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San Francisco restaurateurs paid bribes for Fisherman’s Wharf leases, FBI says

A view from the street of the Nick's Lighthouse.
A Google Street View image shows Nick’s Lighthouse in Fisherman's Wharf. The operators face federal charges for allegedly trying to bribe a San Francisco port employee. | Source: Courtesy Google Streetview

A couple who wanted to lease Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant space is facing federal charges for allegedly paying cash bribes to an undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation staffer and a San Francisco port employee helping with the investigation.

Min “James” Paik, 63, and his wife, Hye Paik, 60, of San Francisco, were each charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office this month with two bribery-related counts stemming from the alleged scheme to secure valuable leases at properties owned by the Port of San Francisco. They are the operators of the Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant Nick’s Lighthouse.

The Paiks made their initial appearances in federal court Tuesday, where they were each allowed to remain out of custody on a $50,000 bond. The couple and their attorneys did not return requests for comment Thursday.

Newly unsealed court records show the FBI began looking into the couple after James Paik allegedly approached an unnamed employee with the Port of San Francisco in May and began to repeatedly offer to pay bribes in exchange for help securing leases.

The employee reported the alleged scheme to his superiors, who contacted the FBI, according to the FBI affidavit filed in support of the charges against the couple. The FBI launched an investigation, during which the employee surreptitiously recorded the Paiks and introduced them to an undercover FBI staffer who was posing as another port employee.

During the investigation, James Paik allegedly gave the employee $3,000 cash to help secure or expedite leases he was seeking at vacant spaces once occupied by the restaurants Lou’s Fish Shack, Pompei’s Grotto and Butterfly. He also allegedly provided a $3,000 bribe for the undercover FBI staffer.

The investigation culminated in an October meeting at the Lou’s Fish Shack space, where the couple met with the employee and the undercover FBI staffer.

At the meeting, James Paik allegedly agreed to pay the employee and undercover FBI staffer $10,000 each for help securing the Lou’s Fish Shack and Pompei’s Grotto spaces. His wife allegedly gave them two envelopes containing $5,000 in $100 bills as initial payments.

James Paik followed up on the meeting with a text message on Nov. 2 offering an additional $5,000, according to the FBI affidavit.

The husband and wife were each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit bribery and one count of bribery of an agent of an organization receiving federal funds.

A spokesperson for the Port of San Francisco declined to comment, saying that the agency does not comment on pending criminal matters.

Jen Kwart, a spokesperson for the City Attorney's Office, said the port employee did the "right thing" by immediately reporting that he was offered a bribe.

"As soon as we learned about the alleged criminal conduct, we referred the matter to federal law enforcement," Kwart said. "It is gratifying that everyone, at every level of City government, is rowing in the same direction to root out corrupt actors. We fully support the U.S. Attorney’s action on this matter.”

The couple is due back in court Jan. 3 for a status hearing.

Michael Barba can be reached at mbarba@sfstandard.com