SAN FRANCISCO – Zhang Li, founder and chief executive officer of a Chinese real estate development company appeared last night in U.S. District Court on charges that he bribed former head of the San Francisco Department of Public Works Mohammed Nuru, announced First Assistant United States Attorney Patrick Robbins, Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Robert K. Tripp, and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Darren Lian. A U.S. company that Zhang controls, Z&L Properties, Inc., was also charged with honest services wire fraud for providing bribes and gifts to Nuru in exchange for favorable city treatment of Z&L Properties’ mixed-use project at 555 Fulton Street in San Francisco, Calif. 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, 70, of Guangzhou, China, has been charged by Information with one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. According to the Information, Zhang bribed Nuru by providing him with food, drinks, luxury lodging, and transportation during a trip Nuru took to China in 2018. The Information alleges the purpose of the bribe was to influence Nuru so that he would provide favorable treatment on decisions and city approvals needed during the construction and development of a mixed-use property at 555 Fulton Street in San Francisco being developed by Zhang and a company Zhang controlled.
Z&L Properties Inc., a U.S. company formerly based in Fremont, Calif., and controlled by Zhang, was also charged in a separate Information with conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and honest services wire fraud for its participation in the bribery scheme. Z&L Properties managed the development of the 555 Fulton Street project and the company facilitated the payment of bribes to Nuru in exchange for favorable treatment regarding the 555 Fulton project, according to the allegations in the criminal Information.
“Zhang Li and Z&L Properties have admitted that they bribed a top San Francisco public official. 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,” said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Robbins. “To those who seek to corrupt public officials in the United States, wherever they are, we will use the powers at our disposal to bring them to justice and hold them accountable to the rule of law.”
“Zhang Li, who earned his profits through bribery of a San Francisco public official, is yet another individual charged in connection to our ongoing public corruption case,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Tripp. “Public corruption erodes public confidence and strikes at the very foundation of our government. The citizens of San Francisco deserve better, and we stand firmly committed to investigating both corrupt officials and private citizens who attempt to bribe them, no matter where they reside.”
“IRS-Criminal Investigation’s priority is to ensure a fair and level playing field for all taxpayers,” said Special Agent in Charge Darren Lian of the Oakland Field Office. “Mr. Li’s conduct shows that greed and financial crimes have no borders, and we will continue to pursue those who take advantage of our system and taxpayers by following the money worldwide. We are proud to have worked alongside our federal law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in bringing this case a step closer to closure.”
Zhang originally was charged by criminal complaint in May of 2021. At the request of the United States, Zhang was arrested when he arrived in the United Kingdom in December 2022 and the United States pursued extradition. After approximately six months, Zhang consented to extradition and was subsequently surrendered to U.S. authorities. The charges against Zhang now are set forth in an Information filed by the government.
Zhang appeared yesterday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alex Tse in the Northern District of California. Magistrate Judge Tse released Zhang on a bond pending further proceedings.
According to the documents filed in Zhang’s case, the defendant and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have entered a deferred prosecution agreement. Under that agreement filed today, Zhang admitted to the conduct that forms the basis of the charge in the Information, and, if Zhang abides by the terms of the deferred prosecution agreement, the charge will be dismissed in three years.
According to filed documents, Z&L Properties also will plead guilty to charges set out in the Information filed against it; Z&L also will agree to a comprehensive compliance and remediation program designed to prevent bribery and corruption in connection with Z&L Properties’ real estate development work. 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, will pay a fine of $1,000,000, and will enter into a corporate compliance program acceptable to the Office of the U.S. Attorney. Z&L Properties appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alex Tse today, and the court set a further hearing before U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick, on August 10, 2023, at 1:30 p.m.
The charges against Zhang and Z&L Properties arose from an investigation into bribery and public corruption in San Francisco city government led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, and IRS-CI. To date, more than 14 individuals and entities have been charged in connection that larger set of investigations, including Mohammed Nuru, former director of the San Francisco Public Works department; Harlan Kelly, the former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission; and multiple city contractors and other facilitators of bribes and corruption.
Nuru was charged in January 2020, pleaded guilty in January 2022, and on August 25, 2022, Nuru was sentenced to 84 months in federal prison. A separate defendant charged in the investigation, Walter Wong, was charged in June 2020 with conspiracy to defraud the public of its right to honest services and with conspiracy to engage in money laundering, both involving Nuru. Wong entered a guilty plea and agreed to cooperate with the government’s San Francisco City Hall corruption investigation.
An Information merely alleges that crimes have been committed, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If convicted, the defendant Zhang faces a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment, a maximum fine of $250,000, plus restitution if appropriate. Z&L Properties faces a maximum fine of $500,000 per count, plus restitution if appropriate. However, any sentence following conviction would be imposed by the court after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.
The case is being prosecuted by the Corporate and Securities Fraud Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California. Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Ward and Robert Leach are prosecuting the case. The prosecution is the result of an investigation by the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigations (IRS-CI). First Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Robbins thanked the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs and United Kingdom authorities for their assistance in the extradition.