Department of Public Works Director and longtime Willie Brown pal Mohammed Nuru was arrested by the FBI on Monday in a federal corruption probe that also involves local bar owner Nick Bovis, the owner two longtime SF businesses, Lefty O'Doul's and the Gold Dust Lounge.
Both men were taken into custody on Monday, and a source inside City Hall tells the Chronicle that "the allegations concern 'public trust fraud' in the awarding of city contracts." Details about the arrests, and potentially about the alleged fraud, are going to be shared at a 1:30 p.m. press conference with the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Nuru last made headlines here in 2017 when he and his department started going rogue in their cleanup of homeless encampments, side-stepping city rules — including one voted in by ballot proposition — that required 24-hour notice to encampment dwellers. But he's no stranger to corruption charges, as the Chronicle notes, with allegations dating back to the earliest days of his employment at DPW in the early 2000s.
Nuru was named deputy director of Public Works in 2000 under then-mayor Willie Brown, and was immediately called out by staffers for replacing city employees in the department with trainees from the nonprofit he formerly ran, the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners — which itself maintained some lucrative city contracts, including one for street cleaning at $1 million per year. As the Chronicle reported in 2004, Nuru would later raise eyebrows for having city workers clean up a vacant lot near his Bayview home at a cost of $40,000, in addition to several other complaints. But under then-DPW Director Ed Lee and Mayor Brown, nothing became of the complaints.
Once Lee became mayor, he appointed Nuru to replace him as head of DPW, something that City Attorney Dennis Herrera referred to at the time as "cronyism" and "bad judgement."
These days, as Supervisor Matt Haney complains to the Chronicle, DPW is "run like a one-person fiefdom," and he has nothing positive to say about Nuru — with whom he's sparred over issues in his district, which includes the Tenderloin. Last April, for instance, he was making public his request for 200 new Big Belly trash cans — the kind that can't really be broken into — for the neighborhood, which DPW was denying.
"I think there needs to be an overhaul of that department," Haney tells the Chronicle. "We need much more accountability and transparency there."
As for Bovis's connection to all this, we'll soon find out. Bovis owned and operated two Union Square businesses, The Gold Dust Lounge and the popular hofbrau Lefty O'Doul's, both of which were forced out of their original locations in the last decade and both of which relocated to Fisherman's Wharf (Lefty's reopened in the former Rainforest Cafe space in mid-2018). The Gold Dust Lounge suddenly shuttered in the last month, and Eater notes that Lefty's was also, possibly temporarily, closed as of earlier this month, though it's still listed as open on Yelp and the phone line doesn't indicate any changes.
Update: Following the U.S. Attorney's news conference, we now know that Nuru faces "honest services wire fraud" charges, and he has been released on a $2 million bond. As ABC 7 reports, Nuru was also "charged in a second complaint after allegedly sharing details on the investigation despite promising to cooperate with the FBI." He was allegedly involved in five separate schemes to funnel lucrative city contracts to Bovis via insider information, which explains why Bovis is also facing charges. Bovis also appeared in court today and was released on a $2 million bond.
And Sup. Matt Haney is taking this opportunity to vent about Nuru some more. He issued an extended statement Tuesday saying, "The Department of Public Works itself is a behemoth controlling vast areas of San Francisco government, and yet it lacks basic public accountability like an oversight commission... to set standards and review contracts. It is one of the largest, last standing departments to lack this level of public oversight and accountability. The result has been a recipe for corruption and a complete failure to keep our streets clean."
Haney is blaming Nuru for SF's new reputation for filth, and he is calling for a "top to bottom reorganization" of the Department of Public Works.