The Chinese billionaire developer of 555 Fulton St., who purportedly plied Mohammed Nuru and others with extravagantly priced wine and gifts, was arrested in Great Britain last month for his alleged bribes here in San Francisco.
Reuters is reporting that Zhang Li, who was taken into custody on Nov. 30, was nabbed due to a Northern California warrant accusing him of scheming to bribe San Francisco officials between 2015 and 2020.
Zhang and the 555 Fulton development were at the crux of the case against former Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru, who was sentenced in August to seven years in federal prison. In the original charging documents released after Nuru’s January, 2020, arrest, Zhang was given the alias “Developer 1.”
Nuru was caught boasting on a tapped phone call that Zhang had lavished “some stone” on him — possibly diamonds or other jewelry — as well as a $2,100 bottle of wine and luxury accommodations in Zhang’s hotels during a jaunt to China.
This attention was ostensibly to ensure Nuru‘s assistance in moving along the stalled 555 Fulton project, as laid out in that tapped phone call. On wiretaps and in encrypted WeChat messages, Nuru pledged to aid the project. On a tapped phone line, he purportedly relayed instructions to a subordinate on how to move things along. The fixes he suggested do not appear to have generated a paper trail within the Department of Building Inspection’s system.
This transaction appears to be the basis for Zhang’’s Nov. 30 arrest. A statement from his company, R&F Group, on its official WeChat, notes “Zhang Li was accused of bribery for hosting a banquet in China and providing hotel accommodation for the former San Francisco Public Works Director. We are taking legal action against this false accusation.”
While other outlets translated that job title as the “San Francisco Public Affairs Executive,” which is nebulous, there is only one Public Works director in question.
Zhang, however, has been accused of plying more officials than just Nuru. Before he was frog-marched out of the building at legal bayonet-point, former Department of Building Inspection director Tom Hui admitted to taking gifts and meals from Zhang, and providing him with “preferential treatment.”
Among other things, sources within DBI told Mission Local that Hui “literally stood over people’s shoulders” to force out the 555 Fulton Street project “sooner than it should’ve been done.” What’s more, work at 555 Fulton that DBI officials tell Mission Local warranted serious analysis and scrutiny was greenlit with a cursory “over the counter” approval.
Hui also all but turned over day-to-day management of the building department to contractor and permit expediter Walter Wong, who handled the permitting for the 555 Fulton project. Wong also underwrote lavish Chinese trips for both Nuru and ousted Public Utilities Commission general manager Harlan Kelly.
In February, 2020, Mission Local reported that FBI agents visited DBI headquarters after files for 555 Fulton disappeared from the building department’s website, and then returned one week later.
Messages for the Northern California branch of the Department of Justice have not yet been returned.