A newly released federal complaint has detailed the stunning allegations that led to the FBI arresting Public Works Director Muhammed Nuru and a San Francisco businessman over a series of suspected pay-to-play schemes.
In the biggest public corruption scandal to shake City Hall since 2015, Nuru and local entrepreneur Nick Bovis of famed Union Square sports bar Lefty O’Doul’s have each been charged with one count of wire fraud.
Nuru, 57, and Bovis, 56, allegedly attempted to bribe an airport commissioner to help win a bid for a restaurant lease at San Francisco International Airport in exchange for an envelope full of cash and an apparent vacation.
The alleged kickback scheme was just one of five that federal authorities described in a complaint released Tuesday after surveilling Nuru and Bovis with FBI wiretaps and undercover operators since at least 2018.
The allegations against Nuru also involve sharing a $2,070 bottle of wine with a billionaire developer in China and having city contractors work on his vacation home near the Mendocino National Forest.
Nuru is also accused of helping Bovis win contracts both to open a restaurant at the Transbay Transit Center, and to provide mobile housing and toilets to the homeless, according to the complaint.
“The complaint alleges corruption pouring into San Francisco from around the world,” U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California David Anderson said at a press conference detailing the allegations.
Anderson said the complaint also alleges “corruption, bribery and side deals from one of San Francisco’s highest-ranking public employees.”
Nuru is one the most well-connected bureaucrats in San Francisco, having served under the leadership of former mayors Ed Lee, Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown. Known as “Mr. Clean,” he is responsible for the more than $500 million budget at Public Works and for The City’s street conditions.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin called the allegations both “explosive” and “extremely disturbing.”
The complaint “implicates not only the individuals that we’ve heard who were arrested but many other people, including commissioners and developers,” Peskin said. “I feel ashamed for the city and county of San Francisco that this could be going on and I think the mayor and the board has some investigating to do and some house cleaning to do.”
Nuru was first arrested on Jan. 21, authorities said. But after being released into FBI custody on the condition that he cooperate with the investigation, he was arrested again Monday for allegedly disclosing the probe to others. He has since been charged with an additional count of false statements.
Nuru and Bovis both appeared in federal court Tuesday afternoon and were each ordered released on $2 million bond. Nuru faces a potential sentence of up to 25 years if convicted, while Bovis faces up to 20 years.
Ismail Ramsey, an attorney for Nuru, issued a statement describing his client as a “dedicated public servant” and father of five.
“Mr. Nuru welcomes and looks forward to addressing these charges in court,” Ramsey said.
An attorney for Bovis, Gil Eisenberg, declined to comment when reached by phone Tuesday.
Nuru was placed on administrative leave Monday evening. The former city purchaser, Alaric Degrafinried, has since been appointed by City Administrator Naomi Kelly as acting director of Public Works.
In 2018, Nuru earned $323,732 including benefits as head of Public Works, according to the website Transparent California.
Nuru also serves as chairman of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board of Directors.
TJPA spokesperson Christine Falvey said Tuesday that “the board has not met since these allegations have been made public” and that “Vice Chair Jeff Gee will continue the business of the board until further notice.”
Celebrating the Grand Opening of Lefty’s Ballpark Buffet & Cafe at Fisherman Wharf. pic.twitter.com/WE7mm9Sz7x
— Mohammed Nuru (@MrCleanSF) November 20, 2018
Shortly after federal authorities released the complaint, Mayor London Breed called the allegations “extremely serious” in a statement.
“We do not know all the facts of the case at this moment and what will transpire through this investigation going forward,” Breed said.
Breed directed the city attorney and controller to review “any implicated city contracts” for violations of the law.
This is not the first time an FBI investigation has shaken City Hall in recent years. In 2015, the feds revealed a sweeping public corruption probe that ensnared Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow and former Sen. Leland Yee. A former Human Rights Commission staffer and an ex-school board member were also charged in connection with the sting.
The federal complaint detailed the five alleged schemes:
- Nuru and Bovis allegedly tried to bribe an unnamed airport commissioner to support a lease for Bovis’ restaurant at SFO and to secure other votes for the effort. In a 2018 recorded phone call about the commissioner, Bovis allegedly told a confidential source: “So [Nuru] told me, he goes ‘just give me, between me and you, I didn’t want to say it front of the other people,’ he said, ‘if you give me like $5,000 bucks cash for her and send her off to… to meet you guys and I’ll get it taken care of.’” The commissioner does not appear to have taken the money.
- Nuru allegedly accepted gifts and travel accommodations from an unnamed Chinese developer who was working on a major project in San Francisco. “Thank you very much for all your generosity while we were in China,” Nuru allegedly messaged the developer 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.”
- Nuru is accused of using his position as chair of the TJPA board to secure a restaurant lease for Bovis at the Transbay Transit Center “in exchange for benefits provided by Bovis.”
- As Public Works director, Nuru allegedly offered inside information to help Bovis obtain contracts to provide portable toilets and “tiny container-type portable housing” to the homeless.
- Nuru allegedly had city contractors work on his vacation home in Stonyford more than three hours away from San Francisco. “I believe these contractors are working on Nuru’s vacation home for free or at a subsidized rate so they can continue to obtain contracts with The City and DPW,” FBI Special Agent James Folger wrote in the affidavit.
Nuru worked for Public Works for more than a decade before the late Mayor Ed Lee appointed him as director in 2011.
His past is not without scandal.
His appointment as Public Works head drew criticism from City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who was running for mayor at the time.
“For ten years, Nuru’s questionable ethics and repeated misappropriation of taxpayer dollars didn’t seem to merit a slap on the wrist from Ed Lee,” Herrera said back then. “Now, as Mayor, Ed Lee thinks it merits a promotion. For a $200,000-plus salary, taxpayers have a right to expect professionalism. Instead, they’re getting cronyism, politics and poor judgment.”
In 2004, the City Attorney’s Office investigated Nuru’s former nonprofit, the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, and found that it coerced employees into supporting the campaigns of Newsom and former District Attorney Kamala Harris.
The office also accused the nonprofit, known as SLUG, of inadequate accounting practices and improper use of city grants.
Nuru was also the target of a lawsuit settled in 2011 accusing him of treating black women differently in the workplace.
In response to the latest news, Supervisor Matt Haney criticized Nuru for his leadership of Public Works.
“The Department of Public Works has vast responsibilities, and for far too long there has been too much power concentrated in the hands of its director with very little oversight,” Haney said in a statement.
Bovis is a San Francisco native who started running Lefty O’Douls in the late 1990s. He is known for hosting annual Christmas toy drives with firefighters.
Bovis has made several political contributions in recent years, including $2,000 in July 2011 to the controversial Progress for All political committee that encouraged Ed Lee to run for mayor after he was appointed to the position.
Bovis also contributed $500 to both of Lee’s mayoral campaigns.
His most recent political donation was in December 2018 to London Breed’s mayoral re-election campaign for $500. He also contributed $500 to Breed’s re-election as supervisor.
“I just assume if the FBI arrests someone, you’ve got a problem,” former Mayor Willie Brown said.
The federal investigation is ongoing.
Meyer Gorelick and Corey Browning contributed to this report.