"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.

In September, Mission Local reported on the strange and terrible saga of Bob Mason’s garden wall — which he feared might topple upon his 74-year-old wife. The wall had been imperiled by unwarranted construction on the neighboring lot overseen by notorious permit expediter and structural engineer Rodrigo Santos. 

Despite both federal and city charges alleging fraud — and, notably, serial theft from his clientele — Santos remains a busy man with no shortage of clientele. He is purportedly pulling permits regularly at the Department of Building Inspection — a difficult task for the unconnected — and working on a slew of projects across the city. 

(He is also accused of the seventh-grade-caliber crime of altering a check, made out to “DBI,” to read “RoDBIgo Santos” — and depositing it.) 

Partially inspired by that article, Supervisor Hillary Ronen crafted legislation she will introduce today, with its stated goal “to protect the public and end flagrant disregard for city law and abuse of the city’s permitting system.” 

“There are people out there — consultants or expediters or developers — who have blatantly flouted our DBI laws, and know they’re doing it, and have gotten away with it for years and have come back and done the same thing over and over,” Ronen explains. 

“Oftentimes, inspectors and people at the front desk handling the over-the-counter permits know they are dealing with people who have had many violations in the past, but they have to work with them and act as if they are anybody else.” 

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

Ronen’s legislation would take aim at this in several ways. Among them: 

— It would require that violations such as misrepresentation of actual conditions, hazardous work beyond scope, and demolition without permit be recorded and tracked, and that any parties or projects associated with three such violations in an 18-month period be placed on a publicly accessible list; 

— It would require DBI to report bad actors to state licensing bodies; 

— It would designate senior DBI staff to head out into the field and perform inspections and respond to complaints. 

Mission Local shared a preliminary synopsis of the legislation with multiple longtime DBI sources and asked their thoughts about its prospects of altering the trajectory of a department defined by sclerosis, inefficiency, cronyism and corruption. 

They did see some positives. Putting senior inspectors out of the office and onto the ground was viewed as a big deal — this remedies the elemental problem of plans being double- and triple-checked on paper only to allow scofflaws to build as they please out in the field. 

“This is 100 percent a good idea,” said one longtime inspector. Added another, “This is really well put-together on the front end. But, on the back end, where does it take us? We can create all this documentation and say all these things — but DBI will not enforce it if it is not forced to. Period.” 

Unwanted or unpopular mandates are not routinely carried out at DBI, said longtime department employees — and mandating the department follow rules it should’ve been following intuitively does not figure to be popular. 

Take the requirement that DBI officials report bad actors to state licencing bodies. In point of fact, the department’s Administrative Bulletin 40, setting parameters for design professionals and contractors to be referred to state bodies for possible discipline, has been on the books since 2002. 

It has rarely, if ever, been utilized. 

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.

Ronen’s legislation would, in effect, mandate DBI officials make the calls they’ve studiously avoided making for the past 19 years. Barring concrete repercussions for shirking the rules, DBI insiders were not convinced this would be a smooth and inevitable outcome. 

What’s more, DBI insiders said that the department’s notably archaic technology — it spent millions of dollars and wasted many years to not implement a modern permit-tracking system — leaves it unable to monitor jobs or individuals in the manner the legislation would require. 

And, as far as putting Santos and other scofflaws on a list, DBI officials noted that he’s already on their lists — yet he remains busy and the department keeps issuing him permits. Sans the revocation of his state-issued engineering license, DBI officials told us they had no choice but to do so. As noted above, however, it appears Santos was never reported to state bodies via AB40, despite myriad opportunities to do so (not least of which was the filing of federal charges). 

As such, building inspectors contacted by Mission Local made a jarring and unusual request: Take these matters out of our control. Get the City Attorney involved. 

“We need to be scrutinized by somebody else,” said one. Instead of penalizing the Santoses of the world, DBI empowers them. “This needs to be taken out of our hands.”

Ronen, for her part, acknowledged that there was no single silver bullet to address DBI’s myriad woes. But she was optimistic that this legislative effort would gain traction where others have failed to. 

“A lot of the departments where the FBI has come in and indicted people,” she says, “will be facing a level of scrutiny that is greater than it was prior.”  

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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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10 Comments

  1. It works like this: a building inspector will only be promoted if they prove they will keep the corruption train rolling.
    At DBI, the Building Inspection Management *is* the problem.
    The corrupt Department head, under FBI investigation, was forced to resign, and at DBI they act like he never existed now, and claim the ones moving up are ‘ok’…
    AB-40 *already* requires bad actors be reported to the higher ranks, yet putting these cases into the hands of “senior building inspectors” is a joke. That’s where these cases would meet their dead-end.
    Inspectors get promoted to senior positions for one reason – they have proven they will keep the ship on course, and not make waves in the department, and not cross the pals (RoDBIgo, S.F. Garage, etc.) of those in mgmt.
    I’ve heard it said, “At DBI, the only thing you can get in trouble for is doing the right thing.”
    The legislation calls for an outside “overseer”
    DBI *already* has an “overseer” called the Building Inspection Commission.
    A member of this very commission has used RoDBIgo for years, for pete’s sake.
    Currently there is a fox watching the henhouse, and the way the City Family operates, they would just install a craftier fox to watch the existing fox.

  2. You never hear about Ronen much anymore. Maybe it’s partly because she was easily re-elected without a challenger. Meanwhile conditions in the Mission continue to deteriorate with increases in homelessness, petty crime, garbage and graffiti. I have no idea what she is doing for us or the neighborhood to address these problems.

    1. According to the Hillary For DCCC campaign flyer:
      “Hillary strongly negotiated with the Mayor to create Mental Health SF to guarantee homeless people medication and services.”
      So – there is no homeless problem.
      Hillary Ronen fixed this with by fighting for guaranteed services for the homeless.
      Who would run to challenge her on such an outstanding record of guaranteed accomplishment?

    2. That’s right, attack the one person in city government who is trying to address those problems, not the myriad of forces that have enabled the problems for decades (yeah, you’re not the only one who lives here). You seem to think our supe is the Sherif of Nottingham and should just be able to send her thugs in to clean up Sherwood Forest and not just one person of many making policy for the whole city.

  3. Hillary Ronen is one of the most well intentioned, kind hearted, intelligent individuals that has ever sat on the Board of Supervisors. This DBI legislation is a step in the right direction. It will take years to clean up the mess that is City Hall. The Willie Brown network of corruption and cronyism affects nearly every Department in the city. With every new indictment and subpoena issued, almost without exception, the targeted individuals were appointed or hired by Brown Inc.

    1. Ronen’s political tribe made its peace with the Brown machine’s corruption in the late 2000s, so long as their side got some pie.

      They are not willing to do what it takes to protect San Franciscans from the SFPOA.

      They are not willing to do what it takes to defend San Franciscans from garbage rates that were raised under corrupt circumstances.

      They were not willing to plan to spend Prop C $, and have no sense of immediacy to spend those $400m to materially address homelessness.

      They are not willing to promote Charter Reform to repeal the charter specifically engineered by Barbara Kaufman for Willie Brown which is the nexus of corruption.

      They are marking time as major capital projects are either deficient (Transbay) or inexplicably late (2x BRT + Rose Pak Railway – Central Subway).

      They are not demanding answers as to why the Muni Metro, reliant on technologies perfected at the end of the 19th century, was offline for 6 months and when finally cranked up collapsed in a steaming pile of Tumlin.

      Most importantly, our Latinx neighbors are the designated expendable workers, this has been known for many months, it appears to be getting worse, and the City has been unable to articulate a public health response to do anything about that.

      In the long term, mid term and immediate term, these supervisors operating under the political constraints the choose to adhere to, are able to marshal the power of government to solve the simplest of problems.

      Circumstances are accelerating in their deterioration while reforms to that proceed incrementally. This approach will not arrest the decline much less make progress. The burdens of this failure are not borne by the political class. They are borne by everyday San Franciscans.

      Ammiano 2004 was 10% of Ammiano 1998/9.

      Campos 2008 was 10% of Ammiano 2004.

      Ronen 2016 is 10% of Campos 2008.

      These people are in office to administer gentrification and corruption and sit by while our Latinx neighbors bear the brunt of the deadly pandemic.

    2. I don’t know on what planet Hilary Ronen would be considered “the most well intentioned, kind hearted, intelligent individuals” but certainly not here and not by many housing justice and tenant’s rights activists. Four years in office and despite repeated requests to meet, we’ve never had a face to face meeting with her, including virtual meetings on Zoom or Webex. She always sends Amy Beinart who meets with us to take the message to her. Do we need a router to meet with our supervisor?!!

      Mental Health is an easy issue to latch on to because as Ronen repeatedly boasts about her record, all you have to do is to ensure the flow of meds and a few services here and there to call your performance a “success story” but the real solution is securing homes for the homeless. Something that she won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

  4. On the first violation, a miscreant would get an 18 month disbarrment.

    3 violations in 18 months and the miscreant should be permanently disbarred, banned from permitting from the DBI.

    If the DBI does not send a senior staffer out to check, then the Ethics Commission is mandated to initiate official misconduct proceedings.

    This is why progressives are merely liberals in funny costumes.

  5. Interesting. As a former permit center employee I am surprised that no red flags were ever raised internally on this guy. I approved many of his plans at the over the counter desk. I could only last a short time at the center because it felt like I was what I expect a DMV employee to be.

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