Former San Francisco public works boss Mohammed Nuru will serve seven years in prison as “punishment for more than a decade of public corruption,” said U.S. Attorney Stephanie Hinds in a statement.
“For at least twelve years, Nuru shook down contractors eager for City business, trading his authority and influence for millions of dollars in cash, construction work, travel, meals, and gifts. His abhorrent conduct erodes the public’s trust in its government, and this case demonstrates the justice system can and will punish corrupt public officials.”
The sentence is big news in San Francisco, but Nuru’s fall is more than a local story. Mohammed Nuru was born in England, son of a British mother and a Nigerian father, and came to the United States in 1983 to study landscape architecture at Kansas State University. Nuru graduated in 1987 and supervised construction projects in Saudi Arabia and the United States.
As Susan Dyer Reynolds noted in Marina Times, Nuru’s ascent started in 1991 when he became second in command at the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), a nonprofit managing community gardens. Nuru came to the attention of then–California Assemblyman Willie Brown and worked for Brown’s San Francisco mayoral campaign and reelection bid in 1999.
In 2000, Brown hired Nuru as Department of Public Works deputy director of operations and complaints rolled in about Nuru flaunting city rules and misusing public funds. City officials feared to criticize Nuru lest they cross Willie Brown, the Democrats’ powerful kingmaker.
Nuru called himself “Mr. Clean” and in 2011 mayor Ed Lee proclaimed him “a dedicated public servant who has proven over the last decade to be one of the hardest working city employees keeping San Francisco clean, green and beautiful.” It wasn’t.
As Daniel Greenfield pointed out, San Francisco was “covered in human waste” with 118,352 cases on the streets since 2011, the year Mohammed Nuru took over the DPW. Between 2013 and 2018, human waste incidents had increased by more than 200 percent.
As NBC News headlined a 2018 story, “San Francisco Paid Firm $400K for Research Claiming City is Nearly Spotless; Complaints Over Trash, Needles, Feces Soaring.” That was Nuru’s doing, and the DPW boss kept his job, with a $269,594 salary plus $54,139 in benefits, as the excrement piled up to record levels. San Francisco’s new District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, refused to prosecute public defecation.
In late January of 2020, the FBI arrested Nuru and restauranteur Nick Bovis for a scheme to bribe an official of the Airport Commission. “The complaint describes a web of corruption involving bribery, kickbacks, and side deals by one of San Francisco’s highest-ranking city employees,” the U.S. Attorney said in a statement. “The public is entitled to honest work from public officials, free from manipulation for the official’s own personal benefit and profit.”
The complaint also charges Mohammed Nuru with “using his official position to benefit a billionaire in China who was developing a large multimillion-dollar mixed-use project in San Francisco, in exchange for travel and lodging, high-end liquor, and other gifts and benefits.”
The city did not fire Nuru, who finally resigned on February 10, 2020. In June, 2021, police arrested Mohammed Nuru for brandishing a knife and attempting to steal a bag of potato chips from a local food bank. District attorney Chesa Boudin declined to press charges, but a judge ordered Nuru to undergo a mental evaluation as part of the corruption trial.
Prosecutors called Nuru a “quintessential grifter” but according to U.S. District Judge William Orrick there was more to it. “During my time on the bench, I’ve had to sentence people for really horrible things — gang murders, drug dealing, really deadly stuff,” Orrick told Nuru in court. “In many ways, what you’ve done is at least as reprehensible, in my opinion.”
Nuru’s seven-year sentence is more than double the maximum prison time sought by his attorneys. Nuru must also serve three years of supervised release, perform 100 hours of community service, pay a fine of $35,000, and forfeit his vacation ranch in Colusa County.
“The sad thing is that he [Nuru] wasn’t alone,” Assemblyman and former San Francisco supervisor Matt Haney told reporters. “The entire apparatus of city government was polluted with his corrupt behavior.” Mayor London Breed has not been charged with any crime but according to the Chronicle report, “admitted to accepting gifts from Nuru.”
In 2020, after Nuru formally resigned, mayor Breed revealed a 20-year relationship with the public works boss. Like Nuru, London Breed is also a Willie Brown crony. When she ran for mayor, reporters joked that Brown was acting as her campaign manager. It was hardly the first display of Brown’s influence, which extends nationwide.
Brown set up his girlfriend Kamala Harris, 30 years his junior, in lucrative sinecures and backed her runs for San Francisco district attorney in 2002 and state attorney general in 2010. Harris moved on to the U.S. Senate and is now a heartbeat away from the presidency of the United States.