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.
Schurman had already been charged earlier this year by the City Attorney as part of the ensemble cast swept up in a long-running case against Rodrigo Santos.
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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I think we should make the top floor a Navigation Center.
Staff of The Baltimore Sun (2020 winners with the “Healthy Holly” scandal) ain’t got nothing on you.
Of course – you have more material to work with.
You’re kind, but that was a deserving win and Baltimore has plenty of material — and excellent reporters covering it.
But for real, this article is top notch.
There was a moment when 1500 Van Ness had a “Luxury Condos coming…” sign. It came down quick, but it was a monster banner.
Rinse and repeat: Did they overbuild or did he underbuild and overcharge?
How safe are we in a building that is built, permitted, and inspected by the City Family contractors?
? Continuous construction corruption in SF?
Ongoing ineptitude in SF government–
a standard practice now?
Continuing convoluted construction corruption.
An epic of ineptitude in SF government,
Great reporting Joe!!
San Francisco is “a city with a great deal of resistance to both accountability and introspection.” Thank you for writing this very funny, and sadly very true, sentence.
It seems endless- thanks again for keeping this in the public eye. Out of curiosity I looked up the 147 Marietta building on steetview, and realized that I had walked by it yesterday on a covid hike and had noticed it’s state of interrupted repair. It looks exactly like it does from 2019 https://goo.gl/maps/7ywPukKQpEYUwtZMA I feel sorry for the neighbors, but somewhat gratified that the developer is still having to eat the costs.
If you scroll back through the Google Street View year by year, you can find the construction in progress and the crews eyeing the camera.
Not sure if it means anything and it Seems like forever ago now…but back February we had a couple of flooding rains and 1500 mission , while still under construction, had a huge sewage backup.
Great reporting, thanks Joe Eskanazi.
Nuru’s hammer is Dianne Feinstein.
When she bought her new crib toward top
of Green Street (boy, those are some stairs – used
to run them as part of tough regimen back in the day)
When Dianne didn’t like the City terrace/garden outside
her front door?
She just brought in a crew and tore it out and rebuilt.
Without a permit!
When asked why this was so, Nuru did saeth:
“I didn’t see the plans but if I did I’m sure that I would
have approved them.”
Loving your work, Joe.
Interesting Article! An aside, is it the plan to have future Directors of Public Works use the Nuru mini-mansion for their office? Or will it be taboo and remodeled to something more modest?
Also, did these same people inspect the Millenium Tower?
Maybe change Nuru’s office into a deposition room?