The strange and terrible saga of Mohammed Nuru continued to unfold today, as Department of Justice and FBI officials announced charges against longtime city permit expediter and contractor Walter Wong.
U.S. Attorney Dave Anderson announced that Wong has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy to commit money-laundering, and work with the ongoing investigation. The 70-year-old is represented by Mary McNamara of Swanson & McNamara.
Wong’s alleged fraud was ongoing since 2004. His money-laundering allegedly started all the way back in 2008. Both Anderson and FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Jack Bennett declined to disclose the full scope of the charges they claim go back more than a decade — and involve multiple “public officials.”
“Both the number of participants and amount of dollars continue to increase,” Anderson said.
City politicos smelled blood in the water back on June 5, when the Department of Justice announced that Geoffrey Palermo had been arrested and hit with a bevy of charges, including running an alleged multi-million-dollar kickback scheme.
Raising eyebrows locally was Palermo’s former role managing the Chinatown Hilton (where he allegedly “embezzled large sums of money, including through capital improvement kickback schemes”). The feds today revealed that Wong is the contractor that they earlier obliquely accused of cooperating with Palermo in a kickback scheme that siphoned $1.5 million from the hotel’s owner.
But, more broadly, the centrality of the Chinatown Hilton in neighborhood power politics portended today’s announcement. As Mission Local was told last week, the ongoing Nuru corruption probe “is going to take a lap through Chinatown.”
Wong has been a shadowy and influential figure in city politics for decades, bundling funds and donating heavily to favored politicians and causes. His family’s companies have received millions in city contracts; he has ingratiated himself into the mechanism of city development and policy formation to such an extent that he purportedly once had his own keys to the Department of Building Inspection office — and the entryway to the staff area, which he wandered into with impunity, was known as “The Wong Doors.”
(Befitting the Building Department, this is an architectural pun: “Won Doors” are horizontal sliding fire doors).
In February, the City Attorney subpoenaed Wong individually, as well as hitting up four businesses connected to him and housed in a Mission District building he owns at 205 13th St.
At that time, the City Attorney revealed that since-ousted Department of Building Inspection boss Tom Hui had sent Wong draft policy text, essentially outsourcing city policy-crafting to him. An e-mail chain between Hui, Wong, and Mohammed Nuru was also unearthed, in which Hui asked for — and received — aid in landing his son and son’s girlfriend city jobs.
That followed the January FBI arrest of longtime Public Works boss Nuru, who was charged with fraud based upon years of wiretaps, confidential informant work, and forensic accounting. Wong — whose office was raided by the feds shortly after Nuru’s arrest — played a central role in one of the most splashy of the charges laid out in the 75-page federal complaint, the so-called “Multimillion-Dollar Mixed-Use Development Scheme.”
On a tapped phone call from China, Nuru allegedly boasted about being showered with gifts, including a $2,000 bottle of wine and “some stone,” by a vastly wealthy Chinese hotelier and developer. This largess was purportedly in return for Nuru’s aid in moving along this stalled San Francisco project.
That development turned out to be the beleaguered 555 Fulton project. Its developer is prolific Chinese builder and hotelier Zhang Li. Wong handled the permitting on that project, and was also purportedly Nuru’s companion on his lavish Chinese trip. On the tapped call, Nuru said he knew Li through “CONTRACTOR 2,” since identified as Wong (and officially identified today by Anderson).
Wong also allegedly largely “subsidized” a luxurious trip to Santiago, Chile for Nuru and his girlfriend, Sandra Zuniga.
Mission Local in February confirmed that FBI agents visited the Department of Building Inspection to inspect files on the 555 Fulton project — which had, curiously, disappeared and reappeared on the Building Department computer system. Building Department officials told us that Hui had, literally, leaned over the shoulders of his subordinates and ordered them to sign approvals and move along this project “sooner than it should’ve been done.”
Hui resigned in March after being suspended by Mayor London Breed.
The Feds’ move against Wong brings to seven the number of additional defendants now facing federal charges in the wake of the Mohammed Nuru probe. Others are:
- Nick Bovis, a restaurateur and right-hand man of Nuru, accused of attempting to bribe an airport commissioner $5,000 in exchange for placement of a chicken shack at SFO. He has pleaded guilty and pledged to cooperate;
- Rodrigo Santos, a longtime city engineer and contractor accused of check fraud;
- Sandra Zuniga, Nuru’s girlfriend and director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, accused of conspiracy to launder money;
- Balmore Hernandez, a longtime colleague of Nuru’s at Public Works who since ran a private contracting firm — at one point housed in Wong’s building — gifted with lucrative Public Works contracts it was not qualified to bid on. Hernandez allegedly stayed in Nuru’s good graces by bribing him with a John Deere tractor;
- Florence Kong, who owns a construction company and construction debris recycling company, is accused of lying to the FBI; she allegedly gifted Nuru a $40,000 Rolex;
- Geoffrey Palermo, who, as noted above, is accused of operating a kickback scheme. He is also accused of lying in an attempt to receive a Paycheck Protection Program loan.
Wong is facing a maximum 20-year sentence for each of the federal charges but, Anderson says, will earn “leniency” for cooperating in the investigation.
And, as has been his wont, Anderson stated that this investigation is far from over, and urged, in the strongest terms, for anyone with information to offer it freely before the invitation expires.
“Here in federal court we will sharply distinguish between those who cooperate and those who do not,” he said. “Run, don’t walk, to the FBI before it is too late to cooperate.”
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