Nuru, left, and former PUC general manager Harlan Kelly in happier days

San Francisco isn’t exactly a frontier justice sort of place. Unless, of course, you’re a lucratively compensated city employee who’s been cold-busted for taking advantage of his job and using it to benefit himself and his cronies. In that case, the city’s powers-that-be tend to figuratively march you up to city limits and deliver the same speech the Aintry County sheriff gave Jon Voight at the end of “Deliverance:” “Don’t ever do somethin’ like this again. Don’t come back up here.”  

And off you go. With your pension intact, of course. 

The bar for a San Francisco worker to lose his or her pension is high. It’s not enough to be a bad worker or a bad person or even a convicted criminal. He or she must be convicted — and sentenced — for a crime of job-related “moral turpitude.” That’s an antiquated expression implying intentional misuse of authority or funds, but perhaps best described to your humble narrator as “one of those vague terms lawyers use to ensure there will always be a need for lawyers.”

As such, former Department of Building Inspection boss Tom Hui, who hurriedly resigned after the City Attorney unearthed a trove of compromising material, has been pocketing $16,398.61 a month in pension income since March 12, 2020. Former PUC general manager Harlan Kelly, who is federally accused of bribery and bank fraud, has been drawing $22,065.96 a month since December 1, 2020. Former building inspector Bernie Curran, who established a cottage industry of traveling around the city and signing off on favored individuals’ shoddy construction projects — and is also federally and locally accused of bribery — has been pulling $4,429.90 a month since June 15, 2021. And Ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru, whose January, 2020, arrest began the city’s ongoing game of corruption dominoes, is earning $7,463.78 a month. 

(Why so low for Nuru? We are told by the city’s retirement system that “at the time he left City employment, Mr. Nuru did not meet the age and service requirements to receive a service retirement allowance. He was, however, eligible to receive a vesting benefit,– an annuity based on his [retirement system] account balance.”)

The money these men have received to date is theirs to keep, as is the money they will receive up to their potential sentencing. The wheels of justice, of course, do turn slowly, especially when there’s every incentive to gum them up and cash more checks. 

Harlan Kelly

Former general manager of the Public Utilities

Commission (PUC), Kelly was federally charged

in a bribery scheme involving Walter Wong in

Nov. 2020. In Oct. 2021, he was charged with

defrauding mortgage lender Quicken Loans

in a $1.3 million scheme.

Pension: $22.1K per month

Tom Hui

Former head of the Department of Building

Inspection, Hui was suspended in Mar. 2020

over a decade of alleged wrongdoing.

Purportedly he “literally stood over people’s

shoulders” to push through projects, accepted

inappropriate gifts, and sent his preferred

inspectors to visit preferred builders.

Pension: $16.4K per month

Mohammed Nuru

Former Director of Public Works, Nuru was

charged with a raft of federal crimes related

to bribery and corruption in January, 2020.

Nuru funneled upwards of a million dollars

into non-profits to fund lavish parties and took

bribes including a tractor and a $40,000 Rolex.

He pleaded guilty to fraud in December 2021.

Pension: $7.4K per month

Bernie Curran

Former senior building inspector Bernie Curran

has been federally charged with a bribery

scheme, in which he allegedly signed off

projects in exchange for donations to his

favored non-profits. He also failed to disclose

a $180,000 “loan” from a developer tied to

properties he worked on.

Pension: $4.4K per month

Harlan Kelly

Former general manager of the Public Utilities

Commission (PUC), Kelly was federally charged

in a bribery scheme involving Walter Wong in

Nov. 2020. In Oct. 2021, he was charged with

defrauding mortgage lender Quicken Loans

in a $1.3 million scheme.

Pension: $22.1K per month

Tom Hui

Former head of the Department of Building

Inspection, Hui was suspended in Mar. 2020

over a decade of alleged wrongdoing.

Purportedly he “literally stood over people’s

shoulders” to push through projects, accepted

inappropriate gifts, and sent his preferred

inspectors to visit preferred builders.

Pension: $16.4K per month

Mohammed Nuru

Former Director of Public Works, Nuru was

charged with a raft of federal crimes related

to bribery and corruption in January, 2020.

Nuru funneled upwards of a million dollars

into non-profits to fund lavish parties and took

bribes including a tractor and a $40,000 Rolex.

He pleaded guilty to fraud in December 2021.

Pension: $7.4K per month

Bernie Curran

Former senior building inspector Bernie Curran

has been federally charged with a bribery

scheme, in which he allegedly signed off

projects in exchange for donations to his

favored non-profits. He also failed to disclose

a $180,000 “loan” from a developer tied to

properties he worked on.

Pension: $4.4K per month

Visualization by Will Jarrett. Data from San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System.

Enter Supervisor Aaron Peskin who, last week, introduced a potential November charter amendment to — moving forward — lower the bar to strip bad workers of their pensions. This was a long time coming for Peskin, who has publicly railed against city honchos who “do all the kind of things that make everyone barf in their mouth about government” simply being shown the door to lucrative retirement

Rather than wait years for a conviction while an accused felon cashes government check after government check, Peskin suggests the city’s retirement system can convene an “administrative hearing” to determine if a worker has “committed a crime involving moral turpitude in connection with the member’s duties as an officer or employee of the City and County.” If “clear and convincing evidence” points toward a yes, then that worker “shall forfeit all rights to any further benefit from the Retirement System … ”

Voter behavior is difficult to predict, but the electorate is in a surly mood right now. Peskin’s proposal can’t deal with Nuru, Kelly et al. post-facto. But, if it makes the November ballot, those guys will be on voters’ minds, and it’s challenging to conceive of a winning argument that it should be harder to strip malefactors of their government pensions. 

But the question here may not be what voters think — but, rather, what judges think. 

Upon being named Department of Building Inspection employee of the quarter in April, 2016, senior inspector Bernie Curran, with plaque, said “It is a pleasure and privilege to serve the people of San Francisco on a daily basis.” At far left is then-DBI director Tom Hui.

Reviewing what it takes, up and down the state, to revoke an employee’s pension, San Francisco’s standards are neither more nor less forgiving of bad workers, but are narrower. 

State and local employees in 27 systems in 20 counties, perhaps three quarters of all the public workers in California, are under the aegis of the Public Employees Pension Reform Act (PEPRA). And, under this system, a worker convicted of a job-related felony actually has options that a San Francisco employee does not. 

While a devious San Francisco worker stands to lose their entire pension, under PEPRA the calculation is different. Here, a retirement board looks at the period of time between a worker’s first job-related crime and the date of conviction, and then excises that time period from his or her pension compensation. A good example is the case of ex-Contra Costa County fire captain John Wilmot, who pleaded guilty to stealing a wide array of material from firehouses over the course of 13 years. Rather than have his retirement payments out-and-out revoked, he instead had 13 years’ worth of service subtracted from his pension, leaving him with payments based on a mere dozen years of service.    

Meanwhile, in San Jose — like San Francisco, a charter city — police and fire workers are (potentially) held to a standard exceeding San Francisco’s. Cops or firefighters found guilty of a felony — any felony, not just an on-the-job or job-related felony — can be stripped of their entire pensions. 

San Jose’s police and fire retirement board is in fact, presently, weighing whether it should curtail the pensions of two cops who were long ago convicted and sentenced for grave, but not job-related, sexual offenses, but continued receiving retirement checks

So, there are a variety of ways bad workers can be dealt with. But the commonality here is: First, there must be a criminal conviction. Peskin’s charter amendment would do away with that. And this makes pension experts uneasy. 

City Hall, Nov. 6, 2018. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

“Both the United States Constitution and the California Constitution prohibit any state from passing a law that impairs the obligation of contracts,” notes Julie Wyne, the CEO of the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association, and an attorney. “There has been a body of case law in Califonia courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, that has concluded that public employee pension benefits are a contractual benefit.” 

“Clear and convincing” evidence, the standard outlined in Peskin’s proposal,  is not “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” And an administrative hearing is not a criminal court. San Francisco’s potential charter amendment could run into constitutional hurdles at the state level — and, via the 5th and 14th amendments, on the federal level as well.

“I would expect that members who’ve had benefits reduced by the pension system would challenge that reduction,” Wyne predicted, “probably on the concept of vested rights and that they are not being afforded due process.” 

Union leaders have told me that they’re not in the business of protecting workers who defraud the public, and would not necessarily be averse to a stricter process. But, clearly, there is much meeting and conferring to do between the city and its unions, lawyers, and union lawyers. There is, potentially, some tinkering to do before voters get their say — if, in the end, voters get their say. 

The notion of holding bad actors accountable in a quicker, cheaper manner is straightforward and simple. Not unlike frontier justice. 

But San Francisco is neither quick, cheap, straightforward, nor simple. San Francisco, after all, isn’t exactly a frontier justice sort of place. 

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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. Where is the news about nuru’s sentencing? Is he in prison yet? It was scheduled for May 26

  2. Cut it off, once and for all. Too many rats in City Hall eating the cheese that SF taxpayers paid for.

  3. I’m past president of Retired Employees of the City and County of SF. I’m also a current Commissioner on the Health Service Board. (Employee health benefits)

  4. When convicted of felonies, the pension is suspended and, I think, forfeited. Sadly, there have been a FEW department heads who have been convicted of felonies. Their futures change FOREVER.
    They are VERY FEW. Most of us who are City retirees have a specific formula for our retirement and while we work, we contribute a proportion of our wages into our Retirement fund. This is NOT a give away benefit. WE ALL PAY INTO OUR FUND. The vast majority of miscellaneous employees (not safety police & fire) are HONEST, HARD WORKING RETIREES who contributed to the Fund in anticipation of receiving a pension based on that charter formula. Safety has their own section & formulas– they are also HONEST, HARD WORKING employees. Miscellaneous retirees cover a vast pension range. Would you deny that hard working custodian her/his $900 a month (after 35 years of work) because you read about two (allegedly) dishonest highly paid department heads who get publicity? By the way, retirees must pay higher premiums for their health benefits once they retire and they don’t get the same benefits they had as active workers. So $900 is reduced by various deductions for health insurance. Please don’t judge us all by a few exceptions. We proudly served & paid for our City retirement benefits.

  5. I have been trying to follow the ubiquitous Breed administration City Hall culture of corruption scandal with her lover Mohammad Nuru. What happened at his sentencing at the Federal building May 26th?

    1. To the best of my knowledge, the sentencing is now set for June 30.

      JE

  6. Thanks for the article and bringing the issues to the forefront. Having worked with both Nuru and Kelly, it is hard to imagine that anyone that worked with them didn’t think there was something a little shady about both of them. On the issue of pension, the employee pays into the pension system with every paycheck. In essence, the first 8-10 years of pension payments is simply returning back to the employee what they paid in. After that period of time the funds come from the pension fund. This is a bit of an oversimplification of the issue. If a public pension system wants to cut off an employee’s pension, I believe they would either have to return the amount paid in by the employee in a lump sum or pay it out as a pension payment until the employee contribution runs out. After that, then stop payments. If an employee can lose their public pension by making a mistake (intentional or not) and it is subject to the whims of local politicians, I believe it would undermine the confidence and credibility that employees would have with the pension system. To not return an employee’s contributions to the system would seem like cruel and unusual punishment. Stopping their payments once the contributions have been extinguished would seem fair.

  7. Silly people robbing banks and breaking into cars and homes.
    The real easy money is in public corruption!
    But you gotta be smart enough to take the pension train to rancho relaxo BEFORE the jig is up, people.
    In the grand scheme of things, Nuru kinda settled for pizza money and trinkets vs. what Recology almost got away with.
    He’ll keep his mouth shut and, at most, do a couple in minimum security + maybe fork over some dough. In the end he’ll be helped back on his feet by the folks he protected by not squealing. His future is being a “consultant”.

    This thing will get passed but will do nothing except as campaign flyer propaganda for Aaron Peskin.
    “He cleaned up City Hall corruption!”

    Great article and yeah:
    “San Francisco is neither quick, cheap, straightforward, nor simple”
    Copy that.

  8. Would anyone else like to know why the former head of PUC has a pension of $22,065.96 a month? Seems so excessive….what is that position’s annual salary I wonder…..and why do they seem to represent the utility companies instead of us “consumers”? Just asking….

  9. Wasn’t Nuru supposed to be sentenced last week? Did he flip or what? The silence from that case is deafening….

    Thanks Joe for another excellent article. Great research and writing as usual. Keep up the good work.

  10. Every time I read you describe yourself as “your humble narrator” I barf in my mouth a little bit. To be proud of your own humility is not humility at all, but rather pride.

    1. Casey — 

      That’s fine, dude. It’s just a way of limiting first-person notations in the column. And I’ve been doing it since 2013, so there you go.

      Meanwhile, every time I see you posting under multiple assumed names, I stop posting your comments — full stop.

      Signed,

      *Joe Eskenazi*