When I wrote my April 2019 Reynolds Rap column suggesting Mayor London Breed should fire Department of Public Works director Mohammed Nuru after decades of corruption and incompetence, I heard from many city workers who shared similar stories in their departments. In my June 2019 column, I said Breed’s reticence to fire Nuru might be because, according to several DPW sources, they had a romantic relationship. I also mentioned an anonymous letter detailing other messy Nuru scandals, including “creating the Fix It Department for current girlfriend Sandra Zuniga after she didn’t get a managerial position within DPW . . . ”
Ten months later, the FBI arrested Nuru on fraud charges. In last month’s column, I wrote for a second time about Breed’s reluctance to let Nuru go, again surmising a romantic relationship might be the reason. Just two weeks later, on Valentine’s Day (you can’t make this stuff up), Breed came clean: She and Nuru had indeed been romantically involved some 20 years ago (though my sources say it was much more recent). She also admitted to taking $5,600 in “gifts” from Nuru to fix an old car. Suddenly, every reporter in town was on it, many claiming they were long aware Breed and Nuru had dated. “It was an open secret at City Hall,” they said. But the public didn’t know, in effect allowing Breed to remain silent for years — and proving the level of coziness at City Hall extends even to the reporters who cover it.
Though it took 10 months and an FBI investigation, I’m glad to see other journalists join the party, digging into the ties between Breed and Nuru, that $5,600 “gift,” and the identity of “Girfriend 1” heard in Nuru’s wiretapped phone calls (likely Nuru’s most recent squeeze, the aforementioned Zuniga). Now in the FBI’s capable hands, these stories are old news — and only a tiny chip of the giant iceberg I’ve been writing about since my September 2014 column “It’s still Willie Brown’s town.” The subtitle, “Personal politics run amuck at City Hall,” foreshadowed the current state of dirty politics in San Francisco, where the titillating stuff always leads to something even more nefarious.
PASS THE TEQUILA AND THE CHEETOS
Not only has Willie Brown played a role in picking every mayor since he left that office, he has called on personal favors to get protégés and pals into lucrative city positions and contracts. The late Mayor Ed Lee and the now disgraced Nuru are just two of the cronies he helped up the ladder. Take, for example, Harlan Kelly Jr., head of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Brown officiated his wedding, and Mayor Lee — a passive bureaucrat who in many ways owed his job to Brown — appointed both Kelly and his wife Naomi, another Brown acolyte, to their current executive roles. In 2018, Harlan Kelly made $472,737 and his wife, city administrator Naomi Kelly, made $371,822 in salary and benefits for a mind-blowing combined total of $844,559.
In 2014, Harlan Kelly stood by his beleaguered deputy, Juliet Ellis, despite pending investigations by the San Francisco District Attorney, the city’s Ethics Commission, and the state Fair Political Practices Commission about her role in awarding a $200,000 no-bid contract to Green for All, a nonprofit where she served as a paid board member and additionally received $2,000 per month as the organization’s acting executive director. Kelly said her “critical expertise” trumped those pesky ethics issues — but dig a little deeper into that relationship (and some public records made available by an anonymous SFPUC source) and you’ll see Kelly and Ellis took a three-day trip to Chicago together shortly after those scathing reports. In fact, Kelly and Ellis took 44 trips together at a cost of over $130,482 between April 2013 and December 2018, an average of eight trips together per year with an average annual price tag of nearly $24,000, all billed to SFPUC ratepayers.
On some of those trips, they brazenly (or foolishly) rented only one room; on others, adjoining rooms. There’s a trip to Cancun, a room service bill for tequila and Cheetos, and an apparent affinity for the most expensive hotels. In emails, the SFPUC financial department asks for justification on some of the pair’s requests for reimbursement, including why they continually choose the most expensive accommodations.
Keep reading and you’ll find the Willie Brown connection. It appears SFPUC lobbyists paid some of the expenses on some of those trips, including Brown’s friend Jack Baylis, formerly of AECOM. Baylis got a $147 million contract on the Central Subway after being spotted dining with late Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, Brown, and then-Mayor Lee. He was also accused of making improper donations to Lee’s mayoral campaign. Chris Gruwell, formerly of Platinum Advisers, also appears. In 2014 Gruwell helped arrange for Brown to lobby against a billion-dollar assessment to cover parks and public amenities around the Transbay Transit Center. Gruwell is also a longtime political associate of another former San Francisco mayor and Brown disciple, current California Gov. Gavin Newsom. In fact, Gruwell served as Newsom’s first mayoral finance director and as chairman of his reelection committee.
A LEGACY IN LIMBO
Can we dig deeper? You bet we can, and that’s what Mayor London Breed needs to do. It’s a tall order — corruption in this town is thicker than a Shamrock Shake, with winding roads leading to her mentor Willie Brown and forks pointing to fellow Brown protégés — many of whom, like Nuru, she considers friends. It will be Herculean, personally grueling, and messier than the streets of San Francisco, but Breed must take on the task, not only to save this once-great metropolis, but to save her own legacy.
District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen feigned shock over Breed’s admissions of romance and gifts from Nuru and immediately called for her resignation. Ronen spent six years as an aide to Supervisor David Campos before succeeding him in 2016, so I fail to believe she wasn’t aware of the “open secret.” But I’m not interested in seeing Breed resign over a $5,600 car repair. If Breed is more deeply involved in the Nuru scandal, the FBI will find out. What I’m focused on right now is where Breed goes from here, and whether she can separate her job as the leader of this city from her personal relationships — even if that means firing friends in high places. She wasn’t able to do it with Nuru, but maybe she learned from that mistake.
Will London Breed be remembered as just another San Francisco mayor who ignored corruption and pandered to cronyism, or will she be remembered as the mayor who bravely cleaned house and cleaned up City Hall? Let’s hope this time she makes the right choice.
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