Reynolds Rap

DPW boss Mohammed Nuru finally swept to the curb, but not by Mayor Breed

Once again, the Feds clean up San Francisco’s mess

Despite ethical missteps, misappropriated taxpayer funds, lawsuits, and incompetence as the leader of street cleaning in one of the world’s filthiest cities, the mayor continues to stand behind Mohammed Nuru.

— “It’s time for Mayor Breed to sweep DPW boss to the curb” Reynolds Rap, April 2019

On the morning of Jan. 29, 2020, at a wickedly early hour for a writer, my iPhone started buzzing with calls, emails, and text alerts from workers at San Francisco’s Department of Public Works, City Hall insiders, and loyal readers of this column. Mohammed Nuru — the director of DPW — had been arrested by the FBI for fraud following a public corruption probe. “The complaint alleges corruption pouring into San Francisco from around the world,” said David Anderson, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, accusing Nuru of “corruption, bribery, kickbacks, and side deals.”

So why was my phone ringing off the hook? Because I wrote a Reynolds Rap column last April about Nuru’s history of corruption under four mayors in which I called for his resignation or removal (“It’s time for Mayor Breed to sweep DPW boss to the curb”).

My curiosity started while following Nuru’s Twitter feed (under the ironic handle @MrCleanSF), where he was touting the cleanliness of streets in China, Argentina, and Chile during trips taken in October 2018. Nuru snapped photos of himself with landmarks and high-ranking officials. I emailed Rachel Gordon, DPW spokeswoman (and former San Francisco Chronicle City Hall reporter — we’ll get to that later). “I assume these were work related, so I would like to know the dates of the trips, how much the trips cost, and the reason for each trip,” I wrote. Gordon’s response was swift: “Hi Susan. These were not work-related trips. He was on a personal vacation, no government business nor funding involved.”

So how, I wondered, was the public servant in charge of keeping San Francisco’s infamously feces-and-needle-strewn streets clean, able to embark on a nearly month-long “vacation” to three foreign countries? It turns out, the trips were financed by developers hoping to do business with the city. Nuru took “travel, hotel stays and lavish gifts” (like a $2,070 bottle of wine) and met repeatedly with a Chinese billionaire seeking to construct a large mixed-use building in San Francisco.

But back in April, after Gordon insisted those trips were “personal,” I decided to look into Nuru’s past, which, as I said in my April column, is littered with two decades of “ethical missteps, misappropriated taxpayer funds, lawsuits, and incompetence,” courtesy of then-mayor Willie Brown, who hired Nuru in 2000 as deputy director of operations under director Ed Lee (yes, that Ed Lee).

And there it was — the pernicious connection to Brown, the man responsible for promoting numerous cronies to top positions, both literally and behind the scenes. From his hand-picked choices for the three mayors who succeeded him (Gavin Newsom, Ed Lee, and London Breed) to city heads like Nuru, city administrator Naomi Kelly, and her husband, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission general manager Harlan Kelly Jr. (himself no stranger to controversy), Brown has shaped San Francisco’s politics for years (I detailed Brown’s influence in my September 2014 Reynolds Rap, “It’s still Willie Brown’s town: Personal politics runs amuck at City Hall”). When it comes to playing politics, Brown’s protégés learned from the best. In Sacramento, opponents complained he routinely flouted conflict-of-interest laws, representing clients who had business in the capital, but FBI investigations went nowhere, earning him the nickname “Slick Willie,” a moniker Brown wore proudly. He also called himself the “ayatollah of Sacramento” — vote with him, and you were rewarded with perks. Cross him, and you were banished to a basement office. Brown’s escapades were so infamous that, after meeting Brown in 1992, future president Bill Clinton quipped, “Now I’ve met the real Slick Willie.”

Which brings us back to the San Francisco Chronicle.

It’s perhaps fitting that the spokeswoman for Nuru’s department is Rachel Gordon, who spent 20 years on the City Hall beat for the Chronicle. When she took the job in 2012, people — including this community journalist — questioned why Gordon, who was the agency’s watchdog for two decades, became its public face. I found it even odder that the position was never publicly advertised and was offered to Gordon alone. This is just one of many examples of the newspaper’s too-cozy relationship with Willie Brown’s regime. Or should I say San Francisco Chronicle columnist Willie Brown — that’s right, the Chronicle pays Brown an estimated $1,000 for his Sunday morning musings in the aptly titled “Willie’s World.”

The Chronicle also endorsed another Brown protégé, London Breed, in her bid to become mayor after the 2017 death of mayor (and fellow Brown protégé) Ed Lee. In fact, editor in chief Audrey Cooper sent reporter Rachel Swan to Breed’s opponent Jane Kim with a list of potentially sabotaging questions that Kim, no shrinking violet, then posted on Medium. “It’s oppo dump time,” Kim wrote in her post. “If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s what happens when a rival campaign collects opposition research and dumps it into the hands of a journalist eager to make a saucy headline.” Cooper was combative with critics, but later apologized while throwing Swan under the bus. Amazingly, Cooper kept her job (though insiders tell me a firm hired for damage control briefly took away her Twitter account).

Perhaps this long-intertwined loyalty with Brown and his protégés is the reason the details I dug up while researching Nuru came from Chronicle articles nearly 20 years old. When news of Nuru’s arrest broke, Cooper and current City Hall reporter Heather Knight were left scrambling to pick up the pieces of a tawdry tale this monthly columnist handed them on a silver platter nearly a year ago.

As for Breed, perhaps she should be nervous. Remember, she was named in the FBI’s “Shrimp Boy” investigation where connected (and later arrested) businessman Keith Jackson told agents that Derf Butler, head of Butler Enterprise Group, LLC, paid “Supervisor [London] Breed with untraceable debit cards for clothing and trips in exchange for advantages on contracts in San Francisco.” Breed and Butler denied the claims, and Butler, facing federal indictment for a bid-rigging scheme to defraud the U.S. Department of Energy, was awarded two $1.6 million contracts by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in August of 2017.

On an even seamier note (if that’s possible), I received handwritten letters and heard firsthand from a number of DPW workers that Breed has a “personal relationship” with Nuru going back many years. Workers offered incriminating details that I won’t print here because they haven’t been substantiated (yet). If those details are true (and the workers swear they are), my guess is the FBI probe will lead even higher up at City Hall — and with Nuru facing more than 25 years in prison, he has plenty of incentive to sing.

E-mail: [email protected]. Follow the Marina Times on Twitter @TheMarinaTimes and like us on Facebook @MarinaTimes.

Send to a Friend Print