Contractor and permit expediter Walter Wong, right, pictured here in 2018 with ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru. Photo by Susana Bates for Drew Alitzer Photography.

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.”

Clockwise from bottom, FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Jack Bennett; U.S. Attorney Dave Anderson; sign language interpreter Priscilla Moyers; Kareem Carter, Special Agent in Charge IRS Criminal Investigation; Department of Justice spokesman Abraham Simmons.

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

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.” 

WONG Plea Agreement Redacted by Joe Eskenazi on Scribd

WONG Information Filed by Joe Eskenazi on Scribd

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Joe Eskenazi

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...

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18 Comments

      1. Yeah,

        Joe’s best reporter in town.

        He teaches you with his vast basic vocabulary.

        He gives you historical and sports allusions that hold
        your attention to the basic topic of whatever he’s writing about.

        Most importantly?

        You can trust his research.

        I don’t know why the Chron hasn’t offered Joe a fat contract.

        He’d be most valuable at the NYT.

        Do as a poor man like me does, Michael.

        Give a revolving $20 a month to his rag.

        It’s 21.17 with carrying fees.

        h.

        h.

  1. Campers,

    With what Walter knows about everyone (including me) …

    If David Anderson is still in charge of the top Federal Cop
    slot in Northern California …

    If he’s still there in November, I’m betting that the Mayor and
    her mentor, Willie Brown will be indicted.

    Aren’t you loving this?

    Giants back next month for a 60 game run?

    Loving that too.

    Avalos in D-11 to make D-11 Great Again!

    Nguyen in D-7 cause I’ve watched him defend underclass in court.

    Peskin in D-3 cause you could do much worse!

    Ronen in D-9 cause she’s best there since Ammiano and I love Campos!

    Fielder for State Senate!

    Gascon for DA in LA!

    Go Giants!

    h.

  2. Joe, did you ever figure out what “some stone” meant? Countertops, diamonds, something else?

    Also, do you know how Balmore Hernandez’s Azul Works become a subcontractor on MEDA’s affordable housing projects? Coincidence, merit, or something else? Sad to think our affordable housing dollars are being siphoned off.

    1. Sir or madam — 

      I have to think “some stone” implies a precious stone of some sort, potentially uncut.

      I have not yet examined the particulars of how AzulWorks got that job.

      JE

      1. Joe,

        Yeah, you’re right.

        Used to be assistant manager of a place above UCSF.

        Manager was daughter of founder of Hell’s Angels Oakland

        Her guy was their meth chemist and sometimes got paid in precious stones.

        They’d call me down after an exchange and let me see either lines of
        stacks of bills and, one time …

        Opened velvet folded parcels full of these polished tho uncut stones.

        350 to 500 in value.

        Then, they’d give me a free gram of meth to keep me running the complex.

        Ahhhh, then …

        Don’t you love SF?

        h.

  3. Good to see someone in the media staying on top of this story. Kudos to you and your staff Joe.

    Walter Wong’s shenanigans have been going on long, long before 2004. BBI (as it was previously called) and DBI (as it’s now called) has long been a cesspool where money spoke volumes. The Feds should also be checking in on the restaurant inspection program in the City.

  4. As said above Walter Wong has been involved in development and the politics surrounding it for decades. He is so well known that when Gavin Newsom was mayor, he initiated a nation wide search to find a new Building department Director that would not be connected to the “City family network” due to the well known corruption. That experiment lasted 16 months as the new director (Isam Hasenin) a renowned expert in codes and known for his integrity was pushed out…hmmm…I wonder who was behind that? Only to be followed by a director that couldn’t do it either and she was quickly replaced with Mr. Hui. And with Mr. Hui, Walter Wong and the RBA running DBI it has never gone so smoothly. Just check the building Inspection Commission meetings so can see them all congratulate each other on such good jobs everyone is doing….you can’t make this shit up…. Just follow the money

  5. I hope I live long enough to see the FBI nail London Breed and Slick Willie Brown.

    1. Yo,

      David Anderson’s wife was Chelsea Clinton’s babysitter in Arkansas.

      I rate he and wife, Kat as number 2 power couple in town.

      #1 would be SFPUC boss, Harlan Kelly and wife, Public Administrator Naomi.

      Even if I don’t agree with people’s politics I enjoy their glam.

      h.

  6. Please becareful Joe. These people of no scruples are heading for desperate times.

    Here is how SF fixes a street:

    Contractor subs it out.

    Sub puts up cones and blocks lanes.

    Weeks go by no activity lanes still closed parking spaces blocked.

    Finally 5 people in hard hats are at the site only 1 of whom is doing anything.

    Weeks pass by.

    One lane of one block of road is torn up.

    Weeks go by.

    Square metal pads are put in place with lips so high its basically a speed bump.

    Weeks pass by.

    One lane of one block of road is paved.

    The following week it gets torn back up.

    A week passes.

    Then suddenly the whole block is paved in 2 days time. Unnecessarly traffic lights installed.

    Cones are moved to next block.

    Weeks pass by…

    Someone’s pockets get fatter….

    1. and what’s up with the replacement of already existing and perfectly fine traffic lights and poles?
      i see this allover the city now. the replacements are mostly in the same configuration as the old ones.

  7. Growing up in San Francisco, I was not very aware of downtown and development pressures — and we now know – corruption. However, when I became President of the Sunset neighborhood association SPEAK in the early 80’s I learned about it first-hand. It was so hard to push back against Mayors (Feinstein, Brown, Newsom) and all of their associates who either worked in City government or were involved as developers. They have been responsible for so much that we have lost: older housing, independent businesses, green space and streets not clogged with private motor vehicles.
    I recall Joe E. mentioning a political “city family” in an early interview on this investigation. We desperately need some new perspectives among our leaders. I am still hopeful that we can elect some leaders who will be honest, and who will be attentive to creating (or re-creating) a more livable City for the average resident.

  8. Jean Paul,

    Back when Willie Brown’s Park and Rec …

    Same people still running outfit.

    Willie used to say:

    “Don’t bring me maintenance contracts!

    Bring me new work.”

    At one point Willie replaced all of the lights and
    sprinklers in Golden Gate Park.

    Without removing the old systems.

    It was hilarious to jog by if you had a sense of humor.

    At one intersection there were 11 lights working off 2 different
    configurations.

    Beneath were two different lawn sprinkler systems about 2 feet
    apart running at same time.

    Wonder if Willie got a piece of these over-expenditures?

    Giants back next week.

    Team announced they’ll put weatherproof cut-outs of fan images.

    Again, I think they should air drop massive amounts of popcorn over
    the cutouts in the 8th inning.

    Hey, seagulls gotta eat too.

    h.

  9. Just the tip of the ice burg, gonna be interesting if RICO is instituted. Wonder if Palermo is a made man? it would bring a whole new aspect to the party.

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