San Francisco public corruption probe snares second official

SAN FRANCISCO - A widening public corruption probe ensnared a second high-ranking San Francisco official Tuesday when the mayor announced she had placed the director of the building inspections department on leave following an investigation by the city attorney's office.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office released a memo Tuesday showing that building inspections director Tom Hui accepted free dinners from people with development business pending before his department. Hui also turned to one of those people for help seeking city employment for his son and the son's then-girlfriend.

The office determined Hui was the unnamed official described in a unsealed federal criminal complaint against Mohammed Nuru, the former public works director who prosecutors say accepted lavish gifts from people doing business with the city, including a $2,000 bottle of wine.

“There is no place in public service for self-dealing,” Mayor London Breed said in a letter to Angus McCarthy, president of the commission that has the power to fire the director. “Mr. Hui abused his position and authority, and betrayed the public trust."

San Francisco isn't the only city in California dealing with a public corruption scandal. Former Los Angeles city councilman Mitch Englander surrendered to FBI agents Monday and pleaded not guilty to charges that he obstructed an investigation into whether he took money, escort services and other gifts from a businessman involved in development.

An automatic reply from Hui's work email said he was currently out of the office.

Angus McCarthy, president of the Building Inspection Commission, said in a letter that while he is confident department staff are aware of ethics requirements, “this ongoing investigation serves to remind us that as public employees we have an obligation and a duty to always conduct ourselves with the utmost integrity."

The department inspects buildings and issues permits for construction. Hui, who has been director since 2013, earns $350,000 in salary and benefits, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The FBI arrested Nuru and restaurateur Nick Bovis - both well connected in city politics- in late January, saying the two conspired to bribe an airport commissioner for prime retail space at San Francisco International Airport. The bribe was not accepted, but the federal indictment has roiled City Hall, with officials expressing outrage over the public corruption allegations.

The hefty 75-page indictment is full of unnamed contractors, developers, executives and employees who are referenced in conversations caught on surveillance.

The scandal has even netted the mayor, who admitted last month to letting Nuru pay about $5,600 in 2019 for car repairs. The two have been friends for decades, and Nuru had the trust of several mayors, including former Mayor Ed Lee.

Attorneys for Nuru and Bovis have said the two are good family men.

The city attorney's office interviewed Hui in February and was scheduled for a follow-up interview Monday. But on Sunday, Hui's attorney called to postpone. Herrera said Tuesday he released the preliminary findings given Hui's high rank and uncertainty over Hui's cooperation.

The city attorney has issued subpoenas looking into Bovis' charity as well as companies associated with developer Zhang Li and Walter Wong, a permit consultant whose services are invaluable in ushering through projects.

While deputy director of the department, Hui sent an email to Wong in 2011 requesting help to change the time of his son's job interview with public works. He also turned to Wong in securing work for his son's girlfriend at the time, according to the city attorney's memo.

“Hi Walter," Hui wrote in a June 2012 email. “There are two more positions in Rec. & Park. I wish you can help my son's girl friend."

The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to hire a special investigator, whose work would be independent of the inquiry by the city attorney's office.

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