There’s little sense of surprise around City Hall in the wake of charges being leveled at local political players who are the target of an ongoing, sweeping investigation into San Francisco’s political corruption.
That lack of surprise had something to do with the fact that evidence surfaced in August alleging in 2012 then-Human Rights Commission employee Zula Jones and Marin County businesswoman Nazly Mohajer, who sat on the Human Rights Commission, were quoted in FBI wiretaps of arranging bribes with Mayor Ed Lee’s knowledge to retire his campaign debt.
Jones and Mohajer were charged with felony bribery charges Friday, according to District Attorney George Gascon. Also charged was political consultant Keith Jackson, who pleaded guilty last year to federal racketeering charges.
But there is another reason for the lack of surprise.
Some inside City Hall say the charges speak to a pay-to-play culture that has existed in city government for years, stoking rumors of corruption.
For example, Supervisor David Campos, who called the alleged corruption “shameful,” said, “We have to clean up city government.”
“It is clear there is a culture of pay-to-play that needs to be rooted out of the building,” Campos said. He also pointed to Mayor Ed Lee’s administration as creating an environment conducive to corruption. “A lot of it goes to the culture of the administration and the standards the mayor sets for people around him.”
Supervisor John Avalos is among those who isn’t surprised by the charges. While there are many rumors floating around City Hall about corruption in this case he said based on previous reports in the press, it seemed charges were inevitable.
“The rumors around these people seemed backed by evidence,” Avalos said.
Avalos noted that there were other questionable instances involving the mayor’s campaign during his first election to the office, such as the reported campaign finance bundling by the manager of Go Lorrie’s, a shuttle company at the San Francisco International Airport. To skirt the campaign contribution limits, employees were asked to donate and were later reimbursed.
“Is he responsible? At some level,” Avalos said.
Gascon also referenced local government’s alleged “pay-to-play” culture. “When government is for sale we all suffer,” Gascon said Friday when announcing the charges. He also said the investigation is ongoing and could implicate others. “The investigation continues. And it will take us wherever the facts take us.”
Others on the board, like President London Breed declined comment. “Not familiar with the details,” Breed texted of the charges.
This is not Jones’ first run in with the FBI. In 2000 she was indicted on 16 counts for allegedly scheming to defraud The City’s minority contracting program, then under Mayor Willie Brown’s administration. Two years later, charges against her were dropped.
Lee in 2010 feted her with a career achievement award.
Efforts to reach Mohajer, Jones and their attorneys were unsuccessful Friday. When the Examiner first contacted Jones outside of her home in August about the allegations, she declined to comment and told an acquaintance to call the police.
On Thursday, the Examiner revealed Jones and Mohajer arranged for $1,500 in contributions from a lumber company for the mayor’s campaign. That business later obtained a city contract.
The mayor has denied any wrongdoing and on Friday denounced political corruption.
“Mayor Lee is deeply disturbed by the alleged criminal activities of Mr. Jackson, Ms. Jones and Ms. Mohajer and strongly condemns them,” said mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey.
“There is absolutely no place in San Francisco for this corruption, especially in City government, and Mayor Lee urges the District Attorney and City Attorney to pursue these charges to the fullest extent,” Falvey said.
The allegations of bribery involving Jones and Mohajer emerged in August, when the Examiner first reported the allegations, found in filings in the Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow federal corruption trial.
Chow’s attorney, Curtis Briggs, suggested the corruption investigation implicates higher ranking city officials — although those officials were left untouched in the charges.
“The best they came up with is the two people we spoon fed to them in our pleadings, another person who was already convicted, and somehow they came up empty on the mayor again,” Briggs, whose August filings named Jones and Mohajer, told the Examiner.
“Just like the joke about a busload of lawyers going over a cliff, the indictment of Jones and Mohajer is a good start but they have not finished the job. The San Francisco public still suffers at the hands of corrupt leaders. These were the fall guys. This is just an extension of the corruption.”
The details around the charges against Jones and Mohajer were left unclear because of a federal protective order signed by Judge Charles Breyer, who presided over the Shrimp Boy case.
Gascon did not say during Friday’s press conference from where the investigation into Jones and Mohajer specifically began.
Even the U.S. Attorney’s office, which admitted it passed along information related to the case to the District Attorney’s Office some time ago, would not say from which case the information came.
Still, court documents from the Chow case — which included FBI wiretap transcripts — released in August appear to speak to the charges of alleged bribery by Jones, Mohajer and Jackson.
Jones was reported by the FBI to have said that former mayor Willie Brown taught Lee to do business, according to the August filing.
“You got to pay to play here. We got it. We know this. We are the best at this game … better than New York. We do it a little more sophisticated than New Yorkers. We do it without the mafia,” Jones reportedly said on an FBI wiretap.
Mohajer allegedly on the wiretap “explained the process by which she launders Ed Lee’s campaign money,” said the filing, which went on to say that Lee took $20,000 in campaign contributions, gifts and trips in his first four months in office. The filing alleges Jones and Mohajer said Lee “knew he was taking the money illegally.”
Lee attended a meeting on April 6, 2012, with Jackson, Jones, Mohajer and an undercover FBI agent (UCE-4773) posing as a businessman, according to the filing. Mohajer then introduced the agent to Lee as an “individual who had raised $10,000 to assist in retiring the campaign debt.”
The campaign contribution limit in local races is $500 per person.
Jackson, a former school board president, and political consultant for former State Sen. Leland Yee, introduced Yee to Chow who requested and received recognition from the state for his community work. Yee and Jackson pleaded guilty to racketeering along with his son Brandon Jackson and Marlon Sullivan.
The additional charges against Jackson come just weeks before his sentencing in the federal case on Feb. 10.