A culture of corruption at City Hall

A generation of mayors allowed this to happen -- and all it does is help Donald Trump's agenda.

I was in a taxi the night that the feds announced they had arrested DPW director Mohammed Nuru, and the driver wanted to talk about it.

“Why would he do that?” the guy asked. “I mean, he makes more than $300,000 a year. He’s got kids. Why would he risk it all?”

It’s true: Nuru made a great salary. He could retire in just a few years on a pension of around $200,000. He had a great gig.

Sups. Matt Haney, Dean Preston, and Gordon Mar call for an independent outside investigation into City Hall corruption.

And when you read the criminal complaint in detail, it’s really pretty small-time corruption (compared, for example, to what PG&E has been doing for a century). Nuru wasn’t getting huge bags of cash; he got a free trip to China, some discounted work done on his vacation house, some “stones” that might be worth money, and maybe some other small-time payments.

So what’s going on here?

I think it’s pretty clear from the complaint, which shows discussions not only involving Nuru but involving other high-level city officials, the Airport Commission (including member Linda Crayton, who just resigned), former Mayor Ed Lee, an executive at the Transbay Joint Powers Board, a politically connected lawyer “who knows all the [airport] commissioners,” (who do you suppose that is?) an architect who is close to the commissioners and a local permit expeditor (the FBI has raided the office of politically connected expeditor Walter Wong).

From the complaint: Nuru gave out “favors”

The picture you get is that corruption on this level – rigged contract bids, favors for powerful players, secret deals to secure votes at commissions – has just been business as usual in some agencies for at least the past 20 years.

For decades, insiders have been getting special deals and the people in the Mayor’s Office have been either blessing it or looking the other way.

“They’re all on the take.”

Why did Nuru risk everything on a bunch of stuff that didn’t even yield him a lot of money? I would surmise (and some of the evidence suggests) that he’s been doing this for years; it’s just how business was done in his department.

Nobody cared when he used public funds to help Brown and Newsom get elected. Nobody in the Mayor’s Office cared about a long list of problems in his management. As long as politically connected people got the streets cleaned when they called, it was all just fine.

The complaint shows clear evidence that the Airport Commission is violating the Brown Act on a regular basis, that three commissioners decide in advance who is going to get hired or get a contract, and they vote as a bloc to make that happen.

It shows that the late Mayor Lee promised to help Nick Bovis get a concession at the airport – although the mayor has no legal role in overseeing bids and awarding deals.

The votes at the Airport Commission are apparently rigged in advance

It shows that a senior executive at the TJPA took calls from Nuru and agreed to help him get deals for a friend.

And while several supervisors have expressed outrage at this, and Sup. Matt Haney is calling for an outside investigation (which is badly needed), I think Nuru was just doing what his mentors taught him to do, what four mayors, including the current mayor, apparently thought was just fine.

Because it’s almost impossible to believe that nobody in Room 200 had any idea that this shit was going on all these years.

So all the key votes at the airport are done in the back room in advance?

So why do I care if a bureaucrat helped a friend try to get a contract for a chicken stand at the airport? Or got some contractors he knew because the worked for the city to do discounted work on his house? Or helped a big developer get a deal with the city after the developer flew him and his daughter to China and served them fancy wine?

Two reasons.

First, it’s going to give the Trump folks another reason to say that when “liberals” run a city, everything falls apart. Fox News just did a five-part series on how messed up San Francisco is; Trump himself uses the city as an example of progressive dysfunction.

It’s all “cooked” outside the public eye.

For the record, not a single San Francisco mayor since 1992 can be accurately described as a “liberal” or “progressive” in any way that I believe those words mean. Not one mayor in the last 25 years has made any effort to tax the rich to pay for services for the poor, or challenged corporate power (or taken a strong stand against corruption).

Sometimes it’s campaign money.

There have been plenty of supervisors who have done that, and a majority of progressives now controls the board. But they don’t run departments.

But that’s reality, and national perception can easily be swayed by news media who look at homelessness, dirty streets, and now City Hall corruption and use that to undermine the national progressive agenda.

Problem with a contract? Nuru can just call and try to fix it.

The second reason this drives me crazy is that I have spent most of my professional career trying to argue that the public sector should control more of the functions and resources of society. Housing shouldn’t be a function of the private market. Health care should be a public good. Electricity, broadband, and telecommunications should be public services, not private entities. High taxes on big corporations and the rich should be used to fund public priorities.

And every time some low-level crook gets busted for public corruption, everything I have worked for all these years gets a whole lot more difficult.

I hear it all the time, and I will hear it more now: “You want the government to run the electrical system? What about Mohammed Nuru? You want the government to run health care? What about the corruption at the airport? You want me to pay more taxes? Look where it’s going –- to the crooks at City Hall.”

This matters. It matters a lot. It’s a defining issue in American politics.

And don’t think for a second that the Trump Justice Department and Trump’s US attorney doesn’t know it.

Mayor London Breed has been pretty quiet about this whole thing. Sure, she issued a statement – but the fact is, this should be a defining moment in her administration. She should fire Nuru (who is still drawing a salary), and support Haney’s call for an outside investigation, and make it clear that nobody gets any “favors” from anyone in City Hall just because they are well connected or give money (including campaign money).

She needs to fire a whole lot of people, including everyone airport commissioner who was involved not just in this deal but in the practice of violating the Brown Act and cutting other deals in advance, and everyone at the TJPA who worked with Nuru on favorable deals.

She needs to support a public inquiry that would reveal who the “politically connected lawyer” who knows all the airport commissioners is, and who all the contractors are.

This needs to be a wake-up call to clean up City Hall – or we will just be handing Donald Trump another favor.