There’s a certain irony in the fact Harlan Kelly Jr., former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, headed to court on corruption charges June 26 — exactly three years to the day I wrote an exposé for this column (“Friends with Community Benefits,” July 2020) that delved into the agency’s Community Benefits Program, a shadowy behested payments plan concocted by Kelly and his chief strategy officer and assistant general manager of external affairs, Juliet Ellis.
Four months prior, I wrote that Ellis was managing more than Kelly’s external affairs — in fact, she was having an affair with her married boss. They weren’t subtle about it, either, taking frequent trips together, including a personal junket to Mexico where they snacked on tequila and Cheetos in their room. Kelly is married to former San Francisco City Administrator Naomi Kelly. The Kellys are Willie Brown protégés, appointed to their current positions by a fellow Willie Brown protégé, the late Mayor Ed Lee. The Kelly-Ellis romance was common knowledge in the incestuous bowels of City Hall, but the affair — and the extent of their corruption — remained clandestine, ignored both by the city’s mainstream media and alternative press.
In July 2020, three months after my column about their ratepayer-funded liaisons, federal officials obtained personnel files for the couple, along with complete records related to any trips they took, including expense reports and reimbursement records, back to 2005. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, then led by David Anderson, also ordered the agency to produce any commission audits from 2010 to the present related to those trips. In December 2020, Ellis stepped down from her post.
The FBI raided Kelly’s home in November 2020 and the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged him in an alleged long-running bribery scheme. Those charges stemmed from another story I broke in my “Friends with Community Benefits” exposé — an illicit arrangement with contractor and permit expediter Walter Wong. I noted that Kelly should be sweating the guilty pleas of Wong, which included an agreement to cooperate with the FBI. It’s no secret that Wong did favors for a lot of city bigshots, and that included Harlan and Naomi Kelly. Numerous workers inside the SFPUC told me not only did Wong do work for the power couple, but “Harlan bragged about it openly.”
During my eight-month investigation, I discovered the Kellys pulled three permits on their 11th Avenue home in San Francisco between 2011 and 2014. The authorized agents on each of those permits was Best Design Construction. A 2010 court case, W. Wong Construction Co., Inc. v. Watt, mentions that Wong introduced the Watts to “Charles Ng of Best Design.” Wong even used Ng’s plans to apply for a building permit on their behalf.
SHOULD FRIENDS WITH COMMUNITY BENEFITS BE SCARED?
Ellis, in my opinion, shouldn’t be sleeping well. She and Kelly founded and managed the enormous, multimillion-dollar agreements between the SFPUC and Joint Venture Boards, a group of representatives from two different contractors who team up on an SFPUC project. There are numerous Joint Venture Boards with tentacles so far reaching I would have to write a book to fit them all in.
Dwayne Jones’s reputation is well known at City Hall. Former San Francisco supervisor Chris Daly once said, “If you are going to have an operation where you’re buying political support in the Southeast part of the town, Dwayne Jones is the guy.” Despite his questionable ethics in handling nonprofit money and contracts, Ellis and Kelly made him a “fiscal agent” through the Consortium, a somewhat fuzzy nonprofit with an office located at 1485 Bayshore Boulevard along with three other companies run by Jones: Urban Equity Group, Urban Ed Academy, and his main firm, RDJ Enterprises — which, in a blatant conflict of interest, subcontracts with the SFPUC and AECOM. Urban Ed Academy receives Community Benefits, and SFPUC contractors wrote checks totaling more than $600,000 to the Consortium, where the board of directors consisted of Jones’s wife and his business partners. At one time Jones even had an office at SFPUC headquarters (something Harlan Kelly denied until I produced the office chart).
In 2021, when I asked SFPUC Communications Director of External Affairs Tyler Gamble (who left shortly after the shakeup) how the Joint Venture Boards decide which nonprofits get Community Benefits money, he said they did their own research. If Joint Venture Boards were really choosing their own nonprofits by doing random Internet searches, allies of Kelly and Ellis should have played the lottery, because they had some amazing luck. For example, in canceled checks from AECOM-Parsons (totaling $655,000, a drop in the bucket compared to the millions running through the various Joint Venture Boards), the most prolific beneficiary was Young Community Developers. Not only was Jones the executive director from 1998 to 2003,
Shamann Walton held the six-figure position from 2010 until he joined the Board of Supervisors in January 2019. During Walton’s tenure, AECOM-Parsons wrote $169,500 worth of checks to Young Community Developers. Of course, Walton was endorsed by Harlan Kelly (surely it can’t hurt to have a close friend in the District 10 supervisor’s seat where most of those Community Benefit dollars are doled out).
COMMUNITY BENEFITS AUDIT GOES NOWHERE
At a Jan. 20, 2022, hearing on the long-awaited SFPUC audit, supervisors questioned why corruption within the Community Benefits Program was allowed for so long, and even proposed dismantling it altogether. Audits and Oversight Committee Chair Supervisor Dean Preston suggested that the SFPUC should account for every penny of CBP and Social Impact expenditures to date, as well as the roles of SFPUC staff (the audit has since gone nowhere). The committee did a decent job asking tough questions, but there was one name that never came up: Dwayne Jones.
Inside sources say Ron Flynn, chief of staff to the SFPUC’s new general manager, Dennis Herrera (and who also served as lead attorney on government contracting under Herrera in the city attorney’s office), was under “specific orders” not to mention Jones, his nonprofit Southeast Consortium for Equitable Partnerships, or discussions that occurred at the Joint Venture Board meetings with the SFPUC.
Like Kelly and Walton, Jones has direct ties to Mohammed Nuru, who gave Jones the “ratepayer advocate” contract while he was being bribed by Recology Group Government and Community Relations Manager Paul Giusti to push the rate increase through with the Refuse Rate Board. Giusti got most of what he wanted from Nuru, Jones, and the board, which included City Controller Ben Rosenfield, Harlan Kelly, and then City Administrator Naomi Kelly, Harlan’s wife.
Despite his connection to Kelly, Ellis, and Nuru through Community Benefits and the Recology ratepayer hike scandal, Jones is still getting millions of dollars in contracts. His biggest is the SFPUC where, despite my exposé and an equally scathing NBC Bay Area investigation, he has a Community Benefits consulting contract running from August 2011 to September 2026.
WHAT DID DENNIS KNOW?
Those not familiar with the City Family may believe the many exits and indictments mean corruption has been flushed from the SFPUC, but it may be entering a new phase with Mayor London Breed’s appointment of Dennis Herrera. Not only did Nuru’s corruption fly under the noses of four mayors, it also flew under the nose of Herrera, who was first elected city attorney in 2001 and was reelected to serve in the role for 20 years.
“For 10 years, Nuru’s questionable ethics and repeated misappropriation of taxpayer dollars didn’t seem to merit a slap on the wrist from Ed Lee,” Herrera said when he challenged Lee for mayor in 2011. Unwittingly, Herrera admitted awareness of Nuru’s corruption, yet he did nothing about it. His office also signed off on the Community Benefits Program for Kelly and Ellis for 10 years, and nothing has changed since he took the SFPUC’s helm.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
At the urging of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Biden administration tapped Ismail Ramsey as Northern California’s top prosecutor.
Since former Mayor Willie Brown brags often about his close relationships with Feinstein and now Vice President Kamala Harris, it’s likely he and Harris whispered Ramsey’s name in Feinstein’s ear. It seems cruel to potentially use a clearly frail Feinstein in an attempt to squash the current corruption scandal, which not only has ties to Brown, but to Governor Gavin Newsom and to Harris herself. Recommending Ramsey could well be the last major decision of Feinstein’s distinguished career.
Ramsey has close ties to Brown and Harris and even served as Nuru’s defense attorney at Brown’s request. Ramsey’s father, a dear friend of Harris’s mother, was a mentor to Harris, and she and Ismail played together as children. Thus far, Harris has emerged unscathed from the City Hall scandal, but with her childhood friend replacing David Anderson, who had no loyalty to the City Family, California may now have a fox guarding the White House — and San Francisco City Hall.
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