Billionaire developer Zhang Li, known for bribing Mohammed Nuru with the $2,000 bottle of wine, a trip to China, and a fancy tractor, admitted guilt on Wednesday. But he got a highly favorable deal that involves no jail time.
It could be that the now-three-and-a-half-year-long Mohammed Nuru bribery and corruption scandal is ending not with a bang, but with a stunningly lenient plea deal with one of the most notorious bribers in this cast of characters. While Nuru himself has already been sentenced to seven years, there was another loose end in mega-bucks Chinese real estate developer Zhang Li, who was arrested last December for bribing Nuru. He got a very nice house arrest arrangement at his luxury London apartment to bide his time until his hearing.
That hearing came Wednesday at a U.S. District Court in San Francisco. And the Chronicle reports that Li admitted to bribing Nuru, but in taking the plea deal, Li will get off with little more than a $50,000 fine,
Li’s company, China-based Z&L Properties Inc., was developing 12 California housing sites meant to yield an estimated 3,400 condos (many of these are now marred in scandal). One of these was the 555 Fulton Street project (pictured above) with the proposed Trader Joe’s that was delayed for years. Z&L Properties hired permit expediter Walter Wong for that one, who’s pled guilty to fraud and money laundering this affair, as the proposed two-year project took much, much longer to complete.
There were 14 subpoenas issued over gifts and bribes allegedly to cut the red tape on this project. And in Li’s case, he gave Nuru (whom he apparently called “Mo Bro”) a tractor, a $2,000 bottle of wine, and an all-expenses-paid trip to China, among other gifts.
For this, Li had admitted the crime, but is not actually being charged with anything. Federal prosecutors agreed to drop the charge if he admitted guilt and paid a $50,000 fine. The company Z&L Properties will pay a $1 million fine and “will enter into a corporate compliance program.”
If you think that sounds like a sweetheart deal and the work of some high-powered criminal attorneys who are very good at getting white-collar criminals off scot-free, you’re not the only one.
“The agreement toward the company is not uncommon,” former federal prosecutor Mark Donnelly, told the Chronicle. “But entering into a deferred prosecution agreement with an individual is indeed rare.”
Even Li’s attorney told the Chron he was “elated” with the terms of the deal.
But the feds seem happy enough with the arrangement. “Zhang Li and Z&L Properties have admitted that they bribed a top San Francisco public official., U.S. Attorney Patrick Robbins said in a press release. “The criminal charges and resolutions announced today send a clear message that this office will not tolerate the corruption of public officials in the District by anyone, including individuals acting from outside of the United States.”
As for the much-anticipated Trader Joe’s, the Hayes Valley building was sold to a new developer a while back, and the Trader Joe's is on the way, probably pending a few more approvals.
At least 14 different people and entities have faced criminal charges in the sprawling Nuru affair, many of them now-former City Hall officials. Just this past Friday alone, former SF Public Utilities Commission head Harlan Kelly was found guilty of fraud, while former Department of Building Inspection inspector Bernie Curran was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.