Victor Makras, now facing federal fraud charges, was described as 'the man in every room for every mayor.' Here he is with Mayor Ed Lee, not even 72 hours before Lee's December 2017 death.

Alas. Los Angeles has bested San Francisco not only in baseball, but also in municipal corruption. 

Despite San Francisco’s promising start — the January, 2020, federal arrest and charging of ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru — Los Angeles has caught and passed us. 

The City of Angels now features three federally indicted and/or convicted elected officials: Former L.A. City Councilman Mitch Englander; Former L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar; and suspended L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.

San Francisco, to date, has zero indicted or convicted elected officials. They’re shutting us out. 

Considering Nuru’s close relationship with so many elected officials, and considering he was arrested nearly two years ago, that zero looms large. So the feds’ Oct. 19 announcement that they’d arrested longtime city real estate broker, uber-connected politic and fund-raiser Victor Makras, and charged him and ex-PUC boss Harlan Kelly with orchestrating a bank fraud conspiracy, was fascinating. 

Makras doesn’t fit the pattern of San Francisco’s ongoing corruption probes. To date, a number of dodgy department heads have been indicted and/or drummed out of public life: Think Nuru, Kelly, Tom Hui. And a handful of businessmen, the dodgy sort who depended on those department heads, and needed to ply them with meals and gifts, have been swept up as well. 

Well, that’s not Makras: “He’s the guy in every room for every mayor,” says one longstanding city politico. Adds another: “Victor is tied into the inner sanctums of San Francisco politics. Much like “Chinatown” was about water, in San Francisco it’s about real estate.”

Let the record show that Makras, who has sold homes to much of the so-called “City Family,” and whose most recent Statement of Economic Interest was 40 pages long and listed ownership of more than a dozen properties, knows from real estate. 

He’s the elegant investor, the dead ringer for Stanley Tucci, depicted with his elegant wife in magazine photoshoots in his elegant Marina Boulevard home; he’s known in the city’s power circles for doling out dollars and sage advice — and, if the feds’ detailed allegations are even remotely true, something a bit more nefarious than that. 

In a 2018 photo, Victor Makras, far left, is sworn in as a Port Commissioner along with Gail Gilman by Mayor Mark Farrell. In a 2017 photo, Harlan Kelly, far right, poses with Mohammed Nuru.

It’s not difficult to explain the federal allegations regarding the “corrupt partnership” between Harlan Kelly and Walter Wong, which was re-upped in last week’s charging documents. Wong purportedly bribed Kelly and did work on his house and gave him nice things and took him nice places in return for insider information on city contracts. That’s not hard to grasp. 

The bank fraud charges facing Kelly and Makras are hard to grasp.They may perplex those of us who are simultaneously too smart and too dumb to ever be federally charged for masterminding an elaborate fraud scheme. 

It all makes you want to reach for a glass of the Duckhorn Cabernet that Harlan Kelly texted Makras he’d buy with the remaining few thousand bucks of purportedly ill-gotten money  sitting in his real estate trust account.

See the indictment here

Anyhow, here, in a nutshell, are the allegations: Makras is accused of, essentially, teaching Kelly how to do bank fraud. He is accused of overstating the amount of money Kelly and his wife, former City Administrator Naomi Kelly, owed to Makras Investors — while, simultaneously, concealing the large amounts of money the Kellys owed to many others. 

As a result of inflating the amount owed to Makras Investors, the Kellys received hundreds of thousands of additional dollars at an artificially low rate, and Makras and the Kellys could then turn around and disseminate that money to cover other debts, such as a $90,000 construction tab for Wong or $70,000 in credit card debt for the Kellys. 

But Makras also made out from this alleged scheme: His firm’s $715,000 loan to the Kellys was expediently paid off, as was his $70,000 personal loan to the couple. 

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 potential prison term for bank fraud, incidentally, is 30 years. Makras, the guy in every room for every mayor, is 63. So, there’s the opportunity for leverage here. And it needn’t be applied elegantly. 

Clearly, the feds don’t need Makras to bring down Harlan Kelly. So there is the possibility they may want to know more: Just what was going on behind all those closed doors? Or in the corner of all those cocktail parties? Or during all those jaunts to Paris Fashion Week?   

Perhaps the feds have nabbed the San Francisco City Family’s answer to a mafia accountant, inducing a good number of current or former elected officials to sweat bullets. 

Or perhaps it’s nothing like that at all. Perhaps the Oct. 19 announcement was the worst the feds could muster. Perhaps the feds couldn’t get what they wanted from Makras so they decided to muddy him up by adding “accused federal criminal” to his resume. Perhaps he’ll lawyer up with the best counsel money can buy, as is his wont, and the case will be resolved with an outcome light years from a long prison term.

Our current or former elected officials will not sweat into their nice clothes after all. 

So, the arrest and charging of Makras really does feel like an inflection point. This could undo San Francisco’s political class, or undo the corruption probe preying upon it. Only  time will tell which one it’s going to be. 

Then-U.S. Attorney David Anderson on Jan. 28, 2020 addresses the media regarding charges filed against Mohammed Nuru and Nick Bovis. He is flanked by U.S. Attorneys to his right, and FBI agents to his left. To Anderson’s immediate left is FBI Special Agent In Charge Jack Bennett.

It’s hard to know how big a deal this all is without understanding the genesis of these charges or the prosecutors’ aims. 

Was Makras simply a byproduct of the ongoing investigation into Kelly? Was he simply caught in the net, so to speak, as the feds scoured Kelly’s doings? If so, perhaps the feds just figured they nabbed a big-time fund-raiser and man about town and decided to throw him into the mix. If they were going to expand the charges based on Kelly’s alleged bank fraud, they might as well toss Makras in there, too.

On the other hand, perhaps the feds are hoping to lean on someone who can unravel the cartel that runs this city. In theory, that could be Makras; he knows every star in the city’s constellation of politicos, and the feds have amassed a small trove of written communiques and financial transactions regarding his purported fraud scheme. 

In practice, however, this may be a dicey play. Allegations such as these are something of the raison d’etre for high-powered white-collar crime defense attorneys, and Makras can foot the bill, or sell or borrow against his many properties to do so; he can afford to go a few rounds with Uncle Sam. 

As is so often the case in San Francisco, corruption-related expenses can all be written off as a cost of doing business. 

As for the humiliation of being federally charged — that card has been played. If the feds were hoping that alone would induce cooperation, it didn’t. And Nuru and Kelly remain uncooperative as well.  

See the indictment here

So will Makras’s arrest lead San Francisco’s ongoing corruption probe to a cataclysmic end? Or just a dead end? 

If you’re wagering, the latter seems more likely at the moment. Inertia is always your best bet in San Francisco.

That’s because the allegations and convictions for hard corruption that, notably, required federal intervention are, themselves, a byproduct of San Francisco’s incestuous political culture. Makras, in many ways, embodies that. But that’s no crime. Nor is going to parties and laughing and  posing alongside nearly every politician San Francisco has produced over the past 35 years for a shot by a Drew Alitzer photographer; if that was a crime, Makras would be Public Enemy No. 1. 

But it’s not and he’s not. 

But, yes, that was Victor Makras posing alongside every politician in the city at a political fund-raiser. In fact, it was at his house. There’s Ed Lee, who’d be dead in not quite 72 hours, tossing the city into an uncertain place that has, thus far, resisted introspection. 

And there’s Harlan Kelly, of course. Did Makras break out some of the primo wines from his collection? We’re betting he did. 

But that’s all strictly legal, even if federal allegations indicate that San Francisco’s clubbiness and workaday casual corruption leads to serious crime, as surely as smoking leads to cancer.

That’s San Francisco’s entrenched culture; the occasional FBI raid may, too, be chalked up as a cost of doing business. Just be sure to grab the Duckhorn cab when you run out the back door. 

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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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12 Comments

  1. An article of sheer speculation & guessing. None of this is informed by how fed law enforcement actually works. Minus the duckhorn. Just because the latest fed charge is a byproduct of the corrupt culture doesn’t mean the feds are going to dead-end w Makras & magically stop. There’s a lot more wongs & Makras’s out there. the feds are not going to default to the apathy this article presumes. I’m sure Herrera wants everyone to believe it’s all much ado about an empty bottle of duckhorn cab though

  2. Your reference to Chinatown reminded me of one of my favorite lines from the movie: ” [of] Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” San Francisco seems to have plenty of “respectability” to go around. Whether the rest of them last long enough remains to be seen.

    By the way, the scheme depicted in Chinatown was as much about real estate development as it was about water.

  3. SF politics is way more corrupt than LA politics, those rubes down south actually have council members indicted! They just become mayor in SF.

  4. Good, concise piece, as usual Joe.
    There is however, one aspect of all this that I never see discussed. This investigation began in earnest under the Trump Administration. How likely is it that it will proceed with any force to its natural conclusion to threaten corrupt figures like Nancy Pelosi, when Democrats and the DNC are running the White House?

  5. Anyone who has had the misfortune to rent a Makras property probably knows of his shady practices. They’ve been ongoing for years.

  6. Thank you Joe. None of this mess should be swept under the rug and every portion, no matter how minuscule, should be shared with the citizens of San Francisco who are precisely those who suffer most from the Civic corruption that seems to be Citywide and clearly systemic. It is the citizens who will pay and suffer from the greed of those empowered who chose to use their power for selfish gain rather than to benefit the City they have sworn to honor. It’s simply repulsive and will cost the City millions of dollars and will take years to amend. Please don’t stop your investigations Joe. Maybe the Feds will pay attention and do something soon. I know I personally pray for relief and hope the day will come when all citizens are treated fairly and given the same opportunities as the privileged.

    1. I’m with you. I hope Makras sings like a canary, and the City Family finally is held to account. Many people in this city are hurting at their hands, and the injustice of it all weighs heavily on those of us with consciences and basic decency. We’re also the ones who are funding all this grifting, and it’s unjust and unsustainable.

    1. Clyde: The gang is not all here. It’s missing an essential player, one who was central in time and purpose: Gavin Newsom. All we need to give him a free pass is to holler “Trump!”, which is how the party of corruption continues. Contrast them with the party of fascism and we choose the lesser evil – again. The solution lies elsewhere. BTW, anyone who thinks the feds are really going after the root of the problem is suffering from naivety. A bribe for a restaurant concession? That’s the low hanging fruit. The feds already know who the big fish are and are giving them a free pass. Follow the money trail.

  7. Someone need to look into Victor’s collusion connection with a company named ECS that have been working with the SFPUC since earth was created, never lost a contract since Victor was a SFPUC Commissioner.
    The second company is CPM, also worked constantly at the SFPUC, and the registered business relationship named Infrastructure Development Group between CPM and Dennis Normandy, another (former) SFPUC Commissioner that approved CPM contracts while presiding at the SFPUC Commission
    The third case is Mara Rosales current commissioner on SF Slush fund named Office of Community Investment & Infrastructure winning a sole source contract with SFMTA, got cancelled at the last moment when the birds started singing the blues.

  8. In this case, let’s not BEAT LA!
    It pisses me off every time I see Makras Realty where Carroll’s Books used to be.

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