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Disgraced Public Works chief gets 7 years for role in bribery scandal: ‘Your crime resulted from greed’

Mohammed Nuru, former director of SF Public Works, walks to his sentencing in Federal court on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. Paul Kuroda for The Standard.

Once one of the most politically connected officials at City Hall, Mohammed Nuru completed his fall from grace Thursday when a judge sentenced him to seven years in prison for his central role in a sweeping corruption scandal.

The former San Francisco Public Works chief appeared before U.S. District Judge William Orrick to be sentenced after pleading guilty to fraud in January and admitting to taking bribes from a range of city contractors, including longtime trash-hauling giant Recology. 

“Your crime resulted from greed, and as a result of that greed you have called into question the fairness of the public bidding process,” Orrick said. “You have weakened public confidence in our leaders.”

During his time on the bench Orrick said he’s sentenced people for “really horrible things: murder, drugs, gangs,” but he said Nuru’s crimes are “at least as reprehensible.”

“At a time when democracy is being attacked,” the judge told Nuru, “you have weakened public confidence in our leaders.”

Nuru, 59, who adopted the moniker “Mr. Clean” as the official in charge of power blasting San Francisco’s dirty sidewalks, arrived in court in a suit and mask but was not wearing one of his signature baseball caps.

A throng of supporters, including religious community members and anti-violence workers, slowly filled the courtroom at the federal building in the Tenderloin. A big enough crowd showed up for Nuru that the line stretched out of the courtroom. Scores of people—including a litany of local figures, Public Works employees and family members—submitted letters on his behalf.

When defense attorney Miles Ehrlich noted their presence to the judge, the audience of supporters broke out in a standing ovation for Nuru.

The sentence Orrick handed down was harsher than what Nuru asked for and closer to the substantial request made by prosecutors.

Mohammed Nuru arrives to his sentencing hearing on Aug. 25, 2022. (Video courtesy of ABC7)

Prosecutors described Nuru as the “quintessential grifter” in a sentencing memo seeking a longer imprisonment of up to nine years. Alexandra Shepard, an assistant U.S. attorney, urged Orrick on Thursday to “send a message” to other public officials.

“He took bribes for years, he laundered money for years, and when he was caught he took steps to obstruct the government's investigation,” she told the court. “Then he deliberately lied about what he did to the FBI. This is who he is.”

Nuru, on the other hand, pleaded for a “second chance.” 

Ehrlich, his attorney, asked the judge for leniency citing serious health issues including a recent heart attack. He drew distinctions between his client’s misconduct and that of former state Sen. Leland Yee and Supervisor Ed Jew, who, according to Erlich, committed more “shocking” and “egregious” crimes than Nuru and received five-year sentences.

In a court filing asking for a shorter sentence, Nuru apologized and said there was “no excuse” for him accepting gifts and payments from companies and others who sought city business from him.

“I accept full responsibility for violating the public trust,” Nuru said. “I know I must accept the consequences of my actions, but I hope and pray that the sentence will allow me to demonstrate afterwards that I have learned my lesson.”

Nuru was the first in a cascade of city officials and contractors to fall when the FBI arrested him and restaurateur Nick Bovis last January in connection with a series of pay-to-play schemes. 

In the months after his January 2020 arrest, prosecutors charged an array of prominent local figures from then-San Francisco Public Utilities Commission head Harlan Kelly to Walter Wong, a politically connected businessman who helped companies navigate city bureaucracy.

Mohammed Nuru leaves the Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse at 450 Golden Gate Ave. in San Francisco after being sentenced to seven years in prison by Judge William H. Orrick on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

The scandal led authorities to San Francisco trash hauler Recology, whose executives faced charges for funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to a nonprofit account that Nuru could use to treat his staff to merchandise and appreciation events.

Shepard called the payments a “classic money laundering scheme.”

“It went into funds that Nuru used for whatever he wanted,” Shepard told the judge. “It was his slush fund.”

The funds helped pay for a Public Works party that Shepard said was not for employees of the department or Recology.

“It was a showcase for Mr. Nuru,” Shepard said. “It was for VIPs in the city like the mayor.”

There was even an allegation from an offshoot investigation by the City Attorney’s Office that the cozy relationship Recology fostered with Nuru allowed the firm to overcharge San Francisco nearly $95 million, which the company ultimately agreed to pay back.

But the real “monument” to Nuru’s status as the top grifter, federal prosecutors said, was a rural ranch property in Colusa County that Nuru built with free labor, soil and a John Deere tractor gifted to him by various contractors, including Wong and Recology.

In his letter seeking leniency, Nuru said he initially cooperated with the FBI, but panicked and told his close friends about the investigation.

Former City Administrator Naomi Kelly, the wife of Harlan Kelly, was reportedly among those friends (she later resigned after becoming embroiled in the scandal, but did not face charges).

“I stupidly tipped off some colleagues who might be investigated, despite explicit instructions not to,” Nuru wrote. “I rationalized my action as loyalty; in fact, it was obstruction.”

While Nuru initially faced a charge for lying to the FBI, he ultimately pleaded guilty only to one count of honest services wire fraud in January.

Federal prosecutors took a cooperation agreement off the table as a result of his obstruction of the investigation, but he said he continued to provide information to authorities throughout the probe.

However, prosecutors said Nuru only offered to provide information through his attorneys and they never accepted it.

“We did not take him up on that offer,” Shepard told the judge. “If it was worth it, we would have met with him in person.”

After Thursday’s sentencing hearing, Nuru’s attorney shared a leaflet with a typed statement from his client: “Again, I want to apologize to the people of San Francisco for my misconduct. … I look forward to the time that I can return to serving my community and work to repair the damage that my actions caused both the city and my family.”

The FBI applauded the sentence, saying it “sends a clear message that public officials who abuse their power for personal gain will be punished.”

But Nuru’s incarceration doesn’t mark the end of the case, federal officials added: “We will continue to unravel and disrupt corruption within the city of San Francisco.”

Nuru walked out of court Thursday followed by a throng of reporters. Beyond his written mea culpa, he offered no further comment, jumped into the back of a gray Jeep SUV and was driven away.

He’s due to surrender himself for booking on Jan. 6.