Mohammed Nuru allegedly tried to use his influence to get Nick Bovis a lease for a restaurant in the Salesforce Transit Center, according to a complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Transit Center officials defend integrity of agency after Nuru arrest

Board points to ‘rigorous,’ ‘transparent’ leasing process

In one of the corruption schemes outlined in a federal complaint against Public Works head Mohammed Nuru, he allegedly plotted to use his influence to help a restaurateur land a lease inside the new Transbay Transit Center in exchange for gifts.

Members of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority board of directors, on which Nuru served as chair until his removal this week and which oversees the transit center, defended the integrity of their leasing and contracting process during a meeting Thursday.

At one point during the alleged Transit Center plot, Nuru had TJPA’s executive director Mark Zabaneh in his City Hall office when he called his longtime friend, restaurateur Nick Bovis, to discuss obtaining a lease at the transit center, according to the federal complaint revealed Tuesday. The call was made from Nuru’s cellphone on Dec. 6, 2018 in the afternoon.

Zabaneh is not mentioned by name but is identified in the complaint as TJPA EXECUTIVE 1, the agency’s spokesperson confirmed to the San Francisco Examiner Friday.

“We’re trying to figure out what your situation is and trying to resolve it,” Nuru allegedly said during the speakerphone call.

Bovis discussed his top three retail space picks at the transit center that he would like for his restaurant.

“TJPA EXECUTIVE 1 reassured Bovis, ‘OK, I’m aware of, uh, I’m aware that you’ve submitted…I have it on my, I have it on my sheet, so let me follow up,’” the complaint said.

FBI Special Agent James A. Folger concluded that the phone call showed that Nuru was using his official position to help Bovis secure the lease by arranging the meeting between Bovis and the TJPA official.

“In exchange, I believe Bovis was continuing to ‘take care of’ Nuru through kickbacks, free meals or other benefits,’” Folger said in the complaint.

Jeff Gee, vice chair of the TJPA board, called the news during the board’s Thursday meeting “very unfortunate” and said that it was “troubling” the TJPA “is mentioned in the complaint relating to our retail leasing program.”

But Gee said at the agency’s first public meeting since the complaint was revealed, “I want to take a moment to emphasize that there is no allegation of wrongdoing by the TJPA or any of the members of the board of directors or staff at TJPA.”

Gee defended the integrity of the leasing process, as did Zabaneh.

“I am confident that the measures we have in place assure that every decision we make is in the best interest of the public,” Gee said.

“We have a rigorous and transparent leasing process that involves four levels of review and approval,” Zabaneh said.

The process begins with Colliers International, the Transit Center’s leasing agent, and concludes with the board’s approval.

“To date, the TJPA has not been approached by law enforcement,” Gee added. “However, if we are, we will fully cooperate if contacted.”

“When Mark received information that Mr. Bovis was interested in retail space, his only interaction was to connect Mr. Bovis to Colliers,” TJPA spokesperson Christine Falvey said in an email Friday to the Examiner.

She said that Bovis “never received a lease at the transit center.”

“He toured the transit center with our retail leasing agent and after being given some initial routine information, he declined to pursue a space here,” Falvey said.

Nuru and Bovis are each charged with wire fraud for allegedly trying to bribe Airport Commissioner Linda Crayton for a lucrative restaurant lease at San Francisco International Airport. Crayton did not take the cash bribe and is not charged with a crime. She tendered her resignation from the commission Wednesday, citing health concerns. Nuru has also been charged with false statements for allegedly lying to the FBI.

While Nuru and Bovis are charged for the “airport scheme,” the complaint also details four other alleged schemes involving Nuru, including the TJPA scheme.

Bovis did not end up securing the lease at SFO, airport officials told the Examiner this week. He was allegedly plotting to secure the lease with partners in the venture who turned out to be two informants and one undercover employee of the FBI.

As the 2018 airport scheme advanced, Nuru allegedly brought up on more than one occasion with the FBI informants the leasing opportunities at the Transbay Transit Center, including at a meeting at Bovis’ Burlingame restaurant, Broadway Grill, in March 2018.

Nuru was appointed to the TJPA board in 2014 by then-Mayor Ed Lee. In a Jan. 28 letter, Mayor London Breed revoked the appointment, the day the federal complaint was revealed.

“Nuru also pitched investment in the Transbay Transit Center to FBI confidential sources (in the spring of 2018 during meetings about the airport scheme) and indicated he would also help them obtain a lease there,” the complaint said. “During those recorded conversations, Nuru shared what he described as confidential information about ongoing lease negotiations.”

At an April 2018 meeting at the same restaurant, Nuru talked about 500 buses that would go through the transit center and the potential for customers of Salesforce employees at lunchtime. The Salesforce Tower is located adjacent to the transit center.

At the meeting, the undercover FBI employee asked Nuru if they could contact him regarding Transbay.

“Oh, yes. You just tell me what’s up. The way I want… just go through, if you feel like there is a hurdle or something then you tell me and then I’ll unblock it,” Nuru allegedly said.

In another instance, on Feb. 13, 2019, Nuru allegedly met in his City Hall office with the FBI informants, who played a role in the 2018 airport scheme, to talk about a transit center lease.

He told them they should work with the staff in charge of leasing the terminal, but “if you need help, I will call [TJPA EXECUTIVE 1] and say ‘Hey, you know, help these guys’ or ‘what’s going on, why can’t they get what they want?”’ the complaint alleged.

Ultimately, the 2018 airport scheme fell through as Bovis grew suspicious he was becoming ensnared in an FBI sting.

Bovis expressed similar suspicions eight months later when he was allegedly plotting with Nuru for a transit center lease.

Four days after the Dec. 6 speaker phone call, Bovis calls Nuru and tells him Zabaneh is “helping me.”

They discuss the possibility of the FBI listening to their calls.

“As long as, as long as nobody, nobody at the FBI is looking, listening to me, that’s cool,” Bovis said in apparent reference to receiving phone calls from Nuru and Zabaneh.

“You make me paranoid man,” Nuru said.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.comBay Area NewsPoliticssan francisco newstransport-featured

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