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.
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, and Makris’ case is pending. But for now, and for Nuru, the answer to Peggy Lee’s age-old question — is that all there is? — appears to be “yes.”
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.