Editorial: San Francisco City Attorney must investigate allegations at Department of Building Inspection

Accusations of rule breaking merit further scrutiny, reform

In March 2020, San Francisco Department of Building Inspection Director Tom Hui resigned while facing a cascade of misconduct allegations. His sudden resignation came just one day before the Building Inspection Commission could act on Mayor London Breed’s request to fire him.

A report by then-City Attorney Dennis Herrera had accused Hui of “providing intentional preferential treatment” to disgraced former permit expediter Walter Wong and billionaire developer Zhang Li, as well as accepting gifts and dinners from both men.

After Hui resigned, the Building Inspection Commission appointed longtime DBI inspector Patrick O’Riordan as his interim replacement.

“We know that O’Riordan is clean,” a source described as a “senior city official close to the situation” told Phil Matier of the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. “We can’t say the same for some of the possible candidates in the department.”

But a new story by Mission Local’s Joe Eskenazi, also published by The Examiner, raises questions about the extent to which O’Riordan may have participated in the entrenched culture of favoritism, corruption and silence at DBI.

At issue is a five-story, 11-unit building at 3418 26th St. that Mel Murphy — former president of the Building Commission — apparently started constructing without permits or inspections in 2012. Christopher Schroeder, who has been a DBI inspector since 1999, told Eskenazi that his many reports on Murphy’s flagrant violations went unacknowledged.

The superior who Schroeder claims ignored his complaints? O’Riordan, the interim director who is now a candidate to permanently occupy the job, which comes with nearly $350,000 in compensation.

“Schroeder maintains he repeatedly reported the construction of an unpermitted building to his immediate supervisor, O’Riordan, who was then a senior building inspector and was soon promoted to chief building inspector,” wrote Eskenazi.

Despite his multiple reports about the large building under construction in open defiance of the law, Schroeder said his superior remained unmoved.

“To wit, Schroeder says he reported to O’Riordan the month-by-month, story-by-story progress on Murphy’s unpermitted, uninspected building, but he told me in an Oct. 8 interview that O’Riordan’s response was: ‘Don’t take any action right now,’” wrote Eskenazi.

DBI finally snapped to attention after the San Francisco Chronicle started asking questions about the project.

“On Jan. 2, 2013, DBI’s inaction was suddenly no longer an option — not after the Chronicle called to ask how 3418 26th St. was being erected by the former head of the Building Inspection Commission without permits or inspections,” wrote Eskenazi.

The next day, reports Eskenazi, Murphy finally paid for permits to do the work on a building that was five stories tall by then. One day after that, on Jan. 4, O’Riordan finally issued a stop-work order on Murphy’s property. In the end, Schroeder says, Murphy got away with little more than a slap on the wrist.

“With all due respect, I’d have done things differently,” Schroeder told Eskenazi.

DBI disputes Schroeder’s version of the story, claiming O’Riordan learned of Murphy’s rogue building project from an anonymous phone call on Jan. 4, two days after the Chronicle called about it and long after Schroeder says he’d made numerous reports on the issue.

In the end, a “rough framing” inspection of the building’s exoskeleton was conducted by senior inspector Bernie Curran after the building was already five stories high. Rodrigo Santos, the building’s private engineer of record and a former Building Inspection Commission president himself, signed off the building’s engineering report.

In an unrelated case, both Curran and Santos now stand accused by federal authorities of engaging in a bribery scheme in which donations to preferred nonprofits organizations allegedly resulted in favorable treatment from DBI. Santos also faces allegations of check fraud and forgery.

Sound familiar? The accusations mirror those facing former Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, who faces decades in prison on bribery and corruption charges. Federal prosecutors allege that Recology, the company with a monopolistic stranglehold on San Francisco’s waste management contracts, cut large checks to nonprofit accounts linked to Nuru, also known as “Mr. Clean.”

Eskenazi’s exposé of the allegations against O’Riordan comes on the heels of a story about permitting irregularities at the personal home of Angus McCarthy, a residential builder who is also president of the DBI’s Inspection Commission. In that case, it appears McCarthy built much of his Forest Hill house — where he threw a splashy party for Mayor Ed Lee in 2015 — without proper permitting.

“Because this is San Francisco, it warrants mentioning that the permitting situation for the spacious and elegant home hosting this party is a bizarre amalgamation of confusing irregularities; the permit enabling the construction of the downstairs living space where revelers at the mayoral shindig sat on couches and mingled had never been signed off and was never inspected by Department of Building Inspection personnel, not even to this day,” wrote Eskenazi.

McCarthy declined to answer Eskenazi’s questions before the story ran but issued a response blasting the story as “unfair and misleading” after both Mission Local and The Examiner published it. Two members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Aaron Peskin and Hillary Ronen, have now called on the city attorney to “investigate and report to the Board of Supervisors on allegations and improprieties and possible conflicts of interest by Building Inspection President Angus McCarthy as reported in Mission Local on Sept. 25, 2021.”

Peskin and Ronen also expressed support for reforming the department by repealing 1994’s Proposition G, which created DBI in its current form.

The supervisors aren’t the only ones calling on the city attorney to look into allegations of impropriety at DBI. Last week, interim DBI director O’Riordan gamely wrote to the Board of Supervisors to ask for a City Attorney investigation into the claims detailed in Eskenazi’s story. Supervisors are currently planning to hold a hearing on the matter.

They should not stop there. The scandals gripping San Francisco’s public institutions, including DBI, paint a picture of a hopelessly corrupt government run by self-serving underbosses who enforce rules that they and their privileged connections refuse to follow. Mayor Breed, the Board of Supervisors and the City Attorney should lead the way and clean house instead of making the FBI do all the work.

Correction: This editorial has been updated to reflect the fact that Rodrigo Santos was the private engineer of record, rather than an inspector, on the project in question. It also adds that he was a former president of the Building Inspection Commission.

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