What did Breed’s Nuru announcement really mean?

Sorting out the lingering questions about the mayor's connections to the disgraced public works director.

It’s taken a couple of days, but the local news media have mostly come around to the fact that the real news Friday was not Mayor London Breed’s acknowledgement that she “dated” Mohammed Nuru 20 years ago but the fact that she accepted a $5,600 gift from him last year.

Even the Chron, which has been a huge supporter of the mayor, admitted that she showed a “lapse of judgment.” (The editorial went on to essentially exonerate her, quoting her saying that she had accepted nothing else from Nuru.)

Mayor London Breed was clearly trying to get ahead of the story before it broke.

So let’s take a second and look at the state of this scandal, starting with a few obvious questions.

Why did Breed decide to post her lengthy confession, and what did it really say?

I have read a lot of statements on a lot of issues by a lot of politicians, and I can tell you that this reads as if it were written by a team that included a lawyer and a crisis-communications professional.

It was carefully crafted to put the least-important information – but potentially the hottest news – at the top:

Mohammed Nuru and I have been close personal friends for more than 20 years. We dated for a brief time, two decades ago, long before I ever ran for office.

The news media fell for it; all of the local stories in every local outlet (except 48hills) initially focused on her long-ago “romantic” relationship with the disgraced head of public works.

It’s also noteworthy that she released this on a Friday, right before a long weekend, which is typically when news readership is the lowest.

From there Breed went on to essentially set up her defenses:

To be clear: I never asked Mohammed Nuru to do anything improper, and he never asked me to do anything improper. I was not aware of the schemes alleged by the FBI until shortly before they became public, and when I was informed, I immediately reported the information to our City Attorney.

I’ve been talking to a lot of folks on the local political scene in the past two days, and the question on everyone’s mind is: Why did Breed do this?

Her relationship with Nuru was no secret. Everyone at City Hall knew they were friends and lots of people knew they had “dated” years ago. She has never denied that. The largely irrelevant confirmation of a “romantic” relationship when she was 24, just out of grad school, and he was (depending on the detailed time frame) maybe not yet working for the city, did not rise to the level of a high-profile mayoral missive on Medium.

She argues in the piece that she had no legal responsibility to disclose that Nuru had paid $5,600 to fix her car and ger her a rental last year.

In that case, why release this (not as a City Hall press release, but as what seems to be a carefully crafted legal and political document posted on Medium)?

The only thing that makes sense to me is that she knew that information was going to come out anyway, and she wanted to get ahead of the story.

And the only way the details of her personal deal with Nuru and her broken car was going to become public is if the feds, who drove this investigation from the start, knew about it and were looking into it. Which suggests that maybe Nuru told them as part of his bungled effort to “cooperate” avoid more serious trouble.

That also suggests that Breed may believe she is part of the larger corruption investigation.

Breed asks the question a lot of us have been asking:

If the charges are true, I can only wonder how could someone give up so much, for seemingly so little, endanger one’s hard-earned reputation and livelihood, and upend the lives of family, friends, colleagues and the citizens he served?

After talking to a lot of people who were familiar with Nuru’s operations, I can only offer one speculative answer: This sort of low-level corruption was so common in Nuru’s City Hall circles, and had been going on for so long, that nobody even worried about getting caught. That was just business as usual; four mayors since Willie Brown (had tolerated it, so nobody was ever accountable.

If Breed was that close to Nuru, I have to ask: How did she think he was getting all that work done on his vacation house? Did she never sense that anything was at all wrong?

Maybe not; maybe she paid no attention. That’s not a great recommendation of her management skills.

Who else is involved at this point?

It’s hard to know, since the FBI is running the primary investigation, and relations between the Trump Justice Department and San Francisco’s city attorney and district attorney are not close.

But we know that City Attorney Dennis Herrera has issued subpoenas to eight companies and nonprofits who may have been funneling donations to Nuru’s luxurious staff parties (and who may have been doing business with DPW.)

Among the companies: Clark Construction Group, Pankow Operating, PG&E, Recology, and Webcor.

The subpoenas suggest that if there was any wrongdoing, the money from these corporations, all of whom at some point needed permits or approvals from Nuru’s department, was sent through the San Francisco Clean City Coalition and the San Francisco Parks Alliance, two nonprofits that have a lot of direct ties to Nuru’s old department.

Everyone involved says they are complying with the subpoenas.

A group of neighborhood activists who are concerned about the potential hazards of cell-phone antennas has sent a letter to Herrera suggesting that Nuru, who was involved in the approval (and pretty much never the denial) of new antennas, might have had connections with Verizon, Sprint, AT&T or other carriers and asking that those companies be added to the subpoena list.

The larger question, that so far no city official with investigative authority is asking in public, is how far Nuru’s connections reached. He was a major political player; he had friends at every level of local government and at a lot of levels of local business.

If, as many suspect, the cases cited in the indictment were not the only example of less-than-ethical (and possibly illegal) activity in his department and in his political circles, there could be a lot more to come.