In an explosive legal filing, planning commissioner Dennis Richards alleges that a conspiracy within the Department of Building Inspection led to nine permits being abruptly revoked for a project he is co-developing on 22nd Street — and further maintains that DBI officials insinuated that a quid-pro-quo offer could make his problems go away.
The brief was penned by attorney Scott Emblidge on behalf of Six Dogs LLC, a company co-owned by Richards and realtor Rachel Swann. It was filed last week in advance of a Dec. 4 hearing at the Board of Appeals contesting the revocation of the project’s permits for allegedly building past the scope of his permitting.
Tossing one more weighty allegation into a brief replete with them, Emblidge’s filing states that a member of the Board of Appeals, Darryl Honda, proactively contacted Richards on Sept. 27 via text (“Hey bro, there’s some not so nice stuff going around about you right now. What’s up.”).
The brief depicts Honda as a de-facto emissary from the Department of Building Inspection, urging Richards to “get this all resolved” with the building department — which Richards interpreted as a quid-pro-quo offering. The brief also alleges that Honda phoned Planning Commissioner Joel Koppel and intimated Richards would be booted from the commission.
“Given Board Member Honda’s insertion of himself into this controversy and his communications with others about the project sponsor,” reads the filing, “he should not participate in hearing or voting on this appeal.”
Koppel has not returned Mission Local’s messages. Honda told us he has not yet decided whether he will recuse himself on Dec. 4. He declined to comment about the allegations made within the brief: “I haven’t read it yet. I don’t want to ruin my Thanksgiving.”
At issue is a rebuild of 3426-32 22nd St., near Guerrero, a hulking, four-unit, 18-room, 4,200-square-foot Italianate-style building erected in 1899. It was purchased in June 2018 for $2.7 million Six Dogs LLC. It is now listed for $7.5 million.
Within the brief, Emblidge states that everything was going well at the project — nine permits were obtained and more than a dozen on-site inspections took place without any objections — until Richards’ comments during planning commission meetings regarding a project at 3847-3849 18th Street.
Among the litany of acts the Planning Department claims were done without necessary permitting on that 18th Street project, a two-story addition was made to this house and some 880 cubic yards of soil were excavated and hauled off.
During an Aug. 29 Planning Commission meeting, Richards questioned the veracity of DBI testimony, and stated he’d “lost faith” in the agency; he supported Planning Commissioner Rich Hillis’ suggestion of a City Attorney’s office investigation of the goings on at 18th Street.
That project will next be addressed by the Planning Commission in December.
The brief states that Richards’ actions regarding the 18th Street project — his “unwillingness to turn a blind eye to the ‘pay to play’ culture” — triggered a rapid DBI retribution against his own 22nd Street project. By Sept. 30, nine permits at the Six Dogs site had been revoked.
“I had multiple meetings with DBI Chief Building Inspector Mauricio Hernandez and one meeting with Deputy Director Ed Sweeney to discuss the alleged violations,” reads a supporting declaration made in this case by Six Dogs’ structural engineer, Pat Buscovich.
“Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Sweeney made it clear to me that they would come down as hard as possible on the [22nd Street] Project since the alleged violations were so ‘outrageous.’ … I took this comment to mean that, unless Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards backed off his criticisms of DBI regarding unlawful work that had occurred at 3847-3849 18th Street, they would hold up the Project.”
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Mission Local’s calls and emails to the Department of Building Inspection communications department have not yet been returned. Multiple calls and emails to Hernandez and Sweeney haven’t been returned either.
Echoing Emblidge, Buscovich recalls “at least five concrete inspections” and perhaps five more interior inspections, sheet rock inspections, rough framing inspections, plumbing inspections, electrical inspections and others on the 22nd Street project. As such, the revocations on Sept. 30 “were a shock to me.”
Buscovich characterizes the issues that led to the revocation of the permits as “so minor it’s sad.” A “revision permit” should suffice — “but they want to revoke the previous permits, which voids all the inspections of the areas we covered up. The inspectors came out, inspected the rebar, then told me to pour. If they revoke, they can tell me to jackhammer out all those footings.”
Emblidge’s brief, using DBI data obtained in a public records request, argues that permit revocations are extraordinarily rare — and lists many troubled projects in which permits were not revoked: “The most notorious and egregious examples in the past several years of developers doing work outside the scope of permits have not resulted in revocation of permits.”
Separate and apart from the issues to be argued before the Board of Appeals next month, Six Dogs failed to record four tenant buyouts on the site.
Richards’ spokeswoman, Julie Edwards, says this was an oversight — and that those buyouts were reported to the Rent Board this month. As such, she says the residents of the four units received, respectively, $25,000; $75,000; $75,000; and $175,000.
This is a delicate situation for Richards, who has railed against buyouts and developments on sites where buyouts have occurred during planning commission meetings — and could find himself accused of hypocrisy. Edwards, however, stressed that three of the tenants informed their prior landlord that any prospective buyer should know they wished to be bought out; a fourth approached the new buyers — and not vice versa.
A former tenant contacted by Mission Local told us this was accurate.
“If the tenants had not approached us about being bought out, Dennis would not have been interested in purchasing the property,” Edwards said.
When asked if Richards properly disclosed his business relationship with Buscovich, Edwards said the planning commissioner had made written disclosures this year following the Notices of Violation filed against his property. This was purportedly done after consultation with the City Attorney’s office. At meetings, Edwards said, Richards makes a verbal note of his business relationship with Buscovich when the engineer appears before the commission.*
Emblidge filed his brief last Thursday. He claims that, subsequently, Chief Building Inspector Hernandez abruptly canceled a planned Friday morning meeting with him, Buscovich, and Swann — after they had already showed up.
Emblidge, Buscovich, and Swann all told Mission Local that Hernandez said that their Dec. 4 hearing before the Board of Appeals was pointless, as any work on the project would still have to be approved by him.
“That was very unwise,” said Emblidge.
Calls and emails to Hernandez have not been returned.
Department spokesman William Strawn in October flatly denied any allegations of bias or wrongdoing.
If Six Dogs is unsuccessful at the Board of Appeals, it could next turn to Superior Court.
Update: The Department of Building Inspection offered the following statement in response to our request for comment on this story:
The Building Department responds to complaints on a daily basis – a little more than 10,000 of them in the last fiscal year. With respect to 3426-22nd Street, DBI received three complaints on Sept. 25, Sept. 27 and October 1 – and responded to them by investigating, verifying and issuing three Notices of Violations (NOVs) on Sept. 30, Oct. 22 and Oct. 25. The inspector verified the veracity of the complaints – work without permits, exceeding the scope of issued permits and misrepresentations on submitted plans. The Planning Department also received a complaint about work at this address and is pursuing its own code enforcement investigation of that separately filed complaint. Corrective actions, and deadlines, were provided to the property owner in all three DBI-issued NOVs.
In short, this case has followed DBI’s standard and legally stipulated code enforcement process – with nothing at all unusual about this example of a property owner violating clearly established building code requirements, getting caught and now required to take immediate steps to make any work performed code-compliant. This process ensures building safety in one of the world’s most at-risk seismic zones, minimizes injuries, saves lives and protects valuable housing for all San Franciscans.
*This passage was added on Dec. 3.