While a veritable swarm of journalists chased down corruption charges against Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru on Tuesday, another swarm of FBI agents quietly raided the San Francisco office of a well-known permit expediter.
Walter Wong helps property developers navigate San Francisco’s labyrinthine approvals process — for a price. FBI agents searched the offices of his company Jaidin Consulting Group Tuesday, according to witnesses at the scene.
Though the feds would not confirm the raid or its ties to the corruption investigation, the complaint against Nuru mentions an unnamed “permit expediter” that connected Nuru to those who offered him gifts he allegedly accepted in kickback schemes.
The two men certainly know one another. One Chinatown source who has known Wong for more than three decades, and Nuru for roughly a decade, told me they were close.
“They’re buddy-buddy. They’re very good friends,” the source told me Tuesday.
Wong is not named in the explosive 75-page complaint the U.S. Attorney released on Tuesday.
When this columnist asked U.S. Attorney for the Northern District in California David Anderson to confirm rumors that the FBI searched Wong’s offices at the press conference revealing that complaint, he replied somewhat cryptically.
“We are not in a position today to confirm the other law enforcement actions that may or may not be underway, so I don’t have any information in response to your question,” Anderson said.
However, sources told this columnist that Wong’s office had been raided. And multiple witnesses at the scene corroborated federal agents searched the building that houses Wong’s offices. One witness specifically confirmed they presented a warrant in order to search his office.
Wong’s company, Jaidin Consulting Group, is listed at 205 13th St., just under a freeway entrance at the edge of the Mission District. Local drivers may recognize its distinctive rust color and the logo “CitiCenter” emblazoned in yellow atop it, clearly visible to anyone zooming out of San Francisco.
After the U.S. Attorney’s press conference Tuesday, I hopped a Muni bus down from the San Francisco Federal Building, near City Hall, to CitiCenter to verify the raid.
There I found Gul Nora and Elene Korchagina, who both work in offices near Wong’s within the relatively small CitiCenter building and who spotted the agents in the morning.
Korchagina told me she was surprised by the presence of FBI agents in their building at roughly 9 a.m.
“They had FBI jackets,” she said, with the lettering clearly visible on their backs.
A man who works as an attendant there, who would only identify himself by his first name, told me roughly a dozen FBI agents arrived at about 9 a.m. and told CitiCenter staff they needed access to the premises.
“They served a search warrant,” he told me, and confirmed it was for Wong’s office.
Two additional monolingual staffers also confirmed, in Cantonese, that FBI agents entered the building. CitiCenter management declined to be interviewed. The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not return additional requests for comment.
This raid, however, is more than just an interesting footnote in the messy, sordid tale of Nuru’s arrest at the hands of the feds.
Indeed, it may shed light on a number of redacted names and entities in the 75-page complaint released Tuesday.
Wong could be the unnamed influencer who allegedly connected Nuru with a billionaire Chinese developer in one of the five schemes. Notably, permit consulting is a legal practice — one The City began regulating in 2015 — but seeking to sway officials to approve a project is an entirely different matter.
The criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday outlines Nuru’s all-expenses-paid trip to China, where he allegedly enjoyed tours around a billionaire developer’s personal resort and a $2,000 bottle of wine that he failed to report.
“Thank you very much for all your generosity while we were in China,” Nuru allegedly messaged the developer after the trip in 2018. “We had a great vacation and my daughter had a wonderful time. I will do my very best to see that your project gets completed.”
His trip was all thanks in part to connections from an unnamed influencer called “CONTRACTOR 2” — a “building permits expediter who is affiliated with NURU,” according to the complaint.
Nuru was charged with wire fraud specifically for his alleged attempt to bribe an airport commissioner with $5,000 to obtain her support for a restaurant contract benefiting local businessman Nick Bovis. He is also accused of making false statements to the feds.
But deeper within the larger federal complaint, another scheme is revealed, which the U.S. Attorney’s Office detailed to “underscore his pattern of fraudulent conduct.” The unnamed CONTRACTOR 2 allegedly paid for Nuru’s trips to South America and China in 2018, gifts which went unreported per ethics laws, and also provided free or subsidized work on Nuru’s vacation home.
The feds alleged Nuru accepted lodging, high-end liquor, and other gifts and benefits in return for helping that same unnamed billionaire developer from China win city approvals to push a multi-million-dollar project.
So just what was that multi million-dollar project, shepherded by this unnamed permit expediter?
Here’s what we know.
The complaint reveals the multi million-dollar development in question experienced multiple permitting delays, one of which was due to its defective windows, which were “made in Mexico.” That development would also feature a retail store on the ground level.
Multiple sources Tuesday said that the description of the development closely matched the 555 Fulton Project, featuring 139 condos, that was skewered by the Planning Department for replacing its defective windows with a new “glass exterior,” according to neighborhood news outlet Hoodline.
Much like the project detailed in Nuru’s complaint, 555 Fulton features a retail store on its ground level, in this case a Trader Joe’s grocery store, which as my San Francisco Examiner colleagues reported was made possible by chain-store exemptions attained by former Supervisor Vallie Brown and Mayor London Breed, in her days as a supervisor.
The 555 Fulton developers were also one-time clients of Wong during the project’s approval process.
Z & L Properties developed the Hayes Valley-based project. And Ethics Commission records show Z & L properties paid Walter Wong $24,000 for permit “consultancy” in one quarter of 2017 alone.
As for Z & L Properties itself, that company is privately funded by a mega-developer from China, R & F Properties, according to multiple news reports. That developer is among China’s largest, according to the San Francisco Business Times, which bought the 555 Fulton site in 2015 along with another California property for $35 million.
R & F Properties was co-founded in 1994 by Li Sze Lim and Zhang Li, who netted spots on two Forbes lists — the China Rich List 2019 and Billionaires 2019 lists — with net worths of $2.9 billion and $3 billion, respectively.
In the complaint, Nuru bragged to his unnamed girlfriend that the unnamed billionaire seeking Nuru’s help owned multiple hotels. “He has a hundred and five, five-star hotels in China … and then we stayed at the Park Hyatt, he owns that one. And the last time I went with grandma we stayed at the Ritz-Carlton,” Nuru was detailed as saying in the complaint.
Li’s company, R&F Properties, owns the Ritz-Carlton and Park Hyatt hotels in Guangzhou, China, among many other hotels, according to multiple news reports.
For years, San Francisco media and the powerful elite have relied on Wong, and he’s relied on them.
His efforts on behalf of mayors are many: former Mayor Willie Brown rented office space from Wong for both his 1995 and 1999 campaigns, according to a lengthy 2001 profile by the San Francisco Chronicle, and as the Examiner reported, Wong played a key role in Rose Pak’s “Run, Ed, Run” campaign to draft former Mayor Ed Lee into his first election.
More recently, he’s donated $10,000 to Supervisor Matt Haney and Hillary Ronen’s “Mental Health SF” ballot measure to expand mental health services in The City.
His other recent donations include $500 (the maximum allowed) to re-elect Mayor London Breed last year, $15,000 to 2018’s “Yes on D — Housing for All” ballot measure supported by Breed, and $10,000 to the 2017 “Coalition to Stop the Wasteful Recall of Mayor Lee,” among others.
His development wins include the Metreon building that towers over Mission Street today.
Beyond his role as a permit expediter, Walter Wong has long garnered respect among Chinatown’s community leaders.
He’s known for the annual Chinese New Year dinner and for organizing many events in Portsmouth Square for the community. That same dedication to his community, and to veterans in particular, earned him recognition from Mayor Lee in 2012.
To a Herbst Theatre crowd, Lee sang Wong’s praises.
“It’s a special day for me because we’re recognizing that you have as one of your participants today, someone who is awesome, who has been personally involved with supporting our veterans. That’s my good friend Walter Wong,” Lee said.
Lee then declared Jan. 13 “Walter Wong Day” in San Francisco, a new annual celebration.
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.