Contractors charged in Nuru corruption scandal plead guilty

Two contractors accused of bribing former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru in separate schemes became the latest defendants to plead...

Two contractors accused of bribing former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru in separate schemes became the latest defendants to plead guilty on Thursday in the wide-reaching City Hall corruption scandal.

Balmore Hernandez, the CEO and vice president of a construction company, pleaded to conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud in federal court. He was initially charged with bribery but has agreed to cooperate with investigators in exchange for leniency.

Florence Kong, the owner of another construction company and a debris recycling center, admitted to bribery and lying to the FBI.

Hernandez, 55, and Kong, 62, were both charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in June alongside Nuru’s girlfriend, former Fix-it Team Director Sandra Zuniga. They are the third and fourth defendants to take plea deals after permit expediter Walter Wong and restaurateur Nick Bovis, who was first charged alongside Nuru in January.

Hernandez and Kong appeared separately before U.S. District Judge William Orrick over video chat on Thursday afternoon to plead guilty. Both are out of custody.

Hernandez, a resident of Burlingame who was born in El Salvador, was wearing a suit jacket and tie and remained largely expressionless.

Kong, who lives in Hillsborough and was born in Hong Kong, appeared to hold back tears as she entered her plea. She spoke English but also used a Cantonese interpreter.

In his plea agreement, Hernandez admitted that he “knowingly devised or participated in a scheme to defraud the public of its right to the honest services of a public official through bribery or kickbacks.”

The exact facts of the crime Hernandez admitted to were filed under seal.

But prosecutors previously accused Hernandez, who runs Azulworks, Inc., of spending more than $250,000 on improvements for Nuru’s vacation home in Colusa County in exchange for his help getting lucrative contracts.

Hernandez was also accused of helping two other contractors, Alan Varela and William Gilmartin III, bribe Nuru with $40,000 while seeking to open an asphalt plant on the waterfront. Varela and Gilmartin were both charged with bribery last month but have disputed the allegations.

In her plea agreement, Kong admitted to giving Nuru a nearly $37,000 Rolex watch she purchased last December as a reward for him steering business to her recycling plant, SFR Recovery Inc. She is also the owner of Kwan Wo Ironworks and acknowledged that “I gave Nuru the Rolex watch in exchange for Nuru’s past and future actions benefiting my businesses.”

“I believed Nuru to be one of the most powerful public officials in the City, and I believed that he wielded tremendous power and influence over City business, permitting, and other City government approvals,” the agreement reads.

Kong also admitted to making false statements to the FBI, including when she told agents in a March 2020 interview that she did not discuss business with Nuru and that Nuru did not help her with contracts.

Prosecutors reached the plea agreements with Hernandez and Kong last month.

Hernandez is facing up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

He is due back in court Jan. 21 for an update on his sentencing.

Kong could be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison for bribery and five years in prison for making false statements to the FBI. She also faces up to a $250,000 fine for each charge.

She is scheduled to return to court for sentencing Feb. 11.

The cases against Nuru and Zuniga are pending.

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