A top San Francisco public official and go-to bureaucrat to mayors over two decades was charged with public corruption Tuesday, upending City Hall as elected leaders scrambled to reassure the public that bribery and kickbacks would not be tolerated.
The complaint unsealed against San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru and longtime restaurateur Nick Bovis focuses on an aborted attempt in 2018 to bribe a San Francisco airport commissioner for retail space.
It also alleges other schemes in which Nuru is accused of trying to help his friend score contracts to build homeless shelters and portable toilets, along with a restaurant at the city’s new $2 billion transit station.
Nuru is also accused of accepting free labor at his vacation home and a John Deere tractor as well as lavish gifts from a developer, including a $2,070 bottle of wine.
"The complaint alleges corruption pouring into San Francisco from around the world," said David L. Anderson, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California. "San Francisco has been betrayed as alleged in the complaint."
Nuru, 57, appeared in federal court Tuesday along with Bovis, the owner of Lefty O’ Doul’s, a popular sports bar in Fisherman’s Wharf, and other city businesses. Each was released after posting $2 million bail.
Nuru’s attorney, Ismail Ramsey, said his client has been a dedicated public servant for decades and was grateful to have worked at Public Works. "Mr. Nuru welcomes and looks forward to addressing these charges in court," he said.
Nuru, who has worked inside City Hall for the past 20 years, has been the focus of several NBC Bay Area investigations that exposed questionable contracts, Nuru’s ballooning street-cleaning budget, and serious safety violations within public works.
The FBI corruption case appears to focus on totally separate incidents and accuses Nuru of five intricate schemes, which include offering bribes to steer government contracts and allowing city employees to do construction work on his vacation home at little or no cost.
An attorney for Bovis, Gil Eisenberg, declined to comment.
Bovis, 56, runs a popular Christmas toy drive and Nuru, who goes by "MrCleanSF" on Twitter, oversees the design and construction of city facilities and 1,600 employees. The agency has a project portfolio of more than $5.6 billion.
As the top official since 2012 in charge of a city public works operating budget exceeding $500 million, Nuru is tasked with cleaning up San Francisco streets, which critics note remain cluttered with feces, trash and used needles amid a homelessness crisis.
In August, he launched a "Poop Patrol" tasked with power-washing high-risk streets. Critics say they can’t understand how he’s stayed in his job given the condition of city streets and construction.
Nuru was initially arrested in late January and agreed to cooperate with officials, but violated his agreement not to discuss the case and was re-arrested, Anderson said. He lied to officials about not discussing the case, Anderson said.
Nuru could face 25 years in prison while Bovis could face 20 years.
The allegations say the two participated in a scheme "to defraud the public of its right to the honest services of a public official through bribery or kickbacks" in violation of their duty.
In the airport scheme, the 75-page criminal complaint says Nuru and Bovis had meetings over several months in which they discuss how to secure a lease space for Bovis’ restaurant at the airport. Eventually, Bovis brought an envelope with $5,000 to a meeting with an unnamed airport commissioner who refused to take it, the complaint said.
San Francisco International Airport Director Ivar C. Satero said in a statement that he takes the allegations very seriously "and we are deeply concerned by this effort to circumvent our selection process." He said he welcomed the mayor’s contract review.
At one meeting recorded by an FBI agent, Bovis said all the public officials in San Francisco "work, like, side deals," the complaint states.
"See, the problem, in San Francisco too, the politics are just crooked, you know what I mean?" he is quoted as saying in the complaint.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Nuru was placed on administrative leave Monday. She has asked the city attorney and controller to review city contracts that may have been affected.
"I will do everything I can to ensure that those who fail to uphold (the highest) standard are held accountable," she said in a statement.
The complaint also references other unnamed city officials and deals made over the years. Anderson said others who have information about criminal activity should "run not walk" to the FBI in San Francisco.
The complaint focuses on the failed airport scheme, but it also lays out other examples of the two collaborating to fool the public. Nuru tried to give Bovis a leg up in getting public contracts for portable toilets and small container-type portable housing for the homeless, it says.
Anderson said Nuru also repeatedly met with a Chinese billionaire seeking to build a large mixed-use building in San Francisco, accepting gifts of lavish hotel stays, travel and a $2,070 bottle of wine. He did not report any of the gifts as public officials are required to do.
"Thank you very much for all your generosity while we were in China. We had a great vacation and my daughter had a wonderful time. I will do my very best to see that your project gets completed," he wrote to the developer in November 2018, according to the complaint.
The complaint also alleges that a company with numerous city contracts, including a $2 million contract with public works in 2018, sent people to work for free or at greatly discounted rates on Nuru’s Northern California vacation home.
City Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents an inner-city area at the heart of street waste complaints, said he has repeatedly pushed for accountability from a department that is run "like a one-person fiefdom."
Supervisor Gordon Mar called the fraud detailed by the FBI "appalling, and that such behavior went unchecked until now is inexcusable."