Skip to main content

San Francisco corruption: How $20K bought this young engineer a city job

Former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru, left, retired parole agent Ken Wong, center, and Xulu Liu, right, a college graduate and Chinese national | Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard

The San Francisco city worker who former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru was allegedly bribed $20,000 to hire was a Chinese national and recent college graduate, The Standard has learned.

Xulu Liu was 25 when Public Works hired her as an assistant engineer earning $46 an hour in September 2019, public records show. She got the job just months after federal prosecutors say Nuru received the last in a series of cash payments from a retired parole agent to hire her.

While prosecutors have declined to publicly name Liu, a source with knowledge of the case confirmed her part in the alleged scheme. It’s unclear, however, whether Liu knew about the payments made on her behalf.

Liu left her city job within weeks of coming on board for unknown reasons. She has since returned to China and attempts to reach her through her social media profiles were not successful. 

Liu became entangled in the wide-ranging bribery scandal surrounding Nuru last week when federal prosecutors charged ex-parole agent and local pop singer Ken Hong Wong for allegedly paying the $20,000 bribe. The scandal, which began with Nuru’s arrest in 2020, has also implicated more than a dozen other city officials, government contractors and businesspeople.

Mohammed Nuru leaves federal court in 2022. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Liu is not the only person connected to the scandal who allegedly got a job through patronage. Former building inspection head Tom Hui also pulled strings to get his son and future daughter-in-law city jobs, a local anti-corruption investigation found, while federal prosecutors say waste firm Recology hired Nuru’s son and paid for a nonprofit to employ him.

Liu’s identity sheds some light on an alleged scheme that remains murky. While prosecutors say Wong gave Nuru the $20,000 to hire Liu, his defense attorney says he was passing along the bribe on behalf of another person who has yet to be named.

That unnamed person, who gave Wong the money to influence the city hiring process, was the real mastermind behind the scheme, according to defense attorney Steven Gruel. Without naming Liu, Gruel previously told The Standard that the person Nuru was paid to hire was just a “friend of a friend” to Wong.

Gruel declined to comment for this story, as did the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In his 2021 plea agreement, Nuru admitted to accepting a $20,000 bribe from a “former government employee” to help someone get an engineering job with the city, though the other parties in the scheme were unnamed.

Nuru is currently serving a seven-year sentence in federal prison.

Who Is Xulu Liu

Liu, who is from Nantong, a large city in China’s Jiangsu province, studied engineering at both University of California San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University, according to a profile of her printed in a college publication.

She had a series of short-term engineering jobs with Bay Area companies, according to her LinkedIn profile, before San Francisco hired her as an assistant engineer on Sept. 9, 2019, earning $46 per hour.

She left the job just two weeks later on Sept. 24, 2019, having earned $3,345 in taxpayer dollars, according to city officials and payroll records.

Both the Department of Human Resources and Public Works declined to comment on the reasons for her departure.

Liu began working for Swinerton Management and Consulting, a Bay Area company, a month later. Swinerton General Manager Jeff Gee said her background working for city government made her an attractive hire.

“She did her job well,” Gee said. 

Liu was a Swinterton Project Engineer for about a year and a half. During that time, she worked on a series of municipal projects including wastewater treatment plants and underground utilities, Gee said. 

She eventually left the company due to “interpersonal situations” to return to China, Gee said, declining to elaborate further.

In 2021, Liu co-founded a tech startup in China that uses 3D printing to produce custom headgear for infants whose skulls need to be reshaped, according to her LinkedIn and Chinese press reports.

The company has reportedly raised over $2.7 million.

The Web of Connections

It’s unclear how Liu was connected to Wong, or to the person who allegedly gave the retired parole agent the money to bribe Nuru.

What is clear is that Wong had access to Nuru.

Ken Wong | Courtesy photo

Wong, who is also from China, was the supervising parole agent of the San Francisco field office before his retirement in 2015. In that role, he worked “closely” with Nuru for years on a city cleanup program that helped people get off parole early, Wong said in an interview published in 2013.

Wong is also politically connected. Social media posts suggest that he is close with state Treasurer Fiona Ma, a longtime San Francisco politico and the prospective lieutenant governor. Wong was also at dinner with the late Mayor Ed Lee the day before the mayor died, Sing Tao Daily reported.

Wong pleaded not guilty in court last week to charges of bribery and conspiracy. However, his attorney has said Wong plans to change his plea and admit that the cash payments he gave Nuru amounted to bribery.

Han Li contributed additional reporting for this story.
Noah Baustin can be reached at

Filed Under