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Fiona Ma backs ex-parole agent facing prison in San Francisco bribery scandal

Ken Hong Wong, wearing a grey suit, walks into the federal courthouse looking downward.
Ken Hong Wong arrives at federal court for his plea hearing on Aug. 31. | Source: Justin Katigbak/ The Standard

A retired parole officer who admitted to helping bribe a former San Francisco official with $20,000 cash is hoping to avoid prison time—and has lined up support from notable figures, including California state Treasurer Fiona Ma.

Ken Hong Wong, 58, will ask a federal judge on Thursday to sentence him to home detention after pleading guilty in August to two federal bribery-related charges involving a scheme to bribe former San Francisco Public Works head Mohammed Nuru.

Wong’s request for a sentence of three months of home confinement with electronic monitoring, three years of probation and a $10,000 fine is expected to run up against the demands of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which may recommend time behind bars.

Among those who penned letters of support for Wong ahead of his sentencing by U.S. District Judge William Orrick are Ma, San Francisco Police Commissioner Larry Yee and former Millbrae Mayor Wayne Lee.

Multiple speakers, including California top officials, gather for a photo at an event.
State Treasurer Fiona Ma speaks to the crowd at an event during Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation week in San Francisco on Nov. 13. | Source: Han Li/The Standard

Wong led San Francisco’s parole office before his retirement in 2015 and is well-known in the local Chinese community as a pop singer who performs under the stage name 金城大少,  which translates to “San Francisco's Big Brother/Master.”

In his plea agreement, Wong admitted that he was paid $10,000 to pass on cash bribes to Nuru in exchange for the official getting someone a job at Public Works in 2019. While prosecutors did not name that person in court records, The Standard identified her as a young engineer from China who briefly worked for the city.

Nuru would later become the central figure in a sweeping City Hall corruption scandal that has toppled city officials and resulted in criminal charges for more than a dozen former bureaucrats and businesspeople since it emerged in early 2020. He is currently in prison and not set to be released until August 2028.

Ma, a former state assemblymember and San Francisco supervisor who plans to run for lieutenant governor in 2026, attested to Wong’s distinguished career and history of community service in her letter to the judge. Ma said that she was writing the letter as a private citizen but signed it as both a certified public accountant and the state treasurer.

“I have known Ken for the past 20 years as a person who has volunteered at many grassroots community events, street festivals and neighborhood cleanups,” Ma wrote.

Ma said she shadowed Wong on a ride-along when he was a parole agent and later watched him perform as a singer at charity events supporting hospitals, seniors and other causes.

Yee, who also said he was writing to Orrick in a personal capacity, told the judge that he had known Wong for over a decade. He described Wong as a person with a “big heart” who volunteers to help others in Chinatown and whose music has “touched many.”

“I am humbly asking that you show leniency towards him and that you keep him within our community,” Yee wrote. “We are facing challenging times ahead and we need people like Ken who serve Chinatown.”

Lee, the former Millbrae mayor, said he was surprised by the criminal case against Wong and suspected that he was taken advantage of for his “friendly nature.”

“Mr. Wong may be ignorant and, at worst, naive, but … he lacks the maniacal nature of someone intent on knowingly performing an unlawful wrongdoing,” Lee wrote.

Kingman Wong, a retired FBI agent who is not related to Ken Hong Wong, also penned a letter to the judge, saying that Ken Hong Wong helped the FBI with several investigations as a parole agent and an expert on Asian criminal subcultures in the 1990s.

He asked that Ken Hong Wong get a chance to redeem himself through community service rather than serve prison time.

Mohammed Nuru, wearing a black suit, gets into a waiting SUV after leaving court.
Mohammed Nuru, former director of Public Works, leaves his sentencing in federal court in San Francisco on Aug. 25, 2022. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Wong received commendations over the years for his community service and parole work from various officials, including Ma and Kamala Harris, who commended him for his professional work in 2006, when she was San Francisco district attorney. He was also commended by former Mayors Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee.

Reached by phone, Wong’s attorney, Steven Gruel, said Wong should not receive prison time because his conduct “pales in comparison” to that of others charged in the scandal, such as Chinese billionaire Zhang Li, whose company received a $1 million fine after he admitted to paying off Nuru to usher along a development project in the city.

“Ken is at the bottom of the spectrum here,” Gruel said. “As a consequence, his punishment should fit accordingly.”

Wong is cooperating with the FBI and has met with its agents some 70 times since they first approached him in October 2020, providing them with “valuable information” that was filed under seal, Gruel said in court filings.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has yet to file its formal recommendation for his sentence.

Wong is due in court Thursday at 1:30 p.m. for his sentencing.

In a letter to the judge, Wong said he was "deeply ashamed" of his actions, apologized for his behavior and pledged to be a better person.

"This process has changed my life," Wong wrote. "I know you must punish me, but please know that in my heart and when I look in the disappointing eyes of those close to me, I have been deeply punished already."

Michael Barba can be reached at mbarba@sfstandard.com