Skip to main content

San Francisco corruption: Ex-waste hauler executive avoids prison time

A composite image of former Recology Vice President John Porter avoiding the media outside of Federal Court in San Francisco on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. | Source: The Standard

A former executive for San Francisco trash hauler Recology will not serve time in prison for signing off on $55,000 in bribes to the city’s ex-Public Works head Mohammed Nuru disguised as holiday donations for kids.

John Porter, 40, a former vice president for the waste giant, was sentenced to six months house arrest, three years probation and a $30,000 fine Thursday after pleading guilty in May to a fraud conspiracy charge stemming from the bribery scheme.

In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge William Orrick eschewed the 24-month prison term that federal prosecutors, led by U.S. Attorney David Ward, asked him to impose.

“We need to make sure that this culture of corruption that appeared to pervade San Francisco doesn’t happen again,” Ward said.

Porter stood to speak to the judge before his sentence came down. Face flushed and wiping his eyes, the former executive described the time since he was charged as the most devastating period in his life, costing his job and sullying his reputation.

Orrick condemned Porter’s actions, describing them as a “failure of courage” to go against the culture of corruption at Recology that preceded him. But in the end, the judge said he was not concerned that Porter would reoffend and that he took into account that the felony conviction would strip Porter’s Certified Public Accountant license and impact his existing mental health struggles.

The judge also said that Porter did not personally benefit from the scheme as much as other defendants in the broader corruption scandal sweeping City Hall. 

The courtroom was packed Thursday with dozens of Porter’s supporters, who let out audible sighs of relief when Orrick revealed he would spare Porter from prison.

After the sentencing ended, Porter hugged dozens of friends and family members in the hallway outside the courtroom.

“I’m just happy I got my life back,” Porter told The Standard.

A photo shows Mohammed Nuru speaking.
Mohammed Nuru, former director of Public Works, speaks on the steps of City Hall during a rally on Oct. 15, 2019. | Source: SF Chronicle/Getty Images

The charges against Porter came as part of a sprawling Justice Department investigation into San Francisco government corruption. The revelations in the scandal kicked off when Nuru was arrested in 2020 over a series of kickback and bribery schemes that extended beyond the Porter case. 

Last month, an ex-parole agent pleaded guilty to bribing Nuru to hire a friend-of-a-friend, and in July, a Chinese billionaire admitted to paying off the Public Works boss to usher along a construction project.

More than a dozen public officials and businesspeople have been charged in the corruption scandal to date.

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

Disguised Bribes

Porter admitted to approving $55,000 in bribes from Recology to a baseball charity called the Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids, ostensibly meant to benefit needy children. Prosecutors said Porter acknowledged in his plea deal that he knew the payments would be used to pay for parties Nuru hosted for friends, political supporters and staff.

He also admitted to another bribe: A $1,182 steak dinner for Nuru and others that Porter expensed on his Recology company card.

For decades, Recology and its predecessor firms have controlled a lucrative monopoly on waste collection in San Francisco. Nuru, as the head of Public Works, was a key official whom Recology wanted to keep happy because he held major sway over whether the firm could raise the rates it charges San Franciscans to pick up trash from all households and businesses.

In the case of Porter, prosecutors homed in on one of the so-called holiday donations, for $20,000, that he approved while negotiating an increase in the “tipping fees” that Public Works paid Recology for its trucks to dump waste at its facility. At the time Porter approved the payment, he was leading Recology’s efforts to win Nuru’s support for a fee boost, prosecutors said.

“It was base corruption,” Ward wrote in a court filing ahead of the sentencing hearing.

Nuru was a “deeply corrupt grifter seeking to profit from his position of power,” Ward wrote. “Recology and its executives, including defendant Porter, knew this, and they fed Nuru’s greed and avarice in an effort to boost their company’s profits and benefit themselves and their company.”

Porter’s attorneys argued in court filings that the former executive began approving the “holiday donation” payments to Nuru because his boss, Recology Chief Operating Officer Mark Arsenault, said he should. 

They go on to describe Arsenault as Porter’s “alleged co-conspirator” who “was never charged for the same conduct.”

Former Recology Chief Operating Officer Mark Arsenault poses for a photograph in 2019. | Source: Ian Chin for Drew Altizer Photography

During the Thursday hearing, Porter’s defense attorney Rob Adkins described Arsenault as the “elephant in the room,” saying that everything Porter did, Arsenault did, too.

Orrick asked Ward, the prosecutor, if anyone higher up than Porter at Recology knew about the bribery.

“If others higher up were aware to a criminal level, we’re not aware,” Ward replied.

While Porter was the most senior Recology employee to face prosecution, prosecutors separately charged former Recology Government Relations Manager Paul Giusti, as well as the firm’s San Francisco subsidiaries in connection with the fraud conspiracy.

Giusti, who pleaded guilty, was also charged in connection with the holiday donations funneled through Lefty O’Doul’s to Nuru, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars he directed to the former department head in payments that Recology funneled through two nonprofits. Those two nonprofits have been awarded millions in city funding.

Paul Giusti poses for a photo wearing a blue button-down.
Paul Giusti is pictured in 2018. | Source: SF Chronicle/Getty Images

From 2014 to 2019, Recology funneled about $900,000 to a Nuru-controlled account in an attempt to influence him, according to facts acknowledged by the company in a settlement agreement with U.S. prosecutors.

In exchange for deferring prosecution, Recology admitted to its long-running bribery schemes and agreed to pay $36 million in criminal penalties. It also agreed in March 2021 to repay San Francisco customers roughly $100 million and later agreed to pay the city another $25 million to resolve further issues.

Recology spokesperson Robert Reed emphasized that Recology severed ties with Porter in 2021, “well before” charges against him were filed.

“Recology has acknowledged that it is responsible as a matter of law for the acts of its former employees and has cooperated with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in its investigations,” Reed said in a written statement. “Our company unequivocally condemns this behavior and expects all of its employee-owners to act according to the highest ethical standards.

Reed said the firm now has new managers who have “implemented enhanced compliance and training programs, including strict policies to address situations where Recology’s employee-owners may interact with public officials.”

Noah Baustin can be reached at