Monday’s federal arrest of well-known San Francisco restaurateur Nick Bovis and Department of Public Works head Mohammed Nuru rocked followers of local politics and food news. Naru was a long-problematic (but immensely powerful) City Hall figure, while Bovis is well known to SF drinkers and diners as the owner of hofbrau Lefty O’Doul’s and dive bar the Gold Dust Lounge — both now closed. On Tuesday, the U.S, Attorney’s office released more information on the investigation that netted Bovis and Nuru, and revealed a strange and awkward scheme to allegedly wedge Bovis’s chicken restaurant, Spinnerie, into the San Francisco International Airport.
Bovis opened Spinnerie, a so-called “globally inspired, locally sourced” fast-casual chicken restaurant, with co-owner/chef Niko Koros in 2015. Speaking with the SF Chronicle shortly after the spot opened, Koros said that he learned his roast chicken craft from chefs in Europe and Africa, and his studies apparently paid off, as Chron food writer Jonathan Kauffman said that the spot “might change your dinner plans, and for the better.”
Spinnerie is also notable as one of the only members of Bovis’s portfolio that’s still in business. His Gold Dust Lounge, which moved from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2013, shuttered last fall. Lefty O’Doul’s also left Union Square after a dispute with the same landlord that evicted the Gold Dust, and opened in the Wharf in 2018. It, too, quietly closed late last year.
But as those businesses of Bovis’s struggled, the U.S. Attorney’s office says that he continued to hustle to open another outpost of Spinnerie, this one at the airport. In a federal complaint that was unsealed on Tuesday, the FBI says that Bovis and Nuru — both of whom are charged with “honest service wire fraud,” a crime that could carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison — met repeatedly at Burlingame’s Broadway Grill, another restaurant in which Bovis has an ownership interest.
At one Broadway Grill meeting in January of 2018, Bovis and multiple federal informants met to discuss what the FBI Soderbergh-ianly refers to as “The San Francisco Airport Scheme,” with Bovis saying that he planned on asking “his resources in San Francisco city government” — a resource later identified as Nuru — “how to guarantee” that Spinnerie would win a competitive bidding process for a restaurant lease at SFO. From the complaint:
Regarding NURU, BOVIS stated, “this guy here, he’s head of DPW, he’s come through.” After identifying another high-level city official, he continued, “...they’re all, they’re all, on the, so it’s all good.” When asked for clarification, BOVIS further explained, “they all work, like, side deals.” BOVIS added, “so that’s the ones that you need.”
BOVIS told CHS-87857 and CHS-87856 [the federal informants] that NURU was “my best guy that come through for me. He’s never failed me. Like when he said he’d gonna do something he did it.” With respect to the SFO concession contracts, BOVIS said of NURU, “I’m gonna ask him about the airport and I’ll get exact details.” BOVIS also said that NURU “knows how to cover his back on all this stuff so it’s not a conflict or nothing” and offered to set up a meeting with everyone at the Broadway Grill the next time CHS-87857 and CHS-87856 were in town. Based on my training and experience, I believe when BOVIS said NURU “knows how to cover his back,” he meant NURU has possibly concealed illegal activity in the past.
This wasn’t the first time Bovis had attempted to move into the airport, it appears, as according to federal witnesses he’d previously submitted a losing bid to open another branch of the Gold Dust at SFO. “BOVIS told NURU that this time they want to take care of the votes ahead of time,” the complaint reads, and Nuru responded that for the Spinnerie bid, the pair should approach an airport commissioner (who is identified only as female in the complaint) for help.
According to federal officials, in a recorded phone call that spring, Bovis told a confidential source that Nuru had told him that the airport commissioner would need $5,000 in cash and a free trip to an unspecified city to secure Spinnerie’s SFO lease, and in numerous conversations claimed that the airport commissioner was open to influencing the bidding process. Bovis allegedly showed an undercover agent the cash at another Broadway Grill meeting in April, and later that day met with the airport commissioner, who, while saying numerous things that appeared to violate the supposedly unbiased nature of the bidding process, declined to take the bribe.
Conversations appeared to fall apart after that, the federal complaint says, when Bovis and Nuru started to suspect that one of the people collaborating with them on the scheme was working for the feds (reader, they were). In the end, Spinnerie wasn’t awarded the airport contract, nor have any of Bovis’s other businesses moved into any of SFO’s terminals.
As of Wednesday, Bovis and Nuru remain free on a $2 million bond. Both are expected to return to court on February 6.