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San Francisco corruption: Ex-parole agent pleads guilty in bribery case

Ken Hong Wong arrives at the federal courthouse in San Francisco for his hearing on Thursday. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

An ex-parole agent and local pop singer pleaded guilty to bribery charges in federal court Thursday, marking the latest development in a yearslong Justice Department investigation uncovering corruption in San Francisco City Hall.

Prosecutors charged Ken Hong Wong, 58, with bribery and conspiracy in June. The Justice Department accused Wong of paying former San Francisco Public Works head Mohammed Nuru $20,000 to get someone an engineering job in his department.

An investigation by The Standard revealed that the job recipient was Xulu Liu, a 25-year-old recent college graduate and Chinese national. Public Works hired Liu as an assistant engineer earning $46 an hour in September 2019, public records show. She left the job after two weeks.

Public revelations in the wide-ranging Justice Department corruption investigation began in 2020, when the FBI arrested Nuru over a series of kickback and bribery schemes that stretched far beyond Wong’s case. To date, more than a dozen people have been charged in the corruption probe, including a Chinese billionaire, the local garbage-collecting empire and the former general manager of the city’s Public Utilities Commission.

So far this summer, one former city official has been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, a former building inspector received a one-year prison sentence and a jury convicted one of the city’s power brokers of fraud.

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins charged a former City Hall staffer with felony corruption, among other charges, on Tuesday.

READ MORE: These Are the Players in San Francisco’s Corruption Scandal

The Parole Agent

Wong worked for California State Parole from 1987 until his retirement in 2015, according to his defense attorney. He led San Francisco’s parole field office for years, earning commendations from then-District Attorney Kamala Harris, former Gov. Jerry Brown and the Board of Supervisors. Social media posts suggest he is close with state Treasurer Fiona Ma, a longtime San Francisco politico now running for lieutenant governor.

Ken Hong Wong, wearing a grey suit, walks into the federal courthouse looking downward.
Ken Hong Wong arrives at the federal courthouse in San Francisco for his hearing on Thursday. | Source: Justin Katigbak/ The Standard

Wong is a well-known singer in the local Chinese-speaking community whose performances have taken him beyond San Francisco on a Canadian tour. His stage name, 金城大少,  translates to “San Francisco’s Big Brother/Master.”

In his role leading San Francisco’s parole field office, Wong worked “closely” with Nuru on a city cleanup program that helped people get off parole early, Wong said in a 2013 interview.

When Wong pleaded guilty, he conceded that the facts outlined in his plea agreement were true.

Wong was approached by a friend in 2019 who knew that he had a relationship with Nuru, according to the plea. That female friend, referred to as Co-Conspirator #1 in the agreement, asked Wong to help get her friend a job at Public Works through Nuru so that the friend could keep her U.S. visa. Wong agreed and spoke to Nuru about the potential hire.

Several weeks later, Nuru told Wong that there was an open engineering job but that it was highly sought-after, so the friend of Co-Conspirator #1, dubbed Individual #1 in the agreement, would need to pay Nuru $20,000 to get the gig.

Co-Conspirator #1 let Wong know that the job seeker’s father in China, named as Co-Conspirator #2, would pay the requested amount. Nuru was able to secure the job, and the ex-parole agent dropped off money for Nuru, giving him envelopes with $5,000 cash on four different occasions, according to the agreement.

After the job seeker was hired by the city, Co-Conspirator #1 gave Wong $10,000 to keep for himself, which he was told came from the job seeker’s father, though he never spoke with the father himself.

“Ken has been forthcoming about his involvement with this from day one,” Wong’s attorney Steven Gruel said after the plea on Thursday. “He hopes that his candidness and honesty will be considered by the court in concluding that the appropriate sentence in the case warrants no custody and straight probation.”

The Engineer

Though prosecutors have not named Liu, the job recipient, The Standard was able to determine her identity using city salary data and a source with knowledge of the case who confirmed her part in the alleged scheme. However, it’s unclear whether she knew about the payments made on her behalf.

Liu did not reply to requests for comment.

Liu is from Nantong, China, and studied engineering at both the University of California San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University, according to a profile of her printed in a college publication. She was hired as a San Francisco 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.

Wong’s plea agreement states that the individual Nuru got the job for worked for Public Works from Sept. 9, 2019, to Sept. 25, 2019.

The Standard obtained an internal city email showing that the day before Liu left her job, a human resources employee contacted Nuru, explaining that Liu had met with him regarding sponsorship for her work visa.

“This is something we do not normally do, despite having done a few times in the past,” the human resources worker wrote, adding that he would research visa types.

Okay, I’m not familiar with this process,” Nuru replied the next day, Liu’s last working for the city.

Both the Department of Human Resources and Public Works declined to comment on the reasons for Liu’s departure from her job, citing personnel confidentiality.

When asked whether Public Works has investigated the pay-for-hire allegations in the Wong case, department spokesperson Beth Rubenstein replied, “Public Works Human Resources team adheres to all civil service and citywide Department of Human Resources rules regarding hiring.”

After leaving her city role, Liu worked as a project engineer for a Bay Area company for a year and a half. She has since returned to China, where she founded a tech startup that has reportedly raised millions of dollars for 3D-printed headgear for infants whose skulls need to be reshaped, according to her now-deleted LinkedIn page and Chinese press reports.

Wong’s sentencing hearing will take place in November.