Mohammed Nuru
former Director of Public Works Mohammed Nuru. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

San Francisco fancies itself a sophisticated, cosmopolitan place. And yet, one of our senior public officials is accused of being bribed with free meals. And a tractor. 

Well, the food here is good. And, as longtime Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru purportedly said in a wiretapped conversation, “It’s a nice tractor. Very nice, you know. It’s a modern tractor for sure.”

But it’s still a tractor. 

And this should be of concern to everyone with a vested interest in seeing this city hit a baseline level of efficiency and productivity (as opposed to those who are profiting off of our inefficiency and unproductivity). Under the aegis of “tolerance,” San Franciscans are willing to put up with an awful lot. We’re willing to overlook an awful lot of dysfunctional and unacceptable things. But it rankles even us for a public official to, as Nuru is accused of, so cavalierly and casually engage in corruption. 

Not that it’s ever acceptable to sell out the public — but it says a lot to do so for pennies on the dollar. There’s a Casablanca quote for everything, and this is no exception: “I don’t mind a parasite; I object to a cut-rate one.”

So that’s depressing. But what’s also depressing is the vast and far-reaching effort — wiretaps! Undercover agents! Confidential informants! — the FBI and United States Attorneys required to ensnare Nuru, restaurateur Nick Bovis, and a yet-unnamed cast of unindicted co-conspirators in what has, so far, amounted to a smorgasbord of rinky-dink chicanery. 

This was also one of the major takeaways of the federal corruption probe that in 2014 ensnared Sen. Leland Yee and others. A lengthy, complicated, and costly investigation was required to catch Yee and his Nick Bovis, Keith Jackson, engaging in mid-level corruption. 

And, yes, it was easier to catch Yee in a maniacal make-believe scheme to run guns to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (yep, the MILFs) than to nail down charges in actual quid-pro-quo transactions. That’s how flimsy bribery laws are in this country. 

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So if you’re wondering why it requires intervention from FBI agents and the U.S. Attorney’s office to root out even low- to mid-level corruption in San Francisco, that’s one reason. It takes years and piles of cash to establish even marginal federal cases — and, on the state side, the statutory penalties in those cases would be negligible. 

But another reason is the one you already suspected. San Francisco is run like a cartel and there’s only so much appeal to blowing up the family business. 

In Chesa Boudin, however, San Francisco has perhaps its first district attorney with zero ties to the “City Family.” Prosecuting corruption not only ought to fit into Boudin’s ideological worldview, but it’d be good politics, too: The establishment politicos bemoaning his approach on “quality-of-life crimes” are, in fact, often the very folks thriving in this city’s culture of soft corruption. 

Despite all the grumbling about “commuter criminals” plaguing San Francisco, the federal complaint vs. Nuru and Bovis would seem to indicate that we have commuter white-collar criminals, too. And, far from gumming up our city’s legal system, they’re invited to all the right parties.  

Your humble narrator spoke to some half-dozen former federal prosecutors. But, when asked if the local DA could find a way to make cases in the wake of this federal prosecution, most offered the same answer: “I don’t think he has an in.”  

But that needn’t be true. 

Chesa Boudin charged Terrance Stangel in beating
District Attorney Chesa Boudin talks to supporters after his January 2020 inauguration. Photo by Julian Mark

There’s a hell of a lot in the 75-page complaint vs. Nuru and Bovis. That’s no accident. Prosecuting via a complaint vs. an indictment is what you’d do if you wanted to disseminate a lot of splashy details. And it’s also what you’d do if — as Nuru did — a confidential informant allegedly blabbed to your higher-profile targets, ruined everyone’s plans, and necessitated a mad rush to start arresting and charging people. 

So, that happened. But U.S. Attorney Dave Anderson was plain that all of the lurid details in here were meant to be in here. He urged the unnamed parties who recognize themselves in this complaint to turn themselves in while they still have the free will to do so. 

They read those details. You read those details. And so did the DA. And, within the footnotes and marginalia of this complaint, he could begin assembling a map toward more prosecutions. 

“Proceeding by complaint and filing a very detailed affidavit likely reflects a government view that publicity is warranted, as well as confidence in the strength of the evidence,” explains Casey O’Neill, a former federal prosecutor now practicing with Fenwick & West LLP in the city. 

“Not necessarily a motivation, but an incidental consequence of such a detailed affidavit is that the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office will have a detailed statement of facts in front of it, should that office elect to investigate the matter or bring charges in parallel to the federal prosecution.”

Boudin tells your humble narrator that, in fact, he is keen to prosecute corruption cases: “Even the appearance of casual corruption can be devastating to the integrity of our democratic system.”  

He declined to go into detail regarding nascent and amorphous plans or the yearslong effort the feds have made to amass reams of evidence in this investigation. Calling around the city, however, it becomes evident that Boudin is not eager to run up the feds’ back, duplicate their efforts, or undermine their work.

It’s also clear that the ultimate goal of this yearslong federal investigation wasn’t to pop San Francisco’s public works boss for allegedly being bribed with a tractor or purportedly engineering a $5,000 bribe to put a chicken shack into San Francisco International Airport. That’s incredibly obvious on its face, and is only more so because the feds offered Nuru a cooperation agreement (which he allegedly broke).

As such, Boudin, like all the rest of us, can only wait to see who will be charged next, and for what. It wouldn’t make much sense to begin parsing the federal complaint and, in doing so, inadvertently run up the feds’ back, duplicate their efforts, or undermine their work. 

But there are other ways to rein in corruption. One needn’t only go through the complaint’s footnotes. 

You could just read the newspaper. 

Your tax dollars at work. Photo by Mirjam Washuus

A former federal public defender tells me that her former colleagues are now inundated with defending alleged hand-to-hand Tenderloin drug-dealers prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney because the local authorities have deigned not to. 

This illustrates the difficulties of local and federal legal authorities cooperating — on anything. 

“There is, absolutely, a legal hook for the local DA to get involved in this fight,” says a San Francisco-based prosecutor regarding the corruption charges. “But no one wants to put himself on the side of Trump’s Department of Justice. Even if it’s a righteous prosecution and it’d muddy up the ‘City Family.’” 

It’s also not at all certain the DOJ wants any help or input from the local yokels. 

And, apart from that, there are difficulties in locally trying some of the “schemes” alleged by the feds. The Chinese billionaire who allegedly showered luxury accommodations and high-end booze on Nuru in exchange for behind-the-scenes string-pulling regarding the 555 Fulton project would have all the lawyers and protection billions of dollars (and high-end booze) can buy. 

The alleged scheme involving city contractors with millions in Public Works business seeing fit to send “teams” of their employees to toil on Nuru’s Colusa County home for free or discounted rates (and give him a tractor) could devolve into a jurisdictional mess (Colusa County is, after all, three-and-a-half hours away on a good traffic day). 

And yet prosecutors rattled off the charges that could be brought locally following a damning Examiner article from Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez — replete with receipts — making the case that Bovis’ charity solicited donations for needy kids from city contractors and instead put that money toward lavishing booze and food on Nuru’s Public Works Department. 

It also may be worth tracking the natterings of a certain Chronicle columnist regarding his own not-insignificant role in this city’s current state of affairs. 

The easiest route for Boudin and others to combat corruption, however, may be to simply pick up the phone. 

Sources within the Department of Building Inspection tell your humble narrator that Mayor London Breed’s order to contact the City Attorney and Controller (at [415] 554-7657) regarding any alleged wrongdoing has been working. Calls have been made. Meetings have been scheduled. 

Interestingly, however, Breed’s missive does not make any mention of not deleting emails, talking to the DA, or contacting the FBI. (The FBI isn’t waiting by the phone; agents last week dropped in on DBI. Both the FBI and Department of Building Inspection were tight-lipped, but your humble narrator has been informed that the visit was prompted by 555 Fulton files disappearing off DBI’s computers — then reappearing after about a week). 

The DA has his own corruption hotline: (415) 551-9500. It’s getting more calls than usual. 

“I was elected in large part because of the independent view I bring to the job,” Boudin said. “I would be very proud if, four years from now, voters and others living and working in San Francisco had more confidence in the honesty of government than they do today.” 

God help us if it’s the opposite. 

It remains to be seen if, this time, Boudin opts to afflict the comfortable. Or if he simply rounds up the usual suspects. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Joe,

    How about addressing behest payments which are essentially legalized corruption? But I think I get your drift that when payment is to some community non-profit you deem worthy, it’s all good.

    Seems to me it’s a very small step from legal behest payments to a public official’s non-profit political base affiliates to pay for play schemes that simply bypass the non-profit middleman. Essentially corruption in SF is legitimized as it is in many foreign countries. The “add back” budget process where each Supervisor has sole authority over $1M for their political supporters is simply payment for votes.

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  2. Joe, I’m wondering if there is a nexus or corruptive probe of Nuru’s historical relationship to San Francisco Housing Authority contracting as well, specifically during the Administration of Mayor Willie Brown?

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    1. Richard,

      Are you ‘that’ Richard Marquez’ from the Gonzalez campaign?

      Need a place to crash if you’ve just arrived back in town I have legal
      space for 15 days at a time in the Mission.


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    1. Hey there — 

      You can stop trying to post this on every story, please.

      That Mohammed Nuru is friendly with Harlan Kelly, Naomi Kelly, London Breed and other Willie Brown-aligned politicians (among many others) is not news. This was posted on Twitter, after all, not exhumed from a vault.



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  3. Dennis Herrera’s former lieutenant Joanne Hoeper got a $2M award for retaliation after reporting corruption at DPW to her boss, who fired her rather than go after them. The idea that reporting wrongdoing to the City Attorney will lead to anything but a cover-up is naïve in the extreme. Hoeper was tipped off by the FBI, by the way, so it’s no surprise the last thing they want to do is involve the City’s corrupt legal establishment.

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      1. Not be a wise-ass but I think Tom meant to say a John Deere tractor is considered to be the the equivalent of a Cadillac in terms of quality and cost although these days more like a Lexus.

        The cheapest John Deere sub-compact tractor is around $13K.
        Locating the model number of the tractor in question may give a more precise approximation of value.
        Heck – the things can go $400,000 and up for the big ones.

        Go Go Joe Joe
        . . . _ _ _ . . . (or SOS in layman’s terms)

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        1. Carlos — 

          Ah. I thought he was making a joke about a “tracker.”

          Yes, these things can be expensive … but that all depends on whether it’s a new, computer-driven tractor (six figures!) or something more akin to the John Deere vehicle I see guys in the McLaren Park driving.

          Either way, “very nice.”


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  4. Joe,

    I’m loving this already.

    Brilliant young ace editor/journalist teams with
    fearless new SF prosecutor to bring down long
    entrenched politically corrupt ‘family’.

    You and Boudin can do it.

    It has actually been done before.

    Just after the turn of the 20th century, SF muckraker
    and interviewer of everyone from J.P. Morgan to Mussolini
    and Lenin and Wilson and great friend to Teddy Roosevelt.

    Being from SF’s Mission, Lincoln Steffens used his ties
    to Teddy Roosevelt to reform San Francisco.

    It really was about that.

    on page 551 of my copy of Steffens autobiography?

    Roosevelt sends Special Agent Willim Burns of the Secret
    Service to investigate.

    Ends up …”He had to go to Washington and ask President
    Roosevelt to transfer judges, remove U.S. district attorneys,
    and appoint U.S. marshals, before he could suppom
    un-fixed jurors, trust the courts, and have an even chance
    to convict.”

    And, convict he did.

    Sent the mayor and most of the Supervisors to jail.

    Replace them with Progressive reformers.

    In 5 years?

    The reformers were corrupted.

    I’m one of Brecht’s, “everylating lookers-on”.

    And, like the mule in Animal Farm.

    Who said:

    “I think things will be what they always are.

    That is, … bad.”

    It’s the fight that counts.

    Go Giants!


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  5. Was half asleep when I read this opening sentence and I felt I was reading “The Morning Call” and you were Mark Twain! I read way to much SF history haha- so good

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    1. You had run an article on mayor London breed accepting pay to play from a gentleman for her wardrobe . How come that is not more publicized knowing Breeds admittal to accepting nerus gift??? The corruption in SF is out if control . What makes Mayor Breed above the law????

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  6. DA Boudin needs to pursue local corruption — either in concert with the Feds or in their wake.
    Leave no stone unturned

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  7. The corruption at DBI has been an open secret for 25 years! everyone in the real estate/development industry knows, and of course they gossip with all the civic leaders. but to bring a case, one of the insiders has to spill the beans on he record with evidence, and none ever have. while all the higher-ups just ‘look the other way.’ even now, the City refuses to bring in outside investigators. some underlings will get thrown under the bus and there will be some early retirements higher up. But overall – circle the wagons!

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