On Jan. 29, 2020, I awoke to texts, emails, and calls from workers, City Hall insiders, and loyal readers of this column. Just 10 months prior I penned a piece about Mohammed Nuru, director of San Francisco’s Department of Public Works, and his history of corruption under four mayors. That morning, Nuru had been arrested. “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.” In August 2022, Nuru was sentenced to seven years in prison.
After Anderson went back to private practice, Stephanie Hinds, a 26-year veteran of the agency, took charge, continuing the corruption investigation in Anderson’s footsteps, though not with the same tenacity.
Now the Biden administration (at the urging of Senator Dianne Feinstein) has chosen its own nominee, Harvard-trained former prosecutor turned criminal defense lawyer Ismail “Izzy” Ramsey, to take over the role of Northern California’s top prosecutor. Since former mayor Willie Brown has bragged often about his close relationships with Feinstein and now-Vice President Kamala Harris, it seems likely Brown whispered Ramsey’s name in Feinstein’s ear.
A closer look sheds light on Ramsey’s ties to Brown, Harris, and Nuru. Perhaps the biggest conflict of interest comes from a Brown interview in the Nob Hill Gazette, where he admitted contributing to Nuru’s legal defense. “He’s got a criminal defense; I am contributing to his criminal defense budget . . .” he said. Who was Nuru’s defense attorney? Ismail Ramsey. According to one insider, Brown, alongside Ramsey, pitched a group of wealthy individuals about ponying up a large sum of money to cover Nuru’s legal costs.
NURU SLUGS IT OUT FOR NEWSOM AND HARRIS
Nuru’s ascent started in 1991 as second in command at the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, or SLUG, a community gardens nonprofit. He took the reins in 1994, winning $7 million in city grants, drawing praise from environmental groups — and the attention of then-California Assemblyman Willie Brown.
In 1995, he volunteered for Brown’s successful bid to unseat Mayor Frank Jordan, and he worked for Brown’s reelection campaign in 1999. Three former SLUG workers claimed Nuru said their jobs depended on Brown’s reelection and required them to walk precincts, attend rallies, and work phones for Brown’s campaign. That didn’t faze Brown, who hired Nuru in 2000 as deputy director of operations under then-DPW director Ed Lee (yes, that Ed Lee).
In 2004, a city attorney investigation led by Deputy City Attorney Loretta Giorgi (now a Superior Court judge) found Nuru at the center of a pattern of corruption during the 1997, 1999, and 2003 campaigns. The election fraud allegations stemmed from when Nuru and SLUG’s then-Executive Director Jonathan Gomwalk were accused by street cleaners of bullying them into working for the mayoral campaign of Brown’s chosen successor, Gavin Newsom. Workers said they were repeatedly told their jobs depended on Newsom being elected. Gomwalk acknowledged that he and Nuru assigned workers to walk precincts, knock on doors, and distribute campaign literature.
Workers also told investigators that Gomwalk made them participate in an event sponsored by the “Kamala Harris for District Attorney” campaign, riding in vans organized by Harris to the Department of Elections, where they were pressured by SLUG crew chiefs to cast absentee ballots for Newsom. One SLUG worker said the lead supervisor “peered over her shoulder as she voted.” Workers were also required to turn over ballot stubs to their SLUG supervisor to prove they voted for Newsom. And, according to Giorgi’s report, “workers were driven in SLUG vehicles to the Third Street headquarters of Kamala Harris’ campaign, where they listened to a speech possibly by Harris herself — and were fed a lunch.”
Rebecca Prozan, a former Brown aide and a campaign manager for Harris, told investigators “she did have telephone conversations with Mohammed Nuru throughout the campaign.” For one event, Prozan said, the campaign mailed 9,000 flyers and only 50 to 75 people showed up. Prozan admitted that “all or most of the attendees were in fact SLUG workers.”
The full report was provided to Nuru’s supervisor, Lee, who strategically shelved it. The only actions taken were removing SLUG from city contracts for two years, and DPW prohibiting Nuru from having any further contact with SLUG (the organization has since shuttered).
Lee was rewarded by Newsom with the powerful role of city administrator, and later became an unlikely mayor, replacing Newsom when he was elected California’s lieutenant governor. Despite his dubious past, Nuru was appointed by Lee to his old job as DPW’s executive director.
When he ran against Lee for mayor in 2011, City Attorney Dennis Herrera said, “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. Now, as mayor, Ed Lee thinks it merits a promotion.” Despite tough campaign talk and a damning investigation by his own agency, Herrera ignored the Nuru case for another decade, until David Anderson filed federal charges.
CITY FAMILY TIES THAT BIND
Ismail Ramsey’s relationships with Brown and Harris go way back, making him a de facto member of the now infamous City Family. In fact, Ramsey’s father, late Alameda County Judge Henry Ramsey Jr., is a longtime friend and colleague of Brown’s, serving as co-counsel with him on a number of cases.
The elder Ramsey was also incredibly close to Harris. A March 2014 obituary noted “Ramsey celebrated his 80th birthday in January at a party at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley that included many well-wishers and friends, including state Attorney General Kamala Harris.”
In a 2020 New York Times profile about Ramsey’s stepsister, Yetunde Beutler, and her Paris-based beauty line Essènci, author Thessaly La Force wrote, “Her father, Henry Ramsey Jr., was a civil rights attorney, judge, law professor and dean (he also happened to be an early mentor for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris).”
When Harris was elected to the vice presidency, Beutler wrote on the Essènci website, “I thought about Kamala, the first woman to hold the office of VP … Many years ago, she was a girl my brothers played with, and that my father would play a role in her path to greatness.”
Beutler explained that her father was friends with Harris’s late mother, Shyamala, whom he met at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s where he was a law student, and she was a student in biology. “They were both part of a Black student intellectual teach-in group called The Afro-American Association along with other folks like Ron Dellums, Willie Brown, Don Warden, and Ken Simmons.”
Through that friendship, which continued as their kids grew up and played together, Beutler said, “my father offered to help Shyamala’s daughter, Kamala … Among other things, he helped her get into The University of California, Hastings College of Law school, as a judge he swore her into the California Bar, and he recommended her for a job at the Alameda County district attorney’s office. Behind the scenes he was there at pivotal points in her rise to make an introduction or offer his advice.”
Thus far, Harris has emerged unscathed from the City Hall corruption scandal, slinking stealthily up the political ladder with help from mentors like Willie Brown and Henry Ramsey Jr. As head of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, David Anderson was a nagging thorn in Brown’s side and perhaps a worry in the rearview mirror for Harris, a rooster guarding San Francisco as he dug deeper, moved closer to the top, and kept the foxes at bay.
If confirmed, Ramsey, with connections from Brown to Nuru to a childhood friend turned Vice President of the United States, would be a veritable fox guarding the White House — and San Francisco City Hall.
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