Former SF city engineer sentenced to prison for bribery scheme

One more former San Francisco building official will don a prison jumpsuit for public corruption.

Balmore Hernandez, a former city engineer who stepped down to enter the construction industry, has been sentenced to six months in federal prison after he admitted to funneling more than $100,000 in bribes to a public official, the San Francisco Standard reported.

The 58-year-old former head of construction firm Azul Works must also pay a $100,000 fine and undergo one year of supervised release.

He had previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, a crime connected to bribing a public official.

“I accept the sentence with grace,” Hernandez told The Standard. “I’m glad it’s coming to an end.”

The sentence was the latest in a wide-ranging corruption scandal that began in early 2020 with the arrest of former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru and has affected the highest echelon of the department.

The probe has led to indictments, guilty pleas and convictions of more than a dozen city officials, contractors and local business executives, including Harlan Kelly, former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

For seven years ending in 2020, the former Azul CEO worked with two business partners, Alan Varela and William Gilmartin III, to bribe Nuru and get the public works chief to direct lucrative contracts their way, according to court documents.

Hernandez handed a box with $25,000 to Nuru and helped shuttle a $40,000 John Deere tractor to the director’s vacation ranch, according to his attorney. The bribery scheme centered on a bid to land a Port of San Francisco contract to operate an asphalt recycling plant on public land.

Varela has served a two-year prison sentence for his role in the scheme, while Gilmartin pleaded guilty to criminal charges in 2021 and is set to be sentenced early next year.

Hernandez earned a lighter sentence by cooperating with the government and providing evidence against his co-conspirators, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Ward said.

“Hernandez engaged in egregious corruption, driven by his greed to enrich himself and his business partners,” Ward wrote in court filings ahead of the hearing. “However, once charged, Hernandez promptly accepted responsibility for his actions.”

U.S. District Judge William Orrick asked Hernandez why he committed his crimes.

“It was not about greed,” Hernandez told the judge. “It was more, ‘I don’t want to rock the boat; these are important people.’” He had a hard time saying no, Hernandez added.

Orrick said Hernandez’s crime may not have been about greed, as he claimed, “But it was about money, about getting contracts, that was a byproduct of staying quiet,” Orrick said before imposing the prison sentence.

This month, federal prosecutors accused Developer Sia Tahbazof and two associates of paying cash bribes to three former employees of the city’s Department of Building Inspection. They included Senior Inspector Bernie Curran and plan-checkers Rudy Pada and Cyril Yu, who were also charged in the case.

Pada and Yu have pleaded not guilty. Early next month, Pada has a court date to change his plea.

In July, Curran was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges related to taking payments from people whose properties he inspected. Nuru also pleaded guilty to public corruption and in August was sentenced to seven years in prison. 

— Dana Bartholomew

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