Federal authorities charged San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru and high-profile restaurateur Nick Bovis with fraud Tuesday following a months-long public corruption probe. The schemes involved an envelope of cash, fraudulent city contracts, improper gifts from a Chinese developer and a $2,000 bottle of wine, according to authorities.
FBI agents on Monday arrested Nuru, 57, and Bovis, 56, at their Bay Area homes before unsealing a federal complaint Tuesday for one charge of wire fraud. Nuru is separately charged with lying to the FBI after initially being arrested on Jan. 21 and being told to keep quiet about the investigation.
“The complaint alleges corruption pouring into San Francisco from around the world,” said David Anderson, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
Anderson accused Nuru of “corruption, bribery kickbacks and side-deals by one of San Francisco’s highest-ranking public employees.”
Both men face up to 20 years in prison on the fraud charge. They were arraigned Tuesday afternoon in federal court in San Francisco. Neither defendant immediately responded to requests for comment. Their attorneys did not return phone calls.
The charges stunned San Francisco, with city officials expressing shock over the alleged schemes that took place between 2018 and 2019. Mayor London Breed vowed to “cooperate fully with any investigation” and placed Nuru on leave while the city finds an interim replacement.
Nuru is a visible department head who’s been at the post for nearly two decades and is deeply intertwined in San Francisco’s so-called city family, which includes former mayors Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee and current mayor Breed. As head of the Department of Public Works, Nuru, whose Twitter handle is @MrCleanSF, was continually struggling with the city’s quality-of-life challenges like sprawling homeless encampments and filthy streets.
Bovis — who was sentenced to 5 years in state prison for robbery in the 1990s — is owner of famed bar and restaurant Lefty O’Doul’s and was the public face of its annual Christmas toy dive.
But while Nuru and Bovis projected one image to the public, the FBI alleges the two were quietly involved in a number of fraud schemes involving city resources.
FBI Special Agent James Folger outlined the allegations in a federal complaint unsealed Tuesday following the arraignments.
Starting in January 2018, Nuru and Bovis began scheming to win a contract for a restaurant lease at San Francisco International Airport by bribing an unnamed airport commissioner, the FBI said.
Nuru and Bovis plotted to give the commissioner $5,000 cash, along with a free trip, in exchange for voting for the lease, authorities said. Bovis later met with an undercover FBI agent at his Burlingame restaurant prior to a dinner with the commissioner on April 4, 2018 and showed the agent “a significant amount of cash in an envelope,” Folger wrote.
The airport commissioner, though, declined to take the cash, authorities said, and the scheme fell apart after Bovis and others got suspicious that the undercover agent was working for the FBI.
Nuru was separately using his position in city government to work with an unnamed billionaire developer in China who was putting together a multi-million-dollar project in San Francisco, authorities said. In exchange for travel, lodging, high-end booze — including a $2,070 bottle of French wine — and other gifts, Nuru pledged to manipulate the building and inspection process for the developer, authorities said.
Nuru and Bovis’ relationship involved schemes across multiple government agencies, authorities said. Nuru allegedy tried to get Bovis a lease for retail space at the Transbay Transit Center, by circumventing the traditional process, authorities said. Nuru chairs the board of directors for the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which operates the center.
Nuru also provided Bovis inside information on specifications for public toilets and homeless shelters so he would have the jump when the contracts went to bid, according to the FBI. In 2017, Bovis’ company Tiny Potties provided design and manufacturing work for a DPW portable toilet project that looked like the Painted Ladies Victorian homes near Alamo Square.
Nuru is also accused of receiving free and discounted materials along with a John Deere tractor at his Stonyford (Colusa County) vacation home.
For years, Nuru has presided over DPW, which is responsible for construction management, maintaining public buildings and caring for street trees. With a $500 million budget, DPW has a roughly 1,600-person workforce.
Nuru was made the permanent head of DPW by then Mayor Ed Lee in 2012. Lee, who had been DPW chief, hired Nuru into the department in 2000. Prior to his appointment, Nuru worked for 11 years as the department’s deputy director for operations and was long considered a protégé of former Mayor Willie Brown.
Federal officials informed Breed about the arrest at about 3:30 p.m. Monday, shortly before FBI agents executed a search warrant for Nuru’s office.
“Nothing matters more than the public trust, and each and every one of us who works for the city must hold ourselves to the highest standard,” Breed said in a statement. “I accept nothing less for myself or for those who serve in this administration, and I will do everything I can to ensure that those who fail to uphold that standard are held accountable.”
Breed asked City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Controller Ben Rosenfield on Monday to begin reviewing any city contract that might be connected with Nuru’s alleged scheme to “ensure that they comply with city law and procedures and meet our highest standard of integrity.”
This is not the first time Nuru has found himself at the heart of a city scandal. In the early 2000s, DPW whistleblowers claimed Nuru misappropriated public funds and replaced city workers with employees from a nonprofit he previously led, among other allegations.
Following Nuru’s appointment, Herrera, who was running for mayor against Lee, slammed the decision as nothing more than “cronyism, politics and bad judgment.”
Herrera led a 2004 investigation into reports that Nuru, while working for DPW, improperly directed employees of the nonprofit he had formerly led to campaign for Newsom, who was making his first run for mayor.
Bovis came into the public spotlight during his bitter dispute over Lefty O’Doul’s with the building’s landlord three years ago.
The famed baseball-themed bar and restaurant, known for its corned beef, cabbage and Bloody Marys, was a Union Square landmark since 1958, but was forced to move to a less-prestigious location at Fisherman’s Wharf in 2018.
Bovis — who also owns the once-popular and now closed Gold Dust Lounge in San Francisco and Broadway Grill in Burlingame — welcomed patrons into Lefty O’Doul’s during an emotional farewell in February 2017 attended by local news and city dignitaries, including the mayor.
The high-profile business owner, though, had a criminal past that never came to light during the property dispute, The Chronicle has learned.
Bovis was arrested in 1993 in Santa Clara County and charged with second degree robbery and use of a firearm in commission of a felony. He ultimately was found guilty of a single count of second degree robbery in 1996 and sentenced to five years in state prison, records show.
Bovis had enough credits for time served in county jail and was released without serving time in state prison, according to Santa Clara County Superior Court records.
News of Nuru’s arrest jolted much of City Hall Tuesday.
“It’s a shock. I think that department has been run like a one-person fiefdom for a long time,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who sparred often with DPW over a number of issues broadly related to street cleanliness in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, which Haney represents.
“There’s an understanding that ‘everything goes through Mohammed,’ and if you piss him off, there’s retribution. I think there needs to be an overhaul of that department. We need much more accountability and transparency there.”
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