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.
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.
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.
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.
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.