A "Renaissance"-style trash can provided by the Walter Wong-affiliated Alternate Choice, LLC. Photo by Joe Eskenazi

In an indicator of just how many fingers disgraced permit expediter, contractor and confessed federal criminal Walter Wong had in how many San Francisco pies, a settlement with him ratified by the Board of Supervisors last week includes a $387,000 credit to Wong for garbage can parts.

This equipment is referred to obliquely in the actual settlement as “a credit of $386,933.94 for goods and services already received by the City from Alternate Choice, LLC.” 

Mission Local, however, has confirmed that these “goods” are garbage-can parts for the much-maligned “Renaissance” bins procured from the Wong-affiliated Alternate Choice in a $5.2 million contract. The parts had been obtained by the city, but had not yet been paid for — and the $387,000 credit offsets a larger $1.7 million fine levied against Wong. 

San Francisco is in the midst of a yearslong process of designing and producing a new, custom-made trash can — an exercise that has required a prohibitive amount of time and could result in garbage bins costing more per unit than a decent used car.

The present trash cans, whose woeful performance induced — and justified — the process of designing a can from scratch and building it, were produced by one of the city’s most notorious fixers. And, thanks to this $387,000 worth of cans and parts, the procurement process can go on; without these parts, it would have been even more challenging to maintain our deteriorating extant cans. 

Wong, who was swept up in the ongoing corruption probes stemming from the January, 2020, federal charges leveled against former Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru, was born in Hong Kong in 1948 and emigrated to San Francisco 23 years later. He ascended from positions as a janitor and busboy to become a contractor, major landowner and, perhaps most saliently, a permit expediter.  

It is hard to understate the amount of control Wong exercised over this city’s Department of Building Inspection, for a generation. He ran a de facto department within a department, seeded with his allies to handle his matters, up to and including former director Tom Hui.

Mohammed Nuru and Walter Wong
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.

But, as indicated by the garbage can contract, Wong’s interests were diversified. This was also proven by the federal charges to which he pleaded guilty in June 2020. In that case, Wong was accused of participating in a kickback scheme in which he, a contractor, colluded with the manager of the Chinatown Hilton to extract $1.5 million from the hotel’s owner.

Wong copped to fraud and money-laundering charges and pledged to cooperate with the feds. He did: His fingerprints were all over the charges leveled against former PUC boss Harlan Kelly in November, 2020. Kelly was accused of taking bribes from Wong in return for aid in obtaining a lighting contract (Wong ultimately failed to land the contract; jarringly, within the charging documents, a conversation between Wong and Nuru is recounted, in which the latter tells Wong he had no chance at the contract because a competitor bribed Kelly more). 

The settlement ratified by the Board of Supervisors last week dings Wong $1.45 million for contracts he received without benefit of the competitive process and $318,000 in ethics fines and fees. He will also not collect  $164,000 in work performed but not yet paid for in an emergency Public Works contract.

Perhaps most consequently, however, the settlement bars Wong from permit-expediting for five years — the maximum debarment period allowed under city law.      

The notion of getting replacement parts from Wong for the janky and inadequate cans he provided the city was greeted with some degree of bitter mirth within City Hall. One official likened it to a movie in which a villain is visited in prison — say, Hannibal Lecter — and asked to provide a favor. 

Mission Local’s questions to Public Works regarding just how many garbage cans and/or parts one gets for $387,000, and how many years of maintenance this is projected to provide, have not yet been answered. 

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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. That looks like Ms. London Breed just cut out of the picture by Nuru. Her hands are plenty dirty. She got off with a slap on the wrist.

  2. Is there a user manual for the “Renaissance” bins?
    The few I’ve looked at have the top section for recyclables.
    But that just opens up to a big hole inside that dumps the recyclables into the can.
    What am I missing here?

  3. Joe Eskenazi is a brilliant investigative reporter and is the primary reason I subscribe. While the Chronicle covers some of these issues, and Heather Knight is wonderful, something is going on there that softens their coverage.

    There is more, and I know Joe will cover it. I love the Mayor, but why do we still have an acting director at DBI? Why does the Building Commission remain so corrupt, making it impossible for the smallest permit to get processed without one of their favored expeditor, or by one of their favored contractors.

    This story is not over by any means, and I know Joe will get to the bottom of it!

  4. So, is Nuru now in jail, or still waiting on prosecution?
    It’s been years we’re waiting

  5. It’s hard to believe this goes on without any action by the FBI. Don’t they usually involved when there is evidence of serial corruption in a city’s municipal government? It seems fairly obvious that SF is not going to effectively police its own officials when they commit repeated acts of graft, fraud, and embezzlement. Don’t guilty verdicts for these crimes normally result in legal penalties or am I just naive?

    1. Hasn’t it been determined how useless fbi is? Isn’t the mayor involved with scandal along with community destroyer that bullied the campaign for her, ed Lee started this web of corruption….go to JAIL all of them!!!

  6. I urge the federal government to use a fine tooth comb and go through the business this city has conducted in the past 20 years…….they would uncover so many ticks sucking money out of this city ……it’s ridiculously been done by so many in city government they couldn’t write a better script

  7. 30 yrs of graft by Wing and his cabal warrants a fine of 1.5mil is laughable…
    Me think the ones who OK’d this settlement are trying to cover their Arse.
    Standard city slap on the wrist for graft…and the people continue to pay for incompetence…

  8. Imagine how functional America would be if it weren’t for all the corruptions.
    I just read another story about another black neighborhood in Michigan with lead contaminated water, far beyond what Flint had.
    America values money too much, while sacrificing other human lives.

  9. Another reason why the city should buy it’s new trashcans off the shelf. From a real company. That stocks repair parts.

  10. Five years debarment is a joke. Wong won’t personally expedite permits, but you can bet your bottom dollar, someone in his realm will and Wong will get his cut.

    And net a little over a million dollar “fine” is laughable. This guy’s been bribing officials probably for at least 30 years and has made a heck of a lot more than that.

    I had to laugh long and hard, however, at the reveal that Wong lost his bribe to Kelly on the street lights because someone else overbribed him.

    I can only hope the Fed’s mete out a much harsher punishment to Wong.

    Joe, a question. Did Nuru and Kelly have to forfeit their pensions? They both would have been in the system long enough to be vested. So did the City at least freeze their pensions so they could not withdraw any City contributions? I would assume they’re entitled to recover their own contributions.

    1. Steve —

      The law, as it stands, requires one to be convicted of a moral turpitude crime before a pension can be yanked. If Kelly and Nuru are convicted of the crimes they are charged with, it’s hard to foresee them keeping their pensions. I am not certain if they’ll have to return the money they have drawn from their pensions thus far.


  11. It seems that SF needs a
    Constant Outside Performance Monitor….of all its personnel and contacts. No?…