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Feds seek 6.5 year prison term for former San Francisco utilities chief Harlan Kelly

Willie Brown is among those seeking leniency for the former chief of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, who was found guilty of participating in a bribery scheme.

A man in a dark suit with a folder walks by a reflective window.
Harlan Kelly will be sentenced next Monday following his conviction at trial in a federal corruption case.

Nearly three decades after Harlan Kelly first walked into the office of Mayor Willie Brown and introduced himself in 1996, his rise and fall from the highest levels of San Francisco city government is complete.

But he still enjoys support from the political power broker.

Brown is among the more than six dozen people who wrote letters of support for Kelly, the former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, ahead of his sentencing by a federal judge next Monday.

Kelly, whose career took off under Brown, stepped down in 2020 after federal prosecutors accused him of taking bribes. He was convicted by a jury last summer of participating in a long-running corruption scheme and could now face as many as 15 years in prison, though prosecutors are seeking a lesser sentence.

“One thing I am certain of is that personal gain was never his motivation for violating our laws,” Brown wrote in his Feb. 14 letter to U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg, who is overseeing the case. “If I were still in government, I would do my utmost to provide Harlan Kelly with a second chance.”

Willie Brown in a red suit and hat.
Ex-Mayor Willie Brown wrote a letter of support for Harlan Kelly ahead of his sentencing. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Other supporters include his wife, former City Administrator Naomi Kelly, his predecessors at the utilities commission, Ed Harrington and Susan Leal, and Steve Kawa, a high-ranking staffer to mayors Brown, Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee.

Harlan Kelly was among the most prominent and powerful officials charged in a widespread corruption scandal that began with the federal charges against former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru in early 2020.

He stood trial on eight charges last summer related to two separate schemes.

One involved benefits he received from permit expediter Walter Wong, who testified that he gave Kelly gifts in the hopes of getting contracts from him. The other involved debts that prosecutors said Kelly misrepresented to a loan company in an application filed with the help of politically connected real estate investor Victor Makras.

Kelly was found guilty of six of the charges, including honest services wire fraud and bank fraud, at the end of a 12-day trial last July.

Harlan Kelly is facing serious time behind bars. Federal sentencing guidelines suggest a prison sentence of between 12.5 and 15 years. However, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is asking Seeborg to sentence him to 6.5 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.

By comparison, Nuru was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to one count of honest services wire fraud.

In seeking the sentence, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Ward wrote in court papers that Harlan Kelly was “driven by greed and arrogance.”

“These crimes were a stunning betrayal of the public trust,” Ward wrote. “He failed to honor his duty of honest services to the citizens of San Francisco. He engaged in acts that cut at the heart of open and honest governance.”

Ward said that 6.5 years in prison would be "appropriate and fair" given the sentences that others such as Nuru received in the scandal.

Harlan Kelly’s attorney, Brian Getz, has not put forward a specific sentence that he believes his client should serve.

“Obviously, I don’t think he should go to jail at all,” Getz told The Standard. “But realistically, he's got some exposure here.”

A man in a suit with a briefcase walks on a city street, with buildings and pedestrian crossing behind him.
Harlan Kelly leaves court after the first day of his corruption trial last June. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

One factor Getz wants the judge to consider is a recent brush with death that Harlan Kelly experienced last month when he suffered a heart attack while playing basketball at the Embarcadero YMCA and collapsed on the court.

“He is so lucky because there was a defibrillator on the wall at the basketball court and somebody knew how to work it,” Getz said. “He was gone. His heart had stopped, and fortunately, they got it started again.”

Harlan Kelly was rushed into emergency surgery at a local hospital, where doctors found a 99% blockage in one of his arteries, Getz said.

His doctor recommended in a March 6 letter submitted to the court that he rest and avoid stressful activity for four to six weeks.