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Disgraced restaurateur asks for no prison time in Mohammed Nuru bribery scandal

Two men: one in a cap and blazer, the other in a baseball cap and suit with a microphone.
Nick Bovis, left, will be sentenced next week for his role in the corruption scandal surrounding former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru. | Source: Lea Suzuki/SF Chronicle/Getty Images & Department of Public Works

Funneling bribes through a charity he started to help needy children was among the bad decisions that San Francisco restaurateur Nick Bovis made to further his business ambitions before the FBI arrested him.

But his remorse for his role in the widespread corruption scandal surrounding former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru—and his willingness to cooperate with the FBI investigation in the ensuing three years—should keep him out of prison. That was the thrust of the argument defense attorneys for Bovis made in a court filing Thursday ahead of his sentencing next week by a federal judge in San Francisco.

“Mr. Bovis fully recognizes how much harm he caused,” wrote his attorneys, Gil Eisenberg and Michael Stepanian. “Mr. Bovis’ conduct deserves punishment, but counsel urges that he also deserves compassion and a second chance.”

Bovis was the first defendant arrested alongside Nuru in January 2020 as part of a yearslong FBI investigation that has resulted in guilty pleas or convictions for a dozen individuals and two companies, including Nuru and Bovis. The broader corruption scandal unfolding in the city has resulted in charges against nine others.

In court filings, Bovis said he was driven by “bad decision making and ideas with a chaotic out-of-control business ambition.” He apologized for the damage he caused to his family and community, and pledged to do better.

But federal prosecutors said Bovis should have known better than to turn to fraud and corruption. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is seeking nine months in prison, a year of supervised release and a $100,000 fine for Bovis.

“Nick Bovis was given every opportunity to live the American dream,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Ward wrote in court papers. “He was raised by parents who, in his own words, provided him with ‘the best life.’ He was a Boy Scout.

“Yet he let his greed overtake any sense of right or wrong, of ethics or morality,” Ward added.

Bovis, a San Francisco native, was a part owner of the Union Square hofbrau Lefty O’Doul’s. Over the years, he also started or ran various other businesses, including the Spinnerie chicken restaurant and the Gold Dust Lounge, a bar in Union Square. He was known for hosting annual holiday toy drives at Lefty O’Doul’s.

All of those businesses have since closed.

Federal prosecutors said Bovis lavished Nuru with bribes for years beginning in 2015, when he bought more than $22,000 in kitchen appliances for Nuru’s vacation home. They said he admitted to giving Nuru these corrupt benefits in the hopes that Nuru would use his influence to get him contracts, including to supply the city with portable public toilets. However, defense attorneys said Bovis never got the toilet contract.

In 2016, prosecutors said trash-hauling firm Recology began making a total of $60,000 in payments labeled as “holiday donations” to a charity run by Bovis, the Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids. While Bovis set up the nonprofit to take needy children to Giants baseball games and give them bats and gloves, prosecutors said these “bribe payments” were actually used to throw opulent annual holiday parties for Nuru.

Bovis and Nuru were also caught conspiring to bribe an airport commissioner for her help in securing a restaurant lease at San Francisco International Airport. In a recorded conversation, prosecutors said Bovis could be heard describing how Nuru told him to give the commissioner $5,000 and to arrange a free vacation for her.

Bovis brought the $5,000 to the meeting with Nuru, the commissioner and an undercover FBI agent, but did not hand it over, according to his attorneys. They said the commissioner “balked at the tone of the meeting and left without any money changing hands.”

Prosecutors said the airport scheme never came to fruition because Bovis became suspicious of the undercover agent. Bovis, according to his attorneys, “had asked his business and marketing consultant to check the internet and determine whether the agent was some sort of crime figure.”

Today, Bovis has a net worth of more than $5 million, prosecutors said.

He runs Bovis Foods, a company that “distributes non-alcoholic specialty drink mixes,” according to his attorneys.

Bovis pleaded guilty to one count of honest services wire fraud over his role in the scandal in May 2020. Prosecutors said he also pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud over a scheme to obtain $85,000 in insurance benefits following a fire at one of his restaurants.

His attorneys are asking the court to sentence him to community service and home confinement with electronic monitoring instead of time in prison.

He is due to be sentenced March 7.