Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, center, pictured at a meeting of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board in 2018, was arrested last week by the FBI on corruption charges. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF pushes anti-corruption measures in response to Nuru scandal

As City Hall reeled from a public corruption scandal involving a restaurant lease at San Francisco International Airport, a veteran airport commissioner on Tuesday described the process for awarding contracts as “totally honest.”

The commissioner, Eleanor Johns, was responding to the FBI’s arrest of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru last week for allegedly attempting to bribe an airport official to help open a restaurant.

“I have been on this commission for 16 years,” Johns, an appointee of former Mayor Willie Brown, said at a commission meeting. “And in all of those years I have found the process for awarding contracts to be above board, transparent and totally honest. I intend to do everything in my power to keep it that way.”

Yet for a number of city officials, the lengthy federal complaint against Nuru and local restaurateur Nick Bovis was reason to propose a flurry of anti-corruption measures meant to root out wrongdoing in city government.

In response to the allegations, the City Attorney’s Office and Controller’s Office have already launched a joint investigation into contracts at Public Works, the airport and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

Nuru served as board chairman for the Transbay Joint Powers Authority in addition to his role leading Public Works.

Among the five schemes he is accused of are plotting with Bovis to secure a restaurant lease at the new Salesforce Transit Center and to obtain contracts for providing toilets to the homeless.

The city attorney and controller began their investigation last week, as soon as the complaint against Nuru and Bovis was made public.

On Tuesday, the offices outlined the scope of the investigation in a joint statement.

The investigation will focus on identifying city officials or employees who have flouted local law, as well as contracts, grants or decisions that have possibly been “tainted by conflicts of interest and other legal or policy violations.”

The probe will also include a review of Public Works contracts and purchase orders, and of the procedures in place for the Airport Commission and Transbay Joint Powers Authority to award contracts.

“We are going to follow the evidence wherever it leads,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera said.

“Anytime there are allegations that public funds are being abused, we are going to review what occurred and promote practices to prevent it from happening in the future,” City Controller Ben Rosenfield said.

While welcoming the launch of an investigation by the two offices, Supervisor Matt Haney said the Board of Supervisors “cannot sit on the sidelines and wash our hands of this scandal.” He introduced a motion that would allow the board to hire an outside investigator as well.

“We need to make sure that we are using the powers given to us by the charter to investigate not just these allegations of public corruption but how we got to this point in the first place, how has one of the most progressive cities in the world been repeatedly rocked by these corruption scandals,” Haney said.

As another anti-corruption measure, Haney joined Supervisor Ahsha Safai to propose a charter amendment that would create term-limits for members of city boards and commissions.

The airport commissioner who Nuru and Bovis allegedly tried to bribe was Linda Crayton, a member of the Airport Commission since her appointment by then-Mayor Brown in 1996.

Crayton resigned last week after the news about Nuru broke, citing health concerns. She did not take the bribe and has not been criminally charged.

Meanwhile, the acting director of Public Works, Alaric Degrafinried, took measures Tuesday to increase oversight of city contracts awarded for homeless shelters in cases of emergency.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin said the Board of Supervisors loosened the contracting procedures for the homeless shelters in good faith. But the less-restrictive rules “clearly have been abused,” Peskin said.

Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon said the department is investigating how many contracts were approved under the emergency rules.

“Regarding whether there is evidence of abuse, the investigations will be looking into all aspects of the contracting,” Gordon said in an email. “The director, however, saw that this is one area that may have been vulnerable and why he enacted additional safeguards.”

Also Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors postponed a vote on a grant from the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency to operate a portable toilet program at several locations over concerns that Nuru signed off on the contracts.

Nuru was placed on paid administrative leave last Monday.

While city and federal investigations are ongoing, Mayor London Breed said the allegations constitute a “serious breach of the public trust.”

“I encourage the city attorney and controller to follow every lead, every dollar, and every complaint, and to make policy recommendations to help prevent future wrongdoing,” Breed said in a statement.

Nuru and Bovis are due back in court Thursday for bond hearings. Both men were previously released from custody.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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