Lee appointment of Nuru darkens the ethical cloud over Room 200

Pub date August 16, 2011
SectionPolitics Blog

City Attorney Dennis Herrera deserves credit for being the one mayoral candidate willing to bring a full-throated denunciation of the sleazy and corrupt politics now flowing from Mayor Ed Lee, who yesterday appointed discredited political fixer Mohammed Nuru to head the Department of Public Works, compounding a series of ethically questionable actions by Lee and his supporters.

While it was inexplicably buried by editors at the bottom of Section C, the Chronicle’s City Insider today had a pair of good stories on Lee’s mounting political problems. The first was about how the U.S. Attorney’s Office has reportedly launched a probe of Progress for All and its “Run, Ed, Run” campaign, for which Lee ally Rose Pak illegally sought support from executives at Recology, the garbage company that had just been awarded a huge city contract, largely because then-City Administrator Lee had given the company far higher ratings than the other two supposedly impartial bid judges.

The second story was about Herrera slamming Lee’s choice of Nuru. On his campaign website, Herrera reminded voters about the scandals that have surrounded Nuru – like Lee, someone who has always taken his cues from former Mayor Willie Brown – who illegally diverted city funds and workers into campaigning for Brown in 1999 and Gavin Newsom in 2003. Brown now writes for the Chronicle and is even allowed to comment on the mayor’s race.

The scandal – first broken by the Chronicle in 2004, furthered by reporting in the Guardian, and then investigated by Herrera’s office – involved Nuru steering city funds to his nonprofit San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners and then requiring its employees to illegally do campaign work during work hours. Nuru then went to work for Lee at the DPW while continuing to illegally use SLUG’s funds and employees for political purposes.

Herrera said the appointment smacks of “cronyism, politics, and poor judgment.” Previously, Herrera had the best line about Lee as he jumped into race, telling a mayoral forum: “To my mind, Ed Lee’s biggest problem isn’t that he’s a dishonest man – it’s that he’s not his own man,” Herrera said. “The fact is, if Ed Lee is elected mayor, powerful people will continue to insist on things.”

Topping that list of the powerful people who have clearly been pulling Lee’s strings throughout his career are Pak and Brown, both of whom are consultants who regularly get paid by corporations that do big business with the city and need support from the Mayor’s Office. And their actions are often blatant and shameless, just like Nuru’s history, and even exposure of the misdeeds doesn’t correct the problem.

For example, as I reported last week, Brown’s administration helped Pak buy a Rincon Hill condo for half-price through a city affordable housing program in 2002, even though her disclosure forms showed she had $73,414 in her checking account, some of which probably included the $12,000 consulting fee she reported on her tax return from Emerald Fund – the politically connected developer of the project, employees of which are barred from buying such below-market rate units – and $10,000 from Chiang CM Construction, which helped fund Progress for All.

Most of this information was prominently reported in 2003 by the Examiner, but nothing was ever done. Pak got to keep her taxpayer-subsidized condo. Same thing with Nuru, who remained at DPW even after the City Attorney’s Office and Controller’s Office concluded his actions were corrupt. And Lee was appointed interim mayor even after being tied to several corrupt Brown scams, including overriding city workers to give contracts to fraudulent companies at Brown’s behest.

And now, Lee has placed Nuru in charge of a city department with a $129 million city budget and 1,200 employees, despite Nuru’s proven history of directing his subordinates to illegally campaign for his mayoral benefactors. You couldn’t even make this stuff up, and even Examiner columnist Melissa Griffin flatly calls the move “stupid.”

But I think it’s more than just stupid. And the appointment of Nuru is more than just a setback from DPW that good government activists had been fearing for a long-dysfunctional department that had gotten much better in recent years. It looks like flat-out corruption of the sort that ought to knock Lee out of the frontrunner position and hopefully land him in front of a grand jury at some point.