Sandra Zuniga, formerly the head of San Francisco's Office of Neighborhood Services (a.k.a. the Fix-It Team), has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering, and will cooperate with federal investigators' ongoing corruption probe.
Zuniga's plea was announced Tuesday by federal prosecutors, and it follows on a string of other guilty pleas by former City Hall employees and contractors with links to former Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru.
The Department of Justice put out a release about Zuniga's plea, using it as another chance to tell anyone else potentially implicated in the probe to come forward before it's too late.
"Today a top San Francisco City Hall public official agreed to plead guilty to charges in our political corruption investigation and will cooperate with the FBI against others involved," said Acting United States Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds. "This investigation continues, but the window of time for cooperation is closing. If you are involved in public corruption at any level, reach out to the FBI before the FBI reaches out to you."
Zuniga was first mentioned in the criminal complaint against Nuru as "Girlfriend 1", even though there was immediate speculation that this could be Mayor London Breed herself — Breed admitted to having a "close personal friendship" with Nuru in years past, and admitted he paid for an expensive car repair for her that she should have refused as his City Hall superior. It would be several months after Nuru's arrest before Zuniga herself was charged in the case, but the criminal complaint against her looked fairly damning. It suggested that Zuniga had, for years, helped Nuru to launder the various graft payments that came to him from various city contractors, using some of them to pay the mortgage on Nuru's Colusa county vacation home.
According to the complaint, "from March 2014 to January 2020, Zuniga made over $135,000 in cash deposits, on top of her City of San Francisco paycheck." Prosecutors say they had evidence that Zuniga regularly deposited $1,000 on top of her paycheck, and turned around and made $1,000 payments on the mortgage.
"Sandra Zuniga thought she could circumvent the law,” said IRS Criminal Investigation, Acting Special Agent in Charge Michael Daniels, in today's release. Through numerous financial transactions, over a period of almost ten years, she attempted to hide the true source of Mohammed Nuru’s funds. No public official should be allowed to behave as if they are above the law."
The original complaint also detailed how Zuniga had traveled with Nuru on "a lavish two-week trip to South America, with business class flights and Ritz-Carlton accommodations," in the fall of 2018, "all subsidized or paid entirely by a contractor doing business with the City."
Zuniga is scheduled to be arraigned on Wednesday in federal court, and today's release also suggests there is an "Exhibit A" that remains under seal from the court, some of the details of which are already public. "The money laundering conspiracy charged in today’s information is alleged now to have begun years earlier than the date alleged in the original June 2020 complaint against Zuniga," the DOJ writes. "While that complaint alleged the conspiracy began in March 2014, yesterday’s information alleges the money laundering conspiracy began on 'an unknown date, but at least as early as 2010' and continued into January 2020."
In the ongoing scandal that we could call The Nuru Affair even though it involves a lot of other people, several key figures have already pleaded guilty and have been cooperating with investigators — but Zuniga's cooperation may be a big lynchpin in all this that brings new charges against others into the mix.
Last month, former city contractor Florence Kong became the first individual to be sentenced in the investigation, and she will be serving one year in jail for bribery and lying to investigators.
In addition to Zuniga, the probe has brought down four other city department heads, including husband and wife Harlan and Naomi Kelly, who headed the Public Utilities Commission and the City Administrator's Office, respectively.