A federal judge meted out the first sentence in San Francisco’s public corruption scandal on Thursday, giving a millionaire entrepreneur a year-and-a-day term behind bars after she admitted to plying a former top city official with a $37,000 Rolex in exchange for favorable bid treatment.
The scandal broke last year and has since snared several top level city officials as well as a number of contractors. One of them was Florence Kong, who over three decades built up a $10 million recycling and steel fabrication empire in the city’s Bayview.
She left poverty in Hong Kong to come to the U.S. at age 33, later launching both SFR Recovery Inc. and Kwan Wo Ironworks. The second firm, now headquartered in Hayward, fabricated the steel rails along the bike path of the new Eastern span of the Bay Bridge.
But last year Kong was arrested in her Hillsborough mansion as part of the widening City Hall scandal, accused of lying to the FBI about having bribed former Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru for allegedly “greasing the skids’’ in obtaining recycling contracts.
Besides the Rolex, court documents show Kong gave Nuru’s daughter an envelope full of cash for her graduation and provided Nuru free work at his Colusa County vacation home.
On Thursday, Kong expressed remorse before being sentenced by U.S. District Judge William Orrick: “I will never forgive myself for committing these crimes,” she told him. “It’s the worst mistake of my life.”
“What I did was wrong, I broke the law and I should be punished for my crimes,” she stressed to the court.
Prosecutors had wanted Orrick to sentence Kong to 18 months in prison, stressing the need to send a message to those engaged in corruption and because of her “brazen lies” denying wrongdoing to federal agents.
Before imposing the sentence, Orrick stressed that her crimes were “pure unvarnished corruption” that undermined public faith in city government.
But he said he was impressed by the accounts in the more than 100 letters submitted to the court on her behalf, recounting Kong’s commitment to family, charity and community service, including her practice of hiring former inmates at her business.
In the end, Orrick adopted the year-and-one-day term recommended by federal probation officials.
Kong’s attorney, John Runfola, said his client now wants to start her prison term as soon as Covid-19 conditions allow.
“Florence is ready to move on with her life -- that’s why she was eager to be the first one sentenced in this corruption scandal at City Hall,” he said following the hearing.
Runfola noted that Kong has given up any role in both of her businesses and is eager to dedicate the rest of her life to service.
“She wants to get back to contributing to the community and being involved with her charities, to continue to be a philanthropist -- she’s happy that it’s over. That’s why we went first.”
San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney was not completely satisfied.
“A year isn’t much -- the behavior itself is obviously abhorrent,” Haney said, adding that he is looking forward to seeing public officials, not just outsiders who promised cash and gifts, being held accountable.
“Giving a Rolex to a government official is blatant corruption,” he said. “But we should also root it out from the inside of government.’’