Skip to main content

San Francisco corruption: Businessman says he treated power couple to lavish trip to win city contracts

Permit expediter Walter Wong leaves federal court in San Francisco on Friday. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

When a bout of diarrhea sent San Francisco’s top utilities official Harlan Kelly to the hospital during a family vacation to China in the spring of 2016, he didn’t have to worry about the cost of his medical bills.

That’s because his hospital visit—like the gondola ride and personalized safari tour his family enjoyed on their trip to Hong Kong and Macao—were taken care of by someone who joined them on their journey.

Those were among the gifts that businessman Walter Wong admitted to arranging for Kelly while testifying against him Friday during the federal corruption trial for the now-former San Francisco Public Utilities Commission chief.

Wong said he’d hoped to get business from Kelly’s well-funded city agency, including a contract to upgrade the city’s streetlights. As the leader of the Public Utilities Commission since 2012, Kelly controlled a more than $1 billion budget.

“I wanted to plan a trip to Hong Kong to know Harlan better,” Wong testified. “Because I would be able to get the PUC contract.”

Wong, who is in his 70s and has suffered two strokes, struggled at times to speak clearly from the stand. He is a key witness in the case against Kelly and other defendants in a scandal that began to sweep through City Hall in early 2020 with the arrest of former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru.

Wong, who was close to the late Chinatown power broker Rose Pak as well as former Mayor Ed Lee, earned a reputation as a top permit expediter who helped developers navigate city bureaucracy. He also headed various companies, including a construction firm, out of his CitiCenter office building on the edge of the Mission District.

Wong is at the center of the case against Kelly, who is charged in connection with two alleged schemes. One involves Kelly misrepresenting debts to a loan company with help from real estate mogul Victor Makras; the other involves him helping Wong get San Francisco Public Utilities Commission business.

Kelly has pleaded not guilty. His attorneys paint him as an exemplary public servant who served San Francisco for three decades. Wong, they said, was an untrustworthy manipulator who tried to corrupt officials.

Kelly is married to former City Administrator Naomi Kelly, who was the highest-ranking non-elected official in San Francisco until she resigned in early 2021 in the wake of the charges against her husband. Naomi Kelly was on the trip to China with Harlan Kelly and other family members.

Prosecutors noted that the Kellys paid for portions of the trip.

In court on Friday, Wong repeatedly said that he gave Harlan Kelly gifts and benefits in the hopes that doing so would get him San Francisco utilities contracts.

Wong said he helped speed up the process for the Kellys to get visas for the trip by sending their applications to the Chinese consulate through the  Chinese Chamber of Commerce. He said the chamber has a “good relationship” with the consulate, and that he paid the fees.

Once in China, Wong said he paid for the gondola ride, medical bills and other perks. He also arranged for associates to supply the Kellys with hotel rooms and a tour of the safari park at no expense.

One of those associates was the Chinese billionaire Zhang Li, who owned a hotel where the Kellys stayed at for free and who had hired Wong to help him push through a development at 555 Fulton St. in Hayes Valley.

On two occasions before and after the trip, Wong sought contracts from the utilities commission to upgrade the city’s streetlights. But his companies ranked poorly in the bidding process, and they did not win the work despite Harlan Kelly allegedly giving Wong insider information ahead of the second bid.

However, Wong’s company sold holiday lights to the commission to hang on Market Street and on Third Street for nearly $58,000.

Wong also said he gave Harlan Kelly discounts on labor his workers did on the Kellys’ family home in the Sunset, including the $11,500 Wong said he accepted for $23,000 worth of work to repair water damage in 2017.

“I accept[ed] their money because I want to be able to work on the government contract,” Wong said.

Brian Getz, a defense attorney for Harlan Kelly, told The Standard the nonpublic information his client allegedly gave Wong was actually public because the documents were from a bidding process that ended.

He said that the payments Wong allegedly made to bribe Harlan Kelly were simply part of a “reciprocal” relationship that dated back to 1994.

“It was meaningless in the context of their overall friendship,” Getz said. “There was no bribes.”

Getz has also said in court that Wong overcharged for shoddy construction work on the Kellys home.

Wong is expected to continue testifying next Wednesday.

Filed Under