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SF Corruption Saga Continues: Trash Company Official to Plead Guilty to Bribing City Official

A former executive with San Francisco’s waste company, Recology, has agreed to plead guilty to bribery and will cooperate with federal investigators looking into corruption at City Hall, the U.S. attorney’s office announced Wednesday.

Paul Giusti, 65, Recology’s former government and community relations manager for its San Francisco group, had been charged last November with allegedly bribing former San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, and for money laundering.

“Garbage collection has been a crooked enterprise for decades under the protective blanket of City Hall,” retired judge Quentin Kopp told KQED in reaction to Giusti’s guilty plea.

Kopp has been a longtime critic of what he calls Recology’s sky-high garbage rates in San Francisco. History has proven him right: In March, City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced that Recology would repay San Francisco garbage customers $95 million in overcharges. Those garbage rates were overseen by Nuru, the former public works director, while he was allegedly taking bribes from Giusti.

It’s only the latest development in the long-unfolding San Francisco scandal that has seen the ouster or resignation of four city department heads, including Nuru, and the cooperation of others charged in the investigation, like construction contractor Walter Wong and restaurateur Nick Bovis, both of whom were also involved in bribery schemes of public officials.

Wong and Bovis have also pleaded guilty. Court dates for Nuru and former San Francisco Public Utilities Commission General Manager Harlan Kelly, who was also accused of accepting bribes, have been repeatedly delayed. Kelly’s next court date, for instance, has been pushed back to September.

In the meantime, prosecutors say that Giusti conspired with others between 2014 and January 2020 to direct payments and benefits from Recology to Nuru, who as Public Works director presided over the process governing how much the company could charge residents.

The gifts included payments of about $150,000 per year to a nonprofit, knowing that Nuru controlled it, $60,000 from 2016 to 2019 to fund the annual Public Works holiday party, and a job for Nuru’s son at a Recology subsidiary, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

“This is a real big deal,” said long-time Bay Area political consultant Jim Ross. The holiday party in a particular was a way for Giusti to influence public officials who had direct oversight over the garbage rates that would put money into Recology’s coffers, Ross noted.

He should know: Ross counted Recology as a client, back when it was known as Sunset Scavenger. In 1993, Ross worked on the No on Proposition Z campaign for Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal to defeat a ballot proposition that would’ve ended Recology’s monopoly in San Francisco, which is written into city law.

“That’s one thing I think that that people need to understand, is that the garbage contract in San Francisco is perhaps one of the largest garbage contracts in the state of California. And, you know, a lot of Recology’s worth as a company is grounded in that contract, so it’s very important for it as a company and it and its employees are very, very motivated, have a lot of incentive to maintaining that contract,” Ross said. “This is the golden goose that really funds Recology.”

That’s also where Ross met a younger Giusti. Ross remembers meeting him in the break room at Sunset Scavenger and hearing Giusti describe his garbage route and all the regulars he knew and spoke to.

“I thought, anybody that can build relationships driving a truck on a route like this could certainly do the work of going and meeting voters and other folks around a political campaign,” Ross said.

And so Giusti got a leg up off the garbage route to pitch voters on defeating Proposition Z, which voters rejected by 76%, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

Nearly three decades later, that career pitching the garbage company’s good graces would land Giusti on a pile of others who pleaded guilty to bribing city officials.

Speculating on Giuisti’s motivations, Ross said, “You’ve got a guy that has a real person, well, wants to really please people. He’s under a lot of pressure to perform and deliver. And you have a city official who wants to be all over the line in terms of ethical behavior to extract favors, and it kind of creates a situation.”

Nuru was arrested in January 2020 and resigned from his position, and several other people have also been arrested and charged in the probe, including Harlan Kelly.

New court documents filed Tuesday in federal court elaborated on the alleged bribes and charged Giusti with one count of conspiracy to bribe a local official and to commit honest services fraud. He was arraigned Wednesday and remains out of custody on bond, prosecutors said.

He faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison but could receive a lower sentence depending on his assistance in the larger City Hall corruption case.

Reporting from Bay City News was used in this post.

Copyright 2021 KQED