San Francisco Official's Bribery Scandal: Chinese Billionaire Developer Faces US Court after UK Arrest

San Francisco Official's Bribery Scandal: Chinese Billionaire Developer Faces US Court after UK ArrestGoogle Maps
Tony Ng
Published on July 19, 2023

Zhang Li, a 70-year-old Chinese national and chief executive officer of a real estate development company, appeared in a US District Court last night after being charged with bribing former San Francisco Department of Public Works head Mohammed Nuru, according to an official press release by the US Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California. Zhang's US-based real estate development company, Z&L Properties, Inc., which he controlled, also faced charges of honest services wire fraud for providing bribes and gifts to Nuru in exchange for favorable treatment of Z&L Properties’ commercial and residential project at 555 Fulton Street in San Francisco.

According to Forbes, Li is worth an estimated $1.5 billion.

As part of a negotiated disposition, both Zhang and Z&L Properties will waive the right to indictment and admit that they engaged in certain conduct. Zhang was initially charged by criminal complaint in May 2021, and the United States pursued extradition after he was arrested upon arriving in the United Kingdom in December 2022. Court documents reveal that Zhang bribed Nuru with food, drinks, luxury lodging, and transportation during a 2018 trip Nuru took to China. The alleged purpose of the bribe was to influence Nuru's decisions and city approvals needed during the construction and development of the 555 Fulton Street project.

Z&L Properties Inc., a US company formerly based in Fremont, California, was alleged to have facilitated the payment of bribes to Nuru in exchange for favorable treatment regarding the 555 Fulton project, according to separate court documents. The company has since been charged with conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and honest services wire fraud for its participation in the bribery scheme.

Many officials and commentators have spoken out against Zhang Li, Z&L Properties, and the corruption of public officials. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Robbins said, "The criminal charges and resolutions announced today send a clear message that this office will not tolerate the corruption of public officials in the District by anyone, including individuals acting from outside of the United States."

Additionally, the US Attorney's Office emphasized that the case is part of an ongoing investigation into bribery and public corruption in San Francisco city government, led by the US Attorney's Office, the FBI, and the IRS-Criminal Investigation department. To date, more than 14 individuals and entities have been charged in connection with this larger set of investigations, including former San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, former San Francisco Public Utilities Commission General Manager Harlan Kelly, and multiple city contractors and other facilitators of bribes and corruption.

Zhang has entered a deferred prosecution agreement, and the charge against him will be dismissed in three years if he abides by its terms. Z&L Properties has agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud and one count of honest services wire fraud, pay a $1,000,000 fine, and enter into a corporate compliance program acceptable to the Office of the US Attorney. The court scheduled a further hearing before US District Judge William H. Orrick on August 10, 2023, at 1:30 p.m.

For its part, the US government remains committed to fighting corruption worldwide. As Darren Lian, Special Agent in Charge of the Oakland Field Office of the IRS-Criminal Investigation, stated: "We will continue to pursue those who take advantage of our system and taxpayers by following the money worldwide." This case sends a strong message against corruption in San Francisco city government, and demonstrates that even foreign actors seeking to manipulate public officials are not beyond the reach of US justice.