City Administrator Naomi Kelly is taking a leave of absence from her role as the most powerful non-elected official in San Francisco after becoming embroiled in the growing City Hall corruption scandal.
Kelly has not been charged with a crime but attended a March 2016 trip to Hong Kong and China with her family that was allegedly paid for by permit expediter Walter Wong as a bribe for her husband, former San Francisco Public Utilities Commission head Harlan Kelly.
Federal authorities raided the Kellys’ Inner Sunset home Monday after charging Harlan Kelly with fraud for allegedly accepting bribes including the trip.
In a Wednesday letter to Mayor London Breed, Naomi Kelly said she was taking a voluntary leave to focus on her children, “who have been devastated by public accusations and public speculation based on the word of a liar.”
Naomi Kelly was referring to Wong, who agreed to cooperate with the federal probe in exchange for leniency in the pending case against him. The FBI cited statements and materials from Wong as evidence in the complaint against her husband.
While Wong told the FBI he covered the costs of the China trip for the Kelly family including airfare, a hotel room and other expenses, Naomi Kelly told agents during a June interview that she paid Wong “a lot of money for the trip.”
But the FBI said records showing the couple did not spend substantial amounts on their credit or debit cards during the trip corroborate Wong’s narrative. Bank records also showed the Kellys did not withdraw a significant amount of cash in the weeks leading up to the vacation, according to the FBI.
Naomi Kelly attacked Wong’s credibility in her letter Wednesday, calling him “a disgraced and desperate man, who deceived many good people for many years and is now scrambling to use his manipulative skills to buy his freedom in the last years of his life.”
“I will put my credibility up against his any day and, rest assured, I will ensure that the truth is told for the sake of my family, community and my city,” she wrote.
Naomi Kelly said she has always acted “ethically and in the best interests of the people of the city that I love, and I have always told the truth.”
The city administrator was appointed to her most recent five-year term by the late Mayor Ed Lee in 2017 and can be removed by Breed subject to Board of Supervisors approval. Lee first appointed her in 2012.
Deputy City Administrator Ken Bukowski will take over for Naomi Kelly in an acting capacity while she is on leave, Breed said in a statement.
“As a city, we need to continue to work to address issues raised by this investigation and to implement necessary reforms in order to ensure the public’s trust in our city government,” Breed said.
Supervisor Matt Haney, who has been outspoken about corruption in city government, said he supports Naomi Kelly’s decision to take a leave of absence.
“It sounds like it was the right decision both for our city and for the city administrator herself,” Haney said. “There’s clearly a pretty sweeping crisis across the executive branch of our city right now, impacting a half dozen departments and many of The City’s most powerful non-elected leaders.”
Harlan Kelly resigned Monday after being accused of trading bribes from Wong for help with city business. He allegedly gave Wong insider information about a streetlight upgrade project and also received cheap labor from Wong on the Kellys’ home.
Wong did not end up obtaining the streetlight contract from the SFPUC. An attorney for Harlan Kelly, Brian Getz, has disputed the allegations and said that his client paid “every penny” of the China trip.
The corruption scandal began this January when federal authorities charged former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru and restaurateur Nick Bovis in connection with an alleged bribery scheme. Nuru is also alleged to have accepted a paid trip to China from Wong as a bribe.
Naomi Kelly is being represented by attorney Martin Sabelli. Her leave of absence is expected to last six weeks, she said.