555 Fulton
The 555 Fulton project, in the shadow of City Hall.

If you’re working the front door at the Department of Building Inspection, it stands to reason that, eventually, you’ll have to greet and offer directions to FBI agents — and subsequently inform your panicked bosses, “they went thataway!”

FBI agents on Feb. 5 actually went against script, walking into the Planning Department headquarters on the 1600 block of Mission, next door to Building Inspection. Once within, however, they wandered — thataway — down to an area where the Department of Building Inspection stores its servers.  

A Building Inspection spokesman confirmed to Mission Local that the FBI had dropped by for a visit — and little else. How many agents were there? “No comment.” How long did they stick around? “No comment.” Did they say what they wanted? “No comment.” Did they find it? “No comment.” 

Your humble narrator learned, from more talkative sources, that the feds were there as part of the ongoing corruption probe that has, thus far, ensnared former Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru and restaurateur Nick Bovis. Specifically, they were there to peruse files regarding 555 Fulton, a mixed-use project owned by Chinese billionaire Zhang Li, whom Nuru boasted on a wiretap had gifted him “some stone” and a $2,070 bottle of wine. 

In exchange, Nuru allegedly pulled strings to move along this problematic development. And, as we reported earlier, some of the things he was recorded telling a subordinate to do regarding the 555 Fulton project do not seem to have generated any records within the Department of Building Inspection’s database. 

What’s more, extensive work that should’ve required analysis and scrutiny appears to have been cursorily approved “over the counter.” 

Oh, about that database: Mission Local is told that key files regarding 555 Fulton disappeared off of it for about a week. And then they reappeared. 

So, it’s not clear if the FBI found what they were looking for. It’s not clear why the files disappeared, or, having reappeared, if they look the same now as they did before. 

The “I” in “FBI” stands for “Investigation,” after all; one figures these matters will be addressed. 

From page 55 of the federal complaint vs. Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru

As for the files vanishing off the Department of Building Inspection’s computer system? That’s just the kind of thing that happens here. 

You can alter files. You can hide them. You can move things around. You can back-date things. “You’re not supposed to do that,” notes a longtime Building Inspection official. “But if you’re clever, you can do it.” 

Adds another longtime building inspector, “The data can be manipulated. And nobody would know. Only people working in here would know.”

A system that allows this is an anathema to any quaint notions about transparency and efficiency and honesty. But you’d have a hard time claiming our city’s Department of Building Inspection — and, writ large, our city government — is any of those things. 

Or even aspires to be. 

In fact, the Department of Building Inspection signed a deal with the San Ramon-based cloud- and web-based software company Accela to provide a permit-tracking system that would have eliminated all of these opportunities for cronyism and chicanery. 

But that was in 2011. And it still hasn’t been completed. The city’s sclerotic process on getting the Accela system up and running was a story five years ago. 

The city quietly terminated Accela’s contract in October 2019 due to claims of longstanding futility and incompetence. On Feb. 6 — one day after the FBI’s jaunt through the Department of Building Inspection — San Francisco officials wrote to Accela demanding millions of dollars due to the company’s “failed project.”  

So, the inefficiency, cronyism, and opacity that define the Department of Building Inspection remain in place. 

Mission accomplished. 

Mohammed Nuru
Director of Public Works, Mohammed Nuru. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection couldn’t get an Accela system up and running. But other cities could. 

Accela’s pitch for honesty and transparency resonated in cities like New Orleans, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. These are not cities known for good and decent government, and Accela was brought in to change that. Accela’s systems are running there now. 

Across the Bay, Accela developed a system for Oakland — also a place not known for good and decent government— in about 18 months, according to knowledgeable sources. 

But not here. After nine years, San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection has little to show for its Accela odyssey. And San Franciscans inside and outside this department who’d hoped for all the good things the system promised now belatedly realize that the sales pitch of a better, cleaner, more egalitarian system was, in fact, deeply unwelcome among the powers-that-be at the Department of Building Inspection. 

To wit, let’s revisit 555 Fulton. While the Department of Building Inspection never got its Accela system, the San Francisco Planning Department — like New Orleans, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, and Oakland — did manage to get a system up and running. 

On that Accela site, we find 38 complaints regarding 555 Fulton. On the Department of Building Inspection’s (not Accela) system, however, we find only 19. 

Those 19 wayward files figure to be in there, somewhere. But only if you know where to look. It requires a certain level of investigation

“For their work,” says Jerry Dratler, who chaired a 2013 Civil Grand Jury report on the Department of Building Inspection, “slippery is good.” 

Adds a longtime building inspector, “The lack of transparency helps the expediters. That way they can game the system.” 

San Francisco’s cottage industry of well-connected permit expediters — men and women who are paid to shepherd a project through the system — is, in itself, an acknowledgement of failure. It’s an indicator of a labyrinthine setup in which those who can pay for a guide find their way through expediently and those who cannot don’t. 

But it’s worse than that: Regular folks aren’t condemned to purgatory simply because the system is arcane (though it is) but because its resources are allocated to keeping the connected expediters happy. They get to skip the line; they get their stuff looked at and stamped off. You don’t.

In our current non-system system, expediters can put colorful Post-It notes on their paper plans (paper!), and then walk through the department, spot them sitting on desks, and slip things to the right official behind the counter. 

“People complain about costs in this city, but it drives up costs when you need an expediter to get your damn permit,” says former Building Inspection Commissioner Warren Mar. “The wait time is because nobody has even looked at your project. It sits in someone’s desk for months and nobody even looks at it; they don’t even tell you if it’s good or bad. They haven’t looked at it because you don’t have an expediter.” 

Why are expediters able to game the system? “Because they’re friends with the staff,” answers a veteran building inspector matter-of-factly. “And there is no accountability.”

An expediter, then, is less a guide and more an influence peddler. This is part and parcel of this city’s culture of casual corruption. 

A system that provided accountability would have pulled the rug out from under this comfortable little arrangement. It would have changed things. 

And, lo, it’s not happening. 

U.S. Attorney David Anderson addresses the media regarding charges filed against Mohammed Nuru and Nick Bovis on Jan. 28. He is flanked by U.S. Attorneys to his right, and FBI agents to his left. To Anderson’s immediate left is FBI Special Agent In Charge Jack Bennett.

Was the Accela system kneecapped by entrenched forces within the Department of Building Inspection in order to protect their turf at everyone else’s expense? You could make just such an argument. Was it a perfect or even a good system? That’s harder to claim. 

Multiple sources within the department — even sources who felt the department bosses did kneecap the system to protect the status quo — admitted that Accela “was cumbersome and took longer to do things than in our current system.” The Accela system was hamstrung by hundreds of major bugs and, even given a year’s extension, the company couldn’t get them fixed.  “It was supposed to go live two or three times — and if we’d done that we would have crashed the entire department.” 

Adds another department veteran, “We had people who were supposed to be out in the field doing inspections in the computer test room. It always failed the tests. We wasted thousands of man-hours.” 

The city methodically lays out its claims that Accela failed to deliver in a seven-page Feb. 6 memo, which precedes more than 250 pages of legal documents. 

So the status quo seems to be in a pretty safe place. For now. 

In a January Building Inspection Commission meeting, Department director Tom Hui swore he’d get the new system up and running — eventually. But that was an odd thing for him to say on the record. Accela’s contract had been rescinded in October and the city had ordered it to stop work in July, along with a formal notice of default. 

This situation has languished during Hui’s eight years atop the department. A 2016 report from Gartner Consulting cites “active resistance” within the department, which failed “to provide consistent, dedicated resources.”

“The city never wanted it,” says Mar. “The department never wanted it. They had no support from this director.”

The ensuing legal fight will likely be lengthy, messy and complex. And, who knows? The FBI my yet drop by a few more times before it’s all done. 

No need to offer any directions next time. They’ve gotten to know this place pretty well. 

They’ll go thataway.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Mafia cover up.

    Let the small people in the bottom take the rap.

    You thought FBI will help ??? LMAO

    FBI cover for these criminals, always had, always will.

    You sheep go back to sleep, k? lol

  2. Got to love these scandals. Nuru dating the mayor and having an affair with another high level associate. Tom Hui has to bless all the permits with his stamp, he definitely got it coming. I’m sure other high execs from the various departmemts are all trying to hide the the paper trail that is the DBI permit processing .

  3. One would hope that the computer systems maintained by the City would create a secure record of things like medications, erasures, deletions, etc., to prevent just this sort of issue. This provides a way of detecting improper modifications, and who did them, or at least which account was used to make the changes. But, somehow, I have a suspicion that this detail might have been omitted.

  4. They should look at 470 8th ave. A commissioner acting as architect got a permit approved for raising a building … no small engineering feat … over the counter as part of a bathroom remodel

  5. I am an Architect and spend many hours a week at DBI working on approval for permits related to mostly residential construction. Some of these are reviewed OTC others are not. I do not believe that permit expeditors get special treatment or service. They are there waiting in the same lines that I am, same lines at the public. If you go to DBI and see the average homeowner there trying to get a permit, they are often waiting in the wrong line, at the wrong department , without proper drawings, and leave in a huff.

    An Architect or Expeditor, know who in the various departments can has the authority or has the experience in that particular area of code to make the appropriate decision. As with any area of the law, the Planning and Building Code are complicated There is nothing mysterious about it. I do not see favoritism or special treatment. The permit expidtors (and Architect’s) are professional and know the necessary information that needs to be on the drawings for approval, and can anticipate and help the designer avoid code problems and get faster approval because drawing and design do not need multiple rounds of revision. As someone who is at DBI at least 1 day a week, I can say that the department is not perfect, but I have never seen anything dishonest or nefarious. There are some irritating things about DBI for sure, but I think you greatly mischaracterize the department.

    As for Accela, I have used the interface that Planning makes available to the public. It certainly is difficult and non-user friendly, I have spent much time submitting material, only to find it disappear into the ether. Good riddance as far as I am concerned. All the information that is needed for current projects is available on the Property Information Map on the Planning website.

    1. Everywhere else, “expediters” would be called consultants – reviewing drawings for regulatory and statutory requirements before submission to DBI and the like. Just funny how that’s not the case with the DBI, suggesting there’s a bit more to an expediter’s bouquet of services than you suggest

  6. So permit expeditors get paid the big bucks by their contractor / builder / developer clients to grease the wheels through the building department. Presumably the building department employees get something in return, correct? Has the investigation looked into that yet?

  7. Even those of us who don’t own property have known for years how corrupt DBI is. If you’ve ever talked to a SF homeowner trying to put an addition on a house, or a contractor trying to get through the permit approval process, you heard stories of the incompetent, insane “labyrinthine” system that is DBI. Whether it was a Trump directive or a local whistle blower doesn’t matter, government corruption primarily affects the working and middle classes, and must be routed out. If i read between the lines correctly, this boondoggle may reach up to the highest seat of our city government. That would be tragically disappointing. Thank you Mission Local for your reporting. Keep on keeping on.

    1. DBI, DPW, as well as all city depts, have a particular connection at city hall, sort of a ghost/city employee that many are unaware of, it would seem.
      This ghost is the primary link berween these depts. and the mayor’s office.
      Find the name of the ghost, and it’s possible you’ll connect all the dots to the entire story…

  8. The new DBI spokesman, placed there by the corrupt in management and city hall, just replaced the previous one, who retired a few weeks ago, presumably after getting wind of the investigation.
    He covered up all the dirt, every speck.

  9. As Vallie Brown told me on the phone four years ago: 555 Fulton is one of Supervisor Breed’s proudest accomplishments.

  10. Joe,

    Fabulous piece of investigative reporting as usual.

    Let me give my guess on how we got here.

    It’s because Trump didn’t let Feinstein pick the new
    Top Justice official in Northern California.

    The new Attorney for the District of Northern
    California musta called in the crew and said
    something like …

    “The President wants to screw around with the
    politicians of this Sanctuary City.

    Anything, you’ve been holding that’s dirt on
    any of them, activate those files and get back
    to me.”

    Just a guess …

    Did you know that Mr. Anderson’s wife is Kat Anderson?

    On DCCC?

    Used to be Chelsea Clinton’s babysitter?

    This is a connected couple on both sides of the aisle.

    Doubt Willie can scare off this Pitt Bull.

    Evangelista for SF Superior Court Judge!

    Gold for SF Superior Court Judge!

    Tong for SF Superior Court Judge!

    Go Giants!


    1. I’ve connected similar dots – thinking that the FBI was sent to dig up dirt in
      Nancy Pelosi’s backyard. And of course- you hit the Sanctuary City connection too.
      Hmmm. Wondering how far this is go?

  11. Excellent and informative article! We need both the FBI to expose more, and citizens need to do some serious protesting until they get rid of the corrupt system we have now