(photo credit: Luke Thomas, Fog City Journal. Left to right, Mayor’s Chief of Staff Steve Kawa, Rose Pak, Mohammed Nuru, former mayor Willie Brown)
It came and went in the blink of an eye.
The Chronicle gave it one story, six paragraphs on page C-3 on March 2. No editorial, no commentary from Chuck Nevius. No billboard.
Yet the appointment of Mohammed Nuru to be permanent Director of the Department of Public Works delivers one of the city’s most important agencies into the hands of a man who allegedly protected a serial sexual harasser, fired his own Equal Opportunity officer who had objected, was at the center of election scandals in 1997, 1999 and 2003, was involved in using a city-funded agency for political campaigns, and used thousands of dollars in city-funds to beautify his own block.
If ever there could be a case study on the application of the city charter’s proscription against “conduct that falls below the standard of decency, good faith and right action impliedly required of all public officers,” it would be the case of Mohammed Nuru.
Instead those standards were brushed aside by Mayor Ed Lee who extravagantly praised Nuru when appointing him two weeks ago.
“Mohammed Nuru is a dedicated public servant who has proven over the last decade to be one of the hardest working City employees keeping San Francisco clean, green and beautiful,” said Mayor Lee.
“His track record of building bridges and partnering with the community aligns with our common commitment to maintaining the City’s infrastructure, delivering outstanding service to residents and visitors, and efficiently managing public works projects that will create jobs and help revitalize San Francisco’s economy,” said Lee in a press statement
Just a year earlier on February 15, 2011, Lee signed off on a $105,000 settlement in a case brought by Nuru’s Equal Opportunity officer for racism and sexism following her dismissal and alleged retaliation.
Among a list of examples of Nuru’s misconduct, his EEO officer included tolerating a DPW official who sought sexual favors from staff members over a 30-year period and held a woman employee imprisoned in a car while he sought sexual favors from her.
Flash back to 2004, when an extensive City Attorney’s investigation led by a deputy city attorney who now is a Superior Court judge found Nuru to be at the center of a pattern of corruption in 1997, 1999 and 2003 campaigns. The report was turned over to Nuru’s supervisor, at the time Ed Lee, who shelved it with no action.
Under city policies, it is not the City Attorney but supervisors and in some cases the mayor who make the decision on whether to discipline employees whose behavior falls below the standard of decency or right action,
City Attorney Herrera who oversaw the 2004 investigation into political corruption and handled the city’s defense of Nuru and the ultimate settlement, made clear his reaction to Nuru’s appointment as the interim DPW director in August 2011.
“For ten years, Nuru’s questionable ethics and repeated misappropriation of taxpayer dollars didn’t seem to merit a slap on the wrist from Ed Lee,” stated Herrera during the mayoral campaign. “Now, as Mayor, Ed Lee thinks it merits a promotion. For a $200,000-plus salary, taxpayers have a right to expect professionalism. Instead, they’re getting cronyism, politics and poor judgment.”
Nuru, like many who are part of the Willie L. Brown Money Machine, got his start in city politics as a handpicked choice of Willie L. Brown.
Nuru, an immigrant born in England but who grew up in Lagos, owes everything today to Willie Brown. In return, Nuru delivered for Brown in election after election, skirting and possibly overturning election rules in the process.
His ties to Brown protected him against complaints from his staff of bullying, misuse of city funds, violating hiring rules to put allies on the city payroll, and coercing contractors into campaign work.
It also earned him unusual access to Brown and would meet with him in the mayor’s office without being accompanied by his supervisor, Ed Lee.
“Complainants say that from the day he arrived at DPW, Nuru made clear he had been installed by the mayor to shake up a bureaucracy that Brown regarded as unresponsive, hidebound and racist,” the Chronicle wrote in a major 2004 profile of Nuru.
“Because Nuru was the mayor’s protégé, they contend, nobody wanted to take him on” according to the Chronicle story.
“Everybody was scared of Willie Brown,” said former DPW maintenance manager Mel Humphreys, who said he was demoted and forced to retire because he objected to what he described as Nuru’s use of city workers for private projects. “Nobody wanted to do anything about it.”
As Ed Lee famously reportedly said to Board President David Chiu, Lee himself said he finds it hard to say ‘No” to Willie Brown.
Nuru now sits atop an agency that manages contractors and compliance on every major project underway or planned in San Francisco, from the Central Subway to the Transbay Terminal, from the rebuild of San Francisco General Hospital to the new Public Utilities Commission headquarters to the proposed Cruise Ship Terminal at Pier 27 due to be part of the America’s Cup infrastructure – projects that run to an estimated $9 billion over the next five years.
He also directs the agency where “the rubber meets the road” on a perennial issue for most cities – street and road rebuilding and repair.
Discrimination Case Costs SF $105,000
Last year San Francisco settled a lawsuit against Nuru by a former Assistant Manager of Equal Employment Opportunity Programs who charged him with sex and race discrimination and for retaliation for bringing forward complaints she investigated.
Toni Battle was the only African American female manager in the General Services Administration during her tenure.
Ed Lee, with responsibilities over DPW as the Chief Administrative Officer, approved the dismissal in 2010. In February 2011, Lee signed a settlement that paid the former EEO officer $105,000.
In one case cited in court documents, Battle documented complaints that a supervisor solicited a staff member for sexual favors, held the staff member “hostage” in a car, and made lewd comments.
An EEO investigation found that the supervisor had engaged in the same pattern of behavior for over 30 years, involving approximately four women during that time. GSA EEO recommended that management proceed with termination with a dishonorable release. The impact would be to block him from being re-employed in another city capacity.
The report was completed and submitted in November 2008.
In her complaint, Battle stated that Nuru sat on her report for several days, during which time the supervisor was allowed to retire with a record allowing him to be re-employed in other city positions. Battle asserted that Nuru responded to her complaint and stated, “He’s gone – no problem.”
“All you have to say is that he is no longer here. The problem is gone,” Nuru said according to Battle’s affidavit.
Nuru reportedly said of one female staffer “to stop acting ghetto” and that “she needed to learn how to dress like a lady,” suggesting that a male staffer “teach her what to wear,” according to Battle’s affidavit.
Nuru interfered in DPW hiring decisions, according to the court filings, adding points for employees seeking promotion or better assignments and insisting on reading confidential background reports that are off-limits to supervisors.
Battle complained that after her pushbacks on these and other issues, Nuru began publicly humiliating her in front of other staffers.
In her complaint, Battle stated that eventually she learned that other staffers were warned not to associate with her or even to go to lunch with her because Nuru did not like her.
A staff member reportedly said “you may want to stay away from her. You’d better watch being around her because Mohammed would not be happy with you.”
Nuru took his decision to fire Battle to Ed Lee for permission, which Lee then supported despite a claim of retaliation.
The City Attorney’s response to the lawsuit challenged Battle’s standing and other legal issues, but not the facts in her allegation.
Nuru did not comment when the San Francisco Examiner wrote its August 2011 article, but Battle’s attorney did.
“All the facts and allegations in the lawsuit are true,” said Battle’s attorney, Waukeen McCoy. “I’m surprised that he would be promoted.” McCoy was a past appointee to the city’s Ethics Commission.
The Chronicle did not report on the case either then or when Nuru was named to be permanent DPW head.
1997 Stadium Mall Campaign
The 2004 City Attorney’s investigation was prompted by Chronicle articles reporting that employees of San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), a city-funded nonprofit, said they had been required to campaign in 2003 for the election of Gavin Newsom or be dismissed.
The investigation turned up witnesses who said that the 2003 campaigning on city time and with city funds was not the first time SLUG workers had been given a choice of campaigning or losing work.
The witnesses said it began during Mayor Willie Brown’s second year in office when he faced his toughest election – to convince voters to approve a combined stadium-mall development primarily intended to keep the San Francisco 49ers in San Francisco.
Brown’s effort took on a do-or-die aura. He bragged that he “induced” 800 city workers to take a day’s vacation to work in the campaign. The Housing Authority opened “early voting” locations in the Bayview despite a warning from the Secretary of State that selective voting opportunities was a violation of the election code.
That deal was brokered directly from Brown’s office to Housing Authority Director Ronnie Davis, who later pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in a federal case that followed him from Ohio. Brown’s loyalty showed there as well, as he co-hosted a fundraiser to pay Davis’ attorney costs.
By 1997 Nuru, now head of SLUG, passed the word to SLUG supervisors and employees to campaign. He used the opportunity to provide door-to-door material on lead paint dangers paid by federal funds to also place door hangers favoring Brown’s measure.
One witness in the 1997 stadium campaign was an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice at the time of the 2004 City Attorney report, told investigators she attended a meeting ‘during which Nuru exhorted the SLUG supervisors and crew to perform telephone banking and precinct walking for the initiative.”
Those are routine campaign activities; performing them through a city-funded nonprofit drawing pay for it violates several laws, including with the Internal Revenue Service where nonprofits are forbidden from electioneering for candidates.
After the measure passed with just a 1,500 vote margin, Nuru bragged that he had delivered the Bayview for the mayor’s initiative.
Within a year, Nuru’s SLUG was rewarded with a grant of over $1 million from the Department of Public Works. It was the largest grant the group had received, according to the Chronicle’s Williams and Fainaru-Wada.
The California Secretary of State, who reviewed complaints of election violations, announced that it was impossible to identify who was responsible for any violations.
“While we believe that electioneering violations may have occurred, and a small number of illegal votes may have been cast, neither witnesses nor our investigator have been able to identify the individuals responsible for the illegal acts . . . consequently, we are unable to pursue criminal charges at this time,” said Bill Jones, Secretary of State.
The proposed stadium-mall plan itself unraveled after the 49ner team owner, Edie DeBartolo, was caught up in a Louisiana pay-to-play scheme for a gambling permit and had to give up control of the team.
1999 Brown Re-Election Campaign
In 1999, when Brown faced an unexpected challenge for re-election from the write-in campaign for then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano, Nuru also turned out SLUG workers to campaign for Brown, according to the 2004 City Attorney’s report of witness statements.
Once again Nuru turned to his supervisors and SLUG team to work on behalf of Brown.
“In that election, The Chronicle reported, three former SLUG employees say Nuru told them their jobs depended on Brown’s re-election and required them to walk precincts, attend rallies and work phones for Brown’s campaign while they were supposed to be cleaning streets,” the paper wrote in its 2004 Nuru profile.
While Brown savored his victory, Nuru could savor a new title and office. Brown named Nuru to be Deputy Director for the Department of Public Works. Among his duties would be overseeing the SLUG contract and the supervisors and members of his former staff.
Nuru’s Clean-Up Efforts are Close to Home
Nuru has garnered strong support from other city elected officials for his rapid response to their calls for clean-up and repairs in their districts. It is a template that leans heavily on the tradition of machine politics and City Hall connections. It becomes the tangible delivery for elected officials to show constituents that they are responsive to their neighborhoods.
But what Nuru has done for others he also reportedly has been willing to do for himself.
A 2004 Chronicle article by Lance Williams and Mark Fairnaru-Wada reported that Nuru ordered a clean up of a privately owned debris-strewn vacant lot near his home. The taxpayer cost was put at $40,000.
He later requested $70,000 from the HUD-funded Office of Community Development to clean up a city-owned lot four doors from his home. The Chronicle reported that city records show that Nuru was the original contact for the request.
Decisions on spending by the Community Development office are made by the mayor’s appointees.
The 2003 Election and Investigation
Every campaign doubtlessly has workers and volunteers who put a toe over the ethical line and it’s not unheard of when some are rewarded in one fashion or another – including with a city job.
What happened in 2003, prompting a major investigation by the City Attorney, were orders of magnitude different. It also required the knowledgeable cooperation of others who now occupy some of the city’s highest-level positions.
Call them the Class of 2003.
The focus of the investigation was Mohammed Nuru.
The 2003 election saw the end of Willie Brown’s mayoralty, but with a strong effort, it would not mark the end of Willie Brown’s influence and even control over the levers of power at City Hall. If anyone owed their political career and future to Willie Brown, they could be expected to do anything necessary to elect Brown’s protégé, Gavin Newsom, for a seamless transition.
The significance of that election was that the 2003 election was not about two City Hall insiders deciding who would sit in the mayor’s chair. Instead it fell along the lines of the Moscone-Barbegelata or Agnos-Molinari elections that pitted insiders against outsiders on a citywide basis, opening government to those shut out by the entrenched power brokers.
Power brokers like Willie Brown who once described how he retained control over other officials by saying “I feed their smallness.” It substituted ego stroking for action on issues and expanding participation in government decisions. The size of an office, additional staff or the threat of losing those perks was the tools.
When it came to the entrenched downtown interests, the model still worked – feeding their small self-absorbed vision about what was in it for them in time for the next quarter’s stock report or similar benchmark in return for underwriting Brown’s projects and initiatives.
In the 2000 election, Brown’s style created a backlash of epic proportions, as the “outsider” candidates emboldened by Ammiano’s 1999 write-in contest won the majority of seats on the Board.
That put a red flag before the Montgomery Street bulls that the 2003 mayoral election could cost them the one office they most needed.
It also was the office Brown most needed even if he no longer could sit in the chair. Brown’s protégé for the mayor’s seat was Gavin Newsom, a supervisor with a political base of one – Willie Brown. It was Brown who plucked him from political obscurity to be appointed to the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission, and shortly afterwards to appointment to a seat on the Board of Supervisors. In 2003, Newsom had no political operation except for what Willie Brown could do.
One of Newsom’s campaign hires was the firm that helped Willie Brown beat Ammiano in 1999 with an award-winning video to convince LGBT voters that they didn’t need to vote for Ammiano on the basis of the fact that he was a gay man.
Alex Tourk, formerly Willie Brown’s Director of Neighborhood Services, then in a classic Willie Brown shuffle moved to became director of government relations for the San Francisco 49ners, was brought on to head up a field operation.
One of the assets Tourk sought to bring into play were city-funded nonprofit agencies who could deliver campaign workers to walk precincts, staff phone banks, serve as human billboards, and more. Later Tourk would explain to the City Attorney’s investigators that he didn’t realize it was illegal for nonprofits to be involved in campaigns for candidates.
Re-enter Mohammed Nuru – along with the Class of 2003.
Alex Tourk “telephoned Mohammed Nuru and Jonathan Gomwalk [now SLUG Executive Director replacing Nuru] to tell them about upcoming campaign events,” the 2004 City Attorney’s report states. “He stated that he placed those calls because he was aware that both men could be expected to bring SLUG workers to Newsom campaign events.”
The report’s author was Lori Giorgi, then a deputy city attorney and now a Superior Court judge in San Francisco.
Tourk “recalled that he was unaware at the time of the campaign – and was unaware at the time of our interview – of any laws affecting a private non-profit agency’s ability to engage in political activity,” the report stated.
Tourk also coordinated with Newsom’s Bayview headquarters, directed by a Brown city hall aide named Malia Cohen, today a member of the Board of Supervisors.
“Malia Cohen, field organizer in the Bayview office of the Newsom campaign, recalls that Mr. Tourk gave her the names of several non-profit agencies in that area and told her they were “players” and should be approached for support,” the investigators reported.
The Russia Street headquarters office came under Trent Rohrer, then and now the city’s Director of Human Resources. An additional contact was Linda Richardson, who today serves as President of the Treasure Island Development Authority.
While Tourk, Rohrer, Cohen and Richardson may have thought what they were seeking was volunteers, Mohammed Nuru, according to the City Attorney’s investigation, reportedly was coercing participation by SLUG workers paid by Nuru’s DPW, Rohrer’s Human Services Department, and Muni. Each agency had contracts with SLUG and other nonprofits.
Newsom campaign identified Nuru as the “go-to guy for turning out volunteers”
Trent Rohrer told investigators “He knew that on both election days he could expect Mohammed Nuru to be at the campaign office and to be accompanied by SLUG workers acting as volunteer precinct workers.”
Nuru’s Tactics Include Threats of Dismissal
“We identified the former SLUG executive director (Mr. Mohammed Nuru, since August 2000 a deputy director of the city’s Department of Public Works) who was alleged to have participated in directing – in one instance, coercing – SLUG workers in some of their campaign activities…. Through counsel, Mr. Nuru declined to be interviewed,” reported the city’s investigators.
Fear of retribution is “a claim to which we give some credence after an experience one of us had being surveilled and approached in an intimidating manner throughout most of one day in the field” stated the report.
The report recounts statements from SLUG workers that they were also told that if they failed to vote for Newsom they would be fired. The investigators interviewed a witness who saw SLUG workers at the City Hall voting booths where a person walked down the aisles and was able to see how ballots were cast.
“Some of the witnesses stated that Gomwalk said or implied that if they failed to vote for Newsom, they would not be paid. The message was to vote for Newsom on pain of forfeiture of pay or worse” they reported.
One SLUG worker recounted, “The lead supervisor peered over her shoulder as she voted. (Other witness confirmed that a man was seen walking in an aisle between voting booths.).”
The workers were then required to turn over their ballot stubs to their SLUG supervisor to prove they actually voted.
To ensure that Newsom’s campaign had a sufficient supply of SLUG workers, the report noted that members of the rail crew were rotated during the run-off period between their rail jobs and the Newsom campaign.
Two SLUG employees were sent to the Gavin Newsom for Mayor office on Third Street where he and other members of the Visitacion Valley and Third Street Light Rail SLUG crews reportedly were given Newsom for Mayor campaign signs. They were assigned to perform one function during their entire shift: to walk up and down Third Street and on major streets, holding up the signs. (Later that day the SLUG executive director showed up to drive them to a “more strategic location.”
Paid City Overtime to Heckle Matt Gonzalez
SLUG workers also were paid overtime to attend an event where they could catcall and boo Newsom opponent Matt Gonzalez.
The workers were told to attend the mayoral debate at Jones Methodist Church early Thanksgiving week (Nov 23) and would be paid overtime.
“At the debate, according to the witness, and following the example of their supervisors, the rail crew heckled and booed Supervisor Gonzalez. According to the witness, prior to the debate his supervisors and Gomwalk made clear that their role at the debate was to support Newsom, states the Giorgi report.
Kamala Harris, Brown’s former girlfriend, also was on the ballot and needed campaign support. SLUG responded.
“The SLUG workers were driven in SLUG vehicle to the Third Street headquarters of Kamala Harris’ campaign, where they listened to a speech possibly by Harris herself – and were fed a lunch,” the report continues.
Rebecca Prozan, a former Brown aide and appointee to the Recreation and Park Commission, was a campaign manager for Kamala Harris.
She told investigators “she did have telephone conversations with Mohammed Nuru throughout the campaign.”
“These conversations reportedly were about strategies for getting out the vote in the African-American community generally; they were not specific requests for Nuru or Gomwalk to bring SLUG workers to rallies or GOTV events”
For one event, Prozan told investigators that the campaign mailed 9,000 flyers for an event and only 50-75 people showed up. “Prozan concluded that all or most of the attendees were in fact SLUG workers.”
Ron Vinson, former Brown deputy press secretary and today Deputy Director of the city’s Technology office, led them in.
While the City conducted its report, SLUG’s Board of Directors also investigated the nonprofits actions in the 2003 campaign, issuing a March 8, 2004 report.
SLUG’s board concludes there was no coercion on staff to volunteers, and that the urging by supervisors to work in the campaigns was “an expression of opinion and protected free speech.”
“Furthermore, much import was given to comments allegedly made by Mohammed Nuru, a City worker who had taken the day off to campaign, to SLUG members along the lines of “If our candidate doesn’t win, we are all out of a job.’ Again, we believe this to be an expression of opinion and protected free speech,” stated SLUG’s own report.
Nuru, although a deputy director of a city department, refused to be interviewed by the City Attorney’s office.
Newsom’s own campaign did not provide documents requested by the City Attorney’s investigators.
“We have not yet obtained documents from counsel to the Newsom for Mayor campaign,” they wrote.
The outcome of the investigation was to suspend SLUG from city contracts for two years and to provide Nuru’s supervisor, Ed Lee, with the full documentation.
Lee’s public response was handled by his press aide, Christine Falvey, who today is the Press Secretary to Mayor Lee.
Lee’s response was to tell Nuru not to have contact with SLUG and to send letters to city-funded nonprofits to ask if they believed they had done anything wrong. None said they had.