A retired California parole agent who admitted to bribing a top San Francisco official to hire a friend-of-a-friend for a city job was sentenced in federal court Thursday to six months in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Ken Hong Wong, 58, pleaded guilty in August to bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery for his role in paying off former San Francisco Public Works head Mohammed Nuru to hire an engineer to work for his department, according to the plea agreement. The job seeker’s father provided the $20,000 bribe, and Wong acted as the courier, the plea agreement said.
After the young engineer was hired by the city, Wong received $10,000 for his help in the scheme, according to court filings.
Wong’s defense attorney, Steven Gruel, argued that his client should avoid prison given his cooperation with the FBI on the case as well as his long history of law enforcement and charity work.
But U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick, who handed down the sentence, disagreed.
“It’s one of the sleaziest and lowest things that somebody can do,” Orrick said about Wong’s conduct. “It reflects the worst of what citizens think happens in public jobs.”
While the job recipient has gone unnamed in court proceedings, an investigation by The Standard revealed that she was Xulu Liu, a recent college graduate who lasted just about two weeks in the role.
“Clearly, this woman wasn’t qualified,” prosecutor David Ward said about the job recipient, whom he did not name. “She lasted 15 days in the job, and they were not able to keep her on.”
Wong’s actions send the message that public jobs are for sale, Ward said.
“Let me be absolutely clear, Public Works does not sanction bribery to get a city job,” San Francisco Department of Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon said in a statement. “The Ken Hong Wong case is one incident involving a former director [Nuru] who was removed from his job nearly four years ago and appears to be being dealt with appropriately.”
Gordon declined to comment on whether Public Works independently investigated the claims in the criminal case.
Nuru is serving a seven-year sentence in federal prison. He was the center of a series of corrupt schemes and was targeted in an FBI corruption probe that has swept up well over a dozen former city officials and business people in San Francisco. Three years after the first series of arrests in the investigation took place in 2020, several of the defendants have been sentenced recently.
A Tarnished Career in Law Enforcement
Wong came from a poor family and dropped out of college as a young man to work at San Quentin State Prison to pay for his sisters’ schooling, he said during the hearing. Later, he began working as a California parole officer, a role he held until 2015, according to his attorney.
Wong eventually rose to lead San Francisco’s parole office and ran a program for parolees to clean up trash in public spaces. That’s how he met Nuru, who led Public Works, according to court filings.
That long-running relationship with the department head is what spurred one of Wong’s friends to approach him in 2019, according to court filings. Wong’s friend knew a person who needed to get a job to maintain her U.S. visa. So at the friend’s request, Wong agreed to approach Nuru about the potential hire. Nuru, in turn, demanded $20,000.
Wong was told that the job seeker’s father back in China would pay the money, and Wong agreed to ferry the funds to Nuru, according to his plea agreement. Wong dropped off $20,000 in cash on four different occasions.
Afterward, Wong’s friend gave him $10,000 for his help. Wong was told that the $10,000 came from the job seeker’s father. The father and Wong’s friend were not named in court filings.
During Thursday’s sentencing hearing, the judge, Orrick, asked why a former law enforcement official would participate in this type of criminal activity.
Wong described an effort to help a friend that escalated after Nuru demanded money in exchange for the favor.
“Without me thinking of the consequences, I did it, hoping she would get a job and get to stay in the country,” Wong said. “I never demanded any money from them, the money came after from my friend.”
Ahead of the hearing, powerful supporters, including California Treasurer Fiona Ma and a retired senior FBI official, wrote letters to the judge on Wong’s behalf. His attorney also submitted numerous commendations from city and state bodies that Wong received for his work with parolees and glowing praise for his activities as a pop singer who raises money for charities.
“You put in all of these certificates on how everybody admired all the work that you had done, which I am sure all of that was true,” Orrick said.
But Wong’s crime changed how the judge saw those awards.
“What you did,” he said, “tarnished all of it.”