A corrupt San Francisco official shared a $10,000 bottle of liquor with a Chinese billionaire during a dinner party attended by the vice president of a foreign country, prosecutors said in newly unsealed court records.
Zhang Li admitted earlier this week to bribing former-San Francisco Department of Public Works head Mohammed Nuru. Zhang, a billionaire business tycoon, wanted the powerful city leader to personally attend to a real estate project he was developing in San Francisco, according to an agreement Zhang signed with prosecutors.
In the newly-released documents, prosecutors allege just how lavishly the billionaire doted upon the official he hoped to woo, and how many other powerful people—including a former San Francisco mayor and the Department of Building Inspections director—rubbed shoulders with the mogul.
On the evening of Nov. 4, 2018, Nuru called his girlfriend—who also worked for the city and eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit money laundering—to gush about the luxury trip to China he’d just returned from. The FBI intercepted the call, according to prosecutors.
“Oh boy, oof. We had a great time,” Nuru told his girlfriend, according to FBI transcripts.
Nuru explained that he was friends with one of the richest men in China, whom he met through Walter Wong, a local businessman and permit expediter who allegedly played a central role in multiple corruption schemes. Wong, who Zhang hired to advise on his San Francisco real estate project, had reimbursed Nuru for his plane ticket to China, prosecutors alleged.
“He’s a very nice guy,” Nuru allegedly said about Zhang during the call. “We’re helping him, I’m helping him with a project here, San Francisco. So whenever he comes, I always go see him.”
“I didn’t know that—how big he was—until I got to China.”
Wong and Nuru grabbed lunch with Zhang when they arrived in the country, Nuru explained on the intercepted call.
“... and they ask, ‘So hey, what are you guys doing for the rest?’ We told him we were going to this little hot spring town,” Nuru said, according to the filing. “And he’s like, ‘No, you’re going to my hot spring.”
Zhang’s people began making phone calls and the mogul eventually said to Nuru: “My van is outside to take you to my resort,” prosecutors allege.
Nuru was surprised to arrive at the resort to see a group waiting for him and his companions, according to the call.
“They’re like all these people, all these like agents with things in their ear and stuff all waiting for us,” Nuru allegedly said. “They take us to our rooms and everything … and then they’re like, ‘Uh in 10 minutes we’re going to go take a tour of the whole place.”
Nuru said, with a laugh, that it was “almost a little scary” having the guards outside his hotel room, according to the document.
The resort had basketball courts, swimming pools, yoga and a spa—all owned by Zhang—Nuru allegedly said.
On the recorded call, Nuru continued to reminisce about the trip.
“He has, like, a mansion, it’s like the White House,” he said, according to the filing. Zhang’s home was filled with Chinese paintings and other art. “His house is just like a museum.”
“When we had dinner at his house, we had, like, the Vice President of [Foreign Country 1] there … Yeah that’s Zhang’s house,” Nuru allegedly said. Prosecutors redacted the country of origin of the head of state who allegedly joined the group.
“The night that we were at his house, the drinks that we drank … that bottle was worth ten thousand dollars,” Nuru allegedly said. The liquor was 50-year-old Maotai, a Chinese liquor, Nuru explained.
The billionaire allegedly also gave the public works chief artistic stones.
“I don’t know how much they’re worth … I shipped them you know. … They’re tons of money,” Nuru allegedly said on the call.
Nuru did figure out the value of a pricey bottle of French wine he shared with his billionaire friend, prosecutors alleged.
“... I looked it up,” Nuru allegedly said. "It was like two-thousand seventy dollars.”
Zhang’s real estate project was a mixed-use development at 555 Fulton St. in San Francisco. From 2016 to 2019, Zhang regularly traveled to San Francisco to meet with Wong and check in on the project, according to the agreement Zhang signed with prosecutors.
Wong and Zhang typically went out to dinner with one of Zhang’s employees, who prosecutors did not name in the filings.
Wong invited Nuru to the dinners because the official was involved with approving permits for 555 Fulton, prosecutors claimed. Wong also invited other San Francisco public officials who could assist Zhang with the project, including a former mayor and the Director of the city’s Department of Building Inspections, prosecutors alleged.
Zhang’s employee typically picked up the tab, and Nuru never paid for his meals, prosecutors claim. During the meal, Zhang would ask for assistance with his local projects, the filing states.
Prosecutors did not name the former San Francisco mayor who allegedly was invited to the dinners.
Tom Hui was the San Francisco Department of Building Inspections director during the time period referenced in the investigation. Hui resigned in 2020 embroiled in scandal over accusations that he provided preferential treatment to Wong’s clients. A San Francisco Controller’s Office report later concluded that Hui met with Zhang three or four times in 2019 to discuss 555 Fulton, gave Wong special access to city information and accepted multiple meals.
After the China trip, Nuru went on to personally attend to issues arising from the Fulton Street project at Zhang’s request.
“I will make sure we get this issue resolved this week,” Nuru told Zhang on an encrypted messaging app after the developer reached out about a hiccup with the project, prosecutors allege.
“Thank you very much Bro!” Zhang allegedly replied.
Under his agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, Zhang admitted to bribing Nuru and promised to pay a $50,000 fine. In exchange, prosecutors will drop the charges against the developer in three years.
After being extradited from the United Kingdom to the U.S. to face charges, Zhang has since returned to China, according to his attorney.
Zhang’s U.S. company Z&L Properties will plead guilty to federal fraud and conspiracy charges, pay a $1 million fine and enter into a corporate compliance program, prosecutors say.
Noah Baustin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org