A San Francisco businesswoman who admitted to bribing former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru with a nearly $37,000 Rolex watch became the first defendant to be sentenced Thursday in a wide-sweeping corruption scandal.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick sentenced Florence Kong, 63, to serve one year and a day in federal prison, finding that her bribery furthered the “perception in our country that the system is rigged against honest people.”
“This is not a case of friends looking out for friends,” Orrick said at the sentencing. “This is pure, unvarnished corruption.”
Kong pleaded guilty to bribery and lying to the FBI last October after prosecutors said she showered Nuru with gifts including the watch, an envelope of cash for his daughter’s graduation and work on his vacation home.
At the same time, Kong pressured Nuru to steer business toward her debris recycling company, SFR Recovery Inc. She later lied about her relationship with Nuru last March when confronted by the FBI in the months after his arrest.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office had asked the court to make an example of Kong by sending her to prison for 18 months, while an attorney for Kong argued that she should instead be sentenced to home detention.
Kong, an immigrant from Hong Kong who is known to some as a pillar of the Chinatown community, is the first of nine defendants charged thus far in ongoing corruption probe into San Francisco City Hall to be sentenced.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Joiner said “more individuals” will be charged as part of the probe.
“This case has the potential to send a very clear message of deterrence,” Joiner said.
But John Runfola, an attorney for Kong, argued for leniency for a woman who overcame abuse and extreme poverty during her childhood to lead a “remarkable” life as a successful and charitable businesswoman.
Runfola said Joiner and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Ward wanted Kong to be “hung out to dry” to encourage the remaining defendants who have not pleaded guilty in the case to “roll over.”
“Sentence Ms. Kong for who she is and for what she has done, both good and bad, but not as a bellwether for some other people’s crimes,” Runfola said.
“There’s a line between a campaign contribution and giving a watch,” he later said. “She understands that clearly. There’s a line between working for someone’s election and giving an envelope. She understands that. You won’t see any repeated misconduct.”
Kong told the judge her crimes have brought her great shame. With her voice breaking, she apologized to San Francisco, the country and to the FBI for “not being honest when they first came to my house.”
“I was scared,” Kong said. “Every day I wish I had just told the truth. I would never forgive myself for committing these crimes.”
After handing down the sentence, Orrick said he did not decide on prison to “set any sort of bars” for other defendants. He considered her life history and the fact that Kong committed bribery of a public official — “near the top of the worst crimes that anyone can commit.”
“You’ve helped undermine the faith that San Franciscans have in our government,” Orrick said. “We want and we need to trust in the government’s integrity. Your actions make us doubt that.”
Orrick ordered Kong to report to prison once the pandemic has “subsided.” He tentatively set a date for Aug. 13.