The latest update in the broadening City Hall corruption scandal in San Francisco is that federal prosecutors have formally filed fraud and money laundering charges against local contractor and noted permit expediter Walter Wong — and Wong has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the probe in exchange for a potentially reduced sentence.
Wong is linked to a corruption investigation by the FBI that goes back several years, but which the public and City Hall only became aware of in late January. The feds arrested and then re-arrested Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Mohammed Nuru, along with alleged co-conspirator Nick Bovis, a local restaurateur, after Nuru had apparently agreed to cooperate with the investigation and then reportedly alerted some friends in City Hall, in violation of his cooperation agreement. Wong's office was soon raided by the FBI, and Nuru resigned from his position two weeks later.
The feds say that Wong paid for international trips for Nuru, including one he took to Santiago, Chile with his girlfriend, and that his alleged schemes with Nuru date back to at least 2004.
In early March, Mayor London Breed placed the director of SF's Department of Building Inspection, Tom Hui, on leave pending the corruption investigation, as he was accused of giving Wong preferential treatment in building permits. (He soon resigned.) And simultaneously, the City Attorney is conducting his own corruption investigation, and his office has already issued a memo suggesting improper influence between Hui and Wong.
Most recently, in mid-May, the Department of Justice filed bank fraud charges against former SF Building Inspection Commission member Rodrigo Santos; then they filed wire fraud charges against Bovis, who agreed to a plea deal; and two weeks ago charges were filed against three others connected to Nuru, including his girlfriend and mayor's office employee Sandra Zuniga, and DPW employee Balmore Hernandez.
Threateningly, U.S. Attorney David Anderson said in a Wednesday statement, "As this investigation continues, the breadth and depth of the identified misconduct is widening. To everyone with a piece of public corruption in San Francisco, please understand that here in federal court we will distinguish sharply between those who cooperate and those who do not."
As the Chronicle reports, without a reduced sentence, Wong could face up to 40 years in prison for the current charges. The 70-year-old consultant has been well known for decades in San Francisco for being able to guide his clients' projects more quickly than is typical through the city's Byzantine permit approval process. But these latest charges and this broad investigation seem to confirm what many have long believed about doing business in SF — basically that it only gets done with connections and greased palms.
It remains to be seen if any of these cooperation agreements result in this investigation sprouting new branches. The feds have been implying for months that they are after bigger fish at City Hall, but so far all of the charges have been against the same individuals mentioned in the criminal complaint unsealed in January.
Mission Local reports that the investigation is poised to "take a lap through Chinatown" next,
"The federal investigation into City Hall corruption has not been sidetracked by COVID-19 or other recent traumatic events," Anderson said in a statement earlier this month, as Zuniga and two others were being charged. "Today’s criminal complaints will not be the last... Run, don’t walk to the FBI, before it is too late for you to cooperate."