A San Francisco permit expediter is facing criminal charges for allegedly engaging in “pay-to-play” schemes with public officials including former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru for more than a decade.
Prosecutors have charged Walter Wong with two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy to engage in money laundering, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday. He has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the FBI investigation into public corruption at City Hall.
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California David Anderson called the breadth of the alleged corruption “disturbing.”
“We allege more than a decade of fraud and money laundering involving one of San Francisco’s highest ranking public employees, one of its most well-known permit expediters and others who are not named at this time including other public officials,” Anderson told reporters.
Wong, 70, has helped developers navigate The City’s complicated permitting process for decades and is also a building contractor. He is the seventh person to be charged as a result of the expanding FBI corruption probe and the second to reach a cooperation agreement with the government.
Alongside Nuru and other unnamed individuals, Wong is alleged to have conspired to commit fraud between 2004 and 2020 and to commit money laundering from 2008 and 2020 through various schemes involving kickbacks and bribery, according to newly unsealed court records filed Tuesday.
Among the allegations are that Wong engaged in a kickback scheme around construction work at the Hilton Hotel in Chinatown, according to Anderson.
He is accused of being paid more than $2 million for the construction work, for which a hospitality executive named Geoffrey Palermo allegedly received more than $250,000 in kickbacks. Palermo was separately charged with fraud earlier this month.
Wong was initially implicated in the federal complaint filed against Nuru and restaurateur Nick Bovis back in January.
He was accused of trading favors with Nuru so that the Public Works director would “use his official position to help [Wong] when needed.”
Wong allegedly paid for a portion of Nuru’s vacations to China and South America. He also allegedly arranged for workers to perform free labor on Nuru’s vacation home in a remote part of Northern California.
In addition, Wong is alleged to have facilitated a relationship between Nuru and a Chinese billionaire developer behind the 555 Fulton St. project. That developer, Zhang Li, allegedly wined and dined Nuru with unreported gifts while the project still needed regulatory approvals from The City.
Anderson announced the charges against Wong during a virtual news conference alongside other federal officials.
Jack Bennett, FBI special agent in charge for the San Francisco division, said that Wong has “lined his pockets through bribes to city officials” for years.
“He is a piece of a much larger puzzle,” Bennett said. “It is a complex and multi-layered puzzle but a puzzle we are close to solving fully.”
Kareem Carter, special agent in charge of IRS Criminal Investigation, said Wong financially benefited from his alleged schemes and “took steps to hide the proceeds of those schemes for the benefit of him and others.”
“In simpler terms, pay to play was the name of this game,” Carter said.
Wong faces a potential sentence of up to 40 years in prison over the charges. But he could receive a lighter sentence depending on the extent of his cooperation with the government.
The case against Nuru is pending.
Like Wong, Bovis has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the investigation. He is accused of conspiring to bribe an airport commissioner to obtain a restaurant lease alongside Nuru.
That airport commissioner, Linda Crayton, later resigned.
The other defendants charged thus far are former Fix-It Team Director Sandra Zuniga, Nuru’s girlfriend and an ex-official with the Mayor’s Office, and city contractors Florence Kong and Balmore Hernandez.
The scandal has also implicated former Department of Building Inspection Director Tom Hui, who resigned in March after the City Attorney’s Office accused of him of misconduct involving the 555 Fulton St. development.
Hui has not been charged.