Embattled commissioner Dennis Richards remains on leave of absence following rancor over tenant buyouts

Prior to a contentious December hearing before the Board of Appeals, planning commissioner Dennis Richards offered a succinct answer when asked if he planned to sue the city of San Francisco: “Fuck, yeah.”

So, today, that happened.

Richards and business partner Rachel Swann this morning filed suit vs. San Francisco, its Department of Building Inspection, and DBI higher-ups Edward Sweeney and Mauricio Hernandez. The suit alleges that DBI retaliated against Richards by revoking nine permits on a project he and Swann were undertaking on 22nd Street; the suit purports this was undertaken after Richards publicly criticized DBI’s enabling of a development at 3847-3849 18th St. in which two extra stories were constructed and 880 yards of soil were hauled off without necessary permitting.

Richards “pointed out what appeared to be ‘pay-to-play’ practices at DBI whereby DBI repeatedly turned a blind eye towards egregious permit violations by contractors who had close ties to DBI personnel,” reads the suit.

Rather than do what a good governmental agency should do when such claims are made – investigate and take steps to reform – DBI acted instead like a crook worried about being exposed.  It brazenly retaliated against Commissioner Richards, a business in which he was an investor, and his business partner in a transparent attempt to silence his criticism and calls for investigation into perceived corruption.”

Commissioners at that Dec. 5 Board of Appeals meeting expressed surprise that the extreme step of revoking Richards’ permits had been taken by the Department of Building Inspection — and questioned why, rather than give him the usual 30 days to remedy on-site issues, his permits were nixed on the very same day that he was hit with DBI Notices of Violation. At the same time, the Board of Appeals found that there were, inarguably, violations on the site — with Board President Rick Swig referring to the plans submitted to DBI as “a sloppy mess.”

The Board of Appeals asked Richards and DBI to work toward a solution and check back in March 2020. But Richards did not see this as interfering with his aforementioned vow to file suit vs. the city.

And the suit filed today alleges that, both before and after the Dec. 5 hearing, a DBI inspector crashed open houses for the 22nd Street property being held by Swann, a realtor, and loudly bemoaned supposed violations, allegedly scaring off would-be buyers. The suit also alleges that a city inspector was dispatched to another property owned by Swann, lied to a tenant that she had a scheduled on-site meeting with Swann in order to gain entry, and once within posted a Notice of Violation.

“The actions of senior leadership at DBI are an insult to the honest workers at the department, individuals who work day in and day out seeking to ensure our safety and fairly enforce our building codes,” said Richards via a statement. “Their reputations are unfairly tarnished by those who do favors and play favorites to the detriment of City residents who play by the rules.”

Mission Local in November was the first to report that, separate and apart from the permit revocations and Richards’ allegations, four rent-controlled tenants were in 2018 bought out on the site — and Richards and Swann failed to properly record this in a timely fashion. Richards justified the buyouts by noting that three of the tenants requested in writing that any potential buyer of the property buy them out, and the fourth proactively approached the new buyers. Both written records obtained by Mission Local and interviews with a former tenant back this up. The tenants of the four units received, respectively, $25,000; $75,000; $75,000; and $175,000.

Richards’ failure to record the buyouts — which he characterized as a mixup and oversight — rankled even his would-be progressive allies. He has, as a commissioner, chided developers for failing to record buyouts, and for gentrifying communities. Richards and Swann bought the 22nd Street property for $2.7 million in June 2018 and it is currently listed for $7.89 million. These gaudy numbers also irritated progressive city supervisors and led to demands for the commissioner’s ouster.

Supervisor Dean Preston in December called for Richards’ resignation. Supervisors Matt Haney, Hillary Ronen, and Aaron Peskin followed suit. Richards in late December entered into a leave of absence that continues to this day. His attorney, Scott Emblidge, said that Richards’ status as a planning commissioner is yet to be determined — but added that this suit does not preclude Richards continuing to serve: “He is evaluating what he is going to do moving forward.”

Emblidge said that his clients have suffered damages as a result of “their project essentially being placed on hold — carrying costs and other calculable damages.” He would also be asking for “intangible damages of emotional distress and having their civil rights violated.”

The suit alleges “violation of civil rights, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intentional interference with prospective economic relations, commercial disparagement/trade libel, and intentional misrepresentation.”

Department of Building Inspection spokesman John Murray declined to comment on pending litigation. City Attorney spokesman John Coté said, “We’ll review the lawsuit once we’ve been served with it, and we’ll address the matter in court.”