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The city family is a Machiavellian tragedy

As the FBI picks off his protégés, will Willie Brown’s luck run out?
Former Mayor Willie Brown remains a power broker in San Francisco, but he has been unusually quiet as the FBI takes down his protégés one by one. Photo: Gage Skidmore

But never, ever do you abuse your power for personal gain.
The reasons are twofold.
One, it’s wrong.
And two, you’re going to get caught.

— Willie Brown in his Feb. 1 San Francisco Chronicle column “Willie’s World,” after the arrest of protégé and former DPW boss Mohammed Nuru

In September 2014, after City Administrator Naomi Kelly unceremoniously fired director of Animal Care and Control Rebecca Katz for “not being a team player,” I wrote a column called “It’s still Willie Brown’s town: Personal politics run amuck at City Hall.” I interviewed numerous San Francisco employees who had nothing bad to say about Katz, and nothing good to say about Kelly, or about her husband, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission general manager Harlan Kelly Jr. 

“Naomi Kelly is a ‘Willie Girl,’ and that’s how she got the job,” one said. Another insider, who worked more than 20 years at City Hall and continues a “strong relationship with government,” had even harsher words: “Kelly was a Willie Brown ornament . . . and we who worked in city government were skeptical of her credentials . . . ” Over and over during interviews with current and former city employees, the role of San Francisco’s flamboyant former mayor Willie Brown in elevating the Kellys to prestigious positions they didn’t deserve came up. In fact, Amy Brown, who was deputy city administrator (March 2008 through January 2011) and who served as interim city administrator (January 2011 through January 2012), prior to Mayor Lee’s appointment of Naomi Kelley, was infinitely more qualified (she went on to serve in the same role for the City of Campbell).

Willie Brown has aided in the ascension of many politicians, including every mayor since him. Take for example current California governor Gavin Newsom. A handsome businessman and friend of the powerful Getty family, Brown plucked Newsom from obscurity, appointing him to San Francisco’s Parking and Traffic Commission and later to District 2 supervisor. It was all part of Brown’s master plan to sculpt a compliant mayoral successor (more on that later). With the elevation of each protégé, Brown keeps his finger in the political pot. The marriage of Harlan and Naomi Kelly, which Brown officiated, was one of the biggest feathers in his fedora, but it came amid rumors that Harlan was “a player” not ready to settle down. Melanie Lok of Mlok Consulting, who recently received a subpoena from the FBI (along with Harlan Kelly, his most recent gal pal SFPUC Assistant General Manager Juliet Ellis, and wife Naomi Kelly’s city administrator department) is said to be a former girlfriend. Lok’s firm received a multimillion-dollar contract with the SFPUC before Kelly was in charge, but he amended it to increase the dollar amount after he took the helm.

It’s no secret that Lee owed Brown favors for elevating him from a meek bureaucrat to Room 200, so it was no surprise when Lee apparently made good on those favors by appointing the Kellys to the top jobs in the city with more than $800,000 in combined income. Lee famously referred to his fellow officials as “the city family,” a term used by Brown for decades. But as the FBI picks off Brown’s protégés one by one, the normally talkative Brown is surprisingly quiet, particularly about the Kellys. He still writes his San Francisco Chronicle column, aptly titled “Willie’s World” (for which he is reportedly paid $1,000 a week), where he distances himself from city family members that he once helped up the ladder. For example, after Nuru’s arrest Brown wrote “Nuru came to Public Works after I took office,” but in reality, Brown hired Nuru in 2000 as deputy director of operations under then-DPW boss Ed Lee.

As I wrote in my April 2019 column (“It’s time for Mayor Breed to sweep DPW boss to the curb”), Nuru was no stranger to corruption even before Brown made him a member of the city family. In 1991 he became second in command at the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, or SLUG. He took the reins in 1994, winning city grants totaling $7 million, which drew praise from environmental groups — and the attention of then-California Assemblyman Willie Brown. In 1995, he volunteered for Brown’s successful bid to unseat San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, and he worked for Brown’s reelection campaign in 1999. 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 while they were supposed to be cleaning streets.

GHOSTS OF NURU’S PAST

In 2004, allegations of election fraud surfaced again 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 another city family member and Brown’s chosen successor, Gavin Newsom. They said they were repeatedly told their jobs depended on Newsom being elected. Gomwalk acknowledged that SLUG had taken employees to vote by absentee ballot prior to the Dec. 9 runoff. He and Nuru also assigned them to walk precincts, knock on doors, and distribute campaign literature. 

The allegations were serious enough that then-District Attorney Kamala Harris — another Brown protégé — decided to investigate. But street cleaners also said Gomwalk told them to participate in a Dec. 2 get-out-the-vote event sponsored by the Harris for District Attorney campaign, riding in vans organized by Harris to the Department of Elections at City Hall, where they were pressured by SLUG crew chiefs to cast absentee ballots for Newsom. After casting their ballots, they said, crew chiefs asked them to turn over their voter stubs. One street cleaner even said a crew chief peered over her shoulder as she voted. 

After the scandal, Gomwalk was arrested by immigration officers for overstaying his student visa (he was also arrested twice for check fraud in 1994). Because his father and uncle were assassinated by the Nigerian leadership, Gomwalk filed for political asylum, even setting up a website, JusticeForJonathan.org, to ask SLUG workers and others for money to help pay his legal bills. Gomwalk told Roger Gordon, then chairman of SLUG’s board of directors, that investigators were squeezing him for information about Nuru’s alleged wrongdoings. “He said ‘they are trying to get to Mohammed through me, but what they don’t realize is that I don’t have anything to give them,’” Gordon recalled at the time. As is always the case with the city family, that loyalty paid off: Nuru created a program analyst job for Gomwalk with the Bureau of Street Environmental Services where he is responsible for multiple programs, including the controversial Pit Stop toilets. Between salary and benefits, Gomwalk currently makes nearly $145,000 a year.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

As the FBI picks off the city family one by one, the silence from Mayor London Breed — another Brown protégé — is deafening. The Board of Supervisors, other than Catherine Stefani and new-kid-on-the-block Matt Haney (who seems genuinely disgusted by the brazen corruption enveloping City Hall) has also been mostly mute. Not only were Nuru and other members of the city family corrupt under the noses of four mayors, they were corrupt under the noses of numerous supervisors and aides who would become supervisors — some who are still in office today.

As for city family patriarch Willie Brown, he has the Chronicle to set the record straight on everything from escaping prosecution despite years of corruption allegations to his relationship with now-Senator Kamala Harris. When Harris was briefly the frontrunner in the race to become the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, Brown wrote a Chronicle op-ed declaring for the record that he and Harris had dated 20 years ago, and he was pretty much responsible for every job she’s had since. There’s nothing honorable about a man who demeans a strong woman by publicizing their history in the bedroom and taking credit for her successes, whether it’s true or not. There’s also nothing honorable about a man who mentors the mighty, from Nuru to Lee to the Kellys to Mayors Breed and (now Governor) Newsom, and then comes calling for favors. And when they play dirty, get caught, and fall from grace — their careers, their lives, and their families’ lives ruined — he abandons them with a cold-heartedness that would shock a snake. 

“I’ve been investigated by every agency with initials for a name that’s ever existed, and I came out clean,” Brown crowed in his Feb. 1 Chronicle column. Then he dropped the name of City Hall’s most feared man: “I had a long lunch a little while back with U.S. Attorney David Anderson, the top federal prosecutor in San Francisco. Not once did he give so much as a hint he was looking at Nuru or anyone else. Anderson was as cool, friendly and funny as could be, the complete opposite of the stone-faced lawman who rolled out the charges against Nuru…” Apparently Brown doesn’t worry about the city family turning on him, but he isn’t so sure about Anderson. “I wouldn’t want him as an enemy,” Brown concluded. 

At some point one of his disgraced protégés may see the light: Brown is the big fish, and they are just minnows swimming in his murky pond. If that happens and they want to talk, I have no doubt Anderson will be more than happy to listen — and become the enemy Brown most dreads.

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

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