Mayor London Breed speaks with Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new San Francisco Police Department facility for the department’s Forensic Services Division and motorcycle police on Evans Avenue in the Bayview District on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Mayor Breed admits prior romantic relationship with Nuru, acceptance of potentially illegal gift

Mayor London Breed just came clean about Mr. Clean.

In a strange Valentine’s Day twist, Breed announced Friday in a Medium blog post that she dated former Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, who has been arrested by federal authorities on a public corruption charge.

“Mohammed Nuru and I have been close personal friends for more than 20 years,” Breed wrote. “We dated for a brief time, two decades ago, long before I ever ran for office.”

But that isn’t even the big news, really.

Relationships happen. As long as it didn’t lead to Breed colluding with Nuru around his alleged schemes, that relationship is water under the bridge for most San Franciscans, I bet. They won’t care. Why should they?

The real shocker is Breed admitting to potential breaches of ethics law in her blog post today, an act that law officials are already calling blatantly “illegal.”

In her blog post, Breed said she accepted a $5,600 gift from Nuru. She did not report that gift publicly with the state Fair Political Practices Commission or the San Francisco Ethics Commission.

Breed defended taking a loan from Nuru — he paid for her car repair in 2019 — and said that under the Fair Political Practices Commission’s rules she is not required to report gifts “by an individual with whom the official has a long term, close personal friendship unrelated to the official’s position.”

But local law says she has no right to accept a gift from a subordinate in the first place. Period. Full stop.

Some members of the Board of Supervisors have called for her to resign, while others are urging caution.

Two have already publicly called Breed’s action illegal.

Ronen said it was “ridiculous” people are focusing on Breed and Nuru’s personal relationship, which is “their business.” But the gift — that’s another matter entirely.

“The mayor just admitted to accepting a gift from an important department head who is under investigation for several allegations of corruption,” Ronen said. “It is a huge problem and I believe she needs to resign.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin didn’t quite go as far as Ronen in his call to action, but told me he thinks Mayor Breed should go before the Board of Supervisors in a public hearing and answer questions about gifts she may have received from subordinates, and any ties she may have to the FBI’s ongoing investigation.

“I don’t care one whit who sleeps with who twenty years ago, ten years ago, or yesterday,” Peksin told me. “But it does raise a question — If they were such close personal friends, did he tell the mayor he was in trouble with the FBI? He told the city administrator.”

Peskin added, “if what she is claiming in her blog post is that this is everything, let’s ask those questions and get this on the record.” He has a tentative hearing date scheduled for March 5 — we’ll see if Breed shows up and answers questions from the board and the public.

Regardless of how things unfold for Breed, Nuru’s prospects are looking glum as of this Valentine’s Day weekend.

Nuru was arrested on public corruption charges by the FBI in late January along with restaurateur Nick Bovis. Both men were accused of trying to bribe an airport official with $5,000 to improperly obtain a restaurant contract. Nuru also was accused of accepting international flights and lavish spa treatments from a Chinese billionaire, in an attempt to win approvals for the 555 Fulton housing project.

This scandal keeps unfolding, with new dominoes tipping over every day.

Earlier this week, City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced subpoenas of contractors and nonprofits, including PG&E and the Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids, suspected of “funneling” money to Public Works under Nuru’s watch. The Examiner reported in an investigation last week that the Lefty’s Foundation appears to have taken donations from city contractors and used it to pay for a lavish holiday party for Public Works.

Herrera said he suspected those contractors were “funneling” money to officials that weren’t legally allowed to accept it.

This newest twist about the Mayor and Nuru might also explain much — Breed has been conspicuously quiet on Nuru’s ever-widening corruption scandal. Any other mayor may have come out swinging, loudly denouncing the subordinate and trying to distance themselves from his actions. Not Breed, and now we might have an inkling as to why.

Breed and Nuru’s relationship was long rumored in City Hall, perhaps its worst kept secret, though no one with first-hand knowledge had come forward on the record. Now, Breed has done it herself.

In her blog post, Breed disclosed that last year Nuru paid $5,600 to repair her own personal vehicle, which she described as an 18-year-old car in need of repairs.

“Last year, my personal automobile had broken down and Mohammed, acting as my friend, took it to a private auto mechanic,” Breed wrote. “The estimated cost of repairs seemed more than the 18-year-old car was worth, but Mohammed had it fixed. Later, when the car still wasn’t working, he helped secure a rental.”

The mayor said she intended to reimburse Nuru, her reason for not reporting the gift to state government.

The law

Breed’s choice of words in her blog post don’t appear to be an accident, at least not from my understanding of local ethics laws.

Here’s where it gets complicated.

“No city officer or designated employee may receive any gifts worth more than 500 dollars in a calendar year from a single source,” said Larry Bush, a City Hall watchdog and author of some city ethics codes. “The gift limit is set without regard to the person, but it doesn’t count if it’s a family relationship. This was not a family relationship.”

While Bush is correct, there is an exemption in that gift ban if the gift-giver has a “personal relationship” with that government officer.

It ain’t just for family. Funny enough, it’s nicknamed the “best friends forever” provision in the City Attorney’s Office good government guide. It’s a pretty broad exemption, a loophole wide enough to drive a (Public Works) truck through. Ahem.

Here’s the rule: “Payments provided to an official by an individual with whom the official has a long-term, close personal friendship unrelated to the official’s status,” are exempt from the gift restrictions, according to the City Attorney’s good government guide.

Note Breed’s use of the word “friend” in her blog post, and her emphasis on knowing him for more than 20 years. Those phrases no doubt speak directly to that provision.

But, and this is a big “but,” that same exemption does not apply to local ethics laws barring government officers from accepting gifts from subordinates. There is no exemption for personal friends there.

This is where it looks like Breed flouted the law. Breed is the boss, and her underlings cannot pay for her stuff, according to local ethics code.

Subordinates under city law are described as employees who are directed or evaluated by a government officer. The City charter, which is essentially our constitution, expressly describes The Mayor of San Francisco as having the power to hire and fire not only the director of Public Works, but that director’s boss, the City Administrator.

Breed oversees not only Nuru but his boss, Naomi Kelley, and can hire and fire both under The City charter.

It took me a lot of digging to figure that one out, dear readers. I bet you Breed’s advisors missed that little provision, figured the gift was legal, and revealed it to the world.

But surprise — it’s not.

Of Breed’s relationship with Nuru, she wrote in her post, “I will not apologize for dating someone two decades ago. I will not apologize for remaining close friends with him and his family for 20 more years.”

She added, “But neither will I make excuses for any misdeeds. He will have to live with any consequences, and we in government must work to ensure our institutions live up to the highest levels of integrity.”

Officials react

Three city officials are perhaps Breed’s harshest critics in this unfolding story: Ronen, Supervisor Matt Haney, and Supervisor Gordon Mar.

“This is very serious. From what I’ve read, it seems clear that the mayor broke the law here,” Haney told me.

Breed did say she planned to publicly report the gift, which is mandated by law on some types of gifts for public officials. But Haney noted that with Breed’s admission timing is everything.

“She absolutely cannot take a $5,600 gift from a subordinate and not report it until an FBI investigation is announced,” Haney said. “The fact that this subordinate is under investigation from the FBI for public corruption, this is as serious as it gets.”

Mar also took a hard line on the mayor accepting an illegal gift.

“Mayor Breed’s admission of thousands of dollars in unreported gifts from a subordinate is likely illegal, certainly unethical, and part of a culture of casual corruption that is eroding the faith of the public. It must end,” Mar said.

Like Ronen, he also called on her to step away from her duties, though not permanently.

“Given the seriousness of this admission, the direct connection to the central figure in the FBI’s investigation into public corruption, I believe we need to put the people of San Francisco first. I believe Mayor Breed should do the right thing and temporarily step back from her duties until a full, independent investigation can be completed,” Mar said.

Supervisors Sandra Fewer and Aaron Peskin both said they want more answers.

Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee released a statement saying “Mayor Breed made a mistake and has acknowledged it publicly,” but deferred to the Ethics Commission and City Attorney’s Office to fully investigate Breed, without calling for further action.

Unanswered questions

In many ways, Breed’s admissions introduce even more mystery into this whole affair.

“There are a whole bunch of questions” unanswered, Peskin agreed.

Straight up, Nuru is under investigation for trying to bribe officials. He tried to slip $5,000 to an airport commissioner. So was this a bribe? Did the dealer that fixed Breed’s car have a city contract? Did Nuru go to fix Breed’s car during a weekday, when he was supposed to be fulfilling his job as director of Public Works?

Why did Breed come clean today — was someone about to leak it? Did they threaten her that they would? Why did Breed need a loan anyway? Transparent California, a database of public employee salaries, shows Breed was paid $214,878 as mayor in 2018. Where did all that money go?

Peskin brought up perhaps the biggest question of all. But first, some context: The lengthy federal complaint against Nuru revealed that the feds had tapped his phone. The reason he was arrested at the end of January was not just for corruption, it was also because he was an FBI informant who double-crossed the feds in their investigation of other people.

Nuru promised not to squeal about their investigation, but he did anyway. We know one person he told was City Administrator Naomi Kelly, but who else was involved? Did he tell Breed?

“He was arrested for talking when he was not supposed to,” Peskin noted. “It raises the question if the FBI, who we all think were looking for a bigger fish, were looking for her.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Breed’s office has not responded to my numerous questions, and so far, no one is squawking — yet.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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