555 Fulton
The 555 Fulton project, in the shadow of City Hall.

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.” 

Mohammed Nuru outlined the alleged quid-pro-quo with Zhang Li in this intercepted phone call, as recounted in his 2020 charging document

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. 

In a shot from R&F’s webpage, Zhang Li, right, is pictured alongside co-founder Li Sze Lim.

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. 

Graphic and translation by Chuqin Jiang

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. 

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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. Article should come with a warning not to visit China with drugs in your suitcase while wearing Bob Marley t-shirt…

  2. 555 Fulton. I’d guess that bldg will be more problematic than 601 Van Ness. At least they have commercial tenants.
    555 … still no grocer. Think I miss the old gas station (cheap gas, and an air pump)

  3. Joe,

    Oh, it’s been weirder and more dangerous.

    Few years back when Arnie was governor someone came up with the idea of selling the courts in the Civic Center to unnamed Eastern European interests who would then rent our courts back to us.

    It was actually sliding through the slimy local political intestines when a guy named Don Casper, I think it was, blew the whistle and from whatever seat he was sitting on whatever body screamed to high hell.

    This dawg joined the howl along with many others and the deal got killed.

    So did Don.

    By a truck while on his morning bike ride.

    Driver never caught.

    Don also cost members of the Class of 2000 over twenty grand a year out of the more than doubled salary they were awarded by the voters (their staffs used to make more than them so’s they’d be more apt to take bribes but that’s a long story that goes back a hundred and fifty years) …

    Casper didn’t like that voter call and engineered a sizable cut.

    See what happens to Watch dawgs who actually have an effect?

    What I’m saying here is that it seems to always go back to land/property use doesn’t it.

    On arresting a Chinese billionaire on behest of US ?

    Didn’t they also arrest the daughter of the big software Chinese billionaire company too ?

    And, assassinated a Russian billionaire’s daughter ?

    Raises the Socio/Political question …

    Why do our billionaires hate their billionaires ?

    Onto a far more important matter and Dawg’s opinion …

    I think that Brock Purdy will pay this evening if he has to get loaded down with more drugs than Hunter Thompson ever took.


    1. H – you’ve got your finger on the scam – the question is will you (or Eskenazi even) roll back your tune on certain elitists in SF government who have conned the voters (and a good portion of the “progressive” media) into believing they are “progressive”.

      Gilmartin is not done ratting…

  4. Years ago I had my lawyer report to the city attorney repeated illegal use of city property by DPW and it’s convicted felon head Mohammad Nuru to dispose of abandoned furniture from evicted tenants by a multi-multi millionaire SF slumlord. The city attorney never contacted me for my photographic evidence. The FBI should wiretap their phones. City government is full of fraudsters accepting bribes including mayor Breed who got caught accepting bribes from Nuru

  5. The Los Angeles City Council also discovered that the Feds do not like the idea of local officials accepting alleged bribes of any kind from CCCP.

    1. In that case, Wei Huang knew not to leave China once shit hit the fan. It’s mind boggling Li decided to test the waters.

  6. Granted Li is a massive flight risk, but $18.4m bail still seems like a lot for what has been alleged thus far.

    Wong is a cooperator who hasn’t been sentenced. Apparently that didn’t terrify Li to the extent it should have.

  7. Nice. Do we know if this is a recent warrant or if it had been active for a while and it took a while for Zhang to be located within a nabbing jurisdiction?

    1. You mean the whole SF BDI department? I reported Bernie Curran to his boss who lied and covered for him and to the FBI 15 years ago and he is just now going to prison.

      1. I was thinking more along the lines of San Francisco’s current largest slumlord. At this point, the corruption at DBI is well known and well documented here. And it’s enabled other crimes.