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Former San Francisco utility head given light sentence of four years in corruption case

A man in a suit with a briefcase walks on a city street, with buildings and pedestrian crossing behind him.
Harlan Kelly, the former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, leaves court on the first day of his federal corruption trial in San Francisco on June 27, 2023. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

A federal judge Monday sentenced Harlan Kelly, the former head of San Francisco’s Public Utility Commission, to four years in prison and a fine of $10,000 for his role in a widespread corruption scandal. 

Kelly was convicted last year for taking part in a scheme that involved taking gifts from a city contractor that included a free trip to China, as well as lying on a loan application. 

Despite his leniency, Judge Richard Seeborg chastised Kelly for his betrayal of the public trust.

“Mr. Kelly participated in very serious criminal conduct,” Seeborg said of the yearslong corruption scheme Kelly participated in. “He betrayed the public trust and made a mockery of his oath to serve the public.”

Seeborg, who said the “most shocking” aspect of the case was Kelly’s sharing confidential information with a city contractor, wondered aloud why Kelly, who had such a successful life, did what he did. 

the people walk in the street
The former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Harlan Kelly, right, leaves federal court in San Francisco with his wife, Naomi Kelly, center, on June 27, 2023. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Still, Seeborg said Kelly had in many ways led a “laudable life,” which mitigated the severity of the sentence handed down.  

Federal prosecutors had sought 6.5 years and a fine of $250,000, which was far less than federal guidelines of 12 to 15 years. 

In addition to four years in prison and a fine, Kelly was ordered to undergo drug treatment and testing. He will also be on probation for three years after release. 

Kelly, who suffers from poor health, must turn himself in on June 19.

Kelly was relatively relaxed upon entering the courtroom, fist-bumping a line of reporters waiting to cover his sentencing. 

But his contrition was apparent as he stood before Seeborg. 

“I am truly sorry for what I did,” he said to the judge.

After court, his only comment was that he was shocked at the sentencing. 

Kelly stepped down from his post after federal prosecutors accused him of taking bribes in 2020. He was convicted last year of participating in a long-running corruption scheme.

Kelly was part of a group of powerful officials charged in a corruption scandal that emerged with federal charges against former Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru in 2020.

A man holds his hand up in the air
Mohammed Nuru, then-director of Public Works, speaks on the steps of City Hall during a rally supporting Better Market Street in 2019. | Source: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

Kelly stood trial on eight charges last year related to two separate schemes.

The first involved permit expediter Walter Wong, who said that he gave Kelly gifts in expectation that he would be awarded contracts. 

The second scheme, according to prosecutors, involved debts Kelly misrepresented to a loan company with the aid of Victor Makras, a politically connected real estate investor.

Kelly was found guilty of six of the charges, including honest services wire fraud and bank fraud. 

Despite his conviction, Kelly received support from many of the city’s power brokers

Former mayor Willie Brown is among the more than six dozen people who wrote in support of Kelly.

Among his supporters Monday was his wife, former City Administrator Naomi Kelly, who resigned in 2021 following her husband’s charges. She sat in the first row of the court clasping her hands as her husband’s sentence was handed down.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at