By Luke Thomas
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a response from the mayor’s office. See below.
August 15, 2011
San Francisco City Attorney and mayoral candidate Dennis Herrera today slammed interim Mayor Ed Lee for his appointment of Mohammed Nuru to head the Department of Public Works saying the appointment smacks of “cronyism, politics and poor judgement.”
“Mohammed Nuru doesn’t belong in charge of a City department with a $129 million annual budget,” Herrera said in statement. “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. 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. San Franciscans deserve better—at DPW, and in Room 200.”
Nuru, who was first hired by Lee during the administration of former Mayor Willie Brown, was the subject of a series of ethical scandals involving the misappropriation of public funds for personal uses, retaliatory threats against whisteblowers as well as directing city contractors to engage in illegal political activities while they were being paid with public funds, Herrera states:
Herrera’s office conducted an investigation in 2004 into the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, or “SLUG,” the city-funded nonprofit Nuru headed from 1994 to 2000, in the midst of a series of San Francisco Chronicle news reports about potentially illegal electioneering activities. Nuru maintained close working ties to SLUG after going to work for Lee in 2001, according to witnesses, and also oversaw SLUG’s $1 million-per-year street-cleaning contract with DPW. The City Attorney investigation found that while at DPW, Nuru directed SLUG employees who were paid with city funds to conduct campaign activities in the 2003 municipal and runoff elections for Mayor and District Attorney—in clear violation of local law prohibiting city-funded nonprofits from using those funds to campaign for candidates or ballot measures. Witnesses also testified that Nuru had instructed city-funded SLUG workers to engage in similar campaign activities while he served as SLUG’s executive director, for a 1997 ballot measure backed by then-Mayor Willie Brown, and for his 1999 re-election campaign.
Following the 2004 City Attorney investigation, an audit by then-San Francisco City Controller Ed Harrington found a raft of financial improprieties involving SLUG and DPW. The Controller’s review revealed that SLUG mismanaged city grants and contracts, and was overpaid by city departments, including DPW, an amount totaling nearly $72,000. The audit additionally found that SLUG failed to pay more than $643,003 in payroll taxes, and that DPW improperly used SLUG’s contract with Public Works to purchase a $62,508 portable building for DPW’s use. Though Lee reportedly instructed Nuru to conduct no further business with SLUG, neither the 2004 City Attorney’s investigation report nor the similarly damning City Controller audit appears to have resulted in disciplinary action against Nuru at DPW. SLUG was formally debarred from city contracts for two years for violating Section 12G.1 of the San Francisco Administrative Code, which prohibits city funded organizations from using any of those funds to participate in, support, or attempt to influence a political campaign. The organization is now defunct.
Conspicuously absent from last week’s announcement that Mohammed Nuru would take over as DPW’s acting director effective Aug. 15 was interim Mayor Ed Lee. Though the appointment was announced in a written statement from the acting City Administrator, such appointments require “the concurrence of the Mayor,” according to San Francisco City Charter, § 3.104. A report noted that while Nuru’s salary was not finalized, his predecessor’s annual salary was $204,750. Nuru’s most recent previous annual salary as DPW’s Deputy Director of Operations was $193,000.
Neither Ed Lee’s mayoral or campaign spokespersons responded to multiple requests seeking comment. This article will be updated if a response is received.
Update, 10:35 am: Mayor’s office spokesperson Christine Falvey provided FCJ with the following response:
“Mayor Lee agrees with the city administrator’s recommendation and choice of Mohammed Nuru as Acting Director of the Department of Public Works,” Falvey said. “He has earned this opportunity through years of working diligently with DPW staff, our city leaders and most importantly, community members. He is responsive, accountable and has been leading efforts to form public and private partnerships to keep the city clean and green in extremely difficult budget years.”