Mayor cracks down on ‘corrupt’ Department of Building Inspection

Controller’s office report alleges nepotism, cronyism, corruption

San Francisco Mayor London Breed on Thursday said she’s issuing an executive directive to prevent misconduct within The City’s Department of Building Inspection following a report released by the Controller’s Office that alleges nepotism, cronyism and corruption.

Under Breed’s directive, DBI officials will now be required to more frequently certify and train staff on financial disclosure and conflict of interest forms; implement changes to the department’s permit tracking system to reduce fraud; work closely with the Controller’s Office; make available information to staff and the public about The City’s whistleblower program; and create a compliance team to identify risks and combat abuse within the building permitting and inspection processes.

The new mandate is meant to increase transparency after a number of wrongdoings within DBI were uncovered last year as part of a federal corruption probe that began with the arrest of former Department of Public Works director Mohammed Nuru in January 2020 on suspicion of wire fraud.

Since then, other city officials have since been linked to the corruption, including former DBI Director Tom Hui, accused of legal and ethical violations, giving preferential treatment to a permit expeditor and a project developer, and using his position to get jobs for his son and his son’s girlfriend within city departments.

Also, the former president of the Building Inspection Commission, the body that regulates DBI, Rodrigo Santos, has been charged with bank fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft by federal prosecutors, while DBI senior building inspector Bernard Curran is facing a wire fraud charge.

In that case, prosecutors allege Santos swindled $775,000 from his clients at the firm he co-founded, Santos and Urrutia Structural Engineers Inc. In addition, prosecutors allege Santos worked with Curran by directing his firm’s clients to make donations to a nonprofit chosen by Curran in exchange for Curran providing favorable treatment to those clients during on-site physical inspections and DBI permit approvals.

Breed’s executive directive was created in alignment with the recommendations made by Controller Ben Rosenfield in a report released Thursday on DBI’s permitting and inspections processes.

“Every city department must operate with the highest level of integrity and transparency, and all city employees must hold themselves to the highest ethical standards in their work,” Breed said in a statement.

“When that does not happen, it is our responsibility as leaders to understand what went wrong and take steps to prevent future misconduct. The controller’s report issued today documents an unacceptable pattern of misconduct and systemic failures under the previous leadership of the Department of Building Inspection. It describes a culture that allowed for continued wrongdoing set by a ‘tone at the top’ that failed to institute ethical leadership and guidelines. The people of San Francisco deserve better,” she said.

Rosenfield said, “The work that DBI does, ensuring that all manner of construction projects are designed, inspected, and built to code, is critical for our city’s health and safety. The significant process vulnerabilities we have unearthed need to be remedied quickly to safeguard the health and safety of San Franciscans.”

DBI Interim Director Patrick O’Riordan, who replaced Hui last year, said, “I’m outraged about what happened in the past at DBI and the way former leaders undermined the fine work our staff does every day and violated the public’s trust. It’s not right and I’m committed to getting us back on track.”

DBI is the department tasked with overseeing and enforcing the city’s building, housing, plumbing, electrical and mechanical codes.

The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office first took legal action against Santos and his firm back in 2018, alleging misconduct in connection with unpermitted excavations happening at properties where the firm rendered engineering services.

Also, in a separate case last year, federal prosecutors charged former Santos and Urrutia engineering technician Peter Schurman with mail fraud and identity theft in connection with an alleged scheme to issue fraudulent building inspection reports.

“Properly built buildings are a matter of public safety, particularly here in earthquake country,” said City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “That makes the conduct we uncovered alongside the controller particularly troubling. There is no place for corruption, nepotism or cronyism anywhere in city government. If someone is gaming the system or abusing the public trust, we are going to get to the bottom of it.”

— Bay City News

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