Nuru sentenced
A 2019 post from Mohammed Nuru's ever-fascinating @MrCleanSF Twitter account

The Mohammed Nuru today sentenced to seven years in prison was a diminished Mohammed Nuru, and San Francisco is a diminished city. 

He is no longer the rotund and imposing Public Works chieftain who bore a striking resemblance to the “larger boulders” he advocated for use as a homeless repellant.  Two-and-a-half years of legal purgatory, stress, and a heart attack, have rendered Nuru a gaunt figure; today in U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick III’s courtroom, he wore a billowing shirt and baggy black suit that would’ve better fit his bigger and more swaggering prior iteration. 

San Francisco is a rich and grand place with no small sense of self-worth; elected officials insist on describing our mid-sized American city as “world-class.” Nuru helped take a wrecking ball to all that, as did the extensive, yearslong federal probe that took him down — and, notably, has taken down no one more prominent than the ex-department head described in his sentencing document as a “quintessential grifter.” 

“You knew the risks of this path,” Judge Orrick told Nuru today. “During my time on the bench, I’ve sentenced people for really horrible things: murder, drugs, gangs. And in many ways, what you’ve done is at least as reprehensible in my opinion. … At a time when democracy is being attacked, you have weakened public confidence in our leaders.”

There is a small and pathetic tale to be pulled from the feds’ sentencing memo: This is how things worked in our world-class city. This is who pulled the levers. Nuru emerges as a Falstaffian figure: An oversized, glad-handing, unreliable braggart who solicited mountains of bribes to underwrite lavish, booze-fueled parties meant to burnish his image. A man whose overriding passion became the funneling of graft and illegally donated labor into erecting a Colusa County dacha — which, revealed in photographs in the memo, bears no small resemblance to a king-sized Rec and Park clubhouse. A man who could be bribed with a tractor (a tractor that he has been forced to administratively forfeit). 

Like Sir John Falstaff, Nuru overplayed his hand and overestimated his value and invulnerability and connections to the top. Now he’s on the bottom. 

The feds describe Mohammed Nuru’s Colusa County dacha as a “monument to his grifting.” It also looks a bit like a big Rec and Park clubhouse, where you’d eat ice cream cake and celebrate a 7-year-old’s birthday. Both of these things can be true.

If Nuru was Falstaffian, many of the sad sacks who plied him with meals and money and free labor provide more than a whiff of Willy Loman, the reeling protagonist of “Death of a Salesman.” These are men whose life’s ambition appears to be the running of an asphalt plant they were in no way qualified to run . But, lo, “our friend” Nuru was there to pave the path to their asphalt dream. For a price. 

The feds move in mysterious ways. So it’s never entirely out of the realm of possibility that they’ll be frog-walking VIPs out of City Hall tomorrow. But, for now, this appears to be the best the feds can do: Several years and millions of dollars invested in popping the Public Works director of our mid-sized American city and building cases against a few other department heads and a motley crew of enabling chiselers. On a parallel track, the city has belatedly expelled several overtly corrupt officials, with others taking the hint and hurriedly decamping from city life. 

But for those hoping Nuru would save his skin by ratting out consequential figures, he either wouldn’t or couldn’t. And, for that matter, those guessing accused fraudster Victor Makras would play ball guessed wrong, too. The feds’ case against “the man in every room for every mayor” is currently in jury deliberations

Other bad actors may yet give up the bigger fish. But for now, and for Nuru, the answer to Peggy Lee’s age-old question — is that all there is? — appears to be “yes.”

Nuru, left, and former PUC general manager Harlan Kelly in happier days. The feds are still making a case against Kelly, and will certainly attempt to leverage him — but Nuru either wouldn’t or couldn’t give up bigger fish.

“This is a tale of greed as old as time,” reads the feds’ Nuru sentencing memo. Well, that’s a bit grandiose. It’s not as if one brother slew another with a stone, here. Or a larger boulder. 

“Mohammed Nuru, a powerful appointed public official in the City of San Francisco, shook down multiple contractors eager for lucrative City business for well over a million dollars in cash, goods and services over a 12-year period.”

Now, that’s correct. But it’s not right. By definition, sure, Nuru was shaking down these contractors. But this was a system. This is the kind of overt corruption we’d like to think is more a hallmark of Baghdad than Baghdad-by-the-Bay. Alas, no: It turns out that San Francisco’s workaday corruption — the unglamorous, quotidian crap baked into a rotten process — is every bit as insidious, and even more costly, than the items uncovered during the ongoing federal probe.  

“During my time on the bench, I’ve sentenced people for really horrible things: murder, gang murders, really deadly stuff. And in many ways, what you’ve done is at least as reprehensible in my opinion.”

U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick III

As such, the contractors Nuru “shook down” — they’re not victims. This was just a cost of doing business for them in a corrupt system. The pricey dinners or tractors or free labor on the dacha were dwarfed by the value of those city contracts (or garbage rate hikes). The victims were the honest contractors who wouldn’t play this game: Men and women who, not insignificantly, might actually have been qualified to do the jobs they bid on. So were the honest public servants, forced to suffer under dishonest bosses in a dishonest system. And the ultimate victims were the people of San Francisco, suffering through interminable, over-expensive  projects handed to underqualified contractors. 

And that’s the legacy of Nuru, and the city that enabled him. Nuru, for lack of a better term, exploited a market inefficiency. He established a reputation as the man who could, when called upon, do the things that a functional city ought to be doing as a matter of course. As we wrote before

When a heap of trash was on the corner, or a constituent sent an aggrieved email to his or her supervisor about some manner of malady 311 wasn’t addressing, Nuru could be summoned to clean up the physical and metaphysical mess. 

In so doing, he advanced to a position in which he had carte blanche to divvy out contracts sans oversight and assembled a personal army on the city’s dime in order to keep answering elected officials’ pleas to fix the things that were so conspicuously left broken.  

“And that is my fault,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin tells me. “It’s my fault and my colleagues’ fault and several mayors’ fault. We overly empowered somebody, rather than fixing what was systemically broken in the government. And that is the take-home lesson for all of us.” 

Trash on the streets, Nov. 2011.

There’s a scene at the end of “The Seven Samurai” after the marauding bandits have been subdued and dozens of peasants have been slaughtered and four of those seven samurai lay dead. One of the most veteran swordsmen turns to his longtime brother-in-arms and says quietly, with resignation, “again, we’ve survived.” 

You do get the feeling that scenes like this are being re-enacted behind closed doors today among San Francisco’s powers-that-be. After Nuru took the fall. After Nuru got seven years. 

You get the feeling. But you don’t know. Because the feds, for all the limitless time and resources they spent nailing mid-level San Francisco figures for $5,000 bribes to get a chicken shack into SFO, did not unmake our city’s government. You can’t indict the dead, and the living — thus far — nabbed by the feds do not quite rise to A-list. 

It appears it stopped with Nuru. In more ways than one. 

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.

When Nuru was arrested on Jan. 28, 2020, it was actually his second arrest. And passages from his sentencing memo give a hint of just how much more might have come out of the feds’ San Francisco probe, if only Nuru hadn’t talked about Fight Club. 

Following his initial arrest in New York City, Nuru agreed to cooperate with the feds and keep his mouth shut. Instead, “for a period of approximately 11 days after he was arrested in January, 2020, he roamed free in the City, tipping off subjects, targets and witnesses about the investigation and his own cooperation. He then lied to the FBI about what he had done. The government is unable to adequately measure the damage Nuru caused by obstructing the government’s investigation.” 

Guessing who the feds are talking about when referring to “targets” and “witnesses” is now a political parlor game instead of a prosecution.

Yes: Subjects, plural.Targets, plural. Witnesses, plural. Again, they’ve survived. But Nuru — not plural — did not. One final series of messes for Nuru to clean up.

“Mr. Nuru can still be ‘Mr. Clean,'” said prosecutor Alexandra Shepard, “and be deeply corrupt on the inside.”

That sounds about right. But San Francisco is neither clean on the inside, nor the outside. And, while Nuru is gone, this city’s problems remain. The quintessential grifter is dead. Long live the quintessential grifter.

“The quintessential grifter is dead. Long live the quintessential grifter.” Photo by Carolyn Stein.
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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.

Intern reporter. Carolyn grew up in Los Angeles. She previously served as a desk editor for her college newspaper The Stanford Daily. When she's not reporting, you can find her going on an unnecessarily long walk.

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  1. So now that despicable Nuru is a convicted felon, does his city pension stop immediately? Please say ‘yes’!

    1. Rose — 

      The short answer is “no.” The longer answer is “not yet.” With a conviction of a moral turpitude crime — and this term has many meanings but if Nuru doesn’t qualify then it has *no* meaning — our Employee Retirement System board can now vote to strip him of his pension. But not ex post facto — what he’s earned so far is his.

      Yours,

      JE

  2. Good article. Not stated is how much Nuru is getting for his city pension. I read in some other article that Harlan Kelly is collecting $22,000 a month. If true, nice “work” if you can get it. SF city employees do no real work for lucrative pay. The true victims are us city taxpayers.

  3. KTVU reported that the courtroom was “standing room only,” packed with Nuru supporters. Who’s supporting this criminal, are any of them still employed with the City, and if so, why?

  4. Mark my words: Urban Alchemy is the latest version of this age-old urban grift. For Nuru, it was Public Works and DBI rank-and-file getting things done for him and his benefactors. For Breed, et.al., it’ll be this black-clad army of muscle.

  5. I dont mean to be too harsh, but…

    Nuru never got to enjoy his Colusa County desert /mission /territorial /ranch /conventional /whatever the hell style crap-box he had piecemealed in the middle of a dirt patch. Google earth showed it under construction shortly after he got popped. Though that photo was likely a bit dated, it didn’t even have shingles on it yet.

    And I caught a glimpse of the infamous Deere tractor on his twitter – it’s a wee thing that he likely used with an auger attachment to plant the saplings he assumedly grifted from Parks and Rec, which are also visible from google earth.

    As for the Rolex? Well, Cardi B said it best (No Limit Remix):

    “Apple phone, Prada case
    Kill a weave, rock a lace
    Fuck the Moet, buy the ACE
    Fuck the Ghost, drive a Wraith
    Get some money, flood the Rollie
    Fuck the Rollie, Patek face”

  6. Well written article that puts this scandal in perspective. It took over 2-1/2 years from arrest for Nuru to be sentenced which is ridiculous but why does he not have to report to prison until January ?

    1. Nuru has type 2 diabetes and requires regular medical care, plus a host of other medical problems. They probably gave some time to ensure proper accommodations plus allow him to put his affairs in order…if he has anything to put in order left.

  7. Sad and icky and strangely haunting. Excellent journalism JE. Fun references to Death of a Salesman, Falstaff and Seven Samurai. Nuru is a tragic clown. Peskin’s words are apt.

  8. It still amazes me that through all of this corruption, multiple mayors have seemingly come out unscathed. If Mayor Breed didn’t know about the depth of corruption on display here, she should resign in disgrace. If she did know, she should resign in disgrace, but from a cold jail cell.

  9. Very well written. Thank you for putting this corruption in perspective. We are the victims, not the contractors. They were co-conspirators.

    I’m currently planning to vote for London Breed’s re-election next year, so I’m not a mayor hater. That said, her connection to Nuru needs to be further investigated. Maybe the FBI is doing so.

    1. It’s interesting that at the beginning they were trying to find the bigger fish but ended with Nuru. Not sure if that’s because he is the big fish or just didn’t talk. But he was a master con artist