The details and puzzle pieces are continuing to coalesce following Tuesday's news of federal charges against Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru. And now we're learning the probable identity of the Chinese developer who went unnamed in the FBI complaint against Nuru and local restaurateur Nick Bovis.
The Chronicle has put two and two together and found that the description of the delayed mixed-use project and Chinese developer behind it seem to match 555 Fulton — of upcoming Trader Joe's fame — and billionaire hotel magnate Zhang Li, the CEO and co-chairman of R&F Properties. (Zhang is not charged with any crime.) As reported earlier, Nuru stands accused of accepting a posh vacation in China, with a stay at one of Zhang's luxury hotel properties and a dinner featuring a $2,000 bottle of wine, among other improper "schemes" pertaining his role as a city department head.
According to the unsealed complaint, Nuru traveled to China in the fall of 2018, allegedly on Zhang's dime, and part of the wire fraud allegation in the complaint is the fact that gifts Nuru received from the developer were never publicly disclosed, as is legally required. Nuru himself confirmed in an email to his girlfriend, and over an encrypted WeChat message in early November 2018, "the corrupt nature of this arrangement," according to the complaint.
"This guy... the guy with the hotels... he's the one hooking us up," Nuru said in one intercepted communication, per the feds. "He doesn't, you know, he doesn't give money or anything. He lets us stay in his hotels and stuff. He makes all the arrangements for us, which is good. And nice places."
Nuru also described an exchange in which he said he wanted to go to a town in China that is home to some hot springs, and the developer allegedly said,"No, you’re going to my hot spring," instead offering accommodations at a hot-spring resort that his company owned, complete with a security detail. "It was almost a little scary," Nuru said to his girlfriend. "They had guards outside our hotel room."
Federal investigators say that Nuru drank a 50-year-old Chinese liqueur offered by Zhang called Maotai, which sells for $10,000 a bottle, as well as the pricy wine, while on this trip. And in the WeChat message thanking Zhang for all the hospitality, Nuru allegedly said, "I will do my very best to see that your project gets completed."
The project, though, was mired in many problems beyond Nuru's control. As the SFist has reported before, plans to put a grocery store in the ground floor — originally a Trader Joe's, then a smaller Portland-based chain, and now Trader Joe's again — has been the subject of much community argument and Planning hoopla.
And the development itself, which local architect Stanley Saitowitz provided some original designs and approvals-assistance for, was sold to Zhang's company Z&L Properties by a local developer years ago. Saitowitz's firm has since distanced itself and he tells SFist that "we had absolutely nothing at all to do with the new owner, or how the project was eventually realized."