A crane looms over the eastward expanse. Photo by Kerim Harmanci

The vacant “Deputy Director III” position for the Department of Building Inspection pays up to $205,000 a year. The recipient of this job is required to hold a high school diploma or GED — but, under the “educational substitution” provision, one needn’t possess any education at all if he or she has two additional years of experience in the field. 

This vacancy was posted on the city’s website on Jan. 27. The deadline to apply was listed as Feb. 3. When I emailed on Jan. 29 to inquire about this jarringly quick turnaround, I was informed that the deadline would now be extended to Feb. 12.

So, that’s nice. But, as a point of reference, San Jose’s building department recently advertised for an essentially equivalent deputy director upper management position. It required a college degree and preferred a master’s — as well as additional professional licensing. Far from a ludicrous one-week window, it kept its posting active for more than a month. And, most importantly of all, it posted the vacancy on the jobs board of the International Code Council, perhaps the foremost authority on building codes — thereby ensuring the nation’s most qualified building inspection professionals were notified of this job opening.

If the goal is to attract the best and the brightest people to run your department, why wouldn’t you do this?

San Francisco’s job, incidentally, boasts a top salary nearly $12,000 higher than San Jose’s, despite far thinner requirements. You’d think building professionals nationwide would notice this, and factor it into their decisions. 

But they don’t, because San Francisco’s job is only posted in-house, and for a rather short period of time. And, in the not-so-likely event they even notice San Francisco’s offer, savvy professionals will read between its lines and take its meaning: It’s not for them.

“When something is posted for a week, it means there’s an incumbent or someone they want to have the job,” said a longtime DBI insider. “This is the way they do business in the city. When something turns around that quick? It means they already have someone for the job.” 

Our queries about the quick turnaround were described by a DBI spokesperson as par for the course: “We post job opportunities for anywhere from one week to two weeks or more, so there is nothing unusual about this posting.”

Ay, there’s the rub.  

In this March 16, 2020 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.

San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection is a remarkably insular place. Its hiring practices are the sort of thing one might expect to read about in a history book; it harks to a 19th-century custom house with spittoons on the desks. 

There have been not one but, rather, several father-and-son combos working inspection details. Perusing nearly a decade’s worth of hires, one uncovers alarming chains of nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters and in-laws and spouses and godchildren of department employees or powerful figures in the building community. These were often exempt positions, requiring no testing. 

That might be okay if the DBI was run by a bunch of Boy Scouts. But it isn’t: Its erstwhile chief, Tom Hui, was ousted in March 2020 for essentially having turned over management of the department to an outsider, Walter Wong, for the better part of a decade. (Wong pleaded guilty in June to federal fraud and money-laundering charges and began cooperating with the feds to nail his high-placed former buddies. None of that, however, touches on the degree of ownership he exerted over DBI for years and years).

That might be okay if the department functioned well. But it doesn’t: The Department of Building Inspection has matched its reputation for scleroticism with a history of astonishing corruption: “Permit expediters” like Wong and their clients sail through a system in which everyday people sink; perhaps it helps to have so many nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters and in-laws and spouses and godchildren on the inside. Favored builders, and their expediters like Rodrigo Santos (AKA “RoDBIgo”), never seem to have trouble obtaining permits or passing inspections — and brazenly operate with impunity, even in the event they actually are flagged.

And that might be okay if a wide array of candidates were able to find jobs here. But they aren’t. The latest racial equity data from DBI confirms what everyone already knew: This is a strikingly striated department — in large part because of the years of nepotistic hiring practices within certain silos. 

On the inspection side, 67 percent of building inspectors are white; 71 percent of electrical inspectors are white; and 81 percent of plumbing inspectors are white. The data doesn’t go into detail, but a goodly percentage of those inspectors are of Irish heritage. 

On the plan-check side, 56 percent of permit technicians are Asian. Of the engineers, 87 percent are Asian. 

There are, incidentally, no Black building inspectors, plumbing inspectors, or engineers. 

“This place is run by two fiefdoms — the Irish and the Asians,” sums up one longtime employee. DBI’s horizons are narrow when it comes to hiring, and promotions tend to be in-house — which only perpetuates things. 

“On occasion, we go outside,” said a frustrated employee. “But we don’t often reach beyond these walls.” 

Ousted Department of Building Inspection boss Tom Hui, seen here in January 2020.

So, this is the prism through which to view the Deputy Director III position. A DBI spokesperson expressed hopes of “attracting a broad range of qualified candidates so that we have a great candidate pool.” And that may yet happen. But all signs point to something otherwise.

We must also view this hire as being one made in a post-Hui, post-Wong world. Wong, of course, is the biggie here; if Hui didn’t allow Wong his personal run of DBI, he would have been replaced by someone who did. 

But now they’re both gone. And numerous sources within and without DBI say that, absent the gargantuan and unifying figure of Wong, DBI’s two dominant factions are attempting to consolidate power — with the Irish now in the ascendency. 

So while this position may yet be filled by the sort of candidate with a San Jose-worthy resume, the smart money is on a veteran in-house candidate with a bloodline tracing back to Ireland, who is eligible for the post due to its relaxed educational requirements.

This forthcoming deputy director will control the department’s inspection group. And if he’s an internal hire, even if he is not personally corrupt, he has thrived and advanced in a corrupt system. He would hardly be the one to alter the status quo, because the status quo got him where he is.

“Inspectors in the field pull the levers nobody can see,” explains a longtime building inspector. “When I go in the field, I can pull those levers. I can hash your job or make things happen that other people cannot.” 

So it matters who’s in charge here: The inspectors in the field learn to do the work their bosses want them to do. Pushing projects through — especially projects overseen by connected builders, engineers or permit expediters — “is how an inspector gets promoted.” 

“If you’re all in the same camp and you’ve all got the same agenda, where are the checks and balances?” queries another inspector.  “There are none.” 

In other words: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss

Contractor and permit expediter Walter Wong, right, pictured here in 2018 with ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru. Photo by Susana Bates for Drew Alitzer Photography.

So that’s what’s at play. Not that it was hard to glean earlier, but FBI arrests and front-page news made it clear in 2020: DBI is a corrupt, dysfunctional, and cloistered place in which insiders have created and perpetuated systems that work for them at the expense of nearly everyone else. 

The question now is whether to entrench that system or demolish it. And it’s clear which way the department’s existing power structure is leaning. 

It remains difficult to obtain a demolition permit in this city. Even a metaphysical one. 

Meanwhile, in December, DBI employees were treated by management to a coffee cup full of chocolate and candies. On the side of the cup was a message: “Happy Holidays! DBI Team.” 

A number of employees here saw this as nothing more than a kindly and sweet gesture. And it may be just that. But others saw more. The term “DBI Team” took them back to all the times they were asked by management to do things they should not do, to benefit the powers-that-be. 

To not do these things is to not be a “team player.” And being a team player is valued here. 

So, what does it all mean? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.

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Joe Eskenazi

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...

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58 Comments

  1. This has been the situation at Building Inspection for decades. Back when it was a division under DPW, there were always the Joe O’Donoghue/Walter Wong types that were effectively pulling all the strings. The transfer out of DPW to a department under an independent commission was, ostensibly, supposed to prove things. However, since the commissioners that got appointed had to, in essence, be vetted by one of the two aforementioned string pullers, only toadies got appointed. The corruption in that department is systemic, as is the corruption in much of City government.

    One might also take a look at restaurant inspectors and fire inspectors. There have been scores of stories about those inspectors being on the take.

    Great article Joe. Keep up the pressure on the City “leaders” that turn their eyes away or actively participate in the graft and corruption.

  2. Get rid of the nepotism. Should be rules that family members cannot be employed by the same department. Who cannot effect these changes?

  3. Great job discovering and analyzing that job post Joe! No other journalist would’ve done that. I hope this gets picked up by the Chron.

  4. I am curious whether the dark cloud over the City of San Francisco is making it difficult for them to recruit high caliber candidates from other places. I agree that the qualifications are pretty ridiculous for such a high-level position.

  5. There is a Board that is supposed to oversee the DBI. How about connecting the dots between political BIC appointees, the Asian/Irish schism, and corrupt outcomes?

  6. Please do a follow up bio with all relationships mapped of whoever is installed in the position.
    Really appreciate your work on transparency in city govt.

  7. Be careful Joe, you’re beginning to sound a bit like an ethnic chauvinist, especially when you leave out members of a certain group who wield inequitable behinds the scenes power thru a a chain of favor oriented attorneys, expediters and staff. Follow the money and private texts and emails.

  8. Great story. But the more I think about it the more I think it would have been better without throwing in a whole monkey wrench of anecdotal facts about Asian and Irish gangs running the show, or mixing up the apples and oranges of city corruption with a perceived need to hire some black folks (though blacks now fill the mayor and the chief of police jobs here despite being only 5% of the city’s population). Anecdotal facts: you quote somebody but you don’t mention who you are quoting. “”This place is run by two fiefdoms — the Irish and the Asians,” sums up one longtime employee.”” Quotes like that paved the road that Stephen Glass took on his path to infamy. Your piece is a bizarre combo of some great reporting and some yellow journalism. The part of you responsible for the good part of this deserves better. You need to unshackle that part from the bizarre other part. Not that there is much place in today’s world for good journalism.

  9. For reference, $200K is what a Cabinet minister makes in Washington DC, a city that has a similarly high cost of living as SF.

    Fire the whole lot, outsource the inspections to two or three different commercial providers chosen randomly by computer for each job (it would still be cheaper than the current setup), and run spot audits to root out collusion and corruption.

  10. fwiw, this is similar to what companies looking for h-1b applicants do as well, post in narrow places if they have to post at all, then complain they have no applicants.

  11. Turn up the heat on this. We need answers. Contact the mayor and your supervisor about this article. Great reporting!

  12. Why isn’t this getting more press coverage given the Wong/Nuru arrests? The Mayor and BOS need to get involved and clean up this publicly embarrassing mess of nepotism and downright criminals.

  13. As a 14 year resident of the City, for me, it feels like the lights are just starting to shine how deep the problems run in various departments within the City and school system. When the economy is red hot, I have, perhaps foolishly, written off high costs and long timelines as the “cost of doing business” in an expensive city. Our liberal values place high esteem on tolerance and workers’ rights. When the City or School Board asks for bond money, we pass it because we all want to invest in great infrastructure collectively used. We are supportive of our incremental and symbolic justice initiatives. But we do not place high values on accountability. We tend to get happy that we have a plastic bag ban or soda ban, but don’t do the hard work of reforming our malfunctioning or corrupt systems that lurk under the surface. It is our collective weakness that we do not take a hard look at how systems are performing and whether we’re getting all that we can out of investments. I wonder if we’re going to see a change in light of these revelations and all the things that the pandemic has highlighted.

    1. I love this comment. The Board of Education has proven exactly what you say in these past months.

  14. As a customer of DBI since 1997 I can tell you that this article is very well researched and written. I have watched DBI circle the drain for decades now, and it keeps being propped up because of the fees it generates. Plan checks are a joke, focusing 95% of the scrutiny on accessibility compliance and 5% or less on the balance of CBC compliance.

    1. Ah yes, the ADA and title 24 (especially in the light of lighting, CFL!) compliance obsession of DBI…

  15. If anyone was curious as to why most property owners bypass DBI and the permit process, and just do the work on the down low, this is it.

    Well this and the fact that permitted work jacks up your property tax basis despite Prop 13.

  16. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Think about how long the Irish and Asian communities have existed and set up patronage networks. One of those things that is always in the background but never discussed. Thanks Joe! I wonder how many father-son-nephew pairings there are in the SFPD/SFFD, even more?

    1. Joe,

      Maybe ‘it’s supposed to be thisaway’?

      A bit over a hundred years ago, the best investigative reporter in American history (Lincoln Steffens, born in the Mission here in SF) …

      Steffens was best buddies with Teddy Roosevelt and after Lincoln had taken his cub reported with him (Walter Lippman) and figured out the formula (international) for municipal corruption …

      It’s on page 596 of my copy of his Autobiography …

      Steffens decides he’s gonna clean up his home town of San Francisco.

      Everyone is crooked!!

      Roosevelt sends him judges and marshals and prosecutes everyone from the Mayor and supervisors and on through the government.

      Ten years later, Steffens noted that SF was back to being the same.

      Gird up for Posey’s last year.

      h.

  17. Are you implying that anyone with an Irish last name is corrupt or can’t do his/her job without integrity? Only in 2021 could you get away with that kind of reverse racism. Nice muckraking.

    1. No, I’m implying the points that were very clearly spelled out in the article. Try reading it again.

      JE

    2. Michael,

      W.C. Fields said it best:

      “It takes a lot of fxxking for a little country like Ireland to make all of the cops and firemen in America.”

      Giants Spring Training begain today.

      h.

  18. I reread it. Sorry my bad. When are you leaving for the New York Times? Your brilliance shouldn’t be wasted on this rag. Let me guess your source. Slovenly? Missing teeth? Suing the Department of Building Inspection for unfair reassignment? Not exactly Serpico now is he?

    1. Michael — 

      Thanks for that revelatory comment. My advice to you is to stop typing with your face.

      Best,

      JE

    2. Let me guess …You must be a recipient of the good fortunes of a certain group that benefits from the system in place at DBI

    3. Michael,

      Joe is too honest for the NYT.

      You’re talking about a rag that won’t publish Noam Chomsky.

      But, then, neither will our local Chronicle.

      They call Noam an anti-Semite when he’s generally recognized as the smartest Jew in the world.

      It does piss me off that Joe doesn’t get more play.

      He’s probably on someone’s list.

      I assuage my disappointment by sending Mission Local a pitiful monthly chest of gold.

      So to speak.

      5 bucks more than I stipend 48 Hills and I feel like a high roller and the money came available when my Testosterone crashed and I dumped my dating sites.

      lol,

      h.

  19. You would tend to think based on the current condition and history of DBI and with SF only 2nd to NY as the densest city in America. That maybe, just maybe asking for an educational background should be high on the priority list but that would only be important if DBI was truly interested in protecting the life safety of the citizens and visitors of SF.
    Look we don’t have leaning skyscrapers and a former BIC presidents’ house sliding down the hill because we seek the best and the brightest. We just seek the most connected.
    If you don’t really look or really ask what is going on at DBI then you get what you pay for…or in this case maybe not!

  20. Keep digging Joe! It is no surprise that the job posting window is short because, drum roll please….. DBI already has their candidate pre-selected. And let me guess, that candidate was probably given the interview questions & answers in advance. I wish I was kidding but it happens all the time here.

  21. The use of words like “scleroticism“ and “nepotistic” in one article is why I recently canceled my Chron subscription in favor of Mission Local.

    1. Michael,

      Stick with Eskenazi and he’ll have you understanding and properly spelling, ‘eponymous’ and stuff like that.

      He’s also able to successfully blend in sometimes esoteric sports allusions which this old dawg loves.

      h.

  22. Why did you have to bring race into this article? Seems very unnecessary and detracts from the point. The most qualified should be hired regardless of race.

    1. “The most qualified should be hired regardless of race.” That is kind of the point he is making in the article. If you imagine that there were no exceptionally qualified applicants of all races for positions, (which should over time result in some positions being held by all races) then you are deceiving yourself.

    2. To W.
      It’s impossible to get to the bottom of the situation at DBI without looking at the race and ethnicity numbers. People like you who choose to bury their heads in the sand or to drag out the standard knee-jerk reactions to anything involving race or ethnicity are part of the problem, not the solution.

      The important thing to keep in mind is that the City needs a professional, competent, honest, and trustworthy DBI, and not the mess that we have now.

    3. W,

      Betcha that given the depth of brains replying to this article that atween em they control thousands of jobs from site to site.

      Bet you what offended you here will get jobs and a career path for a few POC over the years.

      Cause they’ll remember that the best investigative reporter in Town planted the idea in part of one of a series of articles.

      They’ll do it to prove to Joe Eskenazi that they aren’t bigots.

      I’d hang a poster of James Wiseman but my walls aren’t tall enough.

      h.

  23. As I see it, this “job opening” announcement was not meant to be for real. It’s a fake announcement meant to give DBI the appearance of propriety. The fact is that the DBI Director (not Interim Dir.) is given the authority by the 1994 Charter Amendment to appoint one Deputy Director; no competitive search is required. And, as the announcement, itself, says in tiny print: “This position is excluded by the Charter from the competitive civil service examination process and shall serve at the discretion of the appointing officer.” Who but an insider would bother to apply for the job under those circumstances? The current leadership at DBI probably never dreamed that someone like Joe would call their bluff.

    The big question for me is, why is this appointment being made now and not after a permanent Director is appointed? At least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe is going to happen. Surely, that person would want to choose his own Deputy. Also, when is the search for the new permanent Director going to begin? It’s already been nearly a year since Tom Hui was forced to retire.

    This whole business is reminiscent of Hui’s appointment in 2013. The private placement company that was hired to search for a new Director was completely ignored at the Commission meeting that chose Hui. Pretty much the only speakers were expediters and other friends of Hui. The longest recommendation for him came from the infamous Rodrigo Santos. (See SFGOVTV archives of the Aug. 21, 2013 BIC meeting.)

    Finally, please tell us Joe, what became of the two previous Deputy Directors, who served under Mr. Hui.

  24. Great investigative journalism.

    If you have had a few dealings with or a bit of knowledge of how City bureaucracy works, it doesn’t take long to start surmising the trolley is running off kilter. To put it mildly.

    As mentioned by commentator GC:
    “Please do a follow up bio with all relationships mapped of whoever is installed in the position.”

    Please don’t let this story fade away.

    However, I suspect The Family will pull this job posting or leave the position unfilled until the heat dies down and the blessed entitled one will be shuffled into a similarly lucrative position. They will make it a tough trail to follow.

  25. Oh this job posting tells us everything about San Francisco.
    How do we, the little people with no connections in this city, push back on this corruption? It’s destroying the city we love.

  26. Now please look into the various “benefit districts” (CBDs; GBDs; BIDs) being aggressively funded by the Mayor’s OEWD: privatizing basic City services by hiring a few favored firms, bypassing local jobs and letting the City off the hook for policing, clean streets and homeless outreach. To say nothing of privately funded surveillance cameras being donated by billionaire Chris Larsen. BOS is rubber-stamping this whole series of scams…

  27. Whoever said to take it to the Mayor is forgetting that Mayor Breed has got some dirt on her shoes with Nuru, too.

  28. Not too long ago I hired a contractor to do some work on my Bernal home. He told me how he had learned on what days/times to apply for permits depending on the schedule of the person working the desk. It is that arbitrary and corrupt!

  29. When my house was being renovated I had a building inspector show up in the middle of the day. He was a full-time city worker at the General Assistance office. My partner worked with him and I had met him at her work. He was doing two jobs simultaneously with the City. I can’t figure out how someone could get away with it but he didn’t seem worried. Right after that I read The Department of Building Inspection was investigated. The corruption in this City.

  30. Latest (2019) salary and benefit figures from the Transparent California website are:
    Salary Salary + Benefits
    Tom Hui, SFDBI Director $259,730 $321,714
    Ed Sweeney, Deputy Dir. III $200,782 $250,822
    Dan Lowrey, Deputy Dir. III $183,046 $228,688

    Compare this to what you make!
    2020 figures would no doubt be higher.

  31. Take another example: The Mayor nominated the Assessor to be the new C.O.O…..after a “one day search”, confined to the denizens, already, of City Hall… And no Supervisor, far as I know, protested.
    john barry

  32. Excellent reporting!
    Stay on them! You can believe you are making a difference. Yes, most of the San Francisco departments (pie), are divided by ethnicity. For instance African Americans are in MUNI or DPW. However most City jobs say school or equivalent experience, which give them liberty to hire who they want.
    Politicians use these positions as payback for favors, and or to funnel monies out. Meaning the individual has to attend fund raisers and make other donations. Friends and family can get these jobs and retire at the higher payrate in just few years.

  33. Re:
    ‘So it matters who’s in charge here: The inspectors in the field learn to do the work their bosses want them to do. Pushing projects through — especially projects overseen by connected builders, engineers or permit expediters — “is how an inspector gets promoted.” ”

    Aren’t you referring to the Current Planning Division of the Planning Department?

  34. Congrats on your courage, Joe. This is just unsurprisingly sickening. My questoin would be: what became of RandyShaw’s rebuild of the Dept 25 yrs ago? I know one of his pals got hired on; but that’s small stuff. Shaw ‘runs’ the TL, so I’m just curious how that apparent change actually played out.

  35. Thanks joe.
    Keep exposing the dbi
    Scum.
    And it’s tentacles.

    Question you might not
    Want to answer – do you trust
    London breed ?
    (Believe she is not corrupt,
    As so many of her friends are)

  36. Interesting. Thanks for the sleuthing.

    The situation at DBI is only a symptom of a much larger problem. If only someone could connect the dots from the corporate real estate speculators who backed and partially funded our current mayor’s rise, her support (or lack thereof) for certain supervisor candidates in the recent election, the lack of will in both offices to do anything meaningful and lasting about the corrupt mess at DBI despite hundreds if not thousands of formal tenant complaints filed with 311 and directly with DBI about those same corporate real estate speculators, and the benefits that accrue to those same players for maintaining the unsatisfactory status quo.

    Despite the facts that one of those corporate real estate speculators has menaced and threatened a former member of the BOS, that even Rep. Pelosi has publicly called out its rotten core and expressed concern for people impacted by it, and that hundreds of tenants from dozens of buildings owned and managed by that same speculator have filed suit against it for, among other things, habitability issues and harassment that have been going on without pause for years (including during the pandemic), there has been no investigation by the City Attorney’s or the DA’s offices, no injunctive relief, nothing of substance done by The City to protect the many affected citizens. One hopes the FBI is paying attention.

    It’s enough to make a reasonable person think the rot runs both deep and high. Too many people are choosing to look the other way.

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