousands of dollars from city contractors and appears to have used at least some of those donations to pay for a lavish party for Public Works employees.
Federal authorities arrested Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru and restaurateur Nick Bovis last week on public corruption charges and alleged they worked together on schemes to steer contracts toward Bovis.
Now, new emails and financial documents indicate that a nonprofit charity operated by Bovis, the “Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids,” took in thousands of dollars in donations from city contractors with business before Nuru, in some cases at the direct request of city officials. But the private emails to and from Bovis reveal that not all of those donations went toward baseball uniforms and catcher’s mitts.
Instead, in 2017, some of those dollars paid for a holiday party for Nuru’s Public Works employees at the Green Room in the historic War Memorial building on Van Ness Avenue. The party offered a feast of butternut pomegranate wraps, prime rib sliders, rock salt-crusted salmon, portobello mushroom sliders, and “meatball marinara” cups, served by Lefty O’Doul’s restaurant staff.
The emails and other documents revealing the donations from contractors and their use for the holiday party were obtained by this columnist from a well-placed source who asked for anonymity, fearing retribution.
In a complaint unsealed last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office described an alleged plot by Nuru and Bovis to bribe an airport commissioner with $5,000 to influence her vote on a restaurant contract. Other schemes were also described in the complaint, although Nuru was not charged for them, including allegations he used his position to influence contracts or took gifts from developers and contractors in violation of ethics laws.
These newest emails raise further questions about Nuru’s interactions with city contractors and Bovis’ role in those interactions.
The emails show that at least three companies with city contracts directly influenced by Nuru — Webcor, Recology and Pankow — donated thousands of dollars to Bovis’ Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids in 2017. Funds from that nonprofit charity were then used to pay for an opulent annual holiday party for Public Works employees. That party was thrown by Bovis himself, who then sent an invoice to Public Works.
That invoice listed costs at just $5,200, divided into $3,500 for the “musical entertainment package” and $1,700 for refreshments. Privately, however, Bovis told a different story about who was paying for the party to his employees and how much it truly cost.
Forwarding a message about the Dec. 19, 2017 Public Works party to a staff member in a generic Lefty O’Doul’s account, Bovis wrote, “Mohamed [sic] is getting us 30k he already got 15k deposit.” That email’s subject heading read “FWD: GSA Holiday Party – Tues., 12/19/17.”
“GSA Holiday Party” is how Public Works would describe its annual holiday bash, other emails to and from Bovis show.
On Oct. 28, 2017, Bovis sent a scanned check from Recology for $15,000 to his staffers. The check is designated to “LEFTY ODOULS FOUNDATION FOR KIDS.” The unnamed staffer replies, from a generic Lefty O’Doul’s email account, “Wow! that’s great 15k for the foundation.”
In an emailed reply, Bovis corrects the staffer.
“That is for the party we have to do for Dpw [sic] holiday party,” Bovis wrote.
DPW is an out-of-date acronym for the Department of Public Works, now known as San Francisco Public Works. Nuru, as director of Public Works, has the authority to set rate increases for Recology, which would classify Recology as a “restricted source” for gifts under city ethics laws. Essentially, a no-go.
After the donation, Bovis sent a “thank you” email on Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids letterhead. This allowed the company to file the donation as a tax write-off.
“On behalf of the Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids, I wish to express our sincere appreciation for your donation,” reads a form letter sent to each company after Bovis received a donation check. “This gift supports our efforts in our commitment to helping kids play baseball. This continuing support will guarantee our availability to assist our communities.”
Checks and big balances
That same pattern was repeated for Pankow Builders, an Oakland construction firm that is constructing a new building that will be the future home of Public Works, and Nuru’s own office. The company also completed renovations on the War Memorial Veterans Building in 2015.
On Dec. 4, 2017, Scott Anderson, the senior vice president and regional manager of Pankow, wrote to his office manager, “Can you arrange for a check to be issued to the non-profit identified below? They are a registered 501.c.3 so I’ve copied Perla as well so she is aware of the charitable donation. The check should be for $5,000 and it should specifically reference that the donation is in support of the ‘GSA Holiday Party.’”
The check Anderson sent was marked for the Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids.
Bovis forwarded the emails from Anderson and Pankow, including the check, to his staff, adding, “Can you send a thank you / tax donation letter back to them.” When Pankow received that tax donation letter, it read — as all the Lefty O’Doul’s “thank you” emails do — “This gift supports our efforts in our commitment to helping kids play baseball.”
Webcor Builders, the general contractor/construction manager for the $2.2 billion Transbay Transit Center project in a joint contract with Obayashi Corporation, also made a donation to the foundation that same year. Nuru is chairman of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which managed that project.
A Dec. 12, 2017 PayPal receipt shows a digital payment of $5,150 to Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids, which was emailed to Bovis by Margaret Austin, an assistant to Webcor’s president, Jes Pedersen.
“Hi there, just confirming that this donation was made at the request of Jes Pedersen, Webcor’s President, to go towards the Holiday Party. Hope you have an amazing holiday,” Austin wrote. “Hi Margaret,” a Lefty O’Doul’s staffer replied, “we will send out a donation letter with your tax deductible information shortly.”
A Webcor spokesperson, however, says the company was told the donation was for a different purpose. An email forwarded by Webcor spokesperson Sam Singer shows Ron Alameida, the director of design and construction at the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, specifically asking Webcor to make a donor check out to a toy drive holiday party at the behest of Bovis, the owner of Lefty O’Doul’s restaurant and the head of the kids’ foundation.
“I spoke with Nick Bovis. He indicated that you can make out a check to Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids with Toy Drive Holiday Party in memo,” Alameida wrote.
Tom O’Doul, who is on the Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids board, who is familiar with the organizing that went into the annual Lefty O’Doul’s annual toy drive, said it was not framed as a party, and that there was no “holiday party” held in connection to their annual toy drive.
O’Doul also said he never saw, or was aware of, corporate donations. There is no mention of a toy drive “holiday party” on Lefty O’Doul’s public Facebook page.
Alameida, the city staffer who requested donations from Webcor, is not named in the federal complaint against Bovis and Nuru. However, that complaint does detail a scheme for Nuru to use his city connections to help Bovis to improperly obtain a TJPA lease to start a restaurant in the Transbay Transit Center.
“In exchange, I believe Bovis was continuing to ‘take care of’ Nuru through kickbacks, free meals or other benefits,’” FBI Special Agent James Folger said in the complaint.
Each of the contractors involved in the donation scheme expressed shock and surprise at how their funds were used by Bovis and Nuru.
“As part of its ongoing support for our communities, Recology frequently partners with charities and other non-profit organizations. We are deeply disturbed to learn that one of these organizations may have been involved in activities detailed in recent press accounts,” Recology Vice President and Senior Director of Strategic Affairs Eric Potashner wrote in a statement.
Scott Anderson, the CEO of Pankow Builders, told me “Pankow has never entered into any donations or quid-pro-quo [sic].” He said that when they looked into the Lefty O’Doul’s foundation they saw charity work being done. “We have never come across any improprieties, it’s really a surprise.”
Singer, the Webcor spokesperson, said city officials asked Webcor “to support a good deed and a toy drive holiday party, that’s how they framed it. Webcor made this donation with the expectation it be used to assist children.”
The type of payment Singer describes — a public official asking a contractor to donate to a cause — is called a behest payment, and is regulated by The City. While San Francisco has required elected officials to report behest payments for years, in 2019 those rules were tightened to also require city commissioners to report those payments. And while state law says gifts need to exceed $5,000 to be reported, that requirement was lowered to $1,000 in city code.
However, department heads like Nuru and staffers like Alameida are not required to report behested payments.
Webcor and Recology donated funding to Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids in other years besides 2017, but a complete accounting for how that funding was used was not evident in documents provided to this columnist.
Public Works would not comment on the revelations in this column as they pertain to an active law enforcement investigation.
Deep-pocketed companies, contractors and individuals seeking to influence city government are met by many hard rules barring them from doing exactly that.
While unable to comment on the specific allegations in this story, Pat Ford, senior policy and legislative affairs counsel at the Ethics Commission, said San Francisco law prohibits a city official or employee from accepting a gift from a person who contracts with their city department.
“Such people are considered ‘restricted sources’ and if a city official or employee has reason to know that a person is a restricted source, then it is unlawful for them to solicit or accept a gift from that person,” Ford said in a statement.
Importantly, in ethics code, the type of gift given matters.
If a gift is more like, say, office supplies like a copy machine, that would count as a gift to a department and is OK to take from any entity, as long as it’s for professional use and under $10,000. Food, on the other hand, is a “consumable” not for use in performing department business. That puts it in a different legal category.
No individual whose department has oversight over a contractor is allowed to accept that type of gift from that contractor, even if the individual is not involved in that oversight.
And, importantly, a consumable is regarded as a gift to an individual who would enjoy that gift, even if it’s distributed department-wide, like the Public Works party.
There are only two exceptions to those rules: If the gift is under $25 and offered four times a year or fewer, and if the gift is to be shared at the individual’s office. The example most commonly cited in ethics documents is a company giving a government office a “fruit basket” around the holidays.
But this ain’t no fruit basket. And Bovis describes spending upwards of $30,000.
To be a violation under ethics code, the official must know, or have reason to know, that the gift is coming from a restricted source. In his emails, Bovis describes Nuru as directing money to Lefty’s foundation to pay for the party, but Bovis does not specifically link Nuru himself to the contractors. There are, however, abundant links to Bovis.
These records show Nuru received emails about the party, but sent almost none.
Nonprofit organizations, and particularly Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids, were not the focus of the federal complaint revealed by U.S. Attorneys against Nuru and Bovis last week. However, several brief paragraphs within the 75-page tome suggest a plan to accept donations into a nonprofit controlled by Bovis in exchange for an action by Nuru.
Bovis laid out a joint plan with Nuru to use nonprofits to sway public officials in a conversation with an undercover agent. The undercover agent asked Bovis about a range of contract schemes, including attempting to bribe an airport commissioner and obtaining a contract at the Transbay Transit Center.
In the complaint, that agent is known simply as UCE-7982.
“BOVIS requested UCE-7982’s help to design a consulting structure and said he would check with NURU to see if he has an existing company, adding, ‘he is very cautious, he has, he’s never, he said no one ever, he doesn’t take money, but sometimes we can do it to a cause, or something, yeah, maybe like a nonprofit or something… I can ask him. I’ve got to be real careful about that kind of stuff because of the position he is in,’” the complaint reads, recounting Bovis’ discussion with the undercover agent.
When the undercover agent asked about who would handle swaying the airport commissioner, in a discussion that included using a nonprofit to do so, Bovis replied, “I’d rather just deal with Mohammed, he’s my friend.”
Bovis also confirmed he and others would skim money off the top of those donations using what Bovis’ wife called “creative accounting.”
The agent, and Bovis, called it a “bump.”
Bovis added that he needs to be especially careful in how he involves his nonprofit in their plans because of his “brand,” ostensibly Lefty O’Doul’s.
“The other thing is that, it concerns my brand and stuff, and I want to do everything right,” Bovis said.
Lefty’s foundation strikes out
Al Casciato, a retired San Francisco Police Department captain and board member of the Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids, expressed shock at the breadth of the scheme.
“I feel so duped. How could I be so duped?” he said Tuesday.
However, he said it helped explain inconsistencies he’d seen in the organization.
“There was no paperwork” regarding the foundation’s financial records, Casciato said, despite repeated requests from the foundation’s board to obtain such records. That board has included KNBR 680 host Marty Lurie, retired San Francisco Giants second baseman Tito Fuentes, and former SFPD Chief Anthony Ribera, among others.
“We said, ‘where’s the reports?’ and he said ‘we’ll get them to you, we’ll get them to you,’” Casciato said of Bovis.
A review of Lefty O’Doul’s foundation for Kids’ financial records, which were among the emails given to this columnist, show the foundation was suspended by the Franchise Tax Board in 2010 for failure to provide tax returns.
And there are also missing documents more recently. Public tax filings available on GuideStar and on investigative journalism outlet ProPublica’s “Nonprofit Explorer” website show filings only between 2010 and 2015 for Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids.
The foundation’s total revenue between 2010 and 2015 fluctuates, with a high in 2013 of $48,667 and a low in 2011 of $6,583. The foundation’s tax filings between 2016 and 2019 were not available.
Ed Burns, a San Francisco-based certified public accountant, told me a tale similar to Casciato’s — records were scant, and Bovis was evasive. Burns was the foundation’s treasurer when it first launched in 2011, but he didn’t stay for long.
“It was sold to me as supposedly being entirely for the kids and baseball, for children,” Burns said. When Burns met Bovis, he struck him as charismatic. “He was definitely a bit of a carnival barker, he was a salesman that’s for sure.”
But Burns’ “sixth sense” quickly clued him in that things were not on the up-and-up. He became “uneasy.”
“I was pretty much kept in the dark on financial stuff,” Burns said. “That’s why I walked away.”
It remains to be seen if the ever-growing investigation into Bovis and Nuru’s alleged corruption will grow to encompass the foundation.
O’Doul, who is a cousin of the legendary San Francisco Seals manager and major league baseball player Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul, said the organization has managed to actually help children, despite Bovis’ alleged schemes.
He recalled a donation of $3,600 to the Oakland Royals Babe Ruth League in 2011 for baseball equipment, which brightened the lives of children ballplayers. It was the organization’s first major donation.
Lefty, the ball player and namesake of the organization “was always donating to the kids, he was a very generous guy. The whole concept of the foundation is good,” O’Doul told me, “but I don’t like the fact that it was going to things other than a charitable organization.”
Casciato recalled the happiness a group of Tenderloin children showed in 2018 when the foundation treated them to a San Francisco Giants game, which was featured in an ABC 7 news report.
That’s why he said he’s going to try to revive the foundation without Bovis’ involvement.
“The kids are still there, the kids still need us, I think what we were doing was good,” Casciato said. “We’re committed to doing that, to saving the foundation.”
Casciato said the thought that Bovis was using the nonprofit for potentially illegal activities while they were also helping kids deeply saddened him.
“Boy, he really used us all,” he said.
To report any suspected abuse of public integrity in city government, call The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office Public Integrity Tip Line at (415)-554-7657 or email them at email@example.com. You can also contact the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office at (415)-553-9535.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Joe Fitz with tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.