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Why 2 defendants in San Francisco corruption probe avoided prison time

A woman with dark glasses and a yellow handbag walks between a sectioned off area on the sidewalk
Sandra Zuniga, who pleaded guilty to helping Mohammed Nuru launder his bribery proceeds, enters the courthouse for her sentencing Thursday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Two defendants in the corruption scandal surrounding former San Francisco Public Works head Mohammed Nuru will not serve prison time after cooperating with the federal investigation into City Hall, a judge ruled Thursday.

Senior U.S. District Judge William Orrick handed down the sentences Thursday for Sandra Zuniga—who dated Nuru for over a decade and held leadership roles under Mayor London Breed and her predecessor Ed Lee—and Paul Giusti, a former government liaison for waste firm Recology.

Zuniga, 47, who served as the director of neighborhood services under Breed and was appointed by Lee as his Fix-It Team director, pleaded guilty in March 2021 to helping launder the proceeds of Nuru's bribes. Giusti, 68, admitted to arranging more than $1 million in bribes for Nuru from Recology in August 2021.

Paul Giusti poses for a photo wearing a blue button-down.
Paul Giusti was also sentenced to probation Thursday. | Source: SF Chronicle/Getty Images

While Zuniga faced up to six months in prison, she was instead sentenced to three years’ probation. Giusti, who faced up to 56 months in prison, was sentenced to three years’ probation and six months of home confinement.

‘She Should Have Known Better’

Zuniga showed up to court with dozens of supporters from a nonprofit where she leads support groups for formerly incarcerated people. Her attorney argued that she should receive time served for the community work she had done since the scandal broke in early 2020, when Nuru was arrested.

Wearing a long purple jacket, Zuniga took a deep breath, put on her glasses and read a prepared statement expressing remorse for the harm that her crimes caused to her former colleagues and the city.

“Being involved in this ugly display of greed and self-serving behavior is something I did," Zuniga said, "not who I am."

A photo shows Mohammed Nuru speaking.
Mohammed Nuru is at the center of a sweeping corruption scandal. | Source: SF Chronicle/Getty Images

David Ward, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, said that Zuniga played a role in a “staggering” scandal that he called the "worst stain on San Francisco’s government in decades.

"She facilitated the bribery," Ward said. "She knew about the bribery for years and years. She should have known better."

But Ward agreed she did not need to serve time in prison, noting she was a cooperative witness against city contractors who supplied Nuru with bribes, including a $40,000 tractor. He asked the judge to give her 200 hours of community service, three months of home confinement and probation.

The judge said Zuniga committed an "awful crime.” But he said she did not personally benefit from it and cooperated with the government.

“I am confident that I am not going to see you again," he said.

Zuniga walked out of the courtroom with a smile on her face.

‘Good for Recology’s Business’

Giusti, who wore a black pinstripe suit and orange tie, apologized to his family and the people of San Francisco.

“I’m embarrassed that I allowed misplaced loyalty in place of my sense of right and wrong,” Giusti told the judge.

Ward said Giusti funneled nearly $1 million from Recology to a nonprofit account that Nuru used as a slush fund for his staff. Giusti also admitted to arranging almost $60,000 from Recology to a baseball charity for children that Nuru used for holiday parties, Ward said. Giusti also arranged jobs for Nuru’s son.

It was Giusti’s job to keep Nuru happy, Ward said, since Nuru was the regulator in charge of raising Recology’s rates.

The company and its predecessor firms have controlled a monopoly on garbage collection in San Francisco for decades.

“A happy Nuru was good for Recology’s business, and an unhappy Nuru was bad for Recology’s business,” Ward said.

Before handing down the sentence, Orrick asked Giusti whether the higher-ups at Recology beyond his direct supervisors knew about his conduct, to which Giusti repeatedly nodded his head in the affirmative.

“I have to believe that’s true,” Orrick said. “I have to believe that’s true.”

“The only point I am making,” he added. “Is that people who have not appeared before me at Recology must have had a pretty darn good idea what was going on.”

Giusti’s supervisor, John Porter, was sentenced in September to six months of house arrest and three years’ probation for signing off on payments arranged by Giusti. But Giusti’s attorney, Hartley West, said Giusti was trained to treat Nuru well before Porter, under prior direct supervisors.

Asked by Orrick when he realized his conduct was wrong, Giusti said it was not until later in his career.

“I had no reason to think that the money wasn't going to the events,” Giusti said. “It just didn't seem to me it was wrong until I guess he started asking for more and more as time went on.”

Giusti said he believed he was “doing a favor for a friend” when he got Nuru’s son a job at Recology and an internship at a nonprofit funded by the firm. Nuru had told him he did not want his son sitting at home smoking pot and playing guitar all summer. Giusti served on the board of the nonprofit.

“It just seemed a win-win,” Giusti said.

Orrick said that Giusti seemed to be acting in line with the culture at Recology.

“That’s what you thought you were supposed to be doing,” Orrick said. “Of course, it is so harmful to the way that public business gets done.

“It’s just awful,” he added.

In the end, Orrick sentenced Giusti to three years of probation—the first six months of which he would serve in home detention—300 hours of community service, a $30,000 fine and location monitoring.

Michael Barba can be reached at mbarba@sfstandard.com