Florence Kong, the owner of a construction firm as well as a debris recycling company that did business with San Francisco's Department of Public Works under former director Mohammed Nuru, today became the first figure to be sentenced in the ranging federal corruption investigation that first became public in early 2020.
Kong, 63, was one of two city contractors to take plea deals last October, and on Thursday she was sentenced by U.S. District Judge William Orrick in an emotional hearing in which she reportedly apologized profusely. As the Mercury News reports, Kong was sentenced to one year in federal prison, which she will likely serve at the women's facility in Dublin where celebrities Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman recently served time in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal.
Judge Orrick excoriated Kong for contributing to "a perception in our country that the system is rigged against honest people in nearly every aspect of public and private life.”
"Bribery of a public official is near the top of the worst crimes," Orrick said. "You’ve helped undermine the faith that San Franciscans have in their government … You were a leader in the community and you chose to cheat and then to lie to the FBI when it gave you a chance to correct those lies."
Kong was accused not only of bribing Nuru with a Rolex watch worth $40,000 in exchange for a city contract, but of subsequently lying to FBI investigators about the bribe.
"I was scared. Every day I wish I had just told the FBI the truth," she said in court Thursday. "I will never forgive myself for committing these crimes. It is the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life."
She added that she was "ashamed for disgracing my family, friends, and supporters," and she said, "I’m so sorry to my city that has given me so many opportunities."
Federal prosecutors had been pushing for an 18-month sentence, but Kong's attorney pleaded for leniency, as the Mercury News reports, describing her childhood in poverty in Hong Kong, sharing a room with nine siblings, only three of whom survived.
"She’s already suffered. She’s already punished herself emotionally. She’s also suffered punishment socially, professionally, financially," attorney John Runfola said.
Orrick acknowledged Kong's contributions to the Chinatown community, and said, "None of us is the worst thing we’ve ever done but we do have to pay the consequences for all of our lives."
One of the next people likely to be sentenced will be the other contractor who pleaded guilty around the same time Kong did, former city employee Balmore Hernandez. Hernandez is CEO of a construction firm, AzulWorks, that had contracts with DPW, and he was accused by federal investigators of bribing Nuru with $250,000 worth of free labor and construction materials for Nuru's vacation home in Colusa County.
The scandal began unfolding in January 2020, when Nuru and co-conspirator Nick Bovis — a local restaurateur who owned the former Lefty O'Douls, as well as the Spinnerie rotisserie chicken concept — were arrested and indicted for a handful of "schemes," as the feds called them, including an alleged effort to bribe an airport commissioner to get Bovis a contract for one of his restaurants to open an SFO location. Subsequent evidence suggested that Nuru had used Bovis and a charitable foundation he ran to funnel small gifts from contractors into paying for DPW holiday parties.
Bovis pleaded guilty last May in a plea deal that included his cooperation with the investigation, and he has yet to be sentenced. It remains to be seen if Nuru will stand trial or also end up pleading guilty.
At least seven other individuals still face charges or sentencing in the corruption probe, which has also led to the resignations of four city department heads in addition to Nuru: former Department of Building Inspection director Tom Hui, former "Fix-It team" director Sandra Zuniga (who is/was also Nuru's girlfriend), Public Utilities Commission head Harlan Kelly, and most recently, his wife, City Administrator Naomi Kelly.
Photo: David Vives