Rodrigo Santos, seen here in 2014 with his many awards for running marathons, continues to outpace accountability.

The US Attorney’s Office moments ago announced it has filed federal criminal bank fraud charges against Rodrigo Santos, a San Francisco structural engineer, onetime president of the Building Inspection Commission, and former City College trustee.

Santos’ firm, Santos & Urrutia, was in 2018 sued by Dennis Herrera. The City Attorney alleged a scheme in which the highly connected engineers misrepresented major construction and excavation as minor work in order to expediently obtain permits. They were also accused of forging signatures and an engineer’s stamp on multiple properties.

Additionally, Santos was charged with check fraud earlier this year by the City Attorney, for allegedly depositing some 221 checks made out to city departments — worth around $420,000 — into his personal account. On several instances, he is accused of altering checks made out to “DBI” to read “RoDBIgo Santos.”

An excerpt from the City Attorney’s case vs. Rodrigo Santos

Today’s federal criminal charges stem from Santos’ alleged deposits into a federally guaranteed bank account.

The federal complaint claims Santos deposited 261 checks written to third parties into his own bank account — a matter of nearly $480,000.

The feds further allege that, when confronted with these allegations, Santos submitted forged invoices to the FBI.

He was arrested this morning and appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alex Tse, who ordered Santos released on a $100,000 bond. His next court appearance is scheduled for Friday, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu for identification of counsel.

Santos is charged with bank fraud and, if convicted, he faces a statutory maximum of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

He was appointed to the Building Inspection Commission by Mayor Willie Brown, and served as its president from 2001 to 2005. He was appointed to the City College board in 2012 by Mayor Ed Lee but subsequently lost an election to remain on that body despite spending some $200,000 on his campaign.

Santos is a go-to engineer for connected San Francisco builders and had, himself, hoped to renovate the decrepit Tower Theatre on Mission Street.

He was the engineer on builder Mel Murphy’s project to “renovate” a home from 854 square feet to 5,139 square feet. Santos claimed he could retain 90 percent of the home’s existing walls and foundations even while sextupling its size. Instead, in December 2013, that home collapsed and cascaded down a steep hillside and into neighboring properties.

Murphy, incidentally, was also a former Building Inspection Commission president.

“We’re pleased that our investigation and civil enforcement action has led to criminal charges against Mr. Santos,” said Herrera. “Our office works tirelessly to make sure that those who abuse the law are held to account — no matter their position. Our case against Mr. Santos exposed both how he undermined public safety and how he defrauded his own clients.”

“I applaud the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for taking criminal action against him,” Herrera continued, “and I especially want to thank the investigators and attorneys in our office for their meticulous investigation into Mr. Santos’ wrongdoing.”

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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. Hi Joe! Thank you for this story and all your work on the city corruption beat. Just wanted to ask, other than involving the DBI, there’s no direct connection between Santos’s funny checks here and the Nuru takedown, right? I’ve fallen down a rabbithole of stories from this to Nuru to Dennis Richards’s permit saga all the way back to Santos’s work on Mel Murphy’s Humpty Dumpty House and I just want to make sure I keep my scandals straight.


    1. Michael —

      If Santos is connected to Nuru, it hasn’t yet come up in any of the receipts.

      There is, however, a tangential connection to the Richards saga. Richards’ engineer, Patrick Buscovich, has alleged that his plans were improperly leaked from DBI. He claims that the only person to have viewed those plans prior to their dissemination is the wife of Santos’ business partner.


  2. The new reality for the morally rationally challenged San Francisco political class and their cohorts. The feds are comin for ya! It’s comical seeing all the eldish con artists getting justice. Good riddance.

  3. Thanks Joe! Highlight of my day reading this.

    Would love to see those “corrected” DBI checks mounted to foamcore prizewinner size but I guess I’d have to get lucky enough to be selected for jury.

    1. Bruce —

      If memory serves I did ask for this back in March but was denied the material at that time. I think the judge has not yet approved the release of all materials.

      Maybe later, though!



  4. The sleaze is oozing out; more & more appointees to major commission and departments are tainted.

  5. So presumably 241 project should show a balance due remaining on the account, because surely the payer would complain about paying but not getting a permit – or were permits issued without payment?

    What kind of oversight do they have at DBI?

  6. $200k seems like a lot of money to spend on getting elected to the Community College Board… given his alleged propensity to line his own pockets, I have to wonder what Santos expected to get out of the position. Thanks for following up on this.

    1. Good work Joe. Shall we expect that makers of said checks range the spectrum from unknowing to abetting the fraud?

      1. Sir or madam —

        If there was some manner of alleged kickback scheme of the sort where the folks writing the checks knew this was happening, that has not been revealed as of yet.