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

San Francisco’s leaders fetishize the phrase “world-class city.” Proclaiming our mid-sized North American city to be “world-class” is a matter of the utmost importance; it’s a desire akin to the one Kasper Gutman held for the Maltese Falcon. 

The ongoing Mohammed Nuru scandal — and, truth be told others before it — reveals this description to be all too true. Provided, of course, you’re talking about parts of the world with which we’d rather not be associated. 

It’s been a hell of a year. But, in case you missed it, it started with longstanding Public Works boss Nuru in January being arrested by the FBI and charged with longstanding public corruption. And things have gone downhill since; a litany of city apparatchiks and chislers have been charged as the feds pull on this thread

With a new president come January — and, one would assume, a new San Francisco U.S. Attorney — the next few weeks and months figure to be eventful. There may be a few more shoes to drop in short order: His judgment cometh, and that right soon

The shoe that dropped last week was the charging of a former community relations manager at Recology, San Francisco’s waste management provider. This was not the development everyone has been waiting for with bated breath — though it was hardly unpredictable. Five weeks before the Feds laid out charges that Recology execs funneled money to Nuru in a scheme to raise municipal garbage rates, we wrote about how the vast majority of the money in Nuru-controlled slush funds originated from Recology — and garbage rates skyrocketed during the period they were funneling it there.  

So this isn’t the biggest shoe, or the last shoe. But it could be the most maddening yet. And that’s because the allegation here is that company executives and the Public Works boss who self-applied the nickname “Mr. Clean” conspired to jack up garbage rates — the rates everyone in the city pays. 

And, lo, that did come to pass. Garbage rates were hiked by 14.4 percent in 2017, another 5 percent last year, and a 1 percent rise in 2021 is anticipated. These prices were approved by a city rate board — which unanimously approved the rates suggested by Public Works and Nuru

San Francisco deigns itself a world-class city. But, in exchange for passing these costs on to the general public, one of the alleged benefits to Nuru was a summer job for his teenage son — which, in a detail that would be too on-the-nose for even a movie, the son purportedly underachieved at to a monstrous degree. 

Garbage day Photo by Kathleen Narruhn

In a twist of the knife, last week’s federal affidavit includes apoplectic performance reviews from the younger Nuru’s put-upon employer (“We’re not letting [NURU’s son] touch ANYTHING. His work is horrible with even basic spelling mistakes. [Non-Profit C’s Executive Director] says he’s only allowed to do manual labor. I’m still having him help me with [one project], but other than those two, we’re limiting the damage…”).

The younger Nuru was further charged with shirking his duties and even sleeping at work — which may have been preferable to the additional allegations of verbally and physically harming children. He was, purportedly, rushed into this position without completing the requisite exams and paperwork required of youth workers due to pressure regarding the timing of pushing through those garbage rate increases. 

The roughly $1 million, meanwhile, that Recology put at Nuru’s disposal via those slush funds was allegedly spent on “deejay services, hats, t-shirts and other merchandise, Bay to Breakers entry fees for DPW employees, funeral-related expenses, and thousands of dollars to cover the costs of food and other vendors for DPW events, including photo booths, a chocolate dessert fountain, holiday quartets, and specialty lighting for the annual DPW holiday parties” — as well as emergency booze runs for those parties. 

So, this is what it required for a public servant to (allegedly) sell out every ratepayer in San Francisco. 

To borrow a line from another world-class Humphrey Bogart film, albeit one without a San Francisco connection, “I don’t mind a parasite; I object to a cut-rate one.” 

In our world-class city, you may be surprised to learn that Recology, in fact, holds a legal monopoly on waste-hauling in San Francisco. It has, in fact, since this right was enshrined in the 1932 City Charter. 

That may have been a good idea during the Depression era, when scores of junk men roamed the city and engaged in turf wars to collect residents’ leavings. But it makes far less sense now. San Francisco is the only municipality in the Bay Area that doesn’t require competitive bidding for its waste-collection contract; city officials have tied themselves in knots to explain why competitive bidding is good and necessary — except for that one thing

That’s what happened in 2012, when former supervisor, state senator and retired judge Quentin Kopp pushed Proposition A onto the ballot, which would’ve undone Recology’s Charter-enshrined monopoly and re-established competitive bidding. 

Kopp had enough funds to push Prop. A onto the ballot. But not enough to run a robust campaign. Recology, meanwhile, has a little money. It has some political friends — both the county Democratic and Republican parties opposed Prop. A. The company formerly known as “Norcal Waste Systems” also had the neat new name “Recology,” which implies a nobler destiny for San Franciscans’ curbside waste than merely dumping it into a hole. San Franciscans liked the thought of that.

Also, the No on A campaign spent $1.7 million. That helps. 

Prop. A lost in a landslide; some 77 percent of San Francisans voted to preserve a monopoly and stave off competitive bidding. Oh well. In voting down Prop. A, San Franciscans also spurned the idea of putting garbage rates in the hands of the Board of Supervisors — instead of the body dominated by Nuru which recently upped our rates by more than 20 percent. 

Elections, as they say, have consequences. 

To borrow a line from another world-class Humphrey Bogart film, albeit one without a San Francisco connection, “I don’t mind a parasite; I object to a cut-rate one.” 

Now 92, Kopp remembers exactly who promised him campaign funds — but backed out — or pledged political support — but jumped ship. Some of them are dead. But, rest assured, those who haven’t yet been dumped into a hole are going to be hearing about this from him in short order: His judgment cometh, and that right soon

Kopp is anything but a naif. But the brazenness of the alleged scheme to hike up garbage rates surprised even him. A lot has changed since 2012: Is there now more of an appetite to undo a nonsensical monopoly gifted to a company tied to a messy scandal — and remove rate-setting ability from the body that approved massive hikes after an alleged bribery scheme?  

When asked if his successors on the Board might want to revisit this fight, Kopp replied “I’m sure they would, if they had any guts. But they are gutless! All they can do is pick on the police.” 

The supes’ left-leaning critics would argue they’re not even properly doing that.

In the meantime, a confederacy of dunces is buying and selling San Francisco at cut-rate prices or by providing cut-rate favors. This isn’t the best-run city. But the cost of doing corruption?

It’s world-class.

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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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41 Comments

  1. Well Joe another interesting tale of inept city leaders chosen by “other” standard’s rather than competence and commitment to the greater good.
    Joe your implications that it’s Recology which is corrupt and profiting is incorrect. The fee increases are required because of Newsome and the city lefties mandating 0 waste and 100% recycling by 2022 (right around the corner SF). Nuru and his corrupt cabal of crayons know this and extorted Recology. The left once again denied fair and healthy debate and threatened cancel culture on a fair and well run business. Joe you have to research when Oakland tried to change their collection to low bid. (Corruption like you have never seen) . God bless Quinn but remember that dude is building a billion dollar train from nowhere to nowhere on people’s stolen property!
    Joe trash is suppose to be run as a public utility and Nuru used his position in government to use that process as a weapon for his personal gain. Because our city leaders are so corrupt, they condoned, even entitled, Nuru’s behavior (and probably got a skim on the side), Recology had no option other that to give in or they cannot run a very excellent and effective business.
    Imagine if the city had to run garbage collection? This place would look like NY City in the ‘70’s – trash everywhere – not just at city hall.

    1. Tom — 

      The numerous intercepted emails and phone calls produced within the affidavit would appear to tell a different story than the one you are presenting here of a peachy company taken advantage of by a corrupt system.

      Yours,

      JE

      1. Joe I will try to get that material and read it. I am going to bet you are referring to the timbre of the “Expeditor” every SF business needs to hire to be able to get permits and approvals. It is common knowledge and practice in order to get something done you have to play the corrupt city scam or else!
        It’s the corrupt city officials long before it’s any business getting over!

  2. As far as I recall, June 2012’s Prop A was poorly written and that’s why it wasn’t supported. There was some worry that Waste Management would underbid Recology and takeover the garbage racket at the expense of R’s high trash diversion rate. And the requirement to buy the processing facility seemed expensive to voters.

    Agree that the City should run garbage collection- it’s a public utility and should be municipalized!

  3. Well at some point the fact that SF has loooong been run by so-called progressive non-profit mafia right alongside the for-profit Developer & tech hacks for way to long to shirk responsibility. And they love crazy money grabs as much as anyone. There are non-profit tsars (who oversee sprawling clusters of non-profits) -raking in our tax dollars for thinly disguised money schemes across the southeastern side of the city and in Chinatown, etc. So zeroing in on Nuru instead of using him as a jumping off point could be perceived by some as providing cover for the larger problem. That said there is plenty more to chase at DPW: defective sidewalks installed by payola contractors, the useless “pumper” trucks paid to “vacuum” sewers, tree planting and trimming that is anything but… and then there’s the SFMTA, a motherload of shade.

    1. I was hoping that Walter Wong’s ensnarement might afford investigators a nexus between Planning and the corrupt nonprofit housing operations.

      There has to be some reason why this enormous nonprofit apparatus is maintained, as delivering positive outcomes in their stated area of practice can’t be one of them.

      1. Yes, why has the Planning Dept been shielded? Developer friendly attorneys who also profit from their complicity will protect Planning staff who they help to promote. Ah the power of the legal mafia…

  4. Progressives are not generally known for for-profit corruption. At the bottom of what’s gone wrong here in San Francisco is City Hall Payola from developers. Why are we paying taxes for nothing in return? (rhetorical)

    1. The nonprofits associated with the progressives in the CCHO and HSN have insinuated themselves into the development process as recipients of both legally specified exactions as well as off-the-books extortion as we saw with 1979 Mission. Negotiations for exchanges of public entitlements for other purposes needs to happen above board, on the record, and subject to review, not in secret, behind closed doors and ethically conflicted, self-serving.

      We’ve seen how the for-profiteers used nonprofits as compassionate fig leaves for their profiteering ambitions with Bovis, etc. Most members of the “progressive” nonprofit cartels operate under the same principle: go short on reforming the ravages of capitalism and long on making a cottage industry out of taking public funding to try to mitigate some slim fraction of the impacts or, with behests, sign onto more damage.

    1. absolutely! Everybody was so on board with our native POC native daughter running for Mayor . I think perhaps I was one of only a handful that didn’t support her candidacy. It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots in a Willie L. Brown project

  5. Quentin Kopp and the progressive BoS teaming up to combat SF corruption would be akin to the scenario surmised by Messrs Stantz, Spengler, Zeddemore, and Venkman:

    “Fire and brimstone, coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

    Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

    The dead rising from the grave!

    Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”

    These are truly strange days!

  6. Just after Mr. Nuru’s arrest was announced in the media, I did substitute teaching for a few days. On a field trip one afternoon, two teachers and I discussed that issue while watching the students at a neighborhood park. Then on the way back after walking almost 8 blocks, the teacher walking in front alerted the kids to a pile of fecal matter for the 6th time. Another teacher pointed to it and said “THAT’S what he should have been arrested for!”
    .. And what neighborhood had at least 6 fecal deposits in an 8 block stretch? The Richmond, 25th Avenue, north of Clement.

    1. Essentially, that really is what he was arrested for. The mess on the streets is a direct result of the corruption he embodies.

  7. We need auditing of EVERY City department and EVERY non-profit that is fulfilling a City function. That would be a good start.

  8. Recology got a lot of money in rate hikes, with more on the way. Is anyone going to take a close looking at this to see if we can claw some of it back?

  9. as a recently retired recology teamster driver collector yes this company has some issues. imangine having to properly remove all of s f waste an deal with recycling, politics, policy, an the public. i would rather have done nothing else an never had worked so hard for so long. in my opinion they are a cut above the usn an cdc. whenever i get in trouble i say i was a garbageman an they let me go. free paul guisti.

  10. Appreciate the coverage, but what about the elephant in the room? Almost all city staff on a paid one year break now “because of Covid”, with no pay cuts, no layoffs, while hundreds of businesses have gone under.

    1. Good, that’s what every business needs. A full paid holiday until COVID is eradicated. Every business should have been furloughed with full pay, but SF has no way of providing that kind of support. Do you want the city workers to suffer because they chose a career that provides them decent benefits because the city can’t help people that don’t work for them?

  11. I just want to know why we’re still paying for the parking meters?
    If they’re getting paid leave this entire time, London Breed has some explaining to do….with all the privatization, and corporate welfare, AND NO ACCOUNTABILITY….. maybe what needs to happen is to SWEEP THE MAYOR’S OFFICE!

  12. Im afraid this is only a tip of the gafffle/plot put in place in sf.its a money making scheme.you pay to play and then you leave empty.

  13. San Franciscans voted down measure A because Recology is a good company that does good work and we didn’t want a shitty company lowballing them out of business. We get plenty of shitty companies from AT&T, Comcast, PG&E, all brought to you by free and fair competition.

    Despite all these rate increases we are still paying about the same as the rest of the major cities in the Bay Area, and a lot less than some.

    While Recology leadership definitely exploited corruption in the system to extract rate hikes, they have no other way to do it because that’s how business is done in SF. I may be funding the mob by dropping a few C’s a month in protection money, but that’s the only thing keeping the mob from burning my shop down. You have a problem with the SF political machine, but there is no evidence that Recology is rife with corruption. It’s one of the best waste disposal companies in the country, it’s cheap for the Bay Area and they take really good care of their employees. It’s like a really well run government organization while having good customer service. Measure A was asking people who have to deal with the planning department, the MTA and City Tow, PG&E, and the SFPUC to give up the one city wide organization that didn’t fuck them over with insane fees and insane amounts of bureaucracy. Seriously, you talk to people on the street every day, how can you not know this.

    Mohammed Nuru needs to go. Take down the whole machine he represents, I’ve got your back, but Recology’s actins are a symptom of this corruption, a response to it, not the cause.

    1. I work at the SFPUC. Contempt for the customer is part of the culture. The size of the External Affairs/PR Department is a prime example. Hubris will take every one down some day.

  14. It’s not just the garbage. It’s also about a Supe referring to SF as an amazing city at the same time asking how the latest Muni disaster could have occurred. This city constantly applauds itself for no reason. What’s amazing is that it is so poorly run yet we can’t seem to change. We are a cosmic joke.

  15. SF is a city with a world class Nomenklatura.
    Look it up on wikipedia (the same exact spelling). it is what in the end lead to the failure of the USSR, the GDR, etc.. Not that SF and Cal politicians are commies, they are certainly not, but the structure is almost identical.

  16. Great investigative work Joe. Fact this isn’t competitively bid is insane but as you laid out not surprising. That said, glad it’s not run by the city. The ineptitude of SF politicians in accomplishing anything meaningful would suggest a city run waste management would lead to an even filthier city… if that is even possible.

  17. Joe, thank you for this article. Now I’m wondering what we citizens can do to get the garbage rates lowered and back to affordable rates. Obviously the increased rates were approved through fraud and corruption.

  18. When Nuru went became Director of DPW, he had a golden opportunity to use his power to make a major impact on the cleanliness of our beleaguered city. Sadly, “Mr. Clean” totally dropped the ball and used it to engage in shennigans, and as is always the case with corrupt politicians and civil “servants”, San Francisco, the world-class city that is anything but, was the loser. It seems the “City that knows how” is incapable of change its inept ways.

  19. I worked for DPW twenty years ago, in Training and Development. When M. Nuru was hired, I was assigned to orient him to working for DPW . I remember exactly when I entered his office to start the conversation. I introduced myself and explained my reason for being there. And Mohammed, in response, referred to his skin color, by touching his skin, and said something akin to….we are going to make some changes. I knew immediately no good would come from this, it took 20 years, but finally he was arrested by the FBI. I am not surprised, but it shouldn’t have taken 20 years, it should have taken 3 months.

  20. Trash is only the beginning and just a small percent of the over all crime. Look at all the SROs some of then have been doing major construction for years with out a single permit and have been causing major illnesses in the residents that live there though lack of proper hazardous material handling . Almost every manager ,non profit and DBI inspector is getting paid by someone that is not honest and the proof is in the records. DBI has been filing reports with no dates or wrong 311 sr numbers to confuse the other Depts like Environment and Health so they dont discover all the serious violations and major laws that are being broken at the cost of the live of San Francisco’s sick, poor, mentally I’ll, disabled and the elderly. The officials of this city have been doing these crimes with immunity with total disregard for human life. Its murder and if you dont see that then you either dont look or dont care. All lives matter but to most the rich matter most. I believe these officials that have been involved in corruption should face life sentences for the lives they have been responsible for ending because of their lack of caring, doing their jobs legally and remorse and if anyone gets caught committing perjury should get a mandatory 5 years for each charge . You either get tough or bury this city in constant corruption. We have been busting these pieces of crap for years over and over and it never gets removed , kind of like coachroachs . Let’s fumigate the Govt and start fresh with new laws and tougher sentences for corruption or you can forget it and live with corruption. Rhese coachroachs will do the same crap all over again. This city is a goldmine just waiting to happen , if we clean it up. If I die soon it will be because of them. It’s time for everyone who knows what is wrong to stand up and be counted and respected for doing the only correct act a real human can do.

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