A San Francisco contractor criticized by Mayor London Breed for its work, and fired by disgraced ex-Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, got a boost from a judge last month in its years-long quest to make both of them answer questions under oath about whether their actions were motivated by bribery and corruption.
The case shows how a federal corruption investigation that resulted in Nuru pleading guilty to fraud continues to shadow city officials, including Breed. Nuru routinely solicited funds from city contractors and used them for staff events and holiday parties. Prosecutors said those funds were intended to “keep him happy” and influence his decisions at City Hall.
Federal investigators found a broad pattern of corrupt “pay to play” practices in the city.
The fired contractor, Synergy Project Management, punctured some gas pipes while doing excavation work on Haight Street for the Public Utilities Commission in 2015. The company claimed it was because the city and PG&E had done a bad job keeping track of a sub-street tangle of hundreds of unmapped utility lines, pipes, and other fixtures. Breed claimed in a 2015 press conference that it was Synergy’s fault, saying she had personally asked Nuru to take Synergy off the job.
Nuru fired the firm, which then sued him, the city and Breed. Synergy initially lost in court but won a partial victory on appeal. On March 24, Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolaños ordered that the company should be allowed to refile the complaint, which alleges the company was cheated due to corruption.
David Latterman, a prominent local political analyst, said many in San Francisco’s political class could be vulnerable to more such legal actions, in which contractors use Nuru’s guilty plea as evidence they were cheated out of city business.
“It’s time to pay the piper,” said Latterman. Referring to Nuru’s guilty plea, he added: “One obvious repercussion of all of this is that people are going to revisit things that have happened in the past, especially when it comes to Nuru.”
That’s exactly what Synergy has done. The company is now seeking to collect further information to prove it was harmed through corruption. Synergy alleges it was improperly kicked off the Haight Street project, and that it failed to obtain a contract on a project installing rapid bus lanes on Van Ness Ave., because Nuru, along with other city officials, systematically steered work to their friends.
“The executive branch of San Francisco is dominated at the top by a circle of officials that share decades-long friendships, both platonic and romantic, and in some cases marital relationships, and who have used their control over the public fisc to enrich themselves personally,” Synergy said in its legal complaint.
“Current mayor London Breed, along with Nuru, Harlan Kelly and Naomi Kelly, and the rest of the ‘city family’ each trace their political careers back to former mayor Willie Brown, and are tied by variegated friendships, romantic and marital relationships.”
Harlan Kelly, former general manager of the Public Utilities Commission, was indicted on bank fraud and bribery-related charges last year. His wife Naomi resigned as City Administrator earlier this year.
Ramos Bolaños’ March 24 order allows Synergy to resurrect its claim of an alleged insider kickback scheme that broke laws banning outside interference with a contract.
Breed was a close friend of Nuru’s and agreed to pay a fine of $8,292 for accepting more than $5,500 in gifts from him in 2019 in the form of car repair and rental car payments.
The mayor’s office declined to comment on the case. A spokesperson for City Attorney David Chiu did not provide comment by press time.
The city’s court filings said that criminal allegations against Nuru are unrelated to the city’s denying work on the Haight St. or Van Ness projects, and that Synergy’s claims therefore have no merit.
Randolp Daar, an attorney for Synergy, said the case could unspool additional details about the Nuru corruption scandal.
“We intend to pursue this where the evidence takes us including potentially deposing Mayor Breed,” said Daar. “We’re assuming these investigations will reveal relationships and schemes through persons which will have implications in terms of what occurred to Synergy in this case.”
The company has previously demanded that Breed be made to produce documents and answer questions under oath.
Even if Breed were deposed in Synergy’s case, this would not necessarily harm the mayor. A typical deposition is confined to questions specifically relevant to the legal claims of a case, meaning Breed might not have to answer sweeping questions about the Nuru scandal.
Last April, Breed had to answer questions under oath in a different case in which a businessman named Agonafer Shiferaw claimed he had been victimized by Breed having supposedly schemed to block him from winning a bid to manage a community center in the Fillmore neighborhood.
Breed acknowledged that she had convened a dinner with another businessman seeking the Fillmore contract, along with then-mayor Ed Lee and Naomi Kelly. During the deposition, whose transcript took up 129 pages, Breed revealed herself to be a cool-headed interlocutor, claiming that the dinner was more a gathering of friends than a meeting, and that she had actually opposed the competing proposal.
“I would say it was more of a social gathering,” she said. “And to be clear, all of us are friends, so at any given time, any of us could have talked to any of us about, like, meeting up for dinner in general. So I don’t remember the specifics about this one in particular.”
On March 30 a judge threw the case out, stating Shiferaw had not produced evidence supporting his claims.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Harlan Kelly’s former position. He was general manager of the Public Utilities Commission.
Matt Smith can be reached at [email protected]