"Rodbigo" Santos: A check to Ahsha Safaí
In this image from an FBI affidavit, Rodrigo Santos is accused of altering a check written to "DBI" to read "RoDBIgo Santos." It was allegedly deposited in his Bank of America personal account.

It was a few weeks ago back in August when the water, gradually then suddenly, came spurting through the brick wall in Bob Mason’s backyard. 

Even before this, the 73-year-old retired computer programmer had harbored his concerns about the ongoing construction and loud, incessant drilling taking place on just the other side of that wall. 

In June, after a worker intimated that the brick wall might be torn down, the engineer overseeing work on a large “storage shed” visited Mason in his backyard. The engineer assured him that the wall would not be removed. Mason’s fears were assuaged. He found the engineer to be suave, charming, and reassuring.

Little did Mason know that this smiling, elegant man had, only several weeks earlier, been arrested by the FBI and was out on $100,000 bail. 

The wall has, indeed, not yet been removed. But, months after their meeting, the waterworks ensued. 

The explanation workers yelled over the fence to Mason in August was that they were “testing” a new retaining wall on a large “storage shed” by pouring water — and the inundation of his yard, paradoxically, meant that everything was going great. 

But this explanation, itself, does not hold water. 

For one thing, while a permit to work on the “storage shed” was sought late last year, it has not been granted. So there is no permit allowing the work on that “shed” or a retaining wall — or, for that matter, much of the months-long cacophony serenading Mason and his Bernal Heights neighbors, and obscured from view beneath a flapping blue tarp. 

A quick search of the Department of Building Inspection website reveals the “storage shed” abutting the brick wall was earlier described as a 300-square-foot “cottage” complete with plumbing — and was, itself, built without permitting. 

Neighbors have complained through the years about people living in this “shed,” or even that it’s being flogged on Airbnb. DBI documents from 2014 describe a “hotel” being illegally run at this address with up to eight unwarranted units. 

Mason didn’t know about that. But he did know that, in August, water was pooling up in his yard. He decided he’d give this charming engineer a call: “Two times in an email, he said he’d call me. He did not.” So Mason Googled the engineer’s name to find the phone number. And then Mason got nervous. 

Because, when you Google Rodrigo Santos, you find interesting things. 

Rodrigo Santos
Rodrigo Santos, seen here in 2014 with his many awards for running marathons.

Rodrigo Santos did not return calls or emails for this article. Which wouldn’t be surprising even if he weren’t facing a bevy of meticulously documented charges from both the City Attorney and United States Department of Justice

“Rodrigo was so busy that you couldn’t get your call returned,” recalls a longtime associate. “You’d show up at his office at 5:30 a.m. for a five-minute appointment.” 

Rodrigo Santos amassed building permits in this city like Pete Rose racked up base hits. At any time, he could be attached to hundreds of projects. 

But here’s the thing: He still is.

Sources both within and without DBI say he’s there, pulling permits damn near daily (though, it should be noted, not a permit for that shed). Despite the serious charges hanging over him, he remains an exceedingly busy man. 

San Francisco is a city in which a cynic is almost always rewarded. So, perhaps the allegations against Santos — that he repeatedly implemented risky, unpermitted excavations to add whole floors to clients’ homes; drew up “secret plans” differing from those sent to the city; and even commissioned and submitted out-and-out forged documents to hoodwink building inspectors into thinking vital inspections had been taking place — aren’t a turn-off for some.

On the contrary: If the voluminous and scrupulously documented charges made on both the local and federal level are true, there is a lucrative market for this manner of “work,” which greatly augments the value of clients’ homes at a fraction of the cost — and time — of doing it legally. 

And yet, both the City Attorney and feds also hit Santos with charges of check fraud/bank fraud — that is, he is charged with stealing money from his clients.

The feds accuse him of soliciting clients or others to write 261 checks to city departments or youth sports leagues over a three-year period — but instead, he deposited the roughly $478,000 into his own Bank of America account. 

Santos, a licensed civil and structural engineer, is accused of the junior high Goofus-level alteration of a check made out to “DBI” to read “RoDBIgo Santos.” 

When confronted by an FBI agent with these allegations in March, Santos produced invoices indicating that clients received a credit for the funds that the feds, via a grand jury subpoena, discovered in Santos’ own bank account.

The FBI alleges that these invoices were, themselves, forged. 

So, with all that in mind, Santos’ continued heavy workload does raise eyebrows. 

But, again, a cynic is nearly always rewarded. San Francisco’s land-use system is confusing, and it’s meant to be confusing. But it’s a mistake to think players like Santos merely know it better. They do, but they also rig the proceedings so that they alone can operate expediently. And when they’re caught — and they are, and not infrequently — they know how to continue operating with near impunity. And their well-placed allies can reliably make life difficult for anyone who’d challenge this setup.  

Furthermore, when you divide $478,000 by 261, you come out with a figure slightly over $1,800. So, on a case by case basis, the amount Santos is accused of stealing is trivial when compared to the money saved by skipping permitting or inspection — and, especially, when juxtaposed with the value added to a property by building an additional floor. 

“In that business, you’re paying for a result,” sums up a development professional. “And Rodrigo delivered.” 

Say what you will about Santos — and both the City Attorney and U.S. Attorney will have their chance. But it also says a lot about land-use in San Francisco that he’d become so indispensable. 

And still is. 

line outside DBI
In this March 16 photo, a line of permit-seekers stretched out the door of the Department of Building Inspection and down Mission Street at the exact moment the mayor and health director were announcing the initial shelter-in-place order.

So, that’s what Bob Mason read about after water began flowing into his yard. And he was not thrilled: Among many other concerning patterns regarding Santos’ work throughout San Francisco, he is accused of undermining not only the foundations of his clients’ homes, but those of their neighbors.

Mason has, since June, been peppering the Department of Building Inspection with calls and emails. But it was only last week that a senior inspector cc’d him on an email asking a newly hired inspector to give this case a look. 

“I am surprised [Santos] is allowed to carry on,” Mason wrote to the DBI this month. So are the DBI inspectors charged with looking over Santos’ shoulder. 

“Upper management has told us to deal with him just as if he’s anybody else,” says one. “So we work with this guy. We allow him to sweet-talk us, even though we all know who we’re dealing with.” 

DBI spokeswoman Lily Madjus notes that engineers are licensed by the state. And “we are not aware of any law that would give DBI the authority to deny a state-licensed engineer the ability to obtain permits from a public department.” 

And that’s true. But it’s also true that, for nearly two decades, Administrative Bulletin No. 40 has been on DBI’s books, which urges DBI officials to refer “design professionals and contractors to the State License Boards … for possible disciplinary action when the Department of Building Inspection believes there are serious violations of State regulations.”

At risk of hyperbole, there ought to be a Bat Phone-like direct connection between DBI headquarters and those licensing boards. But, we are told, this bulletin has seldom if ever been followed. “We are honest people,” said one despondent building inspector, “but honest people are not running this place.” 

That’s all too evident. Reading through the City Attorney’s suit vs. Santos and others, it’s striking how often inspectors did indeed sniff out what was going on, and take action — but work continued, regardless, and second, third, and fourth chances were proffered. 

Multiple DBI sources confirmed that the City Attorney earlier this year insisted that any plans submitted by Santos now must run through an extra level of “quality control” and be vouched for by a manager. The City Attorney’s office declined to discuss this matter. 

Madjus adds that DBI has “flagged several of Mr. Santos’ projects for extra scrutiny and has audited several of his projects.”

But “quality control” does not carry down to what’s actually being built — or not built — in the field. That’s a crucial detail. And DBI is not proactively and overwhelmingly sending field inspectors to begin scouring Santos’ many, many sites. As Bob Mason could inform you. 

Perhaps DBI officials are worried what they might turn up. It’s impossible to decouple Santos’ accomplishments from the co-option of the agency that was supposed to be inspecting his work for the good of the public. 

Rodrigo Santos is part and parcel of a corrosive system that, not unlike a shoddy excavation, has undermined the foundation of San Francisco. 

This city’s powers-that-be, resting atop that foundation, have every reason to prevent it from collapsing. 

That’s in their vested interest. And, because of that, Bob Mason has every reason to worry about his vested interests. 

As he wrote to the city, “I don’t want the brick wall to fall down on my 74-year-old wife while she is gardening.” 

If you read us often, please support our reporting. We depend on you.

Rodrigo Santos Affidavit by Joe Eskenazi

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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. CONVICTED FELONS John Pollard and Annabel McCllelan are a perfect example of fraudsters that get away with murder. These two are criminals. And yet they continue to commit fraud and other shady business practices in the world of construction through their companies SF PERMITTING and SF GARAGE COMPANY and the city allows it. Same thing will ultimately happen with this Santos case. A slap on the wrist and right back to cheating the system.

    1. Their downfall has been predicted for decades.

      Mr Eskenazi, I challenge you to follow the links between Bernie Curran and the number of times he signed off on SF Garage projects even when they were out of Curran’s inspection district. The more important link is between Ed Sweeney and John Pollard – that is where all this started and was allowed for years.

      1. Finding proof that money exchanged hands, even if it is common knowledge, will be difficult. Remodels, housing additions etc for inspectors/Sweeney. Perhaps Mr Curran will find it useful to offer testimony in exchange for his own reduced sentence.

  2. I know Rodrigo Santos and have hired him in the past and even though some of his actions are clearly illegal and wrong he is also a victim of the system there at DBI and personally I feel the casualty of a witch hunt started by Walter Wong (his number one competitor) and initiated by Tom Hui. The fact that the City Attorney hasn’t filed suit or investigated Walter Wong and his client’s projects support this thought.

    1. Sir or madam —

      Walter Wong has pleaded guilty to federal charges related to money-laundering and is cooperating with investigators.

      Additionally, the City Attorney subpoenaed him and a goodly number of his companies.



  3. On any given day he may go by Rodrigo, RoDBIgo, “I’m an equal-opportunity hater of all people,” and so on, but can’t tell if he’s invincible or not. Do take note when passing by his (???) office as of late, the dark green awning is gone — replaced by a bright blue one. IS that former partner Albert’s solo firm now? Not certain; those are just the rumors… but you’ll still find RoDBIgo there at 6am, if you need him. And mind the surname: son and former employee has an engineering company of his own, and any GC will tell you daddy is passing along projects to them, so don’t expect this city to un-fuck its problems anytime soon ( https://www.altosengineer.com/about ). I wish someone had told me way back when: spare me the years, dollars, sleepless nights… kindly just drive a truck straight into my house instead.

  4. San Francisco is your dumbest frenemy who borrowed $100 from you after getting caught in the rain and just HAD to buy that cuuuuute knit lace umbrella and says “I’ll just drop off the cash in your [unlocked] mailbox,” then when of course it’s not there, says, “whoops! I’ll drop another $100 tomorrow, plus interest,” which also of course goes missing, and so on. You never do get your money back, and your stupid pal is perpetually wet from the world’s most dysfunctional umbrella… but is it really? It never fails some dumbass will line up to buy her a hot toddy at the bar.

    What happened to the Sep 2018 forged plans DA indictment?
    What happened with the new DBI HQ fuck-up?
    Sure, Mayor Breed fired Tom Hui… and backfilled by giving everyone else at DBI a promotion.

    San Francisco will forever remain my favorite place to leave. What a title to hold.

  5. If hands are tried at DBI, go above them.
    Petition the licensing board.
    His history of fraud should be enough to revoke his license.

  6. First a leaning skyscraper, now a flooded yard with a collapsing wall. Lots of useless community input requirements, but no real construction oversight or inspecting. Typical government mess in San Francisco.

  7. Didn’t the FBI arrest Nuru for failing to abide by the conditions of his release? Mason and other victims should file complaints with the state licensing board along with the names of the parties who failed to do so as part of their jobs. If the criminal court is too busy to deal with these charlatans the civil courts may be more helpful. At least the relief of taking money from criminals may be of some comfort,

  8. This is why “get out the vote!” In SF is such a joke. We DO vote and THIS is what we get. The winners of local elections have already been decided. And guess what? It’s not us.

    1. Brien — 

      Not quite sure what point you’re making here. Would you like to take another run at that?


      1. The local news has been full of stories of the exploits of Rodrigo Sanchez and his associates under investigation by the FBI and City Attorney. If the personnel at DBI and the Permit departments refuse to call the State Licensing Boards, nothing is stopping a private citizen from doing so. If the criminal courts can’t keep him out of mischief, perhaps the civil courts will come to the aide of his victims.

  9. Skirting bureaucracy is one thing, building something that’s dangerous, possibly lethal is a criminal matter without question. If an engineer can’t figure out how to do things safely, their licence should be revoked, and every project done reinspected. Enough of the nonsense.

  10. The worst part is that our tax dollars are paying for this mess. The end result is higher taxes, less housing capacity, and acceptance of criminal behavior. The city is always looking for more tax dollars. How about switching to by right zoning and stop the shakedown of citizens just trying to add a little more space.

    1. I’ve served this gentleman in the Mission on Valencia quite often, along with his son and others from his company. Terrible tippers. Every single one of them, even with other people’s money.

  11. By making the Planning and Building Dept. review and approval system simpler and more accessible to the average citizen , we could remove the need/incentive for operators like Rodbigo Santos.

    By all means prosecute and punish Mr. Santos, but the unwieldy, uncertain and unbelievably expensive bureaucracy that we have created in SF regarding land use not only results in widespread corruption, it has contributed mightily to the outrageous cost of housing in this town.

  12. DBI is arguably the most corrupt department in San Francisco, and that says a lot given the levels of corruption in this city. It’s nearly impossible for a hard working San Franciscan to get work done on their home in a timely manner (not to mention cost prohibitive)… unless you have a friend on the inside. Then, the doors are wide open.

  13. This is why most other cities have implemented “By Right” zoning rules vs one in which each decision is made and appealed on an ad-hoc basis.