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Ramsey the Ringer
Close ties between U.S. Attorney nominee Ismail Ramsey, Kamala Harris, and Willie Brown could derail City Hall corruption probe
I’m being picked at now because Mohammed Nuru was charged with fraud ... He was somewhere in the trenches until former SF mayors Ed Lee and Gavin Newsom moved him up the ranks … He’s got a criminal defense; I am contributing to his criminal defense budget.
— Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown to the Nob Hill Gazette, April 4, 2020
On the morning of Jan. 29, 2020, at a wickedly early hour for a writer, my iPhone started buzzing with calls, emails, and text alerts from workers at San Francisco’s Department of Public Works, City Hall insiders, and loyal readers of my Marina Times Reynolds Rap column. Mohammed Nuru — the director of San Francisco’s Department of Public Works — had been arrested by the FBI for fraud following a public corruption probe. “The complaint alleges corruption pouring into San Francisco from around the world,” said David Anderson, then U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, accusing Nuru of “corruption, bribery, kickbacks, and side deals.”
So why was my phone ringing off the hook? Because 10 months prior I wrote my April 2019 column about Nuru’s history of corruption under four mayors, in which I called for his resignation or removal.
My curiosity started while following Nuru’s Twitter feed (under the ironic handle @MrCleanSF), where he was touting the cleanliness of streets in China, Argentina, and Chile during trips taken in October 2018. Nuru snapped photos of himself in front of landmarks and partying with high-ranking officials. I emailed Rachel Gordon, DPW spokeswoman (and former San Francisco Chronicle City Hall reporter), about her boss’s international travel. “I assume these were work related, so I would like to know the dates of the trips, how much the trips cost, and the reason for each trip,” I wrote. Gordon’s response was swift: “Hi Susan. These were not work-related trips. He was on a personal vacation, no government business nor funding involved.”
So how, I wondered, was the public servant in charge of keeping San Francisco’s infamously feces-and-needle-strewn streets clean, able to embark on a nearly month-long “vacation” to three foreign countries? It turns out, the trips were financed by developers hoping to do business with the city. According to Anderson, the DPW boss took travel, hotel stays, and lavish gifts (like a $2,070 bottle of wine) and met repeatedly with a Chinese billionaire seeking to construct a large mixed-use building at 555 Fulton Street in San Francisco. (On Nov. 30, 2022, that Chinese billionaire, Zhang Li, was taken into custody in Great Britain on a warrant accusing him of scheming to bribe San Francisco officials between 2015 and 2020, including paying for Nuru’s “vacation” to China.)
But back in April of 2019, after Gordon insisted Nuru’s international trips were “personal,” I decided to take a deep dive into his past, which, as I said in my column, is littered with “two decades of ethical missteps, misappropriated taxpayer funds, lawsuits, and incompetence,” courtesy of then-mayor Willie Brown, who hired Nuru in 2000 as DPW’s deputy director of operations.
And there it was — the pernicious connection to Brown, the man responsible for promoting numerous cronies to top positions, both literally and behind the scenes. From his hand-picked choices for the three mayors who succeeded him (Gavin Newsom, Ed Lee, and London Breed) to city heads like Nuru, city administrator Naomi Kelly, and her husband, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission general manager Harlan Kelly Jr. (I later penned two columns on Mr. Kelly that led to federal subpoenas, indictments, and arrests, which you can read here and here.)
Nuru was sentenced in August of 2022 to seven years in prison. Kelly is awaiting trial. Kelly’s wife Naomi stepped down after I revealed the couple had used Walter Wong — a longtime contractor and permit expediter who agreed to plead guilty to fraud, conspiracy, and money-laundering charges — to work on their Sunset District home.
REPLACING THE ROOSTER WITH A FOX?
As is customary when the new president is of a different party than the last one, Anderson, the man responsible for bringing Brown’s City Hall cronies to justice, stepped down (he is now in private practice). Since then, Stephanie Hinds, a 26-year veteran of the agency, has led the office, continuing the corruption investigation in Anderson’s footsteps, though not with the same tenacity. But now the Biden administration — at the urging of San Francisco’s own Senator Diane Feinstein — has chosen their own nominee, Harvard-trained former prosecutor turned criminal defense lawyer Ismail “Izzy” Ramsey, to take over the role of Northern California’s top prosecutor. The position requires Senate approval, and Ramsey’s nomination is listed on the agenda Thursday February 8 at 9 a.m. D.C. time. Since Brown has bragged often about his close relationships with Feinstein and Harris, it seems likely that Brown (and possibly Harris) whispered Ramsey’s name in Feinstein’s ear, who then took it to President Biden.
On paper, Ramsey sounds impressive, but a closer look sends shivers of Nuru up my spine due to the Ramsey family’s ties to Willie Brown, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Mohammed Nuru. Perhaps the biggest conflict of interest comes from a fluffy interview with Brown in the Nob Hill Gazette where he admitted to contributing to Nuru’s legal defense. “He’s got a criminal defense; I am contributing to his criminal defense budget…” he told author Janet Reilly. “…I have never, ever abandoned a friend. Never. Period. I don’t support my friend’s conduct, I don’t approve of my friend’s conduct, but I don’t leave the friend in need of a blood transfusion if I can find a way to get it to him.” And who was Nuru’s defense attorney? Ismail Ramsey. According to one insider, Brown, with Ramsey at his side, pitched a group of high-wealth individuals (most undoubtedly indebted to Brown in one way or another) to pony up an enormous sum of money to pay Ramsey to represent Nuru against charges brought by Ramsey’s would-be predecessor David Anderson.
NURU SLUGS IT OUT FOR NEWSOM AND HARRIS
Mohammed Nuru’s ascent to power started in 1991 when he became second in command at the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, or SLUG, a nonprofit managing community gardens. He took the reins in 1994, winning city grants totaling $7 million, which drew praise from environmental groups — and the attention of then-California Assemblyman Willie Brown.
In 1995, he volunteered for Brown’s successful bid to unseat San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, and he worked for Brown’s reelection campaign in 1999. Three former SLUG workers claimed Nuru said their jobs depended on Brown’s reelection and required them to walk precincts, attend rallies, and work phones for Brown’s campaign while they were supposed to be cleaning streets. That didn’t faze Brown, who hired Nuru in 2000 as deputy director of operations under then-DPW director Ed Lee (yes, that Ed Lee). Rumors quickly spread that Nuru wielded the real power as he boasted of meetings with his friend Mayor Brown that didn’t include his boss. Soon staff complaints rolled in about Nuru flaunting city rules and misusing public funds.
In 2004, an extensive City Attorney’s investigation led by deputy city attorney Loretta Giorgi (now a Superior Court judge) found Nuru at the center of a pattern of corruption during the 1997, 1999 and 2003 campaigns. The election fraud allegations stemmed from when Nuru and SLUG’s then-Executive Director Jonathan Gomwalk were accused by street cleaners of bullying them into working for the mayoral campaign of another San Francisco City Family member and Brown’s chosen successor, Gavin Newsom. Workers said they were repeatedly told their jobs depended on Newsom being elected. Gomwalk acknowledged that he and Nuru assigned workers to walk precincts, knock on doors, and distribute campaign literature.
Workers also told investigators that Gomwalk made them participate in a get-out-the-vote event sponsored by the “Kamala Harris for District Attorney” campaign, riding in vans organized by Harris to the Department of Elections at City Hall, where they were pressured by SLUG crew chiefs to cast absentee ballots for Newsom. One SLUG worker said the lead supervisor “peered over her shoulder as she voted.” Other witnesses confirmed that a man was seen walking in an aisle between voting booths. The workers were also required to turn over their ballot stubs to their SLUG supervisor to prove they voted for Newsom.
Also, according to Giorgi’s report, “SLUG workers were driven in SLUG vehicles to the Third Street headquarters of Kamala Harris’ campaign, where they listened to a speech possibly by Harris herself – and were fed a lunch.”
Rebecca Prozan, a former Brown aide and a campaign manager for Harris, told investigators “she did have telephone conversations with Mohammed Nuru throughout the campaign.” For one event, Prozan said, the campaign mailed 9,000 flyers and only 50 to 75 people showed up. Prozan admitted that “all or most of the attendees were in fact SLUG workers.”
At the investigation’s conclusion, the full report was provided to Nuru’s supervisor, Ed Lee, who strategically shelved it. The only actions taken were the removal of SLUG from city contracts for two years, and DPW prohibiting Nuru from having any further official contact with SLUG (the organization has since shuttered).
With help from Newsom after he became mayor, DPW head Lee became city administrator and later an unlikely mayor, replacing Newsom when he headed off to Sacramento as California’s lieutenant governor. And, after 11 years as second in command, Nuru got the nod from Lee as the new head of DPW.
When he was running against Lee for mayor, City Attorney Dennis Herrera said, “For 10 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.” Yet despite his tough talk and a damning investigation by his own agency, Herrera never mentioned Nuru’s misdeeds again — that is, until David Anderson came calling.
CITY FAMILY TIES THAT BIND
Ismail Ramsey’s relationships with Brown and Harris go way back, making him a de facto member of the now infamous City Family. In fact, Ramsey’s father, the late attorney and Alameda County Judge Henry Ramsey Jr., is a longtime friend and colleague of Brown’s, serving as co-counsel with him on a number of cases.
The elder Ramsey was also incredibly close to Harris. A March 2014 SFGate obituary noted “Ramsey celebrated his 80th birthday in January at a party at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley that included many well-wishers and friends, including state Attorney General Kamala Harris.”
In a 2020 New York Times profile about Essènci, the French beauty line she and her husband launched from their home in Paris, France, Ramsey’s stepsister, Yetunde Beutler, spoke of her childhood in Berkeley, Calif., and the important perspective it offered. “Her mother, Eleanor Mason Ramsey, is the president and C.E.O. of an Oakland-based diversity consulting and public policy firm,” wrote author Thessaly La Force, “Her father, Henry Ramsey Jr., was a civil rights attorney, judge, law professor and dean (he also happened to be an early mentor for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris).”
When Harris was elected to the vice presidency, Beutler wrote on the Essènci website, “I thought about Kamala, the first woman to hold the office of VP and a woman of color. A role model for women around the world in so many respects. Many years ago, she was a girl my brothers played with, and that my father would play a role in her path to greatness.”
Beutler went on to explain that her father was friends with Kamala Harris’s late mother, Shyamala, whom he met at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, where he was a law student, and she was a student in biology. “They were both part of a Black student intellectual teach-in group called The Afro-American Association along with other folks like Ron Dellums, Willie Brown, Don Warden, and Ken Simmons.”
Through that friendship which continued as their kids grew up and played together, Beutler wrote, “my father offered to help Shyamala’s daughter, Kamala, the best he could. Among other things, he helped her get into The University of California, Hastings College of Law school, as a judge he swore her into the California Bar, and he recommended her for a job at the Alameda County District of Attorney’s office. Behind the scenes he was there at pivotal points in her rise to make an introduction or offer his advice. In short, he believed in her and saw her potential.”
So not only was Harris childhood friends with “Izzy” Ramsey and his brothers, but their father, whom Harris has referred to in interviews as her “godfather,” helped propel her career every step of the way.
Thus far, Harris has emerged unscathed from the City Hall corruption scandal, slinking stealthily up the city, state, and national political ladders with help from mentors like Willie Brown and Henry Ramsey Jr. As head of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, David Anderson was a nagging thorn in Brown’s side and perhaps a worry in the rearview mirror for Harris, a rooster guarding San Francisco as he dug deeper, moved closer to the top, and kept the foxes at bay. Ramsey, with connections from Brown to Nuru to a childhood friend in the White House, is their ideal replacement — a veritable fox in the henhouse. If Ramsey is confirmed as Anderson’s permanent replacement, conflicts of interest be damned, it’s fair to assume his loyalties would lead him in the opposite direction of his former client, Mohammed Nuru, and the multiple fraud investigations he unleashed. While Nuru has become the poster boy for City Hall corruption, he isn’t the first, the worst, or the last. If Ramsey gets the gig, Nuru could be adding another unsavory credit to his résumé: collateral damage.
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