San Francisco has spawned so many interconnected local and federal corruption probes that it’s beginning to feel a bit like Law & Order. The (ostensible) original has, by now, branched into half a dozen or more iterations, all unfolding in the same procedural style, all traveling similar arcs, and all populated by frequent crossover characters and episodes.
You could call it Lawlessness & Disorder.
It’s hard not to be fatigued in general these days, and San Franciscans can’t be blamed for suffering from corruption fatigue. In the months and years leading up to former Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru’s January arrest, investigators were evidently quite busy — and a number of this city’s shot-callers and string-pullers had evidently grown rather complacent.
So it’s easy to gloss over yet another set of charges and yet another week’s worth of city figures being implicated. San Francisco, after all, is, in its present state, in large part because it’s a city with a great deal of resistance to both accountability and introspection.
But it might be worth revisiting one of the lesser-heralded cases to come down the pike. San Francisco is a place that is both unsubtle and on-the-nose, but these recent charges push things to a level that would seem contrived even for a Law & Order episode.
But this is no script: An engineering technician accused of running an “illegal side business” of forging inspection reports for unlawful construction projects — and, with his associates, defrauding the scandal-tarred Department of Building Inspection and San Francisco Public Works — was, in fact, also employed in erecting the sleek office tower … that now houses the scandal-tarred Department of Building Inspection and San Francisco Public Works.
It created only a ripple on the local news scene when the United States Department of Justice last month charged 70-year-old Marin resident Peter Schurman with those most federal-sounding of crimes, mail fraud and aggravated identity theft.
As of July 22, he was free on a $50,000 bond.
Santos, a structural engineer, is accused of orchestrating a series of schemes in which he massively overbuilt on construction projects after misrepresenting them as minor jobs. It’s one thing to take liberties, but Santos’ crew is accused of deploying out-and-out forged documents.
And that’s where Schurman came in.
One needn’t be a Chilean miner to know that excavation projects can be hazardous — and the trenching and excavation permits on these construction projects were purportedly bogus. “Special inspectors” mandated to oversee many elements of construction projects might have caught this — but Schurman is accused of forging the special inspection reports, too.
The somewhat itinerant engineering technician apparently managed to hold onto his fair share of office supplies from prior jobs. He is charged with forging the signatures and professional stamps of engineers he once worked alongside on letterheads from his former places of business, enabling Santos to build, build, build without having to worry about permitting or oversight — or, more importantly, pesky safety regulations.
On more than one occasion, the City Attorney’s suit alleges, the excavation work enabled by these allegedly forged documents not only undermined the foundation of the clients’ own homes, but those of their neighbors as well — an obvious danger to the poor neighbors. And anyone living downhill from them.
So, that’s not good. That sent up red flags.
But you can imagine the flags went higher and redder when city officials unearthed a disturbing nugget of information, which they dropped casually onto Page 81 of the City Attorney’s lengthy suit: A man named Kevin O’Connor told investigators that he would visit Schurman at the engineering technician’s day job and pay him — cash — for providing fraudulent inspection reports for O’Connor’s Diamond Heights home.
And that day job was at 1500 Mission St.
That address may not ring a bell, but you likely know this building. It’s the 16-floor combined condo tower/municipal office building sprouting out of the former Goodwill site at Mission and South Van Ness.
City employees began relocating here in late July, even though, we’re told, some rooms haven’t yet been carpeted or had furniture installed — and the grandiose main stairway in the foyer is blocked off because “it leads to nowhere because things are not done,” per a worker onsite.
When city officials in 2018 learned that Peter Schurman was purportedly being paid cash for his forging jobs while working on this massive city construction project, they grew extremely troubled and concerned.
But they did more than that: In January, 2019, the City Attorney subpoenaed Schurman’s employer, Langan Engineering, to determine just what the hell he was doing from 9 to 5.
Alas, your humble narrator does not possess subpoena power. An HR rep from Langan last week simply told us that Schurman doesn’t work there anymore. The company did not disclose Schurman’s work duties and the results of the subpoena were not disclosed either.
Langan Engineering provided special inspection of the geotechnical aspects of shoring and underpinning the massive Mission Street tower, as well as inspecting the “grading of the mat foundation subgrade.”
Three compliance letters from Langan were among the phone book-sized trove of special inspection reports provided to Mission Local in a public records request.
“The special inspection was performed by a representative of our firm under our direction as the geotechnical engineer of record,” read those letters, signed by the firm’s principals.
It is not clear exactly what Schurman did on site, though sources tell us he was not a crucial worker. And, noting the date of the subpoena, both the city and his private employer clearly had the opportunity to monitor him.
But nobody could confirm to us if his work was double-checked.
So, Peter Schurman helped to build this place. But that’s not really the problem here. As your humble narrator wrote in March, this building was in large part shaped by a more known and conventional form of San Francisco corruption: Erstwhile Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru leaning on his colleagues and exerting his considerable influence to benefit himself to the detriment of nearly everyone else.
While this structure was originally designed without an “executive floor,” Nuru felt it was his due to have an elegant corner office. He demanded it and he got it: The building currently features a bang-up top floor with a row of spacious offices blessed with sumptuous views. And the best of the lot was Nuru’s.
Nuru, in short, used his influence and connections to bully others and get what he wanted, resulting in the transformation of the layout of a building with a value approaching that of an aircraft carrier. This, too, was unsubtle — and unhidden. Around the city, bruised and elbowed-aside higher-ups grumbled about “Mohammed Nuru’s Penthouse.”
Thanks to the Feds — and, notably, not the city — Nuru never worked a day out of his penthouse (though his underlings did put in many hours contemplating its decor).
The front-line workers below, however, are now showing up to work in their new office. And the Nuru-centric redesign of this building has, arguably, made their jobs more difficult.
And, in pandemic times, their lives.
The complaints city workers rattled off in March now loom larger than we could’ve imagined. More employees are now crammed into less space than prior offices; desks are so small that you can’t unroll building plans on them.
That’s a pain in good times. But now spacing is a safety issue, requiring working-from-home for a good chunk of the employees stationed here, even as the departments attempt to re-open. This presents difficulties at, say, the Department of Building Inspection — where perhaps 90 percent of permits are issued over-the-counter.
City workers also shook their heads at the baubles of unnecessary and showy technology here: Elevators powered by touch screens or a hulking LED screen instead of a rudimentary sign. When dollars grew scarce, workers pondered, how well-maintained will this gadgetry be?
If municipal penny-pinching seemed far-fetched earlier this year — it sure doesn’t now.
Workers here worry that by the time they get the technological elements that aren’t working to work, the ones that currently work no longer will.
That’s not something you can pin on Peter Schurman. The problems with this building, like so many of this city’s maladies, run deeper and are more systemic — and flow from the top floor down.
Back on the ground floor, the general public will be permitted to enter perhaps as soon as this week. And they will be greeted by a large and unmistakable crack in one of the hulking brand new windows overlooking the South Van Ness side.
That’s another unsubtle metaphor in our unsubtle city — and hardly visible from the executive penthouses high above.
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