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Politics & Policy

A history of San Francisco scandals: Sex, bribes, and murder

A photo illustration that includes Supervisor Dan White, Charles de Young, Reverend Issac Kalloch, Abe “Boss” Ruef, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru and Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow and a newspaper clipping that says "WHITE CHARGED - FACES DEATH".
Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard; Photos by The Standard

San Francisco politics are often compared to a knife fight in a phone booth, but back in the day, people in this city used to literally get their hands dirty. And bloody.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re well aware of the Mohammed Nuru corruption scandal that has roiled City Hall for the better part of four years. Dig back further into the archives, though, and you’ll find that Nuru’s bribery scheme was simply carrying on the city’s rich tradition of political skullduggery. 

Considering it’s the holiday season, we took a look at San Francisco’s naughty list to find some of the most salacious incidents of corruption and indecency in “the city that knows how.”

An illustration of Charles de Young shooting Reverend Isaac Kalloch.
An illustration of Charles de Young's attempted assassination of Rev. Issac Kalloch, published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on Sept. 13, 1879. | Source: Courtesy Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

Don’t Talk About My Momma

In the summer of 1879, Isaac Kalloch was a red-headed Baptist preacher running for mayor as a candidate for the Workingmen’s Party. He spit fire from the pulpit, drank and gambled, wooed his female parishioners and often went to war with the press. One of these adversaries was publisher Charles de Young, who owned The San Francisco Chronicle with his brothers.

The newspaper began looking into? Kalloch’s sordid past, the preacher publicly called the de Young brothers “the bastard progeny of a whore.” These were times when men still dueled. The only thing left was for someone to die.

Charles de Young took a buggy down to Kalloch’s church near the San Francisco Mint and had a messenger tell him a woman wanted to speak with him. When the preacher stepped up to the carriage, de Young shot him in the chest and leg. A mob attacked the buggy and pulled de Young out with the intention of killing him. Instead, he was jailed. 

Kalloch survived the attack and went on to win the mayor’s race that December, while de Young fled to Mexico after posting bail. He returned the next year, and Kalloch’s son shot him to death in the newspaper’s offices in an act of revenge. Kalloch’s son was acquitted after the mayor testified and showed jurors what he claimed to be the two bullets de Young fired into his body.

An archival photo of a man whispering in the ear of another man sometime in the early 1900s.
"Boss" Abe Ruef, center, rose to power in San Francisco after assuming the helm of the fledgling Union Labor Party. | Source: Courtersy UC Berkeley/Bancroft Library

The Cost To Be the Boss

Are you really a major city if you didn’t at one point have a politician simply known as “Boss”?

Abe Ruef came from a well-to-do San Francisco family and was a rising star in the Republican Party thanks to his wit, intelligence and striking looks. But his rise to the top hit a snag in the spring of 1901 when entrenched powers connected to the Southern Pacific Railroad blocked his slate from taking control of the party. Seizing on the massive worker strikes that year, Ruef assumed the helm of the fledgling Union Labor Party.

On top of orchestrating the rise of Eugene Schmitz, a musical composer, to become mayor of San Francisco in 1902, Ruef served as an attorney for many of the city’s most powerful businesses, helping them gain city contracts and cement their monopolies. Ruef also took bribes and kickbacks during this time. Some of this seedy business involved rate hikes by Pacific Gas & Electric and the first installation of streetcars in San Francisco.

The 1906 earthquake devastated the city, which was already on edge over class tensions. “Boss” Ruef, now living the high life as a political puppeteer, was an obvious target for his many political enemies. He was one of more than a dozen charged in what became known as the Graft Trials, and he eventually pleaded guilty. Ruef was the only person sentenced to prison for the corruption that pervaded San Francisco politics. 

Putting the ‘Ass’ in Assessor

A sign of just how low Russell Wolden Jr. could go came years before his corruption charges. The longtime San Francisco assessor—who inherited the position from his father—ran for mayor in 1959 and accused the incumbent, George Christopher, of making the city a bastion for “deviates” (i.e. homosexuals). Christopher defeated Wolden to continue on as the last Republican to serve as mayor of San Francisco.

Years later, rumors started circulating that he was giving sweetheart deals to city businesses in the form of property tax breaks. A grand jury started looking into the reports and indicted Wolden on 10 counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy, and prosecutors accused him of using the kickbacks to acquire a luxury apartment and take trips to Europe

A jury found him guilty in March 1966 on the conspiracy charge and eight counts of accepting bribes, leading to a prison sentence of one to 14 years. It’s unclear just how much time he spent behind bars.

A side by side photo of San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, left, being led by police officers and City supervisor Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone shaking hands.
San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, left, is led to jail by police after he was arrested for the killings of Supervisor Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, right, on Nov. 27, 1978. | Source: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Murder in Room 200

It’s impossible to know how different the world might be had Dan White not gone to City Hall on the morning of Nov. 27, 1978. Just 17 days prior, White had resigned from his Board of Supervisors post, but then he changed his mind and blamed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, among others, when he couldn’t get his job back.

After sneaking in through a window, White walked into the mayor’s office, better known among politicos as Room 200, and shot Moscone four times—twice in the head—before going down the hall and gunning down Milk, a pioneer for LGBTQ+ rights as the first openly gay elected official in California history. The killings set the stage for Dianne Feinstein to become the first woman mayor in San Francisco before going on to a career in the U.S. Senate.

Disgust over the assassinations turned to outrage when White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. His defense attorneys argued he had a diminished mental state because he had been eating a lot of junk food, including Twinkies. The ludicrous argument worked and became known as the “Twinkie Defense.” White served about five years in prison and killed himself in 1985.

A Political Player’s Dark Secret

Roger Boas worked at his father’s car dealership before winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1962. He went on to become city administrator and played a critical role in helping to build the Moscone Convention Center. But an ill-fated run for mayor in 1987 proved to be Boas’s undoing, leading to the revelation of a dark secret.

Boas was one of 15 people indicted in connection with an underage brothel at 16th and Church streets. Police said they became aware of his visits to the brothel after one of the teen girls saw one of his campaign posters for mayor on Polk Street. 

“I looked up and noticed it was him and just about fell on my face,” the 17-year-old girl told the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle.

Boas finished third in the mayor’s race and reports from the time say he visited the brothel for 2 1⁄2 years, including the night before the election. He pleaded guilty to seven counts of statutory rape involving teenage girls but avoided a jail sentence. He was allowed to take part in a six-month garbage cleanup program run by the Sheriff’s Department and was fined $100,000.

A man wearing glass smiles while looking at a computer and touching his mouse.
Former San Francisco Supervisor Ed Jew pleaded guilty to multiple crimes, including lying about living in the city. | Source: Liz Hafalia/SF Chronicle/Getty Images

The Carpetbagging Tapioca Shakedown Artist

Ed Jew was a bad fit as a San Francisco supervisor for many reasons, but let’s start with one of the most crucial: He didn’t even live in San Francisco. 

First elected in 2006, Jew’s troubles began in May 2008, when FBI agents raided his Chinatown flower shop, his City Hall office and a home he owned in Burlingame. The raid was prompted by suspicion that Jew, the son of Chinese immigrants, had been shaking down immigrant tapioca shop owners looking for help with permits. A city investigation would find that Jew, who represented the Sunset, committed perjury when he first ran for office in 2006 by claiming a home owned by his father on 28th Avenue was his primary residence. 

Jew was adamant he lived in the city, prompting then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to demand he “prove it.” Jerry Brown, who was California’s attorney general at the time, gave the city permission to sue Jew and have him removed from the Board of Supervisors. Jew eventually resigned on Jan. 11, 2008, and pleaded guilty in October of that year to mail fraud, bribery and extortion after accepting $84,000 in bribes. A month later he took a plea deal and admitted to lying about living in San Francisco.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom holds a morning press conference as member of media look on.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom admitted to an affair with his appointments secretary, who was married at the time to his deputy chief of staff. | Source: Michael Macor/SF Chronicle/Getty Images

A Mayor’s Scarlet Letter

Few politicians have a penchant for self-sabotage quite like Gavin Newsom, but his first major misstep was by far his worst. Already known as a cad—Newsom cemented the nickname “Mayor McHottie” when dating a teenager half his age—the first-term mayor of San Francisco made national headlines by admitting to an affair with Ruby Rippey-Tourk, the wife of his deputy chief of staff.

Newsom said he was “deeply sorry” for the affair, which took place in 2005 when Rippey-Tourk was serving as his appointments secretary. Rippey-Tourk went into treatment for substance abuse, and Newsom briefly stepped away for what many assumed was a trip to rehab. However, he clarified during his 2018 run for governor that he simply stopped drinking.

Adding to the ick factor of it all, Newsom’s chief spokesman, Peter Ragone, admitted on the same day word of the affair broke that he had been using fake names to post anonymous online attacks against some of the mayor’s critics. At the time of the affair, Newsom was separated from his first wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is now partnered with Donald Trump Jr. 

Newsom survived the scandal to win a second mayoral term with more than 73% of the vote and continued up the political ladder, going from lieutenant governor to governor. He is now poised to be one of President Joe Biden’s top surrogates on the campaign trail in 2024, if not a presidential candidate himself in the near future.

A man, who is out of focus, looking into the distance with a serious expression with a photo behind him of a smiling man.
Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, left, listens to speakers at a news conference in San Francisco ahead of his money laundering and racketeering trial. | Source: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

Shrimp Boy and the Senator

Leland Yee charted a methodical course up the political ladder, rising from the San Francisco school board to supervisor in 1996, and then the state Assembly in 2002 before moving over to the state Senate in 2006. He cast himself as an earnest public servant, dedicated to gun control and open government.

But in a shocking turn in 2015, Yee and more than two dozen other people were charged in a vast racketeering ring. FBI agents were investigating Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow—a longtime Chinatown gangster who assumed the title of ‘“dragonhead” after having his associates murdered—and stumbled upon a connection with Keith Jackson, Yee’s political consultant. 

An undercover agent met with Yee, who offered to connect the agent with an arms dealer in exchange for campaign donations. He ended up getting five years in prison.

Meanwhile, the FBI had been tracking Chow for years, leading to a 162-count indictment. He was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of racketeering, murder, money laundering, and conspiracy charges. 

The incredible story would make for a phenomenal movie. Unfortunately, a federal judge blocked Chow from profiting off the story before paying off restitution of almost a quarter-million dollars.

A man, wearing a facemask, closes his door while looking into the distance.
Mohammed Nuru, the former director of San Francisco's Department of Public Works, received a seven-year prison sentence for a bribery and kickback scheme. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Mr. Clean’s Dirty Deeds

Mohammed Nuru, the former head of the Department of Public Works, earned the nickname “Mr. Clean” for his signature bald head and the street teams he deployed to remove feces from city sidewalks. But he and a sordid network of associates turned out to be exceptionally dirty.

In January 2020, Nuru was arrested by the FBI for orchestrating a series of long-running schemes that leveraged city money to get bribes and kickbacks from businesses that wanted to contract with San Francisco, including trash hauler Recology. In total, the wide-ranging corruption scandal has led to criminal charges against more than 20 people and a slew of City Hall resignations.

Nuru was sentenced to seven years in prison in August 2022 after admitting to taking bribes and looking the other way as Recology overcharged San Franciscans roughly $100 million. The scandal also took down Harlan Kelly, the former former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

If it weren’t for the pandemic, Mayor London Breed might have had her first term derailed as she was forced to admit to having a romantic relationship with Nuru after accepting more than $5,500 in gifts from him. She ended up paying a fine to the city’s Ethics Commission.

Dishonorable Mention: Fajitagate

Few scandals get a name as fun as Fajitagate, but this is San Francisco.

Shortly after last call on the morning of Nov. 20, 2002, three off-duty cops who had been out at the bars saw a man named Adam Snyder carrying a bag of steak fajitas. They demanded he relinquish the delicious late-night meal, but Snyder refused. 

The confrontation turned violent and the officers injured Snyder and badly beat his friend. One of the officers, Alex Fagan Jr., was the son of the department’s second-in-command, Alex Fagan Sr., who would go to a brief stint as police chief.

Local media couldn’t get enough of the Fajitagate saga. While the incident went to trial, none of the officers were convicted. However, a civil lawsuit netted Snyder and his friend $41,000 more than three years after the incident.
In March, the 21-year-old scandal was resurrected when Snyder said his restaurant Brixton South was facing eviction by the property owner—which happened to be the police union—in retaliation for Fajitagate.