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‘Quintessential grifter’: Mohammed Nuru asks for leniency as Feds spare no harsh words for disgraced Public Works chief

A man in a bright green jacket stands in a city plaza with other people around.
Former Deputy director of San Francisco’s Department of Public Works Mohammed Nuru, center, at Justin Herman plaza in San Francisco on Friday, November 18, 2011. | Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images | Source: Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Disgraced former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru was the “quintessential grifter” who wielded his power as one of the top appointed officials in San Francisco to enrich himself for years.

Such was the argument federal prosecutors made Thursday in newly filed court records seeking to imprison Nuru for nine years after he pleaded guilty to fraud in January and admitted to taking bribes from city contractors including longtime city trash-hauling giant Recology.

The bribes spanned more than a decade and ranged from contractors providing Nuru with a John Deere tractor and hundreds of thousands in free labor for his vacation ranch in Colusa County, to Nuru accepting free meals and even a gold Rolex watch worth a whopping $36,550.

Notably, waste firm Recology donated $150,000 a year for five years to a nonprofit on behalf of Nuru to benefit an anti-littering campaign. The funds ultimately landed in an account controlled by Nuru at another nonprofit, the San Francisco Parks Alliance, that prosecutors called a “slush fund.” Nuru dipped into that fund to treat his staff to events and merchandise.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexandra Shepard described the Nuru saga as a “tale of greed as old as time” in a sentencing memorandum seeking the prison sentence as well as a three-year term of supervised release.

“Nuru was the quintessential grifter, using his position at DPW to enrich himself in a multitude of ways,” Shepard wrote. “For at least twelve years, he traded official acts, or the promise of his influence, for personal benefits in the form of cash, construction work, travel, meals, and gifts.”

Prosecutors included photographs of his ranch that they described as “truly a monument to his grifting.”

Mohammed Nuru’s ranch in Colusa County, which federal prosecutors say was built and funded in part by laundered bribes and free labor from city contractors. Courtesy U.S. Attorney's Office via federal court records

Nuru countered by asking for a three-year prison sentence and has agreed to forfeit his properties in Stonyford, California, that make up his ranch. In a court filing, attorneys for Nuru said he admits to acting “corruptly and dishonestly” and said he is “truly remorseful for having violated the public trust.”

At the same time, defense attorneys Miles Ehrlich and Katharine Kates said Nuru rationalized some of the gifts and payments as “gestures of friendship.”

“The key figures, Walter Wong and Balmore Hernandez, were mutual friends of both Mohammed and Ed Lee, the deceased former mayor, whom (sic) was a mentor and good friend to Mohammed,” the attorneys wrote. “Walter, a long-time contractor for the city, hosted numerous dinners that Mohammed, Ed, and Balmore attended together.”

The attorneys went on to defend the payments from Recology, saying that while he did use some of the funds to benefit his staff, the “lion’s share” of the donations to the nonprofits benefited the anti-littering campaign. He also admitted to accepting free soil from Recology for his ranch.

Attorneys also say that Nuru “did not take any specific steps to influence the rates paid by the City to Recology,” whose subsidiaries have admitted to bribery in an agreement with federal prosecutors that will allow the companies to avoid a criminal conviction.

“Nowhere in the Recology Deferred Prosecution Agreement or in Mohammed’s plea does it indicate that he did,” attorneys wrote. “Rather, Mohammed generally gave favorable consideration to Recology in their dealings with the City.”

In 2021, Recology agreed to repay $95 million in overcharges after the City Attorney’s Office alleged that an error in the process for raising garbage rates went unchecked under Nuru and resulted in artificially inflated prices.

Nuru is due to be sentenced next Thursday afternoon.

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