Whistleblowing hasn’t worked at San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection

DBI inspectors say their boss kept them off connected builders’ projects

By Joe Eskenazi

Special to The Examiner

The president of the Fire Commission is, to the best of our knowledge, not given deference by firefighters to light buildings ablaze. The police do not allow the president of the Police Commission a complimentary number of free crimes. But for the president of the commission overseeing the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection — life is different.

When asked why the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) didn’t notice its former commission president Mel Murphy erecting a five-story, 11-unit structure at 3418 26th St. — without permits or inspections — the former district inspector for that neighborhood says, actually, the department did notice.

It just pretended not to.

“I do remember this job,” recalls longtime inspector Christopher Schroeder. “I did report it to Patrick O’Riordan. Numerous times.” In fact, Schroeder, who has worked for the department since 1999, witnessed the erection of 3418 26th St. from his city vehicle over the course of several months in 2012, noticing the foundation going in and then gradually five floors and a roof.

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.

O’Riordan was named interim DBI director after longtime boss Tom Hui resigned in March 2020, following revelations from the City Attorney about Hui’s nepotism and corruption. O’Riordan is now an aspirant to receive the top job permanently, a position with a yearly compensation approaching $350,000.

The San Francisco Department of Building Inspection has been mired in scandal since its creation by voter referendum under Proposition G in 1994. Through the years, it has been periodically targeted by the FBI when alleged malfeasance ratchets up. On a more quotidian basis, it is known for creating maddening, labyrinthine processes for ordinary San Franciscans while catering to influential builders and their “permit expediters.”

Following my September 2021 stories about permit irregularities at the home of longtime DBI commission president Angus McCarthy, the Board of Supervisors called for a City Attorney investigation and proposed ballot measures that would remake the department.

But no overarching proposition to make DBI work will succeed if DBI personnel don’t want it to succeed, especially those at the top of the org chart.

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.”

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. A slew of permits were belatedly paid for and approved on Jan. 3 — by which point the structure was already five floors high. On Jan. 4, O’Riordan himself wrote a stop work order.

When asked how O’Riordan learned of the goings on at 3418 26th St., a DBI spokesman says that an anonymous telephone complaint was made on Jan. 4, 2013. But that was two days after the Chronicle made its calls and months after Schroeder said he told his boss “numerous times” of the rule-breaking.

Like the leaning, sinking Millennium Tower, this building ought to be a source of introspection for this department and this city.

It’s a site where a veteran district inspector says a DBI senior inspector kept him from doing his job, and enabled a powerful and influential builder to skirt rules and processes others are expected to follow. This site is also not an anomaly.

‘I’d have done things differently’

The problem, in Schroeder’s view, isn’t just that he was forbidden from doing his job. It’s that when the Department of Building Inspection finally intervened, it continued to treat Murphy with kid gloves.

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

Google Street View images of 3418 26th St. in 2011, left, and in 2014. While district inspector Christopher Schroeder says he repeatedly informed his superior Patrick O’Riordan of the unpermitted construction of the building, the Department of Building Inspection says it found out via an anonymous call after the structure was largely completed. <ins>(Screenshot)</ins>

Google Street View images of 3418 26th St. in 2011, left, and in 2014. While district inspector Christopher Schroeder says he repeatedly informed his superior Patrick O’Riordan of the unpermitted construction of the building, the Department of Building Inspection says it found out via an anonymous call after the structure was largely completed. (Screenshot)

He’d have put in a stop work order when 3418 26th St. was still just a hole in the ground. He’d have called for inspections on every story of the building; he’d have requested to see walls and foundations opened up and analyzed; he may have opted for a ground-penetrating radar to inspect beneath the poured concrete.

There are, in fact, no recorded foundation inspections on this site. None. The “rough framing” inspection was conducted by senior inspector Bernie Curran in June 2013, when the building was already five stories high.

My questions to DBI about how Curran could manage an inspection of the building’s wooden exoskeleton and endoskeleton (its “rough framing”) on a largely completed five-story structure received the following response:

The engineering report, once reviewed by DBI, would constitute compliance with inspection requirements and give an inspector the authority to approve the foundation work and conduct inspections on subsequent addendum [sic]. Dan Lowery approved the foundation work, thus giving Curran the authority to conduct inspections on the rough framing.

In other words, my questions were not answered. The Department of Building Inspection specializes in inspecting buildings, but there were no DBI inspections of this building’s foundation. And the engineering report — which is being used to substitute for those actual inspections — was penned by Rodrigo Santos.

Santos, like Curran, is now an accused federal criminal; the two were in August 2021 charged with setting up a permits-for-donation bribery scheme. Santos was also in 2020 accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of his clients’ money via check fraud. The City Attorney in 2020 charged him with forgery regarding dangerous, unwarranted excavations he oversaw as a structural engineer.

Going through DBI’s computer system, you’ll see Santos’ name attached to scads of projects, including the one at 26th Street. You’ll also see Schroeder listed as the inspector there, even though he says he was kept off the site.

When DBI officials suggested I talk to the inspector whose name was on the records, I took them up on the offer; the department facilitated our interview and, clearly, didn’t tell Schroeder what to say.

During a June 2021 sworn deposition, O’Riordan described Schroeder as “honest.” He also described him as “even-handed” and someone who never “showed favoritism to anyone above anyone else.”

On Murphy’s project, it appears that would’ve been a problem.

‘There’s a fallacy in that’

Before his June retirement as building inspector in the code enforcement division, Norman Gutierrez was perhaps the Department of Building Inspection’s longest-serving employee. He completed a master’s in architecture at UC Berkeley, was hired by The City in 1987 and worked at DBI for 34 years.

He is listed as the inspector on countless projects, even ones he says he was barred from inspecting.

That’s because, among the many shortcomings of the DBI’s computer system, inspection reports can be altered, post-facto, or assigned to people who did not perform them — but the district inspector’s name remains affixed to the file.

That’s how it was for Christopher Schroeder at 3418 26th St. On the publicly accessible reports for 700 Valencia St., Gutierrez is listed as performing three of the four final inspections in 2009, and then issuing a Certificate of Final Completion in 2012. But on the DBI internal system — which is not readily accessible to the public — these jobs are listed as “inspected by senior building inspector Patrick O’Riordan.”

When asked about these reports, a DBI spokesman said Gutierrez did not respond to messages, so the building’s owner instead contacted O’Riordan. Per the spokesman, O’Riordan “determined the project was sufficiently complicated” that he needed to personally step in.

Gutierrez chuckled at that answer. “Ah, no,” he told me dryly. “There’s a fallacy in that.”

He seemed particularly amused at the notion that O’Riordan deemed this project “sufficiently complicated” that Gutierrez could not handle it. “I have much more experience than Patrick O’Riordan,” said Gutierrez. “I have more education than Patrick O’Riordan.”

The situation, Gutierrez recollects, wasn’t complicated: Property records show 700 Valencia is owned by influential builder John O’Connor. Gutierrez says O’Riordan took him off the inspection job because he was applying the code impartially there. He claims O’Riordan and other department brass “badgered me” about this project; and then he never went back.

“Senior inspectors aren’t supposed to go out and do district inspectors’ work,” Gutierrez said of the 700 Valencia St. inspection job. But influential builders know they can make calls when a district inspector tells them no. They can complain that the inspector was rude. In essence, they can choose who inspects their work or who doesn’t.

A house divided

On Nov. 16, 2011, a complaint was made to DBI regarding a single-family home at 2207 25th St. While this building was in Schroeder’s assigned inspection district, O’Riordan issued a notice of violation on that day.

Patrick O’Riordan was appointed interim director of the Department of Building Inspection on March 18, 2020. <ins>(Courtesy photo)</ins>

Patrick O’Riordan was appointed interim director of the Department of Building Inspection on March 18, 2020. (Courtesy photo)

The notice of violation penned by O’Riordan states that “the front building has been demolished except for the front facade” — a description that clearly describes an unlawful demolition but avoids using the term “unlawful demolition” or citing the San Francisco Building Code.

The owner at the time was Jamie Karrick, a mechanic and restorer of vintage motorcycles and cars who wanted to restore his 1906 earthquake shack — and quickly got in over his head.

Karrick, reached at his garage in Oregon, is apologetic. The things DBI says he did — he did them. He did work beyond the scope of the permits. It turns out there was more rot in the walls than he knew, and things went sideways.

Schroeder says he believes Karrick had no malign intent and the situation simply got out of hand. But he’d still have written Karrick up for an unlawful demolition per the San Francisco Building Code rather than referring the issue to the Planning Department, as O’Riordan did.

This would turn out to be a significant distinction, but not for Karrick. He recounted being called into a meeting of building inspectors for a browbeating session: “I felt like they wanted me out of there,” he recalls. By September 2012, Karrick felt compelled to give them what they wanted; he sold his home.

The house was bought for $450,000 by an influential builder. Indeed, only an influential builder would buy a wrecked and rotting house and then hope to maneuver through Scylla and Charybdis at the building department.

It also helped that the new co-owner of 2207 25th St., Jeremiah Cullinane, brought in engineer Rodrigo Santos — who certainly knows a thing or two expediting permits at DBI. And, thanks to O’Riordan’s decision to not write up the violations as an unlawful demolition, Cullinane was far less constrained in what he was allowed to build here.

In fact, it seems he was remarkably unconstrained: In 2016, a permit was granted to enclose a porch and relocate a door and window — which, you’d think, would eliminate that last remaining bit of front facade. However, glancing at archived Google Street View images, it appears such work was actually completed by 2014 — years before any permit was issued.

Redfin now pegs the value of the property at $1.8 million.

Karrick admits wrongdoing. But he hardly thinks the way he was compelled into selling his property, which was snapped up by an influential builder, was a coincidence: “I feel like I was preyed upon by people within the system.”

Dealing with DBI, he says, “left me with PTSD. … Leaving California was the best decision I ever made.”

‘His house fell down the friggin’ hill’

It’s worth contrasting the way Karrick was treated with how former DBI commission president Mel Murphy fared a few years later at 3418 26th St. A glance at the addenda details for Murphy’s project reveal DBI leader Tom Hui personally intervening on multiple occasions.

Notably, between Hui’s first recorded intervention in Murphy’s project in 2012 and his second in 2013, DBI director Vivian Day was ousted and Hui was given her job.

“I denied Mel’s permit and he told me he’d have my ass — verbatim,” Day told me in September. Both of those things happened, and Hui granted Murphy what Day would not: The permit for his dream home at 125 Crown Terrace.

“Tom let him have his permit,” Day says, “and his house fell down the friggin’ hill.”

Well, that was quite a scandal in 2013. But few were penalized. Some were even promoted. That’s how things have gone in this city and its building department for a very long time.

On Oct. 18, at nearly 8 p.m., O’Riordan sent an indignant email to every member of the Board of Supervisors, stating he was “outraged” by the detailed, on-the-record allegations in this story, which were earlier published in Mission Local. O’Riordan called for a City Attorney investigation into the allegations made against him, beating the supes to the punch. (The supes on the next day still called for a board hearing).

Reached for comment, Mayor London Breed’s office noted that she has encouraged city employees alleging wrongdoing to contact the Whistleblower Program or report issues to their supervisor — which, of course, Schroeder claims he repeatedly did.

“Director O’Riordan has personally asked these specific allegations be looked at by the City Attorney,” wrote mayoral spokesman Jeff Cretan. “That is the appropriate thing to do.”

Versions of this article originally appeared in Mission Local on Oct. 17 and Oct. 18.

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