San Franciscans not long ago seemed to be on a path toward having a clean—or at least cleaner—city government, as authorities subpoenaed contractors suspected of participating in a corruption scandal that had bored deep into the halls of power. Soon afterward came a 2020 City Controller’s Office report naming nine contractors, including the nonprofit San Francisco Clean City Coalition, as donating money to an account accessible to public officials.
Those donations could give the appearance of pay-to-play, the report concluded. The description also closely resembled the method U.S. prosecutors separately described as facilitating bribes.
And then, this momentum dissipated. The city attorney who’d issued the subpoenas changed jobs. Some firms in the report were banned from doing work for the city; but others that were implicated weren’t. Among those that continued to receive public funds was Clean City, which has been paid millions of dollars for watering public trees.
Now, an investigation by The Standard has turned up calendar appointments, emails and letters that may tie Clean City to payments U.S. prosecutors have said were “consistent with a pattern of money laundering.”
The records, which detail the actions of the nonprofit’s executive director, Gia Grant, are similar to the description of documents referenced in filings for court cases linked to Mohammed Nuru. He is the former public works director now serving a seven-year prison term for charges related to a scheme disguising bribes as charitable contributions. Nuru served as a member of Clean City’s board of directors in 2001 and 2002, and it was Nuru who signed some of the early city contracts giving the group its landscaping work, worth over $1.1 million.
Additional Clean City records obtained by The Standard bear a resemblance to improper transactions allegedly made by Walter Wong, a building contractor who pleaded guilty to charges related to what prosecutors called a stream of bribes paid to Nuru.
“The FBI didn’t charge them, but this whole scheme could not have happened without their active participation,” said San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin during an interview, in reference to Clean City, which, he added, “should have been shown the door years ago.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, which currently has a $4.1 million contract with the nonprofit for its tree-watering work, said those contracts were issued properly.
“Clean City Coalition has not been barred from bidding for City work,” the statement said. “Clean City Coalition was selected through the legally proscribed competitive bidding process.”
The Standard asked the City Attorney’s Office whether it considered debarring or suspending Clean City as a city contractor after the controller’s report was released.
“In every case, we apply the law to the facts to determine if the threshold for debarment can be met under the Admin Code,” its spokesperson wrote. “That threshold is clearly met where a principal has been convicted of bribery.”
Neither Clean City nor Grant have been charged with any crimes. Phone calls and emails to the organization, multiple members of its board of directors and Grant went unanswered.
Clean City has been awarded a total of $5.6 million in city contracts since 2020, the same year as the controller’s report said that the nonprofit helped shuttle hundreds of thousands of dollars from San Francisco’s waste hauler, Recology, to Nuru.
The Standard described to Peskin city documents inviting companies to compete for a contract for watering 1,600 city trees. The requirements were narrowly tailored, and they matched up with the particulars of Clean City.
Clean City was the only bidder. It won the contract.
“One cannot but come to the conclusion that it was made for one, or virtually one, organization,” Peskin said about the request.
According to its own guidelines, the city is supposed to foster competition by getting multiple bids and then selecting the lowest cost, most qualified bidder.
Clean City’s tree-watering contract was not a product of favoritism, a public works spokesperson said. The Department of Public Works advertised the job, and also notified four nonprofits it thought might be interested, she added.
Beginning in 2020, the Justice Department snared some of San Francisco’s top officials in a corruption probe that led to cases against 16 people. San Francisco barred from city business many companies that had been involved.
The City Controller's Office launched its own investigation, finding that Nuru solicited money from local businesses and nonprofits. He had them send money to an account associated with the nonprofit Parks Alliance, which Nuru and his staff had access to. These gifts created a perceived pay-to-play relationship, the Controller's Office found.
Clean City was the largest donor to this Parks Alliance-linked account.
Records obtained by The Standard show that Grant repeatedly solicited donations from Recology, and then notified Nuru.
During this time, Nuru was in charge of approving contracts for the public works department. In that role, he personally signed off on two different city contracts for Clean City, worth over $1.1 million total.
Nuru had a close relationship with Clean City before becoming a government employee. He served on its board of directors, according to the organization’s tax filings. And Grant had worked for the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners—which Nuru led early in his career—prior to taking the helm at Clean City, according to a description of her work experience included in a contract bid.
The Nuru Case
In court filings alleging crimes involving Nuru and Recology, the identity of a particular nonprofit was veiled by prosecutors, who referred to it only as "Non-Profit A." Clean City records obtained by The Standard closely line up with the explanation prosecutors gave about how the bribes worked.
From 2014 to 2019, Recology funneled about $900,000 to a Nuru-controlled account in an attempt to influence him, according to facts acknowledged by the company in a settlement agreement with U.S. prosecutors.
About once a year, Non-Profit A’s executive director emailed a letter to Recology executives, thanking Recology for its donation of $150,000 to be paid every two months and characterized as donations for a cleanup program called Giant Sweep, according to prosecutors.
The Standard obtained a letter matching this description, dated Aug. 1, 2014, which Grant sent to Recology executive Mark Arsenault.
“Thank you for your donation of $150,000 to the SF Giant Sweep program,” Grant wrote. She then outlined a payment schedule for the funds, and instructions for where to send the “tax-deductible contributions.”
Additional public records show that on Sept. 15, 2014, Grant emailed Nuru a copy of that letter soliciting the funds from Recology. “Mohammed, here is the letter that was sent to Recology with the schedule,” Grant wrote.
In 2015, Grant sent a nearly identical letter to Arsenault, again thanking him for his $150,000 donation and laying out a payment schedule. In her email to two Recology employees accompanying the letter, Grant wrote: “Mohammed asked me to send you the Giant Sweep donation letter for 2015-2016.”
Nuru’s personal daily calendar also appears to connect Clean City to descriptions in the criminal complaint. Prosecutors said that Nuru’s calendar for Aug. 18, 2016, contained a meeting entitled “[Non-Profit A Executive Director]-Giant Sweep Funding.”
The Standard obtained a copy of Nuru’s digital calendar for Aug. 18, 2016. His 3 p.m. appointment is titled: “Gia Grant—Giant Sweep Funding.”
Public records show that Grant sent Arsenault a third letter soliciting money in 2017.
“Our commitment for the 2017-2018 season will once again be $150,000 to be paid according to the installment schedule outlined in your letter,” Arsenault replied.
“Since the 2021 agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Recology’s San Francisco companies have resolved all outstanding issues through collaboration with the City,” Recology’s spokesperson said in a statement. “Employees involved in the unacceptable behavior no longer work for the company.”
The Wong Case
The Standard additionally obtained documents that place Clean City in the vicinity of alleged government payments to a building contractor that prosecutors say had a corrupt relationship with Nuru.
Clean City paid a construction company owned by Walter Wong nearly $100,000 in 2017. The money came out of a grant the nonprofit received from San Francisco.
Wong in 2020 pleaded guilty to two federal crimes and agreed to pay restitution to San Francisco. The plea was followed by a settlement agreement between Wong and the city, which identified seven specific payments that came through noncompetitive contracts and grants. Clean City’s payment to Wong’s construction company was on the list.
What the Justice Department called Wong’s “corrupt relationship” with Nuru stretched back to 2008, U.S. prosecutors said. He allegedly gave Nuru envelopes full of cash and paid for $260,000 worth of construction labor and materials at the public official’s vacation ranch. In exchange, Nuru allegedly helped Wong secure lucrative city contracts by making sure the requests were structured to give the developer an advantage over his competitors.
In 2017, Clean City received a $247,000 grant to beautify San Francisco’s Hallidie Plaza by installing planter boxes for flowers. That’s the grant city attorneys later determined was improperly approved by city officials. Records obtained by The Standard suggest that Nuru himself was directly involved with setting up the project.
Two months before the city approved paying Clean City to work on Hallidie Plaza, Nuru forwarded Grant an email with the subject line “Hallidie Plaza Presentation.”
“Gia, I really need your help with this project. Please review plans and let’s meet early next week,” Nuru wrote.
Several weeks later, Nuru’s calendar shows an appointment labeled “Gia Grant: Hallidie Plaza–Landscape Maintenance.”
Then on Aug. 1, 2017, the city entered into a contract with Clean City.
About a month after San Francisco signed the contract, Wong’s construction company sent Clean City an invoice for Hallidie Plaza planters, requesting about $100,000 for installing 174 planter boxes. That included nearly $60,000 for 87 custom welded steel planter brackets, priced at about $690 each.
In 2021, Wong agreed to return the Hallidie Plaza funds to San Francisco as part of a $1.7 million settlement deal covering restitution after his plea in his criminal case. The City Attorney’s Office declined to provide additional details about the Hallidie Plaza payment to Wong.
The City Administrator’s Office, which manages the grant program that gave the funds to Clean City, has issued multiple grants to the nonprofit. Clean City has completed its projects on time and on budget, a spokesperson for the office said. In fact, the nonprofit has served as a fiscal sponsor to other groups that needed help applying for funds from the City Administrator's Office programs.
Though Clean City does not have an active grant with the City Administrator’s Office, the city would accept a future application from the organization, the spokesperson said.
Noah Baustin can be reached at [email protected]